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Not Too Late

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"Well, would you look at that. Look's like our ride's finally here, Mr Spock. And not before time, either."

McCoy's voice was soft and tired and amused, the man himself a vague shape leaning against the barred door of a darkened cell. At the sound of it, wry and vibrant and alive, Jim felt his legs threaten to stagger out from under him in raw relief. Not dead. They weren't dead. Even with two weeks where no one had realised they were missing, he hadn't come too late.

God bless the stubborn survival instincts of bullheaded doctors and implacable vulcans.

"Bones," he breathed, shoving the facility director violently down the corridor towards them, trusting Sulu to guard the entrance to the block behind him. "You don't know how good it is to hear your voice."

"... Nor yours, captain," another voice answered, tired and cracked as a second shape emerged from the gloom of the second cell, leaning heavily on the bars as they and their light finally stopped in front of him. Spock. Jim flinched slightly at the sight of him. He looked thin and tired and furious, green blood matting the hair above his left temple. His knuckles were torn where they wrapped around the bars.

Not that Bones looked any better, when Jim looked over at him. If anything, he looked worse. If Spock looked thin, McCoy looked gaunt, skin papery and grey and blooming with bruises. Mostly around the face. There was a cut scabbed closed on his lip. He looked like a great many people had taken a great deal of exception to him. His eyes were bright and defiant despite that. Spock looked ready to kill someone.

The director, for example. Once he had looked Jim over, reassured himself that he was indeed alive and well and here to save them, Spock turned a dark, burning gaze on Jim's captive instead, and those battered knuckles tightened and paled around the metal bars. The director flinched violently, and pressed himself back into Jim to avoid the vulcan. He didn't seem to notice that he was pressing himself into Jim's phaser to manage it. Jim felt his eyebrows bump upwards. Just what the hell had the man done?

"Uh, Jim?" Bones interrupted mildly, smiling slightly as he broke the minor stare down. "Not to rush you or anything, but I do hope we are getting out of here sometime today?"

Jim blinked, and then straightened abruptly. "Oh, we're leaving," he said, his hand pressing bruises into the director's arm. He glanced between them worriedly, though. "Can you two make it out? It's hard to get a transporter lock down here. Something about the asteroid's magnetic field. We've taken control of the upper levels, though, and Scotty's waiting to beam us out as soon as we're in range. You'd only have to make it a couple of floors."

Bones laughed. "Jim, my boy, I'd climb Mt Everest right now if it got me off this rock. Don't you worry about that. We're not toting that sack of shit with us, though, are we? 'Cause the mood Spock's in right now, that might cause some problems."

"It will not," Spock countered immediately. Almost calmly, if you didn't notice the black thing still burning in his eyes. "I assure you, captain, it will cause no problems at all."

"... Yeah," McCoy murmured. "And I'm Santa Claus. Tell you what, Jim. How about you let me out first, and drop our host here in my cell while you're at it. That way we might get out of this without some homicide along the way. What do you say?"

"Doctor," Spock said, very softly. The director flinched, nearly shoving Jim back against McCoy's cell door in the process. Bones didn't so much as twitch, though. He met Spock's eyes easily across the hall.

"Let it go, Spock," he said quietly. "Please. Let's just get out of here. We can kick their teeth in later, with the whole of the Federation behind us. For now, let's just get out of this hellhole in one piece, okay? Physically and otherwise. Let's not do anything we're gonna regret."

Spock set his jaw. "I do not believe I would regret it," he commented tightly. But then, after a long moment, he stepped back from the cell door and relented. "Nonetheless. If you would prefer to simply leave, I will not disagree."

McCoy slumped, closing his eyes and leaning against the bars exhaustedly. "Thanks," he whispered softly. "Thanks, Spock. I owe you."

"No," Spock answered repressively. "In this instance, doctor, you most certainly do not."

He was quivering faintly as he said it. Jim could see it. His jaw was set, his eyes burning, and he was shaking quietly with rage. Bones, by contrast, showed nothing but pure exhaustion, and the lingering remnants of pain. Jim looked at him for a long, long minute. Then he turned back to Spock and asked with careful, shaking control:

"What the hell happened to you two down here?"

Spock stared back at him. At the man he held captive. His eyes glittered darkly. "Do not ask, captain," he said softly. "Not here. Not if we are to do as the doctor desires. Please. Put that ... person in a cell, and let us get out of here. Please."

"Hear hear, and seconded," McCoy echoed wryly. "Come on, Jim. You're running late as it is. We were expecting you two days ago."

Jim couldn't quite contain the flinch at that one. His fingers bit savagely into the director's arm, though the man was too terrified to react much. Two days, and two weeks before that. Two weeks to come back to the colony after the supply run to Starbase 14 and realise that his officers had been sold in his absence. Two days to force out who they'd been sold to and make it out here at high warp to get them back. Sixteen days, all told. Sixteen days in which god knew what had happened to his men. To his friends.

There were going to be consequences for that. Consequences for Charyb II, the agricultural colony who'd sold two Federation officers who'd been in the middle of trying to help them. Consequences for Schyll Mining, whose asteroid mining installations were secretly forced labour camps running on press-ganged workers.

And consequences for him, for being sixteen days late to help his people.

Bones noticed the flinch. His expression softened instantly, remorse flickering across it. He straightened up, reached out a hand through the bars. "Jim, no. I didn't mean it like that. It was a joke, I'm sorry. We're fine. You're not late. I didn't mean it like that."

"Doctor McCoy is correct," Spock agreed, moving back towards his cell door. "We could not have expected you to realise our location the moment you returned to Charyb, captain. You came as fast as you could. Neither of us doubts that."

And they didn't. Jim could see that, could believe it from the way they both reached towards him in open concern.

That didn't really make the sick feeling in his stomach go away.

"... Let's get you out of here," he said, rather than argue with them about it. He saw both of them open their mouths anyway, and hurriedly spun the director around and shoved him in front of McCoy's door to forestall them. The man staggered, almost dropping to one knee, and Jim muscled him upright with a growl. "I trust you do want this door opened first?" he asked sweetly. "If not, I'm sure my friend Mr Spock will be happy to oblige you."

The man flinched, fumbling his keys in his sudden and terrified haste. Iron keys, for iron locks. You'd never know it was the twenty-third century out here. Bones grimaced reproachfully at Jim over his bowed, sweating head.

"Guess the air in here makes people a little tetchy," he murmured. Jim shared a glance with Spock, standing grim and saturnine in his cell, and manfully refrained from answering.

Bones shuffled out of his cell a minute later, hunching a little around some injury to his abdomen. The thin shirts prisoners were given around here shouldn't have hidden much, but in the dim light of the punishment block it hid enough. Jim couldn't see how bad it might be. He didn't have much chance to, either. The second Jim had all but thrown his captive into the cell, sans keys, and locked the door behind him, McCoy reached for him and snatched him into a fierce, desperate embrace. Jim hugged him back instinctively, pulling him in and trapping that skinny, shaking bundle of limbs against his chest. Alive. They were alive. Thank god.

It was Bones who pulled back after a second. Smiling, his eyes shining behind his bruises. It was Bones who pulled away and turned towards Spock.

Spock reached through the bars and grabbed him. As fiercely as Bones had grabbed Jim. The vulcan reached out and snatched McCoy's hand, reeled him in until he could reach through the bars and touch his face. Lightly. Only lightly. Spock's eyes were fierce as his thumb grazed gently beneath the cut on McCoy's lip.

McCoy reached up and touched his wrist, tugged his hand away gently. "I'm fine," he said, voice ripe with fond exasperation. "I swear to god, Spock, I'm all right. You were the one who decided to pick a fight with about sixteen of 'em!"

Spock only looked at him. "It seemed a fitting course of action at the time," he said mildly. Bones grimaced, his arms crossing over his chest in annoyance, and seemed to only barely notice leaning to one side to let Jim actually get to work on the door.

"Yes," he said grumpily. "I'm sure getting yourself killed seemed perfectly logical."

Spock waited until the door was open to answer that. He stepped forward, looking at Jim and touching him lightly on the shoulder, his relief and gratitude naked in his eyes. Then he turned to McCoy and reached out to grip him carefully by the scruff of the neck. He paused there, as if to allow the doctor to object. When Bones only stared at him in stunned bemusement, Spock gripped a little tighter, and pulled the bewildered human in against his chest.

"It seemed logical to keep them from killing you, yes," he said tightly, fingers tight at the nape of McCoy's neck. "Much as I admire your compassionate nature, doctor, your actions because of it are often ill-advised." McCoy made a noise, and Spock wrapped his arms tighter around him quellingly. He struggled with himself for a moment, and then said, lowly and fiercely: "If you may make ill-timed protests and nearly die for them, you can not fault me for doing the same. I am a vulcan, and considerably more skilled in combat than you."

Bones was silent for a second, and then laughed almost giddily, his hands coming up to grip the back of Spock's shirt. "Yeah," he said. "That did you an awful lot of good against a dozen phasers, didn't it?"

Spock growled. "No worse than it did you against a cattle prod."

And Jim made a noise at that. Jim fumbled backwards for a wall to brace himself against. He glanced towards the cell behind them, and the man cringing inside it, and abruptly gave a bit more thought on whether it was Bones or Spock he wanted to listen to in that regard.

They didn't have to kill the man, after all. Just ... chastise him a little bit.

But no. No. Even before Bones wormed his way out of Spock's arms to glance worriedly at him, Jim remembered that. They'd faced worse, after all. They'd dealt with worse monsters, and done it with reason and honour and justice. Vengeance had no part in that. If they could deal with Kodos or Khan rationally, they could deal with Schyll Mining.

As very, very tempting as it might be to do otherwise.

Bones took one look at his face, at the expression on it, and then another look at Spock's, and seemed to make an executive decision that they'd all spent more than enough time down here in the cell blocks. Or on this asteroid, for that matter. He huffed out a breath, and reached out to grasp Jim's wrist and Spock's arm warningly.

"Come on, you two," he said, tugging them both towards the end of the corridor and Sulu and the path upwards to freedom. "Time to go. Spock and I need to see the inside of a Sick Bay, and I'm guessing you've got a few logistical problems to worry about, eh Jim? The ..." He paused. "What happened to the others? The ... The workforce. You said you had control of the upper levels, Jim, did you ...?"

"We got them," Jim reassured immediately. "Sixty seven people, at last count. As far as we can tell, that's all of them. It was you two we were worried about. You weren't in the barracks. Then one of the andorians told us you'd been taken down here. They were afraid for you. Apparently people who wind up down here don't usually come back."

Bones flinched, and ducked his head. Spock's jaw clenched again.

"Not usually," he agreed impassively. "The lower detention areas are for those considered difficult to control. In need of correction. If such correction fails, there's no further logic to keeping unusable workers." A muscle ticked in his cheek. He looked at McCoy. "We had not yet reached that point."

Bones curled into himself a little, a flash of guilt and naked pain going through his expression. Then he straightened. Then he tipped his chin up, raw defiance in his eyes and his battered face.

"I'm not going to apologise for that," he said evenly. "I'm not, Spock. I know all we had to do was wait. I know Jim was coming for us. But I couldn't. You know I couldn't. They were killing them."

Spock closed his eyes, a wave of bleakness crossing his own expression. "I know," he said. Flatly. Quietly. "I know, doctor. I knew before it came to it that you had reached your limits."

McCoy stepped towards him explosively. Then stopped. Then clenched his fists and pulled himself raggedly back under control. "You weren't any better," he hissed angrily. "You hid it better, but you weren't any further from your limits than me. It wasn't just because of me that you tried to put his head through a wall!"

Spock breathed out through his nose. "No," he agreed. "No, it was not. Though that was ... That was not an insignificant part of it. It did not please me to witness their treatment of you, even before then. But you were not wrong. Even at the time, I did not ... I did not disagree with your actions. I simply did not wish to see you die for them."

A sentiment, Jim thought faintly, that he could entirely get behind. He had a picture now. He had an idea of what had happened to them down here, how they'd reacted, and how their captors had responded in turn. It didn't surprise him. He knew how Bones was about people getting hurt, about people getting hurt in front of him. He was ... He was proud of that, normally. He'd always been proud of that. But he'd never looked forward to the day when he had to bring Bones' body home because of it.

Especially not like this. Not when he'd been days away, with no hope of getting there in time to stop it. Not when he might not have even known yet that it was there to be stopped.

They had no right to die when he wasn't there to stop it. Either of them.

"Let's get out of here," he said softly, interrupting the vibrating moment between them. Interrupting the pained bleakness in Spock's eyes, and the faltering softness in McCoy's expression because of it. He stepped forward, interrupting that, drawing their eyes to him instead. They blinked at him, Spock stiff and pained, Bones pale and angry and fragile. Jim wanted fiercely to pull them into a hug right there, to draw them in and keep them safe, but they'd spent too long down here already. It wouldn't make it better. Not here.

He reached up to touch their shoulders instead, to squeeze gently and reassuringly, and then steer them back around towards the door and freedom once again.

"Come on," he said. "I need to get you both back on the ship. We'll sort the rest out later. For now, please, let's just get you both home and safe."

He didn't think it came out too desperately. He didn't think the weight and welter of his emotions had shown themselves too badly. They paused anyway. The both of them. Bones turned and gripped his hand. Spock looked down at him worriedly.

"... You need not fear, captain," he said quietly. "We did know you were coming. We never doubted that. It was only a matter of surviving long enough."

"We're okay, Jim," Bones agreed readily. "You don't need to worry. It got a bit rough there for a bit, but we're okay. It'll take more than this lot to bring us down."

And they were standing there, battered and bruised and exhausted, alive, angry and hurting and somehow still arguing with each other. They were still there, still sniping at each other, still turning around and saving each other the next minute. Waiting for him, calmly and serenely and with absolute faith, trusting that all they had to do was hang on until he could reach them. And he had. And so had they.

And that was, Jim admitted wryly, about as good a result as they could hope for.

"... Come on," he said again, shaking his head and pushing them towards the door. Firmly, this time. "I'm serious. Leave the bickering until we reach the ship, and let's just get out of here. What do you say?"

Spock smiled secretly. Bones didn't bother. He grinned instead, and slung his arm around Jim's shoulders, wincing a bit in the process.

"James, my boy," he said blithely, "that's the best damn idea you've had all day."