I have to say, I've been writing and posting fanfiction for about 8 years now, and the reviews I've gotten here for this fic have been some of the most nourishing and helpful I've ever received, especially over the last five days, when things haven't been very bright. So thank you ever so much. I've decided to reply after this chapter so I can write big, long, gushing letters.

And to those reading but not reviewing, thank you for doing so anyway. God knows I'm a terrible reviewer myself. ;)

So this is it – the end. Though I've already gotten requests for a sequel of sorts, it'll have to wait, as I already have embarked on my next fanfic-writing adventure in this wonderfully shiny fandom.

Chapter Eight.

Spock commands, sets them on course for Starbase 47, reads over section reports for the entire incident, and writes his own. Nyota goes to his quarters as soon as McCoy releases him, his face stitched together, bandaged, more lurking under the crisp blue uniform tunic. She cares for him, actually brews him some Vulcan tea and pretends to enjoy it with him. If she weren't exceptional at xenolinguistics, Nyota would make an amazing diplomat.

He appreciates it, sips the tea, lets her dote all over him. The manner, entirely human, reminds him of being sick as a child, when his mother would hover and care and tuck him in. The comparison doesn't go farther than that, though, because she cares for him in other ways when the ship switches to night mode.

They've both been looked over by the rescued scientists, treated, poked and prodded as the only other patient has been still for days. Spock enjoys the exchange, mining for information; Nyota keeps a stiff upper lip and does her duty.

Four hours out from Starbase 47, they get a directive to proceed to Earth. The change is completely understandable, and tacks another eighteen hours onto their trip, if they proceed at maximum warp. He checks in with Doctor McCoy before going down to warp three, giving them a couple days to mend and speak and figure out what will be in the official report.

When he's fully recovered, Nyota sits at the end of his bed, uncharacteristically shy, eyes on her folded hands. "Spock," she finally speaks up. "We need to talk."

PADDs litter the small desk afforded his quarters, and he places one on the surface before turning to her.

"I am...enjoying our relationship, but, when we get back – "

He holds up a hand, stopping her. "The situation was inevitable, Nyota. If you would look at it logically, you would realize that one being providing cover in such a small area would have roughly a 25% chance of failure when not distracted. Thus, whatever occurred was not the fault of...this."

She nods, and goes back to being the strong, intelligent woman who caught his eye so long ago. "Thank you."

A day out from Earth, Spock graces the medbay with his presence.

His arrival interrupts a good game of cards McCoy has going with a few nursing techs, the enlisted crew scrambling to appear productive in front of the ship's first officer, ignoring McCoy's protests. When they've scuttled away, McCoy shoves the cards into a drawer and leaves his office to meet Spock.

"Spock," he drawls, "what a pleasant surprise. I don't really have anything to report. No change from yesterday, everything's going well."

"If this is an attempt to dissuade me from my request, it is not working."

"Your request?"

"You have kept the captain under sedation since he collapsed, but I believed his recovery, while nowhere near complete, would have him awake by now."

"Oh," breathes McCoy, crossing his arms, "you want me to wake him up, is that it? What happened to deferring to my medical opinion?"

"While I am more than capable of running this ship, there are several matters needing attending to. I can, however, supervise his movements, if that is a requirement you insist upon."

McCoy lets out a laugh. "It's not you I'm worried about."

Spock frowns, not comprehending. McCoy sighs; he knew it'd come to this. While he knows Jim's tendencies, the rest of the crew – including the senior bridge crew – have only inklings, flashes into the heart of what makes up Jim Kirk. The sedation, while forced and not medically necessary, is all that is keeping Jim from getting up, pushing himself before he's ready, doing more damage.

"Doctor," Spock says after a moment. "I understand your concern. Our time on Katash gave me new insight into the captain's psyche. However, I must insist."

McCoy knows Starfleet Regulations as well as Spock, at least when it applies to medical issues. And while he'd love to tell Spock to shove it, he can't. He knows it. Conceding feels hollow, and he steps aside, turning his back on Spock as he moves to Jim's side and adjusts a few numbers on the large screen above the bed monitoring his vital signs.

"Ten minutes," McCoy tells Spock. "Then again, who knows? This is Jim Kirk we're talking about."

Four hours after he floated to the surface, the world changing from distorted waves to that sudden, breathtaking awareness he'd been missing, Bones clears him to move around – accompanied, of course.

If they think he didn't dream, they're wrong; Jim's mind was filled with what if scenarios. Ever since he learned of the alternate reality – that he is the deviation from the original time line – his dreams have been like those Choose Your Own Adventure books he found on disk at the school library, where he is the character on the page, navigating through a pre-destined life only to suddenly be caught in an avalanche.

Swept away by the current of snow, the threat of death a constant pressure on his back.

Captaining is no different. He has to think five choices ahead, consider all the options, the consequences. For once, he's thankful Sam taught him chess when they were bored during the summer when Jim was eight, the board and pieces easy to carry to the river on the rear of their property, balanced easily on high boulders.

When he's ready to move around, dressed down in an undershirt and pants – he doesn't miss the irony each time he's off duty, if only technically – Bones hovers at his side, monitoring his vitals every five seconds. Spock easily matches Jim's shortened, slower stride, as they move through the ship to the brig, a hallway of highly secured rooms of bright, blinding, hyper-hospital white.

"Has anyone talked to him?" asks Jim. Guards move aside, stand at attention against the wall, allowing the trio to pass.

"Not since you brought him aboard," Spock answers.

Jim attempts a smile, but it doesn't rise to his eyes. They remain a dull blue, an Earth sky through smog, tired and worn at the edges. "Good. I want the first crack at him."

"As is your prerogative as captain."

He doesn't need to be reminded.

Seated inside his cell, Di'ilk is rumpled and bruised, clothing in the same condition as when Jim knocked him out and beamed him aboard. At the sight of the captain, the Katashi leaps to his feet and rushes as close to the force-field as he can without getting zapped. In anger, his red eyes are the color of blood, the whites crowded by bursting veins.

"You," he seethes. "As a Federation citizen, I demand – "

"You're exactly where you belong, Di'ilk," Jim quickly interrupts. "As captain of this vessel, I am officially placing you under arrest for conspiracy against the Federation, possession of stolen codes, attempted murder of twelve Federation scientists, as well as myself. Do you have anything to say?"

Di'ilk remains silent.

"While you originally were to be transported to Starbase 47, pursuant to regulation requiring residents of a quadrant to be remanded to custody at the nearest Starfleet installation, Starfleet Command has requested that you be transported back to Earth for trial."

"Trial?" scoffs the alien. "You think this will get that far? I've been a diplomat my entire life, Captain. I know how the system works. Yes, I will be punished, but it won't change anything."

"You admit to working in tandem with another?" Spock inquires.

The answer is laughter, deep and throaty. Anger dissolved, Di'ilk retreats into his cell, returning to his cot. "There is always another. No one is alone in this universe, Vulcan. As soon as you take out one, another rises in their place."

To McCoy's immense satisfaction, Jim spends the rest of their time to Earth in his quarters.

An hour out, Spock pushes to maximum warp, sending McCoy to wake the captain and make sure he's in well enough shape for a meeting with Admiral Chandra, in person, immediately upon arrival.

He's been worried, sure. Ever since Spock and Uhura beamed aboard with a half-dead and bleeding Jim held awkwardly between them, McCoy's been on-edge, nerves tight, wanting to grab that bottle of bourbon in his bottom drawer to calm the hell down. No one's worried him like this in a long time; for a second, he realizes this is how he'd feel if Joanna was hurt, and that pull towards a drink becomes stronger, but he pushes it away.

Instead, he's standing at the door to Jim's quarters, hitting the chime. The computer comes back, in that cool, detached, yet beautiful female voice – where'd they find her? – that the occupant has requested not to be disturbed unless it is an emergency, and McCoy enters his medical override.

They slide open.

Inside, the air is cool and dark, the only illumination streaking stars outside the observation window over the bed. The light they cast on the sleeping figure only works to bleach out his skin even more; Jim's a ghost in this big metal tin can touring the stars, a figment born from the very void they're working to explore.

"Could ya stop watching me sleep? It's creepin' me out," calls a mumbled voice from the bed. Jim shifts and groans, throwing an arm over his eyes. "What do you want, anyway?"

"Well, we're about to reach Earth, and you have a date with an admiral," Bones answers, rounding the bed. He sits on the side and pulls out his scanner, eyes finally adjusted to the low light.

Jim rolls his eyes, but doesn't push the device away this time.

"Great. You've finally grasped the importance of letting me do my damn job. If only you'd figured that out a few days ago, we might have avoided this whole mess."

"Left Katash like we were ordered to, and let all those scientists die?"

McCoy tucks the scanner away. "When you put it that way," he starts, but doesn't finish.

"How much time do I have?" Jim asks, pushing up onto his elbows. The move pulls a bit, and his face shows discomfort, but it's nowhere near what he experienced on the planet. His voice is still rough with sleep – and thank God for small miracles that he slept at all – movements sluggish.

"If you're not feeling up to it, I can always tell the admiral to screw off."

His friend shakes his head. "Naw. Better to get this over with sooner than later." He pauses, thinking, and scratches the side of his neck. "This isn't something we should let wait. And who the hell told Spock to take so damn long getting here? You know the shit I'm gonna get for locking that guy up that long before formally arresting him?"

"And who's fault is that?"

Jim narrows his eyes. "I was kinda busy at the time."

"And anyway, Spock was technically in command, seeing as that I medically relieved you the second you collapsed on the bridge."

Scooting up to sit properly, Jim stretches his arms above his head as far as is comfortable, and yawns, jaw popping. "Really? Huh. Word is, you kept me sedated longer than necessary."

"Depends on who says what is necessary."

"Don't do it again," Jim says, pointing at him. "That's an order, okay? You lay the cards out, I'll listen to you."

"Sure you will."

"I slept, didn't I?"

The doctor laughs. "There's a first time for everything, Jim."

Jim joins in the laughter for a moment, the joy turning into a coughing fit as dust still in his lungs still works it's way out. His torso shutters, tears threatening to leak from his eyes, and when he's finished, his eyes slide up to meet McCoy's, vulnerable.

For all the times he's wanted the kid to let his mask slip, he regrets it as soon as he takes in everything written under the surface. There's too much, too much for all at once, and it frightens him a bit.

How can someone so young have so much written there?

They sit, locked like that, for half a minute, McCoy not wanting to be the one to break contact. He takes it for what it is – trust, thanks, and a new understanding between friends. Then Jim swings his feet over the side of the bed, now sitting next to McCoy, and claps him on the shoulder before almost shoving him off the bed.

"How's that rash treating you?" the doctor asks, smirking as he gathers himself up from the floor.

Jim glares. "I've gotta get ready."

Making his way to the door, McCoy grumbles, "Nothing I haven't seen, you know."

"Let a man keep some degree of dignity!"

"You have some left?"

The doors slide shut, leaving McCoy in the vacuum of an empty hallway.

Admiral Chandra is not nearly as imposing in person as on the viewscreen, though that may have to do with being larger-than-life when projected on a floor-to-ceiling screen. His office holds vestiges of past travels, statues and baskets and odd objects Jim can't even begin to name. He wonders if this is his future, sitting behind a desk, treasures from a richer past surrounding him?

God, that fate sounds worse than Iowa.

Wearing his dress uniform, Jim stands at attention just inside the admiral's door, arms attached to his sides, chin up, waiting for the older man to say something. Just being here feels odd, and it isn't having to adjust to real gravity, opposed to the artificial force he's grown used to on the ship. Chandra's still attached to the Academy, and his window overlooks the green campus near the bay; it reminds Jim of his time there, of how it ended, of how close he was to losing it all.

"Captain, please, take a seat," Chandra finally speaks.

"Thank you, sir." He eases himself into the chair, trying not to let his fatigue show.

"On behalf of the Federation, I want to thank you for uncovering this deception and bringing the perpetrator here to Earth," he says.

Say thank you and get out of here, Jim thinks. But if he ever listened to that voice in his head, he would have driven away from the Riverside Shipyard instead of towards, or never considered it at all. "I'm sorry, did you say perpetrator? As in singular? Sir, forgive me for saying so, but I don't believe he's working alone."

"And I will take that into consideration, Captain," Chandra continues.

"Consideration?" Jim speaks up. "Sir, you need to get to the bottom of this. The people Di'ilk is working with were willing to not only destroy a Federation scientific facility, but sacrifice the Katashi people in order to reach their ultimate goal. Isn't it our responsibility to protect these people?"

"Not if it is an internal matter."

It takes all Jim's self-control to keep from launching from his chair and shoving the admiral into the wall. "An internal matter?"

"Federation interests were represented and defended, quite admirably, I must add, by you and your crew – even if these actions were against orders," Chandra continues. "Now, any threat against the Katashi people by their own government is not our place. We keep the peace between planets, Captain Kirk, not on them. Their internal matters are their own."

Squelching his anger, Jim's voice is tight when he speaks. "You cannot believe these actions were conducted by the Katashi themselves. We have the testimony of Commander Larass stating he acted – "

"Commander Larass was acting out of duress. Incorrectly, yes, but not as a representative of the Federation, only of himself."

Jim continues despite the interruption. "Di'ilk himself admitted – "

"Did he say who? Or did he allude, Kirk?" Chandra shakes his head. "It is a very fine distinction, but one we must observe. Whatever Di'ilk may or may not have said before his formal arrest – an arrest that could have come sooner – cannot be entered into the record other than through your testimony. What exactly can you specify? That he taunted you?"

"Nothing, sir," Jim says with clipped words, clenched teeth.

"The research rescued from Di'ilk's person will be turned over to Starfleet Medical for further development. And the scientific team you rescued will be continuing their work with them. The facility has been evacuated and all Federation interests removed. Nothing overall was lost, and you uncovered a plot against us. You should be proud, Captain; not many have ever achieved so much, especially in their first year."

A chime sounds on the computer off to the left. Their time is over; Chandra isn't speaking any more on this subject, no matter how much Jim wishes they could. Why is it whenever he knows, deep down, what is right, it get buried by politics and orders and all this command bullshit?

"Thank you, sir," Jim manages out before standing, turning on a heel, and leaving the room. Outside the door, he turns and slams a fist into the wall, leaving a dent that causes the secretary to squeak and clasp her hands over her mouth. He gives her a dashing smile as he leaves the outer office and emerges into the natural traffic of Starfleet Headquarters.

They sit, collected on the social deck, that bottle from Bone's desk sitting in the center of the table. Jim and Bones and Uhura, with a promise from Scotty to arrive as soon as he finishes some more unscheduled upgrades, the engineer busy with parts obtained during their stay around Earth.

Bones is expected, Uhura is not. Jim doesn't know why she decided to join them, but welcomes her addition to their nightly gathering, this decompression time among friends. Then again, he doesn't know when he started paring up friend with Uhura. She's welcome, though, with her silky black hair trailing loose down her back and attitude to try anything Scotty throws at them at least once.

When she arrives, Bones has already had two shots, Jim three. As he downs another, she frowns; ever since they embarked on this journey, he's never had more than a beer or two, wanting to be prepared and sober enough if something requires his attention. This, she notes, is a deviation, just the one she herself needs.

As Jim downs his fourth shot, Bones rests a hand on his arm, his free one grabbing the shot class and sliding it across the table to Uhura. "Jim, maybe that's enough."

"C'mon, Bones, I can handle it. What's going to happen out here?" he remarks, motioning to the floor to ceiling windows at his right. "We're close to Earth and about five other ships. Let them handle it."

Uhura frowns halfway through pouring her own shot. "What happened with the admiral?"

A note, a promise; I'll do what I can to help. But that isn't the admiral she's talking about.

"I'll tell you what happened – bureaucracy. This whole thing," Jim shakes his head. "It all was a waste of our time. The people on Katash are still going to suffer and whoever Di'ilk was working for – " Uhura's smile and small pearl of laughter cut him off mid-rant, his expression darkening. "Is this funny to you, Lt. Uhura?"

"No, of course not, Captain. The suffering of the Katashi people is unfortunate, and I feel for them. But this is how the system works. You'd know that if you didn't sleep through Law & Ethics every week."


She feels for him; all that raw passion and need to do what's right no matter what the cost. Sitting there, reading his face, the way he uses his words, the varying tone, Uhura sees that, most of the time, the cost is paid by Jim himself.

"Yes, Jim. Unfortunate. The Federation keeps the peace between worlds, but we can't go in and impose our values on every planet just because we feel it's right." When he opens his mouth to reply, she holds up a hand. "We can, however, make sure to monitor any transmissions coming from the planet, and keep tabs on supply ships. Just because we're not allowed to directly help, it doesn't mean we can't in our own way."

Jim smirks. "Why, Uhura, are you suggesting we bend the rules?"

"In some circumstances, it can be the right thing. But don't expect me to start agreeing with all your insane ideas," she adds quickly.

"Insane is putting it lightly," grumbles Bones. "I don't think a word exists for the idiocy of this guy." He jerks a thumb in Jim's direction.

"Hey! I get the job done. Is it my fault everyone doubts me?" smiles Jim.

"I wouldn't say that," Uhura comments softly.

"You can be persuasive, at times," adds Bones.

Jim considers this, motioning for the tending server to bring over a Bud Classic. By the time Scotty arrives, the three of them are knee deep in one of Jim's more humorous adventures, tears streaking Uhura's face, she's laughing so hard. Scotty slides into an empty chair and pours some of the newest stuff into a few glasses; Jim refuses, opting to suck on his beer.

Outside, the stars sparkle, shinning beacons leading them toward the future.