Title: As Sparks Fly Upward

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Rating: PG-15/T

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world is not.

Summary: A few months after the destruction of Vulcan, Captain Kirk accepts an unorthodox mission from Starfleet Intelligence that involves an incognito mission across the Neutral Zone to investigate rumors of kidnapped scientists. 28,700 words.

Warnings: Some violence; suggestion of past torture/rape of third parties.

Notes: ST:XI team-fic, slightly AU, from Kirk's POV with background canon pairing. Can be read with only that much Star Trek knowledge, but also includes plot/character details from several TOS episodes (including "The Conscience of the King" and "The Enterprise Incident") and authorized novels (especially "The Pandora Principle", "My Enemy, My Ally" and "Star Trek Academy: Collision Course"). NOT related to my missing scene fics.

Acknowledgements: To ileliberte, my fabulous artist (art links in profile); maevebran and avamclean, for beta work and hand-holding; blcwriter, for influencing my Jim and Bones; taraljc, for inspiring me to include Number One; and azarsuerte, for issuing the request that led to this plot idea in the first place. Fic title from Job 5:7; chapter titles from Star Trek XI transcript.

Chapter 1: Receiving a Distress Signal

"So," Jim said, grinning in the face of the perturbed expression Starfleet's new Chief of Operations was displaying on the ready room vidscreen. "I see Mallory finally read you in on my full file."

Not that there was anything particularly unusual about the upstart Captain James Kirk inspiring that reaction from Admiral Christopher Pike, but there was normally a bit more amusement mixed in with the frustration. Sometimes appreciation, too; Jim knew enough about Pike to know that the man sometimes saw himself in Jim, as much as he'd ever seen reflections of Jim's father. Today, though, Pike looked about ready to spit magbolts-- and Jim could think of nothing he might have done in the last week or so to earn it.

The end of Enterprise's shakedown cruise had gone as smoothly as a small town's worth of energetic young geniuses and hard workers could arrange, and as far as Jim knew there'd been no unexpected diplomatic fallout from their few stopovers along the way. It had to be their new orders-- and the pricking of his thumbs told him those orders must have come by way of Intelligence.

He'd wondered when that particular shoe would drop; he'd known Pike wouldn't be pleased, especially given his role as Jim's sponsor at the Academy, regarding what he would see as an extended deception. It was bound to happen sooner or later, though, given the admiral's new responsibilities, and the timing-- when Jim and Enterprise were conveniently between missions but still out of immediate reach of Earth-- could hardly have been better, from a purely self-preservational point of view.

The implications for Federation security were a little less amusing, though. Mallory had all but promised Jim a few years off for good behavior. Not in so many words, of course, but he'd sure as shit implied it. How else was Jim supposed to have interpreted the commendation and promotion that had led to his post as Captain aboard Enterprise? Hero or not, the Federation was hardly in the habit of putting its junior covert agents-- never mind raw cadets-- in the center seats of its starships.

"It does explain a few things that have always bothered me about you," Pike acknowledged, his words short and clipped with irritation.

"Only a few things?" Jim asked, then winced, the brief upsurge of amusement slipping away as quickly as it had risen. "Sir."

Okay, so it really wasn't the time to joke about the wool he'd pulled over everyone's eyes with the blessing of the Department of General Services; especially when that wool might have been fraying in places he hadn't yet noticed. His obnoxiously gregarious, more lucky than brilliant persona had been sword and shield for him in more than one tight spot over the last few years, and he'd hoped to get a little more mileage out of it before the universe at large took notice. Maybe if he hadn't been facing off with authority figures all his life who took one look at his face and thought they knew everything about him, he'd have been a little more eager to inspire respect under his own name; as it was, he got more enjoyment out of the triumph of stepping over those who underestimated him than he would from actually having to publicly live up to the standard he aspired to. When his actual reputation caught up with his put-on bravado-- as it was rapidly doing-- he'd lose a lot of flexibility of action.

"Your educational history, for one," Pike replied, as though Jim hadn't spoken. "Your occupational history, for another. Both were fairly ordinary for a farm kid from Iowa until you were about thirteen-- at which point they became patchier and more inconsistent than I would expect from someone capable of aptitude scores as high as yours. Especially given the intensity with which you approached your coursework once you arrived at the Academy." He snorted then, and shook his head. "I wrote it off as insufficient motivation at the time, and wondered how the hell I'd managed to get through to you when no one else had. I guess now I know. It wasn't an accident that I met you in that bar, was it?"

"You, as in Captain Pike? Or you, as in the nearest representative of Starfleet authority?" Jim shrugged. "I knew there'd be a flock of new recruits passing through the shipyard that week, with a few middies and officers in tow. Joining them wasn't exactly in the cards, though; I was thinking more along the lines of having some fun with them. Until you picked me up off the floor and decided to knock some sense into me." He chuckled. "You should have seen the look on Mallory's face when I stepped off the shuttle in San Francisco under my own name." He'd certainly got an earful from the DGS operative at the time; but after the shock of his enlistment had settled, Mallory had been fairly quick to see the advantages of his agent's new position, something Jim had counted on once he'd had time to rationalize and shore up that impulsive decision with a little complementary logic.

Pike's eyebrows flew up at that, the tight lines bracketing eyes and mouth fading in the face of Jim's assurance. "You'd been working for him for eight years at that point," he said, more statement than question-- asking for more information, but still leaving Jim an easy way out of responding.

Not that Jim would take it. Of all the authority figures he had dealt with over the years, Pike had been the first to look at him and see not the tool Tarsus IV and his own driven mind had made of him, nor merely the arrogant undeserving offspring of one of Starfleet's sainted Lost; he'd treated Jim as any other bright kid who could maybe be something, both for his own betterment and the 'Fleet's, if only he was given sufficient motivation. A subtle distinction, maybe-- that Pike had dared, rather than demand or pity-- but one that had meant the world to Jim at the time, and still did, to a degree.

"More or less," Jim acknowledged. "Depends on whether you count from when they questioned me the first time--" he tipped his chin in the vague direction of the colony world where his childhood had ended, still not quite able to casually name it even now, "--or from two years later, when I finally tracked 'Anton Karidian' though a bunch of phony records and civilian databases and spammed the 'net at Starfleet Headquarters with everything I'd found."

He'd had little else to do, still furious and haunted by what had happened but unable to discuss any of it with anyone outside of the ridiculously unhelpful 'Fleet-mandated therapy sessions. The Starfleet officers and aid workers who'd brought food and phasers two weeks too late had said the gag orders and wiped records were for the survivors' own safety, in the event that any of Kodos' missing lieutenants decided to take revenge; Jim had known better, known they'd identified that burned body much too quickly, and decided that the silence was only allowing Kodos a better chance at getting away clean. In the evenings, when the house had sat silent-- Sam burying himself at university, Mom hiding amongst the stars again, and Frank out with his buddies at the nearest bar-- Jim had hacked into the Riverside secure access point and set about the seemingly insurmountable task of proving 'Fleet wrong.

"That's when your grades took a dive-- until you suddenly applied to test out of your graduation requirements the day after your sixteenth birthday," Pike observed.

Jim inclined his head. "Yep." That had been a requirement of Mallory's; he'd broken enough laws with his little hacking spree-- and left enough tracks behind in the doing-- to have made a mark on his record that would have made his other youthful indiscretions look like a kiss on the cheek, car wreck, underage drinking and all. Instead, the DGS operative had given Jim a few ultimatums-- and an outlet. Legal emancipation, his own motorbike, and unmonitored access (supposedly, not that he'd believed them) to all the Starfleet-related reading material he could get his electronic fingertips on had been fair enough trade, to his teenage mind, for a boss issued by Federation Intelligence that he'd had to refer to by the then-odious epithet of sir. Especially since most of what Mallory had set him to had continued to fall under the loose heading of 'proving Starfleet wrong'.

Jim had known even then, of course, that what he was doing was more in the line of pruning than punishing; and that the responsibility for Kodos' actions could only be laid at the feet of the rebel 'governor' himself and his lackeys, not the relief ships that had come too late to actually relieve any of the starving colonists or the authorities that had cut their orders. Still. He'd never once, not since he'd seen the first laser burn through the chest of a child his own age in the name of 'culling the weak that the strong may live', contemplated putting on a uniform and-- and maybe being the one who came too late. Or-- in the dreams he'd had for months after finally getting his hands on the classified Kelvin footage and listening to his father's last moments-- being the one who never came at all.

Pike's ultimatum in the bar had forcefully brought to his attention something he'd somehow managed to avoid noticing during all those years as one of Mallory's pet 'retrieval specialists'. It was one thing to sit around and throw jeers and suggestions from the sidelines, but if you really wanted a thing done right? Better get off your ass and do it yourself.

Something Starfleet's lost, Pike had prodded him, wearing much the same expression he was wearing now.

It hadn't so much been the specific words, even; just that appeal. That belief. That conviction, despite his own share of trials; Jim hadn't been shy about poking into the man's file after that encounter. Those words had got under Jim's skin, like a burr, and spurred him to action. Made him move first and think later-- which is when Mallory'd always said Jim was at his most dangerous, despite all the man's lectures about proper planning and preparation. So he'd gone with it-- and never looked back since.

"I'm starting to wonder how much of a challenge the Academy actually was for you," Pike said, conclusions still visibly knocking one another over like dominoes behind shrewd blue eyes.

Jim shrugged. "Enough. I didn't have much of anything else to do those three years, except for the occasional holiday when only Bones was around to notice if I picked up a little extracurricular action. Which is why I'm a little surprised Mallory's talking to you now; I'm not exactly background noise anymore. Something pretty earth-shattering must be going down if he's calling on us again."

He almost winced at the wording that had slipped out; almost winced again at Pike's expression. Yeah; the adjective 'earth-shattering' was a little less hyperbolic than it had been before Nero, especially to those present for the catastrophic events at Vulcan-- but it also served as a newly emphatic measurement of threat. And "us" could easily be a qualifier for the entire ship and crew, not a more specific reference. There were still some secrets that weren't Jim's own to tell.

"Not quite," Pike confirmed with a grim frown, "but close." He hit a few keys on a console down out of range of the vidscreen's pickup, then nodded to Jim as Enterprise's computer beeped in response. "I've transmitted the orders to your console, with full encryption; but the gist is-- a certain old friend of yours has been monitoring for word of what his former, ah, dance partner's people have been up to, and Starfleet believes your expertise will be needed in defusing a few potential problems before they grow any worse."

Romulans, Jim thought, easily deciphering the elliptical reference. "Understood, sir," he said, acknowledging receipt with a nod.

"Due to the nature of the assignment there is no specific timeline defined for the mission," Pike continued. "Yorktown will rendezvous with you to provide further information, but after that you'll be on your own; no Starfleet ship is authorized to proceed beyond the designated boundaries."

No chasing them into the Neutral Zone, even if they fire first, Jim translated that in his head, then narrowed his eyes as he picked up on the loophole. No Starfleet ship. Interesting.

He punched up the orders quickly on his console, narrowing the vid view onto the right half of the screen as the text scrolled up the left. As he'd thought: the destination Mallory had designated was not only across the near border of the Neutral Zone but beyond it, in an area of space a ship as recognizable as Enterprise would never be able to reach unobserved given the current tensions between their governments. The suggested route passed remarkably close to a Federation planet, however, with a current event eminently suitable for cover and considerable civilian traffic... including any number of small, nondescript cargo ships.

Well. Jim supposed that answered his long unasked question about Starfleet's wisdom in allowing him exactly the command crew he'd asked for, no matter how relatively young or inexperienced they were in comparison with all the deserving, seasoned officers who would have been given the positions otherwise. Because they weren't intended as just a command crew. Given their generally high skill levels, the degree of trust and camaraderie already existing between the lot of them must have been deemed more important than their ages or records. Jim wondered idly how many of them had been aware of the Admiralty's intentions, and bared his teeth in a predatory, anticipatory grin. He'd been looking forward to the Captain thing in its own right, as a challenge worth taking up and doing right; but it looked like he was going to be allowed the best of both worlds.

"That's not going to be a problem," he said, mind already ticking over possibilities as he looked back up at the Admiral.

"Glad to hear it, Captain," Pike replied. Then he softened his expression a little, worried lines forming between his brows. "Be safe out there, Jim. Bring her back to me in one piece. And don't think I won't be expecting a thorough explanation when you get back."

"I'll let you buy me a beer in Riverside," Jim said, by way of acknowledgement. "I hear the new Kelvin's about half-done; she ought to be ready for a tour by the time we make orbit again."

"I'll look forward to it," Pike nodded, then shut down the connection. "Pike out."

Jim tapped his fingers on the edge of the ready room desk for several moments, contemplating the orders that had flowed to fill his screen when the Admiral's image had disappeared. Federation records listed the system only as 872 Trianguli; careful notation attributed to one 'Ambassador Selek' further highlighted the fifth world, named Thierrull in the Rihannsu tongue. In Standard, it translated as Hellguard. Purported source of both a deadly antipersonnel weapon, and its cure; and possible current home of several hundred kidnapped Vulcans.

To a people currently numbered in the tens of thousands, the crews of the four missing ships represented a significant fraction of the overall population. Their disappearances had gone nearly unremarked for many months prior to Nero's attack; even Vulcan ships were subject to the same risk of sudden, accidental catastrophe as any other, and there had been no distress signals, no warning buoys, no indications of foul play along their intended routes. If not for Selek's insight into similar events during his original timeline, they might have been mourned as simply one more set of pinprick tragedies against a larger backdrop of loss. As it was, however, even if they weren't where Selek's information suggested they might be-- even if the 'rumored experimentation' carefully hedged around in logical terminology weren't true, which could easily be the case given the divergence in the timelines-- no one in the Federation was about to pass up the slightest chance of retrieving the vanished scientists.

That the chance was slight, Jim had no doubt, viewed through an objective lens. At least, if one defined the mission as 'successfully rescuing the kidnapped crews without loss of life or provocation of war with the Romulan Star Empire'. It read like a real life Kobayashi Maru. In which case, the DGS had picked exactly the right crew to carry out those orders. Even if they failed at the second part of those orders, he was bound and determined that they'd carry out the first.

He shut down his screen with a quick tap of his fingers; then let them linger against the dark, slick material for a moment, staring at his reflection. Vivid blue eyes alight with the spark of a new challenge gazed back at him, the rest of his features obscured by a flare of light from the overhead panels; the suggestion of a sharp smile and firmed jaw over a blur of gold fabric framed the bottom of the image, the tunic's color nearly clashing with the close-cut dark blond curls he'd inherited from his mother.

Bones was going to take one look at Jim and know something interesting was in the works, and the rest wouldn't be far behind him. So be it, he thought, and rose from his chair, grin widening.

He exited the ready room onto the bridge, then stopped quietly outside the door, observing the bustle of the Alpha watch from the alcove between consoles as the panels swished quietly shut behind him. Uhura looked up at him from her post almost before they had finished closing; she'd been the one to pass Pike's call in to him, and had undoubtedly been anticipating their new orders ever since. He let his grin speak for him, and watched her straighten unconsciously in her chair.

Jim had worked with a lot of silver-tongued swift talkers in his time with Mallory's people; more sentient chameleons than he could count, an extremely diverse range of beings speaking an extremely diverse range of languages. Uhura embodied all of the linguistic talent of every grifter he'd ever met in her one gorgeous body; and if she was perhaps a little too fierce to shift characters like masks the way they did, she more than made up for it with her integrity, loyalty, and brilliance. Besides-- any Human woman who could seduce a Vulcan had more than enough personal magnetism to get the job done.

He let his eyes drift to said Vulcan, and marveled again at the chain of circumstance that had brought him such a man as his second in command, and something approaching a friend. After their initial rough meeting, they'd been bound by loss and triumph, by oppositional yet highly complementary methods of pursuing their goals… and by the echoes of another life where both men had apparently had all their edges worn off before they met up with one another. Jim still had trouble untangling the warm knot of emotions the other, older Spock's mind had labeled with his name during that revelatory meld on Delta Vega, but for all that 'Selek' and his own James Kirk had apparently been closer than Jim and his Spock were, the overall sense of their friendship had seemed almost-- muted, compared to what tied he and his Spock together. Stronger and more comforting, perhaps, but less-- how to put it?

When he thought of what Spock meant to him, both as man and commander, an old verse from his grandmother's Sunday readings came to mind: "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." That was true of most of his crewmates, to greater or lesser degree; but it always struck him strongest with Spock. Spock, who was several times stronger than any Human; who could calculate quicker than a computer in the privacy of his thoughts; who could strip secrets from an enemy with a touch; who was private and prickly and as logical about everything as Jim was intuitive-- and who treated Jim as an equal. Despite how badly they'd clashed before his little 'mutiny' during their first disastrous mission, Jim wouldn't be the Captain he was today without the half-Vulcan's support.

Spock looked up from his science console then, probably alerted to his captain's arrival by the change in Uhura's behavior; his spine straightened as hers had at the sight of Jim's face. Dark eyes narrowed and sharply angled brows drew together slightly at whatever he saw in Jim's expression; no doubt he was already drawing up plans and speculations regarding whatever orders Jim might be about to issue.

He nodded slightly to the commander, then skated his gaze further around the bridge; Sulu and Chekov were looking up from their consoles as well, prompted by the change of tension around them. Jim would never have figured Sulu for the enforcer type when he first laid eyes on the man, but he fit that role at least as well as Uhura did the one he'd mentally assigned her in the pattern of the teams Jim had worked with before. The lieutenant had excellent aim, as befit a gifted pilot whose dexterity could mean the difference between life and death for the crew in extraordinary circumstances, but with a sword in his hand he was practically a work of art. For all Jim tended to collect cuts and contusions in hand-to-hand fights, that usually happened under the influence of alcohol, recklessness, and/or an overabundance of opponents; he knew just how good he was when sober and intent-- and Sulu could totally thrash his ass any time he wanted to.

As much as Sulu outmatched Jim on the physical front, Chekov outmatched him in his own areas of specialization. The barely legal ensign was an extremely gifted physicist, and talented at applying those theories across a wide range of disciplines. If he hadn't been so good at Tactical, Jim was pretty sure Scotty would have shanghaied Chekov for Engineering and swapped his gold tunics for red practically the moment they'd shipped out again. Before Enterprise, Jim had never met anyone who could out-geek himself when he put his mind to it; now, there were three or four ahead of him even on his best days, and Chekov was definitely one of them.

"All right, people," Jim said, slapping his hands together as he finished his observations. The crew at the rest of the bridge stations came instantly to attention at the sound, and he grinned around at all of them. "As you may have guessed, our new orders have arrived. No shore leave yet, I'm sorry to say, but as our next stop is Algeron IV, you'll probably get a chance to breathe fresh atmosphere soon enough."

"Algeron IV, aye sir," Sulu said, nodding as he turned back to his console. "Laying in course now."

"We are instructed to attend the peace conference there?" Spock asked, coolly polite and well informed as usual, but Jim was sure he wasn't imagining the dissatisfied undertone to the words.

"More or less," he said casually, smiling again as he strode over to the Vulcan's station. "There are a few... other considerations, but the Admiralty feels it would be the best place to show the flag at the moment. Strike the proper tone for the Romulan and Klingon delegations, you know how it is."

"Indeed," Spock said, quirking an eyebrow, "as the current presence of the Yorktown in that system can attest."

"The more the merrier, right Spock?" Jim replied cheerily, clapping him on the shoulder-- a move that never failed to distract Spock and provoke an annoyed reaction, which was of course why Jim kept doing it. Then, to make up for the perturbed quirk of Spock's brows, he continued in an undertone that wouldn't be overheard beyond the science officer's station: "We're supposed to rendezvous with them there, after all; probably as much so Pike's first protégé can keep him updated as for further information for our mission, but there you go."

"Understood, Captain," Spock said, somehow managing to convey twice the curiosity of before without ever moving a muscle.

"Might want to include 872 Trianguli when you're doing your research on the system," Jim continued at a slightly higher volume, then strolled a few paces farther and exchanged nods with Uhura. "Still up on the dialects that first got you that chair, Lieutenant?" he asked her.

"Of course, sir," she replied, raising her chin a little at the effrontery of his question-- but radiating further curiosity about as strongly as her boyfriend. Theoretically, after all, only the diplomats involved in the conference on-planet would have any need for direct Standard-to-Rihannsu translation, and he'd been very careful not to actually name the language involved.

Hook set, he simply nodded to her and strolled onward, pausing when he reached the command chair, resting one hand on its miniature arm console. "Do I remember correctly that you have piloting experience in smaller non-Federation vessels, Sulu?" he asked casually, as he watched the lieutenant finish plotting their course to the Algeron system. "The Admiral mentioned that there might be some extracurricular opportunities along those lines while the Enterprise is monitoring the conference, and I thought you might be interested."

Sulu looked up at that, his expression equally as speculative as those of the officers Jim had already spoken to; he really had been blessed with a clever crew. "All shapes and sizes," Sulu confirmed. "My family moved to Ganjitsu several years ago; I had the opportunity to become familiar with a lot of the non-standard ship types that you never see on Earth before I enrolled in the Academy."

"Good, good," Jim said, nodding, but didn't elaborate; a moment later Sulu turned back to the navigational controls and made a few last minor adjustments.

"Course laid in, sir," he said, hand poised over the warp lever as he glanced up again.

"Warp six," Jim ordered. "Let's not dawdle-- but don't act like we're in too much of a hurry, either."

"Warp six," Sulu echoed. There was no 'parking brake' mistake this time-- not that anyone who'd heard about it was ever going to let the pilot live that down. The subtle changes of vibration announcing the warp drives' activation rose steadily, then peaked, and the view out the forward window blurred once again into the striations of subspace starlines.

"I'd appreciate your looking into possible covert routes through the nearby border when you can spare the time," Jim added once Sulu's attention was free again. "Ion storms, gaps in patrol and sensor satellite coverage, that sort of thing; I'd like to be prepared in the event that the Romulans decide to find an opportunity to sneak in some military backup for their diplomatic party."

"Aye, sir," Sulu confirmed.

"And, Ensign--" Jim began, turning to the young Russian who'd been listening intently to the conversation.

"I vill assist Sulu with the tactical analysis," Chekov nodded, already ahead of him.

"And do a thorough check of our defensive systems," Jim nodded to him. "Mmm, and perhaps a report on the relative armaments of the types of ships likely to be present in the Algeron system, and those of the current Romulan fleet? It would be nice to know how much backup we'd have available, if things came down to a slugging match."

"Aye, sir," Chekov echoed his friend, eyes wide and bright.

Jim beamed, well pleased with his people. "All right, then," he said. "Carry on, everyone; I'll be in Engineering, then Sickbay, if anyone needs to track me down. Spock, you have the conn."

"Acknowledged," Spock said, rising from his station as Jim turned to stride off the bridge.

Best crew ever, Jim mused, humming distractedly as he gave the command for the engineering deck.