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Occasionally, the thirty-plus years he had in the Fleet came in handy, Chris thought as he accepted the packet of mission reports from Yorktown. People kept an eye out for things they knew he was interested in, and if he and Jim were a fairly well-kept secret, his connection to the Enterprise certainly wasn’t.

It all worked out in the end.

The news holos had obviously been edited to present the best possible interpretation of the recent events, but there really wasn’t any way to put a positive spin on the Enterprise being lost (or the view of the Franklin in Yorktown’s canals.) The official reports laid it all out, sparing no details of the Enterprise’s agonizing destruction. Chris might not have been on active duty for years, but he still felt that peculiar blend of adrenaline and horror that accompanied a red alert command scenario. He remembered how long it took to come down from one, too, and how many times the choices you made played out in your subconscious.

The extra years also came in handy when he wanted to make things happen, too. Even if he didn’t know someone who knew the right person, decades on the bridge had honed his yes, of course you should let me do this thing I’m doing expression, so that all the objections to him beaming aboard the next starship bound for Yorktown melted away in the time it took for him to pack a bag. He waited until the last scheduled passenger had been been sent up, and then handed his expedited files to the ensigns running the transporter room. He tried not to let the stars on his shoulders scare them half out of their wits, but some days that was a losing battle, and on this one, he had less patience than normal. That also came through in his expression, and after a hurried, whispered conference and a few questions about whether the admiral might want to wait for the rest of his staff, Chris was stepping up onto the transporter.

He’d barely stepped off the pad at the other end when the ship’s XO came briskly into the room. “Sir,” she said, snapping off an impressive salute for all that Chris could see that hosting an unexpected member of the Admiralty was the last thing her day needed. “We only just got the orders that you’d be joining us--it might take a bit to get your quarters sorted out.”

“At ease, Commander,” Chris said, returning her salute. “I had no idea I’d be riding along with you either.” It wasn’t a lie at all--the day had been half-over before the news hit and Chris had made his decision. “Find me a bed and a corner to record my reports and I’ll be most grateful.”

Again, the words weren’t strictly untrue--Chris always had one report or another due--but given the events of the past few days, he knew the logical assumption would be that he’d been dispatched by Fleet Command as the first wave of officers to deal with the situation at Yorktown rather than whatever it was that Chris was actually doing. To seal the deal, Chris added, “Point me in the right direction, Commander, and get back to your real job on the bridge. These stars don’t actually need a babysitter, you know.”

“Yes, sir,” she answered, snapping off another crisp salute and leaving him in the hands of a very junior lieutenant. That worked to Chris’s advantage as well--Colt had contacts all across the Fleet and all Chris had to do was drop her name and the lieutenant relaxed enough to get Chris to a corridor of tiny guest quarters just as the bridge sent out the warning of the jump to warp speed. Chris just had time to get himself settled before the familiar lurch signified that they were on the way. So far as Chris could tell, with the warp capabilities of this particular ship, it was going to take a week and a half to get out to Yorktown, and probably the better part of the remaining half-week to finalize the approach and docking.

That gave him two weeks to figure out what the hell he was doing.

x - x - x

That, of course, turned out to be an entirely too optimistic estimate. Chris actually did have to get through the work he’d brought with him even before he spent the requisite time with the captain and the command crew, all of whom were gracious enough to at least try to hide their keen interest in everything that had happened at Yorktown. Chris relied a little more than he wanted to on the polite fiction of not being able to discuss confidential details of an active investigation, but since that was the truth no matter how he had obtained those details, it wasn’t something he was going to worry about too much. The real issue was that he had been counting on at least a few hours of uninterrupted time during the journey, time that he needed to sort out exactly why he’d felt the need to talk his way onto a Fleet ship and warp his way out to where Jim was.

As far as Chris could tell, Jim was banged up some, but had no serious injuries. If he was reading between the lines correctly, McCoy was far more concerned about Spock. Given that Jim and the surviving Enterprise crew had been given priority assignments for the next completed starship being built at the Yorktown shipyards, Starfleet clearly wasn’t gunning for Jim’s head in losing the Enterprise, which eliminated that line of reasoning for Chris to be two standard hours away from dropping out of warp and onto Jim’s front doorstep.

It was time, Chris thought as he paced the perimeter of the ship, returning salutes and projecting as much of a ‘don’t interrupt’ aura as he could, to admit that he was having more difficulty than he’d expected with the distance between Jim and himself. The years apart had dragged like no others in his career; even the time he’d spent on New Vulcan had only distracted him slightly. Of course, that didn’t answer why he hadn’t suggested meeting in Yorktown during the Enterprise’s original R&R, but he thought he could put that down to sheer stubbornness on his part.

Chris was the Fleet veteran, the admiral, the one who had decades of experience in dealing with relationships being put on hold. He was supposed to be able to manage his life and execute on the plan that had been put in place. He paced the corridors of the starship, absently returning salutes as he let all the excuses play out in his head. They essentially boiled down to two: they had planned for five years apart and an unexpected week at a star base wasn’t really worth the time it would take to get there and back; and Jim hadn’t seemed all that enthusiastic about meeting up either.

Chris had always been able to think more clearly in the black, as though it stripped away everything that wasn’t essential, and he was grateful that this time was no different. It took a while, but somewhere near the end of the first week, Chris got a little bit of distance from the excuses and rationalizations and could see where they all boiled down to an insecurity that he he’d been doing his best to pretend nonexistent. Apparently, not only had his subconscious been hell-bent on cataloging all the ways in which he and Jim could flame out, but it’d also been busily shoving aside every rational thought he’d had on the subject. He circled around the admission for longer than he cared to admit even to himself, but there was really no getting around the fact that he’d been doing his best impression of a lovesick teenager, rather than the grown adult he was supposed to be. Fortunately, he’d listened to the part of his brain that had decided enough was enough and gotten his ass off of Terra even without really knowing what was going on.

Identifying his own issues wasn’t everything, of course--Chris was certain he hadn’t imagined Jim’s near-indifference and he didn’t think it was in response to anything Jim had picked up from him--but it did give him something to start with, and he was not going to turn down anything that gave him a more solid base to work with. He probably could have used more time to pick at the issues, but he couldn’t deny that he was happy enough that dropping out of warp speed for the final approach to Yorktown gave him an excuse to stop with the mental processes and get on with the real world.

After all, he was, first and foremost, a command officer, and they were generally much better off thinking on their feet and dealing with the actual situation in front of them. It was more than time for Chris to remember that.

x - x - x

They docked during Yorktown’s night, but Commodore Paris had sent an aide to greet Chris and escort him to her public quarters. Chris really couldn’t decline, but he did, once the first flush of social niceties were taken care of, make sure she knew he wasn’t there in any sort of official capacity.

“That does explain why I have a comm saying the investigative team had just departed from Fleet headquarters,” Paris said with a small but very amused smile. Given the late hour, she was not in uniform, but there was no mistaking the decades of authority she’d wielded. “I had been prepared to be astounded with the bureaucracy had you been the forward guard, given that you were en route before we were entirely certain that the dust had settled, so to speak.”

“There are days when I’m astounded anything actually happens even in two weeks,” Chris answered drily. Paris’ smile widened at that, but it was still easy to see the long hours she’d undoubtedly been putting in since the incident. It wasn’t the only reason Chris moved to cut the session short, but it was one of them. “But it’s the middle of your night and I don’t need to be taking up more of your private time, especially not to grouse about the desk jockeys back at Fleet.”

“I am not at all averse to a little more of that, but perhaps at a more amenable time,” Paris answered. Chris heard the request for some unfiltered news and discussion under the delicate phrasing and made a mental note to find some time on what had to be a packed schedule no matter what the outcome of his time with Jim.

“Absolutely,” he murmured, and stood to go. A different aide met him outside the Commodore’s quarters with a PADD and comm unit calibrated to Yorktown’s frequencies, and the welcome news that his luggage had been delivered to his guest quarters. The fact that these had been assigned to the same section as the crew from the Enterprise wasn’t entirely a surprise even if Chris couldn’t decide whether that was a guess based on his association with the ship, or if Paris really was that good in accumulating information and knew there was more going on than was publicly known.

He decided he really didn’t care and tapped the PADD to start the directional system. It sent him on a direct path through the center of the starbase and the public areas before looping him back to the residential sectors, all without showing him the Franklin or any of the other damaged areas. Good for general morale, Chris assumed, but not very helpful in trying to get an eyes-on assessment of the final part of everything Jim and the crew had gone through.

Chris had planned to wait until Yorktown's morning before making contact with Jim, but as he made the final turn on the directional system, he found himself stopping to key in a personnel request. It would only return Jim’s quarters if he’d approved Chris to see it. Given that Chris wasn’t supposed to be there, he didn’t expect to see anything, but he had suddenly reached a point where any avoidable delay in seeing Jim felt insupportable.

If (as Chris suspected) nothing came back, then fine, he would wait the last few hours in his assigned quarters, but at least he would have tried. The PADD he’d been given was new, running the most updated systems and completely interfaced to the station’s systems, so that Chris had barely finished the thought when the PADD locater flashed green with a FULL ACCESS message and a corresponding light flickered near a door halfway down the corridor.

A weight that was far greater than Chris had allowed himself to acknowledge slid off his chest and he took what felt like his first good deep breath in months. The light flickered steadily, a welcoming on-off-on, and before Chris got more than a few steps down the corridor, the door slid open and Jim leaned out, wearing nothing but generic, Fleet-issued sleep pants and a fairly impressive (even for him) plethora of half-faded/regenned bruises.

“This fucking thing bings in time with the light.” Jim slouched against the door, watching Chris’s progress with eyes only barely slitted open. Chris thought he was less leaning and more letting the wall keep him vertical. “Nearly put me into cardiac arrest when it went off.”

“I’m fairly certain you can de-activate all of the literal bells and whistles on these things,” Chris answered in same low, carefully casual tone.

“Didn’t think I needed to,” Jim said. His words were slowing down, not quite slurring together but going that way. “Th’ only person with access didn’t think a week of R&R was worth a half-galaxy commute.”

“You managed to extend your stay,” Chris said, taking the last few steps. “Also, I found a faster ship out.” It was technically even the truth--no actual civilian ships could make the time that a Fleet courier ship could.

“Cool,” Jim mumbled. He tipped his head back and looked at Chris. “C’n we do the talking thing in th’morning?”

“Yes,” Chris said. He reached out, telegraphing his intent, and touched the pad of his thumb to the last greenish-yellow smear of the bruise under Jim’s eye. Jim held himself utterly still, but Chris was close enough to see the pulse quicken at his throat and felt his own heart answer in kind. They stayed there in the doorway for a long few seconds, until Chris remembered where they were and reluctantly dropped his hand.

“C’mon.” Jim exhaled on a long, slow sigh and stumbled backward into the room. Chris got a brief impression of a living area and small galley before they were in the sleeping room and the low lights were dimming further. “‘M sleepin’ like shit,” Jim said as he rolled onto the berth, his eyes already closed.

“Hardly a surprise.” Chris loosened the fastenings on his uniform one by one, draping each piece over the small work table under the porthole.

“I know, right?”

“I don’t think we’d know what to do if both of us were actually sleeping well,” Chris said, adding But I would really fucking like to try to himself.

“Figured I’d warn you b’fore I kick or scream or whatever it is I’m doing when the monitoring system’s been pinging me.”

“Duly noted,” Chris said. He hesitated there on the side of the bed, not sure sharing a bed was the best way to start on solving whatever was going on between them, until Jim mumbled, “Fuck, Pike, seriously, c’n we just freak out in the morning?”

Chris sighed and shifted over so he could fit himself along the narrow strip of mattress that Jim had left him and, surprisingly enough, fell asleep within minutes.

He swam up to consciousness only an hour or so later, though, woken by Jim’s restlessness. He waited a few seconds, until it was clear Jim wasn’t going to settle back into sleep on his own, and then laid one hand carefully low on Jim’s back. He was keenly aware that he really had no idea of which mission-specific details were tying Jim’s dreams up in knots, but forged ahead and said, “Kirk. It’s over and done with. You’re safe in Yorktown.”

It was a generic reassurance, but Chris kept his voice calm and low, and repeated himself twice before Jim came bolt upright, breathing in quick, shallow gasps. His eyes tracked right to Chris, and for a second, Chris braced to block the wild punch he could see was about to explode out from Jim’s shoulder. It was always a risk to touch someone like Jim while they were asleep, especially after, as Starfleet liked to call them, Incidents. Recognition flashed across Jim’s face, though, and he shook his head and dropped back down on the berth.

“We’re good?” Jim gasped into the mattress. “You’re good?”

“Bravo zulu,” Chris answered, using the outdated Fleet slang because it was sometimes easier to get Jim to accept that he’d done a good job if he didn’t hear the actual words themselves.

“Dork,” Jim mumbled, shaking his head but already halfway back asleep.

They replayed the scene twice more during the dark of the night, but then Jim settled and the star base’s day was well established when it was Chris’s turn to jolt awake. Jim was climbing over him, muttering, “Shit, sorry, sorry--I have a briefing with my section chiefs to walk through the new ship’s schematics.”

Chris let himself sag back down onto the berth, willing his heart rate to settle as he watched Jim pull on what had to be a borrowed uniform, judging by the (lack of) fit. “‘S fine,” Chris sighed. “We only had talking and freaking out on the agenda this morning.”

“Yeah, they’ll keep,” Jim cracked, disappearing into the ‘fresher. “I haven’t slept this late since… everything,” he yelled, clearly around a sonic toothbrush. Chris put a careful tick mark in his Good column, reminding whatever part of his brain that had been running itself ragged that sleep irregularities were a bitch to smooth over and yet here they were, already on the right track. He threw back the light covers--Jim still put out heat like a furnace--and started pulling his own uniform back on. At some point, he was going to need to find the set of rooms assigned to him; with any luck, the Commodore's aide would have been right and his bag would be there, too. Jim reappeared in less time than Chris would have thought possible, with his hair slicked back and his scruffy beard gone, looking fairly regulation. The fading black eye didn’t help, but then he’d never truly fit the mold, so Chris didn’t see why he should have started in the twenty or so months since they’d last seen each other. “Crap,” Jim sighed, looking Chris over with a critical eye while stamping his feet into his boots and scrabbling for his PADD and com unit. “I woke you up during the night, didn’t I?”

“What’s a nightmare or four among friends?” Chris answered, but didn’t bother to hide how pleased he was that he’d gotten to Jim before his dreams truly woke him. For his part, Jim wasn’t hiding his displeasure with the same situation. “Jim,” Chris added, “If we’re keeping score--which we aren’t--you’re still so far ahead of me in this that we’re not even on the same playing field.”

The first trip to New Vulcan had been especially rich with nightmare material; Chris had barely slept more than an hour at a time at first, and Jim had been there every time he’d come clawing out of the dreams. He knew Jim remembered that, and he held Jim’s eye until he acknowledged it.

“It is what it is,” Chris said. There had been times in the past when he’d nearly choked on the words, but they came more easily now.

“Doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Jim muttered, looking himself over quickly in the mirror and tugging his tunic straight. He met Chris’s eyes in the reflection, hesitating for a long few seconds before muttering, “Fuck it,” and spinning around.

“I don’t know why you’re here,” he said, crowding Chris against the work table and kissing him with a fierce, desperate intensity that sent adrenaline flooding through Chris as he matched it without thought, until Jim tore his mouth away. “Don’t know why you changed your mind, but don’t go anywhere, okay?” He kissed Chris again, still with that near-frantic edge, but Chris was ready this time and got his hands on him, smoothing a long, slow path up his spine. Jim sighed into the kiss, settling against Chris and lightening the kiss, and the ones that followed it, but not making any move toward stopping until his comm unit shrieked at him and Chris eased back away from him.

“I’m here,” Chris promised. Jim’s eyes were still the most complicated things Chris had ever tried to understand, but he hadn’t gotten to where he was in life by backing down from a challenge. “I’ll be here.”

“Okay,” Jim finally said. “I’ll be here, too, as soon as I deal with this.” He leaned in and pressed his mouth to Chris’s once more, a quiet, almost chaste kiss this time, then spun away and flipped open his comm. “Good morning, sunshine,” Chris heard him say as he strode quickly out of the room. Chris sincerely hoped it wasn’t Uhura on the other end but he supposed they’d deal with that, too.