Notes: Sorry for the slow updating. I'm two weeks out from the end of my EMT training, and between studying and work, I haven't had any time. However, I have a quiet morning today, and I remembered that I'd been delinquent in my posting duties. Here's the next chapter!

*.&.*

"So, how'd it feel, Kirk?"

Jim finished running the towel over his hair and looked up to see Romano leaning against his locker, still looking sweaty. "How'd what feel?" he asked with a grin. "Getting back to the sparring mat, or watching my team kick your team's collective ass?"

Romano rolled his eyes and turned to open his locker and pull out some clean clothes. He was sweaty from sparring, flush-faced, and was working too hard at looking casual. "Getting back to the sparring mat," he said, dropping the clothes on the locker bench.

Jim shrugged and grabbed a clean pair of underwear. "Didn't go very hard today, but I can't complain for my first day off the restricted activity profile. It felt good. So did the other part. Glad to see that my squad has been practicing while I was gone." He glanced across the locker room where Stephens and Martinez were talking animatedly, obviously miming parts of their respective matches with broad arm gestures, and Jim allowed himself a proud smile. He turned his head back, still grinning.

Romano gave him a neutral nod as he stripped off his dirty sparring uniform. "Yeah, gotta admit – you've done a good job with them... for being a second-year." He tossed the uniform into the refresher unit, then walked over to the sonic shower, still talking. "But hey, the beer's good, so I can't complain too much if you're using up all your permitted credits for alcohol on me."

"Small sacrifices," Jim said, indulging in a smug grin as he pulled on his underwear and reached for his t-shirt. He hadn't felt much like drinking since the crash anyway. His head still felt fuzzy half the time, and he didn't need to do anything to make it worse. "I don't see how you can stand sonic showers," he said offhandedly. "I never feel clean with those."

"They're quicker." Romano's voice had the typical odd wavy tone from speaking through the sonics. "So, I hear your flight squad is back in the air tomorrow."

Jim was immensely grateful that Romano was tucked into the sonics stall, because he felt instantly gutted, and almost stumbled as he tried to pull on his uniform pants. "Yeah," he croaked, then coughed to clear his throat. "Just orbital maneuvers."

"Hmmm. I'm sure you guys will be back on track in no time."

"I'm sure," Jim said vaguely. He fastened the zipper of his pants, then the button, but his fingers felt clumsy.

"Looking forward to it?"

"Yeah." The word came out rough and low. He really didn't want to be having this conversation, and definitely not with Romano. For the past week, since the debriefing with his squad, he'd been trying not to think about it too much. If he thought about it, his mind went to one of three places - revenge for Tambe, anger at being told not to investigate the crash, or the way he'd barely made it through the flight simulation without panicking the week before.

"Is Captain Tanner going to try to fill the vacant slot?"

"I don't know," he bit out through mounting uneasiness. No, he didn't want to have this conversation with Romano, and there was no way in hell he wanted to consider replacing Tambe. He hurriedly pulled on his uniform jacket. "Listen, Romano, I'm meeting someone for lunch. Gotta run."

The sonics turned off, and Romano stepped out of the stall, grabbing his clothes off the bench. "Hey, don't let me hold you up. But don't forget - you owe me a beer tonight."

Jim nodded as he grabbed his bag and made his escape with a wave and a nod. "Later."

A moment later, Jim hurried out through the front door of the field house, walking rapidly across campus, forcing himself to breathe deeply and unclench his fists. As he moved, the nerves that had been building to a peak while he was talking to Romano began to diffuse as he breathed in the fresh air with its hint of ocean salt. That was always soothing, and Jim hadn't gotten enough of it in recent weeks. It was a decently warm day for early November – clear sky, little fog. He didn't need to spend a day like this dealing with Romano.

Hell, it was a Monday, but it was a pretty good day, all told. The doctors had cleared him for full duty again at his last physical therapy session, and in the very least, that had to be something to cheer about. Ready to begin Level Three fitness training again. Ready to spar in hand-to-hand again. Ready for active flight training.

At least, he was supposed to be ready. If he had to look himself in the eye, he wouldn't have been able to say he was.

It was a really disconcerting feeling. He knew he should be ready to go back up in a shuttlecraft. He knew he was capable. His flight aptitude testing and progress markers this semester were excellent. He damn well knew he could do it.

Which, of course, only made him feel far more irritated with himself when he realized how fucking nervous he was.

As much as he wasn't one to talk about feelings – in fact, his preferred approach was to plow through and see where the shit landed – he was starting to consider the possibility that he might actually need some help with this. He was considering asking the one guy he knew happened to have similar feelings about space flight and shuttlecrafts. The one guy he still trusted. The guy he was meeting for lunch.

He'd promised to meet Bones at the mess hall at noon. Truth be told, he'd barely seen Bones in the past week, especially since he'd gone back to his own dorm room. Bones had apparently been slammed with clinic duty, and was still trying to fight for his research project that had been put on hold. Jim still had no idea what his research project could possibly have to do with a malpractice case, especially since his research hadn't involved any patients, but it was possible that Starfleet Medical's top brass enjoyed punishing people in odd ways. Mess up in one area, get a different privilege revoked. It wouldn't be surprising. But either way, the few times that Jim had seen Bones lately, he'd been too stressed to really talk.

Lunch would be good for the both of them.

A few minutes later, Jim was pushing through the thick lunchtime crowds to get a tray. He was almost at the start of the short-order line when he spotted Bones... also in the short-order line.

"Bones!"

After a brief startle, Bones shot back a furious eyebrow. "Jim," he said with a huff of air. "Will you ever learn to greet someone in a civilized manner?"

"Sure," he said easily, grabbing a hamburger and a plate of fries off the line. "I aced Diplomacy Level Two last semester. I can properly greet sixty-one different sentient species."

"Good to know," Bones grumbled, grabbing his own plate of fries to go along with the burger he'd already grabbed. "Did that list include fellow humans?" Then he reached for a slice of chocolate cake at the end of the line.

Jim frowned as he grabbed an apple. "Uh... Bones... I know I'm the last person who should be offering dietary advice, but... I can't remember the last time you put that much fried food on your plate without any recognizable fresh vegetation. You okay?"

"Comfort food," came the grunted reply.

"Shouldn't that be... Georgia... let's see... fried okra, collard greens, southern-fried –"

"Leave it." Bones turned back over his shoulder, attempting a scowl, but failing. "I'm tired, Jim. They had me on clinic all weekend, and... let's talk when we get to a table. Here, follow me."

Weaving through the throng, Bones led the way out of the main part of the mess hall and up a flight of stairs to a smaller alcove where hungry cadets went to hide if they didn't want a lot of noise with their meals. He didn't say a word the entire time. Not so much as a glance in Jim's direction.

Jim, for his part, was starting to feel nervous. A dozen different possibilities flashed through his mind. Maybe Bones' research project situation had gotten worse. Or his ex-wife had found another way to torment him. Perhaps the medical malpractice case had gone all wrong. He might be furious at Jim for something Jim didn't even now he'd done yet... and that actually seemed like the safest starting point. "Uh... Bones? Did I do something wrong?"

But Bones just shook his head, then glanced around before settling on a table in the far corner of the alcove, against one of the large plate windows. It was brightly lit by daylight streaming in through the windows, but Bones hit the table like a storm cloud. He put his tray on the table just hard enough that his drink sloshed, and then sat with his back to the window. Jim mirrored him, albeit a bit more carefully, and opened his mouth to speak, but Bones glared at him before picking up his burger and taking a huge bite out of it.

Realizing that Bones wasn't going to speak until he was good and ready, Jim sighed and dug into his own food. The silence between them was uncomfortable, but there was no point in pushing it. The only sounds were the soft background conversations of other cadets and the clanks and clinks of dishes and cutlery. Bones wasn't even grumbling to himself. Finally, after Jim had finished almost half of his hamburger, Bones put down his own burger, leaned his elbows heavily on the table, and sighed. His face was unreadable.

"Sorry I'm being an ass."

Jim shrugged. "No problem. You're good at it."

The indefinable expression morphed into resignation. "Yeah... not good at much else lately."

"Okay, now I'm just worried. That doesn't sound like you." Putting down his own burger, Jim leaned over the table, mirroring his friend. "Come on, Bones. What's going on?"

He grumbled for a moment, staring at his fries, before looking up to meet Jim's gaze. "I need your help."

Now that was not what Jim had expected. "You need my help? With what? Are they giving you more shit about your research project? Do you want me to help you study for an exam?" Flashed what he hoped was a roguish grin. "Finally found a girl you like and need a wingman who won't let you down?"

Bones scowled for just the briefest of moments, then sighed again. "The last thing I need is your help with women. No... it's my Basic Engineering and... and Piloting class. We started our flight unit." His eyes suddenly began to look distantly haunted. "We did simulators the past two weeks, but we're going up next week. I thought I could do it, but I can't. I need help with this, Jim."

Jim stared across the table, feeling like his stomach had just fallen out. In his mind, the right answer was there, so clear, so obvious. He'd give Bones the most self-assured and reassuring grin he could manage, lean his chin on one hand, joke about how it was high time Bones realized he had valuable skills to share, and that of course he'd help with this. Always said he'd help Bones when the time finally came to get him back in a shuttlecraft. Would always be there for him. Tell him that he'd be fine, and that these things are pretty safe.

He couldn't say that now.

Instead, Jim swallowed tightly and forced the closest thing he could manage to a sympathetic smile. "Help with it... how?" That was the best he could stumble over.

Bones looked around the room nervously before setting his gaze back on Jim. "I need to do some flight sims with someone I trust. Practice. Irrational or not, the counselor I saw about the aviophobia isn't helping at all. And the self-help stuff, the psych doctorate, the self-hypnosis..." He groaned slightly. "I've tried all of it, Jim. I need to do this with someone."

"I didn't know you were..." What? Didn't know Bones was suffering through this? Jim wanted to slap himself. He knew fully well that Bones was dreading this, but with everything else going on, he'd forgotten. Completely. What sort of asshole was he? To forget that his best friend was getting ready to face a debilitating phobia, and he'd sworn that he was going to help when the time came? Fuck his own problems – sure, he'd had a legitimate distraction lately, but he had to move on. It's not all about me. Jim sighed heavily. "I'm sorry, Bones. I forgot that this was coming up for you. There's just been... you know... a lot going on."

"I know, and I'm sorry that I'm asking you for this now." He leaned back in his chair and blew out a heavy breath, pressing his hands on the edge of the table as if bracing himself. "Can you help me with it?"

Jim hesitated for a split second, mentally balking at the idea. His gut instinct was telling him to say, "Sorry, but I just can't do it," but after all Bones had done for him, he couldn't leave the guy hanging. So, quickly, before Bones might notice anything other than complete confidence and willingness, Jim leaned in closer and pasted the best mask of sincerity he could manage on his face. "What do you need me to do?"

A look of stark relief muted only by exhaustion washed over Bones' features. "Do you have any time for a couple of simulator run-throughs with me this week? Just walk through it a couple of times with me?"

Jim was nodding easily. "Sure, I can do that. Not a problem."

"And..." Bones' face pinched with indecisiveness.

"Spill it, Bones."

He held back for another moment before leaning in on the table. "You said you were going to test for assistant instructor status… if you think you're ready for it. When's the test?"

"I can request to test for it whenever I feel ready. Why?"

Bones looked down at his plate and poked at a French fry. It was really damned disconcerting to see Bones fidget. The guy grumbled, glared, and even growled upon occasion, but he didn't fidget. "We get to go up for our final exam with either an instructor or any certified assistant instructor available. We... I'd still be evaluated by my course instructor from the ground. It's not a complicated maneuver like the stuff you guys do. I just need to be able to take the shuttle up to a low orbit, complete one full planetary orbit, and bring the shuttle back to the hangar. Really basic." He looked up again, and his eyes held a thinly veiled desperation – something that Bones never showed, for any reason. "I don't want to pressure you, but if you're going to get your certification anyway... could you?"

Flattered that Bones would ask him something so important, shocked to have it thrown at him so unexpectedly, and scared as hell that he wouldn't be able to do it, Jim started to nod. He was going to say that he would. Of course. Without a doubt. But his comm unit suddenly buzzed. The tone signaled an urgent message, and Jim was almost relieved for the spare moment before he would reassure Bones that he'd be there to help.

Grabbing the communicator, he gave Bones the universal just a minute nod. Then he flipped the comm open, setting the volume to private mode and pressing it to his ear. "Cadet Kirk."

"Cadet Kirk, this is Captain Weise. You are ordered to report to Archer Hall, room 3017, at 1230 hours today."

Jim blinked in surprise at the oddly familiar voice that he couldn't quite place, but more surprised as he looked up at the chrono on the far wall. 1220 hours.

"Sir, it's already 1220 hours."

"Then you'll have to move quickly, Cadet." Her voice left no room for argument – she didn't care that he'd practically have to run to get there on time.

Jim grimaced to himself. "Yes, sir... but may I ask, why am I being ordered to report?"

"The Investigations Committee requires your further testimony regarding the crash. It has been nearly four weeks, and your final medical profile restrictions were removed today. Report promptly, Cadet. Captain Weise out."

Jim closed the comm unit before the disconnect chime finished sounding and looked up at Bones, who was staring back with a combination of curiosity and concern of his own. Vaguely, Jim was pleased to see a far more familiar look on Bones' face than the one he'd been wearing a minute ago, but mostly, he was too deep in his own problems to really care.

"Jim? What's going on?"

Swallowing tightly, Jim stood up and looped his bag over his shoulder in one rapid movement, causing Bones to startle. "I've gotten summoned to report to a board of inquiry... about the crash. I've got ten minutes to get there."

Bones was on his feet a second later. "You're kidding me! What is it with these investigation boards not giving people a goddamned minute to prepare?"

Jim looked at him grimly. "Maybe that's the point, Bones. No time to think up a new story or talk to someone else." He grabbed what was left of his hamburger. "Gotta go. You stay and finish your health food. Comm me after your lab tonight, okay?"

"Okay... but Jim?"

He froze, one foot already aimed towards the door, one foot holding its spot at the table. "Yeah, Bones?"

"Take care of yourself."

Nodding, because he didn't trust his voice just then, Jim gave a little wave and hurried out of the mess hall. He paused on the steps and stared at the half-eaten burger in his hand and sighed before tossing it in a reprocessing unit. He'd lost his appetite anyway.

The campus looked as mundane as ever for lunchtime on a Monday, with the pace of life around him relaxed under the clear November skies. The wind was cool but not cold yet. Cadets milled around on the quad, some even taking their lunches on the benches and grassy lawns instead of in the mess hall. The bright summer gardens had long since faded to the darker foliage of the late-year greenery, and everything seemed relaxed and subdued around him.

It was a cruel contrast to the hammering heart in his own chest, which seemed to keep time with the pounding of his feet on the plascrete as he rushed along the pathways across campus towards the admin buildings and Archer Hall. He was trying not to think about it too much, but questions and uncertainties spun in his head. What they might be asking him that they didn't already know? Had they had come any closer to identifying the saboteur? Who were the suspects? Why the fuck they hadn't called him sooner, why was nobody telling him anything, and would they question his own actions the day of the crash...

It made no sense to try anticipating anything when it came to administrative decisions, as he'd learned. Flag officers had their own way of approaching the world, and vaguely, he hoped he'd never be an admiral. Sitting behind desks all day must warp their minds, it seemed.

By the time he blew through the front doors of Archer Hall, he was out of breath and almost out of time. He waved his ID to the security scanner at the turbolift, then zipped up to the third floor. Room 3017 was opened, and as he walked through the door, any hope he'd had for a minor ordeal faded like smoke.

It wasn't an office. Instead, he found himself in a board room facing a long table positioned lengthwise across the back wall. Five chairs faced him from the far side of the table, each with a ranking officer, none of whom looked ready for a pleasant chat. In the center sat a starkly familiar Admiral whose name he didn't know... and to his right, there was – Captain Weise,his brain supplied, and he suddenly remembered why she'd seemed familiar on the comm. She and the Admiral – whatever his name was – had come to his hospital room to question him three weeks ago. There was another Admiral Jim had never seen before, a Commodore, and at the far left-hand end of the table, to his slight shock, sat Commander Toland.

Just one more thrilling surprise today, but he couldn't spare it a second thought as he stepped to the center of the room and faced the Admiral in the middle of the table. He snapped to attention and rendered a formal salute. "Cadet Kirk, reporting as ordered, Sir."

The Admiral returned the salute with practiced carelessness. "At ease, Cadet."

Jim dropped the salute, and although he assumed a relaxed position of parade rest, with his hands tucked just below the small of his back, he was anything but at ease.

The Admiral glanced down at a PADD for a moment, his moustache twitching as he read something before looking back up. "We apologize for the abruptness of the summons, Kirk, but for the integrity of these proceedings, the security of the investigation, and for your own safety, we felt it best."

Jim nodded, biting back the retort that was ready to spring sharply from his tongue. He'd have no excuses of pain meds, sedatives, and brain surgery to cloud his judgment of proper decorum today. "Understood, Admiral."

"Very good. Then we're ready to begin." He leaned forward on the table, all thick arms and neck, dark eyes set sternly in a reddish face with a large, square jaw above the start of a double chin and damn, he looks familiar. It wasn't just from the time the guy had intruded into Jim's hospital room, either, but damned if Jim could figure out why. The Admiral looked sideways at a Yeoman who was sitting at a small desk in the corner of the room – I didn't even notice her – who reached up to a computer console and flipped a control switch. The Admiral cleared his throat. "This is a formal investigation, Kirk. All questions and responses are being recorded. Please state your full name and rank for the record."

If the investigation itself hadn't been nerve-wracking enough, the unbridled formality tipped the scales. Swallowing, Jim said, "James Tiberius Kirk, Cadet Third Class."

The Admiral nodded, then looked down the table, indicating for the officers to follow suit.

"Commodore Patrick J. Hammond, JAG Investigations."

"Captain Annika Weise, JAG Investigations."

"Admiral Subira Ndungu, Starfleet Engineering."

"Commander Janice Toland, Academy Administration."

Jim could help but raise an eyebrow. Toland must not be working as a training instructor if she's in administration now, he mused absently, wondering why she switched tracks. He also noticed that she'd been promoted to full Commander, and wondered why. But all questions about the career track of his old pain-in-the-ass training instructor disappeared when the Admiral spoke.

"Admiral Anthony Romano, Starfleet Engineering."

Jim blinked. Stared. Shit. No wonder he'd looked familiar. Romano's father… that… it was just… shit.

"Yeoman Luiza Zietala, JAG Support Staff," chimed the Yeoman from the corner. "Names and stations complete for the record. Admiral." She nodded towards the table.

"Excellent," Romano acknowledge, then turned back to drill Jim with a questioning stare. "Now, Kirk, you previously provided a report to this committee regarding the events that occurred on the training shuttle Pisces. That report is still on record. However, it has been noted by several experts, including the lead neurologist on your medical case, that you were not in a suitable condition to give reliable testimony at that time."

Military training be damned, Jim couldn't help himself – he rolled his eyes.

"Do you disagree, Cadet Kirk?" the Admiral asked, with a sharp undertone.

I'm already fucked here, Jim thought bitterly. "Not at all. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree with the doctor's assessment. With all due respect, sir, I fail to see how any rational person would think it was a good idea in the first place to question someone when that person was just waking up from brain surgery."

Captain Weise shifted in her seat. "Kirk, your personal comfort was not –"

"Captain," Admiral Romano said, stopping her with a wave of his hand. "Kirk has a valid point and is in agreement with Starfleet Medical's top neurologists." He gave Jim a look of begruding apology. "You're right, Cadet, it wasn't the best idea."

"Then sir, seeing as this is a questioning session, I'd like to ask a question. I want to know why they made the decision to question me that day. I think it's only fair." Jim could feel his heart thudding in his chest. He was really pushing his luck, but he was also delaying the interrogation. Because honestly, he couldn't remember anything more than he could three weeks ago. In fact, the details were far more fuzzy now, blurred by time.

"Cadet Kirk," came a voice he hadn't heard directly in months. Jim turned to the left to see Commander Toland looking directly at him, piercing eyes and unapologetic mouth. "The decision was made to seek information as rapidly as possible due to the volatile political situation revolving around Starfleet's pending acquisition of new impulse engine technology. The administration needed to ensure the safety and security of the shuttlecraft and engineering programs before the live trials could proceed."

Jim wanted to gape at her. After the shit he'd gone through in her training sims the year before, she was speaking as if she barely knew him. For a split second, he felt his jaw threatening to go slack as he stared back, but he caught himself. "I appreciate the explanation, sir," he said as flatly as possible. "But with unreliable testimony from a cadet with a brain injury –" It was hard not to flinch at the thought as he said it. "– was there any gain in questioning me so soon?"

"We confirmed that the flight recorder data did indeed match your testimony, Kirk," she said, still not faltering in her hard gaze. "And based on that, the administration concluded that their propulsion research program could move forward as planned."

Oh, so they hassled me fresh out of surgery so they could get their damned new engines faster? He glanced at Admiral Romano – Starfleet Engineering, huh? – and icy bitterness rose in his throat. On the surface, he met Toland's steady look with a polite nod. "Good to know."

There was a conspicuous throat-clearing, and Jim looked back over at Admiral Romano, who didn't seem pleased. "Kirk, I will also instruct you that anything that is said or heard in this room today can not be repeated outside of a formal board until further notice. This investigation is classified."

Classified, my ass. "Yes, Admiral."

Romano made a self-satisfied nod – Now I know where his son gets the attitude – and reached to tap a control on the computer console embedded in the tabletop. "Now, Kirk, there were a few parts of your last training mission that we wish to review in further detail now that you've recovered."

On the wall to Jim's right, a large vid screen activated, and Jim immediately recognized the format of the flight recorder data stream. Even without the information at the bottom of the screen, identifying the shuttlecraft, the two pilots, and the stardate, Jim would have known exactly which one it was. No, not by the fact that he was in a formal investigation for the mission that day, but by the shuttlecraft's external view. The view of Earth from their position of geosynchronous orbit was as breathtaking as ever.

At least that memory was clear as the day it happened.

But very quickly, the recorder feed was activated, and Jim felt himself sinking into the nightmare. As they progressed through the mission, various officers would prompt him with questions as he tried to explain what was said and done with professional detachment. And suddenly, Admiral Romano stopped the feedback.

"Explain this part again," he said, his voice unreadable.

"Sir?"

"You noticed the drop in engine efficiency before the first maneuver, yet you completed the maneuver regardless of the abnormal readings."

Welcome to the hot seat, Jim thought cynically to himself. "As Cadet Tambe noted, we were still within specs to complete the maneuver."

"Yet you considered it to be a great enough concern that you pursued it after the first maneuver had been completed. So which was it? Within specs, or abnormal enough to pursue during a training mission?"

Jim let out a slow breath, gathering the right words. "We had several minutes with no course changes, and it seemed prudent to see what was causing it, and fix it if possible, even if it wasn't outside of minimal operating parameters."

"So," Romano said slowly, "it was prudent to put the time and effort into fixing the perceived problem… even though the ranking cadet told you that it was good enough."

This time, Jim was unable to keep his mouth from falling open slightly. "Sir, in Nova Squadron, we balance each other. Not everyone can anticipate everything, even the squad leader. We rely on each other to speak up, and we discuss issues to come to the best decision possible. It's how our team works. And as you just heard me say a moment ago in the recorder playback, 'This is Starfleet. Good enough never is.' Sir."

Romano gave a tight nod, but there was no indication as to whether he approved of Jim's answer or not. "So you began investigating the engines. What did you find?"

A queasy knot began to tie itself in the pit of Jim's stomach. "Nothing abnormal aside from the efficiency drop."

"And then, Cadet Kirk, after finding nothing abnormal, and after being told by your squad leader to leave it alone, what did you do?"

The knot tightened. "I was certain that something must be causing the drop in engine efficiency, and deduced that improving the efficiency of the power conduit circuits might help bring the efficiency back to normal."

At that, Admiral Ndungu leaned in slightly, eyes flashing sharply in her dark face. "You're not an engineering cadet, so where did you learn to rewire an engine, Kirk?"

"My roommate is an engineering cadet, and I have acquaintances in the Engineering department. I always felt that knowledge was valuable, sir, so I try to learn as much as possible."

"An admirable pursuit," she said, but she didn't actually seem impressed. "Yet you decided to rewire an engine, in mid-flight, using tricks you learned from some of your friends, when you couldn't actually find anything wrong with the shuttlecraft?"

The air seemed to be getting awfully thick, Jim noted as he cleared his throat. "Sir, there was still an unexplained drop in efficiency. That indicates that there was something wrong, but I just hadn't found the cause yet."

"So you tried to fix a problem you hadn't yet identified," she said, this time, a note of scorn tinting her words. "Kirk, did you know that some life-saving medications can actually be fatal if administered to a person not suffering from the disease they're intended to treat?"

Around the sardonically amused thought, I should ask Bones about that, Jim realized bleakly where this was going. "I'm aware of this, sir. However, the alteration I made would have been more analogous to taking a vitamin supplement."

Admiral Ndungu inclined her head, gently demanding the explanation.

"It was a technique my roommate showed me," he began, trying to ignore the way his hands were itching for something to hold to steady himself. "He's been working on engine efficiency models, and I got him to show me what he's been up to. He showed me several modifications he's designed around the shuttlecraft engines – easy things, such as creating more simplified circuits, that can help to improve output and increase efficiency. I looked at his models, and his ideas worked. So, I thought that if the engine efficiency was down, trying a technique to improve the efficiency might help compensate." He swallowed, suddenly realizing how dry his throat was. "It was just a simple modification."

Ndungu reached to her own computer console and tapped a few controls. The vid screen shifted to a new view – an engine schematic. "Show us," she said.

Feeling like he was facing a firing squad, Jim approached the vid screen and began to explain. After ten minutes of trying to discuss engineering theory with the damned admiral in charge of the Academy's engineering program, Jim realized he'd never been quite so over his head in his life. He was almost relieved to step back and let them continue playing the flight recorder data.

The vid became more and more tense as the mission playback progressed. The officers on the investigation panel continued to grill him over every decision, every word, every shortcoming he might possibly have in this universe and any other that might exist. He was starting to feel as though he was under investigation for causing the crash, but that seemed ridiculous. That was just how people were in investigations like this – distant, cold, harsh.

The shuttle was starting to spiral towards the surface of Mars on the vid screen, and Jim could feel his own pulse quicken with dread. In the recording, he was calling for a beam-out, snapping back at the Mars Orbiter personnel, and scrambling out of his seat. He was out of the view of the vid recorder in the cabin of the shuttlecraft, in a last-ditch attempt to fix the engines, so as he stared at the vid screen, he filled in what he could remember.

"So at this point, I was just trying see if there was anything I'd missed that could be causing it. Last-ditch effort." Too little, too late, he thought angrily at himself. "I went back into the engine circuits to run a direct scan. There was nothing in the primary access zone, so I removed the secondary panels and tried to run an EM scan."

Truth be told, he wasn't entirely sure what he had been doing at that point. The closer he got to the crash, the fuzzier the memories became. The harder he tried to recall, the more the images, sounds, and sensations seemed to slip away from him. He knew he must have been running an EM scan because that's what I would have done. He remembered running some sort of scan, but not what the scan showed, and not what he saw.

"What did the scan show?" came the emotionless question from Romano, as the playback was stopped yet again.

Swallowing tightly, Jim could only say, "I don't remember."

"Are you sure about that, Kirk?"

"Yes, I'm certain that I don't remember," Jim bit out, not caring that his frustration was showing. "Believe me, sir, I've been trying."

"Then what about this?" He let the vid play for just a few more seconds, and Jim heard his voice one more time:

"What the fuck is tha –"

Feeling a hot flush of professional indignity for cussing on duty, he started to apologize, "I'm sorry for swearing, sir, but I –"

"We don't care about your language this time, Kirk." Romano leaned in dangerously. "We need to know what you saw."

Jim clenched his jaw so hard that it hurt. That blank spot in his mind kept getting harder and harder to pin down, much less fill. What had been almost on the tip of his tongue three weeks ago was now completely lost. "I need to know, too, Admiral. But I don't remember. I can't. I've tried, but it's just not there."

"But you're certain you remember seeing something out of

place in the engine?" That was Toland again.

Jim turned slightly to look at her directly, and she was still wearing that same look of absolute focus and attention she'd been wearing when she last spoke. Squaring his shoulders, Jim said firmly, "Yes, sir. I would swear anything by it. There was something in the engine of the Pisces that didn't belong there, and I am certain that it was causing the malfunctions. If anything stuck in my head from those last few minutes, that was it."

For a split second, Jim was certain that she believed him – absolutely and without question – but then Ndungu spoke again.

"So, Cadet, without any physical evidence to support your claim, as the majority of the wreckage was vaporized, and with your memory of the incident appearing broken at best, we're supposed to believe that a thing of unknown origin, dimensions, and function was completely responsible for this crash?" She folded her hands beneath her chin. "Because given my considerable experience in the field of engineering, and based on my observations of the flight data, it seems that the shuttlecraft was functioning completely within acceptable parameters until you started tinkering with it."

The room suddenly seemed too hot, the air too thin. In a split second, Jim's entire perception of this inquiry session turned on its head. No. No, no, no... they've got it wrong. No fucking way. If they were thinking of dismissing the concept of sabotage, and were going to blame him instead because it was easier... NO. He squared his shoulders and forced himself to keep a steady posture. "Sir, I stand by my assertion that the efficiency readings indicated a problem at the outset, before I touched the engines. A five point drop in efficiency between test-firing the engines that morning and the start of extra-orbital maneuvers doesn't happen without cause."

She didn't nod, didn't shake her head. Didn't give any indication of what she was thinking. "And Kirk, if you had been so certain there was a problem at the start of the training mission, I'll ask you again, why did you not abort the mission or comm your instructor with your concerns?"

Jim opened his mouth, but the words froze. There was only one correct answer to that question, but it was one he didn't want to give. Hated to give. Couldn't give. But he had no choice in the matter. "We thought it might have been a test to see how we'd react, and wanted to see if we could fix it ourselves," he offered vaguely.

"You attempted to fix it and failed, Cadet," Captain Weise cut in harshly. "Explain to me again why you didn't contact the Mars Orbiter or your instructor directly when it was clear that the problems were continuing."

"The problems we experienced weren't a threat to the mission until we came within range of Mars. Everything was still within operating parameters, and we had decided that we could complete the maneuver around Mars and request repairs when we docked at the Mars Orbiter." His heart was thudding uncomfortably, and he felt unsteady on his feet. "It went critical too suddenly."

Romano's eyes were unwavering as they locked with his. "Did you make the call, Kirk?"

That was the core of the issue – the one thing that Jim absolutely refused to consider, but now that it was staring him in the face, he couldn't avoid it any longer. In the end, it had been Tambe's call. Jim's throat suddenly went absolutely dry, and he whispered harshly, "No, sir."

"When Tambe made the call, did you question it?"

"No, sir." He was ashamed at how weak and watery his voice sounded. "But I should have been able to identify the problem. If I'd given her more accurate information, she could have made a better decision."

"But it was still Cadet Tambe's call," Toland chimed in with unreadable neutrality.

Jim flinched, but refused to answer directly. "But... if I'd found the thing in the engine sooner –"

"We haven't confirmed if this mysterious thing even exists," Ndungu said critically.

Jim scowled. "It does. Did." He turned back to Admiral Romano. "Sir, I ran a complete Level-2 diagnostic on that shuttle before we left the hangar that morning for breakfast. There was nothing unusual going on with that shuttle up to the point when I finished the diagnostic, unless it was something that couldn't have been caught by a level-2 diagnostic." He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. This needed to go in a different direction. He opened his eyes and steeled himself. "After a year of Starfleet training, I've learned – we've learned – that the Academy instructors love to throw unexpected training scenarios at us; fake problems, pre-programmed malfunctions, scheduled interruptions. We were operating under the assumption that this was yet another one of those very common training twists."

"So you thought it was fake until the moment you experienced catastrophic failure?" Admiral Ndungu's voice was cold and derisive.

"Given the nature of the training I've received thus far at the Academy, sir, I believe it was a reasonable assumption."

"Cadet Kirk," Toland suddenly interrupted, with a strange undertone in her voice, "You've seen what happens when training turns into something real. So what do you do differently when it happens to be real?"

It almost seemed like she was throwing him a rope of some sort, but he had no idea why, or what, or how to grab hold. Feeling oddly separated from his own body, Jim spoke automatically, almost as if reciting something he'd rehearsed, something he'd said to himself many times. "Nothing. We'd do the same thing we'd do if it were training, Commander. We react as if we had no safety net to rely on. If that malfunction had been real... we'd still have to be able to make those exact same maneuvers without a nearby space station and other facilities to help us. That's one of the first things we learn in the command track. We train to make the decisions, right or wrong, but we need to make a decision, and we hope to God that we do some of it right. If we live through it, we learn, and try to make a better decision next time."

"And if you'd been sure that this was a real malfunction, would you have made a different decision?"

And Jim froze. Because here was the point where could say, and should say, for himself, that it wasn't his place to make the decision... but he didn't want to do anything to taint Tambe's memory. At the same time, he couldn't indicate that he'd break the chain of command and go over her head if the situation had been different. And if it had been him making the final call, he wasn't sure what he'd have done. Hell, he had no idea what she'd do, either. "Sir, Tambe and I reacted to the information we had. Until the engines went into total failure, we had no reason to suspect it could get that bad. Don't tarnish her memory." He fixed his eyes on hers fiercely. "We made decisions, as a team, and we have to live or die with those decisions, sir. That's how it always will be, here or anywhere. We accepted that when we joined Starfleet. And, in any situation... you know what they say about hindsight."

Slightly, ever so slightly, Toland nodded. She looked oddly satisfied with his answer.

"Well, Cadet Kirk," Admiral Romano suddenly said, "This concludes our questions for you today. Do you have any statements or questions for the record?"

Jim pressed his lips together, facing Romano determinedly, then nodded. "A couple, sir." If he had to be raked over the coals and grilled, then in the very least, he was going to leave a few searing questions for them, too.

Romano gave a tilt of the head, inviting him to speak.

"First, sirs, I want to know if the results of this investigation will be made public."

"The results," Romano said evenly, "will be made public if and as they suit the needs of Starfleet and the Federation."

You hyper-political, posturing bastards. "Understood, sir. Second, do you have any suspects or leads?"

The room went dead silent for just a moment too long to feel right. Slowly, Romano leaned forward on his elbows, forearms folded. His neck looked thicker than usual, slightly tucked back into his shoulders. "Kirk, the situation is highly complex. Several possibilities are being investigated, but at the moment, seeing as the investigation is ongoing, we've clearly not reached any conclusions."

Jim bit down on his lower lip briefly, knowing that he should, perhaps, hold back. He couldn't. "Have you investigated Terra Prime?"

There was a sudden ruffle of murmuring at the table, with the officers glancing back and forth at each other in confusion... all except Toland. The faint look of approval that had been there a moment ago was gone, and her eyes were suddenly sharp and angry. It was Commodore Hammond whose voice cut through the low whispering.

"Cadet Kirk, what would cause you to make such an outrageous jump in reasoning?" Hammond looked positively furious. "There hasn't been a single piece of evidence to connect them to this. Do you believe Terra Prime operatives managed to penetrate the campus that deeply, only to sabotage a shuttle?"

"They planted four bombs in this building a year ago, Commodore," Jim said unapologetically.

Hammond's face only flushed an angrier shade of red. "Yes, Cadet. But Terra Prime has gloated over every incident they've caused in the past dozen decades. Thus far, they've not claimed any sort of responsibility for the crash."

Jim narrowed his eyes. "Why would they claim responsibility for a mission they failed?"

"Failed?" Hammond's fury dissolved instantly into confusion.

"Kirk," Romano cut in, "if Terra Prime caused this crash as you claim..." He scowled and shook his head incredulously. "The damned shuttle crashed, Kirk, as you well know. If that's what they were trying to do, they certainly succeeded, and would have been gloating on the news vids for the past month. Why would you say they failed?"

Jim opened his mouth, ready to say, Because I'm still alive, but out of the corner of his eye, he caught a scathing glare from Commander Toland, and suddenly he understood. The upper administration kept my involvement in last year's incident classified. None of these officers know anything about it except Toland. His instinct was still to bring the whole thing to light right then and there. If Terra Prime was after him, and was a renewed threat to campus, then these people ought to know. But something in the way Toland was glaring at him caused him to hold his tongue. Biting back everything he wanted to say, he squared himself up and stood at attention, doing his damnedest to look every inch the perfect cadet, and said, "Because if their purpose was to disrupt operations and stop the shuttle engine program, sir, then this attempt would be an absolute failure. The engine program is continuing, and so are we."

There was nothing but an uneasy silence for a moment as Kirk silently prayed that his cheesy, bullshit, Hail Mary pass would work. Finally, Admiral Romano's shoulders sagged slightly, and he sighed. "True enough there, Kirk. An admirable sentiment. However, at the moment, the suggestion of Terra Prime's involvement here is truly nothing more than wild speculation. And yes, although the details of last year's attempted bombing are highly classified, I'm aware that you, like the rest of us, heard enough from the news vids to put a lot of it together. Yes, they did attempt to attack the campus. But if it only took two cadets to disrupt their plans and destroy their base of operations, then it's highly unlikely that their organization is sophisticated enough right now to be able to penetrate our improved security perimeter."

You ignorant bastard. You have no fucking clue what happened last year, and you have no idea who you're talking to. On the outside, Jim just held his face neutrally and said, "I'm merely concerned for the safety of campus. My teammate died, sir. I don't want to see that happen to anyone else because we missed a possible threat."

"Again, your sentiment is admirable. Noble, even. But I assure you," Romano said, placatingly, "that every possible lead is being explored. And if there is nothing else, Kirk, we can close our inquiry for today." He raised an eyebrow, inviting Kirk to say his piece of there was anything left to say."

"Nothing else, sir," Jim said, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice. He suspected that he was not entirely successful.

"Thank you, Cadet Kirk." He turned towards the side of the room. "Yeoman?"

Yeoman Zietala nodded sharply, and she tabbed a switch on her computer terminal. "This concludes today's investigational questioning of Cadet James Tiberius Kirk regarding the crash of the shuttlecraft Pisces. Nothing follows."

"Cadet Kirk," Romano said, "you're dismissed."

It was as though a puppet string or tether had been suddenly cut, and Jim felt himself sag in his clothes. Hold it together. Just another minute. Coming clumsily to attention, Jim saluted, when the salute had been returned, he executed a dizzy about-face and hurried out the door. As soon as the door slid shut behind him, his shoulders slumped as if some unseen weight had finally become too much. All but dragging his feet, he made it down the hall to a small seating area – a few armchairs and small tables in an alcove – and dropped into the first chair he reached.

They didn't believe him.

They didn't think Terra Prime had anything to do with the crash. They weren't really going to investigate the possibility. The lead investigator was Admiral Romano, of all people! As if the fates hadn't fucked with him enough. They were questioning his own decision-making process. Admiral Ndungu even seemed to be suggesting – fuck it all – that he'd caused the crash himself! Not a single one of them had shown even the slightest damned hint of support or belief, except Commander Toland, and of all people, why the hell she'd come back to haunt him now was just –

"Mind if I join you, Kirk?"

He didn't want to look up. Didn't want to nod, wave a hand to the seat across from him, and say, Of course, sir. Didn't want to let Toland give him a searching gaze while he sat silently, determined not to cringe. But he did all of those things, because he did want to ask her something.

"Commander... why'd you stop me?"

She gaped at him in sarcastic disbelief for a moment before rolling her eyes. "You were smart enough to pick up on the clue, but not smart enough to figure out why, were you?" She leaned in, elbows resting heavily on her knees, and gave him another searching look before speaking in a hushed tone. "Kirk, do you have any idea how tightly locked those records actually are?"

Realizing that this needed to be kept quiet, Jim leaned in and mirrored Toland's posture. "Well... I'm going to guess that Captain Pike did an amazing job of keeping my privacy. And McCoy's, too."

"Damn, Kirk!" she snarled, a breathy, harsh whisper. "And I thought you'd actually learned something valuable last year. Your privacy was part of it, yes, but there was a hell of a lot more going on. Security issues, Kirk. Trust me, the top Academy officials would have loved to tout your name for a publicity stunt. The only reason Pike got them to agree not to reveal your name was because of the security risk. If you leak a tiny piece of information to the public, it's amazing how fast they discover things you didn't want them to know."

"So... politics?" Jim asked dryly.

Toland blew out a slow breath. "In a manner of speaking. People always have reasons for the things they do. Those reasons just aren't always obvious."

Don't I know it. Jim pressed his lips together for a moment, considering her, then gave a half-hearted nod. "But some information was released to the media, right?"

"Of course," came the flat reply. "We had to tell them something. But do you know how generalized those statements were? Do you know how much information was carefully left out, and how carefully designed the official statement really was? The specific details of the bomb threat were isolated to the Academy's primary communication's lab and array, and the leadership at Archer Hall. Even more information was kept only to the highest levels of Starfleet Security." Her gaze cut like a dagger. "The fact that you were involved wasn't released to anyone who didn't need to know. And there you went, almost spilling it to a whole room of people."

Jim dropped his gaze to stare at his feet, because he couldn't quite face her fierce expression. "I figured, with their rank and importance, that they'd know those things."

"They're JAG and Engineering, Kirk. Not Intelligence and Security."

"Then who knew?"

She blew out an exasperated breath. "Captain Pike, Admiral Barnett, the few training staff who were supposed to intercept you for the false abduction, the Awards Committee in Starfleet Command, the people who treated you and McCoy at Starfleet Medical... and me. All sworn to secrecy, Kirk. Yes, for security reasons, but at the end of the day... Captain Pike pushed for it because you requested it. And after all the shit you'd gone through... we thought it was a fair request."

Her voice took on a pained note on the last few words, and Jim had to glance up again. "Then I thank you." Then he frowned. "But what's the good of keeping the secret now if it might have something to do with this investigation?

She leaned in closer, letting him see every ounce of incredulity she was pouring into her expression. "Do you honestly believe that your completely coincidental kidnapping from last year by people who never identified you has anything to do with an engine issue – sabotage or otherwise – in a shuttle you piloted this year?"

"I think there's a good chance."

"For heaven's sake, Kirk, you need to drop that. I know you think the world is out to get you right now, and it probably feels like it, but there's no indication that Terra Prime is involved in this."

"And there was no indication that they were going to blow up the Parisian embassy until it was a pile of rubble!" he hissed. With a groan, he leaned his face into his hands and scrubbed at his eyes, trying to think clearly around the headache starting to throb solidly behind his temples. "I think it's worth considering," he finally said.

"I assure you, we're considering everything. And we're not going to stop until we find out what caused this. But we can't chase leads that have absolutely no supporting evidence. "

Jim pulled his hands away from his face. "Admiral Ndungu seems to think I caused it. Is there supporting evidence for that? Huh?"

"She's aggressive, Kirk, but in case you didn't notice, there was no formal accusation. Admiral Ndungu doesn't pull punches. If there had been evidence, other than circumstantial, then she would have accused you directly instead of just trying to goad more information."

"So do you think I caused it?" he all but snapped.

Toland's gaze was firm and steady. "No."

For the first time since she'd joined him, Jim felt a flash of hope. "Then you believe me?"

"Yes. I do. If not about Terra Prime, then about the sabotage, and there being something in the engine." Then she frowned slightly. "But my personal instinct has no place in an investigation. We're still hunting for facts."

"Facts," Jim said with a bitter chuckle. "Facts. The fact is, Commander, that the person or people who murdered Cadet Tambe are still out there."

"I know." With a sigh, she leaned back in her chair, considering him. "Kirk, you did a damned good job of holding it together in there. You faced down Romano and Ndungu, and just as impressively, Captain Weise. They're a tall order on a good day. But don't think for a moment that I couldn't see what was going on. You've been having memory problems since the crash, and it's not getting better."

Jim snorted. "What gives you such special insight, Commander?"

"I watched you train for a year, Kirk. Those of us who run training simulations learn to read people. We have to. And after watching you in action for a year, I can tell when you're off. The way you were in there today..." Her voice trailed off.

"Oh, I see how it is." He shook his head irritably. "I'm an open book to you. So if you can see that I'm telling you the truth about what happened, then why won't you push to investigate Terra Prime?"

"I can't do that."

Jim looked sharply at her for a split second before staring off over her shoulder at the far wall, trying to pull his nebulous thoughts together. If she wasn't going to flat-out tell him, he could certainly speculate aloud and see if she'd give up anything accidentally.

"If the information withheld from the media last year was a security issue... that must mean we didn't wrap up the deal as neatly as I thought."

"Kirk..." Toland started warningly.

"I'll bet that some Terra Prime operatives didn't die in the blast. Maybe some of..." He felt his eyes widen. "There were four who ambushed us... but only two in the truck when we got out. There were two left behind at campus after they planted the bombs... which means not everyone was in the bunker when it blew."

"Kirk, you're pushing a bit too far here."

"Those are people who would have known my face. And what if they have operatives within Starfleet? Sympathizers? Someone who tipped them off about me, and they decided to get revenge for last year?" A surge of raw nerves started his heart beating faster in his chest. He needed to know. "Commander, what other information from last year was held back from the media? There has to be something relevant to this."

"If it was held back from the media, that probably means I'm not supposed to tell cadets, either." Her voice was like ice.

"Even cadets who were directly involved?" Jim scoffed.

"Especially cadets who were directly involved!"

"Then why do I also get the feeling that you don't want me to know personally?"

After several seconds of a razor-edged glare, Toland's shoulders slumped, ever so slightly, and resignation crept up on her. "You're right, Kirk – I don't want you to know. And that's because I know you'd read too much into it. And you'd jump to conclusions, just like you're doing now. And then you'd jump into the fray without even knowing what you're getting into."

"Why would you think that?" Jim asked with self-deprecatory scorn.

"Because I watched you do just that... ten years ago."

Jim opened his mouth to ask what the hell she meant by that, but the words died on his tongue almost instantly as his emotions twisted from realization to anger to pure horror in a second. The grim look on Toland's face did nothing to soften the blow. "Don't bring that up again," he growled. "Not now, not ever."

"It's part of who you are now."

"It's dead and in the past. It has nothing to do with this. Not with the crash, not with Terra Prime." He glared at her for a long moment, and she met his gaze, not blinking, not flinching.

"I'm sorry," she finally said.

With a lurch, Jim heaved himself out of the armchair and looked down at Toland. "Yeah. So am I. Congratulations on the promotion, sir."

He thought she might have said "thank you," but it was drowned out by his own harsh breathing as he turned on his heel and walked away. Even as he stormed out of Archer Hall and into the surprisingly warm sunlight of the afternoon, the block of ice that had lodged itself in his gut showed no signs of melting. He didn't look back once.

*.&.*