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Posted June 20, 2009

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Fan Fiction: Relieving Pressure

Title: Relieving Pressure

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Disclaimer: Property of Roddenberry, Paramount, JJ Abrams, etc. Alas.

Rating: PG-13.

Summary: By the fourth morning Christopher Pike wakes up in the sickbay of the USS Enterprise, he is heartily sick of his surroundings, his circumstances, his own emotional reactions to the above, and just about every other facet of his current existence. 4900 words.

Spoilers: Star Trek XI (2009)

Notes: The original draft of this chapter was about a third as long, and started with the Kirk conversation; but then Bones stuck his nose in, and Pike ran away with my muse, as usual. This comes between "Pressing Sail" and "But Not Jim Kirk" in my sequence of gap fillers.

By the fourth morning Christopher Pike wakes up in the sickbay of the USS Enterprise, he is heartily sick of his surroundings, his circumstances, his own emotional reactions to the above, and just about every other facet of his current existence. It does him no good to have an active communications console and every bit of data in the computer banks at his disposal, when what he really craves is the hum of the ship's engines under his boots and the controls of his command chair at his fingertips. Or at the very least, if he can't have the stars, then the wind of Earth in his hair: the taste of salt air, the scents of horse and leather, or the sharp metal-and-ozone reek of a shipyard in full operation.

An argument with the irascible Dr. McCoy about the more unpleasant side effects of the neuro-treatment drugs has to suffice instead, followed by a long, half-unspoken conversation over subspace relay with Number One. His former First claims the dark shadows under her eyes are from recent long shifts patrolling the increasingly unstable Neutral Zone; he knows better, from the restrained quiver in her lip and the tightening of the lines around her eyes when she first sees him, but he doesn't call her out on her lie. Given present political realities, it will be a long time before Command calls the Yorktown back to Starbase One, and they both know it. For the moment, it has to be enough that she knows he didn't die with the rest of the Home Fleet at Vulcan, and that he knows she is still holding the line.

He spends the rest of the morning firing communiqués back and forth all over the quadrant, touching other contacts in the 'Fleet for news on the general mood, both aboard ship and in the Federation at large. It paints a picture both brighter and darker, depending on locale, than what he'd heard from Barnett and the rest of the brass back at HQ; even the ones farther out, whose messages take hours to return, have heard about the massacre and the species identity of the attackers. So much for any long deep-space missions in the foreseeable future. Whatever Enterprise's stated mission in the coming years, she'll likely spend at least as much time showing the flag and defending vulnerable member worlds as pushing the boundaries of exploration.

As if that isn't depressing enough, right in the middle of the flurry of replies the final casualty lists from the Battle of Vulcan arrive in his message queue.

Pike stares at the header on the information packet for several moments, wondering whether it would be easier to just open the thing and get it over with or put it off until he can dredge up a little more emotional fortitude. It is directed simply to "Captain, USS Enterprise," a title most of the crew are still rather liberally applying to Kirk as well as himself, but a quick check of the electronic fingerprint shows that Communications hasn't forwarded that particular memorandum to the younger officer yet. As if it will hit Pike, who'd probably recruited a good third of the names on those lists, any less harshly than it would the man who'd attended the Academy with most of them.

Thank God the Enterprise's transporters had come up in time to rescue at least a few escape pods before Vulcan and everything in its immediate vicinity had been sucked into the newly formed black hole. The Narada's attack had been sudden, thorough, and hadn't spared any of the command crews, but a sparse few younger officers and crewmen had survived long enough to be picked up during the rush to rescue as many Vulcan children, teachers, and other centrally-gathered prioritized individuals they could; a handful of precious flowers salvaged from a sudden frost. Pike sighs, makes a mental note to make sure commendations are heaped upon the overworked crews manning the secondary transporter rooms and shuttlecraft bays, and reaches to tap the screen and bring up the file.

Before his finger can make contact with its smooth surface, however, an authoritative voice interrupts. "I know that expression," Dr. McCoy says, standing just inside the door of Pike's isolation room with arms crossed over his chest and a hypospray held loosely in one hand. "I've seen it on Jim often enough. So whatever it is you're working yourself up for, you can either pass it off to him or set it aside for later."

"I can, can I?" Pike replies, a mixture of amusement and irritation tugging at the corner of his mouth. He hates being treated like an invalid, even when he technically is one.

"You can, and you will," McCoy corrects himself, frowning at him and gesturing in a vaguely ominous manner with the hypospray. "Just because you're feeling a lot clearer doesn't mean your neurochemistry isn't still out of whack, not to mention a large percentage of your motor nerve responses. Brainstem injury isn't something to mess around with. If you stress yourself into making the problem worse before I get you back to Starfleet Medical, Dr. Boyce will have my hide."

The amusement wins out; Pike can well imagine the messages that must be flying between Phil and the Enterprise's acting CMO. No wonder he hadn't got through to his friend earlier in the day. McCoy has been something of a protégé of Phil's ever since the doctor slash bartender retired from starship travel to take over Starfleet Academy's medical program, but neither man is the type to mince words, and Phil hadn't liked the idea of Pike going off into space again with any physician but himself, not even the experienced and well-recommended Dr. Puri.

"I'll take that under advisement," Pike says, then narrows his eyes at McCoy as something else occurs to him. "In the meantime, perhaps there's something you can help me with, doctor."

McCoy's scowl deepens noticeably, but not in his direction; the nearest bulkhead takes the brunt of it instead. "If it's to do with Jim, don't worry, I'm keeping tabs on him. I plan on tackling him again after your lunch meeting unless something more urgent comes up; Sulu's perfectly capable of holding the conn for a few hours while I knock him out and run him under the dermal regen a few more times. He'll be pretty again in plenty of time for the cameras, you'll see."

Pike can't help but raise his eyebrows at that. McCoy couldn't be farther from the subject he wants to address-- but he supposes it does relate, in a way, and it is good that someone is policing Kirk's health while the Acting First Officer is busy trying to be in twelve places at once. "That... wasn't actually my first concern," he says carefully, "but I appreciate your tactical foresight. I'd actually been meaning to ask about something else-- you mentioned yesterday that Lieutenant Chapel and some of the other junior officers were working on an informal counseling arrangement for the worst-hit crew members?"

McCoy nods, forbidding expression fading into something genuinely troubled. "Yeah. Most of the crew's holding up pretty well, and Jim's been keeping them busy with repairs and such, but more and more of them are going to start crashing now that things are calming down and we're in contact with Earth again. Several people have come in for help, or been brought in by their shiftmates and friends, but we've been concerned about the ones who aren't reaching out to others."

"Will you see to it that they get this, then?" Pike asks, tapping the controls to download a copy of the file onto one of the PADDs scattered on the bedside table. Then he holds it out toward the doctor. "Final 'Fleet casualty lists just came in. I'll get Kirk a copy for the memorial service he's planning to hold before we hit dock, but personal notices ahead of time would probably be a good idea."

McCoy takes it, lines around his mouth deepening as he brings up the list and begins paging through it. "Might be a good idea to break it gently to him, too," he says as he reads. "I don't know if he's thought about it yet, but you know he took that training cruise on the Farragut last year?"

"I'm aware," Pike nods. Starfleet makes a habit of offering such opportunities to promising command-track cadets, though Kirk's penchant for accumulating demerits as quickly as he does academic honors had nearly kept him off the list. Pike's recommendation-- and the Farragut's need to replace nearly a third of her crew in the aftermath of the disaster that had taken the life of her previous Captain and left her in spacedock for several months-- had made sure he got that chance. "Captain Chenoweth is an old Academy acquaintance of mine; we had some... colorful conversations about Kirk's time aboard."

"I'll just bet you did," McCoy snorts. "So then you know about...." The doctor pauses and frowns at the screen in his hands, scrolling the display back and forth with a heavy thumb. "Well, that's interesting. No Lieutenant Mitchell. But if he's not a casualty, and he's not one of the few we rescued, then where the hell is he? Last Jim said, he was still assigned there."

"Alive somewhere else, one hopes," Pike replies, finally opening the list on his own screen. So many names-- so many lost, enough that they threaten to blur from individual tragedies into one brutal statistic-- but he won't do them that disservice, won't skim over them. All he can give them now is a moment of his time; and they deserve at least that much respect. "Unlike all too many others."

McCoy stops scrolling again on his own list, pausing on a name Pike can't see; he looks away briefly, swallowing, then lowers the PADD to his side, switching it off with abrupt movements. "Tell me about it," he agrees, roughly. "Anyone who escaped that mess deserves a celebration-- even if it is Gary goddamn Mitchell."

Pike lets that line of conversation drop; he isn't the only one nursing raw emotional nerves, nor is Kirk the only unexpectedly-senior officer who's stayed on duty at virtually all hours since the attacks. All of the reconstituted command crew have been pushing their limits; if they weren't all so horribly young, they'd have started dropping days ago. "See to it that Lieutenant Chapel gets that list-- and get yourself some lunch before Kirk arrives with mine, if you're going to deal with him afterward."

McCoy acknowledges the statement with a nod, but doesn't retreat. "First things first, though." He gestures with the hypospray he'd been wielding when he'd arrived, and Pike sighs in irritated consent as McCoy leans in to whip the instrument against his neck.

"Don't spend all your time staring at that screen; doctor's orders. I'll be back to check on you in an hour."

Pike watches him go, then pinches the bridge of his nose against the frustrations of the situation at hand and the low-level discomfort still plaguing him despite the medications. Then he turns his attention back to the list, doctor's orders or no. There are some things that simply have to be done.

His eyes drift shut somewhere around the nine hundredth name.

He is feeling somewhat better despite the unintentional nap by the time the door swishes open for Kirk, bearing a pair of bowls full of something aromatic but largely unidentifiable.

"Hey, Captain. Sorry about the food," he offers with an apologetic grin as he sets the tray, a spoon, and one of the bowls down where Pike can reach them. "Scotty's been stealing replicator circuits to patch up some of the other damaged systems, so as of an hour ago we only have stew, breakfast stew, vegetarian stew, and murky coffee to choose from. It all tastes okay, but you're probably better off not trying to imagine what went into it."

"Too late," Pike snorts, bemused, then picks up the spoon and takes a careful sample. The taste is better than he'd been expecting, though the texture leaves something to be desired, and his hand shakes only a little with the effort. Kirk turns to his own meal as Pike takes the next bite, carefully not paying attention. Pike finds himself simultaneously annoyed and grateful for the consideration, and quashes both irksome reactions by working on emptying the bowl as swiftly as he can.

"So," he opens the informal meeting between bites. "Aside from the replicators, what's the status of ship's systems? Was Mr. Scott able to improve the performance of the impulse engines?"

Kirk nods. "We're running at two-thirds power now; he's not enthused about the idea of pushing it any higher due to the structural damage we took, but we can probably get up to ninety percent in a pinch if we have to. We just can't stay there very long."

"Here's hoping we don't have to," Pike sighs. It's unlikely that the Romulans or the Klingons-- or any other antagonistic party eager to take advantage of a perceived Federation weakness-- will attack in the next few days, but Pike's learned from long experience that nothing in space is certain. "And the weapons systems?" he asks.

"Phasers are back online, but we seriously depleted the stock of photon torpedoes," Kirk replies, frowning pensively. "There weren't many loaded to begin with, since Enterprise's first mission was supposed to be a shakedown cruise; but I didn't realize that until after we'd dealt with Nero."

"Why did you fire on his ship after the Red Matter ignited?" Pike asks, setting his spoon down in his half-empty bowl. "If you'd backed off and let the black hole take care of destroying them, we'd be in spacedock already."

He'd avoided asking that question during their earlier conversation about Kirk's riskier actions; unlike his 'leaps without looking', that had plainly been a considered order. It is not one the Admiralty is likely to officially fault the then-Acting Captain for, but his rationale for the decision is likely to affect their collective opinion of him and the path of his future career. The offer of assistance given before the order to fire will count in Kirk's favor-- but at first glance, the destruction of the Romulan mining vessel does appear to be a completely unnecessary indulgence, and that will not.

Kirk seems to realize the seriousness of the question; his gaze is steady and focused as he answers. "I didn't like the look of that singularity; it was another 'lightning storm in space', not like the black hole that swallowed Vulcan. I wanted to be really sure Nero couldn't use it to take himself back even further in time, and whatever that huge-ass ship was made of is tougher than the alloys Starfleet uses. I hope the Engineering division sets some good minds on that drill we dropped into the Bay-- we could really learn a lot from their technology."

Pike takes a moment to absorb the implications of Kirk's reply. The Federation hasn't even reached its first centennial yet as a governing body; and the invention of the Terran warp drive is only eighty years older than that. What havoc might Nero have wreaked, had he inserted his ship into that era? It's a miracle this ship and crew were able to defeat him as it is; would Archer and his NX-01 have had any chance? Or Cochrane in his three-man Phoenix? The concept is terrifying.

"Good thinking," he replies, through a suddenly dry throat.

Kirk smiles at that; a quiet, intense little smile that somehow manages to convey both smugness and pleased surprise at the praise. "I don't think it would actually have affected us, either way," he says. "Spock seems to think that the timeline Nero came from is still there, same as before, just minus one middle-aged Vulcan and most of the Romulan Empire. Something about the method of time travel and the severity of the changes made to the timeline; I didn't really follow. What it means, though, is that if Nero had gone back again and fucked up the Federation, we'd never have known. I'd have felt really awful about the poor bastards who did, though."

Pike picks that line of reasoning apart carefully, then rubs at his forehead. He trusts Spock's logic, and feels faintly relieved that they never had actually been in danger of being erased from the timeline, but the entire concept still disturbs him. "Time travel theory always gives me a headache," he complains. "You should discuss it with Admiral Archer sometime; he has some interesting stories of his own."

"Maybe one day," Kirk chuckles. "I'm not all that eager to talk to him again anytime soon; he's probably a little less than impressed with me for rescuing Scotty from his punishment."

"You could always thank him for making sure Mr. Scott was stationed exactly where you would have need of him, and thus being partially responsible for saving the Earth," Pike suggests, wryly.

Kirk raises his eyebrows at that. "I'd like to see his face if I did," he says, "but I think I'll pass."

"Probably wise," Pike replies, then can't resist adding: "Nice to see that you do know the meaning of the word 'prudence'; I'd sometimes wondered."

"Only sometimes?" Kirk fires back, easily, grin brightening.

With a jolt, Pike realizes that he and Kirk have been interacting almost as equals; not that that marks much of a change in Kirk's attitude, but it hadn't even occurred to Pike once during this conversation to be exasperated with him for overstepping his bounds, or for pretending to a level of competency he hadn't yet backed up with action. Kirk is definitely maturing into his responsibilities-- and none too soon, considering.

Pike recalls his conversation with Admiral Barnett, and decides that this is probably the best opportunity he'll get to bring up the subject of what's coming next. 'Starfleet is going to need a heroic image,' Richard had said; 'the captain who led the Enterprise to victory.'

Captain. The idea still leaves a bitter taste in Pike's mouth-- for several reasons-- but he'd rather make sure it goes as smoothly as possible than create additional problems for the ship and its next commanding officer. It's going to be tough on the younger man, and his crew, as it is; the ship's stability is more important than one wounded man's ego and sense of entitlement. Pike can't tell him outright; but he can squeeze in a little more informal command training and evaluation. He would prefer Kirk came to certain conclusions on his own strength, rather than as a knee-jerk reaction to the politicized nonsense the Admiralty will feed him.

He pushes aside his half-eaten lunch and studies the face of his probable replacement. There's a good foundation there, he's often thought; the openness and ability to lead his father had possessed, sharpened by hardship and sheer determination into a force that will shape the future of Starfleet one way or another. Recruiting him had been a gamble, but also, in some ways, an act of faith. One that he hopes will never prove to be misplaced.

Kirk frowns and pushes his own, emptied bowl aside as he catches Pike's change of mood. "Captain?" he prompts.

"Kirk," he replies, solemnly. "Jim. I know I've never been as hands-on with you as with most of the cadets I sponsor into the Academy."

Kirk blinks at that, wide-eyed. "Sir?" he replies. "I-- never noticed."

That, Pike doubts-- far be it from Kirk to admit to anything that might hint at an emotional vulnerability-- but he smiles anyway. "Frankly, you didn't seem to need the extra attention," he explains. "Both because it would feed your already considerable ego, and because you were just that talented. Your marks stayed high, no matter how much carousing you seemed to do, and when you did make a mistake that could impact your Starfleet career you always took the advice I gave you, corrected the problem, and never made that particular error again. Invented creative new ones, sometimes-- hacking the Kobayashi Maru being the most egregious example-- but never repeated them. You're reckless, but not stupid; I've known that since I met you, and I always believed that if you didn't get yourself kicked out of Starfleet first, the recklessness would correct itself with time."

Kirk shifts a little, uncomfortably, in his chair. "I appreciate your confidence in me, sir," he says.

"I wouldn't have called it confidence until the last few days," Pike continues, honestly. "Hope, perhaps. But my evaluation of you is only going to carry so much weight with the rest of the 'Fleet, most of whom have never even had reason to hope you would become a competent starship commander. You're going to have to prove to each and every one of them that you actually deserve the stripes you'll be wearing."

Kirk has located a gold lieutenant's tunic since their last conversation; he fingers the single band absently as he nods in reply. "I understand that, sir," he says, then looks away, staring at the same bulkhead McCoy had glared through earlier that morning. "I knew from the moment I decided to enlist that I was always going to be judged against someone's larger-than-life reputation; I just thought it was going to be my father's, not my own."

"It's not a circumstance unique to you," Pike assures him. "It's something that affects all officers whose careers progress faster than the norm; I was the youngest officially appointed Captain in my day, you know, though obviously not as young as you're going to be."

He winces as he finishes the sentence; in my day, he'd said, as though that 'day' were over. He's been listening to his own worries too much. Perhaps his starship commanding days are finished-- but humans live to be well over a hundred in this technologically advanced age, and he's not going to lay down and die just yet.

"You never know," Kirk shrugs. "I could end up stuck as a Commander for the rest of my career. I've certainly pissed off enough admirals."

Pike wonders what Kirk will say when those self-same admirals award him his new commission. "That's statistically pretty unlikely," he says, then shifts the thread of the conversation. "Speaking of assignments, however-- Command has been asking me for recommendations about the future placement of this crew. Some of the cadets will have coursework to complete, or extra exams to justify a field promotion--" here, he pauses to give Kirk a pointed look, "--but their commissions have all been confirmed, and the remaining veteran officers and enlisted will be given special consideration. Some may choose not to see space again; some may wait until the next ship leaves the yards, which will be in about six months if the accelerated schedule is approved; some may transfer to the main fleet-- but I think the majority will prefer to stay aboard. You can't order the kind of camaraderie that develops in the wake of a crisis like this."

"I know," Kirk says appreciatively, mood visibly lifting. "Everyone's been doing an amazing job; for the most part, the crew's all acting like they've been working together for years, not days. The worst hit areas in particular-- bridge, medical, and engineering-- but I've seen it in all departments." He pauses then, and quirks a smile. "I think some of that's because of Giotto, though, not because all the personnel have suddenly decided their junior command crew is worthy of respect."

Kirk's very likely right about that. Lt. Commander Giotto is the most experienced officer aboard apart from Pike to have survived the attacks; he's confided privately that he's not particularly convinced of Kirk's suitability as a captain, but as a firm believer in Starfleet procedure, chain of command, Pike's judgment, and the responsibility placed on him as Chief of Security aboard the Federation flagship, he's willing to visibly and pointedly support the younger man's orders until commanded otherwise. It's a good thing Kirk seems to respect the man in return; things might have become difficult in that quarter, otherwise.

"I hope you realize, though," Pike continues, "that this puts me in a rather complicated position when it comes to you."

Kirk nods sharply at that. "Because of the Acting Captain thing, and how I got it. Believe me, sir, I know. I wasn't even posted to Enterprise to begin with, and Spock deserves the flagship's First Officer position more than I do. Not that I want to go anywhere else-- but I figured this was coming."

Pike nods, and does his best to talk around Kirk's assumptions. "It certainly isn't because you haven't done your share of bringing the best out of her people. Or because you lack ability-- we've already had that conversation." He smiles wryly. "But because you were their Captain, for however short a time, and recommending you stay aboard in any other position would have a detrimental effect on crew relations, both for yourself and for your replacement."

"Replacement...?" Kirk blinks in surprise. "Wait, do you mean you're not going to...?"

"Much as I might wish otherwise," Pike sighs, gesturing to his partially paralyzed legs. "It's going to be months before I'm on my feet again, by McCoy's best estimate, and 'Fleet needs the flagship out there now. I'll be lucky if they even give me my former position in Recruitment back, with an option on another ship; odds are they'll slap another stripe on my sleeve instead." This is the first time he's admitted as much out loud; the words sting his mouth as he says them.

Kirk blows out a breath at that; but says only, "I understand, sir."

"I know your initial preference was for the Farragut," Pike adds, judging it as good a time as any to deal with McCoy's request. "Apart from some concerns related to your off-shift behavior during your training tour, Captain Chenoweth was reportedly pleased with your performance."

Kirk's expression twists, but he doesn't flinch or look away. "I-- you're right, I'd been looking forward to working with him and Gary again." He pauses thoughtfully, then continues, filling in the rest of Pike's implications. "He might even have been alright with taking me on as First Officer instead of putting me at tactical; the Commander he had in that position was about ready for his own ship, anyway. It's unlikely that too many other starship captains will be happy to have me, though, especially if my assignment displaces their own choice of officer."

He's right; of all of them, Pike can think of only one who'd accept the assignment with equanimity, and who had a temperament that would complement Kirk's own. Provided Kirk refrained from hitting on her, of course; though the very idea of the comm call she'd send Pike afterward nearly sets him laughing. But that wasn't his only reason for bringing up the Farragut.

"Gary-- that would be the navigator on your shift, Lieutenant Mitchell?"

"Yes," Kirk replies, tone clipped, eyes a little bright. "We were about the same age, and got along fairly well; we'd have gone to the Academy together if I'd attended right out of secondary school like he did."

"Are about the same age, Jim. Are," Pike corrects him, gently. "At least, as far as Starfleet knows." Quietly, he picks up another PADD, and downloads another copy of the casualty lists.

"What?" Kirk blurts. "But he was still on the Farragut last time I talked to him! And I've already met with all the survivors-- he isn't with them."

"He wasn't at Vulcan, either," Pike says, handing over the PADD. "You'll have to check Starfleet records for his current assignment, but he wasn't aboard any of the ships at Earth when we launched."

Kirk snags the PADD from Pike's hand and taps furiously at the screen. A long moment later he pauses and takes a deep breath; then he looks up again. "I know I shouldn't feel so relieved, considering how many other people died, but--"

"He's your friend, and he's alive," Pike says, taking in the clouds building up in that blue gaze, and the jagged set of Kirk's mouth. "We can finish this conversation later, I think," he decides. "Dr. McCoy wants to see you next, but you should give Mitchell a call afterward, before you start planning the memorial service."

Kirk's grip tightens on the PADD. "My responsibilities--"

"--Also include assuring your friends that you're still alive, too," Pike interrupts him. "I'm sure ship's business can survive without your presence for a few minutes. You'll feel better for it afterward, and not just you-- remember that your mood affects the crew's as well."

"I--" Kirk swallows, then gives in. "Thank you, sir."

"What are Captains for," Pike shrugs dismissively.

Kirk straightens at Pike's words and stares back at him, a gravity in his expression that Pike's seldom seen. "I think I'm beginning to learn," he says, slowly.

A weight settles on Pike's chest; for a long moment, he can't find a reply.

"Go on, then," he finally says, roughly.

Kirk salutes him, smiling crookedly, and slips out the door.


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