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But We'll Ignore the Last Exit (it was light-years ago)

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A week after he's been debriefed, Jim is pacing up and down in Pike's office. He's still walking with the crutch, and still not used to it, so he makes slow – loud – progress.

Pike looks at him, rubs the bridge of his nose and says, "Kid, do you really want to trade war stories?"

"Sir, I…"

"Because we can have that conversation, but I'll win. And if this is some kind of an emotional break-down, we had that conversation already."

"I know."

"I told you not to be an idiot."

"I know that, sir."

"But you went ahead and did it anyway."

"That's not really-."

"Don't argue with me, Kirk, just listen."

"Yes, sir."

"I have a job for you. Since you're so good with people." Pike taps papers on his desk that Jim is pretty sure formed part of his report the week before. That hadn't gone well.

"I really didn't mean to-," Jim says. "You know Starfleet Command, they're all… It wasn't my fault. Mostly."

"We established that," Pike says. "Barely." His tone softens. "It was a bad mission. It happens. We get over them."

"Yes, sir."

"And I know how we're going to make you useful in the meantime."

This is how Jim ends up as an 'honorary guest lecturer' for the Academy first year intake. It's the second week of term and he has to talk to a hall full of scared kids (and cocky kids, and kids who had something to run away from, and kids who want to change the universe…). He's less and less sure that Pike actually likes him.

He has led seminars before, and some smaller classes. It's nothing like one hundred pairs of staring eyes waiting for him to say something that's going to validate their life choices. He feels old, all of a sudden. Because being this young – this alive and screaming terrified – this is in his distant past. He was another person back then.

He grins up at them. "I'm supposed to tell you about the Narada, and Vulcan, and the longest damn day of my life. Also, incidentally, my first try at being Captain. Now, that's a pretty good story, and I hear they're making another movie about it this year. But it's not what Starfleet's about. That's the worst-case scenario day. We get a few of those, but not many. Hopefully none of you are going to see a day like that for years, maybe not ever. My crew – the Enterprise's crew – they're the best of the best and we got together because of a day like that. Because we lost most of an Academy class in that battle and then Vulcan died and the universe changed. But now we have you guys, to represent Starfleet in the new universe. I'll take questions about the Narada at the end, and you've got me here for a few more lectures, so there's plenty of time. For the first part of today, I want to talk about something else."

Jim waves his crutch at them, keeping his balance by holding onto the table. "You may have noticed this. This is the end of a regular mission bad day. But they're not all bad days. So I'm going to talk about a good day instead. Anyone care to define a good day?"

They throw suggestions at him: winning objective, beating the enemy, completing a rescue, liberating a planet, ending a war.

He thinks about it for a moment. "I didn't mean to join Starfleet. In fact, I kind of meant to do anything else. When he was trying to recruit me, a very smart officer told me that Starfleet was a humanitarian and peacekeeping armada. That's as good a description as any. So a good day, by my definition, is when you do your job – that job – and nobody dies. We're not an invading army; we use force as a last resort. And you keep your crew alive as best you can without compromising the mission. That's the first job. Everything else is a bonus."

 

* * * *

He catches them occasionally, out of the corner of his eye. Pike definitely stayed to listen once or twice, and Jim would swear that he saw Sulu in the back of the auditorium. Anything else may be wishful thinking.

This, though, he doesn't imagine. She sneaks in late and he spots her immediately. He doesn't say anything then, just smiles wide and keeps talking. Jim finishes the lecture ten minutes early. "No questions today guys." They groan – they've been getting the Narada battle in five-minute blocks – but Jim is adamant. "I'll make it up to you on Friday. Right now I've got to go say hi to my mom."

She's already walking down the steps to meet him. He gets to her halfway up and sweeps her into a hug. A few of the students 'aw' sympathetically, and his mother laughs. "I missed you too, Jim."

Jim waves at the kids over his shoulder and leads her out of the auditorium and into the sunny quad. He's been off the crutch for a few days now but he's still not quite right on the leg.

She frowns at him. "I hear you've been in the wars. How's the recovery going?"

"Getting there."

"You want to explain why you're not recovering at home, and letting Christopher Pike use you as a teaching aid instead?"

"I called home," Jim protests. "You weren't there." His mother is a freelance consultant now and she's still off-planet as often as she's earth-side.

"Well, you didn't tell me you were coming."

"I didn't know!" He says, "It wasn't planned. And I know you heard all about it, so don't act like it's some mystery."

"You get the ship up and running again okay? You should take me up to see her some time."

"Didn't you see her when…?"

"I saw her in the shipyards when we were working on the design of the engines. I never got to see her when she was finished."

"You should, Mom," Jim says. "She's a beautiful ship."

She smiles at him. "So? What are you hiding from?"

"I'm not…." He thinks. "It was a tough few months. I let… I wasn't exactly a model of professionalism."

She laughs. She knows him too well. The breeze knocks hair from behind her ear; she tucks it back where it belongs, near the loose ponytail. She curls her arm around his shoulder. "Baby, I'm the wrong woman to ask. Your father was the good one. I shamed my family and ran away to join the military, remember?" Her eyes are teasing.

"Starfleet's not military, exactly," Jim says. "We're more than that." Pike would be proud of him.

"You've been spending too much time with Chris." Jim is never going to get used to the way his mom calls Admiral Pike 'Chris' like it's nothing. Though he has at least grown mostly inured to her mind reading.

 

*

He takes her up to the ship the next day – shuttle straight up to the space dock. The Enterprise's engineers are in, and some of the other departments are running various checks. They're almost ready to go back out there. In theory, all the equipment and personal belongings are stowed, all the crew are back from their unexpected leave and ready to be called. They're just waiting for Jim and for Starfleet's okay.

"So," Jim asks, "what do you want to see?"

"I want to see the engines," she says. "But I know you want to show off the bridge. So let's do that first."

He laughs. "Okay."

The bridge is unchanged. A technician he doesn't recognise is working on Spock's station – the science station – but she nods and leaves when she sees Jim. Jim goes to his chair and un-polarises the viewscreen.

There's a thud and an 'ow' from the forward stations. Jim recognises the sound. "You okay there, Lieutenant?"

Chekov crawls out from underneath his station. "Captain. I didn't know you were- Ma'am."

"Mom," Jim says, "This is Lieutenant Chekov."

"The young navigator," she says. "Pleased to meet you, Lieutenant." She holds out her hand.

Chekov stands up in a hurry. "The pleasure is mine, ma'am. Are you enjoying your visit?"

"Oh, the Enterprise is a beautiful ship. Are you doing repairs?"

Chekov flushes. "Diagnostics, only. The ship is ready, so I am…"

"Tweaking," she says, with a grin. "I know that feeling."

Chekov smiles back and looks a little less nervous. He's still bouncing on the balls of his feet so Jim says, "We should go and leave you to it. We're headed towards engineering anyway."

"Yes, Captain." Chekov nods.

Jim walks to the turbolift, his mother just ahead of him.

Chekov calls out, "Captain?"

"Yeah?"

"We are… we are ready, whenever you are."

Jim doesn't turn around. "Understood, Mr Chekov."

She's giving him a look, as they drop down the levels to engineering.

Jim shrugs at her. "What?"

"He's very sweet," she says, "and you were very… professional."

"To who? Chekov? He's a good kid. Smart. He'll be a good captain one day too."

She laughs and looks as though she's about to say something. The doors open and her eyes fix on a figure down the hallway instead. "Leonard."

Jim blinks. "What?"

Bones is walking to meet them. "Afternoon, ma'am. Hey, Jim. How's the leg holding up?"

"Better," he says. "What are you doing here?"

"Final review of supplies before we head out. We are heading out sometime soon, right?"

"Not like you to be so eager to get into space."

"Maybe I just want to get it over with. I'm sorry, ma'am, he got me off track. How are you?"

"Better if you remembered to call me 'Winona', Doctor. How long has it been now?"

"Not long enough to forget what my own mother taught me, ma'am."

She laughs at him. "All right. Jim, I'll go and take a peek at the engines, okay? You and Leonard look like you need to talk."

"Okay," he says slowly, "just go on through-."

"That door," she says, "I remember the designs." She walks away, humming.

When Jim stops watching her, he turns back to find Bones staring at him. "What? How did you even know I was here, anyway?"

Bones continues to watch him inscrutably. "News travels."

"Yeah. Mom wanted to see the Enterprise."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Bones frowns, and taps his hand against the bulkhead. "Look, Jim, do you want to, I don't know, talk about-."

There's a hail on the comms: "Captain Kirk, please contact the bridge. Captain Kirk to contact the bridge."

Jim takes the few steps to the nearest unit. "This is the Captain."

"There's a call being relayed to you from the surface. Admiral Pike."

Jim says, "Go ahead." He listens intently for the next three minutes. When they're done he says, "Yes, sir. Right away sir."

He runs into engineering and drags his mother away from what looks like an animated discussion with Scotty about warp drive fluctuations. "Sorry," he says. "We've got to go. I need to get you back to earth. Scotty, how fast can you make the Enterprise ready to go?"

Scotty echoes Chekov's words, "She's ready when you are, Captain. Just give me a- why? What's happened?"

Bones has followed them into engineering. "Jim?"

Jim looks between them. "There's been an attack. We're the nearest ship to ready and full complement. I need to go and start calling the rest of the crew in."

"Jim," Bones says again.

Jim walks to another communication unit. "Attention, this is the Captain. All non-crew personnel please finish what you're doing and get ready for transport back to Earth. Enterprise personnel, be packed-up and ready to go in two hours. We're responding to a distress call. A Romulan warship just launched an attack on the Vulcan resettlement."

 

* * * *

 

He's spent the past two weeks telling cadets that honestly, it's not like this all the time. And here he is, running in response to a distress call from the Vulcan colony. Almost the whole of the displaced population – still not much more than that ten thousand strong - chose to move down there, now that there are finally facilities and homes enough for all of them. And now another attack.

Jim doesn't have time to pull himself together or prepare. It's just Jim and his crew and they know this. They know this.

He makes it to the bridge running, and this time Spock doesn't offer a steadying arm. He's already at his station, tensed and ready.

Jim calls to Engineering. "Scotty. Tell me we're ready to go?"

"Ready when you are, Captain."

"All aboard that's coming aboard," Jim murmurs. Then, louder, "All right, Mr Sulu, let's go."

Chekov briefs the ship when they're en route and Jim forces himself to count differences. One Romulan ship, just a regular run of the mill Bird-of-Prey engaged in a direct attack on the colony. They know what they're getting themselves into. There'll be three more Starfleet vessels at the colony within an hour of the Enterprise getting there. And also Jim's in charge this time.

"Spock, what about their defences?" Jim asks, to no response. "Hey." He spins in his chair. "You with us?"

"Captain," Spock says.

"I said: what about Vulcan defences?"

"They are still under construction. There are some ships, but little planet-to-orbit weaponry, and there is nothing in their armada which would match-."

"All right," Jim says. ""We'll have to give them a hand then. Sulu?"

"Out of warp in five."

"Brace for combat. Shields up. Alert One."

"Three. Two."

They drop out of warp and Jim, prepared for the carnage of his memory, is something like relieved. Their lone warship against his Enterprise. It's close enough to an even match - or anyway he's had worse odds.

The Romulan ship turns on them immediately. Jim runs the calculations: the Enterprise is outgunned, but she's faster and more manoeuvrable. "Sulu," Jim says, "make them chase us."

"Yes, sir." Sulu's grinning, which might worry anyone else, but Jim's not anyone.

"Uhura?"

"Captain."

"Try and get in contact with the colony."

"Not the Romulan ship?"

"If I was them, I would have sent ground-troops in. They're not trying to just blow the colony away, they want to terrorise them. Try and find out if we need to go down there now."

"Yes, sir."

There's no debris, nothing to hide behind. They could make a run for one of the moons and come out fighting but they'd lose any advantage they've gained here. It would take them to the other side of the planet from the colony, but Jim isn't sure the Romulans would bite.

Uhura comes back with: "There are ground forces making a direct assault on the colony. The ship was aiming to take out defences and infrastructure."

"Let them know we'll be… wait. Hey, Spock? You want to go down there?"

Spock breathes deeply. "Yes."

"Okay then. Grab however many people you need. Uhura, tell them we're sending in the cavalry. And then try and get me in contact with that ship."

She's doing that even as she watches Spock leave. "Channel open, Captain."

He speaks to his crew first. "Right. Let's get another blast across her bow. And if anyone has any really great ideas for taking out those guns, now would be the time."

They fire – it's hard to tell what effect it might have had on the warship's shielding or engines. While they run scans, Jim hails the ship. "This is Captain James T Kirk, USS Enterprise. I'm offering you a chance to stop shooting and come aboard to negotiate a ceasefire. Repeat, stop your attack and explain your actions. Or we will be forced to take lethal action."

Uhura says, "Visual. Do you want it onscreen?"

"Go ahead."

The viewscreen flicks into picture and there's a Romulan Captain, laughing.

Jim asks, "Is there any point in me asking whether or not the Empire sanctioned this?"

"We obey a higher authority. We act in vengeance."

"Yeah. Okay. Well desist, or the Federation is going to decide this is an act of war. And then the Empire probably won't be too happy with you."

"We hold the Vulcan race accountable."

"For something that hasn't happened."

"The Federation have ignored our demands for justice. For an investigation. Nero was-."

"A lunatic, who apparently inspires other lunatics. And he's dead."

"He died for-."

"Look, this is the…" Jim says. "Romulus is fine. I'm sure someone out there is investigating the exploding star even as we speak, but for now: Romulus is fine. The only people who have lost their entire planet are the people you are currently attacking. So forgive me for not giving a damn that in some hypothetical other future your planet might be in danger in a hundred years. We've got time to figure that out. Now stand down."

"We will not rest until the last threat to Romulus is eliminated."

"Fair enough. Don't say we didn't warn you." Jim ends the transmission. "Sulu, at least try and get them away from the colony."

Chekov is tapping at his screen in an anxious fashion. It normally means he's about to say something like: "Captain. In a close combat situation the Enterprise will be outmatched."

"Yes, I know. She's not a warship."

"But we are much faster. And if we used the cover of the moon-."

"I thought of that. She'll still catch us eventually, or they'll get bored chasing and go back to the attack."

"Yes, but all we have to do is keep close enough that they continue to chase us. At least until the other Starfleet vessels arrive. That should be in less than twenty minutes. If we cut back upon our original route, that should ensure that we continue to look at though we are pursuing, rather than stalling."

"I'd rather be pursuing," Jim says. "But you're right. The priority is the colony. Let's keep them occupied until the reinforcements arrive. Mr Chekov, start plotting trajectories. Keep as safe a distance from those guns as you can."

In the end, they only have to wait fifteen minutes before three more cruisers drop out of warp. The Federation is taking no chances. So that's four ships that are better at moving than the heavy warship. Enterprise has already taken a bite out of her, and with the others all ready and willing to duck in and out of firing range to take shots, the fight is short.

The warship is dead in space, and someone with a higher rank than Jim coordinates the surrender. They even start taking on prisoners this time.

*

There were four Starfleet captains involved in the fight and all of the other three have seniority over Jim. The other have already beamed down to the planet to talk to the Vulcan council. Jim is just waiting for someone to relay new orders to him so they can get away from here.

Uhura looks up and says, "We're being hailed."

"Starfleet? They come up with something for us to do yet?"

She shakes her head. "They want you on the planet."

"What?"

"You spoke to the Romulan captain. He's dead and they want to know what he said to you. Security reasons."

"Who's making the request?"

"The Vulcan Council. But Starfleet approved it."

Jim sighs. "Fine. Tell them I'll be there in twenty minutes."

He needs to change first. If he's going to talk to the Vulcan Council, he needs to look like a Starfleet Captain; he needs the full uniform and the medals to armour himself.

Jim transports down to the planet alone. Spock is already down there and Jim needs everyone else to be on the ship. They didn't mean to leave so quickly, let alone immediately enter a firefight, and there are checks that need to be made. Jim leaves them to do that while he goes to make his report.

He recognises their faces if nothing else – most of them were in the Enterprise's sickbay after the attack. Sarek isn't there - maybe he's gone to find his son before Spock beams back to the ship. And- Jim stops.

"Jim."

He's still not sure what they call older-Spock here, so Jim just nods. "Ambassador."

There are three other officers here: Captains Walker, Silva and Beck. Jim knows them all by reputation, and remembers Beck getting his commission the year Jim started the Academy.

Silva grins at him and waves him to the centre of the room.

Walker says, "You spoke to them?"

"I did." He relays the dialogue, as accurately as he can, and waits.

Councillor Sentek heads the new Vulcan governmental structure. He asks, "He maintained that the attack was not sanctioned by the Empire?"

Jim says, "Yeah. I believe that part."

That warrants a raised eyebrow. "That is yet to be ascertained."

Jim sighs. "Of course. But I don't see why he'd lie about that – there was no reason to."

"To stop retaliation against the Empire, maybe?" Beck asks. "If it's just one ship, with no affiliations, we can't do a lot. Other than stop that ship, I mean"

The Councillor says, "One ship with no particular affiliations destroyed my planet. Forgive me if I would have greater assurances than Captain Kirk's strength of feeling."

Jim takes a breath. "I'm not saying don't investigate. I'm saying that right now you don't need to worry about an invading army. That wasn't the first ship of an invasion – that was one man who thought he was going to destroy the colony or die trying. That's what I'm saying."

Walker says, "If the Empire had organised this, they would have sent more ships. They would have known that one wasn't enough, not when we could bring the whole fleet here in a few hours."

"But you did not," Sentek says. "Starfleet sent four ships."

"To take down one," Walker replies. "Which we did, with a minimum of casualties and damage.

Councillor Sentek says, "Nevertheless, Captain, the Vulcan people will never feel truly secure until we have guaranteed our own safety, in our own ways. We do not wish to rely upon the strength of your armada."

"Our fleet," Jim observes quietly. "Starfleet is the Federation's armada. Vulcan is a member. We haven't forgotten that."

"Vulcan is gone."

"The Vulcan people remain." Other-Spock's voice is calm. "As a people and as founding members of the United Federation of Planets. They came to our aid as we would come to theirs. We are peacekeepers, Councillor – we are no one's enemies. We act within the Federation's laws and structures, not simply as an isolated entity."

"That level of cooperation was a luxury of the past, Ambassador. We have to look to our own people. Your views on this matter are well-known, but I believe you find yourself with few supporters."

Spock looks back at the Councillor steadily. "Thankfully, that does not change my views."

Walker coughs. "Anyway. Captain Kirk has told you everything that happened. I'm sure the Enterprise will send down recordings in due course. Admiral Keller will be making a visit as a representative of Starfleet Command to examine what can be done about these rogue elements. I think that's all that we need to discuss at the moment."

Everyone nods and stops talking, even if they don't look especially happy about it. That's a trick Jim still hasn't quite managed, though Walker does have a decade or so of command on him.

The Council depart in one direction, and the Starfleet captains in the other. Silva claps Jim on the shoulder. "Don't worry about it. He's like that with everyone."

Beck nods. "When I was a lieutenant, we ran trade delegations to Vulcan. He was like that even back then – guys like him are just looking for the excuse."

Walker is more reserved. He's sending a message back to his ship. "We need to make sure Admiral Keller is briefed on the mood down here. We don't need another incident." He looks at Jim and it's not condemnation, exactly, but it does make him feel like a kid who screwed up. Like it was to be expected and he's not really to be blamed for it. Jim would rather the blame than the resignation.

There is a cough from behind them. "Jim. May I have a moment of your time?"

"Ambassador," Jim says. "Of course." He nods at the other officers and walks to meet this Spock, who watches him openly and without trepidation. If there are any of the complicated, indecipherable emotions that his Spock's eyes betray, this Spock is much better at hiding them.

Spock says, "You handled that well."

"Surprised?"

"No. But I am still pleased. It has been a long time."

"Even for you?"

"Well." Spock smiles but it doesn't seem happy. "It is not the longest I have gone without seeing you, old friend."

Jim doesn't correct him this time. "Yeah, okay." They walk outside, into warm sunlight. People – not many people, still – walk hurriedly past them. There is rebuilding work to be done. Jim says, "At least the weather's nice."

"We made the effort to establish the colony on a planet with a similar climate to Vulcan. There are some variations in rainfall and the length of seasons, but it will suffice."

"You guys come up with a name yet?"

"Ah. That is still under discussion. Shom'po-vashaya is one of Councillor Sentek's favourites."

"Yeah? What's that-?"

"To rest after destruction. Some of us prefer a different approach. Ambassador T'Rena suggested Lamok'uzh-kunel."

Jim asks, "And what does that one mean?"

Spock smiles. "To stand on new mountains."

Jim breathes deeply. "Yeah, I like hers better."

"I agree," Spock says. "But the diplomatic situation is… complicated. We have yet to decide if this is to be a permanent colony or merely a resting place before moving our people again. Councillor Sentek would prefer a more isolated location."

"In all of the ways, huh?"

Spock tilts his head. "Quite. We are in a precarious situation. One more move in either direction could decide the future of the Vulcan people. There are calls for us to stand together, to stop spreading our influence so thinly and simply concentrate on rebuilding our society."

"And what do you think?"

"I think that my counterpart visited the katric ark at the end for a reason. We did not salvage the tenets of our society simply to reject those principles."

Jim can't help but point out, "Your society wasn't too fond of the human influence even before that."

"Perhaps," Spock concedes. "But that was not a universal trait. And a complete rejection of cooperation, of the spread of knowledge… that would be illogical. That would be the consequence of what some of the Council recommend, though they do not realise this. We work to change their minds. I am not a lone voice, whatever the Councillor believes. But it is difficult."

"And today doesn't help that."

"No," Spock agrees, "but we-." He stops because Jim pushes him away, away from where the rumbling of falling masonry makes the air ring. Stone falls down around them.

There is a crash and a bang. Jim's head aches and his leg is throbbing in a now familiar fashion. He groans. They would manage to walk where the attack had managed to damage buildings. And no one had noticed. Naturally. Jim says, "Okay, I'm done with today. I'm ready to go back to the ship and sleep until it's over."

"First, I would appreciate it if you would open your eyes, Jim."

Jim is pretty sure that things are going to hurt even more if he opens his eyes. He tries out the theory. Yeah, that's an increase in pain all right. Spock grips his shoulder and pulls Jim up to sitting. There is dust in the air and rocks around them, but nothing seems to be crushed or broken. Spock touches Jim's face and Christ that ought to come with a warning. Maybe this Spock doesn't value control so much, or maybe it's just that they only do it when Jim has nearly died and this Spock is mourning. It's all flashes of images and a low sad voice and it doesn't matter whether or not they are Jim's memories or Jim's regrets. They are in his head and some version of him was the subject. They make him feel small.

Jim shakes it off and that hurts too. "I'm not dead," he says. "No one's dead. You're not dead and younger-you isn't dead and I'm not dead." But he is. Other him, who didn't ever screw things up this badly.

This Spock smiles slowly at Jim, as though he sees the thought. "That does depend upon your point of view."

"Doesn't everything?" Jim sighs. "Okay. I should get back to my ship. We're probably set to go soon." He finds his communicator. "Enterprise, I'm ready to beam up. Tell Bones I might need him to shoot my leg up with something again. I took a bit of a fall. Buildings were involved."

Spock takes Jim's hand and pulls him easily to his feet. He has lost none of his strength, or it doesn't feel as though he has. He raises his hand to Jim in a familiar salute. Jim returns the gesture and the words. He adds, "The Councillor's not all wrong, you know. We didn't do enough. We can't."

Spock looks at him. "You did all that you could. It is up to others to do the rest."

Jim realises that for all their conversation, he didn't ask the question he could have asked. They haven't talked about Jim's first officer, waiting back on the ship. He didn't ask where Vulcan diplomacy now stands on one of their best and brightest staying as a Starfleet officer instead of going to where he is needed.

But in the middle of that thought, Jim is pulled onto the Enterprise. The questions will have to wait. His leg is still aching as he makes his way over to the door. Plus he may have hit his head harder than he thought, if the way the room is spinning is any indication. A pretty blonde stops him hitting the floor. Jim looks at her. "Do I know you?"

"Yeoman Rand, sir. Your Yeoman, actually. Admiral Pike did send you the assignment notification."

"Okay… I'm not exactly at my best right now, Yeoman. Did you need something?"

"Dr McCoy sent me to make sure you made it to sickbay. Once you've been examined, I have some reports for you to look over."

"Did Pike send you to torture me? Because I wouldn't put that past him. He has a twisted sense of humour. You wouldn't think it to look at him. Or maybe you would. You have the same look about you. Has anyone ever told you that?"

She sighs and wraps one arm around his waist. "No, Captain. You're the first. Now, sickbay?"

"If you insist."

 

* * * *

Jim has gone through quite a few yeomen since he became captain. The first three seemed to think that he already knew they existed, and that he was ignoring them. The next two made it rather clearer that they were supposed to be making him do things he didn't want to do, at times he didn't want to do them. Janice seems to have come with the repairs – slipped in on a form Pike had him sign when he wasn't paying attention. Jim makes a note to thank the Admiral at some point. Or possibly punch him (respectfully). Jim isn't sure yet.

"Wait," he says. "Wait. You said the last set of reports was the last."

"These are part of the same set."

"The last set were engineering reports. Important 'ways in which the ship might explode' reports. These are from linguistics."

"They're all reports advising you on necessary requisitions to be made."

"What can linguistics possibly need? They have Uhura and Spock and all the computers they could want. I vetoed the talking plant thing already."

She sighs. "Captain."

"You know, you say 'Captain' and yet I still hear 'if you'd shut up and read these instead of bitching, I could have been in my bed two hours ago'."

"Really, Captain?"

"I'm not even going to translate that one."

She smiles down at the desk and hands him another report. While Jim is reading over it, she asks, "What would you be doing?"

"Hmm?"

"If you weren't signing off on reports. Since apparently I'd be peacefully asleep. What about you?"

"Oh, I don't know. Listening to Bones complain about something dumb one of the ensigns did today to end up in sickbay. Letting Sulu hit me with pretend-swords. Or real swords, depending how much I feel like letting him knock me down. Poker, sometimes."

"I heard you played chess?"

"Now, where would you hear a thing like that? I do, yeah. Just not in a while."

 

* * * *

Jim doesn't normally mull things over. He's smart, he really is, but he's never been particularly introspective. As a general rule, he acts, and then deals with the consequences. In his job, there isn't usually time for anything else.

So this is new to him. His bridge feels… fragile. Jim thinks they were rushed back into action, and then remembers that only he was rushed. The rest had been waiting for him. He was angry, before, and now he isn't. After the colony, and the other Spock, he's not angry. He's filled up with other memories and echoed feeling that he didn't earn – he has nothing left to give to petty anger. But the others still behave as though he's mad at them, or could be at a moment's notice. Except Janice, of course, who doesn't know.

"Did you know I have a new yeoman?" Jim asks, to no one in particular.

Uhura answers, "I think everyone knew that but you, Captain." Jim looks at her pointedly until she explains. "She was on the ship while you were giving lectures. I like her."

"You would," Jim says, without malice.

Then everything goes quiet again. It wasn't like this before. He wonders if he hadn't got himself wound up about it, if he had let it stand as one of his screw-ups, if they would have got back to normal. If Spock and that last mission before they were invalided home would still have been so tied together in ways he failed to be a captain. Because he was too close to them (to Spock but not just Spock) and he couldn't keep the distance he needed. He cares and they need to know he cares, but not too much. Not enough to tip the ship over because of it. He is Captain, so it still comes down to his mess to fix. He started it, after all, however long ago that was. (Whatever he might mean by 'it'.)

"Chess," Jim says.

"Captain?" Spock is half-turned, a checked impulse to face Jim and raise an eyebrow.

"Chess, you and me. This evening when you finish your shift."

"Captain, I…"

"C'mon, Spock. It's been months since you wiped the floor with me. I'm a grown-up, I can take it."

They take their cues from him. This is the part he'll never quite know how to make right. The Captain sets the ship going, and everything turns sideways when he's fighting with his first officer. Start with the small things. Keep it light. Normal.

Jim walks the few steps to the other station and rests his hand on Spock's shoulder. "It's a request, not an order."

"I understand, Captain."

Jim shakes his head. "Just think about it, okay?"

He walks back to his chair, and there's a sort of sigh across the bridge, like a dozen people breathing out all at once.

That evening, Jim waits in the mess with the Tri-D board. He absently runs openings in his head, counters to the ways he has seen Spock open before. He doesn't watch the door and doesn't see Spock arrive.

"Captain."

"Take a seat."

Spock sits opposite Jim but doesn't look at the board. "Captain, may I ask a question?"

Jim smiles, tired already. "Speak freely, you know that."

"Why did you ask me here this evening?"

That's the crux, isn't it? Jim spoke to Admiral Pike, and his mother, and he was better but he didn't- didn't let himself miss. And then the other Spock had touched him. Jim doesn't ever want to feel like that and he knows – their line of work, his captaincy – he knows he will some day. He needed to fix it so it never happens like that. Jim says, "Because- I spoke to other-you."

Spock frowns. He gets along fine with his counterpart (no world ending anyway) but he always seems a little concerned when Jim speaks to him. "Yes?" Spock settles on, finally.

"And there are worse things. I- there are worse things than a stupidly public, humiliating break-up with your first officer. I guess there are even worse things than this. But- maybe there are worse things than never getting past this - never being able to talk to you again – but God help me, Spock, I can't think of any of them."

Spock leans back.

Jim hadn't meant to say all that. He warns, "And if you even think of starting to list the things…"

Spock says, "There are, undoubtedly, worse things which could occur on a- on a galactic scale. Calamities. But- I can think of few things I would regret the loss of more personally than your friendship."

Jim breathes. "All right. All right then."

"What is it that you want?"

"I guess… I guess to force our way through the weird parts. Until we can get back to where we were two years ago."

"Friends," Spock says, testing the concept.

"Or getting there anyway," Jim says. He grins, and lifts a pawn. He sends it up a level, an aggressive opening. "Your move, I guess."

They begin to gather an audience, which keeps a careful distance at first, but edges closer. Uhura sits beside Spock, Bones beside Jim, and once that would have meant something that it doesn't now. Uhura looks at the nervous young officers loitering nearby, and smirks at Jim. He knows – kids. Spock watches the board and, thankfully, gives Jim no quarter. They don't need an argument about going easy tonight.

 

* * * *

Diplomatic missions are Jim's second or third least favourite part of captaincy, but he knows how to deal with them now. He has practice.

"Spock and Uhura will be going to the meetings with me. Sulu's in charge, try not to break anything. If we don't report in, assume everything's gone to hell and come and get us all guns blazing. Okay? Good."

When he gets back to his quarters to find his dress uniform, Rand is waiting for him. "And me," she says.

"Sorry?"

"And me." She waves the PADD at him. "Since I am, after all, the keeper of the reports. I should go with the delegation."

"You just want to keep an eye on me."

"Well," she acknowledges, "that too."

"There'll be a security team down there, you know."

"Yes."

"I have done this before."

"I've read the reports, Captain."

"Oh, now, that's just low. Fine, come along. Be ready in ten minutes."

"Yes, Captain."

They meet him in the transporter room ten minutes later – Rand and Uhura and Spock. Jim laughs. They all look so neat.

Spock looks intently at Jim, tilting his head.

Jim explains, "You guys look a picture. It's almost like we know what we're doing, finally."

Spock says, "Perhaps," and Jim laughs again, even if it wasn't a joke.

They transport down to the planet. It's the second round of diplomatic negotiations. There's an agreement in principle that they want to enter the Federation, but they have yet to negotiate terms. They have concerns, apparently, and for some reason someone in the Federation thought that Jim and the Enterprise would be the best people to deal with that.

They make with the necessary pleasantries – Jim nods and smiles and shakes hands while someone takes pictures. The Trillen adults are seven or eight feet tall, all deceptively fragile-looking limbs, and Jim has to look up to make eye contact. (Has to shake out his fingers after they shake hands). So the negotiations taking place at ground level makes sense. Everyone sits on the floor in a circle with the reports in the middle.

The planet's governance is already well within the Charter's ordinances and, while they go back and forth for a little while about trade regulations and fly zones, Jim doesn't really know what the problem is. The briefing had been somewhat vague on the 'ideological differences' that might present themselves. So he asks. "Apparently you have some concerns?"

Uhura coughs and at the edges, some of his security team shuffle their feet.

One of the Trillen just meets Jim's gaze evenly. "We are a peaceful people."

"Good," Jim says cautiously. "So are we, most days. What's the problem?"

"Your…" A different woman gestures vaguely between the four officers. "Forced hierarchy is troubling to us. A military regime in all but name."

"Um. What? It's not a… we signed up for this."

"And yet you speak, and your women do not."

"Because… because I'm in charge, not because they're… Spock hasn't said much either."

"So by your reckoning, only the human male may speak?"

If there were a table, Jim would be hitting his head on it. "They can all speak. That's why they're here. Ultimately, the Federation sent me to make a final decision because I'm in command. Because of this," he grabs hold of the shoulder of his uniform, "not for any other reason. And I brought the best officers on my ship, with relevant expertise, to make sure we came to the right decisions."

"So you trust their expertise? You believe that they are as much a part of this negotiation as you, their putative superior."

"In rank," Jim emphasises again. "That's all. If you wanted to talk to them, all you had to do was ask. I'll sit out." He sits back from the circle. "Yeoman, would you mind coming a little closer?"

"Captain?"

"Hey, the three of you can sort this out, right? I'll just observe."

Spock objects, "Captain, I believe this is-."

Jim is looking at the Trillen, who are watching the proceedings with interest. He says, "There but for a quirk of fate, right? I trust you three to do your jobs. Figure it out and I'll sign it. You were on election guidelines, before we stopped."

Uhura recovers fastest, of course. It's not as though they don't do a lot of the talking during these things. It's just that this time, the Trillen representatives kept addressing their questions to Jim. In retrospect, that should probably have been a hint.

Rand jumps in before Spock, which does surprise Jim a little. Then, she's been reading these reports in preparation for talking through them with Jim. There's probably no one else who knows them as well as she does right now. She dives straight into representation and term limits and non-interference in the choosing of candidates.

Spock watches her for a moment – Spock appreciates smart – and offers a clarification on voting criteria as regards the age someone attains adulthood. Uhura starts in on accurate translations of the Charter and Constitution. Jim takes careful notes.

It's hours before they take a break and Jim coughs, after being silent for so long. Spock moves towards him. Jim shakes his head: I'm fine.

They break, and come back for the second round, and it's weird, of course it is. No one would accuse him of staying silent when he could be talking. But it's not a problem, this once, to sit back and let his crew do the talking. They're better at this part – the problem would only come if there were a real disagreement, or a real threat. He doesn't laugh, because they would see and take offence, but it's a little surreal. To be sitting here in silence, three years in, contemplating the nature of captaincy.

When they finish, Jim stands with the rest. He says, "Sometimes, someone needs to be in charge."

"Captain," Uhura says.

The Trillen inclines her head to him. "Go on," she says.

"This is- my crew is the best of Starfleet. And at our best, this is what we do. I let the smart people do the talking. But it's not always like that. Not everyone wants peace. And I- I know a little bit about what everyone does, and what they need. I know enough to make the call. In the end, when it comes to the crunch, someone needs to make a decision. We don't always have the luxury of peacetime consensus. Sometimes there are life or death decisions to be made in a moment and there has to be a chain of command. Someone has to take responsibility for the losses."

"And you believe that person should be you?"

"No," Jim says frankly, "I just don't know who else it would be."

She hums at him in thought. "We thank you for your time, Captain Kirk. Commander Spock, Lieutenant Uhura. Yeoman Rand."

They echo their agreement, and Jim promises to relay their new settlement back to the Federation with all haste.

When they beam back to the ship, Uhura grabs his arm. "Captain. You don't- you don't actually believe that's all you do as captain, do you? Not that I'm trying to encourage your ego, but we do work better when you-."

Jim smiles and shakes her off. "I never thought I'd see the day when you admitted you missed the sound of my voice, Lieutenant."

Uhura frowns strangely at him and he can still feel her gaze as he walks away. He's never known how to make her happy.

* * * *

They go from a reasonably pleasant diplomatic mission to an unexpectedly deadly not-actually-a-rescue. This is par for the course with the Enterprise, but Jim is done with it. Really. He explains this again, through chattering teeth.

Scotty says, "I know, Captain. I heard you the first ten or twelve times you resigned your commission to take up farming."

"I don't like- God, I'm sorry. I didn't mean…"

"Captain?"

"You don't like ice either."

"No," Scotty agrees. "Not a huge fan of the stuff."

"Me neither."

Scotty lies there and shivers at him, which may or may not be a good sign, but Jim wants someone to talk to. He pokes Scotty's leg. "What?" Scotty asks.

"You're cold."

"I know I'm bloody cold. We're trapped under God knows how many tonnes of frozen bloody tundra!"

"So talk. You're supposed to talk when you're at risk of… what the hell is taking them so long?"

Scotty is just ignoring him now. Possibly because they've already established exactly what the problem is, and there's nothing they can do about it. Something in the rocks which have fallen down almost (but thankfully not quite) exactly on top of them is interfering with the transporters. Something to do with the mineral content, and Jim is sure Scotty gave it a name but now he can't remember.

Jim blinks and Scotty's face is right there. "What?" Jim says intelligently.

"You told me to talk."

"And you didn't."

"I did," Scotty insists. "You went somewhere else."

"Okay. Somewhere fun?"

"Captain!"

"I'm here, I'm here. Hey, who did I leave in charge? I know it wasn't Spock, he was at the other end of the falling rocks. Did I- who has the con?"

Scotty screws up his nose. "Not a clue. I wasn't there. No, that's a lie. Uhura. Lieutenant Uhura must be in charge."

"Okay. Good. I never know who's supposed to be- That's probably something I should know. There are things you miss, when you're…"

He pauses for what is meant to be a moment's thought. When Jim opens his eyes, they're huddled closer together and Scotty is talking into the communicator. "He's talking nonsense, to tell you the truth."

Jim says, "When did those start working?"

"Just this one," Scotty says. "I cannibalised some of the parts from yours. They're digging down to us, to get past most of that damned interfering rock. We'll be out in a jiffy."

"Okay," Jim says. "Keep talking."

"You're the one who keeps-." Whatever Scotty was about to say, he stops himself. "You took the worst of the fall, Captain.

"Maybe. Maybe we should stop chasing phoney distress calls, what do you think?"

Scotty shivers again – Jim doesn't think Scotty's doing a whole lot better, really. He's not quite as far along as Jim, that's all. Scotty says, "We didn't know it was phoney, is the problem with that one. Well. Not phoney. Just old."

"Really old," Jim says. "Your mineral again."

"It's not my…" Scotty says. He might say something else, Jim doesn't know. When Jim opens his eyes, it's not quite so cold, and there is a blanket around his shoulders. Someone is rubbing them briskly. Scotty is walking away under his own power, though Nurse Chapel is following after him as though she doesn't think he should be. He's probably off to make sure Keenser hasn't rearranged the engines.

Jim turns his head to look at Spock's neck. "A little longer," Jim says, "and you would have got to be captain. Wouldn't you have liked that?"

"No," Spock says. Nothing else.

Jim is shivering, which is a good sign, but it makes him stumble on the way to medical. Spock wraps his arm around Jim to hold him up. It's been years since that first dizzying revelation, with a Spock that wasn't this one. My mind to your mind and a first understanding that Spock could feel things that weren't annoyance or mild distaste. That he loved/hated/mourned just as fiercely as Jim.

Now, Spock's hand brushes the skin on the back of Jim's neck. All Jim gets his name, once: Jim. But Spock is not careless. He doesn't project without meaning it, not even with his hands on Jim's throat and squeezing. Whatever this means, Spock meant to say it.

 

* * * *

Janice is sitting by the end of Jim's bed in sickbay. Jim is demanding statistics on the injuries inflicted upon other Starfleet captains, because he thinks he is getting a raw deal. She is nodding and pretending that she'll find that out for him.

Bones interrupts. "Go away now. I need to run another check-up, and if you stick around he'll only be showing off."

She smiles brightly (dangerously) at Bones, and goes away.

Jim says, "I don't think she likes you."

"Everyone likes me," Bones says, busying himself with scanners.

"Everyone likes me." Jim wants this to be clear. "You scare them."

"You ought to scare them more."

"I don't scare you."

Bones scoffs. "No, Jim, you don't scare me. I know you too well."

Jim accepts that reasoning, and shifts so Bones can run scans over his chest, like the results might have changed in the last thirty minutes. Jim knows Bones pretty well too.

Spock arrives when Jim is still shirtless. He takes a step back; Jim grins. "No," Jim says, "come on in. We should definitely make my exams a communal affair."

"I'm done anyway," Bones says. "Don't run off. I want to keep an eye on you at least until tomorrow morning." He nods in Spock's general direction. "I want to talk with you first."

"Doctor."

Bones pulls Spock away from Jim's bed. They're whispering but they're not very good at it. Jim can pick up whole phrases. Bones says, "-he's never been like- something's not ri-." Then: "we have to do-."

Spock is quieter in reply and Jim can pick up nothing but "yes."

If Bones wants to hide the subject of the conversation, he really shouldn't be pointing at Jim when he has it. At least he doesn't seem angry with Spock – Jim knew they would start getting along again eventually. Even if it is just that they're both worried about Jim for some reason he can't decipher.

Bones walks away and that just leaves the two of them in sickbay. Spock sits on the chair Janice had abandoned. He doesn't say anything.

Jim takes pity on him eventually, but with reluctance. He's not sure he wants to have this conversation. "What is it, Spock?"

"I think that we should- that is, I believe it is important that we-."

"You want to talk."

"Yes."

"Go ahead."

Spock looks darkly at Jim, and then down. He composes a sentence to his satisfaction and meets Jim's eyes again. "I feel that I should explain what happened when I… At no point did you- there was no understanding that I was to- that you- that you placed the relationship in any particular standing. It was unclear to me that you would consider what happened a betrayal."

Jim takes a deep breath. "Even if that was true, which I'm contesting, I'm not sure how that translates to you sleeping with someone else. Considering that you're, you know, you. Never mind who I am, or what I supposedly did or didn't do. I don't get how you- I don't get it."

Spock folds his arms across his chest. "I assumed that you would rather have me on the ship than not. That your priority was my continued presence on the Enterprise rather than any personal relationship we may have been beginning to pursue. When we spoke about the diplomatic concerns, that was how you phrased it."

"I'm sorry?"

"There are other expectations of me. I was- it was made clear to me that I was not fulfilling my duty to my people, by refusing to remain with the colony. T'Rena was in a similar position. This was a compromise – a gesture neither of us wished, but one which prevented- they could no longer say that we had no interest in preserving our people. I discussed- I spoke with you about the situation first. You made it clear that you were content without knowing the details."

Jim rolls his head back. "And if I had, you didn't think I'd care. Given that I didn't come out and say anything."

Spock shrugs, a gesture which never suits him well. "The coupling was unlikely to result in child at any rate. Given my genetics. They have samples. They will try again. Unless that would be…"

Jim frowns. "God. No. Look, I'm not trying to contribute to the decline of the Vulcan species or whatever you think."

Spock looks at Jim like he can't quite believe that sentence just came out of his mouth. Jim can't believe it either but Spock made him say it. Spock decides on, "I didn't assume that you were."

"I'm not… You realise I've never been on this side of this conversation? There are rules, okay. I'm not… if you want kids, that's fine with me. Go have kids. Or go donate samples, whatever. If you want to go propagate the species with hot Vulcan diplomats, I get that. Well, not 'get' exactly, but that's not an unreasonable… You should have told me. In actual words, preferably."

"You wanted me to seek permission first?"

"Not permission! But there are- rules. There are rules. You have a relationship – and we were having one of those, whatever you thought – there are things you get to assume."

"What kind of things?"

"Well, like most relationships are assumed to be, you know, two-person monogamous unless stated otherwise."

"Most human relationships. Not an overwhelming majority."

"Yeah, and most Vulcan relationships too, don't get smart."

Spock nods once, acknowledging the truth in the statement. He straightens the corners of Jim's blankets and says, "Is this better?"

"The bed, or- it's fine. We're fine. Look, it was a dumb idea to start with. We knew that. But we're past it, so now we can get back to the business of running a starship. We'll both be happier that way."

Spock's expression is inscrutable: dark eyes fixed on Jim for what feels like minutes. Spock says, "If you say so, Captain." He nods and takes his leave.

Jim lies back and stares at the ceiling. They need to be friends. It's bad for the ship when they're not. Anything more than that and, all over again, it's bad for the ship. He's twenty-eight. In theory he's an adult and even if in practice that's a little less certain, he's the captain of a Starfleet vessel. There are rules you can break and rules you can't, even if this one isn't written down anywhere official. You don't risk the well being of your crew by tangling yourself up in personal messes. That gets people killed. He won't risk that.

Bones walks by the bed. "Spock need anything important?"

"Just to talk. We've sorted things out, don't worry."

Bones pats Jim's shoulder. "I always worry, when it's you. Means I'm usually right."

 

* * * *

It's been long enough now since he said the words. "Priority one evacuation." Alone on the bridge and through the viewscreen only fire.

Jim makes one last check of the readings. All shuttles gone, all crew evacuated. The captain goes down with the ship.

He points her in the right direction – his beautiful dying girl – and leans down hard. The Enterprise explodes in fire and Jim is doing his duty. This was the only win he had left.

Simulation failure. Restarting scenario.

- - - -

He evacuated the ship thirty minutes ago. There shouldn't be anyone still here. The man looks at him from a console he doesn't belong to.

Jim frowns. "Don't I know you?"

His mouth makes a complicated twist. "Yeah, kid, you do. Listen, Jim, you need to-."

"I don't think you're meant to be my navigator. I sent her away."

"I know you did. Look, something's gone wrong. It was only meant to play through once, you save the day, everyone's happy. But you keep- you need to stop dying."

"I need to save the crew. The planet. This is the only way to do that."

"It really isn't. You just need to give them more time."

"We don't have more time. Look, I'll give you another couple of minutes to get away. There's a few escape pods – if you're lucky you'll be picked up."

"I'm not leaving you here."

"I don't want to take you down with me."

"Jim."

"I need to do this."

"Okay. It's all right. I signed up for this."

There's a pinch in his neck as the ship is flying towards her destruction. It's peaceful this time.

Simulation failure. Restarting scenario.

- - - -

Why can't they realise that he sent them away for a reason?

Jim shakes the shoulder of the helmsman. "I can steer her. Go to the shuttles."

"You can crash her," the man says. "I can do better than that."

But he can't, of course. There's nothing left but three men dying now instead of one. He had sent them away for a reason.

Simulation failure. Restarting scenario.

- - - -

The comms choke back into life. Engineering muttering, "Now, let's see if we can't give her a little boost."

Jim's throat is hoarse. "That's impossible. The engines are shot to pieces. There's an overload and a crash, that's all." He looks around at them, the two up here and another one buried away in the heart of the ship. "Go. Please. It's impossible"

Engineering takes a breath. "Let me worry about possible and impossible, Captain. She's got a little more in her yet."

They get to plus four minutes before the explosion, longer than Jim expected but it's still a waste.

Simulation failure. Restarting scenario.

- - - -

The woman is glaring at him as though it's his fault. Which it is, but that's why he sent them away. He was ready to take responsibility. He didn't ask them to stay – skeleton crew of four. She touches her earpiece and her voice is softer than her expression. "There are reinforcements coming. Encrypted signal but it's there. We just need to hold out a little longer."

He could scream, but he was trained better than that. "We don't have a little longer, Lieutenant." He's guessing at her rank; he doesn't know them, doesn't know who they are that they won't just leave. He explains again, "All we can choose is how we go out. I'd rather not take you all with me."

She sighs. "We've got that part already, Jim. But we won't leave until you do. You know that."

He doesn't wait, not for reinforcements that will never reach them on time. He just pushes forward as hard as she'll go. It's not his fault. He told them to go.

Simulation failure. Restarting scenario.

 

- - - -

He didn't get into this to watch teenagers die.

"Kid, I'm telling you for the last time, go get into a shuttle and get out of the firing range."

The answer is certain, insistent, and so damn young Jim could punch something. "No, sir. I have my assignment."

"I don't need a fucking navigator right now. I need a miracle, and unless one of you people can provide one, then get off my damn bridge!"

A long silence and then the kid speaks again. "I need a little longer for a miracle, Captain. At this range, I can, perhaps, create a little piece of magic. But we need more-."

"Time," the woman says. "Tell Spock we need more time."

Simulation failure. Restarting scenario.

 

- - - -

Jim gives the evacuation order, the bridge crew leaves. The world flickers (the explosions, it's just the explosions) and there are people again.

"I told you to leave," Jim says.

"Repeatedly," the man at his shoulder observes. "I overruled you."

"I'm the captain, you can't just-."

"You were not thinking logically, Captain."

"Yeah?" Jim bites. "I'm the only one who is thinking logically. This is it- this is the no-win scenario." He focuses on the man's face, confused. "This is- this is what they train us to deal with. I'm not afraid to die."

"No, Jim," he says. "Of course you're not."

"It doesn't mean everyone else has to- I gave the evacuation order. I can give them time; I can give the planet time. That's all that there is. There's no other-."

"Assume that there is," the man says calmly. "Assume that there is another solution. There is a win scenario here somewhere, there must be. Where would you start?"

Jim looks around. "Comms," he says. "Who else is out there?"

The lieutenant listens on her earpiece. "Last report put them at another hour out."

"An hour, then," the man on the other side says. The other one in blue. "We only have to last for an hour. We can do that, right? What's next? Shields?"

"Yeah," Jim says. "Shields and engines."

The voice from engineering says, "It'll push her, and there's only a few bursts in it, but there's life here yet."

The kid at the front says, "Tactical shielding. If Sulu and I…" he drags the helmsman over to look at his screen, "if I redirect power when you move us- there- we can maximise the effective area covered by our shielding."

The helmsman nods. "No problem. Manual control's still functioning fine. She's not as badly hit as she looks."

Jim looks around the bridge. He really did send them away. "If this doesn't look like it's working, you evacuate. Understood?" They nod; he doesn't believe them. Then: "An hour?" he asks. "Does the planet have an hour?"

The doctor sighs. "There's not a planet, okay. It's a game, it doesn't matter. Just try not to die."

Jim's head is a little clearer now. It seems like maybe he's done this before. "That's a really bad motto," he says. "If we have an hour, let's use it. Lieutenant?" The woman at the station turns, so at least he did have her rank right. "What about their comms?"

"Captain?"

"What are they saying? There must be something, or the two of them would just blow us out of the sky right now. Can we tap into it?"

She frowns and starts hitting buttons on her station. "I think there's- Spock, give me a hand over here?" Spock goes, and a moment later she says, "An instability in the second ship's engine."

Jim calls down to Engineering. "Hey, what do you know about the second ship? What would make its engine likely to explode all on its own? Without us crashing into it."

"Poor shielding between the engines and the weapon generators, combined with a sustained assault by- hey."

"Yeah, think about that for a minute, will you?"

"Captain," his first officer says, "we still need to get close enough to-."

"Helmsman?" Jim asks. "You think you and the whiz kid can get us close enough to do a little damage without blowing ourselves up in the process?"

The pilot grins at him and elbows the kid. The navigator says. "Ow. And also, yes, Captain, I believe we can manage that, if you would like."

"Okay," Jim says. "Good. Let's take the fight to them. Get in between their ships and the planet. I'm tired of running."

 

Simulation complete.

 

*

The world is dark. A few hours ago – at least he hopes it was only a few hours – Jim agreed to test the Gaban version of a Kobayashi Maru. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, after one of his own had started bragging about how their Captain had defeated the Starfleet training simulation. By cheating, Jim had explained, or at least by changing the parameters of the scenario, but now the Gaban were curious. They had their own training simulations, they said. All of their command officers underwent the simulation, before it was decided if they were fit for duty. Agreeing to sit in the chair had seemed like a handy way to move the talks along. Possibly he should have reconsidered that impulse. They hadn't told him he would forget plugging himself in.

Jim opens his eyes. His head is killing him. Bones is shining a light in his eye. Jim says, "Do I even want to know who was in charge of the ship by the end of that? I told you to stay out of it. I told you to go."

"Yeah," Bones says. "I didn't do that. You're an idiot and sometimes you need rescuing."

"It was a simulation, Bones. A game."

"Which you had been trapped in for going on six hours. You could have evacuated yourself, you know. No one would have blamed you."

"I would have blamed me."

"It was a simulation," Bones counters. "A game. Which the Gaban seemed to conveniently forget wasn't designed for human use. But it was still a game."

"So why'd you all climb in after me?" Jim asks.

Bones changes from shining lights to prodding him. "I guess your particular brand of stupidity is catching. And you had us a little worried. The Gaban were worried anyway. They thought they'd killed you. Spock had to do some reprogramming of their machines before they'd even let the rest of us in, in case we got stuck too."

"What about the talks?"

"Oh, we won that round. They've never seen someone try so hard to protect their planet, even if it was a computer generation. Most of their captains just wait for backup. Or, and I can't stress this enough, pull out before the damn explosion. You're the first person to beat the thing in a century, apparently. The legend continues."

Jim laughs. "But I cheated again."

"How's that?"

"I had you guys."

Bones looks at him. "Exactly. That's the part you seem to be missing. Now go back to sleep. Spock wants to talk to you, and you'll want to be rested up for that."

 

* * * *

Spock turns up at about the time Jim wakes up again. He doesn't know where they stand with regards to ship's time, but it's quiet. Spock has the chessboard.

"Dr McCoy assures me that if I upset you in any way, he'll assault me with surgical instruments." Spock puts the board on the table beside the bed.

"So you decided to beat me in chess instead?"

"I had a metaphor in mind," Spock says. "Now I am less sure."

Jim nods. "Okay. So now what?"

"You wish to be a good captain."

"Yes," Jim says. "Though you told me I already was one. A while ago now. Have you changed your mind?"

"No," Spock says. "It seems you have."

Jim laughs. "Well, I was never all that clear on the issue."

Spock taps one finger on the board. "And you have a good crew."

Jim is absolutely clear on that one. He nods. "The best."

"Your being a good captain does not negate your having a good crew."

"I'm a good captain because I have a good crew," Jim corrects.

Spock leans his head to one side. "No. They complement each other, but one does not constitute the other."

"What are you trying to say, Spock?"

"The fundamentals of this crew – her core command structure – exists in two universes. We are not so easily dissolved as you seem to believe. I do not think- we could never have left you. And you would not have left us. So it is illogical to assume that, through some fault in your captaincy, the ship will break down. You do not have to bear sole responsibility for the well being of the ship. We each have our functions, and we perform to our best when you- when you are behaving as yourself, not as your idea of what a captain should be. Your standing apart does not make the rest of the crew function better. Indeed, without your- your instinct, your unconventional approaches to problems… You captain this ship in two universes. There is a reason for that."

Jim stares at the chessboard. "I get really damn uneasy when you all start talking about destiny. This crew is here now because it's here now. We're friends now because we're friends now. Because we put the fucking work in."

"Yes," Spock says. "And that work brought fruit. It brought us here." He says, "This is a good day. We did our jobs, and no one died. What more would you like?"

"What more would you like?" Jim asks. "Other than a captain who gets whatever the hell it is you're trying to say? It's not that easy, not when you're out here. If you want a captain who- do you ever wonder if the crew would be better off if you'd said 'screw destiny' and not let me push you out of the chair?"

"When will you realise," Spock asks, "that I do not want your command?"

"Yeah?" Jim challenges. "So again, Spock, what do you want? You came chasing after me into the damn simulation after I told you to watch the ship, you came looking for me after the cave-in, and you came looking for me again now. What do you want?"

Spock pushes the chessboard out of the way and looks steadily at Jim. He is beautifully clear-eyed and his expression is open.

"Spock," Jim says, "You know we- it doesn't work."

"There is an Earth saying." Spock keeps his eyes on Jim. "Try again, fail again, fail better."

"Fail differently, anyway," Jim mutters. "Spock. We have duties, you said that. We're never going to be- there's always going to be something more important. Your people, or the Federation or the next mission. It's not- not destiny, nothing like that."

"Perhaps not," Spock says. "Perhaps we have to take your own advice."

"Which advice was that?"

Spock leans across the space between them. "We put the work in." He takes Jim's face carefully in his hands and it's nothing like telepathy but just as familiar. Spock says something Jim can't quite hear.

"Yeah," Jim says. "Me too, me too." It's a terrible idea, but on the other hand, they've already seen the part where it ends horribly. Who knows how it'll go this time? Anything could happen and he's tired of bracing for the worst. Jim closes his eyes and tilts his head that fraction more.

 

* * * *

"We have thirty seconds before we need to leave," Spock informs him.

"Mm-hm."

"Twenty-two."

"Yeah."

"Fifteen."

"You know, if you'd stop kissing me, we might get there faster."

"Yes."

"I didn't say stop."

"Jim."

Jim will grant that he is, effectively, blocking the doorway out of his quarters. Both by standing in it and by covering the control with his right hand. As this led to being kissed firmly against the door, with Spock's fingers tangled in his, he's not sure why he's supposed to care. If Spock is trying to disapprove, he has a funny way of showing it.

"Minus three," Jim says, and opens the door.

It just means they have to walk a little faster to get to the bridge. Scotty meets him at the door. "Captain. Tell her that she can't get away with this."

Jim has to look around to check who 'she' is and what she's supposed to be getting away with. "Yeoman Rand," he says.

"Yes, sir."

"I'll have you know," Scotty says, "That my requisitions are far more necessary than anything they've come up with in-."

She interrupts, "First come, first served. There's a queue. Don't get in so late next time."

"Captain!"

"Yeoman, stop teasing my officers please." He grins at her. "I'll look at the requests later today, I promise."

She smiles back at him and goes to talk to Uhura. Jim has no doubt that if he doesn't have them reviewed by the time he goes to bed, the computer is going to start reminding him at inopportune moments again.

"Mr Sulu?" Jim asks. "How are we doing?"

"Ahead of time, Captain."

Scotty is still on the bridge, leaning over Chekov's console. "Mr Chekov," Jim says firmly, "I'm trusting you not to let him reprogram the ship while we're moving."

"It wouldn't really be anything that could-." Chekov frowns at the space behind Jim's shoulder.

Jim doesn't turn around. "No one's going to crash the ship, Bones. Chekov and Scotty are just… tweaking the controls."

"Colour me reassured. The common-sense in this room wouldn't fill a damn tea-cup."

"Noted," Jim says. "Uhura, when do they expect us in?"

She looks at him. "We haven't changed the schedule since we were given orders. We'll probably get there a little early." Her expression turns suspicious. "Why?

"No reason. Sulu!"

"Yes, sir."

"Understand that I am absolutely not authorising you to take the scenic route."

"Yes, sir." Sulu is already pushing at controls, trying not to smile.

"But there's a lot of space to see, and we wouldn't want to turn up before our hosts are expecting us. That'd be rude, wouldn't it, Uhura?"

He knows she's humouring him, but she's still smiling when she says, "Yes, Captain."

Spock walks to stand beside him. "Captain."

"I'm really okay with you going back to Jim, you know that."

"Yes."

"You just like to screw with me."

"Jim."

"All right, all right. It's just a small diversion, I promise. We need to keep this job interesting." He stands by Spock's shoulder and looks through his bridge out at the stars. "We've got years like this ahead of us."