Update 2/18/13: This story is NOT abandoned! Chapter 11 is essentially finished. Chapter 12 is well on its way to being finished. Chapter 13 has an outline. However, I'm not posting piecemeal style anymore. So no updates will be forthcoming, not until the entire story is completed, which will take quite awhile, another year, idk. I'm sorry. It's just less frustrating on everyone, I think.


Chapter Ten

Spock woke earlier than necessary in anticipation of his first shift in engineering. His mind stirred from a black murk that was as empty as the vacuum beyond the hull, bondless and hollow but also dreamless. For the first time in over a week he felt rested instead of restive.

The lights in Jim's quarters were on, which seemed strange until he sat up and found the man sprawled at the other end of the couch. Chin to his chest, glasses balanced on the tip of his nose, and hand loosely clutched around Hamlet, Jim appeared overcome by exhaustion.

Spock folded his blanket into a neat square, then took it upon himself to ensure the safekeeping of Jim's antique text. As he slid the book free, his felt the heat of the sleeping man's palm, a reminder of their past nights together and the warmth with which Jim protected him. He plucked wire-rimmed glasses from their precarious perch, revealing two reddened indentations on either side of Jim's nose. Having never handled spectacles before, he fiddled with the legs and peered through the lenses, blinking at the distortion.

As always, Jim appeared younger in repose, the lines of his face already secured in Spock's memory. Dark eyebrows and lashes, the shaded hollows created by high cheekbones, the slope of his nose, the fullness of lips that were the color of a Vulcan dawn. A color he could only see in facsimile.

Jim was an attractive man in many respects, not the least of which included his physical appearance. Spock had known this their entire acquaintance, but it gave him pause now. Head tilting to the side, he pondered the source of his interest. The answer was not forthcoming, so he left the matter for later contemplation.

He set Jim's glasses beside the book on the armrest and took his leave to prepare for the day. There would be enough time to make an entry in his personal log, which was quickly becoming a sounding board for all his questions on human nature. He also intended to research alternatives to Retinax 5.


The lights on the bridge had a drilling effect on the inside of Kirk's skull. Between Hamlet's third act and waking to find his Vulcan chess buddy gone, he'd caught a few hours of sleep, but the tension and stress of the past week still raged against his left temple. By force of will, he stayed invested in his operations reports, endless operations, mundane to the point of tears and possibly suicide.

Halfway through his shift he gave his eyes a break and called down to Scotty. It was a long moment before the panel on the arm of his chair lit with a reply.

"Scott here, Cap'n. What can I do for ye?"

"Have you made an engineer out of our youngest crewmember yet?"

Seated at either end of the long navigation console, Sulu and Chekov shared a look. The helmsmen's interaction with Spock had been minimal, but they were among a growing number of crewmembers that believed the incident was priceless anecdotal material. Kirk agreed that it would make a good story by the end of their tour, but he wasn't in a position to feel very amused, not yet anyway.

"Aye, Cap'n. I only wish ye'd thought of this sooner. It's not everyday I get to give the commander orders."

"Scotty," Kirk said in a tone that threatened greater restrictions on inventory supplies.

"Have no worries. I've not sassed the lad none. He's a fine engineer and I'll be hard pressed to return him to the bridge after this."

"Good man." Kirk looked over and found Uhura listening in. "Keep it up."

"Aye, sir. Scott out."

Before Uhura could ask if Kirk planned to join her and Spock for lunch, an incoming communication drew her attention. She listened to its designation and said, "Captain, I'm receiving a communication from Starfleet Command. Priority channel."

Standing, Kirk tugged his shirt straight and said, "Put it on screen, Lieutenant."

The viewing window polarized and three stone-faced men locked eyes on Kirk. He recognized Admirals Komack and Archer, whom he spoke with almost as often as Pike, and Langston, whom he'd only spoken with once during the memorial ceremony.

Kirk saluted and stood at attention. "Admirals," he said as one collective greeting. The entire bridge tensed with him. This impromptu meeting might have been better taken in the privacy of his office, but the admirals hadn't tagged the communication as classified.

In the center, Komack spoke first. "Captain Kirk, we've reviewed your latest operation proposal." He paused, dragging the tense moment out, then continued, "How soon can you put it to action?"

"Thirty minutes, sir," Kirk said, aware that the admirals were measuring his every word. A half-hour wasn't an arrogant estimation. It was realistic considering security had been briefed days ago. He'd been ready to make a move since Scotty finished the specs on the base.

The admirals searched Kirk for any indication of the recklessness they feared would come from such an early promotion. The young man's steady gaze betrayed nothing beyond determination to carry out the mission.

Archer was the first to extend his approval. He typed on the panel in front of him. "Your orders are coming through."

Kirk glanced over his shoulder and Uhura answered him before he could even voice his question.

"Orders received, Captain," Uhura said, hands poised over her console.

"We want Ambassador Eldridge delivered alive, Captain Kirk," Langston said. His lips wrinkled as his mouth set into a frown.

Smart ass comments were a reflex for Kirk, but he'd learned to censor himself. Instead of asking if Langston would also like Eldridge gift wrapped and shipped express, he gave a curt nod. "Understood, sirs."

Doubt lingered in the admirals' gazes, but Komack cut the feed without further comment. There was an abruptness to the interaction that left everyone holding their breath, expecting the admirals to pop back onscreen and issue additional orders.

Kirk's annoyance with the admirals suffered a guilt ridden death when he considered Lieutenants Carter and Folsen. It was little wonder the admirals remained dubious of his command. To claim that Folsen and Cater's deaths were his fault would be arrogant and a gross misrepresentation of the facts, but a captain always bore some responsibility.

"Lieutenant Uhura, notify security I'm on my way."


Kirk was en route to his quarters when Spock intercepted him. He could tell by the glint of frustration in the boy's eyes that he'd been searching for Kirk without much success, likely just missing him as he buzzed from one department to the next.

"Jim, may we speak?"

"Always," Kirk said with an easy smile. "I'm headed for my quarters. We can talk there."


By the time they reached his quarters, Kirk was more anxious about Spock's reaction to his mission than the mission itself. He made a beeline for his desk and began sorting through the mess of datachips. He needed to send the most recent operations reports to Scotty, a precaution in case he didn't make it back. Given the state of his desk, he didn't think the chief engineer would appreciate having to wade through the bog of mixed material.

Spock stood in the middle of the room, hands clasped behind his back in a demur fashion. "Lieutenant Uhura has informed me of your participation in an upcoming mission that requires your transportation to Thelos."

After slotting a chip, Kirk leaned a hip against his desk. The hem of his shirt rode high to reveal the black layer beneath and the angular cut of his waist. "I can guess what you're going to say." With a few keystrokes, he sent the data to Scotty and exchanged the chip for another.

"Then you understand my concerns?"

A subdued smile softened the line of Kirk's mouth. The boy's worry was palpable, but his decision couldn't be swayed by the quiet plea in those brown eyes. "I do, but that doesn't change that I'm going."

Surprise registered on Spock's face before he recovered his calm. "It is not my place to request concessions of you. It is even less so when it involves your performance as captain. However, the logic of your actions eludes me."

Kirk was mildly amused at how diplomatic Spock was trying to be. He could see the impatience beneath the surface, the need to simply demand that he stay.

"Is your direct participation truly necessary?" Spock asked, but didn't wait for an answer. "I was given to understand that I was your second in command. As I can no longer perform in your stead, does that not mandate your safekeeping aboard the ship?"

"Lieutenant-Commander Scott is more than capable of manning the helm," Kirk said. His reasons for transporting down were too numerous to explain in the short time he had, not the least of which included the expectations of his superiors. Despite his personal feelings toward the ambassador, he intended to oversee the man's safe return. He also couldn't entrust his side mission to anyone else, not when his search for the relic would be off the books.

At a loss for how to counter Jim's statement without disparaging the capabilities of the chief engineer whom he'd grown to admire that past afternoon, Spock's frustration manifested in the furrow of his brow.

Spock settled for simple honesty. "I do not want you to go."

"I'm sorry, but I have to."

"You do not," Spock said. "You are choosing to place yourself in danger. I may not understand the particulars of your position, but I recognize the failings of logic in this decision."

Kirk hated that he had to be brief. Every second mattered and he didn't have time to explain his motivation. "You'll have Uhura here while I'm gone."

"It is dangerous." Spock would have quoted an estimate, but he knew numbers would not deter Jim. Numbers meant nothing to a man who constantly defied them.

"I know."

Spock's voice swelled with urgency. "I ask that you reconsider."

Dragging a hand through his hair, Kirk tried to swallow his guilt. "Spock, this is my job."

"Please," Spock said, at a loss for any rational argument that would convince Jim to remain. "I have lost much and have no desire to consider you among those losses."

"Jesus, kid." Kirk moved closer and knelt in front of the boy, gripping his narrow shoulders. "I'm coming back."

"You cannot make that guarantee."

"Trust me."

"Sanu, ri hal-tor." Please, do not go.

Hanging his head, Kirk released his hold. "I beam down in fifteen minutes," he said, resolute in his decision.

"I see." Spock stepped back. "Excuse me." He left Jim's quarters, back straight and legs stiff, his whole body brittle. He was a fool, tricked by his pride into believing that Jim would ever heed his selfish request.


Kirk made his way to the transporter room. The long stretch of corridor provided him ample time to stew in his guilt. In his periphery he spotted the whip of Uhura's hair and resigned himself playing the bad guy.

Falling into stride with the captain, Uhura said, "You don't have to go."

"Not now, Lieutenant." Kirk shifted his landing gear to one arm, the parka and belt draped over the crook of his elbow.

Determined to speak her mind, Uhura persisted. "If anything happened to you, it would crush him. He's fixated on you, you have to know that." Spock's hero complex was becoming something of a burden for her to witness.

"I know!" Kirk whirled around to face his lieutenant. He took a deep breath and made a vague gesture of apology. "I know," he repeated more calmly. "But this is my operation and I'm taking point."

"I know," Uhura said, echoing Kirk's words, "but standard protocol would be for you to stay."

"Protocol takes a back seat on this one."

Having witnessed the call from the admirals, Uhura couldn't argue. Every word and glance had held the tacit expectancy that Kirk would lead the rescue. She didn't like Kirk's apparent expendability.

"You'll be here for him?"

"Of course."

"Wish me luck."

"Good luck, Captain. Be safe." Uhura made an abortive move to touch Kirk's shoulder. There was a hard edge to the captain's eyes that made her conscious of the gap between their ranks.

Kirk gave the slender lieutenant a cocky grin. "Safe is my middle name," he said. "At least I wish it were. Tiberious is impossible to explain."

Uhura smiled despite her thorough distaste for corny jokes. If Kirk didn't come back in one piece, she'd kill him, superior officer or not.


Scotty placed the landing party as near to the base as possible without compromising their position. There were no trees for cover, only scraggly sagebrush and the occasional cluster of boulders. The ground itself appeared covered in shale, broken bits of purple rock that reminded Kirk of the quarry back home. Even the earthen clay smell was familiar, displaced from his hometown to this M-class planet in the Beta Quadrant. The high elevation distorted his perspective and made the forest in the pit of the valley appear miniature.

The communicators could maintain a stable connection with the ship within a small radius of their landing coordinates. Scotty had done his best to boost their signals and cut through continued interference, but the limits imposed by the jamming signal had shaped the entire operation. They were walking a tightrope without a net.

"Rendezvous back here in two hours," Kirk said, the team huddled around him for a final word. "Keep off the comm lines. We run this silent and fast." He locked eyes with Lieutenant-Commander Giotto. "If your team gets to Eldridge first, don't waste the chance to get him out."

"Aye, sir," said Giotto. His goatee framed the hard line of his mouth. As security chief, he'd take lead of the second team and move around the western side of the base.

Kirk watched Giotto and his half of the team head out, then led his own group eastward. A trodden pathway zigzagged up the steep hillside. The path would have eyes on it, so they forged a straight line a safe distance away. They plateaued after three kilometers, but Kirk's thighs still cried out against the abuse.

Brittle rocks shifted underfoot and snow melt created patches of black ice, forcing them to keep half their attention on the ground. Their navy parkas were decent camouflage, but Kirk was counting on dusk to give them better cover.

The late afternoon sky was a seamless overcast of washed out gray, an Iowan sky on a dead winter day when the wind abandoned the flat plains and left the clouds to hang and swell over farmlands. Kirk knew the weather by instinct. When the sun dipped low enough, the wind would hurdle in from colder climes and trigger the fatted clouds to release their day's burden.

Indicators of the base were apparent early on in their approach. Supply carts left on the side of the path, old campfires and debris. Like the shaman's temple, the base was impossible to miss. It wasn't a gleaming monolith of polished stone, but it was set into the top of the hill's ridge. Made of wood and mortared bricks, the fortress spanned a width of two hundred yards and housed a small shanty village inside. Unshaven tree logs fenced the perimeter, too high to scale without drawing attention.

At a group of boulders stacked together like break rocks, most likely placed there by the rebels during construction of the base, Kirk motioned for his men to stop. Tucked out of sight, they took a moment to catch their breath, lungs hardened and teeth aching from the cold.

Dusk drew fiery tendrils across the horizon, highlighting thinner areas of cloud cover and giving color to an otherwise blanched skyline. Smoke rose from the shanty houses inside the base and the distant din of moving bodies swelled as everyone rushed to finish their day and head home for warmth. Shadows grew longer and deeper.

Kirk's team consisted of Lieutenants Nielson and Handel, and Lieutenant-Commander Thomas. He knew Thomas from a hand-to-hand class at the academy, whipcord reflexes and a mean right hook. The man had a Chinese dragon tattooed on the left side of his face, the black ink almost invisible against his dark skin.

"How'd they build this without tipping anyone off?" asked Nielson. He was the shortest man among them and had a bush of brown curly hair that his hat flattened to frame his squarish face.

"Your guess is as good as mine," Kirk said. He adjusted his hat so his ears weren't covered.

Thomas crept to the top of the boulder and glassed the fortress, a slow and thorough sweep. "East entrance is guarded, as expected."

"How many?" Kirk wanted to keep their presence undetected for as long as possible, at the very least until they were inside the base.

"Two. They're stationary."

"Any on patrol?"

"Not that I see."

"We'll wait to see if any come around."

A snowflake kissed Kirk's cheek, gentle and frigid. He cast his eyes skyward and smiled, the stretch of his lips feeling tight and chapped. A staccato of flakes drifted down from the darkening sky. A rush of wind howled in the distance, sweeping over the ridge. It only took ten minutes before their sight couldn't pierce twenty yards.

Kirk tapped Thomas's leg and spotted him as he slid down.

The wind picked up speed, kicking flurries about and whistling a hollow tune over the barren ground.

"Move out."


A reedy wisp of smoke billowed from the coals in Spock's fire pot, unattended and long forgotten. The pot itself was cradled in the arms of a dragon statuette, an excessive decoration that made Spock question the taste of his adult self. The air in his quarters carried spice and heat, a poor imitation of the air on Vulcan.

When a communication hailed in through the desk console, he abandoned his meditation and rushed across the room. Lieutenant Uhura had sworn to contact him the moment of Jim's return. The sight of his father onscreen came as a surprise and disappointment.

"Greetings, Spock." Sarek studied the precise line of the boy's bangs, the youthful dusting of freckles, and his muted black clothing.

"Greetings, Father. I had not anticipated your call until tomorrow."

"Yet you answered with evident eagerness," Sarek said, lightly chastising. The boy had answered before taking his seat.

Spock bowed his head in acknowledgment of his father's rebuke. "I await news of Captain Kirk."

"I was informed that he was not available to speak with."

In a rueful tone, Spock said, "He has transported into potentially hostile territory over two hours past."

It was a long moment before Sarek responded. He debated the quandary of his son's position as someone simultaneously bound by and exempt from Starfleet's code of conduct. "You refer to classified activities on a public channel. My status as ambassador does not give me privilege to such knowledge."

Realization brought a hot wave of shame. "I spoke without censure and failed to consider the gravity of my words."

"A transgression that may hold graver consequences in the future. Take heed of your unique position." Compelled by instinct to aid his son in whatever fashion he could, Sarek added, "Captain Kirk impresses me as a man qualified for his position. I trust in his ability to accomplish whatever task presently occupies him."

"He had similar words for me prior to his departure. Nevertheless, his safety cannot be guaranteed."

"You worry for him," Sarek said, suddenly understanding his son's tense demeanor. He had seen the same in Amanda. His wife had worried, fretted as she called it, during his more threatening diplomatic encounters.

"I am struggling to control my emotions. Worry is predominant among them."

"How comes your meditation?"

"Difficult, but improved."

"Perhaps with Captain Kirk's return, a resolution to your condition will be reached."

"You refer to the relic's retrieval?" Spock didn't know what his father had heard about the device.

"Captain Kirk apprised me of its relevance and potential to reverse your transformation. I can only assume he currently seeks to obtain it."

"A logical deduction." One made without further breach of security clearance. Spock admired his father's diligence in such matters, always self-aware.

Indulging another moment's study of his son, Sarek remembered Spock's childhood years with fondness. He had not always been the father Spock's human side needed him to be. His response to Spock's rejection of the VSA had been extreme. Now he faced his son who had no recollect of those troubled times, no memory of a father who had severed ties.

With subdued regret, Sarek said, "I will leave you to your meditation." There stood a strong chance that his son's age would be restored before their next communication.

Spock wanted to prolong the call, perhaps ask after the colony, but his father was a busy man. "Live long and prosper, Father."

"Peace and long life, my son."


When the landing party returned to the ship, the headcount was down by one captain and one chief of security. Fortunately, the count was also up by one disgruntled ambassador.

Thrashing on a biobed in sickbay, Ambassador Eldridge demanded the whereabouts of the Captain Kirk. "Where is he? Where's your captain?"

"I don't know," McCoy said. "Hold still for the scanner." He took the ambassador's readings. The man was a little dehydrated, but no worse for the wear.

"I've been brutalized," Eldridge said. "Your captain left me there to die. I demand he answer for this."

McCoy caught Chapel's eye and nodded toward the supply tray by the bed. "Nurse, please settle our patient."

"Of course, doctor." Chapel loaded a sedative.

Eldridge took the spray with a yelp. He turned on the blonde nurse and sneered. "Are you as incompetent as your commander?"

Chapel maintained an unimpressed expression.

The ambassador drifted off, but fought to stay conscious as he grabbed a fistful of the doctor's shirt. "It's a trap."

The urgency in Eldridge's voice raised the hairs on McCoy's neck.

"Tell Kirk," Eldridge said, his words starting to slur. His eyes rolled, lost behind heavy lids before he fought back to the surface once more.

"Tell him what?" McCoy leaned in to catch the ambassador's whisper. He debated giving the man a stimulant, but the doctor in him advised against it.

"Code eighty-six." With this final proclamation, Eldridge slumped into oblivion.

Chapel asked, "Was he delusional?"

"Possibly," McCoy said, "but better safe than sorry."

"I'll alert Lieutenant-Commander Scott." Chapel moved for the nearest comm panel.

McCoy left the ambassador and the cryptic warning behind for his next patient. M'Benga had the only life threatening case to deal with, whereas he'd been saddled with the dehydrated diplomat. Now he faced a sickbay full of red shirts and no command gold to relieve his fears.

Scanner in hand, McCoy read Handel's vitals. "Phaser burns," he said, eyebrows arched in surprise. "Take your shirt off and lie back."

Movements stiff, Handel peeled his shirt overhead. One of the nurses had already cut away the material around his burn.

McCoy scowled as he worked, swabbing the wound in a solution that sterilized and anesthetized. "Was this friendly fire?"

Handel hesitated, eyeing the doctor before he answered. He knew McCoy was close to the captain. "I wish," he said.

Muttering a curse that would've made his mama weep, McCoy took a moment to gather himself before refocusing on the task at hand. "Where's the captain?"

"He's still down there." When it seemed like the doctor might burn more holes into his arm, Handel added, "The chief's with him."

McCoy's jaw flexed. He knew Giotto as the prick from the academy and also as the dedicated security officer. He didn't know whether he should worry more or less knowing such a man was down there with his captain. Jim trusted Giotto enough to commission him as chief of security, but nothing could put his mind at ease except having Jim back under his watch.


Ignoring Lieutenant Uhura's suggestion that he wait for her arrival, Spock hastened from his quarters and made a beeline for sickbay. It seemed that he was always due the woman an apology, yet he did not regret his rashness, not when the lift opened to Deck G and afforded him the view of sickbay's wide entrance.

Spock searched the main bay and followed the commotion to Bay 3. Men in red shirts occupied the beds, most of them in raucous conversation with one another, none of them severely injured. Farther along he found Dr. McCoy.

Responding to McCoy's call, Scott located the doctor in one of the bays. As he approached he spotted the wee commander. "What're ye doing here, laddie?"

"I was informed of the landing party's return. Do you know the whereabouts of Captain Kirk?"

McCoy glanced over his shoulder and found the tiny hobgoblin standing nearby. He hadn't even noticed the boy come in. "You shouldn't be here, kid."

"Aye, 'tis no place for ye when everyone's hopping about on serious business." Scott mitigated the reprimand with a sheepish grin. The commander had the run of the ship at the captain's behest, but still needed looking after.

McCoy motioned to Scotty, signaling that he needed to speak with him privately.

Needing confirmation on Jim's safety, Spock said, "I shall leave upon determination of Captain Kirk whereabouts."

Scott had a soft spot for anyone who could rewire the entire circuit board of a Clone model synthesizer in less than two hours. "Ye're outta luck. He's not come back yet."

"The landing party has returned." Spock cast a look toward the rows of beds housing other patients. His intent gaze challenged either man to dispute such irrefutable evidence.

"Aye, most of 'em came back," Scott said.

Something tightened inside Spock as he waited for elaboration. For a disorienting moment, his vision faded and his head swam with a strange static noise. When his senses cleared, he heard the lieutenant-commander's response.

"Sorry, laddie. He'll be back soon, mark my words."

Spock could not hide his dissatisfaction with this answer. He regarded the man expectantly, awaiting further details of Jim's whereabouts and reasons for not being present.

"We'll walk you out," McCoy said.

Outside of sickbay, Spock stared at the bend of the hallway, willing Jim to stride into view. His irrational hope proved fruitless. Passing crewmen took notice, his stillness out of place amidst so much activity, but no one spoke to him.

Eventually Lieutenant Uhura arrived to reclaim him. He relished her familiar presence, but couldn't bring himself to express his gratitude. He followed her in silence, the static of his anxiety crackling in the background of his thoughts.


An alarm sounded once the rebels found Eldridge's cell empty. The klaxon whaled above the pitch of the snowstorm. Kirk and Giotto moved along the back side of the jailhouse, their presence undetected for the moment.

Eldridge's cell resembled a cheap hostel room. Kirk had hoped to find the shaman hostages alongside the ambassador, but Eldridge was alone and the remaining six cells were vacant. There were signs of recent occupancy, which he refrained from interpreting one way or the other.

The jailhouse stood in the center of the base, convenient enough if rescuing Eldridge were his sole purpose. With Eldridge freed and the majority of his crew en route to rendezvous with the ship, Kirk began his search for the relic. Giotto's refusal to return to without him was cause for later disciplinary action, but Kirk found himself grateful for the backup and halfhearted in his attempts to dissuade the man.

Instinct guided Kirk north, deeper inside enemy territory. Scotty's specs suggested underground construction, yet all he'd seen sat above ground. He darted between sheds and hid behind the clutter of tarps and carts. A portion of the rebels had left the base in search of Eldridge.

He pulled up short when a high rising cliff wall presented a dead end. There was a twenty-yard gap of open ground between the last few thatched sheds and the rock surface, and within that space the rebels had gathered their forces. It wasn't until he spotted the mouth of a cave sealed shut by a reinforced metal door that dismay set in. The door sported more rivets and bolts than actual door and a control station at its side.

The rebels employed tech that could scramble sensors capable of scanning two parsecs, then there had been phaser fire in response to their jailbreak, and now a door made of what Kirk judged was an alloy similar to the Enterprise's inner hull. His creeping suspicions were all but confirmed. Determined to see beneath surface, he turned to Giotto with his plan.

Giotto interpreted the glint in his captain's eyes. "I've seen that look before," he said. It was the look of a man outnumbered and overpowered, but unwilling to back down.

"Now would be the time to grab a couple more guys and make this an even fight."

"This isn't four-to-one." Giotto would have welcomed those odds.

"Then I'm glad you're on my side this time."

At the sight of the same cocksure smile he remembered from the bar in Riverside, Giotto prayed Kirk had learned how to throw more than a right hook. "On your mark, sir."

Kirk clasped Giotto's shoulder. "This might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, cupcake."

The captain's sober expression belied his glib words. Giotto took a deep breath and nodded his readiness.


The deadline for Jim's return crept past the three-hour mark, then the four-hour mark. Spock sat at his desk console and waited for news. Lieutenant Uhura visited and asked him to dinner, but he declined because the thought of food brought an unpleasant acidic taste to the back of his throat.

He occupied his time with entries in his personal log. The heavy spice of incense clung to the air, tickling the back of his throat as he spoke.

"I do not understand," he said into the quiet of his quarters. "Did Jim underestimate the value of his life?" All life was invaluable, and yet when circumstances required sacrifice it was only logical to elevate the more productive and vital members of a society above others. If Jim grasped the full measure of his importance as captain, then he would have delegated his position on the team to a subordinate.

"Although I comprehend the futility of dwelling on what has already passed, my mind returns to a single question: if I were older and a Starfleet commander by true merit, would I have taken Jim's place?"

The computer recorded his words, but offered no response.

"The fact remains, I am not a commander and I cannot help."

Spock felt at odds with himself, resentful even.

"My concern for Jim's welfare is not without a measure of self-interest. Should injury befall him, I believe that the progress I have made in my meditation and emotional control will regress."

The computer remained unsympathetic, while the chronometer flaunted the late hour. His dependence on Jim resonated too deeply. He could feel the bands unraveling in his mind.


With Giotto's arm slung around his shoulders, Kirk staggered into range of the ship. Once assured of his position, he lowered Giotto to the ground and pulled out his communicator.

"You're a insane, you know that?" Giotto said, breaths labored and misted.

"Since I was born." Kirk dialed in and crouched beside his chief of security, clamping his free hand over the makeshift bandage around the man's thigh.

Groaning as his captain's hand pressed down on his leg, Giotto summoned his last reserve of stamina. Getting hit with shrapnel hadn't been so bad, but running despite his injury had sent shocks of pain along his entire leg, like jabbing at the exposed root of a rotten tooth. He tried to distract himself by talking.

"An overcharged phaser," he said, scoffing at the insane genius of the Iowan farmboy. "I can't believe it worked."

The explosion had worked a little too well. A sharp pain throbbed deep in Kirk's left ear, meanwhile he couldn't hear a thing out of it. If the drip of blood over his earlobe was anything to go by, he suspected he had blown an eardrum. Bones was going to kill him.

The communicator chirruped the tone for a failed connection. Kirk scoured the area. A layer of snow coated the ground, but he remained confident that they were in the right spot. He tried again.

"We don't have much time," Giotto said, squinting to see if their tail had caught up yet.

"Kirk to Enterprise, come in." Kirk grit his teeth when silence met his call. His began to form potential fallback plans. Giotto wouldn't last long on the run and they weren't close enough to the forest to take cover.

Static fizzed over the line. Kirk anticipated another failed connection, but a familiar Scottish brogue broke through.

"I read ye, Cap'n. Standby for transport."

Hanging his head in relief, Kirk smiled as he replied, "Standing by."

The landscaped dissolved in a cocoon of white light and reformed into the sleek lines of the transporter pad. He kept a firm hand on Giotto's leg.

"Call McCoy," he said to Scotty.

"He's on his way," Scott assured, grinning like a loon.


Uhura kept a professional pace until a passing group of yeomen were out of sight, then broke into a jog. To avoid a repeat of last time, she chose to deliver her message in person. She thumbed the call button outside Spock's quarters.

"Spock, he's back," she said. A pleased thrill ran through her, as if delivering this news were tantamount to fostering that missing connection with the boy.

The door opened and a harried looking Spock drew back before he collided with the lieutenant.

"I thought I'd come with you this time." Uhura said this without censure.

"Have you confirmed that Captain Kirk has truly returned?"

Having apologized enough for her previous mistake, Uhura simply said, "He's in sickbay."

"He has been injured?" Spock walked beside the lieutenant and fought the urge to run.

"He'd be in sickbay even if he were fine. It's standard procedure, so let's not jump to conclusions."

It was in Spock's nature to consider every possibility and he knew better than to draw conclusions prematurely. Given Jim's propensity for danger and the fact that he'd failed to return as scheduled, it was only logical to suspect harm had befallen the captain.

As they boarded the lift, Uhura said, "You know he would've stayed if the situation were different."

"The situation did not mandate his participation in the landing party."

Able to sympathize with any conflict of interest involving Spock, Uhura defended Kirk's decision. "He had his orders," she asserted.

Spock stared with open curiosity at the lieutenant's sharp profile. Jim had failed to mention that his superiors' influence. Despite the failings of logic behind such a decision, Jim's compliance remained obligatory.

"I was not fully aware of the circumstances," Spock said.

"What did he tell you?"

"He informed me that regardless of my personal preference and assessment, he had a duty to perform."

Uhura suspected that without the admirals' expectations, Kirk would have found some excuse to join the party.

"That sounds like him," she said, more to herself than Spock.

The lift slowed to a stop.


Deep in conversation, Kirk and Scott mirrored each other with their arms crossed and heads bowed close. McCoy was in surgery repairing Giotto's leg, but he wouldn't have stuck around for a conversation he would claim was above his pay grade.

"Did he know what he was saying?" Kirk asked, referring to Eldridge's sedated ramblings. The sound of his own voice enhanced the muted quality of his hearing and left him feeling unbalanced.

When Scott spoke, he tilted his head toward the captain's good ear. "The doctor reckons his wits were about him." He hesitated a moment before adding, "If ye dinnae mind me saying so, enough strange happenings confirm it."

"You're right, but I'll need to talk to him."

"The man's got no love for ye."

Disfavor among his peers and superiors had been a running theme Kirk's whole life. "I'll bet," he said, a wolfish smile expressing how little he valued Eldridge's opinion.

Scott leveled a sober look on the bright eyed lad. "He's fixing tae lay blame and it would'na surprise me one bit if he were tae say the entire rebellion were yer doing."

"Then my fate rests in the admirals ability to see reason."

Scott arched a dubious eyebrow. "We'll all stand by ye, no questioning that."

Even with Eldridge in safe custody, the situation remained precarious. In the grand scheme of things Kirk was a lowly pawn. He harbored no illusions that he could see the entire board and its various political players, but he trusted his instincts. The admirals weren't looking to screw him over, he was just a convenient scapegoat should the need for one arise.

Voicing his next thoughts aloud, Kirk said, "With the rebellion, the trade agreement is null and void. Either we pull back and pretend we were never here, or we investigate who's been in contact with the planet."

"Nosing around will draw every eye faster than an Orion striptease."

"The fact remains that someone other than the Federation made contact." Kirk tugged at his right earlobe, the crust of blood itching. He winced when a shock of pain radiated from his inner ear and along his jaw.

Dropping his hand, Kirk spoke again. "Whether we were the first or not, the Prime Directive is no longer a liability." The shining gem in all this was that Kirk was off the hook if word of his mission reached public channels.

Scott stared at the captain's ear, wondering if he should insist the man take a bed and have a nurse check him over. "More trouble than it's worth, I say."

Kirk nodded in agreement. He doubted Ritalin was in high enough demand for Starfleet to request the Enterprise rekindle relations with the planet. The unknown agents who'd made contact with Thelos and supplied its people with weaponry were the real concern. The crucial question that Starfleet couldn't leave unanswered was whether the Brotherhood had targeted the Federation because of the convenient opportunity or because of intentional designs. One was an unfortunate case of bad timing, the other was cause for war.

"We'll debrief after I've spoken with the ambassador."

"Shall I round up the usual suspects?"

Kirk clapped Scotty's shoulder. "Keep this up and Mr. Spock may be out of a job."

Scott laughed. "I'm no first officer. O' course, it would mean I could approve my own inventory."

"God help us all," Kirk said.

The comm whistle cut off further discussion.

"Enter," Kirk said.

The door opened, revealing a relieved Uhura and her solemn companion.

Spock stepped into the office, eyes averted from the man he'd intended to see. He kept his hands clasped behind his back as if placed under restraint.

Kirk approached cautiously, uncertain of his reception.

A strange need crawled beneath Spock's skin. He fought to keep still. The phantom sensation of being pressed against Jim's backside, heat and strength focused on the sole task of protecting him. Jim stood before him and he couldn't bring himself to look up. He wanted to say something impressive, something that would remind Jim that despite being thirteen his intellect was beyond his years.

When Spock opened his mouth, he could only think to state the obvious. "You have returned," he said, a crease forming between his brows as he realized how utterly unimpressive he sounded.

"I have," Kirk said with a laugh. He sank to his knees and clasped Spock's shoulders. "I told you I'd be back."

"Your safe return does not negate the risk that was involved."

"I'm sorry for leaving."

Forcing himself to lift his eyes, alarm jolted through Spock's system. "You are injured," he said in a panicked tone. There were spots of dried blood along Jim's earlobe and jaw. Scratches marred the flesh of Jim's chin and the corner of his left eye and cheekbone appeared discolored and swollen.

"A few bumps and bruises."

"You must seek medical attention."

"Does this mean you forgive me?" Kirk asked. His roguish smile spoke of cunning, a man certain of his favor who knew forgiveness was inevitable.

Spock could not abide the continued misunderstanding between them. "In your absence, I concluded that your decision to return to Thelos was born of professional responsibility. Following the orders of your superiors was only logical. It was inappropriate that I asked you to remain."

Something in the kid's eyes told Kirk that despite any logical understanding of the situation, he still felt spurned. "I'm sorry."

"Continued expression of regret does not modify its meaning. Your apologies are unnecessary and ineffective."

"Your dad told me the same thing," Kirk said, his expression fond. "I'm still sorry."

Spock released a breath that could almost be taken for a sigh. His shoulders relaxed. "Your absence troubled me."

"Then I guess I'll have to stick around."

"I am amenable to such a solution."

McCoy appeared in the doorway and scanned his crowded office. Still in his surgical scrubs, he'd wasted no time in tracking Jim down.

Kirk rose to his feet and prepared a glib remark in the hope of defusing the doctor's wrath.

McCoy stalked closer and exclaimed, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" Without preamble, he invaded Jim's personal space and cupped the man's jaw. He tilted Jim's head to the side, eyes intent on the injured ear. "Your security chief told me what happened, you damn fool."

Kirk's prepared response fell to pieces when he saw the depth of worry etched in Bones' grim features. "It's fine," he said in what he hoped was a reassuring tone. He tried to turn his head away.

"Like hell." McCoy dug his fingers into Jim's cheek and kept him in place. "You say you can't hear out of it?"

"If this is going to take longer than ten minutes to fix, it can wait.

Fury sparked in McCoy's eyes and threatened medical override. "Don't make me pull rank. I will, but I don't wanna." He didn't have the energy to fight Jim every step of the way. The man needed to learn when to submit.

Kirk couldn't put off sending word to Command. Resigned to delegating the task, he motioned for Uhura to follow him and made a beeline for the nearest empty bed.

He apprised Uhura of the necessary points of the message: Ambassador Eldridge was alive and aboard the ship, Code 86 was believed to have occurred, and no casualties were sustained during the mission.

"No casualties, sir?" Uhura arched a sculpted eyebrow and cut a glance to the side of the captain's head.

"No fatalities," Kirk said, then added, "this time."

Uhura checked her notes, the message already composed in her head. "Consider it done."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Kirk fought the urge to swat the scanner away as Bones' checked him over.

Spock sidled up beside Dr. McCoy and stood on the balls of his feet, trying to glimpse the read out on the patient chart. "What are the extent of his injuries?" he asked.

Glad to have someone else taking the exam seriously, McCoy held the chart out for Spock to see. "Tympanic perforation, dehydration, low glucose and sodium levels, and a fractured skull from when his mama dropped him on his head."

Brow furrowed, Spock studied the chart. "Doctor-"

McCoy cut the kid off before he asked where the head injury was listed. "It's a joke." He pointed at Jim. "But there's no doubt someone dropped you on your head. Why else would you always get your priorities backwards?"

"Bones, just fix my ear. The lectures can wait."

It only took a few minutes for McCoy to clean Jim's ear, careful and thorough. When he finished, he stood back and crossed his arms. "Much as I hate to say this, you can go."

Suspicious, Kirk eyed Bones for a long moment. "What's the catch?"

"No catch," McCoy said. "Your ear's the worst of it. Even if I graft the perforation now, you won't hear much out of it for at least twenty-four hours."

"I see," Kirk said, still eyeing the doctor warily.

McCoy moved to the supply cart and produced a set of hypos. "Go do whatever it is that's put ants in your pants, then report back here." He loaded the first cartridge and set it against Jim's neck.

Kirk winced at the small prick.

"This is an antibiotic, to keep infection out." McCoy emptied the cartridge and loaded the second one. "This is a mild painkiller."

Kirk rubbed his neck, equal parts sullen and grateful. "That it?"

"Drink fluids, eat something, and don't agitate your ear. No rubbing or itching at it, and try not to overload anymore phasers."

Spock did not approve of Jim's early release. He debated whether to speak his mind on the issue.

"You should know," Kirk said, hopping down from the bed, "Hannity is running tests on the relic."

McCoy stopped scowling at Jim's chart and gave his full attention. "Does she have a time estimate?"

"No, but I wanted to give you the heads up. If and when we're ready to try something, it'll be done in sickbay."

"Since when does Jim Kirk take medical precautions?" The question was rhetorical. McCoy knew Jim well enough to know the double standards he held for everyone else's safety.

Kirk glanced at the Vulcan boy whose placid expression betrayed no reaction. "Since it involves Spock."

Sliding the chart back into the biobed, McCoy said, "I'll be ready when you need me." He strode off before he changed his mind and forced Jim to undergo the graft right then.

Attention still on Spock, Kirk asked, "Are you okay with this?"

Because Jim asked for his opinion directly, Spock decided he didn't need to hold back. "While I am confident Doctor McCoy is a competent physician, I have doubts pertaining to his objectivity in your diagnosis. I believe you should remain in sickbay and seek immediate treatment for your tympanic injury."

Laughing, Kirk felt the day's tension bleed away. "I meant are you okay with having the relic used on you again?"

The dilation of capillaries in Spock's cheeks was immediate and involuntary. Evidence of his embarrassment compelled him to bow his head, unsuccessfully attempting to hide his reaction. He startled when Jim touched his shoulder.

Kirk dropped his hand when Spock tensed. Not knowing how to interpret the kid's response, he knelt down and angled his head until Spock couldn't refuse to meet his gaze. "This isn't something I'm going to force you to do."

Unable to recover his calm when the blue depths of Jim's eyes were so close, Spock took a step back. "As evidenced by my current responses, I continue to struggle with emotional control. It is only natural that I attempt to rectify such flaws as soon as possible."

"You're not flawed," Kirk said, echoing Spock's concerns from a week ago. "There's nothing wrong with the way you are now, but changing you back is only natural."

Spock had anticipated this moment for the past week, knowing there was no real choice. "Would you allow me to refuse?" he asked, voicing his reservations for the first time.

Kirk studied Spock for a long moment. The boy stared intently at the ground, unwilling or perhaps too ashamed to meet his eyes. "Of course."

Spock's eyes snapped up. "Why?"

"Because there's no guarantee how it'll turn out. There are risks involved that I won't force you to take."

There were too many unknown variables to determine every possible outcome. Apart from death or disfigurement, the most prominent risks Spock could identify involved irreparable memory loss. "I might lose my memory of these past nine days and eighteen hours."

"You might lose your entire memory," Kirk said, searching for signs of fear in the boy. "It might make you even younger, or age you a hundred years."

"Yet you still approve of subjecting me to the device."

"Right now all we have are speculations. When Hannity knows more, we'll have a better idea of the risks involved."

"Lieutenant Hannity is not a qualified expert in this field. Knowledge of the Thelosian culture is necessary to understanding the workings of their technology."

"She'll consult whoever she needs to if she can't figure it out herself."

"Is your faith in her so absolute?"

"I trust her based on your own recommendation. You chose her personally for your department. That's all I need to know."

A dark tendril of envy unfurled inside Spock. The trust Jim spoke of wasn't for him, but his older self. "Very well," he said, unwilling to drag the conversation out any longer when he desired the isolation of his quarters. "I will make preparations and await your call."

Kirk watched Spock's retreating form, confused by the boy's abrupt agreement and departure. He knew something was wrong, but he didn't have time to chase after him.


-Author's note-

Slow update is slow. I'm sorry. Fan-fiction has taken a backseat now that I'm trying to publish original work and have to survive grad school. I promise never to abandon this fic, no bullshit hiatuses or anything like that. I will always have the next chapter in the works. It'll just take me months at a time before it's ready to post. I know how much works-in-progress suck, so I really wish I could write faster for everyone. You've all been so amazing with reviews. I really appreciate the support.

To my non-LJ readers, if you're curious about when the next update to any of my WIPs will be, then check out my LJ site. You don't need to friend me or have an LJ account to browse. I don't mind being asked when my next update will be, but odds are I won't answer since it's easier if you just check my LJ site periodically. The link is on my profile page, listed as my homepage. You can't miss it.