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It was raining in San Francisco.

Not the planned, programmed rain that climate control satellites generated at carefully scheduled intervals. No, this was an unexpected, natural storm that had started out as a real gullywasher and had now tapered off to a nice, steady, soaking rain.

A ghost of a smile played over Hikaru Sulu’s lips. Back at the Academy, his old friend Ben al-Faisal said a storm like this was Mother Nature’s way of flipping the bird at the weather programmers, showing them who was really the boss. He wondered idly how Ben was doing these days. He was Captain of the U.S.S. Exeter, a posting his friend had gotten two years ago.

Another friend who already has his bars, Sulu thought. And I’m still waiting.

He plopped down in the recliner with a cup of hot herbal tea, hoping the beverage and the relaxing thrumming of rain on the roof would calm him. Tai-chi had not. Meditation had not. Sulu stared out the window at the featureless rain.

Maybe, maybe this time! he hoped.

Three captaincies were available – the U.S.S. Cooper, the U.S.S. Albireo, and the U.S.S. Excelsior. Sulu had submitted his application for the postings, along with eighty-six other officers. To his great surprise, it had been accepted. After all, he and the rest of the command crew had actually participated in the theft of the original U.S.S. Enterprise, and while their subsequent actions of saving Earth from the Whalesong Probe acquitted them, he was sure he’d been sent to the bottom of the promotions list. To his even greater surprise, he had made the final cut, and was now one of six finalists for the three positions, waiting for Starfleet Command to make a decision.

And waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

Given his previous actions, Sulu had fully expected that his application would be rejected, even though he knew without conceit that he was an excellent candidate for a starship captaincy. He’d served as the executive officer of the Cooper for nearly eight years under Captain Daniel Michael Williams. However, he was also one of the command crew of that "maverick" James T. Kirk. Would he be a loose cannon like his mentor? Could he be trusted? For all their talk about wanting their people to be original thinkers, inventive and resourceful, and intuitive in making decisions, command seemed to frown on individuality. After the Genesis incident, they all expected to be court-martialed and possibly imprisoned upon their return to Earth.

Saving one’s homeworld from destruction was an exploit that could not be ignored. The numerous charges and violations of Starfleet regulations had been dropped, and Kirk and his crew had been rewarded with a new starship Enterprise.

Yes, all the charges against Kirk’s command crew had been dropped, but Sulu feared all the grudges had not.

James T. Kirk had many powerful friends and supporters, and his latest adventure had gained him many more. But he also had his share of enemies, and, by extension, so did his crew – shadowy, terrifyingly powerful people who were not at all fond of Kirk. Sulu wondered if they hadn’t already tried to strike back.

The Enterprise-A’s shakedown cruise had been more of a "shake apart" cruise. So many things had gone wrong, so many things had not worked. It seemed to Sulu that there was more than mere coincidence at work here. Fortunately, they had only sustained minor injuries--just enough to keep Doctor McCoy grumbling happily. And they’d solved the crisis on Tellus.

But then Captain of Engineering Scott had discovered a potentially serious problem in the antimatter containment field, one that would have eventually led to a cataclysmic core breach. He had managed to repair it, and the Enterprise-A had limped home from 892-IV. Scott had been given six weeks to get the ship ship-shape, and still she was barely able to go back out to Nimbus III and then on to Vulcan before returning to Earth.

But now, with the Enterprise finally in SpaceDock, Scott and Spock were investigating the very real possibility that the containment malfunction had been deliberate sabotage—sabotage that would have destroyed the starship.

Sulu swiveled around in the lounger to stare into the fireplace. All things considered, he mused, I guess I’m lucky to even be here, much less looking at a possible captaincy.

Sulu had been on the threshold once before. He was waiting for his orders to be cut, naming him captain of the U.S.S. Excelsior. When he had agreed to go out on "a little training cruise" aboard the original Enterprise as a favor to then Admiral James T. Kirk. The training cruise from Hell, he thought. All the terrible, fantastic events that took place were a blur in his mind. The firefight with Khan and the destruction of the Reliant, Spock’s death and rebirth, the death of David Marcus and the destruction of the Enterprise and the Genesis planet, the Whalesong Probe incident, the Nimbus III debacle, the urgent trip to Vulcan with Spock carrying Sybok’s all swirled around in his memory.

Sulu and his friends had lived several lifetimes in the past few months. Out of loyalty and friendship, they had all risked lives and careers to help Kirk and Spock. And each one of them would gladly do it all over again in a heartbeat, without hesitation, without even thinking about it.

Because, while loyalty to Starfleet and the Federation was necessary and fine—loyalty to a friend was most important of all. Loyalty and friendship had cost him the U.S.S. Excelsior; Sulu had been detained by the inquiry into the Khan/Genesis incident, and the big, new ship needed a captain. So Starfleet, in its sometimes questionable wisdom, named Captain Philip Styles "temporary" commander of the Excelsior. Sulu had not expected his dream ship to be available again so soon. It was encouraging that he was being considered as a possible captain for her. It gave him hope that Starfleet could still consider someone for a posting like this based on his talents and abilities, and not hold his past against him.

The antique grandfather clock in the drawing room chimed once. One o'clock in the afternoon. Thirteen hundred. God, how long was it going to take? Sulu got up and began to pace, busying himself by studying the furnishings, looking for anything to take his mind off this interminable waiting.

It was a magnificent, huge old house, a Tudor tastefully furnished and appointed, full of polished wood and leaded glass. But it was devoid of character; it was not a home. Most of the time, no one lived here; when anyone did occupy the place, they were usually just passing from point A to point B. In fact, the only time Hikaru Sulu had ever even seen the three other people with whom he shared the house was on the day they closed the deal. There was plenty of room for everyone on the off-chance all the co-owners were in town at the same time, but it never happened.

Normally, Sulu enjoyed the solitude—but not today.

Today, the waiting had him ready to jump out of his skin.

Sulu got up to pour himself another cup of tea. It was helping somewhat. Janet had turned him on to it; it was her favorite brand. He wondered what she was up to right now. She’d been given command of her own ship, beating him to the center seat. As the captain of the Samson, a destroyer assigned to the dreadnought Dominion’s patrol group, she was out there where he wanted to be, and yet he was not jealous; he was happy for her.

A smiled danced on in his lips at the thought of Commander Janet Rachelson. She was truly the love of his life. Young, beautiful, intelligent, a voracious lover. She was more than everything a man could ask for, and he raised his glass in a toast to her. "Here’s to you, Jan. I love you, and I always will."

The sudden beep of Sulu’s BellComm unit startled him in the church-quiet stillness, and he nearly dropped his cup. "Hello? Hikaru Sulu speaking."

"Starfleet Transporter Operations. Request permission for a beam-in," a transporter officer droned.

"Identification?" Sulu queried, frowning.

"Captain James T. Kirk, Flag Officer of Starfleet Command."

Sulu’s stomach knotted. There was only one reason why Kirk would be coming to see him. The only question was if the news was bad or good.

"Permission granted," Sulu returned. "Stand by for ‘clear’ signal." He keyed in a series of codes on his terminal, then opened what appeared to be the door of a walk-in closet to reveal a personal transporter pad.

"Energize," Sulu said.

The hum and sparkle of the transporter beam shimmered in the alcove and gradually coalesced into the familiar form of James T. Kirk.

Sulu greeted him warmly, genuinely smiling for the first time in weeks. "Captain Kirk, sir," he said, pumping his longtime commander’s hand. "It’s good to see you."

Kirk flashed a crooked smile. "Guess I’m getting lazy in my old age," he said. "Normally, I would have walked, but I didn’t want to melt in the rain." He brushed imaginary raindrops off his civilian tunic.

Sulu chuckled. "Can’t blame you there, sir. Can I offer you something to drink? I do have Saurian brandy, and Doctor McCoy has provided me with a bottle of Romulan ale."

"What are you having?" Kirk asked, indicating Sulu’s teacup.

"It’s a special blend of herbal tea," Sulu replied. "It’s excellent."

"Sounds good on a damp, chilly day," Kirk said. "I’ll have some, too."

Sulu busied himself with the tea, refilling his own cup and preparing one for Kirk. He suddenly realized he was afraid to hear the news he had been so agonizingly awaiting.

"Nice house," Kirk commented. "Lot’s of room."

"It’s all right," Sulu said, handing Kirk his tea. "It can be kind of empty, though, when you’re rattling around in it by yourself."

Kirk took a sip of the beverage. "You’re right—it is excellent," he said. He gestured to the loungers facing the fireplace. "Have a seat. Let’s talk."

"Yes, sir," Sulu responded. For some reason, he felt as if he was going to his own execution.

"I guess you know why I’m here," Kirk began.

"I have a pretty good idea, Captain."

Kirk chuckled. "Hikaru, I think you should get used to calling me ‘Jim.’"

Sulu started. "You mean..."

"I told them at Command that I wanted to personally break the news to Starfleet’s newest captain," Kirk said, beaming. "Congratulations, Captain Sulu!"

Sulu’s heart hammered in his chest. "Sir, I...thank you, sir. Thank you! I...I don’t know what to say!"

"Jim, Hikaru. It’s Jim," Kirk laughed, shaking his hand.

"Thank you,, Jim." Sulu made a face. "That’s going to be hard to get used to. I think if I became the C in C of Starfleet, and you were a captain, I’d still call you ‘sir,’ sir...I mean, Jim."

"Old habits die hard," Kirk agreed.

Sulu took a deep breath. "Which ship?"

Kirk hesitated. "You’re to report to the U.S.S. Cooper on Monday, to assume command."

Sulu’s face fell. His disappointment was obvious. "I...see," he murmured. "I’m sorry. I am excited about getting my own command, Jim. It’s just...I was hoping for Excelsior. And Cooper..." He sighed. "She’s got a good crew, but that little ship’s been through a lot. She’s just..."

Kirk nodded. "She’s just not the Excelsior."

"But," Sulu brightened, "I am the captain of a starship now. It’s a beginning." He sipped some tea and cast a sidelong glance at Kirk. "Who?" he queried.

"Got the Excelsior?" Kirk returned. "You don’t want to know!"

Sulu groaned aloud. "Oh, no. Please don’t tell me it was..."

"Styles," Kirk finished.

"Damn!" Sulu exploded. "Anybody but him!"

"He did some lobbying," Kirk supplied. "Something about how the Excelsior’s crew was new and needed the continuity of keeping the same man in the center seat, at least until the end of its initial five year tour. He had done some favors for people, too, and he called in all of them."

"Favors?" Sulu snorted. "I wonder what kind of favors..."

Kirk laughed aloud. "Between you and me, I agree with you, Hikaru. I think Styles is an idiot, and I just hope his idiocy doesn’t get anybody killed. And I’ve got to tell you, it didn’t help that you were involved in the Genesis mess. I don’t think anybody on the board overtly held it against you—you never would have been given a ship if they did—but it had to be in the back of their minds, even though you were exonerated. When Styles pushed, it might have been just enough to tip the scales in his favor for the Excelsior."

His hazel eyes grew somber. "Hikaru, I want you to know that I am truly sorry if anything you did in my behalf has hurt your career," Kirk murmured.

Sulu clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Forget it," he said. "No one held a gun to my head, sir—I mean, Jim. Spock was my friend; he was a friend to all of us who were involved in the Genesis affair. I’d do it again—I’ve already told you that. What are friends for?"

Kirk smiled broadly and shook Sulu’s hand. "You don’t know how much I appreciate that, Hikaru. It’s gotten me through some rough spots these past few months."

He drained his cup of tea, then stood up. "I’ve got to be getting back. Spock and Scotty are still checking out the containment problem to see if it was deliberate. Spock said that the program Starfleet used to finish outfitting the Enterprise-A was definitely corrupted, but he can’t tell if that was deliberate or if it was a simple virus. And the construction company itself is under suspicion—I mean, Deck Seventy-Two? We might never know what all happened here, but I intend to find out if I can."

Kirk walked into the spacious kitchen and tossed his teacup into a recycle chute. Then he reached into his pocket and turned back to Sulu. "By the way, I have something for you, Hikaru."

Sulu held out his hand, and Kirk deposited a small, cellofoil-wrapped packet in his palm.

Sulu’s eyes widened. "Captain’s bars!" he exclaimed. He gazed at the polished gold insignia with something very akin to reverence.

"No starship commander should be without them," Kirk said, chucking. "Well, Starfleet is gaining a great captain, but I’m losing the best helmsman in the galaxy. Who am I going to get to manually crash-land a shuttle into a restraining net in the main hangar next time I’m being chased by a Klingon bird-of-prey over Nimbus Three?"

Sulu laughed aloud. His trademark machine-gun guffaw rang through the empty house. "Ah-ah-ah-ah!" he roared. "I don’t think I ever want to try that again! We were lucky we didn’t splatter against the engineering hull! Ah-ah-ah!"

Sulu’s laughter finally subsided. That had felt good. It had been a long time since he had laughed like that. He hoped he had turned some kind of corner. He was startled and deeply touched when Kirk suddenly pulled him into a quick bear hug.

"Good luck, Hikaru," he said. "I know you’re going to be one of the best, and don’t give up on your dream, on the Excelsior. When the captaincy for her comes up again in 2290—and it will, I promise you, it will be open then apply again. Look at me—I’ve broken every rule in the book, and I’m still the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise. She might resemble a junk heap right now, but she’s mine! We’ll get it straightened out. Just do the best job you can, and they won’t be able to deny you." He stepped onto the transporter pad. "I know you’ll be able to do it!"

"I had a great teacher...sir," Sulu replied. He tapped his BellComm terminal. "Transport to sender coordinates."

"Acknowledged," a transporter operator said. "You are clear to energize."

"Energize," Sulu commanded.

The transporter sparkle shimmered brightly, then faded, and James T. Kirk was gone. Sulu stared into the empty alcove, still trying to absorb it all. He was exhilarated, but the excitement was tempered with disappointment. It was a bittersweet victory; he was now a starship captain, but the ship of his dreams still eluded him. And he was sad that Janet was off on the Samson, unable to share this with him. Still, his spirits had been buoyed up higher than they had been in weeks.

Sulu turned the captain’s bars over in his hand. Captain Sulu. It had a nice ring to it.

Captain Hikaru Sulu of the U.S.S. Cooper.

To Hell with waiting until Monday! He was going to see his ship now!

He punched up some codes on his BellComm unit.

"SpaceDock Control," a voice said.

"This is Captain Hikaru Sulu of the U.S.S. Cooper," Sulu returned. "I’d like to beam up and inspect my ship!"

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