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Goodbye, Holidays

Chapter Text

In the silence, a clock ticks and a chair leg creaks. The atmosphere is deceptively restive; there is something cloying in its stillness, an unannounced tension quickly approaching full capacity.

"Stop babying him, Chris."

The look that Christopher Pike cuts at his companion is more stern than amused, and the warning in his voice is unmistakable. "This is not babying, Jonathan. This is taking care of my injured son."

A droopy-faced beagle in his lap, the man sitting at Pike's kitchen table sighs with great exaggeration.

Pike says nothing and returns to stirring the bubbling tomato soup in a pot on his stove. He has doubled his efforts at improving his cooking skills in the last month. The reason is sleeping at the opposite end of the house, wrapped in blankets and bandages.

Chris's hand tightens on the ladle.

He's going to kill Nero. He is. Just as soon as Jim is well enough to be left on his own.

...Hell, who is he kidding? Chris is terrified of leaving Jim alone now.

Archer has moved from the chair to the counter without Pike noticing and lifted Porthos up to his eye-level. He says in a sad, old-man voice that is supposed to belong to the dog, "Mr. Jim wouldn't like it if his dad went to jail for murder."

It takes Pike a moment to lie. "I'm not going to murder anyone."

Jon lowers his dog. "Sure you are. I know what that look on your face means. Somebody's ass is grass—and I can guess whose." He sighs softly through his nose this time. "Look, we both know I'm the last person to give advice on taking the higher road, but... don't let your anger control you, Chris."

Pike jerks the ladle out of the pot and slaps it down on the counter. "Why do you keep harping on this, Archer? Do I have a fucking gun in my hand?"

"No because I hid your gun," Jon replies gravely, then frowns. "Don't say bad words in front of Porthos."

Damn him, thinks Chris. He steps back, turns, paces away. When he comes to the wall of the kitchen, he pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes. He is unable to look at the framed photo in front of him. The young, happy boy in that picture is gone. Every day Chris is faced with someone who looks hunted, who flinches at being touched and retreats into silence when it's clear he is in great pain. His son is suffering, and Chris is suffering with him. That they have managed together these few weeks after Jim's release from the hospital is a miracle.

Part of him wants to force Jim to talk to him; the rest of him knows it's too soon—and that there is a good reason Jim won't confide in him. Jim knows as well as Chris does that Chris can't tolerate hearing the details of Nero's attack. It doesn't matter that Pike already knows them, has forced Jonathan—who stubbornly insisted on taking Jim's statement alone—to let him read over the case file. Jim, despite all, is trying to protect his father from the ugly truth.

From revenge.

Chris almost damns them both, his partner and his son. He has a right to be angry; he has a right to react!

"Christopher?"

Pike opens his eyes, realizes his mood must be like a neon sign to a man who has known him for decades. He half-turns toward Archer and orders, "Stir the soup. Don't let it burn." Then, moving quickly, he makes his escape.

Jon's call catches Pike just on the cusp of closing the kitchen door leading to the backyard. But the man doesn't ask where he is going or what he plans to do, only, "You're coming back?"

Chris looks at him then, the person standing at the stove with the abandoned ladle obediently in hand. Jonathan's skills at cooking are worse than his and it's likely the tomato soup won't survive. Thinking that, and yet knowing that Jon is trying to please him despite the repeated rebuffs, fills Chris with regret.

"Yeah," he answers, "just need some air," and lets the screen door swing shut. His long strides carry him swiftly down the stoop and halfway across the yard. When he pauses by the fence to glance over his shoulder, he sees Porthos' face staring mournfully back at him through the screen.

Chris refuses to look back a second time.

~~~

This soup won't burn, Jonathan thinks determinedly. He can't face Pike with yet another disappointment.

So deeply concentrated on the task is Jon that belatedly he hears the tell-tale signs of the other occupant in the house coming into the kitchen. It's Kirk's quiet grunt of pain that alerts him, and he immediately turns from the stove in rising panic. But after moving forward, he stops just as quickly as he starts, his arms falling slack at his sides. From past experience, he knows that any attempt to intervene will be staunchly refused. Jim Kirk would rather crawl on his hands and knees than accept help.

Sometimes Jon could swear that Pike and Kirk have to be related by blood. They are just the right amount of ridiculously stubborn, and they don't like to admit to weakness to anyone.

It's painful to watch Kirk slowly shuffle his way to a chair at the kitchen table. Jon is able to breathe in relief once Jim has managed to seat himself. The picture he makes is heartbreaking. The kid is all gangly limbs and jutting bones (having lost too much weight because of the strong pain medication he has been taking), and he looks exhausted. It's only the hint of defiance in Kirk's eyes that gives Jon some comfort Jim isn't nearly as broken in spirit as he is in body.

The rest of them are the ones struggling from the emotional trauma of the attack. Sometimes Jon doesn't think they will recover who they were before it happened; sometimes, though he is connected to Kirk only through Pike, he barely recognizes himself in the mirror. There have been long nights in which he has listened to Chris comforting his son through nausea and relentless pain; those nights he entertained selfish thoughts, thinking he might leave since he wasn't useful anyway. The fact that he never made it past the bathroom door, however, only means he is too weak to be a proper coward.

In the light of day, reality is harsher. Jon is frustrated and scared, uncomfortable and self-loathing of his weakness and his inability to give them closure. He has never felt more worthless in his life.

In the silence of the kitchen, Jim looks around, no doubt thinking Pike should have been there instead of Archer.

When the spark in Kirk's eyes fades, Jon feels it like a punch to his gut. He asks uncertainly, dumbly, "Want something to drink?"

Head lowered, Kirk traces a finger along a groove in the table. "Water would be okay."

Jon thinks Jim needs more than water, maybe something strong like whiskey to take the edge off this entire hellish experience, but Chris—not to mention Kirk's boyfriend—would kill him if he even suggested it as a joke. Besides, Jon has told himself he needs to become a better role model now that he is a boyfriend to a man with a child—not that he thinks Jim could have anyone more spectacular to look up to than his father.

Truthfully, Jon is not so willing to be the drunk, obnoxious Sheriff anymore. He can't let Pike feel shame for ending up with a loser, especially a loser who cannot protect the one person Chris cares most about in the world.

Jon sets a glass of water down in front of Kirk, watching Jim twist the glass around in one hand without drinking from it. In hopes a neutral topic will relieve the awkwardness between them, he inquires, "How's McCoy?"

The reply isn't immediately forthcoming. "Still angry."

Jon winces. "Sorry."

"Not your fault," Jim says.

"It's not yours either. He should've known you wouldn't thank him for jeopardizing his residency."

Jim sniffs once, then shrugs. "Soup's burning."

Jon's head snaps around. "Shit!" He hurries back to the stove. Sure enough, the damn soup has glued itself to the bottom of the pan. Jon cries a little.

Jim is staring at him with a smidgen of interest now.

Jon dares to taste the concoction in the pot and remarks half-heartedly, "It doesn't taste burnt."

"I'm not eating that," Kirk decides.

Jon attempts a pout. "Not even a little bit?"

Jim shakes his head.

Jon drags a hand down his face and says a very bad word. He dumps the pot, ladle and all, into the sink with the mutter "Archer fails again."

Jim wants to know, "Where's Dad?"

Jon thinks about lying.

Jim's jaw visibly tightens as if he senses the lie already.

Getting anything past Kirk has always been a trial. Jon decides he isn't in the mood for a game. "Perimeter check," he answers seriously, taking a seat at the kitchen table across from Kirk.

Jim's show of temper dissipates all at once. "Again?"

"Yeah."

"Nero's not coming here," Jim says after a tense moment of silence. "He made his point already."

"Too fucking well," Jon replies darkly, remembering that night he'd found Pike's son dying in the parking lot of the Sheriff's department. Somebody he had thought had been a jokester had called his office phone and told him his Christmas present was waiting outside. If it hadn't been for his insatiable curiosity, he would have dismissed the call altogether and Jim would have died. Though, in reality, Jim had almost died anyway by the time the paramedics showed up.

Furious, Jon had wasted no time in putting his boys on the hunt for Nero and his gang, but the bastard had been prepared and gone to ground, leaving lackeys behind to stonewall their investigation. They have Jim's account of the brutal beating but have no perpetrator in hand—or likely will in the foreseeable future.

"Stop it," Jim says suddenly.

Jon looks at him. "What?"

"Whatever you're thinking, just stop." Jim seems to withdraw further into himself. "I can't deal with both of you being like this."

Jon stays momentarily silent because he understands all too well what Jim means. It does pain him, however, that Kirk doesn't trust in him yet. "Jim," he says, "I'm doing my best to keep him out of it."

The kid's eyes flash, just briefly. "Then why the hell are you letting Dad do the perimeter check?"

"Because if your father thinks he's out of it, then we lose." He sits forward, lowering his voice despite that the fact that Chris is out of earshot. "Pike is not the type of guy who sits on his ass once his family has been threatened. He's here right now because you need him to be here, but don't mistake that for complacency, kid. He'll jump the fence the moment he thinks he can."

Jim pales. "No. He can't go after Nero."

Jon rakes a hand through his hair. "We agree on something at least." Coming to his feet, he grabs a jacket draped over the back of the chair. "My lunch break was over an hour ago. I need to get back."

Kirk looks like he wants to ask something but doesn't, instead nodding his head.

Jon hesitates on his way out and decides he can be brave just once. He drops a hand to the young man's shoulder. "Hang in there."

Jim nods again.

Jon dons his Sheriff's hat hanging by the front door and says goodbye to Porthos. Outside, he spots Pike standing by the mailbox, nothing in hand, just staring off into space. Knowing there isn't anything Chris wants to hear from him, Jon turns his back to the sight and climbs inside his truck. As he backs out of the driveway, he observes Pike walk to the front door of the house and disappear inside.

Jon stalls his truck just at the edge of the drive where it meets the road and tightens his grip on the steering wheel.

They were happy, and he had been on his way to becoming a part of this family. But Nero—the bastard—had known exactly where to hurt them to ruin it all.

The truth is that Jonathan hasn't hidden Chris's gun to prevent a murder. No, he only intends to make certain that Chris is not the one who puts the bullet in Nero's head.

Chapter Text

The office door bangs shut. "Not again," growls the county sheriff as he hangs his hat on a peg of a brass wall rack. "What is it this time?"

A person, dark-haired and neatly dressed, stands facing Archer's desk, his hands clasped behind his back. He turns his head and tracks the sheriff's path, gaze inscrutable. Only once Archer comes around the desk to stand across from him does he speak.

"I have new information."

Jonathan holds his breath for a moment or two before he sits down with a sigh. "Mister..." he pauses then, recalling his last attempt to pronounce the intruder's last name. "Spock," he settles on, "I applaud your determination. Hell, I envy it—but this is a matter best left to professionals. You," Jon emphasizes, "are far from a professional."

Spock continues to stare intently at him. "I would not be here if I did not think I could be of use to you, Mr. Archer."

Jon presses his mouth flat. "Sheriff Archer."

Spock doesn't acknowledge the correction, which ticks Jon off more. He can think of only one reason why Spock has ceased to use his official title and begun politely addressing him as one would a stranger. Jon picks up a pen along with a random manila folder and flips the folder open. Scribbling aimlessly in a margin of a photo-copied report, he comments in his laziest manner, "Just tell me what's so important."

"Five weeks, two days, and approximately six hours."

Jon stops writing but keeps his gaze on the paper in front of him. He says too softly, "I know how long it's been."

"And how much longer will it be before the assailants are brought to justice?" At Archer's silence, Spock adds in a quieter tone, "I see. Now you understand why I have started to doubt whether or not you are capable of catching them."

That accusation cuts deep, more so because Jon wakes up each morning wondering the same thing; but he'll be damned if he loses his cool in front of a young upstart.

He lays down his pen and locks gazes with Spock. "Let me be crystal-clear: your judgment doesn't make a damn bit of difference to me. What matters is that you are wasting the time I could be using to catch those sons of bitches. Go home, Mr. Spock. Or better yet, go fucking visit Kirk. You annoying me doesn't make the world spin faster."

Something like regret flashes across the young man's face at the mention of Kirk.

Interesting, thinks Jon. He leans back in his chair, deciding to turn the tables around a bit. "Why is that, by the way?"

"I do not follow your question."

"Why won't you see Jim? In fact," Archer says more shrewdly, "since he was released from the hospital, no one but McCoy and that Russian kid has stopped by Pike's to visit." He doesn't mention the fact that Kirk's boyfriend had recently ceased doing that much because it's likely Kirk does not want everyone to know he and McCoy had a spat.

"I fail to see how such information is relevant to the case."

"If you don't want to share, then I don't want to listen," Jon retorts.

For a brief moment, Spock appears to have bitten down on something sour. Archer mentally congratulates himself on his victory. When he makes as if to pick up his pen again and return to his paperwork, the man unlocks his hands from behind his back.

Spock says slowly with a tinge of regret, "The decision to stay away from Jim was not mine."

There's an underlying story in that statement which raises Jon's internal gage of interest from this sounds fun to this is vital to your existence, contrary to Spock's claim of irrelevance. He leans forward. "Whose decision was it?"

Spock's look implies Jon ought to know that answer. Archer thinks about it and comes to a surprising conclusion, one which ironically seems obvious in hindsight.

"Why, that little..." He can't even think of a properly demoralizing name for Pike's offspring. "Kirk ordered you to ignore him, and you're telling me that you listened? Did it occur to you that the kid might have been out of his mind on a morphine drip at the time?"

Spock stares at Jon like Jon is far less intelligent than he anticipated. "Your assumption is false, Mr. Archer. Jim would never ask the people who care about him to pretend otherwise unless he had a logical reason to do so."

An uneasy feeling starts in the pit of Archer's stomach. Spock is correct to think him a fool. He should know that Kirk's priority is rarely himself. No, Jim wouldn't ask his friends to treat him like a social pariah unless in doing so they accomplished something much more worthwhile. And what could be more worthwhile to James T. Kirk than protecting those he cared about?

With a curse, Jon pushes away from his desk and stands up. He rakes a hand through his hand, finds the motion unsatisfying, and curses again.

Watching Archer with more interest now, Spock's gaze follows the sheriff's pacing in front of the filing cabinets along the wall.

Eventually Jon returns to his desk, having pinpointed exactly what he had been missing this entire time. "Scott," he says. "Kirk has you protecting Scott."

Spock inclines his head ever-so-slightly. "Jim was targeted as the leader of those who thwarted the terrorists but he is not the original betrayer."

"Shit." Have Nero's men been leading him on a merry chase while they scour the city for their second victim? Jon abandons his desk again and jerks open the door to his office. He barks at the nearest deputy, "Get me the whereabouts of every person in the Merry Gang minus Number One!"

Spock moves to stand beside him, one eyebrow raised. "I have not heard of this... Merry Gang."

Jon gives the man a not-so-amused smile. "Because you're in it."

The man's eyebrow climbs higher towards his hairline.

"What else did you expect us to call a bunch of elves who took over the county jail on Christmas?"

"Who is Number One?"

Jon just snorts and kicks Spock out of his office. "Come back only when I call you and stay out of trouble in the meantime!" He slams his door shut and draws the window blinds.

Dropping into his desk chair, the sheriff puts his head in his hands. What the hell is wrong with him that a half-dead Kirk can anticipate the moves of an enemy before he can? Just when did he become so terrible at his job?

And how many more people are going to suffer because he can't protect them?

~~~

The ceiling of the master bedroom isn't entirely smooth, Chris discovers. The white paint disguises the slight bumps, dips, and ridges well enough in the daylight; but at night, as Pike studies it closely while lying awake in bed, he sees its many flaws.

Secretly, he is grateful to be alone, that it is one of Archer's nights to stay close to work and sleep at his own apartment. As time goes on, it becomes more difficult to fake sleeping, particularly when the man lying next to Chris is so well-versed at exposing deception.

So, while Jon is eighty miles away burning the midnight oil, Chris stares at the ceiling and strains to hear the faint sounds coming from the baby monitor on his nightstand. Jim's restful breathing—which should ease Pike's mind—only serves to make him tenser without him knowing why. Jim sleeps more soundly now than he did in the initial weeks of his convalescence. There is only the occasional rustling of the bed comforter. There are no more moans of pain or tiny, agonized whispers of Dad that cause Pike's heart to nearly beat out of his chest and send him rushing down the hallway to his son's side. He can't even tell if the nightmares which viciously plagued his boy this past month are still troubling Jim.

Maybe that is what makes it worse. Jim is not just healing in body; he's gradually regaining his inner strength. That should be a wonderful thing, something Pike has been praying for all along. Instead he is simply terrified that Jim is going to announce he is ready to return to the apartment he shares with McCoy.

The cadence of Jim's breathing changes. Sudden noise creates static scraping against the monitor's speaker—and Pike jerks upright. He swings his legs over the bed and grips its edge tightly, on high alert.

The noise dies out quickly enough, and what he hears becomes recognizable as Jim slowly levering himself out of bed, likely to make his way to the bathroom. Chris closes his eyes and begins a silent count. It's a deal he made with himself: if the count reaches two hundred and he hasn't heard Jim's return, he will check on his son. He mustn't rush in blindly, for Jim had told him point-blank last week that he no longer wanted his father to check on him at night unless it seemed like a true emergency. That had been a warning from Kirk as much as a reassertion of independence.

His arms start to tremble from the after-effect of his adrenaline rush. The count reaches one-fifty.

Jim returns along with the soft crinkling of the bed sheet being pushed around and of bedsprings creaking.

Pike slumps back, not quite falling to the bed but no longer so rigidly upright. After a time, he resumes his prior position, lying on his back and staring at the ceiling.

How much longer will it be, he wonders, before Jim makes him take back the monitor? How much longer before he has to face letting the boy go?

Tremors continue to run through Pike's arms. He places his hands over his stomach and wills himself to stop shaking.

How can he tell Jim that he can't let him leave, that the world is no longer a place Chris is willing to trust with the life of his son?

Eventually the tremors subside. Chris still has no answers.

~~~

After Pike watches Jim pick at his breakfast, they tuck into the living room to watch early morning talk shows on television. Doreen calls from the office to check on them and to update him on new cases. He appreciates the woman's concern and is grateful that Doreen knows he needs the distraction. She had chastised him into the third week of Jim's convalescence, saying if his boy had had to call her up, as sick as he was, to complain about his father's smothering behavior, then an intervention was sorely needed. Chris grudgingly agreed with her and since then has tried to stay aware of how he might be crowding Jim. Also, it doesn't hurt that Doreen allows Chris the illusion he is still doing his job, even if that comes in the form of giving advice to the other detectives handling his cases while he is out on family medical leave.

When Jim falls asleep halfway through Dr. Phil, Chris carefully moves him from the couch to his bedroom. He tries not to think about how easy it is to carry a full-grown man, who shouldn't feel fragile enough to float away. After settling Jim under a mound of blankets, Pike returns to the living room and turns off the television. He contemplates making a quick run to the grocery store but anxiety builds when he considers leaving Jim alone, so he calls Jon instead.

Archer doesn't answer his office phone, and Chris tries the main line. The youngest deputy, whom Chris still thinks of as Chicken McNugget Deputy in his head, is on desk duty. The deputy is too harried for some reason to be polite. He nearly barks at Pike, "Sheriff's gone to the Town Hall. Can't you try his cell?"

Normally Pike wouldn't tolerate that disrespectful tone from a subordinate but he is already guilty of keeping Archer away from his job on a regular basis, and Archer's deputies probably don't appreciate it.

"Never mind. It's not important." Chris grimaces, hating to add, "Just ask him to call me when he gets a chance."

"Will do, Detective." The deputy hangs up.

Chris drops the phone back into its cradle and makes eye contact with Porthos. "Kids these days."

The dog simply stares back.

"Bathroom break?" Pike asks him.

Porthos' tail wags once before he heads to the kitchen. Pike lets him out into the backyard and follows at a more leisurely pace. Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he watches his breath crystallize in the morning air. Winter isn't due for another two months but the evenings had turned cold as of late. The fall season seems to be passing by much too quickly. Standing there in the yard littered with dying leaves, Chris tries to remember where the year had gone.

Upon inspecting his favorite flowerbed, which had sadly turned brown, Porthos trots over to the gate in the fence and sticks his nose between the slates.

"No walk," Pike calls to him. "Come back inside."

Porthos looks over his shoulder at Pike.

Chris insists firmly, "No. Jon can take you later."

With a whuff, Porthos sits down in front of the gate and looks expectantly at Pike, clearly planning to wait there until the man changes his mind.

Heading toward Porthos, Chris mutters, "Why is your dog so stubborn, Jon?"

"Inside," he orders.

Porthos blinks.

Chris puts a bit of parental steel in his voice. "Now."

The dog falls limp with a sigh. Pike is forced to pick him up and physically carry him back into the house. Their battle of wills over, Porthos nudges his empty food bowl across the kitchen floor until Chris relents and feeds him his mid-morning snack.

"I forgive you," Chris tells his companion, rubbing the dog's head.

Porthos pauses in eating to slobber on Chris's hand, leaving behind bits of chewed kibble.

"Thanks, Porthos," Pike says grimly, going over to the sink.

"Dad?"

He jerks around and instinctively begins to rush towards his son. "Jim, why are you up?"

Jim, leaning against the archway between the kitchen and living room, says nothing. His pose isn't as casual as it once would have been, and to Pike it is very obvious that Jim is using the wall for support.

Chris washes his hands uncomfortably quick before striding to his son and insisting, "Go back to sleep."

Jim stares at the dog instead of his father. "You don't walk Porthos anymore."

Chris freezes. It takes a moment before he can reply. "Because Porthos doesn't need the exercise as badly." He jokes awkwardly, "Don't you remember how lazy he used to be?"

Porthos stops crunching his kibble in order to consider Pike.

Chris chuckles. "Sorry, buddy, but you know it's true."

"He misses the walks," Jim interjects, voice quiet. "You should take him."

"No," Chris nearly barks. Immediately regretful, he gentles his tone. "Jon will look after him. It's his dog after all."

Jim nods and shuffles backwards. Chris has the sense that he has disappointed his son in some way. Hesitating briefly, he follows Kirk.

"I don't need your help," Jim says when Pike reaches out to support him.

Chris lets his hand drop to his side. "Okay, Jim. Okay."

Jim sits gingerly on the edge of the couch. "I didn't mean to fall asleep. I want to watch tv."

Pike hands his son the remote and, after a minute of watching Jim flip through channels and ignore him, he returns to the kitchen. Porthos waddles past him and goes to the couch, settling down next to Jim. Jim runs a hand across the dog's side, whereupon Porthos immediately rolls over for a belly rub that Kirk obligingly provides.

At least someone is allowed to stay close to his child, Chris thinks dismally. In the kitchen he contemplates what he can put together for lunch that won't require turning on the stove and yet will be of enough sustenance for Jim. That thought reminds him to contact Archer.

He pulls his cell phone out of his pocket and texts his boyfriend. Not a few seconds later and unsurprisingly, his phone rings. He answers with "You didn't have to call."

"You know I don't text, Princess. What's up?"

Despite having fought with Archer earlier, a tension uncoils in Pike at hearing the man's voice. "We're running low on food. How do you feel about a pit stop on the way home?"

Jon groans, but his response is affectionate. "Only for you would I brave that terrible place known as the grocery store. Just don't tell me I have to do more than pick up the bags."

"Yes, Jon, just the bags. I'll order online, okay?"

"Thank god."

"If only I'd known your domesticity skills were somewhat lacking," Chris deadpans.

"Hey, I think I'm docile enough."

Pike almost laughs. "That's not the same thing."

"Isn't it?" challenges his boyfriend. "Listen, sugar plum, as lovely as it is talking to you, I should go. I've got a couple of councilmen about to blow their gaskets because I'm not paying attention to their horse shit about raising taxes to fund our highways. We all know most of that money won't see the inside of the city coffers."

"Jon, please tell me those men aren't sitting in front of you right now."

"Of course they are, and turning a hilarious shade of purple too!"

Chris rubs a hand against his chest. "You realize they can sabotage you during the re-election in a couple of years."

"Yeah, yeah, heard that threat before. Bye now, Princess. I'll get your groceries. Kisses."

Receiving a dial tone, Chris takes the cell phone from his ear and looks at the device, bemused. Despite knowing Jonathan for years and years, he still can't figure out how the man has managed to stay a county sheriff for more than a decade. Maybe the councilors realize it is men like Archer who keep them honest. Maybe.

It could also have something to do with blackmail, which sounds more like a tactic Jonathan would employ when dealing with politicians.

Mood improved, Pike makes a fresh pot of coffee and opens the morning's newspaper, deciding that he needs to stay aware of what is currently happening in his area too.

~~~

Lunch is a monosyllabic affair. It isn't until Pike tries to force an afternoon snack on Jim that his son shows signs of revolt.

Arms crossed, Jim glares at his father. "I'm not hungry."

"It doesn't matter. This is probiotic. You need to take it." Chris shoves the yogurt cup back into the boy's hands.

"No, I don't," comes the argument. Jim drops the cup—thankfully sealed—to his bed. "I don't like yogurt."

Pike nearly pinches the bridge of his nose. "Jim..."

"Jesus, Dad, don't you have anything else to do, anywhere else to be?"

Chris stares in silence at his son for a long time then answers, "I'm going to pretend you never said that, Jim."

Jim flushes.

Chris picks up the yogurt cup and sets it on the nightstand along with a spoon. His voice is flatter than usual as he stands up. "I laundered your blankets. Do you want them back, or are you planning to suffer without them to make a point?"

Jim's gaze drops away, and he picks at the bed sheet covering his legs. Pike doesn't have to touch the young man's skin to know how cold he must be. It is easy to tell Jim's condition by the shivers the boy had been trying to suppress during his mutiny.

Despite the protective urge to take charge, Chris waits because he wants to hear the answer.

"You win," Jim whispers, still refusing to look at him.

Pike closes his eyes. "Jim..."

"I said you win."

"Jim," Chris says again, sounding as weary as his son does, "why are you acting like this? I'm only trying to help you."

"I keep telling you I don't need help but you won't leave me alone."

...leave me alone.

Pike nearly has to sit back down when the room takes a slow turn. He locks his kneecaps out of habit, suddenly glad that Jim isn't watching him. "Son," he begins, has to stop to swallow hard. The dizzy spell slowly fades.

Wordlessly Jim picks up the yogurt cup and peels back its seal. The act is a clear dismissal, not a concession.

Chris backs out of the room and turns blindly for the other end of the house. He stops halfway down the hall and leans a shoulder against the wall, needing the moment to gather his strength and continue on. When he returns from the laundry room, he places the blankets on Kirk's bed and takes away the empty yogurt cup.

"Shut the door," Jim reminds him.

Pike closes it, wishing he knew when things had gone so very wrong. At some point in the past few days, the frustration in Jim's voice had turned to quiet loathing.

With trembling hands, Chris picks up the house phone and starts to dial Jon's cell. He stops before he punches in the second-to-last digit.

"Stupid, Pike, stupid," the man chastises himself harshly. "Don't panic. It's okay for Jimmy to be angry with you. He doesn't mean it."

Chris repeats this mantra until he calms down and logic wins out. His job has often brought him into contact with victims of assault, and it's not uncommon for those victims to become emotionally unstable for a while. Chris's mistake has been putting off the call to his station's on-site psychologist to ask for therapy recommendations.

And just like that, his anxiety is gone, burned away by anger. The anger makes him replace the phone in the cradle; the anger straightens his spine and curls his fingers into fists. The best solution, he thinks, is to take every hurt Jim needs to inflict in order to heal. Chris should bear that pain because he is the boy's father. And then, afterwards, he can prove to Jim that not only can he stick with him through thick and thin, but that he can fix their other problems too.

Especially when such problems are lowly street trash terrorizing innocents. It will be a matter of time before one of the thugs reappears, and when he does, Pike plans to wring out of him the name of every person who laid a hand on his son. Then he will send the fool back to his boss with the message that Detective Pike is coming for their heads.

Chris rouses from his vengeful thoughts when a cold nose nudges his hand. He looks down to find Jon's dog trying to get his attention. "Down, boy," he says.

Porthos drops back to his haunches and tags his wail.

"What do you want?" he questions the dog. "Bathroom?"

Porthos stops wagging his tail.

"Food?"

This time Porthos cocks his head.

There is really only one other thing that is important to Porthos. "Naptime?" Chris guesses.

A string of drool falls from the side of the beagle's mouth to the carpet. Porthos blinks owlishly before looking away and staring intently across the living room.

Sometimes Chris wished Jon's dog could talk. He doesn't know the meaning behind all of Porthos's little cues.

As he reaches down to hoist the dog up into his arms, Chris finally catches sight of what has the dog's attention—and it momentarily freezes him. The shadow outside the living room window is distinctly human-shaped.

On auto-pilot, Pike retrieves one of the baseball bats placed strategically throughout the house (the only weapons he can use since Archer locked up his deadlier ones) and skirts around the furniture to the side of the window. The shadow stands still for a few minutes more before it begins to edge out of sight. Pike uses the end of his bat to gently lift the curtain's edge and spies a stooped figure in a dark jacket and jeans skirt around the corner of the house.

He'll try the back door, Pike decides. Too obvious to enter by the front.

Years of training warn Chris to pick up the phone and dial the station for backup. His lingering rage insists that he can take this daring intruder on his own. He won't even need the baseball bat, just his bare hands around the bastard's throat.

During Pike's moment of indecision, Porthos had moved to the kitchen. He barks twice in rapid succession.

Porthos is not a dog who enjoys the sound of his own voice. Chris has heard him grumble like an old man, whine pitifully for treats, and make satisfied groans as he settles in Pike's recliner for his daily nap; only once since Porthos became a fixture of Chris's life has Porthos made a show of himself. (Of course, that particular session of howling is hopefully never be repeated.) Therefore the barking is unexpected, unsettling, and from Pike's perspective, all the urging he needs to make his decision.

Suffice to say, Pike's haste to the kitchen—bat at the ready as he flings open the back door—is for naught. The man on the stoop reels back in surprise. Porthos pokes his nose around Chris's legs and barks happily one final time.

"McCoy?"

Jim's boyfriend doesn't reply right away.

Chris realizes why and lowers his bat.

"Hi," says Leonard cautiously.

Chris stands back and opens the door wide in invitation. McCoy comes up the steps but stops at the threshold to the kitchen. Wagging his tail, Porthos sniffs at McCoy's sneakers.

"Some guard dog you are," complains Leonard to Porthos.

"He did bark," Chris points out.

"It wasn't a scary bark." Leonard studies Pike, then, in silence.

Pike makes his own assessment of the man in front of him. "You look terrible," he decides.

"You look worse," McCoy replies dryly. Pulling one hand from of a jacket pocket, he holds out a white paper bag. "These should help."

Chris doesn't take the bag, for it's a prescription of some kind, and instead turns away to lean the baseball bat against a chair at the kitchen table. "You should have told me you were coming. I could have hurt you, McCoy."

The young man shrugs one shoulder carelessly. "I wasn't planning on coming over. It just sort of happened."

Driving close to one hundred miles out of one's way does not just happen, and they both know it. Pike accepts the answer that isn't actually an answer. "Do you want to come in?"

McCoy lowers his gaze and shakes his head, once again falling silent.

Damn, thinks Chris. Jim and Leonard's argument must have been a serious one. Chris had tactfully not eavesdropped at the time because Jim had shut his bedroom door as a clear message that whatever he had to say to McCoy didn't need an audience. Ten minutes later, an angry Leonard had stormed from Kirk's bedroom and left the house without a farewell to anyone.

That had happened one week ago. Pike is rather surprised McCoy had managed to stay away so long.

He makes a snap decision, then, and shoos Porthos away from the door. Then he takes McCoy's arm and hauls him backwards from the threshold and down the stairs to the backyard. Stumbling, Leonard tries to keep up with him.

When Chris lets the young man go, Leonard jerks away and turns to face him, paler than before. He says unsteadily, "Well, I guess that puts me in my place." For a moment, something that might be called heartbreak passes across McCoy's face. "I wasn't trying to intrude. I won't come back."

Leonard starts to move around him. Pike blocks his path.

"Don't be an idiot. I'm not throwing you out. I'm giving you a chance to explain yourself."

Following yet another minute of dogged silence, as Leonard seems barely able to raise his head, Chris sighs and closes the distance between them to place his hands on McCoy's shoulders. "Leonard, look at me."

"Can't," whispers McCoy, his voice unusually strained.

Chris says with understanding, "Okay then, just listen. I know whatever happened between you and Jim is your business, but—"

"I'm not supposed to be here." Leonard shudders under Chris's hands.

"What do you mean?" Chris asks in a sharper tone.

"Mr. Pike..." McCoy's throat works. "Jim broke up with me."

Chris is too shocked at first to reply. Leonard sags against him like a deflated balloon.

"That can't be right," Chris argues. "I know how crazy my son is about you. He wouldn't be able to just... end it." And never tell me, he almost amends. "Leonard, what did he actually say?"

"He told me not to come back." Leonard lifts his head a little, looking miserable. "What else could that mean?"

Chris answers grimly, "Not what you think it means."

"He won't talk to me."

"Then I'll talk to him," Jim's father promises.

Leonard nods hesitantly. After an awkward moment, he steps away from Pike and says, "Sir?"

"Chris," Pike sighs. "Just call me Chris."

But McCoy shakes his head. "I haven't earned that right yet, Mr. Pike."

Chris thinks Leonard has, a hundred times over, but knows better than to argue. "What is it?"

"Is Jim... okay?"

That's a loaded question, and Pike isn't certain how to answer. He goes with, "Same as before."

McCoy looks tired. "I know he doesn't want to see me, but I need... I mean, could you... keep me updated on his recovery?" He sounds so young when he asks, "Can I call you?"

Chris's heart goes out to Leonard, along with a large portion of guilt. He was a fool to think the boys' fight had been a minor squabble, should have known that when Leonard didn't turn up for a week it was due to something serious. "Please keep in touch, Leonard, and I'm sorry I haven't contacted you before now." Yes, he needs to be more vigilant than ever.

"Thanks, Mr. Pike." McCoy shoves his hands into his jacket pockets, frowning deeply but looking slightly less worn around the edges. "I suppose I have to get back."

Chris studies the circles under the young man's eyes in a different light and suspects he isn't the only one unable to sleep.

Leonard ducks his head as if guessing Pike's suspicion and heads toward the gate.

Chris calls to him.

McCoy glances back.

Sighing through his nose, Pike holds out his hand. "I'll take that bag."

The young man blinks for a second. Then understanding—and relief—lightens his expression. Removing the white sack from his pocket, Leonard hands it over. "Prescription's strong," he warns Pike. "Take one before bed. That should do the trick." The gaze he runs over Pike is a little sharper, a little more clinical. "And don't count on Jim not noticing."

Chris thanks him for the medicine and the advice. His faint smile drops away the moment McCoy is out of sight.

Inside the house again, there is a moment in which Pike debates throwing the prescription bottle in the trash but in the end he hides it in the back of his bathroom's medicine cabinet, unable to easily discard evidence that Leonard is looking out for him, even though it is likely McCoy's roundabout way of looking out for Jim instead. Glancing at his bedside clock, he calculates the hours until the next problem of the day shows up.

"Jon's coming home tonight," he tells Porthos when he returns to the living room. "Move over, buddy."

Porthos's only effort at moving is stretching his toes. Pike scoops the dog up and resettles him in his lap. He begins a slow rocking motion of the recliner, which has the effect of making Porthos snore, while he thinks long and hard over the approach to take with Jim about McCoy. By the time Chris has an inkling of how to do it, he hears the roar of Archer's truck and realizes belatedly that the rest of the afternoon had disappeared.

At the door, Jon greets Porthos with a smacking kiss before drawing Pike into a brief hug. Then the man booms unnecessarily, "Groceries await in yonder wagon!" and hastens back down the front steps of the house to retrieve said items from his truck.

Feeling strangely bereft, Chris lingers in the open doorway, watching Archer stride away. He shakes off the feeling and goes to help Jon with the bags of groceries.

~~~

Mealtime used to be awkward. Now Jon finds it soothing, particularly during times like these when he gets to watch Kirk pick the peas out of a pot pie. This amuses Jon, the knowledge of their shared disgust for anything green, until he notices that Pike looks a lot less happy about what his son is doing.

"Uh," he remarks to Kirk, "maybe you should eat those."

Jim ignores him, which is hardly an unusual response coming from him.

Pike, on the other hand, does not. "Jon has a point. Eat your peas, Jim."

"How can you feed me something that you know I hate?" counters Pike's son, still diligently divesting his tiny pot pie of all its nasty vegetables.

Chris's mouth turns down slightly, and a sense of foreboding settles over Jon.

"Archer isn't eating his peas," Kirk points out.

Uh-oh. Jon had thought he had surreptitiously hidden them all in his napkin.

Jim flashes a look in his direction. "Check his napkin."

The sheriff's mouth drops open. "Kirk, are you reading my mind?"

A faint smirk touches the young man's mouth.

Pike sets down his fork.

Bells of doom are suddenly ringing very loudly in Archer's ears. He lifts his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Chris, you should know I can't eat—"

"Jim," Pike interrupts, "I couldn't care less about what Archer does or doesn't put in his mouth. I care about you."

Jon lowers his hands and tries not to let the sting of Chris's words show. He knows Pike doesn't mean what he said the way it sounds.

"Then give me something I can stomach," Jim bites back with belligerence, dropping his utensil to the table and pushing somewhat unsteadily to his feet.

Jon half-rises from his chair. "Wait a minute, Jim, don't—"

The look Kirk gives him could flay skin from bone. "I don't need either of you telling me what to do."

Archer's mouth snaps shut.

Jim hobbles from the table to the nearest wall, catches himself there before launching forward through the rest of the kitchen and into the living room.

As he rakes a hand through his hair, Pike suddenly looks very old and weary. "Damn."

Jon sits down again. "I'm sorry, Chris. I should have kept my mouth shut."

"It's not your fault."

Jon feels like it is. "I'm really sorry," he reiterates.

"Jonathan, just... stop." Chris leaves the table, then, carrying both his and Kirk's unfinished meals to the sink.

Jon watches him scrape the food into the garbage disposal and flip it on.

This situation isn't getting better for any of them. There should be healing after what happened but instead Pike's family seems to be falling apart at the seams. Jon is unable to do anything except watch it happen—and even then he can barely tolerate being the bystander.

Why is he this damned useless?

He crumples up his napkin, forgetting about the peas inside and mashing them into goo. Cursing, Jon pitches the whole thing towards the nearby trash can—and misses his target completely.

Thunk.

Jon picks his head up off the table and lets it drop again.

Thunk.

A hand lands on the back of his neck.

"Hey," Chris says to him, concerned, "what's wrong?"

Everything, he doesn't reply. "Not a thing, Princess," he grunts. "Just a dumb old man being dumb and old."

Chris moves his hand from Archer's neck to his back and strokes it along the man's spine. "You're not so old."

Jon can't help but smile a little at hearing that. "What about the dumb part?"

"I'll have to think on it."

Jon turns to capture the soothing hand and cradles it for a moment. "Thanks."

Pike has a strange expression. "For what?"

"For putting up with me, to start with." He kisses the warm knuckles. "For letting me stay. For being a good man."

Chris huffs. "Now you're just trying to seduce me."

He asks in his best seductive voice, "Is it working?"

Pike gives him a wry smile. "Wash the dishes and I'll think on that too."

Offering up a sloppy salute, Jon hurries to the sink and rolls up his sleeves. Pike disappears through the archway.

Dropping his hands to either side of the sink, Archer leans forward, closes his eyes, and breathes a long sigh of relief. He had come too close to getting caught. That's his truly stupid move.

If Christopher has even an inkling that his boyfriend is unhappy, he will place the blame on himself. Jon can't have that, won't have it, for Pike is already weighed down by too much guilt (despite Archer trying to assure him that Jim's suffering is not his fault).

And, damn, but Kirk isn't helping, is he?

Jonathan has do something about that. He is not the boy's father; he is hardly even a friend. But that can't matter. Jim needs to stop pushing both family and friends away.

Jon's eyes snap open. He recalls yesterday's conversation with Spock.

Pushing his friends away... to protect them.

Pushing his father away.

To protect him.

Oh shit, Archer thinks, the incongruencies suddenly too clear. Kirk worries about Pike when Pike isn't with him, yet he acts like he can't wait to get away when the man is around.

As someone who has been chasing after this particular truant for years, Archer knows all too well that Kirk always has a plan. Therefore the only conclusion to draw is quite a simple one: Jim must be acting on some grander scheme. He has precisely defined each little action he needs to take in order to accomplish his objective, not least of which Archer already knows is putting a protective detail around Montgomery Scott. Does it also include alienating the one person determined to shield him from the big, bad world?

Two people, actually.

But McCoy hasn't returned here since that fight.

Jon turns on the faucet to high, hoping to give the appearance he is actually washing dishes while buying himself time to consider all that he knows in a methodical fashion.

Porthos nudges his boot.

"I'm thinking," he informs the dog.

The dog lays his head over Archer's foot with a huff that Jon knows to mean about time you figured it out.

Time passes. One thing stays with him as he muses, something that truly sets him on edge: the knowledge that Jim Kirk, no matter how crazy his plans can be, can't be stopped once he has started down the path, and only rarely diverted. Jonathan's best hope is to insinuate himself into the action for damage control.

And, somehow, he will have to accomplish the task as slyly as Kirk himself.

Chapter Text

Jim listens to the silence of the house and slowly, with great care, unearths the cell phone taped to the back of his bed's headboard. He shuffles his way to the bathroom, shuts the door, and turns on the sink spigot. Then, using speed dial, he calls in.

Someone picks up right away. "Jim."

"Spock," Jim greets the guy he has come to trust and depend on more than he imagined possible. Spock is not just a smart ally; he's remarkably loyal. "Everyone there?"

"We're here," answers another voice tartly.

Jim relaxes the tiniest bit. "Hi, Uhura."

"I've got words for you, Kirk."

"Nice ones, I hope."

Spock interrupts them. "Nyota, please. Now is not the time."

"Spock's right," Jim agrees. "Fill me in."

"It's bad news," Sulu reports. "Scotty's apartment was burglarized last night."

Jim tenses. "Did you call the cops?"

Silence ensues until Spock replies for the group, "We were waiting on your decision."

A handful of alternatives flash through Kirk's mind. He takes a moment to consider which one is most advantageous to their situation. "Have the landlord report it," he decides. "Make an anonymous noise complaint so he'll check the apartment."

"I can do zat," Pavel offers.

Jim sighs. "Thanks, Pavel, but no. Spock, you do it."

"Yes, Jim."

"Your accent is too distinctive," Jim hears Sulu say, no doubt in an attempt to comfort Chekov.

"I still need you, Pavel," Jim adds. "I need all of you. You're my eyes and ears, my hands if necessary until I can join you. It won't be much longer, I promise."

"Jim, healing has to come first," Nyota insists. "Leonard would never forgive us if—"

"He's out of this," Jim interrupts her sharply, "and he stays out."

"I want to take my vote back."

"The voting is concluded," Spock says, taking Jim's side, for which Jim is grateful. "Mr. McCoy's role cannot be changed at this juncture."

Perhaps Spock is a little too loyal. He never asked if Jim might have an ulterior motive for wanting Bones out of the way. Not that Jim would have shared that information willingly.

"Jim," Spock begins.

Over the sound of the running water, Jim hears a faint noise from his bedroom and freezes.

"Jim?"

He lowers his voice to a whisper. "Code red."

Spock says quickly, "I must talk to you soon."

"Call me back in ten." He flips the phone shut just as someone knocks on the bathroom door and stashes it in a laundry basket.

The door knob turns, and Jim quickly grabs the sink's edge, wets his face and runs fingers through his hair. "What?" he barks irritably as the door creaks open.

It isn't his father who pokes his head around the doorframe but his father's boyfriend. Archer cocks his head at Jim and remarks, "Hi there, kid. Was curious to see if you had slipped and knocked yourself out."

Jim thinks Archer is the one who fell and hit his head at some point in his life, probably multiple times. "You're out of luck, Sheriff. I'm not that clumsy."

If anything, Archer seems even more curious. He looks around. "Whatcha doing then?"

Jim grips the edge of the sink. "Wondering if you ever heard of a little thing called privacy."

For some insane reason, Archer grins. "Privacy is overrated."

Why is his dad dating this idiot? laments Jim, not for the first time. He straightens up and places a hand flat against the paneling of the door and pushes. "Get out."

Stupid Archer pushes back and actually sticks half of his body through the doorway so Jim can't shut the door without injuring him.

"Now hold your horses, Kirk! Your father sent me in here for a reason..." Archer's eyes light up as he spies something behind Jim. "Ah ha, there it is!"

Hustling into the bathroom, Archer snaps up the laundry basket and hurries back out before Kirk can blink.

Belatedly Jim's mouth falls open. No sound issues forth. By the time he flings himself into his bedroom, Archer and the laundry basket are long gone. A grim-faced Kirk snatches up his bathrobe and hobbles headlong towards the laundry room.

~~~

Basket in hand, Jonathan breezes past Pike in the kitchen, ignoring the man's startled "Jon, where are you going with that?", and practically skips his way into the backyard. Porthos follows him with an equal amount of excitement, tail tick-tocking back and forth like a metronome.

"Kids these days," Jon snickers, bending over to pat the beagle's head. "They aren't as sneaky as they think!"

Kirk will head for the laundry room first, of course. Then, upon realizing why Archer isn't there and hence why he really took the basket, Jim will try to come after him. But Jon is nothing if not brilliant at escape, which is why Pike will unknowingly waylay his son in the kitchen because the man isn't at the point yet where he will allow the kid out of the house. And it's not like Jim can explain having a covert conversation with his posse without tipping his father off to the existence of a hidden agenda.

Jon positions himself in full view of the kitchen window and waits. For good measure, he locates the cell phone among the towels and boxer-shorts and casually scrolls through the call history.

It hadn't taken much effort to trace Spock's phone records and even less time to pinpoint the only unregistered number on the list as Kirk's. The possibilities for how Jim would be communicating his orders were limited; Jon had already eliminated email and messaging after reviewing Kirk's internet activity. Actually, his deputy Jenkins had helped with that investigative work because Archer is hardly up-to-date on all the forms of social media these days, barring the fact that he can friend good-looking women on Facebook (which he does to aggravate Chris).

Inspecting the phone front to back, Archer admits that he appreciates Kirk's use of the older methods of espionage. It makes his job so much easier.

The kitchen curtain rustles. Jonathan fully expects to see Jim's murderous face glaring at him. Instead the curtain drops back into place.

And the phone in Archer's hand vibrates.

Jon flips it open and, to his luck, doesn't even have to speak, for a familiar voice says, "I presume it is safe to talk."

Why, thank you for presuming that, Mr. Spock, Jon thinks gleefully. Now tell me everything I shouldn't know about this secret operation!

"I met with Sheriff Archer and as instructed left a hint as to Mr. Scott's predicament. As a result, Mr. Sulu and Mr. Chekov have noted of a significant increase in the department's activities."

Jonathan stiffens. They have been spying on his team? Why?

"However, I must express caution once again. Jim, Sheriff Archer's involvement is not a variable which we can predict with cert—"

All of a sudden, Spock ceases to talk.

Jon's fingers tighten around the phone with a sinking feeling as the silence lengthens. Then, without warning, the call ends with a click.

He takes the phone from his ear and stares at it. When he finally glances back at the window, Jim is staring back. But the man looks grave rather than murderous. After a few seconds of studying each other, Kirk turns away and retreats from Archer's sight.

Archer drops the phone back on top of the laundry and picks up the basket. Porthos whines softly.

"We've been outmaneuvered, boy," he murmurs, unsettled to have learned that Kirk actually planned to use him in some capacity from the beginning.

When he returns to the kitchen, Pike is sitting at the table with his arms crossed. The man looks from the basket to Jon and back again.

"Jon, what's going on?"

"I don't know," Archer answers truthfully. "Where's Kirk?"

Chris shakes his head slightly. "In his room, I guess. He asked to use my phone."

Jon places the basket on the table and holds out one hand. "How serendipitous. I need to use it too."

Chris looks at him strangely.

Jonathan adds, "Please?"

His boyfriend unclips the cell from his belt and offers it to Jon, still bemused.

"Thanks," Jonathan says. He pretends to have trouble finding the phone app while he checks the log of texts. The last message to go out had been directed to Uhura's number. It had read, Abort. JTK.

Under Pike's curious stare, Jonathan dials his department.

The deputy on desk duty answers with an unfriendly tone, like he doesn't have the time or the inclination to be courteous to any caller. "Sheriff's out right now, Detective."

Jon's gaze narrows. "Who the hell taught you how to answer a phone?"

"...S-Sheriff!"

"You and I are going to have words, Deputy," he warns before he orders, "Tell Larry to call me," and hangs up.

Temper simmering, Jon rounds on his boyfriend with the demand, "Why didn't you tell me?"

Pike raises one eyebrow. "About what?"

"Don't play dumb with me, Christopher!"

Chris blinks. "Jon..."

"You let him talk to you that way, don't you? Son of a bitch." Jonathan circles the table with obvious agitation. "As soon as I get back to the office, that little punk—"

"Jon, give him a break."

"What he'll get is a fucking suspension!"

With a sigh, Chris stands up. "You can't suspend your deputy for bad manners."

Archer stabs a finger in the air. "Watch me!"

Chris reaches for the man's arm, trying to subdue Jon's angry gesturing. "Calm down."

"I'm not stupid, Chris," Archer grits out between clenched teeth. "He insulted you on purpose."

"And it's partly your fault," Pike retorts.

Jonathan stills then, the shock of those words running through him. "My fault?"

Pike releases him and lowers his hand to his side. "How can you blame your staff for being edgy when their boss is riding them so hard? Stop overworking them. Let them rest, see their families. Maybe then..." But Pike falters and looks away. "What I'm trying to say is that you're not doing yourself any favors. You could lose one of them, Jon."

Archer feels sick because he understands all too well what Chris hasn't said and why. Neither of them can avoid the unpleasant truth: despite the relentlessness and hard work of Archer and his team, it's all been for naught. They're utterly empty-handed.

"Maybe you're right," he says after an awkward silence, "but, overworked or not, I won't allow any member of my team to disrespect another officer of the law. There's a code and no excuse not to abide by it."

Chris snorts softly. "I'd argue that you don't abide by that code when it doesn't suit you, but I understand where you're coming from and do appreciate it."

Jon frowns. "Next time, tell me."

Chris just smiles, and Jon knows that silence is the best answer he'll get. With a resigned huff, he starts to walk away.

"Jon," Pike calls.

Jon turns back. "What?"

Chris indicates the basket. "The laundry room is at the other end of the house."

Jonathan frowns again. "I know that."

"Which is where you need to take these clothes to wash them."

Jon is appalled. "But that's Kirk's dirty underwear!"

"Yes, that's the point," Chris responds serenely.

"Oh fu—" At Pike's look, he amends his comment to "fun." Picking up the basket, he grumbles, "Yes, lots of fun. C'mon, Porthos."

Porthos hurries behind Chris's legs instead.

"Traitor," he growls at the dog and marches away.

~~~

As a grumpy Jonathan carts away the laundry, Chris's smile fades. He taps the cell phone against his leg twice before he sits at the table. Having spotted the device partially hidden inside the basket while Archer ranted about his deputy, Chris had filched it when Jon turned his back. His own cell phone lies abandoned on the table in front of him.

Porthos nudges Pike's leg.

"In a minute," Chris murmurs, flipping open the phone and fiddling with the ancient keypad. He wonders why Jonathan would keep a relic like this around until the moment he peruses the call log. Then his unease grows.

This isn't Archer's phone. It belongs to Jim.

Chris closes the phone, pockets it, and looks down at his companion. "Porthos, let's go for a walk."

Porthos blinks once before his tail begins to wag. Pike retrieves the dog leash and clips it to the beagle's collar. They go outside, cross the backyard, and hesitate at the gate in the fence.

Chris unlatches it while Porthos watches his movements intently. Once the gate is open, the dog looks at him as if giving Chris one last chance to change his mind.

Pike strides through the gate. Porthos trots behind him until they reach the sidewalk of the neighboring road, then the dog is in the lead and happily so, it appears. When the pair reaches the end of the street well out of sight of the house, Chris lingers at a stop sign and retrieves the cell phone he had confiscated.

He dials a number and waits while it rings.

The person who picks up on the fourth ring answers cautiously, "This is Leonard."

"It's Chris," Pike tells him.

"Mr. Pike! Sorry, I didn't realize it was you. Some blocked number came up."

"I'm not surprised," Chris replies, the statement grave. McCoy was the only one had been glaringly absent from the call history.

"What's wrong? Is it Jim?"

Chris is quick to reassure Leonard, "I'm not calling about Jim." He pauses for a moment before coming to a decision. "Leonard, have you seen your friends lately?"

"You'll have to be more specific, Mr. Pike. I'm in med school. I see a lot of people on a daily basis."

"Your Santa's Village friends. Scott, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, Spock."

"No on the first four and it'll be a cold day in hell before I want to see Spock." But then Leonard remarks in a more thoughtful tone, "Come to think of it, I haven't seen any of them since Jim was in the hospital. That is strange."

Pike's unease turns to a sinking feeling. "Yes, very strange." So strange, in fact, he is very angry with himself for not noticing sooner.

"Maybe..." Leonard's voice becomes subdued. "Maybe Jim told them about me and him."

Pike bites back a sigh. "Jim wouldn't ask the people you're mutually friends with to avoid you because of a break-up, Leonard."

"Logically I know that, but..."

"Leonard."

"Yes, sir?"

"Help me figure out what my son is up to. I think it could shed some light on why he is avoiding you."

Leonard's eventual answer is, "Well it couldn't make things worse. Besides," the young man goes on to add in a grimmer tone, "I know the perfect place to start."

"Where?"

Porthos, watching Chris talk, wags his tail only once, oddly patient about having his outing interrupted by Pike's personal agenda.

This time McCoy sighs. "Nobody would be more attuned to what's on Jim's mind these days than Spock."

Chris almost laughs. "Looks like that cold day in hell can happen after all."

"You're telling me. I'll call you back when I find out what in blazes is so wrong with Spock that he can't keep in touch."

That... really makes no sense at all, given that Leonard had just claimed he doesn't like Spock hanging around him. Their relationship is an odd one, thinks Chris. Nonetheless, he is grateful. "Thanks, son."

Leonard's voice turns slightly shy. "You're welcome, Chris."

Chris hangs up. To Porthos he says, smiling, "I knew he would come around."

The dog's tail thumps against the ground.

"I promised you a walk, didn't I? Okay, buddy, you're in charge now. Which way?"

Porthos gets up, sniffs the stop sign before dismissing it, and turns left onto the adjacent sidewalk. Pike sticks one of his hands in his jean pocket and follows him in companionable silence.

He mulls over his other problem while they walk.

How had Jonathan known about Jim's extra cell phone?

~~~

Singing, Jon decides, is a perfect way to annoy the guy spying on him. He belts out an off-key version of "Back in Black" while shoving clothes into the washing machine. When he is seriously considering throwing in a few dance moves, Kirk steps into the laundry room and firmly shuts the door behind him.

Jon dumps detergent into the machine and slams the lid shut. As he cranks the dial, he asks Jim, "AC/DC or Aerosmith?"

"Depends on the mood."

"Smart answer." Turning around, Jon grins at his adversary. Let their stand-off commence!

Kirk crosses his arms, looking just like his father in a not-so-playful mood. "I want my phone back."

"Oh?" Jon rubs his chin thoughtfully. "What phone would that be?"

"I'm not kidding, Archer. Give. It. Back."

Jon props a hip against the dryer and folds his arms over his chest like Jim. "Look here, twiggy, how was I to know that phone was yours? Don't you kids use super-techie robot phones nowadays? I thought I'd found a toy!" His grin fades. "But imagine my surprise when somebody actually called it. I was shocked, Jim. Truly shocked."

Jim presses his mouth into a flat line. "What do you want?"

"What you are willing to do?" Jon pushes away from the dryer to close the distance between them. "Tell me, James Kirk: what price is worth keeping my mouth shut about your little... plan?"

Jim's arms fall to his sides, his hands flexing. "Anything," he answers at last, tightly.

"Good," declares Jon. "Go hug your father."

Surprise flashes across Kirk's face. "What?"

"You heard me. Hug your father. Suspend that bad attitude of yours long enough to make him feel like he's better than a piece of crap stuck to the bottom of your shoe."

Jim pales. "I... It isn't that bad."

"It is that bad," Jon counters in an unforgiving tone. "And I won't have it. You hear me, Jim? Whatever the hell else you think you have to do, fine—but there's a line when it comes to Pike. Don't ever fucking cross it."

Anger blazes in Kirk's eyes. He steps into Archer's personal space. "Did you just threaten me, Sheriff?"

"More like warn you not to be a dumbass."

They stare each other down, evenly matched and neither willing to concede ground.

The washer interrupts the moment with a hard thunk, knocking against the wall.

Jim looks past Archer's shoulder, and his eyes widened suddenly. "Oh shit."

Jon spins around.

The washing machine is foaming. Suds run over the sides in long streams and puddle on the floor.

"Oh shit!" he echoes Kirk. "Is it supposed to do that?"

Jim shoves him aside and grabs for a dial on the machine. He manages to do something to make it stop shimmying but his bare feet slide sideways in a patch of bubbles. Jonathan jumps forward just in time to catch Kirk as he goes down, and they land in a heap.

Momentarily stunned, Jon can only stare at the back of the blond head mashed against his nose. Kirk finally twists out of his grip and rolls sideways off him, sitting up, looking equally stunned.

Archer's brain registers pain, then. "Son of a bitch," he curses, putting a hand to the back of his head. He laboriously sits up. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah," replies Jim, twisting around to look at him. "Are you?"

"Sure." The sudden movement of his neck gives him serious vertigo. "Just peachy."

Jim starts to get up. "I'll get Dad."

Jon quickly grabs a hold of young man's arm. "No, it's fine, I'm fine. Jim," he adds when Kirk looks like he might protest, "don't. Your father's already going to yell at me for murdering your washing machine."

Jim gives him a strange look. "It's not dead. You just put in too much detergent."

"Oh," Jon says, feeling slightly better—a feeling which fades quickly. "But my point stands. If he finds out that you almost got hurt in the process, he'll kill me." Jon sucks in a breath, tacking on an emotionally raw "Please."

"Okay," Jim agrees readily enough, only to draw back without warning and change his tone. "But we're square now. I don't tell on you, and you don't tell on me."

Damn. Jon had botched his gamble after all. "Deal. Wait," he urges Kirk when the young man tries to get up. Jon climbs to his feet using the dryer as leverage and holds out a hand. For a second, Jim looks like he might refuse the offer but then he clasps Jon's hand and lets himself be pulled to his feet.

Jon pats him down anxiously, asking again, "Are you okay?" until Kirk dances out of reach.

"You," Jim declares, "are weird. Leave the phone in my room." He disappears into the hallway.

Jon draws a hand through his hair and, grimacing, plucks at the wet shirt now stuck to his back. As he strips out of his shirt and pants and tosses them in the washing machine with the other sudsy clothes, he mutters to himself, "Score: Kirk, one; Archer, none. Damn it."

Now he will have to find another card to play. Archer turns for the empty basket, stares at it dumbly for a second before it registers with him that, win or loss, the result doesn't matter. He can't give the cell back to Kirk anyway.

He has lost it.

~~~

"Tough day?" Chris asks his lover with concern as he slips into bed to find Archer already face-down upon it. The fact that the man has a pillow shoved over his head is even more telling.

Jon's answer is muffled by the pillow.

Chris settles on his back and locks his fingers over his stomach. "I didn't hear a word you just said."

Archer lifts up a corner of the pillow. "I'm fine. It could've been worse."

Pike turns his head to stare at the pillow-covered head of his boyfriend. "Those statements seem contrary to me."

The pillow corner goes back down. A few seconds later, Jonathan drags his head out and sits up enough to punch the pillow. "Why don't you ask me to elaborate on my contrariness?"

"I didn't ask you why you were walking around in your underwear this afternoon," Pike points out dryly. "Why start now?"

Jonathan stares at him, then lays down with a murmur Chris pretends he doesn't hear. Both men sigh quietly in unison, and Chris closes his eyes.

Silence settles between them, to the point that Pike guesses Archer might have fallen asleep. It surprises him when the man stirs and rumbles, "I'll tell you about this afternoon if you tell me about the sleeping pills."

Chris's body jerks without meaning to, and his eyes fly open. The sight of the ceiling greets him, all its tiny flaws cloaked in darkness.

Jonathan presses, "Shouldn't you take them?"

What can he say? The truth? But the answer that comes out is a wary "I could."

"Yet you haven't," Archer states flatly. "I know because I counted the pills." The man pauses, then, before saying his name more softly. "Chris..."

"If you're fine, then I'm fine too." Chris rolls over to his opposite side, away from Jon, and tucks an arm beneath his head.

A hand settles on his shoulder. Tensing, Pike waits for the inevitable demand of further explanation.

But Jon only says, "We're both stubborn jackasses, aren't we?"

"Yes," he agrees after a moment. "Yes, we are."

The hand strokes down Chris's arm, finds his wrist and curls there. "Night, Christopher."

Chris relaxes and returns the goodnight. For once, he is content to watch the clock on the bedside table until the early hours of the morning.

~~~

Waiting until a pensive-looking Kirk turns away to watch his father leave the kitchen, Jonathan steals the last piece of bacon off the kid's plate and pops it into his mouth. He then cheerfully dons his sheriff's hat and pushes away from the kitchen table and the remnants of breakfast.

"So," he inquires in a casual manner, pausing by Kirk's chair, "did you think about what I said?"

The look Jim gives him is far from amused.

Jon flicks a finger in the direction that Pike had gone and adds the enticement, "I'll tell you a secret about your dad."

If anything, Jim's expression becomes even less amused. "No thanks."

"Oh, I don't know..." Jon rocks back on his heels and stuffs his hands into his jacket pockets. "You'll definitely want to know this secret."

He watches Jim's fingers tighten reflexively on the top of the chair, despite that Jim says dismissively, "Go to work, Archer."

Jon sighs with dramatic flair, knowing there's only one to finish this conversation, and heads for the archway with an easy stroll. "Oh well," he calls back over his shoulder. "It'll be Pike's funeral!"

As he expects, not long after Jim hoofs it out of the kitchen at a quick pace in pursuit of him, features drawn, troubled gaze hinting at fear.

You're a bastard, Jon, the sheriff mentally congratulates himself. He quickens his stride to the front door.

"Wait!" Jim calls him back.

But Jon has no intention of waiting. He hurries outside to the sidewalk in front of the house, purposefully leaving the door wide-open behind him.

Kirk stops at the threshold, staring at Jon like he is the worst kind of betrayer.

Jon lifts one hand and crooks a finger. C'mere, he mouthes silently.

Jim looks at the place where he's standing then back at Jon.

C'mere, Archer mouthes again.

Setting his jaw, Jim leaves the doorway and painstakingly starts down the stairs. Jonathan grabs him at the last step and cheers loudly, hauling the young man forward into a bone-crushing hug.

"You did it, little bear!" he exclaims.

Jim immediately shoves his attacker back. "What is wrong with you?"

Jon laughs, tickled to pieces. "Papa bear is very proud of you." He gestures to the outside world. "Welcome back to the land of sunshine! For a minute there, I thought you might have turned into a vampire."

Kirk crosses his arms over his chest, retorting, "Whatever. Hurry up and tell me before Dad comes out with his gun."

"He can't do that. I hid his guns," Jon informs Pike's son proudly. "We can agree that your father and firearms is not the best combination right now."

"That's a shame, Sheriff. I was hoping to see him shoot you."

"Cheeky little thing." Jonathan pinches Jim's cheek to prove his point. "I knew you hadn't lost your spunk, kid."

Jim warns him, "In five seconds I'm going to punch you in front of that neighbor lady."

Jon cranes his head around and spots said neighbor lady haphazardly watering her flowers while openly staring at them. He waves to her. "I bet she's impressed that I'm a sheriff. You know what, Kirk? You had a good idea there. Punch me so I can arrest you! Ladies sure like a lawman in action."

Rolling his eyes, Kirk turns away.

Jon shifts to step between him and the house. "All right, fine. No punches."

"No punches today," Jim agrees, obviously thinking they'll take a rain-check on that.

Archer clears his throat and sobers his tone. "I'm sure you've noticed your dad is a little..." He makes a twirling motion at his head.

Kirk's gaze becomes hooded. "There's nothing wrong with my dad."

Oh, right, Jon realizes. Wrong approach to insult Pike.

He holds up his hands in a conciliatory manner. "I only meant he's been on edge lately."

A muscle ticks in Jim's jaw. "You're telling me things I already know, Sheriff."

"Yes, but—" Jonathan leans in. "—did you know that he can't sleep?"

The man's gaze sharpens.

"He hasn't slept in at least a week," Jon says slowly. "I figure longer since it took me a while to figure out that he was faking it." He folds his arms, mirroring Kirk. "Now what do you suppose that'll do to a man Pike's age, Jim? Heart attack?"

Kirk loses color.

Jon reaches for him, immediately apologetic. "Sorry, that was harsh."

"Why's he not sleeping?" Jim asks, voice nearly a whisper.

Jonathan's look turns shrewd. "Because of you."

"No," Jim denies instantly. "I told him he doesn't have to take care of me anymore. I know he was tired before but he should be sleeping now!"

"Don't get angry at me. Be angry at yourself. The one thing that gives Pike any relief in this situation is looking after you, and you denied him that. If anything, Jim, you're making things worse." Jon resists giving the man a slight shake. "This is why you need to stop now. Stop before something happens to Chris that you can't undo."

Kirk's anger fades along with (Jon is happy to see) his resolve. "I..."

Jonathan releases him. "I'll be gone for the next day, so you have to look after him for me."

Jim turns his face away.

"One hug," Jon reminds him. "That's it." He steps back and studies Jim once more before heading to his truck. He doesn't pull out of the driveway until Kirk returns to the house.

Even then, Archer's truck lingers briefly in the street as the man wonders if telling Kirk was the right thing to do. It has to be, he tells himself, because there isn't a better method to stop Kirk—or Pike—from destroying themselves. That is the power of family, Jon had reflected late last night. And likely why Chris had refused to reach out to Jon, to let him help. Jonathan isn't his family.

Sighing, Archer puts his vehicle into gear and leaves Pike's neighborhood behind.

He needs to focus on what he can do for Chris and Jim: catch the bad guys and make certain their household is never harmed again.

To do that, first he has to find Montgomery Scott.

Chapter Text

Noon has yet to arrive. The house is quiet to the point that Pike has prepared himself to face another day of uncomfortable isolation and hopeless waiting. He is trying to read the newspaper to pass the time.

When the words of an article start to swim across the page, Chris slides his fingers up under his reading glasses and massages the bridge of his nose. Though the letters are stationary again afterwards, he has lost interest in reading them. He discards the paper on the side table and picks up his coffee cup. Before he can take a sip, a surprising sight greets him: a blanket monster with slippered feet sticking out, lumbering into the living room.

Said monster cuts an unsteady path towards Chris. When it arrives at the recliner, it sheds one of its layers, dropping a fluffy pale blue blanket into Pike's lap. Then Jim pokes his head out of the top of his self-made cocoon and tells his father, not quite demanding but not making a request either, "Wrap up."

Chris frowns. "I'm fine," he says, trying to hand the blanket back. "You use it."

But Kirk refuses to take it, instead shuffles over to the couch and lands there with an oof. Porthos appears from behind the couch and jumps up on top of the mound of blankets. Jim wiggles around until his arms are free and tucks the dog between him and the back of the couch. Seeming happy enough despite the relocation, Porthos settles his head against Kirk's chest with a gusty sigh.

Not certain what Jim is about, Chris arranges his gift across his legs.

Jim holds up an empty hand, calling out imperiously, "Remote."

Chris tosses the remote control on top of Kirk's padded legs, and Jim picks it up, clicking on the television. To Pike's surprise, his son bypasses every marginally interesting talk show for something far more different.

He swallows a groan. It's been an unspoken rule in their house for years that they don't watch cop dramas. Pike simply can't tolerate them. He had explained his reasoning to Jim once as "I don't leave my work at the office so I can watch it at home."

"Jim," he says.

Jim turns up the volume, hissing, "Shhh."

What is Jim up to now? Trying to run him off from his own living room?

Pike resolves to stay put. He picks up the newspaper again and snaps it open, holding it up to cover the sight of the television. He reads the first line of the same article three times in a row.

Jim laughs out loud all of a sudden.

Chris wills himself not to look. He won't look. Won't.

He turns down the top of the paper and stares at his son. "What's so funny?"

"These idiots," Jim says, waving the remote in his hand at the TV screen. "They left the perp at the booking desk and turned their backs."

Almost involuntarily Pike seeks out the show. The perp in question has fled during the moment of inattention and when the cops try to corner him in a hallway, he takes a hostage, an elderly little lady probably trying to figure out how to pay her parking ticket.

"Those idiots!" Chris declares furiously, tossing his newspaper aside. "They put everyone in danger!"

Jim's sidelong glance is speculating. "What would you have done?"

His father snorts and folds his arms across his chest. "The first thing any rookie learns is why there are steel handles attached the side of every desk."

"Yeah," Jim says, flexing his wrist as if testing how unfettered it really is, "I know why."

Chris can't help it. The corner of his mouth quirks in memory.

During his teenage years, Jim had often been apprehended for some misdemeanor, dragged into the precinct by one of Pike's colleagues, and handcuffed to a desk to wait for the captain or his father to arrive and blister his ears with a lecture. The one time Pike had discovered his son already behind bars, he had nearly punched the cop in the face who had locked his son up. Carl had taken him aside and thankfully talked him down, then given the fellow—a relatively new transfer to the station—a warning on Pike's behalf, saying for Chris's son special protocol had to be followed. Jim heeded the authority of only a handful of people, so sticking him in a cell didn't teach him a lesson unless it was someone he respected who did it and that person gave him a frank explanation of why he had to stay there. Jim was smart but also exceedingly willful; once he perceived an injustice had been done to him, he would refuse to listen to excuses and, moreover, refuse to accept responsibility for any initial wrong-doing. Chris had learned the hard way that one couldn't discipline James T. Kirk by normal methods. It had to be Jim who accepted that he had broken the law—or broken a trust—and only then would Jim agree to atone and, hopefully, learn from his mistakes.

Chris spent a lot of years teaching his son the difference between right and wrong. Even now, Jim maintains a unique perspective on the law which often lands him in trouble.

"Dad?"

Chris blinks. "Yes, Jim?"

"You didn't answer my question."

"Sorry, I must have zoned out. What did you say?"

Jim studies him with a serious expression. "It was nothing." The boy turns his attention back to the television and changes the channel.

Pike is disappointed for some reason. He toys with the idea of picking up the paper again but admits that he hadn't had the ability to focus on it all morning and that isn't likely to change now—especially not with his son, the mystery, deciding to be somewhat civil to him.

Jim scratches Porthos' head and channel-surfs until he has come full circle to the cop show again. Pike takes off his reading glasses and rubs both hands over his face. There is something he does desperately need, he decides. Picking up his coffee cup, he starts for the kitchen.

"You should drink some water."

Chris pauses, glancing back at the person still scrutinizing the television screen. "Excuse me?"

"Too much caffeine," Jim comments, "can be bad for you."

Strange. Jim has never criticized his drinking habits before. In fact, at the age of fifteen, Jim had tried to imitate him by drinking coffee in the mornings instead of orange juice. They had both quickly discovered that Jim and espresso-strength drinks did not mix well. He had an adverse reaction in that he couldn't sleep for days afterwards.

Chris narrows his eyes as he recalls that, a niggling suspicion prompting him to ask, "Why is it bad for me?"

Jim sneaks a glance at him before quickly looking away. "Dunno."

Chris turns to him, McCoy's warning echoing in his head. "Jim... Jim!"

Jim puts the TV on mute with a sigh. "What?"

"Why did you bring me that blanket?"

"Blankets are comfortable."

"Blankets are for sleeping."

"Exactly," Jim retorts then flushes.

Damn, thinks Pike. "I don't need sleep."

Jim sits up suddenly, dislodging a snoring Porthos. He almost looks angry as he challenges his father, "Really?" and without warning lobs the remote control across the room at Pike.

Chris is too slow to react, either to move out of the way or catch the damn thing. It falls just short of his feet. He stares at it, feeling betrayed.

But it's Jim who is staring at him in betrayal. And it's Jim who pushes off the couch, blankets and all, as he accuses, "You should have caught it."

Chris tries to answer nonchalantly, "Maybe I didn't want to," but Jim's expression is unnerving him so badly he nearly stutters his response instead.

"Last month, you would have caught it," Jim presses.

Uh-oh. Jim does know that he can't sleep.

Jim steps toward him, hands curling into fists like he expects a fight. "Why aren't you saying anything?"

Chris backs up. "I'm old, Jimmy. My reflexes aren't what they used to be."

"Bullshit."

Sighing, Jim's father stoops down to pick up the remote. He tosses it into his recliner and puts his back to Jim. He's not going to have this conversation with Jim, nor is he going to stand around and be lectured. He moves toward the kitchen, wishing he had the option of putting something stronger in his mug than coffee.

His mistake is forgetting that when Jim Kirk decides to confront someone, Jim never backs down. Chris isn't prepared for the impact of another body connecting hard with his back. He stumbles forward, almost loses his footing—only to be righted by his son who, for all intents and purposes, tries to smother him in a sea of blankets.

He attempts to detach the young man.

Jim tightens his hold and presses his face to his father's back.

"Jim," Chris says, feeling his anxiety build, "what's going on? What are you doing?"

"What I'm supposed to," comes the muffled response. Then, more tentatively, "Sorry I said a bad word."

There's something seriously wrong here. Jim, even on his darkest days in the past month, hadn't sounded this vulnerable.

"Let go a second, Jimmy," his father coaxes. "Just a second, okay?"

Jim's hold relaxes enough that Chris can turn to face the boy.

Jim sighs softly through his nose and moves closer to Pike again, this time dropping his forehead to the man's shoulder. It strikes Chris, then, that Jim isn't clinging to him—he's trying to give him a hug.

After all the anger, the rebuffs, the rejection... The hug is like a balm to Chris's soul.

He wraps up Jim with his arms and turns his face into his child's hair. The pair stands like that in silence for some time, letting the simple act of being close to each other heal the rift between them as words could not have done.

Eventually the squirming of Porthos between them catches their attention and pushes them apart.

Jim snuffles and says, "Porthos likes hugs too."

How can Chris deny a request like that? He picks the dog up and holds him to his chest.

Porthos licks his face enthusiastically before accepting Jim's head-pats with gracious benevolence.

"Okay, enough," Chris announces when his arms begin to ache. He puts the dog back on his own four feet. Porthos whuffs and trots off to the kitchen.

Jim has re-arranged his blankets so that only the upper-half of his face is visible.

Chris looks at his son with fondness. "Am I forgiven?" he asks.

"For what?" Jim wants to know.

"For being an ass."

Jim drops his gaze. "You weren't, Dad. I was." The muffled words following that sound kind of like I was trying to be.

Chris doesn't know what Jim blames himself for but it's not as though he could hold anything against his son. Ruffling the blankets since he can't reach Jim's hair, he remarks, "Let's agree we both played a part. You and I've been cooped up together too long, Jim." His anxiety tries to overwhelm him once again but he forces it down. "Maybe it's time I let you out of the house?" He makes that a question because he can't make it a statement.

But Jim is shaking his head. "It's fine, I don't mind... I mean..." He stops and starts again by blurting out, "Why can't you sleep?"

Because I'm deathly afraid of losing you. Since that's not something he can admit to out loud, Chris explains, "Just a combination of things, son. It isn't a permanent condition." God, he hopes not. Eventually the insomnia will prevent him from living a normal life.

"It's because of me."

Pike's tone sharpens. "Don't say that. You had no fault in this."

"You don't know that," Jim counters stubbornly. "You don't know a lot of things, Dad."

"What does that mean?"

Jim doesn't answer right away. Chris can see him thinking something over, and for some inexplicable reason that is a foreboding sign to Pike.

A pounding on the front door interrupts the moment. Pike has to hustle forward to answer the door before their visitor knocks a hole through it. He has barely cracked the door open before McCoy pushes it wide and stomps past him into the house.

"JIM!" the man roars.

The person in question freezes, looking suddenly like he wants to completely disappear into his cocoon.

Chris has a moment's debate on whether or not to intervene until McCoy launches himself at Kirk and tackles Jim to the ground. Then Chris is rushing forward, trying in vain to drag the infuriated attacker off his son.

Leonard will not be detached. It's a small favor indeed that he isn't actively strangling Jim, though he is slapping at the blankets that Jim is holding up between them like a shield.

"McCoy," Chris demands, trying to wedge a hand between the pair and haul Leonard back, "let him go!"

Leonard's yelling only increases. "Jim, face me, goddamn it!"

Jim is making repeated noises which sound suspiciously like apologies. Though he rolls side to side, he is unable to shake off McCoy or successfully crawl away.

Chris finally gains a firm hold around McCoy's middle and is about to use an old wrestling trick he learned in high school when Jim unexpectedly tucks his legs up towards his chest and does a sideways flip-roll that dislodges both Pike and McCoy and sends them flying. Chris knocks into the foot of his recliner. Leonard knocks into him.

Jim sits up, his upper torso exposed, clothes rumpled, hair sticking out all angles. Eyes wide, he squeaks, "Bones, calm down. I can explain!"

That sets McCoy off again.

Having no choice, Chris puts his son's boyfriend into a headlock. "Do what he says, Leonard," he warns, "or I'll hold this until you pass out."

Leonard squirms futilely against him for a few seconds before giving up. "Fine," comes the snarl, "but don't think I'm not going to kill you the second Chris lets me go, Jim."

Jim swallows and nods. "Okay, that's fair."

That doesn't sound fair to Pike at all. "What's going on?" he demands. "Leonard, you'd better have a damn good explanation for attacking my son." Unfortunately he can tell by the angle of Leonard's head that Leonard's attention is only for Jim.

"Did you break up with me?"

Jim pales.

"Did you?" Leonard snaps. "Because for a while there, I sure thought you did, Jim. I thought you dumped my ass because I was too smothering."

Jim looks nauseated. "Bones... Bones, I never said I wanted to break up."

"No, you didn't. You just told me not to fuck up my chance to graduate early because I wanted to take a semester off to take care of you. I believed everything you said, Jim. Everything. Why the hell was I so stupid?"

Chris hears it in McCoy's voice, how angry he truly is—but not at Jim, not entirely. A large portion of that anger is for himself.

After a moment of fierce internal debate, Pike releases Leonard from the headlock but keeps a firm hand on the man's arm as a reminder that Pike will stop him from going after Jim again.

"You're not stupid," Jim replies, sagging down in his blankets abruptly and looking like he's about to have a relapse.

The anxiety won't be shoved away this time. It forms a tight knot in Chris's chest. "Jim—"

"Bones," Jim questions, overriding his father's voice in a weary tone, "who told you?"

McCoy presses his mouth flat. His chin wobbles. "Just tell me why."

Kirk repeats, "Who?"

"Why," Jim's boyfriend wants to know, voice suddenly strained, "am I the only one not good enough to be part of this?"

Jim stares at him for a moment without answering. Then he slowly climbs to his feet, letting every blanket fall to the floor. Chris watches him hold out his hand to McCoy.

Leonard visibly hesitates before he takes Jim's hand and lets himself be pulled up.

"You're good enough," Jim tells his boyfriend softly. "I'm the one who was afraid."

Leonard studies his boyfriend in silence for some time. "Spock was right, then," he says at last, sighing. "He said he thought you had reason to believe I'd be next."

Pike stiffens. So McCoy had found out something from Spock after all. He pushes to his feet. "Leonard, I need to speak to you in private."

They still aren't heeding him in the least.

McCoy curls his hands around Kirk's shoulders and gives him a slight shake. "Jim... whatever it is, you can tell me. We're in this together. You know that, right?"

Christopher has had enough of being left out. He grabs McCoy by an arm, saying in a tone that brooks no argument, "In the kitchen. Now."

A startled Leonard reluctantly releases his son.

Chris points toward the kitchen. "Go." He has to repeat the word before Leonard walks away. Pike turns to his son, then, pushes Jim into a sitting position on the couch. "Don't move from this spot, son."

"Where would I go?"

The question is almost bitter and hurts Pike a little bit. But knowing that Jim will obey him, Chris follows in Leonard's wake.

In the kitchen, he takes the stance that comes most naturally to him after a decade of service as a detective—that of an interrogator. Finally Leonard has begun to look nervous, like he has just realized that barging into Pike's house and creating a scene without reporting to Chris first had not been his smartest decision of the day.

"Start talking," Pike orders.

Leonard covers his face with his hands. His reply of "Shit, where do I even begin?" is hardly a comfort to either of them.

~~~

Larry, who has outlasted most deputies in a four-hundred mile radius by about a decade, walks into Sheriff Archer's office looking like he barely survived a world war.

"Good god, man," Jon says, hanging up on the town mayor without a qualm, "what happened to you?"

The deputy rubs his bloodshot eyes. "Alimony payments. Can't quit work 'til I'm dead." Sighing, he holds up a stack of papers. "Brought the results of that GPS trace you wanted."

Jonathan beckons the older man inside. "Let me have 'em, and sit down before you fall down, Deputy."

Larry looks grateful to take a seat. "Just a warning, Sheriff. OnStar gave me hell before they released the records. You might get a nasty gram in the near future about my attitude."

"We both know your attitude is better than mine. Of course they bitched. We don't have federal badges." Archer flips through the report, making thoughtful noises every so often. He stops on a particular page. "Well, well, well... Answer me this, Larry. Why would any socialite spend his weekends around an old trainyard?"

"Drug deal," Larry answers promptly. He peers at the page. "I looked up the VIN. The SUV is registered to a Mr. Sarek. Only Sarek I know of in these parts is the Senator."

Jon suppresses a grin. "You got it in one."

Larry's eyes widen. "No shit?" His expression turns apprehensive. "Boss, we're gonna lose our jobs if we go after him!"

"If Senator Sarek gives a damn at all why a county sheriff's department is tracking his whereabouts, he'd be wise to ask his son first."

"Who's the son?"

"Oh, you've met him recently. A few times." Jon enjoys watching Larry piece together the information.

A few seconds later, Larry whistles. "That high-brow fellow who keeps pestering me and Jenkins for updates... He's a senator's kid? You don't say! I thought he managed Santa's Village."

"It's incongruous, I know. I scratched my head over that for about five seconds until I realized our Mr. Spock has probably been disinherited by dear old dad for some reason." Archer stares at the report. "Although not entirely. There's the expensive car—and an apartment. I guess being disinherited still pays the bills."

Larry scrubs his hands over his face. "So you're telling me this Spock guy is up to some shady shit. At a trainyard."

Archer stands and grabs his jacket off a coat rack. "That's what I intend to find out."

Larry gives him a strange look.

"What?" Jonathan asks, donning his hat too.

"You're not going alone out there, are you? I know we've had some royal screw-ups lately on the Kirk case," Larry winces as he acknowledges that, "but don't forget why you pay us, Jon. We're your team."

Jon experiences a moment of appalling sentiment. He punches it down. "You're gonna make me cry, Deputy. Fine, come with me."

But Larry sighs and shakes his head. "I fell asleep in my soup earlier. I doubt I could shoot the broad side of a barn. Take Matthews," he suggests. "Kid's about to rip his hair out from all the paperwork on that string of art burglaries."

"Thank god I'm high up enough to leave paperwork to minions," Jon declares. He strides out of his office, barking, "Matthews!"

Matthews's head comes up from his desk, a post-it note stuck to his forehead. "Sir?"

"Get packin'," Jon tells him. "We hit the road in five."

The deputy scrabbles out of his chair so fast he nearly tips it over. Jonathan watches, amused, as Matthews goes through the rigors of checking his weapon and other accoutrements. He even very quickly—and very proudly—polishes the deputy star attached to his shirt.

"Get out much?" Jon murmurs, bypassing him, knowing the deputy will fall in line.

Their youngest recruit tracks their progress across the room, his gaze strangely unsettled. "Sheriff?" he calls.

"Just bopping out for a tag run. We'll radio in," Archer says. "Forward my calls to voicemail. And thanks for picking up lunch."

"Sure, Sheriff," the deputy replies, clicking an ink pen with a sigh and returning his gaze to his computer screen.

"Tag run?" Matthews questions in a disappointed tone.

His boss replies, "Hell no," as they step outside. "We're on a covert hunting mission, Deputy." Jon pulls a photo from the breast pocket of his jacket and hands it to his partner.

Matthews hisses in recognition. "I know this guy."

They all do. He had been at the center of the debacle with the North Star last Christmas.

Matthews hands the photo back. "He belongs to Kirk."

"Which is why it's imperative that we find out where he's hiding." Jon points to a squad car. "You drive."

Matthews jogs over to the driver's side, blinking in confusion as Jon heads in another direction. "Hey, boss!"

Archer gives him a thumbs-up and hops into his truck.

Shaking his head, the deputy climbs into the squad car and follows the sheriff's truck out of the parking lot.

~~~

Archer adjusts the angle of his rearview mirror and slows down considerably. The driver behind him is aggravated enough to go around (though not quite increasing his speed such that he would be in violation of the speeding limit), but the sedan behind him slows down too. Jon switches lanes, and the sedan doesn't.

"Huh," mutters the man, turning his attention back to the road as Matthew's squad car catches up to his truck. He could have sworn he was being followed by that weird little Volkswagen.

The abandoned trainyard lies ten minutes north of the county line. How convenient, if one wishes to be just out of Archer's jurisdiction yet still close to the college town that also serves as the county seat. Not that a little thing like county lines has stopped Archer before when handling business. It may aggravate other departments when he rides blithely into their territory, but unless they're dead-set on chasing him out, he can usually get away with a few hours of investigation before someone reports his whereabouts to the proper local authorities.

He thinks turning this trainyard in and out will be a cinch, and his hope is that they don't have to do much hunting at all. Scott will just show up, hands raised, and say, "I'm all yours, Sheriff."

On the other hand, if Kirk and his crew aren't hiding Scott out here in the boonies, then it has to be used for something else, like an obscure meeting place. He just cannot fathom why someone like Spock would come out this way otherwise. There is nothing around but rusted rail cars and overgrown weeds.

It's a shame that none of Kirk's other friends beside Spock drive vehicles that can be easily traced. This is his only lead so far, working the Kirk angle. The Merry Gang don't seem to be amateurs at covering their tracks. Jon finds that frightening, if he's honest with himself. A team with that much intelligence combined rarely understands the depth of the power they wield. It's a recipe for serious trouble, if not disaster.

He turns right onto the highway that leads to the trainyard.

Matthews radios him with "Where're we going again?"

Jon replies, "Troops take orders, not ask questions."

"Haha." But the deputy doesn't question him again.

You're learning, Cupcake, Jon thinks. Then he laughs out loud, remembering that Cupcake is Jim's nickname for Matthews. Pike's son certainly has a knack for them.

Jon presses a button on his dashboard and tells his supposedly intelligent computerized vehicle to "Call Princess."

The call goes straight to voicemail. Jon tries again, and this time leaves a message: "Princess, it's Pooh Bear. Ooh, I like that! How about you call me Pooh Bear from now on? It's much better than Asshat. Not sure what I did to be called that this morning and, 'sides, couple names are supposed to be romantic. Anyway... I know it's not my night to come home but... I miss you." Jon winces. That sounded so sappy. "I mean that in a manly way, Chris, like when a man misses his beer or a football game. So, I miss you. Yeah... okay. That was it. Bye now." He almost hangs up but tacks on belatedly, "Give Kirk a hug for me."

Damn your stupid mouth, Archer! he chastises himself afterwards.

Surely Pike won't make anything of his comment; and most assuredly Christopher would never suspect that Jon is behind the hugs, not unless Jim tattles, "Archer made me do it!" No, Kirk wouldn't be that dumb, especially since Jon has a mile-long laundry list of the kid's antics since college, most of which Jonathan feels rather certain Pike knows nothing about. He wasn't lying when he said he had been chasing after Kirk for years. Sometimes he likens their relationship to Yosemite Sam and Bugs Bunny. Archer is the one with the pistols, obviously.

He sets his truck on cruise control and taps his fingers against the steering wheel, surprised to find that he is in a better mood than he has been in ages. He decides to enjoy it while it lasts.

~~~

Matthews eyes the weed-covered grounds with caution. "Aren't there snakes out here?"

"Probably," Jon replies. He nods to an overturned freight car, its side decorated with layers of local gang graffiti. "You start on that end, I'll take the other. Meet in the middle."

Matthews begins to walk away.

"And, Deputy?" Jon calls out. He lifts his gun slightly. "Safety on. Don't shoot the snakes."

Matthews mutters something under his breath and heads in the opposite direction.

They search the rail cars methodically for an hour, working their way to the side of the yard less visible to the dirt road connected to the highway. With the large clearing and thick woods to one side, this yard is a perfect shelter for wayfarers looking to stay off the road for the night. Jon wonders idly if Scott would go so far as to disguise himself as homeless to remain off the radar. Would he risk spending the night here in the company of drifters who could vagrants or worse?

After the search turns up no people but plenty of discarded trash, Archer and Matthews head for the small sagging warehouse set to the side of the tracks. Jon stops abruptly when he hears a loud noise from inside, the sound of something being knocked over or scattered, and motions in silence for Matthews to fan out and come in from a less visible angle.

He approaches the gaping entrance where a large roll-up door might have once been missing and calls out, "This is the County Sheriff's Department! Come out with your hands up."

No one answers; no other noises or movement occur except for the shadow of a pigeon taking flight from its roost.

Jon steps inside, his weapon drawn and at the ready. He isn't more than midway inside when a shadow far too large to be a bird flits along a wall to his right. He starts in that direction, walking softly but not trying to disguise his approach as a warning to whoever may be within.

Part of the wall is hidden behind a large pile of aging scrap metal. Jon moves to the edge to look behind it—and discovers a hole peeled back in the awning that leads to the sunny field outside. Someone smaller than Archer could have crawled through it to escape if necessary.

But it wasn't Scott. Jonathan has already come to the conclusion that the man hasn't been here recently, nor likely was ever here. There are no fresh signs of footsteps through the dust at the front entrance; no hallmarks of recent gatherings like remnants of a fire pit or ragged bedding. The person that was just here came in broad daylight, quiet as a mouse and watched them.

Archer stares at the wedged-open hole and thinks, Trap.

The possibility of finding Scott may have been the bait, but Archer and his team were the prize. Why?

"Shit," curses Matthews from the middle of the warehouse, making a lot of noise as he accidently knocks over an old, burnt-out oil drum. "Back entrance is secure, Sheriff." The deputy sticks his gun into his holster. "This place is a ghost town. Why would Scott ever come out here?"

Jon quietly retreats from behind the pile and turns partly towards his companion.

Kirk had sent Spock to 'inform' him about the danger to Montgomery Scott, that Scott is at the top of the terrorists' hit list. It would be natural for Archer to want to find him first. And yet Kirk's objective would be to protect Scott, so why didn't he just tell Jonathan where the man has been hiding? Why go to this extreme where he's making Jon work for the answer while spying on what his team does, possibly sending someone to follow them out here—

The answer is so obvious to Jon in that moment, it's appalling.

Jon glances up, startled, to find his deputy on a cell phone. "Matthews," he snaps, "what are you doing?"

The deputy gives him a strange look and pulls the small phone away from his ear. "Reporting in."

"Use the radio," he reminds him and, swallowing, strides out of the warehouse. Standing on the dirt drive, he surveys their empty surroundings, the ample cover of the trees not too far away. Faintly, there comes the distant sound of an engine gunning and dying out.

Matthews appears on his right. "Sheriff?"

Jonathan needs a moment to compose himself. Once he feels steadier, he claps Matthews on the shoulder and offers the same remark he always does after an operation has a disappointing end: "There's always next time, Deputy." Striding for his truck, he orders, "Report back to the station."

Archer climbs into his vehicle, waiting until Matthews has pulled the squad car onto the highway before he turns his truck in a different direction. He heads further into the next county.

Kirk owes him answers now—answers in person. If he thinks that—if it's true—

Jonathan grits his teeth when he realizes his hands are white-knuckled around the steering wheel, angry that he is this badly shaken. Nothing messes with a man's head, his predecessor had once said, quite like betrayal.

Someone in his department is untrustworthy. Someone is a rat. Could it be that he has failed this entire time to catch the gang because he has been duped by a member of his own team?

Archer draws a hand back and slams his palm down hard twice against the wheel. "Son of a bitch!"

For the first time in a long time, since he started dating Pike, he burns to wallop some sense into James T. Kirk. There are some lines that should never be crossed; some confidences that must be shared. Kirk has to learn.

Archer's foot presses on the gas pedal, and the truck leaps forward, roaring down the highway.

He can almost anticipate what kind of paltry excuse Jim will give him—but it won't matter in the end. Nothing the kid says will be good enough to excuse not telling Jon that one of his deputies is working for Nero.

Chapter Text

Chris had to take a seat halfway through McCoy's recounting of all that he learned from Spock. It seems Spock had not wanted to explain at first, but Leonard alludes to the fact that he used Spock's concern for Jim against him.

"Cracked him like a nut. Knew that bastard cared too much," Leonard mutters at one point, alternating between sipping at the coffee Pike offered him and strangling the ceramic mug as a substitute for someone's neck.

Chris runs a hand down his face, pretending that it doesn't tremble at the thought of hearing more terrifying news about his son's downright insane plan to oust the gang that attacked him—a plan Jim didn't see fit to tell anyone who would have had sense enough to stop him. In fact, Chris sees now what Jim had achieved by keeping him at arm's length. That knowledge also makes him re-evaluate what he assumed he understood about his son's behavior over the course of the past month.

One fact becomes quite glaringly clear: something or someone had broken Jim's resolve recently; otherwise Chris's reconnection with Jim that very morning wouldn't have happened. But what prompted Jim to alter his course so unexpectedly? Who would have the talent to do that, besides himself and possibly McCoy?

"I don't understand something," Chris says when Leonard runs out of words, turning his attention to yet another puzzle. "Why leave you on outside? No offense, McCoy, but I suspect my son could have convinced you to go along with his plan if he had wanted to."

Leonard gives him a sour look. "Are you sayin' I'm weak, Mr. Pike?"

"Hardly," Chris counters. "I'm saying Jim can be very persuasive." Jim couldn't have convinced Chris, though. Kirk would know that his father would insist on a by-the-book approach—that is, until the criminals are apprehended and Pike is free to decide how much pain to inflict upon them. Rules be damned, no one hurts his child without paying in kind.

The young man across from Pike sighs. "I'll agree with you there, sir. I remember when Jim made pulling a prank on the Admissions Councilor sound fun, and she was the most terrifying officer on campus."

Chris has to close his eyes. "Leonard, now is not the time to remind me about my son's proclivity for pranking."

"Sorry," Leonard says, abashed. "Forget I said that."

Not likely, but Chris has other, scarier problems to tackle at the moment. "You said you might be next. What did you mean by that?"

"Isn't it obvious? I'm the gang's next target."

Chris lengthens his spine, presses his hands flat, palm down, against the table. Leonard watches him curiously.

"They punished Jim. Why would there be another victim?"

Leonard watches him a moment longer. "Why should those bastards stop at Jim? Why not punish the rest of us too?"

To Chris, there couldn't be worst punishment than hurting Jim. He curses, finally, fully realizing how his personal involvement with the case limited his perspective. If the victim had been anyone else, Chris's automatic assumption would have been 'who would be next?' Instead, fear hamstrung him, terrifying him into thinking that the perpetrators would come back to finish the kill if he wasn't vigilant.

But Jim was a message, the warning shot over the bow. This is a waiting game to be certain but of a different kind than Chris imagined.

He stands, planting his feet, telling McCoy flatly, "That's not going to happen. Consider yourself under police protection as of now, Mr. McCoy."

Leonard blinks, then seconds later he shakes his head. "Jim was right about one thing. I do have a life. School. My internship. I can't stay under house arrest, living in fear every time I look out the window."

Maybe that remark isn't meant as a slap against Chris's recent behavior but he takes it as such to vent some of his frustration. "I don't consider looking after my son's well-being and safety hindering his ability to live, Mr. McCoy."

McCoy stiffens, firing back, "Then why's Jim so miserable?"

Pike's mouth forms a thin line.

McCoy sighs again. "I'm sorry, Chris. I don't know how to finesse this. I'm not sure I should. Jim has needed your support, possibly more than I can express... but there comes a point where needs change. It's time that Jim regains his independence and relies on his own strength. The recovery is no longer healthy for him if you, as his caretaker, cannot accept that and encourage him."

"I'm not," he starts, stops, his frustration rising. "I can't—" Does McCoy understand how he feels as a parent? How difficult it is to step back when the memories of his child's pain are still so fresh that he has trouble sleeping at night?

"I get it. I wanted stay with him 24/7 too. Almost did until he kicked my ass to the curb." Leonard frowns. "But you know, I thought about that—well, after licking my wounds over being dumped—"

"Jim didn't dump you."

"Now he says that," Jim's boyfriend harrumphs. "My point is Jim has the right to tell us to back off. He should want to, otherwise I'd be worrying about co-dependency issues instead of a troublesome rebellious streak."

Pike has a headache now. He lifts a hand to stall McCoy's next piece of word. "Can we not psycho-analyze my son right now?"

Leonard's mouth twitches. "Jim never told you I have a doctorate in psychology?"

No. No he did not. Damn it, Chris is going to strangle the boy.

Leonard shakes his head in mock sadness. "It's true. I'm an old man dating a young whippersnapper. At least that's what my med school buddies tease me about whenever Jim picks me up for a date. Jim just replies that he likes his men old and crotchety."

Dear god. Chris pinches the bridge of his nose. "More details I can live without, Leonard: your dating experiences with Jim."

Leonard laughs.

Chris likes this nearly-thirty-something. He does. "Age aside, what other details did Spock—"

Pike swallows the rest of his question upon hearing the slamming of the house's front door, which is jarringly loud. The force of it is enough that the windowpane in the kitchen rattles. Pike and McCoy turn to stare through the archway.

"What the hell was that?" Leonard wants to know.

Good question. No one has a key to the front door except—

"KIIIRK!"

Archer. Oh shit. Jonathan yelling at that volume is never a good sign.

"Just got a shiver down my spine," mutters McCoy, hurriedly draining his mug like the coffee will provide fortification for what is to come. He rises from the table to join Pike.

Before Chris has a chance to begin his investigation of the disturbance, a streak of color rushes through the archway into the kitchen, crying, "Dad!"

Jim stops short of knocking into Pike and twists his father around until Pike is shielding him. Chris barely has time to overcome his surprise, for the thing that Jim has fled from bursts into the kitchen with an angry roar.

This blanket monster has a distinctly hat-shaped head, a gun holster, and flailing limbs.

Archer rips off the blankets that had been thrown over his head with the snarl, "Where is he?"

Leonard prudently steps behind Pike as well.

"Outta my way, Pike," the sheriff growls, looking a little too wild-eyed. "I'm going to throttle him!"

"I didn't bring any sedatives," Leonard whispers in Chris's ear.

"Try to remain calm." Normally reserved for psychopaths and lynching mobs, Chris employs his best voice of reason. "Jonathan, let's talk this through. Why don't you take a seat?"

"Screw talking." Jon rips his gun holster off, gun still clipped in place, and tosses it aside like a toy. "Gonna do this with my bare hands, Kirk." He approaches them, hands curled before him like an actual monster's—or like those of a man driven beyond endurance.

Chris's tone turns steely. "Jon, I said sit down."

"Uh, Dad," Jim says from behind him, "I don't think he hears you."

"Fuck," Pike mutters, and warns his charges, "Brace yourselves."

Jonathan leaps at them. At the last second Chris spins them out of the way, latching onto one of Archer's arm and twisting it behind the man in a move that pins Archer against the table.

"Living room, now!" he barks at Kirk and McCoy, his voice brooking no disobedience. They waste no time in heeding the order, scrambling to put distance between them and the crazy man struggling against Pike's hold.

Chris leans over Archer, using his weight as extra leverage to keep the man pinned down. "Jonathan, stop. I will break your arm."

"Your son," Archer grits out, "needs a walloping!"

"Then I'll be the one to wallop him. Is that clear?"

The man bucks one last time, then curses and goes still. A long, tense minute passes before Chris releases him.

Archer straightens up with a grunt of pain and a hand to his back. "Damn it, Christopher. What'd I tell you about bending me over stuff?"

Chris raises an eyebrow. "That you like it?"

Jon turns to him, face flushed by anger and something more. "Oh. Yeah. Maybe later?"

"Maybe never unless you tell me why you're so determined to kick Jim's ass."

Archer closes his eyes, visibly struggling with the vestiges of his rage. When he opens his eyes again, his gaze is a little clearer, sharper, than before. "That's between me and Kirk."

Chris watches the man a moment longer, his brain furiously extrapolating information based on the facts McCoy had shared with him earlier. He doesn't like the conclusion. But rather than tipping his hand, he remarks mildly, "Then you'll have to get in line, Sheriff. My grievance with Kirk comes first."

The rage in Archer's eyes dissipates completely, replaced by undisguised interest. "What did he do to piss you off?"

Having succeeded in reining in Archer's temper, Chris feels free to release his own. "Lie to me."

Abruptly he turns on his heel and marches to the living room.

Jim's worried "Dad?" is genuine but the young man pulls up short when he notices his father's expression. It is McCoy who takes a position in front of Pike without any hesitation and declares, "Time out."

"I don't think so, Leonard."

Wariness flickers through McCoy's eyes but he doesn't back down. "I'm calling a 'time out'. No more fighting. From this moment on, whatever issue needs to be addressed among the four of us is to be discussed rationally. That means without," he adds pointedly to Archer who comes through the archway, "violence."

"That's ironic coming from the guy who tried to beat up my son an hour ago," Chris says.

Leonard flushes. "I was upset. Jim forgives me."

Jim nods earnestly. "I forgive him."

Jon comes abreast of Pike and stops there. "But I'm not feeling so forgiving. You crossed one line too many, Kirk. I want answers."

Jim's whole countenance changes, shutters. "I don't know what you're talking about, Sheriff."

"The fuck you do!"

"I don't take orders from you."

Chris has to place a hand against Archer's chest when Jonathan lurches forward, throwing out an accusatory "No, you think you give orders! Well I'm not some goddamn puppet that dances to your tune!"

Jim smirks. "And here I thought you had pretty good rhythm."

"James," Chris cuts in, "that's enough."

"Fuck," mutters Archer, repeating the word with feeling several times. He paces back to the archway before he returns to Pike's side and nearly begs, "Just let me take him out back for a few minutes, straighten this shit out."

"No, Jon."

"Damn it, Pike, what's the point of talking? Your boy's going to mock everything I say!"

"Jim won't do that."

"I totally will," Jim counters. When a nonplussed Pike and McCoy stare at him, he relents with "Fine, whatever." To Archer, "I apologize."

Jon doesn't look appeased. "You don't even know what to be sorry for."

Jim shrugs. "Does it matter?"

"It sure as hell does. I'm the town sheriff, Mr. Kirk. You can't stomp all over my authority whenever you feel like it." He narrows his eyes. "Even if you think you've got probable cause."

That particular wording strikes Pike as odd. "Does this have anything to do with Jim's friends trying to identify his attackers?"

Jonathan turns to stare dumbly at him. "You know?"

Jim suddenly finds his slippered feet very fascinating.

"I'm the one who knows," Leonard interjects, "and since I owe Pike, I told him."

Jim now finds Leonard fascinating. "What do you owe Dad?"

"Your father very kindly agreed to update me on your recovery since—you know, Jim," McCoy turns sarcastic, "you broke up with me."

Jim's shoulders snap back. "I didn't break up with you, Bones." His voice becomes fierce. "We're not breaking up."

"And farther down the rabbit hole we go," deadpans Archer. "Kiddo, you need to stop screwing with us and 'fess up."

That, Chris knows, is entirely the wrong approach to take with Jim. He punches Archer's arm.

"Hey!" the man exclaims, surprised by the action.

Leonard chastises them, "I said no fighting."

Chris just tucks his hands into his pants pockets. Behind Leonard, Jim smirks.

Checkmate, Pike thinks. "Jimmy, I'm worried. Doesn't working against Archer's department create an additional exposure for your team?"

Jim chews his bottom lip. "Not... not in this case, Dad."

"Why?"

At exactly the wrong moment, Jon figures out what Chris is up to and echoes, "Yeah, what he said."

Jim clams up. Chris contemplates punching Jonathan again; this time he would mean it.

Coming from the opposite end of the house where he had likely been napping, Porthos ambles into the living room. He wags his tail upon spying all the new visitors.

Jon points at Jim and orders the dog, "Get him, Porthos!"

Porthos goes to Leonard instead and lays on top of the man's feet.

Jim crosses his arms. "There's your evidence, Archer. You're a sheriff who can't even train his own pet. So why are you surprised that we can't trust you and yours?"

Jonathan's face goes blank, as if Jim had struck a nerve. "You're full of shit, Kirk. My team's golden."

Jim's gaze becomes hooded. "We both know that's a lie."

"I could punch you."

Jim's laugh is humorless. "Do your worst."

Chris has the sick feeling that is exactly what Jim said to the gang members when they donned their brass knuckles and retrieved their steel pipes. He has to break this up before it devolves into something worse. Trying for an unconcerned air, he shakes his head and heads to the couch. Porthos quickly follows, jumping into Pike's lap once Pike is seated so that Pike can stroke his head since McCoy had offered the dog no affection.

"Jim," he says, "if you and Archer have finished with the posturing, come over here. Leonard has a point. I'm willing to discuss this—and to listen to what you have to say."

At length Jim's gaze breaks away from his father's boyfriend. He joins Pike on the couch, gladly accepting Porthos when Chris transfers the dog to his son's lap. Porthos rolls onto his back and sticks his legs in the air. Jim obligingly rubs his belly.

Jonathan momentarily closes his eyes, then moves to sit in the recliner. McCoy is the only one left standing.

"Anybody want a drink?" Leonard asks, then pauses to consider his surroundings. "Is there anything to drink in this house?"

"Scotch," Archer answers quickly. "Leave the glass, bring the bottle."

"Sorry, we're a dry house at the moment," Chris informs McCoy. "I threw out the scotch."

Archer falls back. "Just kill me now."

Chris's reply has a distinct lack of sympathy. "You have to be sober to be rational, Jon."

"I'd say 'bite me' but then you wouldn't, Chris, and I'd be so disappointed." The skin around Archer's eyes becomes pinched. "Not gonna lie. I'm nearly out of patience."

"Try. For me."

Jonathan rocks in the recliner a moment before nodding. The face he turns to Kirk is eerily composed. "How much do you know, and how long have you been lying about it?"

Jim stares at Archer for the longest time without replying.

Chris sighs internally. "James, we'll stay here for as long as it takes you to answer."

"What he said," Leonard seconds, folding his arms across his chest.

Jim looks away briefly, like he knows he has been boxed in but cannot quite give up on the possibility of escape. The explanation comes slowly: "It's true there's a... search underway. We believe there's an informant. Archer is angry because the informant is possibly one of his own." He meets his father's gaze.

"An informant from within," Chris remarks softly. "That is a serious accusation, son."

"Which is why we decided to wait until we had evidence."

Though Jon appears calm, his grip on the recliner's arms speaks of serious inner turmoil. "Kirk plotted to lure this informant out by feeding my team false information and perpetrating a fake scavenger hunt. One would think that upsets me... but it doesn't. In fact I would almost agree that it's rather ingenious from a tactical perspective."

"Then what's your problem, Sheriff?" Jim demands.

"You," Jon answers flatly. He leans forward, his attention entirely on Kirk. "You could have caught him faster by telling me, by asking for my help. Even if I thought you were crazy, Jim, you know I would have helped you just to prove you wrong. Yet you didn't tell me."

Jim stiffens.

"Because," Jonathan concludes, "you couldn't convince yourself I am not the informant."

Chris's mouth goes dry.

Leonard sucks in a quick breath. "Jim, you didn't...?"

A muscle in Jim's cheek twitches. "If the shoe fits, Bones."

The bottom has dropped out, and all Chris could do is lean forward to brace his elbows on his thighs and put his head in his hands.

"Damn it, Jim!" Leonard explodes. "How many times do I have tell you that Archer is on our side?"

Jim jumps to his feet without warning, dislodging Porthos who scrambles to land upright on the floor. "I'm not doing this out of spite!" he yells. "Facts add up!" He points at Jon. "Fact one: you hate my guts."

Chris thought they had gotten past this. Had he only imagined Jim and Jon getting along?

"Fact two: you want my dad. I'm standing in your way."

Jim, Chris thinks despairingly.

"And fact three," Jim finishes with deadly intensity, "you, Sheriff, were the only person who knew where I planned to be that night."

Archer lays a hand over his eyes. "Oh fuck."

Chris looks up, asking sharply, "What are you talking about?"

"Fuck," Jon says again. "He's right."

Pike holds up a hand, stalling anything else of an incriminating nature that Jon might say. To Jim, he orders, "Explain."

"The night I was attacked..." Jim swallows. Leonard moves to stand beside him, and Kirk starts again. "That night I knew I was being followed. There were two of them with the blue tattoos."

Chris shakes his head as if to deny what's coming.

"When I walked out of that store, I thought I could find out who sent them. I didn't know it was an ambush."

Jon rakes his fingers through his hair. "Son of a bitch."

Chris has gone numb. "Your statement said you exited the store and were overpowered by four men in the parking lot. Your assailants forced you into an unmarked van."

"That's true."

"Omission is the same as lying!" Chris bursts out angrily. "You know better!" He comes to his feet, trembling all over. "Like you knew you should have stayed inside that store, in public, and reported being tailed. God-fucking-damn it, James! You could have been killed!"

"Dad—"

"No."

"Chris," Jon says, also taken aback by Pike's anger.

"NO."

Jim swallows hard. "I made a mistake."

Pike crowds his son. "This is above and beyond a mistake. Your reckless bravado and your disregard for the rules nearly cost you your life! Only the fact that those bastards didn't want to kill you saved you. Do you know how much that terrifies me?"

"I know."

"I don't think you do, James. I don't think you truly understand why I'm this furious. So what is it going to take for you to learn, huh? Getting someone else beaten within an inch of his life?" Chris stares down at his shocked son. "Should I put myself in that situation?"

Leonard grabs Jim around the shoulders when the man lurches unsteadily to his feet, reaching for Pike on instinct yet faltering before they touched.

"You don't mean that," Jim argues, his pale face and wide eyes suggesting he believes otherwise.

Jon leaves the recliner to draw Pike back. "He doesn't mean it."

"I do," Chris states, suddenly feeling quite calm. "If I have to die to teach you how to live, Jim, I will." Then he steps around Archer and walks away.

"Go after him," Chris hears Leonard say. He doesn't need to look back to know that Leonard is trying his best to soften the blow of his cold words.

~~~

Jonathan doesn't question why he is taking orders from someone half his age. He hurries after Pike, unnerved and somewhat frightened to have heard the promise in Pike's voice. The man in question is frowning at his reflection in the bathroom mirror when Jonathan finds him. Closing the door behind him, despite that their voices aren't likely to carry to the rest of the house, Jon studies the man who has hard lines on his face and sadness in his eyes.

A minute passes, then another.

Jonathan reaches past Pike to open the medicine cabinet beside the mirror and rummage through it. He picks out something and throws it into the nearby trash can. The distraction is successful. After a moment of watching Archer continue to throw objects away, Pike wants to know, "What are you doing?"

"Taking preemptive action," Jon explains, determined to rid the bathroom of every sharp object he can find. "That was some kamikaze shit you just pulled in there, so goodbye razor blades, sleeping pills, and belts to hold up your pants."

Chris rocks back on his heels. When Jon unearths the bottle of sleeping medication, he grabs Archer's wrist. "Don't be ridiculous, Jon. I don't need to be on suicide watch." Pike places the bottle back inside the cabinet. "I'm not going anywhere."

Jon drops his hands to his sides. "Can you promise me that, Christopher?"

Pike opens his mouth—and closes it again without saying anything.

"Didn't think so." Jon's tone becomes grim. "So let me give you a promise instead. When you go after Nero, I'm going with you."

Pike blinks, then slowly, genuinely smiles. "Okay."

The tension inside Jon eases somewhat. That had been easier than he expected.

Chris looks him over. "Can I ask a question?"

"Sure. Ask."

"Jim said you knew his whereabouts the night he was attacked. Could you elaborate on that?"

Jon nods after a moment. This secret he can tell, perhaps should have told long ago. "It's not as bad as he was thinking... but it's not good either. I asked Jim to go there." Guilt washes over him anew. "Bribed him, actually."

Chris just watches him. "Why?"

"Ironically, I needed him to pick out something you would want for our six-month anniversary. I was coming up short on ideas." Archer's shoulders slump. "But see how well that turned out? I nearly gifted you with a dead son instead of a pretty pocket watch."

Chris's expression softens. "Jon."

Jonathan is a little weirded out when he is reeled into a hard hug.

"It's not your fault," his lover says into his shoulder.

Hearing that drives the knife in deeper. How can Chris be so forgiving? Here is yet another reason in a long list that Jonathan shouldn't be part of his life. Denial is on the tip of Archer's tongue but he swallows it down and forces himself to chuckle instead. Pulling away from Pike, he clasps the man's shoulder in a friendly manner and thanks him. The disappointment which flashes through Pike's eyes is a surprise.

Following an awkward pause, Pike replies, "You're welcome."

Jon clears his throat. "Want to go hug it out with your kid now? Ten minutes should be enough mental torture."

Jim's father frowns. "Sometimes I don't understand you, Jon. Why do you think you can torture him all you like but I should take pity?"

"Because you're the one person who could really damage him," is Jon's soft answer. "I didn't think you wanted that."

Chris shakes his head. "I don't. All I've ever wanted is Jimmy to grow up knowing someone cares about him. I used to believe that was all it took—a single person to make a difference in someone's life. Lately, I'm not so sure."

Jon cups the side of the face he cares about so much, brushing his thumb along a cheekbone. "If it helps, you've made all the difference in mine."

Chris smiles again. "Ditto."

Jon turns him around to face the closed door and gives him an encouraging push forward. "Yonder wayward offspring awaits, milord. Deliver unto him the product of his misfortune!" He stage-whispers, "That means kick some serious ass, Princess."

"Jonathan," comes the dry response, "you are truly one of a kind."

"And patented," he says with a wink, following the man out of the bathroom.

~~~

Jim has his head down between his knees. McCoy is patting his back.

Chris feels awful. However he knows that he can't—and won't—take back what he said.

"Jim."

Jim's head comes up slightly.

"From now on," Chris tells his son, "don't lie. Don't omit the truth."

"Okay," Jim whispers.

"Above all, don't risk your life unless there is absolutely no alternative. You are not invulnerable. Do you understand?"

Jim nods and sits up. "I understand, Dad."

Pike lowers his head for a moment, as if in prayer. Then he opens his arms. "C'mere."

Jim holds onto him tightly, and Chris shifts to make certain that he prevents the others from seeing his son's silent tears.

Leonard stands up, looking tired and worn. "I wish you hadn't thrown that scotch out, Mr. Pike."

"We'll survive," Chris replies, rubbing a hand along his boy's spine. "How about a glass of water for Jim?"

McCoy nods, understanding the message to give them time alone, and wanders to the kitchen. Archer, who leans against the wall of the living room, watches them for a few seconds more before he quietly disappears toward the kitchen too.

Jim shudders once and brings his arm up to swipe it across his eyes.

Pike gives him a final pat and steps back. "I'm sorry for losing my temper."

"I deserved it," Jim replies. "I was dumb."

"You're young. You're still learning, son, but I... I want to save you some of the pain that comes with learning, if I can."

Jim looks at him. "Then don't die."

He swallows. "You know that's a promise I can't make."

"Dad."

"Jim, I love you. I believe in you. Let that be enough."

Jim looks away.

Chris runs a hand down the boy's arm in understanding. Jim has had so many people leave him behind. It pains Pike to know that one day he'll be one of them. But maybe, just maybe, he can ensure that Jim has enough family around him to carry on.

He says, out of the blue, "You shouldn't let McCoy get away."

Jim snuffles and murmurs, "I didn't plan on him going far."

"Maybe you should marry him."

Jim's head snaps around.

Chris coughs and pretends those words did not just pop out of his mouth. What is he thinking? "What's taking that boy so long? I asked him to bring a glass of water, not walk to the store and buy it!"

Jim's cheeks are flushed. "Dad..."

Chris chuckles nervously. How in heck can he get Jim to stop looking at him like he just promised Christmas months early?

Obviously sent from the heavens to answer his prayers, a grumbling McCoy comes out of the kitchen. Archer follows not far behind, looking smug.

Jim's attention immediately switches to Leonard, his eyes alight.

Poor McCoy, thinks Pike. Little does Leonard know that Chris just offered him up as the Christmas present.

"Bones," Jim says.

Leonard shoves a glass into Kirk's hand, completely oblivious to his boyfriend's expression, and makes his second declaration of the day: "Listen up. This is what we're going to do."

"Why does he keep taking charge?" Jon whispers to Pike once they are side by side.

Chris shrugs.

Leonard eyes them warily. "We need perspective and distance. Therefore we're all going to sit down to dinner and talk about the mundane—"

Jon interrupts, "Define mundane."

McCoy glares at him. "—and forget this shitty business for one night. Then everybody's going to bed. Archer, you're in charge of Mr. Pike. Do whatever you have to to make him sleep."

Jonathan snaps to attention. "Yes, sir!"

Chris doesn't know what to make of the calculating look Archer turns upon him.

"And, Jim—" Leonard fixes a no-nonsense stare on Kirk. "—I'll handle you."

Jim mutters, "I don't need to be handled," but his eyes are still shining.

Leonard misses that gleam in Kirk's eyes. "If you don't shut up, I'm going to kick you all night."

Jim mimes zipping his mouth shut.

"In the morning," Leonard finishes, "we can reconvene to talk strategy." Pausing, he frowns. "Should I call Spock?"

Jim offers, "I can do that."

Leonard closes his eyes. "Thank god."

"Bones?"

Leonard opens his eyes and looks guilty. "I might have said some very rude things to Spock... and punched him."

Chris's eyebrows go up. Jim's eyes widen.

Archer is the only one who offers McCoy a thumbs-up. "Way to go, Sour Patch. Been wanting to knock that annoying snot down a peg or two myself. Did he cry?"

"Of course he didn't cry," Leonard retorts. Then he sneaks a glance at Jim. "I did offer to fix his bloody nose afterwards, but he wouldn't let me."

Chris understands Jim's heartfelt sigh. Jim had been working diligently for the last few months to improve relations between Spock and Leonard. Pike hopes this flash of tempers does not lead to an unfortunate backslide of that progress. He wants Jim's friends to support him well, which means they need to present a unified front. Enemies, even occasional enemies, can never have the level of trust necessary to achieve that.

"I'll call him," Jim says again, more firmly this time.

"Tell him to bring the team for a full debriefing," Chris amends.

"Great!" Jon rubs his hands together. "That's settled. How about we hurry up with dinner so we can get to that sleeping part?" He waggles his eyebrows suggestively at Pike.

The return of fire to Jim's eyes is a welcome sight. Chris could have told Jim that Jon literally means "to sleep" but frankly he is glad to see his son worked up about something so silly. Though he would never tell Jon or Jim how alike they are, that doesn't mean the similarities don't tickle him.

He walks forward and lays a hand on his son's shoulder. "Why don't we relocate to the kitchen now?"

Jim's expression turns hopeful. "Chinese?"

For the briefest moment, Chris's eyes are tear-bright. "Whatever you want, son."

McCoy's frown deepens. "Now wait a minute. Chinese isn't the healthiest—"

"It has vegetables," Kirk points out too innocently.

Chris is definitely on Jim's side. "My son can have what he wants as long as he promises to eat everything we put on his plate."

Jim nods. "I can do that. What do you say, Bones? Join us?"

Leonard purses his mouth. "I suppose." He looks to Chris. "But I get to decide what goes on his plate."

"Be my guest, Leonard. I've been dying to hand off responsibility for Jim's eating habits to someone else for years." He tweaks his son's hair with affection.

Jim cuts his eyes between them. "I'm not that bad."

"Twinkies," says Leonard.

"Dipped in Coca-cola, I hear," adds Pike.

Jim ducks his head and shuffles his feet, muttering, "Whatever."

Archer, who had returned momentarily to the kitchen, reappears beside Pike with two coats and a Chinese take-out menu in hand. The menu he shoves at McCoy; the extra coat he wraps around Pike's shoulders. "Call in the order. Princess and I will go pick it up."

Chris tenses without meaning to. "Jon, you don't need me to..." His objection falters when he finds himself under the scrutiny of three different stares.

Jon commands in no uncertain terms, "You're leaving this house, Christopher. Whether it's on your own two feet or over my shoulder, that will be your choice."

Leonard is more sympathetic. "I'll stay with Jim."

He must look panicked because it's Jim who leans into him. "It's okay, Dad. I'll be okay."

Hands gently steer him towards the front door. Chris glances back to see that Leonard has taken up the position next to Jim and tucked an arm around Jim's waist. Jim says something to McCoy, and the remaining line of stress between Leonard's eyebrows vanishes. He pokes Jim in the collarbone. Jim uses that as an invitation to draw Leonard in.

Jon shifts to block Pike's view of the pair and holds open the front door. He remarks in a quiet voice, "This time alone will be good for them."

Jonathan is right, of course. With a soft sigh, Chris steps out of the house. "I don't know if I can do this," he admits once the door is closed behind them.

Jon slips an arm across his shoulders. "You're stronger than you think. Let me help you."

He looks to the man who means a great deal to him, who has offered unfailing support through one of the worst experiences of his life. "What did I do to deserve you?"

"That's a question I ask myself all the time."

Chris huffs. "I hope you meant it in the reverse."

Archer just grins, leading him to the truck stamped with the emblem of County Sheriff.

Chris's anxiety nearly overwhelms when they back out of the driveway, but Jonathan takes a hold of his hand without being asked and the fear loosens its grip to the point that he can hear Jon talking. He tries to focus on that, until eventually, long after they turn the street corner, he is able to pull his gaze away from the rearview mirror. The anxiety is still there inside him, ever the sleeping beast, but no longer a constant threat. That gives him hope; maybe he can conquer it some day.

At last the gist of Archer's conversation seeps into Christopher's brain. Startled and certain he couldn't have heard things correctly, he asks Jon, "What did you just say?"

"Oh, just that I knew you had the hots for me back at the Academy."

Damn, he had heard the man correctly. "I never had the hots for you. You were an arrogant prick. Or did you forget that time I almost shot you?"

"You wanted my attention."

"I wanted you to stop stalking me."

"Christopher," Jon says in mock surprise, "that was hardly stalking!"

"Then what was it?"

Archer squeezes Pike's hand. "Hapless courtship."

Chris opens his mouth to make a retort and surprises himself by saying instead, "You should have told me you were interested."

"I know. What a dumb kid I was." Jonathan rumbles after a moment, "Chris?"

Pike settles back into the passenger seat, more at ease than he thought possible. Yes, he can handle this separation from Jim after all. In baby steps. Jim can move back out when he's forty. "What?"

Jon turns to look at him. "I'm interested."

Chris studies him a moment before chiding lightly, "Eyes on the road, Sheriff." When Archer faces away, he confesses, "I like you too."

"Good to know," the man murmurs.

Chris pushes the issue of Jim aside and reflects on his long history with Archer. The memories warm him, and he thinks that it has been some time since he felt this way, maybe since that one work partner he fondly called his "Number One". Back then he might have even loved her—

Oh.

Oh.

He turns his head to study Archer's profile.

When did he fall in love with Jonathan?

"What?" Jon asks curiously. "Do I have something on my face?"

"It's nothing," Chris responds at length, though he can't help tighten his grip on Archer's hand. For the first time in his life, he is uncertain of the timing, doesn't know when or how he is supposed to express this newfound feeling. The detective in him wants to investigate further before deciding on a course of action.

Yes, it can wait, he tells himself. After all, Jon has made it very clear he is not leaving Chris's side anytime soon.

In hindsight, that is a decision Christopher Pike will come to regret deeply.

The End