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Author's Note: Number One's planet of origin comes from Dorothy Fontana's novel Vulcan's Glory. Thanks to my fab betas Yahtzee63, rheanna27, calapine, and malleablyfic.
Skinned Knees and Second Chances
Pike refused to use the antigrav chair when he's at home.
The ranch house was one level, only a few short stairs for him to contend with. The leg braces and forearm crutches were better than nothing, and made him feel less like an invalid.
He spent the week in San Francisco at Fleet headquarters, chained to a desk when he wasn't being tortured by his Deltan physiotherapist, and week-ends in Mojave. Starfleet Command transporters deposit him right in his living room, sparing him the journey by flitter, and it got him away from the army of yeomen Barnett had waiting on him hand and foot in the recruitment offices. There was something to be said for the peace and quiet of the Pike family ranch.
That particular Saturday dawned bright and cloudless. In the distance, he could see outgoing traffic from the Air & Space Port like flocks of birds crossing the blue expanse of sky. He stared at the wisps of grey for a moment, his coffee cooling in his mug. He skipped breakfast, going straight out to the barn to turn Tango out the way he did every Saturday morning since being reassigned to Earth.
When he went out to unlock the paddock, she was standing at the rail.
Her dark hair was blown back from her cheek by the wind. She had a light jacket on over a grey knit top and jeans, and yet she still looked just as crisp and in command as if she was wearing her fleet tunic with captain's braid.
"Gimmie a hand with him, will you?" he said before she could say anything, and she took the horse's lead while he fussed with the gate. Tango tried to nudge her aside with his shoulder to her hip, but she didn't budge. Instead, she adjusted the halter, scratching his nose while Pike leaned one crutch against the fence so he could walk the wide gate open.
"So who told you I was out here? Boyce?" he asked as he unclipped the lead from the halter, then didn't even wait for her answer. "Of course it was Phil."
The second Enterprise had returned, the acting CMO had beamed him straight to Starfleet Medical. Phil Boyce and Sarah April had pounced on him like the leeches they were, and he'd spent two hellish days being treated like a prized lab rat as they'd analysed the critter that had latched on to his brainstem. In the end, no matter what they'd triedr12;and they'd tried everythingr12;there was nothing left but surgery. They wouldn't know for weeks or months if the damage was permanent or could be mitigated with the use of nanotech. Sarah had explained using words like "traumatic spinal injury" and "Anterior cord syndrome" and outlined all the various treatment options. Boyce, however, had summed it up over a shot of whiskey a bit more succinctly: It's just gonna take time.
Time. Chris Pike had spent the last four years with a fixed goal in sight, and always moving forward. Being reduced to taking life a day at a time was a special kind of hell.
Losing Enterprise had hurt almost more than the use of his legs. Pike had spent the last four years watching her take shape, first in the Riverside shipyards, then in the orbital drydock everyone called the San Francisco Yard despite the fact that it was two hundred thousand miles up.
He'd toured her wide white corridors while they were still empty. Spent hours combing through every inch of her vast and cavernous engine room. He'd wanted to memorise every rivet in her hull, be able to navigate her miles of decks with his eyes closed. She was beautiful and she was his, and now... Now she was Kirk's. With his blessing, because at least it felt like some small part of him would still be out there, through the cocky kid he'd scooped up off a barroom floor and ended up plunking down in his own command chair. But that didn't mean he didn't mourn the loss of his command. That it didn't hurt, knowing she was out there without him.
The rank of Admiral and the desk that came with it wasn't exactly something he had earned so much as won as a consolation prize for having survived. Everyone pretended he was recovering from the damned slug. But the truth was, it would take a hell of a lot longer to recover from losing the stars.
"Phil said you have six weeks of accumulated medical leave that you could have taken," she said, tucking a lock of dark hair behind one ear.
"You and I both know I'd go crazy with boredom inside three days. Anyway, this?" He gestured to the crutches, and the braces giving his legs the illusion of stability. "This is just... skinned knees."
Pike felt a tightness in his chest that wouldn't settle as she leaned on the wooden fence beside him.
"Just something Phil said, when they were patching me up. This isn't going to lick me. I won't let it."
They watched the horse gallop in a wide circle around the paddock, tossing his head, chunks of turf churned up under his feet.
"I wish I'd been there, Chris." She didn't make eye contact. Just kept gazing out over the field. "Yorktown could have been at Vulcan, if CNC had given the order to rendezvous with Enterprise. Instead, I had to sit on my hands in the Laurentian system."
"I'm glad you weren't. It was a massacre, plain and simple. If I hadn't had a green kid at the conn instead of you, we'd have been destroyed as we came out of warp, just like the others." He almost shrugged, but caught himself. He didn't want to lose his balance. That would just be embarrassing. "I can't play the 'what if?' game. And you shouldn't either, Captain."
He winced. "Now that's just mean. I didn't think you had it in you."
She'd finally laughed then, low and musical. He couldn't remember the last time he'd heard someone laugh around him.
He turned back toward the house and she fell in step beside him. She let him negotiate the shallow stone steps to the deck by himself, but he noticed she was close enough to catch him if he took a spill. For some reason, it made him smile again. Maybe because it reminded him of how his sister used to follow her youngest around when he was just learning to walk. It wasn't so much that she hoveredr12;it was that she was there to let him learn and make his own mistakes, but not crack his head open on the flagstones if he did take a tumble.
"Coffee?" he asked, already starting over to the dispenser before she nodded. If he remembered correctly, she took it black, no cream, no sugar. One of her very rare vices.
She carried both mugs over to the sofa, where they had a clear view through the large bay window of the paddock and meadow. He appreciated the gesture, because it was hard enough getting around on the crutches without trying to balance crockery along with it. More than that, he appreciated not having to askr12;partly because she was a captain of a ship of the line and shouldn't be fetching coffee like a yeoman, and partly because he was still coming to terms with needing help and too damned proud to admit it.
But that was the thing about her: she'd always anticipated his orders back on the Yorktown. It spoiled him for working with anyone else. He got used to having someone he could count on, who could practically read his mind. And read him the riot act, if he crossed a line.
If the timing had been right, he'd have brought her with him to the Enterprise as XO, but he couldn't ask her to take a posting Earthside as he had, waiting for the gleaming metal shell taking shape in the Riverside shipyards to emerge from her cocoon as the most advanced starship in the fleet. Instead, he'd recommended to Starfleet brass that she get another braid and take his slot on Yorktown.
He'd been surprised at how quickly the brass had got back to him with an affirmative. Then again, she was the best XO in the fleet. It was only a matter of time before she got offered her own command. He'd felt a flash of guilt as he'd scanned that Eyes-Only brief, wondering if she would have made captain far earlier, had he not been unwilling to break up his 'dream team'. But then, if they had offered, she could have taken them up on it at any time. It flattered his ego to believe she stayed on the Yorktown because they worked so well together. But for all he knew, it could have been the truth.
"How are you?" she asked as he lowered himself to the cushions, leaning the crutches against the arm of the sofa where hopefully he wouldn't knock them over. "I mean, how are you really?"
The ghost of a smile crossed his face at her impeccable bullshit detector. "Busy, actually. Losing several thousand seasoned officers, crewmen, and two thirds of a cadet graduating class means Starfleet is stepping up recruitment."
He still remembered the first time he'd scanned the butcher's bill from the Battle of Vulcan. Over three thousand names: some of them his peers, most of them strangers, too many of them men and women he'd recruited to the service. At least the Kelvin had had time to get shuttles away, thanks to Richard Robau and George Kirk. Those seven ships had been obliterated as soon as they came out of warp. They'd never known what hit them.
Neither had the six billion on Vulcan.
"There was a big jump in enlistment when Vulcan was lost, but it's tapering off now. They want to send me on a speaking tour of Federation member worlds."
He watched her face as she raised the mug to her lips to take her first sip of coffee, and he smiled at the way she closed her eyes for a second, savouring it. Aboard ship, they both got so used to the replicated swill that had the audacity to call itself coffee, that planet-side he always ground fresh beans for each pot. If there was one thing besides Starfleet that Christopher Pike took seriously, it was coffee.
"You hate giving speeches," she pointed out, setting the mug down on the coffee table so she could tuck one leg up beneath her and lean toward him, her arm on the back of the sofa, cheek resting against the heel of her hand.
"Tell that to Command. I just go where they send me."
That was met with a decidedly unladylike snort of disbelief.
"Okay, so I didn't exactly protest this particular assignment. It'll be good to get off-planet again. And it's about damn time the 'Fleet stopped being so... Tell me, what do you think of the word 'homogenous'?"
She raised both brows, eyes going wide for a second before they narrowed shrewdly. "Not as loaded as 'xenophobic', while still carrying the meaning to those who are actually listening."
"Good. I joined up wanting to see strange new worlds, and explore new civilisations. Just like the recruiting vids. It's about damn time we got back to that."
"A strong military is important, to protect the member worlds."
"Now you're just playing devil's advocate."
She picked up her mug and took another long sip. He kept staring at her hand wrapped around the chipped mug. She had long, tapered fingers, and she used to wear blue nail varnish back when she was his exec, but not today. She even had a hangnail on her thumb. It almost made him believe she wasn't perfect.
"There has to be a balance. We barely avoided another war with the Romulans after the Kelvin, the Klingons have been raiding border worlds, and the Orion Syndicater12;"
"Defence is defence. But exploration... it should still be Starfleet's primary mission." He frowned, the ease and comfort he felt in her presence leaching away a little as reality got in its way. "We got spooked, after the Kelvin. Convinced the bogeyman was going to leap out of the dark. Well, the bogeyman's finally dead, and the cost was too damned high."
"How is Spock?" she asked, her expression creased with concern. "I read the mission report. But there's a lot that I'm guessing isn't in the official brief."
Spock had served under them as second officer on the Yorktown, and she'd been impressed enough with his performance that when she got her stripes, she'd asked Chris what he thought about asking Spock to take the XO position.
He'd given his honest answer: a ship needs a first officer who will balance her captain out. Not two peas in a pod.
You think I'm practically Vulcan? she'd asked, raising one eyebrow in a fair imitation of their young Science Officer.
Maybe I think he's practically Ilyrian, he'd replied, refusing to fall into her trap. But I know one thing for surer12;half my command decisions came straight from my gut. Instinct. If you're smart, you'll look for an XO who has something you don't, someone who you can draw on to see different perspectives. That's why I was glad as hell I had you. My command record wouldn't have been half so good, if your cool head hadn't been there to back up my gut.
She'd actually blushedr12;something he'd never seen before or since.
"Hell, I'd be emotionally compromised if I lost my planet, my people, and my mother in a day. The fact that he held it together as long as he did... well, pretty damned Vulcan of him." Pike said, staring out at the paddock where Tango still ran in lazy circles. "He almost resigned his commission."
"He wouldn't be the first. Scuttlebutt is nearly all the Vulcans in the 'fleet have asked for reassignment to the colony. T'Meni and Sunak mustered out last week. You said 'almost'. What changed his mind?"
"I'm not sure," he said, though remembering the way Spock had stumbled off the transporter pad and straight into the waiting arms of the communications officer, he had a pretty good idea. "At the eleventh hour, he put in for Enterprise first officer. It got approved less than an hour before they broke orbit."
"And you didn't have anything to do with that?"
He smiled into his coffee cup. "Maybe I gave Command a little push."
"You just can't resist picking a fight with the brass, can you?"
"Hey, now I am the brass. So at least it evens up the odds, right?"
"I still wouldn't take odds against you."
They fell into a companionable silence. Anybody else would try to fill the silence with meaningless small-talk. Not her. He'd always appreciated that about her. And that wasn't the only thing.
They'd been together for four years, Captain and XO, and she'd never been overly familiar. He'd had his CMO, Phil Boyce, for his confidantr12;a solid shoulder to pour out his troubles, if he needed to. But she had always kept herself aloof and apart. Hell, it had taken him nearly three years to get her to call him by his actual name when they were off-duty. And even then, when she said "Chris" he still heard "Sir."
However, once they were peers, something had shifted. The communiqués over subspace stopped being about him checking up on his former ship and crew, and became two friends trading war stories, amusing anecdotes, and reminiscing over shared experiences. When she was on Earth, they always made time to catch up in personr12;even if it was just coffee in the Academy mess. The last time he'd seen her had been weeks ago, and he'd told her how Cadet Kirk had been the first cadet in history to request to perform the Kobayashi Maru simulation for a third time. It seemed like a lifetime ago, now. A lifetime and light-years away.
Looking at her now, how comfortable she was sitting on his sofa like this wasn't the first time she had ever been out here, he had to work hard to keep thinking of her as a friend and confidant and nothing more. It got a little harder each time. She was a beautiful woman, smart as a whip, and on the fast track to being one of the Fleet's most decorated captains. And he felt like a dirty old man sometimes.
"So where's the Yorkie off to next?"
She winced at his use of the nicknamer12;he knew she hated it (She's a starshipr12;not a puppy, Chris.) but old habits died hard.
"Patrolling the Klingon Neutral Zone."
"So a milk run, then?"
"Hardly. There're rumours the Klingons have dissolved their alliance with the Romulan Empire. Starfleet Intelligence wants us to keep an eye out for anything... untoward."
"You know... If they really are going to send me out to show the flag, I'm going to need a ship to get me there."
Her lips quirked in something almost like a smile. "You asking for the Yorktown as taxi service?"
"Unless you'd rather spend the next six months scanning the DMZ for warp signatures, and twiddling your thumbs?"
"You just want somebody in the chair who you can boss around, so you get your own way."
"I never bossed you around. Not even when you were my Number One."
She looked for a second like she was going to argue with him, but said instead, "You can't have your old quarters back, you know."
"Lemme guessr12;you turned it into a sewing room?"
She laughed. "Yes, for the Starfleet Ladies' Auxiliary Embroidery and Baking Society."
"You just made that up."
"Ask me the next time you get a 'Starship, Sweet Starship' sampler."
"You couldn't sew on a button."
"You're right, I'd have my yeoman do it."
"Can she sew?"
"He's very handy."
He thought of a thousand things he could have said just then, and was proud of his self-control when none of them were uttered. But it was worth it to see the dimple appear in her cheek when she smiled.
"It would be just like old times," he said trying to tempt her. Instead, the easy smile faded as she stared at him like he was a particularly thorny maths problem.
"But it wouldn't be like old times," she said. Her gaze was frank and honest. And maybe a little bit more than that. "And she may be many things, but the Yorktown isn't the Enterprise."
"I know she's not." He reached out to lay his hand over hers. Her lips parted at surprise at the gesture. "But the Yorktown's still a damn fine ship. And she's yours. You earned her. Hell, you're a better captain than I ever was."
She curled her fingers around his. "Now you're just fishing for compliments."
"Is it working?"
"It is quite possibly one of the sweetest things you've ever said to me. While sober," she amended. He was trying to remember what exactly he might have said the night Phil had shown up with a bottle of Draylaxian whiskey to celebrate her promotion, when she leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his cheek. He felt her eyelashes brush his cheek, and before he even had time to process exactly what had just happened, she kissed him softly on the mouth.
She tasted like coffee, and he forgot to breathe. She pulled back, a faint blush colouring her cheeks. He never thought he'd see the day again when she'd blush. Twice in one lifetime seemed like pushing his luck.
Before she could say anything stupid like I'm sorry or I should go or any of the things he was pretty sure were on the tip of her tongue, he took her face in his hands and pulled her into another kiss, this one decidedly less tentative.
Her hands tightened on his shoulders as her mouth opened beneath his, and he let himself get lost in the warmth of her pressing against him. His heart hammered crazily in his chest at tiny sound she made in the back of her throat as his tongue slid against hers, and this time when they parted she wasn't the only one flushed.
"I always wondered what that would be like," he said, his breath coming a little faster and stirring her hair.
"So did I," she admitted, and he felt her breath warm on his lips. He buried his fingers in her dark hair, exploring the soft skin behind her ear with his thumb as he caressed the nape of her neck.
"Remind me again why we've never done this before?"
"You were my captain."
"And you were my XO."
"Sometimes fear of the unknown isn't just about the stars, Chris. You were never tempted to change the status quo?"
"Now who's fishing for compliments?" She was so close that could feel rather than hear the silent chuckle that shook her shoulders. "So why now?"
"Seven years is a long time to wonder. I don't know how many more second chances we'll get. Seemed stupid to waste this one."
"I always said you were the smartest woman in the fleet."
"You do realise you're going to have to start calling me by my name," she said as she leaned her head on his shoulder, twining her fingers in his in her lap. He rested his cheek on the top of her head. Her hair smelled faintly of shampoo, and nothing else. No perfume needed.
"I can't pronounce your name. It has thirty-two syllables. You laughed at me, the last time I tried. What does your XO call you?"
He was still massaging the nape of her neck, and she leaned into his touch. "He calls me 'Captain.'"
"So am I."
"Don't you have a nickname?"
"Ilyrians don't use diminutives."
"Yeah, well I'm not Ilyrian. I could call you 'Maureen'."
"My name is not 'Maureen'."
He could feel the curve of her smile against his mouth.
Eventually, their coffee went cold.
"So where do we go from here?" she asked, her cheek pillowed on his chest. He had one of her hands in his, and pulled it up to his mouth to he could kiss her fingertips.
"I don't know about you, but I'm not in much of a hurry to move from this spot at the moment."
She pinched him.
"I mean... where do we go? What's next?"
He stroked her hair. This morning, he'd been rudderless, adrift, without any real direction. But there was at least one frontier left. One uncharted land left for him to discover.
"How 'bout we take it a day at a time?"