Author's Notes: Thank you to all who have read, commented and enjoyed. It makes me quite happy that you all have liked this fic. I've thoroughly enjoyed my departure from the writing norm. So, without further adieu, here is the second and final part of this story. As always, comments are loved (and always personally returned). Enjoy!

Disclaimer: I checked when I left work this afternoon just to confirm I work for a CPA and not Paramount. Therefore, I cannot own anything in relation to Star Trek and as I make no profit, I'd appreciate that lawyers not dig their little claws into me. Mmkay? Thanks.


Chapter 2

When he was back on his feet, Chris made a mental note to have a long discussion with McCoy about the finer arts of unpredictability. His eventual job as the Enterprise's CMO would be made easier if he could keep his crew guessing. Even after a spectacular fight he'd had with Chapel and Hartsford, the doctor was back at Pike's side almost exactly a half hour later. Really, the man was nearly as reliable as those ancient postal workers Pike heard about in his elementary history class. He'd hoped that perhaps McCoy had used the time to get a few minutes' sleep, but upon his return, Pike noted the lines on the doctor's face were deeper and more pronounced. So much for wishful thinking.

In the chair next to his bed, Pike was convinced the seat was now formed to the shape of McCoy's ass for all the time the doctor spent sitting in it. He often tried to engage the younger man in conversation during the past two days, but Leonard's concentration was routinely elsewhere. He was polite enough for a man with positively no bedside manner and answered all of Chris' questions unflinchingly and to the best of his abilities, but he seemed to use the time at Pike's bedside as an escape. The captain wasn't quite sure if he should take it as a compliment or indeed as an insult. But as he noted before, Pike welcomed the silent bedside visits if it meant McCoy got off his feet for a few minutes.

When the doctor returned, the all-encompassing tension was plainly back in Leonard's frame. Whatever he did in the half hour he was gone from sickbay did little to mitigate the steaming anger that seemed to be radiating off him waves. It surrounded his entire being, like he was a wound up rubber band waiting to snap. But deeper still, Chris knew the expressions of desperation and defeat all too well from McCoy. He'd seen it when he'd recruited the man and he was seeing it again now. But there was a difference this time. When he stepped off the shuttle in San Francisco, the doctor broadcasted a wide net of self-loathing and lack of self-worth. Now, Pike got the vibe of more anger and bitterness, but without direction.

He'd never seen the younger man quite so down, but it wasn't as if Pike couldn't blame him. As much as Leonard tried to project a front of aloofness, Chris knew that McCoy was about as empathetic as they came. And hearing what he'd heard from Chapel earlier about the loss of Lieutenant Fehn, he also knew the doctor would take the loss hard. He was too much of a perfectionist, and Pike wished that McCoy would understand, truly understand, that he could not and would not save everyone, nor would he always have the best means to try. It was a way of life in the black, with no backup and only instinct as a guide. Leonard didn't yet understand that lesson, and it was one Chris knew McCoy might never learn.

The growled, "Fuck!" startled Chris from his thoughts. He cracked one eye open and gave McCoy a visual once over. Though Len's eyes were shaded by the lack of light in sickbay, there was no mistaking the dark fringe of hair that kept flopping over his eyes. McCoy would reach up, push it out of the way, only to have it fall back in his face a few short seconds later. It was an unconscious motion, it seemed. Pike was beginning to wonder if it was actually bordering on a nervous tick.

McCoy had his nose buried in a PADD again, but this time, it wasn't Pike's medical chart. The doctor pulled the device from his pocket and read it over, grumbling unintelligibly to himself. Chris wondered what he was doing until Leonard reached over and grabbed Chris' chart from its holster next to the bed. He nearly rolled his eyes. Of course the doctor would be working on something for him. It was what he did every waking minute he wasn't attending to a patient. Eyes darting rapidly back and forth, Pike concluded that McCoy had been transcribing data. God forbid he'd do something foolish like, say, sleep.

Internally, Chris sighed. Ever since he dragged the captain back to the sickbay of the Enterprise, it appeared that McCoy made it his personal mission to restore every bit of his body back to normal. He'd made that foolish promise right before Chapel put him under, and it was one thing that stuck in Pike's mind. He had no doubt McCoy took that promise seriously and probably personally. Was he doing it for Jim, to save Kirk's mentor and father figure? There had to be some other reason why one man would push himself beyond any kind of rational physical boundary to save another. Pike knew McCoy sure as hell wasn't doing it for the good of the Federation. In fact, they'd be lucky to convince him to stay in Starfleet, the offer of the CMO's position on the fleet's flagship notwithstanding.

Deep down, Pike knew McCoy wasn't doing all the extra work out of a misguided sense of loyalty to Jim. And it wasn't pity, either. Chris didn't think Leonard had the mental makeup to pity him. But if it wasn't loyalty, and it wasn't pity, Chris was at a loss to figure out what exactly was driving Leonard forward. He knew there was a reason, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. Pike was weighing the pros and cons of opening his eyes to talk to McCoy when he felt something land near his chest. He heard the squeak of the chair moving, which was followed directly by the soft, distinct patter of Leonard's footsteps.

Pacing was a new outlet of energy, and Pike reluctantly added the motion to the list of McCoy's Nervous Habits. Leonard straightened his tunic again and brushed a non-existent piece of lint from his sleeve. He turned back toward Pike, but didn't move any closer. The doctor crossed his arms over his chest and glared, the dim gamma shift lighting of sickbay shadowing his face but catching the gleam in his eyes just right. The intenseness the captain saw there made him shudder imperceptibly. Leonard fixated his gaze on Pike's prone form, holding it for a long few seconds while he silently seethed. He shook his head and rubbed a hand over his face, shifting on one foot. It looked like he was about to open his mouth to speak, but something inside McCoy seemed to snap and the raging inferno in Len's eyes faded down to resemble the bright glow of smoldering embers. Chris expected McCoy to turn and wordlessly walk out as he'd done before, but instead, he was genuinely surprised to hear the man's voice.

"You idiots do this to me on purpose, you know? Go off to play hero, and then come back here ten different kinds of broken with the expectation that I can wave a magic wand over your head and fix you right up. Do you know how nice it would be if it were that simple? How much happier I'd be?" McCoy threw up his hands and started pacing again. "You are all nuts. Every single one of you. You and Jim - I swear between the two of you, I will die an early death dealing with that goddamned hero complex you both seem to share with each other."

Pike mentally nodded. He'd seen the glaring similarities of his own personality mirrored in Kirk when he recruited the young man. Vainly, it was part of the attraction he thought Jim offered to Starfleet, since Chris possessed the uncanny ability to actually think outside the box. As he told Jim, it was a quality he thought a good portion of the new Starfleet officers lacked. And McCoy was right; he did have a bit of hero complex. Never would he order a crew member to do something he himself wouldn't do, and Pike would be damned if he would have sent a subordinate in his place to face Nero. It wouldn't have been right, and it wouldn't have been fair. As horrible as Chris felt for what he did, he would have felt a thousand times worse if it had been anyone other than him. It wasn't what a commander did, period.

Undaunted, McCoy toiled on. He laid his fingertips on his hips and leaned forward, balancing on the balls of his feet while he lectured Pike. "Is there some sort of insanity prerequisite for command staff that I missed? Contradiction has to be some type of sport, something you do to try and kill me. I'm nothing but the cleanup crew to you. I'm the same cleanup crew you expect to perform miracles with half a sickbay, no supplies, and a third of the staff I should have." Leonard clenched his jaw and trudged wearily back to 'his' chair situated next to Pike's bedside. He lowered himself ungracefully into it, groaning in relief when his legs no longer had to support his body weight. He glared at Chris, hard and unforgiving. "I'm a doctor, not the Messiah. Nothing more. One day, it'd be nice if you asshats would realize that. Sir."

The tiny bit of insubordination aside, the non-solicited confession from the doctor was wholly surprising to Pike. In the past, McCoy was never one who was shy about his many talents as a physician. Simply put, the man was very, very good and just as brilliant in his field as Kirk would be as a captain. He knew it, but at least Chris knew he had the skills to back it up. To hear the solid proof of self-doubt creep into his speech was disheartening, to say the least. Pike concentrated on keeping a neutral, relaxed expression on his face and hoped that McCoy would keep going.

Leonard was clearly having trouble deciding on the appropriate emotion. They flittered through his eyes, coming and going without preamble. Anger leeched to exasperation and bounced back to worry all in a matter of a few milliseconds. But to Pike, it was like it happened in slow motion. Even the words that came from the doctor's mouth seemed sharper, accentuated with the thick southern drawl for which McCoy became known. "I want to be pissed, and I should be furious with you and Jim for pulling this crap again, but I can't because I've got too much other garbage to worry about right now."

McCoy sighed. He ran a hand through his hair again, a motion he'd repeated several times over in the past three days. He took a deep breath and smiled weakly. Chris could see the fight leaving him; the whoosh of tension that flowed from McCoy's body was almost physically palpable. His shoulders sagged and his face fell. The open, unguarded expression of honesty was completely contradictory to the shielded, jaded front the doctor employed so efficiently on a daily basis. Pike was sure it could be attributed to the late hour and the particularly exhausting circumstances of the last three days, but it was still odd to see the real person behind the stony, snarky facade.

McCoy leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, interlacing his fingers. The hard edge to his face was slipping slowly away, leaving a young man who looked impossibly old. "Jim and I were on comm with Starfleet Command after I left. They wanted my causality report from the ship and I was stupid enough to ask them about the rest of the fleet. The counts keep going up, and every time I look at the list of KIA and MIA, I wonder how many people I'm going to see that I know. Knew," he corrected with an angry snort. McCoy dropped his head to his chest and rubbed his face. When he lifted his head again, any pretense of the sassy, snarky doctor was gone. In a quiet, weary voice, Leonard added, "I stopped looking yesterday. Didn't want to see one more name I recognized." He chewed on his lip and clenched his jaw. It was one of his subtle tells he was upset, and it made Pike's brain sit up and take notice.

Chris' heart pole-vaulted into his throat. At that moment, he could have smacked himself for being so selfish. Pike might want the causality lists and the reports of the missing, but he often forgot not everyone shared his zeal for numbers. He also had to force himself to understand that the people running the Enterprise were mostly kids, fresh-faced cadets and not battle hardened veterans. Kirk and company may have handled themselves with the dignity and grace of cool headed, long time Starfleet officers, but when it came right down to it, they were anything but. They'd yet to figure out how to deal with loss, especially loss on the grim, grandiose scale of Nero's path of destruction. Pike concluded that, maybe it wasn't that McCoy was trying to baby him by disallowing access to the ship data feeds. Perhaps Leonard was doing it because he was trying to protect his best friend's mentor. Or maybe, he was trying to protect himself.

Unwittingly, Leonard continued on, voice cracking as he spoke. "I don't know if that makes me weak, selfish, or both. There's a little part of me that says, here I am, safe on the ship, so why am I'm bitching about what's gone on in the past three days?" He shrugged. "I guess I feel like I ain't got a right," Leonard added, his Georgia drawl thick as molasses, but not nearly as sweet.

The urge to blow his cover completely and open his eyes was, admittedly, very strong. He wanted nothing more than to tell McCoy it was okay, that he was allowed to feel fear or sadness or anger. Pike wanted to say that he'd be worried if Leonard felt nothing, and that it was perfectly natural to experience the unpleasant, skin crawling sensation of regret. But he stayed silent, partially because he knew that logically, McCoy knew all of that and more. The man didn't make it through medical school without a few lessons in psychology, so Chris was well aware his lecture would certainly fall on deaf ears. The bigger reason, though, was simply a matter of respect. Pike knew McCoy held his privacy in high regard. He also realized that, from the moment Leonard opened his mouth, he was witnessing a very rare moment of vulnerability for the professionally confident doctor. He felt guilty for it, for intruding on such private introspection, but he couldn't just turn off his brain and think about rainbows and sunshine or some bullshit like that.

Chris often wondered if he'd crossed the lines of propriety with Kirk and McCoy. He was closer to them than any of his past or present subordinates, and when he thought about it, much closer to the pair than any of his peers. Somehow, they'd both grown into family, but Pike was befuddled to figure out just when and how that happened. It certainly wasn't unwelcome, and he'd never lost his objectivity when tearing strips off the two men for their incredibly boneheaded drunken exploits, but he never actually cared so much for anyone else in his life.

Perhaps that was what it felt like to have a family, not that he'd ever figure that out now.

McCoy tilted his head to the side. "I was never cut out to lead. Never really wanted the CMO's job. Still don't now, but I guess I don't have much a choice, do I?" he asked rhetorically, waving one hand around the half-demolished sickbay. "It was take over or let more people die, and I'll be damned if I was going to let that happen here. I thought I had it under control until you showed up."

Chris' brain executed a perfect figurative stutter step as Len's words sunk in. What did McCoy mean by that? Shaking off the cobwebs, Pike ran through the various scenarios in his head at warp speed, wondering just what the doctor was getting at. Fortunately, he didn't have to wait long for the answer to his unasked question.

"I might be a cocky bastard, but I don't know if I can fix you. I've tried everything I can think of," McCoy breathed out with a resigned sigh. He picked up the PADD from its stationary holder again and tapped the screen on. He scrolled through the chart in vain one more time, hoping that he'd catch what he missed. With a frustrated growl, he bit out a terse, "Nothing makes sense any more. I've looked at this over and over again. Checked off everything I needed to do."

Pike mentally willed McCoy to continue when the doctor abruptly stopped, stood and started pacing the room like a caged tiger waiting to pounce.

Leonard started ticking off his task list on his fingers. "I took care of the damage to your spine in surgery, and while it's not complete, it wasn't ineffective. We pumped you full of antibiotics. The levels were checked and rechecked. The toxins have been completely flushed and they weren't in a high enough concentration to sustain your paralysis anyway." Leonard stopped dead in his tracks and tipped his head backwards. With a mighty sigh, the adrenaline rush faded, and McCoy dropped back into the chair again. The frustration in his voice and on his face was painfully clear. "I don't know why your lower body is still frozen. None of the data makes sense, which is why I haven't told you yet. You should be recovering fine. But you're not, because I'm missing something." He cut himself off just before the muted, 'I'm sorry,' could slip past his lips.

Now that just wouldn't do. In the past three days, Chris had to admit McCoy had done more than just an admirable job under extreme circumstances, so it seemed strange to him that Leonard would be beating himself up now. He'd done damned fine work, if Pike would say so himself. Luck must have been on his side, because Chris fully realized that he would have died on the table had any other surgeon extracted the slug from his body. But McCoy was a perfectionist, and survival wasn't enough. He wouldn't be satisfied with anything less than Pike's full recovery.

Selfishly, a tiny, minute portion of Chris' brain, and more prevalently his ego, was right there with his physician. Pike was always waiting, always looking for that next sign that his body was going to heal and function as if nothing had ever happened. He silently prayed each day for a signal that would tell him some sort of feeling else was coming back. As a lifelong athlete, Pike knew his body well. He set little goals for himself, little timelines he felt were achievable that would invariably lead up to the big target of passing the Starfleet physical and earning back his certification for active duty space flight. He belonged on the bridge of a ship, and like hell he'd allow Nero to steal that from him. He resigned himself to patience and hard work, and he knew he would do whatever it took to recover.

But as Pike lay silently in bed, listening to the best doctor in Starfleet tell him that a chance existed the damage done to his body was irreversible, he realized that it wasn't all about active duty. There were moments of rare epiphany, and Chris was certain that sickbay just lit up like a Christmas tree when the proverbial light bulb went off above his head. He was alive, safe and heading back to Earth. His planet was still right where it was supposed to be, not transformed into a gaseous black hole marked on a stellar chart for avoidance like Vulcan. Most of his crew was intact, and the volatile red matter destroyed. It was mission: accomplished, in the most one-dimensional sense of the phrase.

So then why did it feel so wrong? Pike knew the answer to that, but he forcefully shoved the running loop of self loathing from his mind for just one moment and concentrated on what he had in his life that was good. He ran thought the positives in his head one more time and nearly smiled. McCoy did the best he could, with no doubt that he would continue to work to find a solution to the captain' somewhat useless legs once the ship made spacedock on Earth. It would invariably be a hard road, but it was one Pike was ready to travel. Whatever the outcome, Christopher Pike was nothing if not adaptable, and he knew he'd land on his feet.

Or, whatever ended up being the equivalent of his feet, he thought with an internal sardonic snort.

Pike saw the shields go up on the young doctor's face again, effectively ending the monologue he was having with the captain. McCoy's chair rustled when he pushed it out to stand. But before he could complete the motion, the quiet hiss of a hypospray's release mixed in with the sounds emanating from Pike's biobed readouts. McCoy's eyes widened in recognition as soon as he felt the cold metal of the hypo against the side of his exposed neck. He turned his head in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the idiot who dared sedate him, but the plunger was already depressed. The medication swirled through the doctor's bloodstream, and before he could muster any more protest than an indignant mumble and what sounded auspiciously like 'Goddammit,' the drugs and exhaustion took hold. McCoy doggedly fought sleep the entire way down, but his weary head eventually landed on the mattress next to Pike's left thigh. He was asleep before his face hit the blanket.

"He's out. You can stop acting now, Captain. I know you're awake."

If the entirety of his body didn't hurt like a sonofabitch, he probably would have laughed. Instead, Chris peeled his sticky eyelids open and followed the small, feminine hand lying gently on McCoy's shoulder up toward the owner's face. Christine Chapel smiled down at him. A knowing smirk graced her lips while the hand not on McCoy's shoulder twirled the spent hypo. Pike blinked owlishly. How the hell did she know he was awake? Her scarily keen observation skills aside, Chris made a mental note to never, ever piss her off if she could get the drop on McCoy like that. It was almost chilling how someone so diminutive could take down a man of Leonard's size without so much as chipping a nail. Pike shifted in his bed and winced when the movement pulled at the sensitive new skin around his surgical incision site. He forced his eyes to meet Christine's, and cleared his throat as if to say, 'Touché,' to the young nurse. Out loud, he gave a brief, "Nurse Chapel."

"Captain Pike," she replied with sickly sweet amounts of sugar in her voice. She must have seen his thoughts literally marching through his mind because Christine looked both proud and a little embarrassed all at once. When she broke eye contact, Chapel's gaze flicked down Pike's biobed toward her boss, giving the captain a brief respite from being studied so completely. She waved a hand over her shoulder. From behind her slight form, two large security officers stepped up to flank her. "Help me get him up, boys?"

The two men moved into Pike's line of sight, and he suppressed a sigh of relief when he saw cadet Michael "Cupcake" Jones shoulder to shoulder with another cadet he couldn't quite place. But the recognition of one of them meant more familiar faces managed to survive, and that put a tiny sliver of Chris' mind at ease. The two men easily hefted McCoy up and deposited him with surprising gentleness onto the empty biobed adjacent to Pike's own. Chapel murmured a quiet thank you and patted them both on the arms. On their way past, Chris heard Jones reply, "Not a problem, Christine. Kirk's a pain in the ass, but the Doc's okay. Just don't tell the commander I said that about him. Got to keep up the reputation, you know."

Pike gave a quiet harrumph of agreement. He watched with amused eyes as Chapel fiddled with the controls of the bed. Cupcake and his help set McCoy on his back, and it looked like Christine was doing her best to make the doctor more comfortable. She raised the head and foot of the bed and stuck a pillow behind Len's neck. Grabbing a blanket, she threw the thick regulation issue felt covering over McCoy and took a deep breath. Christine stepped sideways to the foot of the bed, unzipped the boots on Len's feet and pulled them both off. She dropped them on the floor, each making a dull 'thud' when it hit the carpet.

Pike snorted audibly. "You're kidding me, right?" he croaked out in jest.

Whirling around, Christine crossed her arms over her chest, returning Pike's raised eyebrow with a passive, neutral expression. "What? You don't honestly expect me to let him sleep in his boots, do you?"

It was annoying enough to have to compress his sentences down to the bare minimum to avoid taxing his abused throat. Not being able to laugh was just insult to injury. Still, the corners of Chris' mouth turned up, but he kept his expression of amusement internal. It still hurt too much to even chuckle. He lifted one hand a few inches off the mattress and put it up in a gesture of surrender. "I know nothing. I'm just the captain."

Christine harrumphed in agreement. Drawing the privacy curtain around the area, Chapel set one hand on her hip, gave an exasperated little sigh and pulled a PADD from her pocket. She tapped a few notes into it and shoved it into the holder fixed to the bed near McCoy's head. Christine ran a tricorder over Len's prone form while she muttered to the unconscious doctor. Pike strained to hear the words, but couldn't make out much more than an accentuated admonishment here or there. One look at Chapel's face told the captain all he needed to know. McCoy's nurse was pissed.

Coughing, Pike indicated with his gaze toward the cup of water sitting on the beside table. He'd yet to interject his opinion, and as captain, it was his right to give his thoughts as he found fit. Translation: he wanted to say whatever the hell he felt like saying, when he felt like saying it. Chapel spun around, reached out with one hand and brought the straw to Chris' lips. His parched throat soothed, he rasped out a tired, "Do you yell at him like that to his face?"

Christine snorted, unfazed. "Of course. I do and will, when he wakes up. Contrary to popular belief, Len's bark is really much worse than his bite." Her face softened while she chewed lightly on the end of the stylus in her right hand. Thoughtfully, she added, "In fact, he doesn't bite at all."

"Funny most of my crew doesn't believe that," the captain answered, choking down something that could probably be categorized as a laugh when his mind conjured up the images of the petite, delicate looking, blonde haired lithe nurse dressing down the tall, scowling, broad-shouldered, profane and well muscled doctor. It was a picture Pike would truly pay for, and he made a mental note to perhaps bribe Jim to make it happen.

Chapel exhaled a breath through her nose and pursed her lips. Finished with her readings, she logged the results quickly and set the tricorder and PADD down next to Pike's water. She pulled up another stool to make herself comfortable. Folding her arms on the edge of the bed, Christine leaned down and rested her chin on her crossed wrists. She figured that between the circumstances and the egregiously late hour, some laxness in proper decorum would be acceptable. "You don't know him like I do, Captain. No offense intended."

An hour ago, she would have been right. Now, he wasn't so sure. "You're right, Chapel. Doesn't mean I didn't listen."

Christine cocked a grin at him. She waved a finger at Pike's face. "About that. Thanks for pretending like you were out. He needed it."

"How much did you hear?" Pike asked, narrowing his eyes. He had a sneaking suspicion Chapel was lurking in the shadows for most of it, even though he never saw her or detected her presence. Maybe if this whole career in medicine didn't work out, he could convince her to teach recon at the academy. Damned woman was crafty, and Pike wanted to compare notes.

Ducking her head, Chapel felt the warmth of a blush that tinged the tips of her ears and nose a pale pink. "I was here for most of it, Sir," she replied, choosing to cough up the truth. "I followed him here from the Cap- From Jim's quarters. I think he and Kirk were hammering out a new crew rotation that would actually give people some down time, now that Scotty's relatively sure we're not just going to blow up if we exceed half impulse." Christine's eyes shifted to McCoy. "The idiot gave everyone including Kirk off time, but 'forgot' to pencil in himself. I'm just doing it for him."

Chris rolled his eyes. Typical McCoy. Mentally, Pike added a little come to Jesus on hypocrisy to his list of crap he needed to address with the doctor when he was well enough to kick ass and take names. Pike thought maybe Len's patients would take lectures about proper rest and relaxation more seriously if the man said orders came from took his own advice every once in a while. Processing Chapel's statement, Chris nodded in agreement. "He works too hard. Doesn't think of himself enough."

"I'd say that sums in up quite nicely, Captain. It's an affliction both he and Kirk share, but Jim has Len to watch over him. No one's a better mother hen than this guy right here," Christine said with a light laugh, motioning with a tip of her head to the sleeping form on the biobed behind her.

"Agreed, on both counts. But you seem to cover pretty well for our dear doctor," the captain replied. He waggled his eyebrows in Chapel's direction. Later, he'd blame his blatant flirtatious nature on the drugs. Yes, it was definitely because of the drugs. It would be conduct unbecoming for the ship's commanding officer to be so shamelessly flirting with one of the nurses. At least Christine knew he was harmless.

"It's a tough job, but someone has to do it." Chapel rolled her eyes. "Lord only knows what Len would do if left to his own devices."

'I don't have to imagine,' Pike thought, suppressing a painful, full body shudder. He knew. Chris was one out of a very small handful of people who'd seen McCoy at his very lowest, and it was not a place he ever wanted to see the doctor revisit. He was honestly shocked Leonard showed up at the shipyard for the shuttle, even drunk as he was. When Pike heard his flight officer arguing with the belligerent man, he made a silent promise to try and tip the scale (minutely, of course) in McCoy's favor. More than a logistical reason existed for Chris assigning Kirk and McCoy as roommates. The captain was hedging his bet that Kirk would keep the doctor from washing out, and he couldn't have been more thrilled when he was proven correct.

Pike cleared his throat, shifted marginally, and answered with a succinct, "I know. Glad it's your job and not mine."

"Oh, come on, Captain Pike. You and I both know that you've practically adopted Kirk and McCoy. They're your own pet projects," she shot back with a light laugh. When Pike's only response was the squeaking hinges of his jaw falling open, Chapel amended, "Not that I think it was an unwise decision. I love both of them like brothers, and at times I want to shoot them, but they're both good men. You chose well, Sir."

"Thank you, I think," Pike replied, his brain still trying to decide if Chapel just complimented him or called him a raging idiot. He got nothing from Christine herself; the young lady had one hell of a poker face. Her expression, face and eyes gave away nothing while she stared straight ahead. Bland as could be and equally frustrating summed it up nicely. Idly, Chris wondered just where she learned that trick, too.

"Sir, permission to speak freely?" Christine asked out of left field. She hesitated to ask him, but she needed to know for sure before she really pushed the boundaries of the powers of her profession.

Chris turned his head and shifted into a position his battered body found more acceptable. It was obvious to him where Chapel was heading with her line of questioning, but he was also cognizant of how uncomfortable it was making her. Pike decided to let her off the hook easy for once, given all she'd done for him in the past few days. "You want to know what I think about his work, don't you?"

This time, Chapel actually had the good grace to blush when Pike so effortlessly flipped the tables of observation. She ducked her head and asked, "How did you know, Sir?"

"It's my legs that were injured, Chapel, not my brain. That works just fine, something your boss doesn't seem to remember," Pike replied with a poorly concealed grimace. "And to answer your question, I don't blame him, even if he can't fix…this," the captain added with a weak gesture of his right hand. He looked her in the eye and added, "I wouldn't be happy, but I never could believe that it was his fault."

Twiddling the end of the sheet between her thumb and pointer finger of her right hand, Chapel said quietly, "You know it would go a long way if you told him that." Christine swallowed hard, finally turning her head to lock gazes with one of the two Enterprise captains.

"What do you mean?" Pike replied, genuinely confused.

Chapel let out another long sigh and stole a glance over her shoulder. McCoy slumbered peacefully, completely unaware he was the topic of the conversation taking place between head nurse and captain. Christine turned back to Pike and placed her hands on the bedrails. "I think you know what I mean sir, but I'll clarify for you. He's not as tough as he looks or acts, Captain, and I think you realize that now. He takes his job very personally. Really, he takes it too personally, if you ask me. It's not good for him and I can see it's going to get him in trouble one day, but being a doctor is what he is. It's what he's good at."

"No, it's his life," Pike interjected. "Literally."

He got it in one. Christine knew there was a reason Pike was the captain of the ship, and a damned good one at that. She also knew there was reason she liked him. She nodded, and the words began spilling from her mouth in a frantic tumble. "I normally would never ask that of a patient or of a superior officer, and with you being both, it's not easy, sir. I just think that it would really-"

Pike laughed lightly. He lifted one hand marginally from the mattress. The movement caught Chapel's eye, putting a sufficient halt to the geyser of unintelligent sentence her brain had yet to filter through. "Relax, Christine. I'll mention it to him. I think I owe it to him anyway," Pike replied sincerely.

"And you won't mention anything you just heard here?"

"Nope. My lips are sealed."

Christine nodded, satisfied that McCoy's need for privacy would remain intact. She hesitated above his head, hands nervous and fidgeting. Twisting in her chair, Chapel toyed with a loose piece of string on Pike's blanket. Quietly, she said without warning, "You know it's not your fault, Captain. I just wanted to tell you that. I can't speak for every single soul on this ship, but I know that there are a lot more people that aren't mad at your than there are folks who are. Don't beat yourself up too much, okay? Personally, I'm just happy you're alive."

Chris swallowed down the sudden onslaught of emotions that came flooding back to the forefront of his brain with Chapel's simplistic statement. He blinked hard a couple of times to push back the tears that were forming behind his eyes, because above all, he would not let Christine see him cry. Exhaling, he swallowed hard. He nodded his head and looked Chapel in the eye. "I know it's not. And maybe one day I'll believe it," he added, tilting his head away from the nurse's view.

Christine reached out and grabbed Chris' much larger hand with her two smaller ones. She gave it a gentle squeeze and said, simply, "You will. In time, sir. You will." The pair settled into a comfortable silence that neither seemed to mind. Christine busied herself by making a couple notations in the captain's chart from the readouts on the screen. She watched Chris rapidly blink his eyes as if he were trying to clear them. 'Time for bed,' she thought. Cocking her head to the side, she asked, "Can I get you anything?"

"No, I'm good. I like my corner. Nice of you guys to put me back her. It's quiet." Pike replied as he stifled a yawn. It was good to talk to someone for a change who wasn't treating him like a celebrity, or a glass sculpture ready to break. But as much as he'd love to continue the conversation with Christine, he was fighting a losing battle against rest. His battered body was demanding some real sleep.

The professional side of the nurse's brain seemed to register Pike's non-verbal clues, and she stood to take her leave. "I'll let you get some rest, then. It's 0330. It should be quiet around here for another few hours. You should try and get some actual sleep, now that Tweedledee over here won't be dropping in to check on you every half hour."

"Yes, Ma'am, I'll do my best," Pike replied as if he were talking to an admiral or his grandmother's friends. "Oh, and Chapel?"

"Yes, Captain?" she asked, fixing the blankets around his torso and checking Pike's bio readouts for a final time.

"When this is done and we're back planetside, you and I have to talk."

Deadpanned, Christine didn't miss a beat. "I don't date officers, especially not ones who've been my patients. Sorry, Sir. Nothing against you, but I've gotten my fill of your anatomy for a good, long while."

Pike lifted his head fractionally off the pillow. He let his voice dip a half octave and asked, "Are you saying you don't approve?"

"Oh, I approve all right. Just for someone else. Goodnight, Captain Pike," Chapel said, sliding effortlessly from Chris' her chair and moving toward the privacy curtain that shielded the captain from the majority of the medical area. Christine threw him a little wave, lifted an eyebrow and practically strutted through sickbay, happy she could lighten the mood a bit with Captain Pike upon her exit.

Chris settled back into his pillows and folded his hands over his chest. He smiled so widely he thought his face might break in half from the exertion of force. Letting a small chuckle float from his chest, Pike exhaled deeply. He felt his entire body relaxing, the lightness of Christine's attitude removing a bit of the weight created by stress, grief and shame that was previously residing on his chest. It certainly didn't remove all of the feelings of remorse built up in his chest, but it started chipping away at the protective coating the negative emotions seemed to have erected as a force field of shelter. He'd likely wake up with his duties on his mind, he still would blame himself for not doing enough, and he would still be pissed at McCoy for the litany of restrictions placed on him by the physician, but he was starting to realize that he wasn't completely alone. With the thought on his mind, Pike closed his eyes and drifted toward sleep.

For the first time in three days, he didn't dream.

-FIN-