Captain Pike stared at the high, domed ceiling of the... whatever room this was, struggling to maintain his composure. It was no easy task, disarmed, strapped down with wide bands that were designed to hold down species possibly stronger even than Romulans, with a madman pacing the rank, stagnantly wet floor. He almost laughed when his captor politely requested the security codes to all Federation Planetary defenses. He would have laughed if he could have believed he would ever laugh again after what he'd seen. It hardly seemed possible, but he'd seen it. He'd been on the "bridge" of the bizarre ship, eyes riveted to the viewscreen when he'd wanted nothing more than to turn away. He hadn't blacked out, but he hardly had any memory of how he'd been removed from the bridge and ended up here, in this humid, quasi-dungeon.
He gritted his teeth, forced his unthinkable shock, sorrow and rage deep inside, until they all melded into rage, and demanded that the monster before him answer for what he'd done. The answer was almost as incomprehensible as the loss of Vulcan had been. He was too confused to understand what the man was saying. Romulus destroyed? Spock allowed it to happen? It couldn't be. Was he insane? Were they really being blamed for something that had never happened - or had happened in some alternate universe where Pike's people - where all of Vulcan - had never been?
The complete and utter unfairness crushed him, and he started talking without really thinking abou the words. That was dangerous in a capture situation, but he was too overwhelmed to care. Too overwhelmed to effectively hide his fear when Nero began screaming that he had witnessed the destruction of Romulus, and he wouldn't be contradicted.
Pike forcibly returned his gaze to the ceiling. It would begin soon. The immediate explanation had come - absolute destruction of the Federation. The plan was laid out, and Pike knew why he was a necessary piece of the puzzle before Nero explained it to him. He took a deep breath, and tried to prepare his mind for torture and resistance.
He was horrified by the sight of the creature Nero plucked out of its box, but he was strong enough not to show it - he hoped. He also managed to hide his despair when Nero explained what the creature would do. Will power could see a determined person through an immense amount of pain - especially when protecting knowledge that could cost billions upon billions of lives. But no amount of will power could defeat neurological chemicals. He could withstand for a while, depending on how strong the poison was. But eventually, he would fall, and then it would all be over.
Nero gave him his final chance. Pike met the man's calm eyes, trying not to see the writhing "bug" on the end of the pincers. He steeled himself and looked back at the ceiling. "Christopher Pike, Captain U.S.S. Enterprise-"
He was gripped by the back of his head, while someone forced his mouth open, and Nero held the creature over his face. His last thoughts were, surprisingly, not of fear, or pain, or forced treachery. All he could think of as the creature dug into him, and his body convulsed, was how horrible it was that the last words the man he loved would ever hear from him had been filled with anger and disapproval. What a terrible epitaph.
"McCoy! Take him back to Medical, we'll have words later." He cringed, even now, at the mere memory. The harsh threat had felt as awful as an actual dressing down, and he'd known that when Pike finally did call him into his office, it would be a thousand times worse. But now... now he would move heaven and earth to hear Pike read him the riot act for smuggling Jim aboard. He knew, of course. Cadets had vaccinations at regular, scheduled intervals, and for Jim to suddenly have an allergic reaction to one an hour after his conduct hearing, was about as ridiculous and flimsy as it could possibly be.
That was the image he'd left for his captain. His partner. An unethical doctor who abused his power to break regulations and do favors for his friends, then tell bold-faced lies to his superiors when said friends inexplicably raced to the very last place a stow-away should go. It made no difference how talented, brave, or intelligent James Kirk was - he'd been wrong to bring him aboard, and now it hardly mattered. Jim was probably freezing to death on some God forsaken glacier planet, because his stubborn ass would definitely not wait around to be "retrieved" by the nearest starbase personnel. And Christopher was either dead, or being tortured aboard some kind of futuristic mega-ship bound for his home planet.
Leonard had no doubt whatsoever that Jim was right. By the time they gathered with the rest of the fleet, Earth would go the way of Vulcan. Two of the Vulcan Elders were still in a state of catatonic shock. Elder T'Pel had called it a Healing Trance. They'd sunken into it shortly after arriving at Medical Bay to be treated for minor abrasions. McCoy monitored their alarmingly low vitals, while the other Elders worked on bringing them slowly out of their protective mental shells.
What would he do when it happened? How hard would he break when he truly, fully understood that everyone and everything was gone? His mother and father, his beautiful little girl, the woman he'd loved and still couldn't bring himself to hate - everyone. The very thought made him want to cry. He, Doctor Leonard McCoy, Senior... no Chief Medical Officer of Starfleet's flagship, wanted to lay down on his bed, curl around a pillow and weep. But what was the point? There would be no strong, warm hand to touch his back. No gentle, soothing baritone to tell him everything would be all right in that tone of complete, unshakeable confidence. Hell, there wouldn't even be a gentle, awkward pat on the shoulder, followed by a half-hearted attempt at humor.
McCoy glared at the harsh sound of the communications whistle. He was only partially mollified by the pleasant sound of Lieutenant Uhura's voice. "Bridge to Dr. McCoy."
"Captain Spock would like to see you, sir."
He choked back an exasperated sigh. What did that pointy-eared crew-member-abandoner want? "I'll be right up," he said. He took a moment to pull himself together so that he wouldn't automatically launch into a tirade the moment he saw Spock. Maybe if he kept his head, he could find a way to convince the captain to go back, or at least send someone back, for Jim. At the very least, it would be something to distract him (or fail to distract him) from his fears about Christopher.
It didn't seem possible for one person to endure so much pain and survive. He had an excruciating headache, and he could feel unnatural pressure at the base of his skull which he couldn't think about too hard without getting nauseous. His arms, legs and chest - basically every part of him - ached with the pain of several beatings. Since Nero left, his guard had amused himself by pummeling him whenever the mood struck, growling in Romulan, and occasionally clarifying with anti-Federation snarling in Standard. He once threatened him with a disruptor, but when Pike had made the mistake of smiling in ecstatic relief at the prospect of death, he'd lost interest. Pike had tried to provoke him, hoarsely cursing the pitiful Romulan Empire, the cowardly Praetor, and their pathetic commander. He'd been rewarded with another beating, vicious enough, it seemed, to have either broken or badly bruised his hip, but not bad enough to kill.
Agonizing though it was, the physical pain was nothing more than a twinge compared to his emotional suffering. He had been keenly aware of the exact moment when his resistance had failed, and he broke. There were no beatings during the actual interrogation. No electronic torture devices. No true psychological warfare. There was just the one question. Christopher, what are the subspace frequencies for the border protection grids surrounding Earth?
Pike had known better than to try coming up with a clever response, or even repeat his name and rank. He couldn't trust his voice - not when the poison was doing its work. He'd clamped his mouth shut and stared straight up. After a couple of minutes, Nero asked again. Keeping his mouth shut was more difficult, but he managed it. Each time the question was asked, the pressure intensified - an almost pain, distinct from the searing surge of white-hot pain that pulsed through him each time he failed to answer. It was like a sense of agitation and urgency that also grew worse every time he refused to speak.
He could have withstood any amount of pain, or pressure forever if need be. But, too soon - far too soon - the question came again - Christopher, what are the subspace frequencies for the border protection grids surrounding Earth? - and keeping his mouth shut was no longer an option. When that time came, there wasn't even a moment of resistance or confusion. There was no struggle against the fire - no anguished imperative to succumb. He simply opened his mouth and answered the question as if Nero had asked what the weather was like. Overcast with a chance of showers, please enjoy your time destroying my home and everything I love.
There was shock and horror when he realized what had happened. He didn't even have the luxury of feeling as if he'd been possessed. No. Nothing had taken him over. There was no out of body experience. He had simply failed to protect his home, and even though he knew it was the toxin, he couldn't stop the deep revulsion that took hold of him.
His body had balked and he'd vomited some kind of vile tasting black sludge, like a physical representation of his own intense disgust, threatening to choke him. Nero had quickly forced his head to one side to keep him from drowning. The other Romulans gloated, but Nero silenced them with a look. He'd looked at Pike with gut-twisting pity in his eyes, nearly as distasteful as the foul black bile he could still feel on his tongue. "Thank you, Christopher. I'll send for you when it's time, so you can take a last look."
Then, he was left alone with his overpowering guilt and shame. His own self-repulsion should have been enough to end it. There should have been some kind of rejection, like that of a transplanted organ, which would separate his true self from this traitorous shell. But autonomous suicide didn't come, and he couldn't provoke the guard into killing him - he knew how valuable Pike was.
He stared at the ceiling and prayed that some miracle would either save his beloved planet, or allow him to die before he was forced to watch her implode into nothingness. And somehow he knew that this relief wouldn't come, either. There was no miracle. There was only the utter hopelessness - only the knowledge that he had just doomed the Earth, and would surely be used to destroy the rest of the Federation.
Pike forced himself to focus on his physical pain, which was easier to handle than his emotions. He still couldn't think too hard about the pulsing, throbbing, burning feeling at the back of his neck. Instead, he played through each of the guard's attacks, describing the wounds in his head, in medical terms, the way Leonard would.
Leonard. God, what he would give to see him again - to hear his voice, touch his skin. Even if he looked at Christopher and saw his shame - saw that he had betrayed the Federation - it would be worth the humiliation just to see him again.
At some point, Pike became vaguely aware that there was a problem aboard the ship. Voices over the intercom seemed agitated, and his guard moved out of sight after a few minutes of fidgeting and looking angrily from Pike to some unseen action. He almost hoped it meant they were going to crash, but the thought of seeing Leonard again had suddenly made survival seem a lot less distasteful than it had been a moment ago. He wasn't ready to actually hope for such a thing yet, but even the vague possibility was enough. As difficult as it was to bear the memory of giving Earth to the Romulans, he found he could no longer actively wish for death.
He forced his mind back to the task of cataloging his injuries, ignoring both the heavy weight of his guilt, and the tiny spark of hope - neither of which could help him now. By the time Jim showed up, beyond all hope and contrary to common sense, he'd managed to shove his emotions so far down that all he could think of was how stupid it was for Jim to have endangered the Enterprise by bringing her near the Nerada, and somehow knowing it had been Jim, not Spock, who had conveniently chosen to follow the more insane and reckless of his final orders. His suspicions were confirmed by Jim's blithe response to his demand for an explanation.
There was a deeper part of him that would have wept from pure joy and relief at the beautiful sight of this young man - alone in the belly of this death trap, armed with a Romulan disruptor and without even the luxury of a proper uniform. His goal in sight, Kirk set about removing the restraints as if he and Pike were the only people aboard. Pike caught the slight movement out of the corner of his eye. In an instant, he'd grabbed Kirk's weapon and killed the Romulan guard and his backup on instinct alone, before he was aware he'd even moved. Jim fixed him with the wide-eyed, unabashed admiration he'd seen during conversations at the academy, after he'd told Jim about some exploit or other that helped explain why he'd been chosen as fleet captain. It was good to know he could still inspire, even now.
Jim helped him to stand as best he could, taking on almost all of his weight, and called the cavalry.
McCoy ran as he had never run before. He made it to the transporter room in a matter of seconds, Nurse Chapel and Nurse Thompson barely able to keep up behind him. He could have cried when he saw Jim, Christopher and Spock, all in one piece in the transporter room. He was thrilled to see Jim, of course, and he was even happy to see the Vulcan. He supposed that working under Jim without apparent resentment, despite the situation, and endangering himself on what could have been a kamikaze mission, was enough to give him a temporary pass for abandoning Jim on Delta Vega. But his true joy came when he saw Christopher - alive, if not well, and watching his every move. He hadn't mentioned anything to Jim - it wouldn't have stopped him, and he figured it was at the back of everyone's mind anyway - but he hadn't held out much hope that Jim would find Pike alive. Seeing himself proven wrong was quite possibly the most wonderful moment in his life.
They were scanning the second he was within range. Leonard felt himself wincing, both at the readings, and at the labored way Chris stumbled beside Jim, barely able to hold himself upright. He took Christopher away from Jim, with the help of Nurse Thompson, so the Captain could do his job. He fought down panic when his partner leaned heavily against him and he caught sight of the inflamed bulge at the base of his skull. "Good God in heaven, what the hell is that?"
Christopher immediately explained what it was, and what it did, which made McCoy's panic levels edge up a notch. Whatever the toxin was, it had to be working still. Pike was obviously exhausted and hurting, and he shouldn't have had the energy to try answering what was clearly a rhetorical question. Christopher knew it, too. He looked deep into Leonard's eyes and said, in a voice heavy with emotion, "I love you, Leonard. I trust you. Get this thing out of me."
McCoy swallowed, but forced any hint of uncertainty from his face. "I will."
The first face Pike saw when he awoke was Leonard's. He smiled. Len smiled back. "How are you feeling?" he asked, glancing at the bio-monitor.
"I feel like processed shit," he answered. "My leg hurts, my ribs feel wrong, my head is pounding, I feel nauseous, I'm ashamed to call myself a starship captain, and even though I'm so happy to see you, I'm afraid that any minute you're going to let it slip how disappointed you are, and how much you despise me for giving away our most valuable secrets, and that's making my stomach hurt more, because I love you more than anything or anyone in the universe, and I think it would kill me to know you felt that way, not matter how much I deserve it."
He clamped his mouth shut, staring in horror at Leonard's pained face. He'd seen Len's eyebrows climb higher and higher as he spoke, and he'd been unable to stop himself, even when the answers turned to his embarrassing emotional state. He clenched his teeth and waited nervously for the other shoe to drop. He couldn't even bring himself to apologize, or ask why the surgery hadn't worked. He just waited.
Leonard glanced behind him and for the first time, it occurred to Chris that Len might not have been the only witness to his outburst. He looked around and sighed, weak with relief when he saw that he'd been placed in a private room, and there were no nurses in sight. Leonard shut the door then came back to Pike's side. He leaned forward and took Christopher's face in both hands. "I love you, Christopher," he said. "I'm so sorry about this. It's my fault."
"The creature is gone, but we weren't able to synthesize an antidote to the neuro toxin. It is dissipating, but your body has to metabolize it and get rid of it completely. I wasn't thinking, and I just automatically asked you an open question, and I'm sorry. I'll try to avoid asking you anything else."
"Okay." Pike managed a smile, but he was still embarrassed, and he still felt a whisper of uncertainty at the edge of his mind.
"Christopher, I want you to believe what I'm going to say. No one despises you - least of all me. You're a hero. That thing's been doing terrible damage to your whole system, but you survived. I still don't know why you're even alive."
"I wanted to see you again," Pike said.
Leonard blushed. "Oh, baby," he said softly. "God, I'm glad you're here. I want you to understand, and believe me. Look, we studied that thing and from what we've figured out, the secretions increase whenever you resist a question. That chemical was all through your body. You fought damn hard, and I am nothing but proud of you, you hear me?"
"Yes, I do," Pike answered automatically. Len looked upset, but Christopher shook his head and touched Len's hair. "Thank you."
Leonard smiled, and gave Chris a gentle kiss. "You know, if I were an unethical man, this would be the perfect time to get some information. Past lovers, hidden financial assets..."
Pike laughed and shoved his lover away. "Do you really want me to follow through with that discussion I promised you?" His face flushed, and Pike immediately regretted his words. "I'm sorry, Leonard."
"Shh. It's all right, I was wrong to do it."
"Actually, it was probably the best decision you ever made, wouldn't you say?"
Leonard smiled, and the tension faded. "Naw. The best decision I ever made was asking you out for coffee."
Christopher laughed and pulled Len down for another kiss. Gentleness turned to fervent, hungry kisses, hands groping, desperately trying to touch skin. Chris had just managed to get a hand under Len's uniform shirt when a familiar voice interrupted them.
"Hey, Bones, is- whoa!"
Leonard snapped to attention and whirled to face Jim. "Don't you knock?"
"Occasionally," Jim replied. He came in and shut the door behind him, grinning from ear to ear, like a cat who'd just caught a fat, juicy mouse. "Good to see you're feeling better, Captain," he said.
"Thank you, son," Pike replied, unable to keep from smiling. Jim knew he had them over a barrel, and he was enjoying himself. An alarming thought struck him, and he glanced at Len. "Does he know-"
"No," Leonard said, eyes widening. "Now, Jim, listen, don't-"
"- ask him -"
"- any -"
"What did I miss?"