Chapter Nine: Return Voyage

Disclaimer: No money made here. All for love.

Carol Marcus steps over the open bulkhead and makes her way down the ship's corridor. Like most light cruisers, the Astra is more often than not pressed into service as a supply ship now that New Vulcan is being colonized. So many battle cruisers were lost at the Battle of Vulcan that the remaining light craft do double duty as patrols and transport vehicles.

That isn't to say that the ships are dreary and sterile or that the crews are too busy to personalize their quarters and make their ships—no matter how temporary or rushed the assignment—feel like home. The Astra is no exception. On her first night aboard, Carol finds the small botanical garden—or something approximating one—in a corner of the cramped observation lounge. Vines are draped up the wall, a bright orange, feathered tree overhangs several small prickly bushes, and a furry yellow and green lichen covers part of the deck plating. Hikaru Sulu, the Enterprise's helmsman who ferried Carol from New Vulcan to Andoria and who is now taking her back, waves miniature pruning shears in Carol's direction when she comes in.

"Dr. Marcus!" he calls. "Thank you for the tuber roots. I'm glad to add some native Andorian flora."

"I remember that you said you enjoyed xenobotany," Carol says, joining him near the plants. "I'm taking some home to try to propagate them. They were the most palatable thing on that whole ball of ice—those and the dried snow slugs. In fact, I'm seriously considering opening a restaurant on Earth serving nothing but Andorian cuisine."

Sulu gives her an odd look before breaking out in a big smile, and with a start, Carol realizes that it's been quite a while since she's made a joke. It feels good.

"This looks beautiful," she says, waving her hand at the trees and vines in the corner. Sulu purses his lips and shakes his head.

"This? This is just to keep them growing while the Enterprise is in Space Dock. I can't wait to transfer them to the real arboretum on the ship. The captain is letting me work with the botanist on the design."

His face is lit from within, his excitement palpable.

"So," Carol says, testing the waters, "the Enterprise repairs are moving along? And the captain?"

"He says he's training for a half-marathon next week," Sulu says. "You'd never know there was anything ever wrong with him."

If he blames Carol for the captain's health detour, his face gives nothing away. Instead, Sulu seems to have forgotten that Carol is basically a stranger to the crew. His manner is warm and familiar, a contrast to how reserved and distant Carol had felt on the outward journey.

"He's still on New Vulcan?" she asks, cutting her eyes at Sulu as she does.

"Who? Captain Kirk? No, returned to Earth a few days ago. You just missed him."

Carol feels an unaccountable and unexpected pang of sadness at the news. Belatedly she realizes that she was looking forward to spending some time with Jim Kirk again on New Vulcan. In fact, she told Selek that if she could arrange it, she would prefer to stay on the colony for several days before leaving again for Earth. Now that plan seems foolish and self-indulgent. Apparently the captain's recovery is quicker than anyone anticipated.

"But if you need to get in touch with him," Sulu says, pulling out his personal comm, "I have his contact information."

He flips open his comm and holds it up for Carol to see.

"Oh, no, well, I—" she stammers. She has no real excuse to get in touch with the captain. Still, it might not be a bad idea to have some way to reach him. Just in case something comes up in the future.

She realizes she is lying to herself, or rationalizing her desire to see him again. The last time she and the captain talked together, she had the unmistakable feeling that there was something there between them, something other than the gnawing guilt she's been dragging along for so long. So what if she wants to explore what that is? There's no harm in it, right?

For a second she struggles to know what to say to Sulu. At last she simply takes his comm in her hand and says, "Thank you," as she copies the contact information.

She watches as Sulu trims a few of the orange feathery leaves on the tree. His shoulders are squared and his knees bent like someone in a formal pose, and suddenly Carol thinks she knows why.

"Do you train in the martial arts, lieutenant?" she asks. To her surprise, Sulu laughs.

"Never was interested," he says, swinging the pruning shears up to rest on his shoulder. "Much to my uncle's disappointment. He's a grand master in taekwando. Not my cup of tea, so to speak. I much prefer fencing."

"Seriously?"

"Yes, Doctor. Why are you so surprised?"

"It's just that I enjoy it, too. Have since primary school, in fact. If this trip weren't so short, I'd offer to be your sparring partner."

Now it's Sulu's turn to look wide-eyed with surprise.

"When I finish this run I'll be home for two weeks before heading back out. We could meet at the Academy gym. Just say the word," he says.

Before she realizes what she's doing, Carol has a mental image of herself with her foil in her hand, her breeches snugged tight with suspenders, her jacket kept in place with the croissard, her new mask with the transparent aluminum visor firmly on her head. The old thrill of thrust and parry—she can almost taste the nervous energy before a hard workout.

"I'd like that," she says. It's true. She would like to spar with Sulu, would like to feel the heft of a foil or an epee or her favorite saber once again in her hand.

But agreeing to it somehow ties her to him in a way that feels strangely permanent, as if she can't then move away or back out. As if she is agreeing to spar with him all through the hiatus, and even afterward, when the Enterprise leaves for her next voyage.

"I'd like that," Carol says again, and this time she knows she is saying something more than just commenting about fencing. She's considering Starfleet again—something she hadn't thought she would do.

The trip to Andoria has made her rethink her usefulness...and reminded her that as singular as she feels, it is as a team member that she is most alive. How many people has it already taken to sort through the truth of the Andorian attack? Scotty and Sulu and Chekov and even the captain, with his suggestion of friendly fire? And Spock and Lt. Uhura, of course, who set all this in motion to start with.

Of course there's no guarantee that she'd be a member of the Enterprise crew again. In fact, her earlier deception may have made such an assignment harder to wrangle.

But there are other ships, other ways to serve. She may have been too hasty when she resigned.

She takes in a deep breath and lets out it. First things first, she tells herself. You can't rejoin Starfleet based on an upsurge of emotion. Take time to think this through.

"Deal," she hears herself tell Sulu, not quite sure what all she is agreeing to.

X X X

Spock turns up the heat on the wall controls and crosses the room to hand Carol Marcus a soft woven blanket, one of several he keeps handy here in his sitting room on New Vulcan. She's sitting with her arms wrapped around her bent knees on the sofa, the tips of her fingers barely visible out the ends of the sleeves of a Vulcan robe far too big for her. With a smile that Spock assumes is one of gratitude, she pulls the blanket over her shoulders.

"The desert air," he says by way of explanation. "It makes for chilly evenings here, though I don't recall being quite so uncomfortable at my parents' house in Shi'Kahr. One of the problems of old age—the inability to tolerate the cold."

Spock sees Dr. Marcus open her mouth to say something. The odds are high that she is preparing some human platitude, some reassurance that he is not old, as if old age were something to be avoided or ashamed of.

To some, perhaps it is. Or was. An image of Jim Kirk on his 59th birthday—more annoyed than cheered by the notice taken by his friends.

"I have never understood," Spock told him over a hasty lunch before Kirk, now an Admiral, had hurried to headquarters for a meeting with Admiral Soto, "why the celebration of your birth disturbs you. Surely it is a time of celebration."

"It's not birthdays I object to," Kirk said, lips pursed, "but growing old. And don't—" he said as Spock was about to make a rejoinder—"tell me that you can't have one without the other. You know what I mean. I have too many things I want to do before I die. Before I grow too old to do them."

"You are not old," Spock quipped. "Not even for a human."

Kirk had given him a sour look instead of bothering with an answer.

"Indeed," Spock continued, "I calculate the odds at 98.48% that for the foreseeable future you will experience reasonable good health and will pursue many activities in which you find purpose and meaning."

Kirk put down his fork and swallowed his salad before answering.

"Reasonable good health?"

"For a human."

Kirk picked his fork back up and eyed his salad with undisguised distaste.

"And all I have to do is eat rabbit food until then. Not a happy picture, Spock."

"Need I remind you that I am eating the same rabbit food."

"And will live to be 300, no doubt."

It was the kind of thing Jim Kirk could say without forethought—something that skirted the edge of wit but drifted into painful truth before he knew what he was doing. He was neither resentful nor jealous of Spock's possible longevity compared to his own—and for a moment Spock felt his heart heavy and low in his side, like someone already grieving the inevitable loss.

Of course, he had grieved in earnest a year later when Kirk was lost when the Enterprise-B tangled with the Nexus.

And then grieved again 78 years after that when the Nexus released him long enough to help Jon Luc Picard defeat a madman.

That time had been the worst, fraught as it was with missed opportunities and irony.

With an effort, Spock turns his attention to the young weapons specialist shivering on his sofa in his living room on New Vulcan.

"What will you do once you return to Earth?" he says as he settles himself in a chair opposite her. "Have you already procured employment?"

"I have not," she says with a sad smile. "I'm glad you brought that up, actually. I wonder if I might ask your advice about something."

Advice? Humans have often asked him for answers—to equations or complex procedures—but rarely has anyone asked for advice. The word conjures up interpersonal relationships and decisions based on what other people deem appropriate. Not his strength. He tells Dr. Marcus so.

"That's what makes you exactly the person I need to talk to," Dr. Marcus says. "I don't want to hear pat answers—like the kind my mother would give me. I need to see things from a different point of view."

"Then by all means, ask your question," Spock says, bemused despite himself. Carol Marcus tucks herself further into the sofa and pulls the blanket around her.

"When I left Starfleet, I never thought I'd consider going back. Not after what happened with my…father."

"You have changed your mind."

"Yes!" she says. "I mean, I'm thinking seriously about it. How did you know?"

"You prefaced your comments by saying that you would not have considered going back. Why mention that unless you have changed your mind."

The tip of Carol's nose turns bright pink, though from embarrassment or being overly bundled in a blanket, Spock isn't certain.

"Well, yes," she stammers. "That makes sense."

For a moment she is silent and Spock wonders if she will continue. Then with a little shake of her head, she goes on.

"When I was on Andoria, I had time to think about what happened with my father. He thought what he was doing was right, that he was helping Earth prepare for the kind of attack that destroyed Vulcan."

She looks at him so suddenly that Spock realizes she thinks her words might have upset him. As if a mention of the genocide could make him feel it more—a human idea, and one his mother would have shared. He nods briefly to encourage Dr. Marcus.

"I mean, I kept thinking that if I had known more information earlier, I could have stopped my father from all that he did. Waking Khan. Building the warship. The long range torpedoes. Everything. But then it came to me that he wasn't the only one working on this. That lots of people—even people high up—must have known. Must have given their approval. Paid the bills. Kept the secrets. It wasn't just my dad after all. Anyone who knew—and there had to have been some—had more chances than I did to stop him."

"Yet no one did," Spock says, and Carol nods. "Yet no one did," she echoes. Her expression lightens like someone letting go of a burden.

"What I did on Andoria wasn't much, but it was something," she says. Spock lifts an eyebrow in surprise. He's read the preliminary report from the Andorian Ruling Council. Carol Marcus figures prominently.

"Your modesty is unwarranted," he says. "You helped avert a war—or at the very least, a blood feud."

"But many people had a hand," she says. "And really, that's what has made me reconsider my resignation. I was just one person who helped put the pieces together—and I like that. I like being part of the whole. Being part of the team. No other job will let me work with people that talented. I'm going to miss that—if I try to work somewhere else. I keep picturing myself back on the Enterprise. Does that sound irrational?"

"It sounds," Spock says, "like you have already made up your mind."

"Not quite," Carol says. "I'm not sure that Captain Kirk will want a former stowaway as a crew member. I know he's recovering now, but he might not want me around as a constant reminder of—well, you know."

Spock steeples his hands and leans forward.

"Dr. Marcus, I know Jim Kirk better than anyone, and I can tell you that he does not blame you for what happened, either to the ship or to him personally."

"I wish I knew if that was true!"

He sees her coloring again, her nose as bright as one of the roses his mother used to grow in her garden on Vulcan.

"Ask him yourself," he says. "And I am certain he will be glad to have you as a member of his crew."

Seeing her hesitant look, Spock says, "Very glad, indeed."

A/N: One last chapter coming up…hopefully very soon. Thanks to everyone for staying with me. Thanks double-much to everyone who leaves a review!

Thanks as always to StarTrekFanWriter, for her suggestions. Check out her stories in my faves.