The Vulcan Queen
Chapter 2 - Officer Spock


T'Laria stood at the main entrance of Starfleet Academy and took a deep breath. The Terran air was slightly more humid than that of Rigel VII, but there was a familiar scent to it – the mingling of city smells and the nearby ocean – that reminded her of visits she'd made here when she was very young, in another life.

She located and information terminal, and requested the location of the recruitment center. The office was not far from the main entrance, and she made her way there at a quick pace. A friendly young man greeted her, and asked if he could help her find the academy libraries. T'Laria raised an eyebrow. "I thank you for the offer," she said, speaking in a low-toned register that she had practiced during her brief stay on Rigel. "However, I believed that this was the recruitment office. I would like to begin training as a Starfleet Officer."

"Oh!" The young man looked first shocked, then mildly embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I assumed… Well, you're actually in the right place. Please step right over here to one of these terminals. Your preliminary application can be filled out here, then we'll get you into an interview with one of our recruitment officers."

T'Laria nodded. "Thank you for your help."

She took a seat at the appropriate terminal, as directed, and then filled out the application for admission into the academy. She was mildly concerned about the signature page, which declared that any person who knowingly reported false information on the application could be severely punished. Her computer skills were good enough that even a detailed search into Spock's past would reveal nothing out of the ordinary, but the fact remained – she was not Spock. Still, she reminded herself that this was her dream, and there was no other way to accomplish the task, and she signed the application, pressing her hand against the bio-reader to authenticate and submit the application.

The same young cleric who had directed her to the terminals showed her the waiting area where several other applicants sat waiting for meeting with the recruiters. "Please wait here, sir, and you will be notified when someone's available. It should be no more than ten or fifteen minutes."

T'Laria thanked him and took a seat. She busied herself by reading one of the latest scientific journals published by Starfleet science officers. It was comforting to think that she would have time to write and publish journals of her findings along with her other potential duties on a Starfleet vessel. She was interrupted from her train of thought by the sound of someone clearing their throat in a "pointed" manner. T'Laria looked up to see a young Terran, perhaps eighteen or nineteen years of age, standing before her. She was stunned by his appearance – his eyes were bright blue, a deeper, more vibrant hue than she had ever seen the like of before. He had sandy blonde hair that looked like it might have been curly if it had been allowed to grow longer.

"Is it okay if I sit here?" he asked.

T'Laria glanced at the seat next to her and nodded. "Certainly."

"Thanks. Crowded in here," he noted, taking the seat beside her. T'Laria nodded her agreement. There was a brief silence, before the young man spoke again. "So… are you…" His face reddened slightly. "Sorry, that's kind of a personal question."

"You may ask," she said. "I reserve the right not to answer."

He smiled. "Fair enough. It's just… I thought Vulcans were pacifists. Do you have your Province Leader's permission to join Starfleet?" T'Laria felt the corners of her mouth turn down, despite her efforts to remain impassive. She turned away from him. "I'm sorry," he said. "Sorry, that was-"

"It is all right," she said. "I do not have the blessing of my Elders. My parting from my family was… tense," she said.

"Sorry to hear that," he said. "I'm sorry to start with such a personal question, too. It's just that I was surprised to see a Vulcan in the recruitment office." He chuckled. "I'm here without permission, too," he confided. "When my mom finds out, she's going to kill me."

T'Laria looked sharply at the young man, eyebrows rising. "I was not aware that some Terrans exercised such harsh punishments for disobedience to elders. Have the laws recently-"

T'Laria paused, interrupted by the joyful laughter of the young human. "I'm sorry," he said, trying to control himself. "That's… no, she's not literally going to kill me. It's a figure of speech."

"Ah," she replied with a nod. "I see."

The young man could clearly tell that she could not "see", and he proceeded to explain. "It just means that she's going to be pissed. Furious," he corrected. "She's probably going to yell at me, and demand that I leave, and try to contact the head recruitment officer. But I'm an adult, and she's going to have to accept that sooner or later."

T'Laria allowed the faintest hint of a smile to light her eyes. "That is my feeling where my family is concerned," she said.

"But you're… you've been an adult for ages, right?"

"Only in terms of Terran and Federation laws," she said. "I'm twenty-six years old, and on Vulcan, I will not be considered an adult until I'm twenty-eight."

The young man's eyes grew wide, and his bright blue eyes were incredulous. "Whoa. I knew the age of majority was higher than ours, but… wow. Ten years older?"

"It is quite young considering our life expectancy," she remarked.

"Good point," he said. "I-"

"Spock, please report to interview room three."

T'Laria looked up at the announcement, then turned to her new acquaintance. "Please excuse me," she said. "Perhaps we will meet again during our training."

She stood, and the young man nodded. "Maybe we will. Good luck in there, Spock."

"Good luck to you..." She gave him a questioning look.

"Jim," he replied.

She nodded, noting that he didn't offer to shake her hand. Many of the humans she'd met extended their hands automatically, then withdrew in embarrassment moments later. Jim merely nodded, and wished her good luck again before she turned and located the correct interview room. The fact that he seemed familiar with T'Khasi customs (at least some of them) pleased her. She was also oddly pleased that they were in a similar position – their families did not approve of their joining Starfleet. She sincerely hoped that her path would cross his again.

T'Laria was interviewed by Captain Christopher Pike – the head of recruitment, and the man that (apparently) would soon be contacted by Jim's "pissed" mother. The interview process was brief, but intense. Pike asked for detailed answers to questions designed to evaluate her motives for joining Starfleet, and her potential commitment to the service. He asked if she would require any special accommodations in the dorm rooms.

"Would it be possible to have a private room, sir?" she asked. "Vulcan meditation practices often require privacy."

The older man frowned slightly. "Unfortunately, that isn't possible," he answered. "You are certainly welcome to purchase moveable partitions to section off part of the room, but Academy training is heavily focused on building a sense of teamwork and camaraderie between cadets. Shared living space is an integral part of that training."

T'Laria nodded. "Understood, sir," she said, already trying to plan how she could hide her gender while sharing a room with another cadet. "Is there a medical exam required before entering the Academy?"

"Although our cadets must meet rigorous physical demands during training, we do not require a medical exam prior to being accepted into the academy. Our doctors will review your prior medical records, and if the medical staff finds something of concern, they will ask you to go in for a new examination. Otherwise, you'll be expected to take an exam toward the end of each term, and once you enter active service, you will be expected to take a physical exam once a year." T'Laria stifled a sigh of relief. Her medical records had been planted back when she left T'Khasi, and she wasn't concerned about the medical staff flagging her records. That meant she had at least a year to figure out how to get through a medical exam without being discovered.

"Thank you, Captain. There is one other thing that I would like to request." Pike looked expectantly at her, and she began her well-rehearsed statement. "The Vulcan philosophy opposes violence of any kind. Although we are grateful to Starfleet for the role it plays in the protection of Federation planets, Vulcans are expected to refrain from bearing arms except in ritualized ceremonies. To spare my family shame, I ask that my entrance into Starfleet not be shown on any public listings. Is this possible, sir?"

Pike looked at her seriously. "Academy enrollment records are private, and only accessible by authorized members of Starfleet. But I will add a special note in your records, and we'll notify you before publishing anything. We sometimes publish articles by our students, and we'll check before we do so for you. Would that be acceptable?"

"Yes, sir, thank you."

"Very well." Pike shocked T'Laria by raising his hand in the traditional Vulcan parting. "Welcome to Starfleet, Mr. Spock."

T'Laria returned the salute, feeling pride and joy welling up in her. "Thank you, Captain," she replied.


T'Laria carried her small duffel bag to the appropriate sector of the Academy campus, and began searching for her correct room. The night before, she had experienced the characteristically Human phenomenon of dreaming about a lack of preparedness – walking through the halls with no information about where her room was, nor what her classes might be, despite the fact that her first term would not start for two more weeks, and she had full access to her planned schedule. Unlike her dream-self, T'Laria had a full map of the dormitory buildings, and she did not spend hours searching through endless hallways, and opening doors that led to nowhere, or mistakenly entering classes that were in session. She located her room with little difficulty.

She was surprised to see that the door was already open, and voices could be heard from inside. She was hesitant to intrude, but it was her room, and she did not relish the idea of carrying her luggage around the campus for an indefinite period. She stepped quietly into the room, noting the colorful décor, and the pleasing, efficient layout. In the main room, past the short hallway, there were two small beds on opposing walls. Each bed had a shelf above it that could be used to store personal belongings.

One of the beds held a small backpack that seemed hardly large enough to carry a change of clothes, and standing beside the bed, facing away from the door, was a young man holding a personal communicator. He was blonde, and it looked like it could be the young man from the recruitment office, though his posture was a stark contrast to T'Laria's memory of him. His shoulders were hunched, and his arm was folded tightly across his chest - T'Laria could see his hand gripping the side of his ribs tightly.

"I'm not!" the young man snapped. It was Jim. "What makes you think I haven't thought about this for years before now? I didn't make this decision lightly any more than you did! I-" He listened for a moment, then spoke again. "Ma, that is not fair! Why shouldn't I have the same chance he did? I- no, that's not what I mean, you know that! You didn't quit after it happened! Why... no, it is the same, it's exactly the same!" T'Laria began to edge back out of the room, uncomfortable about listening to the private conversation. "You want me to live in a bubble, but you can't protect me from life forever! You... no. No! It's not happening! I swore an oath in that room and-" He stopped short - he'd waved his arm in the direction of the main office, and had turned just enough to catch sight of T'Laria in his peripheral vision.

T'Laria winced slightly, embarrassed that she had not managed to leave the room before being noticed. Jim's face reddened, and he lowered his head. "Ma, I can't talk right now." Another pause. "My roommate just walked in, and I'd rather not have this be his first impression of me!" he snapped. "Especially since I'm going to be here for at least three more years, because I'm not backing out!" Jim glanced at the single bag in T'Laria's hand. "Besides, he has loads of things to move in. I'm going to be friendly and help him out." He paused again, let out a short sigh, and squeezed his eyes shut. "Yes... yes, Ma. Okay. Yes, love you, too. Yes I'll call you, but I’m not-… okay. Okay, bye." He disconnected the call, with an exasperated sigh. "I'm really sorry about that," he said.

"It is I who must apologize," T'Laria answered, with a slight shake of her head. "I should have left immediately, but-"

Jim waved a hand. "Don't sweat it." T'Laria raised her eyebrows, and Jim smiled. "Don't worry about it," he said. "It's alright, it was actually perfect timing. I hate fighting with her, so..." He chuckled. "Sorry to have used you in a lie, I'm sure that doesn't make the greatest impression either, but I couldn't stay on with her freaking out like that."

"Do not… don't sweat it," T'Laria said, testing the words.

Jim laughed gleefully, but there was no ridicule in the sound. "That's perfect! I don't think I've ever met a Vulcan that behaves like you do. No offense," he added hastily.

"Vulcans do not take offense," she said, resisting the urge to tell him that she was half-Human. If word of Princess T'Laria's disappearance got to Earth, the coincidence might lead to suspicion.

Jim laughed again. "That's more like it," he said. "Here." He extended his hand toward her bag. "Let's make me less of a liar. I'll put that away for you." T'Laria slowly handed him the bag, slightly nervous even though she knew that he wouldn't open it. The tools for her disguise were inside, along with the braid that she had still been unable to dispose of. With some amount of ceremony, Jim walked to the bed and placed the bag onto it. "There! We're unpacked. If you'd rather have the other bed, I can be convinced to switch our luggage out."

"That will not be necessary," T'Laria said, trying to control her amusement.

"Okay, then!" He smiled brightly at her. "I'm glad we ended up rooming together. I was afraid I was going to get stuck with some evil fourth year cadet and spend my whole first term getting hazed. Instead I got a kindred spirit. Why don't we elder-defying cadets go give ourselves a tour of the campus?"

T'Laria refrained from explaining that she already had a complete map of the campus, and could easily find any part of the campus without taking a tour. However, she recognized that the tour was born of a desire for social contact, and since she had wanted to learn more about him after their first meeting, she deemed it appropriate to accept. "That would be an acceptable use of our time," she said.

Their tour of the campus included several areas, including the library, the gymnasium and the gardens. T'Laria told Jim about the elaborate Earth-like gardens at home, speaking as if she had been a visitor to the palace, rather than a resident. In turn, Jim told her about farmland in Iowa, and how he'd grown up near broad fields of grass, corn, wheat and other staples. T'Laria had seen such things in informational videos during her education, but she had never seen them in person. Jim assured her that it was far more "awesome" when you could stand among the fields and see nothing but wheat or corn in all directions.

Eventually, they came upon a broad courtyard within one of the gardens. In the center of the courtyard was a pair of statues, standing back to back, looking majestically over the gardens. T'Laria recognized them immediately. The man on the left was Captain Richard Robau, and the man on the right was Captain George Kirk. T'Laria glanced at Jim, who was staring up at the statues in awe. "I would like to read the plaque," T'Laria said.

Jim glanced at her and nodded, but didn't speak. There were a few other students near the statues, but they stepped aside when T'Laria and Jim approached the podium-styled plaque. T'Laria read the plaque, which gave a brief, but reverential description of the sacrifices of the two men. When she looked up from the plaque, she noticed that Jim was not beside her. He was standing directly in front of the statue of Captain Kirk, looking up at him with a serious expression on his face. T'Laria joined him, and stared up at the captain as well.

"Captain Kirk was one of my primary inspirations for joining Starfleet," she said.

Jim gave her a broad smile. "Mine, too," he said. "I wish I could have met him."

"As do I." She almost mentioned that she had met Winona Kirk, but stopped herself, as she would not have been able to explain the meeting. T'Laria looked back up at the statue. A moment later, she frowned, and looked back at Jim. Strange. There was a vague similarity to George's face, somewhere in the brows. Or perhaps the jaw. "Jim, has anyone ever-"

"Excuse me." T'Laria and Jim both turned to the cadet who had spoken. She seemed to be about T'Laria's age, and had the extra insignia on her uniform that denoted she was a senior student. "Sorry to interrupt, but… are you James Kirk?" Jim nodded, and T'Laria could not hide her shock. The senior cadet grinned and held out her hand for Jim to shake. "It's really an honor to meet you," she said, pumping his hand vigorously. "I'm just so glad you've decided to join Starfleet. I mean… I know you're not your father, but… I just…"

"I understand," Jim said. "And I appreciate that, thank you very much."

"Good luck," she said. She glanced at T'Laria. "Good luck to you as well," she said.

"Thank you," T'Laria said.

The woman finally released Jim's hand, and left the area. The few cadets who were still in the courtyard seemed to be watching them, while trying not to appear as if they were staring. When Jim glanced at them, they smiled, but quickly returned to their quiet conversations. "Should we keep going?" Jim asked.

"Certainly," T'Laria said. "I was not aware that you were George Kirk's son."

"Well, we weren't exactly fully introduced, I suppose," he replied, leading the way out of the gardens. "I don't really advertise the fact, either. I'm proud of my dad and what he did, but I don't want people thinking that I'm getting an easy ride through the Academy because of who my parents are."

T'Laria nodded her understanding. "My parents are… from a powerful clan," she said, trying to choose her words carefully. She somehow found herself wanting to share things with Jim, but she was concerned about telling him too much, and not just because she didn't want to be found by her parents. Now that she had introduced herself to Jim as Spock, she was afraid of being seen as a liar by the young man. "I was often concerned about others believing that I had received special treatment in school because of who they were. But my exam scores and final grades could not be affected by favoritism, and I ceased to concern myself with those thoughts."

"I hope it's that way for me, too," Jim said. "And I hope I don't get any hardasses who want to make me work harder than the other students to prove myself. Sometimes I worry about that, too, but not too much. I'll take anything they can throw at me."

"I am sure you will be successful, Jim," she replied.

"Thanks."

"I must say that I am surprised your mother does not approve of your joining Starfleet. She is still an officer, is she not?"

"Yes, she is," he answered. "But she's afraid for me because of what happened to Dad. Even though she could be hurt or killed, too, and that doesn't stop her from serving I deserve the same chance! But there's mothers for you, I guess. She wants me to live in a bubble."

T'Laria nodded sympathetically. "My mother was protective as well," she said. "However, it is my father who truly disapproves of my choice."

"Whoa." Jim looked at her with wide eyes. "You defied your father? I thought in Vulcan culture, that meant you basically get disowned."

"That is true," T'Laria said. "And I have been disowned by my father for my defiance. But the example of your father, and your mother as well, have shown me that Starfleet is an institution filled with potential heroes." Jim smiled. "The sacrifices I have made were well worth the opportunity to serve the fleet."

Jim's smile seemed to grow warmer. "It's quite an organization, isn't it?" T'Laria nodded, and Jim laughed suddenly. "Do you know, Starfleet can even cure aviophobia?"

T'Laria raised an eyebrow. "That seems counterintuitive," she replied.

He laughed again, clearly "tickled" by the concept, or by T'Laria's response. "You'd think that, wouldn't you? C'mon, let's find a vegetarian place around campus, and I'll tell you all about it."


T'Laria's first year at the Academy was a challenging one. First of all, the constant lying soon became difficult. She thought that it would become easier with time, but each time she introduced herself as "Spock", she found that it stung. Every morning that she woke ninety minutes before dawn to take care of grooming, tightly binding her chest, donning her prosthetic genetelia, and dressing before there was any hope of Jim waking up, she felt a sense of anxiety and shame. She spent many hours in meditation attempting to reconcile her Surakian upbringing with the constant deception that was part of her current existence, with little relief.

Secondly, T'Laria had not realized how much her mother had modified her behavior as compared to most other Humans. The environment at the Academy was fast-paced and wild, and the primarily human student body behaved far differently from any collective group of students on Vulcan she had ever known. As a whole, they were louder, more active (running from place to place whether they were late or not), and (of course) more prone to joking, laughing, yelling, and otherwise blatantly expressing their emotions.

Although T'Laria was more prone to emotional displays than pure-blooded Vulcans, she was much more rigid than most Humans. Jim accepted her behavior without question, far more likely to show surprise when she did show emotion than when she didn't. And even then, he soon ceased to show any shock, and came to understand her and accept her as she was. He was just as exuberant, prone to running for no reason (in fact, moreso than most), and emotional as any other first year student, but his acceptance of T'Laria was unique.

Most of T'Laria's other classmates behaved differently toward her than they did toward people of other species', and they often took offense at T'Laria's words when no offense had been intended. She was regarded as "unapproachable" because she refused to shake hands, and she saw anger and disdain in people's eyes when she flinched at their unexpected touch.

If she were not Vulcan, T'Laria might have been hurt by this lack of understanding. As it was, she attempted to educate those around her, which seemed (inexplicably) to irritate them and alienate them further. Practically isolated from the majority of her colleagues, T'Laria took solace with the few close connections she managed to form throughout the year, and valued them highly.

The first of these, of course, was Jim. They shared several of the same classes, and their status as roommates naturally meant that they spent a great deal of time together. However, Jim spent much of his free time with T'Laria as well. When he wasn't "hanging out" with his aviophobic friend from the recruitment shuttle, he was spending time with his "fellow-elder-defying" friend Spock. They discovered several common interests and spent time talking about Federation History, exploring the city together, and challenging each other to races in the school gym. Jim lamented that Spock and "Bones" (If Jim ever used his real name, T'Laria was not around to hear it) seemed to have constantly conflicting schedules. "I'm gonna get you two together if it kills all of us!" But until that time, they always interacted separately.

Along with Jim, there was Captain Pike, who was so impressed by her performance in his classes that he had taken an interest in her progress in her other courses. He suggested that she add more command classes to her academic plan than were required for Science-track students, and hinted that if she did there might be greater opportunities in future postings once she graduated from the academy.

The next two friends, T'Laria met later in the year - the first meeting resulting in the other. Jim was surprised and pleased to learn that T'Laria was interested in archery. He was fascinated by antique weaponry and old-style battle techniques. At his encouragement, T'Laria began an archery club on campus. With the help of his charming and convincing nature, they had over twenty members within half a year.

Their newest member joined in the second term of the year - a beautiful young African woman, barely past the age of eighteen, who joined the club as a "novice" - someone looking for instruction, rather than competition. She introduced herself to T'Laria at her first meeting in perfect, accent-free Vulcan, which stunned T'Laria. Jim was fluent in Vulcan, which was shocking in itself, but even he spoke with a slightly Terran accent. Pleased, she decided to forego her usual exercises and target practice to watch while Jim gave the young woman - Nyota Uhura - her first lesson.

T'Laria was pleased by her form - she held the bow perfectly after only a slight correction from Jim. Though she was attentive to Jim's instruction, she glanced often at T'Laria, and seemed to appreciate T'Laria's presence.

Just as the girl was ready to release the arrow, and errant ball from a nearby game of old-world soccer, which had never interfered with their challenges before, came flying from out of the proverbial "blue" and struck Nyota in the side. Shocked, she stumbled and released the arrow, which flew directly into T'Laria's upper arm.

There was a collective gasp from everyone present at the archery club, and T'Laria saw the horrified expressions of both Jim and Nyota, just before glancing down to see the arrow protruding from her arm. T'Laria did not generally consider herself to be "squeamish" about blood, but the sight of her own limb impaled by the arrow, and the dark green liquid trailing down her arm was shocking nonetheless. The realization that she had been pierced through was followed a few moments later by the pain. That was somewhat overwhelming, and she thought it prudent to sit down, before her light-headedness caused her to pass out.

The moment she moved, everyone present sprang into action. Jim ran to the nearest comm-link, and the young cadet who had impaled her rushed to her side, letting out a high-pitched, anxious whine as she ran. "Oh God," she whispered. "Shit! Shit shit shit shit shit! Are you okay? Stupid question. Oh my god! Shit!!" Her stream of profanities mingled with prayers soon switched from English to Swahili, and to other languages that T'Laria recognized, but didn't understand. However, though she sounded panicked, her actions belied her frantic words. She studied the wound, procured clean towels from a nearby container, and pressed them to the wound without touching T'Laria's skin, all before the other members of the team reached her. Several gathered around her, their concern so strong that T'Laria could feel it without touching, and without the concerned exclamations that they bombarded her with.

Jim announced that a med team had been dispatched, and Nyota crouched in front of her. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, shit!"

"It is not... your fault," T'Laria responded, surprised, and somewhat alarmed by how breathless she sounded.

"How are you holding up?" Jim asked, bending so that he could look at her at eye level. "You look a little foggy, do you feel dizzy?"

"Somewhat," she answered.

Jim gave her a worried frown. "Laying down might make it worse, but here." He moved around to stand behind her. "Lean back and I'll support you until they come."

T'Laria hesitated only for a moment before leaning back against her friend's chest. She breathed deeply and slowly, touching Nyota lightly on the shoulder with her good arm in an unusual display. The girl's agitation was palpable, and T'Laria could tell she still blamed herself. The pain was excruciating, and seemed to be getting worse. She clenched her teeth and closed her eyes, beginning a meditation exercise. A moment later, she felt Jim's hands on her shoulders. She would have expected to be jarred from her attempts to minimize the pain, but the touch was comforting - gentle, but solid and reassuring.

After what must only have been a few minutes, but what felt like hours to T'Laria, the medical team arrived. She was moved to an anti-grav stretcher, and rushed to the academy medical facility. Both Nyota and Jim asked to be allowed to ride with her, and they sat on opposite sides of her, saying encouraging words while the medical officer checked her pulse and basic readings.

The simple check sent T'Laria into a near-panic. She could feel her heart rate increasing, and the medic's slight frown had her breathing hard and fast - all attempts at meditation gone. "It's alright," the medic said calmly. T'Laria did not agree. The prospect of being discovered was more than alarming, and if they put her on a bio-scan bed, the detailed readings would definitely clash with Spock's medical history. She would be exposed as a fraud to her close friend who had always behaved with integrity around her, and who had accepted all of her T'Khasian behavior without ever judging her. The new cadet, Nyota, would certainly lose whatever respect she might have had for her as the founder of the Archery Club, and a slightly more experienced cadet. She would be reprimanded for falsifying her records, and might be removed from Starfleet Academy! Her parents would easily find her, and she would be locked away in some chamber of the Shi'Kahr palace until her father saw fit to release her.

"What's wrong?" Jim asked, his sharp, anxious voice breaking through her panicked thoughts. "Is he going into shock? Why's it look like he's panicking?"

"Because he is panicking," the medic replied, just as calmly as before. "Cadet Spock. Try to go back to the deep breathing you were doing before, okay? We're almost there, and you'll be just fine. Nod if you understand me."

T'Laria nodded once, and made an effort to calm herself again. She was only marginally successful, and by the time she was taken out of the ambulance and moved into the urgent care unit, she felt that she might be capable of forming a coherent sentence again.

They were met by a young doctor, stocky with brown hair that was on the longer side of "regulation". He hurried to the stretcher and looked her over, taking the preliminary scan information from the paramedic. "Okay, Cadet, you're going to be just fine," he said, smiling at her. "We'll get this out of you, patch you up, and you'll be right as rain in a few days." T'Laria nodded again, though she still did not feel that she would be fine at all, and she did not understand what rain had to do with "rightness".

The next moment, the doctor's pleasant expression transformed to a dark scowl, and he glared at Jim. "Why am I not surprised that you are involved when a patient comes through with a damned arrow sticking out of his arm?" he hissed.

"It wasn't me this time, Bones, I swear!" Surprised, T'Laria looked at the doctor more closely, trying to imagine this serious, though young, doctor interacting on a near-daily basis with Jim Kirk.

"Right. Take him to one sixteen," he said to the medics.

"Is..." T'Laria glanced nervously at her two companions, before looking up at the doctor. "Is that a private room? Could I-"

"No problem, we'll get you a private room," the doctor said. "Two forty-seven should be open," he said to the paramedics.

"Yes, Doctor."

T'Laria was taken to a small private room in an upper floor, and transferred to the bio-bed. They turned on the monitor, then left immediately without looking at it. T'Laria's relief was extraordinarily short-lived. She heard the doctor's voice just outside the room. "No, Jim, you can't, but you can stay in the waiting room if you want. And Miss Uhura, you can get that tragic look off your face, I wasn't lying when I told him he'd be back to normal in a couple of days. Now both of you, shoo. I'll let you know when he can have visitors."

There was no further comment from outside, and T'Laria waited for the doctor to enter, tension making her body feel rigid, and her breaths coming quick and shallow. She wasn't sure if it was good or bad that the doctor assigned to her was Jim's friend. Would it make him sympathetic, or make it more likely that he would immediately tell Jim T'Laria's secret?

The doctor entered the room and shut the door behind him. He gave T'Laria a slight smile. "Holding up okay?" T'Laria nodded – another lie. "All right. I'm Doctor Leonard McCoy, and you must be Cadet Spock," he said. "Jim's told me he's going to kill us all if we don't get together soon. I'm not sure this is what he meant." T'Laria allowed herself a slight smile. McCoy looked surprised, but didn't comment. "I know you're in a lot of pain right now, so let's get you more comfortable first." As he spoke, he loaded a hypospray and adjusted the contents. "Allergic to any medications?"

"No, sir," she replied, her voice sounding strained.

"Good." He quickly administered the hypospray to T'Laria's shoulder. The pain lessened almost immediately. "Now," he said. "Let's see what we have here." He approached the bio-bed, looked down at the data pad in his hand, then pressed a few buttons on the bio-bed monitor.

"Inconsistent patient information entered," came the computer's pleasant voice. T'Laria's fists clenched, and she felt her breaths quickening again. The doctor frowned at the readings, and pressed a few more buttons. "Inconsistent patient information entered."

"Now, what in the…" The doctor's whisper trailed off, and he looked at T'Laria with furrowed brows. "Cadet…" She looked at him, unable to hide her nervousness. His frown deepened. "First things first," he said seriously.

The admittance chime sounded, and McCoy turned away from the bed and answered the door. A young man in a nurse's uniform began to enter, but McCoy stopped him. "It's all right, Dalton," he said. "I can handle it myself."

"Are you sure, sir? Blood flow might-"

"Quite sure, it's a simple enough extraction." He glanced at T'Laria briefly, before continuing, sotto voce. "Vulcans are notoriously private about their medical affairs. The less people involved, the better, you know? I'll call if I need something, but go on and see if another doctor needs you."

"Yes, Doctor."

McCoy shut and locked the door, and returned to T'Laria's side. "Thank you, Doctor," she said softly.

"You're welcome," he replied, and T'Laria was grateful that there was no harshness to his tone. "On a scale of one to ten, with ten being practically unbearable, how would you say the pain is now?"

"Four," she replied after a moment's thought.

The doctor nodded. "That's good," he said. "I'm going to give you a local anesthetic now. It'll deaden your arm, but you'll be lucid throughout the procedure. Your arm will be useless for a few hours, but it's less debilitating than having you fully anaesthetized."

T'Laria nodded, and Doctor McCoy gave her the injection. He checked with her periodically to find out if she still had any sensation in her arm. Once she was fully numb, he removed the arrow carefully, using a laser cutter so that he didn't have to pull the alignment guides, or the arrowhead, through her wound. He staunched the blood, which began flowing more freely once the arrow had been removed, then cleaned and sealed the wound. Next, he set her on an osteo-regeneration machine to repair the bone, which had been chipped by the arrowhead.

"I'm going to prescribe you a few things – pain relief, some vitamins to help your tissues recover, and something to prevent infection." He typed information into his data-pad as he spoke. "I'm also leaving instructions for you to spend an hour a day on the regen machine for the next three days. No heavy lifting, no physical education classes, and needless to say, no archery for two weeks. I've set an appointment for you two weeks from now, for a check-up."

"Understood, Doctor," she answered.

"Now," he said, pulling over a stool, and sitting down beside T'Laria's bed. "I have some questions for you." T'Laria lowered her head, and stared down at her lap. She tried to tell herself that a hero should bravely face adversity, but at the moment, she could not bring herself to face the doctor's piercing gaze. She told herself that it must be the shock of her injury that had so weakened her resolve, but she wasn't entirely convinced. "Your medical record shows detailed information about your general health," McCoy began. "Shows your check-ups from a very young age, procedures, and lots of other things medical records should show. But it doesn't indicate that you ever went through a gender reassignment procedure. In fact, it indicates that you were born male. Yet your bio-readings are consistent with those of a Vulcan female, with some variations that I can't yet explain. Can you help me understand these inconsistencies?"

"I..." T'Laria felt her hands clenching again, as she searched for a way to answer. Finally, she took a deep breath and lifted her head to face McCoy. "My medical records are falsified, sir," she said. The doctor's eyes widened, but he remained silent. "I... have joined Starfleet without the permission of my father," she continued. "Are you familiar with Vulcan customs, Doctor?"

"Some of them, yes," he answered.

"Then you may know that a patriarch has full control of his children - in some cases, even after the age of majority has been reached." She wanted to be as honest as possible, but she left out the fact that "some cases" were cases where the patriarch was either a clan leader, or (of course) the King himself. "If my father found me, he could legally remove me from Starfleet and force me to return home under guard. The shame would be..." She faltered. "Indescribable," she said at last. "So I disguised myself. I..." She swallowed. "I had hoped... I had not expected to come into contact with any medical personnel so soon."

"You weren't going to be able to avoid us forever, you know, regardless of freak accidents with antique weaponry," McCoy said. "What did you plan on doing when you had to come in for your year-end physical?"

T'Laria shook her head. "I..."

"You didn't think that far ahead, did you?" She shook her head, feeling the heat of shame rise to her face. "Listen, Spock," McCoy said, his tone only slightly less sharp. "It's not as if I'm completely unsympathetic to your situation. But you must realize what a serious offense it is to falsify medical records. Your integrity will be questioned. The board may question your oath and your dedication to Starfleet, which means you might be expelled from Academy whether your family finds you or not."

"Doctor, I... I know you don't know me," she said. "And I know you have no reason to trust me. But my dedication to Starfleet is... this..." She closed her eyes and tried to force herself to calm down. When she felt she could speak without such agitation, she opened her eyes again. "This has been my dream since I was a small child. I want nothing more than to experience what Starfleet has to offer, and to give what I can offer to Starfleet. But if... I don't wish to involve you in a deception, but... I… is there any way you can help me?" By the time she finished, T'Laria could hear a heaviness in her own voice - evidence of her struggle to control her tears.

McCoy let out a short sigh, and looked keenly at her, lips pursed. He stared at her for so long that she felt the same discomfort she had whenever she believed that her father planned to lecture her. Finally, the doctor spoke. "I'm not exactly comfortable with the idea of helping you to deceive Starfleet," he said. T'Laria held her breath. "I'm not sure what kind of trouble I would be in if it was discovered that I'd simply ignored what you've done." He sighed again, watching her as she struggled to control her emotions. "That said, I do feel I have a reason to trust you." T'Laria was surprised, and did not bother hiding that fact. "That reason is Jim Kirk," McCoy said. "I've only known him for this past term, but he's a young man that I trust completely. He speaks highly of you, and from what he's said about you I don't have any doubts about your integrity."

T'Laria sighed in relief. "Thank you, sir," she said.

"You're welcome. Now, the first thing I'm going to do is get rid of these medical records. A computer glitch is going to eat them. As soon as you're recovered, you're coming in for a complete physical for us to keep on record."

T'Laria frowned. "But, if... if it's discovered that a gender-reassigned Vulcan joined Starfleet around the same time I left home, I-"

He raised a hand to stop her protest. "Doctor-patient confidentiality can be extended to cover that, Spock," he said. "I'll list myself as your primary physician, and I'll lock your records so that they can be viewed only by me, or by my authority."

"But... my parents are from a... powerful house," she said. "What if they-"

"Even the King of Vulcan himself couldn't get information from a locked medical record in a Federation database," he said. "Even if he made a direct appeal to the Federation Council. Trust me, sealed records are inviolate. It's a better option than having falsified records in the system, flashing and giving out warnings every time somebody puts you on a biobed."

T'Laria nodded her assent. If any other member of the medical staff saw the discrepancy, she would have to go through this all over again. "But... what if there is another emergency, and I have to be seen by a different doctor?"

"That is a potential problem, but I do live on campus. I'm a cadet, just like you, but if I make special notes in your file, they will consider me 'on call' for you, and they'll pull me out of class, or out of bed if necessary."

"Oh, I..." She started to protest, but stopped when she realized that she hardly had any choice. "I appreciate that very much, Doctor."

McCoy nodded. "It'll be a different story when you're assigned to a vessel. We may not be assigned to the same craft, but we can decide who to confide in when that time comes. Now, just rest and relax, okay? I'm going to talk to Jim and Cadet Uhura, and..." He frowned at her. "What was that?"

"Doctor?"

"You got a panicked look on your face for half a second." T'Laria shook her head, but the doctor was giving her that piercing look again. "Does Jim know about this?"

T'Laria shook her head. "I... we... I was... afraid to lose his friendship," she said.

McCoy looked thoughtfully at her. "You might be surprised by what that boy can find out about you, and not lose a lick of respect for you," he said. "But it's for you to tell, not me. Doctor-patient confidentiality trumps best friend status, so you don't have to worry. I'll just tell them that you're recovering well, and I'll let them know when you can have visitors. That'll be in about an hour, unless you tell me you don't want visitors at all."

"No, sir, visitors would be welcome once I have had time to compose myself."

"Fine," the doctor said. "Rest up, and I'll be back to check on you in a little while."

With that, McCoy left the room, and locked the door behind him. T'Laria shut her eyes, weary from the emotional turmoil of the past few minutes. She was relieved beyond expression that she had made it through the emergency with her status as an officer still intact, and now with an ally who would help her to remain secure, but the uncertainty had been fairly exhausting. She began a meditation exercise, which was far more successful now that she was no longer in the midst of a panic attack.

By the time McCoy came to check on her again, she was calm, and felt more centered than she had in some time. McCoy asked how she felt, then turned off the bio-monitor before inviting Jim and Nyota to enter the room. Jim grinned at her when he saw her, though Nyota hung back slightly, and seemed nervous.

"Hey, Spock, how are you? He didn't chop you up too bad, did he?"

"Doctor McCoy had no reason to chop me up, Jim," Spock said. "However, to answer your question, I am no longer in any pain."

Jim laughed heartily, and Nyota smiled. "You're great," Jim said.

"I'm glad to hear you're feeling better, sir," Nyota said. "I'm so sorry about-"

"Please do not apologize, Miss Uhura," she said. "It was an unpredictable and unavoidable situation, and as such, it was not your fault."

She smiled and thanked him. "You can call me Nyota," she said.

"Very well. And you need not call me 'sir'," she replied.

"Here you go," Jim said, pulling over two chairs from against the wall. They sat down, and Jim asked, "How long do you have to stay?"

"I must remain on the regeneration machine for at least another hour today, and then one hour each day for three more days."

Jim groaned. "Like when I tore that ligament two months ago. Sitting around on regen is a total pain. Guess I'll be here to make it exciting for you."

"How do you plan to achieve that, Jim?"

"Oh, by kicking your ass in chess every day, of course," he said casually.

T'Laria sighed and refused to give any indication of her amusement. Nyota laughed. "You really think you can beat a Vulcan at chess?"

Jim grinned. "Wanna find out?"

Nyota looked inquisitively at T'Laria. "You are welcome to come if you like. I will let you both know when I will be assigned to the machine. However," she said, turning to Jim. "Any victory you may claim over the next three days will surely be the effect of the decreased cognitive function due to pain medications and the distraction from the regeneration machine."

"What?!" Jim gaped at her. "That's... I can't believe you just... made that up, are you for real? You just told me last week that no distraction could interrupt your amaaazing Vulcan Focus or whatever, and now... you're unbelievable!"

This time, T'Laria let her amusement show, smiling slightly at Jim's flabbergasted outburst. "Well," Nyota said, smiling herself. "I'll definitely be here tomorrow to witness... whatever is going to happen between the two of you."


"Wow, check this out." T'Laria looked up from her Interstellar Diplomacy homework to see what Jim wanted. "They must be getting really desperate."

"What are you reading?" T'Laria asked.

"Newsfeed," he replied. "Vulcan's actually offering a reward for information leading to the location of Princess T'Laria."

T'Laria stiffened, glad that Jim was engrossed in his data pad and couldn't see her change in demeanor. Even though he had been interested in the story off and on for some time, T'Laria felt shock every time Jim spoke her true name aloud.

"Let me see," Nyota said, leaning over his shoulder. "What broadcast is that?"

"Look," Jim replied, showing it to her. "Here, I'll send it to you."

"You are becoming distracted from your studies," T'Laria said. "Final examinations begin tomorrow, and-"

"Come on, Spock, you must be a little bit interested. This is about the ruling body of your home planet!"

"I am aware of-"

"Whoa, did you see this?" Nyota asked. "It says King Sarek's first son refused the offer."

"What offer?" T'Laria asked, looking up from her own data pad.

"You don't know about it?" Jim asked.

"There is no need for me to follow newsfeeds that you will invariably tell me about whether I have previously read them or not," she said testily.

Jim gave her a curious look before looking back down at the instrument. "King Sarek sent a message to his estranged older son. He did it three years to the day after the princess went missing, so I guess he really didn't want to, but he had to do it." T'Laria nodded slowly. She'd been wondering what her parents would do when the three year mark arrived. After three years, if an heir went missing, it was required for the current monarch to take steps to produce another heir. Her father's desperation must be great if he had resorted to contacting Sybok. "But you say he refused?" Jim asked Nyota.

She nodded. "Sybok actually talked to the press about it," she said, surprised. "Here. He says, 'My philosophies differ far too much from His Majesty's. My ascension to the throne may cause a rift between our people for which I do not wish to be responsible.' I guess that's a responsible attitude," she remarked.

"I guess," Jim said. "But it does leave the country in a lurch, so to speak. I mean, couldn't he have just accepted and tried to run the country like Sarek to keep from causing strife?"

"Maybe it's against his principles," Nyota said. "But who knows, maybe the offer of a reward will make it a moot point. Maybe somebody has some information."

"I wonder what they'll do if it doesn't work," Jim said.

"Logic dictates that the King must produce a new heir," T'Laria said.

"But that's not possible," Nyota said. "Lady Amanda's past child-bearing age."

"It is not possible with Lady Amanda," T'Laria said. "But if necessary, he may be forced to use a surrogate."

"EW!"

"Ew?"

"Yeah, ew! He has to go get some other woman pregnant? EW!"

Jim burst into peals of laughter. "Ny, you're such a girl."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Yes, Jim, what does her gender have to do with this?"

"You're freaking out about this surrogate idea. It's not like he has to have sex with another woman. And you, Mr. Spock, would not understand what I mean by being a girl anyway. Human women cannot be understood by any amount of logicking."

"That is not a real word," T'Laria said sternly.

Jim laughed again, and Nyota shoved him. "You can be such an ass sometimes," she said.

"Whatever," Jim said, still laughing. "And you understood what I meant, Spock, so that means it counts as communication, and that means it's a real word."

T'Laria stared at him, and the playful smile still on his face. "That... is not the way language works."

"Sure it is," Jim said gleefully. "It's called slang, look it up! Nyota knows, don't you?"

"I'm not getting involved in this. And my point is that it I still think it would be horrible for Lady Amanda if Sarek has to get another woman pregnant, whatever the method may be."

"Yeah, I guess I can understand that. But maybe Princess T'Laria will turn up soon, and-."

"She's not a set of keys, Jim!"

"What? I'm not trying to be glib! But maybe she'll see the news, and it'll make her want to spare her mother from having to have the king produce another heir."

"How do you know," T'Laria asked, "that the princess is in a position to return, regardless of what she sees on the newsfeeds?"

"Good point," Jim said thoughtfully. "But you'd think if someone had kidnapped her, they would have announced it, and there would have been a ransom demand or something."

"True," she said. "But assuming she ran away, perhaps the situation that precipitated her departure is still in effect, and is such that she cannot return."

"Maybe so," Nyota said.

"I wonder what would make her want to leave. Or have to leave," Jim said.

Nyota shook her head. "I've never seen any reference to the reason," she said. "But I assume the Council, or at least the King and Queen must know, and they're shielding it from the press for some reason."

"That would not surprise me," T'Laria said. "Vulcans are extremely insular, especially where family... problems are concerned."

"No kidding," Jim said. T'Laria had learned that the statement was a rhetorical statement of agreement, and so did not respond. "If it was a family thing, it must have been something between her and Sarek." T'Laria froze again for a moment, then stared down at her data pad, unnerved by Jim's accuracy. "I read that she and Lady Amanda were really close, and I can't imagine her being the reason."

"I've read that, too, and I'll bet you're right," said Nyota. "I think Amanda would be the kind to make a personal plea for T'Laria to come home, but nothing like that's come out all these years. If there was a fight between Sarek and T'Laria, the silence would make sense, because Amanda can't publicly contradict him or defy him without causing herself serious problems."

Jim frowned. "That's nuts! They're so advanced, but..." He glanced at T'Laria. "Sorry, Spock, that was rude."

"Vulcans do not take offense," she said. "And I do share your confusion at times. We are an advanced society which values logic above all, but our society is also highly patriarchal, and we cling to some traditions that seem... if not illogical, then perhaps... unfair."

Jim nodded, his blue eyes regarding her with a serious, almost-sympathetic expression. "Well, I hope she's alright, wherever she is," he said.

"Me, too," said Nyota.

It was only through years of practice at quickly controlling her body's reactions to emotion that she was able to keep from blushing. "I'm sure if she could hear you, the Princess would be grateful for your concern." They smiled, and T'Laria pointed to Jim's data pad. "Advanced Tactical Analysis waits for no man," she reminded him.


Jim slammed his fist into the large punching bag with enough force to shove T'Laria back a few inches, despite her Vulcan strength. "I hate this!" He growled and pummeled the bag furiously. "It's not right!"

"Jim," T'Laria said, struggling to hold the bag steady. "At the risk of upsetting you further, I do not understand your anger. Your ranking on the test was higher than your first attempt."

"It's not the rankings!" Jim snapped, delivering another heavy blow to the bag. "The Kobyashi Maru crew still died! Half my crew still died!"

"Of course they did," T'Laria said.

"What?" Jim stopped, turning his furious gaze from the bag to her. "What do you mean by that, what do you mean of course?"

"I mean that it was the only possible outcome, Jim," she said.

Jim's jaw dropped open. "Wha... that's... that's bullshit!"

"I do not understand what-"

"It's a figure of speech, Spock, Jesus, you should know that by now!"

T'Laria stiffened, the hurt frown reaching her face before she had the chance to suppress the reaction. Jim cringed, and opened his mouth to speak, but T'Laria cut him off before he made a sound. "It is a common Human fallacy," she said, unable to keep the sharpness out of her tone, "that since Vulcans do not show emotions, we do not have emotions. It is not something that I would have accused you of believing before, but perhaps I should remind you that, regardless of our philosophy, we are quite capable of recognizing when we are being treated unfairly."

"Spock-"

"I am not the test programmer, and I do not feel that it is right for you to attack me because you dislike the test parameters."

"You're right," Jim said quickly extending his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "You're absolutely right, Spock, and I'm sorry. I'm pissed off about the test and I took it out on you. It was stupid and I'm very sorry."

Partly mollified by the apology, T'Laria sat down on a nearby bench and removed her protective gloves, working to quell the remainder of her hurt feelings. Jim sat beside her, slightly further away than he usually did, and wiped the sweat from his brow with a towel. They were silent for a few minutes, simply breathing, and allowing the tension to dissipate. Finally, T'Laria spoke, her voice completely calm. "If you intend to take the test again with your current conceptualization of success, you will consider the results a failure again."

She felt, rather than saw, Jim turn sharply toward her. "Why do you say that?" he asked, his own voice far calmer than it had been since he'd stormed out of the post-exam briefing room.

"The first time we took the exam," T'Laria replied, "I was shocked by the results. You are the most brilliant tactician I have encountered at the academy, and your decision to enter the Neutral Zone was consistent with Starfleet principles, if not their regulations. My sensor readings showing zero enemy presence were accurate, and the performance of the rest of the crew was stellar as well, with minor exceptions.

"When you took the exam the second time, and still failed to rescue the crew, I found it incomprehensible. Your tactics were quite different, yet still brilliant, and the crew operated at top efficiency. It seemed impossible for two vastly different, yet intelligent and effective methods to lead to nearly identical results. Since such a thing is impossible in reality, I deduced that the test is not designed to reflect reality."

Jim's eyes widened as understanding dawned. "It's designed to make you fail."

"Precisely," she answered. "When you were praised for maintaining clarity and calm throughout the disaster this time, I realized that my theory was correct. You were not being tested on your ability to successfully save the Kobyashi Maru crew. You were being tested on your ability to maintain command in a hopeless situation."

"There is no hopeless situation," he said fervently. "Imagine if my father had believed such a thing was possible - a completely hopeless situation. Imagine how many people would have died."

T'Laria nodded. "Ironically, it is my understanding that this exam was created and made mandatory for command cadets in direct response to the Kelvin disaster.

Jim scowled. "You're right, but that's..." His fists clenched tightly. "I'm surprised I didn't see it myself."

"Perhaps your disappointment was too great to allow you to focus," T'Laria suggested. "Perhaps your anger toward me was warranted, since I assumed you had already come to the same conclusion, and so did not explain..."

Jim was already shaking his head. "No, Spock, that outburst was uncalled for. It was not your fault even remotely, just..." He shook his head. "I'd invite you to hit me, but I kinda want to stay conscious for this, and it probably wouldn't make you feel any better."

"It might," T'Laria said, letting the corner of her lip edge up into a half-smile.

Jim grinned, then laughed aloud. "You're awesome."

"Doubtless," she said. Jim smiled, and they sat beside each other again, each soon lost in thought. After some time, Jim stirred at last.

"Spock," he said softly. "Can we talk more back in our quarters?"

"Certainly." They made their way back to their quarters, and Jim engaged the privacy lock.

"I have a plan," he said. "But I can't do it alone." Jim sat on his bed, and T'Laria sat across from him. "If... I want to ask you to help me with something, but it could get us both into serious trouble." She raised an eyebrow. "I want to ask you to help me reprogram the test."

"What? Jim-"

"I know, I know. It could be considered cheating, but... what I want to do is take away the cheat. Make it so that the test is true to life. I won't be guaranteeing myself success - just the possibility of success, like I'd have in a real mission."

"But, Jim, reprogramming the test... we could be expelled!"

"Maybe. Worst case scenario we could, but Spock, we're two of the Academy's most prized students. They won't want to expel us." T'Laria was not nearly as confident as Jim sounded. "Look, I'll take full responsibility, Spock. I can create the program. All I need is for you to load it during my test. You've already taken it twice with me, nobody would think twice about you skipping it the third time."

"That very change would seem to implicate me almost immediately, Jim," she reasoned.

Jim bit his lip, and lowered his head. "Spock, listen," he said, looking up at her again. "You told me that you often are upset by the unfairness that you see in Vulcan society. It's tough changing an entire society, but it's not impossible, even if it takes time. Hell, if you want my real opinion, Sybok is a coward for refusing to become heir just on the assumption that Vulcans can't, or won't change without a war breaking out." T'Laria felt breathless, shocked by how much her own feelings mirrored Jim's, and sharply reminded of her angry words to Sybok at their parting. Jim shook his head, moving on without realizing how deeply his words had affected her.

"Anyway," he continued. "This test is something we can have an effect on now. This isn't for a grade, and it isn't so I can 'win' because I can't stand to lose, which I can't, don't get me wrong. This is a statement about the philosophy of Starfleet and the Federation. There is no such thing as a no-win scenario. There's only trying and trying and trying until you're dead, and the rest of the crew keeps going after that." His eyes glistened, and his passion was such that his body vibrated ever so slightly. T'Laria could feel her own core beginning to tremble, too slightly for Jim to see. His words moved her, and she found herself wanting to help, no matter what the risk. "If you can't help me, I'll understand," he said. "No hard feelings, I know it's a huge risk. But if... I'll ask you not to tell anyone about-"

"Jim," she said, her voice sharp in her own ears. "I would never divulge something like this. But I..." Her trembling increased, and she found herself breathing more quickly, knowing what she planned to say, wanting to stop herself, and completely powerless to do so. "I... I want to tell you something, and I hope... " She shut her eyes and attempted to compose herself. When she looked at Jim again, he was watching her intently, but without impatience, waiting for her to speak. "I hope you will not think less of me, but I can't... keep this..."

"I understand," Jim said, though he couldn't possibly know what she was going to say. "You can tell me."

T'Laria took a deep breath. "I... I know firsthand of the unfairness in Vulcan society that I spoke of. My father is the... the leader of a very powerful province," she said, unable to tell him the full truth, even now. "When I was younger, he refused to allow me to join the Starfleet Junior Exchange, because he had no intention of allowing me to join Starfleet as an adult, and he believed the exchange to be pointless. But as a compromise, he promised me that I could travel where I wished to expand my knowledge beyond Vulcan, and experience life among other species. I chose Earth, hoping that I could at least be near Starfleet, even though I did not intend to defy him and enlist at the time. But when the time came for me to travel, he said that he had changed his mind, and told me that I could travel to a Vulcan colony if I wished."

"Wha... that's totally different!"

T'Laria nodded. "I argued with him, and when he demanded that I stop, I refused to be silenced. Because of my defiance, he declared that he would disown me if he could, but our province needed the stability of a unified family, so he would not put me out of the house." Jim frowned deeply, but didn't interrupt. "Instead, he forbade me from leaving the Vulcan homeworld for two years. I could not bear the shame of living as a prisoner in my father's house, and I believed that I had the right to explore and experience the diversity that our alliances have made possible, so I... I disguised myself and left home."

Jim sat up straighter. "Disguised yourself?" he asked.

"Yes," she said softly. "I..." Her fists clenched involuntarily, and she hesitated. She tried to force herself to speak, but it was more difficult than she had anticipated. She sighed and stood up. While Jim watched her, she went to her tiny closet and pulled out the bag she'd brought with her on her first day at Starfleet Academy. She opened it, and brought out the silken bag she had purchased during her time at the Rigelian colony. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to look into her friend's eyes, and she pulled out the long black braid, still tied off with the original straps she'd tightened to them in a public bathroom outside the palace gates.

"I am female, Jim," she said at last. Jim's eyes opened wide, and he raised a hand to his mouth. He looked down at her body, then back at her face, clearly unable to believe her words. "I cut my hair into the style of Vulcan men from a minor province. I practiced speaking in a lower register, I bind myself and wear prosthetics to appear male. I..." Her voice cracked, and she gritted her teeth, attempting to regain control of herself. Jim watched her, keeping his eyes on her face. T'Laria put the brad back in its back and closed it into her case again. "I am sorry to have deceived you all this time, Jim," she said. "I value your friendship very much, and I value your trust. That's why I have told you this now. I want you to know... to believe that I would never violate a confidence between us."

"I know, Spock," he said, his voice quiet. "I believe you. Thank you for telling me this, I know it wasn't easy for you."

T'Laria shook her head. "I also want you to know that I want to help you with this," she said. "I have sacrificed my family, my home planet... my very identity, to follow a philosophy that I believe is right. I understand how you feel about the exam," she said. "I'll help you with your plan, even if it means risking my place at the Academy."

Jim smiled, and the tears that had been glistening in his eyes trailed slowly down his cheeks. "You don't know how much that means to me, Spock," he said, voice hoarse. "I mean... not just that you'll help me, but that you trusted me enough to tell me your secret. Are you..." He stopped and shook his head. He stood up. "Can I do something Human? It might make you a little uncomfortable." T'Laria was confused, but nodded her head yes. Jim approached her, put his arms around her and squeezed her tight. She gasped, and clutched his uniform shirt, clenching her teeth tightly to keep from sobbing. She had not been embraced since her last night at home, when her mother held her after the severance of the Bond. She felt a sense of warmth, safety and acceptance as she hadn't felt in years. "I think you're the bravest person I've ever met," Jim said to her. "And I'm honored to know you."

T'Laria pulled back slightly, and looked up at him, allowing him to see her smile, and her shining eyes, unashamed. "Ditto," she said, using one of his many slang expressions.

Jim laughed and squeezed her once more, before letting her go. "Come on, Science Officer," he said with authority. "We've got work to do."


Coding was easy. Jim handled that himself, only checking with Spock to be sure that the program would be seamless and compatible with the current test parameters. Uploading the subroutine was also remarkably simple, though T'Laria felt very much like she had when she snuck into the armory when she was a little girl. She was granted access as an observer without question, and entering the subroutine was a matter of a few keystrokes on a data pad – easily disguised as taking notes.

Watching Jim take control of the mission, struggle through the battle, and rise triumphant once the enemy ships had been destroyed, was not only easy, but pleasurable. The amazement was clear on both Nyota and Leonard's faces, and Jim glowed with pride. He looked up and smiled at the control panel observers, but T'Laria knew that the smile was meant for her.

The difficult part came later. An emergency meeting of the entire Third Year class was called, less than thirty minutes after Jim's successful completion of the exam. Jim was called to the front of the room, and T'Laria knew they had been discovered. Admiral Barnett openly accused him of cheating before the entire assembly, and T'Laria felt her stomach lurch.

"Sir, if I may be allowed to defend myself and explain why-"

"What you will be allowed to do, Cadet Kirk, is to reveal the identity of the person who assisted you," Barnett said sharply.

T'Laria's hands gripped the armrests of her auditorium seat, but Jim remained completely calm. "Sir?"

Barnett scowled. "Now is not the time to play games, Cadet," he snapped. "You couldn't have uploaded the program yourself, since you were inside the test chamber at the time the adjustment was made. Who assisted you?"

Jim hesitated slightly before leaning toward the microphone. "I'm sorry, sir, but I'm not at liberty to say."

"You're not-" The admiral stared at Jim in disbelief. The other admirals on the panel looked at each other, and murmured to one another. "Cadet, I'll ask you one more time. What is the name of the individual who assisted you?"

"Admiral," Jim said after a slight pause. "I am fully responsible for what happened. I have a statement that I'd-"

Barnett raised a hand to stop him. Instead of speaking to Jim again, he looked out at the assembly. "Cadets, I am asking you to call upon the integrity that has been instilled in you as future Starfleet officers. If there is anyone present in this assembly that has information about this incident, I urge you to step forward immediately."

Silence settled over the entire assembly. Two seconds passed, during which T'Laria felt the blood rush to her head, and her heart pounding twice as fast as it should. Slowly, she rose to her feet, feeling the eyes of the entire assembly on her. She glanced around quickly, struggling to remain calm. She caught sight of Leonard and Nyota seated near one another toward the front, looking at her with worry in their eyes.

T'Laria straightened her red uniform jacket, stepped carefully down the broad stairs to the front of the room and took her place behind the second podium. She and Jim exchanged glances, but kept their expressions neutral. "Thank you for stepping forward, Cadet Spock," Barnett said. "Can you tell us who assisted Mr. Kirk with the subroutine?"

"Yes, Admiral." T'Laria took a steadying breath. "I did, sir."

There were shocked gasps, and murmuring voices from the assembled cadets. Barnett was stunned, and looked at her without speaking for several seconds. Finally, one of the other admirals called for order, and the audience grew silent again. "Cadet Spock," Barnett said, his tone and expression indicating that he was still flabbergasted. "Considering the fact that Vulcan philosophy stresses the value of honesty, I must say that I am surprised to hear you say that. Are you aware of the consequence of violating academic integrity at this academy?"

"Yes, Admiral, I am," she replied, her voice strong and clear despite her nervousness. "However, Cadet Kirk and I were willing to risk the consequences in order to illustrate a fundamental flaw in the design of the exam."

More shocked discussion came from the assembly. Barnett glared. "Order." They were silent immediately, and Barnett looked back at T'Laria. "Would you care to explain what you mean by that, Cadet?"

"Sir, while it was I who first pointed out the test's nature, it was Cadet Kirk who helped me to realize its inherent flaw, and it was he who developed the solution. I believe, therefore, that he is better suited to explain our rationale." She glanced at Jim, who was smiling at her now. "However," she continued. "I wish to state that I am in complete and total agreement with his position, and I accept full responsibility for my actions. If Cadet Kirk is to be punished for this, then I ask that the same punishment be dealt to me."

Barnett was silent for a few moments, his intense gaze remaining on her for several seconds. "Noted, Cadet," he said at last. Then, he turned to Jim. "Cadet Kirk, would you care to enlighten us?"

"Yes, thank you, Admiral." Jim glanced at T'Laria, giving her a brief, but warm smile before turning back to the council. He began a logical, but passionate explanation of why the test was wrong. He explained how such a test could never truly measure a cadet's reaction to life or death situations, since the test participant would always know that the situation was not real. Therefore, making the situation insurmountable was not necessary. He suggested that making the exam extremely difficult, as he and Spock had done, was a better test of a commander's resourcefulness. Such an option would serve the same purpose, and test the same reactions without robbing cadets of the basic element that was part of all real missions – hope, and the possibility of success. He concluded with a statement similar to what he'd said to T'Laria, declaring that the test was not only unfair and unrealistic, but that it was against the principles of Starfleet and the Federation. It countermanded the Starfleet Officer's duty to try and try and try until the absolute last, and then to continue to try even then.

"I believe that this is one of the most important lessons we can learn at this Academy, and that is why I altered the test parameters." He paused for a moment, then said, "Thank you for hearing me out."

There was another pause, during which the entire room was so completely still that it seem the audience members were holding their breaths. Then, suddenly, someone in the assembly clapped. Another person joined the first, and before long the auditorium resounded with applause. T'Laria glanced back at them, surprised to see that several people, including Len and Nyota, had risen to their feet. Jim's face was red, but he kept his eyes on the council members.

After a few seconds, Barnett again called order to the assembly room. The audience settled down again, and Barnett turned his attention back to the two cadets at the podiums. "Cadet Kirk. This council will deliberate on your argument. In the meantime, you and Cadet Spock will confine yourselves to your quarters until you're called for."

"Yes, Admiral," they said in unison.

"This assembly is dismissed."

T'Laria and Jim walked out of the assembly room and headed toward their room. They didn't speak on their way back, but they walked closer to one another than usual. The few members of the assembly who saw them smiled, but kept their distance.

When they arrived at their quarters, Jim sat on his bed, and T'Laria sat across from him on her own. Jim smiled at her, though his posture was tense. "Thanks for standing with me down there."

"Of course, Jim," she said softly. "I could not have done otherwise."

They fell silent again, and T'Laria considered beginning a meditation exercise to focus on something other than what the Academic Integrity council might be discussing. She had nearly settled into calm when the admittance chime sounded.

She gasped, and Jim jumped. He chuckled. "Guess I'm a little high strung."

"Understandable," T'Laria said.

Jim got up and went to the door. "Hey!"

"Hey." Leonard's voice. "Can we come in?"

"Don't see why not," Jim said, as T'Laria approached the door. "They said to stay in our quarters, but they didn’t friends couldn't come in."

Leonard and Nyota stepped inside, both looking somber. "Have a seat," T'Laria said.

The four friends sat down, Leonard with Jim and Nyota on Spock's bed. They were silent, simply looking at one another for several minutes. Finally, Leonard spoke. "Well. You've got guts, that's for damn sure."

Jim laughed, but there was a strain to the sound. Leonard rested a hand on Jim's arm. A moment later, T'Laria felt a pressure on her shoulder, and glanced over to see that Nyota had leaned closer, and rested her head against T'Laria's shoulder. T'Laria felt a warmth spread through her, something very much like what she'd felt when Jim had embraced her. T'Laria leaned against her lightly, just enough to acknowledge Nyota's comforting gesture.

The four of them sat in silence, waiting for the summons from the council that would soon decide Jim and T'Laria's fate. T'Laria made every attempt to relax, but she was deeply concerned about what would happen if the council was not convinced by Jim's argument. Where would she go if she were expelled? Could she face the shame of being forced to return to T'Khasi? Perhaps she could find work as a tutor, and remain on Earth. But who would hire a cheater who had been expelled from Starfleet Academy?

T'Laria was startled from her grim reflections by the sound of their comm-link chime. At the same moment, Nyota and Leonard checked their personal communicators. T'Laria stood and answered the comm-link. "Spock here."

An academy communications officer responded. "Your presence, and that of Cadet Kirk, is required in the main auditorium."

"Thank you," she said, looking back at the others. "We will be there shortly."

Leonard and Nyota looked ill, but Jim's expression was one of grim determination. "Was that the comm you guys got?" Len and Nyota nodded. "Okay. This is it."

Without further words, Jim led the way out of their dorm room, and they headed back to the auditorium. Several other cadets and instructors had already arrived, and T'Laria was keenly aware of the many people staring at her and Jim as they walked down the aisle, including Captain Pike who's perturbed expression made the heat rise to her face.

When they reached the row where Nyota and Leonard had been seated, Len patted Jim on the shoulder and nodded to Spock. "Good luck, fellas."

"Good luck," Nyota echoed.

"Thank you," they said, again almost in unison. The friends parted ways, and T'Laria and Jim took their places before the council. The council members looked impassively at them while those summoned to the assembly filed in and took their seats. Maintaining composure despite the anticipation was difficult at best. T'Laria glanced at Jim, and he gave her a reassuring smile. T'Laria actually felt herself relaxing. Even if they were expelled for this, at least she had the friendship of a capable and intelligent man who would do anything for his friends. He would find a way to help her somehow.

Finally, the assembly was called to order. When the cadets had settled down, Admiral Barnett began to speak. "Cadet Kirk. Cadet Spock. You have violated Starfleet Academy regulations, and you have willfully disregarded exam protocols. Consequences for such behavior include automatically failing the exam, and the course, being placed on academic probation for a minimum of one year, and in some cases, immediate expulsion." T'Laria felt herself tensing, clutching the podium tightly. "However. Cadet Kirk, your argument was logical, eloquent and compelling. This board has reviewed your statement, as well as the adjusted test parameters you created, and we have come to a consensus regarding your actions.

"Cadet Kirk, your grade on the Kobyashi Maru exam will be adjusted to a passing grade of one hundred percent, according to the new parameters." T'Laria (and about half the assembly) gasped. She looked at Jim, and saw him heave a deep sigh of relief, grasping the podium for support. "You have both displayed the kind of original thinking and courageous, principle-driven behavior that we seek to cultivate in our future officers. For that reason, this board has decided to add commendations to each of your records for creativity and original thinking." T'Laria gasped again, staring at the admiral with wide eyes. A second later, the audience burst into thunderous applause, and Barnett smiled. "Congratulations, gentlemen," he said, barely audible over the clapping, and jubilant cries from the audience.

T'Laria looked over to see Jim grinning at her, and she returned the smile, too stunned to bother hiding her feelings. They looked back, and the entire audience was on their feet, smiling, and still clapping for them. T'Laria was elated. She drank in the praise, smiling again when she saw Leonard and Nyota grinning broadly and clapping furiously for them. When she looked toward the other side of the room to see if she could find Captain Pike, T'Laria caught sight of a gray-suited commander hurrying down the stairs, a serious expression on his face. Perplexed, she watched the commander's progress, frowning when he rushed to Admiral Barnett and handed him a data pad.

Barnett read the communication, and his brow furrowed. Most of the audience had already quieted when the messenger ran to Barnett in the middle of an assembly, but at the sight of the dark frown on the admiral's face, everyone grew silent. Barnett looked up sharply. "We've received a distress call from Vulcan." T'Laria froze. "With our primary fleet engaged in the Laurentian system, I hereby order all cadets to report to Hangar One immediately. Dismissed."

T'Laria turned immediately toward the exit, seeing her own deep concern mirrored on Jim's face. They were joined by Nyota and Leonard, and they hurried to Hangar One to receive their postings. T'Laria was relieved when Leonard and Nyota were assigned to the Enterprise. Captain Pike had already told her that he wanted her aboard his vessel, and he'd spoken to Jim about joining the crew as well. It was a relief to know that the four close friends would not be separated.

They sat together on the shuttlecraft, and even the urgency and the fear T'Laria felt could not dampen her awe at her first sighting of the Enterprise. Once aboard, however, a frenzy of activity ensued, and T'Laria felt her nervousness increasing. They joined the large group of cadets who had yet to change into officer's uniforms. Nyota separated from them, joining the female cadets, and the other three repaired to the recreation room that was being used as a temporary dressing room. Both Leonard and Jim moved to shield T'Laria from sight, looking at one another suddenly, as each realized that the other knew her secret. T'Laria only thanked them, and hastily changed into her Science uniform – a moment that she had envisioned being far more austere and majestic than a hasty shift, hiding behind friends in a giant public room.

After that, there was a hasty goodbye from Leonard, and T'Laria and Jim made their way swiftly to the bridge. Captain Pike turned toward them and nodded curtly before signing off on a requisition from a yeoman. "Welcome aboard, gentlemen. Don't get comfortable." He stood up and moved to communications. "Ackerman, how long until we can be on our way?"

The young man at Communications studied his board. "I... it looks like another twenty minutes before all departments are ready, sir." T'Laria frowned at that, and Pike glared. "Get on that board and tell every department that I want this ship in gear and ready to move in ten minutes, no more! Then meet me in the briefing room."

"Aye, sir!"

"Number one, Kirk, Spock, Chekov, Sulu, briefing room one immediately. Hannity, you have the conn."

There was a chorus of "yes, sir's", and the former-cadets followed their Captain and First Officer to the briefing room. The young man who had looked up when Pike said "Chekov" seemed to be at least four years younger than Jim. He walked beside them, and smiled at them. "Congratulations on the exam," he whispered.

"Thanks," Jim said as T'Laria nodded. "Could I ask you-"

"Fifteen, sir," he answered before Jim finished the question. "Transferred to the Academy from the Russian Junior Exchange after my first month."

"Whoa," Jim breathed.

He shrugged. "I'm a genius." The statement was made without a hint of either apology or bravado - a simple statement of fact. And judging by his presence on the bridge as a principle navigator, when most fifteen-year-olds aboard ships were Yeomen doing brief duty tours as part of the Junior Exchange, T'Laria had every confidence that the statement was not an exaggeration.

They entered the briefing room and took their seats. Captain Pike began the meeting without preamble. "We have received a Priority One distress call from the planet Vulcan." There were gasps from those who didn't already know that the distress call was Priority One, and T'Laria gripped the arms of her chair for a moment before forcing her limbs to relax. Priority One - the highest level of distress. It meant that the entire planet was in immediate danger. T'Laria saw some of the crew looking at her, but she remained outwardly calm.

"Number One, play the message for us."

"Aye, sir."

While she readied the message, Captain Pike looked at T'Laria. "I want you to listen carefully, Spock. There are some Vulcan words at the end that we haven't been able to translate. Ackerman things they may be in a rare, or antiquated dialect."

T'Laria nodded, and the First Officer began the transmission. The main view screen lit up, and T'Pelan, the Second CouncilWoman, appeared. T'Laria was shocked - the 174-year-old matriarch had a bruise on her face, and a gash on her forehead, with blood trailing down the side of her face that she had not bothered to wipe away. A few other Council members could be seen in the background, moving with efficiency and speed back and forth across the screen - apparently barricading a door out of sight of the recorder with heavy items.

Despite her appearance, T'Pelan's voice was calm as she spoke. "Honored allies," she said. "Thirty minutes ago, an armada of fifteen enemy ships materialized inside Vulcan space. Sensor scans showed no unusual readings four minutes prior to the discovery of the vessels. They did not identify themselves, and we are not familiar with the hull design of their ships. However, shortly after their arrival, they took control of the small outpost on Delta Vega, and shortly thereafter, began a violent attack against Vulcan. Our planetary defenses have inexplicably malfunctioned. The spaceports at Gol, Raal, and three of the Ski'Kahr ports have been destroyed. We have lost communication with two of our intra-system colonies. Our council chambers are under siege at this time. If you are able to provide assistance, please do so as-"

The ambient noise that had been constant in the background suddenly exploded, and alarmed cries came from the council members behind T'Pelan. She glanced back, and several footsteps could be heard, followed by shouting in a language T'Laria recognized, but could not understand. The sound made her shudder - the voices rough and wild. One voice rose above the rest, then T'Pelan hastily stopped the transmission.

T'Laria struggled to keep her expression neutral, but it was difficult when every face in the briefing room was turned to her. "Well, Lieutenant? Can you tell us what was said?"

"No, sir," she answered. "Mr. Ackerman was incorrect, that language is not spoken on Vulcan. The language spoken by the intruders was Romulan, sir."

"Romulan!" The assembled officers looked dismayed. "You couldn't recognize any of it?"

"I'm sorry, sir, but I was not taught that dialect," she replied. "I recognized my... king's name," she said, barely remembering not to say "father" in her agitation. "But that is all." Pike looked nonplussed. "However, sir, crewmember Nyota Uhura is aboard this ship. She is fluent in all three dialects of the Romulan language."

Pike glared at Ackerman. "Get her in here now."

"Aye, sir!" He sprang from his seat and rushed out of the room.

"How could the Romulans have gotten all the way through Federation space without being detected?" the helmsman asked.

"Cloaking devices, Mr. Sulu," Pike replied. "This sounds uncomfortably like the phenomenon the Kelvin reported, after they unwittingly ran into a block in what appeared to be normal space."

Jim nodded, and T'Laria recalled the reports. "The ship materialized out of nowhere. Never identified itself, never claimed an allegiance."

"We believe it must have been a prototype," Captain Pike continued. "We never encountered anything like it before or since. It's taken twenty-one years, but now it seems like they've made enough of them to launch a full-scale attack."

"If Vulcan is taken," T'Laria said, "the Romulans will be in a strategically advantageous position from which they can attack Earth, and then with our resources, they could conceivably conquer the Federation from the inside out."

Captain Pike's expression was grim. "That's absolutely true, Spock. But we will not let that happen. This-"

Captain Pike was interrupted by the briefing room door opening. Nyota stepped quickly in, her face flushed, and breathing slightly quicker than normal. She had clearly run all the way from Communications. "Excuse me, Captain. You asked to see me?"

"Yes, have a seat, Lieutenant. Mr. Spock says you're fluent in Romulan?"

"Yes, sir," she said, glancing worriedly at T'Laria. "Romulans have attacked Vulcan?"

Pike nodded. "We'll brief you in a moment, but listen to this, and see if you can translate for us." He gestured to Number One, and she began the playback at T'Pelan's final statement.

Nyota watched the small clip, frowning when the intruders burst through the barricade. "Round them up," she said quietly, when the Romulans spoke. "Most of them are..." She gasped when the loudest voice broke through, and she looked sharply at T'Laria, the dismay on her face making T'Laria's stomach clench.

"Well, Lieutenant?" Pike asked when the transmission cut off. "Clearly you understood something of what was said."

"Yes, sir. They... the ones who came in first were calling to each other to round up the council members," Nyota replied. "Then the leader said, 'Find the royal family. Kill the human, but the Fleet Commander wants Sarek taken alive'."

T'Laria bit back a cry, but a strangled sound still escaped her. She gripped the edge of the table so tightly that her fingertips blanched. She felt nauseous, and her heart was already pounding again at the thought that her mother might already be dead, and her father captured. Once again, every person in the briefing room stared at her, making her feel even more agitated. Only Jim turned his eyes away from her, and a moment later, she felt his hand on her leg. He gave a slight squeeze, and she felt the same sense of reassurance and strength that she'd felt when he touched her while she waited for the emergency medical team to arrive.

"Lieutenant," Captain Pike said softly. "Do you need to step away?"

"No, sir," she said. She moved her hands off the table and squeezed Jim's hand, out of sight of the others. "That will not be necessary."

Pike nodded, then addressed the group. "We'll be ready to leave space dock in under five minutes. As I said before, we will not let this invasion take root. Kirk, you'll work with me and Number One on tactics, then take Navigation One, Chekov move to Two. The rest of you, back to your posts. Except you, Lieutenant," he said, pointing toward Nyota. "I want you with us on the bridge. Take over for Ackerman, and make sure all our ships know what's going on." He looked around the table and took a breath. "This ends today," he said. "Let's move."

They left the briefing room, and Jim gave her a quick, encouraging smile before joining Captain Pike and Number One to discuss how to defeat a potentially unseen enemy. Nyota matched her pace to T'Laria's, and the helmsman and navigator walked together, talking quietly.

"Are you okay?" Nyota asked softly.

"I am concerned about the King and Queen, and of course, our citizens," she replied. "But I am able to function efficiently."

"Good," Nyota said. "I..." She paused, blushing, and glancing away from T'Laria. She shook her head, and looked back at her. "I can't believe this is happening."

"I have been unpleasantly shocked by these events as well," T'Laria replied. "However, I have confidence that we will prevail." T'Laria knew from her experience with humans that her words would be seen as encouraging. Therefore, she was not surprised when Nyota nodded her agreement, and seemed to relax slightly. However, she also knew that now would be an inopportune time for her to mention that, though she believed they would prevail against the Romulans, she was still afraid that they would be too late to save her parents. Therefore, she was completely surprised when Nyota touched her arm and spoke softly to her in Vulcan.

"I'm sure we'll make it to the King and Lady in time. The guards would have gotten them out long before intruders reached the council chambers."

"I'm sure you're right," she replied. "Thank you, Nyota."

On the bridge, the action moved quickly. While Chekov gave the mission broadcast, Nyota forwarded her translation of the Romulan commander's words to the other ships in the fleet. They made best possible speed to Vulcan, with T'Laria giving sensor scan reports every few minutes. The trip took only minutes at Warp 9, but it felt like an eternity to T'Laria. Each second in transit was another second that the Romulans could use to find her parents, if they hadn't already.

When they arrived in Vulcan space, T'Laria's fingers flew across the science station panels. She rattled off rapid-fire information about the status of the system. She located only ten of the fifteen ships that T'Pelan had reported. Two each were stationed at each of Vulcan's colony planets, and another two were in orbit around T'Khut. Four ships were in orbit around Vulcan.

Pike and the other captains quickly developed a plan of attack. Five of the Federation ships (including the Enterprise) would remain at Vulcan, and the others would split up and attempt to re-take the colonies. There were still five ships unaccounted for, but they were on alert, and each ship was instructed to run constant scans and feed them to Helm and Tactical, so that the moment a Romulan ship de-cloaked, they could be ready to fire.

The battle moved swiftly – The Enterprise, Farragut, Ketara, Constitution and Hood struck hard and fast against the Romulans surrounding Vulcan. Two of the Romulan ships had been firing on the planet, but they stopped and turned their attention to the Federation ships. At Pike's command, T'Laria ran sensor scans of the planet's surface, while Sulu and Jim executed the complex battle maneuvers under Pike's and Number One's instruction. She was alarmed by the large number of non-Vulcan lifesigns in Shi'Kahr, and at the main houses at other major provinces on the planet. Pike told her they'd work on ground-battle as soon as they took care of the enemy fleet, and ordered her to return to scanning space for potential cloaked vessels.

Unfortunately, the combatants were fairly evenly matched. Federation vessels had superior firepower compared with Romulan ships, but the Romulans could cloak and change position quickly to avoid being fired upon, then reappear and fire almost immediately. Slowly, they began to gain an advantage, as their portion of the fleet became quicker at targeting the de-cloaking ships. Just as they began to feel that they might truly have gained the upper hand, T'Laria's sensor sweeps picked up an alarming reading.

"Captain, five more Romulan ships have de-cloaked in-" She was interrupted by a sharp lurching that nearly threw her from her seat.

"Evasive maneuvers!" Pike shouted, gripping the command chair to keep from falling. "Fire pattern Delta Nine!"

The resultant volley of fire lasted only a short time. Nyota reported that U.S.S. Hood had been badly damaged, and Pike ordered the captain to withdraw to a safer distance. There were hull breaches in Kitara's port nacelle, and the Farragut and the Constitution had taken some serious hits as well. Enterprise managed to fire the final shots that destroyed one of the Romulan ships, but they lost their Chief Engineer and several others in an attack from two other ships. Moments after they'd destroyed the Romulan vessel, another ship landed a fire array that nearly destroyed Deck Six – the deck on which Sickbay was located. T'Laria found herself struggling to maintain control of herself for the moments when she was unsure whether Leonard had survived the blast.

"Phillip!" Pike shouted. "Phil, what's going on down there? Damage report!"

"Captain?" T'Laria felt a shudder sweep through her at the sound of Leonard's strained voice.

"Who is this? Pruiry?"

"No, sir, McCoy here. Doctor Boyce is unconscious, but stable. Doctor Pruiry... I'm sorry, Captain, but he's dead. The bulkhead blew, and he and several others..." His voice cracked, and he stopped.

Captain Pike slammed his fist on the arm of the command chair. His head bowed, but he sat still for only a second. "All right, McCoy," he said, his voice rough with emotion. "Take over as acting CMO. Just... do what you can down there."

"I will, sir."

"Spock, are we doing any damage to their shields at all?"

"Minimal, sir," she answered. "The cloaking device seems to have a restorative effect on-"

The deck rocked, and there was another flurry of phaser fire from several of the Romulan ships. "Shields at forty-five percent, sir," Sulu cried. "We can't keep this up without-"

"Damn! Uhura, hail the Farragut, we-"

"Sir!" Nyota looked back at him. "We're being hailed by the Romulan Fleet Commander."

Pike looked at her, then frowned and turned back toward the viewscreen. "On screen," he said.

The viewscreen switched from its view of the planet, and the battle scene, and changed to the inside of one of the Romulan vessels. A dark-haired, severe woman appeared, wearing a uniform of red and black strikingly similar to the uniforms that had been worn by Vulcan soldiers before the Unification. T'Laria noticed a few officers start and glance at her – no doubt they were not familiar with what little was known in Starfleet about the physical similarity between Romulans and Vulcans. Pike, who had studied the Kelvin disaster at least as hungrily as T'Laria had, did not appear surprised.

"This is Fleet Captain Christopher Pike of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I demand to know why you have invaded Federation space, and launched an attack against a peaceful planetary system."

"I am Fleet Commander Rhael," she said, her voice strident and hard. "Naturally, our purpose is one of conquest."

"How dare-"

"How does any conquering race dare," she asked with a smile. "However, it is obvious to us, as it must be do you, that this battle is becoming tedious. Our fleets are similarly matched, and a prolonged battle will only result in hundreds of needless deaths on both sides. To avoid this, we are willing to discuss terms of a cease fire. You and your second in command will beam aboard our vessel to begin the discussion."

"Absolutely not! You must be insane if you think I'd bring my command team onto an enemy vessel in the middle of battle."

Rhael smiled again. "I am not insane, Captain," she said. "But you are Human, and a member of the Federation, and therefore you are completely predictable. You will beam to my vessel." She raised a hand, glancing at one of her crewmen, and said, "I am sending you a second transmission. You will instruct your Communications officer to transmit it simultaneously with my own."

"Go ahead, Lieutenant," Pike said softly.

The image of the Romulan commander shifted to the left of the screen, and on the right, a large room appeared, with about forty Vulcans gathered together in the center, surrounded by over twenty Romulan soldiers. T'Laria recognized almost all of the faces present – most were council members, and there were also a few nobles that must have been visiting the palace at the time of the attack. Many of the palace servants were also present.

"Ta'al," Rhael said.

One of the Romulan soldiers stood to attention. "Yes, Fleet Commander."

"We are proving a point to our enemy, Sub-Commander," she said. "Bring forth the slave child you found."

"Yes, Commander."

The soldier went into the group of seated Vulcans, searching through the faces. He stopped at a person T'Laria could not see, but a moment later, she heard a young woman's anxious voice. "What do you want with me?" T'Laria froze, recognizing the voice, and hoping that she was wrong. The soldier reached down and the woman cried out. "No! No!"

The soldier pulled up a small child, about four years of age, and the child's mother rose as well, trying to keep hold of her daughter. T'Laria shut her eyes briefly, trying to contain her fear. She had been right – the woman was T'Pan, her friend and former handmaid. The child was T'Lal, who had been just learning to walk when T'Laria left home. The Romulan roughly yanked T'Lal away and strode away from the crowd of Vulcans. T'Lal struggled and cried, and T'Pan rushed after the soldier. "Stop! Stop, what do you want with my daughter?!"

She vaulted for him, and the solder dropped T'Lal unceremoniously to the ground, and struck T'Pan fiercely. T'Laria clenched her fists, and many of the Vulcans present shifted as if they intended to help her, but the other soldiers raised their phasers and shouted at them that if they interfered, they would be killed. Ta'al struck T'Pan again, and she fell dazed to the floor. T'Lal screamed and tried to run to her mother, but was easily yanked up again by the soldier.

Ta'al laughed. "So. Threaten their offspring, and these logical Surakian weaklings become as emotional as any of us." He shook his head and brought the crying child toward the viewer. "What are your orders, Fleet Commander?"

"Kill her," Rhael said calmly.

"What?! No!" The outcry came from the Vulcan prisoners, as well as from several people on the Bridge, T'Laria included. T'Pan, though still dazed, pleaded with the guard to stop. The Romulans were forced to stun several of their prisoners, but Ta'al did not concern himself with their activities. He drew a dagger, and positioned the child so that he had better leverage.

"Commander," Pike shouted. "Stop, stop him! We'll agree to beam aboard your ship, but if you kill that child, we will never negotiate with you. Stop your soldier, immediately!"

Rhael smiled again. "Wait, Ta'al," she said. The soldier paused, dagger already resting on the child's neck. "Captain Pike. I want your assurance that, while you are aboard our ship, the rest of your fleet will agree to a temporary cease fire."

"We'll agree to that if I have the same assurance from you," the captain replied.

She nodded. "Granted. But if any one of your ships opens fire, I will instruct Ta'al to begin killing his prisoners – starting with the girl. Is that understood?"

"It is," Pike said grimly. "Send us your coordinates."

Rhael raised a hand, then said, "Release the girl for now, Ta'al. You have heard my instructions."

The screen winked back to the view of the space just outside Vulcan's orbit. Pike stood up, and Jim stood almost immediately. "Sir, you're not really going over there, are you?"

"I don't think we have much choice, do you, Lieutenant?"

"But you can't think they really plan to negotiate a cease fire!"

"I agree, Captain," T'Laria said, though she felt sick at the thought of them killing any of the prisoners. "Romulans are historically known for their treachery, I-"

"I understand that," Pike snapped. T'Laria and Jim glanced at each other, but stopped arguing. "Spock, I'm promoting you to First Officer. Run a detailed sensor sweep, see if you can locate the prisoners and beam them up here."

"But, Captain, if they see that we've taken the prisoners, your lives will-"

"That's a risk we'll have to take, Spock," he said. "Jim, you have the conn. Once you rescue the hostages, see if you can secure the King and Queen. Save who you can, and get out of here – get these civilians to safety."

"But Captain, what about the two of you? If we leave-"

"I know," Pike said. "Once the situation is secure, I guess you'll just have to come in and get us." He gave Jim a brief smile. "And I'm not the Captain, Mr. Kirk. You are." He glanced at Number One and the two of them moved to the turbolift. They faced the Bridge crew and nodded. "Good luck," Pike said, just as the doors closed on them.

Several seconds passed while the men and women on the bridge just stared at one another – breathless from having been thrust full force into such a mission, when just the day before, the closest they'd come had been simulations and drills. After a few moments, all eyes turned to Jim. He swallowed, and moved closer to T'Laria. "Mr. Spock, what do the sensors say? Can you locate the prisoners?"

T'Laria sat back at the Science station, and ran a quick sweep. "It's as I feared, sir," she said. "They are being held in the central hall at the Shi'Kahr palace. There are dampening fields in place to prevent transporters from being used at the palace."

Jim clenched his fists. "Can the dampening field be disabled?"

"Yes, but it must be done manually at the Central Guard station or auxiliary control."

"But it's sure to be secured by pass-codes," Jim whispered. "If you go down there, could you hack the system? I can read Vulcan well enough, but I'm not sure I'd be fluent enough to hack something like the Palace computer system."

"I can explain how to retrieve the codes, Captain," she said. He raised an eyebrow, but she didn't elaborate. "There are over sixty non-Vulcan life signs at the palace, but if we manufacture cloaks, and if McCoy can disguise your eyebrows, you can pass long enough to reach the auxiliary guard control."

"Fine," Jim said. "Uhura, get that message to McCoy. Spock, what about the King? Can you locate him?"

"Lieuten... er... Captain?" Chekov, the young navigator, hovered nearby, looking worriedly at them.

"What is it, Mr. Chekov?" he asked.

"I was doing a sensor sweep to see if I could locate the King, and I found something strange. There was a recent explosion at the foot of an uninhabited mountain range, and I saw Romulan life signs just outside the blast area."

"What?" Jim asked.

"Yes, it's very odd, sir. They've caused some structural damage to the mountain, but I cannot see why they would want to. There's nothing there."

"Location, Mr. Chekov?" T'Laria asked.

Chekov tapped a few keys on the science station, and pointed to the screen. "There, sir. It's very strange, I-"

T'Laria sprang to her feet, shocking everyone. "Captain, I must beam down to the surface."

"What? Why, what's going on?"

"The Katric Arc is located in that mountain range. I doubt the Romulans know its significance, but transporters cannot be used to reach it, and sensors are blind to life signs within the cavern. Therefore-"

"It's an ideal place to hide a monarch in danger," Jim said.

"Precisely. It is also where any Elders who have escaped would have gone."

"But Spock, going down there alone-"

"I must, Jim. Our Elders are tasked with preserving our cultural heritage. The Romulans may be setting more explosives even now. There is no time to lose, and the climb would be treacherous for Terrans without oxygen supplementation. If the Arc is destroyed-"

"I understand. But..." Jim frowned and was silent for a second. He shook his head. "Tell me how to get the codes for the dampening field, and go."

"Thank you, Captain," she said. She hastily explained the necessary steps to discover the codes, then rushed to the turbolift.

When she turned, Nyota was only inches away from her. She looked as if she wanted to speak, but didn't know what to say. Her eyes glistened, and finally, she whispered, "Come back to us."

"I will," T'Laria said. "But..." She didn't finish her sentence. Instead, she reached up, pulled her necklace off, and clasped it around Nyota's neck. "I want you to have this. If... if I don't return, I want you to read the symbol on the back. I'm sure you will understand, and... I hope you will forgive me." Nyota looked confused and frightened, but merely clasped the charm without speaking. T'Laria looked up at Jim, who still watched her. "Good luck," she said.

"Good luck to you."

"Tell Leonard-"

"Tell him yourself," Jim said with a smile. "Get going, Mister."

She nodded, and keyed in the appropriate deck for the turblift, marking her trip urgent. She was taken straight down without stopping, and raced to the transporter room. She punched in her own coordinates – a spot out of sight from the last location of the Romulans, and far closer to the Arc itself. The Romulans clearly didn't know which of the caves was the actual Arc, or they would have bombed it directly. "Keep a lock on my communicator," she instructed the engineer. "Be ready to beam me and anyone near me as soon as I give the word."

"Yes, sir."

T'Laria stepped onto the transporter pad, and crouched in a defensive position, in case of falling debris. "Energize."

T'Laria materialized where she'd planned – just a few meters away from the foot of the Arc. The ground shook a moment after she materialized, and she could see rocks and dust flying from a few hundred meters to the east. T'Laria raced for the foot of the hill, her well-trained eye picking out the staircase that was designed to be indistinguishable from the natural face of the mountain. She raced up the stairs as fast as she could, gripping the wall tightly when another blast shook the earth beneath her.

Though she ran as fast as she could, the trip up the staircase took no less than twenty minutes to complete, and her anxiety increased with each step. Soon, she would discover if the guards had been quick enough to save both of her parents, or if only the King had been saved. When she arrived at the top of the stair, she raced inside the great cavern, struggling to stay upright when another blast rocked the mountain range.

Soon, she reached the Hall of the Departed. There were two palace guards at the mouth of the corridor, and behind them, T'Laria could see eight of the Elders encircling the Shrine, along with her father and mother. She felt almost weak with relief, but they were not out of danger yet. "The Arc is under attack," she cried.

"Let him pass," Sarek said when the guards tried to detain her.

T'Laria rushed in. "Come, we must get to the entrance immediately. The Arc may have only moments left!"

The Elders were stunned, and Sarek and Amanda stared hard at her. Amanda took a hesitant step toward her. "Lari?" she whispered.

T'Laria reached for her. "Now Mother, please, we must go!"

As if to emphasize the point, the ground shook and rumbled beneath them. Amanda ran to her, and T'Laria took her hand and raced toward the entrance. She heard the others following her, and felt the ground shaking again. She heard a thunderous, terrifying sound, and glanced behind her to see the statue of T'Plana-Hath crash to the ground. One of the guards shoved an Elder out of the way, and was crushed beneath the giant stone monument moments later.

T'Laria turned back, moving even faster, though she knew that her grip on her mother's arm might be painful. She halted on the platform outside the Arc. Her mother embraced her, clutching her uniform shirt, staring with terror at the surrounding hills as they shook and crumbled around them. T'Laria opened her communicator, glancing back to be sure her father and the other Elders were in the open. "Enterprise, get us out, now!"

"I have your signal," the technician said nervously. "But I can't... it's moving too much to-"

"Enterprise!" she cried. "Energize, now! Hurry!" There was a delay of several seconds, during which the ground quaked, and T'Laria caught sight of the Romulans at the foot of the hill pointing at them. "Enterprise, where are you! We need transport now before it's too late!"

"Give me manual control!" It was Chekov's voice this time, and T'Laria felt a small measure of relief. "Locking to auxiliary signatures, compensating seismic variations, and..." T'Laria felt the tingle of the transporter beams. Her mother clutched her more tightly, and moments later, the transporter room materialized around them. "Gotcha!"

T'Laria looked down at her mother, who still clutched her tightly, and let out a sigh of relief. With a glance at Sarek's grim face, she helped her mother down from the transporter pad. She looked toward the technician's station to see Chekov glowing under the praise of the other engineers present. Jim was there as well, patting Chekov furiously on the back, exuberant despite the large gash across his forehead that appeared to have been hastily sealed with derma-sealant. "Excellent work, Mr. Chekov," T'Laria said.

"Thank you, sir," Chekov said, smiling brightly.

Jim slammed Chekov's back again and ruffled his hair in what would seem to be an undignified fashion (though Chekov didn't seem to mind). "You are a genius! Thank God for the Russian Junior Exchange." The others laughed, and Jim ordered Chekov back to the bridge, then broke away and approached the transporter pad. He patted T'Laria's arm. "All right?"

"Yes, Captain."

He nodded, and smiled at Amanda. "Welcome aboard, ma'am."

"Thank you," she said.

Jim moved closer to the transporter pad, where Sarek and the Elders still stood. Jim bowed slightly to Sarek and smiled at the others. "Welcome aboard, Your Majesty," he said. "I'm James T. Kirk, in command of the U.S.S. Enterprise. We're honored by your presence, although we wish the circumstances of your visit were different. If it's alright with you, we would like our Medical staff to check you over, and then we will show you to accommodations in a safe area of the ship."

"Thank you, that would be acceptable, Captain," Sarek said. He stepped down from the transporter pad and stood in front of T'Laria, staring intently at her, his expression inscrutable. T'Laria bowed deeply, but was unsure what to say. "Thank you for your assistance," Sarek said.

She straightened. "I... could not have done otherwise, my Lord."

He nodded slowly. "When the danger is passed, I would like to speak with you."

She bowed her head again. "As you wish, Sire." He turned and walked toward the door, without giving even the slightest hint of what his thoughts might be. She couldn't tell if he was still furious with her, or if he had forgiven her, and she was suddenly filled with anxiety regarding their proposed discussion.

Amanda, on the other hand, was quite transparent with her emotions. She hugged T'Laria tightly. "I'm so glad to see you," she whispered.

"And I you, my Lady," she said, returning the embrace.

"Come, my wife," Sarek said sharply. Amanda smiled at T'Laria and at Jim, then joined Sarek. The medical staff that had been waiting escorted them and the rest of the refugees out of the room.

Jim stood beside T'Laria and watched them leave. "Lady Amanda really likes you, huh?"

"Yes, Captain," T'Laria answered.

"I figured you must have been close to the royal family when you knew how to get at the dampening field codes." T'Laria nodded, but didn't speak. "Listen, Spock, we've fired a blanket stun on the palace, so the Romulans haven't realized their hostages are gone yet. We have a little time before we think the firing will start again. We might be able to get your parents off planet if you want to try and locate them."

T'Laria looked at him and took a deep breath. "Jim. King Sarek and Lady Amanda are my parents."

Jim's eyes widened for a moment, then he smiled. "Wow. You know, every time I suspected that, I talked myself out of it. Even after you told me part of your secret, I thought it just had to be a coincidence."

"I'm sorry I lied to you, Jim," she said.

He shook his head. "I understand why you did it. And you told me what you could, when you could, so I'm grateful for that." He touched her shoulder briefly. "No wonder you looked like you were gonna puke when Nyota translated that message. I'm glad you got them out safe."

"Thank you, Jim."

"C'mon, let's get back to the Bridge," Jim said.

T'Laria followed him out of the transporter room. "Are you well enough to remain on duty?" she asked, gesturing at the cut on Jim's forehead. "What happened?"

Jim rolled his eyes. "Present from one of the Romulans. But I'm okay, no concussion."

"I am pleased, Captain. Were you able to disable the dampening field?"

He nodded. "Tough, but your instructions were perfect and we beamed up the hostages in one shot so the Romulans wouldn't get any ideas once they saw some of them disappear."

"And... T'Pan? The... young woman with the child?"

Jim looked surprised. "You know her?"

"She was my handmaiden," T'Laria answered.

Jim looked surprised again, and he smiled. "Yes, we got her out, and the little girl is fine. They're all shaken up, but we got everyone out alive."

"Thank you, Jim." They stepped into the turbolift and Jim requested the Bridge aloud (he always preferred to speak to the computer rather than use the keypad). "But what about Captain Pike? When the Romulan commander realizes that the hostages are gone-"

"It won't matter," Jim said, his expression growing grim. "There was never any plan to talk - they threatened the hostages to get Pike and Number One over there, just like we thought."

Jim paused, his hand clenching the turbolift handhold so tightly his arm vibrated. "What's happened?" T'Laria asked softly. "Are they-"

"They're alive," Jim said. "But their bio-readings are completely haywire. Bones thinks they're being dosed with something, but we don't know what it is. Some kind of neuro-toxin, though, probably to force information from them."

T'Laria felt her heart sink. "What will you do now? Captain Pike ordered us to take the hostages to safety, but-"

"I won't leave them," Jim said. "Rhael is still pretending there's a cease fire, which is giving some of the other ships time to recover and do some quick repairs. If we suddenly break off, who knows what they'll do. We can't risk going in after the Captain until we get a better advantage - we're still outnumbered by one ship."

T'Laria nodded. "And with the Hood debilitated, and the Romulan's ability to cloak and regenerate shield strength, we are at a distinct disadvantage. I assume it has been tried, but we can't beam them out?"

Jim shook his head. "They're being held somewhere that's protected by another forcefield. The brig, maybe, but we can't get more than a vague idea of the ship's layout. We could beam in near it, theoretically, but I'm not ready to risk that just yet. Not with the kind of advantage they have against us now."

"And the other captains?"

"They've agreed to wait. They're taking my lead, like Captain Pike asked them to." He shook his head. "Acting Fleet Captain. It's a long way from that nervous, upstart cadet standing before the Academic Integrity Board a few hours ago, eh Spock?" He laughed - a nervous, edgy sound.

"Quite a long way," she answered. "But I have complete confidence in you, Captain. If any man in Starfleet can get us out of this, it's you."

Jim smiled at her, and he stood ever so slightly straighter. "That means a lot to me." The turbolift doors opened, and they stepped out onto the Bridge. Several of the crew turned and appeared relieved at their return. "Report, Uhura?" Jim asked.

"No change, Captain," she said, getting up from the command chair. Jim took her place, and Nyota met T'Laria on the way back to their respective stations. T'Laria watched her face, suddenly remembering her confession (of sorts), and nervous about what Nyota's reaction would be. "I'm pleased to see you, King's Daughter," Nyota said in Vulcan, speaking barely loud enough for T'Laria to hear.

"And I you," she replied. "I-"

"If you want to apologize," she said, taking her seat at Communications. "There's no need."

"But I have deceived-"

"And I'm sure you had excellent reasons. We can talk about it later." She smiled and reached for T'Laria's hand, her fingers extended in an invitation to caress her. T'Laria smiled back and touched her fingers to Nyota's. Their eyes, and the simple but powerful touch explained their feelings without the need for further words.

A moment later, T'Laria and Nyota turned their attention back to their respective boards, and the waiting game began. The Romulan ships maintained position, and tension was high on the bridge as they waited for the moment when someone discovered both the King and the hostages were gone. After a few minutes had passed, Jim sprang from his seat. "Damn," he hissed. "What are they doing?" He approached Sulu's station. "Any change in their position?"

"None, sir," he replied.

Frustrated, Jim stormed back to his chair and stood beside it, roughly punching a communication code. "Bones! Have you got anything on that toxin yet?"

"No, Jim, I don't," came the doctor's gruff voice. "I told you I can't get anything just from looking at bio-readings from afar, now-"

Jim frowned, and T'Laria turned back to her scanner readings, certain that Jim would want a report from her next. "Bones, there has to be something we can-"

"Jim, there's-"

"Captain!" T'Laria cried, startled by the results of her most recent scan.

Jim turned sharply to her. "What is it, Spock?"

"The two ships posted at Delta Vega have vanished."

"What?"

T'Laria re-checked the scan results quickly, jaw clenching. "They've cloaked, sir," she said. "Another vessel just disappeared."

"Damn! Red alert, Uhura, notify the other Captains to be on alert if they aren't already." The claxon sounded, and Uhura's fingers flew across the Communications board. "Spock can you tell where they're going?"

T'Laria shook her head. "They cloaked before they made any directional changes, Captain. There's no way to track them now."

"Shit!"

Suddenly, startled cries came from Sulu and Chekov. T'Laria and Jim turned, and T'Laria sprang to her feet. The telltale swirl of matter reconstruction had appeared between the viewscreen and the helm controls.

Jim pointed toward Nyota without taking his eyes off the intruders. "Get security up here."

"Aye, sir."

Jim approached the beams, and T'Laria followed, unwilling to let Jim face the intruders alone. A moment later, the swirling beams resolved into two figures - a Derinian male, and a Terran male wearing a heavy coat and hat. Both men were dusted with snow and shivering slightly. Jim lunged immediately at the Human, who yelped and backed away. "Friends, we're friends!" he cried, speaking with a heavy Scottish accent, his voice strained in his distress.

Jim grasped the Human by the collar, his other fist clenched tightly, while T'Laria glared menacingly at the Derinian. Sulu and Chekov stood nearby as well. "Who are you?" Jim demanded.

"Commander Montgomery Scott, and that's Lieutenant Keenser, we're-"

"You're in Starfleet?" Jim asked incredulously, glancing down at Scott's unusual attire.

The two men nodded. "Listen," Scott said. "We don't have a lot of time, where's Captain Pike?"

Jim's scowl deepened. "He's been captured by Romulans, why don't you know that?" he snapped, tightening his grip on the man's coat.

"We've been on Delta Vega," he said nervously. "Which basically amounts to being under a rock," he said, with a glance at T'Laria.

"How did you avoid being captured by the Romulans?" Chekov asked.

"We hid in the snow," Keenser replied.

Scott nodded. "We left the outpost, and I used a tricorder to put up a scrambling shield around us so we wouldn't show on their sensors. We stayed away long enough for them to look around and so-called conquer us, then we went back to the station when they beamed back to their ships. Romulans apparently don't like the cold, either," he said.

At that moment, the turbolift doors swished open, and four security officers charged onto the bridge. They identified the intruders immediately, and rushed forward, phasers drawn. Keenser edged closer to Scott, and the Commander cringed slightly. "Hey, fellas."

"Sir, should we-"

"It's all right," Jim said

T'Laria frowned. "How were you able to beam aboard our ship all the way from Delta Vega? The distance-"

"Right, it's a miracle, I know," Scott answered, glancing nervously at the angry guards, and the other grim faces around him. "But I really don't have time to explain. The Romulans are leaving, and I can show you how to track them cloaked, now where's your captain?"

"I'm the captain," Jim said.

The Commander was clearly shocked, but he recovered quickly. "All right, sir. If you'll let me get to the Engineering station, I can show the signature to your Science officer, and-"

"Do it," Jim said. "Spock, go."

T'Laria raced back to her station, and Scott moved to Engineering, followed closely by Keenser, Jim and the security officers. "Look for this signature," the engineer said, fingers moving with deft agility across the board. "It's a slight space-time distortion caused by their cloaking devices."

"Acknowledged," T'Laria said.

"Captain," Chekov said sharply. "The Fleet Commander's ship just cloaked. I can't see any of them anymore!"

"Jim!" McCoy's voice came sharp from the comm channel. "I just lost Pike and Number One's bio-signs, what happened?"

"They cloaked," Jim snapped, turning to T'Laria. "Spock?"

T'Laria caught Mr. Scott's distortion with the disappearance of the last ship. "I have it, sir," she said. The distortion changed trajectory, and T'Laria felt a chill run through her. "Feeding you coordinates now, Mr. Chekov," she said, her voice cracking slightly. She looked up and turned to Jim. "They're headed for Earth, Captain."

Jim's face grew pale. "All of them?"

"I have identified three ships remaining in orbit around Vulcan, and one ship at the colony planet, but the remaining eight vessels are headed for Earth."

Jim clenched his fists and looked down for a moment, breathing hard. When he looked up again, there was a fierce determination in his eyes. "Uhura, brief the other captains on this, Spock, send the signal, and the locations of the ships that are still in the Vulcan system. I want the Washington, the Robau, and the Ketara to stay here - protect the Hood and do what they can to get these Romulans off of Vulcan. The rest of the fleet will come with us to Earth. Mr. Scott, have you worked with a Starship before?"

"Aye, sir, for three years before Delta Vega."

"Good. We lost our chief engineer and we're floundering down there. Get down to Engineering and give us as much speed as you can. Spock, see if you can find a way to modify our phaser banks so that they can use that cloaking signature to set target. The moment you get it, feed it to Sulu." He paused in the stream of orders, and looked at them all. "We're going to get these bastards. Let's move."

While Jim announced the new course and ordered the crew back to battle stations, T'Laria focused on the task of translating Mr. Scott's cloak signature into a form that could be easily targeted by their phaser banks. It was a difficult task, but she found what should be a viable solution only seconds after they entered Terran space. She fed the information through to helm.

"Would this be helpful to you, Mr. Sulu?" she asked.

"Absolutely," he said, the smile evident in his voice.

"Great work, Spock," Jim said. "Get that to the other ships. We have to be careful, though. Pike and Number One are still on one of those ships."

"But Captain," Sulu said, now concerned. "The distortion Mr. Scott found is in the general shape of a ship, but we can't really know where we're firing."

"Okay," Jim said. "Then we have to provoke them into showing themselves. They can't fire on us without decloaking, so we fire low level bursts to get them to attack us. Then, when they decloak and we confirm that it's not the Fleet Commander's ship, we hit them with everything we've got."

"Aye, Captain."

The trip back to Earth was brief, but filled with tension. The bridge crew was completely silent during the trip, and when they dropped out of Warp in Terran space, it seemed that the tension became palpable.

The fleet spread out and moved slowly closer to Earth, scanning for the tell-tale distortion. The Enterprise was the first to encounter an enemy ship. T'Laria announced the location, and Jim quickly ordered a swift, but low level phaser burst. The Romulan Vessel soon revealed itself, and T'Laria confirmed that there were no human lifesigns aboard.

"Let 'em have it, Sulu!"

Almost before the command was complete, phasers were firing. The Romulan ship appeared to be alone, since no other ships materialized during the fight. The smaller vessel fired, doing minimal damage to Deck 8, but before long, The Enterprise's superior firepower prevailed, and the ship was destroyed.

One by one, the Enterprise, and her partial fleet of ships located and destroyed Romulan vessels. The final four vessels had already made their way to Earth, and by the time the Starfleet ships reached them, they were already de-cloaked and firing on the planet.

"Captain, sensors show that planetary defenses are inoperative. The Romulan phasers are doing damage to Federation headquarters."

"Shit!" he snapped, slamming his fist hard against the armrest. "The neuro-toxin! They must have got what they were looking for, dammit."

Chekov turned toward Jim, his eyes filled with worry. "Sir, if they don't need Captain Pike and-"

"Spock, can you tell if they're still alive?"

T'Laria ran a detailed scan, and couldn't resist breathing a sigh of relief. "Yes, Captain, I read two living Human life forms aboard Rhael's ship."

Jim gritted his teeth. "Either they're keeping them alive for information about other Federation planets, or they won't be alive for very long. Either way, I'm going over there, and I'm going to bring them back. Uhura, let the other captains know the plan. See if they can distract the other three ships. Spock, take the-"

"If I may, Captain," T'Laria said. "It is more logical for me to go. Vulcans and Romulans share a common ancestry, and it will be easier for me to comprehend the controls."

Jim considered it for a moment, then turned to Sulu. "Take the conn," he said.

"Jim-"

"I'm coming with you," he said.

T'Laria raised an eyebrow, but knew from Jim's expression that it would be pointless to argue. She followed Jim toward the turbolift, looking back at Nyota as she walked. "Be careful," Nyota said.

"We will."

They were met in the transporter room by Engineer Scott. "Mr. Scott," Jim said tersely. "How close can you get us to the two of them?"

"Well, I can get you within inches of the edge of the dampening field, sir," Scott answered. "But there are two Romulan life-signs in the same area. I'd hate to beam you in just for you to get vaporized a second later. If I set you here," he said, pulling up a small, somewhat vague schematic, "you'll be further away, but you'll be in a hallway, and slightly less likely to get immediately blasted than if you pop up right in front of posted guards."

"Do it." Jim said. While T'Laria stepped up to the transporter pad, Jim left orders with Sulu to fire on the enemy vessels if he deemed necessary to protect the planet, and the Enterprise. "Those civilian passengers are our top priority, Sulu. If the Romulans endanger the ship... do what you have to."

"Understood, sir."

T'Laria drew her phaser and set the charge for maximum stun. Jim did the same, then nodded to Scott. "Energize."

They materialized in an empty hall, with just enough time to gain their bearings before a pair of Romulan centurions turned a corner. Shocked, the Romulans froze for a split second – long enough for Jim and T'Laria to take aim and fire. "We don't have much time," Jim whispered. "Mr. Scott gave me a general idea of where to go-"

"I can find out definitively," T'Laria said. "Cover me."

Jim nodded, and T'Laria advanced quickly on the fallen Romulans. Her urgency, and her fury at the Romulan attack overrode her ingrained distaste for melding without consent. Within seconds, she knew the exact location of the captives. She learned more than she cared to know about the methods that had been used to extract information from Pike and Number One. To her shock, she also learned how Vulcan's defenses had been disabled – knowledge which enraged her so much that she had to forcibly shut down the meld and take a few seconds to regain control of herself.

"Spock?" There was a hand on her shoulder, and T'Laria opened her eyes, and looked up into her friend's worried eyes.

"I'm alright," she said quietly. "Follow me." She stood, realizing for the first time that there were four new unconscious Romulans in the hallway. Impressed, she managed a half-smile at him before leading him at a swift pace toward the holding cells where their captain and first officer were located. They stunned all Romulans that happened across their path, and within only a few minutes, they had reached the cells. They made short work of the final threats, and T'Laria moved toward the security panel. "Jim, I must warn you," she said, keying in the release code. "The Romulan's methods were... harsh."

Jim frowned at her, but nodded. "Okay."

The forcefields in front of the two adjacent cells winked out. T'Laria rushed in to the nearest cell to her, pausing momentarily at the sight of Captain Pike. She heard a shocked cry from Jim, and deemed that Number One must be in a similar state. Even though T'Laria had received some amount of forewarning from what she had seen in the meld, the sight of her former instructor and mentor was disturbing. Pike lay sprawled on the floor of the cell, shirtless, barely conscious, his skin so pale that it looked almost gray. Though he had only been in captivity for a matter of hours, his face looked drawn, and his chest and arms were covered in bruises. He was drenched in sweat, and some type of dark, greenish-black slime was trailing from his lips.

T'Laria approached him, and Pike raised an arm to shield his eyes, turning his face away from her. "It's Spock, Captain," she said, crouching beside him. "We're here to get you back to the ship."

Pike turned back to her. "H-how..."

His voice was rough, and weak, and before he could articulate the question, he let out a thick, horrible-sounding cough. T'Laria frowned. "Please refrain from speaking, sir," she said. "Nod if you can stand on your own." Pike shook his head, trying to wipe away the renewed trail of... whatever it was he had coughed up, his arms shaking from the effort. T'Laria's frown deepened. She quickly but gently lifted the captain off the floor, noting his wince when he placed weight on one leg. She supported him almost entirely, and helped him limp out of the cell. She kept her phaser in hand and waited, looking toward the second cell.

A few moments later, Jim appeared, eyes smoldering and jaw set tight. He was bare-chested, and a very ill looking Number One leaned heavily against him, wearing Jim's tunic above her uniform slacks. She was in a similar state as Captain Pike – bruised and dazed, breathing shallowly, chest heavy with congestion.

Jim's eyes quickly scanned Captain Pike, and he scowled. "Get us out of range of the field."

T'Laria led them away from the cells as fast as she dared, and went back toward the beam-down point. No sooner had they reached it than an alarm claxon sounded, and a harsh voice spoke over the comm system. T'Laria didn't have to understand the language to know that their presence had been discovered. Behind her, she heard Jim's terse voice. "Enterprise, now!"

There was no verbal response, but T'Laria was relieved to feel the familiar tingle of the transporter beam. She caught sight of a group of armed Romulan guards just before her vision blurred, and the Enterprise's transporter room materialized around them.

"Yes, thank you Mr. Scott!" Jim cried.

"My pleasure, sir."

Before further words could be said, a medical team rushed in, with Leonard at the lead. Nurses carefully took charge of Captain Pike and Number One, guiding them down from the pad and onto anti-grav stretchers. Leonard spared the two of them a brief, relieved look before focusing on scanning his patients.

The med team rushed back out of the transporter room, followed almost immediately by T'Laria and Jim. They raced back toward the Bridge, quickening their pace when the Red Alert sirens began to wail and Nyota called all hands to battle stations.

"Report!" Jim snapped the second the turbolift doors opened.

"The Romulans are locking weapons on us," Sulu said, practically jumping from the command chair to get back to his own post. "We were able to fire a few shots to get them to stop firing on the planet, and all but the commander's ship fired back at our fleet at first. But a few seconds ago, they all started to lock targets onto the Enterprise alone."

"They're probably pissed that we got our people out of there," Jim said. T'Laria took over Science again, while Jim spoke to Engineering. "Mr. Scott, make sure we have full shield strength around the lower decks. Pull from auxiliary power if you have to."

"Aye, Captain!"

"Uhura, tell the other captains we're back, and the Commander's ship is fair game. Sulu. Fire at will."

Phasers fired, seconds before the ship rocked with the impact of one of the Romulan photons. Although the Romulans attempted to concentrate their fire on the Enterprise, with the help of the rest of the ships, Enterprise didn't take too much damage. The Federation ships attacked fiercely, attempting also to draw the enemy away from Earth at the same time. Eventually, all but Rhael's ship had been destroyed. T'Laria's scans showed that the ship had sustained substantial damage, yet the Commander had not made any attempt to cloak or go to warp.

During a brief respite in the volley of fire, Jim glanced at Nyota. "Hail the Romulans," he said."

"Captain?" T'Laria looked back at him, unable to hide her confusion.

"They have cloaking technology on that ship," he explained. T'Laria understood immediately, and she watched the viewscreen with interest when the Commander responded.

She stood rigid, a dark scowl on her face. Her long, brown hair was perfect still, but there were smudges of soot on her face, and T'Laria could see a dark stain of green on the shoulder of her uniform. "What are you waiting for, Kirk?" she spat.

"Your vessel is damaged, you won't be able to get back to Romulan space. We're willing to provide your crew with medical attention, and the assistance you need."

Rhael leered at him. "I'm sure you are, Captain. You'll patch up our wounds, while your engineers gut our ship and steal our technology." She shook her head and signaled to one of her crew. "No, thank you, Captain. I will not allow the Federation to reap the benefits of our labors. You have defeated us, Kirk, and you are no more than a child even by Human standards. That is shame enough."

Rhael closed the channel. "Damn," Jim hissed. "Sulu, lock phasers on-"

"Sir!"

"What is it, Spock?"

"The Romulan ship's engines are building an unusually large amount of energy. It appears-"

"Sulu, back us up, get us as far away from that ship as you can! Uhura, warn the others!"

Even as he spoke, the Romulan vessel had begun to recede on the viewscreen. T'Laria could see the other ships backing away as well. Too soon, the Romulan ship exploded – the force of the blast strong enough to hit the Enterprise like a broad-field phaser attack. She was shoved back, and soon, T'Laria's station lit up with various reports of shield damage, and further minor hull breaches.

Uhura confirmed that there were no casualties from the blast. While giving her report, she received a message from the captain of the Robau. "She says the Romulans left on Vulcan have been rounded up and imprisoned," she said happily.

"Excellent! Take us home, gentlemen," he said. He opened a channel and addressed the crew. "This is Captain James Kirk. The Romulan invaders have been defeated. To our crew – good work. I'm sure your instructors will be proud of what we've accomplished. To our civilian guests, we will have you back home as soon as possible. We're headed to Earth for repairs, and we will arrange transport for you to get back to Vulcan as soon as we can. Kirk out."

He closed the connection, and T'Laria left her station to stand beside him. Jim looked up at her and smiled. "Not too bad for our first time out, Mr. Spock?"

"Not at all, Captain," she said. His smile seemed to grow warmer. "I wished to say..." She paused, and Jim looked expectantly at her. "Whatever may happen after today... I am pleased that my first mission for Starfleet has allowed me to serve at your side."

Jim's smile was still present, but his eyes were serious. "That means a lot to me," he said. "I hope when... when you have that talk, that everything works out the way you want it to."

"Thank you, Jim. I hope so, too."


T'Laria stood at attention in the main audience chamber of the Shi'Kahr palace. The stiff collar of the Starfleet dress uniform, about which Jim and Leonard had complained nearly non-stop all morning, and most of the previous day, felt comforting to T'Laria. It was reminiscent of the high-collared gowns she'd worn to state events before leaving home.

The audience chamber was one of the first areas of the palace to be restored after the invasion. The Romulans who'd been left by their crewmembers were already incarcerated in high-security rehabilitation colonies, controlled by the Federation. The Vulcan dissidents T'Laria learned of during her meld with the centurion, were imprisoned by the Vulcan government on the charge of high treason and conspiracy. There were nearly twenty of them – men and women who didn't believe in the Surakian way of life, but who had lain in hiding rather than joining the battle decades before. T'Laria had been pleased to learn that none of them had been Sybok's followers. He was as he had always stated – a firm believer in peace as the ultimate goal of T'Khasi – and he had even made headway in regaining Sarek's good favor by helping to round up the Romulans in the outer Provinces, and promising to do what he could for the rebuilding efforts. Still, it had sickened T'Laria to know that people close to her father had plotted against them.

The conspirators all claimed that the Romulans had promised to allow Vulcans to maintain control of T'Khasi – they had no idea that the Romulans planned a conquest, rather than a re-unification with the estranged, openly emotional "cousins" that had left the planet during the time of Surak. Each swore that if they had known, they would never have continued communication with the Romulan "ambassadors", nor disabled Vulcan's defenses when the ships appeared. Though they seemed genuinely shocked by the turn of events, T'Laria was not sympathetic to their plight. Their decades of deceit stung, and their actions (misguided as they may have been) had cost many lives.

Sarek stood up, and T'Laria bowed, noting that the others did the same. When she rose, Sarek was watching her, eyes as unreadable as they had been when he'd looked at her in the Enterprise's transporter room. He gave a brief speech thanking all of the Starfleet officers who'd taken part in the fight to defend Vulcan and Earth from the Romulans. Vulcan was in their debt, and was grateful for their assistance. Then, he turned his gaze to the two people at the center of the line of visiting officers.

"Admiral Christopher Pike. Captain Catherine Wells. Please come forward." Pike and Number One were wheeled forward by two assistants. It would be months, according to Leonard, before they would stand on their own again, but they were in good spirits nevertheless. "Your courage and strength is a testament to the Federation and to Starfleet. On behalf of the twenty-two provinces of Vulcan, I present you each with our highest honor, the Right of Valor."

An attendant brought two of the figures to the dais, and Sarek and Amanda came forward together to present the awards. "Thank you very much, Your Majesty," Admiral Pike said. Captain Wells merely smiled and bowed her head slightly – her voice had yet to recover from the Romulan neuro-toxin.

There was a round of applause for the new Federation heroes, and the assistants turned their chairs so that the audience could see them before returning to their former places. When Sarek and Amanda returned to the dais, Sarek looked at Jim. "Captain James Tiberius Kirk. Please come forward."

Jim did so, bowing slightly before returning to stand proudly in his shining, golden uniform. "Captain Kirk," Sarek began. "Twenty-one years ago, your father made the ultimate sacrifice in order to save his crew, his wife, and his son. Now, that legacy of courage and heroism survives through you. The selfless courage you showed after your superior officers had been captured, the rescue of our Council members, and palace residents, and the destruction of the Romulan fleet are a credit to Starfleet. I am pleased to present you, also, with the Right of Valor."

A third award was produced and presented. Jim bowed again. "I'm honored, sir," he said. When he turned to the audience, who were already applauding loudly, a huge smile lit his face. T'Laria caught sight of Winona Kirk in the audience, applauding and smiling broadly at her son – obviously proud of his accomplishments. T'Laria had not been privy to their discussion after the mission had ended, but she assumed that he had been forgiven for enlisting in Starfleet without her knowledge or permission.

T'Laria wished fervently that she could be assured the same was true of her father. She'd been able to speak briefly to him regarding the knowledge she'd gained about the Vulcans who'd disabled their planetary defenses, but between Sarek's activities at the trials, the restoration of the palace, arranging for the rebuilding of the spacedocks, and addressing the public about the plans for repairing all the damage the Romulans had done to other cities, Sarek had not had time to speak with her at length.

T'Laria had been quite busy, too, with several debriefings, visiting (then) Captain Pike and Number One in the medical facilities, and helping Jim with recommendations for commendations. She'd found time to have a long talk with her mother, wherein all was explained and forgiven, and she'd spoken with Leonard, Jim and Nyota together as well. She'd also written an explanatory letter to Admiral Barnett, and the rest of the Starfleet Academy board, exposing her identity, confessing that her gender change had been made to help her hide, rather than from a true desire to be male, and requesting that her records be updated with her true name. Leonard's decision to remove her falsified records worked in her favor (not to mention her part in the defeat of the Romulans), because her request was granted, and she was not reprimanded for failing to mention her "previous names" on her Academy application.

With both father and daughter actively working to resolve the "loose ends" created by the attack, this ceremony was the first time she had come into Sarek's presence since their brief talk before the trials began.

When Jim returned to his place, Sarek looked at her and extended his hand. "Commander T'Laria. Step forward, please." She moved to the center of the floor and bowed deeply to her king. "T'Laria. My daughter. Three years ago, you left our home in secret, to follow a path that I have discouraged since you were a small child - ever since you first learned of the heroic deeds of Starfleet officers here in this very chamber." T'Laria felt her body tensing, and she stared at her father, struggling to keep her expression neutral as her father spoke of her childhood dreams, and her defiance of his orders before an entire crowd of onlookers. "However, your adherence to your own principles, even in the face of adversity and continued discouragement, have been the salvation of the custodians of T'Khasi culture, and the lives of your king and queen. If not for your determination and your heroic actions, the history of our civilization would not have survived this attack. Vulcan is forever in your debt."

T'Laria found herself standing straighter, and losing the battle against the proud, relieved smile threatening to appear. The warmth in her father's eyes was clear to see, though his expression remained controlled and would seem neutral to those who didn't know him. She struggled to maintain composure, bowing her head slightly to acknowledge his high praise. He beckoned for her to come closer, and she approached the throne. She glanced briefly at Amanda, her composure nearly melting when she saw the brilliant smile on her mother's face.

"You have risked your life to defend your home, as I and our ancestors have done before. I welcome you back home, and I am pleased and honored to present you with a symbol of your status as a Protector of the Twenty-Two Provinces, and the Colonies." An attendant approached the dais and handed Sarek a large, rectangular case, made of dark wood, and decorated with the vines and stars of the Provinces. Sarek stepped down and held the case out toward her. He unclasped the case, and lifted the top to reveal his sword - the very sword he had used in the defense of Shi'Kahr before she was born, and that she had dreamed of one day wielding herself.

She could not control the gasp, and the broad smile that lit her face at the sight of her father's gift. "Thank you, Father," she said, the excitement in her voice as clear as the grin on her face. "I... do not know how to thank you enough for this honor."

"It is we who are in your debt, my child," he said. "Take it."

She lifted the sheathed sword, almost surprised by how easily she could pick it up, though it was still very heavy and clearly designed for someone her father's height. For a moment, it was as if she were a young girl again, studying the etchings in the leather scabbard, and gazing at the twenty-two stars. Then, with a glance at her mother (who now had tears in her eyes), she turned toward the assembly and held the sword up for the audience to see. There was a thunderous round of applause from the assembly, and broad smiles from her three closest friends, who had since heard the story of how she'd nearly cut her bed in half with the weapon as a child.

After a few moments, she turned back to her father, put the sword back in its case and took it from him. He reached for her and placed his hand gently on the top of her head. "Your future is your own, my daughter," he said softly. "But it would please me if you would return to your place as my heir."

She looked up at him. "I am honored, Father," she said. "I... would like to remain in Starfleet to take at least one tour of duty, but I will take the throne when the time comes if you will allow it."

He nodded. "It is done."


Chapter 1
Epilogue

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