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Down the rabbit hole

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“Where did you find him, exactly?” Saru, or Captain Saru, as some of the crew had taken to calling him, was staring at the screen which showed the vitals of the man lying on the stretcher. He looked down on Tilly, her face contorted in nerves, and her features nowhere near as optimistic as usual. The man wasn’t doing well, and he was crushed by the feeling that it was partially his own fault. If only he had – but how could he have known? He had never met Lorca before in his life, and even though everything about him had been conventional, he was well aware that he himself wasn’t the most conventional of creatures either. He’d been willing to give Lorca the favour of the doubt. Looking at the bruised body in front of him, he shouldn’t have.

“Down,” was all Tilly said. “I was checking for damage to the ship, because Stamets pointed out that the mycelium – that’s not important right now,” she checked herself. “It was nothing, but then I heard a voice. At first I thought I was going mad, that it was the influence of the jump or something like that, but then I heard the voice again, and – and –”

“And what?” Saru urged her gently.

“He had heard me too,” Tilly said softly. “And he – he was begging for help.”

Saru looked at the man. He couldn’t imagine the Lorca he had met begging. He wasn’t sure if this Lorca would have, before. He wasn’t sure if ‘before’ even mattered anymore. “Then what happened? Where did you find him?”

Tilly bit her lip. “I found him tied up in one of the shafts. He was – he passed out almost immediately after I helped him out of there. And then I brought him here.”

“You did well, Cadet,” Saru said, placing one of his large hands on her shoulder.

The redhead looked away, to the bed with the unmoving man. “We don’t know anything about him, really. All we know is that he’s a Starfleet Captain.”

“That should be enough.”

“Is it?” Tilly asked, hesitating.

Saru sighed. The question had crossed his mind as well. They knew next to nothing about the man, and their current situation was far too dire for any more unanticipated factors. If the man was even half as reckless as the Lorca they had met. Or if the man was somehow – but no, it was impossible. That Lorca was dead. Michael had seen it with her own eyes. “It is. He is a victim. I know that when you saw his face you first thought of his Terran counterpart –”

“I –”

“– because I know I did. But we can’t judge a man on what we have seen of him in a parallel universe. You aren’t Captain Killy here either.”

Tilly smiled. “I know, and I guess it’s unfair, but…”

“It’s still a hard thought to shake. I know. If only we had noticed before, this would never have happened.”

“But we didn’t. How could we have? We can only make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Tilly looked down at the captain – or former captain – with something in her eyes Saru couldn’t quite place. It was as if the girl had lost some of her innocence, some of her naivety, but part of her spark had been lost in the process. He could only hope she could regain it, because he needed her blinding optimism now. They all did.

A movement from the bed startled him out of his thoughts. “Lorca? I am Saru, captain of the U.S.S. Discovery.”

The man’s hand moved slightly, but he didn’t make a sound.

“Are you hearing us right now, Capt… Lorca? You’re in sickbay, and you’re going to be fine. Everything is going to be fine,” Tilly said.

Saru wondered if she believed her own lie.

“Lorca, if you can hear us, please move your right hand.”

No movement.

“Lorca?” Saru tried again, and he places one of his own hands on the man’s arm.

As if burned by fire, Lorca jerked away, trashing in his bed, but still not opening his eyes. No sound was coming out, not even the slightest groan, almost as if the man had unlearned how to produce one. It made him fear for what the man’s counterpart had done to him. They’d seen his ruthlessness, and he felt guilty for believing for a second that this man could be anything other than a hurt prisoner. Before Saru knew what was happening, he was ushered out of the way by one of the medics, who pumped something into Lorca’s veins that made him calm down. Still, not the slightest whisper. For the first time he realised he could hardly even hear him breathe. “He makes no sounds,” he told the medic. “Absolutely nothing.”

The medic nodded absentmindedly, her gaze concentrating on her patient. “And he doesn’t like to be touched, apparently.”

“Perhaps Lieutenant Tyler could talk to him,” Tilly suggested.

Saru looked at her in surprise. “Are you sure that Lieutenant Tyler is ready for that? He is still recovering from his operation, and I can imagine he is still quite confused about the ordeal.”

“Michael went to see him earlier today,” Tilly said. “He’s not okay, but he’d been asking about Lorca and didn’t take it well when Michael told him about – about what happened while he was out. I think – I think he’d like to meet this version of him.”

“Why?”

“He feels indebted to Lorca, despite everything. It might help him to talk to the real Lorca, or in this case at him. Besides, out of all of us Ash is the one who’d best understand what Lorca has gone through.”

Saru nodded. “I can see how that would work in their mutual benefit.” He looked down at the pale man. It was worth a shot.

***

“Hi,” Ash said, uncertain of where to sit, what to do with his hands. It felt weird to see Lorca on a bed, lying down, vulnerable. The Lorca he knew would never – but then the Lorca he knew hadn’t been Lorca, really. He’d been an imposter. An imposter who’d helped him escape the worst torture he had experienced in his life. He had mourned him, even after he had learned what the man was. He knew that he shouldn’t feel that way, knowing what he knew now, knowing what the Terran had done to the man who was lying still on the stretcher, but still… the man had helped him, and he was grateful to him. He guessed that if the Terran was capable of such acts, the man who was unconscious in sickbay had to be quite something. It was with that thought that he had agreed to Tilly’s plan. He doubted that he would be able to get through to Lorca – he hadn’t even met the man, after all – but he wanted to help. He wanted to feel useful. He hadn’t been allowed back on active duty yet, and even though he understood perfectly well why, he was still frustrated. Frustrated with Saru, for not allowing him to walk two feet outside of his room without someone accompanying him, as if he was a child, but even more frustrated with his own progress, because, to be honest, he had had a panic attack two feet outside of his room two days ago.

“Can I get you anything to drink?” Amila asked. “You look a bit pale.” Even though he didn’t remember much of his days spent in sickbay, mostly because he’d been trying to forget, he remembered her kind smile.

“I’m fine, thank you.” He returned her smile as sincerely as he could, but he knew she wasn’t buying it. Still, she didn’t bother him about it any further.

“You can sit down next to the bed,” she told him, apparently noticing how lost he felt. “Just don’t touch him – they must have told you that already, but just for good measure, he doesn’t like being touched.”

He nodded – he’d been told what reaction Lorca had had to Saru’s touch, and he had no intention of making this any harder on the man than it already was. He knew what it was like to want boundaries, to want to be able to decide what happened to your own body. And yet, Ash had to stop himself from grabbing Lorca’s hand when he first came into the room. He didn’t know why he felt the urge, but it felt like the right thing to do when someone was unconscious. It felt like something he would do if it was Michael lying there, or Tilly. It felt like something he would do to comfort people, and that spread a warm glow through his stomach. The past days, it felt like he was getting to know himself anew. “What do I do?” he asked, looking at the man on the stretcher. If Ash was pale, this man looked ready for his funeral.

“Talk to him. Hope some of it gets through.”

Ash nodded. He could do this. Talking.

“Good luck,” Amila said, and she left Ash alone with the former captain.

“Well, seems like it’s just the two of us now,” Ash said, dragging one of the chairs next to Lorca’s bed. “I hope you like the sound of my voice, because you’re going to be hearing it on a pretty regular basis from now on. If you don’t mind, that is. If you do mind, you can always say so.” He watched for a reaction, even though he knew he wouldn’t get any. Still, the words hadn’t upset him either, so that was something. “As I’m sure the medics have told you, you’re on the U.S.S. Discovery. I bet they didn’t tell you that we’re currently in a bit of a tight spot – our return to this universe didn’t go as swimmingly as planned. But we’ll be fine though. Saru is a very capable captain, and I’m glad that he’s replacing – well…” He wasn’t sure if he should be telling this, but then again, he’d have liked to know the truth, and not be kept in the dark about what was happening. He decided to return this man the favour. If he was anything like his counterpart, he would appreciate the truth. He had been a practical man. “You don’t know who I am, I guess, but I’m Lieutenant Ash Tyler. I was – I was imprisoned on a Klingon ship when I met you – or actually the other version of you. He helped me escape, and gave me a home here. I know that wasn’t you, and I know – and understand – that you probably don’t want anything to do with that version of yourself. I know I wouldn’t. But still… I want you to know that I’m grateful, even if it wasn’t you.” Why not speak his mind, while he was at it? If the man was every truly to believe that he was safe here, he needed to know that he was appreciated. “If even the Terran version of you was capable of something like that, despite everything, if he could help me like that, I bet you’re a good man, Gabriel Lorca. You must be a good man, and you deserve to be safe here. I hope you know that.”

Still no response, not even the slightest movement.

Ash sighed. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. It was not as if the man was magically going to wake up at the sound of his voice, but he had still hoped for something. A sign that what he was doing here wasn’t entirely futile. “I guess I’ll be off now,” he said. “I’ll visit again tomorrow, all right? Same time, same place,” he quipped. He looked down at the man, ready to turn away, and there it was. The slightest movement of his head, as if he was nodding. Yes, please.

***

“So he’s still unresponsive?” Michael asked. Her head was planted against his chest, and his hand was in her hair.

Ash nodded. “Apart from that nod he gave me on the first day, it appears he hasn’t moved the entire week. I’m starting to think that I imagined it.” He shook his head involuntarily. “It’s almost as if there’s no life left in him.”

“But you think there is.” It wasn’t a question as much as a statement.

“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this. Some of the medics are starting to doubt, though. There’s brain activity, but there is so little else. They fear that the trauma he has experienced…” Ash squeezed his eyes shut, and Michael’s hand found his. “They fear that there’s no way back.”

“Well, then it seems like all the has to do is prove them wrong,” Michael said playfully. “I think you proved a lot of people wrong already, so who says Lorca can’t, with a little help from you.”

Ash put his arm around her, pulling her in a little closer. “I’m not sure if I’m the right person, Michael. I can barely help myself, how can I help someone else? All I do is talk to him, and so far it isn’t really working. There’s got to be a way to bring him back to us, but I just don’t think that this is the way.”

“Patience, my friend, is a virtue.” She pressed a kiss on his cheek.

“What a sensible thing to say.”

She grinned. “I grew up on Vulcan, Ash. I’m a very sensible person.”

***

“Good morning, Lorca. Or perhaps I should call you Gabriel by now. What would you prefer?” Ash knew the man was unlikely to respond to anything at this point, but it made him feel a little better if he asked him questions anyway, instead of just assuming. At least he tried. “I talked to Michael about you yesterday. I’m not sure if you know who she is, but I guess even you might have heard of the famous mutineer, Michael Burnham. She’s pretty cool, though. She said that I’m not patient enough with you, but, truth be told, I’d really like it if you gave any sign of life right about now. Even the doctors are slowly starting to give up on you, even though they’re usually stubborn as hell.” He looked at Lorca, his skin still as pale as it been a week ago. Not a shade lighter, but also nothing better. He could easily imagine what this Lorca would have looked like before his capture, but now his brown hair was greying, and his entire frame seemed smaller. He looked exactly the way as sometimes felt at night, when he was alone. Sometimes he wished he was lying there in Lorca’s stead, where no one really wanted anything from him. Where he could just forget. When he’d told Michael, she’d told him he was way too restless to lie down for a week. Even after his surgery he didn’t keep to the doctor’s restrictions, so she doubted that a coma would really do anything for him.

The sickbay was quieter than usual, but he was a little earlier. He hadn’t been able to sleep well last night, and seeing Lorca usually helped him gather his thoughts. It was easy to talk to someone who wouldn’t talk back, even if getting him to wake up was the prime motive of his conversations. He knew that he could talk to Michael, or even Tilly, but sometimes it was easy to tell the hard stuff knowing no one would respond to even potentially judge him. Even in his catatonic state, Lorca was still helping him. Before he even realised he was doing it, he had put his own hand on Lorca’s, slowly moving his thumb over its back. He started as he saw what he was doing, remembering Saru’s words, but there was no response from Lorca whatsoever. Ash’s heart fell. What if this meant that there was truly nothing of Lorca left? What if he didn’t even register something that had frightened him a week ago? If he was optimistic he’d say that Lorca was getting better, but the past month had given him a taste of realism.

Taking his chances, he grabbed a tighter hold of Lorca’s hand. “If you’re in there, please just… do something. Move, make a sound, I really don’t care what it is. You’re safe with me, and I’m not going to let him hurt you again. Just please, let me know that you’re still there.”

Nothing.

Ash closed his eyes, feeling the tears forming behind his lid, when he felt it. Lorca’s hand was squeezing his. “Yeah, that’s it, well done,” he said, allowing the tears to flow freely. He squeezed back, and felt the man hold on even tighter. “You’re safe here, Gabriel, you’re safe. It’s okay. You’re in the sickbay of the U.S.S. Discovery, and they’re taking great care of you here. You’re safe.”

The hand didn’t let go, and when Amila came to check on her patient two hours later, she found Ash asleep at his bedside.

***

He spent every following morning as he had the week before, but now, each time he arrived, he would take a hold of Lorca’s hand, and the older man would squeeze it in return, as if it was a lifeline. Perhaps it was. Perhaps Lorca was finding his way back. It gave Ash hope, and hope was all he needed right now.

This morning, he’d brought a book along. He didn’t read a lot, but he’d mentioned to Michael that he was sort of out of one-sided conversations to have – after all, he’d told Lorca all about what had happened in the Mirror Universe by now, and all he knew about the ships current hardships. She’d given him Alice in Wonderland, with the suggestion he read something to the man. While at some level it felt silly to take a children’s book to read to one of his superior officers, he guessed it couldn’t hurt. It was better to take the nonsense from a book than to talk nonsense himself, and it seemed that Lorca most valued his hand anyway, so whatever came out of his mind was probably of secondary either way.

He was only two pages into the story, when he felt Lorca’s hand tug. Lost in Carroll’s words, he squeezed back, but didn’t take his eyes off the page. Another tug. “When did you turn into an attention seeker?” he joked, and he looked up to see Lorca’s blue eyes staring back at his. He immediately dropped the book and scooted closer to the man, his mind whirring – how would he address him, what would he say? He had waited for this moment for two weeks, but now it was finally here, he didn’t know what to do.

Lorca was still looking at him, their hands interlocked, his gaze something of confusion and pain.

“Captain Lorca,” Ash said, unsure of himself. “It’s good to say you awake. You’re aboard the U.S.S. Discovery and –”

The man jerked away from him, trying to take his hand back, but Ash held a tight grip on it.

“You’re safe. He – the other you – he’s gone. He’s dead, he won’t be back. You’re in sickbay, you’ve been out for two weeks after Tilly – one of the Cadets – found you.”

Lorca’s eyes seemed to soften a little, but the man was still pressing himself against the wall as if he wanted to disappear into it.

“It’s fine,” Ash said, locking Lorca’s hand between both of his. “I know that you’re afraid.”

The captain seemed to shake his head, as if to deny Ash’s statement.

“You are afraid. And that’s okay. I understand, I really do, and I would be if I were you. But I want you to know that you’re safe now. You’re safe.”

It seemed as if Lorca wanted to say something, but he never got the chance. Amila had walked in and noticed that her patient was finally awake, and immediately rushed to his side to run a couple of tests. Ash stayed by his side the entire time, squeezing his hand occasionally, but Lorca didn’t move to speak again.

***

“So he still hasn’t said a word?” Saru asked, hunched at the desk in his ready room.

“No, sir.”

Saru shook his head at the formality. “I wish he would. He might have a way to contact the Federation.”

“I take it your plan to contact the Admiralty aren’t going well?”

“You know they aren’t.”

“Well –”

“I know Burnham tells you everything, Tyler.” Saru sighed. “We’re behind enemy lines, we’ve been attacked twice, and still no trace of the Federation.”

Ash looked down to the floor. He didn’t have any answers, and he doubted Lorca had. “If there’s anything I can do –”

Saru waved his offer away. “There’s nothing you can do that we aren’t doing already.”

We.

Sometimes Ash doubted if he was even still part of the crew.

***

Ash woke up from a small knock on his door. He was a light sleeper these days, and he guessed it would be Burnham. “Come in,” he said, as he pressed the button to open the door. “It’s a bit late for you to join me, isn’t it Michael?”

The door opened a little, but when no answer came, fear grew in the pit of his stomach.

She was still aboard… What if She had –

Then he realised that not only had there been no answer, but that there had been no sound at all, and he was able to breathe again. “Good evening, Lorca. What are you doing here?”

The door opened a little more, but he still couldn’t see the old captain. With more effort than he cared to admit, Ash pushed himself up from his bed and stumbled to the door to open it. Lorca all but fell into his arms, shaking as Ash immediately folded the man into his embrace. “Hey, what’s going on? Gabriel?” He realised his slip a second too late, but decided it didn’t matter. It’s not as if Lorca himself would notice at this moment. He dragged the man to the couch and flopped down, the man grabbing a hold of his arms and crawling into his arms again. “Hey, sssh, it’s okay.” He started stroking Lorca’s hair to calm him down, but it didn’t seem to be helping. How the hell hadn’t any of the medics noticed?

Lorca buried his face into Ash chest, and the Lieutenant started to rub circles on the man’s back. “Did you have a nightmare?” he asked, and the man pressed his face even closer to him. “I have nightmares too, you know. But whatever you saw, it was not real. It may have been real once, but it’s not anymore. You’re here now, with me. You’re safe. I know it’s something I keep saying, but it’s true.” It was also something he himself liked to hear, but that was something he didn’t deign to tell Lorca. He held onto the captain, shushing him and rubbing his back, when he realised something. Lorca was crying – no, sobbing. The silence was over.

***

Ash was the first to wake up. They’d fallen asleep on his couch in an uncomfortable position, Lorca still plastered to his body. He decided to wake the man up. He knew he had to return to sickbay before the medics got really worried, and he knew that keeping Lorca here would only contribute to his sense of shame. “Good morning, Gabriel,” he said as the man opened his eyes.

Lorca seemed to started a little as he saw where he was, but it wasn’t the wide-eyes panic of last night. “‘M sorry,” he slurred. “Sorry sorry sorry sorry s –”

“Shut up,” Ash said, and he pushed Lorca and himself in an upright position. “I waited two weeks for you to talk, and this is what you say? You have nothing to be sorry about, you idiot.”

Gabriel looked away, biting his lip, and Ash immediately regretted his words.

“Shit, sorry, I didn’t mean it like that, I just – you don’t have to be sorry, about anything. Not about this,” he gestured around him, “and not about anything that happened before. It’s not your fault.”

“You don’t understand,” Gabriel whispered, and deep in his heart, Ash was singing with joy, despite the gravity of the man’s words.

“I do understand,” he said seriously. “You were held captive, and if you had been stronger – if you had been just a little smarter – maybe you wouldn’t have been. Maybe you could have taken him. Maybe you could have killed him yourself.”

“If I had been stronger –”

“There is –”

“He wanted me for information. I should have refused. I should have let him kill me.”

“Maybe,” Ash said. “It’s what I thought. She – A Klingon… She kept me on her ship for months and months, she used me and she turned me into something I was not, and I – I thought it was my fault. I thought that it was my own weakness that had landed me in that situation. But I wasn’t weak. If I had been weak, I wouldn’t be here today, right now. I didn’t give up, and that’s what makes me strong. What makes you strong.”

Lorca looked at Ash the way Ash had looked at Lorca when he first arrived on the U.S.S. Discovery – liked he contained his whole world.

***

“How are you feeling?”

“Better,” Lorca said.

The captain still didn’t speak much, but Ash was sure that he would improve with time. Lorca had provided them with a way to contact Admiral Cornwell, who had been happy to hear that her friend was still alive, and less happy to hear that the Discovery had jumped through the multiverse. “I hope you’re eating well?” he asked. “Amila won’t get off your back if you don’t.”

Lorca grimaced. “I’ve noticed.”

“I’d really like you to meet someone,” Ash said, not entirely sure how to introduce the topic. “I’ve told you a lot about her already, but –”

“Ash…”

“I know that you’re hesitant to meet other members of the crew, but they’re nice people.”

“I failed them.”

“You never even met them.”

“That’s exactly how I failed them.”

“That’s exactly the way I don’t want you to think, Gabriel.” Ash took his hand, and pressed it against his chest. “You didn’t fail anyone, least of all us. Didn’t Admiral Cornwell also tell you that –”

“Kat’s a psychologist, and she’s one of my oldest friends.”

“So why would she lie to you?”

Lorca didn’t answer.

“Come on, it’ll be fine. You’ll have to talk to them eventually. You’re our captain, after all.”

“Not yet,” Ash said. “But you will be, one day.”

“You and I both know I’m far from ready for that.”

“But when the day comes, I’ll be more than willing to serve under you.”

Lorca smiled, and Ash’s heart jumped into his chest. “Wait until you find out what I was like as a captain.”

There was a knock at the side of the door. “This is Michael Burnham,” Ash said, and Michael nodded to Lorca politely. She had had very different experiences with his Terran counterpart than Ash had, and he could feel her hesitation. Still, she stretched out her hand to shake his.

“It’s an honour to meet you, sir.”

Ash could swear that he saw Lorca’s eyes become a little lighter. “According to Kat, I shouldn’t be returning the sentiment, but it’s my pleasure, Michael Burnham.”

“I hope you enjoyed the book.”

Gabriel looked at Ash, something akin peace written on his face.

You’re thinking about something, and it makes you forget to talk,” Ash provided helpfully.

You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret: all the best people are.”

“I can’t believe your remember that,” Ash said, and he was certain his smile stretched over his entire face.

“I remember everything. I’m sorry I took so long.”

“It was worth it,” Ash said, and he meant every word. As he looked around the room, he saw a family of his own creation, and he couldn’t be prouder.

Michael laughed, and whispered softly into his ear. “I told you the book was a good idea.”