Between the two of them, Kirk and Uhura slowly helped Spock into the shuttlecraft, careful of his injured leg. They were on either side of him, each with an arm around his waist. His arms were across both of their shoulders and they were bearing more of his weight with every passing moment. That leg was bad, Kirk knew, and they needed to get it elevated or it would get worse. They eased him down into one of the aft seats, both of them pretending that they didn't see the fleeting grimace of pain on his unshaven face before that impassive Vulcan mask snapped into place. Uhura tried to help Kirk drag one of the supply crates towards Spock so they could raise his leg, but he would have none of it.

"Uhura, have a seat," he said, "your arm's in no condition for this kind of work." When she ignored him and reached for the crate again, he stopped her with a gentle touch on her shoulder. "Lieutenant," he said softly, "sit down. That's an order." Then, with a half-smile and a nod of his head in Spock's direction, he said, "I think there's an empty seat over there by the commander."

She'd simply nodded and taken the seat next to Spock's, cradling her field-splintered arm across her chest. Kirk placed Spock's leg up on the crate and checked his bandages while Spock belted himself in, fatigue obvious in his slow and overly cautious movements. Once he was satisfied that the wound on Spock's leg hadn't reopened and started bleeding again, Kirk moved to assist Uhura. It would be all but impossible for her to navigate the belts and buckles by herself with a broken arm, but Spock had finished with his harness and was already aiding her, his fingers meticulously working at the clasps as she pulled the belts into position with her uninjured arm. It was clear that, between the two of them, they would manage.

Kirk nodded at them and moved away to check on Trandil and Baker, the other two surviving members of the landing party. Baker was banged and bruised as they all were, but otherwise she seemed fine. One of Trandil's antennae had been damaged, leaving the Andorian partially deafened, but he didn't complain and it was nothing Bones couldn't fix when they got home. Satisfied that everyone was in safe and sound, Kirk took the copilot's seat next to Sulu's in the fore and buckled himself in.

"You're a sight for sore eyes, Mr. Sulu," he said as he looked at his senior helmsman. Sulu's answering smile was one of the best things he'd seen in days.

"Likewise, sir," Sulu replied as he engaged the controls to seal the doors. "You had us worried when you failed to make the second check-in. We've been listening for you around the clock. We tried getting a transporter lock on you, but the jamming from the surface made it impossible to even locate you. Mr. Scott had us prep a shuttle after that, so when your signal came in, we were ready to go."

"Remind me to give you and Mr. Scott a raise, Mr. Sulu," Kirk said, proud of his crew. Damn if they weren't the best in the 'Fleet…

"Yes, sir," Sulu said with a smile. "Just remember you said that when I come due for my next review."

Kirk chuckled in response and watched as Sulu finalized their liftoff preparations and called over his shoulder to the occupants in the rear of the shuttle.

"Hang on, everyone. It was a little rough coming in, so we might hit some turbulence on the way out. But after that, it should be smooth sailing all the way home."

Kirk looked over his shoulder to smile reassuringly at his bedraggled crew and caught a glimpse of Spock and Uhura in the back. They both looked like hell and dead tired to boot. As he watched them, Spock reached for Uhura's chin with his right hand and guided her to lay her head on his shoulder, his long fingers briefly reaching out and touching her tangled hair in what could have been a caress. She closed her eyes, a small and tired smile on her face. Kirk couldn't help but smile at the sight. He'd only seen them show affection for one another a handful of times over the past two years, usually resigned to brief touches such as this. Not wanting to intrude further into their privacy, he turned back around as they lifted off.

They rode in silence through the atmosphere, the occasional bit of turbulence jostling them a bit in their seats, but it was nothing, not compared to what they had just been through. Kirk was glad to see the last of this little rocky world that had almost claimed them all. There would be no admission to the Federation for this planet, not if his word carried any weight. The planetary government had invited them down to discuss admission, only to fall in a deadly military coup within hours of their arrival. They had almost died there, all of them, and he was certain that if hadn't been for Uhura's fast thinking, none of them would be going home now. She was the one that had figured out how to jury rig several communicators to Spock's tricorder to boost the signal past the jamming interference. And she'd done it with a broken arm while under enemy fire. They had only gotten out the briefest of squirts, but it was enough to alert the Enterprise that they were in trouble and where they were. Within the hour, Sulu had arrived with the shuttle. When they got home, a commendation was definitely going in her record.

Once they broke orbit and were headed back to the Enterprise , Sulu set the controls on automatic and produced a thermos from underneath the console. "Coffee?" he said as he handed it to Kirk, who accepted it gratefully. He poured himself a cup, passed the thermos back to Sulu, and sipped carefully at the hot beverage. Sulu got up and carried the thermos to the back. Behind him, Kirk heard Sulu start up a conversation with Baker and Trandil. The members of the landing party sounded happy, almost giddy. He couldn't blame them one bit. The past three days had been a running fight just to stay alive. They needed the release.

Kirk leaned back in his seat, tired and weary, careful of his bruised ribs. Sleep would be nice, but he was still too wound up and it would probably be hours before he could come down. Instead he settled for gazing out at the darkness of space to look for his ship. He thought he could just spy her, a slightly larger silvery point against the backdrop of eternal night. For several minutes he stared out the window and watched as it slowly resolved itself into the familiar and welcome shape of the Enterprise .

"Home," he murmured to himself over his coffee.

"Yes, sir," Sulu replied as he returned to his seat and switched back to manual control. "We're almost there. It will be good to have you all back."

"It'll be good to be back," Kirk replied. He would have said more, but just then the Enterprise signaled them. Sulu gave him an apologetic look as he leaned over and hit the comm switch. Kirk smiled back and turned his chair around to face the rear of the cabin to check on his crew again, maybe join in the conversation-

Almost immediately, his gaze fell on Spock and Uhura, both of them sound asleep. Her head was pillowed on his shoulder and his cheek rested against the top of her head. They looked impossibly young with their heads bowed together as they slept, like the kids that Bones was always saying they were. Kirk felt a small smile tugging at the corners of his lips and didn't try to stop it.

Looking at the two of them at that moment, Kirk knew that he was looking at something rare. This was a dangerous job, and yet here were these two people, one of the unlikeliest couples he had ever seen, daring to love one another despite the odds against them. There were many couples onboard the Enterprise , and even some triads and a handful of quads and other such arrangements. Living in such close quarters with others naturally bred relationships. But Spock and Uhura were different: they had come aboard the ship as a couple, so they'd been together for at least two years, and somehow or another their relationship had lasted where others had fallen apart. And they'd both come so damn close to losing one another down on that planet that it scared him.

What would he do if the day ever came that he had to tell one of them that the other wasn't coming home? He didn't want to think about that, as if thinking about it could somehow make it come to pass. As it was, he already had that duty ahead of him when they got back. Patel had sacrificed her life to save them, covering them as they made their way to the outcropping and shelter, only to be cut down and vaporized in front of him scant meters from the safety she had helped them achieve. This was the hardest part of the job, something that no amount of training could ever prepare you for. It tore at him to watch good people die and be powerless to stop it. He hated the fact that he was going to have to tell Thompson that her wife was gone. Theirs had been the first marriage ceremony that he had performed and he had been honored that they had asked him. He'd only been their captain for two months when they stood before him on the Observation Deck and took their vows. And now Patel was gone. He didn't look forward to the letter that he would have to compose to her parents, stating how bravely she gave her life in the performance of her duty and how she would be missed, as though it would be anything compared to the way that they would miss her…

He looked at Spock and Uhura again, the dark thought he had pushed aside resurfacing. Oddly, he though it would be worse on Spock to lose her. He had seen Spock lose his mother, had watched as the Vulcan walked towards the transporter pad that she should have materialized on and just stood there, looking down in numb shock and disbelief. That wound had never completely gone away. If he were to lose Uhura, after he had already lost so much… He would survive it, but some essential and vital part of him would die with her.

What would it do to Uhura to lose him? She had dared to walk up to Spock as they stood in the transporter room, tears on her cheeks, and openly kiss him with such tenderness. At first he had gawked, shocked and stunned. It hadn't sunk in until later on, once they had escaped with their lives, that she had been saying goodbye. She had been afraid that he was going to his death, despite their words to the contrary, and she was letting him know that he was loved. And when she had turned to look at him, the expression on her face had not been one of defiance as he had originally thought, but rather one of imploring. 'Bring him back safe,' was what she had said to him with her eyes. She had charged him with that duty. Had he failed in that, Uhura would have been devastated. She would have mourned Spock and eventually recovered, but some of that fire and strength would have been gone, never to return.

Down on the planet, each of them had put themselves in harm's way to protect one another. Spock would never have been injured if he hadn't pulled Uhura down and covered her body with his own when the projectile whistled right over their heads. That piece of shrapnel would have sliced into Uhura's chest instead of Spock's leg. And with no way out and only Trandil's field medikit to treat her with, she would have been dead. Her arm would never have been broken had she not raised her arm to defend Spock when the rebels attacked their makeshift camp the next day. Kirk had sent her attacker to the next life a heartbeat later, but he had been a fraction too slow to stop her from being injured. If Uhura's arm hadn't been there to take the blow, it would have landed on Spock's skull. They had each risked their own lives to save the other, as though nothing else mattered. Looking at them, he realized that if one of them been lost down there that the other would most likely soon have followed. He had seen it before. Grief and loss had a funny way of making people careless or reckless, and Kirk had no doubt that this would have been the case here as well. They would come back together, or not at all.

Kirk knew that a relationship like theirs came along rarely and that it didn't happen to everyone. As it was, he was grateful that he could witness it. It was a good thing that he'd been punched that night in the bar in Iowa and that he hadn't succeeded in seducing Uhura. Because all he could have given her at that point in his life was that one night. In the morning, she would have been gone on the shuttle back to the Academy and he would have remained where he was to wallow and rot. He would never have entered Starfleet, would never have commanded the Enterprise , and would never have had the two good friends he had in Spock and Uhura. Failure had never been so rewarding.

Kirk was thankful that he could call Spock and Uhura friends and that they allowed him close enough to see the quiet love they had for one another. It made his heart ache to think that either of them could ever come to harm. He prayed to whatever deity might be listening at that point to keep both of them safe from harm, to give them the chance to live out their lives together.

Kirk caught sight of Baker and Trandil looking at Spock and Uhura as they slept. They had fallen silent and just sat and watched them as though afraid to speak and disturb the moment. Baker turned and looked at him, a smile lighting up her bruised face.

"Aren't they precious?" she whispered, her voice pitched barely above a whisper.

"They most certainly are, Ensign," Kirk replied in kind. "They most certainly are."