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Pike's mood was verging on murderous as he sat on the Bridge, glaring at the viewscreen. From the first moment he had stepped back onto the Bridge, the last of any remaining illusions of a smooth transition back to his command shattered. He wasn't going to settle back into control of the ship as if he had only been gone on leave, not with the way the resentment on the Bridge was palatable. The members of the Bridge crew were all far too intelligent to say anything against him or make any actions the would be punishable, but that only meant those feelings going to be smoldering under the surface and apt to break out when least convenient.

His first announcement on the Bridge didn't lessen the tension at all.

"We are undergoing a period of adjustment. With that in mind, all disciplining by the booth will have to receive approval from me before being implemented. Is that clear?"

To the side, he saw Spock's posture stiffen. Of course, Spock would take that as a reprimand. Which, truthfully, it partially was. Still, it eliminated the only person on the Bridge that had been in a good mood - well, a good mood by Vulcan standards.

About a half-hour later, Kirk stepping back onto the Bridge and the reactions of those around him further emphasized who it was that the Bridge crew thought should be in the chair. When Pike gave Kirk duties that made him into nothing more than a high-ranking yeoman, the resentment on the Bridge grew hotter, but remained at a smolder because Kirk accepted the assignment without argument.

Losing his temper would only hurt his cause, so Pike decided that it would be best to get off the Bridge until he cooled back down. Rising, he looked to Spock.

"Spock, come with me. Mister Sulu, you have the conn. Mister Kirk, take the Helm."

As he turned after getting into the turbolift, Pike didn't miss the apologetic look that Sulu gave Kirk as Kirk moved to take the Helmsman position. Kirk just returned Sulu's look with a small shrug and barely present smile. The noticeable lessening of tension on the Bridge had the opposite effect on Pike's blood pressure and he snapped at Spock as soon as the turbolift doors shut.

"Did I not make myself clear enough to you that you were to leave McCoy alone? Listen, Spock, I know the two of you get on each other's nerves. Hell, I knew you would before you met. You two are too damn much alike not to get on each other's nerves."

It was interesting to watch Spock bristle like a porcupine. At any other time, Pike would have found that highly amusing.

"I was under the impression that disciplining the Doctor merely needed to wait until we were back aboard the Enterprise, sir. Also, I fail to see where he and I have anything substantial in common."

Pike huffed out a frustrated sigh.

"Of course you fail to see it. For someone that prides himself on his research abilities, you can be singularly obtuse about some subjects and McCoy seems to be one of them. I know why he's automatically defensive around you - the first time you approached him was to accuse him of cheating. So put that aside and also put aside the fact that he's an emotional man and proud of it. What remains is one of the most successful researchers I've ever come across. He impressed Puri - and I'm sure you recall that he was a very difficult man to impress. His mind might not wander down the same paths as yours does, but its on the same level of intellect. He is also one of those rare individuals that can not only see where improvement needs to be made, he can figure out how to do it. Much as you yourself can."

It occurred to Pike at that point that he had yet to tell the turbolift their destination.

"Deck 2 - holding cells."

After the turbolift was in motion, Pike looked back to Spock.

"Any idea why we're going to the holding area, Mister Spock?"

"No, Admiral. I assume that if the intent were to punish me for my transgressions, we would be in route to one of the booth areas instead."

"Quite correct, though that might still be in the offing. That depends on your answer to the next question. Was it your intent for Doctor McCoy to die in the booth?"

The question was one that Spock hadn't been expecting.

"Hardly, sir. The intensity level that I instructed Ensign Woods to set the booth to would have taken twelve to thirteen days to have killed the Doctor. Theoretically, he would have died from thirst or starvation before the booth could have killed him."

"Then you were unaware that Doctor M'benga followed behind your orders and had the booth intensity increased to the maximum?"

The turbolift came to a stop before Spock spoke again, his voice as stiff as his posture.

"I was unaware of Doctor M'benga's presence in the area. Doctor McCoy is dead then?"

"No. Or at least the stubborn bastard was still alive the last time I saw him. For future reference, if McCoy is directing his vitriol at me, I will be the one to call him on it. I don't want him to end up shying from giving me his opinion when I want it just because he thinks you might be in hearing range."

Spock looked doubtful, but didn't argue. Which was a sound move on the Vulcan's part considering Pike's current mood.

"Yes, Admiral. Then we are here to attend to Doctor M'benga?"

"Correct."

When they stood in front of the holding cell containing M'benga, the doctor was keeping his eyes to the floor. Pike's voice was smooth as poison as he spoke.

"You are, of course, aware that boothing a superior officer is considered an assault. And that assaulting a superior commissioned officer during a time of war is punishable by death?"

From the greyish tone M'benga's skin took, that technicality had not occurred to him. Pike didn't say another word to M'benga as he moved to the intercom.

"Pike to Level 5 booth."

"Level 5 booth - Ensign Woods, Admiral."

"Do you remember your orders, Ensign?"

"Yes, sir! No one is to be disciplined in any booth except under your express orders, sir!"

Despite all else going on, Pike smirked a bit. Ensigns. All of them reminded him of over-eager puppies. Blood-thirsty puppies, to be sure, but practically falling over themselves to please.

"Then hear this. Mister Spock will be bringing Doctor M'benga to your booth. Set the intensity level at three and the duration for twenty-four hours. No alterations of any setting may be authorized by anyone save myself."

"Yes, sir. Understood, sir."

"Very well. Pike out."

Turning back toward the holding cell, Pike spoke to the doctor again.

"Something that would have been clear had you known me better. I have no qualms against those who are ambitious enough to take out those above them in order to advance themselves. But - and this is a very large but - if you cannot meet or exceed the talents of the person whose position you are trying to take, you are weakening my crew and I will punish accordingly for that. So until the day comes - and I don't believe that it ever will - that you could face me and say truthfully that you can meet or exceed the level of skills that Doctor McCoy has reached, I suggest you keep your designs to yourself."

There was a moment of silence before Spock spoke up.

"You might wish to make that policy known to the crew as a whole, sir."

Pike nodded, reminded again that this crew really didn't know him. Nor he them for that matter.

"Go on and take M'benga to the booth. I need to check in at Sickbay and make sure McCoy wasn't permanently damaged."

"Yes, sir. Shall I report back to the Bridge afterward?"

"No need. Since you currently are holding dual office, go check in at the Science labs and make sure everything is in order there. Report back to the Bridge at the beginning of your next shift unless I call for you sooner."

"Yes, Admiral."

After Spock left him, Pike took a few moments to compose himself. McCoy's initial assumption had been correct. He was intending for the younger man to replace Puri as his lover and companion. His first approach hadn't gone well. He needed the second one to go better.

It wasn't hard for Pike to figure out where McCoy was when he entered Sickbay. All he had to do is look for the nurse perimeter - he had to admit that those lethal ladies were likely more effective than any set of bodyguards would be. Still, they parted - grudgingly, but parted - for him to pass. McCoy was lying on a biobed, eyes fixed on the ceiling.

"Leave us. I want to speak with him alone."

Almost as one, the nurses glanced over to McCoy, who gave a faint nod. At that, the nurses began to file out.

It was getting annoying that his people kept looking to others before obeying his orders, but he was on thin enough ice with Medical and he didn't want this meeting with McCoy to go as badly as the last one had. Once the last of the nurses had left the room, he ordered it locked.

"Well? Will you live?"

McCoy's eyes never left the ceiling.

"Depends. You come to finish the job?"

"I didn't authorize Spock's actions and I certainly didn't authorize M'benga's."

"Doesn't say much for your control over the crew, Captain-Admiral."

Fists clenching, Pike took another deep breath to curb his temper, but it was getting progressively more difficult to do so. McCoy did have that in common with Puri. A pinpoint accuracy on finding and hitting sore spots.

"You need to learn to leave matters alone that don't concern you, Leonard."

"All of us are stuck inside of a hunk of metal in the void of space. What matter doesn't concern me in one form or another?"

"You don't understand."

"Fully? Probably not. But I understand enough. You had a major loss when Puri died, plus you lost your mobility for awhile. Not to be unsympathetic , but join the club. I'm sure you can recall that about five years ago, I didn't even have my freedom. Jim never got to be in the same room with his father and his mother dumped him out in the middle of nowhere. Spock lost his entire planet. Loss sucks, but it happens."

"Loss sucks? That's what passes for wisdom from you?"

"You want a damn fortune cookie, go to a damn restaurant when we get back planet-side. I'm just a country doctor and I'm too tired to deal with any more of this shit."

"I was wrong to spring all of that on you publically. I should have told you in private."

"Only difference would have been that Spock wouldn't have been involved. I'm not replacing Puri except as CMO - and quite frankly, you can have that job too if you want it."

"No. So far as I've seen, you're the only one that can keep the nurses in line."

That comment got a bitter snort out of McCoy.

"Then leave me here and leave me the hell alone. I'll do what I have to do to keep them happy and fulfill my duties and not a damn thing more."

"Your research projects?"

"Give 'em to the hobgoblin, toss 'em in the trash, let 'em rot - you've got plenty of options. I've lost interest."

Frustrated, Pike ordered the door to unlock.

"This is a big adjustment and you're still hurting from the booth. We'll revisit this when you've had more time to come to terms."

"Actually, that's the problem. I have already come to terms. Perhaps I can explain it to you like this. Not to rub salt in a wound, but Nero took Puri from you. How would you react to him showing up right now in front of you?"

There was no hesitation before Pike answered, then started for the door.

"I'd kill him."

"Now, who took not only Jim, but my sister from me? No need to answer that one. Just thought that might clue you in on how unlikely I am to change my mind."

Pike turned back around and the hazel-green eyes were finally focused on him instead of the ceiling.

"Tell you what though, Captain-Admiral. If the day ever comes that you feel lonely enough that you'd go to Nero? Check back with me then."

There was nothing Pike could say to that, so he simply turned and left. As he continued to walk, his eyes grew colder. This was his crew, damn it all. They were going accept it or he would booth them all, one at a time.