Title: What's In a Name
Characters: Kirk, Uhura, various
Rating: T
Word Count: 19,000 (this chapter)

Warnings/Spoilers: Spoilers for all AOS movies, various spoilers for TOS universe elements, no knowledge of which is necessary to understand the story. Specifics footnoted or explained at the end of each chapter. This chapter, TOS fans will see a few specific and vague plot points swiped from The Immunity Syndrome, the opening scenes of Generations (don't worry, no character death to be seen here), and a vague reference to Journey to Babel. Anything else you recognize that I didn't catch is unconscious borrowing from TOS and belongs to Paramount, not me, etc. etc.

Specific warnings for this chapter: see A/N; also, warnings for non-linear storytelling if you hate that format

Summary: Five times Nyota Uhura called Jim Kirk something other than Captain, and one time he was glad to return the favor

A/N: 7/13/18 Originally posted with a redacted scene due to current events involving school shootings, as it would have been in bad taste at the time of posting. Now reposted with scenes added.

Thank you to everyone who has come along for this Venture; I truly appreciate your kind comments and reviews. Much love to you all!


He's a little surprised, but really shouldn't be, to hear his lock codes being overridden. Only a few people would dare such a thing, and he knows of only one who would have the necessary clearance to get past the high-security Yorktown shipyard officials.

Persistence, thy name is Vulcan.

"I knew I should have used my new admiral's clearance to lock that thing," he says, not without amusement, as the door closes back into shadow.

"Indeed you should have, in addition to diverting from predictable behaviors, if you truly wished to disappear."

"Screw you," he mutters, turning back to the windows. "Nothing is predictable anymore, Spock."

He hears a faint sigh, but no rejoinder; tacit acknowledgment that their lives are changing, with or without their consent.

Outside the massive windows which enclose the primary observation deck, a whirlwind of machinery and automated engineering bots flutter like so many durasteel-coated bees, doing who knows what to refit and refurbish the exterior of the ship. It's a colossal undertaking, one which will take over a year, and there's talk of not even sending her back out again into deep space, so badly was she damaged when she limped back into Yorktown this last time.

Her computer banks are over a decade outdated, far behind the technology being installed in the current constitution-class starships, her maneuvering thrusters slightly clumsy compared to her newer, faster, more graceful counterparts. She served them faithfully, saved them more times than he can count: but in this age of the Next Fastest Thing, that may not be enough. In this business, if you aren't one step ahead? You might very well be dead. She's proven this principle wrong so many times, faced down death and disaster and come out the other side still full of life…but there will come a time when her luck will run out. This last mission especially, was not kind to her.

To any of them.

There's another, slightly larger, very beautiful constitution-class ship under construction which he can see off the port bow, all glittering lights and the gleaming skeleton of what will likely be her successor once it's finished in two years. The Venture, rumor has it will be her name. She's the talk of the Starbase, talk of the 'Fleet, even – all shiny new equipment and cutting-edge tech and the best and brightest already vying for stations aboard, even this far out from the mission's inception.

He can't help but hate her already, just a little.

And just beyond her, docked outside the construction bay and preparing to launch in less than twelve hours, is the gleaming expanse of the Intrepid.


"You can't be serious." He stares across the desk in 100% and total disbelief, brain still trying to catch up with his ears because he can't possibly have heard what he thinks he just heard.

"Vulcans are always serious, Captain."

"You – are you nuts, Spock?"

A pointed eyebrow inclines in obvious amusement, though to his credit after all this time his First doesn't bother pretending ignorance of the idiom. "I am in full possession of my faculties, if that is your inquiry."

"Okay." He runs both hands through his hair, pulling on it absently for a minute in an effort to ground his reeling brain. "Okay. No, you know what? This is not okay." Rocketing to his feet, he moves around the desk and starts pacing, a well-worn track between his sleeping alcove and the working area. "It's just not okay, Spock."

A tolerant sigh. "We have already discussed the matter, Captain."

"You –" He spins on one heel with a screeeeak, dumbfounded. "And she didn't have anything to say about it?"

His First shifts slightly, a tell if he ever saw one, but appears genuine enough when he answers. "She has always been aware this might be a possibility. I was clear from the beginning upon that point."

"You…good God, how does she not hate me?" He collapses onto the couch, head in his hands, mind spinning. The vestiges of panic start to lurk at the edges of his consciousness, a harbinger of what could be the world crashing and burning under a barrage of good intentions. "I don't understand."

"There is nothing to understand; it is a fact, one which does not require nor invite discussion. The Lieutenant-Commander is quite aware of this and in fact reminded me of it herself. This is the only reason I mentioned the matter, as we are currently discussing personnel rotations and the possibilities for promotion should deserving candidates return for the next mission."

He exhales slowly, pulls his reeling mind back under control, and finally lifts his head. "Sit down." He nods to the opposite chair, and after a moment of hesitation Spock sits, head cocked in question. "Look. While I…appreciate the gesture. Seriously. Do you have any idea what you're doing?"

An almost amused quirk of the eyebrow.

"No, I mean really understand what you're doing. I don't know, maybe Vulcans can manage better than humans can, but every human couple I've ever seen, who split for over five years on a deep space mission? It just doesn't work, for our species to be apart that long. That's why I denied any applicant for our five-year missions who was in a civil partnership or marriage, unless their partner could transfer aboard as well. There's psycho-medical data to back me up on that."

He can see the sudden comprehension, and unease, dawning like a hololight.

"I've never known anyone who could pull it off, it's just too long with no physical presence. Even for the strongest of relationships, it puts a huge strain on them, mentally and emotionally. And while you guys are like, the model couple…it's just not practical. Think about it. What would you do if at the end of five years we get orders to stay out there for five more, without returning to charted space? It's happened, to other starships, and we go deeper every mission."

"We are Starfleet officers, Captain. That is the risk all officers take."

"And I call bullshit, because that's your freaking-out face. How the hell did you think you were going to pull that off?"

"I am Vulcan, and Nyota is a most exceptional human."

"You're half-Vulcan, and yeah, she is, I'm not arguing either point. But that may not be enough."

"You may be correct." Spock shifts slightly, but ultimately looks back at him with the same expression as earlier. "Nevertheless, my destiny lies here, on the Enterprise."

"You – did you not hear a word I just said!"

"Nyota is aware of this, Captain, and has been from the beginning. We discussed prior to her accepting captaincy of the Intrepid that I would not be accompanying her. My place is here."

"Your pl– oh my God, you're insane."

"That is incorrect."

"You are, and she's going to end up hating me for it!"

"That is also incorrect. It would be illogical to harbor resentment for an outcome one was already aware would transpire."

That may be. She's always been weirdly tolerant of whatever inexplicable ties have always seemed to pull the two of them together like magnets, no matter where they are in the galaxy.

Maybe she doesn't hate him.

But maybe he'll end up hating himself.

"Spock, seriously." He takes a deep breath, tries to reel in the feeling he's lost control of not just this conversation and his two best officers, but basically his entire future. "You can't do this. You're basically tossing your marriage over some misguided sense of destiny that may not even be real."

"That is your opinion."

"And what if I'm right?" he asks quietly.

"It does not matter. I made a promise to you years ago, Jim, on the night we launched the Enterprise-A. I will never give you cause to doubt my loyalties again, nor will outside forces cause me to doubt them. As long as you captain the Enterprise, you may rely on my presence as well."

He closes his eyes, helpless. Damn Vulcan loyalty.

Of course, there is one way to get around that. It's been staring at him, evilly blinking from his inbox every time he turns his computer on for the last week. His worst nightmare, couched in terms of promotion and maturity and change and he hates change.

God, he hates change.

What is he supposed to do?


It breaks his heart, a little, to think of his beautiful girl getting sidelined in favor of the Next Big Thing, and he doesn't even bother to hide the fact he's been grieving like a recent widower when Spock finally gets tired of lurking near the door and comes to sit beside him on the floor of the deserted Observation Lounge.

After all, he is kind of mourning the death of more than one thing, tonight.

"Shouldn't you be like, performing inspections or something?" he asks, and after all this time there's no longer bitterness in the tone, only resignation. He is happy for them, after all – that was never in question. He can finally push past the rest to show it now, at least.

"They have their place on my list of pre-launch priorities." Well, that's…sweet. He smiles, the gesture reflecting in the expansive windows. "Also, Nyota said I was…"

"Driving everyone nuts because you're so intense every time we prepare to launch?"

"Something to that effect."

He laughs, the sound oddly harsh and echoing in the deserted lounge. "Have fun figuring out that new dynamic."

"It will be an adjustment," Spock admits, looking out as a repair bot whirrs past the window. "However, I am confident one which we will make successfully."

"Well. I know you're going to kick ass. Just – make sure you both come back, yeah?" He looks down as he speaks, unable to blow it off as a flippant comment.

"That is certainly the preferred scenario. Also, I suspect Nyota will be far less prone to attract the same amount of danger as the two previous captains I have served under."

He snorts, grinning, and turns back to the window. "I wouldn't bet on that. She learned from one of the best."

"I do not dispute this fact."

For a few moments a comfortable silence falls, the one thing he might just miss the most. He's drifted into a semi-meditative state, eyes closed and almost able to forget what's ahead, when beside him he senses Spock shifting uneasily, clear indication he's got something probably human to say. Horror of horrors.

"You gonna spit it out sometime today?" he asks, smiling, eyes still closed.

"I am…not certain how."

He opens his eyes, turns away from the window to give his full attention. Spock looks anxious, would be the word he'd use if the idea weren't almost ridiculous.

"Okay…you're going to have to help me out here. Is something worrying you about the launch?"

"Negative."

"The mission itself? You worried about Nyota's command skills?"

"Negative. She has proven herself more than capable, and your endorsement has put any reservations she herself had to rest."

"Then what's eating you?"

Spock finally looks at him directly, unease clear in his eyes. "Admiral, did you accept this promotion to eliminate my reason for remaining on board the Enterprise?"

Well, that's direct. He sighs, rubs the back of his neck. "No." At Spock's even look, he waves a hand helplessly in the air. "Not exactly. Look, I can't even really explain it to myself, I dunno if I can explain it to you – but it wasn't just because of you. That was just the catalyst, really."

An unhappy look shadows his former First's expression.

"Don't go into space thinking that's why, Spock, seriously. I…I have to find myself, now. You know? Everything's changed, and…" He shakes his head, looking down at his hands. "I've been so wrapped up in this ship, this crew, for so many years, my identity's just been one with the Enterprise…I don't even really know who I am anymore."

"You are a starship captain, Jim."

"Am I? Is that all I am?" He half-smiles at the frown he receives. "See, even you don't know, and you know me better than I know myself sometimes. It's time I stand on my own two feet, Spock. This is something I have to do. Something I need to do."

"But is it what you wish to do?"

"Hell, no. But I'll never figure it out if I don't try." He manages a shaky smile that most definitely isn't enough to fool the most perceptive being he's ever met. "Sink or swim, you know?"

"Neither of those is a pleasant prospect."

Right, native of a desert planet, Spock hates water. His laugh borders on the hysterical this time. "God, I'm going to miss you so much." Well, he didn't mean to say that, but whatever. Sue him. "Indulge the pathetic emotional human and write once in a while, yeah?"

"I believe that can be arranged." The words are light, but he can see the shadows of concern in Spock's eyes, as they finally stand, taking one last look out at the chaotic shipyard. "You will keep us informed as to the progress of Doctor McCoy's newest family member?"

"I will. And if you guys decide you're going to start a family –"

"We are not." Spock looks horrified at the very idea, and the sheer humanity of it makes him laugh, for real this time.

"Duly noted. Can I buy you dinner before you brave the Captain's wrath once more tonight?"

"That would be agreeable."


It's almost worth it – almost – to see the look on her face when he hands her the communique from Starfleet Command.

She chokes on her coffee, nearly destroying said communique but for superior reflexes that snatch it out of the way in time, bringing it back a moment later in just as much shock as the first time.

He has to laugh, even despite the situation. "I'm not sure I've ever seen you without language."

"In what universe is this a good command decision?" she asks incredulously, tossing the padd back across the desk. "And how the hell am I the next one in line for it?"

"Well, there was one candidate ahead of you, but they chose to take a starbase posting to be closer to Terra. And don't sell yourself short, Commander. You've been noticed by the right people, and this is an excellent first step into a chair. The Intrepid is brand new, but she's not a huge vessel, and she's one of the most highly diversified ones yet; a captain who can speak every crewman's language is going to have an automatic advantage in building relations internally. It's a win-win for both you and the 'Fleet."

"I don't want to command, Jim."

"I know that," he replies quietly. "But I think you should take some time to consider it very carefully."

"Why are you so dead set on getting rid of me?" she asks, eyebrow raised.

"Believe me, that's the last thing I want to do. But the best thing for us? May not be the best thing for you, Nyota. Human nature is to grow, to adapt, to keep moving. Your skills are just sitting here, and after three missions? You should be thinking bigger. It's been almost two decades – you shouldn't still be sitting in that same chair when you could easily be sitting in mine."

She sighs, and pulls the padd back to look at it again, reading the fairly long description over.

He closes his eyes for a moment, and then opens them again, exhales silently. "And," he says quietly, "I think you should think about taking Spock with you as your First Officer."

She pauses, and looks up at him over the edge of the padd. "That's not going to happen."

"Nyota, there are all kinds of regulations now which would protect the two of you, if that's what you're worried about. And especially with the whole endangered species thing, you basically can do whatever you want, nobody's going to dare to say anything."

"It's not that, Jim. He's not going to go for it."

He frowns. "Off the record. You think he's going to have a problem taking orders from you?"

She laughs, eyes dancing. "Well, if we're off the record, he certainly doesn't have a problem doing it under the right circumstances..."

"TMI. So much TMI. Ew." He shakes his head, trying not to laugh. "Just – moving on. Why do you think it'll be a problem?"

"That's something we'll need to talk about before I can really discuss with you, Captain. Sorry."

He raises his hands in a laissez-faire gesture. "Fair enough. But he'll need to get his transfer request in before we hit the 90-day mark out from Terra for it to be valid. Just remember that."

"Aye, sir. I'll…keep you posted. You really think this is the right move?"

"I do," he replies, sincerely. "The timing seems to be right, and the position couldn't be a better fit for your skills. I wouldn't have submitted your name for consideration if I hadn't believed that."

"You what."

"Oh, yeah. So, consider that my stamp of approval." He grins at her glare. "Look, it's a thing, every time they christen a new ship every captain submits a name for promotion, it's not like I was pulling strings. Chill. It's not like Sulu's ready, yet."

She looks a little less annoyed, but still suspicious.

"I promise. I have no say in this, Nyota. You got this all on your own. Now go talk to Spock – but it needs to stay between the two of you, understood?"

"Understood, sir." She takes the padd, re-codes the encryption, and then turns to leave.

"And Commander," he calls, just before she reaches the door.

"Sir?"

"I'm proud of you." He smiles, entirely genuine. "Just so you know."


Bones takes one look at him and silently points at the chair closest to what looks like a ridiculously huge holographic fire in the fireplace.

"Geez. Overcompensation much?"

"You come here to criticize my creature comforts, or steal some of them?"

"Steal them. The strongest stuff you have." He collapses in the chair, and it actually is kind of nice, even if the heat's just simulated and would shut off instantly if a safety protocol were triggered. It even snaps and crackles like a real fireplace, the sound oddly soothing, reminiscent of camping trips and shore leaves.

"Here. Might as well take the bottle too, I have a feeling you're gonna be needing it anyway."

He doesn't bother denying the accusation, just upends the highball and nearly chokes as the contents try to eat their way through his throat lining before trickling down to his stomach.

"O-kay, that's got to be illegal."

"Not on Yorktown." An evil grin. "Most liberal starbase in the quadrant."

"I thought you were a doctor, aren't you supposed to be against that kind of thing?" He pours another, slightly more cautious, glass and inspects it against the firelight.

"I don't hear you complainin'."

"I'm not. God, that's vile."

"Good. Maybe it'll keep you from full-on alcohol poisoning. God knows I ain't got time for that, Jim."

He snorts, and puts the glass down with slightly more force than is warranted. "Right, I forgot. Formalities. Gotta get out of here as quick as possible, after all."

Bones sighs, a sad and almost pained little noise that hurts almost as much as the ache he's not got a clue how to deal with yet. "Jim…"

"I know, I'm sorry. That was a dick thing to say. I don't know what's wrong with me." He stares into the firelight, watching as the flames dance and twist, burning everything in their path.

It's a pretty apt metaphor for his life, right now.

"Hey. Look at me, Jim."

He glances up, and tries to look like he hasn't been about two seconds from losing it completely for like a week now.

"You promised me you'd be okay with this. If you're not, I need to know – I can't be halfway across the galaxy if you crash and burn on us."

On who, he wants to say, but he bites his tongue, forces a smile that is only a little bit bitter.

"I am, Bones, I am. Geez. Go be a grandpa to somebody other than me."

"I am not. Not yet, anyway."

"You so are." He laughs, and pours another drink. "Poor kid has no idea what he's coming into. Fifty credits says Joanna kicks you out of the maternity ward before even going into labor."

"Yeah, you're fine." Bones snorts, moving over to the side table to answer an insistently chirping communicator. "McCoy."

He shivers a little, pulls the chair closer to the fire. Tries not to think about the fact that he can count on one hand the number of times he'll hear that again.


He really should have known better than to think he could slip it by, unnoticed, even amid the chaos of the thousands of messages being shot across the Communications portal of the Enterprise's intranet when they redock over Yorktown. A quick burst of subspace signal, a self-erasing program to delete it after being sent – he thought it'd be enough, but he should have known better.

This is not how he wanted this to go.

The end of a deep space mission is a monumental event for some; many crewmen have not seen their families in years, after such a mission, and have been anticipating its end for weeks now for that reason. Many have discovered to their chagrin that deep space is not the posting for them, not at all what they thought it would be, and are too ruefully eager to set foot on terra firma once more, to later transfer to a less dangerous vessel, thankful that they are one of the lucky few who are still alive to do so. For many, the end is simply the beginning of another, either on this ship or a different one. Lateral transfers and a few deserved promotions happen with fair regularity, and a Fleet-paid holiday spent between missions on Yorktown is nothing to sneeze at.

After three such missions, the end of this third is not such a grand ordeal as it had been the first two times; and his senior staff is far more calm as they go about their business in shutting down the command Bridge, the last to leave the ship other than vital Engineering personnel who will remain aboard until the transfer of power to orbital dock has been completed remotely.

So, he'd thought he could slip that comm past unnoticed in the furor of outgoing messages from hundreds of eager crewmen pouring off the ship to meet families and friends and saying goodbye to their fellow officers for the foreseeable future.

Not so. Lieutenant-Commander Nyota Uhura can pounce on a suspect transmission under fourteen layers of encryption with one eye closed, one reason why their communications rating is higher than any other ship in the 'Fleet, including ambassadorial cruisers.

The Bridge is 90% on auto-pilot at this point, only a few officers at their stations, and he's spinning his chair in a half-circle of nervous energy, trying not to be a pain in the neck asking for status reports on things he knows are getting done because his people know their jobs, and occasionally pinging off a report to Command as departments check in to let him know that sections of the ship have been confirmed empty.

He's slowly revolving in a bored, dizzying circle, when he sees her expression change suddenly, hand still frozen on her earpiece and fingers paused over one of the controls.

Crap.

He clears his throat. "Mr. Sulu, you about done there?"

"Aye, Captain. Final locks being engaged now, sir. Just waiting on confirmation from the remote dock."

"I think we can handle that. Get home to your family. You too, Chekov."

The young man's eyes brighten. "Seriously, Keptin?"

"Well, if you want to stick around for another two hours, be my guest, but –"

"Negative, sir!" Sulu hastily punches a button on the console and tugs his seatmate by the arm, waving as he heads toward the lift.

"Tell them I said hey," he calls with a short laugh, unsure if the words are even heard, so quickly is the turbolift door sliding shut.

That just leaves the three of them on the Bridge, so at least the fallout won't be as severe.

He sighs, and tosses the padd onto the floor, then swivels to face the comms station. Attention arrested by the noise, Spock glances up for the first time, frowning, and seems to realize a storm is brewing because he gets that slightly resigned, slightly panicked look he always does when human emotions are being flung about in his general vicinity.

Uhura's leaning back in her chair, arms folded, fingers tapping slowly on the opposite arm, just glaring at him.

"You are supposed to redirect messages, not read them," he says mildly.

"And you're supposed to discuss with your command team any major changes in that chain of command. Now aren't you."

He winces. "Fair enough."

Spock turns to look at him, question and not a little alarm in his eyes.

Sighing, he leans forward, elbows on his knees, and runs his hands through his hair uneasily. "This isn't how I wanted this to go."

"And how exactly did you think it was going to go? When were you going to tell everyone? Tell us?"

"Captain, I am at a loss to understand what is being referenced."

"Oh, this is fantastic. You didn't even tell him?"

"Lieutenant-Commander, you are out of line!" he snaps, finally losing his grip on the only thread of control that's enabled him to get through this day. This one, last day.

She looks a little shocked, and no wonder, because he's usually pretty careful to call both her and Spock Commander out of respect for their abilities, and it's been a long time since he brought out that particular tone.

"If you intend to take a captain's chair, then you had better get a clearer understanding of the proper time and place to have these discussions." His tone is even, but for once holding no humor in it – he just can't, not today.

She looks about to say something, then apparently thinks better of it. After a second, something appears to dawn on her, and she pinpoints him shrewdly. "Speaking of. Does that have anything to do with this?"

He blinks, surprised despite himself that she's nailed part of the issue with such uncanny precision – but he shouldn't be surprised. And there's no way in hell she's ever going to find that out.

He raises an eyebrow. "We've had this talk. Twice. I am freaking thrilled for you, Nyota. There's no way I'd do anything but boot you off this ship if you thought about staying. Okay?"

She glares at him for a minute as if trying to gauge his sincerity, but he appears to have convinced her because a moment later she shrugs, and glances over at Spock, who is still totally clueless but patiently waiting for explanations, bless him.

He receives an inquiring eyebrow, and sighs, rubbing the back of his neck nervously. "Look, I was going to tell you. Just…not here."

Apprehension suddenly dawns, and along with it – something resembling suspicion. Yeah, Spock's not an idiot. But Nyota doesn't know anything about their conversation, and it needs to stay that way.

"The timing was just right." He shrugs with practiced ease. "They've offered me the open rear-admiral position here on Yorktown, specifically in charge of Tactical Operations and the Command track in the Yorktown branch of Starfleet Academy. And…I've accepted it."

"Without discussing it."

"I don't require your approval, Spock," he says, not unkindly, but firmly. "This is something I need to do."

"Is it." Yeah, that's definite suspicion.

"Yes." He holds the look for a minute, boldly confident, and finally sees the suspicion falter under the certainty. "Look, I didn't want you to find out this way. I'm not – come on, you don't think I'm that much of an asshole after all this time, do you?"

"Asshole, no," Uhura replies calmly. "Coward? Sometimes." He glares at her, but deep down knows she's right; when it comes to things like this, yeah. He always has been, just a bit. "I'm not saying anybody faults you for it, even, Jim. But yeah. Sometimes."

"Well, this wasn't one of those times. How in the world did you even notice that among how many thousands of messages going out?"

"It's my job, dumbass." She rolls her eyes, and leans back as something starts beeping on the board. "Probably a good thing you're taking this ground posting, I'm not sure anyone else would be able to put up with you sometimes."

He tries to laugh, but the sound sticks in his throat, sharp and painful.

Yeah.

Probably.


The first six months are probably the hardest days of his entire life, with a few obvious and notable exceptions from his childhood.

He hadn't realized, until forced to confront it by simple virtue of being alone for the first time in decades, how dangerously co-dependent he'd become on the people he loves. Not exactly unhealthy, just unwise; and now that rug has been pulled out from under him he's finding it a little frightening just how much his identity had been wrapped up in other people the last fifteen years.

So, he deals with it the only real way he knows how.

Basically, he doesn't.

His new duties keep him more than busy, and he's reminded painfully of those first few months after their initial launch – both the original and after Khan – when he was so overwhelmed by the job description he would have drowned had it not been for his command crew. He has no such luxury now, though he does have two well-meaning aides who are earnest and eager and don't even look old enough to be taking Academy entrance exams.

He's either gotten old, or just jaded.

Maybe both.

But he throws himself into the work with the same determination that he had given then, working twelve or more hours a day to learn as much in as short a time as possible. Tactical Operations has always been one of the things he enjoys, and is actually quite good at, so other than the boring-ass meetings every other day in 'Fleet HQ he enjoys that part of the job.

Teaching in the Academy is about a 50/50 split. He totally gets why Spock wanted to kill him when they first met, because none of these idiots have cheated yet on one of his tests and he still wants to kill them half the time.

But gradually, time moves on, as it's wont to do. The days turn into weeks, and the weeks into months, until before he realizes it's been over six months that he's been at this; it's his birthday. Hooray to continuing into the not-so-fabulous 40s.

He only realizes the amount of time because apparently some idiots on a starship currently patrolling the Neutral Zone thought it would be hilarious to employ the services of one of the novelty vendors on Yorktown to completely fill his office with freaking balloons.

Floor to ceiling.

Confetti-filled balloons.

Okay, how was he supposed to know? It's the logical thing to do, try and pop them to make a way to your desk, right?

His aides thought he was off his meds when they found him sitting outside his office, covered in bits of biodegradable paper shaped like IDIC symbols and laughing like a nutjob, but hey. Totally worth it.

"I've got a science problem for you, Commander. Any idea how this stuff can multiply like tribbles when it in actuality lacks both sentience and reproductive abilities?" He shakes another piece of confetti off his sleeve in demonstration, the fifth one he's found this evening – and he's home, not in his office anymore. They're like tiny magnets, sticking to him everywhere. The paper floats away to land on the counter beside his takeout containers, sparkling in the lamplight.

Spock looks way too amused. "I take it you made some unfortunate choices in the method of de-cluttering your working area."

He snorts, and finally finds the chopsticks he was looking for. "You could say that. The maintenance staff now officially hate me, thanks to you guys." He pops back into view, yanking the sushi tray with him. The confetti goes floating to the floor, hopefully to rest in peace. "Also, I'm pretty sure I saw some of it being tracked all the way into the botany labs across campus, so. Well done, you."

"Nyota insisted we make certain your date of birth was…memorable."

"Uh, yeah. Thanks for that." He snorts, grinning. "Definitely was." He chews pensively on a New California roll for a second, and then squints at the screen. "What's that you're working on?"

Spock glances behind him before turning around. "As you are no doubt aware, we are currently patrolling the Neutral Zone in an effort to determine whether or not negotiations with the Romulan Empire might be possible in the foreseeable future."

"Yeah, your reports are part of my daily Tactical briefings, with Romulus in the state it is. Go on?"

"We have heard rumors of a fully functional cloaking device being used by Romulan warships. I am endeavoring to create a formula which could be used to scan for such concealed ships, enabling us to locate them despite the cloaking device."

"Huh." He pauses with a chunk of rice on the way to his mouth, duly impressed. "That'd be pretty amazing if you pull it off."

"It would certainly give us an advantage should we encounter such a device. Unfortunately, the only way to ascertain the success of the equations would be to encounter a cloaked vessel."

"Hmmm." He chews pensively for a minute. "Can you adjust the equation to be fed into the long-range scanner? It'd be some pretty radical algorithms, adjusting for the photon distortion and tachyon dispersal, but it might work."

"The thought had occurred to me. It will require much more experimentation in the coming weeks."

"Well, you are the Science Officer."

"Indeed." And that's an eyeroll, yeah – he's missed that.

He smiles. "So, how are things, anyway? You two still okay with the changes and everything?"

Spock looks vaguely amused. "Were we not, there would be little you could do to change the fact, Admiral."

"Yeah, but you both bailed on me so I get to be like the weird nosy cousin or something now, deal with it. Seriously, though. You good?"

He wants to laugh at the rapid progression of dismay, slight contrition, exasperation, and then what he knows is the Vulcan equivalent of affection that all flash in rapid succession across his former First Officer's face as he speaks.

"We are, Jim. In all honesty, I had not anticipated the transition being as effortless as it has been."

He beams from around a mouthful of sushi. "That's awesome. Seriously, I am legit happy for you."

"I believe a human would thank you." Spock regards him in silence for a moment, and then seems to hesitate.

"Something on my face?" he asks dryly, reaching for a disposawipe.

"Negative. I am merely…that is…"

Ok, super weird. "You need to go get Uhura so she can interpret for you?"

Spock gives him a longsuffering look of thinly veiled exasperation. "I was simply going to remark upon your own state of mind, Admiral, and thought better of it."

"Hm?" He fishes a weird-looking piece of cucumber out of the last sushi roll and shoves it off to one side. Then the words register, and he looks back up, eyes narrowed. "What does that mean?"

A shrug. "It is not my prerogative to comment any longer on another officer's mental state."

"Yeah, okay, you've got my freaking power of attorney, Spock, because of Bones's conflict of interest. I'm pretty sure you can comment whatever the hell you want." He points a chopstick at the screen. "But watch it, you remember how admirals can make your life a living hell."

Even weirder, Spock almost smiles.

He sighs, and tosses the chopsticks into the nearly empty container. Leans back, arms folded in contemplation. "Yeah, I know," he says quietly, almost musing. "I was seriously messed up last time you called. Not a good day. I'm sorry."

"You are more than entitled to have such bad days, as a human and as an officer."

"Yeah, well, I know I probably freaked you out. I freaked myself out, too, if it's any consolation. Bones about tore me a new one. I had to stop him from getting on a transport, he was about to trek all the way back out here, like it's not a two-week ride at maximum warp. No idea how he thought he was going to get past the Andromeda outpost."

"Perhaps you should have permitted him to do so?" The words aren't an accusation, only a genuine inquiry.

He shakes his head. "No, he's out and I want him to stay out. Did he send you holos, by the way?" Spock nods. "Kid's stupid cute, yeah?"

"I am not an expert in the aesthetic appeal of human offspring."

"Yeah, me neither, but he looks happier than I've ever seen him, and I'm sure Joanna's happy to have him home... Anyway. I am doing better, Spock. Seriously. I kind of…don't feel like I'm drowning anymore, at least. And I really like teaching – more than I thought I would. Definitely more than I did at first. Gods. How the hell did you do it?"

"I have an infinitely larger supply of patience than the average human," Spock replies dryly. "Only once, do I recall anyone truly disrupting that mental equilibrium enough to be noteworthy."

He smirks. "See, I knew I was special."

"You were."

He can feel his face turning red, awesome. "Yeah, well. I have a newfound appreciation for that patience now."

"I look forward to hearing about the first cadet who provokes the same reaction from you." Spock's eyes are glinting with positively evil glee.

"You suck." He points the chopstick again. "You know I can pull your ship off the Neutral Zone and have you ferrying the Babel anniversary conference delegates instead, right?"

"I would very much enjoy seeing you impart that news to Captain Uhura."

"Yeah, I'll give that a hard pass." He smiles, and taps the stick absently on the table. "How's she doing, off the record?"

"Quite impressively."

"That an unbiased opinion?"

"It is. She was the correct person for this position; the sheer diversity of species aboard would likely cause another commander some level of difficulty in communication, but her ability to speak every native language of each crewman has immediately endeared her to them, both above and below decks. It was a wise move, both for the ship and for the 'Fleet."

"Good. Keep me posted if you guys need anything, on or off the record, yeah?"

"Indeed. I trust you will do the same."

"Yeah." He offers a sheepish smile. "I'm good, though. Tell Nyota I'm sorry I was weird last time we talked."

Spock raises a silent eyebrow.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm weird period, I know. Don't you have a science lab to go inspect or something?"

"I do. Give Doctor McCoy my regards."

"Will do. Take care, Spock."

The screen blanks out a moment later, and he sighs, a little wistfully. It wasn't exactly a lie; he is doing better.

Just…better is such a relative term, is all.


The first month is hell.

He's totally forgotten how to live as a civilian. Like, he has an actual apartment, and it has actual keycards and a bored-looking Security dude in the lobby and he has to either shop or have groceries delivered, because its only replication unit just does beverages, for pity's sake.

It's freaking weird.

He has to remember to carry his credit chip with him now, and it's only his notoriety that's saved him a couple of times from really embarrassing moments when he's forgotten that yeah, Yorktown does actually use currency and he does need to pay that hovercab. Thankfully, his face has been plastered across the holonets enough times that it's been good enough for the 'honor system' so far, and most people are so stupidly excited to meet him they don't seem to mind that he's an idiot and has to wire them the money when he gets to his office.

It's almost like being a student again himself, trying to read campus maps and he can't even locate a freaking lavatory the first two days he's there until he finally says to hell with his pride and stops the least hipster-looking undergrad he sees in a quiet alcove to ask, who thankfully doesn't even appear to recognize him, just looks up frazzled from studying and points him in the right direction.

He stumbles through the days barely keeping up with the insanity of hopping from Starfleet HQ to the Academy and back again, Tactical and Ops and the Academy and it's a giant carousel that he's not quite sure he isn't going to go flying off of at any given time. He arrives earlier than most, and stays later, and even though his superiors and even a couple of his peers tell him to chill and give himself time to integrate, he doesn't see the need to step back – he wants to 'integrate' as fast as possible.

Besides, the more time he spends at the Academy or HQ, the less time he has to spend in that silent apartment, knowing there's no one left on Yorktown that he even really knows. His crew have all left for their extended leave on Terra or for other postings, and he's the only one left – and it freaks him out more than he wants to admit.

Bones calls and harasses him once a week about his eating habits, or lack thereof, and it's the highlight of his week, but after five weeks that abruptly stops when Joanna's baby decides he wants to arrive in the world a month early; they obviously have their hands full, based on the picture and message updates he gets periodically now. The kid's father is…he doesn't exactly know, because it's none of his business and he's not about to shove his nose into it, but apparently the guy isn't in the picture and Jo's completely fine with that, so more power to her. But he's sure she's probably happy to have family close now.

He knows he would be.

Part of his weekly Tactical duties involve reading reports from ships patrolling high-risk areas, and one of those is the Intrepid, so he at least keeps some kind of tabs on Uhura and Spock. It's a little amusing that he can totally tell when Spock's written the report or when she has, after all these years, even though no one else on the board would be able to – it's a small detail that makes him smile in the privacy of his office.

Then there's a day where he wakes up not feeling well – not sick, exactly, just a weird, nauseous feeling that lurks around him all day long. Like he's coming down with the flu, only with no other symptoms except the ever-present exhaustion and a splitting headache.

And then he receives an alert on his computer that they've lost contact with the Intrepid completely.

It takes three days for her to reappear on the Neutral Zone's long-range scanning beacons, and another twelve hours before her reports finally make it back through subspace to Command telling them what happened.

After reading them, he's really not all that surprised to see he has a transmission blinking on his computer when he enters his apartment that evening at close to 2300 hours. He's exhausted, and has a migraine to end all migraines, but if this is what he thinks it is, he really should call her back.

He fumbles through the desk drawers until he finds the hypospray containing his migraine meds (thanks to Bones, who before leaving Yorktown had hilariously stuffed his apartment full of like every drug on the planet he could get his hands on, as if Jim's not capable of walking to Medical), and then after administering it he hits the callback button and waits for the subspace relay to pick up the signal and start trying to locate the Intrepid, wherever she is dozens of parsecs off-course and trying to get back in Federation space.

He's almost asleep in the chair when it finally connects, the chirp startling him wide awake.

She raises an eyebrow. "You could have called back in the morning, you know. Why are you still up?"

He smiles tiredly, propping his head on one hand, elbow on the chair's armrest. "I'm good. And you've got no room to talk, Captain."

"That's inherent in the job description, as you well know. You're the one with the cushy civilian life now."

He laughs. "Seriously. I've been worried sick about you guys – what really happened out there?"

She sighs, leaning back in the chair. "Seriously, just what's in the report, crazy as it sounds. I've never seen anything like it, and Spock's still in the labs with half the Medical staff trying to figure out what in the name of medical science it was."

"I almost choked on my coffee when you called it a giant space amoeba. I mean, come on. That sounds like Bones wrote it."

"We've seen weirder things. But not much weirder, I'll grant you."

"It sounds like you were lucky to destroy it and get away."

"Yeah." She looks tired, pretty stressed too. "Judging from the debris field it left when it blew? We're not the first ship it trapped. We just got lucky it wasn't that…hungry? When it first grabbed us."

He swallows, ignoring the sick feeling in his stomach. "Any casualties?"

"Surprisingly, no. We came close, a couple of the lower decks species really didn't respond well to the negative energy it was putting out, and I have a couple Bridge crew members whose physiology isn't compatible with stimulants who are still in Sickbay. But no casualties."

He leans forward, eyes narrowed, because something in her voice is off. "Nyota. What are you not telling me."

She shakes her head. "I'm telling you the truth, we didn't!"

"You said surprisingly, so…you were expecting casualties, then."

"No, I – no, that's not what I said." She glares at him. "Stop trying to twist my words, Kirk."

"I'm not twisting anything. You're hiding something, and you called me for a reason. I'm assuming it's because you made some kind of decision while in your first real crisis that almost got someone killed, and now you're freaking out because of it." Her eyes widen. Bingo. "Unfortunately, that's going to happen. A lot. I wish I could tell you it gets easier, but it never will."

"That's the most sucky advice I've ever heard from you."

"It's also the most truthful," he says, sighing. "If it ever does get easier for you to pull the trigger like that, write off a crewman for the sake of another without it bothering you? Then it's time to step down out of that chair."

She looks down for a moment, arms folded and fingers tapping nervously on gold sleeves. Then she looks back up, and he can see an unusual vulnerability hidden deep inside.

"I almost killed him, Jim," she says quietly.

"Who?" He's afraid he already knows the answer, and that's one whopping first crisis decision to have to make as a novice captain.

"We had to have someone take a shuttle out into the – the thing, because it basically ate our probe, to see if there was any information to be gathered about how to destroy it. He was the only one with the scientific knowledge who could survive the impact and environment; our CMO has the knowledge but he was in surgery with one of my Engineers and literally couldn't be pulled, even if I'd decided he was more qualified. Which he really wasn't."

"Damn. That's a hell of a decision for your first command crisis."

"You're telling me." A watery laugh. "What kind of person does that make me?"

"It makes you a starship captain, Nyota," he says quietly. "Spock knows that. Remember Vulcan loyalty isn't given lightly."

"I know. But – that's something I'm not sure I can wrap my head around. Or do again." She exhales slowly. "I mean, I just – sent him out there, without another thought. All I could think about, was the fact that this ship was going down in six hours if he couldn't find a solution. Nothing else mattered at the time. Not even us. And he never said a word, he just – went."

"I know."

"You do, don't you?" She shakes her head. "How did you do it? I remember you having to choose to leave us behind in the middle of a planetary war and warping the ship out of orbit because she lost all shields in a freak shot to Engineering. It messed you up for days when we nearly lost half the landing party, but you did it, and I don't remember you second guessing yourself about it either."

"I…can't really tell you that. But like you said – there's something about us, that drives us to protect the ship at all costs." He shrugs. "It's not a bad thing. But there's a reason why the 'Fleet usually doesn't allow involved officers to be in the same department or directly interacting with each other on board a starship. This is why. It's never going to get easier, and you can never allow yourself to feel guilty for thinking of the ship first. You have to just do your best to make sure it doesn't happen again."

"That's…not exactly helpful."

"I know. I'm sorry." He gives her a sad, self-deprecating smile. "It's not all it's cracked up to be, is it."

"I never thought it would be. But…I never realized, exactly, what a mistake this might have been," she says quietly.

"Don't say that." He leans forward, earnestness tingeing his tone with a sharp urgency.

"You have no right to tell me that."

"No, I don't. But as your friend, not your peer mentor, I think it'd be a mistake to allow your duties to affect your relationships, just as much as it would be the other way around." He shakes his head. "Have you talked to him about this?"

She snorts. "What do you think."

"I think you should. You have a good thing going, Nyota. Don't screw it up because your first crisis mission was a nightmare."

"You have gotten to be such a self-righteous smartass, you know that?"

"Watch it, Captain. You know I can put you on star-charting duty for a month and no one'd ever blink an eye." She glares at him, though it's obvious she's trying not to laugh. "Look, seriously, I wish I had more helpful advice for you. But I really don't. Except, talk to Spock. He might surprise you; I know he did me, when I least expected the advice. Talk to him. As the captain, not his bondmate. I think you might be surprised how much it helps."

"I will. Sorry I dumped that on you."

"Don't apologize. You know I'm always here if I can do anything. Unfortunately, in this you're going to have to learn to fly by yourself. It sucks, but it's part of the job."

"Aye, sir. Speaking of jobs, how are you, by the way?"

"I'm…okay? I guess?" he sighs, leaning back in his chair. "I don't really know, honestly."

"You look exhausted. Don't make me waste this ship's comms resources calling Leonard just to bully you into taking care of yourself."

He manages a half-hearted glare. "I have a headache, that's all. Geez. I just need those stupid reading glasses Bones always said I'd have to get someday, I have an appointment later this week to get fitted."

"I thought they could correct that with an injection now."

"Yeah, but guess who's allergic to Retinax-D. And A, B, and C, and the rest of the freaking alphabet."

She tries not to laugh, and doesn't quite succeed. "Sorry. But you'll have to send a holo when you do get them."

"Over my dead body."

"Oh, come on. Throw me a bone here."

"Uh, no." He covers a yawn with his hand. "It's just been a long day. I still don't even know what I'm doing half the time, you know?"

She raises her eyebrows. "Yeah, I do know. I'm hoping it gets better."

He smiles. "It does. Usually depending on how great your command staff is – which yours is, by all accounts."

"They are." She glances off to the side as something beeps, and then back again. "I'm going to let you go – get some rest, for pity's sake."

"I plan to. Hey look, seriously, don't forget to talk to Spock, yeah?"

"I will. We'll try to call you when we're back in Federation patrolled territory on this side of the Neutral Zone."

He nods and waves, managing one last smile as she cuts the transmission. Finally the screen goes blank, and he can drop the façade, weariness swamping him in a drowning wave. Maybe he should just sleep here, it'd be easier than getting up and dragging himself up the stairs of this dark, empty apartment.

Easier, and less lonely.


He wasn't lying; he does like teaching. Weirdly enough, it sort of feels like command, or at least as close as he's going to get for the rest of his life. His lecture halls are about the same size as the Enterprise bridge was, his classrooms the size of a briefing room; and at least he gets to feel that somewhat gratifying sense of power and in-charge-ness he always did, plus the knowledge that maybe, just maybe, the next great starship officers are sitting in his presence. What he's doing matters.

It has to matter.

In the back of his classroom, this particular one unfortunately a rather small one in the Command wing of one of the campus's primary Annex buildings, someone snaps their chewing gum loudly.

Yeeeeeah. Next great starship officers.

He resists the urge to bang his head on the desk. (He wears glasses now when he grades, he can't break them.)

The cadet in question, to his credit, looks slightly embarrassed, and promptly swallows the offending candy under the glare of three surrounding seat-mates.

Ew.

Trying not to laugh, he shakes his head and goes back to his scoring. The students are all busy preparing for a major examination tomorrow; he's given them a practice exam to help them get ready, and for the most part they're busily working on it. There's the odd cadet or two who's obviously working on a different project (which he's fine with, it's their grade and if they need to use the time for a different class he doesn't care as long as they pass his), the twin Katarrans who (as usual) are obviously plotting something on a pocket padd suspiciously unrelated to his curriculum, and the one idiot in the back who thinks Jim's too stupid to tell he's playing a game on his communicator hidden behind a propped-up data-padd.

But for the most part, there's just the studious silence which befits senior Command track candidates, and he's good with that. It's a (simulated) sunny day on Yorktown, and the windows let in plenty of light; he's not seen many people passing in the hall since this is one of the lesser used Annex buildings. It's actually fairly peaceful.

For a few minutes, nothing other than the occasional beep of a padd or scratching of styluses breaks the silence. The occasional drone or emergency vehicle flies by the windows, whirring on its pre-programmed path through the insanely busy traffic routes over the 'Base. He might get this grading done before the hour's over and actually stay on top of things for once.

Then something actually buzzes the windows, like way too close to be following the normal automated traffic pattern. Half a dozen of his students look up, because anything is more interesting than a practice exam, but at a sharp look from him immediately go back to their work. The rest had never even blinked, discounting the noise as a utility bot or something.

Then another whizzes by, and one more. The novelty has obviously worn off, because his students are doing nothing more than yawning, looking despondently at the essay questions on his exam.

But he'd seen the markings on the side of the vehicle, and his skin's starting to crawl.

There are only a few reasons why a special ops team would be landing just meters from a 'Fleet building in the middle of the day, and none of them are good.

He's already moving, sliding out of his seat at the same time that every electronic device in the room, including his overhead screens, suddenly lights up bright red, silently blasting the Security warning which is every professor's worst nightmare.

WARNING. POSSIBLE BOMB THREAT AND CONFIRMED ACTIVE SHOOTER. LOCATION: COMMAND BUILDING. INSTIGATE IMMEDIATE LOCKDOWN PROCEDURES AND REMAIN INDOORS UNTIL INSTRUCTED OTHERWISE BY CAMPUS OFFICIALS. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

Shit.

The students are all sort of blinking at their padd screens in dazed astonishment, but jolt into shocked awareness as he slams his hand down on the lockdown button beside the door. Immediately, the transparisteel windows to the hall shimmer with a high-powered forcefield. The door seals shut with an audible hiss of hydraulics. "Computer, engage emergency classroom lockdown, voice authorization Kirk, James T., Rear Admiral."

"Lockdown initiated."

That lockdown's designed to keep out an active shooter, but not the concussive force of a bomb; it probably has a tenth of the strength of an emergency bulkhead.

"Get your things, and get moving," he commands, in a tone he hasn't used in almost a year. "Stay along the perimeter of the room, form a line to exit from the windows if needed. Move!"

Two of the cadets, a promising young Terran human named Matthews and a young Betazoid who's pulling a double minor in Navigation and Engineering because he can't decide which he wants to pursue, jump from their seats and begin herding stragglers back around the bend of the L-shaped classroom. Campus protocol dictates remaining inside in the event of a threat, behind the protective lockdown – as the instructions of the alert state. But he's never been one to follow instructions blindly, and if there really is a bomb threat inside this particular wing? A photon grenade or something similar, the lockdown measures will keep out. A hyperplasma converter, for instance? It will level half the entire building, not just the Command Wing. They may have to abandon ship like yesterday, protocol be damned.

Hey, he is the Tactical instructor, if anyone can disregard protocol in a situation like this, it's him. He highly doubts anyone will have him on the carpet for that if he's over-reacting, and if he's not? The rubble of this building is going to speak for him.

He hears a scream, somewhere deeper in the Command wing. Where the hell are Security? Whoever that is shouldn't have gotten past the second set of doors with whatever his explosive devices are.

"Sir! Admiral!" The walls are a sea of red uniforms and frightened faces. Matthews is looking out the left-hand window. "Sir, there's like four Special Ops vehicles and emergency services out there, why hasn't someone stopped him yet?"

"Think tactically, Mr. Matthews. Likely they don't know exactly where he is inside; there's a ninety-second delay in security footage so even if they can access the building's cameras remotely they don't know precisely where to beam in a specialized ops team – and that's if someone with high enough clearance made it out to give them override codes to beam through the lockdown shields. Without that knowledge, they could startle him and he could set off the explosives; or if the devices for some reason are motion or pressure triggered instead of manually detonated, a transport could set them off at re-materialization, leaving an active shooter still on the loose. Until they have more knowledge, their hands are tied. That's why hostage situations take hours to negotiate sometimes, and why we do everything we can to keep civilians out of the line of fire if possible."

He hears one of the more scared looking cadets mutter something about 'can't believe he's still teaching at a moment like this' and realizes that he's probably channeling Spock a bit much.

"Admiral?"

He turns, and the speaker's one of the Katarran twins – he really has to buckle down and figure out how to tell them apart under all that orange-gold fur – who's pulled up a newsfeed on her padd. She hands it to him, and he turns it around to watch, one eye still on the corridor just in case.

Oh, that's fantastic.

The guy's a nutjob, a cadet they expelled last trimester for being a nutjob, basically. He'd been into all kinds of weirdness, openly endorsed the most extremist political views he could without getting expelled and finally actually got kicked out for being caught on camera at a xenophobic rally of some kind downtown, thank goodness. Some bigwig high up in the Yorktown brass had prevented his expulsion until they had actual photographic proof, even though everyone knew he was major trouble.

Unfortunately, Jim had gone toe-to-toe with the kid more than once during classes, because of course he had an ego bigger than his common sense and was on the Command track, and Jim had actually kicked him out of a Space-Based Battle Strategy module for a xenophobic comment at one point, going so far as to tell the Board that um no, they could threaten to fire him all they wanted but he wasn't letting the kid back in, he flunked the course by default because hello, could no one see he wasn't Starfleet material. Commodore Paris had backed him up, which had incensed the young cadet and his jackass uncle, but no one else in the Academy had ever really had the backbone to come down on him like that.

So yeah, kid probably has a vendetta. That would explain why he's attacking an annex and not the main campus, if all he was after was solely making a xenophobic political statement.

"Matthews, Ordana, get those windows open. Now."

"Sir?"

"Did I stutter, Cadet?"

"No, sir!"

"Then hop to it! The rest of you. I hope you remember how to tuck and roll from your Survival classes."

"Uh…sir, we're on the second floor, that's like a six or seven-meter drop!"

"Cadet, I recognize the person of interest in the threat, and they have a personal grievance against me. Meaning that's likely why they chose this building to attack, and meaning they're likely headed this way."

Twenty-one pairs of eyes widen comically, and he sighs, running a hand through his hair – a nervous habit he still hasn't broken.

"While I can't help the fact you all got caught in the initial crossfire, no one is dying on my watch today. You're going to jump, you're going to tuck and roll like you've been trained to do, and you're going to live like a Starfleet officer, is that understood?"

He sees half a dozen of the poor kids look like they're about to wet themselves with terror, and tries to remember that even if they're senior command cadets, they haven't gone through anything close to what he did at that age. Yorktown is one of the safest places in the quadrant; this is utterly unheard-of.

"Now. Remember, stay relaxed, do not try to land on your feet. Trust me, you'd rather broken bones than staying in here if Security doesn't take him down by the time he reaches this hallway."

"Sir, what if he does and we're still in here!"

"Well, my doctor has been nagging me to up my physical activity level," he replies with a half-smile, before his expression hardens. "I can promise you, Cadet, he's not getting in this room. Period. But even so, that's not going to help any of you if he has something stronger than a photon grenade to set off. Now. No panicking, stay calm, and out you go. Matthews, Borja, you go first, you're the tallest. Try to help the others when you land."

"Yes, sir." To their credit, the two young men only look down for a moment before taking a deep breath and making the jump. The rush that follows is only slightly panicked, and for that he has to commend all of them – it's not exactly what they signed up for as cadets, and it's not the easiest prospect, jumping from a second story window. But they're making it methodical enough, and those on the ground are organizing and doing their best to help the rest, forming rough nets with their arms and so on, having pulled themselves together with a rapid precision that does their Command training credit.

He's pretty proud of them, actually.

He can see an emergency services vehicle has noticed the chaos on their side of the wing and is veering off from the main doors toward them, which is why he hadn't bothered trying to comm one from inside; they'd see the kids scrambling down the building like so many red-uniformed ants faster than he'd get through the likely panicked Yorktown and 'Fleet dispatchers.

Behind him, he hears something shattering somewhere down the hall, like a syntheglass wall giving way.

And that…doesn't sound like any kind of explosive, that sounds like phaser fire.

"Gentlemen, a little alacrity would be preferred," he says warningly. Gods, he does sound like Spock, that's awful. He represses the nearly hysterical urge to laugh, it's totally inappropriate.

He doesn't hear any screaming along with the other noise, thank gods; hopefully his fellow teachers, only two of them as there are in this lesser used wing, figured the same thing out that he did and managed to get their cadets to safety already, or they'd taken advantage of the beautiful day to have study hall in the quadrangle or something.

Four students left, when he can see a shadow on the floor of the corridor bend, and then a way too loud shout.

"Forget being careful, get out, now," he snaps, moving back across the room to the windows. Two more drop with an almost frightening rapidity. "Now!"

The last is a Delosian female who has been standing beside the right window, assisting others one by one with her superior strength until all have left. Jim helps her out and then holds her wrists as she dangles, inches above the waiting help below. Finally, she drops, and is safely caught by her classmates, who then gesture for him to do the same.

Yeah, this is going to be fun. He's not twenty anymore. But he's not chancing an encounter with this guy, that's for Special Ops to do. Again, not twenty anymore.

He sighs, and is about to throw one leg over the sill when he hears a weird noise, and turns back around.

"Sir? Admiral, what's going on?" someone yells from below.

He takes a cautious step or two back into the room to try to hear better, because the distant sirens and chatter outside are so loud; if there's some information that could be helpful to the tactical team he should find out before bailing. He wouldn't be much of a Tactical Instructor otherwise. He doesn't see Crazy Guy anywhere after peeking cautiously around the corner, so he must have changed his mind and didn't come rushing the hall? Or maybe he did come running, saw they'd all gotten out and just went back the way he came, furious at having been thwarted.

It's not until he turns the corner into the main part of the room and is edging cautiously toward the hall windows that he can distinguish the sound he heard, one he's only heard once before but could identify anywhere.

Oh, no.

No no no.

Not a bomb.

Bones is gonna be pissed.

-0o0-

He's a little surprised, when he wakes up, to find that he's not dead. Granted, he thinks he might be leaning that direction, because wow. It's been a long time since he felt this spacey, or in this much dull pain that indicates the real pain is being held back by a fortification of very powerful drugs.

Blinking drowsily, he shifts his head to one side, sees machines keeping tabs on him as he lies there, reclined at like a 45-degree angle, then the other, and instead of a wall or something…

Crap, that means he's been out at least two weeks.

"You actually awake now, or still just floatin' around on me?" Bones asks quietly.

"Mmf." He scrunches up his face for a second, lets the pain drag him further back into reality. "Awake? Ish?"

A brief smile. "How you feeling?"

"Like a building fell on me." He shifts slightly, and winces. "Twice."

"That's about the size of it, yeah. If you didn't have that damn superblood, Jim, or that fancy lockdown tech engaged…"

That bad, huh.

"In my defense…it really wasn't my fault," he whispers tiredly. "At least, this part of it wasn't. Guy was really messed up, Bones."

"I know, kid. I just…hell, I thought I was done sittin' here, watching you like this. You're turning me gray, Jim, and I'm not even fifty-five."

"I'm sorry." He is, really. The distress must be evident on his face, because he feels his hand being squeezed in reassurance. It hurts, but in a good, grounding way. Like he's still alive, and someone cares that he is. "Seriously, I am, Bones. I…this isn't supposed to happen anymore, you're supposed to be on Terra. What about Joanna?"

"I'm right where I'm supposed to be, Jim. Jo kicked me out the door two minutes after the newsreels spun out footage of you never coming back to that window and the building collapsing ten seconds later." There's literally no emotion in the words at all, which is more of a tell than the fact that his fingers are just about numb at this point.

"Jesus. Bones, I'm sorry."

"You should be." His hand's released, and he feels even more awful when he sees his isn't the only one shaking.

"If I'd any idea he was that close, or that's what he had, I would never have gone back in. But Tactical's my job, and if I could help end a standoff with information I had to try."

"I know, Jim. I just…" A huff, and slight smile. "Anyway. Always said you were gonna piss off the wrong person someday. Wrong person, Jim."

He waves the words away carelessly. "What about…my students."

"They're all fine. One of them recognized the sound through the open windows just before it blew and started moving everyone back, they were far enough away when the wing actually imploded. A few cuts and bruises, couple broken bones, all healed now. You've been out of it for three weeks, you're just extra susceptible to radiation, you know. You're gonna heal slower with that to deal with."

He closes his eyes briefly, fingers clenched in the blanket as he tries to stop his head from spinning.

"Two of 'em broke legs when they jumped, too, other than that no injuries."

"And…the rest of the Academy?" He opens his eyes, sees the pained look on Bones's face, and closes his own again. "Just tell me."

"One of your teachers did the same thing you did, got the kids outside. There was still a class inside at the opposite end of the wing when it blew, plus a half-dozen students hiding in the lavatories. Thanks to the lockdown tech and the fact they were in a corner classroom, most of 'em are alive, just in basically the same shape as you right now."

"How many, Bones."

"Jim –"

"Just…just tell me."

"Four student casualties and a TA, Jim. From your classroom on, most of the wing is just…gone. Honestly, no one thought you survived. But yeah, five, plus the bomber himself. I'm sorry, Jim."

"God." He chokes on the word, lifting a shaking hand to his eyes. "How did this happen? He should never have even gotten twenty feet inside the building without detection. Have they started an investigation?"

"Jim, seriously, you've not even been awake for ten minutes."

"You don't get it, Bones!"

"I know I don't," is the quiet reply. "I know, Jim. But you're not going to make anything any different now by not taking care of yourself. We'll let the Board know you're awake, and go from there."

He nods, trying not to give in to the despairing tears that threaten to fall. Everything was going so well, too; how had this happened?

"Look, I know you're a mess right now, Jim, but you think you can take a quick call? I'm sick of my comm blowin' up with messages from the Intrepid."

He manages a brief, watery smile. "Yeah, go ahead." He needs to see someone who at least partially understands the burden of command – even if technically, he saved the people under his command this time. The fallout of this is just too fresh, too reminiscent of a world he thought he was done with. A year of basically civilian life has really taken its toll on his complacency.

McCoy pulls out his communicator and types off a short message, then puts it away again. "I told Spock to get somewhere private and then vid-comm. Might be a while."

"'s fine." He sighs, glancing around the room for the first time. His eyes fall on a veritable Eden of flowerpots and bouquets and one particularly hideous balloon animal that looks like a cross between a Gremlin and a giraffe. "Wow."

"Your kids must really like you, Professor."

"Shut up."

"Seriously, Jim."

"What, because they were brave enough to come in here even with you sitting there being guard dog? That I agree with, actually."

McCoy smacks his ankle gently. "Jim, you know there's nothing else you could've done to stop that guy. You implemented protocol, you got your kids out. That's exactly what you were supposed to do. It's what you always do."

"I know." He sighs, shifting uneasily. "I just wish I could've, I don't know. Seen it coming. I mean, Bones – do you know how hard disruptors are to get hold of? Even on the black market?"

"Wait, what?"

"The disruptor he used, the kid had to have gotten it somewhere, and that's concerning."

"What do you mean, disruptor? The newscasts are all saying he rigged a phaser rifle to overload," McCoy says, eyes wide.

"…Of course they are." He sighs, head pounding. "That's 'Fleet coverup for you. The implications of that are a lot less terrifying. You basically can only buy a disruptor on Qo'noS, they're insanely hard to find on the black market, even. If someone's supplying them to disgruntled Academy dropouts? It means they're getting them back into Federation space somehow, and back onto Yorktown despite all the safety protocols that should prevent it. We have a serious problem, somewhere."

"That's a scary thought. Hold on, it's Nyota." Bones pulls the vid-screen over the bed so they're both in view and flicks the transmission up onto it, then taps the receive button. A moment later, the fuzzy picture clears into the familiar features of his former Communications Chief. Even after all these months, it's still weird seeing her in Command Gold.

Her worried expression morphs immediately into one of relief, and she breaks into a huge smile. "Jim, what the hell."

"Yeah, sorry." He grins sheepishly. "You know me, I like to be the center of attention."

Behind her, the door of the cabin opens and there's a blur of blue before Spock's face appears as well. He looks a little perturbed in addition to relieved, and Jim tries not to laugh when the irritation is (of course) directed at Bones.

"You could not simply deliver this news in your communique, Doctor, instead of couching it in such indistinct and troubling terms?"

"Made you move your ass and call back, didn't it?"

"I find your precipitance toward antagonism as distasteful now as it was in recent years, Doctor. I was under the impression that retirement was supposed to, how do you put it – mellow you out?"

"Why, you condescending – I can be mellow!"

"Missed this?" Nyota asks, sotto voce.

"You know I have," he laughs.

"You didn't have to get yourself almost killed to have a group chat, you know."

"It really wasn't my fault," he protests, wearily.

"I know. We all…" She clears her throat suspiciously. "We all have seen the news clips. Believe me, way too many times."

"Did they mention what the guy was carrying?" he asks quietly.

"They said it was a phaser rifle, set on overload. He blew through the Command wing, didn't really say anything that would help determine a motive, then set it to overload and brought half the wing down on top of himself. And you, and a few others who didn't get out in time. It's a little inefficient, though, isn't it? Phaser rifles are notoriously unstable on overload – if he wanted to kill himself, he could have just done it. And if he wanted to take out the building, he could have brought a photon grenade or something."

"Exactly." He smiles briefly; that tactical skill is exactly why she's in that chair. "The fact that they're calling it a phaser rifle even after the investigation should've proven otherwise is pretty interesting."

"Interesting as in…" Spock interjects, eyebrows raised.

"Well, I'm telling you this totally off the record, obviously, and maybe totally under the influence of whatever drugs Bones has me full of, so you didn't hear it from me." He glances over, and McCoy nods solemnly, making a cross-my-heart motion with an empty hypospray cartridge.

Uhura snorts, but motions for him to continue.

"That was no phaser rifle, it was a Klingon disruptor," he says quietly.

Spock's eyebrows hit his hairline. "The implications of that are considerably different."

"Very. If the Klingons are supplying someone in the Federation territories with illegal arms that are making their way into chartered space via Yorktown base, we have a big problem."

"War's been brewing in the background with the Klingon Empire ever since Khan, this could easily be the final catalyst. Or," Jim says, glancing between the two of them. "It could just be that someone wants us to think that the Klingons are doing this, because they want us to go to war with them. It's been done before."

"Quite." Spock looks thoughtful. "It would be simple enough for a rogue Romulan to enter that type of agreement with, say, an Orion trader. Find a disgruntled extremist willing to make the ultimate terrorist gesture, and the rest would be quite simple. Find the target and a convenient excuse, in this case a vendetta against both the Academy and one of its prominent professors, and no one would suspect the bomber is in reality a puppet in the hands of an enemy Empire."

"The Klingon Empire gets blamed for the attack, and because it happened on Federation property it constitutes an act of war."

"Exactly. I'm telling you this because if you hear anything of the kind along the Neutral Zone, it can have serious consequences for the Federation. Also off the record, there are rumors of a potential attempt at negotiating with the Romulan Empire in the very near future due to instability in her economic infrastructure, and someone may not be happy about it. If we go to war with the Klingons, we won't have the resources to do that. Both sides have dissenting factions who have equal reason to be behind this – or it could just be some coincidental psycho, who knows. Either way. Be super careful, guys."

"I think you should follow your own advice. Sir." Nyota looks at him pointedly, and he rolls his eyes in the only show of defiance he can really muster.

"I do what I want."

"You'll do what I say or you'll still be in that bed when they get back from their five-year mission."

"I do what Bones says."

Nyota laughs. "Good. I'll call you if we hear anything that could be helpful to your investigation, Admiral."

"Thanks. Take care, guys." Spock reaches up to turn off the transmission, and the screen goes blank. He stares at it for a moment in silence, and then closes his eyes with a sigh.

"I got a bad feeling about this, Jim."

"You and me both, Bones. You and me both."


It's kind of hilarious, how the young tech at the controls looks up with the air of total boredom that most probably do when on nothing more interesting than security duty, and then practically falls out of his chair when he recognizes who's standing in front of his desk.

Jim doesn't often use his notoriety to land any special privileges or anything, but it is fun to use it to terrorize young cadets sometimes.

"Holy sh- Admiral Kirk, sir!" The kid hastily shoves something – it looks like a gaming-padd – under the desk and scrambles into an at-attention position. "Sir, we weren't told anyone was to be inspecting today, and –"

"Relax, Ensign…"

"O'Brien, sir."

"Relax, Mr. O'Brien. I'm not here on official business. Unless you believe there's reason I should be inspecting something?" He lets just a hint of suspicion seep into the words, just to put the fear of Starfleet in the young man, because seriously. If he's going to spend his time playing games he could have the decency to be discreet about it. Kid's either too dumb to be in the Engineering program or just so bored he doesn't care – and either one is dangerous if he doesn't get it together.

"No, sir! No reason I know of, sir!"

"Good. Now, like I said, I'm not here on official Starfleet business, I just, well. Wanted to see if it might be possible to take a look around?"

"Uh." The young man flounders for a moment, eyes wide.

"Or get a tour, if that's the protocol," he adds amicably. "Though I would think I of all people would be the last one to touch the wrong thing aboard."

"Uh."

"They did teach you other words in your last Xenolinguistics class, I hope, Ensign?"

"Sir, well, it's just that, well. There's regulations, sir, and. Even if you are, well, you know, you – no one's allowed aboard without an escort until she's been properly inspected and that won't be complete until tomorrow evening. Sir."

"Ah." He nods, glancing over the young man's shoulder. "Well, I commend your adherence to regulation, Ensign."

"Th-thank you, sir. Admiral."

"Is the Chief Engineer by any chance aboard or in the vicinity? I'd love to at least chat about her specs with him. Just for my own amusement."

"Aye, sir, I believe he is. Let me see if I can summon him for you, Admiral."

"Very kind of you, Mr. O'Brien."

He tries not to laugh as the young man fairly beams and gets on the comm immediately, earnestly talking to someone on the other end through a private connection. Seriously, the security around this shipyard is exceedingly tight; and no wonder, because the launch of this beauty is the talk of the newsreels, and has been for months.

Footsteps sound on the walkway behind him, and he turns, grinning.

"Scotty!"

"Welllllll, if it isn't the big man himself – laddie, y'didna say it was Admiral Kirk wantin' t'see me, what's the matter with ye?"

"Leave the kid alone, Scotty," he chuckles, pulling his former CE into a one-armed hug and nearly squeaking as it's returned with full force. "It's good to see you."

"And you, lad. It's been too long since y'came down out of that bloody tower of yours, y'know."

"Don't start with me." He glances sideways, and tries not to laugh at the wide-eyed look of realization that's leaving the poor Engineering ensign slack-jawed and staring at his Security post. "Hey look, Scotty. I really would like to take a peek at her up close, but there's apparently regulations. Think you can get around those for me?"

"Psh, regulations be damned. Come along, lad."

"But – but sir! Commander Scott!"

"I'll take full responsibility for the admiral, laddie, just go back t'yer duties. And don't think I dinna know y'were online tryin' to hack into the Security mainframe an hour ago either, to spy on that pretty redhead on phaser crew four. If ye're that bored I'd be more than happy to reassign ye to SS&R or Waste Recycling. Now, Jim. What really brings ye all the way out here?"

"Seriously, I really would just like to look at her. They invited me to be a special guest on the shakedown cruise and I just can't go, not with the situation along the Neutral Zone the way it is. I'm super bummed, Scotty."

"Aye, I would think ye'd be. She's a beauty, Jim."

"Are you going on the shakedown?"

"No, I've already been charted to start work on another vessel here in the shipyard."

"Don't tell me they have you finishing up the Venture?"

"Psh, that bucket o'bolts? No, the Indestructible, if ye can believe they're namin' her that. Askin' for trouble with a moniker that ridiculous, if y'ask me. 'Tis bad luck, that's what it is."

He laughs and follows his rambling former CE into the transporter bay which will take them up to the Enterprise-B, jealous beyond belief that he won't be able to make the voyage across the galaxy with the talented young Captain Harriman and his eager crew.

Some things just aren't meant to be.


He's practically waist-deep in the preliminaries – just the preliminaries! – for the first stages of a potential draft – just the potential! – of initial peace negotiations with the Romulan Empire when the news breaks, scrolling across his computer screen in bright red, flashing letters, a Breaking News broadcast that pops up in his Tactical feed.

Klingon Empire declares war against Romulan Empire after months of tension.

Well, that's not good. They never did find out who was trying to provoke the Federation into a war with the Klingons, and it looks like that's a moot point now anyway.

All Federation vessels immediately ordered to retreat from Neutral Zone into Federation charted territory.

That's really not good, that means there's hostile action already taking place.

Even before he's able to pull up further information, he can already hear his name being called over the PA system, ordering him to report to Starfleet HQ, Tactical branch.

He sighs, and leans over to hit the comm-button to notify his aides that they'll have to oversee his midterm exams for the rest of the afternoon.

Kids got lucky today.

-0o0-

A week of debates and discussion and what's supposed to be diplomacy and what is really just a bunch of grey-haired admirals trying very hard to Not Get Involved in a conflict, he's about to lose his patience with the entire kit and caboodle and threaten to just take off for Terra and hijack a Presidential hearing in person if they can't get their act together here.

Commodore Paris is nearing retirement age now, but she's as much a firecracker as ever, and he rather thinks she's just been sitting back letting the rest of them get it out of their systems before she moves in for the kill, shutting down arguments in short order with a diplomatic and sometimes dangerously whiplash vicissitude that he's always loved and always tried to avoid having aimed at him.

They've been in preliminary, verrrrry cautious talks with the Romulan Empire for months now, contemplating actually forming an alliance with them, and this is now forcing their hand; choose a side, or remain firmly neutral. The Federation has been on the verge of war with the Klingon Empire for decades, thanks to the machinations of Khan and the idiocy of Section 31, and only complete disclosure of that mess had saved them from outright war even back then.

The Romulan Empire, by contrast, has been under an uneasy truce with them for years, having won back much favor soon after Nero's rampage by lending assistance in the rebuilding of the New Vulcan colony by agreeing to a Neutral Zone of protected trade routes which would permit supply ships to pass through Romulan territory unhindered on their way to and from the new colony. It had been a smart political move, as Nero had been Romulan, though not of this universe, and had bought them enough good favor that there had been a thin truce ever since with the Federation.

But now, with their economic infrastructure about to shatter under unfortunate planetary misfortune, and with war on their doorstep, they are looking to the Federation for assistance. And the Federation does not go to war with anyone; they are a peacekeeping organization, nothing more.

It's a freaking mess, is what it is.

"We can't afford to lose this alliance, Commodore, Admirals," he argues, once again finding himself on the wrong end of the fifteen-admiral Board. "It's been almost a decade in the making. We won't get another shot at this."

"I understand your reservations, Kirk. And I agree with you, frankly, it's a damn shame to lose so many years of slow-building diplomatic relations between our peoples. But we cannot ally ourselves with a nation at war, in essence committing an act of war as well, against an existing galactic power!"

"I know that!" He runs a hand through his hair, helpless, and acknowledges Admiral Decker's counter with a nod. "I know. But – surely there's a third option."

"I am open to suggestions, Kirk," Paris says calmly. "The President is willing to consider any and all options, but we have less than one week remaining to make a decision."

He leans back, arms folded, and frowns at the table, thinking. The ten data-padds which hold the product of his last three months in Tactical, the fruit of his labor in research and careful, painstaking communication with the few more open-minded Romulans and all his notes and preliminary treaty drafts held therein. All the goods on just how bad off the planet really is.

Wait…

That might just work.

Across the table, Decker must see something in his face. "Kirk?"

"If you've got an idea, spill it, Kirk, you know this situation better than the rest of us."

"It's a little…unorthodox."

"That comes as no surprise to anyone in this room, I daresay," Paris says dryly.

He feels his ears burn slightly. "And…it'll take some pretty deft negotiating with the Romulan Star Empire's highest officials themselves. I'm not sure how we'd get that done, but if we can get them to agree, we might be able to stop the war before it starts."

Someone at the other end of the table coughs delicately.

Decker gives him a look like he's lost his mind.

Paris has no such compunction about remaining silent. "Are you insane, Kirk."

"That has been suggested," he replies with a wry half-smile, "but I don't think so. Not about this, Commodore. Hear me out."

"We're listening."

"The Klingon Empire's political infrastructure is one based upon a system of war – of conquest, of victory, and of honor."

"That much we all know, Kirk." Decker sighs. "What are you getting at."

"Well, what if we make it so that there's really no honor in conquering the Romulan Empire?" he asks.

Fifteen pairs of eyes blink at him.

Paris looks intrigued. "Specify."

"Their whole premise of war relies on the concept of conquest being honorable. Of victory in battle, of there being spoils of war. If we could convince Romulus to finally make full disclosure to the galaxy of just how bad their economic status is? And disband their entire military, so they have zero chance of fighting back?"

"There would be little honor in declaring war over such an Empire. The Klingon Empire would be seen as nothing more than the empirical equivalent of schoolyard bullies, attacking a nation unable to mount any kind of defense and offering nothing by way of spoils of war." Paris nods, looking thoughtful.

"Exactly!" He waves a hand at his research. "I have the stats, Admirals – they're in no condition to wage a war. If we can convince them somehow that this is the best strategy, I think it might work. Then the Klingon Empire might withdraw their declaration of war to save face and frankly because it's just not worth their while – then we can swoop in and make Romulus a Federation member before the Klingons catch on to what we did."

"That's…strangely logical," Decker muses, glancing at him in approval. "It's a huge gamble, though, Kirk. How exactly do you propose even getting a team to Romulus to negotiate these enormous terms?"

"Yeah…I got nothing. Commodore?"

Paris smiles briefly. "I will take your proposal to the Presidential council, Kirk; the details can be arranged at our leisure if it's approved. If there are no better ideas from the rest of this council?"

Silence.

Well, one idea's better than nothing, he supposes.


It's a good plan, honestly. If they can pull it off, and that's one whopping if.

There are a freaking starshipload of factors that have to fall together, a host of details that have to be just right, and nothing like this has ever been done before. He's gone over the proposals a hundred times, and at this point he can't tell if it's the lack of sleep or just having seen them so many times but he's starting to doubt them himself by the time he walks into Paris's office, unsure exactly why he's been summoned at such a late hour.

He was really hoping to be home in bed by now.

Ah, fantasy.

"Come in, Kirk. Sit down." She indicates the chair opposite her on the other side of the desk, and he collapses gratefully into it, receiving a slightly amused look in response.

Flushing slightly, he straightens to attention, hands on his knees. "Sorry, ma'am."

"At ease, Kirk. After all this time, I would think you'd earned the right." He returns the smile, and relaxes just a fraction; he still doesn't know why he's here. "So. How are your proposals coming for the diplomatic mission to Romulus?"

"I think they're as thorough as they can be with the knowledge we have, Commodore, and the more I look at it the more I get the feeling this could end up being a fairly lengthy mission. We're not talking a few weeks here. Even if the negotiating team does convince the Romulan Star Empire our strategy is the correct one, they'll have to be capable of beginning the initial negotiations for immediate induction into the Federation in order to protect them from any further Klingon incursion. So we're talking major diplomatic, tactical, and communications skills, at the least, very specialized diplomatic ambassadorial skills. And a fairly long-term commitment, would be my recommendation, just in case of unforeseen circumstances on Romulus."

"I've been keeping tabs on your reports," Paris remarks, looking over a padd, and he fidgets a little, because is that a good thing? He'd like to think it's one of his better projects as Tactical and Ops Chief here on Yorktown in the little over two and a half years he's been here.

"Ma'am?"

"They're quite well done, Kirk. I believe you have an excellent grasp on what needs to be done and have outlined it clearly. We were quite correct in putting you in charge of the project."

Oh. Awesome. He smiles. "Thank you, ma'am."

"We would like to offer you command of the mission itself, if you are interested in returning to space."

He about swallows his tongue.

"…The hell you say. Ma'am."

For the first time in as long as he can remember, he sees this serious woman laugh. "Do not look so spooked, Kirk. If you are interested, it is our opinion you are the most qualified high-ranking member of the 'Fleet currently in a position of extended command experience for this mission. That vote was actually unanimous, if you can believe such a thing."

"Yeah, no, I can't."

"Neither could I, but it is a matter of record." Paris's eyes crinkle in a smile. "In addition to this, the Romulan government has specified they would be willing to negotiate with you, specifically. You have a reputation for being…unorthodox, but fair, in the galaxy, and I believe you have been in communication with a few members of their society in recent months, gaining their trust through careful debate and diplomacy. That is more than many of our ambassadors have done in decades. You are, to put it simply, the most qualified."

He's still not quite sure he's actually breathing.

Paris regards him for a moment in kind silence. "Are you interested in returning to space, Admiral?" she asks, at last.

"Uh." He clears his throat. "Well…maybe?"

She raises an eyebrow. "I would hope you are able to prevaricate better than that in your negotiations with the Romulan High Council."

He flushes all the way down into his collar. "Ma'am, I have been completely happy here."

"I believe you. But I also know when someone is in the correct position. And you are not. Being competent in one's position does not mean they are the right person for that position. When a man is truly where he belongs, everyone around him knows." He stares at her in astonishment, hearing words echoing from years long ago, something his First once said, only in reassurance that he was indeed the correct person to command the Enterprise. "You belong on a starship bridge, Kirk. And this one is yours, if you wish it."

"I…I need to think about it," he manages, finally.

"You have twenty-four hours, no more. Her crew is already in place, and the mission begins in two days' time."

His heart sinks, just a little. "She's already crewed?"

Paris smiles, a little knowingly. "This is an all-important mission to Command, Kirk, and the Venture has been years in preparing for launch. The command crew has been hand-chosen by higher ranking officials even than I. I'm sorry, but no – you do not get to choose your own officers. Perhaps when the mission is finished, if you choose to accept another, that might be possible."

"Understood." Obviously, the mission is the most important one to happen in decades, that's totally understandable. "Two days?"

"Launch is in two days; we have no time to waste as the Klingons have already begun hostile action along the Neutral Zone. In twenty-four hours I must know your decision, so that we can move on to the next choice if you decline, Kirk. I sincerely hope you do not, but we will support your decision."

"You'll have it by tomorrow morning. And…thank you, Commodore." He shakes his head, still a little thrown.

Paris smiles, just a little secretively. "I would suggest you sleep on the matter, Admiral. I look forward to your decision tomorrow."

-0o0-

He's still a little out of it when he exits the hovercab outside his apartment, grateful he'd been able to find an automated one so he didn't have to talk to a well-meaning driver on the twenty-minute commute. The door slides shut after him and he dashes through the simulated rain (seriously, why they bother simulating bad weather on a space station still makes him laugh sometimes) into the building, nods to the doorman and heads up the stairs to his apartment.

He's taken to climbing the stairs lately, after Bones made some crack about his fondness for snacking on their last vid-chat; he probably should start increasing his exercise routine now that his metabolism's likely slowing down from the Khan-induced insanity of his thirties.

Six floors isn't that much, but he's still a bit out of breath by the time the jog is done, and he's glad there's no one in the hall to see it as he heads down to the end unit, the one overlooking a fake ocean that he paid way too much for but that's worth it to have a simulated ocean breeze on his balcony sometimes.

He fumbles his keycard, still a little wet, through the slot and then squelches in the door, dripping – and immediately about has a heart attack when something moves up ahead in the dimmed light of his living room because he doesn't carry a phaser on him here on Yorktown, he's never had to, and what the hell.

He grabs the manual fire extinguishing can beside the door for defense and bellows for all the house lights at the top of his not-inconsiderable lungs, because if the person has a weapon that will scare them into firing and he can run for it; and if they don't, hopefully it'll scare them into running for it.

There's a small crash and startled yelp, then a laugh, and the bright glare illuminates a figure in the hall, outlined in the light like a dark angel.

"Good grief. Lights, eighty percent. A fire extinguisher? What in the world did you think you were going to do with that?"

"Look, it was that or an umbrella, and – what are you doing here, anyway! You're not even supposed to be back in this quadrant for another four months!" He drops his coat and the can on the floor with a muffled whannnng, laughing, and command image be damned, he deserves a freaking hug.

Behind them, he sees another shadow detach itself from the kitchen area, and he grins over her shoulder. "So does the human get half a hug from you, at least?"

"If you must."

There's no real annoyance in the tone, so he goes for it, because it's been a freaking long almost three years, okay. If he's a little sappy he thinks he's entitled.

He clears his throat, hastily scrubbing a hand over his eyes as he finally steps back, moves into the kitchen. "So, I thought you guys were still in the beta quadrant – what brings you back so early? I know you got pulled from the Neutral Zone because of the hostilities but that's still a long way from Terra."

Uhura perches on a bar stool and looks at him strangely for a moment. "…You're kidding, right?"

"Uh, no?" He fidgets with a takeout menu, glances between them uncertainly. "You guys hungry, by the way?"

"Yes, and we finally broke down and called out for food, it'll be here in like fifteen minutes. Do you actually live here? There's like, a six-pack and some soda and two boxes of whatever those chocolate things are in your cupboard, and nothing of nutritional value in this entire kitchen."

"Yeah, thank you, Bones, I haven't had time to make a grocery list and I usually eat dinner in the Academy cafeteria. Also, I don't usually have people just breaking in to help themselves either."

"It's not breaking in if we have a spare keycard. And we thought you'd be back like three hours ago."

"I was working late, then got caught at HQ, meeting with Commodore Paris. This Romulan diplomatic mission thing. They actually want me to lead it, can you believe that? Go back up into space again!" He pops the tab on a can of soda, ignoring Bones's voice in his head nagging at him to drink water. At least it isn't booze. "It's…crazy."

He sees the two of them exchange a look. "What, you don't think it's crazy?"

"Not really. You belong up there." Nyota takes the soda he offers her and rolls it around carelessly. "So…"

"Yeah, I told her I'd have to think about it, let her know in the morning. My head's like in a billion places right now."

She looks surprised. "You…what?"

"Well, it's just a big change to make all of a sudden, you know?" He takes another huge drink, and sighs. "I mean, a brand-new ship is always pretty awesome, and she's the top of the line which is amazing. But, the crew's already apparently been chosen by the powers that be, I don't get a say or get to pick my command staff, even. That kind of sucks. It rarely happens anymore on a ship that the commander doesn't get at least veto power over his staff."

"Then you have not seen the crew roster yet for the Venture," Spock says.

"No, not yet. Paris said she was going to send it to me, but I lost my communicator somewhere this morning and I still haven't found it, I think I dropped it on campus somewhere." He sighs, finishes the soda and drops the can in the recycling chute.

Wait a minute.

He spins around slowly on one heel, and fixes both of them with a suspicious look. "This project's been top secret for three months, and the actual mission was just decided like, this week. How the hell did you know they'd decided to christen the Venture early for it?"

Uhura starts laughing.

"What."

"Worst day to lose your communicator, Jim."

"I know, I probably have like a billion missed messages, but what's that got to do with the Venture mission?"

"Because we're part of your negotiating crew, you dumbass!"

It's like all the air gets sucked out of the apartment for a minute, and he can only stare at them, hardly able to breathe.

"Communications is crucial to this mission, and there's still nobody in the 'Fleet at the command level who speaks all three Romulan dialects as well as I do. When they approached me to ask if I minded taking a sabbatical for an ambassadorial mission, well."

"You – are you serious? Is that even allowed?"

"It is not without precedent, Admiral. In the event a high-ranking official is in command of a starship, such as a commodore or an admiral, there have been times a captain is made first or second officer without losing that rank."

"So…you're first officer?"

"And Spock's your Chief Science Officer. No more overachieving and holding both positions. But we're also your primary communications specialists and Starfleet ambassadors, given his shared ancestry and what we know about Nero. Specialized diplomatic attaches or whatever title they gave us. Ashayam?"

"That is correct, not that is it important at the moment."

"Oh my God."

"Leonard sends his regards, by the way, since you're an idiot and can't find your comm. He'll get here like two hours before we take off, the transports around the Medusan asteroid fields are awful right now and his shuttle's behind schedule."

"He – " He feels a little unsteady right now, and backs into the breakfast nook to just sort of collapse, head reeling at the sudden upending of everything he'd thought he knew was happening. "I'm like…so confused right now?"

"So are we, honestly. Though that explains why you haven't returned any messages all afternoon." She sets the soda can down, shaking her head in amusement. "Honestly, I thought for sure Scotty had spilled the beans already, but when we never heard from you…apparently the man can keep a secret after all."

"He – I just had lunch with him today!"

"Indeed. Perhaps it was in the course of that meal that your communicator was 'misplaced'." Spock looks at him pointedly.

"I am gonna kill him." He shakes his head, still in disbelief. "I just…I can't wrap my head around this yet. Are you sure you want to do this? We could end up stuck out there for a year or more, the situation's that volatile."

"We know that."

"Indeed, the probability the mission will be completed in less than two years is no higher than approximately twenty-one-point-seven-two-three percent."

"Approximately that."

"Indeed."

"God, I've missed you." He tries to laugh, and the sound sticks suspiciously somewhere in his throat. "If you're sure you want to do this, there's no way I'm going to try to talk you out of it."

"That would indeed be an exercise in futility." Spock glances down at his communicator as it chirps insistently, types briefly and returns it to his pocket. "I had been under the impression no commanding officer could possibly be as infuriatingly stubborn in command decisions as yourself. I was in error."

"He gets pissy when I won't let him lead a landing party," Uhura clarifies dryly, rolling her eyes at him over the top of her soda can.

"Oh, I know! Does he get all catty with you and send the most annoying Security dudes ever instead?"

"Right on the money. Thank goodness my CMO is a little more chill than McCoy always was."

"Aw, so no ganging up on you, then."

"No, just freezing me out for a few hours afterwards on the Bridge. He's lucky he's cute."

Spock's ears are rapidly turning the color of Jim's dying ficus.

Jim takes pity on him and clears his throat, hiding a grin. "So what's happening to the Intrepid?"

"It's been dispatched to the Vulcan colony, actually; they were in need of a vessel that size at the NVSA, for the purpose of local training missions. The crew had the option to remain aboard or transfer to another ship, including the Venture. Most of them stayed, a few transferred, some came back to Yorktown to find another deep space posting." Uhura shrugs. "It's been a fantastic almost three years, but…well. It's not breaking anyone's heart, I don't think."

"Are you sure?" he asks quietly. That's the last thing he'd want.

"Jim." She puts the can down, and starts to speak, but the door chimes. "That'd be the food. Besides," and she pats Spock's arm as she slides off the bar stool, "you should be taking this one anyway. Explain." She gives him a vague shove in the general direction of the breakfast nook and moves off down the hall toward the door.

Spock raises an eyebrow.

"Look, you're the one that married her."

"Indeed."

"You gonna sit, because I've had a hell of a day and I really don't want to stand back up right now."

It's interesting, and a little fond nostalgia sweeps over him at the idea, how Spock still hesitates for a second before doing that – he thinks probably if they started walking anywhere he'd still walk just a half-pace behind him too, a long-ingrained gesture of respect he never quite got rid of.

"Look, shoot straight with me here," he says in an undertone, leaning forward suddenly. "Is your crew seriously okay with this?"

Spock folds his hands comfortably on the table, and nods. "You may rest assured on that point, Admiral. While the crew of the Intrepid is a most diverse and highly unified group of qualified individuals, there has not been the sense of…you humans call it, camaraderie, which seemed to develop organically aboard the Enterprise, in that same first three years."

"Well, we did have a hell of a three years."

"Agreed. Deeply emotional events can create deeply emotional ties, between the least emotional of beings. This I unfortunately have personal experience with."

He runs a hand down his face, pauses for a second, fingers tapping absently at his chin. "Do you ever wish you hadn't?" he asks curiously. "Created those emotional ties, I mean? I know you're like, way more balanced than the old man ever was, but…I'd hate to think you spent all this time wishing it was otherwise."

Spock looks thoughtful for a moment. "If you ask, do I regret the circumstances which forced the confrontation of that part of me, then of course I do, Jim. The death of my mother and destruction of Vulcan is still something which I believe haunts us both."

"It is. Obviously, me nowhere near as much as you. But it's still the one failure I can't ever forgive myself for, as long as I live."

"As you were not even in command at that time, it can hardly be categorized correctly as such."

"And we've had this argument, so let's keep moving. You do regret it, then?"

"I regret the circumstances, obviously, but only those. I would much prefer to have found such a…katric balance, and not have been forced to do so at such a high cost. I consciously chose to embrace my humanity somewhat, as a tribute to Amanda Grayson; if I had done so in her lifetime, perhaps even now, I would have fewer regrets about her death."

"I don't think I've ever heard you explain it quite like that before," he says softly.

A look of faint amusement crosses his former First's face. "I have been forced to finally put words to the explanation in recent years, sir. Prior to that there was no reason to do so, as no one of my acquaintance ever saw fit to require an explanation of my behavior."

"Ah…you have Vulcan crewmen, then."

"We do. I am apparently considered something of a dangerous revolutionary among them."

He can't help it, he snickers.

"I am pleased the situation amuses someone."

"Oh, come on, stop acting like you don't love telling a stuck-up Vulcan traditionalist what he can do with his xenospecist logic when he gives Nyota the side-eye on the Bridge. Yeah, that's what I thought. I believe your mother would be proud, Commander."

Spock's soft noise of exasperation is the closest thing he'll ever get to a Vulcan laugh.

"I'm going to take your word for it, then, that you guys didn't just upend three years of a new family to help me out with this Venture thing. I appreciate you guys covering my ass but I can fumble through it if that's what you did."

"You really are an idiot, aren't you?" Nyota's voice comes from behind them, as she returns to the kitchen carrying two decent-sized bags of something that smells amazing in one hand and her comm in the other, obviously in the middle of having a conversation on it.

"Well, yeah, but what'd I do this time?" he asks indignantly.

"Hang on." She sets the bags down, almost hitting him in the face because she's still looking at the communicator, and then turns to flick the comm up onto his wall screen. "Okay, that's better. Yeah, he 'lost his communicator,' Leonard." Jim glares at the air quotes. "I'm pretty sure Scotty swiped it so it'd be a surprise. Hands off that lo mein, Kirk, it's mine."

"Great, so I wasted an hour offa the Carina nebula composin' an email that just went to nowhere. Jim, I need the medical files of all the personnel on board! How'm I supposed to prepare for this thing if the captain of the damn ship isn't getting his messages!"

"Comm the First Officer, Bones. She's like way more on the ball than me right now."

Uhura snorts, and hitches herself up on the counter opposite the breakfast nook so she can see the screen and the two of them as well. "She is eating right now, thank you very much. Leonard, were you aware that there was no food in his apartment other than soda and snack cakes?"

"James Tiberius!"

"Wow, already dragging that one out. Haven't missed that, I have to say. Spock?"

"Doctor McCoy's unfortunate habit of standing close enough to the communications device as to endanger its audio receptive circuitry, or the mystifying human tendency to use the middle name as both expression of anger and term of endearment?"

Jim chokes on a piece of broccoli.

"Chew your food, genius. Got the whole party there, huh Jim?"

He finally hacks a breath past the broccoli floret. Ow. That's what he gets for trying to be healthy. "They weren't exactly invited."

"I am not staying in 'Fleet-issue housing when there's a fumigation warning sign in the lobby, thank you very much. You can put us up for two nights, Mr. Swanky End-Unit with totally overcompensating balcony I bet you haven't used but like, twice in three years."

"I have too!" He stabs a piece of orange chicken with a little too much enthusiasm, almost breaking a spork tine. Stupid broccoli he flicks off to the side.

"Mmmmhm."

"You want to sleep on said balcony tonight, or you want me to be a nice human being and give you guys the bedroom?" he demands, shoving the chicken in his mouth.

"You know where your headphones are, Jim?" Bones drawls.

"Oh hell no, not in my apartment. I just washed those sheets."

Spock's lips twitch suspiciously.

"You dare and I will make your lives a living hell this entire mission."

He hears cackling coming from the comm monitor over his head, and waves the spork threateningly in its line of vision. "Do not encourage them, Bones!"

"I ain't got anything to do with this, Jim. I'm gonna sit back and enjoy this last twenty-four hours of peace and quiet before we get back to that space snowglobe you love so much."

"Stop calling it that, you know they hate it."

"I'll call it what I damn well please, I'm coming back from retirement for this shindig."

"If you're going to be a grouchy old man the whole time, well." He stuffs another chunk of rice in his mouth, smirking. "Maybe I should call Chapel instead."

"Like she'd put up with you for more than a day. And I'll show you grumpy. Wait 'til you see your meal card on board." McCoy's grin is the stuff nightmares are made of. "Better enjoy those snack cakes while you can, Jim."

"I hate you." He scowls, stabs a piece of chicken with the spork again.

"Yeah, yeah. Look, find that damn communicator and forward me what I need to know, okay? I'll be scooting in there like three hours before launch and that's not a lot of time to debrief on three hundred-odd crewmen and their allergies and medical conditions."

"I will. Promise."

"And you two, you know what to do. With him, I mean."

Uhura waves a forkful of rice dismissively at the screen, while Spock nods, amused.

"Well, I got a date in the lounge of this here cruiser, and she's a sight prettier than either of you two, pretty near close to the Captain here. Just wanted to check in on you."

"Have fun, Leonard," Uhura says, grinning.

"Go getchour boo, Bones," he drawls, waving a spork at the screen.

"Dear Lord." A sigh. "This had better not be the biggest mistake of my life. Bye, Jim."

He laughs as the screen goes blank. "I can't believe he agreed to come back. I mean, he really wasn't anywhere near old enough to retire, but still." He'll call tomorrow and make sure Joanna and the kiddo are okay with this, but he's not gotten any calls so at least she doesn't want to kill him.

He also has the suspicion that Starfleet's paying McCoy a pretty hefty sum to pull him back. The man's not an idiot, he probably drove them up as high as they'd go knowing he's the only 'Fleet doctor of high rank familiar with Vulcanoid physiology. (There are precious few Vulcans in the 'Fleet even now, and they aren't very forthcoming with their medical info.) Hello, trust fund for the kid.

He sets his spork down, and runs his hands down his face. "Good grief. Was it just this morning I was grading term papers and trying not to kill my Tactical Strategy students?"

"Mmhm. But much as I love seeing karma come back to bite you, I don't think being stuck in a classroom is the best use of your talents, Jim. For what it's worth." She shrugs. "If you really were 100% happy doing it, that'd be one thing."

"Given that your reason for accepting the position was more altruistic than ambitious in nature, I doubt that is the case," Spock interjects, totally ignoring Jim's warning look fired across the table. "Admiral, if you believe she did not deduce the conversation you are foolishly attempting to conceal –"

"I'm not an idiot, Kirk. And we both know he has zero poker face when it comes to you," she says dryly.

"Look, that was not the reason –"

"Maybe not all of it. But the fact remains you cleared all the obstacles for our success." She looks him in the eye for a moment, and he can see she's totally genuine; there's no teasing there, no lightheartedness to detract from her sincerity. "That's not something they teach in command training, that's you being a self-sacrificing idiot like you always have been. So thank you."

He clears his throat and picks at the broccoli left on his plate.

"And I'm not saying when this is over, we won't be glad to get back out there. But for now? You belong up there. And I for one, well." She shrugs. "It's been a fantastic experience, but you can't argue with the fact that we had lightning in a bottle. Only an idiot screws with that, especially for a mission this important."

He glances over at Spock, who only gives him a slight nod of agreement.

"Well." He clears his throat awkwardly. "Who am I to argue with the most up and coming captain-slash-first-officer in the 'Fleet?"

"You're the guy who's going to lose a hand if you touch my egg rolls again. Seriously, Spock, you just sit there and watch him?"

"I am practicing the diplomatic strategy known as impartiality, or not taking sides."

"I am your wife!"

"And I would prefer to sleep indoors this evening."

"You can sleep indoors on the couch, how about that?"

"And this is my specialized diplomatic team," he mutters, shoving the last of the spoils in his mouth. "Awesome."

But yeah.

It really kind of is.