The man standing on the old San Francisco sidewalk staring at the tall, narrow row house across the street was at first glance rather ordinary looking. Thirty-ish, average height, average if somewhat muscular build, brown hair, beige coloring -- nothing there to distinguish him from any of the other million plus people who crowded into the city that had seemingly always pushed unsuccessfully at the natural boundaries of mountain and sea. It was somehow fitting that the city which eventually became home to Starfleet Headquarters had centuries earlier given up the effort to expand outward and instead had reached for the stars, first with these historic wood-frame houses and then, generations later, with the glass and steel high-rise apartment and office buildings visible in the distance.
As the man remained standing on the sidewalk, the crowd milled around him, finally noticing him by virtue of his very stillness that interrupted the normal flow of pedestrian traffic. Once noted, his still figure seemed to draw their attention like a magnet. Some glared at him angrily as they were forced to walk around him, while others displayed a more friendly interest, trying to peer past the collar he wore turned up against the damp chill of the fog-enshrouded city. That collar hid much of his face, but there was something about him that held their interest -- something in the sure, self-confident way he held his well-trained body, something in the pain-clouded intelligence of his hazel eyes. This was not a man used to being ignored. At the same time, he made no conscious effort to draw attention to himself and didn't even notice the heads that turned his way as the people passed by. His gaze was fixed unwaveringly on that house. The passers-by who noticed where he was looking surmised he must be waiting for someone to come outside; they would never have guessed that he was trying to build up the courage to cross the street and walk up the stairs to the big front door, knock and--
The door swung open, and a jacketed, curly-headed child of about nine hurried out and slammed the door shut before the feminine voice that followed him could shout anything more than "David -- wait!"
Blue eyes twinkling merrily with the glee of all mischievous boys, he ran down the steps and across the street.
The door opened again, and a petite blonde emerged, calling after the child who was already disappearing from her view into the crowd.
"David James Marcus!" she shouted. "Come back here this minute or I'll..." Her voice trailed off with the realization that she'd lost sight of the boy. She stood forlornly on the top step, desperately trying to pick one small figure out from among the sea of people on the sidewalk.
There was a matching forlornness on the face of the man who still stood on the sidewalk, staring at her with yearning eyes, their green-flecked golden irises darkened almost to black with his suppressed emotions.
He heard a childish giggle and shifted his gaze from the woman to the boy who ran lightly through the crowd in his general direction. The yearning in his eyes deepened, and he stepped to one side to intercept the small body that crashed headlong into his as the child glanced back over his shoulder to make sure the woman wasn't pursuing him.
The child started to dart around him only to be brought up short as a pair of square masculine hands caught him by the shoulders.
"Hey!" the child piped. "Leggo or I'll call the cops." He glared up at the man, his merriment of a few moments earlier disappearing to be replaced by a stormy anger. "I mean it, Mister. They'll lock you up for molestin' a kid."
The man burst into laughter at the precocious words, much to the annoyance of the boy, who continued to glare at him as he released the child's shoulders. Before the boy could run away again, however, he had caught him by the arm.
"I don't think anyone will arrest me for taking you back to your mother," he told the furious child who struggled helplessly in his hold as the man pulled him along with him back across the street.
"She's not my mother--"
"Sure she is," the man interrupted. "Anyone could see that."
Back at the house, Carol Marcus stood on tip toes, scanning the crowd for her missing son, relieved finally to catch sight of him in the firm grip of an unfamiliar man. As they stepped from the street onto the sidewalk in front of her house, she hurried down the stairs to meet them.
"Thank you so much. I'd never have caught him myself. I--" She stopped suddenly. "Jim!"
"Hello, Carol." He smiled -- the same smile, but different somehow: not quite so arrogant, so cocky; not quite so sure of himself. Something tightened inside of her, then began to loosen, unwinding slowly, allowing her to resume breathing.
"What are you doing here?" she asked when she had enough oxygen in her lungs to get the entire sentence out. "I thought you were on the--"
"We just got back in," he interrupted, then added, "I came to see you and David."
It was the answer she half-hoped for, half-feared. He'd been gone so long, and she'd convinced herself she was glad. Satisfied with her work and her son, Carol Marcus didn't need a man in her life -- not any man, and especially not this one whose eyes were always on the stars. It was easy to convince herself of that when he was far away, first on the Republic, then the Farragut, and most recently the Shenandoah.
But now that he was back on Earth, in San Francisco, standing here in front of her, it was hard to hang onto that conviction. He was the same Jim Kirk she had known and loved all those years ago: a little older, but just as handsome, just as compelling as he had always been; his smile just as charming, just as disarming.
And yet he was different. Older and wiser? Yes, and more. There was pain in his eyes and a vulnerability to his mouth that hadn't been there before. She ached suddenly with the need to ask him why: What had put those new emotions there?
She slammed the breaks on the thought a microsecond before she could reach out to him and offer comfort for something she instinctively knew she was better off not knowing.
Marcus shook her head as though to clear it and looked down at David, resting a proprietary hand atop his blond curls.
"Mom," the boy asked again, "do you know him?"
"Yes, David, I know him. He's--" She broke off and then finished the sentence with a half-truth: "This is Jim Kirk. He's an old friend of mine."
"Oh." David looked from his mother to Kirk and back again, indecision on his face. He seemed to want to tell her something but, at the same time, appeared undecided as to whether he should. Then he smiled suddenly, the innocent, sweet expression on his face reflecting the hopeful one of the man standing next to him as the child radiated his own, nine-year-old brand of the Kirk charm. "Were you calling me, Mom?" he asked.
Marcus fought back the grin that tugged at the corners of her mouth -- Just like his father -- and forced an appropriately stern tone to her voice. "You know good and well I was calling you, kiddo."
David tucked in his chin, dropping his gaze to the sidewalk beneath his feet, and began tracing invisible patterns on the concrete with the scuffed toe of one sneaker. "Yes, ma'am," he said, accepting the reprimand without further provocation.
Her attention shifted back to Kirk.
"I'd like to talk with you." His eyes were begging her for something -- something more than a talk? She stiffened, unsure whether she should grant his request.
"I thought that was what we've been doing for the past ... five minutes?" The sentence turned into a question when she realized she had no idea how much time had gone by since she first recognized the man with David: a moment, an eon -- time held no meaning. But five minutes was about the length of David's attention span unless he was the center of attention himself or something had engaged his precocious mind.
"No, Carol," Kirk corrected her, shaking his head slowly but emphatically. "Not five minutes on a public street. And what we've been doing isn't really talking -- just exchanging a few, very few, banalities about absolutely nothing without saying anything that's truly on our minds. I'm talking about a real conversation -- in private."
"I don't know, Jim." She caught her lower lip between her teeth, thinking furiously as she fought to control that unsettling fluttering in her stomach that seemed to rob her of the ability to formulate coherent thoughts. "Some things are simply better left unsaid."
He studied her for a moment, then said: "Not this." He sighed. "Carol, please. Just let me come in for a little while to talk."
Still, she hesitated. She had sent this man out of her life once almost nine years ago now. Did she dare let him back in again ... even for a little while? "Just talk?" she asked. What did he want to talk about? What could she say to him after all these years? He'd damned well better not say anything that threatened her relationship with her son. His, too, a small voice whispered in her mind. No, mine, all mine, she answered it fiercely.
"Just talk. I swear." His words reclaimed her wandering attention as he raised his right hand, two fingers held together and grinned at her hopefully, prompting a melting sensation deep within her. "Scout's honor."
"You were never a Boy Scout."
He kept that puppy-dog expression on his face, the one that reminded her so much of her son at his most cajoling, and finally she relented with a shaky laugh, raising her arms and dropping them in a gesture of surrender. "Okay, Jim. You win." She reached for the doorknob. "Come on inside."
"Can I go to Joey's to play?"
Again catching the reflection of the man in the child's hopeful expression, she sighed in surrender once more and reached out to brush his blond curls back from his eager face. "All right, kiddo, you can go for a little whi-- wait!" She interrupted herself to stop him when he dashed down the front steps before she had finished speaking. This time, he obeyed and stopped to await further instructions. "You can go play with Joey, but you can only stay for one hour, no longer," she told him. "I want you back here on time, kiddo."
"Yes, ma'am," he agreed and jumped from the fourth step to the sidewalk in one leap.
The quiet voice stopped him once more. He glanced over one shoulder, then made his mother proud by remembering his manners -- if somewhat belatedly. "Goodbye, er..."
"Jim," Kirk supplied.
"Goodbye, Jim," David said. "It was nicetameecha." He finished the sentence as one word, then took off down the street before they could delay him again.
Marcus laughed. "Just like his father," she spoke aloud the words that had run through her mind a minute earlier. "Always in a hurry to get somewhere." She paused, then continued when he didn't respond: "So, Jim, where are you off to next?"
"That's what I wanted to talk about," he answered the casual question soberly. "Carol, I'm thinking about leaving Starfleet."
She stared at him, unable to think of a single thing to say.
* * * * *
Marcus silently led Kirk through the house to the kitchen, desperately searching for something to say in response to his startling announcement. Jim Kirk leaving Starfleet. That was a possibility that had never crossed her mind. He'd been unwilling to leave nine years ago when it would have made such a difference to all their lives. Why would he want to leave now?
"Have a seat," she offered when they reached the room intended for preparing and eating meals. She punched the order in the food delivery slot, then turned to watch him scan the room, his gaze sliding across the sparkling clean layout. She held her breath for a moment, waiting for his reaction to her version of a kitchen. It held no dirty dishes, no pots and pans or small appliances or canisters of food sitting out. Just the gleaming vending unit with the shiny row of buttons that could be used to order almost ten thousand entrees and side dishes from a variety of local restaurants in a matter of minutes and a recycler unit that eliminated both leftover food and the utensils used for eating it. A ding from the microwave caught her attention before he spoke, and she reached inside to take two steaming mugs of coffee in her hands.
"Still can't cook, huh?" he teased gently.
She set the coffee mugs down on the otherwise empty table and motioned to Kirk to take a chair before seating herself on the opposite side, the chrome and glass surface serving as a much-needed barrier between them.
"Now," she began after they had each taken a sip of the coffee, "what's this about you leaving Starfleet?"
He set the mug back down on the table, but he kept it cupped within his hands as though somehow he were cold and in need of its warmth. "I'm just not so sure I want to put up with the bullshit any longer."
She studied his face carefully. "What happened, Jim?" she asked quietly. "Did they pass you over for promotion or something?"
"No," he answered, still speaking quietly but with surprise at her suggestion etched across the smooth planes of his face. "The contrary, in fact. They just bumped me up to captain, and they want me to take command of a heavy cruiser."
"A heavy cruiser! But, Jim, that's always been your dream: to captain one of the big ships. I don't understand. Why don't you want it now?"
"I'm not sure I understand myself. But something's just not right. It's too soon. I was a lieutenant then. And later, as a lieutenant commander, I served as its chief of security and second officer. Then six months ago, I was promoted to the rank of commander and given the Shenandoah, a scout ship on a research assignment. Now, all of a sudden, with the commander's insignia still new on my uniform, they want to add another full stripe to my sleeve and move me right into the center seat of a heavy cruiser. It's just too soon, Carol," he repeated his earlier protest.
"Why?" she asked.
He shrugged. "It doesn't matter. I'm not taking it."
"Can you do that? Just refuse a promotion?"
"It's frowned upon, but, yes, I can. And if they don't like it, I will leave the fleet." His words were defiant, but she caught that hint of vulnerability and pain on his face again.
"What happened, Jim?"
He wiped the emotions from his face, leaving a cold, closed expression -- one she didn't recognize -- in their place. "I don't really want to talk about it, although I'm surprised you haven't caught the reports on the news. All of the nets carried it."
She offered him an apologetic smile. "I don't watch the news much. Work and David take up pretty well all of my time."
He smiled back at the mention of her son. "I can't get over how much he's grown. He was just a baby last time I saw him."
Uncomfortable at his words, she took the now-empty coffee mugs and carried them to the recycler. With her back to him, she asked, "Why are you here, Jim?"
He was silent a minute, then began to speak slowly, in a careful monotone, all emotion leeched from his words: "Sometimes things happen to make you re-evaluate your life, take another look at what's really important, how it's the people that matter, not the adventures, the challenges, the accomplishments." He paused to take a breath and finished, his voice barely above a whisper now: "I ... I want to get to know my son."
Marcus turned around to face Kirk, holding her body stiff with defiance, her spine ramrod straight in an effort to appear taller than she was. It was an old habit, a holdover from her teen years when she constantly had mourned her lack of height; that was back before she learned that men -- if not boys -- liked petite women, found them feminine. Of course, that was before she decided that she didn't really care what men liked and instead devoted herself to her career and her son. "He doesn't know you're his father," she said finally.
"I gathered as much." There was no accusation in his words, no condemnation in the gentle hazel eyes or the simple statement of fact.
"I don't want him to know." She hated the defensive tone in her voice, but she couldn't seem to keep it out.
"That's all right -- for now at least." Kirk said agreeably as he stood and crossed the room to stand immediately in front of her, barely far enough away to avoid an outright invasion of her personal space; and yet she felt invaded anyway. "Carol," he said, "I don't want to push things too fast, but I'd like ... I hoped ..."
"You hoped what?" Warning bells were clanging in her head. He wouldn't take David; she wouldn't let him, not even on just a part-time basis.
"I don't know. I'd just like a chance to get to know him. No," he stopped her from speaking with a raised hand and continued in a calm, rational voice: "You don't have to tell him I'm his father. Just let us get to know each other first. We can let anything else wait until later, when you're more comfortable with it -- when and if you agree."
"I won't have him torn apart, Jim," she insisted. "You can't just waltz in here and make friends with my son and then dance back out again once you've resolved whatever it is that's making you reluctant to accept command of that ship. It would hurt him too much, and he's better off without you at all."
He turned away from her and took his place at the table again, giving her the space she needed to think, to breathe. "I feel as though we're reliving an old holo-film. Didn't we have this same conversation nine years ago?"
"One very much like it," she agreed. "I asked you to stay away."
"Because you didn't want a 'spaceman' in David's life."
"I still don't."
"But if I refuse command of the Enterprise, take a ground assignment, or maybe something on a starbase, somewhere with a good research facility where you could work, or even leave the fleet completely..." He kept coming back to that.
"And what would you do?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. I'm sure there are plenty of civilian outfits that could use the expertise of a man who's served in deep space. It doesn't really matter. Please, Carol," his eyes begged her even more than the words. "Just give me a chance."
"And if he accepts you as a friend?"
"Then maybe we could become a family after all."
"Now wait just a minute, kiddo." She stood up to face him, hands planted firmly on her slim hips. "I'm not in the market for a husband. David and I have gotten along just fine without you so far. What makes you think we need you around now?"
"I know that, Carol. Please, sit." He gestured at her empty chair, both his face and his words earnest. "I know that you've managed quite well on your own." He paused, then added softly, as though the confession were pulled from him against his will: "Maybe I need you."
Marcus didn't know what to say, so she remained silent, letting him continue.
"We loved each other once," he said. "We might again. But I won't push on that. It's been a long time, and I can understand your hesitation. If we could at least become friends, then I could see David occasionally. Be a part of his life. Have him a part of mine..."
She studied his expression carefully, unsure how to handle this situation, then finally capitulated. "All right, Jim," she said. "We'll give it a try. But I'm making no promises, and you have to let me make the decisions. You see David when and where I say, and you don't even hint that you're anything more than a friend. Deal?"
"Deal," he agreed."When do we begin?"
"How about tonight?" she suggested. "David will be back home from Joey's soon." She paused a few seconds until she was certain that she could manage to keep from smiling. "How would you like to stay for dinner?"
"You cooking?" he asked with an equally straight face as they stood and started for the doorway that led to the stairway to the second-floor living room.
She bristled deliberately. "I can, you know."
He laughed out loud. "Right."
"I can!" she protested again, fighting hard to hold back her own amusement at the old, private joke, knowing she was betrayed by the twitching of her lips, but not caring. She found that she was enjoying this talk; it made her feel young again. "I really can; I just don't have the time."
"Right," he said as he waited for her to move ahead of him up the stairs.
"You just wait," she warned him with a teasing glance back over her shoulder. "Some day I'm going to show you just how good a cook I am."
"I can't wait."
* * * * *
"Mom. Mom!" David's voice came ringing through the house seconds before the loud bang of the front door slamming shut. Kirk winced and grinned at the same time, searching his memory for the last time he had heard that sound. It must have been back when he was a child himself, on the farm in Iowa. Doors didn't slam on starships. His grin widened at Marcus's expression -- a duplicate of the one he had seen so often on his own mother's face. Suppressing the grin, he watched her go to intercept their whirling dervish of a son.
"Stop right there, young man," she ordered, stepping from the living room onto the second floor landing to halt his headlong flight up the stairs. "You know the house rules quite well, kiddo, and you've just broken two of the major ones."
Remembering his own mother's rules in the Iowa farmhouse where he grew up -- never slam the door and never run inside of the house -- Kirk smiled again at the memory of his own frequent breaking of those universal parental nevers.
David glanced up at his mother, opened his mouth to protest, then closed it again and quickly dropped his gaze to the hardwood floor before saying anything. "No slamming the door," he recited in a low voice, "and no running in the house."
Watching from the living room doorway, Kirk fought hard to keep from laughing at the words that echoed his own memories of a moment earlier.
"That's right," Marcus agreed. "Now, what are we going to do about it?"
"Give me a warning?" David suggested hopefully, his shoulders slumping when Marcus shook her head slowly.
"No, David. I don't think a warning will do. That's the third time this week that you've slammed the front door." She paused to consider possible punishments and then pronounced his sentence: "No holovid programs for three days."
"But, Mom!" he protested. "Tonight's Centaurian Rangers -- and Andy the Android's on tomorrow. They're my favorites."
Marcus shook her head again. "You should have thought of that before you slammed the door. Next time, it'll be two weeks."
"No arguments, David, or it'll be two weeks this time."
David opened his mouth to say something more, then closed it without speaking, obviously convinced his mother would make good her threat. Instead, he switched tactics and returned to the subject that had brought him home excited in the first place.
"Mom," he said, "Joey's dad is taking him to a baseball game. Can I go, too?"
"When?" Marcus asked.
Marcus shook her head. "Not tomorrow. You know Thursday is your piano lesson."
"But I hate playing the piano. You know I do."
"It doesn't matter. Your lesson's on Thursday, and you're going to be there." She added the age-old mother's litany: "Someday, you'll thank me for this."
Watching them, Kirk doubted that would be true; he hadn't ever been thankful for the things his mother made him do against his will. Now, at the ripe old age of thirty-two, with nearly a decade of deep space service behind him, he could recognize the value of such activities, but he wasn't thankful for having been forced to do them. Not the least little bit.
Obviously David felt the same way, even without his father's years of experience to reinforce his youthful opinion. The boy stuck his lower lip out in a pout and mumbled under his breath, "Fat chance."
"Carol," Kirk interrupted them before the argument between mother and son could escalate further. "What if I took David to a baseball game on another day -- one when he doesn't have a lesson already scheduled."
"When?" David demanded.
Kirk shrugged. "I don't know the team's schedule. You check it out, clear a date with your mom and let me know."
"You mean it?" David's eyes were big as saucers as he bounced up and down from flat-footed stance to his toes and back again, unable to contain the exuberant energy within his nine-year-old body. "Really? I can go to a ball game?"
"If your mom agrees," Kirk promised.
Marcus looked from one to the other, started to protest, then gave up the effort with a gesture of surrender. "Okay, you guys win," she acquiesced. "Just as long as it doesn't conflict with his lessons."
"Deal," Kirk said.
"Deal," David echoed, looking up at the Starfleet officer with a wide smile.
"Now," Kirk said. "In the meantime, how about a holo-sim game? I understand you have 'The Battle of Donatu Five.' I've heard that it's one of the most realistic simulations available, and I'd like to have a crack at those Klingons, see how they match up against the real thing."
"Really?" David's eyes were as big and round as saucers. "You fought against Klingons?"
"Well, not exactly," Kirk admitted. "But I have used the Starfleet version as a training exercise and actually defeated the bas-- er, the Klingons a time or two. You mom told me you're the champion of your friends. Want to take me on?"
David turned to Marcus. "Mom? It's not a holovid show."
Marcus looked from father to son and back again, and then she surrendered. "All right. I give up," she said with a heavy sigh. "You boys have fun." Heading toward her office at the rear of the house, she tossed over her shoulder: "I'm going to get some work done."
Commander James T. Kirk drummed his fingers rhythmically on the arm of the chair and glanced at the old-fashioned clock on the wall for the fifth time. It was only with the greatest of effort that he resisted the urge to march up to the desk across the room and demand to see the old man right that minute. But brand new commanders didn't make such demands of admirals -- or of admirals' aides -- so he remained in his chair, fuming.
Kirk glanced at the clock once more, then heard a buzz at the aide's desk. "Send Kirk in," came the voice of Commanding Admiral Heihachiro Nogura. The commander was out of his chair and half-way across the room before the aide could relay the message. Not even waiting for her acknowledgment, he stepped up to the portal and entered the adjacent room as soon as the door slid open.
"Commander." Nogura stood and held his hand out in greeting, smiling broadly at the young officer. "It's good to see you again, Jim."
Kirk accepted the handshake and turned to the second man in the room.
"I believe you know Admiral Komack," Nogura said.
Kirk nodded in greeting. "We've met."
"Sit down, Jim; sit down," Nogura directed, gesturing to an empty chair that flanked his desk along with the one occupied by Komack.
Accepting the offered chair, Kirk turned his attention back to the commanding admiral, quelling the urge to squirm in his seat.
"Are you enjoying your leave?" Nogura asked conversationally.
"Yes, sir. Thank you."
"Good to be back on Earth a while, isn't it?" Komack suggested blandly, following the commanding admiral's lead.
Kirk's eyes narrowed, but again he said only, "Yes, sir. Thank you."
"Lots of catching up to do, I'm sure," Nogura said. "Have you been to see your mother yet? Iowa should be nice this time of year."
"Briefly." Kirk acknowledged. "I hope to get back to the farm again in a few weeks for a real visit, something more than just a couple of days."
The discussion lagged, and Kirk felt his temper rise.
"So what have you been doing with yourself?" Komack attempted to resume the meaningless conversation.
Kirk exploded, standing suddenly and placing both hands flat on Nogura's desk, leaning forward as though he'd like to leap across it and grab the admiral by the throat. "What the hell is this about, Admiral?" he demanded.
Standing to face the young commander across the desk, Nogura gave Kirk a look that had left many a young -- and not-so-young -- officer quaking in his Starfleet-issue boots. The commander noted the look, but the adrenalin rushing through his system kept any feelings of fear at bay. All he felt was mad. "That's no way to address a senior officer, Commander," the admiral said in a frosty tone.
"No, sir, it's not," Kirk agreed, knowing his temper was still evident in his voice. "But I've been sitting out there waiting for you for over an hour, and then we've sat here for another five minutes chatting banalities like polite strangers, and I still don't know what the hell I'm doing here. I'm supposed to be on leave, which is supposed to mean my time is my own, to do with what I please without answering to Starfleet Command unless there's some kind of emergency, which, given the nature of this conversation so far, I gather there isn't." He paused to take a long-overdue breath, then added: "I have an appointment I'm already late for, sirs. So I'd like to get this, whatever the hell this is, over with and get on with my life, such as it is."
Both admirals remained silent a moment, then--
"Big date?" Komack asked.
Kirk turned to the rear admiral, ice suddenly coursing through his veins, replacing the fire of his anger with something much more dangerous. He took a deep breath and exhaled his temper along with the carbon dioxide. "The biggest," he agreed. "With my son."
Nogura frowned. "I'm sorry, Jim. How is David?"
"He's going to be very mad," the commander said evenly. "We're supposed to be on our way to a baseball game this very minute."
Nogura gestured at the BellComm unit on his desk. "You can give him a call, if you'd like, and explain what happened."
Kirk shook his head. "Thank you, sir, but no thank you. I think this is an apology I'd better make in person -- once we've finished discussing whatever it is that prompted you to call me in here." The sentence ended on an inflection that wasn't quite a question.
"Of course," Nogura agreed, gesturing again at the chair. "Sit down, Jim, and we'll make this as quick as possible." When Kirk was seated, the admiral continued. "About your next assignment: Have you made your decision yet?"
Frowning again, Kirk mentally counted to ten -- and then twenty and thirty -- before answering: "Not yet, sir. I've barely started my three months leave. You said I wouldn't have to decide before then. Has anything changed?"
Exchanging a quick, undecipherable glance with Komack, Nogura shook his head. "No, no. Nothing's changed, son. Forgive an old man for being impatient. There's still plenty of time before the Enterprise will be spaceworthy again. I'd just like to have her new commanding officer nailed down as soon as possible."
Nodding in agreement, Kirk found himself mentally flinching at the admiral's choice of words. Nailed down. It fit the trapped feeling he'd been fighting ever since returning to Earth aboard the Shenandoah. "I'll let you know as soon as I decide," he said finally.
"We'd like to make the announcement now -- while the Shenandoah incident is still fresh in the public's mind," Komack interjected. "They regard you as a hero, son."
"I lost five of my crew on that planet to that thing, and another half dozen during the hull breach -- and I'm a hero?"
As Kirk's temper began to boil again, Nogura jumped into the breach. "You're not seriously thinking of requesting a ground assignment, are you, son?" he asked.
"Why not? Some excellent officers -- yourself included -- have positions at Command." Kirk deliberately left Komack out of the comment.
"True," Nogura agreed benignly. "But some people are meant for ground duty, and some should be out there in space."
"And you think I'm among the latter?"
"Jim, if I accede to your request, it'll be a year, two tops, and you'll be back in that chair begging me to put you on a ship--any ship."
"You think you know me that well?"
Nogura steepled his fingers and met Kirk's gaze over their tips. "Jim, once, maybe twice, in a generation an officer comes along who is born to command, a man -- or woman -- with the ability to use all of his knowledge and experience and then make the necessary leap to the only solution to a sticky situation -- not the perfect solution, maybe not even the right solution according to the book, but the only solution that works.
"You're that kind of officer, Jim. You proved your unwillingness to give up even when faced with insurmountable odds when you came up with your own, unique approach to the Kobayashi Maru. And you proved it again on the Shenandoah."
The commanding admiral lowered his hands to his desk top and pushed himself to his feet, forcing the other two men to stand as well.
"That's why I want you in the center seat of the Enterprise," Nogura said, then shook his head and continued: "You're going to give us hell time and again, and you'll probably throw out the book whenever you think it's necessary, no matter what anyone else thinks or even what you know are the probable consequences. But you'll bring her back home again, and your crew will follow you wherever you choose to take them no matter what you ask of them, because they'll believe in you. Because you believe in yourself."
"I'm not sure of that right now," Kirk said softly.
"That's because you're tired and discouraged over the loss of lives on the Shenandoah. Son, you couldn't do a damned thing to save those five people who died. But you did get the others home. That's what counts. All you need now is a little more time to rest up, and you'll be ready to head out again. I'm sure of it. Think about it, and you will be, too."
"Give me the three months?"
"You have them."
"All right. I'll let you know as soon as I make up my mind."
"Fine," Nogura responded, reaching across the desk to shake hands again. "I'll look forward to hearing from you."
Kirk ignored the outstretched hand, barely avoiding being overtly rude by snapping to attention instead. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," he said and left the room the instant Nogura nodded his head in acknowledgement.
* * * * *
"He's late, Mom," David complained, crossing the kitchen to peer through the doorway at the front of the house. "Where is he?"
Marcus shrugged. "I don't know, son."
"I know, David." Marcus stood and joined her son, placing a hand on his shoulder to lead him back to the kitchen table -- and to console him in his disappointment. "Sometimes things come up," she explained, "and people can't keep their promises."
"But it's not fair!" David's lip was out in that pout again.
"David, I--" Interrupted by the sound of the doorbell, Marcus turned to answer it only to have David dash around her and through the foyer to the heavy oak portal. Twisting the gleaming brass knob, he swung the door open.
"Where have you been?" the boy demanded as soon as he saw Jim Kirk standing on the front stoop. "The game's already started."
Kirk immediately dropped into a crouch so he would be on eye level with the nine-year-old. "Yes, I know, David. I'm sorry. The admiral called me into his office, and it took longer than I expected. I'm really sorry."
"But the game's already started," David repeated, voice wavering with unshed tears.
Kirk looked up at Marcus, panic in his eyes, but found only frost in her own gaze and returned his attention to David, reaching out to offer him comfort, then fighting a sudden urge to cry himself when the boy jerked away from his touch.
"David, I said I'm sorry. I really am, and I told off two admirals for making me late. I know you don't know how unusual it is for a commander to do that, but I could have gotten into serious trouble for doing it. But I did it anyway. I was just as mad at them as you are at me. And it really was their fault."
David glared at him, looking as though he might burst into tears any second -- or spit in Kirk's eye; it seemed to be a toss-up. "I wanted to go to the ball game," he said.
"I know," Kirk replied. "So did I, and we will. Another day, and I promise I won't be late then. If the admiral sends for me, well, I just won't be available until after the game." He raised two fingers. "Scout's honor."
At the last, David's tense shoulders relaxed, and Kirk started to relax, too. But he wasn't off the hook yet. "What about today?" the boy demanded.
Kirk sighed. "What about it?"
"I told Joey I was going to the ball game. He's waiting to hear all about it. How can I just tell him we didn't go because you showed up too late. I told him you were my friend. Friends don't do things like this to each other."
The words hit Kirk like a kick in the stomach. "No, they don't. And I won't do it again, David. A promise is very important, and I give you my word that I won't break another one."
"That still doesn't help about today."
Kirk glanced up at Marcus again but still didn't find any help there. And then he smiled in sudden inspiration. "The zoo," he said.
"The zoo?" David asked.
"The zoo?" his mother echoed.
"The zoo," Kirk said evenly. "We'll go to the zoo today, and the ball game tomorrow or next week or as soon as you and your mother can come up with a good day."
"Mom?" David looked up at Marcus with renewed excitement. She smiled down at him and nodded her agreement.
"Maybe your mom would like to come with us?" Kirk suggested, his gaze meeting and capturing hers. But, after a long few seconds, she shook her head.
"Thanks, Jim, but I don't think so." She sounded sincere. "I have a lot of work to do, and this is supposed to be David's day anyway."
"All right, pardner," Kirk couldn't resist reaching out to ruffle David's blond curls. "It's just you and me then."
"I'll get my jacket," David tossed over his shoulder as he raced up the stairs, for once without the usual reprimand for running in the house.
Left alone with Carol Marcus, Kirk met her gaze soberly. "I really couldn't help it," he said.
"You really chewed out two admirals?" she asked.
He grinned sheepishly. "I lost my temper."
"I'm surprised you're still a commander."
"Me, too." He sobered. "Which means they know they were way out of line."
"What did they want?"
"To know if I'd made up my mind about the Enterprise assignment."
"I thought you said they gave you three months to make that decision?"
"They did, but obviously they're getting nervous about it -- with good reason."
"You're really going to turn it down?"
"I think so. If I have a good enough reason." Afraid to say anymore aloud, he tried to put his hopes in his expression.
"No pressure, Jim."
He sighed. "All right, Carol. No pressure." He shrugged. "Besides, I may just turn it down even if you do send me packing again."
"You're really that angry about this?"
He sat down on a bench in the foyer, leaning forward with his forearms stretched along the length of his thighs. "Not angry exactly. I--" He shrugged again. "I can't explain exactly what I am feeling: disgust, worry, disillusionment..." He allowed the sentence to trail off.
"Don't let them push you into something that doesn't feel right."
"That's it," he agreed. "It just doesn't feel right. And don't worry, I won't let them push me into it."
"Good. Jim--" Marcus was interrupted by the sound of David racing back down the stairs.
"I'm ready," he declared unnecessarily.
Kirk grinned at his exuberance. "Let's go then." He looked back at Marcus. "We won't be late."
"You'd better not be," she warned in mock seriousness. "Or you'll both be in trouble."
"Don't bother cooking any dinner for us," Kirk responded with a straight face. "We'll grab something at the zoo."
She frowned. "Don't fill him up with a bunch of junk food."
"I won't," Kirk agreed. "We'll have a salad, maybe some soup--"
"Aw." David's protest brought laughter from both his parents.
"How about a burger?" Kirk offered.
"A hot dog?"
Kirk looked to Marcus for approval. At her reluctant nod, he agreed. "A hot dog it is then. See you later, Carol."
Together, father and son left the house, David chattering eagerly. "I hear they have a Vulcanian sehlat at the zoo," he said. "And they're supposed to get a le-matya soon, too. But they don't have that yet."
* * * * *
David virtually danced with impatience as he waited for Kirk to pay their admission so they could enter the big, new Pacific Coast All Worlds Animal Park. Located in the old Napa Valley wine country north of San Francisco, the Park, as it generally was known, featured animals from a variety of Federation worlds living in natural settings created by a combination of holographic projections, climatic controls and force fields that simultaneously kept the animals in and curious visitors of all ages out. David had been begging his mother to take him to the Park ever since it opened the previous year, but Doctor Marcus had not yet been able to fit an excursion into her busy schedule. Kirk, therefore, had struck pay dirt when he suggested the visit in an attempt to make up for the missed ball game.
"Ready?" he asked David as he stepped away from the ticket window and directed the boy toward the Park's entrance.
"Ready," David echoed with an eager grin.
Once inside, Kirk guided his son toward the transportation center where they boarded an air car that floated along a computer-guide track to take them to the first of the "worlds" they would visit today.
"What's first?" David asked, craning his neck to look out first one side and then the other of the air car.
"Well," Kirk said, "I thought we'd visit Vulcan first. You did say you wanted to see a sehlat, didn't you?"
David turned shining eyes on his father. "Really?" he breathed. "We're going to see the sehlat first."
Jim suppressed a grin. "I thought that was what you wanted to see. But if you'd rather visit the Mars colony farm exhibit..."
David's expression morphed from disgust to skepticism to dawning humor. "You're just joking," he said finally. "Who wants to see a bunch of chickens and sheep?"
Kirk laughed easily. "Can't fool you, can I?" he asked. "Although, a farm can be a pretty interesting place for a boy your age."
"You're kidding, right?" David asked.
"Not at all. I lived on a farm when I was nine. In fact, I lived on a farm until I left to attend Starfleet Academy at seventeen."
Kirk laughed again. "No, of course not. My mother was there and my grandfather and my older brother, Sam."
"What about your father?"
"Dad was there whenever he was on Earth and not off somewhere 'chasing around the galaxy,' as my mom used to say."
"Are they still there?"
"Just Mom now. Dad and my grandfather are dead. Sam's living on an Earth colony on Deneva with his wife and kids."
"What're they doing there?"
Jim smiled at his son and ruffled his hair, amused by the child's seemingly unending supply of questions. "Sam's a scientist, like your mother. He and Aurelan, his wife, are working on a research project of some kind. I forget exactly what."
"Oh." David considered the information for a moment, then resumed his questioning. "What about his kids?"
"What about them?"
"What do they do on Deneva?"
"Pretty much what you do. They go to school and probably have to take piano lessons -- all moms seem to require those -- and even play once in a while."
"How old are they?"
Kirk rubbed his chin in thought. "The older one is named George, like yo...like his father and grandfather. He's about your age. Peter was born after they moved to Deneva. Him I haven't seen since he was a toddler...was he talking in whole sentences yet?" He paused, then added at David's disapproving look: "Hey, don't blame me for not remembering. I'm just their uncle, not their fa--" He broke off the sentence in mid-word as he realized exactly what he was once again almost saying. "Anyway, for all I know they're planning to have another child. So it's kind of hard to keep track of every part of their lives."
"Oh." Seeming to accept the explanation at face value, David resumed looking out the air-car windows, watching the various "worlds" approach below them, then disappear before he had a chance to see much of anything.
"Don't worry," Kirk reassured him. "You'll have plenty of time to see pretty much whatever you want."
"But I want to see everything!"
"Even the chickens?"
"Well, almost everything."
* * * * *
The sehlat was definitely a hit, as were various other alien specimens, but David was just as entranced by some of the Terran animals, which could seem almost as exotic to a city boy.
David bounced up and down on one foot, the other suspended in mid-air as he scratched his side and mimicked the sounds of the monkey on the other side of the force field. Kirk laughed easily, knowing that David intentionally was being silly. After all, it was one of the perks of childhood, this ability to be silly without feeling foolish. Now, if a grown man and Starfleet officer tried the same thing...
Kirk glanced around him to see who might be watching, then shrugged, deciding it didn't really matter. He glanced down at his son, waiting for the boy to look his way, then copied David's movements and sounds. It felt as foolish as it looked, but - and it was a big but - it was fun, too.
Obviously, David thought so, too. His eyes grew big and absolutely round, then he began to laugh ... and laugh and laugh until he was rolling around on the ground.
"You ..." he managed to get out between giggles, "look silly."
Kirk laughed with him. "Yeah," he agreed, "well, so do you."
"But I'm a kid; I can be silly if I want."
"And I can't?"
David stopped laughing and considered. "I don't know; I never saw a grown man act like a kid before.
Kirk stopped his antics and stooped down to meet David at eye level. "Sometimes," he said, "it's absolutely necessary to act like a kid, even when you're all grown up with grown-up responsibilities - especially if you have a lot of responsibilities."
Kirk nodded. "It is." But he couldn't explain that the necessity involved sharing fun with his son - not when he couldn't yet tell David about their relationship. He decided it was time to change the subject.
"Are you hungry?"
David nodded. "I want a hot dog."
"I thought we were going to compromise with your mom and get a burger."
"We don't have to tell her," David said. "It could be our secret."
Kirk rubbed his chin. He didn't want to defy Carol's instructions, but he liked the idea of having a secret with his son. "Well, I won't tell if you won't," he said finally. "Deal?"
* * * * *
Carol Marcus looked up from the computer console in her office. She was getting used to the sound of her young son's excited voice reverberating through the house. It was a sound previously discouraged but not altogether unwelcome now.
"Mom!" David called again, running up the stairs to burst into his mother's office, Jim Kirk following him at only a slightly more sedate pace. "We're home." I saw the sehlat and a Rigellian ox and a fle-mum-bi..." He had to sound that one out, syllable by syllable. "...from Tellar, and the le-matya's going to get here next month, and Jim said he'd take me back to the Park then so I can see it, too." He said it all in a rush as though he couldn't get it out fast enough, then added more soberly after a single beat when Kirk sent him a warning look: "if it's okay with you, of course." And then his excitement was back. "I can go again, can't I? Please, Mom?"
Marcus laughed. How could she resist her son when he was like this? The question was rhetorical. She couldn't. No more than she could resist his father in a similar mood. "Of course, David. You can go again -- as long as you don't miss any lessons."
David turned his shining face up at Kirk. "She said yes."
"I know," the commander said with a smile that carefully walked the fine line between happiness and amusement. When he turned its full wattage on Marcus, she caught her breath in surprise. She had forgotten how susceptible she was to Kirk's smiles.
"I took you at your word and didn't cook anything," she said in a rushed attempt to hide how rapidly her heart was beating all of a sudden. "But I can offer you some coffee -- and maybe even dessert of some kind if you'd like."
"No dessert," Kirk said with a quick shake of his head. "We had ice cream at the zoo. Besides, I think this young man..." He interrupted himself to squeeze David's shoulder affectionately. "...is all tuckered out."
David yawned, as though on cue, and Marcus smiled. "Okay, kiddo," she said, switching off the computer and standing up. "It's off to bed with you."
"Okay, Mom," David said with another yawn and headed on up the stairs, for once without protest, pausing at the next landing to look back at Kirk. "Thank you for taking me to the zoo, Jim." Yawn. "I had a really good time."
"Me, too," Kirk said softly, then called after the child as he continued up the stairs, "David? Aren't you forgetting something?" He held up a fat, stuffed toy Marcus hadn't previously noticed. "Your sehlat."
With a renewed burst of energy, David ran back down the stairs to take the plush animal. "Thank you," he said, "for buying it for me."
Kirk smiled. "You're very welcome. Now," he added, "upstairs. Scoot."
"Yes, sir," David answered with a smile that echoed Kirk's then segued into another yawn as he again started up the stairway.
Marcus watched him, bemused, remembering the completely different reaction she had received the last time she tried to buy David a stuffed animal. She shook her head, wondering if all mothers had as much difficulty understanding their nine-year-old sons. Surely she couldn't be the only one. She turned to Kirk.
"Give me a minute, and I'll fix that coffee," she said, then followed David up to the third-floor bedroom.
* * * * *
Marcus entered the kitchen to find Kirk already seated, with a steaming mug of coffee in front of him and a second one across the table. She sat and took a sip from her mug. "Not bad coffee for a spaceman," she said.
Kirk gave her a half-smile for the effort, then drank from his own mug. "I'm not a bad cook myself," he offered a joke as feeble as her own. "Carol--"
This time they did laugh. It wasn't all that funny. Just two people speaking at the same time. But it broke the tension that permeated the room.
"David asleep?" Kirk asked.
Marcus nodded. "What was that 'tuckered out' business?"
Kirk laughed easily this time. "Must have picked it up from Bones."
"Leonard McCoy. Ship's surgeon on the Pegasus and a damned fine one, too, although he keeps calling himself 'just an old country doctor,' usually with a Georgia accent so thick you could cut it with a phaser."
"A good friend?"
"The best. We met when the Farragut rescued the Pegasus, and we've run into each other a time or two since then. And then he was a passenger on the Shenandoah just recently. In fact, we ... " He broke off the sentence and bit his lip, as though to stop himself from saying something he both needed to say and couldn't.
Marcus frowned. "What happened, Jim?"
He shook his head. "I don't want to discuss depressing things right now, Carol. Let's talk about David instead."
She smiled at that. "He really did have a good time today. Couldn't stop talking about it the entire time he was changing into his pajamas and getting into bed. I could barely get him to stop long enough to brush his teeth, and finally he just dropped off to sleep in mid-sentence." She paused. "Thank you, Jim."
"Thank you. For giving me a chance to get to know him," he added as she raised an eyebrow in inquiry.
"Let's just call it a mutually beneficial occasion and let it go at that," Marcus suggested, and Kirk agreed with a silent nod.
"Tell me about you," he prodded.
"Not much to tell. I work, and I take care of David. That's about it."
"You used to be unable to stop talking about your work."
Marcus took the empty coffee mugs and headed for the recycler with them. Somehow it was easier to talk to him about difficult things when she wasn't looking at him. Her back to him, she said as casually as she could, "I can't talk about it these days, Jim. It's top secret."
"I have a pretty high security clearance."
She shook her head. "Not for this. Not now. Some day, when we have all the theoretical bugs worked out and are ready to start field testing, maybe then. But not now." She laughed, but wasn't sure it sounded convincing. "Actually, it's not so much a matter of security as my fear that talking too much about it will jinx everything," she admitted. "I'd like to be sure it really works before I tell my friends about it."
She turned back to face him. "What about you? Still intent on passing up that captaincy you always wanted so badly.
Kirk sighed. "It's not a captaincy, not in the strictest sense of the word. I have to be a commander for at least six months before they'll consider giving me another promotion to captain's rank. But it is command."
"And why don't you want it?"
"It's not that I don't want it; I just don't want it yet." He paused, as though to collect his thoughts, then explained: "I only had a few weeks of experience in command of a scout ship under my belt when they gave me the Shenandoah. Carol, I hadn't even been a first officer before that, and then I manage to botch my first real assignment in command and lose nearly a dozen officers. I'm simply not ready to take command of a heavy cruiser."
"Did you tell them that?"
"I tried -- both today and when they first made the offer, but they didn't want to listen to any objections. They had already decided."
"Why not? Why wouldn't they listen?"
He waved a hand in dismissal. "Oh, they had a lot of shit to say about what a fine job I had done bringing the Shenandoah back with my crew almost intact, and how I'd already proved myself to their satisfaction, and wouldn't it be great to take command of such a big ship at such a young age, and they really didn't have a better candidate to take over for Pike since he was promoted to fleet captain. A bunch of crap like that."
"And the real reason?" She'd let that offhand comment about the captain and first officer go for now, but she'd damn well better get an explanation out of him later.
"The real reason?" He turned his hands face up on the table in a rare gesture of complete openness. "They think it will be good for public relations. Hail the conquering hero. What nice people we are to reward such a fine young, up-and-coming officer. More crap."
Marcus placed her hand in one of his and barely suppressed the wince as his fingers closed convulsively around it. "Sure you don't want to talk about it?"
He shook his head. "Not now. Maybe later."
She lifted an eyebrow again. "Later next week? Or later tonight?"
Kirk's eyes widened, and that devastating smile spread across his face again. "What are you suggesting, Doctor Marcus?"
Without a word, Marcus stood and gave his hand a tug.
Just as silently, he followed.
"Saurian brandy," Leonard McCoy explained as he poured a glass of the potent liquid from the long-necked, amber bottle and handed the glass to the smiling young security chief. "Not as good as Kentucky bourbon, but it'll do in a pinch."
Jim Kirk took a sip from the glass and felt the brandy slide smoothly down his throat. "Not bad," he agreed. "What's the occasion?"
"It's our anniversary," McCoy offered with a grin that faded to a sadder expression. "We met seven years ago today."
"Eta Orionis Fourteen," Kirk said flatly and took another, bigger sip from his glass. "Sorry, Bones. I know it still hurts."
"Yeah, the ones we lose always hurt. I have Eta Orionis, and you have Tycho Four."
Kirk felt a stab of his own pain, remembering Captain Garrovick and the others lost to the Vampire Cloud on Tycho IV. He'd told McCoy all about the tragedy during a drinking bout back on the Pegasus, when they had first shared confidences, first made friends. It was strange that, of all the officers aboard the Pegasus, he'd picked this Southerner nearly a decade older than himself as his friend. But shared confidences had a habit of cementing friendship like nothing else could. Shared confidences and shared pain. When asked, he'd still claim Gary Mitchell as his best friend. Old habits died hard, and Jim Kirk was nothing if not loyal. But, still, deep inside himself, he somehow knew that there was a depth to this friendship that was missing from the other one. And it didn't even matter that it had been seven years since they had met and they had only encountered each other a time or two since, sharing a drink or two while on leave at the same time or place. Each time, they seemed simply to pick up where they had left off, as though it had just been last week that they had met.
When he was informed he had a passenger to pick up on his way back to Earth, he had counted it as just another annoyance. It would add a day to the journey, but he wasn't particularly in a hurry to get home, not after what had happened on Kornephoros VI. Another disaster. First Tychos IV, and now...
"And now Kornephoros Six..." He said aloud, giving voice to the dark thoughts.
McCoy lifted his glass in a somber toast: "To lost friends."
"And found ones," Kirk answered.
And then all hell broke loose.
Something shook the Shenandoah like a baby's rattle, the research vessel seemed to tilt on its axis, and the red alert klaxons sounded, all seemingly simultaneously. Before the doctor could get up from the floor where he had landed, Kirk was across the room jabbing at the comm unit on wall of McCoy's temporary quarters. "Kirk to bridge." When there was no answer, he jabbed again, then exchanged a worried look with the doctor. "I'm headed up there."
"Right behind you." McCoy rummaged quickly through his gear and grabbed a medikit then followed Kirk.
After finding the turbolift non-operational, they climbed through a series of Jefferies tubes until they finally reached the corridor immediately outside the bridge. When the door failed to open, Kirk jerked open the plate that covered the manual override and grabbed the lever, slamming it downward.
Half way. It stopped there, and a voice emitted from the nearby comm unit: "Hull breach on bridge. All life-support systems non-operational. Do not proceed."
Kirk exchanged another glance with McCoy, one of horror this time and headed for a nearby conference room. Activating the intraship viewing system, he got his first look at the Shenandoah's bridge.
"No," he whispered.
"God damn it, no!" McCoy added.
"No!" Kirk sat up straight in bed, shaking at the memories that once again interrupted his sleep. Drawing his knees up beneath the covers, he folded his arms over them and laid his head down.
He'd been off duty when the Shenandoah's bridge blew, killing the entire late shift bridge crew. Dead, all dead, all six of them: helmsman and navigator, communications officer, security officer, chief medical officer, and even Doc, best damned engineer in the entire fleet in Kirk's opinion. He regretted Doc's lost most of all, would miss him, too, if he took that assignment they were pushing on him. He'd have liked to take the chief engineer along with him to that new command. Doc had been difficult to deal with at times, but a wizard at finding and fixing almost any problem a starship could throw at him. But not now. No, not now. A hull breach! He still wasn't quite sure how it had happened. Space debris wasn't supposed to be a problem while in warp, but for some reason Doc, who had been in command while Kirk and Mitchell were both off duty had taken them out of warp, and just as they had emerged, that thing, whatever it was had loomed in front of the ship, right at the point where the bridge bulged above, slamming into the Shenandoah and killed six fine crewmen, five very young crewmen, and Doc, best damned... And where had Jim Kirk been when it happened? Drinking with his passenger, with McCoy. Some captain he was. And they wanted to give him a heavy cruiser?
A gentle hand rested on his bare shoulder. Lifting his head, the Starfleet officer turned to face the woman at his side. Marcus. Still as beautiful as she had been all those years ago at the Academy. Still as passionate. Still as warm, as giving, ready to share in his pain if he'd just let her.
But he couldn't. He just wasn't ready to share this yet. So, instead of accepting the warm embrace she offered, he lay back down and turned on his side, facing away from her. There was a brief pause, then he felt her lie down behind him, wrapping her arms around him and resting her head against his back. Never in his entire life had Kirk felt such complete acceptance. Rather than take offense at his attempted rebuff, she simply ignored it and offered what comfort she could. Blinking back tears that he refused to let fall, Kirk closed one hand over hers and squeezed the thanks he couldn't voice.
It was enough.
* * * * *
David Marcus came bounding down the stairs the next morning and ran eagerly into the kitchen, starving for breakfast. He came to a sudden halt at the sight of the man sitting at the table, wearing the same clothes he'd had on the night before. David couldn't miss that. After all, Jim Kirk was in uniform, having come straight to the house from his meeting with the admirals.
David frowned and looked around the room. "Where's Mom?" he asked finally.
Kirk looked up from the coffee mug that had held his undivided attention. "Good morning," he said with an easy smile. "Sleep good?"
"Yeah," David said sullenly. "I'll bet you did, too."
Kirk frowned. Where was the eager, excited boy from the zoo?
"Where's Mom?" David asked again.
"Getting dressed. She'll be down in a minute." He stood. "Can I get you some breakfast?"
"No, thanks. I'll wait for Mom."
"What are you doing here?" the boy blurted out.
"I..." Kirk found himself at a loss.
"I thought you were my friend."
"I am," Kirk protested, confused by this sudden change in David's attitude. "But I'm your mom's friend, too. You know we've been friends for a long time."
"Yeah, right." David glared at him. "Be nice to the kid, and maybe you can end up in his mom's bed. I've seen that one before."
"You have?" Kirk was taken aback by the boy's seemingly precocious sophistication. Just how much did he know about what went on between a man and a woman -- or any two or more adults -- in the privacy of a bedroom.
"Yeah. But usually it doesn't work. Not with my mom," David admitted.
Kirk smiled briefly at that, then wiped the grin from his face when David scowled at him. "Who does it work for?" he couldn't resist asking.
"My friend Ricky's mom. He says guys are always taking him places and buying him things just so his mom will let them hang around." David shrugged. "Ricky says he doesn't mind. As long as he gets to go places and get stuff, who cares why they do things for him?" Defiance was clear in both his expression and his posture. But Kirk was willing to bet the farm back home in Iowa that the defiance was nothing more than a ruse.
"You care," he said softly. It was not a question.
David glared again and didn't answer.
"I was checking the sports nets," Kirk offered after a silent minute. "There's another ball game today. If you don't have a les--"
"Well, how about next Tuesday?"
The Starfleet officer sighed, determined not to be outwitted by an nine-year-old boy. "I know you don't have lessons on weekends. We'll go next Sunday."
David shrugged. "Maybe" was as much as he would concede. Glancing over his shoulder at the sound of light footsteps on the stairs, he hurried to the back door. "Tell Mom I wasn't hungry," he paused just long enough to instruct Kirk. "I'm off to school." And he was through the door and around the corner of the house before Kirk could stop him.
"I heard voices," Marcus said casually as she entered the kitchen and headed for the microwave to get her morning coffee. "Is David up yet?"
She stopped at that and turned to face Kirk, coffee apparently forgotten. "Left?" She frowned. "Without breakfast."
"Said he wasn't hungry." Kirk made a valiant effort to keep his voice neutral, as casual as Marcus's had been a moment earlier, but he didn't think he was very successful at the effort. He could tell she didn't believe him.
Kirk shrugged. "He didn't seem to like finding me here this morning."
Her eyes widened in surprise. "What did you say?"
"I asked if he'd slept well, told him you were getting dressed when he asked and offered him some breakfast," Kirk elaborated, trying hard to keep the defensive tone out of his voice. "Then he lit into me like I'd committed some kind of crime."
Marcus frowned again.
"You don't have many male visitors, do you?"
Both eyebrows shot up. "That's not any of your--"
"Whoa," Kirk raised one hand, palm outward in protest. "I didn't mean it that way, Carol, but from David's reaction, I don't think he's used to getting up in the morning and finding men sitting at the breakfast table."
"He's not," she said in a tight voice and sat down. "I'm sorry, Jim. You're right. I don't have many men over. Like I said last night, David and my work keep me busy. There's not much time for men ... although plenty ask," she added with just a touch of residual defiance.
Kirk grimaced. "I gathered as much from what David said."
"What did he say?"
Kirk carefully folded his hands on the table top. "He accused me of making friends with him just to sleep with you."
"Yeah, I know that's not true, and you know it's not true. But he doesn't. He thinks I'm just another man trying to get to his mother through him."
"It would never occur to him that it might be the other way around," Marcus said in a tone the commander wasn't sure he could decipher.
"You know that's not true," he protested. "I want to spend time with David, yes. But I also want to spend time with you. I'm honestly not sure if I want either one more than I do the other, but I know damned well I don't want one without the other."
"You sure about that?"
After a brief hesitation, he reached out to take Marcus's hand in his. "You want to know how I feel about you, don't you?"
Dropping her gaze to her hand resting loosely in his, she nodded. "Do you blame me? I'm as unsure of where I stand as David is."
Rubbing his thumb against the back of her hand, Jim Kirk hesitated a moment, then tried to explain: "Ten years ago, I loved you to distraction. But that was ten years ago. Right now..." He paused, searching for the right words. "Right now, I'm not sure exactly what I feel. I know I still think you're as beautiful as I did the night Gary introduced us. And after last night, I don't have to tell you how much you still turn me on." He offered a smile, then resumed a more serious demeanor when she didn't respond.
"I also know that I'm impressed as hell by your intelligence -- as I've always been. And, on top of all that, I like you. I genuinely enjoy being with you -- in bed or out." This time she did return his smile, and he began to relax.
"I don't know if all that adds up to love, but I do know what I feel now isn't the same as what I felt when we were at the Academy. It's different. We're different. At least I know I am. I'm older, more experienced -- and I'm not talking sex here," he interjected in another feeble attempt at humor, then continued when she didn't laugh, "and I hope a little wiser, too. I may be more self-confident in some ways -- that comes with the experience. But in others ..." Pushing back the memories of seven years ago on the Pegasus and those of last month on the Shenandoah and his uncertainty about his readiness for command of his own ship, he released her hand and placed it gently down on the table, patting it twice, lightly, before withdrawing his own hand. "I'm not so sure of my feelings as I was back then, if that makes any sense."
Needing to move, he stood up and headed for the microwave to get another cup of coffee for himself and one for Marcus as well, sipping slowly from his mug as he tried to figure out what to say next. Returning to the table, he set the coffee down and looked her squarely in the eye. "I do know that I want to spend time with you, not just David. I want a chance to find out if we can recapture what we once had. I really hope so, but if we can't, then you and I'll move on. I won't say there wouldn't be any regrets, but we can deal with that kind of disappointment. We're adults, and we've dealt with it before." He didn't realize that what he was saying now contradicted what he'd told her a few minutes earlier. He wasn't even sure what he was going to say until the words came out of his mouth. All he knew was that he was fighting like he'd never fought before -- not for his existence but for his very life.
"But whatever happens between us," Kirk said emphatically, "I want to be a factor in David's life from now on. He doesn't understand that. He thinks that if I leave, or you send me packing, then I'll be out of his life again. He has no idea I have another reason to want to be friends. He doesn't know I'm his father."
Marcus stiffened again. "I'm not ready to tell him yet, Jim."
"Yeah, I know." He reached for the jacket that hung on the back of one of the kitchen chairs. "I've given you a lot to think about. Maybe I'd better go for now and let you consider what I've said and how you feel about it. I'll call later?" It was a simple declarative sentence, but his inflection at the end turned it into a question.
She looked up at the gentle note in his voice.
"Thanks for last night -- and I don't mean the sex."
She smiled. "I know you don't," she acknowledged, then added, "Jim?"
"I'm ready to listen whenever you're ready to talk about it."
He nodded, knowing she wasn't talking about their relationship. "The problem is, I'm not sure yet when that will be."
He nodded again and smiled. "Talk to you later."
Doctor Leonard H. McCoy swirled the amber liquid around his glass and stared into its depths. There was nothing like good Kentucky bourbon, the real thing, and this was definitely real. He glanced at the chronometer on his wrist for the fourth time and looked up toward the restaurant entrance, then stood when he saw the attractive couple approaching his table.
"Carol, this is Leonard McCoy. Bones, Carol Marcus," Kirk introduced them and grinned in obvious enjoyment when the doctor took Marcus's outstretched hand and bent over it to kiss the back instead of shaking it as she intended.
"I'm very pleased to meet you, Doctor Marcus," McCoy drawled. "I've heard a lot about you, but Jim's description didn't come close to doin' you justice. You're much more beautiful than he led me to believe."
Marcus laughed in delight at his gallantry and took the chair Kirk held out for her. "So you're the famous Bones."
"The one and only."
"I'm delighted to meet you, Doctor McCoy. Jim's told me a lot about you, too, and never once did he mention your blue eyes."
The doctor grinned back at her and leaned back in his chair. "Beauty, charm and intelligence. How'd you ever let this one get away, Jim-boy?"
"Not by choice," Kirk answered. "She just keeps turning me down."
"Wise woman," McCoy commented, lifting his glance in silent tribute. "Think I could interest you in an old country doctor?" he offered.
Marcus laughed. "Maybe. If my son likes you."
"All sons like me, darlin'," he said, nodding emphatically. "Daughters, too. I'm everybody's favorite father-figure. Didn't Jim tell you?"
"No," she answered softly. "Just that you're the one of the best friends he ever had -- and I'm beginning to understand why."
McCoy grinned again and looked at the younger man. "Yeah, well, that goes two ways."
* * * * *
Lying warm and snug in the big, old-fashioned cherry wood four-poster bed, with Carol Marcus curled up against him, Jim Kirk couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this relaxed. Good sex always left him with a feeling of overall well-being. But this was different. It always was with Carol. Smiling to himself, he looked down at the blond head cradled against his shoulder. This wasn't just good sex; it was satisfying in an emotional sense as well. He'd loved this woman to distraction once and lost her to his career ambitions. Now that the career was somewhat off track, he found himself falling in love all over again -- and just possibly ready to throw away everything else in his life for the fulfillment of wife and family. It wouldn't be a bad trade-off, he thought.
As Carol stirred in his arms, then snuggled even closer, he lifted his hand to stroke her soft curls and contemplated his future. With this woman in his arms and his son at his side, he was almost convinced that he could find a level of happiness thus far unattainable in his life. Who needed Starfleet? Who needed to be captain of a starship? Damn it all to hell! Who needed the back-biting politics of a huge bureaucratic institution?
All James T. Kirk needed was love and a challenge.
For the first time in more years than he cared to count, the love was within hand. And he'd find a challenge. One where he didn't have to be responsible for the deaths of other people.
Carol stirred again. "Jim? You awake?" she mumbled.
"Yeah," he answered softly.
He smiled. "No, no nightmares. Just happy thoughts."
Carol leaned back in his arms so that she could focus on his face. His expression matched his words, so she relaxed back against his bare chest, snuggling close again. "Good. I don't like it when you have nightmares."
He chuckled. "Can't say that I do either," he said, gently caressing her back, then: "Did you have fun last night?"
She leaned back again, a wicked grin on her face. "You have to ask! I haven't had that many orgasms since--" She broke off.
"Since graduation?" he asked hopefully.
"Since graduation," she agreed and stroked his chest.
"Glad to hear that," he said, unable to keep the smugness out of his voice. "But that wasn't what I was talking about. Did you enjoy our dinner with Bones?"
She laughed. "He's wonderful, Jim. An absolute delight."
"I thought you'd like him."
"What was all that business about a father-figure?"
"Oh, that. Just..."
He tightened his arms around her. "One of those things we shared: a mutual sorrow at the absence of our families."
He had her full attention now.
"I missed you and David. Bones missed his daughter, Joanna."
"Her he doesn't miss. She hurt him badly in the divorce, and it left him bitter for a long time. He still is, sometimes, underneath all that gallantry. But mostly he just misses Joanna. He just got back from a visit with her and was feeling especially melancholy when I talked with him earlier in the day. Which is why I invited him to join us for dinner." He kissed the top of her head. "Thanks for being so understanding."
"There was nothing to be understanding about," she said. "I thoroughly enjoyed his company."
"Yeah, but last night was supposed to be our night alone, without having to watch everything we did and said in front of David." He paused. "You sure he's okay at Joey's?"
Carol laughed. "Jim, he's almost nine years old, not two. He's spent the night with the Clanceys many times. You don't have to worry about him so much."
"Worry? Me?" He gave her his most innocent expression, and she laughed again.
He sighed. "The only thing I really worry about is his refusal to believe I want to be friends with him for himself. Ever since the zoo..." He didn't have to finish the sentence.
"I know." She patted his cheek. "Just be patient. He'll come around. Anyway, I think the baseball game next weekend might help."
"God, I hope so. I don't know what to do next."
Carol shrugged. "Well, we'll think of something. Jim!" She squirmed as his hand slid down her spine to cup the curve of her ass, pulling her closer so she could feel his renewed arousal.
"Hmm?" he mumbled as he lowered his head to nibble at the remembered sensitive spot behind her left ear.
"Nothing," she whispered, shifting her head to the side so she could meet his lips with hers.
* * * * *
"Come on, David," Kirk urged, reaching to place one hand on the boy's back in an effort to hurry him along. But David shrugged the hand off, and Kirk withdrew it reluctantly, took a deep breath and, refusing to give up, tried again to engage his son's interest. "Don't you want to see my new ship?" he asked, forcing himself to smile.
"I thought you weren't going to take it," David said sullenly. "You said you were going to stay in San Francisco."
Kirk made a quick ten-count, then responded as pleasantly as he could. "I meant the ship they want me to command. You know, David, not every boy your age gets to visit a starship."
"Yeah, well, this is one kid who'd just as soon pass."
Kirk glanced upward, as though seeking guidance from above, then spoke through clenched teeth. "Well, you're not passing. I got permission from Admiral Nogura himself to bring you aboard, and you're not going to make me have to explain to him why his efforts went unappreciated."
David glared at him, then capitulated -- for the moment at least -- and moved a little faster, but not much.
"Now," Kirk asked as they reached the Centroplex transporter facility. "Have you ever used a transporter?"
David shrugged. "Not that I remember."
"You probably haven't then. I think the first time is an experience you wouldn't easily forget. But you don't have to be afraid of it. It's quite safe really, and by far the fastest and easiest way to get from here to the ship." He offered David his most charming smile. "Trust me?"
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven... That was enough for now. "Well, trust in the technology then. All you have to do is stand still, and the transporter will do the rest. Next thing you know, you'll be on the ship."
Entering the transport center, Kirk led the way to Transporter Room Three, the one Nogura had instructed him to use, and stepped up to the door, pausing only when David stopped. "It's all right, David. You don't have to wait. The door opens automatically when you reach it. See?" He took his son by the hand and pulled him forward. Just before they would have collided with the heavy metal door, it slid open, allowing them to step through.
David's eyes went wide with surprise, and he turned his head to look behind them as the door closed again. "Wow," he whispered. "If we had one of those, I wouldn't have to worry about mom getting mad at me for slamming the door."
Kirk grinned. "I know what you mean. My mom used to yell at me for that, too."
"What did you do about it?"
Kirk shrugged. "I tried not to slam the door." He grinned. "When I could remember."
"Did your mom have a lot of rules?"
"Not a lot. It was Pops' nevers I had to be sure to obey all the time."
"He's... He was my grandfather. Samuel Kirk. He's dead now." Kirk explained, unable to keep the sadness from his voice.(2)
Before either could say anything more, the transporter technician stepped forward to greet them with a salute. "Ensign Callahan, sir," the young blonde said with a friendly smile. "You must be Commander Kirk."
Kirk tugged on his uniform tunic, the working one, not the dress one he had worn to Nogura's office. He was unwilling to put up with the discomfort of the more formal version, but still he felt he should be in uniform for this visit -- whether he eventually accepted command of the Enterprise or not.
"That's right," he saluted in return. "James T. Kirk." He glanced down at his son. "And this young man is David Marcus. He'd like to see a real starship up close."
"Is that right?" the technician asked, dropping to a crouch to meet David on his own level.
Despite his earlier denial of interest, the boy nodded, smiling in response to the young woman's friendliness and tugging on his own shirt just as his father had done.
"If you'll step onto the platform, sir," the technician said, "I'll have you there in a jiffy."
"Thank you, Ensign. Come on, David."
This time, still distracted by the technician, David let Kirk guide him into place with a touch.
"Ready, Ensign. Energize."
And a moment later, they were there. The room looked pretty much the same, but there were subtle differences. And one not-so-subtle one. Standing behind the controls, instead of a pretty young blonde, was a dark-haired stocky man who stepped forward to greet them as Kirk led the bemused David from the platform.
"Lieutenant Montgomery Scott, sir," the man greeted them. "Welcome to th' Enterprise."
"Thank you, Lieutenant." Kirk reached out to offer his old professor a handshake and was pleased when the lieutenant accepted it without a blink. "This is David." Since this was an unofficial visit, he decided to dispense with rank. "So how have you been, Professor?"
"Call me Scotty, sir," the man supplied. "Ive enjoyed my time here. Ive toured more ships that you, but this one...shes special." He beamed at him. "Do ye need a guide, or do ye think ye cn find yer way around all right by yerself? I really need ta get back ta Engineering."
"Go right ahead, Scotty. Thank you for assisting us in getting aboard. We'll try to stay out of your way," Kirk promised, adding only half teasingly, "And we won't touch anything that might blow up this lovely ship of yours."
"Aye, sir," the other man answered with a fond smile and a gentle pat on the transporter controls. "And thank ye, sir. She is a lovely lass, isn't she?"
Kirk smiled. He had always liked this man and would enjoy ... would have enjoyed serving with him. "That she is, Scotty," he said more seriously. "I hope I get a chance to talk with you again sometime."
"Aye, sir," the lieutenant said. "I'd like that m'self." He turned to David. "Have a good time, son."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," David replied as his head swivelled from one side to the other, eyes wide, in an attempt to drink in everything there was to see on a real starship.
Kirk fought to contain the grin that twitched at his lips and was only partially successful. Still, it was enough to keep David from thinking he was laughing at him, and that was all that was necessary. "Let's go," he suggested with a gesture toward the closed door.
David looked up at him. "Just walk right up to it?" he asked.
And David did just that, turning to face Kirk with a huge grin when the door slid open automatically allowing him to walk through without a pause. "It opened, Jim. Just like you said it would."
"Yeah." And then David's smile faded abruptly, and Kirk swallowed his disappointment at the knowledge his son was deliberately trying to remain unresponsive.
Refusing to give in to the disappointment, Kirk directed David down the corridor and stepped to his side. He could be just as stubborn as his son, and Jim Kirk was determined that David would enjoy this visit -- in spite of himself, if necessary.
* * * * *
"Did you have a good time?" Marcus asked as David shrugged out of his jacket after they returned home.
"It was okay," David answered noncommittally. "Can I call Joey on the BellComm, Mom?"
"Sure." She watched him take the first few steps carefully, then race the rest of the way to the second-floor. Turning to Kirk, she lifted an eyebrow in inquiry.
Kirk's shrug matched his son's. "He had a great time -- when he forgot to be mad at me, which," he added with a sudden grin, "was most of the time. He's beginning to come around, Carol, but..."
"But?" she prompted.
"I just wish he'd hurry up and get over his mad."
She laughed. "Don't worry. He will. In fact, I'll bet you a hundred credits he's upstairs right now telling Joey everything about his visit to a real starship. And just wait until that ball game on Sunday. He'll probably be putty in your hands after that."
"You think so?"
"I know so." I am already, she thought. Why should David be able to resist him if I can't?
Carol Marcus stared at the numbers on her computer screen and pinched the bridge of her nose, willing the throbbing behind her eyes to simply go away. The headaches were becoming all too frequent. Unfortunately, she knew exactly where they were coming from -- if she only knew how to get rid of them. "Just get rid of that headache on screen and the one in your head will disappear, too," she said and grimaced. Great, she thought. Now I'm talking to myself. Then again, who wouldn't be -- with a problem like this to solve.
It was the same problem that had plagued her ever since she had approached the conclusion of the research for her doctoral dissertation on "The Geobiophysics of Total World Terraforming: Establishing a Matrix for the Creation of Life on a Lifeless Planet." Everything had gone so well for so long, and then she had hit that snag.
Snag -- hah! More like a Himalayan Mountain in the middle of the road. She had gone over the formulas again and again but just couldn't get them to work out. The only thing that had worked involved the introduction of protomatter into the equation. Unfortunately, protomatter was not only illegal, it was highly unstable as well. And in all of the computer models she had developed, the matrix eventually broke down -- her beautiful new worlds aging so rapidly that they burned themselves out in a matter of months.
But, without the protomatter, she couldn't make it work. Finally, she hated to admit even to herself, she had simply cheated. After all, it was only a dissertation -- and then only a project proposal -- so she had inserted the protomatter into the equation and simply stopped the computer model before the excessive aging began. She had convinced herself that she would find a solution -- one both legal and practical -- before they reached the stage of field testing her theories.
But after two years of theoretical research, she still hadn't found that solution. Maybe the new scientists she was hiring with the additional funds from the Foundation would have some ideas. God knew, she was running out of them herself.
"Moooooommmmmm!" The sound of David yelling at the top of his lungs as he entered the house broke her concentration. "Mom!" he called again when Marcus didn't immediately answer. "Hurry up, Mom. I gotta show you my baseball."
Marcus switched off the computer and came out from her office at the rear of the house onto the second-floor landing. Starting down the stairway, she called to her son in the foyer: "Well, I guess I don't have to ask if you had a good time."
"Yeah, but, Mom, look at my ball." David held the prized baseball up to show her as she reached the bottom of the stairs.
"That's nice, son. I hope you thanked Jim for buying it. Who won the game?"
"Giants, of course. Eight to three. But, Mom, he didn't buy it; he caught it. Ishimora hit a foul into the stands, and Jim caught it, and after the game he took me down to the locker room and got the whole team to sign it for me. The whole team," he repeated for emphasis.
"That was very nice of them, dear." She smiled at the man who stood silently behind her son, a pleased expression on his face. It went well? she mouthed to him.
Very well, he mouthed back.
"Oh, by the way, David, Joey's dad called a while ago to ask if you're going on some camping trip. I wasn't sure what he was talking about, so I told him I'd call back later." When some of the excitement seemed to fade from David's face, she asked, "What camping trip, kiddo?"
"Oh, it's nothing," he said sullenly. "Just a trip some of the guys are going on."
"Don't you want to go?" Kirk asked.
"Nah," David denied. "It's just a kid thing."
"David?" Marcus put that note in her voice that she knew her son never refused to answer.
"It's the Boy Scouts," he explained. "They're having this camping trip to introduce new boys to scouting, and they invited some of us to come along."
"And you don't want to go?" Kirk sounded incredulous.
"Nah," David said again.
This time Marcus just looked at him, and he finally dropped his gaze to his sneakers and mumbled, "It's a father-son trip."
"Well," Marcus said, "Mister Clancey said he hoped you'd come along. I'm sure he'd--"
"He's Joey's dad, not mine," David insisted. "I don't want to be the only kid there without a father." Carol Marcus saw the pain in her son's too-stiff shoulders and too-bright eyes. She hoped Jim Kirk couldn't see it as well.
"David," Kirk said, ending that delusion before it was fully formed, "would a substitute father do?"
The boy turned to face the man. "Whaddaya mean?" he asked.
"Well, if it's okay, I'd like to go along with you."
"You'd do that?" David's blue eyes were round with surprise.
"Sure, why not? I haven't been camping in a long time." He glanced at Marcus for permission. "If it's okay with your mom, of course."
"Mom?" David pleaded.
"I don't see why not, as long as the scoutmaster agrees." She smiled and started to head back upstairs to her office. "I'd better call Joey's dad back and get the man's name and number so I can call him and get all of the details."
"Wait, Mom." She stopped on the second step. "You don't have to call," David admitted. "They sent letters home with us for our parents. I'll go get mine."
"You do that, kiddo," she said, returning to the foyer, "and we'll get everything worked out."
As David raced up the stairs, Marcus turned to Kirk. "Thank you," she said.
"No, Carol, thank you." His eyes radiated his sincerity. "He's finally beginning to accept me, and maybe this camping trip will finish the job."
"I hope so," Marcus said.
"Does that mean...?"
She nodded. "If David accepts you as someone he truly wants in his life, then I'll tell him the truth -- if," she added, "you really are going to stick around for more than just a few months. We'll see after this trip."
"And us?" He reached for her hand.
She gave him a tiny smile in answer. "I think I like the sound of that," she said softly, taking his hand in hers. "Us."
He grinned. "I think I'd better go home and compose a letter to the admiral. I'll give him two choices: a ground assignment, or I leave the Fleet."
"Are you sure about that?"
He placed his hands at Marcus's waist and drew her against him. "If I can have you and David, what do I want with a starship?"
"If you're sure," she said, linking her hands behind his neck. "I'd like nothing better than to keep you safe here on Earth." She paused a moment then reached a decision. "You know, Jim, I think that's the real reason I sent you away."
"You sent me away because you wanted me here?"
She shook her head. "No, Jim. I sent you away because I couldn't stand the thought that you might not come back some day. I knew somehow, I just knew, that if you went out into space, you'd die out there some day."
"I'm more sure of it than ever. Don't go back, Jim."
"I won't, Carol," he promised, bending his head to brush her lips gently with his. "I'll stay right here if you'll let me."
They drew apart reluctantly at the sound of David's footsteps on the stairs. "Here it is, Mom." He was waving the letter. "The scoutmaster is Mister Sylvan, and his number is..."
* * * * *
"Got everything?" Marcus asked, eyeing the gear piled on the foyer floor.
"I think so," Kirk answered, completely missing the laughter hidden in her innocuous question. "Ultra-light sleeping bags, fishing gear, a couple of changes of clothing, some pre-prepared meals to fill in for whatever we don't catch or find, insect repellent..." He continued listing the various items contained within the bundles at his feet. "And a few items not on Sylvan's list."
"What kind of items?" Marcus asked, suspicious suddenly.
"Oh, nothing much. Just some climbing cord and other things like that in case we run into trouble of some kind."
She frowned. "What kind of trouble?"
Kirk shrugged. "I don't know. If I did, there wouldn't be any. But you know the old Starfleet credo: Always be prepared for the unexpected."
"Isn't that the Boy Scout motto?" David asked, a confused frown on his face. "I think I read something like that in the manual they gave us." He dropped to his knees to try to unfasten his backpack and search for the book, but Marcus took him by the arm and pulled him back to his feet, shaking her head at him to discourage what she feared would end up in a complete emptying of the pack.
"Is it?" Kirk asked, apparent surprise in his voice. "I didn't know that. I guess they must have stolen it from us."
"They did?" David bought into it, hook, line and sinker. "I didn't think the Boy Scouts would steal from anybody, not even a motto."
"They didn't," Marcus declared. "The Boy Scouts were around long before Starfleet, kiddo, and that's been their motto forever."
"They were?" David asked.
"They were?" Kirk echoed, his voice as innocent and surprised as the nine-year-old's. Marcus punched him on the arm.
"Stop it, Jim. You're just confusing him." She turned to her son. "Yes, David, the Scouts were founded, oh, centuries ago, and Starfleet not until..." She looked to Kirk to supply the answer.
"Oh, centuries ago," he said, still all innocence, then laughed as she gave him a stern glance. "Actually, the fleet was established after the United Federation of Planets was formed back in 2161," he told David with a grin. "The Scouts are centuries older, positively decrepit, in fact."
Marcus punched his arm again, but not hard this time. She was finding it difficult to keep a smile from her own face.
"Come on, Jim," David said suddenly. "Let's go. We don't want to be late."
"All right, son." It was said innocently, without thought, and Marcus didn't even have time to object before Kirk had turned to cradle her face between his hands and bent to place a quick kiss on her lips, followed by a more thorough one. "Miss me," he ordered and kissed her again even more deeply. "Come on, pardner," he said to David when he'd finished, not quite able to keep the slight breathlessness out of his voice.
Marcus was having trouble controlling her own respiration, then she called to David as he started to dash out of the house without so much as a see-you-later. "Don't I get a goodbye kiss?" she asked.
"You just did ... three," he answered, sending the blood rushing to her face.
He came back, reluctantly, but not daring to ignore his mother when she said his name like that.
"I'll never have so many kisses that I can do without one from my number one son," she told him, dropping to one knee and reaching out her arms to him. "Or at least a hug?"
David shuffled his feet a moment, then leaned forward to give her a quick hug, stepping back to ask: "I'll always be your number one son, won't I, Mom? Even if you have another one someday?"
Marcus frowned. "What makes you think I might have another?"
He shrugged thin, childish shoulders. "I dunno. But you and Jim..."
"David..." She pulled him back into her arms for a second, reassuring hug. "I have no plans to have any more children. But even if, for some reason, I do, you'll always be my number one son, kiddo. No matter what."
Jim Kirk watched them with a sudden stinging behind his eyes. Another child. He hadn't even considered the possibility, and Marcus didn't seem any too keen on the idea. But another son, or maybe a daughter this time, one he could watch as a baby and a toddler, see grow up from infancy instead of just age nine. He suddenly found he liked the idea. Maybe, if everything worked out right, he could talk Carol into it. Someday.
But first he had to finish winning over David and then convince Marcus that she should tell him who his father was.
And hope David liked the idea.
* * * * *
Their gear loaded in the flitter, Kirk made sure David was strapped into his seat and took off to head for David's school, where they would meet up with the other campers before going on to Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada.
"Jim?" David asked out of nowhere. "Do you like kissing?"
He looked down at the boy and grinned. "Yeah, David, I do."
"Yuck," David declared. "I don't see how."
Kirk laughed. "You will some day; I promise."
"Never," David said, wiping the back of one hand across his lips as though to remove an unwelcome buss. "Mom's okay. She's, well ... Mom. But to kiss a girl? Yuck!" he repeated.
"Your mom's a girl," Kirk pointed out.
"Yeah, but she's my mom," David countered.
Kirk couldn't seem to wipe the grin off his face, but he did manage to keep from laughing out loud at his son's indignation. "She's not mine," he offered mildly.
"No," David agreed, turning to give him as assessing look. Somehow the commander managed to match that look with a suitably serious expression. "And you still like to kiss her?"
The grin came back. "Very much."
David shrugged. "I'll never understand grown-ups."
Kirk laughed again. "Wait until you are one," he suggested.
Jim Kirk arrived at the school to find several father-son teams already there, waiting for the scoutmaster and those men who had vehicles capable of making the trek to the camping trip staging area. Kirk found himself actually looking forward to the four-day excursion for its own sake, as well as the opportunity it afforded him to spend more time with David. It had been a while since he'd been on a simple camping trip, and he was prepared to enjoy himself this weekend, using his Starfleet-honed skills in less perilous circumstances than usually was the case on a hostile, uncharted world. A few days in the Sequoia National Park, in an area deemed appropriate for camping novices, should be a breeze.
Kirk exited the flitter to find David already half-way across the small parking lot, chattering eagerly with another boy he assumed must be the infamous Joey. Nearby he saw a man whose matching red hair made it obvious he was father to the freckle-faced lad with David. Kirk decided to head in their direction so he could get to know his son's friends.
"Jim!" David called at that minute. "Come meet Joey."
"On my way," he called back and joined them a moment later, holding his hand out amiably to the red-haired man. "Jim Kirk," he introduced himself.
"Red Clancey," the other man said, taking Kirk's offered hand. "So you're the famous Jim?"
Kirk was taken aback by the question until he realized Clancey was referring to commentary from David, not the news nets. "I'm a friend of David and Carol," he explained.
Clancey glanced from David to Kirk and back again. "A very good friend, I'd say."
Kirk let the remark pass. He knew there was little actual physical resemblance between himself and David, and he prided himself on his own judge of character sufficiently to be convinced that Clancey would never say anything to disturb the young boy's peace of mind. Instead, Kirk asked: "Where's the scoutmaster?"
Clancey shrugged. "I thought he'd be here by now, but--"
At that moment, a new flitter came into view, one slightly larger than Kirk's rental. The pilot carefully landed the vehicle and exited to reveal himself as a slightly pudgy man about five years older than both Kirk and Clancey. Contrary to the other men's casual camping attire of jeans and flannel shirts, Dick Sylvan was clad in an official scouting uniform. Kirk frowned, then dismissed his sudden suspicions. After all, the purpose of this trip was to interest the boys in scouting activities. It actually made sense of a sort for the scoutmaster to display the uniform.
And then his suspicions returned when he caught a similar, doubtful look in Red Clancey's eyes. Shrugging, he said, "Don't worry. At least we're here, too. We can keep an eye on the boys if he turns out to be as incompetent as he looks."
"Yeah," Clancey said. "I'm glad I canceled my business trip to come along instead of letting Joey go without me. I didn't think there was any need to come, but Joey seemed so disappointed when I told him I had to go to the East Coast that I just couldn't disappoint him." He shook his head slowly. "Sometimes I think I spoil him too much, always putting him first in my life. But I've always felt that a job's just a job while parenting is something that's truly important."
Kirk started to counter that a job could be much more than just a job at times, that some jobs were about protecting the planet, even the entire galaxy and ... He stopped himself in mid-thought and refrained from saying any of it aloud. It sounded self-important, pompous and like nothing more than an excuse for neglecting his child -- even to him. He wasn't about to see the other man's reaction to such self-justifying claptrap.
And then they were surrounded by the other men in the group, waiting for Sylvan to cross the parking lot and greet them. A moment later, names exchanged, the men were gathering children and gear to load into the four flitters that would make the flight to Sequoia. Clancey returned with Joey in tow, David dancing along at his side.
"Jim," David said. "Joey and his dad're coming with us."
Kirk grinned at his mounting excitement. "I know. We figured it would be criminal to separate you two boys."
David grinned back at him and cocked his head to one side as though he was considering something. Finally, he spoke, just loud enough for Kirk to hear but not loud enough to be overheard. "You know, Jim, if I did have a father, I'd like him to be just like you."
Jim Kirk swallowed the knot in his throat, feeling even more guilty over his failure to be a father to his son. It didn't matter that the decision had been Carol Marcus's. He should have insisted on playing some role in David's life, whether she liked it or not. But he hadn't, and no amount of wishing would ever change the past. He could change the future, though, if he really wanted to. "David," he said around the lump in his throat, "that's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me."
David beamed back at him for three seconds, then dashed to the rear of the flitter to help Joey get in Clancey's way as he tried to load the Clancey family gear in the storage compartment. Finally, the gear all stored, they climbed into the flitter and lifted above the parking lot, headed for the Sierra Nevada and their staging area.
Twenty minutes later, they were there and unloading all of the gear they had loaded up less than half-an-hour earlier. Kirk looked up to find Sylvan approaching him and Clancey. He straightened up to find out what the older man wanted.
"Either of you two have any scouting experience?" he asked.
"Yeah," Clancey said. "About fifteen years. Made Eagle at sixteen."
"Good, good. And you, Kirk?"
"The name's Jim, and no, no actual scouting experience. But I have camped before."
Sylvan frowned. "Any survival training?"
"Some." Kirk didn't elaborate.
"Well, I guess that'll have to do. Just follow my instructions, and we shouldn't have any trouble," he said, brandishing the well-worn Scout handbook in his hand.
"Don't worry," Kirk replied. "I'm quite capable of following orders."
"Good, good," Sylvan repeated himself. "Get everything together. We head out in ten minutes." And he left them to approach the remaining eight adults in the group.
Exchanging glances with Clancey, Kirk added with a careful smile: "I can follow orders when they're given by someone who knows what they're doing. I can defy them just as well, if necessary, when they come from a buffoon."
Clancey grinned at the words. "David told me you were in Starfleet." He paused, considering: "I don't know the others in this group, but between us, we ought to be able to handle just about anything that comes up."
Kirk nodded his head once. "Right." Then he glanced toward the other adults and frowned. "What are they doing?"
Clancey followed his gaze. "I don't know. It looks like they're repacking their gear, switching things between packs." He looked at Kirk. "Should we go check?"
Kirk watched the others a moment, then shook his head. "I'd rather hang onto my own gear. I brought a few things not on Sylvan's list, and I don't want him deciding that I should lighten my load by discarding them. Something tells me we could need them on this trip."
Clancey nodded his agreement, then called Joey over to place the boy's pack on his back before shrugging his own into place. Kirk called David and followed suit. In minutes, they were ready to leave.
By bedtime that night, they had reached their camping site near a meandering stream in the mountains' lower elevations, made camp, eaten one of their pre-prepared meals and managed to get the boys all bedded down without protest. The four-hour hike to the site had made them all tired enough to be sound asleep within minutes of climbing into the sleeping bags.
So far, so good, Kirk told himself as he slid into his own bag and settled down to sleep. He shifted a bit in an attempt to find a comfortable position on the hard, uneven ground, then gave it up and willed himself to sleep anyway. You've slept in worse places, he told himself, thinking of a particularly unpleasant landing party assignment. Yeah, he reminded himself, thinking of Carol's bed, and you've slept in a lot better.
* * * * *
The second day of the camping trip was as uneventful as the first, nothing occurring to challenge Sylvan's by-the-book approach to the activity. After a day of fishing, cooking and eating their catch, examining the area flora (varied) and fauna (pretty benign in this area), the boys settled down around the campfire, demanding to be told stories.
From his own, non-scout camping days, Kirk remembered that stories usually meant ghost stories, and a couple of the fathers complied admirably. Why shouldn't they? After all, they had plenty of experience at parenting. He was the only novice in the group.
"Jim," David asked finally. "Can you tell us a story?"
Kirk grinned ruefully. "I don't know. It'll be pretty difficult to top Red's tale about the abominable snowman."
"Besides, I think you boys have heard enough tales about ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night for now," Sylvan interrupted. "Time for bed."
"Awwwww," David's wasn't the only voice sounded in protest.
"I said, time for bed," Sylvan repeated sternly, and the boys finally complied when the fathers each gave them stern looks that demanded proper behavior.
When Kirk went to check on David in his sleeping bag, the boy asked: "Will you tell us a story tomorrow night? A real one. About outer space."
Kirk searched his memory quickly for a tale appropriate for eight- and nine-year-olds, then nodded his head in agreement when he remembered Neural and his friend, Tyree. Even Carol couldn't object to that one.
"You have a deal, pardner," he said. "One space-faring story coming up tomorrow night." He resisted the sudden urge to kiss the boy goodnight and mussed his blond curls companionably instead. "'Night, David. Sleep well."
"You, too, Jim," David agreed with a yawn. "See you in the morning."
* * * * *
By morning, space tales were the farthest thing from Kirk's mind. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees overnight, and heavy, dark clouds had rolled in. Hadn't Sylvan checked the weather report? Hadn't any of them? Kirk could have kicked himself for relying on what he had mistakenly believed would be the expertise of a scoutmaster. After four years of Academy training and nine years of deep space duty in Starfleet, he damned well knew better than to assume anything and should have checked himself. Climbing out of his sleeping bag, he met an equally concerned glance from Red Clancey.
"Maybe it won't be too bad," Clancey suggested hopefully.
"Maybe," Kirk acknowledged, with little encouragement.
They were wrong.
By midday, the rain was coming down in heavy sheets, and the boys were all tired, bored and discouraged. And Sylvan wasn't helping much. While the boys were all huddled together beneath a makeshift shelter Kirk and Clancey had fashioned by opening up and fastening together a few of the lightweight but waterproof sleeping bags, then attaching them to three strategically located trees, the adults braved the deluge to hold a conference out of earshot.
"Are you some kind of idiot?" one father demanded of Sylvan. "Why the hell didn't you at least check the weather report?"
"Well, why didn't you?" he countered.
"Because you're supposed to be in charge," another father said in exasperation. "We were depending on you, Sylvan, and now we're stuck up here on the side of a mountain with a bunch of scared boys who have nothing to distract them, and we've got no safe way to get back in this. Look at that." He pointed at the trail they had taken to the camping site. Water was running down it, turning the dirt to slippery mud. "How the hell did you get to be a scoutmaster anyway?"
Kirk forced himself to be the voice of reason. "Look, it's raining; we can't do a damned thing about that. But maybe it'll stop soon." Fat chance. "So let's just see what we can do to keep the boys entertained for now. If the rain doesn't ease up after a couple of hours, we can send for help getting off this mountain." He looked at Sylvan. You did bring a radio transmitter, didn't you, his expression demanded. Sylvan met his gaze unflinchingly, and Kirk relaxed a bit. The man might be an egomaniacal idiot on a power trip, but surely he wasn't that stupid.
"Can't we just go back the way we came?" still another father asked.
Kirk frowned. Hadn't the man been listening to the conversation? Or was he too dense to realize what all that water and mud on the trail meant?
Sylvan shook his head. "The trail's too steep to attempt in this rain. The ground'll be slick, and the boys would never be able to keep their footing," he said intelligently for a change. Then he ruined the moment by adding: "In fact, I doubt if many of you could, as you're all pretty inexperienced at this kind of thing."
Kirk just gave him a disgusted look and started to walk off.
"Where are you going?" Sylvan demanded.
"To join the boys," he said. "It's story time."
Kirk reached the boys' shelter to find David standing barely beneath the edge, peering through the rain. The strained look on the boy's face eased somewhat as soon as he caught sight of Kirk. "How's it going, pardner?" Kirk asked him softly, so no one else could hear.
"Are we going to be all right?" David asked, not bothering to answer Kirk's question.
"Sure we are," the Starfleet officer answered, placing a comforting hand on David's shoulder. "Don't worry; we'll get out of here safely."
"Sure. Just as soon as it stops raining, we'll head for the flitters."
"I'm not sure I like camping."
Kirk gave in to the impulse to muss David's hair again. "Don't let one bad experience ruin the whole concept for you. Camping can be a lot of fun if you're with the right people."
"But these are my friends. They are the right people."
"Your friends are," Kirk agreed. "And so are most of the fathers. I just don't think much of the man who put this little trip together."
Turning David back toward the other boys, Kirk offered with forced cheerfulness: "Hey, how about that story I promised you?"
"Yeah, the one you wanted to hear, about outer space."
David's face lit up. "Yeah, a story. Hey, guys," he called to the other boys. "Jim's going to tell us a story about his adventures in outer space."
"Outer space?" asked one of the other boys, a black-haired child with deep-set eyes almost as dark as his hair and high, sculpted cheekbones. "When were you in outer space?"
"Oh, for the past eight or nine years."
"Really?" the boy asked. "Doing what?"
"Jim's in Starfleet, Raul," David supplied, standing a little taller and straighter with the pride he felt in his adult friend. "He's a commander."
"Yeah, and he's going to command a whole starship soon, a big one." David turned to Kirk. "What's it called?"
Kirk shook his head with a slight frown. "That's not definite yet, David. We shouldn't be talking about it until it's settled."
"What ship were you on?" another boy asked, blue eyes filled with curiosity.
"Well," Kirk searched his mind for this child's name, then remembered. "First, Nils, there was the Farragut, a heavy cruiser. I was a lieutenant then. And later, as a lieutenant commander, I served as chief of security and second officer on the Farragut. Most recently, as a commander, I was the captain of the Shenandoah, a scout research vessel."
"You're a commander?"
"That's right. On leave pending my next assignment."
"So tell us the story," Joey prompted.
"Well," Kirk began, "back when I was on the Farragut, I led a survey party on a planet called Neural and ended up staying there for much of the year after making friends with a man called Tyree. He was one of what they call Hill People."
"Why do they call them that?"
"Because they live in the hills, you dope," a boy named Dedrick, the oldest of the group, said. "That's obvious. Let him get on with the story."
"That's right, Dedrick," Kirk acknowledged. "They lived in the hills, and there was another group of people on Neural called the Villagers, who, interestingly enough, lived in villages." The boys snickered at that.
"Anyway," Kirk continued. "Neural was a very peaceful planet, with a very primitive culture. The people lived much as though they were camping out all of the time. And the planet was very beautiful, too, with lots of herbs and plants that could be used to cure all kinds of illnesses and injuries. All in all, a paradise of sorts. Except--"
"Except what?" Dedrick asked, eyes as wide with wonder as those of the younger boys in the group.
"Except for the mugato."
"What's a mugato?" David asked, edging closer to Kirk.
"It's a big, hairy beast that looks kind of like a gorilla, but not quite. Much uglier. And very dangerous. Very dangerous," he added for emphasis.
"Dangerous how?" Joey asked.
"Well, it's very strong and very mean, and its fangs are poisonous."
"Like a snake's?"
"Then it's no paradise," Dedrick declared.
"Oh, yes, it's still a paradise. You just have to avoid the mugatos. Anyway, while I was on Neural, my friend Tyree and I..."
* * * * *
As he finished with his story, Kirk looked up to find Red Clancey gesturing to him to join the men in yet another makeshift shelter they had formed for themselves while the commander was busy keeping the boys entertained. Rising from his cross-legged position, Kirk patted David on the head, then pulled the hood of his rain slicker up over his head and dashed through the still-falling rain to the second shelter, such as it was.
"What's up?" he asked as he took his place between Clancey and Dedrick's father, a tall, dark-skinned man named Elias.
"The rain hasn't eased off at all," Clancey explained. "I'm going with Sylvan to find a place clear enough of the mountains' interference to allow us to radio for help."
"Good idea," Kirk agreed with a quick nod. "Someone needs to do it. You think you can handle it?" He didn't even bother to consider Sylvan's capabilities.
"Yeah, I'm a pretty competent hiker, and, frankly, I'll feel better actually doing something rather than just sitting around here waiting for something to happen."
Kirk reached behind his neck to massage the muscles bunched there in an attempt to relieve the tension that had built steadily since waking that morning. "Tell me about it. Sure I can't come along?"
Glancing quickly toward where Sylvan was checking the contents of a backpack on the far side of the shelter, Clancey dropped his voice. "I'd rather have Sylvan with me and know that you're keeping an eye on the boys," he confided. "They all seem to have developed a case of hero-worship over the past hour during the telling of your story, and I think it might be wise to make use of that." He grinned at Kirk's sudden frown. "Just make them members of your 'crew,' Captain, and they'll be putty in your hands."
Kirk found himself grinning back at the other man in spite of himself. "They're good kids," he said. "I like them." As though that were some kind of surprise. Maybe it was. He hadn't had much first-hand knowledge of children since he was one himself. Although he felt he'd done pretty well with David, it gave him a sense of accomplishment to realize he had so completely won over a whole group of boys.
"All right," Clancey said, "then you'll be in charge here while Sylvan and I send for help. We'll be back as soon as we can." He looked out at the rain with a rueful smile on his face. "Maybe we can actually be out of here by dark -- if it can get any darker."
"Oh, it can get darker," Kirk said, remembering a visit to a planet light years away from the Sierra Nevada. "It can get a lot darker."
Red Clancey carefully picked his way along the meandering stream, alternately keeping an eye on his footing on the slick, muddy path and sending visual daggers into the back of the man in front of him. Clancey shifted the heavy pack on his back and thought of yet another slow, torturous means of putting Sylvan's life to an end. It was really rather funny, when he thought about it. He had actually been flattered when the other man suggested he accompany him on this 'mission,' glad to have something to do that would help get them off the mountain.
But now he knew what Sylvan really wanted him along for: less as a 'buddy' in case something went wrong and more as a pack animal to carry the heavy transmitter equipment. He was unsurprised that Sylvan had no intentions of even taking turns carrying the pack. As lead man, he had explained logically, he needed to be free of the encumbrance so he could deal with whatever they might encounter.
Actually, it figured, in a bizarre kind of way, that the scoutmaster's transmitter was such a heavy, old-fashioned one. The only thing Clancey couldn't figure was how he had managed to get it to the camping site. Surely he hadn't carried it himself? And then he remembered how he and Kirk had watched the other men repacking their gear before starting the hike to the camping site. So that was what they were doing -- dividing up one man's gear so an extra pack, containing the transmitter, could be carried. He wondered who had been stuck with it then.
Clancey shifted the pack again and started to call out to Sylvan to take a short break. While he could keep hiking all day, if necessary, he'd like to rearrange the pack to relieve the pressure where one strap was digging into the flesh of his right shoulder. Then he decided not to give the scoutmaster an opportunity to look down his long nose at his inability to keep pace. Instead, he just kept walking. Surely Sylvan would decide to take a break himself before long. Even without a heavy pack on his back, he couldn't actually be enjoying this trek through mud and rain.
And then he wished he had asked for the break as he saw Sylvan glance back over his shoulder while in mid-step. In slow motion, he saw the other man's foot come down on the uneven surface of a mud-slickened rock and slip. To his credit, the scoutmaster really tried to hold his balance, but it was obvious he wasn't going to succeed.
Clancey's first inclination was to step off the path, out of Sylvan's way, and let the other man roll on down the path until he came to a stop either on his own or by colliding with a harder obstruction than that of another person. If the scoutmaster were hurt in the process, so be it. It certainly wouldn't be any great loss that he could see.
And then his sense of morality took over, and he knew he couldn't just stand by and do nothing to help the other man, no matter how obnoxious he was. Clancey remained where he was, bracing himself for the inevitable collision, hoping that he'd be able to break the other man's fall sufficiently to prevent him from causing himself serious injury.
And wished he'd followed his first instinct. Sylvan slammed into Clancey with the full force of his uncontrolled fall, slamming the red-haired man back off his own feet. With the scoutmaster on top of him, Clancey had even less control over himself than the other man did. Reaching out with both hands in an attempt to find something on the ground to grab a hold of so he could stop their headlong plunge down the steep path, he felt the first bone break. The white-hot pain radiated from his right forearm all the way to his shoulder. Rolling to his left in an attempt to relieve the pressure of his weight from the injured arm, he realized his mistake instantly. Already off the path, his maneuver took him still closer to the ledge overlooking the storm-swollen stream. Softened by the rain, the mud gave way, and Clancey found himself plunging through the air to land with bone-jarring force on the rocks in the ice-cold water.
That's when the second bone, in his left leg, broke, along with a couple of ribs. And still, somehow, he managed to stay conscious long enough to keep from being swept away by the rushing water. Carefully, painfully, he pulled his way the few feet to the edge of the stream where his head would remain safely above water -- at least for now.
And then he passed out.
* * * * *
Kirk sat, hands clasped around his upraised knees, surrounded by the boys, listening to one of the other fathers tell still another ghost story and wondering exactly how many such tales had been formulated over the years. His attention wandering from the not-really-very-scary narrative, he looked out through the rain, trying to decide whether there had been any slackening off at all; and so he was the first to see Sylvan come crashing into the camp to fall to his knees.
The scoutmaster was a sorry sight: Covered with mud, twigs and bits of vegetation, he knelt with his hands braced on the ground before him, drawing in huge gulps of air.
Trying to move as unobtrusively as possible, Kirk rose and started for the other man, then mentally groaned when he heard the sudden silence behind him, broken as suddenly by a cry from Joey. "Where's my dad?" the boy demanded, rushing past the Starfleet officer to pound on Sylvan's shoulder. "What did you do to my dad?"
Sylvan tried, unsuccessfully, to ward the boy off, until Kirk finally took pity on the scoutmaster and pulled Joey off him.
Then Kirk asked in a voice infinitely more demanding than that of an nine-year-old boy: "Where's Red?"
"He ... fell," Sylvan answered immediately, still trying to catch his breath. "Off the ... path, and into the ... stream."
"He's dead!" Joey screamed, pummeling Sylvan again. "You killed my dad you ... you ... you coward!" he finished finally.
Kirk pulled the boy off the man again and handed him over to another of the fathers. "How badly hurt is he?" he demanded of Sylvan.
"A broken ... arm and leg, and maybe ... a concussion as well." Sylvan was speaking with fewer pauses within his sentences, finally getting his breath back. "I couldn't tell if he lost consciousness from the pain or a blow to the head."
"Where is he?" Kirk asked.
"Up there," Sylvan waved his hand toward the path that wound its way up the mountain. "About half a mile. In the stream."
Kirk grabbed the scoutmaster by his filthy shirt and lifted him from his feet. "You left him up there?" he roared. "In the water?"
"I tried to pull him out, but he was too heavy." Sylvan's voice was shaking now, whether from cold or reaction or fear, Kirk couldn't tell. But he hoped it was a combination of all three. " I needed help," the scoutmaster added, "so I came back here."
Forcing himself to calm down, Kirk released Sylvan, then grabbed him again when the scoutmaster fell back to his knees. Hauling him back into a standing position and forcing him by sheer strength of will to remain there, Kirk ordered, "All right, let's go."
"Go?" Sylvan protested in a high voice. "Go where? I'm not going anywhere until I get changed from these filthy clothes and rest up a minute."
Kirk grabbed him again by his 'filthy clothes' and, with a hand clutched into the fabric at each shoulder, drew the scoutmaster closer until they were eyeball to eyeball, only a couple of inches separating them. "No," he said in a cold, soft voice. "You listen to me and listen good. Red's out there, hurt, maybe dying, and we're going right now, you and me, to find him and bring him back here, and I don't want to hear another word of protest."
"But why can't you take someone else?"
"I will, but you're going, too, because you're the only one who knows exactly where he is, you imbecile!" Kirk roared again, then lowered his voice once more when he noticed the boys all jump in reaction to his shout. "Elias," he called to one of the other fathers, "you're in charge of the boys. Nguyen, Abdul, you grab a couple of the remaining sleeping bags and some sturdy sticks, and come with us. You, too, Jozef. It'll take four of us to carry him back; I don't think Sylvan is going to be much help." And he didn't give a rat's damn if the other man's feelings were hurt by his assessment of his worth.
He started to turn toward the path but was brought up short by a pair of arms suddenly clasping him around his upper thighs. Glancing down, he found David's frightened face looking up at him. Hesitating a second, he quickly dropped to one knee and drew the boy closer. David burrowed against his shoulder, and Kirk wrapped him in his arms, trying to offer him a bit of comfort, brief though it might be.
"Don't get hurt," David mumbled against his shoulder.
"I won't," Kirk promised. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Scout's honor?" David asked in a small voice.
"Scout's honor," Jim Kirk replied, pulling David back from his shoulder so he could see the hand raised in the proper sign.
David managed to smile, although his lips trembled with his fear; and Kirk pulled him close again for another quick hug before turning him around and giving him a gentle shove back toward the other boys. "You keep an eye on Joey for me, okay, pardner?" he asked, knowing instinctively that what David needed right then was something to keep him busy. "He's worried about his dad, and he's going to need his best friend with him."
David glanced back across his shoulder then nodded his head, stiffening his spine, as he responded to the order just as Kirk expected him to. Kirk allowed himself just a moment's satisfaction at the accuracy of his instincts. He had been right to guess that even little boys needed to be doing something to help sometimes. Looking after Joey would help keep David's mind off his own fears for Kirk.
At least that's what Kirk hoped.
* * * * *
"Jim!" David cried, the edges of his slicker flapping against his upper legs as he raced through the rain to greet the returning men. He crashed headlong into Kirk, who reacted with a mumbled "Oof!" and held on tight to the left front edge of their makeshift stretcher to keep from dumping the injured Clancey into the squishy mud at his feet. Seconds later, Kirk handed off his piece of the open sleeping bag to Elias and drew David to one side, watching as the other men carried Clancey into the shelter where Joey stood, waiting forlornly, with tears tracking down his rounded cheeks, obviously afraid of what they might be bringing back to him.
Kirk smiled as Joey gave a cry of joy when he saw his father lowered to the ground, still alive. Lifting David from the ground, Kirk gave his own son a brief hug and carried him to the shelter where the others were still grouped around Clancey. "He's okay?" David asked, thin arms holding tight around Kirk's neck.
"He's alive," Kirk qualified, unwilling to lie to his son at that moment. "We'll have to wait for a doctor to tell us if he's all right. Damn! I wish Bones were here."
"Bones?" David asked, nose crinkled as he tried to remember. Then he smiled. "Your doctor friend from the Pegasus?" he asked. "The one you and Mom had dinner with?"
"That's the one. I'll introduce you sometime. You'd like Bones." There seemed no question now that they would have a future together. Kirk already was thinking about possible career moves. It had made the trip back to camp go faster.
He lowered David to the ground, directed him to join the other boys with a gentle nudge, then gestured Elias and another of the men to join him to one side.
"The transmitter's lost," he told them sotto voce.
"What happened?" Elias asked.
Kirk shrugged. "Red's been in and out of consciousness. As best I can piece together from the bits he told us when he could talk, Sylvan was in front and lost his balance, falling back against Red and causing him to fall from the path all the way down into the stream. Since Red was carrying the transmitter, his fall damaged it. I don't see any way we can repair it, although we brought it back with us." He gestured toward the lumpy back pack Sylvan had dropped on the ground beneath the second, otherwise deserted shelter. Kirk couldn't resist a slight smile of irony at the scoutmaster's reaction when he had been ordered to carry the instrument. In fact, it was that very image that had prompted Kirk to have him bring it back to the camp rather than some delusion about the possibility of making it work again.
"So, what do we do now?" Hakim asked.
The question squashed Kirk's errant sense of humor. "The only way we're going to get out of here is for someone to go for help," he said through stiff lips.
"On that trail?" Jozef asked.
"If you have a better idea, now's the time to tell me," Kirk suggested.
When the other man shook his head, the commander continued: "I'll go for help. The rest of you keep an eye on Red, keep him warm and try to keep the boys calm."
"You can't go now," Elias said reasonably.
"Why not?" Kirk asked with a frown, surprised at the objection coming from that source. Elias had seemed one of the most sensible men in the group. Surely he could see the necessity for Kirk's chosen course of action.
"Because it'll be dark in another hour, and you'll never make it down that first, steepest stretch of ground by then. You'll have to wait until first light."
Damn! Kirk thought. Why did the other man have to prove the accuracy of his assessment in that manner. "That might be too late for Red," he protested aloud, although he well knew that Elias was right about this.
"It'll be too late for him if you lose your footing in the dark and kill yourself," Elias explained. "And what about the boys? If you're hurt, it'll leave us here waiting for the rescue that might not come for days without you to lead them to us."
Kirk met and held his gaze steadily for a few moments.
"Besides, you'll be able to go faster after you're rested."
Kirk hesitated a few seconds longer, still trying to find a chink in Elias's logic. Then he nodded his head once in reluctant agreement. "You're right," he conceded, then added with a half-smile. "Think you can get us something to eat? I'm starved."
Elias nodded and gestured toward the camp cookstove where a pot already sat. "I put together some of the canned emergency rations while I was waiting for you to get back and came up with a sort of stew." He grinned sheepishly. "It's not exactly like Mom used to make, but I think it'll taste pretty good to us anyway. At least it's hot and filling."
"That's good enough for me," Kirk said and headed for the pot.
* * * * *
Half an hour later, his belly comfortably full, Kirk sat on the ground with his back resting against a handy boulder. He looked up as David and Dedrick approached him.
"Will you tell us another story?" David asked.
Kirk sighed. All he wanted right then was to get some sleep, but he knew it would be a while yet before his body relaxed enough from its strenuous afternoon to allow him to shut down for the night. Telling a story might help pass the time in the meanwhile. He opened his mouth to speak, then stopped when the boys all jumped at the mournful sound of an animal howling in the distance.
"What was that?" asked Dedrick, obviously spooked by the sound.
"Probably a coyote," Kirk said. "Don't worry. He's a long way away and shouldn't cause us any problems."
"But something else might be closer," another boy suggested in a small voice, edging closer to Kirk. "Like maybe a bear."
"Or there might be snakes," someone else said.
"Or lions or tigers," another boy offered as each young camper seemed to raise the specter of his own, personal demons.
Kirk reached out one hand to ruffle the hair of the last boy. "No lions or tigers, I promise," he reassured him easily. "Not in these mountains." Of the other suggestions, he didn't comment directly, but he offered what comfort he could to the frightened boys: "And the animals that are here are mostly trying to stay dry in their caves or whatever other shelter they can find. They're not likely to bother us."
"But coyotes and bears!" three of the boys exclaimed in unison.
Sensing their unallayed fears, Kirk searched for the means to lay them to rest, then finally offered: "Most Earth animals aren't really dangerous, so long as they don't feel threatened by you," he told them. "It's not the known you have to fear, but the unknown."
"Like what?" Dedrick demanded.
"Yeah, like what?" Rory, the youngest child in the group, asked, following the older boy's lead.
"Like..." Kirk hesitated, searching his mind for something to offer. Then, suppressing a chill of his own fear, he began: "When I was serving on the Farragut, we visited a planet called Tycho Four. What we encountered there..." He allowed himself a genuine shudder that drew answering responses from the enraptured boys grouped around him. "...would have frightened even a Vulcanian."
"What was that?" whispered Joey, joining the group.
Kirk shrugged. "I'm not sure exactly what it was. It looked like a cloud that shimmered above the ground and drifted in and out of sight. But there was..." He concentrated, trying to find the words to convey his long-ago perceptions. "I don't know," he continued finally, "an intelligence there, and a smell, cloyingly sweet, like warm honey."
"What happened?" Dedrick asked.
"It killed half the landing party." The words were stark, devastating in their simplicity.
"How?" young Rory asked in a whisper.
"I'm not sure exactly," Kirk explained, "except that it drew all of the red corpuscles from their blood. It was like they were bleached white when it left."
"Why didn't you kill it?" David asked, eyes huge in his face. It was clear that he believed Kirk capable of banishing any monster.
Why didn't I? Kirk asked himself for the umpteenth time. Because I froze? "I couldn't fire my phaser at it fast enough," he said aloud, not yet willing to admit his vulnerability. "I only caught the edge of it, and then it was gone."
"You never saw it again?" asked Dedrick.
"Never," he said. "And I haven't been able to find any records of any similar beings anywhere in the galaxy." He shook his head slowly. "I'm the only one who saw it, and the board of inquiry was a bit skeptical of my story, although they commended me for getting the remaining crewmen back on ship safely. Frankly, I'm not sure anymore what I saw."
"A ghost?" Rory breathed.
Kirk shrugged. "As good of an answer as any, I suppose, whatever that may be. A ghost then. Or maybe some kind of vampire ... a Vampire Cloud."
* * * * *
Kirk rose at first light and gathered a few items for use in case of an emergency, then left the camp after a brief farewell to David. Kirk had felt an actual physical ache at the tears in the boy's eyes; but after reassuring him that he'd be back for him just as quickly as he could, he steeled himself against his son's distress and started down the path.
He'd only been gone for fifteen minutes before he found himself profoundly grateful for Elias's insistence that he wait until morning. The rain had finally stopped, which made things easier. But it also made it easier to see just how treacherous the storm had made the path. Alternately slick and sticky, the mud was a continuous obstacle to his progress. As were the washouts he kept encountering on the path. They forced him to detour several times, and he was thankful for his excellent sense of direction that enabled him to find the path again after each trek through the woods. Still, after an hour, he knew he'd only traveled about as far as it had taken them twenty minutes en route to the camping site.
Another thing that bothered him was the continuous feeling that he was being watched. Each time he sensed eyes on him, the hairs would rise at the back of his neck and he'd stop and turn around to search the woods for whoever or whatever it was that seemed to be shadowing him. He could only hope that it was a deer or some other such harmless beast and not a hungry coyote or bear, no matter what he had told the boys about their reluctance to attack unless provoked. The one motivation he hadn't mentioned was hunger. After all, he had been trying to reassure them, not add to their fears.
Despite the various delays and detours, after about four hours, Kirk stopped for a brief rest and a drink from his canteen. It had taken less than two hours to travel this distance at the beginning of the trip, but Kirk calculated he'd reached the half-way point back to the flitters. All he had to do now was cross the stream in front of him, and then it was an easy hike the rest of the way.
Yeah, right. All.
Three days earlier the stream had been an innocuous, meandering ribbon of water, gurgling its way across rocks that jutted up above the surface to provide a relatively safe purchase for the expedition to use as stepping stones to the opposite side.
Now, though, it was a raging river that completely covered the rocks, creating a series of rapids as it roared its way downstream. Taking another sip from his canteen, Kirk contemplated the angry stream and the best means for crossing it.
Glancing overhead, he eyed the apparently sturdy branches of a tall tree growing near the stream. He reached into his pack and withdrew a thin, but strong length of cord and calculated whether it were long enough for his purpose -- and whether he could throw it far enough to reach that first strong limb. Finally deciding that nothing ventured, nothing gained, he found a rough, odd-shaped stone, tied it to one end of the cord and a knot in the other end, then threw it, straight up.
And had to jump backward to avoid the stone and cord when they came tumbling back at him, having fallen two feet short of the limb.
Bouncing the rock in his right hand a few times while concentrating on the distance he would have to throw it, he finally tossed the rock upward again and gave a shout of triumph when rock and cord sailed over the limb.
His triumph turned to disgust when the rock ended its journey about a foot above his reach. Extending his left arm as high as he could reach while still hanging onto the far end of the cord with his right hand, he simply couldn't reach the rock. If he let go of the other end, he would be able reach the rock. But then, weighted by the rock, the cord would just come flying across the limb, and he'd be right back where he'd started from. Concentrating again, he jumped and grabbed at the same time. It took three tries, but finally he caught a hold of the stone -- and found himself dangling helpless in mid-air, feeling not a little bit foolish and quite a lot uncomfortable with his entire weight supported by his hands and arms.
Unwilling to give up, he considered, then began a back-and-forth motion that soon had him swinging in an ever-widening arc until his feet touched the tree. Bending his knees to push backward as hard as he could in order to increase the arc to its maximum length, he managed to lock his legs around the trunk on the next swing, mumbling a brief prayer of thankfulness that this was a relatively thin pine trunk rather than that of the much-thicker redwoods so common to these mountains. Inching his way upward, first with his legs, then by pulling on the cord with his arms, he finally reached the limb and climbed onto it, stopping to rest a while before proceeding.
Once he felt he could resume the use of his arms without them falling off, he carefully tied one end of the cord to an even-higher limb close enough to the trunk to be sure he could manage his planned maneuver. Then he tied two more knots, pulled them tight and gripped the cord just above each knot so that his hands wouldn't start slipping as soon as he burdened them with his full weight. Standing on the lower limb of the tree, he pulled on the cord to test the strength of both it and the limb one last time before making his jump.
And stopped when he heard his name called.
"Jim!" he heard again in a young voice and peered down to see David looking up at him.
Damn! he thought, realizing who he'd been sensing all morning. "Stay there, David," he called after a moment's hesitation. "I'm coming down."
Using the cord to control his descent, he rappelled his way down the tree, coming to an easy landing a couple of feet in front of his son. And then he just stood there, looking at David, while he fought to control the anger that consumed him. Anger, worry and fear.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded finally, when he could trust himself to speak in a reasonable tone.
Its reasonableness didn't seem to reassure David, who looked down at his feet. "I was afraid for you," he said in a small voice.
"Afraid?" Kirk asked incredulously. "For me?"
David nodded his head, still not looking up. "I was scared that something might happen to you if you were alone."
A chill trickled down Kirk's spine. His son's words echoed a long-held but unspoken belief that when the time for his death came, he would be alone. His pushed the thought into the back recesses of his mind where it belonged. "So you followed me to rescue me from ... what exactly?"
The boy shrugged. "I dunno. I just couldn't stay back there and wait." He hesitated a moment, then asked in a tiny, plaintive voice. "You won't leave me here by myself, will you?"
Understanding both the unwillingness to sit idly and the fear of being left alone, Kirk suppressed the anger and horror he'd felt on seeing David on the ground below him. "No, David," he promised. "I won't leave you alone. I promise."
David smiled. "Good," he said. "I don't want to be alone in the dark."
"It's all right, David," he said again. "I said I wouldn't leave you, and I meant it. I'll be with you as long as you need me."
"Promise," Kirk said, raising his hand in the Scout salute. "Scout's honor." As David seemed to relax, reassured by what was fast becoming their own, personal pledge, Kirk glanced around him, surveying the area for another possible means to cross the stream, but he could see none and doubted if the situation would be any different farther downstream. He would waste far too much valuable time traveling far enough to reach a more passable portion of the once-benign waterway. He simply couldn't think of any way to cross the stream other than the one he'd already come up with. Now what are you going to do? he asked himself silently. He'd just promised not to leave David alone -- as if that ever had been an option. And going back to the camp site wasn't much of a choice either; they'd just lose the entire day, which might be too long for Clancey, if it hadn't been too long for him already. That left just one choice.
Finally, resigned, Kirk sighed and held a hand out to David. "Well, since it's as far back as it is ahead, I guess I'll have to take you with me," he said and was rewarded with a beaming smile. Resisting its charm, he ordered sternly: "But you'll do everything I say, how I say it, and when I say it, without hesitation. Got it?"
David nodded eagerly. "Aye, aye, Captain," he said with a slightly off-kilter salute.
Kirk's lips twitched, then he briefly forced them into a stern line before relaxing a bit to surrender to the inevitable. "All right, pardner," he said more gently. "Climb up on my back."
"On your back?"
"Yeah. How else do you think we're going to get to the other side?" He gestured toward the roiling stream.
"Okay," David agreed and, without fear or further hesitation, he did as Kirk directed, climbing aboard and wrapping his arms around his father's neck and his legs around his waist.
Shifting from foot to foot to settle David's weight in the most comfortable and stable position he could manage, Kirk took a hold on the cord again, climbed back up high enough to stay clear of the ground, and, with one hand firmly placed above each of the knots he had tied for that purpose, he began swinging once more.
Back and forth, he went. Once, twice, three times. On the fifth arc he calculated that he'd reached the maximum distance, ordered David to hold on tight and let go of the rope. Man and boy sailed through the air and came back to earth a bare four feet on the other side of the stream. Landing on his hands and knees, Kirk absorbed the shock of the landing before rolling sideways, allowing David to ease off his back.
"That was fun!" David declared. "Let's do it again sometime."
Kirk looked at his son like the boy had suddenly gone crazy, then groaned, closed his eyes and just lay there for a full five minutes without saying a word.
"Jim?" David said in a small voice finally, and Kirk opened his eyes to see relief etch its way across the boy's face.
Sitting up, Kirk gave the boy a reassuring smile. "I'm okay, David. Just needed a minute to catch my breath after that. And, son, let's not try that again anytime soon, okay?"
"Okay," David agreed happily. "What do we do now?"
"We walk," Kirk replied. "Luckily it's fairly even terrain from here, so it shouldn't take us much more than, oh, about two hours."
"Okay," David said again, and they set off.
Kirk was wrong. Encountering both mud and rock slides that blocked the path from time to time, they were forced to make at least five detours before they finally reached the flitters almost four hours later -- with just an hour of daylight left.
Carol Marcus stirred the spoon around the interior of the shiny new saucepan and removed it to taste the contents. Reaching for the small jar on the counter, she sprinkled another dash of herbs into the savory sauce and grinned as she thought of the look she'd see on Kirk's face when he and David returned from their camping trip to find that she had cooked a real meal for them.
She glanced around the kitchen with satisfaction. The meal was as ready as it could be until they arrived: The spaghetti sauce simmered fragrantly on the stove; the salad was tossed and chilling in the refrigerator, waiting only for her to add the vinaigrette she had mixed herself; and the bread was spread with garlic butter, ready to pop into the oven for browning while she immersed the pasta into a pot of boiling, salted water. Even the table was set with real china and cutlery and goblets into which she would pour the deep red wine from the cut glass decanter.
Everything was ready; the only things missing were Kirk and David -- she glanced at her wrist chronometer -- and they should be here any minute. Humming to herself, she took the electronic match and lit the candles.
* * * * *
Marcus blew out the flames of the half-burned candles and looked at her chronometer yet again. Where were they? Kirk had said they've be home by three, and it was almost five. The aborted trip to the baseball game notwithstanding, Jim Kirk was the most reliable, most responsible person she knew. It simple wasn't like him to be late -- and certainly not by two full hours. Exerting every bit of willpower she had, she barely managed to resist taking another look out the front door for them.
Instead, she began gathering the dishes and utensils from the table and putting them away. She removed the candles from their holders, then put the wine decanter back in its place in the big, antique cabinet. The spaghetti sauce went in the recycler, although she knew that overcooking could hardly ruin it. She even took the salad from the refrigerator and disposed of it. She wanted everything gone, no sign left of her little fantasy.
Carrying the now empty saucepan to the old-fashioned sink, Marcus began to fill it with water so she could clean it and save it in case she took a notion to test her culinary skills again one day. Then she stopped, emptied it again and took it out the back door to the bin where items too big for her household recycler were stored until they could be disposed of at one of the city's big commercial units.
Slamming the lid back down on the bin, she returned to the house, muttering to herself: "It'll be a cold day in Hell before I cook another meal for a man."
Back in the kitchen, she finished clearing away all signs of the abandoned meal. Jim Kirk would never know how much she had looked forward to his return, never know that she had been ready to take him up on his long-ago proposal.
Finally, the kitchen spotless again, she began to wander through the house, remembering that first proposal. She had practically forced it from him, not intentionally, but through her need to understand his future, and her place in it. "What happens when you graduate, get your commission and warp out of my life -- our lives now?" she had demanded.(3)
He had been stunned; it was clearly written across his mobile face. Obviously all of their talk about "when I'm captain" and "when I get my lab" had been just that: talk. He had never taken it seriously before, not until she forced him to look, really look at their future. Suddenly he blurted out: "Well -- we could get married."
She'd brushed off the proposal then, not believing he truly meant it. "Married?" she'd protested. "Oh, Jim, that's no answer." And she began to explain how it would never work, not with him in space and her in a laboratory somewhere. He'd countered with ways it could work -- if she'd take a ship assignment as a science officer, they'd be together.
He simply hadn't been able to understand that her dreams were bigger than that. She didn't just want to deal with the flora and fauna they encountered while carrying out his missions, didn't want to be sidetracked from her Project by Starfleet priorities. She had her own mission, her own goals, and she could never accomplish them while warping around the galaxy with him.
So she'd changed the subject, tempting him with food and the pleasures of her body. The food he'd rejected, and the proposal was forgotten for the moment -- or at least she thought it was. But Kirk kept bringing it up, and all of her evasions were for nought. Again and again, he returned to the subject, assuming that if she didn't reject him outright, it meant she had accepted -- or eventually would.
And, while she continued to seek the way to turn him down without lying about her all-too-real love for him, she learned that she was pregnant. Kirk's reaction to the news had been typical: He wanted to get married, offered to take a desk job, stay with her and help raise the child.
But her cooler, wiser attitude had prevailed, and she sent him away to his first commission while she stayed behind and had David alone.
At first, Kirk stayed in their lives, keeping in touch with the usual taped messages and occasional holograms, but the messages had become fewer and fewer, with longer and longer spaces between.
To be honest, she had to admit that she was as much to blame for their drifting apart as he -- more so, in fact. She simply couldn't banish her fears for him -- and couldn't bear the pain every time she considered the possibility of losing him forever to the darkness and unknowns of space.
She'd never been able to shake the conviction that Kirk would die in space some day, alone and far away from her. And she couldn't stand the idea that one day the message she received wouldn't be from him but from his commanding officer. So she allowed more and more time to go by before responding to his communications until, finally, they stopped altogether about two years earlier except for unsigned, mysterious presents for David on his birthday and at Christmas time.
And then he simply walked back into their lives. He said he was tired of all the Starfleet politics, that he didn't want to play the game anymore. He said he wanted to give it up and remain on Earth. He said he wanted to be with her and David, not just occasionally, but all the time. He said a lot of things.
But were they the truth? Or were they just his own delusions born out of his pain over the loss of his crewmates on the Shenandoah, his frustrations with dealing with the bureaucracy of Starfleet Command, his insecurity about his own readiness to assume command of his own starship? In a few weeks or months, a year or two at the most, after he'd rested, recovered his equilibrium, would he still feel the same way?
Not likely. She knew him too well. She'd turned him down nearly a decade earlier because she knew that someday he'd grow tired of life on Earth and be drawn back to the lure of space. That's where he belonged, in the center seat of a starship, dashing from star system to star system, exploring the unknown and fighting Federation enemies. She knew it, and he'd know it, too -- in time.
No, it wouldn't work, wouldn't last. She had to face that fact and stop building dream castles in which they lived together as a family. She wouldn't cut him off completely, not yet. He could still see David...
She stopped, realizing suddenly that she was standing in the doorway to David's room. Crossing the floor to the bed, she took up the stuffed sehlat Kirk had bought him at the zoo. Hugging the plush toy to her breast, she shook her head in renewed bemusement.
The sehlat had become a symbol of David's relationship with Kirk. Welcomed eagerly despite David's earlier protestations to her that he was "too old" for such kid stuff, the sehlat was banished to the floor of his closet when the child had gotten the notion that Kirk's overtures to him were nothing more than a ruse to get closer to his mother.
And then the sehlat had returned to pride of place on the bed after the visit to the Enterprise, showing up there without explanation the very next day -- before the baseball game that signaled his ultimate acceptance of Kirk.
David had even been disappointed when his mother told him he couldn't take the toy with him on the camping trip -- disappointed, that is, until he remembered all of the other boys who were going and decided that they might think him a baby if he dragged it along.
A baby. Her baby. She glanced out the bedroom window at the darkening sky. Where were they? Not just delayed. She couldn't convince herself of that anymore. Something was wrong; she knew it.
Placing the sehlat carefully back in place on David's bed, she headed for her office, determined to contact the Park Service and have them check on the young campers. If anything's happened to David...
In her office, she reached for the button to activate the BellComm system, but before she could press it, the chime indicating an incoming message sounded. She stared at the screen a second, then quickly pressed the button to accept the message. Please, God, she prayed, let them be all right.
Commander James T. Kirk was never so glad to see anything in his life as he was the cluster of flitters sitting safely, high and dry, in the parking area where they had left them. Unfortunately, the four craft were the only things on the lot: There were no other vehicles or people or anything there. Unfortunately, the storm's timing couldn't have been worse. A day earlier, and they would have postponed the trip. A day later, and by this point, ten worried mothers -- probably led by a furious Carol Marcus -- would have had a search party swarming all over the mountain. Instead, they wouldn't start getting concerned until an hour from now when their husbands and sons failed to show up by dark. And they would probably wait a couple of hours more before filing a report. By then, Kirk was determined, they would all be safe home -- or, in the case of Red Clancey, in a nice, warm hospital bed.
Kirk lowered David, who, tired out from his long walk, was riding piggyback on Kirk's back. Rubbing his eyes sleepily, the boy looked up at the man silently a moment, then asked: "Are we there?"
Kirk just gestured toward the flitters and was rewarded with one of David's sunniest smiles and a sudden whoop of excitement before the boy ran across the pavement toward the four vehicles. When he reached them, he turned back to face Kirk, fairly dancing in his eagerness for the man to join him at the flitter. "Come on, Jim," David urged. "Let's get out of here."
As he reached the boy's side, though, Kirk just shook his head. "We're not going anywhere just yet, David. First, we have to get help for the others."
"Oh, yeah, right. I forgot for a minute," David said sheepishly. "Do you think God will forgive me for forgetting Joey and his dad?"
Kirk reached out to ruffle David's fair curls. "I'm absolutely sure of it," he answered. "You've been through quite a day. You're entitled to forget a few things."
"But he's my best friend!" David protested.
"True, and it might hurt him if he knew. So we won't tell him, okay. It'll just be our little secret." The entire time they had been speaking, the Starfleet officer had been punching codes into the flitter's control mechanism, not quite able to remember the correct sequence -- was it Sam's birthday, then David's, then his, or David's, Sam's and his or ... "Aha!" Suddenly the door flew open. "In you go," Kirk directed, and David scrambled into the vehicle, climbing across the driver's seat to take his place in the front passenger seat, curling to his side as he leaned wearily against the back of the seat. Kirk joined him inside and reached for the small craft's transmitter, placing an emergency call to the National Park Service. After explaining their predicament, he asked for a rescue vehicle to come immediately.
"Sorry, no can do," the ranger who had taken the call said. "Our only rescue craft is on the other side of the mountains, and it's too near dark to attempt a rescue now. We'll start out first thing in the morning,"
"The hell we will!" Kirk shouted, his loud voice causing David to jump in alarm. "Look, there are nineteen people on that mountain, nine of them under the age of ten. And one of the adults is badly hurt and in need of immediate medical attention -- if it isn't too late for him already. I don't intend to leave them up there for one more hour than I have to, and certainly not for another night. So you'd better get off your lazy ass and get that rescue vessel over here right away, or as soon as I find out who and where you are -- and I promise you I will -- I'll come over there and rip a few vital organs out of your body and stuff them down your throat."
Practically shaking with his anger, Kirk forced himself to calm down. David was watching him with wide eyes, and he didn't want to frighten the boy. Then he grinned with relief when, after he signed off from the transmitter, David let out another whoop! -- this one even louder than the earlier one had been.
"All right, Jim!" David declared. "That's the way to tell them."
Within fifteen minutes, the rescue craft arrived at their parking area to pick up Kirk and David. Ten minutes later they were hovering over the camping site, preparing to transport the weary campers up to safety. Leaving David safe under the guidance of the friendly Park Service personnel (the man he'd talked with earlier obviously not with them), Kirk first beamed down to the ground and explained the workings of the emergency transporter to the boys, reassuring them as to its safety and the advisability of its use since the terrain where they were camping was unsuited to safe landing and climbing up a rope ladder would both be tiring and take far too long. Two minutes later, they were all on board, headed for the nearest hospital and some much needed medical attention for Red Clancey. A half-hour later, Kirk and David were back in their flitter, heading home to the city and a reunion with an anxious Carol Marcus.
* * * * *
"Mom! Mooommmm!" David called at the top of his lungs as he burst into the house. "Mom! We're back. Mister Clancey's going to be okay, and Kirk's the one who rescued us when Mister Sylvan screwed everything up. He -- Jim -- hiked all the way back to the flitter, carrying me a lot of the way, and made the park rangers get us help. And he told us stories about life in Starfleet and the monsters he's seen on other planets and what a Vampire Cloud smells like and ... and ... guess what, Mom? I'm going to be a starship captain one day!"
Kirk laughed as David's tumbled recital finally came to an end. One hand resting proprietorially on the boy's shoulder, he looked across his son's head in search of Marcus's gaze -- and froze. There was no welcome in her blue eyes, just anger -- ice-cold anger -- and, for the life of him, Kirk couldn't understand where it had come from.
Turning her back on him without a word, Marcus led David upstairs for a much needed bath before tucking him into bed. Ten minutes later she was back downstairs, facing off against Kirk across the length of the kitchen.
"How dare you put my son at risk!" she shouted at him. "He could have been killed!"
"I didn't put him at risk. That idiot of a scoutmaster did," Kirk retorted. "I'm the one who got him out safely, remember. If they had gone without me, he could have been in a hell of a lot more danger than he was. But I was there with him, and I brought him back to you safe and sound, if a little tired and dirty. So you can just stop yelling. I'm not the bad guy here. I'm the hero." He half-smiled, trying to turn it into a joke but not quite succeeding.
"Right, the hero, the shining Starfleet officer, dashing spaceman." With each deliberate word, Marcus moved a step closer to him until she was pounding on his chest. "What a wonderful role model you are. He can't wait to be just like you!"
"Is that so bad?" Kirk asked as he caught her hands in his and twisted them around her back to hold her still. "Am I such a bad guy?"
"No, damn it! You're not a bad guy. That's the whole problem." And she burst into tears.
Now that she wasn't hitting him, Kirk relaxed his grip and drew her close into his arms. "It's all right, Carol. I brought him back to you. I kept him safe for you, and I always will. For you and for me and, most of all, for himself. I'll never do anything to hurt him. I promise."
Cradling her head in his hands, he drew her back from where she was burrowed against his chest and lifted her chin so he could kiss her. The first gentle kiss quickly escalated into something more frantic, almost desperate, and soon they, too, were headed upstairs for bed--but not to sleep.
Jim Kirk was delighted but shocked at Carol Marcus's love-making that night. She had always been a passionate woman, but her behavior now was beyond passion. She was wild with need for him, seeming to try to absorb his entire being into herself as though she had to have all he had to give, all he was, at that very minute. For a while there he thought she might succeed and that he'd simply die from the intensity of it, but finally their passion burned out for the moment, and they lay more calmly in each other's arms.
"Wow," he said softly. "Maybe I ought to get lost in the wilderness more often."
But Marcus didn't answer. She was already asleep.
* * * * *
Marcus had left the bed when Kirk woke the next morning. He stretched, then rose and headed for the shower, standing under its hot, needle-like spray for a full thirty minutes in an attempt to ease the ache from muscles that protested--both the strain of the hike down from the mountain and the sexual calisthenics that had followed their return home. Finally, he dressed and headed downstairs to find Marcus.
She was waiting in the kitchen, sipping absently from a cup of coffee. Heading for the microwave, he retrieved a mug of his own and took his place at her side, reaching to take her hand only to have her pull it away from him, stand and walk away from the table.
"I've never been so scared in all my life as I was when you didn't get back on time. And then, before I could contact the proper authorities, you called, and I knew you were all right, but it didn't seem to matter; I was still scared. I just didn't know why. And then you came home, and David started talking about being a starship captain and I was even scareder. And then I understood why." She paused to take a deep breath. "Jim, I can't live like this."
"It won't be like this," he protested. "I told you, Carol. This wasn't my fault. I'll never put my faith in some stupid scoutmaster again. Next time I take David camping, I'll make all of the plans and check on the weather and everything else mys--"
"You're not taking him camping again," she interrupted him to say. "You're not taking him anywhere ever again."
"What are you saying?" he demanded but knew that the question was unnecessary. A cold knot was forming in his belly. She was sending him away again.
"Just what I said: You're not taking my son anywhere else ever again. I can't handle this, Jim," she repeated her earlier words. "It was bad enough when I just had you to worry about, dashing around out there in space: whether you'd be hurt somehow or if you'd even come back home. I thought that would be hard, and so I sent you away all those years ago. But I was wrong; that wasn't the truly difficult thing, I found out last night. It's ten times worse to sit here worrying about David. If I couldn't stand worrying about him stranded on the side of a mountain, how could I ever stand worrying about him in deep space?"
Kirk shrugged, dismissing David's dramatic announcement of the previous night. "That's just a passing phase. Last week, he wanted to be a fireman; next week it'll be a cowboy; and he'll probably eventually end up a scientist like his mother, accomplishing wonderful things but from the safety of a laboratory."
"I hope to God he does," she said. "At least then he'll be safe."
Kirk shook his head. "Nobody's ever safe, Carol. You can get killed just trying to walk across a street. Staying on Earth doesn't keep you from getting hurt or killed."
"I don't care!" she protested. "I can deal with what happens here, where I can keep an eye on him, provide him with some guidance and even protection against the worst that might happen to him. I can't deal with what might happen if he's light years away from me."
"Look," Kirk suggested reasonably, "let's give it a few days, let you calm down a bit and if you still want me to leave..." He allowed the sentence to trail off as she shook her head slowly, sadly.
"No, Jim," she said, beyond reason. "We're not waiting a few days or even a few hours. You're leaving now, right now, before he gets up and sees you and the two of you gang up on me and talk me out of this."
Kirk studied her face, looking for some chink in the armor she had suddenly built around herself. But there was no chink, none at all. Marcus had made up her mind, and there was no way he could change it, despite her comment. He knew her well enough to understand that. All he'd accomplish by trying to reason with her would be to make her more resolute, and more angry. He sighed as he watched his dreams fall to pieces around him.
"All right, Carol. You win. I'll leave, but not until I see David first." He raised a hand to stop her from protesting. "Don't worry; we won't gang up on you. I won't try to talk you out of this. I can see that you're serious about it, so I'll do as you ask. But I'm going to say goodbye to my son whether you like it or not. I owe him that much."
"You owe him a hell of a lot more than that."
"I know, Carol. I know." He felt suddenly tired again at the unfairness of her words. "But you're not going to let me give him anything more, are you?"
Silently, she shook her head, then turned her back on him as they heard David hurrying down the stairs to burst excitedly into the room.
"Jim!" He ran across the floor to throw himself in the man's arms, hugging him tightly. "What are we going to do today?"
Kirk hugged him back briefly, then set him on his feet, taking a step backward. "Sorry, pardner, we're not doing anything today. I have to go back to work."
"Back to work?" David asked. "Back to Starfleet?"
"Why are you going?" David demanded, a tremor clearly evident in his voice. "You promised you'd stay."
"I have to leave, David," Kirk answered, desperately searching his mind for an explanation that would satisfy an nine-year-old child. He looked toward Marcus for help but found none in the sight of her stiff back.
"But you promised!" David repeated. "You said you'd be here as long as I needed you."
"I said I'd be there as long as you needed me," Kirk said, knowing he'd meant more. "I meant on the mountain, not for the rest of your life."
"I'm sorry, David." Jim Kirk had heard of broken hearts, but he'd never really believed in them. Loving someone was always something you did for a time before moving on to the next woman. But now, looking into the face of his only child, he could swear he could feel his own heart breaking inside his chest. "I..." He stopped to blink back the tears that threatened his own eyes. "I don't want to leave you, but ... that's just how it is."
"But I thought ... you ... Mom ... we ..."
"I'm sorry, David." Kirk dropped into a crouch. "I hoped that it would work out, but..." He almost told David the truth then, the real reason he was leaving, but glancing at Marcus again, he stood back up, making up his mind suddenly. He couldn't leave her to deal with David's blame. That wouldn't be fair, despite the fact that it was her decision to send him away. But David would be here, with her, in his pain needing something, someone he could believe in, and it wouldn't be an absent father he didn't even know was his father.
"I'm sorry, David," he repeated. "But I've decided I have to go back to Starfleet after all." He offered a smile that he hoped looked less false than it felt. "I belong out there," he said. "Even the admiral told me that."
"Sorry, kid," he said, deciding the kindest thing he could do at this point was to be cruel. "Better luck next time."
Unprepared for the swift punch David landed in his stomach, Kirk bent over, taking a minute to regain his breath and overcome the sudden pain. When he straightened up again, it was to see David running from the room and Marcus facing him finally, tears on her face.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"Don't mention it," he said coldly, then turned and left the house before she could see the tears gathering in his own eyes.
* * * * *
"You look like hell," the doctor declared when Kirk joined him at the table in the San Francisco bar. "What's happened?"
Kirk shrugged. "Carol sent me away."
Kirk shrugged again. "It's a long story, and I don't really feel like rehashing it all right now, but, suffice to say, she decided she didn't want me around."
"I thought you were getting along well with David."
"I was. Too well apparently."
"And what does that mean?"
"It means he decided he wanted to be a starship captain, just like a certain brand new personal hero he'd acquired."
McCoy let out a long whistle. "Oh, boy," he said. "I think I understand."
"Yeah," Kirk replied. "Unfortunately, so do I."
"So, what now?"
"I have an appointment with Nogura this afternoon."
"You're going to take the Enterprise." It wasn't a question.
"I might as well. There's nothing here for me."
"I understand the feeling, Jim-boy, but..." McCoy shook his head. "What about not being ready for command?"
"I'm ready," and Kirk realized that he believed it now. He'd survived being responsible for the lives of twenty other people, including ten small boys. It had come naturally to him, taking command of the situation when things began to go wrong -- and he had actually enjoyed it. Despite his concerns for David and the others, it had been exhilarating to be the one who both figured out what to do and then did it. He had rescued them from that mountain. He had forced the Park Service to go in when they wanted to wait another day. Red Clancey was going to be all right, and so would the boys. And there might even be a Starfleet recruit or two from their midst someday.
Only they wouldn't be David.
"So it's back into space."
"That's right. What about you?"
"Well, they've told me the Pegasus isn't going out again.. They've decided to scrap her. And, frankly, I'd just as soon stay off spy vessels in the future anyway."
"Shhhh," Kirk warned, glancing around them. "We might be overheard."
"Yeah," the doctor grinned at him. "We just might."
"How many of those have you had?" Kirk gestured at the glass of Kentucky bourbon his friend was sipping.
McCoy shrugged. "I dunno. Four or five. Not enough. Too many. Who cares?"
Jim Kirk frowned, pulled from his own self-pity by the sound of pain in his friend's voice. "So what's the matter with you?" he asked.
"Same thing as you." He took another sip. "I left my daughter this morning."
Kirk accepted the glass the waiter brought him at that minute and lifted it in salute to his friend. "Cheers, Bones."
"Cheers, Jim. Hey! Could you use a doctor on that new ship of yours?"
"I don't know," Kirk replied, grinning at the thought. "I'll have to check the crew list. But I'm sure I can work something out if you'll give me a little time. Just don't let them send you out on another ship in the meantime."
McCoy nodded and took another sip from his glass. "Well, I still have about a year's worth of leave accumulated. Maybe I could take a sabbatical for six months or so, spend the time taking a refresher course of some kind, or even teaching one. That way I could spend some more time with Joanna before shipping out again." He slapped his hand on the table top. "You've got a deal, Captain."
"It's still 'commander.'"
"Not for long."
"Commander James T. Kirk to see Admiral Nogura," the Starfleet officer said as he stood in front of the desk outside the commanding admiral's office. He shifted his shoulders in an attempt to ease the uncomfortable dress uniform.
"Just a minute, Commander." The aide pressed a button, spoke briefly to the admiral, then turned back to Kirk.
"He'll see you now," she said.
Kirk entered the room, saluted the admiral and then accepted the handshake Nogura offered in greeting.
"So, Jim, how are you doing?" Nogura asked.
But Commander James T. Kirk didn't bother answering the question. "Is the Enterprise still available?" he asked.
1. See "The Difference," by Chris Dickenson. Available on this website.
2. See "Sam," by Ann Zewen. Available on this website.
3. See "Salt" by Linda McInnis. Available on this website.
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