(Standard Year 2252)

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Return to Valjiir Continum

Go To Part Two

Commander Jeremy Paget nervously straightened his tunic as he stood outside the Surgeon General's Office. He had good reason to be nervous. The last time he'd been summoned here was for a special assignment: nine months of playing personal guard and shrink to Noel DelMonde at the San Fran Shipyards. That assignment had interrupted a very pleasant relationship. Not serious - Jeremy had only had one of those - but pleasant nonetheless. He wasn't involved with anyone now. He'd only been back on the Hood for two months and it had taken him that long to kick Security back into what he considered proper shape. Which left no time for personal involvement. Paget wryly scratched his neatly trimmed beard. Celibacy was getting to be a bad habit.

"Once upon a time sex was next to breathin'," he muttered to himself. "Must be gettin' old."

His fingertip brushed against the small, ruby earring he wore in his right earlobe. It reminded him sharply of just how old he wasn't: Sulu had given it to him ten years ago for his seventeenth birthday. The thought of Sulu dispelled any quiescence about celibacy. He made up his mind to locate the nearest paid companion after his meeting with Surgeon General Kosnowski.

===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*===

"James, there's no reason to be so nervous."

Jim Kirk turned from the mirror over the dresser in his hospital room. His hands ran over his gold tunic, smoothing it. He smiled crookedly at his doctor. "I haven't been in a uniform for a long time, Jade."

Jade Han smiled back. "It still fits," she remarked.

"Yes, but do I?"

The petite Asian doctor deliberately set her medical logs on the dresser in front of him. "These say so."

"Tests," Jim snorted. "Simulations. That's not the real thing and we both know it."

Jade took one of Jim's hands. "True. But it was all Fleet had to go on when you were commissioned."

"As an ensign." Jim pulled away, turning again to the mirror. "How can they prove any competency as a captain?"

Jade studied his face in the mirror. It was thinner, more lined. His hair, a little longer than he used to wear it, seemed darker, perhaps due to the touch of silver at the temples. There were creases in his brow and a sorrow in his hazel eyes that she knew from sad experience would never leave them. It made them seem darker too, bronze instead of fiery gold. But there was also a new wisdom. James Kirk had left his youth in Terra's past.

"Your experience proves that, James," she answered him softly.

"I've changed," was his reply.

"You've grown," Jade countered.

Again Jim turned to face her. "I'm not the man I was."

"True. You're better."

The statement was made with a teasing half-smile and an arching eyebrow and Jim couldn't help laughing.

"With that kind of confidence, Doctor, I guess I'll have to trust your judgment."

"Good." Jade retrieved her logs. "Are you ready to go?"

Jim walked over to the bed, snapping his valise closed. "As I'll ever be, I suppose." He lifted it, then paused.

"You're going to meet friends, James," Jade reminded.

Again Jim smiled crookedly. "Am I? Do they know me? Do I know them?" Jade moved next to him, squeezing his arm reassuringly.

"Wait and see, Jim."

They took a few steps toward the door. As they reached it, Jim stopped and turned, surveying the room he had lived in for a year. "Y'know," he began wistfully, "after all that's happened here..." He paused and a twinkle came into his eyes. "...I'm not going to miss this place." He grinned at Jade, utterly charming without being in the least boyish. Jade laughed, again caressing his arm, this time with affection.

Maturity had its rewards.

===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*===

Commander Ruth Valley finished coiling her long braid of thick, golden hair on top of her head, securing it deftly with two simple but elegant hair ornaments. She smiled to herself, remembering she had accused Sulu of expecting her to put chopsticks in her hair, and his answer, something to the effect that she did look good enough to eat. But they served well, and really were very pretty. Ruth disliked jewelry in general, but if a utilitarian thing like a hair clip could be beautiful as well as useful, who was she to complain?

The door to the cabin hissed open and Ruth turned from the dresser.

Then her jaw dropped and she blinked, swallowing.

"Spock?" she managed.

Just inside the doorway, her Vulcan husband and Captain stood at stiff attention, hands behind his back, looking both dignified and uncomfortable... in a blue Sciences' tunic.

"I thought it best to inform you..." he began.

"What happened?!" Ruth broke in.

"...before we left for Jude..."

"Who busted you?! For what?!"

"...that my promotion was to acting captain only and was never..."


“...intended to be permanent," Spock finished with a slight wince at the volume of Ruth's voice. There was a moment of stunned silence.

"Never..." Ruth stammered.

"Intended to be permanent," Spock repeated as Ruth mouthed the words.

Abruptly Ruth turned, slamming her hand on the dresser. "Well, thanks so much for telling me, Commander," she snarled.

"Ruth," Spock began, moving toward her.

"Don't," Ruth snapped, whirling back to face him, "give me your I-did-not-desire-a-captaincy bullshit!"

Spock stopped, his eyebrow rising. Ruth bristled further.

"And don't tell me about Fleet bargains and conditions! When we found Jim all those bets were off! They can't hold you to that!"

Spock opened his mouth. Ruth's eyes blazed purple fire.

"And don't talk to me about the discipline of the Service! You're a damned good captain, and if they can't see that - if you can't see that...!"

Spock took a step closer to her. "My wife, I did not say I was overjoyed at the decision. Starfleet has every intention of holding me to my agreements. I have little to say in the matter."

There was another awkward silence, during which Ruth glared and Spock did his best to meet her angry gaze.

"When did you get this cheery news?" Ruth said at last.

"I have always known..."

"ALWAYS...?!?" Ruth screeched and Spock closed his eyes as she grabbed her hairbrush off of the dresser and threw it - perhaps not precisely at him, for it missed his head by several inches. Then Ruth took a deep breath. "Spock, why didn't you tell me?"

Spock sighed, crossing the rest of the way to her. "The truth? It did not seem important at the time."

"Not impor..." Ruth again inhaled deeply. "Boss, this is our life we're talking about!"

"I know that. Now. Then it seemed a trivial thing. What did it matter what our positions were?"

Ruth scowled, throwing herself cross-legged onto the bed. "What happened to your brains?" she muttered.

"I was in error," Spock conceded. "We should have discussed this fully."

"No shit." She rubbed her temples. "Now what do we do?"

"Can you survive a husband of equal rank?"

Ruth looked up. "What?"

"I said..."

"I heard you. How dare you!" she blazed once more.

"You are not being rational, my wife," Spock admonished.

"You imply that I love you for your goddamned rank and I'm not being rational?!?"

"That is not what I said."

"You said, 'can you survive...'"

"A small joke, Ruth."

She stared up at him, taking yet another deep breath. She exhaled, then stated quite calmly, "I do not need this aggravation, Spock. I'm nervous enough seeing Jim again."

Spock came to sit beside her on the bed. "As am I. However, this condition was agreed to."

"Not by me."

"I know. Shall I ask your forgiveness again?" Spock's quiet tone underscored the sincerity of the offer.

Ruth softened. "Not necessary. But what are we going to do?"

"I must be Jim's First Officer. His condition requires an experienced captain be available if..." Spock's voice stopped.

"Yeah," Ruth agreed sullenly. She rested her chin in her hands. "I suppose it won't be too bad being Science Officer to..." Her head jerked up. "You're wearing blue."

Spock straightened. "Yes," he agreed reluctantly. "I will also be the Chief of Science."

Ruth threw her hands up. "Oh, that's great. Just great! How are we gonna get on a Nest with this on our records?"

"Our records are..."

"A ship can't have two - oh my god! What about Roy?!" Ruth jumped up from the bed. "Spock, you're replacing Sulu! What will this do to his career?"

Spock rose as well. "Nothing injurious, I trust."

"Nothing injurious? It's a demotion! It's bad enough I lose my job... Spock, how could they? How could you?!"

Ruth stormed out of the room before Spock could stop her.

===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*===

"You are nervous, my love," Lieutenant Jilla Majiir observed from behind the transporter controls.

Commander Sulu, pacing in the transporter room, stopped and grinned at her. "I know. Stupid, yes?"

"There is no reason, " Jilla agreed.

"We're being given the honor of bringing Captain Kirk back to Headquarters," Sulu said, "and I keep thinking I'll have to pass muster." He chuckled sympathetically. "He's got more to worry about there. I can just imagine how nervous he is."

"You are an excellent officer," Jilla offered. "I am certain Captain Kirk will have been appraised of your record."

Sulu reached across the console to take one of Jilla's hands in his. "I love you, do you know that?"

Jilla's pale, silvery skin took on a soft sheen with her emotional reaction. "Yes," she replied quietly. "And I, you." Sulu smiled, gently kissing the palm of her hand.

The door to the transporter room opened. "Mr. Sulu," Spock's voice said, and Sulu turned to accompany his Captain to the platform.

Then stopped dead in his tracks as his senses registered Spock's blue tunic and the sleeves that bore only two gold stripes.

"Cap - Captain?" Sulu stammered.

Spock turned. "For a short time, Commander."

"But... but..."

"My promotion," Spock began with almost a sigh, "was intended to be tempor..."

"Spo... Captain.... how....?" Jilla's uncharacteristic interruption and her agitation made it obvious that she was as perturbed as Sulu. Spock held her gaze for a moment, acknowledging and accepting her reaction.

"Temporary?" Sulu almost whispered.

"Such was the agreement made with Starfleet," Spock replied tersely, then gestured to Sulu. "If you will join me, Mr. Sulu?"

With a confused glance at Jilla - who returned it - Sulu stepped onto the platform.

"Is Jude ready to receive us, Lieutenant?" Spock asked. Jilla nodded mutely. "Energize."

After the shimmer faded, and Spock's tight control with it, Jilla felt a sudden stab of panic. Ruth had planned on beaming down to Jude with Spock and Sulu. Where was she? Why was Spock in a Sciences uniform with Commander's stripes? How could a promotion of two years' standing be 'temporary’? What in Aema's name had happened?

===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*===

Jeremy gathered up the tapes of medical logs and appended notes as well as the notes he'd made during his two day stay on Jude. Ostensibly the Hood had dropped him there as being the most convenient way to get him to his new assignment, the Enterprise. She would be needing a new Chief of Security, and he was it. At least, that was the official story. In reality, he'd spent two days reviewing Jim Kirk's case and present condition.

Stretching, Jeremy got up from the desk in his temporary quarters. He scowled at the remains of his snacking; various wrappers, cups, plates. That was the worst part of playing doctor. Shrink work wasn't physical and left him too much time for absent-minded eating. One wouldn't guess it by looking at him, Jeremy reflected, but he was prone to weight gain, mostly because he loved the tastes, textures, and sensations of eating. Comes from having a basically sensual nature, he mused. Security training and his own self-discipline kept him conscientious about working out. As a result, he looked slim and muscled. But he knew that if he slacked off for too long, the weight would pile on pretty quickly.

"You're a self-indulgent fool, in more ways than one," he said aloud to himself.

The real reason he was being transferred to the Enterprise was he'd been given another covert assignment as a doctor. Specifically, James Kirk's doctor. He was supposed to watch and report on Kirk's progress; his reactions and decisions, how he handled the stresses of the captaincy. For reasons no one went into, Starfleet Brass didn't trust Jade Han's objectivity. They wanted a second opinion. And since his profession wasn't well known in Fleet (Sulu knew he was a psychiatrist, and N.C. - Noel DelMonde - and the Admiralty, but that was as far as the knowledge went), he could observe Kirk in completely natural and non-self-conscious settings. He didn't like the surreptitious aspect, but he had to concede it was a logical way for the Brass to keep tabs on this experiment of theirs.

Jeremy packed the tapes in his duffle, closing the large satchel firmly. The Enterprise. Sulu. Be still, my pounding heart. His Lady'll be there every step of the way. And you damn well better not even think of tryin’ to imagine ever possibly interfering in his life in any way, shape, or form.

It’ll be hard.

Yeah, and difficult, too. He scowled again, this time at the poor double entendre. Hell, I can’t help the effect he has on me.

But you can help doin' anything about it.

Yeah. I will.

I just wish I didn't love him so much. Then I could be a bastard and wreck his life in the certainty I could make him just as happy as Jilla does.

He checked the chronometer, then hauled his belongings over his shoulder and headed for the transport station.

===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*===

Admiral Baker met Spock and Sulu at the transporter. He was a deliberately imposing figure, and Sulu barely noticed him. Baker spoke as he led them from the station, but Sulu paid little attention to what was said. He was still contending with the impact of seeing Spock in a Science Commander's tunic and trying to make sense out of the idea of 'temporary’ two-year-long promotions.

They entered a small briefing room. Jade Han stood behind a chair in which was seated a man in Captain's gold. It took Sulu nearly a full five seconds to realize that this middle-aged man with the uncertain grin was really James Tiberius Kirk. When he did, he couldn't stop the smile from breaking over his face. Suddenly, Spock's clothes didn't matter.

===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*===

When Admiral Baker met them, Spock realized he would have no time in which to explain the matter further to Sulu. He had been unable to banish from his mind the memory of Jim's violent attack and accusations upon his rescue: Spock had then been wearing a Captain's tunic, and Jim had recognized it. "My shirt!" he had yelled, and accused Spock of mutiny and usurpation. While rationality asserted that Jim would now be in touch with reality, Spock hadn't wanted even the most remote of possibilities, however trivial it might seem, to mar this reunion.

Although he was beginning to realize it could not, of course, be trivial to his First and Science Officers. However, he was quite certain that when he could explain, he and Fleet would be forgiven.

He ignored Baker for the pompous irritant he was. All Jade's reports assured Jim was whole, sane, recovered. To see him, to know… Spock had not allowed himself to acknowledge how important this was to him. Now, that knowledge was unavoidable.

Jim rose from his seat as Spock, Baker and Sulu entered. Spock noted Jade's hand had been resting on Jim's shoulder. Baker cleared his throat, and Spock wondered why. Sulu smiled with heartfelt emotion.

And Jim said, "I thought I'd be greeting a Captain, Spock."

The voice sounded no different, as if it had been only hours, and not a year since Spock had last heard it. Yet it seemed to vibrate in Spock's ears. He swallowed the emotion that welled within him. There were no words for it. He could not have said them if there were. A smile pulled at his lips as one eyebrow rose in the familiar cant. "I am more than gratified," he said, "that I am, Captain."

===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*===

The so-typical response, the quirk of that one eyebrow released all Jim's tension like a shot from a bow. He laughed and discarded all reserve. He was going to give his Vulcan savior the biggest bear-hug he could manage, Vulcan propriety and Admiral Baker be damned.

To his everlasting astonishment, Spock returned the embrace. "Welcome back, Jim," was murmured hoarsely in his ear and it made tears well in Jim's eyes.

He pulled away. "Well, I'm not back yet," he said. "I've yet to see my silver lady." He glanced at Sulu, once again grinning. "Casting no aspersions on your silver lady, Commander Sulu."

Sulu's grin widened. "No, sir," he said brightly. Jim saw him start forward and hesitate, and so crossed the short space between them. He held out his hand, and Sulu clasped it in a warm, firm expression of respect. "It's good to see you, Captain," Sulu stated with genuine affection.

"And you, Sulu. I hear you and your Captain here have been taking good care of my ship during my little - ah - vacation."

"We've tried our best, sir."

Jim shook his head. "You're a commander. You get to call me 'Jim..'" The smile again claimed Sulu's features. "I hope," Jim went on, "that you don't mind my taking her back."

Sulu's eyes abruptly flashed to Spock. "Taking her... no, of course not, sir - Jim."

Spock stared straight ahead and Jim suddenly understood. "You didn't tell him," he said to the Vulcan.

===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*===

Spock had been enjoying listening to Jim’s easy exchanges with Sulu. Sulu’s regard for Jim touched him as well. It was pleasant; the informality, the familiarity…

"....that you don't mind my taking her back."

"Taking her…"

I am the son of diplomats, Spock thought with a mental sigh. Why am I consistently lax in anticipating the results of my attempts at subterfuge?

"You didn’t tell him," Jim said. Admiral Baker snorted.

Spock cleared his throat. "I thought it best to…"

"You wanted to see for yourself that I was capable," Jim broke in. The uncertainty in his voice was unnerving and Spock noted Jade's sudden frown.

"I’m sure that’s not it at all," she began with a meaningful glance at Spock, her eyes flickering to the Admiral.

"Hardly," Spock confirmed. "I am in a commander's uniform. I have complete confidence in Dr. Han and, Captain, in you."

"Ah, there really hasn't been time, Captain," Sulu rejoined. "We’ve been extremely busy with the preparations for your return - " he grinned self-deprecatingly, " - which should have tipped me off in and of itself. I’m sure an official confirmation of it simply slipped Captain - ah - Commander Spock's mind." The unexpected support was welcome, and Spock told Sulu so with a slight nod. He didn't miss the answering look in Sulu’s eyes. Yes, we will talk later.

===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*===

Jim noticed the exchange. Hadn’t he communicated with Spock in just that way? Sulu was a good First Officer. He supported his Captain. They made a good team. Did he have the right to disrupt that? Should he, even with the right? Yet, they were all Fleet officers. They went where they were ordered. This was Fleet’s decision.

He straightened. "Well, I’m sorry to have dropped the bomb, Sulu. I hope you won't hold it against Fleet…"

"I’m sure not," Admiral Baker interrupted, then continued on with a speech about duty and good officers and accepting orders. Jade scowled. Jim only shrugged, his brief upward glance conveying to Sulu just what he thought of this particular piece of Fleet Brass. "And speaking of orders, there will be another addition to your crew, Captain Kirk," Baker concluded. "He’ll be meeting us back at the transporter."

"An addition?" Jade asked, the suspicion plain in her almond eyes.

"Yes, a new Security Chief. With Lieutenant Commander Ryan’s transfer to the Drake, the Enterprise is a man short."

Jade nodded, suspicion momentarily relieved, and again Jim caught the exchange of looks between Spock and Sulu. Something else you neglected to mention, Spock? he thought.

"I wasn't aware she was leaving so soon," Sulu said conversationally, yet Jim was sure he detected some tightness in the young man's voice.,

"In two weeks, when we rendezvous," Spock returned. "There are the usual briefings and debriefings"

"Of course, Cap – Commander."

Jim heard Baker snort again, and swallowed the deep sigh that answered it - and camouflaged his uneasiness.

===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*===

The journey back to the transporter was more than frustrating. Between Baker’s pomposity, Jade's hovering, and Spock's pretense that all was perfectly normal, Sulu felt ready to explode. How could you have neglected to tell me? he thought accusingly at Spock's blue-shirted back. Jim is Captain. Does that make you Chief of Science again? What about Ruth? Why didn’t I know about Tara's transfer? Who's this new Chief of Security? Have you been hiding communiqués from me? Damnit, how can you do this to me all over again?

As they rounded a curve and entered the transporter station, Spock dropped back a step to fall in beside Sulu. "I am not proficient at planning surprises," he murmured. "My grasp of the element of timing is obviously inadequate. Nonetheless…."

Spock made a small gesture, and Sulu stared, confused, then let his gaze follow the movement of Spock's hand.

At parade rest on one of the transporter pads, a tall, well-muscled red-shirt stood with a packed duffle. He nodded gravely at his superiors. "Admiral Baker," the deep voice acknowledged, "Dr. Han, Captain Kirk, Commander Spock." Then Jeremy Paget winked, a grin pulling at the properly military non-expression. "Your new Security Chief reporting as ordered, First Officer Sulu."

It took Sulu nearly ten seconds to recover, blink, and swallow his consternation. Then a smile pulled at his lips too as he nodded to his oldest and dearest friend. He turned to Spock, shaking his head. "Lousy timing indeed," he muttered. He met Spock's warm gaze with one of his own. "Nonetheless…"

Spock nodded.

===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*===

"Well, where is he?" Ruth demanded as she stalked into the transporter room. Jilla turned from the controls, relieved at Ruth's flippant anger. Whatever was wrong, then, was not jeopardizing all life as she knew it.

"If you mean the Captain, I am certain I do not know," she returned. Ruth studied the Indiian for a moment.

"I mean Spock. God knows who the Captain is."

“Precisely." Jilla swallowed with the force of her friend’s emotion. “Ruth, what happened?"

The Antari crossed the room to stand in front of the control board, facing away from Jilla. “I don’t know. He said they said he knew the promotion was only meant to be temporary." Ruth paused. "Whatever the hell that means."

Jilla nodded. "James Kirk is still our captain," she said. "What does that make....?"

"He's Chief of Science," Ruth broke in. "He's First Officer. Me and Roy are chopped liver!"

"They will simply demote...?

"How the hell do I know?!" Ruth shouted, whirling around and slamming her fists down on the board. Jilla backed away, startled. "Why should he tell me anything!? I'm only his goddamned wife!"

"Ruth, please..."

"I WILL NOT CALM DOWN!" Ruth screamed. "I’ll rant and rave and yell and scream and have a tantrum and act like a spoiled little brat!!" She took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and bared her teeth in an attempt at a grin. “At least till they get back." She paused again. "Jilla, tell me all this aggravation that I do not need is worth it for one man."

Jilla took a deep breath of her own, calming from Ruth's riotous outburst. "Shas," she said.

Ruth made a face. She didn't want to be reminded of how she and Jilla had risked their lives and careers to develop what was now known as the Valjiir cloak, rig the first warp shuttle, sabotage the Enterprise’s communications and drive systems, kidnap Dr. McCoy, forge authorizations to retrieve Spock from Elba, and cure him of addiction to cordrazine - which was a lot of aggravation all for one man. "That was different," she insisted.

"You were in love," Jilla agreed.

"Push," Ruth returned, then sobered. "Do you think... naahh." She turned away.

"Do I think what?" Jilla asked.

"That - someone - may be in love here?"

"Ruth!" Jilla admonished.

"Well, at least that I could understand!" Ruth cried, again facing Jilla. Jilla inclined her head.

"Can you not, after all this time, understand that to a Vulcan, loyalty is as driving a force as love is to Humans? When we rescued Spock from Elba, you acted out of love. I acted out of loyalty, and I had to convince you."

Ruth smiled, chagrined. "Yeah, I know. So I think Human sometimes."

Jilla returned the smile. "It is the ‘sometimes' that is confusing."

"You wouldn't want I should be dull and predictable!"


Ruth stuck out her tongue. "Spock wouldn't believe it was me." She straightened, sighing. "Well, when are they due back?"

Jilla checked the chronometer. "Shortly. They did not plan a lengthy stay."

"Which is why you're still here," Ruth said unnecessarily. There was a short silence. "What do you suppose he looks like?" she mused.

"Captain Kirk."


"Captain Kirk," Jilla repeated.

"Cute," Ruth scowled. Jilla's dry sense of humor was in rare form. "You're supposed to give me the straight lines."

"I beg your...?"

"Never mind."

A smile twitched at Jilla's full lips. "I never do."

Or maybe, Ruth thought, mine's just in particularly poor form.

The control board signaled. "Spock to Enterprise."

"Enterprise, Lieutenant Majiir," Jilla replied. She and Ruth heard Spock's voice say, "Captain," then a pause, then another voice, almost tentative.

"Mrs. Majiir, this is Captain Kirk. Five to beam up, please."

Emotion caught in Jilla's throat. "Yes, sir," she managed, then energized the transporter. When she glanced up at Ruth, tears were shining in the Antari's huge purple eyes. "I guess I did need this aggravation after all," she said, then turned expectantly to the pads.

===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*===

Jilla took a few moments to prepare for the inevitable emotional onslaught. Ruth's feelings of joy and welcome would be magnified at least fourfold from Jade alone. With Spock’s profound satisfaction and Sulu's pride and respect...

...and did not Captain Kirk say 'five'?

There was no time to ask if Admiral Baker would beam with them. The figures were already solidifying on the transport platform. Jilla completed the transfer and returned the energy currents to the normal flows and ratios, automatically identifying tia even before visual recognition.

Joy, serenity, deep and abiding love - do you admit it yet? - Jade.

Fierce gratification, rigid control - chagrin? - Spock.

Uncertainty, humility, recognition - all most unlike him, yet - welcome home, Captain.

Mild anger, tension, clouded joy, clouded arousal - I do not understand, my love...

Hunger, pain, joy, love, caution, concern, all jauntily concealed.

Abruptly Sulu's tia made sense.

Jeremy Paget

===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*===

The tingling of the transporter felt strange, though Jim knew it was a psychological sensation only. When one didn't know one was being transported, one felt nothing. Still, the strangeness didn't trigger any panic, though his heart-rate increased.

After so long on planets, the artificial air pressure and gravity seemed confining, the non-scent of the air unreal. Yet somewhere inside him a connection was made.

The hum and throb of the engines pulsed through him much closer to consciousness than it had ever done before. He was aware of it, like the workings of a gigantic heart and lungs. It sent a thrill through him, an unnamed joy - and yet an inexplicable sadness as well.

Then familiarity almost overwhelmed him. Lovely, petite, calm Jilla Majiir stood at the console, as controlled and precise as always, her faintly glowing skin a clue to the depths beneath the calm. And before the control board, beauty and mischief incarnate in gold and blue smiled a smile that lit up the galaxy and gave him the best welcome he could have wished for.

Ruth Valley said, "What took you so long, Bwana?"

Jim laughed and his renewed tension vanished. He stepped off the platform, Jade and Spock right behind him. "I knew I’d have to face you, Miss Valley," he said as sternly as he could.

"Who, sir; me, sir?" Ruth returned, then took several steps forward and threw her arms around him. He returned the hug whole-heartedly. "Welcome home, Jim," she whispered, her voice catching with emotion.

The words explained both the joy and the sadness. Home. Yes, this is home. But forgive me, my silver lady, home isn't enough anymore. He let go of Ruth, squeezing her hands in thanks, turning to the control console. Jilla Majiir's glow was more pronounced and Jim smiled. "Your skill, as always, is to be commended, Lieutenant."

Her answer was quiet and as modest as he recalled. "Such praise for routine functions, Captain Kirk, are..."

"They aren't routine for me, Mrs. Majiir."

"Not as yet, sir." The calm confidence touched him.

"Thank you, Lieutenant."

"Welcome home, Captain."

Jim nervously rubbed his hands together. "Well. Where’s Bones? And Scotty? I was hoping..." he caught Jade's questioning glance and Ruth's quick nod.

"They were delayed," Ruth said. Jade took him firmly by the arm.

"I’ll escort you to your quarters, James," she stated.

"They aren't quite ready," Ruth returned. "Maybe you'd like to wait in the rec room?"

"Good idea," Jade answered before Jim could open his mouth. "You can get used to the ship again," she continued at him.

"Of course, Jade," he agreed, fighting a wry grin. He knew a set-up when he heard one. As he approached the door, he heard Spock instruct Sulu to get the new Security Chief settled before the Vulcan fell in step behind him. Home indeed.

===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*=== ===*===

"New Security Chief?" Ruth whispered fiercely as she walked next to Spock behind Jim and Jade.

"Yes. Mr. Paget is well qualified..."

"I know all about Mr. Paget! What about Roy? You taking that away, too?"

"Ruth... there is much I have not explained..."

"You bet there is!"

Jade's head turned. "Problem, Ruth?" Ruth showed her teeth.

"Don't start with me, shrink."

Jade lifted an eyebrow and returned her attention to Jim.

"I knew there was a reason I didn't miss her," Ruth muttered, and heard Jade's muffled snort of amusement. She herself was, however, in much too bad a mood to enjoy the resumption of their bantering mock-enmity.

"My wife," Spock rejoined, "I admit I have not handled this situation adroitly..."

"You haven't 'handled’ it at all!" Ruth interrupted. "You've mangled it! Destroyed it! Ruined..."

"If you would allow me to..."

"How could you be so thoughtless, so..."

"Ruth, I can..."

"You didn't even consider..."

"I assure you, I meant only..."

Spock's voice and further protests from Ruth were drowned out as Jim and Jade reached the door to the rec room, to be greeted by a large crowd of people shouting, "SURPRISE!" Ruth sighed in frustration. This party had been her idea - before her husband had decided to accept demotions for his command team. She supposed there was no way out of it now.

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