Title: Shades of Grey

Rating: PG-13, T+

Summary: When the Enterprise's first diplomatic mission goes awry, her captain and crew discover a deception running deep on both sides, and risk everything to save those caught in the middle.

Author's Notes: If it weren't for Ginger Ninja, this would have never gotten finished. An amazing beta and relentless cheerleader, she held my hand through this entire thing. Also, many thanks to Jude for hashing out the finer points of the story line in ten minute intervals during my breaks at work. Shamelessly hurt/comfort with a dash of mystery, a smattering of Federation politics, and just the right amount of MotherHen!Bones.

A Note To Readers: This fic is complete. Parts will be posted every two days.

"We all need a tale to tell

Just another list of consequences of things that we do

Just another hit of happenings that we have to live through

In and out of all the reasons, and all the "whys" and "wherefores"

We just want to keep on breathing."

The Delgatos, Keep On Breathing

"A man gazing on the stars is proverbially at the mercy of the puddles on the road."

Alexander Smith, Men of Letters

Chapter One.

He never realized how much he missed the admiral until he appears on the message screen in the captain's ready room.

Jim leans back in his chair and smiles across the millions of miles between the Enterprise and Starfleet Command. "Admiral Pike, to what do I owe this pleasure?"

"Hey, there, Captain," he replies. "How are things aboard the Enterprise?"

"Fantastic, as always."

Pike laughs, a deep, amused laughter that says more about how he's recovering than words can ever convey. It's been slow-going; Jim's been keeping tabs on his mentor, checking when he can catch a moment alone. Part of him feels responsible, even though, logically (and wouldn't Spock get a kick out of that!), he's not. Still, if he could have gotten there faster, or taken out the drill sooner --

If Jim Kirk's learned one thing, it's that this timeline's a series of what ifs he'll never be able to answer.

"You've been out there three months already, I think it's time you put some of those diplomatic courses to work."

"Diplomatic?" Jim frowns at the word, what it means. It makes him uncomfortable, but for a deeper reason. This is coming from a man he respects, one he doesn't want to let down. He shifts, but it's not from physical discomfort; after all they've been through, he can trust Pike. Can't he?

"Permission to speak freely, sir?" Stiff. Controlled. The smile disappears from Pike's face, but the warmth doesn't leave his eyes; he's felt somewhat responsible for this kid, ever since he made it his mission to give him a course to follow.

"You know you can always be candid with me, Jim. I'd like to think we've been through enough for that."

He lets out a breath he didn't know he was holding. "Do you really think it's a good idea to send me on a diplomatic mission? Aren't there more qualified captains out there?"

"And how do you think they become qualified? You have to start somewhere, son. You have an amazing crew under you; don't think you're on your own out there."

Jim rolls his eyes. "Trust me -- I don't have any privacy on this ship."

"Get used to it, it's part of your job description. You're never off-duty."

Rubbing his forehead, Jim can't help but look up at the door, where a chime's been sounding for the last minute or so. "Enter."

With a swoosh, the doors open to the light grey of the hallway and the smirking mug of Bones McCoy. "Hey, Jim, you busy?"

"Actually, yeah. Give me a minute?"

Bones nods, lets the doors slide shut.

On the screen, Pike's amused. "Helps that your best friend's aboard, doesn't it?"

"You'd think so, but he's more of a mother hen than anything else."

"Good. You need it."

Jim's never been comfortable with needing anyone -- there's never been someone to lean on -- but he's been learning all sorts of things since following this stranger out of his dead-end life.

--

Bones is still outside when Jim finishes with the admiral, leaning up against the wall, arms crossed -- he always looks so annoyed, but not in the these-people-are-morons way Spock sports all the time. When the doors slide open, he pushes off and leans sideways, swinging an arm around to hide it behind his back.

"Official call, or were you playing with the communications equipment again?" he asks with a smirk, drawing out those southern vowels.

The fact that Bones has been drinking a bit does nothing to quell Jim's fantastic mood. In fact, it only adds to it. He walks up to his friend and claps him on the shoulder.

"Official call. We have a mission."

"A real mission, huh?" Bones follows Jim's lead away from the ready room and towards the bridge, then realizes where they're going and stashes something around the corner before they cross the threshold. "Oh, wow, you're serious."

"You think I'd joke about something like this, after the last two weeks we've had?" Jim calls over his shoulder, stepping onto the raised command platform. "We all need a little action."

"You should know," mutters Bones, following him.

"I heard that."

"You were meant to." As Jim sits, Bones stands beside him. "So, what does Starfleet Command have us doing? Escorting refugees? Saving the known universe? Oh, wait, we've done that one already."

"We'll be assisting negotiations on Katash."

"Negotiations? They're giving you a diplomatic mission?" Bones shakes his head. "Are they insane?"

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Bones."

"Don't get me wrong, Jim, I think you're a fine captain and all, but you're not exactly the most tactful guy."

"Tact?" Jim asks, looking up. "I've got loads of tact."

"That remains to be seen."

"Mr. Sulu, plot a course for the Viridian Sector, warp 3." He's on to other things, his attention zipping from Bones to the mission at hand and back again. "So, what did you want?" Jim asks.

"Oh, nothing that can't wait," teases Bones. "Just that Scotty managed to get some -- "

Chekov

"Don't even finish, I'm there." He stands quickly and moves to leave, then stops, remembering. "How long until we reach our destination?"

"Five hours, thirty-one minutes, and seventeen seconds, Keptin," answers Chekov.

"Good. See you then."

--

An hour in, Scotty, Bones, and Jim are joined by Uhura, her long dark hair hanging loose down her back over a plain uniform undershirt. She moves gracefully yet in time with the soft music permeating the recreation deck, swaying her way around tables to slide into an empty seat beside Scotty.

The Scotsman gives her a wide grin and holds out one of the brightly-colored bottles. "Ey, lady, have a drink."

She grabs the bottle from him and takes a long swig; the men at the table hold their breath for a few seconds, waiting.

Her face falls and blanches before Uhura lets out a loud, honking cough, hand coming up to cover her mouth as her so-called companions let out whooping laughter.

"Bit strong for yea?" laughs Scotty.

"Sorry, Uhura, we should have warned you," Bones comments, sliding a glass of water across the table. She waves it away, lets out a laugh of her own.

"Well, don't stop on my account," she smiles.

"We were just talking about possibly locking Jim in his quarters for tomorrow's mission in the interest of galactic relations," announces Bones.

Jim takes a swig of beer before answering. "I think you were discussing it. Scotty's totally on my side, aren't you, man?"

"Jus' so long as you find me somethin' exotic, Cap'in, I'll support you in any off-world adventure." And he tips his cup from his head in a sloppy salute.

But the conversation's got Uhura curious, and instead of teasing Jim or rolling her eyes at how cheap Scotty is, she leans in, deep brown eyes serious. "What mission?"

"You'll just have to wait for the brief like everyone else, Lt. Uhura," says Jim. But his eyes have that sparkle of mischief in them she remembers from that first night in the bar, when he seemed so aimless yet determined to win when presented with a problem. She'd never tell him, but it's something she's always admired in him, and always hopes he won't fail.

But, in this case, her lips are always sealed.

--

Bones notices the single beer bottle sitting in front of his friend, how there's still a third of the amber liquid remaining in the bottom of the old-style glass, and drags tired eyes up to his friend's face. Still bright and sharp, Jim lingers on the edge of the conversation instead of the center, laughing loudly when Uhura makes a particularly off-color joke. At his expense. But then, he wouldn't be Jim Kirk if he didn't let comments like that roll off his back. Ego the size of a planet, nothing negative can get through that atmosphere.

Only a little more escapes the bottle by the time Uhura yawns and heads up. And a sip or two when Scotty's so drunk, he can barely walk straight when he tries to make it to the door. Jim downs the rest of it during a long pause in the conversation, a comfortable silence between friends.

"Well," Jim announces, slamming the bottle down on the table. "I'm gonna catch some sleep before we arrive."

"Did I hear that right? You? Being reasonable?" He knows how it sounds, that bite in his tone that helped drive his wife away, but can't help it, never has been able to.

Jim shrugs. "She brings it out in me."

"She?"

He rolls his eyes and stands, stretching his arms above his head, motioning with his hands at the ship around them.

"Of course."

"You want to go with tomorrow?" Jim finally asks, leaning on the back of the chair. There's something expectant in his blue eyes, that same sparkle that drew Bones from the dorms or labs back at the Academy and into the bars for a loud night of drinking and hitting on girls. The very idea that Jim compares that to a diplomatic mission on a low-contact planet just makes him question this newfound maturity.

"Is there a reason for me to go?"

"Nope."

Bones leans back and seems to consider this for a moment, then shakes his head. "Naw, I think I'll stay here."

"On the ship? In space?"

"Better than being dematerialized and shot through space."

Jim rolls his eyes. "It's perfectly safe."

"Oh, sure. Just ask Admiral Archer's dog."

--

"This is so cool."

Having just materialized on a hillside has no effect on the bright, wide grin Jim's been sporting since waking up. His companions sigh in their own ways -- Uhura shakes her head, long black hair swinging back and forth in her pony tail, Spock cocks an eyebrow marginally. The man speaks with his eyebrows, a language Jim has only begun to understand. Maybe that's why Uhura's with him; he's another language to study and dominate.

"I do not understand your continued amusement," Spock says. He's got a tricorder out, their map, and begins leading the group -- the three officers plus a handful of security -- down off the hill onto the flat dirt of Thi'lik'ah.

The town's surrounded on three sides by high hills, the fourth giving way to wide, green plains that look like rows and rows of corn (but are probably some local, alien crop they'll be fed in a few hours) a forest far past that.

The only mar on the beautiful scene is the modern white building of the Asclepius Research Facility, home to hundreds of scientists, officers, and their families. Homes dot the hill around it, but word is, the Federation colonists co-exist peacefully with the native Katari, a humanoid race focused on inner growth and scientific exploration. This meeting is par for the course, the position of Mayor transitory between elders. In five years, Thi'ilk'ah has gone through seven mayors, all quick to demand more from their alien neighbors.

As far as Jim knows, they're still trying.

Catching up to his first officer, he sneaks a peek at the map. "C'mon, Spock! A new culture. Fascinating science."

Uhura looks like she desperately wants to say something, her lips pressed together to form a tight line, and he'd bet she's biting her cheek. Part of him wants to smirk at her newfound self-control, but the other knows the comment isn't a kind one, and she won't say it to him because of who he is. It's a departure from the girl he met four years ago, something he doesn't like very much.

Then again, he knew becoming captain was going to change things.

Doesn't mean he particularly likes it.

Sighing, he leans forward a bit to see her around Spock. "Just say it, Uhura."

"Say what?" she shoots back. "I think it goes without saying."

Ah, yes. He leans back, falling in step with Spock as they enter the town and make footprints in the alien equivalent of dirt, big boot prints erasing the native steps, overtaking them without a second thought.

--

Katashi meet in large halls that remind Jim of the Acadamy's lecture halls -- stadium seating, a sunken stage at the bottom -- except this one has a large table taking up most of the space. They're a race of equality, and all are welcome during diplomatic visits.

Doesn't mean they all participate.

When they're led through a door at the back of the room, there are only a dozen people seated in the the audience, a few of which look old enough to pass away by the time they're finished with the talks. Seems as though entertainment for the elderly's the same no matter the planet.

At the bottom of the stairs stands the mayor of Thi'lik'ah, an elder flanked on either side by highly-decorated guards, primitive spears held in their hands; it's a ceremonial weapon, not realistic, as phasers are strapped to their waists. The Katashi are humanoid, if a bit taller, with lanky, slim limbs, like a stick figure drawn by a child. A pale complexion exists in stark contrast to blood-red hair and bright crimson eyes; they're alien albinos, almost, strange and familiar at the same time.

Near them, the facility's commander and a few men of his own watch with bored feigned-interest.

"Welcome, Captain, to Katash," greets the one on the left, his outfit purple instead of red. Jim comes to a halt just in front of him, Uhura and Spock off his shoulders, their security escort behind them, and nods his head. "I am Di'ilk. May I present elder Ku'ah Shish."

"It's an honor to meet you, sir," Jim says in his most professional and respectful tone.

"Let us get started," Ku'ah Shish replies. He doesn't even hold out a hand for Jim to shake; in fact, he appears to not want anything to do with him or his team, just turns his back and takes a seat at the head of the table.

The others move quicker while Jim hangs back. Something has those senses that kept him out of the more deadly fights back home wondering exactly what Christopher Pike has gotten him into.

When he was fifteen, Jim Kirk rode his bike ten miles, made sure he didn't recognize any cars in the parking lot, and double checked his ID scanner hack. He'd tested it three hours earlier, before he left the house without a word (not that anyone cared, asked after him; Sam had left eons ago and rarely called), but, nervous, did so again.

He looked old for his age, the result of a growth spurt a few years before, and sauntered into the place like he owned it. Went right up to the bar, slid onto a stool, and flashed his biggest, widest grin, almost daring the bartender to scan him.

The guy never did. Gave him a beer on the house, didn't charge him, and told him never to come back.

But he felt eyes on him the whole time, like they knew what he was up to, knew everything about him, and were comfortable ignoring it for just one night. There would be other nights, other bars, other opportunities to teach this kid a lesson, but right then, it was as if they knew something he didn't.

Twirling a stylus between his fingers, Jim can't shake that feeling; that the elder and his advisor are thinking the same thing -- he isn't who he says he is, is a liar, is here to pull one over on them. In the few hours between joining the guys for a drink and arrival, he'd reviewed the last few years of reports coming out of the facility, done a bit of basic research on the planet and surrounding community.

Sitting at the table, drowning in data, Jim has never felt more out of his depth.

"Kirk, stop it," Uhura whispers harshly, leaning forward. She says it again, the second time catching Jim's attention, and he shifts back to the present, letting the stylus clatter to the tabletop. The sound catches everyone's attention, the elder's dark eyes sharp on the offending captain.

"Captain?" he asks.

A lesser man would shrink under the elder's intense, alien gaze, but not Jim. He squares his shoulders and leans forward, resting elbows on the tabletop, hands clasped; he's seen the pose on others and has always learned by example. "I need to discuss some things with my officers," he says, purposely leaving out the resident commander. "Some things have come to my attention that may benefit all of us. Is it alright to take a break?"

The elder doesn't even answer; he's up from the table with a flash of delicate embroidery before anyone can comment on his expression of contempt.

--

"Captain, I do not believe -- "

"Not here."

If the interruption annoys Spock, he doesn't let it show. Out in the hallway, the air is cooler, still, sheltered from the sun by heavy draperies. It curves around the central chamber, and Jim leads them away from the entrance, moving forever until they come to the end of the building.

"Captain?" This time, Uhura speaks up. "What's going on?"

He leans around the curve, then turns to Spock. "Can you pull up the reports from Asclepius for, uh, the last five years?"

"Surely you reviewed this information before arrival," Spock says, though he pulls out his tricorder anyway. "Perhaps if you did not partake in -- "

"It was one beer, Spock," Jim snaps. Uhura watches as he visibly composes himself, pushes all that raw passion and emotion back under the surface like an Olympic athlete wins a medal. "More specifically, who filed the reports."

Now isn't the time to try and understand where he's going with this. Spock pulls up the list. "Commander Larass has been filing reports with Starfleet Science Division for the past three years. His predecessor was a Commander David MacCross."

Jim nods. He's pacing, now, hand to his chin, eyes studying the pattern he's wearing into the floor. The draperies dampen the sound of his boots thumping on the uneven stone, of their voices, of anyone else. Uhura feels isolated, alone in a way space never seems to; there are always people about, the lights and automated services popping up to keep one from going crazy. Here, they're alone and at the mercy of Jim Kirk's idea of rational thinking.

"Pull up MacCross' service record," Jim says suddenly, stopping mid-stride. "How long has he been with Starfleet?"

"Seventeen years. His departure from the Asclepius Program was abrupt, and Commander Larass was promoted without the necessary pre-qualifications." His look at the end is pointed, brows just a bit furrowed, like you, they seem to say. But Jim's mind is working too fast to notice the subtle insult.

Three years. Sudden departure. Larass' odd promotion. The looks of the elder and his delegation. He remembers Pike's wording, how it sounded off when he relayed the orders the night before, eight hours before (as if the three hours of sleep Jim got could be called night).

"Uhura, is there any way the Enterprise could access the original request for diplomatic assistance?" His voice is rushed, blue eyes bright, fevered almost. Off Uhura's confused look, he waves his hands in the air as if that would help clarify his language. "You know, remotely."

"Since we've officially been assigned the mission, we should have access to the original data," she postulates. "It's a grey area, but I'm sure you have no problem with that."

He smirks. "Do it."

--

They're called back before Uhura's counterpart on the bridge can send through the audio.

They enter separate from Commander Larass, the man keeping his eyes on them as he moves to sit on Jim's left, forcing Spock to the other side. Before the Mayor enters, Larass leans in close to the captain, closer than is comfortable until his breath is hot on Jim's neck.

"Hello," Jim remarks, jumping a bit.

"You're here to represent the interests of the Federation, Captain," Larass says. "And as the representative here on Katash, it would be prudent to inform me of what exactly you felt you needed to run away from me to discuss."

"Let me remind you that I don't answer to you or the Science Division, and as a Commander, you should show a superior officer a little respect."

Larass lets out a bark of laughter. "You? You're not superior in any way. Just because you blackmailed a command out of Starfleet -- "

"We are ready to resume, Captain, guests."

The announcement cuts Larass off before he can finish his insult. Which, Jim reflects, is a good thing, as he may not have been able to control himself despite the circumstances. Being Captain for three months may have subdued him a bit, but hasn't changed his fundamental nature; what benefits him in battle may cause an incident here planet-side.

Waiting for the information is an odd sensation, and Jim casts a sidelong glance at Uhura, who simply shakes her head. Not yet. With her in the chair, retrieval would be instant, but she's here, instead, wishing to observe the native Katashi language, love for linguistics and language overriding her usual desire to remain on board the ship.

He can use that.

"Before we resume, Mayor Shish, I was wondering if I may ask a favor," Jim finds himself saying, his words drawing surprise from everyone -- this is a deviation from the script. The man inclines his head just a bit, and Jim takes that as permission to continue. "My communications officer here would like to study your native language; maybe you could spare some time after we're finished here?"

Looks pass between the Katashi. "Yes, yes, of course."

"Thank you," remarks a surprised Uhura. "I'd be be very honored."

Jim glances to Uhura -- anything? -- waiting for confirmation on what he knows in his gut is true. He wishes he could record this moment for Bones, this thought process of thinking before acting, or else his friend will never believe him capable.

The air hangs heavy, practically suffocating them, words spoken getting stuck in the distance between sides. When embarking on their five year mission, Jim imagined brilliant space battles, damsels in distress, even the occasional uncharted planet just waiting to be explored. And while he knew much of the Federation's work was diplomatic, he thought more of the position of the flagship's captain.

Maybe you get used to it. After time, you actually become interested in what's going on, in the double talk of diplomats, how nothing is actually said. Jim has never enjoyed staying still, seeking out speed in any form, going as fast as he can; this whole diplomatic process is the very antithesis of his normal mode of operating.

A beep draws his attention to the communicator on his belt. With the same slight of hand that allowed him to slack off during boring lectures (and why does he still compare life to the academy?), he slides the device from his side and flips it open in his lap. The message looms in large white letters.

No transmission from Katash recorded by Starfleet Command.

Damn it.

Jim slams the communicator closed with the grace of a running elephant and shoves it back on his belt.

"You didn't call us here, did you, Mayor Shish?" he remarks, eyes sliding to Larass for a fraction of a second, then back on Shish. "You usually go through these negotiations with the station's commander, asking for more supplies or whatever else you need, let them know you're in power down here, and that's it. So why, this time, would you suddenly require the presence of a Federation captain?" He's standing, now, hands on the back of the chair, blue eyes wild as his mind works.

"You know only the host planet can request diplomatic assistance," Larass tosses over his shoulder at Jim.

"And we checked that," Jim replies. "Seems Starfleet has no record of the Katashi sending any message, diplomatic or otherwise. Which begs the question -- who made it look like they had?"

--

Sliding behind an upturned table, Jim narrowly misses losing his head. He glances at Spock -- thanks! -- before stronger phaser bursts burn through the thick wood-like table they've taken refuge behind, sizzling in the wall behind them.

"I recommend we find alternate shelter."

"Really? I thought we'd stay here a bit longer," shoots Jim.

"That would be illogical, as this table will not remain intact for long."

"That was sarcasm, Spock. How can you spend all this time around humans and still not get it?"

"This is not the time -- "

Jim sighs and ducks under the fire before Spock can finish his attempt at pointing out the obvious. He weaves and bobs, somersaults at a point, just to get to the other side of the expansive meeting room, past rows of upturned, charred chairs and bodies. He catches sight of one of his, down, eyes already losing color, greying out -- his stomach turns and he shoves it to the back of his mind. Deal with it later, Jim.

He finds refuge behind a row of chairs and taps his communicator. "Kirk to Enterprise. What the hell is taking so long? Get us out of here!"

Scotty's voice is tiny, his words larger. "You're movin' around to much. You ever think about stayin' still when we're tryin' to beam ya?"

"Sorry I can't accommodate you, but we're under attackhere!"

Spock slams into the chairs next to him, the arm of his blue uniform shirt singed from a close call.

"We will run out of cover in approximately four minutes and seventeen seconds," he reports. "Lt. Uhura has found a back exit and is covering our route."

Jim nods. "Lead the way."

He's never seen Uhura shoot a phaser, but as an officer, she's had the same training as him. As Spock checks for an opening, Jim hopes Uhura has aim as good as her linguistic skills because he's effectively putting his life in her hand.

3, 2, 1. They're sprinting across the chaos of the traditional Katari Meeting Hall, leaping over chair and furniture and bodies, ducking here and there as Uhara lets off shots from an unseen location. Both whirl and shoot, their shots met with cries from the Katari covering the main exit of the room, across from where they are.

Spock makes it first, passing through the doorway. He's greeted by Uhura, who's deep brown eyes linger on him for just a second -- a second! -- Jim leaps for the opening, hears a shot coming for him, and prays it isn't set to kill.