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A-Haunting We Will (Boldly) Go

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They all have their secrets. And aboard a starship, there's very little point in trying to keep them, secret.

For example, Chekov hasn't actually stepped foot on the Terran-Asian continent in over twenty years. How in the galaxy the kid has an accent that strong when he grew up in New York and aboard starships, is a mystery greater than who cuts Spock's hair, because not even Nyota knows that, and the ship's barber swears he never sees the First Officer, ever. Maybe it's a weird Vulcan thing, maybe their hair just gets that long and just, you know, stops. Someday Jim will find out, though, because like he said, no one on this ship can keep a secret, secret. Not forever.

Meanwhile, he waits.

He also vaguely suspects he might need to get a life.

Anyway, secrets aboard ship.

For another example, there's a tiny little Terran Filipino ensign down in Spock's Microbiology lab that has way-distant Norvastran genes well-buried behind a quiet, shy exterior. One of the idiots in Ops finds that out the hard way when he for some reason doesn't think No means no. And because Sickbay leaks gossip like a faulty hydraulic coupling, the rest of the ship finds out within hours that yes, it's true Norvastrans can grow their fingernails at will into claws in about three seconds flat, and yes, Captain Kirk had been dead serious when he said that sexual harassment would be cause on this ship for immediate dismissal from a crewman's post. The kid's on probation for the next month, and if he so much as looks cross-eyed at another crewman Jim knows Scotty will boot his ass out the nearest airlock. So yeah, no secret.

When Spock and Uhura break up unexpectedly one evening, everyone finds out within twenty-four hours, even if the parting was (supposedly) mutual. When she goes on an ill-advised and extremely disastrous date with Montgomery Scott two weeks later, that spreads like wildfire.

When she finds out it was Jim who sabotaged the meal replicator in Scotty's cabin that night, well. That one is all over the ship before she's done silently castrating him from across the Bridge with a look that could flash-freeze plasma. Spock has wisely long since fled the Bridge, murmuring something about departmental inspections in Laboratory Twenty-seven or something, but for a tense fifteen minutes until alpha shift change Jim's half-seriously expecting explosions of some kind, metaphorical or otherwise. Thankfully, and he should have known better, Uhura is an officer first, and a pissed-off power woman second; and he's got captain's prerogative to dismiss everyone and wait until the coast is clear to make a run for it.

It's all good. He gets his own back when they don't lock the adjoining door and he just walks in later that evening, nose buried in the fuel consumption reports needing the First Officer's signature, and despite what his reputation may say he has absolutely no desire to be even a spectating part of a making-up threesome, so seriously, guys. Lock the freaking door.

Jim just sighs and just goes down to Engineering instead to make it up to Scotty, because after all, they both know there's only one lady in both their lives as long as this ship flies. He does call ahead, so that the man can put away the parts for that stupid still he's trying to construct in the secondary disused storage compartments that he thinks Jim's too oblivious to know about.

Like Bones can keep that a secret. Seriously.

So, like he said. Everyone has a secret, and no one really has one. You learn all kinds of things, about everyone, and in this first year out in the galaxy, beyond where they've ever traveled before, he's learned more about his crew than he ever knew before. It's been equal parts amusing, surprising, horrifying, and eye-opening.

And yet, every day he learns something new.

Like the fact that his solemn, severe, pain-in-the-ass First Officer is a total sucker for small furry animals.

It's hysterical.

They're finishing up a mission that's gone surprisingly well, considering all the warnings they'd been given about it from Starfleet Command and the First Contact team. Either the team had been way overreacting, or the people of Planet Needs-to-Buy-a-Vowel have gotten their act together in the last twelve months and realized how badly they need the Federation's help, because the original belligerence the First Contact team had been met with was only vaguely in evidence during their negotiations. There had also been no sign of any attempted telepathic or empathic violation; the First Contact's education on the severity of that type of Federation crime and the research they'd left on Federation telepathic etiquette had apparently been taken seriously by the council, and they've been nothing but the soul of courtesy to non-telepathic outworlders.

In fact, the mission's gone so well from the start that it actually didn't really bother him that much, leaving the last parts of it in Spock and Uhura's capable hands, along with their two Security people; normally by this point in such a mission he'd be biting his nails raw on the Bridge. Since their launch he's done better, but not great, about obeying regulations regarding away missions, and it's rare that he feels right sitting in his chair while his people take the heat instead. But this time, they really are more qualified by far to finish the formalities, and he has a starshipload (literally) of backlogged paperwork to finish, so everyone wins this way.

Wow, he's matured in the last year.

He snorts a silent laugh to himself at the irony, and scrawls off a signature on the last Engineering report, the most important of the ones he's missed during the last twenty-four hours spent on-planet in the Federation induction negotiations, the part of the mission he was required to be present for.

His yeoman leans down a little too eagerly to take the padd back, and Uhura's right, he's probably going to have to transfer her to a different department, because he's not stupid and those eyes are an invitation he might have been idiot enough to take her up on fifteen months ago. He's a little smarter now, and this ship will always come first.

Also Bones says he still has a massive amount of unresolved intimacy issues stemming from trauma due to, you know, dying, but the whole married-to-my-ship thing tends to go over better on shore leaves with the hopeful locals. And his ego.

"That'll be all, Yeoman."

The words come out a little more clipped than he meant, and he sees Sulu and Chekov glance at each other. Janice looks a little shocked, but nods like the officer she is underneath the infatuation before turning to leave the Bridge. He sighs, and pinches his forehead, vowing to make it up to her somehow without it looking like he's encouraging her attention.

He does not have time for this drama.

Behind him, he hears the comms board chirp with an incoming transmission. The redshirt monitoring it in Uhura's absence gives him a nod, indicating it's been transferred to his chair, and he depresses the switch to connect him to the ground. "Enterprise to landing party, report."

"Captain, we have successfully concluded the technical details for the preliminary induction of planet M-176 into the Federation. Request permission to beam aboard for full report to Starfleet Command."

"Thirty minutes ahead of schedule, Commander, that's impressive."

"Thirty-one-point six, Captain. And the acceleration was due to Lieutenant Uhura's linguistics skills, not my negotiating abilities."

"Yes, okay, you can flirt later. Beam back up and I'll meet you in the transporter room for a briefing."

"Acknowledged, sir. Five beaming up."

He's already in the turbolift, doors closing on Sulu assuming his chair, when he does a double-take. "Wait, five?"

He runs into Bones just outside the transporter room, and before he can say anything his CMO raises a hand to stop his questions.

"Yes, they called me. No, nobody's hurt, so calm down, Jim. Sickbay got a call to send somebody down with an allergy shot, that's all. Only came myself 'cause it's a slow day and I figured I might as well, it'll save me from having to sign off on the paperwork later."

He exhales in relief, and follows his CMO into the transporter room, where four pillars of light are already coalescing on the transporter pad. Not five.

Okay, so confused.

Four figures form on the pad, three in red and Spock's taller figure in blue, and as they do the transporter room resounds with a very loud sneeze. DeSalle, the tech at the controls, gives a startled little yelp, earning him a glare as Uhura stalks off the pad and over to them.

"Here." McCoy is obviously trying not to laugh as he hands over the hypospray.

"How come you never let me do my own?" Jim complains, as she depresses the shot into her own neck.

"Because you're a pain in my ass. She's not."

"Fair point. You okay, Lieutenant?"

"Fine, sir." She sighs, and gestures to the platform, where the two Security dudes are very carefully looking everywhere except their general direction, and not laughing at all, no sir. "The planetary high council were so pleased with the results of the induction ceremonies that they insisted upon presenting us with a gift, Captain."

"…well, that's new. Big change from the First Contact, too, isn't it?"

"No kidding. And apparently because they're a sign of goodwill and long life and world peace or whatever in their culture, that means someone has to keep the fuzzball for a while, at least until we break orbit."

"The…" He moves over to the transporter pad, and sees his First Officer still calmly standing there, holding what appears to be a fluffy black mop with beady green eyes. "The heck is that thing?"

"It appears to be a very nearly parallel species to your Terran domesticated feline, Captain," Spock says calmly, scritching the animal behind where Jim supposes its ears are. He raises an eyebrow as the furball starts purring, tail swishing. Uhura sneezes again as a pouf of black fur floats away across the room.

"Ooookay. We've been given weirder things, I guess, but…" He tries not to laugh as the cat stretches out a lazy paw and hugs the blue-clad arm. "It apparently likes you, Spock."

"Cats are remarkably perceptive creatures, Captain."

"It likes you more than I do right now," Uhura says sweetly, tapping a toe on the floor.

The two redshirts cough and begin edging toward the door. Jim chokes down a laugh, because while it's hilarious they all know better than to bring personal relationships into their missions and he has to head it off. "Run while you can, guys. And good work today. Report to Mr. Scott, then write up your mission logs and take the rest of the evening off."

"Aye, sir. Thank you, Captain." Not one to miss an opportunity, DeSalle takes off after the two Security men, and Jim turns back around to see the cat now trying to climb his First's torso with tufted paws, meowing plaintively. No doubt it can feel the same tension in the air he can.

"Okay, guys, seriously, this is ridiculous. We can't just take every gift that new planets want to give us for the next five years, especially ones that mean we have to feed and water and clean up after them."

Spock looks highly affronted. "She is a most remarkable and aesthetically pleasing creature, Captain. To refuse an animal a home based solely upon our unwillingness to care for a lower life form, is inhumane. Besides, to reject a gift is considered highly offensive in this planet's culture."

He runs both hands down his face, slowly. "Ugh, I'm not saying…okay, fine. Keep the damn cat. But I hate cats, so if I find that thing anywhere near – wait a second, did you just call it a she, and say it's pretty?"

"Yes," Uhura says dryly. "Which is more than I get on a daily basis."

Spock's ears turn a weird shade of jade, and Bones finally loses it, sliding into the transporter tech's chair with a cackle of laughter that can be heard down the hall.

"Okay, you know what? I haven't had nearly enough coffee to deal with this today." He spins on one heel and leaves the transporter room, gesturing wildly over one shoulder. "Keep that cat off my Bridge, Spock, I'm warning you!"

A trio of engineers look weirdly at him as they pass in the corridor, but he ignores them; it's going to be one of those days and they've definitely heard weirder on this ship, by now.

The alien cat – can they call it a cat, if it's not an Earth feline? The catalien – turns out to be remarkably well-behaved, all things considered, and its first eighteen hours aboard can be seen following his XO sedately around the labs and Sciences as he performs overnight inspections. (Jim still doesn't get how Vulcans apparently don't need to sleep every single night, but since he's seen it work for Spock over the last year he doesn't push the issue.) The cat apparently does not appreciate being locked in the First Officer's quarters thereafter, however, and yowls its displeasure loudly enough to set off the security alarms within the first fifteen minutes of Spock's Bridge shift the second day.

"Go put the baby down for a nap and then come back, Commander," he says dryly, when the call comes through from a much-amused Montgomery Scott, enraged meows being heard in the background.

If looks could kill, Jim would be long dead before the turbolift doors close behind his First, but at least the rest of the Bridge crew wait until the lift starts moving before the wave of laughter goes around.

"Captain, Starfleet Command has responded to your report with further instructions for the induction of Planet M-176," Uhura says from behind him, and at least she sounds more amused than pissed; Spock really doesn't deserve her.

"I'll take it in my quarters, no sense in boring everyone else here. Sulu, take the conn until Mr. Spock returns."

"Aye, sir."

This is the part of captaining he really hates; it's probably going to take him an hour to even understand the last steps of this process.

Make that more than three hours, and that's with Spock helping him through some of it, after he has to cave and admit he doesn't really understand all of the technicalities or reasons behind some of the procedures. There's a limit to what they go over on the command track, and this is the kind of thing that only comes with experience. Spock's done this before, at least twice, so he gets the whys and wherefores and what can and can't be said for fear of causing an interplanetary incident.

"Why do we make this stuff so complicated?" Jim complains, tossing down a stylus and massaging his temples with both hands. The stylus goes rolling off the cluttered desk and onto the floor, whereupon the alien cat pounces on it, batting it across the floor in a series of bunny-hops. "Like, do we seriously have to cover in explicit detail what number of starships the Federation will send in assistance if there's a global disaster? Shouldn't that just be a given that we'll send whatever assistance is possible?"

"After such planetary tragedies as that which befell Vulcan, planets have requested much more detailed rescue and evacuation specifications in such negotiations." Spock looks more resigned than sad at this point when speaking of the past, but Jim knows better. He regrets asking now. Spock stops him with a gesture, however, and continues. "It is a reasonable question, with that in mind."

"You're right, of course. Sorry."

"Apologies are unnecessary. While the details are reasonable, they are indeed tedious."

"And the rest of this? Having to figure out exact shipping lines for Federation trade routes?"

"Unfortunately, there have been instances where due to a lack of such details being covered during the negotiations, one of the non-Federation species such as the Orion Empire was able to challenge financial claims from the planet over those areas of space, enabling a sort of legal piracy of trade vessels. Only one loophole is nonetheless sufficient for success in these areas. I believe you yourself specialize in such a loophole strategy to some extent."

"Touché." He grins, acknowledging the gentle jab and compliment for what they are. "I have no idea how I would have gotten through this without your help, Spock. I owe you one."

His First's eyes gleam slightly, and Jim leans back, now interested. "You actually thinking about calling that in? Mark me down surprised, Commander. What can I do for you."

Spock's eyes dart to the side, where a black furball is busy trying to worry a sock out of Jim's bottom drawer.

"You've got to be kidding me. I told you, I hate cats!"

"Technically, she is not a Terran feline. Additionally, you also voiced the opinion that you were in my debt. Sir."

"Did you do this on purpose, to guilt-trip me?"

"Negative. But I am not above, as you say, pressing an advantage."

Jim drops his head onto the table with a dull thunk that rattles a dangerously high stack of data-padds. "Ugh. You know I'm doing this for Uhura, not you."

"I am certain her gratitude will be in equivalent measure to mine."

"For pity's sake, don't forget the sound dampening field this time."

An embarrassed pause. "We will not."

"Fine. Leave the little monster in here when you…get down to business tonight, or whatever logical term you call it. Gods, I can't believe I'm doing this."

"She is remarkably quiescent at night, for a felinoid species. I doubt you will even notice her presence."

"Huzzah. She better not leave a hairball in my sock drawer, or you won't see her again. Understood?"

Uhura is actually grateful, and Jim would really have done it without the guilt trip, he just likes giving his XOs a hard time; they've developed a weird sort of symbiosis, this command team, like the family he never wanted, never asked for, and never wants to let go of now. He loves his people more than anything in the galaxy, and putting up with a purring fluffball for eight hours isn't that much of a hardship.

He's always been more of a dog person, ever since he was a little kid who never had one and always wanted one, but that's not due to any kind of real phobia or anything. Cats are just…sneaky. Maybe they're too much alike, that's why he doesn't like them. Who knows.

Anyway. Two green eyes are staring at him out of the darkness under his bed when he returns later that night, the animal obviously thoroughly pissed off at being booted out of Spock's room for Vulcan sexytimes. He half-heartedly tries to coax the thing out with a saucer of replicated tuna and then a sock, and when it only growls at him and gives one loud hiss of DO NOT WANT, he finally gives up because hey, he tried his best. Not his problem anymore. The cat has a small sandbox, food and water in the far corner of his cabin, it'll be fine.

He spends two hours finishing up paperwork, thankfully unable to hear anything from next door. Once the clock strikes ship's midnight he manages to stumble into sleep clothes and dim the lights, simulating a faint starlit sky on the ceiling before falling into what he hopes will be a dreamless sleep.

No such luck.

It's been a long time since he dreamt of those events in particular, things long dead and buried so deep in his subconscious not even Starfleet psychological evaluations have been able to unbury them. Why his brain chooses now to unearth the monsters in his past and relive them in such vivid detail he wakes up terrified of something lurking just out of reach in the dark, is one for the books.

He'd better not be cracking up, only a year out from Terra; that's just Not Cool.

After two more such increasingly short nightmare sessions, he gives up on sleep and instead finishes up his paperwork backlog before trying to crash again for an hour before the alarm goes off at 0630 hours of ship's morning.

That nap is just as successful as the rest of the night has been.

He's moving sluggishly, more exhausted than he can remember being in a very long time, and it's an effort just to get dressed. After what seems like an interminable effort he finally locates his boots and moves from the sleeping cubicle out into his main working area.

Whereupon he nearly keels over of fright when someone's standing there, and he never heard the door chime over his tripping over things in the sleeping alcove. It's his fricking yeoman, and that's just crossing a line, okay.

"Yeoman, what exactly do you think you're doing?" he demands.

She looks just as startled to see him, so that's something at least.

"Sir, I chimed twice, and no one answered; I thought you were out. I was bringing by the reports from Engineering and thought I'd bring you breakfast while I was at it. Since you weren't here I was just going to leave the reports and the coffee in case you came back in the next hour or so." She looks innocent enough, but he's too tired to really care or do anything about it

"I didn't hear the door, Yeoman. But in future I'd prefer to get my own meals." At her embarrassed look, he continues with a forced smile, "While I'm aware the practice is still in effect, I disagree with the Starfleet manual in that area. A man shouldn't be using his yeoman for such menial jobs, and it smacks of sexism. I won't have it on this ship."

She brightens at that, and blushes slightly. "If that's your preference, Captain."

"It is. Thank you for bringing by the reports; let Scotty know if you see him, that I'll have them back to him by 1400 hours."

"Yes, sir."


She leaves, thankfully without another incident, and he collapses into his desk chair for a moment to drink the coffee, one good thing in his morning so far.

Hopefully the rest of the day goes up from here, because if it doesn't, he's going to drain the replicating units of this stuff before they get those treaties signed. And that's if he doesn't forget everything Spock told him yesterday and say or do something to royally screw it up first.

He's trying to choke down a bowl of soup in a thankfully deserted Officer's Mess later that evening when Uhura finds him, and plops down unceremoniously next to him. None of their shifts have coincided all day, split up as they are trying to finish the induction procedures for the planet they're orbiting.

"Thank you for last night, Captain," she says without ceremony, digging into a replicated chicken salad.

"No problem." He finally gives up on the tasteless soup and picks up his padd instead. His last mission reports to command were so bad Spock silently rewrote them without even telling him, he only found out because he went back to correct an efficiency rating after McCoy sent him an addendum. He's not going to make that mistake again.

A slender finger taps his screen, pausing the cursor from scrolling down the report. "You okay?"

He glances sideways, equal parts amused and touched. "I'm fine, Lieutenant. Thanks for asking."

"Well, you look terrible."

"I didn't sleep well last night, and it's been a long day."

"Oh, no. That stupid cat?"

He laughs, genuinely. "No, actually, I didn't hear it all night, and it was just sitting on my couch this morning. No, it was bizarre. I just kept waking up all night, weird dreams. Felt like someone was walking over my grave or something."

"That's not funny."

"I know." He smiles briefly, and goes back to the padd. "It was just one of those nights. But the day went well at least, between you guys ironing out the treaty and this afternoon's mining agreements we should be in good shape to finalize tomorrow. I'll probably want you down there with me tomorrow afternoon to make sure there's absolutely no miscommunication before the final treaties are signed. We can't afford to screw this up now."

"Of course."

"Anyway, the cat wasn't a problem. She can stay again tonight if you'd like her to."

"Of course I'd love it, but I'm not going to put you out like that again. Spock needs to deal with the thing."

"Lieutenant, I can safely promise you I will sleep like a dead man. And I would know."

Uhura brandishes a spork way too close to his eyeball, and he knows when he's probably crossed a line. But it is funny.

"Anyway! Go with my blessing, have fun. Do your wild thang."

She elbows him, stifling a laugh for the sake of the trio of junior officers who have just walked in, chattering eagerly about something or other. He returns their wave with a brief smile as his comms chief stacks her tray and stands. "Fine, but we ditch that monster at the next starbase, or find someone on the lower decks who wants a pet."

"You so have a deal, Lieutenant."

He wakes up confused and disoriented and very likely about to be sick and absolutely terrified of something he can't remember, why can't he remember what he was just dreaming about?

His voice is shaking so badly that the computer doesn't recognize his commands and so won't turn the lights up, so whatever he trips over during his stumble to the lavatory – the stupid cat, probably? – causes him to nearly nosedive into his desk. Thankfully, his sense of direction for once doesn't fail him and he makes it in the general vicinity of the lavatory door enough to fumble inside. These lights are motion-activated (someone in Starfleet Engineering has common sense at least), and brighten when he lurches inside.

"Computer, lock lavatory doors," he rasps, because the last thing he wants is for one of the two next door to come barging in with well-meaning but annoying concern if he happened to wake them up.

The panel beside the door turns red in acknowledgment of the command, so his voice is returning to normal at least. He turns the cleansing cubicle on to the real water setting and cups his hands under the thin trickle, splashing his face a few times in an effort to quell the nausea that's only just starting to recede under the light of reality.

This is ridiculous. Nightmares are nothing new to him. Hell, he had night terrors for about six months at the Academy that scared the crap out of Bones until he finally settled into enough of a routine that his brain calmed down and felt safe enough to sleep through the night. Sleep disorders are nothing new to starship captains, either; it's practically 'Fleet mandated that they're allowed whatever sleeping aids needed to care for insomnia and anything else that comes up as a result of the job. Everything from stimulants to sleeping pills are allowed in a far higher dosage than they would be to a lower-ranking crewman, simply because of the needs of the job, and while he has never felt the need to indulge in them it's not frowned upon by any stretch by the powers that be or otherwise.

But this…this is different. It's almost like there's something dark and insidious just lurking around him, some weird presence that is doing its best to scare him half to death. He isn't used to waking up frightened of something because he can't understand it; most of his nightmares are rehashes of things he understands far too well. But this? Human nature is to fear the unknown, and this is something that lurks menacing at the very event horizon of his consciousness, always just out of reach, shadowed and haunting.

He snorts at the idea of what the shrinks at 'Fleet Medical would make out of that, and vows yet again to never let on that he could quite easily be cracking up, only twelve months into their mission. He did call it, after all, before they launched, nobody can say he didn't warn them.

Leaning on the sink counter for a moment, he sighs, and hopes that's not the case. Surely if he is still coherent enough to suspect he's going nuts, it means he's not? Just overstressed and tired and in serious need of shore leave?

He sure hopes so.

"Computer, what is the time?"

"The current Federation Standard Time is 0417 hours."

Awesome. He's not going back to sleep tonight, obviously, so he might as well be productive. If he is losing it, he may as well not leave a mess for whoever has to take over this thankless job. He and Spock delayed department inspections this week because they didn't think they'd have time to do them along with all this diplomatic mess, so he can knock those out in the next three hours. Prove to his staff and the powers that be that he can actually do his job without needing someone to hold his hand, that he can perform beyond just his duty without having to be bailed out by a command staff more competent than their floundering captain.

Maybe someday they'll all believe it.

"Captain. Captain."

A gentle, then much harder shake to his shoulder, and he jolts upright, adrenaline spiking hot and then ice cold throughout his body, dizzy and sickening.

"What, what's wrong? Ship?"

"The Enterprise is in no danger, Captain."

Relief floods him in a dizzying wave, and the room swims for a second, then solidifies crystal-clear. Bones is crouched in front of him, and he follows the look up and behind him to see Spock, puzzled and a little…anxious?

Well, crap.

He presses his fingers to his eyes, then inhales sharply. "What time is it?"

"0825 hours. You were scheduled to report to Briefing Room Two twenty minutes ago. When the computer reported you in your quarters but you could not be raised by Communications, we became…concerned."

"I…" He frowns, glances down at the desk. "I just sat down to read the briefing and have a cup of coffee, I must've fallen asleep again."

Bones stands up with a grunt and creak of joints. "That's not really like you, Jim. And you're the lightest sleeper I've ever seen, if nothing else the comm should've woken you. But you aren't runnin' a fever or anything, you feeling all right?"

"I'm fine, I just haven't been sleeping well. But that's nothing new either." He inhales, holds it for the oxygen increase to the brain, then exhales slowly, shaking his head. "God, I'm sorry, Spock. That's inexcusable."

"It is of no consequence, Captain. But as Doctor McCoy said, it is quite unlike you."

"Well, I'd better go make up for lost time. I'll make sure it doesn't happen again." He forces a smile and stands, wobbling just a bit. Ignoring the look of concern on Bones's face, he shrugs. "Look, Bones, it's been a long couple of days. I'm sure everyone else on the team is tired too, probably more so since they've been working harder than I have down on the planet. If it doesn't get better once we break orbit, I'll come see you. Happy?"

"Not by a long shot. But I know it's as good as I'm gonna get. And don't think I don't know you conned one of my nurses into giving you a stimulant an hour ago, either." McCoy glares at him, jabs a finger into his sternum. "You make sure you eat something at least, other than coffee, if you're gonna medicate like that without my monitoring, I don't care if it's technically permissible under Starfleet captain's discretion. Understand?"

Though his stomach churns at the idea, he nods.

"Fine. You got twenty-four hours. Then you come see me. And the stimulant thing won't work again, either, so don't try it. I'm running a Sickbay, not a drugstore."

"Got it, Bones, got it. Okay, Spock, fill me in on the way up there."

One thing he learned in his Academy days was that a quality almost more important in a starship captain than that of tactical ability is that of acting ability. At the time he'd thought that was lunacy, but it's days like this he totally gets why. No one on his landing party even suspected how badly he wanted to just collapse on the floor of the council chamber and never get back up, and none of them ever will. He knows how to charm and disarm, and he did his job brilliantly. Planet M-176 is now officially a Federation world, and they all survived the celebratory banquet without incident, a mildly miraculous feat in itself given how Murphy's Law seems to like making the Enterprise crew its personal object lesson.

It's well after ship's midnight when they are finally able to leave the ceremonial halls and return to the ship, to finalize reports and prepare to leave orbit. Starfleet cares not for the fact that they've been operating on a different planetary day/night schedule, and wants an update right away, so it's almost 0300 before Jim and his two primary negotiators are heading to their quarters, to hopefully sleep the rest of the day as the ship breaks orbit under Scotty's direction.

"Was it just me or were they acting weird all through dinner?"

"Weird meaning…"

"I dunno, meaning weird!" He waves his hands in weary frustration, and sees Spock's eyebrows incline tolerantly. Uhura is not so courteous, and rolls her eyes. "You didn't pick up anything different, at the banquet tonight?"

"I did not. But given our forewarning regarding their very open telepathic and empathic abilities, my mind has been heavily shielded from the beginning against any such possible impressions, more so even than usual. I therefore would likely not notice any such change which might produce an instinctual reaction in a less shielded being."

"I didn't pick up on any kind of deception or change of mentality in their body language or anything I overheard, Captain," Uhura says, and while he knows it's meant to be reassuring he still has a bad feeling about the whole thing. Which is weird, since it's all over and they're breaking orbit in just a few hours.

"I believe you, I just…have a gut feeling. Like…" He shakes his head. "Never mind. It's probably nothing."

"Unfortunately, in our experience that is rarely the case, Captain. I have learned to not discount your human instincts. What do you believe you were sensing?"

"I dunno, I just…it's felt like from the beginning that there was something else watching us, you know? And it changed today, to a more…malevolent presence. I can't explain it, and I'm probably just paranoid. Lack of sleep always does that to me."

"While such a reaction is possible from sleep deprivation, it is equally possible that such an impression is how your psi-null mind is interpreting a faintly telepathic presence," Spock replies, brows drawn. "If you are indeed reacting to such a presence, then there is a strong possibility that the First Contact team's impression of the planetary council was more accurate than our current one, and that they are not entirely benevolent in their intentions, nor likely to entirely keep the terms of the treaty."

"Well, it's legal and binding now, or will be as soon as you get the reports completed and filed, Captain. They'll have hell to pay with the Federation if they break it, so they lost their chance for any double-crossing," Uhura points out. "Maybe that's why you sensed something change, they were thinking about a last ditch effort to back out? I mean, we are taking away a huge portion of their economic trade at least initially by outlawing their practice of zookeeping. I'm sure it ruffled a few feathers that the Federation doesn't allow that."

"You're probably right." Jim gives himself a mental shake, and shrugs. "Anyway, as soon as I get those reports and the paperwork finalized and sent off to command, we can write this off as a job well done, guys. We so deserve that shore leave on Gamma Hydra II and I intend to tell Command – seriously. What does she not understand about I want to get my own meals." Down the hall, his yeoman has just exited his quarters, carrying another untouched meal tray.

"Are you kidding me right now?" Uhura demands with the crossness that comes from lack of sleep, eyes flashing fire. "I already put her on report once for inappropriate advances toward a commanding officer, since you're too nice to do it. If she's still trying that, behind my back, then I swear to God, I am going to –" Rand suddenly looks up over the dinner tray and sees them, turns pale, and immediately flees the other direction. "Oh, she is so off this ship. Next starbase."

"Lieutenant, calm down."

"If you can't see what she –"

"I can see it just fine, I'm not an idiot!"

"Then why haven't you –"

"Because five years ago I was the one with no idea of propriety, Nyota, between ranks or otherwise! Do you not remember the first night we met? I'm lucky you didn't knock my teeth down my throat."

She stares at him for a second, and then her eyes soften. "That's totally different," she says, though the anger has faded from her tone.

"It's really not. I am well aware there's a problem, Lieutenant. I just…I haven't had the time to figure out how to deal with it, without embarrassing her in front of her crewmates. We all were young and stupid once." He sighs, leans against the wall for a moment. He is so freaking tired. Tired of Janice's ridiculous crush, tired of trying to figure out how to be a better captain, tired of being tired, just tired. "If you've already put her on report, though, as ranking female Operations officer aboard, and she's being directly insubordinate…that's a totally different issue."

"Neither of which are ones which must be dealt with this evening," Spock interjects at last, ever the voice of calm and reason. "The yeoman's behavior is unlikely to change overnight, meaning it may be addressed after this mission's conclusion, and after you both have obtained the requisite sleep required for a human to remain in control of their physical and mental well-being. Your judgment calls are at this time impaired due to said lack of requisite sleep."

"If I had the energy to flip you off right now, Spock," he mumbles, stumbling into the range of his door sensors.

Behind him, he hears a weary laugh from Uhura and quiet good-night as Spock's door opens and closes behind them.

Obviously they don't care about leaving him with the freaking cat again. Which, whatever, he doesn't care at this point so long as it stays off his bed. It winds around his legs purring in the dark, but almost gets stepped on for its trouble, so. Tit for tat.

He barely gets his tunic off and sleep shirt on before he collapses into what he is sure this time has to be a dreamless sleep, because despite that stimulant earlier he quite literally can't keep his eyes open any longer...

They say when you're dying, your life flashes before your eyes, and it's so not true, because he's going blind and he'd really give anything to see more than just a blue and black blur through transparisteel that's getting hazier every second.

Interesting, you can't cry if your tear ducts have been destroyed, burned out by radiation.

Everything is turning into a sort of muffled tunnel now as he breathes air that feels more broken glass than oxygen. It's poetic justice, really; this whole time, a year in space, he's never lost a crewman – and now, when his mistakes have lost him so many? It's only fair, only just. They never got the option to choose their fate today, so the only right thing to do is join them.

He should have said goodbye to Bones.

The transparisteel is freezing cold, or maybe he's just cold. They say fear is ice, and he's never been so terrified.

He really hopes Pike wasn't this scared. He deserved better.

Spock will make sure Khan pays for that.

And this.

He vaguely wonders if this is what it felt like for those crewmen who were lost when the ship was dragged out of warp, when she tore at the seams and decompressurized, throwing men and women into the cold, dark void of space.

He hopes it was a lot faster than this, that they didn't have time to be this afraid, lost in the dark.

Darkness so thick, it's practically choking him, and in a different way from the radiation which has destroyed his lungs and respiratory system. This is the darkness of guilt, of failure – the knowledge that everything you've ever loved is in danger, hurt, or gone completely.

It's a darkness that is almost real, almost tangible.

Almost a living thing.

Like shadows come alive, like something made out of fear itself and that is frightening enough to produce a shot of adrenaline that flashes through his veins, firing off nerve endings with fear over and above the lurking terror that's hiding just out of eyesight, just out of earshot.

He struggles against blankets that feel like they're made of synthesteel, crushing and suffocating and confusing, because his brain is totally misfiring if this is real because it can't be real, and why does he feel like every horrible thing he's ever done or said all just happened ten seconds ago? Grief and anger and hurt and fear and rage and shame, all of them so sharp and painful they could stop a man's heart if thrown at him all at once, and is he actually crying or just feeling like he wants to?

Somewhere outside the gray bubble of confusion holding him down, something shatters, and the noise is strangely real, breaking the illusion for an instant. He shakes his head, gasping for air that isn't exactly forthcoming – and he can't tell in the dark if that's from panic, or something else, it's all too jumbled. Then from somewhere to one side there's an explosion of noise, indistinct and muffled over the pounding in his ears.

Light suddenly floods the room, darkness banished in one blinding instant, and when his eyes adjust everything abruptly dissipates from the nightmarish dreamworld he was trapped in into startling, horrible clarity.

What the actual hell is that?

Some kind of alien creature is literally hovering over his bed: a shifting, writhing mass of shadowy nothingness that isn't quite solid and isn't quite not solid, with some kind of claw-like shadowy appendages reaching for his head, and he has the really sick feeling that until a second ago they were buried in his skull, based on how much his head hurts right now.

He thinks he's probably justified in not reacting exactly according to his Starfleet training, under the circumstances, because even a Klingon would be a little freaked right now, okay?

Before he even has time to stop trying not to scream like a child in a haunted house or think about making some kind of defensive move, however, a burning streak of green just skims his nose, leaving a brief searing warmth behind it. The tang of ozone fills the air as the creature screeches, the high-pitched wail slicing right into his skull with the pain of a thousand tiny drills. Before he can even react, it's slithered off the bed and out under the door, never even triggering the motion mechanism, like it was made of shadows itself.

Not even a second later, Spock is out the door and after it, shouting a voice-activated order at the corridor computer as he goes. Seconds later klaxons begin to wail in the corridor outside, officers starting to rush out of their cabins at the security alerts being sounded.

Finally, under the reassuring hubbub of noise and life and knowledge that his ship is in control, he bolts upright in bed and stares at the closed door, totally in shock.

Seriously, what the hell.

"I don't care if the man's asleep, you get him up and get him down here with an oxygen and shock kit. I have no idea what else, it’s not a life-form I’ve ever seen before. Oh, grow a pair, Dimarco! Tell him it's the captain and you'll be fine, he's not going to bite."

He looks over at his desk, and sees Uhura snapping orders into his desk computer, dressed in what looks like Spock's bathrobe and not much else, with her hair flying all over the place in a storm of black craziness. She glances to her left, sees him swinging his legs over the side of the bed, still dazed but not out of it anymore. "Yes, tell McCoy he's conscious and moving but he should get down here ASAP. Uhura out."

He still is trying to process things when she tugs the robe a little tighter closed and comes across the room. "What on earth was that, Captain."

"I…have no idea," he rasps, running a hand through his hair. "How did you even know something was in here?"

"Don't ask me, I was asleep. Spock just woke up all of a sudden and said something wasn't right, and then next thing I know we hear something breaking in here, he's grabbing a phaser out of the wall safe and barging through the bathroom like a house on fire," she replies, fixing her hair into a hasty, messy bun. "I have no idea what's going on, but whatever that thing is? However it got in here? The computer should have registered an intruder, regardless; this is a serious security breach. How the hell did it get into the ship, much less all the way to Deck Five and your cabin?"

He nods, hands pressing at the skin around his eyes.

"Are you okay? When we came in here, it looked like it was…I don't know what it was doing, it was attached to you somehow, Spock had to stun it twice to even get it to back off, and that last beam was the highest stun setting. I'm guessing this is a glass you managed to knock off the bedside table?"

"I'm…I don't know. I don't know what's going on." His teeth are chattering now, either from shock or cold, and the headache is intensifying. The idea that whatever that thing is, has been on the ship for an undetermined time? Really makes him want to be sick. Where has it been hiding? What has it been doing to him?

"Jim." Cold fingers on his face, and he jerks back, startled. Uhura raises her hands as if to show herself a non-threat, and he exhales, shaking his head.


"You're fine. I just…you don't look good. And if that thing was…"

"Boring into my brain?" he finishes dryly. "Yeah, I get the picture, thanks."

She winces. He's about to ask another question about the thing's physical appearance when the door opens again. Two redshirts poke their heads in, then enter when he motions to them with a tired gesture.

"Sorry, sir, but the Commander said for us to stand guard until the intruder's been located," Marple ventures, saluting. "You all right, Captain?"

Jim hides a badly-needed laugh at the fact that the man's uniform tunic is on inside-out; obviously, when the alert had started sounding on Deck Five, the crewmen had all poured out of their cabins in record time, most of them probably straight out of their beds since the majority of Deck Five is occupied by higher-ranking alpha shift officers. Both the laugh and the fact that his crew are all concerned about him and on the job, are oddly warming, and the terror recedes a bit under the influence. "I'm relatively unharmed, thank you, Lieutenant. Can you do your guard dogging from outside though? I'm not exactly in a visitor-receiving mood, no offense."

"None taken, sir. Just give us a yell if you need something, we'll be here until relieved at alpha shift change."

"Will do, gentlemen, thank you." He glances at Uhura as the doors close again, and sees her trying not to laugh too. "Okay, so we need more emergency drills, note that for a future day when we're not in Red Alert mode. And it's not like you're in full uniform either, you know. Is it considered harassment to tell you to go put on some pants?"

She rolls her eyes and moves back across the room toward the lavatory. "You do know I can see right through that facade of yours, right? Just don't pass out before McCoy gets here."

Humor is indeed his go-to to hide the fact that he's very much Not Okay, and in this case it only helps for a few seconds. The lights are already at eighty percent thanks to Spock's raising them when he barreled in here earlier, but Jim raises them the rest of the way to maximum human tolerance as he throws on a clean uniform tunic, grabs a blanket and staggers over to the couch, hoping it will help dispel the creeping feeling that every single shadow is hiding another….whatever, that was.

What he can't understand, is why he's being such a ridiculous baby about the whole thing. He's had worse, after all – way worse. It's almost funny, in a way, how much worse.

And only he would end up with a monster in his cabin, in the middle of deep space. It should be hilarious.

It should be. But for some reason it only makes him want to panic more, only makes everything seem that much darker, that much more awful, brings back all those horrible memories that he only now remembers have been showing up in his dreams the last three days, completely out of nowhere and at a degree that he's never felt before.

There's a smallish commotion in the hall outside, and the door opens to admit his freaked Chief Medical Officer, who is halfway through a tirade berating one of the poor Security guys over Lord knows what. Marple meets his look over Bones's head and gives him a longsuffering nod, rolls his eyes, and just lets the door close behind McCoy mid-sentence, leaving him spluttering just inside.

"Of all the – Jim, what in the name of all that's holy is going on, on this ship? Spock's got the entire saucer section on Red Alert and there's a squad of redshirts at every access junction on every deck. That kid that woke me up just said – you look like hell." Bones squints at him, drops to the couch beside him, way too close and personal.

"I really doubt he said that," he replies dryly, not bothering to pull away as his face is turned toward the light.

"Jim, what did this?"

He frowns, crosses his eyes upward in an effort to see what McCoy's looking at, all other factors forgotten in the face of official medical examination.

"What exactly is this?"

"There's some kind of puncture wound just behind the hairline here…no, more than one." Bones pulls the pocket magnifier away from his head and looks at him, undisguised worry clear in his expression. "I've never seen something like that before, Jim. They're not bleeding, but they're there."

"Awesome." He sighs, tries to massage away the headache. "Well, our job is to meet new life forms, after all."

"How bad's the headache?"

"Scale of one-to-ten? Seven."

"That means a twelve on a normal person. Jesus, Jim. I need you down in Sickbay for a brain scan, now."

"What? No way!"

"Jim –"

"I do not need a brain scan!"

The lavatory door opens, and Uhura re-enters, back in uniform and ponytail in place, looking like she's had ten hours of sleep instead of four. She blinks at his expression, then at McCoy, and frowns.

"Okay, start talking, Lieutenant," Bones says, pointing a threatening hypospray her direction.

"We don't know much more than you do, Doctor." She shrugs, and takes a seat on the empty chair kitty-corner to them. "It was some kind of creature I've never seen before, but…it was almost like it wasn't really there, because I could see the juncture plating on the wall behind the bed through its body. And it was able to get under the door, into the hall without opening the door. So possibly it's not entirely corporeal?"

"It was corporeal enough to leave puncture wounds in his head," Bones snaps, before stabbing Jim in the neck with a hypospray.

"Ow! Seriously!"

Uhura looks at him with concern. "So it was really attached to you then, it didn't just look like it."

"Apparently everything wants a piece of this." He smirks at her snort of exasperated laughter, then yelps as another shot gets administered while he's distracted. "Bones, I swear to God, you hit me with another one of those –"

"Then get your ass down to Sickbay! I am not chancing brain damage with you, you idiot!"

"He's right, Captain. That thing was attacking you for a reason, and we have no idea why. For all we know, it could be after Starfleet clearance codes or something."

He stares at her in horrified consternation, because that makes a lot of sense.

"You're right, we need to know if I've been compromised. Okay, fine Bones, you win. Lieutenant, can you notify Spock where I'll be, in case he wants to change the pattern of Security placement?"

"Of course, Captain."

Bones looks impressed at her strategy, but refrains from pressing his luck, just helps Jim to his feet and makes sure he's going to stay there.

"Wait, Lieutenant," Jim says suddenly, pausing before they reach the door.

In the act of accessing the Security mainframe to check on the progress of the search, Uhura pauses and glances back at him.

"Find the cat too, will you?" he asks, looking around worriedly. "I haven't seen it, and if that thing…" Ate it, or something, he doesn't say, and it's not like he even likes the thing but Spock will have a Vulcan cow if something happened to it, so. Kind of need to find where it's hiding from the drama of the last hour.

"I'll find it, Captain," she reassures him. "Go get your head checked. Leonard, take one of the boys outside with you just in case that thing comes back around."

"Got it. Come on, Jim. Tell Spock to come see me as soon as he knows something, I'm runnin' blind here," Bones calls as they exit.

"You and me both," he mutters, edging uneasily away from the shadows cast by the closing door. "You and me both."

"I dunno what to tell you, Jim. That could be good, or it could be bad."

He squints across the table. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought no brain damage was always a good thing."

"Not when some weird alien shadow monster's just had its tentacles screwing around in your head, it's not!"

"Gee, that's a picture I really wanted, Bones. Thanks."

"You don't pay me to sugar-coat things, Jim." His CMO sighs, tosses the stylus down on the desk with a resigned gesture. "Look, just because a brain scan and brainwave signature pattern come back unaltered doesn't mean something's not wrong."

"But it doesn't necessarily mean something is?"

"Well…no, but. Look, when have you ever been best case scenario instead of worst?"

Jim winces. "Law of probability, we have to catch a break sometime?"

"Yeah, try again."

"Okay, okay. Look, Bones –"

"Do you feel okay, Jim? Be honest, now. Because you don't look it." He hesitates, just a fraction too long apparently, because Bones nods, resigned. "That's what I thought. Your own gut is a better indicator than my instruments, Jim."

"I'll remember that next time you try to restrict my diet card."

"This isn't a joke, Jim!"

"I know." Glancing away for a second, he swallows, hard. "Look, I know, okay. I just…what do you want me to say?" He looks back, waving in a helpless gesture. "Would you rather I fall apart instead of keeping it together? Because I can't afford to do that. This ship can't afford for me to do that. And until you relieve me of command, I am still the captain of this ship, and I intend to stay that way. Unless you can find grounds to relieve me of duty?"

To his surprise, Bones looks more relieved than annoyed at his outburst, and sits back, arms folded.

"What." He scrubs his hands over his face. "Stop looking at me like that."

"You looked more like yourself there for a minute than you have in the last three days. 'Scuse me if it gives me hope you aren't actually a few pickles short of a jar just yet."

"My God, do your people actually talk like that where you come from?"

"Now don't get testy, Jim. I think – it's about damn time!" Jim turns in his seat as the door opens, and Spock walks through, obviously having taken a few minutes to change into uniform. "Well?"

"Sit down, Spock, you look exhausted," he says quietly, reading without having to hear it the outcome of the search. "You can't find it, can you?"

His First sits stiffly beside him, ignoring the impatient gesture from across the desk. "We cannot, Captain. More concerningly, the ship's computers do not register an intruder aboard, nor have they the entire night. A bio-scan of your cabin does not reveal any such intruder or indeed any unexplained life-form within during the entirety of the night or the last fourteen nights, which was the date of the last time the transporter was engaged by a non-crew member. We have done a sweep of the ship from aft to stern and have discovered no trace of the entity, either physically, residually, or on any of the ship's recording devices."

"Good grief, you guys've been busy." He stares at his First in mild horror. "How the heck did you get that and the computer research done in three hours?"

Spock raises a pointed eyebrow. "Very efficiently," he replies dryly.

McCoy snorts. "If I have your whole staff down here for headache pills tomorrow, I know who to blame, then."

"The safety of the captain of a starship is of paramount importance at all times, Doctor, as all crewmen know. And when that safety is threatened in such an unexplained manner, every crewman becomes a Security officer. You will find there were more than enough willing volunteers to perform the search."

Once again, he's boggled by the devotion of this crew, some of which don't even know him that well. He hasn't done anywhere near enough in this amount of time to earn that, and he may never be deserving of it. It's equal parts humbling, frightening, and overwhelming.

His musings are interrupted by Spock's expectant look across the desk, to which McCoy waves a resigned hand between them. "I can't find anything wrong with him. Brain scan and brainwave signatures check out identical to the ones we took right after everything was repaired and regenerated after the Khan incident, there's no detectable damage that I can see."

Spock looks mildly relieved.

"But there's got to be something it was doing," Bones continues, looking pointedly over the desk at him. "I'm guessing you have some idea what, Jim."

He shrugs uneasily. "I'm just glad it wasn't after Starfleet clearance codes or something. The rest we can deal with, right?"

"That was not an answer to the doctor's question, Captain. I have observed that evasion is a tactic employed by humans when they do not wish to answer questions; I assume that is the case in this instance."

"You know what they say about assuming, Spock?" he replies through clenched teeth.

"No, sir."

He blinks.

"Never mind," Bones snaps, waving a hand between them to break up the devolving idiom battle. "Jim, come on, you have to have noticed something weird going on."

"Other than not being able to sleep? Which hello, kind of obvious now why - no. I have no idea."

"I was not aware your insomnia had returned, Captain, other than the incident yesterday morning."

"It's not insomnia, exactly." He frowns, rubbing his temple. "It's…weird nightmares. Almost like night terrors, Bones, you remember those? Except I can barely remember them when I wake up, and except most of them are things that actually happened, or at least almost did. Most of them a long time ago, long enough there's no real way I should be dreaming about them now. Tonight's was about…well, about Khan, but the rest have been about stuff from a long time ago."

Bones sits up at that, eyes narrowed. "And you're just now telling me this?"

"What, I was supposed to come whining to you for a bedtime story and a glass of milk two days ago because I had another Tarsus nightmare? Get real, Bones." He rolls his eyes, rests his chin on his hand wearily. "I was dealing with it, okay? It's just exhausting, is all. They're not usually this vivid. It's like the stuff happened yesterday, instead of years ago. I’ve dealt with this stuff, it shouldn’t be coming up again."

Spock's been strangely, dangerously silent this entire exchange, and he belatedly realizes that yeah, he probably shouldn't have divulged the little Tarsus gem just now to the one Xenosociologist aboard with an eidetic memory, that wasn't his smartest move.

"Captain –"

He raises a hand and cuts the words off mid-sentence, not even looking up. "I'm not having this discussion right now, and maybe not ever," he says, not unkindly, but firmly. "If you have to know details, you can have a talk with Bones after we figure out where this thing is on my ship, but it's not happening now."

Dead silence, in which Bones eyes both of them speculatively.

Then, "As you wish, Captain," and Spock sounds matter-of-fact enough about the thing, at least, for which he's grateful. "I would simply point out, however, that the coincidence between your sudden increased mental disturbance and the appearance of this creature, is too great to be ignored."

"You're saying it's responsible? The thought had occurred to me, but I really don't see how I could have slept through whatever it was doing to my head for three entire nights."

"You might not have fully woken tonight, had we not caught it in the act, Captain." Spock looks really, honestly freaked by the whole thing, and he guesses as a telepath it carries a totally different level of ew with it. "It is quite possible this entity has been aboard for some time, and has been the direct cause of your unrest for an undetermined duration."

"O-kaaay, that's even creepier to think about. Where the hell does it go during the day, then?!"

"I'm more concerned with how it got on board, and why none of the sensors are picking it up as a biological life-form, much less as an unidentified intruder," McCoy interjects, frowning. "That thing should be setting off bio-alarms on every deck it hits, if it's an unregistered life form – and it has to be, if it was attaching itself to another life form it has to at least be parasitic in nature with rudimentary intelligence and a neural network of some kind. But I dunno of any species that can go under a friggin' door like you said it did – and so far nothing's been triggered, no alarms on any deck or access junction? Not possible."

"Obviously it is, Bones."

"No, Captain, it is not," Spock says suddenly, brows drawn.

"But you just –"

"The doctor is correct, Captain; if the entity were to move about the ship in the form we saw, it would immediately set off alarms at every junction sensor. Therefore, when it moves about the ship, it must not be in that form. It is the only logical explanation."

"Uh. Okay? So you're saying, what, exactly?"

"The only logical explanation for the facts as we currently know them is that it retains the ability to alter its appearance and physiology from one species into another, since it would need to be a species recognized by the ship's computer. Also, one which is already recognized as a non-intrusive life form aboard."

"That's crazy talk."

"It is not, Doctor. There are seventeen documented Federation species in the galaxy with at least some type of animorphic transmutation abilities, though none I am currently aware of which are able to completely deceive a computer scan."

"Awesome. I've had a shapeshifter in bed with me for the last three nights. Not my usual, I gotta say."

"Jim, this isn't funny! And – what is it, Spock?" McCoy stops midsentence, zeroing in on the suddenly tense expression of their First Officer.

"Captain, you said three nights, correct? Precisely three, no more or less?"

"I can count to three, yeah. The first night I had the really weird dreams was three nights ago. I remember because I was glad you guys had turned on the sound dampening field, I probably would have woken you up otherwise when I fell out of bed."

Spock looks even more unhappy at that.

"Why, what's that…" He trails off, as his brain makes the same leap his First obviously has in that weirdly synchronous mode that scares the hell out of his command staff sometimes. "Wait, you don't think – it's just a cat, isn't it? Didn't we scan it?"

"I neglected to subject the animal to a cellular-level bio-scan, Captain, believing the transporter's basic bio-scan for hazardous life-forms at the species level to be sufficient. That is an inexcusable oversight in protocol."

"That's ridiculous, Spock, why would we suspect it to be anything other than a freaking cat. If the transporter scan recognized and categorized it as a non-harmful and Federation registered felinoid life form, why on earth should you have thought otherwise?"

"Nevertheless, I should have –"

"Seriously, we got way more important issues right now," Bones interrupts what could easily have turned into a ridiculous self-guilt session, for which Jim is devoutly grateful, "and would you mind filling me in on what on God's green earth you're talking about?"

"Unfortunately it was not, as you put it, God's green earth, Doctor. But rather planet M-176, if our suspicions are correct." Spock leans over and presses the comm-switch on McCoy's desk. "Spock to Bridge."

"Bridge, Uhura here. Go ahead, Commander."

"Lieutenant, before going on duty were you able to locate the animal previously housed in the captain's quarters?"

An uncomfortable silence.

"Negative. There was no sign of it. I was waiting until we had news from Medical before reporting failure to locate the creature to the captain."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Spock turns back to them, looking resigned. "While not conclusive, that would certainly add credence to our suspicions, gentlemen."

"Or it could just mean whatever the thing was ate the poor cat," Jim points out dryly.

"Had it predatory intentions, it would have exercised them the first evening, Captain, would it not?"

"Well…maybe it was, I dunno. Biding its time?"

"Look, I don't care if the thing's a cat, dog, flyin' purple unicorn, I want it found before it comes after him again," Bones says, pointing a stylus menacingly across the desk. "And what was it doing in your quarters anyway, Jim? You hate cats."

"Uhura's allergic, I was cat-sitting. Wait a minute, that means if it really is some kind of shapeshifting creature and it was purposely sent to invade the ship…"

"It means you were not the intended target, Captain," Spock says quietly.

"No, it means you were; they gave it to you," he says, suddenly realizing just how not funny the whole thing really is. "But…why, Spock?"

"My only conjecture can be that the creature was intended as some kind of telepathic attack, Captain, given the position in which we found you upon our arrival in the room tonight," Spock answers slowly. "Since the natives of Planet M-176 are themselves highly telepathic and empathic individuals, and displayed a certain degree of animosity in that regard to the First Contact team, we may surmise that perhaps they thought I might be the…weak link? Among the crew."

"Meaning, they thought they could influence your negotiation decisions through that thing, or worse? It's definitely a theory…" He frowns thoughtfully. "They did send it back with you the day before everything was coming to a conclusion, didn't they. And when we completed the treaty without budging on anything, they were surprised, and pissed; that's why I got a weird vibe from them the last night."

"It is possible."

"So tonight, it, what…got so angry at me, it decided to up its game?"

"Or was trying to take control of you and get you to alter the treaty before it gets filed with Command," Bones interjects. "You haven't done that yet, have you?"

"No, I haven't, but I don't have authority to change anything anyway."

"I doubt the planet's leaders understand such political subtleties, Captain, if they are resorting to such crude methods of obtaining their goals. I believe the doctor's supposition is the most likely one."

Awesome. A sudden thought occurs to him, and he feels a rush of nausea. "But…if I'm reacting like this, as a non-telepathic human, wouldn't that thing have seriously injured a full telepath?"

Spock looks uncomfortable at the inquiry, and he senses he may have overstepped a cultural boundary; but they don't have time for diplomacy here with something they don't understand possibly running rampant in the ductwork of his ship.

"I'm just trying to understand what's going on here, Spock. I don't even know what it was doing in my head, so I can't imagine what it might have done to you. And if it's a crime of the severity I suspect it is? That's a Federation offense, on any telepathic species, much less an endangered one. We're talking a whole new level of diplomatic trouble if that was their intention, and I'm going to have a forest fire to put out with Command if that's the case."

"Despite the fact that it is not legally recognized as such, such a crime should be a Federal offense against a non-telepathic species as well, as it is an even worse crime to commit upon someone who has no idea of the concept of full telepathic consent, Captain."

The words are calm enough, but he's seen that degree of anger before in those eyes: cold, clear, and so very deadly. Only once – and it still scares him, just a little, even knowing he's on the protective end of it this time rather than the receiving end.

That, in itself, tells him his suspicions are probably correct.

He takes a deep breath, and very carefully doesn't think about what it means, not right now. He has work to do, and the headache has to wait.

"Okay. So." He swallows, and glances over at McCoy, whose previously rapid typing has slowed but not stopped, as he obviously is listening and noting this conversation while researching the shapeshifting species Spock had mentioned a moment ago. "What've we got on shapeshifting, telepathic species? Because there was nothing in the briefings that indicated the natives had any kind of transmorphic abilities."

"I got nothing yet, but the search is still running through the Federation database. It'll take another minute or so. But look, Jim…I'm not tryin' to be insensitive here, but if what he's saying is true…"

"I could have telepathic brain damage that your scans can't pick up, Bones, yes I know." He rubs his forehead wearily. "Is there a way you can check for that? Non-invasively?"

"There's not even an invasive way to check, Jim, that's totally out of our wheelhouse in Federation medicine. There's a reason why they only send specially trained ambassadors to telepathic species that have shown any signs of serious hostility to the Federation." Bones glances between them worriedly. "I have no reliable way of being able to tell if there's any kind of damage been done by that…thing."

"Great." He exhales slowly. "So, what, we just wait to see if I lose my mind on the Bridge one day? I can't chance making a bad call in the middle of a space battle, Bones."

His CMO looks helplessly back at the computer, shaking his head. "I'm gonna do everything I can, Jim, I just…I don't have an answer for you right now."

The feeling of helplessness which had so petrified him earlier in the night is now hovering again, lurking just out of reach. Like a dark shadow in the corner of his vision, a fleeting nightmare of childhood long gone that he can't quite remember and is pretty sure he doesn't want to because he will lose it right here and now if he does.

Something touches his arm, and he practically jumps out of his chair.

Frozen with his hand still outstretched, Spock stares at him.

"Sorry." He clears his throat awkwardly and settles, rubbing the back of his neck. "Just on edge."

"Understandably so." A nice way of saying you're still a wack job, but I will tolerate it under the circumstances. Jim appreciates the gesture. "Captain, we have three distinct problems at hand which must be rectified immediately."

Now this? Getting him back on track when he wants to spin out of control? This, he actually does appreciate, and that's not sarcasm. He knows Spock can see the gratitude in his eyes, and he nods, pulling himself firmly back into the present.

"Locating the – thing, whatever it is, being number one. I don't want it encountering an unprepared crewman somewhere in this ship, even if we think it's specifically targeting me or you."

"Indeed. The second, verifying our conjectures as to the purpose behind its infiltration of the ship, and determining the consequences for that infiltration to Planet M-176 from the Federation."

"Oh, they are gonna love this."

"Three, and with respect, Captain, likely the most urgent of the three, we must ascertain if you have been compromised by this entity, if you are to maintain command of the Enterprise indefinitely."

Well, that hits like a slap in the face, but one he needs to hear, and he's not too proud to admit it.

"Now look here, you green-blooded excuse for a –"

"Bones, seriously, I cannot deal." He waves a hand of dismissal in a shooing motion, and the man subsides, going back to his monitor with a bitchy grumble about power-hungry Vulcans that all three of them know is all bark and no bite.

"Okay, I hate you a little, but you're right." He sighs, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. Locks his hands around the back of his neck for a moment, eyes closed. "How, exactly, are we supposed to do that, if there's no medical scan that will tell?"

The silence is louder (barely) than his pounding heartbeat, and he tilts his head sideways, curious. Spock shifts under the look, uncharacteristically hesitant.

He bolts back upright, both hands instinctively up in a gesture of self-defense he knows he doesn't really need, but his head's not exactly on straight and it's been a long night, okay?

"Oh, no. You are not dicking around in my head, not again. I pick door number two, whatever it is. Back me up here, Bones."

His CMO looks at them both, tapping the stylus against his lips. "Actually, Jim, you're probably safer with him than with anything I can come up with medically. He at least knows what he's looking for, if it's damage from a telepathic attack."

"Not. Happening!"

"Captain, your hesitation is understandable, given the lack of control my elder self exerted in the previous instance mental contact was initiated with you. However –"

"Look, I don't blame him – you – whatever, for that data-dump, okay, but there's no way in hell I'm letting you or anyone else try it again." The memories of that day are still, even years later, sharper than etched glass with pain, residual grief of a future never to be realized, a universe destroyed of everything someone has ever loved. "I can't."

"Jim –"

"You don't understand, I can't." Not with his control hanging on by a thread, after whatever went on tonight. He's a house of cards right now, and one strong gust of wind is all it would take to bring him crashing down, buried forever under the rubble of what had been a strong man. Every skeleton he's ever had in his mental closets is walking around in his head like an undead horde, every raw emotion he's never dealt with is pooling at the surface. Every abusive word, every disappointment, every heartache, every death, every fear, every time he's ever felt helpless, all of them laid bare like an open wound.

He doesn't even realize how badly his hands are shaking until he tries to sandwich them between his knees. Folding his arms instead, he leans back, keeping his face expressionless with an effort.

"Jim, come on, be reasonable."

"You do not. Get to tell me. What is reasonable."

"When it comes to your health, I damn well do!"

"Captain," Spock interjects, trying to calm the storm before it really brews into epic proportions, "the Doctor is merely attempting, in his own illogical way, to point out that if we are to ascertain your mental state, this is the most efficient solution. A shallow mind-link only should be needed to determine whether or not you have been compromised by the entity."

He looks his First squarely in the eye. "And if I refuse?"

"Then we will find an alternative." Spock's dark eyes are unwavering as he returns the look without reserve. "I will do nothing without complete and willing consent from you, Jim."

Those terms if nothing else, tell him what very carefully hadn't been said earlier, and it turns his stomach even more. He can almost feel the blood draining from his face.

"I don't want to do this," he says hoarsely.

"Then the matter is no longer up for discussion. Doctor, you will continue your research into the biological possibilities for the intruding species while I regroup with Lieutenant-Commander Scott and the Security task forces to implement a better strategy for locating a shapeshifting species, now that we are more aware of that which we are seeking. Forward any useful data to my personal padd immediately upon its receipt. Captain, I would suggest you remain here rather than returning to your quarters, as a precautionary measure."

"I…" He clears his throat, and stands. "No, you know what? I'm coming with you. It's not like the thing is stupid enough to attack in front of every Security officer on duty, and they deserve to know their efforts are appreciated."

Besides, and he wouldn't say it out loud, but he feels safer with Spock than anywhere else on the ship right now, and that includes his own quarters or Sickbay. That could just be due to that alien influence destroying every psychological barrier he ever has put up, or to knowing that the one person aboard who actually could destroy his brain, won’t; but he'll take whatever rock he can find in this storm.

"I strongly object to your decision, but at this juncture in our relationship know that voicing such disagreement is completely immaterial to your enacting said decision."

Spock of Vulcan, Grand Sassmaster. He laughs as they leave Bones to his research, and for the first time all night, doesn't find himself staring at every shadow in the corridors.

As it turns out, the thing is actually stupid enough to attack him in front of every Security officer on duty.

Or it's just pissed.

Either way, it made the wrong decision. He has the best redshirts in the quadrant for a reason.

"Gentlemen, we do not condone the taking of life, especially that of an unknown life form." Spock's severe tone is a wave of calm over his gasp for air as he rolls to his hands and knees. You would never think a creature made partly of shadow would feel like a brick being dropped on his head from off a catwalk.

"Well, apparently its physiology wasna built to withstand twenty heavy stun blasts at once, sir!"

He releases a breathy giggle into his sleeve. "Little overkill, guys." Another hacking cough, which his slightly embarrassed Engineering and Security squad valiantly ignore. "But nicely done. Are we sure it's dead, and not just turned back into some other form?"

"Uh…given that it screamed bloody murder an' then went up in a fireball? Pretty sure, sir." Scotty nudges the tiny ash pile with his boot-toe as if in demonstration.

Someone at the back of the room coughs.

"Well, gentlemen, as Mr. Spock said. As Starfleet officers, we do not condone the destruction of life-forms of any kind, especially unknown ones, but in this case as it was unintentional and it was, you know, choking me with smoke tentacles, well done." He glances up at Scott, who nods and begins to herd the pleased-looking group out of the room. "Mr. Spock. I stand corrected, the thing apparently didn't care about there being witnesses to its dirty deeds."

Spock makes a tiny chuffing noise he's learned is the equivalent of a Vulcan laugh. "Obviously, sir."

"Help me up?"

He wobbles slightly but is able to take his own weight, wincing as he feels gingerly around his neck. "Why do they always go for the throat," he complains.

"Basic animal instinct, Captain, is to –"

"Rhetorical, Spock, rhetorical." He waves a tired hand as they head into the corridor, passing an eager young ensign from Xenobio who's carrying a handheld cryovac, obviously sent from Medical to sweep up the remains. "And speaking of animal instincts."

Spock gestures for him to enter the turbolift, then follows. "Yes, Captain?"

He sighs, leans his head back against the wall of the lift. "If the offer's still open, I'd like for you to…check my brain status, so to speak. Whatever you want to call it."

Spock turns toward him, frowning. "The matter is not one to be called lightly, Captain."

"Yeah, I know. I just…look, I'm afraid of it, Spock." He looks up, ashamed to even have to admit to it. "Not really of you, I just…too many people have screwed with my head, and I was already a head case before that. So. That's all."

Spock reaches out to stop the lift, and it sways to a gentle halt, the light over the door turning orange and flashing rapidly, indicating others will be rerouted around the unknown error.

"Human nature is to fear the unknown, Captain." The words are quiet, almost gentle. Not an accusation, only a statement of fact.

"Yeah, well. Not really human nature to fear the known, now is it." He rubs the back of his neck, shaking his head. "I dunno if it's worse because of this…thing, that's been yanking out all kinds of trauma I thought I dealt with a long time ago, or what, but…yeah."

"If the entity has indeed affected your emotional state to such an extent, then it did damage of a most invasive kind, Jim." Spock's tone is neutral, but his eyes are furious. "That in itself, is more than enough reason to be wary of such mental contact from anyone, known or not."

"I think you're over-exaggerating the seriousness of the thing on a non-telepath, Spock."

"You are hardly an expert opinion on such matters."

"Wow, that was bitchy, even for you." He cracks a smile for the first time in what feels like years.

"You are, however, an expert opinion on those such matters."

"Oh my God. Will you just do it already? We have a ship to run."

Somehow, once his head's on straight…he's pretty sure they're going to be awesome at it, too.