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"The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you."
- Neil deGrasse Tyson

~~~

now

The newcomer maneuvers his bulk into a seat in front of a long, plain countertop, the lounge area empty except for him and the human already stationed at the bar. He leans forward to smirk at his companion, whose only response is a coldly silent rebuff. With one finger, he tilts up the fuming man's chin, allowing the light of the lounge to add a sheen across dark bruises and flakes of dried blood.

"Your team almost figured out my ploy, Captain. The more I think about that, the less I like it."

James Kirk's lips twitch, though his blue eyes remain glacial. "I do. It means this is the last time I have to repeat myself. Starfleet doesn't abide tyrants. Even if you win the favor of a few councilmen and manage to convince them that my people are the enemy, you'll gain nothing in the end, Mr. Barac."

Barac raises his eyebrows but otherwise seems unimpressed.

Jim smiles, then, a glaze settling across his vision like he might be more tuned in to himself than anyone else. "Humans die for what they believe in, you know?" His eerie half-chuckle visibly jars his captor. "Turns out, dying for a cause is universal. Starfleet was founded on whole races of martyrs."

Kirk's entire body shudders in place, his face still captured by Barac's hand. "The people I believe in will fight you as if they have nothing to lose, and you—you selfish prick—can't possibly comprehend what that means."

Barac shoves Kirk's face sideways, nearly unbalancing the captain from his stool. "My men must have beat you too thoroughly. All I hear is nonsense."

Kirk starts laughing in earnest until, abruptly, the laughter is replaced by a hacking cough and prolonged wheezing. Yet the man manages to warn between labored breaths, "You will see how right I am."

"No, Captain. You will learn the consequences of your actions. Thinking you could best me was a truly terrible gamble." Barac abandons his seat, in the process clasping a hand roughly to Kirk's left shoulder, clearly swollen, prompting another pained grunt from Kirk.

After a moment, Kirk recovers. "Leaving so soon, Mr. Barac? But we were just getting to know each other," he taunts, following that with undisguised disdain. "Why not finish what you started? I can still breathe!"

The man glances back. "Under other circumstances, I would have already disposed of you, Kirk, but there is a need to keep you alive at the moment." He shakes his head pityingly. "Thankfully the opposite is true concerning that crew of yours. They are—what is your human phrase?—expendable."

Kirk lurches out of his seat, failing to straighten up to his full height but managing to stumble toward the retreating man. "Stay away from them. Barac! Do you hear me? Barac!"

A shadow falls over Kirk, one of the guards who assisted in putting Jim Kirk into his present condition. The guard grabs the captain by the arm, jerking him off course from his dogged pursuit.

The lounge's door snaps shut on a final shout of "BARAC!"

~~~

then

Hallway light falls into the dark cabin, framing a slender shadow. That shadow moves forward, shaping briefly into a more human form, the cabin's owner, before darkness returns to consume it as the door to the corridor closes.

"Computer, lights," the owner commands.

"Computer, no lights," comes the countercommand of a groggy voice from within the dark.

"Jesus!" Then, after some hesitation, "Jim?"

"Bones...? Oh, hey. Good evening?"

A snap. "It's not a good anything if I can't see where I'm putting my own two feet!"

"Fine, have it your way. Computer, lights 50%."

When the cabin instantly brightens, Leonard McCoy moves with all haste to the common area. There, he looms over a couch in order to scowl down at its occupant. "If I'd known this was why you ordered furniture for my quarters, I would have sent all of it right back to Requisitions."

One blue eye opens to peruse McCoy's expression, then quickly closes again. Kirk firms his mouth and tucks his chin more tightly against his chest upon the declaration, "I'm napping."

"No, you're annoying the hell outta me."

"I'm not doing anything, Bones."

"You don't need to. Just seeing your face annoys me."

Kirk snorts. "I think you're wonderful too."

McCoy moves around the edge of the couch and dislodges Kirk's bent legs—and the rest of the man—none-too-gently. He drops down into the freed-up space with a grave sigh.

Jim, having caught himself from falling the rest of the way off the couch, eventually sits up too, mirroring McCoy's sigh. For a long moment, the pair remain there in silence, not acknowledging each other.

Leonard, however, has never been a fan of loaded silences. "How long have you been here?"

Kirk rubs the back of his neck, slow to answer.

McCoy supplies for him, "Long enough to worry somebody. Of course. I'm surprised I didn't find Spock in the corridor sniffing around the door."

Kirk snorts.

McCoy smiles the tiniest bit before hiding that smile by coughing into his elbow. "First things first," he says once his dignity is recovered. "Let your Vulcan watchdog know where you are."

"He probably knows."

"Spock can't spend every waking moment of his day monitoring you."

Jim's sideways glance at McCoy is so full of skepticism that Leonard rolls his eyes. Then McCoy crosses his arms and tucks away his amusement, adopting a professional mask as Kirk continues to stare at him.

Jim looks away, muttering warily, "What?"

"Don't 'what' me," drawls McCoy, tone even. "This is the third time in two weeks. What are you doing, Jim?"

"Napping," insists Kirk.

"Your living area has its own couch."

"Yours is better."

"I can have it removed. What will you do then?"

Kirk responds sourly, "Have it your way, Doctor," and jumps up.

Leonard jerks forward and catches the captain's arm. "Hey, easy. That was a bluff."

For a moment, Kirk stays too still under his hand. Then Jim's head swivels in his direction, a tiny gleam in the man's eyes. "I knew that."

Leonard doesn't necessarily believe him but feels it best to keep his own counsel. He releases Kirk and pats the empty spot on the couch. "Since you're here, I could use your advice."

Kirk is quick to take a seat again, and then proceeds to make Leonard nervous by pinning him with an intensely focused expression McCoy secretly calls Jim's 'captain stare'.

After a few seconds, Kirk prods with, "Well?", and Leonard decides he might as well jump right in—and quickly think up a decent problem for which he needs advice. Preferably some matter that doesn't involve Jim.

Finally one such problem occurs to him. "I want M'Benga to take over Spock's primary care."

Jim blinks slowly and seems to shake himself the slightest bit. "All right."

"No, not just 'all right'. Consider what I'm asking."

"That M'Benga takes over Spock's primary—oh."

"Yes, oh," Leonard repeats with exasperation. "Every time I suggest it, I get The Look. I hate that particular Look, Jim."

Jim ducks his head, an aborted chuckle-snort making the man's shoulders twitch nonetheless. "Who doesn't?"

"That pointy-eared pain-in-my-behind will never agree to a change in physician unless you back me on it." McCoy watches Kirk rubs absently at the underside of his chin. "Well?"

"I guess being captain is good for something," Jim replies at length.

"You being captain is everything," Leonard states, meaning it. When Kirk turns an odd look upon him, he adds plainly, "And I'm not the first person to say it," before barrelling on to the matter at hand. "Spock knows I can't read his charts and manage his health as deftly as M'Benga can. I don't have the training, and by god I don't have the time to take the training. M'Benga was a med student with the Vulcan Healers association for years before one of them agreed to teach him the basics of Vulcan physiology."

Even then, the basics are too little knowledge in McCoy's opinion. He's told Spock that often enough, or complained about it, that is.

"I'll tell him."

"Thank you." Relieved, Leonard slings an arm across his friend's shoulders. "Have you eaten?"

Kirk shrugs. "I think I was out for a while."

"Then putting some food in that belly is the top priority. Doctor's orders."

Jim teases, "Any chance I can switch my primary physician to M'Benga?"

Leonard pokes the idiot very hard in the ribs. "Only on a cold day in hell. But if you agree to be an obedient little patient, I might be persuaded to ease up on the restrictions on your meal card."

Kirk's eyes light up.

"For tonight," McCoy adds, enjoying the dramatic way Kirk groans.

The light-haired man flops back down on the couch in a manner not unlike a stubborn puppy. Situating an arm across his eyes, Kirk challenges, "Being good sounds boring. I should go back to sleep."

In response, and without an ounce of remorse, Leonard shoves Jim to the floor. Then Leonard stands up and heads to his quarters' built-in replicator. "I want the bourbon," he calls back to Jim as Jim easily rolls to his feet from the floor and veers toward the cabinet where Leonard's most prized liquor bottles are stored.

"Bourbon for Bones," Kirk agrees dutifully.

In a way (and this is nothing McCoy would ever admit), Leonard is glad that Jim chooses his cabin to sneak into, because it grants Leonard a marginally deeper sense of self-importance. But he decides not to dwell on that dangerous territory too long and to enjoy the company of his friend.

~~~

Jim Kirk turns a desk computer screen toward him, a familiar face staring back, faintly amused. "Sir," Jim begins formally before switching to, "Hello, Chris." Kirk sighs, clearly vexed with himself. "This isn't going to surprise you but—I screwed up again." He pinches the bridge of his nose. "I know, it goes without saying. Get my shit together."

Jim drops his hand to his desk and starts drumming his fingers against it, frowning deeply. "I should have told McCoy. But what if..." The man's throat works momentarily. "What if he tells me to take a hike or... laughs me out of the room. What if he says I'm the only one who feels this way." Jim shuts his eyes. "Chris, I—"

A chime sounds and Kirk straightens, twisting around to stare at the entrance to his bathroom. "Spock?" he calls a heartbeat later.

The guess is correct. Spock glides through the doorway as it opens. "Captain." The Vulcan pauses long enough to correct himself to, "Jim," as his dark gaze takes in Kirk's personal cabin. His "Good evening" almost seems like an afterthought.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Spock?"

The Vulcan tilts his head ever-so-slightly, focusing his scrutiny on Kirk now. "I happened to hear you speaking with someone."

"And thought to interrupt?" Jim jests.

Spock stiffens. "Of course not, Captain. I apologize that my timing may have unduly—"

Jim raises a hand, and his second-in-command instantly quiets.

"That was a joke, not a criticism. I know you would never intentionally cause a disruption without a valid reason."

Spock blinks once before surprising Jim with the admission, "I may have approached your door out of curiosity."

Jim punches down a swell of fondness. "In any event," he says calmly, reaching out in a casual manner to flick off his computer screen, "you caused no harm." A little voice inside Jim that sounds suspiciously like McCoy persists in warning Jim to be clear in his meaning. He tacts on, "I am not upset, Spock."

"I see." Spock proceeds farther into the cabin, folding his arms behind his back.

A sudden tingling forms at the base of Kirk's neck, his own personal red alert.

"Did you rest well, Jim?"

Kirk hunkers down slightly in his chair, musing in that moment upon his inability to sink through the floor. Of course should he land in the poor crewman's cabin below his, they would no doubt take more exception to his unannounced appearance than Bones had.

Wishing he had better control over the flush to his face, Jim manages the only thing he can—his voice, forcing an even tone. "I did. Thank you for asking."

Spock's next step forward brings the Vulcan level with the end of Kirk's desk. "Dr. McCoy did not inform me of any disturbance to his routine, so I assume you appealed to his sympathetic nature."

Jim eyes the other man. "Where are you going with this?"

"I am 'going nowhere' that I am aware of," Spock explains blandly. "I merely desired to ascertain if I must visit the doctor tomorrow to address a grievance."

"I don't grieve Bones," Jim snaps, feeling peevish now, but obviously the outburst fails to ruffle Spock.

"I suspect the manner in which you define that term, Jim, is not in keeping with the universal definition."

Jim's gaze narrows. "You're annoying, Mr. Spock."

"I have been told this upon occasion."

"And dismissed," Jim adds with pointed politeness. "Good evening, Commander."

Spock stares at him a moment longer then inclines his head, pivots around, and exits the room without a word more.

A breath explodes from Kirk, who stabs at his computer screen until it re-activates. Then, faced with the sight of his mentor, Jim settles down.

"I wish you were here," he tells Pike, not for the first time since the inception of the Enterprise's five-year mission. "You would know how to put a nosy first officer in his place. Instead, I always end up with the impression that Spock is the victor of our little confrontations. How I can never win a single fight without pulling rank?"

Letting his eyes shut once more, Kirk resumes a more relaxed pose. "At this point, you would tell me to stop being a dickhead and confess. Not just to Bones or to Spock, but both. But, Chris... would they understand me?" Jim's fingers pick at the edge of the chair arm. "Would either of them have the capacity to love me as I love them? I want to know, but I'm afraid of the answer."

No answer is forthcoming, nor will be as Jim is conversing one-sidedly with a photograph. Without opening his eyes, Jim clicks off the screen and the visage of Admiral Christopher Pike disappears.

The photo is a gift, when at his protégé's behest Pike had humored Jim, agreeing for some undisclosed reason to allow Jim to capture that picture. Now Jim cannot remember precisely why he wanted the memento in the first place—only that he is grateful to have it among his personal affects, particularly these days when the burden of his position seems to wear on him. It may have been, he acknowledges privately, that some part of him knew what loneliness would lay ahead once his 'Fleet career began in earnest.

In that moment, the lonely ache always resident within Jim threatens to overwhelm him. Eventually it passes, after a few held breaths, and Jim opens his eyes. There's a fervent wish on the tip of his tongue that doesn't quite fit into words. Swallowing his longing, Kirk levers away from his desk to seek out his bed.

~~~

The guest inside Spock's quarters ceases his lazy stirring of a spoon through coffee when Spock returns. He wants to know, "What did Jim say?"

"He avoided the subject."

"Told you so."

"Indeed you did, Doctor," replies the Vulcan, taking a seat across from Leonard McCoy. "Have you any theory to explain his actions?"

McCoy frowns down at his drink. "I wouldn't be botherin' you if I knew why, Mr. Spock."

"Spock, please," Spock insists, continuing when McCoy looks up at him, clearly startled. "I do not consider this ship's business. Formality is unnecessary."

"Jim is our captain. His well-being is my business."

"As his well-being is mine. But Jim is also a friend. Are you not here with concern for your friend?"

McCoy's frown eases into a more neutral expression. "Sometimes I have a difficult time distinguishing the two." His gaze flicks away then returns, an unhappiness lurking there. "Times were simpler at the Academy. Jim was a classmate and a friend. Not because I wanted to be friends, mind you, but the man can be so persistent, sometimes it's easier to let him have his way."

"I understand."

"No, Spock, I don't think you do—not fully. I'm saying I struggle to act accordingly, whether it be doctor, friend, or subordinate."

Spock steeples his hands, offering a secondary perspective with the hope McCoy will be amenable to it. "I see no fault in your behavior."

When the doctor's eyes widen, and McCoy questions, "Are you feeling sick?", Spock chastises, "Allow me to finish, Leonard."

McCoy seems more flabbergasted than ever, but the Vulcan presses on: "Separation of feelings from duty is no simple matter; the separation of one feeling from another, even more so. I know you agree with both these sentiments, as you have expressed them individually and in tandem with frequency and fervency. You astound me by failing to consider the possibility now."

"Insultin' me and praisin' me in the same breath. So typical," mutters McCoy, but the man appears to be listening intently.

"It is not logical to fault someone else for experiencing difficulty in navigating a complex process, particularly when that process is intrinsic to his or her nature. If you were Vulcan—"

"Thank god for small favors!"

"—you would have other resources and training to leverage as I do, but again that is through no fault of your own. Therefore I do not and cannot find error in such an admission. It is not dereliction of duty to treasure a friend above a superior. It is not a symptom of unfairness to hold the superior to higher standards than the friend. That you can delineate who Jim is to you based upon how you feel in any given moment is in fact a tremendous boon, Dr. McCoy. I recognize and commend you for it."

"I... don't know what to say. That might be the nicest thing you've ever said to me."

"You are welcome."

"But it doesn't help with our little problem."

"It does not," agrees Spock. "I begin to wonder, however, if what troubles you also proves an issue for Jim. Perhaps there is a part of him which wishes to engage you on a more personal level but cannot comfortably circumvent the chain of command to make you aware of it."

"And so subconsciously his way of hinting that he might need the friend instead of the doctor is by doing something crazy like taking naps in my quarters instead of his own," muses McCoy. "Yeah, that does sound like something he would do." He meets Spock's gaze then. "You know, Spock, you've been very helpful."

"I am pleased you think so."

"Now I have a question for you."

"Proceed."

McCoy's eyes start to twinkle. "You called me here because you share my concern for Jim, that's obvious. You called me specifically because I am a friend of Jim's and everyone knows you are a friend of Jim's too. So, logically speaking, does that make our interactions a friendship?"

"Assuming friendship operates under the transitive property, Doctor, it could be so."

McCoy grins at him. "I'll take what I can get." The man reaches across the table and clasps Spock's forearm. "Happy to make your acquaintance, Friend Spock!"

"As I already expressed, simply 'Spock' will do."

The doctor chuckles, pulling back. "Now that that's settled, we gotta concoct a plan. Coming home to a guest in the dark when least expected isn't doing my health any good."

"What solution would you propose?"

"Is it possible to adjust the security on my cabin?"

"Not to the extent that the Captain would not be able to surpass it should he be determined to do so."

"Damn, I knew Jim was too smart for his own good." McCoy seems to be having a difficult time suppressing his amusement. "Lucky for us, you're smarter."

Spock is beyond pleased. "I am here to assist however I can."

"Don't get all mushy on me yet, hobgoblin. Fire up that supercomputer in your noggin'. How does one out-think Jim Kirk?"

Spock considers the matter very seriously—and not for the first time since that fateful day he encountered the young man who would one day become his captain and his friend.

"It has been proven that under extraordinary circumstances, Jim is extremely adaptable." An idea forms. "It may be," Spock voices with deliberate slowness, "that we must let him assume nothing is out of the ordinary."

"That's brilliant, Spock!" decides McCoy, leaning close, in his enthusiasm nearly sloshing coffee out of its cup, a beverage Spock had gifted the doctor with upon his arrival. "We bait him. The next time Jim thinks I'm busy in Sickbay and slinks off to invade my quarters—"

"You and I shall be waiting there instead," Spock finishes.

"I love a good confrontation," McCoy declares, only to amend quickly at Spock's raised eyebrow, "between friends. A confrontation between friends."

"Friendship being the crucial factor to our success, Doctor."

McCoy sobers. "Hear, hear. Jim won't take kindly to being ambushed otherwise. I think only a friend can help him sort out whatever is bothering him enough to haunt someone else's couch." The man releases a soft sigh. "Spock, never thought I'd say this, but you have my gratitude. Somehow you knew this wasn't something I wanted to do alone."

"You are never alone."

"Well, aren't you quite the charming fellow tonight?"

"I speak the truth."

McCoy nods. "I know."

The men stare at one another in silence for some time. During that comfortable silence, hope builds in Spock. While he does not doubt that McCoy has the skill and passion to unearth what troubles their captain on his own, with Spock at McCoy's side, the chances of success are double. In this, he and McCoy have always held an unspoken understanding, which is why the doctor so readily agreed to his invitation. Jim Kirk is the common thread that binds them.

Spock acknowledges that he treasures both: having synchronicity with Leonard in this way and having Jim be its root cause.

It may be a foolish desire on his part to value such connections, he goes on to muse. But as Amanda Grayson, his mother, once tried to help him understand, no one can fully explain the needs of the human heart. Spock's heart is human like hers, though his way of offering affection is decidedly more Vulcan. His relationship with Nyota Uhura, spanning years, helped him learn that about himself.

His mother would have liked Leonard. She would have approved of Jim. Nyota cares about both. Cannot Spock, then, seek to strengthen his connection to both men based upon such knowledge?

Logic agrees with intuition: Spock can, and should, act upon his growing affection.

However there is, he determines, the small matter of making that affection known with positive results.

Making note of the happy light in Leonard's eyes and teasing in his voice, Spock's hope continues to build. Yes, what he desires may be possible after all.

~~~

Kirk comes awake momentarily disoriented. His brain catches onto the sound that had pulled him from sleep and, in an instant, he is out of bed and at his desk to accept an incoming priority missive from Headquarters.

A missive that wakes him up is never a sign of anything good. He sits down in his chair with a thump and absorbs the orders of the Admiralty.

Change of plans. Abort rendezvous with the USS Gallant to pick up supplies. Planet is threatening to secede from the Federation. Make all haste to the locale and fix it.

Wonderful, thinks Kirk dismally. Since when did a captain's duties include playing meditator between the Federation and its members? Doesn't the President have ambassadors for that?

Kirk rubs his temples for a time and then activates his comm unit. "Kirk to Bridge."

"Bridge here," he hears Scotty say. "A wee bit early for you to be checking in, sir."

"Why are you in my chair?" Jim demands.

"Building up my command hours," counters the Chief Engineer cheerfully. "'Tis Mr. Spock's idea."

Kirk sighs. "Lay in a course for the coordinates I just forwarded you. We need to be in transit within the hour."

Scott's tone immediately sobers. "And the Gallant, sir?"

"Notify them we've had a delay on orders of Command." Jim grabs a gold shirt from his closet. "I'll explain later. On my way. Kirk out."

As he is dressing, he activates the comm. "Spock, I need you on the bridge."

The response is immediate. "Affirmative."

"Meet you at the lift."

Jim thinks long and hard about why he hates surprises but accepts that the inevitable cannot be avoided. He'll muck through somehow.

Of course, he doesn't have to do it alone. Before Jim can think better of it, he makes a final call.

"Do you know what time it is?"

"I need you, Bones." Jim can imagine McCoy sitting straight up in bed, eyes bleary, hair mussed.

"What is it?" the doctor asks, the caustic edge to his delivery replaced by fresh concern. "Jim?"

"Sorry, I shouldn't have woken you."

"I'm up now," McCoy says without any real heat. "Where do you need me?"

"Bridge, soon as you can get there."

"On my way." The channel closes.

Feeling most of his tension slide away, Jim does one look-over of himself for presentability before stepping out of his quarters. Spock, at the turn of the corridor, is already waiting by the lift pad. Jim jogs toward him, comforted by the fact that despite whatever new adventure the Enterprise has just embarked upon, he will have his trusted crew at his side.

And in that moment, Jim Kirk wouldn't jeopardize that for anything, including himself.

Chapter Text

"Unity to be real must stand the severest strain without breaking."
- Mahatma Gandhi

~~~

now

"I can't believe it!" Appearing on the heels of a group of crewmen filing into the briefing room, the starship's Chief Medical Officer vents his disbelief loudly enough to carry across the entire deck. "I can't believe he did it!"

Hunched over a scope at the central computer, Mr. Spock's only acknowledgment of the noisy arrival is the blandest of commentaries: "We are perfectly aware of your concerns, Dr. McCoy. Take a seat."

The doctor stalks over to Mr. Spock. "Are you telling me you had no idea what our captain was planning to do?"

Spock momentarily stiffens, but when he glances aside from the scope, he simply repeats, "Take a seat."

McCoy jerks at the nearest empty chair, that is, the one next to Spock, and surprises no one present by managing to drop down into it without taking his glare off the back of the Vulcan commander's head.

As the last crewman finds a place among his fellow officers lining the walls, Spock straightens up and takes in the room. "The Enterprise received confirmation approximately twenty minutes ago Captain Kirk is in the custody of the faction behind the denouncement of Yeged's Federation membership. In accordance with Starfleet regulation, I have assumed the duties of Acting Captain for the interim. To all present, your role during the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours will be crucial to a successful recovery of the hostage."

"The hostage?" explodes McCoy.

"Doctor."

"What! Do you really think anyone here is indifferent to Jim's captivity—clearly nobody except you, Mr. Spock!"

"Doctor," Spock interrupts, his tone shockingly close to an irritated snap. "Now is not the time to insult me."

The men lock stares, engaging in a silent battle of wills that heightens the already palpable tension in the air. No one seeks to break it, having neither the experience nor the courage to intervene. Between the glances at each other, their discomfort is apparent, no doubt most of them wishing the one man who could have disarmed both sides of the confrontation with a single word hadn't given himself over to enemy hands.

At last, McCoy is the first to break eye contact and look away. Mr. Spock resumes where he left off.

"Each of you has been assigned to a group based on your skill set for which the roster will be dispersed shortly. Resume normal duties until such time as your assistance is required." He adds after a short pause, "A general reminder appears to be in order: following the chain of command protects us individually and collectively from reckless action and undue risk. Under no circumstances should any member of the Enterprise engage the hostiles without explicit permission from a superior. We must as a unit make every effort to broker the safe return to the Captain. That will be all. Senior Response Team, please remain seated. The rest are dismissed."

As most officers crowd through the exit, hurrying to be elsewhere while tensions still run high, Dr. McCoy shoves back his chair from the table. But rather than the doctor launching himself out of it (and namely at the specific person he seems to have taken offense to), McCoy folds nearly in half, planting his elbows on his knees in order to clutch his head in his hands.

Lt. Uhura reaches out to place her hand on the doctor's knee with a soft, concerned "Leonard?" But she withdraws her hand when a shadow falls over McCoy.

"What now?" McCoy grunts.

Spock requests in a voice no louder than Uhura's, "I would speak with you in private."

McCoy twists his head sideways to give the Vulcan a narrow-eyed consideration. Then, at McCoy's faint nod, the commander turns away and strides for the small utility office attached to the briefing area. McCoy meets the gazes of the others at the table before following Spock. Once the office door cuts McCoy off from view, the team left behind stirs.

"That was rough."

"No kidding! I've seen Dr. McCoy lose his temper before but..."

"I thought Mr. Spock would call Security."

"On McCoy? I guess there's a first time for everything."

Finally one of them questions, "Just think... if the two of them are that upset, what don't we know?"

No one has an answer to offer.

~~~

When the door closes, Spock turns around in time to watch Leonard crumple against the door. He grabs the man by the shoulders. McCoy's hands fly up on instinct, locking around Spock's wrists.

The Vulcan takes the opportunity to study Leonard's expression. "You should not feel that way," he remarks a moment later.

Leonard blinks at him. "Feel what?"

"Guilty," Spock names the emotion, and as he expects the man in his grasp flinches. "You are not to blame. Even had you known of Jim's decision in advance, I doubt you could have stopped him."

McCoy's throat works. "Are you so sure I'm not responsible? You heard what I said to him. What state of mind must he have been in to make the choice he did?"

"Jim is fully capable of separating his actions from his emotions."

"The subconscious can be a powerful influence, Spock."

"Do you believe he would allow his subconscious to rule over his conscious mind, Doctor?"

"No, I don't." McCoy's face fills with dismayed amusement, then. "Well thanks for the pep talk, Spock... but no thanks for reminding me of where I fall in the pecking order."

"I can surmise where you would believe that to be. You would be wrong. Do you require assistance to a chair?"

In true fashion, McCoy puffs up with indignation, snatching his hands back from the Vulcan. "I'm perfectly fine! You're the one who overreacted!"

Spock locks his hands behind his back. "I see."

McCoy eyes him with wariness now. "Didn't I just say I'm fine? Why are you standing so close?"

"In the event your sensibilities become overwhelmed again, close proximity is logical."

"Spock, has anyone told you you could try the patience of the Lord Almighty himself?"

"Doctor, I believe you are confusing your habits for mine."

"Hah, now who's the insulting one!"

Eyes alight, McCoy uses his index finger to prod at Spock's collarbone and continues jabbing there, albeit without much strength, in an effort to encourage Spock to leave his personal space. Spock easily captures the doctor's finger—and McCoy freezes.

"What you said in the conference room," he murmurs, rubbing the pad of his thumb against Leonard's fingertip. "I would have you know I am not entirely unaffected."

"Unaffected?" Leonard repeats rather dumbly, seeming too distracted by the movement of Spock's hand to give the statement deeper consideration.

"Your accusation was... painful."

Leonard breaks his gaze away from their fingers. "I hurt you?"

"Affirmative," Spock admits.

Leonard looks at him a moment before swallowing hard. "You're upset about Jim, I know that. It was wrong of me to lash out."

"Apology accepted." Spock tilts his head with what a keen eye might have called mischief. "In the future, I suggest you request to be comforted instead of instigating an illogical argument."

"In front of a whole room of people?" points out Leonard dryly before his eyes widen then narrow. "What do you mean illogical?"

"Perhaps not."

McCoy harrumphs. "Speaking of nonsense, you need to let go of my finger."

Spock blinks. "Are you uncomfortable?"

"Uncomfortable is definitely not the word I would use to describe my feelings right now. And frankly, darlin', considering what I've learned from Dr. M'Benga over the years about a Vulcan's peculiarities, your current behavior is highly inappropriate for the workplace."

Spock releases McCoy's finger quickly, tucking his hands behind his back once more. "It was not my intention to act in a peculiar manner."

Leonard rubs his forehead. "Spock, let's stow that particular chat for another time. We still have Jim to worry about."

At the mention of their absent captain, Spock is unable to keep levity from leaching into his voice. "Indeed."

"What are we going to do?"

"Only that which we can do. Find a way to return Jim safely to the Enterprise—and to us."

McCoy nods even as his shoulders begin to sink, adding softly, "Then fix my mistake."

Spock pins the other man with his gaze. "Our mistake."

His companion's mouth thins momentarily, but Leonard does not counter the correction. Spock believes, in this instance, that the doctor understands the point of his remark very well: he and McCoy must change Jim Kirk's mind together, or not at all.

~~~

then

Jim feels eyes on him and turns in the captain's chair towards the Science station. "Something on your mind, Mr. Spock?"

"I forwarded you the results of my research on Yeged's politics, Captain."

Patting the data padd in his lap, Jim nods. "Yes, I have the report right here. I was just reviewing it."

Spock continues to look at him.

Taking the hint, Jim places his padd aside and joins Spock on the upper deck. They may be on the open bridge but Jim stands close enough so that whatever Spock wants to say can be shared with a modicum of privacy.

He asks Spock as he folds his arms across his chest, "What is it?"

"The protocol in place to handle state affairs only calls for the use of the flagship to ferry parties to and from a designated neutral site for negotiations. To date, there is no precedent for an intervention of this kind—"

"—assigned to a starship captain. I'm aware of that, Mr. Spock."

"Sir, you are within your rights to contest the assignment."

"I know that too."

Spock closes his mouth and gives Jim the impression that he's trying to communicate his dissatisfaction by stare alone.

Jim would admit to amusement if he didn't know that Spock would likely misinterpret the reason for his being amused. He places a hand on the Vulcan's shoulder instead and quotes, "'Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.'"

Spock's eyebrows knit together. "Machiavelli is hardly an appropriate role model."

"But he had a point. We can play it by the book and refuse the assignment, or we can go along with the times and see what—and who—it brings us."

"I do not fully understand."

Jim pats the shoulder under his hand in sympathy. "Trust me, okay? I'm only after an answer to a question, given that someone caused me to ask that question in the first place."

"Ah," Spock says, "that is more logical."

"Very logical," Jim agrees, smiling. "What else?"

Spock considers him again, this time with a different light in his eyes. "You should be aware that Dr. McCoy has secluded himself in the medical bay until our arrival at Yeged."

"He just left a double shift. Isn't he scheduled to be off-duty?"

"I believe his exact words were, 'Only a man contemplating trouble twiddles his thumbs while everybody else is busy preparing for a storm.'"

Jim snorts. "I'll stop by at some point and remind Bones that he's made it through worse storms than this."

"If that is the way you intend to phrase the reminder, Jim, it is highly likely he will not be appreciative of it."

"Truer words never spoken." Jim heads back to his chair and, after a moment's deliberation, retrieves the padd. Then he approaches turbolift to the side of the bridge. "You have the conn, Mr. Spock. Alert me in advance of our arrival to Yeged."

The turbolift closes on Spock's rejoining "Affirmative, Captain."

~~~

Leonard McCoy pokes his head around the corner of the storage room, intending to communicate the number of hypos in the container at his feet to a staff member when he spies a figure gliding across his ward. He withdraws into the room on instinct, cursing his luck as the newcomer's voice carries through the open doorway.

"I was not aware Medical had an inventory count scheduled today."

"Good morning, Mr. Spock. Dr. McCoy's decided on an impromptu one."

"I see. Nurse, where is Dr. McCoy?"

"Oh, he's right—"

Damn it! "Here," supplies Leonard sourly, slinking around the door without meeting anyone's gaze. "I was in the middle of counting."

"And eavesdropping, apparently. Hello, Doctor."

McCoy levels at an irritated stare at the Vulcan before addressing his head nurse. "The K-Cartridges are in. Full set." He turns back to Spock as Chapel heads into the storage unit to inspect the container for herself. "Don't look at me like that. I'm not making more work for my staff."

"Medical inventory was assessed two weeks ago."

"One can't be too prepared in my line of work, Mr. Spock."

"You must be concerned about the mission to Yeged."

Leonard snorts. "You were in that meeting too. Forgive me for being skeptical that it's just another quiet assignment."

Chapel re-appears and holds out a cartridge to Spock, who takes it with his eyebrow raised. "The K-Cartridge is a new type of sedative derived from one of Dr. McCoy's formulas. We anticipate in a few years it will be widely used by many practitioners."

"Give me that," Leonard says, snatching the vial from the Vulcan. "Nurse, you can't just hand over medical supplies to anybody."

The nurse simply looks amused. "Mr. Spock isn't anybody, Doctor."

"Thank you, Nurse Chapel," says Spock. "As always, I appreciate any new information. Dr. McCoy, it is pleasing to learn that your research continues to deliver positive results. I will of course ensure such is reflected in your service record."

"Enough," insists the doctor, feeling his face redden. "I know you didn't actually come here to flatter me. What do you want?"

"A situation has developed which requires your attention."

"Can it wait?"

"Negative."

McCoy turns to his staff. "Christine, this count needs to be finished before we've established orbit."

"Of course, Doctor."

As Leonard falls into step with the Vulcan, he assumes they are headed to his office. But when they pass the bend in the hallway leading in that direction, he questions in confusion, "What's so urgent?"

"I believe you would refer to it as a house-call."

"A house-call where?"

"Your quarters."

"My quarters! But..." McCoy trails off as the most likely explanation takes hold. "Well I'll be damned! Already?" He bounces on the balls of his feet once as they arrive at the turbolift outside Sickbay. "Come to think of it, this is the first time you've assisted me on a house-call, Spock. I have to say, I'm looking forward to it."

"As am I."

The lift door slides open, and they step into it in unison.

~~~

Having finished Spock's report, assured Command that the Enterprise is underway to Yeged at top warp speed, and stared at the ceiling of his cabin for approximately twenty minutes, Jim remembers what Spock told him about Bones, or more to the point, about where his senior medical officer isn't. That decides Kirk more quickly than usual when he finds himself yawning at his desk. There's nothing quite so refreshing as a short nap in Dr. McCoy's quarters.

Jim hops out of his chair and from his quarters, taking on an unhurried pace to the other side of the deck. Offering the occasional good-natured greeting to fellow officers in the corridors, he wonders why he didn't think of letting himself into McCoy's quarters the moment he left the bridge. Now he needs to make up for lost time and since Bones is still undoubtedly preoccupied with harrying his staff of doctors and nurses into triple-checking the inventory (something the man does every time he thinks their ship is flying toward a disaster), Jim doesn't have to be sneaky about calculating the opportune moment for his naptime. Commander Spock did him a favor that the poor Vulcan doesn't even know about.

He'll be quick about this nap since the Yeged mission seems to be of paramount importance to, well, some higher-up. Just thirty minutes or an hour, Kirk determines as he swipes a clearance code into the panel by McCoy's cabin door. The door slides back. If Jim can manage to nod off right away, he could actually squeeze in another fifteen—

"Well, well, well," croons a too-familiar voice as the lights blink on, "look what the cat dragged in."

"Cat, Doctor? I see no cat."

Kirk's body locks up in momentary shock. Inside the CMO's quarters, McCoy and Spock face Jim side by side, seeming oddly unperturbed to be confronted with the arrival of an unexpected guest.

"Bones?" Jim cringes internally at the squeak in his voice and clears his throat before tacking on more normally, "Uh, hello! And Spock... Didn't I leave you in charge of the bridge?"

Recognizing his tactical error too late, Jim can almost literally see the temper sparking in Leonard McCoy's eyes. He backs up at the same time McCoy starts forward, the dark-haired man sputtering heatedly in protest, "You're one to talk! Breaking into somebody else's room—"

In his rapid retreat, Kirk's boot heel catches on the groove in the floor made for the sliding door, and he delivers a sharp gasp as he unbalances and pitches backward into the corridor. The gasp becomes a yelp when (though Jim never saw the Vulcan move) Spock suddenly fills his vision, latches onto his gold tunic and sends Kirk flying back the opposite way, into the cabin. His balance completely shot, Jim lands with an oomph! right into an equally startled McCoy's arms.

Spock completes his graceful spin away from the door and settles back on his heels to stare at Kirk and McCoy.

More embarrassed than he has ever felt in his entire life, Jim peels himself off Leonard with an almost tearful prayer that a great big black hole will snap open right there, suck him up and spit him out on the other side of the galaxy.

"Jim, are you all right?" Though Leonard only sounds concerned, Jim's embarrassment heightens.

He bats away the doctor's inspecting hands with the half-hearted joke, "Fine, fine. Nothing like a little clumsiness to break the ice."

"To hell with ice, you could have broken bones!"

"Spock made certain I didn't."

For some reason, Leonard stares past Jim to Spock and narrows his gaze.

Damn, thinks Jim, not liking the look on McCoy's face or how Spock responds with raising an eyebrow. That eyebrow seems loaded with meaning Jim isn't privy to. Maybe he should have fallen on his face in public. The option seems more appealing right now than waiting to find out the cause of the sudden red alert at the back of his neck.

"You know, I think I should go," Jim begins, but his edging for the doorway is waylaid by Spock shifting to block his path.

The cabin door takes the hint and finally swooshes closed—and Jim's stomach sinks with the sensation that a carefully laid trap has just been sprung.

Then McCoy says, "Jim, we need to talk."

~~~

At Starfleet Academy, professors, graduates, and cadets alike all had heard that James T. Kirk was a star pupil in courses like Advanced Tactical Training and Survival Strategies. Having seen the man's intellect at work in the field, Spock can easily verify the truth behind the rumors and tall tales about his captain. Yet against the odds, the Vulcan muses, he and McCoy have successfully duped the brilliant Kirk through a very rudimentary machination.

Spock recalls one of his mother's favored quotes: that every man can see things far off but is blind to what is near. She claimed having a blind spot is very much an ailment of humans, who tend to perceive the things they treasure as infallible or beyond reproach. The sentiment is lacking sorely in logic, of course, but Spock finds he cannot fault Jim for having steadfast faith in the goodness of his crew.

His attention is drawn to the pair of humans at the center of the room. It isn't until the captain speaks that Spock realizes Jim has already determined something is up. Spock deftly changes position to prevent Jim's escape and, in doing so, accepts that he has firmly placed himself on the opposing side of his captain's wishes.

Then McCoy is telling Jim they need to talk and waving both Kirk and Spock empathetically toward the couch. Under normal circumstances Spock would prefer to remain standing; however it occurs to him that if he sits down, Jim likely will follow suit. The guess is not wrong.

Leonard barely allows them all to settle themselves before wanting to know, "What's on your mind. Jim?"

Unsurprising to Spock, Jim resists the question. "I'm just tired, Bones."

"Bull. I didn't believe that last time, and I don't buy it now. I know for a fact that you can fall asleep anywhere. You've been coming here for another reason."

Spock adds, "Dr. McCoy has given an accurate, if succinct, assessment, Captain. Based on conversations the Doctor and I have had, we agree the behavior you have exhibited is most unusual."

Kirk's mouth thins. "So you've been checking up on me."

"We wouldn't have to if you'd talk to us," Leonard shoots back. "Or have you forgotten we're your friends?"

"Friends."

Spock has the oddest sensation, akin to a chill, at the flat resonance of the word from the way Jim had spoken it. He asserts out of mild alarm, "We are your friends, Jim."

Kirk's unreadable gaze slides toward Spock before flicking away. Spock discovers McCoy watching them both, though whether the man feels concern or consternation is unclear.

After nearly a minute of silence, Leonard clears his throat. "Jim, are you saying you want to stop being friends?"

A breath bursts out of Kirk, and he slouches back against the couch. "No. I would be crazy to want that."

"Then do you want us to stop caring about you?"

"No." Kirk pins McCoy with an expression that implies he thinks the doctor must be the crazy one.

Spock suggests, "Perhaps you could elaborate. Why did you appear to take offense to the concept of friendship?"

"It's not a concept, it's a fact," corrects McCoy.

Kirk pinches the bridge of his nose, muttering to himself. Spock wisely chooses not to hear his captain's complaint.

Then Jim drops his hand, states, "I'm lonely," and proceeds to twitch with agitation at his own admission.

Spock can only assume Jim has spoken the truth, but he waits for McCoy to respond first because Leonard has always been far more suited to handling emotional confessions than he has and Spock cannot always gauge correctly if his frank manner of speaking will cause an upset or hurt someone.

McCoy stirs, sighing through his nose, and says matter-of-factly, "Who isn't? Look, when it comes to space diseases, loneliness is about the worst there is. Compound that with the fact we're isolated in this tin-can most of the time, it's a wonder more folks don't go mad from the lack of contact."

"I beg to differ, Doctor," counters Spock. "By the very nature of our contained environment and number of beings within proximity at any given time, it is not possible for any crewman to be alone."

Leonard glares at him. "Why do you have to be so literal, Spock?"

"I am merely pointing out the flaws in your logic."

McCoy leans over Kirk. "Do you know what the second worst disease in space is? Seeing your face every day!"

"It could not possibly be worse than being forced to endure your rampant emotionalism."

Kirk catches McCoy's flailing arm before it can smack into Spock with a resounding "Gentlemen!"

Once the doctor is firmly pushed back to his side of the couch, Jim adds, "Speaking of improbabilities-turned-reality, that the two of you manage to be friends is one which frightens me."

McCoy harrumphs. "You look too happy to be scared."

"I hide my fear behind tears of joy, Bones."

Sadly, Kirk isn't quick enough to prevent McCoy from popping him on the back of the head.

While Spock is grateful for the return to normalcy, he has not yet achieved his objective. He folds his hands in his lap. "Jim, I believe I have come to understand and appreciate the advantages of having a friend—one advantage of which is making it unnecessary for one to suffer from loneliness."

Both Kirk and McCoy cease their mock-fight, turning to him wide-eyed.

"Bones, I think Spock admitted to having a feeling."

"My god, it's finally happened. Can we record this in the ship's log?"

"By regulation, any momentous event aboard the ship has to be!"

Before the humans can start their chortling, Spock says in dismay, "Doctor, you are not being helpful."

McCoy hiccups and sobers. "All right, fine." Then he turns to Jim. "Spock's right. Even if there are times you can't avoid the feeling, at the very least, you can let one of us know so we can help alleviate it. Sneaking a nap on my couch is a poor substitute for actually having me here."

"I appreciate the offer but you can't fix my kind of loneliness," Jim explains quietly.

Spock may be from a reserved culture but in no way he has been cloistered. He gives that remark one moment's thoughtful consideration before enlightenment strikes, and a reasonable conclusion has been drawn.

Leonard is looking at the man next to him with a mixture of fondness and sadness. But the doctor jokes, "I don't know, Jim, apparently I'm some kind of miracle worker." When Kirk doesn't respond by laughing, he says in a more somber tone, "You know Spock and I would try our best."

Spock sees only one path forward and interrupts before Jim can speak. "If I may—" The Vulcan directs his gaze to McCoy. "—Dr. McCoy, would you characterize Captain Kirk as a person who appreciates affection?"

"Sure."

"Would you also say that he is able to return affection easily?"

"Spock, where are you going with this?" Jim breaks in, an edge to his voice.

"Depends," answers Leonard. "Jim is known for being an affectionate guy in general and for his unabashed closeness with, let's say, his inner circle of friends. But consider how much of that is by default a public persona. Lucky for us, years of being his best friend has given me some insight into the man himself."

When Jim tries to get up from the couch, Spock and McCoy each take an arm and secure him in place between them.

McCoy goes on. "It's a given that he's always going to be affectionate to the people he likes. The variable is attraction—serious attraction, Spock, not a passing fancy. Contrary to popular belief, Jim can be reserved with his mannerisms concerning a potential partner. Or so I've observed."

"I am not."

McCoy rolls his eyes. "Can it, kid. Your doctor knows best."

"My doctor isn't my psychologist!"

Spock points out, "Dr. McCoy is qualified to provide a professional opinion."

"You're both out of line," snaps Kirk. "Let me up!"

"Why are you asking, Spock?" Leonard wants to know, clearly ignoring any threat Jim might try to bluff his way through just as Spock ignores them.

"I would hypothesize that Jim is harboring a serious attraction, which in turn has brought forth unusual patterns of behavior and, furthermore, has engendered his inability to be forthcoming regarding precisely why we cannot involve ourselves with his situation."

"Oh Lord," McCoy says with finality before turning on Jim.

"Don't look at me," Jim growls at Leonard while focusing his glare at Spock. "I don't know what he's talking about."

"Jim, the Vulcan's making sense. It's okay to admit it. Are you in love with someone?"

"He is," Spock maintains, "and the most obvious clue, Dr. McCoy, is quite literally beneath us."

Jim turns as white as a sheet. Normally McCoy would have his medical tricorder in hand in a nanosecond because of Kirk's sudden pallor but Spock sees that Leonard is too preoccupied with staring at the couch in confusion to notice. Spock releases Jim's arm, and Jim takes advantage of the doctor's distraction to break the other hold on him. He leaps off the couch but doesn't go far, placing a few arm's lengths between himself and Spock and McCoy.

Spock is aware that Jim must feel betrayed by the reveal of his secret, and Spock knows from experience that an apology would be dismissed.

Rising from the couch to face Kirk directly, the Vulcan tucks his hands behind his back. "Do you wish to deny it?" he asks.

Kirk bristles. "As if you've given me that choice, Spock."

"There is always a choice, Jim. But I would advise you that maintaining a pretense likely will not serve you well in the long-term. In fact, should you own the truth, I would imagine the results will be favorable."

"You would imagine, Mr. Spock?" Jim echoes, stiffening further. "I don't. I imagine nothing good coming from this conversation at all. You should know when to keep your opinion to yourself."

"Hey!" Leonard jumps in, standing up as well. "Jim, that's enough. Spock would never put you in an uncomfortable position out of malice." He raises a hand to stall either Kirk or Spock speaking. "And before this goes any further, I want you to know I'm really pissed."

Jim's mouth snaps shut, and Spock is suddenly uncertain of what McCoy might say next. Leonard crosses his arms over his chest, and Spock's uneasiness heightens.

"You promised me you would never keep anything from me that affects your health."

"I haven't," argues Jim.

"Things that make you mope about and alter your sleep cycles count, Jim, even when they involve me!"

Before Spock can voice his alarm, Jim curls his hands into fists and shouts back, "What I think or feel is none of your damn business!"

"The hell it is! I'm your physician, I'm your friend, and apparently I'm the guy you're in love with!"

"I never said that," Jim replies coldly. "And I will never say it."

As Leonard blanches, Spock objects sharply with "Jim."

Thick silence overtakes the cabin until McCoy swears and stabs a finger in Kirk's direction with the accusation, "I never thought I would see the day Jim Kirk becomes a coward!"

Jim's nostrils flare as he presses his mouth into a thin line. The man takes one step back, then another until he abruptly pivots around and marches through the cabin door. After a long indecisive moment, in which Leonard stomps off into the bedroom area, Spock too takes his leave.

Chapter Text

"Before we can forgive one another, we have to understand one another."
-Emma Goldman

~~~

now

As far as holding cells go, Jim has stayed in worse. The room isn't filthy so much as cluttered, akin to a junk room hastily transformed into a temporary brig. Unfortunately, the Yegedin definition of junk is precisely in keeping with a human's. Jim has not uncovered anything so far that could prove useful beyond a blunt weapon—sadly, not even a bandage, though there are some old robes he could use if he is keen to add his blood to the old blood already staining them. It isn't his training in first aid preventing that recourse, but the certain knowledge that Bones would kill him if he risked infection in addition to already being injured. That is, Jim would die by McCoy's hand if the infection and the wounds didn't take care of him first.

"It's not that bad," he mutters to himself, more so out of boredom than an actual need for a pep talk. The positives are: one, he can still move around without falling over and, two, he remembers his name and rank.

"Vice Admiral Kirk," Jim remarks aloud.

As the chamber is empty, no one laughs at the joke.

Kirk bends one knee and plants his foot against the edge of the bench he had up-righted some time ago. With one arm laid across his knee (the arm of his bad shoulder), Jim spends a few minutes pelting the only exit of the room with the beads from a necklace that had snapped in half as he had extricated it from a junk pile. Each bead makes a satisfying little plunk against the door.

At the very least, Jim has decided, he can annoy his captors into paying him attention. Often, the only way to turn a dire predicament to one's advantage is go against common sense, like for instance driving a brutish faction leader to the point of madness.

Jim is so mired in his boredom he zones out for a while, monotonously tossing the beads. The sound of the bar moving against the outside of the door is what drags him back to the present and he straightens from his slouch, surprised to have prompted a reaction in under an hour. When three men file into the room wearing the insignia of Barac's faction, Jim stands up—but those men are not what roots Kirk to the floor.

The scene is a nightmare come to life: two figures framed in the doorway, one of them looking positively diabolical with light gleaming off the polished blade of a knife in his right hand; the knife he wields rests above the collar of Leonard McCoy's Starfleet uniform.

Alarm rises in Jim's throat but mangles itself on the way out. He lurches forward, making the nearest guard reach for his weapon but McCoy, seeing Jim in such a distressed state, quickly shrugs aside Barac's knife and slips from his captor's hold.

The doctor meets Jim halfway across the chamber. "Look at you," he says softly, his gaze taking in Kirk even as his hands automatically unlock a medkit. His voice rises a notch, sharper, more condescending and not for Jim. "Is this an example of what you bastards call Yegedin honor? I've seen Klingon prison planets that have more care and consideration for the treatment of prisoners!"

Jim wobbles, wanting to laugh but also feeling enough despair to feel like crying.

"Easy, Jim. Sit down." McCoy doesn't give his captain a chance to argue, leading Kirk back to the bench where Jim automatically takes a seat out of an ingrained habit to avoid more of McCoy's fussing.

The only sentiment Barac and his men seem to have for the scene are derisive snorts. The door to the chamber slams shut in their wake, no one having declared as much as a "You have a visitor" before leaving Kirk and McCoy alone.

Jim grimaces while Leonard inspects the tender area of his injured shoulder. "How did you get here?"

"I thought that was obvious. I was escorted by a posse of maniacs. What, aren't you happy to see me?"

Jim swallows. "You don't tell your best friend you're happy to see him in hell."

McCoy hums under his breath a moment, then goes to work with a regenerative tool. "I thought we weren't friends anymore."

Jim closes his eyes, stifling a sigh. "I never said that." When his eyes open again, he implores, "Tell me what happened."

"In a minute."

"McCoy." His tone takes on more of a bite. "Explain."

"Bossy," mutters the doctor. "Fine but roll up your shirt first, or what's left of it."

Jim knows when to compromise. He lifts the torn hem of his gold tunic.

"News reached the Enterprise that you'd been taken. Jesus, didn't those bastards miss any ribs?" comes McCoy's growl. At Kirk's impatient huff, he goes on, "So I did what I had to."

Jim never likes the sound of that. He says the same thing to his superiors when there isn't a smarter way to gloss over taking a risk most captains would not even consider taking. "And that was?"

Leonard only catches Jim's eyes a moment before turning his attention back to correcting the damage inflicted by Barac's men. "Called up the Yegedins and volunteered myself as a second hostage."

Jim jerks back from McCoy's ministrations with the shout "You what!" and gets snapped at and told to sit still.

"They were nice about it in a creepy way," continues the doctor after forcing Jim to settle again by jabbing his neck with a hypospray cocktail of god-knows-what. "The frisking was a bit much, but after I convinced them I wasn't carrying anything on me or in this kit that could equate a jailbreak, they brought me here. You know," Leonard says, pursing his mouth unhappily, "I understand now why what's-his-face, Bark, Bardic—"

"Barac."

"—Barac believed me when I said a dead Starfleet captain was also a useless Starfleet captain. You look like shit, kid. Uh-uh-uh, consider what you're about to say to me," Jim is warned sternly as his mouth opens, "because I brought an entire set of cartridges I am always looking for an excuse to try out."

Jim goes with a pissed-off glare.

McCoy instructs him to lean his back against the wall. Then after digging around in the medkit for a bit, the doctor unearths another medical device, claims, "This won't hurt at all," and no doubt takes Jim's silence as permission to continue his treatment.

~~~

Thanks to the appearance of his chief medical officer, within a couple of hours Jim Kirk is able to move around without pain. But no thanks to the same person, Jim is also stuck with a cellmate. Before long, he begins to pace, his brow furrowed in concentration.

"Would you settle down?" complains Leonard. "I just fixed that limp."

"I would have figured a way out of this. I would have," Jim insists without slowing his stride. "Why did you have to do something so—"

"Stupid?" Leonard inputs, watching Jim closely. "You're one to talk."

He pivots and stalks over to the doctor, his blue eyes flaring in growing anger. "I didn't voluntarily hand myself over to the enemy!"

"You might as well have!" McCoy shouts back. "You came down here by yourself! Only a fool doesn't take a security escort—a fool or you obviously. By god if you weren't still healing, Jim, I'd kick your ass clear across this galaxy!"

"I suggest you stop right there," Jim warns him, fighting hard to regain control after his outburst. "I won't tolerate insubordination, not even from you."

McCoy has backed down before at that but for some reason, this time it has the opposite effect. But Jim refuses to cow even as Leonard jumps up from the bench and leans right into his face, looking more furious than ever.

"So this is the thanks I get for helping you? A reprimand and a reminder my opinion doesn't count for shit if you don't like it? Screw that! I didn't come down here for my captain, I came for my best friend and you'd better acknowledge it, Jim, or I'll really give you something to regret!"

Jim nearly chokes. "Bones."

"And another thing!"

"Bones."

"I know you lied to me!"

"I omitted some facts."

"That's the same damn thing as lying!"

"Okay, I acknowledge it," Jim asserts quickly when it looks like McCoy's verbal lashing is about to pick up steam. He takes the man by the shoulders. "Bones, I'm sorry."

Leonard drags in a breath.

Jim repeats, "I'm sorry. I just—I hate that you put yourself in danger."

"Now you know how I feel most of the time."

They stare at each other for a long minute. Finally Jim lets Leonard go and steps back, raking a hand through his hair. "What do we do now?"

"What're you asking me for? You're the one with the ideas."

Jim shakes his head. "I haven't considered how to break out of here with someone other than myself." He blows out a breath, feeling frustration return, and turns partly away. Admittedly any escape plan he would have likely attempted simply is not an option since Leonard is now with him. By gods, what were any of his crew thinking? What was... He voices the next thought with pure disbelief, "I can't believe Spock agreed to let you do this."

At McCoy's hesitant intake of breath, Jim snaps back around, his disbelief edging toward horror. "Bones, Spock does know...?"

But before Kirk can press for that answer, the bar across the door rattles. Jim and Leonard turn to the door in time for it to be dragged open and Barac to appear. Jim shields Leonard without thinking, the act second-nature to him, as he meets Barac's smug stare.

"I have good news, Captain Kirk. Your release has been negotiated."

"That isn't possible," Jim responds flatly. "Starfleet prohibits negotiating with terrorists."

Laughter booms out of Barac. "Then you put the wrong man in charge of your ship. Starfleet's precious flagship is about to become a trophy of Yeged—and a symbol of your defeat!"

For a second, the world spins under Jim's feet. He might have actually staggered, because McCoy suddenly has a tight grip around his waist, keeping him upright.

"No," Jim croaks this time, "it's not possible." It simply isn't. Spock would never hand over the ship!

Barac signals his men to enter the chamber, considering Kirk and McCoy now with less amusement and more speculation. "Kirk, you look shocked. I wonder, am I hoping for too much by trusting the word of this Mr. Spock? If you can't fathom it... Could he be deceiving me?"

"Vulcans don't lie," interrupts McCoy, eyeing the guards dubiously who take up positions on either side of Kirk and him. "But don't take my word for it. Ask one of your thrice-damned councilors."

"Not a lie, then, but some underhanded trick," Barac hisses with more menace.

The doctor levels a cool stare at the faction leader. "Or maybe he values what you have more than a ship."

"Like your captain," infers Barac, his stare more measured, moving from Jim to Leonard. "Or is it you, Dr. McCoy?"

"Just imagine if it's both," McCoy quips quietly.

Jim grips the man's arm in warning.

Leonard lays his hand on top of Jim's, squeezes Jim's fingers, and then pulls them both forward under the collective gaze of their entourage.

~~~

then

A groggy voice demands, "All right, what have you done?"

Jim winces. "It's nothing."

"You don't wake a man up before sunrise for nothing." The man on the other end of the activated communications screen sighs deeply and fusses with his sweater, his clothing obviously hastily thrown on, before fixing Kirk with a no-nonsense stare. "Tell me."

Jim doesn't need more prompting. "I did something stupid."

"Son, I already gathered as much. You only call when you've backed yourself into a corner and can't figure out how to get out of it. So I repeat," questions Christopher Pike, drawing out each word slowly, "what have you done?"

"Possibly alienated my first officer and my chief medical officer...?" He makes the statement a question to ease the frightening reality of it.

Pike huffs. "Causing dissension in the ranks again, I see. What did you say to ruffle their feathers this time?"

"It's not like that. It's..." Jim hangs in his head a little. "Worse."

"Jim, we've had this talk. You aren't going to agree with your team every single time. And from what you tell me, even those two can't agree with each other on the best of days."

"But—"

"Make a decision you can live with, and if your team believes in you, the rest will fall into line. Now," the man adds more dryly, "if that's all—"

"Spock and McCoy might transfer off the ship," Jim blurts out.

"Impossible," Pike counters sharply.

"You weren't there. You don't know how bad the fight was."

The man on the screen leans forward as if after reading Kirk's face he is beginning to reassess the whole conversation. "This fight. It was personal?"

Uh-oh, thinks Jim. The one thing he isn't going to reveal to Chris is what the fight was about. No way in hell.

He plays dumb. "I'm a captain. Can any fight with my subordinates be classified as personal?"

"Kirk," growls the admiral. Then, "New plan. Grovel, and pray McCoy and Spock are in a forgiving mood."

Jim couldn't be more stunned. "You're supposed to be on my side! What if they hurt me?"

"Not likely," Pike says, irritatingly dismissive.

"Some help you are, Chris."

"I just call it like I see it. McCoy follows you around like a lost puppy, and though I don't know how you managed to do it, you turned Spock into your guard dog. Shame," Pike claims in mock sadness. "The commander had a lot of potential."

If Jim wasn't light-years away from Earth, he would consider showing up on Admiral Pike's doorstep just to strangle the man. "You're wrong on both accounts, sir. And frankly my first officer would be deeply insulted by your comparing him to a canine."

Pike snorts. "Would he be... or just you? I wasn't implying it was unfortunate. For a captain with your passion, I imagine having a fierce protector comes in handy."

"What's that mean?"

"Don't pick a fight with me, son. And for the record, I shouldn't have to tell you these things. You're observant enough to recognize officers with qualities you want for your ship, so you should damn well be able to figure out who to have in your personal life."

Jim almost slams the end call button. He has lost all control of this conversation, he really has. How to make it stop? He grasps around for something, anything, and comes up with "Bones never followed me around. I followed him."

Pike rubs the spot between his eyebrows, adopting an expression of long-suffering. "You made yourself present, and he tagged along. C'mon, Jim, think. I could barely make Boyce step foot outside Sickbay when I commanded the Enterprise, and yet you have McCoy dirt-side regularly, being chased, shot at, and forced into fights right alongside everyone else. For a doctor, the man is either insane, a saint, or..." But Pike trails off with a shake of his head.

Jim has the ridiculous urge to press, Or what?

This is not working out the way Jim had hoped. It is true he never bests Pike during their debates, but for some reason Jim keeps forgetting those debates frequently end with a lecture.

He doesn't need a lecture. "I think you're still half-asleep. Go back to bed, Chris. I have a mission to prep for anyway."

"Wait," intervenes Pike as Jim reaches out to cut the channel, and Jim pauses. "Since I have you online, I heard another ship is set to rendezvous with the Gallant. So what mission are you on?"

Jim blinks. "Yeged."

Pike's gaze narrows. "Yeged?"

Pike's surprises unsettles Kirk. "I thought Command decided collectively on the mission."

They stare at each other.

Kirk finally breaks the silence, asking gravely, "Why do I have this feeling I've been handed orders I'm going to regret following?"

"I'll look into it," Pike says too softly. "Just keep your nose clean, Kirk—and your best officers with you."

Unfortunately that will be one command Jim will not fulfill. But he doesn't intend to share his personal decision with Pike. He responds dutifully, "Yes, sir," and lets the admiral go.

~~~

Jim has a plan. Jim always has a plan. But today Jim also has a desire to handle the ship's business alone. He doesn't want to introduce distractions, cannot afford to, it seems. After his conversation with Pike, Jim feels convinced the mission to Yeged must be a double-edged sword. But why his ship?

So, no, Jim will not have any possible hint of distraction near him today and moreover, he will not have his crew in danger unduly. The Enterprise has started her orbit around Yeged, and that means it's time to act.

But Kirk's plan won't be what his officers expect, and the captain himself is okay with that.

He answers the whistle of an incoming communication without thinking. "Kirk here."

"Captain."

No, Jim thinks grimly and at the same time, of course. "Dr. McCoy. What can I do for you?"

"The roster for Yeged, Jim. Why am I not on it?"

Coming from McCoy, the complaint is odd—which means Pike was right about Leonard's proclivity to follow Jim wherever he wants to go. How has Jim never noticed this before?

Under other circumstances, he might have ribbed the doctor a little for stepping out of character but things have changed between them recently, enough so that Jim—with his mission in mind—cannot make the joke even in passing.

He settles on, "I don't need you there. It's a simple diplomatic excursion."

McCoy's tone gains an edge. "That's not what you said before."

"Bones," Kirk interrupts, "enough. You're not going, and I don't have time to argue with you about it."

The heavy silence from McCoy's end causes Jim to sweat, making him wonder if he gambled wrong on the doctor's reaction.

But just as Jim's stomach gives a tight twist, McCoy's drawl returns.

"If that's what you want. I'll see you at the debriefing later."

Jim closes his eyes, guilt rearing its ugly head. "Bones..."

"Just be careful down there... and, Jim? Don't be too hard on Spock. He's got an excellent poker face but he feels as much as the rest of us do."

Jim would find that statement ironic coming from the man whose personal pastime is needling the Vulcan for a lack of emotional display, but truth be told Jim is too busy fighting his own conscience to question McCoy's.

"Jim, are you there?"

"I won't fight with Spock," Jim agrees at last.

"Thank you."

The call ends without fanfare.

Jim spends a moment reorienting his breathing, knowing that he has avoided a fight based solely on Leonard's decision not to push for one. He might get lucky once, Jim thinks as he goes to exit his cabin, but the chances of that luck holding out a second time are—

He stops. Stares.

—apparently ridiculously infinitesimal.

Spock blinks placidly at him from the corridor.

Jim knows why Spock and McCoy are checking in. That doesn't make the knowledge easy to swallow.

Jim manages in a level voice, "I'm due in the transporter room."

"I am aware of that, Captain. I thought I might accompany you."

Jim steps into the corridor so his cabin door can close itself. "That won't be necessary." He starts forward, then stops when he feels Spock's gaze lingering on his back to twist around. "Just say it, Spock."

"I am relieved that you chose Dr. McCoy to accompany you to the surface."

Spock thinks we're reconciled.

Jim turns away to hide his dismay and snowballing guilt. "Mind the store while I'm gone, Spock." He goes on to the turbolift alone.

McCoy knew. Spock clearly feels unsettled by and likely remorseful for the altercation that has driven a wedge between the three of them. Part of Jim wants to turn back and tell Spock that he forgives him. To call up Bones and say the same. He knows his friends meant well.

But good intentions can't negate Jim's pain. Guilt won't alter his decision.

Focus on the mission, Kirk, he tells himself.

Yes, that is all he can do for the time being.

~~~

"Ah, Mr. Chekov," Jim calls out as he strides into the Transporter I bay, "manning the transporter today?"

"Of course, Keptin. No one does it better than me!" Chekov responds cheerfully. "The Yegedins are at the meeting place, and I have the coordinates ready to go."

"Excellent." Jim jogs up the steps of the platform and takes a position at its center. "Ready when you are," he says as at the same time Chekov questions, "Should I call the others to find out the delay?"

They both freeze and stare at one another for a short period of time.

Jim plants his hands on his hips and a smile on his face. "No need to call anyone. I'm ready to go."

But Chekov looks too much like a baby deer caught in headlights, the officer's wide gaze flicking from the closed bay door to Kirk and back again.

Jim makes a noise of impatience. "Mr. Chekov, you may engage the transporter now."

"Sir, the landing party—"

"I changed it."

"—but Security—!"

"I have the authority."

"—and what about Mr. Spock—"

"I'm the captain, Pavel," Jim interrupts, exasperated enough to throw his hands up in the air. "I can do what I want with or without Spock—McCoy too!"

Chekov inhales sharply. "I forgot about Dr. McCoy!"

Jim pinches the bridge of his nose, makes a decisive noise, and jumps off the platform. Pushing Chekov aside from the transporter console, he jabs at the computer screen until the transporter whirs to life, a thirty-second countdown beginning. Then he hurries back into place on the pad and there he locks his arms across his chest with a smirk, as if to dare his lieutenant to try to stop what is about to happen.

Chekov mutters in his native Russian language before stating resolutely, "I cannot allow this." Returning to the console, he taps the screen. A second later, he taps the screen again.

And again.

Jim grins as a dawning horror overcomes the lieutenant's features. "Just a minor disabling protocol, Mr. Chekov," he explains. The countdown ends, and the transporter effect begins to take hold. "Scotty should be able to fix the glitch in no time."

The last thing Jim sees aboard his own ship is a panicked Pavel Chekov dashing for the nearest wall intercom. Within minutes, Kirk's senior-most officers will know what he has done—but they will have to wait to have words with their captain until his return.

~~~

Jim materializes at the meeting place and is presented with a curious spectacle. His research into Yeged's history and culture, combined with his second-in-command's report on the current political climate, left Kirk with the impression Yegedins thrived on pomp and circumstance. Yet here he is faced with an undecorated courtyard, empty except for a tightly packed crowd of humanoids staring openly at him. Jim raises a hand in the Yegedin form of greeting, and the group turns in among themselves with a flurry of whispers and empathetic gesturing.

Eventually the group seems to decide who will represent them, for one of the eldest Yegedins among them parts from the group, approaching Jim with a grim air.

"Captain Kirk," the Yegedin speaks quietly once he is within hearing distance but not easily within reach. "I am Oqlah, Chairman of the Council of Yeged."

Suspicious of me, aren't you? thinks Kirk. "James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise." Jim tries for a smile and adjusts his universal translator's volume. "I hope my visit has not come at an inopportune time, Chairman Oqlah."

"We were barely given advance notice of your arrival."

Jim wonders if he can believe that but after taking in the Yegedin's mannerisms, he decides he has no reason not to. "I apologize on behalf of the Federation, especially since I can see that my appearance makes you uneasy. However, your cooperation would be greatly appreciated, Chairman. It is my duty to represent the Federation's interests while the Council decides Yeged's future." He adds following a pause, "Starfleet's request to divert the Enterprise to Yeged was unexpected for me as well."

Oqlah seems to consider his words carefully. "Then we are equally ill-prepared for our meeting, Captain. Be welcome to Yeged." He beckons Kirk to follow him to the group and as they head that way, he remarks, "Federation dignitaries generally do not visit without their aides."

"I left mine back on the ship," Jim says dryly. "I doubt they're very happy with me right now." Feeling Oqlah is curious to know more but likely thinks it is impolite to pry, he explains, "I felt we might speak more candidly if you had only one guest to deal with."

"Ah," hums the Chairman. "And perhaps you also hoped we would see your actions as a show of trust?"

"Something like that."

"Thank you for your honesty, Captain Kirk."

The other Yegedins introduce themselves to Jim, and he learns that the councilors had gathered here in haste, having not known of his impending arrival until an hour beforehand when a brief communique from the Office of the Presidency arrived at the Chairman's home. That is the primary reason for their visible discomfort.

Oqlah motions to the youngest Yegedin standing at the back of the group. "Come forward, Onred. Captain Kirk, this is my nephew. Please accept him as your escort. He will see to your comfort and your needs while you stay with us."

Jim is a tad dismayed but also knows to decline the offer would insult the Yegedins deeply. "An escort would be welcome," he says, "but please understand I am used to looking after myself."

Onred interjects with a glimmer of humor, "My uncle speaks in an antiquated way. To be more accurate, I will function as a guide and protector—nothing more."

Relieved, Jim nods. "Then I accept your offer gladly."

Onred sticks out a hand. "This is the Earther way to strike a deal, yes?"

Jim laughs and shakes the Yegedin's hand. The councilors relax in light of this exchange, and no one seems upset by Onred's forwardness. Chairman Oqlah turns and leads his fellow councilors in a dignified procession across the courtyard. Jim and Onred follow behind at a slower pace.

Jim claims, "I think I owe you, Onred. You salvaged an awkward start."

"You are most welcome... but please tell this to my uncle, Captain Kirk. Then he will not nag me so much about skipping my lessons in the diplomatic arts!"

"I know what you mean," mutters Jim, thinking of his Academy days.

Onred seems pleased with himself. "Learning by first-hand experience is far more interesting than from a book."

"Consider it done," Jim tells him warmly. "Where are we headed?"

"To visit the Temple of Judgment," Onred explains. "It is customary for offworlders to greet our gods of old and pledge goodwill before engaging with the Council on matters of state."

"All right." Jim stops Onred with a hand to the arm and faces him. "Onred, you seem like the observant type. What I can expect from the Chairman? Is he fair?"

"He cares about our people. Does this answer your question?"

"Not quite. I'm asking if he is already opposed to the Federation. Is my being here pointless?"

Onred looks at Kirk askance. "But you are here to persuade the Council!"

Jim shakes his head slowly. "No, I don't intend to persuade anyone. I am here to observe, record, and report. Those are my orders."

The Yegedin looks irked by this. "Then who will tell my uncle and the other elders they are idiots?"

Jim coughs to hide a laugh. "Shouldn't that burden fall to another Yegedin?" He pauses to clear his throat before pointing out, "I know the Council has fallen short of reaching a majority vote in favor of the secession. There is time yet to give it more consideration if some of you feel strongly opposed."

"Captain, surely you heard of the faction. Those who have openly expressed opposition have paid dearly for their opinions."

Jim starts. "What do you mean?"

"Onred!" calls a councilman lingering at the base of a long set of stairs leading to the entrance of a large stone building. "We must perform the ceremony while Chairman is available. Come, bring the captain."

Onred looks like he wants to say more but in the end does not, instead indicating that Jim should proceed ahead of him. When Kirk stops by the entrance, the young Yegedin passes in front of him, leaning in slightly to murmur for Jim's hearing only, "If there is time, I will explain."

Jim will make certain there is time to hear more. His gut has been telling him all along something else is at work here, and Jim doesn't intend to leave Yeged until he finds out what that something is.

~~~

"Spock," Nyota Uhura wants to know, twisting around in her chair to stare up at her former lover, "I don't understand. Why would Kirk go alone to meet the Yegedin assembly?"

"I am not privy to the captain's reasoning behind his actions."

Uhura looks more concerned to hear this, but the bridge of the Enterprise is not the place to disclose the exact nature of the rift between himself and his captain.

"Should we report it?"

The question brings Spock's focus back to the problem at hand. "His choice was within his rights as the commanding officer of this vessel, Lieutenant."

"Unless he wasn't in his right mind when he made the decision," the woman points out. "Maybe Dr. McCoy could—"

"Negative," Spock cuts in, startling the communications officer. "Proceed with monitoring Captain Kirk's frequency."

Spock steps to the center of the bridge without further ado, folding his hands behind his back as he peruses the planet of Yeged on the main viewscreen.

Nyota may not fully understand the consequences: to alert Dr. McCoy now would raise more concerns that would inevitably lead to deeper questioning of the integrity of some of Kirk's machinations. To circumvent Spock's attention, Jim must have falsified the roster of the mission and, Spock suspects, his captain employed the same ruse with McCoy. Spock is far from pleased by this obvious duplicity but he is still willing to consider the possibility that the motivation behind it was sound. Therefore he will delay the reporting of this incident as long as he can for Jim—and hope that whatever his captain thought to accomplish on Yeged will warrant the risk of his acting alone.

In the meantime, Mr. Scott will work to restore the transporter to full functionality and Spock intends to use the instrumentation of the Enterprise to keep a close watch on the events unfolding on the surface below. To that effect, he asks Chekov to continue monitoring the meeting place and Kirk's bio-signature. Initial scans, which Spock conducted himself immediately after learning of his captain's descent to Yeged, had pointed to no abnormalities.

Spock would of course take more comfort in these facts if Jim would only deign to check in with the ship.

~~~

The welcoming rite of Yeged is a simple affair, which Jim muddles through with the help of Onred, who very proudly tells Jim all the right words to say and even wordlessly turns the specter Jim is supposed to exuberantly shake around right-side up before the presiding priest and temple servants notice how clueless he is. At the end of the rite, Jim shakes a grinning Onred's hand again and expresses his gratitude to Chairman Oqlah for Onred's helpfulness. Oqlah is obviously pleasantly surprised by the praise, much to his nephew's boyish delight. After a while, Oqlah expresses genuine regret to Kirk that he must attend another appointment, and so Onred situates Jim at the feasting table among the other councilors, with the promise to return in short order once he has seen his uncle from the building.

The Temple is ambushed almost directly after that. Jim is saved from capitation by his own clumsiness, having spilled his goblet of ceremonial wine on his uniform and momentarily leaned sideways for a cloth to dab up the mess. The head of the statue in front of him explodes in a shower of fine dust, the backlash from the blast knocking him to the floor and several councilmen along with him. He grabs for the standard-issue phaser clipped to his uniform but doesn't have a chance to use it, for the innocent-faced temple servant who had only moments ago been filling glasses from a wine jug crushes Jim's hand under his boot and then leaps atop Jim to choke him.

Jim is never above fighting dirty. He neck-chops his assailant and kicks him sideways. But the next attacker is equally vicious, jerking Kirk up by the hair. They wrestle for control of the phaser until the Yegedin sinks his teeth into the flesh of Jim's hand and Jim drops it. With a pained, angry yell, he cracks his head into the other man's face. The phaser, he discovers, has skittered more than an arm's length away during the struggle.

Kirk's dive for the weapon is interrupted by the downward arch of a sword. Jim rolls away from the attack and tries to stand but a second wide swing of the sword forces him to drop flat to the floor to avoid being struck. The armed Yegedin roars as he charges forward but never quite makes it to Kirk when the priest from the ceremony pinwheels sideways into him.

He curses soundly in multiple languages while scrambling toward his phaser again through the panicked chaos. When he's almost close enough to take it in hand, two Yegedins circle in from the sides. But they are the distraction because another one catches Jim unawares from behind by driving a boot mercilessly into his back. Jim stumbles, pivots without any grace and lashes out with his own foot, knocking the legs out from under the man. The two Yegedins charge.

There's no point in having the phaser if he's less his head, so with dismay Jim has to give up the fight for it. As the Yegedin pair run straight at him, swords drawn, he rushes at them too—and slips right through the middle while dodging their blows, leaving the men to stumble to a stop in confusion. Jim keeps going, right for the far wall of the temple where he stops between two pillars to turn and get a better sense of the fight and the direction the attacking party is coming from. A hand grabs the back of his uniform, yanking him backwards. Jim uses his own body as a counterweight to the motion to swing around with a fast right hook but at the last second he pulls back the blow, seeing it's Onred who grabbed him.

"This way!" Onred thunders over the shouting, grappling with Kirk's shoulder to drag him into a run.

Jim has a split second to trust him and, as more armed Yegedin's shout and point in their direction, decides there isn't a better option. Together he and Onred take dodge the Yegedins giving chase, take down more of their attackers inside a short hallway, and finally manage to burst out of the Temple into the sunlight unscathed.

The hope that they have escaped is dashed at the sight of men lining the front of the stairs. Between the Yegedins' hard-eyed stares and the cannon rifles and swords in their hands, Jim's stomach sinks with certain dread.

He yanks his communicator off his belt, thankful he didn't lose it as he did his phaser.

A Yegedin steps forward, thick about the middle from age, most likely, but looking like he would crush Jim in a physical fight. "That is not a good idea, Captain Kirk. Hand over the device."

The sound of boots pounding stone at his back signals that there is no turning back. Kirk and Onred are well and truly surrounded.

"Who are you?" Jim demands as he tosses his communicator at the Yegedin's feet.

"His name is Barac," Onred supplies. "A heretic—and a rebel."

Barac's laughter fills the space between them. "Ah, now I recognize you! It is my great honor to meet the Chairman's heir."

Onred responds with disgust. "Your notion of honor is laughable, Barac. You have disrespected the wishes of the Council, and your violent act has brought shame to the gods! How dare you attack the Temple? It is a sanctuary, not a place to spill the blood of our people!"

"My duty was given to me by the gods." Barac sneers at Kirk. "I am witness to their judgment, and their decree is that the Federation will destroy our old ways!"

Many of the Yegedins raise their weapons and bellow their agreement.

"So this is the faction behind the secession movement," Jim surmises. He turns to Onred. "Are they the reason you can't have an honest vote?"

"Poisonous words," snarls Barac as he takes a sword from the man next to him. "I should cut you down where you stand, human."

Jim chokes back derision. "You could, but what would that gain you? The Federation will send someone else—and keep sending them until it's made clear Yeged was not strong-armed into a decision they didn't really want. Where I come from you are the enemy, Mr. Barac. You stand against a fair and democratic system. And what you have done here today is heinous."

"The Earther speaks the truth," Onred says. "How will you justify defiling our traditions with bloodshed, Barac? Do you think my uncle will listen to your ravings now? You've dishonored all of Yeged!"

Barac scoffs. "I am not afraid of your uncle."

"No, clearly the root of your fear lies in your own delusion."

"Say what you will," Barac growls, lifting his sword. "I know my cause to be more worthy than yours—and his!" He lunges at Kirk.

"Stop!" shouts Onred.

Jim can't dodge far with the Yegedins behind him closing in but Barac's death-blow never lands. Onred forces himself between Barac and Kirk in time for the sword to cut straight through the young Yegedin's midsection. Jim catches Onred as Onred cries out in pain, bearing his weight down to the ground. There isn't time to do more than stare at the blood staining Onred's tunic before two Yegedins grab Jim from either side and haul him away.

"Fool," Barac says, staring down at the crumpled Onred as he backs away.

"Murderer!" Jim shouts after Barac. One of the Yegedins pinning his arms backhands him.

Infuriated, Jim stomps on his instep then uses the moment of distraction to punch the other one. But he's sorely outnumbered; where he takes down one man, another immediately takes his place. The Yegedins wear Kirk down until he's shaking from the effort to stand upright—until he miscalculates a move. A hand becomes a blur as it curls into a fist and shoots forward, striking Jim across the jaw. The force behind the blow is so powerful that he slams into a wall of the temple and slides down it to his knees. His attackers close in and make certain Jim stays down.

~~~

"Mr. Spock, I'm receiving a signal from the Captain's communicator." Uhura turns in her chair to study the Vulcan seated in the command chair. "An alert for an immediate beam-out."

Spock turns in the captain's chair to meet her gaze steadily. "Has he attempted to communicate with the ship, Lieutenant?"

"No."

"Is there any indication of a malfunction preventing direct contact?"

Uhura frowns, repeating, "No."

Spock faces forward and opens a channel from the chair's arm. "Bridge to Transporter I. Mr. Scott..."

"I need more time, Mr. Spock! I cannae focus if you keep pester—!"

Spock quickly jumps in, "The transporter is able to distinguish lifeforms. Is that correct?"

Scott's rant dies. "Oh, yes... she can, sir. The Captain's little trick didn't mess with that subroutine."

"Initiate a scan of the area central to the incoming coordinates. Lt. Uhura, please transmit the coordinates of the communicator signal to Mr. Scott's terminal."

Sulu turns from his console to Spock. "What if Captain Kirk's in trouble?"

"In all likelihood, the captain would request transport via voice communique, even in an instance which necessitates maximum subterfuge. Jim would also know of the inoperable state of the transporter and precisely when our repairs should be completed." Spock pauses the tiniest bit. "But I do not doubt, Mr. Sulu, that this is indeed an indication of an unforeseen event taking place on Yeged." He stands up. "Do you have the results of the scan, Mr. Scott?"

"Hold on, just a wee bit longer—there!" But Scott falls silent thereafter.

When the silence becomes prolonged, the bridge falls silent too.

"Mr. Scott?" Spock prompts.

"I'm picking up four life-signs, Mr. Spock. None of them of Earth-origin," Scott returns quietly.

At her station, Nyota draws in a sharp breath.

Spock reviews the possibilities of what that singular statement could mean and is chilled by every one. "Open a channel to Yeged's Council," he orders Uhura, "and prepare this message: The captain of the Enterprise has missed his check-in. If he does not personally contact us within the next fifteen minutes, the Council will be charged with his disappearance—and we are prepared to notify all relevant authorities of their crime at once."

While the other bridge officers gape, Chekov questions hesitantly, "Mr. Spock, aren't we supposed to prevent galactic incidents?"

"I believe the phrase is 'They started it.'" Ignoring the mounting tension, Spock heads for a doorway. "Relay the response, if any, to the Ready Room."

Once the door whisks closed, separating Spock from view and hearing of his colleagues, he takes a precious moment to gather his formidable control. Handling the Yegedins and what they have or have not done with his captain seems manageable in comparison to his next duty, but Spock cannot avoid it. He reaches for the intercom in the wall, activates it with "Spock to Dr. McCoy," and wonders precisely how much bad news he will have to share with Leonard in the coming days.

Chapter Text

"How few there are who have courage enough to own their faults, or resolution enough to mend them."
-Benjamin Franklin

~~~

now

McCoy feels the hum of the Enterprise through the floor of the transporter platform, which seems to be more noticeable on a crewless ship. He glances at the man beside him to judge Kirk's reaction and is met with a concerning empty expression.

The only person gloating about their present circumstances is the Yegedin faction leader, Barac. From the top step of the platform, Barac surveys the transporter room with an almost palpable possessiveness. Since Spock brokered a deal wherein the Enterprise is to be exchanged for Kirk and McCoy, thinks the doctor, technically Barac has the right to act like he owns the place. With less than a handful of Starfleet officers still aboard and the ship functions clearly on auto-pilot, she is ready for the transfer of ownership.

Do the Yegedins even know what to do with a starship? They are not a space-faring race. But McCoy suspects such details do not much matter, for what Barac wants is a way to shame the Federation as well as provoke them into ceding their hold on the planet. Capturing Kirk and then the flagship is likely only the beginning of Barac's nefarious plan.

Barac moves off the platform, waving the phaser taken from Kirk at their group in a silent command to do the same. Kirk and McCoy are herded down the steps by more armed Yegedins.

"You," Barac calls, pointing at the motionless Vulcan beside the transporter console. "You must be Commander Spock. The shape of your ears are unlike any I have ever seen. Come here."

Spock steps away from the station, leaving Mr. Scott there with Chekov, who is manning the console itself. Both officers avoid looking anyone in the eyes.

Spock moves to stand before Kirk rather than Barac. "Captain."

Kirk meets Spock's poker-face with his own, and a sensation Leonard doesn't like crawls along his spine.

"Mr. Spock," Jim says after a long silence, "you are relieved of command."

Spock looks to the Yegedins, then, skipping McCoy's gaze entirely.

"Not quite the touching reunion I expected," remarks Barac. "Of course, your captain is quite unhappy with you, Commander."

"My captain's feelings are irrelevant at this time. It is his well-being which takes precedence."

Leonard clears his throat, sparing a brief glare for a guard who lifts his sword in warning at the doctor. "Not that I don't thank you for saving Jim's life, Spock, but giving up the Enterprise isn't right."

"It is only a ship, Doctor."

Jim sucks in a breath all of a sudden, fury flashing through his blue eyes. His tone of voice turns deadly. "Only a ship? You're offering our most advanced technology—and a weapon of mass destruction—to an organization with a known grudge against the Federation!"

"I have not the same regard for the Enterprise which you do, sir," Spock counters with frosty politeness. "I do not expect you to understand my decision, but it would be common courtesy to express gratitude for your rescue."

"Gratitude!", the shout explodes from Kirk, causing Scotty and Chekov and a few Yegedins as well to visibly flinch. "Spock, I'll have you COURT-MARTIALED for this!"

"You are emotionally compromised, Captain."

Kirk jerks forward with a fist raised.

The Yegedins don't seem to care if Jim rips a chuck out of Spock but Leonard certainly does. He plants himself in between them, pushing Jim back a step and demanding, "Stop it, both of you!"

Barac snorts and meanders toward the transporter station. There he stares first at Mr. Scott then Mr. Chekov. "If a trusted officer failed to protect my most prized possession, I would extract personal revenge." He turns back. "I could kill these men for you, Kirk."

Jim's hands land on McCoy's arms as though by holding onto Leonard, Jim is also restraining himself. His staunch refusal makes the doctor almost giddy with relief.

But then Jim comments coldly, "It isn't revenge if someone else takes it for you."

Barac grins. "Excellent point." He addresses Spock. "Show me the command center." Barac indicates Scott and Chekov. "But first be rid of these two—or I will have them dispatched."

Spock orders, "Gentlemen, proceed to the transporter."

Mr. Scott looks to Kirk. So does Chekov.

Jim gives a terse nod, backing up the command. "Go, both of you."

Spock walks to the console and, under the Yegedins' watchful gazes, uses it to send the last remaining officers except the three of them to the planet below. Leonard's heart thumps hard in his chest when the transporter is once again empty. Just him, Kirk, Spock, and a group of dangerously armed enemies.

As the Yegedins press them to move forward, he leans into his captain slightly, dropping his voice to a whisper. "Jim."

Kirk pushes the doctor a step ahead none-too-gently. But he replies in an oddly soft tone, "You can do this, Bones."

Something in McCoy relaxes. Somehow, without anyone providing a hint, Jim already suspects things are not as they appear.

And the man is right. This mess is one big gamble, and Jim Kirk is the trump card that Spock and McCoy are counting on to turn the odds in their favor.

~~~

then

Like every other person in the conference room, Leonard McCoy is watching Spock with a hopefulness that belies his fear and uncertainty. Something needs to be done to help Kirk, but what?

"Are we telling anybody?" one voice pipes up from the circle of officers, echoing in words that same blend of hope and uncertainty running through McCoy.

Spock folds his hands on the table in front of him. "Are you inquiring if I intend to initiate a priority one call, Mr. Scott?"

"In this situation, it is protocol, sir," Uhura advises quietly.

Leonard dips his head slightly to catch Spock's eye. "At the very least, someone at Headquarters needs to know you've taken command of the ship."

Of course, there have been times Leonard can remember that they neglected to mention such a thing at all, given the kind of insane trouble they've run into in the past. That one time Jim forgot who he was and Spock had to call the shots for a week? Leonard shudders at the memory.

Sulu seems to be of a different opinion. "If we alert Command, we will be forced to explain how Kirk ended up in Yegedin custody."

Everyone but Spock audibly express some form of dismay at this. While they might absolutely disagree with what Kirk did, the loyalty to the man is, and always has been, unshakeable. Avoiding getting Kirk in trouble? That's their usual modus operandi.

But Leonard decides it might not be a bad thing to play devil's advocate. Spock is allowing them to voice their opinions not simply because he respects them; it may be he has hope of hearing an idea he hasn't thought of yet.

The doctor observes, "There could be an advantage to having an officer with clout involved. What if it was someone we could trust to raise the alarm but keep certain details to himself? Then we could call out for assistance, on record. I mean, who knows what this faction is planning next? If they get in contact with the authorities before we do and make a ransom demand..." He opens his hands as if to say What good could we do then?

Uhura looks thoughtful. "The only admiral Kirk trusts is Pike."

"It may be that Captain Kirk has already engaged Pike on the matter of Yeged," Spock theorizes. "The Captain had certain reservations about this assignment and an apparent agenda to 'draw out', as it were, any parties with conflicts of interest with Yeged. Jim would know the value of intel from a reliable source."

"And he does have a long-standing relationship with Chris," adds Leonard. "I think you're right, Spock. Chances are Admiral Pike would be Jim's confidante—if Jim didn't decide to go it alone in every sense of the word." Would Jim have been that foolish? Leonard couldn't say. Kirk has surprised him before.

"Hold on a second," Scotty says, folding his arms across his chest, his look of concern deepening. "How is calling in the cavalry going to help us get Jim away from those crazy bastards? You know as well as I do, any ship but our lovely lass here would take at least two days at top warp. Once there is a commander on-site who outranks Mr. Spock, he will take charge of negotiating the hostage situation."

"We could do something now," Chekov agrees. "Given ze Yegedin's known tendency toward violence, arguably it is natural we would be pushed to take action before another commander arrives."

"Define 'something'," Sulu says warily, eyeing his friend.

Chekov retorts, "Well, what would Captain Kirk do? I ask myself zhis all the time."

"Jim wouldn't wait," Leonard says softly. "He'd take a tactical team to the planet and try a good old-fashioned jail break."

"Yet, as a Federation representative wielding the highest authority, he would need to face the Yegedin Council directly to maintain control of the situation," Spock muses. After a slight pause, he adds, "Whether or not a secondary operation may be in progress."

Leonard recognizes that look in the Vulcan's eyes. He leans forward in half anticipation, half dread. "What are you thinking?"

Some of the others seem to have caught on, for Sulu mutters, "The illusion of negotiation—yeah, it could work," while a strangled noise issues from the engineering chief.

Leonard looks around, his gaze finally catching and holding Uhura's. The steeliness of her gaze shocks him slightly, making him realize there is no idea Uhura—and the others—wouldn't entertain if it meant getting Kirk back. Like him, they are all past the point of sitting this particular mission out.

That decides McCoy. "If you need the Yegedins distracted, I'm game."

"Doctor," Spock says sharply at the same time the others around the table turn their stares on him.

Uhura nods imperceptibly. "You would have to be convincing."

McCoy snorts. "What's more convincing than a doctor treating a patient?"

"I could go with you," Chekov volunteers.

"Thanks, kid, but two of us is twice as many targets."

"You can't go alone," Sulu objects.

The doctor shakes head, turning to Spock who hasn't said anything one way or another. "You know I'm right. The Yegedins have healers, who comprise the only neutral caste in their society. I guarantee no one in that faction will see me as a threat; by practicing medicine I could never be a warrior in their eyes."

"Doctor, you would still belong to the enemy. In order not to raise their suspicions, there would be little choice but of you going alone and unarmed."

Leonard almost smiles. "I'll do you one better, Mr. Spock. I'll go against orders."

There are various reactions from the rest of the group, but collectively everyone appears to be seriously considering his suggestion.

"So, if Dr. McCoy goes planet-side as a rogue healer, what will we be doing, then?" Scotty wants to know.

"Negotiating," decides Chekov. "And rescuing the Captain?"

"As Mr. Sulu insinuated, maintaining an illusion better suits our needs. We would be at a disadvantage to attempt an infiltration of an unknown compound. A logical alternative would be to bring the Yegedins here."

"On the ship?" Uhura's voice sharpens. "That would put the entire crew in danger and at risk of a takeover." As she speaks, however, her expression changes subtly. "Unless no one is aboard."

The Vulcan commander inclines his head ever-so-slightly. "Precisely, Lieutenant. A vacant ship."

Sulu and Chekov exchange a long look.

Sulu says, "Mr. Spock, if you intend to evacuate the ship, are you planning to forfeit her?"

"No!" gasps Scotty. "Ye can't hand over—!"

But Spock simply cuts in, "The Enterprise will not fall into enemy hands."

"A bluff, then," Leonard surmises. "But why go to that extreme, Spock?"

"I considered how one might answer Mr. Chekov's earlier question, Doctor, and realized we do not need to imitate Captain Kirk when in fact it is more effective to engineer a scenario in which he can utilize his particular skill set for our benefit."

Scotty leans forward in excitement. "We could trick the Yegedins into bringing Kirk back to the ship. That's a crazy strategy if I ever heard one, but I like it!"

"When faced with an impossible decision, Jim would say the only choice is to change the playing field. In this case, the playing field is one which we hold absolute control over."

"Aye, Mr. Spock, the Enterprise is our best weapon." Scotty hums for a moment. "But afterward Jim might demote us all for playing a betting game with her as the collateral."

"Betting is what the Captain would do!" Chekov points out.

"So," Uhura summarizes, "we have the makings of a plan. What needs to be done now?"

"Following Dr. McCoy's suggestion by contacting Admiral Pike," supplies Spock.

"You're going to tell him what crazy thing we're planning?" Leonard asks, slightly alarmed.

"I rather suspect I should not," the Vulcan admits. "However I am certain having Pike navigating the official channels for us will likely place the odds in our favor."

Sulu adds, "And buy us needed time."

Leonard sighs. "Then what are y'all waiting for? Let's get this show on the road."

"Indeed." Spock looks to Uhura. "Please contact the admiral and have the transmission relayed to the Ready Room."

"Yes, sir."

Uhura, along with others, recognize the dismissal to return to the bridge. Leonard stays behind, knowing that Spock has more to say to him which likely needs to remain private between them. He isn't wrong.

Spock faces him after the Ready Room door slides closed. But to Leonard's surprise, he only remarks, "I cannot change your mind."

"Is that a question?"

"Negative."

"Spock..." McCoy sighs again. "You need to know Jim is okay as much as I do."

"And you can go where I cannot." Spock pauses. "I am not happy with the idea of placing you in danger, Doctor, but nor can I ignore the advantage it might gain us."

Leonard allows for a brief silence before asking, for some reason needing to know, "Does the idea of me doing this make you hesitate because I'm the CMO?"

"No," Spock replies softly, "your position is irrelevant. I simply wish that you come to no harm. To entertain the possibility leaves me... unsettled."

The doctor smiles. "You like me."

"Have I not made that clear?"

"I like you too."

They look at each other for a long moment.

"I'll be careful," Leonard promises at last.

"Very well."

"Mr. Spock," Uhura comes online, "I have Admiral Pike for you."

As Spock responds to the call, Leonard takes his leave, buoyed by an inexplicably warm feeling. Despite everything—Jim's absence, the danger ahead, and the many unresolved questions about his relationship with Kirk and Spock—he steps onto the bridge with the tiniest of smiles, thinking one thing: hope has not deserted them after all.

~~~

now

The faction leader strolls across the bridge, the rest of the party having barely crowded onto the upper deck before Barac's voice booms out into the empty space, smug and victorious. "Today is momentous for all Yegedins!"

Barac removes himself to the lower level before rounding on his audience and casting his arms wide. "The Chairman and his councilors wanted to throw away everything we built upon in order to ally us with the Federation. And for what? A time of peace? Peace is the extinction of a warrior race!" He pounds his chest, clearly fevered. "The end of who we are! No, we will not stand and do nothing in the face of such dishonor! We will never be tamed!"

Barac's followers roar their agreement, some of them enthusiastically punching the air with their weapons.

McCoy says for Kirk's ears only, "This man's out of his mind."

"He's a fool," Kirk replies quietly, grimly. "The dangerous kind."

Barac levels a finger at the only figure in the crowd notably unresponsive to his speech. "Commander Spock, come forward. Now you must pledge the Enterprise to me!"

The Vulcan simply raises an eyebrow. "A deal must be honored on both sides, Mr. Barac."

Barac narrows his eyes. Following a dismissive, almost disgusted look at his human captives, he orders them released. Jim and Leonard are unceremoniously shoved down the steps by the other Yegedins. Immediately McCoy wants to turn around and go back up to fetch Spock, who is standing alone among the enemy, but he becomes distracted by the way Kirk is eyeing Barac. Sighing internally, he shifts on his feet, prepared to stop his captain from doing something foolish.

After Kirk and McCoy's release, Spock inclines his head to Barac and lifts his voice. "Computer, this is Acting Captain Spock. I relinquish command of the USS Enterprise."

Kirk's head snaps around, and the man stares at the Vulcan commander askance. Then a light dawns in his eyes.

"Working." The disembodied voice of the ship's computer makes the Yegedins tense and look around for its source. "State successor, name and rank."

"There is no such designation," Spock tells the computer. "Starfleet ceases to command this vessel."

A stiff moment of silence ensues.

Finally, the computer responds. "Acknowledged."

Locking his hands behind his back, Spock casually puts distance between himself and the others. When he reaches the curved end to the upper deck's railing, he faces the Yegedin leader once more. "There was one detail I failed to mention concerning our arrangement, Mr. Barac. While I can offer you this ship, the Enterprise herself will never surrender."

Because McCoy has been expecting them, when the klaxons blare to life he isn't startled; but the Yegedins clearly are, and in that moment they must no doubt realize something is about to go very, very wrong.

The computer declares: "Ship command unknown. Warning. Self-destruction protocol initiated. Warning. Countdown sequence to commence in five, four, three—"

"What is this!" yells Barac over the noise, backing up into the captain's chair.

"—two—"

"A natural failsafe," the Vulcan calmly explains over the shrill of the red alert. "No outsider may commandeer a Starfleet ship. The Enterprise is programmed to denotate itself in the event one of our officers cannot assume command."

"—one. Self-destruct mode engaged."

On the main viewer, a ten-minute countdown begins.

Barac spins on the nearest person, which is Jim.

"Careful, Mr. Barac," Kirk says, lifting his hands slightly as the enraged Yegedin trains his stolen phaser on him. "If you kill any one of us, there will be nobody to reverse the countdown."

Spock adds, "Nor will you be able to leave the ship on your own."

Gaze still fixed upon Barac, Kirk offers warm congratulations. "Well done, Mr. Spock."

"Thank you, sir."

Leonard cares about these two idiots way too much. He wants to hug them—and also remind them to this nasty confrontation has only just begun.

Barac points the phaser from Kirk to Spock and back again, his mouth twisting in a snarl. "You think you're clever. You WILL give me this ship!"

Leonard laughs a little breathlessly. "Somebody remind this man we don't have to do jack-shit." He waves a hand the countdown on the viewscreen. "At least, we don't have to do anything for the next nine minutes and twelve seconds. Then it's KABOOM."

Barac's phaser hand trembles suddenly. "This is a trick. Kirk won't allow the destruction of his precious ship."

Kirk snorts, stating, "Been there, done that," as he approaches the captain's chair. His eyes crinkle at the corners as he almost reverently takes a seat there. Then, crossing one leg over the other, Kirk adopts the bored expression he does when facing another uneventful shift on the bridge; it's as if they aren't in the middle of a standoff that could end with everyone's atoms scattered across the universe.

During all this, the computer continues, relentless with its warnings. "Self-destruct sequence to commence in eight minutes thirty seconds."

Kirk smiles and pats a chair arm fondly. "Once we hit the five-minute mark, she'll remind us every fifteen seconds of the impending detonation."

"Definitely bad for the nerves," quips Leonard, stepping up to the side of the chair. "Comfortable, Jim?"

"Best seat in the house." Jim glances over to the quiet Vulcan. "It's a fine day to die, wouldn't you agree, Mr. Spock?"

"In this instance, we do not have a choice, Captain."

Kirk's smile drops away as he swivels around to look at the Yegedins. "I warned you, this is what we do best in Starfleet—die for a cause."

"You don't want to d—" Barac begins, only to amend quickly, "—want your officers to die."

Kirk looks at the Yegedin pityingly.

"Jim's a good man," Leonard explains, "but, yes, he will have us die. Why do you think Spock was particular with his wording? He told the ship's computer he could no longer command the Enterprise—" Leonard meets Barac's gaze. "—which naturally means Jim is now your only alternative for disengaging the countdown." His eyes shift to take in Spock's dark gaze. "Mr. Spock and I have every faith in Jim Kirk. We know our captain won't let us down." Glancing at the man in the chair, he murmurs with a touch of sadness, "Sorry, Jim."

The look in Kirk's eyes is unexpectedly soft. He lays a comforting hand on McCoy's forearm. "It's an honor to carry out this duty for you."

"Warning. Self-destruct sequence to commence in six minutes thirty seconds."

The Yegedins begin to look a bit wild about the eyes. McCoy wonders if what happens next will be catastrophic enough that it causes them to completely freak out.

As if that thought is the perfect cue, the door to the turbolift slides back and red-shirted officers flood the upper deck. Every man has his phaser drawn. The closest Yegedin automatically swings his unsheathed sword in a swooping arch, but the security officer at the forefront, Chief Giotto, is quicker with his reaction, stunning the fellow. The Yegedin hits the floor with a thud.

"Nobody move!" Giotto growls.

Barac apparently has no intention of obeying for he leaps aside in the next instant—right at Kirk. Leonard gives a shout of alarm but Jim has already dived out of his chair to avoid being caught, instead landing a hit to Barac's side that sends the Yegedin sprawling. Kirk then darts around the chair and grabs McCoy's arm, hauling them both out of range of a second attack.

When Spock suddenly appears behind him and Jim, having somehow abandoned the upper deck in record time, for a split second McCoy wishes he had been paying better attention. By god, did the Vulcan just jump that railing?

Spock stalks toward Barac (to do who knows what) but Barac rolls to his feet, the phaser in one hand and a dagger in the other. Each man freezes as the security officers not holding the other Yegedins at bay hurriedly form a half-circle behind Barac.

Kirk's gaze slides sideways. "Excellent timing, Mr. Giotto."

Never taking his eyes off his target, Giotto clears his throat. "Technically we're early, sir."

Kirk steps forward, past Spock to stare down his former captor. "You're outnumbered. Lay down your weapons and surrender."

"Never!" snarls the Yegedin.

Jim smiles thinly. "Fine. I'll give you a choice then. Surrender—or die."

Barac looks unconvinced. "This is trick of yours won't work, Kirk. You wouldn't kill us all simply to prevent me from having your ship!"

"As Mr. Spock said, I don't have a choice." Kirk's contemptuous gaze takes in his enemy. "You clearly wouldn't understand."

"Warning. Self-destruct sequence to commence in four minutes."

"I don't believe it. I won't!" Barac yells. "You're bluffing!"

Abruptly Kirk turns back to the center of the bridge, reclaiming the captain's chair. "You have less than four minutes to decide."

"There is no decision to make. A warrior always chooses death!"

Kirk ignores them, then, facing the viewer and allowing a heavy silence to envelope the bridge.

The computer warns them all, "Self-destruct sequence to commence in three minutes."

Recognizing they've reached a tipping point, McCoy drags out a chair from the navigation console and plops down into it sideways with a gusty sigh. He declares with finality, "It was nice knowing y'all. Spock, come over here. You're going to want to sit down for this next part."

Spock obediently occupies the empty seat next to McCoy. As the two men turn toward each other, their expressions mirror a calmness one would never expect in the face of imminent death.

Kirk leans toward the pair, settling his elbows on his knees and locking his hands together. "Since this is our last —" he flicks a look at the countdown, "—two minutes and sixteen seconds together, I think I should apologize."

Both Spock and McCoy raise an eyebrow.

Jim's tone turns grim. "I made a mistake, and my actions almost cost us our friendship. I'm sorry."

Leonard barely bats an eye. "So you don't regret being friends."

"Never," Jim says. "The only thing I regret..." The man's throat works momentarily. "...is not being honest about how much you both mean to me."

McCoy grins. "This might sound strange but I'm glad we're dying together."

"That is remarkably strange, Doctor," Spock observes in a dry tone. "One would assume you were in favor of death."

"Hush up, hobgoblin." Leonard flaps a hand and drawls, "And don't even think about following me to heaven! The last thing I need is you pestering me for all eternity."

"I believe it is you who does the pestering—regardless of which, no one cannot be certain of where you will end up."

The doctor gasps. The captain presses a fist to his mouth, which does little to suppress his chuckle.

And Barac cries, as the countdown onscreen changes to fifty-nine seconds, "ENOUGH!"

The three men twist around to stare at the sick-faced Yegedin, who suddenly opens his hand and drops his phaser. The other Yegedins immediately follow suit, disarming themselves in such haste their weapons make a clattering racket hitting the durasteel floor.

"Warning. Self-destruct sequence to commence in forty-five seconds."

"I concede, victory is yours," Barac says, his voice strained.

Kirk snaps to his feet, but his response is only a mild "Oh? In that case, have these gentlemen escorted to the brig."

As the security team moves to comply, Barac raises his voice, for the klaxons are still wailing. "Kirk!"

"Warning. Self-destruct sequence to commence in thirty seconds."

"KIRK!" yells Barac again. "Stop the sequence!" His desperate movements toward Kirk are thwarted by Security boxing him in.

Jim just blinks and shrugs one shoulder as if uncomprehending of the urgency inherent to the request.

"Warning. Self-destruct sequence to commence in fifteen seconds."

McCoy reaches over and taps Spock's arm, looking at him with the unspoken question,Is it time to do something?

Spock rises from his chair. "Captain, your orders?"

"Stand down, Mr. Spock," Jim says, smiling slowly, almost wolfishly, as the Yegedin entourage being herded away start to panic in earnest.

"Warning. Self-destruct sequence to commence in ten seconds."

Barac screams at them as he is bodily dragged to the upper deck, "What is this madness! SPARE ME!"

Leonard shakes his head. "Jim, this is almost cruel."

"But just desserts, wouldn't you say, Bones?"

"Warning. Self-destruct sequence to commence in five seconds."

"KIRRRK!"

"Four seconds, three seconds, two seconds—"

The prisoners are hauled into the turbolift, Barac struggling wildly, as the computer announces with finality, "One second."

McCoy holds his breath.

The viewscreen goes blank.

Then the klaxons shut off. A moment later, a peaceful image of Yeged's surface appears.

At the end of the bridge, the lift's door closes on Barac's stunned face, leaving Leonard to chortle. "The galaxy's most terrifying screensaver," he says. "Gotta love it."

Jim drops his fists to his hips and grins. "Well done, you two."

Leonard stretches his legs out so his boots find the chair Spock had vacated. "Not too bad if I say so myself." He squints up at Spock. "What's that look for?"

"I do not recall explaining this portion of the plan to you." The Vulcan's gaze finds Kirk. "Either of you."

Jim huffs. "You wouldn't blow up the ship, Spock."

"Based on what reasoning?"

Kirk and McCoy share a look. Does Spock really not comprehend that they know him as well as he knows them?

Leonard announces, "We're psychic."

Spock looks unimpressed. "I see. I should not have asked."

Jim pats his second-in-command's shoulder as he drops into the captain's chair again. "Could you contact the Council for me, Commander?"

Wordlessly the Vulcan goes to the communications console.

"Any idea why he's miffed?" Leonard asks Jim.

"Nope, but he'll get over it."

Spock breaks in to their conversation, his voice raised slightly to carry from the upper deck. "Transmission to Yeged accepted, Captain."

"Onscreen."

When the solemn visage of Chairman Oqlah forms on the viewer, something like heartbreak flashes across Kirk's face before the man locks down his expression.

"Captain Kirk, it is fortuitous to hear from you. You have found a way to subdue the faction?"

"With no help from the likes of you," mutters McCoy.

Jim's gaze touches briefly upon Leonard before returning to the main viewscreen. "Mr. Barac and his associates are on their way to my brig, Chairman, and will remain there until I am able to transfer them to the proper authorities for trial."

"As it should be," the elder councilman replies. "We are aware to take hostage a Starfleet officer, particularly an officer of your rank, is a capital offense under Federation law. Contrary to Barac's belief, as a member of Yeged he is also a citizen of the Federation. The Council acknowledges his crime and wishes to cooperate in every way."

"I see," Jim says. "Then you are prepared to hand over the remainder of his following?"

"Naturally we would... except such action is unnecessary now," Oqlah states matter-of-factly. "When your admiral informed us of your intentions to deal with Barac directly, we took measures to handle the ones who stayed behind. Those men are no longer a concern to the Federation or to Yeged."

"My god," Leonard says, sitting up in shock, "does that mean what I think it means?"

Oqlah goes on, "The Council as a whole had no knowledge of the attack on the Temple. However, there were members who were aware of the possibility of an incident—they too have been dealt with." After studying everyone's expressions, the chairman surmises, "The news I have shared surprises you."

Kirk's mouth forms a thin line. "The Council's retaliation... was it revenge for Onred?"

The councilman says nothing for a long moment. Then, "To attack a man where he stands without first inviting him to do battle is dishonorable; yet to attack the designated heir... that, Captain, is one of the most heinous acts on Yeged. Barac and his followers were doubly guilty. The Council plans to officially denounce their rebellion as heresy against the Old Ways."

"And Onred?" Kirk questions quietly.

"If the gods are merciful, my nephew will live."

"I owe him my life."

"An escort's duty is to protect. Onred acted with honor. Take heart, Captain. Should my family mourn for Onred, our grief will be untainted by shame."

"But you have said he isn't dead yet," Leonard says, partly to Kirk, partly to the chairman. "You should let us do what we can to help him. I've worked with species similar in biology to the Yegedins. I am willing to assist your healers in treating his injuries."

"A most generous offer."

But Jim lifts a stalling hand. "There is one condition: Onred must be treated aboard the Enterprise. You are free to send staff as well so that you feel assured of his safety among any offworlders. However I will not risk sending my chief medical officer to the surface—not without a fully armed escort and that, Chairman, I am certain would only heighten the tension still existing between us."

"I understand your point of view. It is shaming for us, what you have experienced. Still, I must speak with my brethren. The safety of the heir is of paramount importance."

"Not if he's dead!" McCoy snaps.

"They'll agree, Bones," Jim tells him quietly.

He harrumphs his opinion of that before relenting. "Guess I better see to it there are actual doctors and nurses in Sickbay."

Jim calls to Spock, "How long before the crew is re-boarded?"

"Their return is already in progress, Captain. Mr. Chekov and Mr. Scott are overseeing it."

"Good." Finally, Kirk turns back to the Yegedin on the viewer. "Oqlah, I have an additional request for the Council. When your people became part of the Federation, you agreed to abide by certain tenets—one of which is ensuring a fair and democratic vote for all Yegedins regarding their future. Clearly there has been undue influence affecting your process, and a reason for your people to fear casting an honest vote. I speak for the Federation leadership when I say we have no intention of stopping Yeged from seceding if that is your wish—but you must come to your decision honestly. Allow us to help you oversee the voting so we feel comfortable—and you as well—that Yeged's future is represented by those who will live it." Jim hesitates, then adds, "It would also be an opportunity to rebuild a trust which has been lost."

"I will speak your words as you have delivered them. Until we meet again, Captain Kirk." The image of Oqlah fades from the screen.

Kirk rises from his chair.

Leonard tells him, "I still don't have a good feeling about that Council, Jim."

"I know." Jim claps a hand to McCoy's shoulder as the doctor joins him. "But we have to try."

"Jim?" Spock inquiries, tilting his head as he swivels away from his station to watch Kirk and McCoy's leisurely approach.

"Who wants to visit the brig with me?" Jim says, a glint coming into his eyes that makes Leonard's stomach flip upside down.

He complains, "Can't we wait at least half an hour before antagonizing the bad guys again?"

"I still have questions I want answers to."

"Barac's a headcase, Jim. Not to mention the fact he all likely wants to do right now is rip your face off."

"I concur with Dr. McCoy's assessment. There will be time and place to conduct a thorough investi—"

Spock's speech falters, for Kirk is already moving toward the turbolift with a determined stride. After exchanging a short glance, Spock and McCoy simply give up and follow him.

~~~

later

"You're saying to take the chance. If I do that—"

Jim Kirk breaks off and glances up from his desk as his office door whistles open to reveal McCoy and Spock standing upon the threshold. Jim waves them forward even as McCoy asks politely if they can enter, turning back to his computer screen. "Chris, can I call you back?"

Pike offers up a thin but amused smile. "Son, for once let me savor the hope you won't call back."

All of a sudden, McCoy is too close, leaning over Kirk's shoulder and looking frighteningly inquisitive. "You know, I thought only I had the ability to make Jim look like he sucked on a lemon. What are you fellas talkin' about?"

"Jim can explain," the admiral replies, to which Jim literally tries to throw a punch at Pike's smug face onscreen but McCoy intervenes with a grin and a "You can bet he will, sir."

Spock has drifted to Jim's opposite shoulder. "Captain, is there some concern we are unaware of?"

"I'm hanging up now," Pike warns them all, obviously on the verge of laughter. "Kirk, remember what we talked about. Use your words." And the communication cuts out promptly.

With resignation, Jim flicks off his computer screen and pushes back from his desk in an attempt to force McCoy to step away and give him some breathing room. McCoy doesn't budge at first, instead sharing a long look with Spock. Then lazily the doctor circles to the opposite side of Kirk's desk. Spock follows at an equally casual pace, leaving Jim with the sudden impression the one about to come under fire is him.

No, nope, definitely not on his watch. Being captain has to count for something.

Arms folded across his chest, Kirk fixes his most intimidating stare on Spock and McCoy, stealing the opening line to their little three-person drama. "What can I do for you gentlemen?"

"This is about what we can do for you," McCoy counters. "Spock and I chatted about your proposal."

Jim stills. "What proposal?"

Spock's eyebrow rises at that. "Your personal remarks on the bridge during the encounter with the Yegedins."

Kirk nearly drags a hand down his face. "That was an apology." He clears his throat so his voice doesn't sound too strangled. "What proposal am I supposed to have made?"

Spock turns to McCoy. "It seems we were mistaken. Jim in fact has no interest in us."

Jim's mouth opens. All that comes out is an unintelligent "What."

"Oh," Leonard returns, sounding and looking quite disappointed.

Jim leans forward, hoping against hope he hasn't misjudged the sincerity of their expressions.

Spock turns for the door. "To avoid further embarrassment, we should leave."

Jim's heart starts to pound of its own accord. His fingers tighten against his chair's arms.

When Leonard trails dejectedly after the Vulcan, Jim's body jerks, and he half-rises from his chair, blurting out, "Wait!"

Spock and McCoy pause, then slowly turn around.

"Something the matter, Jim?"

It isn't until the doctor has spoken that Kirk realizes he had frozen in place under their expectant stares. The words startle him into sitting back down. Only then do Spock and McCoy return to the desk.

Jim takes a moment to punch down any nervousness. "I, ah, may not have expressed a proposal explicitly but I am not opposed to one?" He ends that remark on a hopeful, if questioning note.

When neither man responds right away, Kirk breaks into a cold sweat. Now more than ever it seems imperative not to squander to this unexpected opportunity. He has been looking for a way to broach the matter—had even stowed his pride and called Pike up for some guidance (and received a lecture instead, per usual)—yet here Leonard and Spock are, apparently already interested in the very thing Jim has been far too cautious to bring up on his own.

He releases his chair and rises to his feet, moving around the desk to stand in front of them. "Would you be willing to hear me out?" he asks respectfully.

"Affirmative," Spock says at the same time Leonard points out, "We're all ears."

Then, smiling impishly, McCoy turns to the Vulcan and flicks a finger at the air above one of those pointed ears. "Some of us quite literally."

Spock arches an eyebrow at the doctor.

That exchange is exactly what Jim needs to relax.

He launches into an explanation. "On the bridge, I said I made a mistake. Truthfully, I made two mistakes—the first being that I walked away." He raises a hand, barreling ahead quickly before either man can speak. "I acted like a jerk. More than that, I acted like I didn't care. Bones, what you said was something I didn't want to hear. That didn't mean it wasn't true. I was acting cowardly. I was afraid of what else you might say... and since Spock had already pushed for confrontation, I was apprehensive about his motive for doing it." He pauses, his mouth twitching in amusement briefly. "Sometimes I forget how formidable you two can be when you decide to join forces. But regardless of why I did what I did, I know you weren't trying to hurt me."

"Jim, you were hurting already. Spock and I—seeing you in pain is just not something either of us can tolerate. I'll admit, we went about that chat in a ham-handed way, but then..." McCoy huffs out a sigh. "Discussing emotions has never been any of our strong suits, has it?"

Spock admits, "I acted prematurely in revealing your feelings to Leonard."

"You did drop quite the bomb, mister," he agrees.

Leonard snorts. "That's an understatement."

Jim smiles a little then sobers. "I'm sorry. Being caught off guard doesn't excuse my behavior."

McCoy squeezes the man's upper arm. "I'm sorry too, Jim."

Kirk releases a slow breath. "My second mistake," he continues a bit more hesitantly.

Spock is quick to state his opinion. "Leaving the ship without an escort."

McCoy, too. "Tricking everyone." The doctor says with the Vulcan nodding, "And being damned brazen about it."

"Indeed. I am still undecided as to whether or not Jim's uncharacteristic duplicity requires an official reprimand."

"Okay, okay!" Jim can recognize a losing battle when he sees one. "While what you've said is true, that is not what I was going to say."

"Why not?" demands McCoy, clearly not willing to let the matter go. "You scared the hell outta us!"

"Dr. McCoy's statement, though overdramatic, is accurate. We were quite shocked." Spock delivers his advice matter-of-factly. "Now would be the optimal time to offer your sincere apology."

Leonard echoes, "Yeah, and Spock won't report you... probably."

These two don't know how to pull their punches at all—and damn but the guilt trip is working. Jim takes a stab at contriteness. "I'm sorry."

The doctor snorts. "Sorry you got caught, you mean. Try again."

"I am sorry," he repeats with more heat. "I could have used some backup when things went to hell."

This complaint clearly impresses no one.

"Doctor, I sense the Captain does not fully understand our reason for requiring an apology."

McCoy thrusts his finger in Kirk's face. "You could have gotten yourself killed!"

For a second, Jim goes cross-eyed staring at that menacing wagging finger. "Bones, that was Barac's doing, not mine."

"Don't tell me you didn't push those Yegedin bastards' buttons instead of acting with some damn common sense for once."

Jim presses his mouth. "Kirks don't surrender."

"Bullshit! I've seen you defuse a sticky situation faster than a one-legged man quits in a butt-kicking competition."

Jim sputters, not sure if he wants to laugh or yell.

Leonard goes on, oblivious to the increasing pitch of his Southern drawl, "You were walking into a political hotbed, Jim. You had no reason to assume you would be safe!"

"Yeah but—"

"If you attempt a mission alone again," Spock intervenes too calmly, "I will ask Command to restrict your access to off-ship assignments. It is already uncommon for a captain to place himself on a mission roster where the risks are largely unknown."

Jim stares at the Vulcan, floored. "Y-You can't do that!"

"Would you care to test my capabilities?"

Leonard crosses his arms over his chest, looking smug. "Spock knows a lot of obscure regulations. I wouldn't push him, Jim."

"Fine," Jim forces the word out. "I won't go alone again... unless one of you knows about it."

"Unless we both know about it, and have discussed and approved your request to go without either of us," amends McCoy.

Request? So he, the captain, the man with the highest authority on the entire ship, has to ask permission to go somewhere by himself like a troublesome child requiring adult supervision?

This is what Pike must have been talking about when he said Jim would have to face the consequences of his actions. Did Chris know McCoy and Spock were going to be such hardasses over one minor error in judgment?

"I'm sorry," Jim says, really meaning the words now that he has a reason to regret riling up his senior command team.

"Do you agree to our terms?" Spock presses.

Jim sighs through his nose, knowing he is out of options. "Yes."

A moment of silence ensues. Then McCoy wants to know, "What was the second mistake?"

Jim grumbles, "I might have to rethink it."

Leonard rolls his eyes. "He's chickening out again. Do we even have time for this?"

"We have approximately ten point two minutes left. Unfortunately delaying the mission debrief would not be well-received by the Admiralty. They appear anxious to discover who gave the orders for Yeged."

"Whoever he is, he's an idiot." Leonard eyes Jim. "Did Pike already tell you who did it? No, wait, don't tell me—I can wait to be shocked with everyone else." Suddenly, the doctor's gaze narrows. "So, ten minutes—less now, actually. Hurry up with that proposal, Jim."

"Bones, I'm trying here—whoa, what're you doing?!" His hedging turns to a near-squeak when Leonard reaches out and snatches up the front of his tunic.

"Your trying is killin' me, kid."

Jim's heart starts pounding in his ears. "Huh?"

"Forget the second mistake. I'm out of patience, and clearly we're out of time."

"Okay?"

"So pucker up, I'm going to kiss you now."

Jim's ability to think comes to a halt.

McCoy, eyeing his captive speculatively, must decide one warning is fair enough and proceeds to plant his mouth over Kirk's. As far as kisses go, it isn't the most mind-blowing Jim Kirk has ever had; but it is certainly, almost literally, enough to stop his heart.

"Gah," he gurgles nonsensically afterward, half-aware that McCoy has pushed him up against Spock with instructions for the Vulcan to prop him up.

Then McCoy pats Kirk's cheek. "Jim, you with us? Don't pass out now."

"You kissed me."

"You bet I did."

"Bones..." Jim needs a second to find more words. "Did you mean it?" He looks sideways at Spock. "Did he mean it?"

"Idiot," Leonard says fondly, straightening to his full height. "Do you even know what your proposal is supposed to be?"

Jim replies instantly, "I propose we kiss more."

"Accepted." Leonard looks at their third companion with a twinkle in his eyes. "But you gotta include Spock in this deal. He's starting to look cranky that he hasn't had his turn."

Jim finally twists out Spock's hold to turn and fully face the Vulcan. He blinks at Spock, and Spock blinks back. "You knew?"

"If you are referring to the fact that your attraction extends to myself as well as Dr. McCoy—of course, Jim."

"Oh." Jim thinks about that, then thinks some more. And curses. "Wait a minute, was this a setup?"

"Do you think we came in here without a plan?" Leonard demands.

Jim narrows his eyes. "I didn't make a proposal on the bridge."

"You should have," Leonard counters.

His eyes narrow even more.

Spock looks between Kirk and McCoy. "Is this argument necessary?"

Jim meets and holds Leonard's eyes—and suddenly all his apprehension and irritation melts away. The light in McCoy's eyes is a touch humorous but also full of affection. Spock's is the same.

A tingling sensation starts in his fingertips and spreads throughout his body. He thinks the feeling might be happiness.

Stepping closer to his two favorite people, Jim slides an arm around the doctor's waist and drops a hand to the Vulcan's shoulder. "Have I told you how much I need you two around?"

Leonard shrugs, but he's smiling. "We know, but I think we could stand to hear it again."

"Agreed," Spock chimes in. "I am told the basis for a successful relationship is communication."

"Yeah but tell us only the good things, Jim," Leonard teases.

Jim mock-gasps. "Honesty, Bones, honesty."

McCoy snorts.

Spock remarks, "We have four minutes and three seconds remaining."

Kirk grins. "We can be late."

And though McCoy groans and Spock looks dubious, neither one dismisses the suggestion.

The End