DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Ingrid Cross and is copyright (c) 1980 by Ingrid Cross. Rated PG. Originally published in Odyssey #4.

Encounter

David Goodine and Ingrid Cross

Part One

The man turned a corner and stopped suddenly. There, on a small hill, stood the house he remembered from childhood. Oakwood Manor sat like a haughty matron who waits for her patrons to approach with proper respect and deference. The tall columns supporting the front porch seemed ageless, although the mansion had been in the McCoy family for several generations. The house sprawled majestically across the property; the many rooms had witnessed scores of births and deaths ... dozens of children growing and maturing. Leonard McCoy had been one such child, and now he had come home for a period of rest. Star Fleet had granted his request for an indefinite personal leave.

Sounds long absent from his life drifted across the vast property, winding their way among the huge old trees which were the house's namesake. Leonard heard the sounds of children playing somewhere, and he remembered suddenly that here on Earth it was summer. Dozens of magnolia trees and honeysuckle bushes flourished along the edge of the estate, creating a natural privacy by shutting off the rest of modern-day Atlanta.

The doctor remained in the same spot for a long while, allowing himself to become acclimated to the home he had not seen for nearly a decade. Oakwood Manor had enjoyed a lengthy history, built in the late 1850's, the house had survived wars and economic disasters, good fortune and joys. His ancestors had constantly renovated the house, until the interior contained the luxuries of the most modern appliances and furnishings; the exterior remained much the same as when the first McCoys built Oakwood.

Even though his family had not been wealthy for most of Leonard's life, they had always had Oakwood. When his business floundered and finally went bankrupt 50 years earlier, Randolph Lee McCoy had managed to keep his family's home.

Leonard McCoy had inherited the house when his father died. As eldest son, it had been his birthright. He had lived there during his marriage; his daughter Joanna had been born in this house; and the three of them had remained in Oakwood until the divorce. When he decided to enter Star Fleet, his younger brother Joshua and his new wife, Ellen, had moved in. There had been no reason why they should not enjoy the family home; Leonard knew he might never return.

But now he had come home. Leonard discovered that the pain of Jim Kirk's death had subsided a little since he had arrived in Atlanta. And just looking at the old house made him feel that perhaps here he could find some peace of mind.

His thoughts were interrupted by three boys running around from the back of the house. Leonard recognized the voices as those he had heard earlier. He picked up his small suitcase and began to walk up the hill toward the mansion.

The boys did not notice his approach at first. Caught up in a game, they were concentrating on each other's actions. One boy seemed to be the leader, calling out suggestions and generally organizing the play. McCoy recognized this boy from pictures as he drew closer. It was Joshua's youngest child, Paul. The boy looked like a younger version of his father: dark hair which refused to stay combed, a small snub nose, and deep blue eyes which clearly would brook no doubletalk. His thin, reedy voice brought back memories of when Leonard and Joshua used to play in this very yard.

McCoy stopped about ten feet away from the three, uncertain how to interrupt. He wasn't accustomed to children and unsure of their possible reaction to him. The other two boys were unfamiliar to him.

"Okay, now you throw that ball at me, Tommy!" Paul yelled, running backwards on a direct collision course for Leonard. "And this time, make sure I can catch it, will you?" The small body kept moving steadily toward the doctor, who braced himself for the impact, letting his suitcase fall to the ground.

"Whoa, there!" Leonard said, laughing despite the sadness which always lurked close to the surface. He closed his arms around the small shoulders to keep Paul on balance.

Paul McCoy twisted around and looked up to see who had kept him from falling. Two blue eyes stared at him steadily, almost but not quite recognizing the taller man. Then with a shout, Paul realized who held him tightly.

"Uncle Len! It's you! You came home to see us! I knew you would come home now but no one else thought you would 'cause you didn't call and I kept tellin' them you'd be here and here you are!" Paul finished triumphantly. The eleven-year-old hugged his uncle fiercely.

Leonard dropped to his knees and returned the affectionate embrace. After a moment or two, Paul stepped back and smiled at him. Now, the doctor could hear the trace of a Georgian accent, something he had missed hearing ever since he had left his home.

"When did you get here? Did you take an aircar? What star base did you leave from? What's Star Base 7 like? What's in that bag on your belt?" The boy pointed to the medikit which McCoy carried everywhere.

"Hey, come on, Paul!" Leonard smiled. "I just got here, to answer the first question. Yes, I took an air car from San Francisco Base. The other questions can wait until later, can't they?" He reached out and tousled the dark curly hair.

Disappointment touched the corner of Paul's mouth briefly and then he brightened again. "Uncle Len! I have to go tell Mom you're here. Wait a minute ... don' t go! I'll be right back." The youngster ran up the front steps, yanked the door open and disappeared from sight. McCoy could hear Paul's voice throughout the large house as he yelled for his mother.

He felt someone looking at him and turned to find the other two boys who had been playing with Paul when the game had been interrupted. Both boys were the same age as Paul, and both were looking at him with expressions of awe and immense respect, which made McCoy uncomfortable. He held out his hand and smiled.

"Well, I guess you two know me now. Who are you?"

The taller of the two stuck out his hand immediately. "I'm Tommy Beaumont, sir."

Leonard shook the small hand solemnly and gestured to the other boy. "And you are..."

This boy was quieter, more reserved. "Robert Peterson, Doctor McCoy." He accepted the handshake and stepped away, inspecting McCoy's uniform with keen interest.

"You look just like the holograph that Paul keeps in his room, sir," offered Tommy. "Paul's always talkin' 'bout you and tellin' us about where you are and everything. He sure is lucky to have an uncle like you."

'Is he?' McCoy wondered, thinking of the many things he blamed himself for. But he nodded politely to the taller boy. "Since I'm on leave, Tommy, why don't you just call me Doctor McCoy? 'Sir' is what I hear all the time in the service and I'm on vacation to get away from all that. All right?"

As Tommy and Robert nodded in agreement, the front door slammed open and McCoy heard a woman cry out, "Leonard! I thought Paul was joking--"

Ellen Glenborough McCoy ran down the steps and practically threw herself into her brother-in-law's arms. He was genuinely glad to see her; Ellen had become the sister he had lost. Eleven-year-old Alicia McCoy had died in an accident when Leonard was 15.

Tall and graceful, Ellen was not beautiful, but she was nice to look at. She was always cheerfully, even when she had to put up with her five children at the same time. Approaching her 50th birthday, her looks belied her age by 15 years. Her hug was warm and said far more than words could have expressed.

She pulled away finally, remaining close, and looked at him. Her voice was soft and gentle, a reflection of the schooling received as part of a high-class family. "Leonard, I'm so sorry about your friend's death. When we heard on the news, we hoped you would come home. When you didn't send word, we began to give up hope. But you're home now, and that's what counts."

Leonard could feel a familiar lump in his throat and his chest tightened convulsively. The cloying scent of honeysuckle stuck in his nostrils and for a tortured moment he couldn't catch his breath. Then, air slowly returned to his lungs, and the pain in his chest subsided. But the momentary spasm left him weakened and Ellen gave a cry of dismay, grabbing his arm.

"Len? What's wrong? You look ill."

He spoke carefully, hoping the grabbing pain would not return. "It's all right, Ellen. I think it's just the heat. I'm not used to it after all these years."

"Of course!" she exclaimed. "How thoughtless of me! Let's get you inside. I'm sure you must be exhausted from your trip. This sun certainly can't help when you're tired out." She entwined her arm through his, turned her head to speak to her son. "Paul, would you bring Uncle Len's bag inside, honey?" She led the way up the front stairs.

Paul said goodbye to his friends and followed the two adults into the house. He didn't regret the interruption of his game; after all, it wasn't everyday that his uncle came home to visit! He would bet that Uncle Len had hundreds of exciting stories to tell, and he would be right there when his uncle began talking.

* * *

Leonard sank onto the couch gratefully, feeling the shape of the furniture conform to his body. Ellen brought him a glass of water and sat across from him. As he drank, he consciously tried to relax, curious about the pain, but not very surprised. After all, the trip had been tiring, and he was unaccustomed to long journeys in small, claustrophobic shuttles.

As though she read his thoughts, Ellen smiled.. "You never did like to ride in those aircars, did you, Len?"

"No." He shook his head and finished the last of the water. "No, I didn't. I don't much care for shuttlecraft, either. But they sure as hell are easier to like than a blasted transporter. 'Lord,' he mourned. 'That was the wrong thing to mention.' For a flood of memories poured through his mind, bringing back familiar complaints of years past. And, of course, he could see Jim and Spock now.

Leonard forced himself to concentrate on what Ellen was saying. "I'm sorry Josh isn't here, Len. But he's gone to some business meeting in Europe until tomorrow. I'll call him and tell him you're here, though. He won't want to miss seeing you. Especially since we haven't seen you in ten years!" she scolded. "I'm sure he'll want to see you and let you have a piece of his mind about that. What kept you away so long, anyway?"

Leonard pondered his empty water glass and considered the possible answers. How could he explain about Jim? That after Spock had been killed he had thought it his duty to stay by Jim, offering silent support even though Kirk would not discuss the matter. Leonard couldn't find the words that would show Ellen how much Jim had meant to him ... that he had cared more for his friend than anyone else, possibly even his daughter. So he simply shrugged, leaving unsaid all the things which would have explained his absence. Even now, mere days after Jim's death, he couldn't speak about his friend. The mourning continued inside, and McCoy did not allow himself the luxury of talking about the emotions which roiled inside furiously.

''Well, it' s good having you back now. I'll call Josh right away, Len," Ellen continued, standing. "That way he can be with you for a few days at least."

Leonard protested. "No, Ellen. It's not necessary to make a special call to him right now." The woman stared at him, not understanding. "I'm on indefinite leave, honey. There's no rush to call Josh."

A smile bloomed on her face. "Leonard McCoy! Why didn't you tell me this right away? Here I thought you were just going to be here for a week or so. You devil!"

McCoy grinned back at her, and Paul could be heard in the hallway. "Hurray! Wait'll I tell the guys about this!" The front door opened and shut noisily, and Leonard looked through one of the windows to see his nephew racing across the lawn.

"There's at least one person who's glad I'm here," he remarked wryly. Ellen watched her son disappear around the corner and sighed. "What's the matter?"

Her smile had turned a little sad. "Nothing, really. I just hate to see him grow up, that's all. He's my baby, you know?"

"Last time I saw him, he was just a tiny baby, Ellen. He's grown to be a fine boy. I recognized him because he looks so much like Josh."

Ellen seemed to cheer up immensely. "The other four are off on trips or working someplace for the summer, Len. I hope you get the chance to see them, too."

Trying to appear casual, McCoy seized the opening he had awaited. "Have you heard from Joanna lately?"

A frown appeared on Ellen's forehead. "She hasn't written for quite a while, Len. Of course, she's probably very busy. Last I heard, she was working in a hospital on Lunar Base 46. Did you know she's supervising the surgical nursing staff?"

Leonard nodded. "She mentioned it in her last letter. I tried to contact her from San Francisco, but they told me she was away on vacation. No one seems to know where she is, either." He stopped, annoyed to find he was short of breath again. When he was sure he could continue without problems, he said, "I wish I could get in touch with her, Ellen. I wanted to see her while I'm in Atlanta."

"Don't worry, Len. I'm sure that you'll hear from her one way or another before you leave." His brother's wife stopped and looked down at her hands, speaking hesitantly. "Len, are you all right?" McCoy glanced at her sharply, but she did not drop the subject. "I mean, you look so tired and worn out. I know you were close to Captain Kirk. Was it very bad for you on Star Base 7?"

He thought back to the recent past. Still reluctant to discuss the topic with anyone -- including his family -- he tried to phrase his reply politely. But when he heard the words, he knew he had only succeeded in hurting Ellen. "I don't care to talk about it now. It's too private, and only my business." McCoy saw Ellen bite her lower lip and hastened to add, softening his tone, "I'm sorry, Ellen. But I'm too tired to talk right now. Could I possibly stay here tonight until I can find someplace else where I wouldn't be any trouble for you?"

"You'll do no such thing, Leonard Horatio McCoy!" Ellen exclaimed, not noticing McCoy's wince as she used his full name. No one had pulled rank on him like that in years! "Of course you'll stay right here at Oakwood, and for as long as you want, too. It's your home as well as ours, Len. Now come on," she continued, standing. "I'll show you to your room. It's the guest room on the west side of the house. Will that be all right?"

"Fine," McCoy replied. He stood slowly, noticing that the pain he had experienced earlier still lurked inside. But now, instead of a sharp stabbing sensation, the pain had become a dull throbbing. He wondered briefly at the cause, but decided that the strain of the past few days had probably been the culprit. That and the long trip from Star Base 7, aboard one of the smallest and slowest shuttles in the Federation. In this one case, rank did not have its privileges.

Leonard resolutely pushed his gloomy thoughts and complaints aside and followed Ellen up the stairs and into the guest room. He lay down gratefully, hoping to be able to sleep for a little while, anyway.

* * *

Leonard McCoy tried to follow the topic of conversation at the dinner table, but failed miserably. Despite a short nap during the afternoon, he was still completely exhausted. Just lifting his fork to his mouth required more energy than he, believed he had.

Even though he was finally home, back with people who loved him, it was difficult to stop thinking of Jim. The smallest things reminded Leonard of his friend: Ellen's smile, which broke out with the slightest provocation; Paul's eagerness to absorb everything new that his uncle would tell him soon. And Joshua.

McCoy listened while his brother told Ellen and Paul about his day in Europe. Joshua had come home early, surprising them all. The warm reunion had been spoiled only by Leonard's own dark thoughts. Joshua used certain gestures which brought Jim Kirk to mind. It was nothing definite which Leonard could pinpoint; but the feeling remained that nowhere could he escape the memory of his friend, no matter how hard he tried.

Joshua glanced over at his brother and caught him watching. He sighed softly; his smile had not been returned. Leonard had refused to discuss the circumstances which had brought him back to Earth, and Joshua did not know exactly how to pry the information from his brother.

A quick nod from Ellen told him his wife had noticed Leonard's withdrawal. When they had been alone for a while during the afternoon, Ellen had voiced her worries.

"Josh, he looks so tired and completely defeated. Like he's lost everything in the world. I know he and Admiral Kirk were close; but is it natural for him to be so despondent?"

"I think it's natural, yes, honey," Joshua had nodded. "Especially when you consider that he and Kirk worked together for so many years. He's bound to feel lost for a while."

Answering one of Paul's questions absently, Josh wondered if he was right. Len showed no sign of relaxing. True, he had only arrived today, but he knew his brother well enough to realize that Len could remain close-mouthed forever. And the strain was already beginning to show.

Although only five years Joshua's senior, Leonard seemed ancient. His skin was pale, the color of someone who had worked in an office for most of his life. The blue eyes were haunted and distant, watching events which Joshua could only imagine. Once, most people had mistaken the two men for twins. But no one could make that comparison now. When he first saw Len, the most shocking thing about his appearance had been the complete change of attitude and posture. The shoulders slumped like they bore a terrible burden, the trim figure had become very thin and there was no sign of confidence in the way Len moved.

Joshua promised himself he would try to draw his brother out this evening. He vowed to help Len in whatever way he possibly could.

Ellen spoke. "Leonard, would you care for some more meat? You've hardly eaten a thing!" she scolded.

The doctor looked up, startled. "No, Ellen, thank you," he said flatly. "I'm really not hungry."

"Len," Joshua said, trying to force his brother into talking about something. "I'd like you to come to my offices sometimes and see how the business is going. You'd find it interesting, I think. We make the computers which you've used in your Sickbay, you know."

Paul watched the adults curiously. He had caught the undercurrents of tension immediately. Now he seemed to be trying to identify the source of the problem.

Leonard tried to smile, but it was more like a death grin on a bleak skull. "I always wondered how you and I managed to end up in such disparate careers, Josh. All right; I'd like to see where you manufacture those damned soulless machines."

"Great!" Joshua exclaimed, sighing in relief. At least he had managed to make Len put more than one sentence together; that had been his longest speech since dinner began.

"Uncle Len?" asked Paul excitedly. "When are you gonna tell me about Star Base 7? What kind of work did you do there?"

Ellen and Joshua exchanged quick glances, and she spoke quietly. "Paul, Uncle Len is tired from his long trip. I'm sure that he'll tell you all about his travels soon enough. Why don't you find Tommy and Bob and go into town together? I'm sure you'd all like to catch that new show?" she hinted.

The boy's expression clearly showed everyone that his mother's suggestion did not agree with his own thinking. But recognizing the firmness in her tone, he decided to leave now rather than risk someone's anger. He couldn't figure out why they wanted to get rid of him, but... 'Grown-ups!' he thought, disgusted. 'Always want to talk about dumb things.'

Paul pushed his chair away and dragged his way out of the kitchen. "Have a good time, Paul," Joshua called after him.

Leonard had not noticed the exchange at all, captivated again by his thoughts. Ellen stood and began clearing the table while Josh prepared for a confrontation with his older brother.

A knock from the front door disturbed their plans, though. "Honey, are you expecting someone?" inquired Ellen.

"No," Josh said, shaking his head. He was about to get up when Paul's voice shouted down the hallway.

"I'll get it, Dad."

Ellen turned back to her work, and Joshua spoke gently. "Len, I'd like to talk to you about--"

The kitchen door opened slowly and Ellen spoke without turning. "Who was it, Paul? One of your friends or--"

Joshua stood abruptly, knocking his chair over. "I'll be--" he started, then hushed when the person who had entered placed a finger over her lips.

Leonard seemed to comprehend finally that something was going on. He looked up at his brother, over to Ellen and frowned when he noted their expressions. ''What's the matter, Josh? Ellen?" His voice trailed off and he followed their eyes, turning in his chair to glance over his shoulder.

His jaw dropped in astonishment. "Oh, my Lord!" he breathed, not knowing whether to believe his eyes.

The woman smiled and said lightly, "Is that the only reaction you can muster up, Dad?"

In a blur of motion, Leonard McCoy moved to the doorway and enfolded her in his arms. "Joanna!" he shouted, squeezing her tightly.

His daughter returned her father's hug, caught up in the emotions of the reunion. Her long, red hair tumbled out of its restraining style and her blue eyes shone with tears.

Leonard did not want to let go of her. He clung to her desperately, like a drowning man reaches for a floating stick. He, too, was crying. He had not dared to hope that he would see her while on leave. Yet, here she was, taller than he remembered but still his very own child.

Ellen and Joshua beamed, as surprised as Leonard. Paul stood in the doorway, bewildered. "What's everybody crying about?" he demanded. "I would have thought you'd be happy to see Joanna, Uncle Len."

McCoy loosened his hold on Joanna and she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, catching her father's arm with her free hand. Joshua motioned to Paul. "Come here, son. I'll try to explain that to you later."

Leonard took his first long look at his daughter. "Jo, how did you--? I mean, I talked to the hospital this morning and they told me you were--"

"On vacation," she finished, laughing. "I asked them to tell people that when they called. I wanted to surprise you. And I guess I did!" She greeted her other relatives. "Hello Aunt Ellen, Uncle Josh."

Ellen hugged her briefly before turning her loose to embrace Joshua. "You should have called me, at least, Jo. I wouldn't have told Len!"

Her reply was muffled as Josh gave her a quick hug, also. "I thought I'd take my chances and see if Daddy was coming here. When I heard the news about Admiral Kirk--" She stopped and looked over at her father. "Oh, Dad! I'm so sorry."

A plethora of emotions flitted across Leonard's face, and he put his arm around Jo's shoulders. "Honey, the only thing that matters right now is that you're home," he said softly.

Joanna looked puzzled for a moment and stood on her toes to glance at her uncle. Joshua shook his head in warning and she appeared to understand the silent message. "You're right, Dad," she agreed. "We're both home now."

Paul was regarding this newest arrival with great interest. Joanna, what kind of uniform is that?"

She looked down at the trim, pale green outfit and laughed. To McCoy, the sound of Joanna's laughter brought back memories of days long past, when she had been a child. There had been too little laughter in his life, lately. "That's the uniform we wear at the hospital on Lunar Base 46, Paul. Not the most flattering, but it's functional. And hot! " she finished with a grimace.

McCoy became businesslike. "Well, you're not used to the heat of Georgia yet, Jo. The weather's certainly different than the climate controlled, domed atmosphere on the moon!"

Ellen took her niece's arm and propelled her toward the door. "Come on, Jo. Let's get you upstairs and you can change into something a bit more comfortable."

"Jo?"

She turned back to her father. Leonard made a tentative gesture with his hand. "How long will you be here?" A great deal of emotion lurked behind the words: longing, hope, tension.

Joanna leaned over and kissed her father's cheek. "I had about four weeks of vacation time backlogged. I can always extend that by another week or so, Daddy." She brushed her hand along the side of his face tenderly. "Don't worry. We'll have lots of time together, okay?"

Leonard nodded and spoke, his voice husky. "Okay, honey. Hurry up and come back down, will you?"

With a brief smile, Joanna replied, "I will. I promise." She and Ellen left the kitchen, Paul trailing along behind them.

The two men could hear the boy asking questions as the three went up the stairs. Joshua put a hand on Leonard's shoulder. "Quite a surprise, wasn't it?"

Leonard nodded absently. "Yes, it was. She always did have a knack for pulling unexpected rabbits out of a hat..." His voice trailed off and he grabbed the chair in front of him for support.

Joshua, startled by the movement, quickly supported the doctor's weight. "What's the matter, Len?"

Leonard shook his head, trying to push back the approaching blanket of darkness. The same sharp pain made itself known in his chest, and he had to remember how to breathe. "Len?" Now Joshua sounded worried and scared.

The edges of blackness gradually retreated, and Leonard realized he felt extremely weak. He lowered himself into the chair gently. "I'm all right, Josh." But that was far from the truth.

Joshua knelt beside the older man. "I'm going to call a doctor."

McCoy's arm shot out and he grasped his brother's shoulder. "No," he said firmly. "It's just the excitement and this damnable heat. I should have taken it slowly, that's all. I'm fine."

Leonard knew he had not quite convinced his brother, so he managed to find a smile somewhere deep inside and dragged it to the surface. "Really, Josh, I'm fine. I should know; I'm a doctor."

Joshua frowned slightly and began to speak, but Leonard interrupted him swiftly. "Look, Ellen's corning in here again. Don't mention this, or else she'll be fussin' and botherin' over me. Understand?"

Not fully convinced even now, but unwilling to subject his brother to a lecture which he knew Leonard would despise, Joshua stood and nodded. "All right. But I want you to take it easy, do you hear me?"

A hint of the old, self-assured Leonard McCoy asserted itself. "What, are you joking? On my vacation? You'd better believe it."

There was no opportunity to reply, for Ellen bustled into the kitchen again with a cheerfulness that brightened the room. "Joanna will be down shortly. Why don't you menfolk go sit on the porch? It's much cooler outside this evening. Besides," she continued, pointing to the counter, "I have work to do in here and I don't want you two underfoot."

"Yes, ma'am," her husband said docilely. "Whatever you say, ma'am." He moved for the door quickly and Leonard got up slowly and followed his brother. There, the doctor turned, his eyes sparkling.

"I always said there was a mean streak in you, Ellen," he said, then ducked out the door as his sister-in-law made a threatening move toward him. They could hear her chuckling as they went outside on the porch.

* * *

Part Two

From somewhere on the north side of the vast property, a bird could be heard. The sun was bright and hot, a typical summer day in Georgia. Joanna McCoy, seated on the ground with her back propped against an oak tree, was more relaxed than she could remember being in a long time. It was difficult to imagine that only 24 hours ago she had decided to come back to Oakwood Manor, hoping to find her father.

Leonard McCoy was sitting on an ancient but sturdy swing which had been suspended from one of the oldest boughs of the tree. They had come out here an hour ago, and after some small talk he had fallen silent. She sighed. This morning Joshua had voiced his worries about his brother's emotional well-being.

Like her father, Joanna had served aboard a Star Fleet vessel for a brief time. She could understand how two people could become good friends while living in such close quarters. But it seemed to her that his mourning for James Kirk was rather extreme. Even given the circumstances of the admiral's death -- gleaned from news reports and not her father -- Leonard McCoy reaction was harsh, unrelenting and seemed to be draining his entire energy.

Another glance at her father, sitting quietly, absorbed with his own thoughts, confirmed her suspicions. She would have to try and break through the sorrow, reach him in a way she wasn't certain she possessed. Joanna's heart ached at the sight of him, hunched and tightly barricaded within himself. She cleared her throat and drew a deep breath, preparing to attack the problem.

"Daddy? Are you all right?" Joanna asked tentatively. It wasn't the best approach, nor even an original beginning. But a roundabout manner seemed appropriate.

McCoy roused himself and offered an indignant smile which barely went farther than his lips. "Sure, honey. I'm doin' fine now that you're here."

She jumped up and leaned over to kiss him. He hugged her to him. "Thanks, honey," he said quietly. Joanna sat next to him and snuggled close to him, pulling his left arm around her shoulder. She seemed to understand why he had thanked her, and sighed heavily again, knowing that an opening had been created.

Both sat silently for a long while, swinging gently back and forth. Finally, unable to tolerate the quiet, Joanna spoke: "Daddy, what are you thinking about?"

Leonard hesitated for a moment, then said, "I was thinking that I'm glad you still call me 'Daddy'. I was afraid I'd become 'Father' or 'sir' by now. Your father is getting old, Jo."

She looked at him directly, forcing him to meet her eyes. "You'll always be 'Daddy' to me, you know that. And you're not old. You're only 64."

"Ah, but that's a lot older than most people seem to live. At least those people I know."

'It's now or never,' she told herself. "You're thinking of Captain Kirk, aren't you?" she demanded. Leonard shifted uncomfortably and removed his arm from her shoulder. "Daddy, you've got to talk about him sooner or later. He was your best friend; you came here to try and forget about his death, but you should know that's not the best approach."

"You certainly cut right through to the heart of the matter," said McCoy, his voice low and even.

"Sometimes it's the best way," Joanna admitted. "I've had some experience in these situations; I'd say that qualifies me."

He seemed to be looking far into the distance, watching some action she could only guess at. But she knew it involved Kirk. "You're only 38, Joanna. That hardly gives you the right to lecture me."

She recognized a danger signal in his voice, but saw no alternative. If she backed down now, he would continue to avoid talking about the matter in the future. "I'm a nurse. I have seen my share of life and death. That alone qualifies me. I also happen to be your daughter and your well-being is my concern."

McCoy remained silent, and she wondered if he would accept even that small portion of sympathy. She blazed ahead. "I suppose you're thinking you could have stopped Admiral Kirk, aren't you?"

The man beside her might have been a stranger. He sat like a stone sculpture, unmoving and breathing shallowly.

"Don't you think it's time you stopped playing God?" Joanna asked, allowing her voice to become hard and ungiving.

McCoy still did not speak, but he inhaled sharply as though she had shot at him with a phaser beam which had barely missed his body. "How could you have known that Jim Kirk would do that? You wrote me a letter once, telling me all about your captain. 'He's a stubborn, mule-headed man who can't be predicted from one situation to another,' you wrote. And another time you told me, 'Jim Kirk is the best captain in the Fleet. But someday he's going to go too far and wind up in the middle of something he can't control.' Do you remember that?"

His continued silence confirmed her question. Joanna leaned forward, speaking rapidly and intently. "And now you sit there, thinking you could have predicted he would go out and risk his life ... that he would let himself be killed like he did? This was the same James Kirk you served with for five years on the Enterprise, a man you loved and respected but who was reckless at times. You can't honestly say you're not bucking for the job of the Almighty!"

McCoy turned to face his daughter. His eyes flashed blue fire; Joanna felt as though she had been slapped physically. "That is enough, Joanna! You have no right talking to me like that! You are still my daughter and I expect some respect from you. How dare you use that tone of voice with me?"

For most of her life, Joanna had been without the benefit of her father's company. Yet she had always carried a picture of him in her thoughts. She remembered a gentle man, a person who always tried to remain calm through grueling times. During the long months when her father and mother had fought, when their marriage had slowly deteriorated, not once had Leonard turned his anger toward Joanna. Now, with the full force of his wrath washing over her, she realized exactly how strong her father was.

Pain grabbed hold of her heart and twisted hard. Joanna wanted to cry, to call back the words which had caused him to explode in anger. But she couldn't open her mouth and speak, for she still believed she had been right. A brief thought flashed through her mind: 'Have I completely ruined what small relationship I've always had with him?' Yet she continued to match his gaze steadily, though her stomach was beginning to understand the enormity of what she had done.

"I did not come all the way back home to be treated to a lecture by my daughter, dammit! " Leonard stood abruptly and started walking back toward the house.

"I meant every word I said, Dad. I will not retract what I told you." It hurt to say that, but Joanna had to let him know how she felt. And she felt she had been correct in what she said.

Her father whirled around and said, "I will not discuss this subject further, young lady. It is none of your business. " He turned his back on her again.

She began to cry, cursing herself for the reaction. "Who else will you listen to? If you want to drown in your self-pity, I will not stay here and watch you go under completely." 'Come back! Don't let this happen...'

"You are free to go. You are not being held here against your will." Having spoken, McCoy began walking again, either not hearing her soft crying or else choosing to ignore her completely.

Joanna watched him leave. Loneliness seeped into her soul, eating away at her resolve. Perhaps she shouldn't have spoken as she did? "No," she whispered, watching her father's figure retreat into the huge white house. "I had to say that. He has to hear it."

Still, a small gnawing doubt joined the loneliness; her thoughts became a litany of accusations. She knew that Leonard McCoy had been correct to some degree, and she wondered how she could have been so tactless and cold, attacking him when he was most vulnerable to pain.

* * *

Leonard eased himself onto his bed slowly, waiting for the aching to subside a bit. He could hardly believe what had transpired out on the lawn a short time ago. He had never spoken to his daughter like that. Now he wondered if perhaps she had been right.

"Dear God," he groaned, letting his head fall into his hands. "What have I done? She was only trying to help in her own way. And I cut her down without thinking."

McCoy thought of Jim Kirk suddenly. "Dammit, Jim! This is all your fault. If you hadn't died, I wouldn't be in this predicament. You had to play the hero, didn't you? You had to be the cavalry coming over the hill, just like you told Uhura. Well, it wasn't all that necessary, you know! Someone else could have been the star this time. But no, you couldn't step aside and let that happen, could you?"

A dull sound came from the other end of the hallway outside his door and roused his curiosity. He stood and opened his door.

Joanna was walking toward the staircase, her suitcase in hand. The worst thought occurred to McCoy.

"Jo?" he asked, not daring to ask directly what she was doing. He knew suddenly that he was afraid of the anser.

His daughter stopped, waited.

A step forward, a tentative movement, and he stopped also. "Jo? What are you doing?"

Her voice sounded defeated. "I'm leaving." His mind reeled away from the pronouncement.

"Why?" he asked, the word wrung from his heart.

"I don't want to afflict you with my presence." Joanna's words were cold and distant.

'Oh, dear Lord,' the doctor thought. 'First Spock, then Jim ... and now my daughter, too? Must I lose my only child because of my stupidity?'

He reached out a hand toward her, seeing she stood too far away to be touched. "Joanna," he said, then stopped. An apology would not be enough; yet he could not think of the words which would halt this moment and bring them back together. He could understand her action, although he couldn't agree with what she had said earlier.

Still she waited. The sorrow inside crescendoed suddenly into extreme, suffocating pain. He grabbed at his chest, realizing immediately what the cause had to be. He felt a tide of darkness reaching for him, the pain traveling throughout every cell of his body. He must have moaned, because he could see, as though from a great distance, his daughter turn and drop her suitcase. Her mouth moved and he wished he could hear what she was saying. But everything seemed to be going blacker and blacker. His body lost control of itself, the muscles decided to quit functioning and he could feel himself falling. Distantly, thousands of miles and light-years away, he sensed that Joanna was nearby and he tried to reach out and tell her something. He couldn't remember how to form the sentences, though, as the pain became all-powerful ... dominating ... demanding...

* * *

Time seemed to blink, and he stepped aside from all the commotion. Joanna was bending down to the floor, gesturing for Ellen who had materialized from nowhere. Ellen quickly knelt beside the younger woman. McCoy, curious about all their fussing, looked down at the floor.

At first he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. He lay there, his body crumpled like a balled-up piece of paper. Joanna was moving swiftly, her hands performing the correct steps for cardiopulmonary resuscitation. McCoy wanted to help somehow and reached down to assist. He was mildly disturbed that he could not contact her ... could not touch his daughter if he wanted.

He noticed that Ellen looked frantic. "Give her the medikit on my belt!" he ordered. When she did not pay attention to him, McCoy grabbed Ellen's shoulders, frustrated. Again, it was as though he had never touched her. His hands passed through his sister-in-law's body.

By now he was angry with them and himself, feeling useless. Then he touched his own chest and realized suddenly that the pain was gone. He was not sure why the aching had ceased, but he did not wish to question his good fortune. After a moment, despite his attempts to not wonder at this event, the thought came to him that he must be dead. There was only a brief twinge of sorrow at the notion. So be it. All he cared about was that the pain had left his body. He tried to convey this thought to his daughter, but realized she could not hear him. "Leave it be," he wanted to say. "Can't you see that I'm better off this way?"

Finally, he turned away resolutely, certain the two women would understand sooner or later. The scene would have to play itself out without his help. A strange sight pulled him farther away.

He stood in what was a tunnel-like area. He sensed something surrounding him and he did not care for the sensation, as it felt claustrophobic. He moved his legs in what he thought was a walking motion, but did not feel any contact with a wall or floor. Nevertheless, he was moving. He caught sight of a bright light at the very end of the tunnel and decided to go that way. Anything was better than this darkness.

Finally, after a moment (an hour?), he reached the end of the tunnel. He could see no direct source for the light, and that it cast no shadows. He appeared to have entered a valley, and although he couldn't see any vegetation, he knew that things were growing all around him.

Then a shape before him solidified and grew into a beloved and familiar person.

"Jim?" he breathed, scarcely believing what he saw. But it was Jim Kirk! The former captain still wore the admiral's stripes, and looked as alive and vital as he had been on the Enterprise long years ago. The hazel eyes regarded him solemnly, the dark brown hair still refused to stay in one place. McCoy did not bother to question what his friend was doing here; it was enough that Jim was here.

Joy flooded his entire being and he ran to his friend, reaching out to embrace Kirk. But Jim remained still and McCoy received the very distinct impression that he should not touch Jim.

The captain nodded briefly. There was no other indication that he was pleased to see the doctor. McCoy was puzzled by this reception.

"Bones," Jim said. The tone was familiar, the type of voice the doctor had heard hundreds of times. It spoke of love and friendship and all the other emotions which neither had voiced in all the years they had known each other.

"Jim, where are we?" McCoy figured it was a question he should be allowed to ask, but Kirk obviously did not agree.

"That doesn't matter. Listen to me, Bones."

Now the timbre changed slightly, and there was a hint of the command voice. McCoy nodded. "All right, Jim." Then we'll have the reunion, he thought, willing to wait.

"Joanna was right. You have been playing God, trying to pass judgment on what I did." Jim looked stern. "Don't you think I knew what I was doing?"

"Yes, I know you did, Jim. But--"

"Listen. I knew I was going to die out there in that shuttle. I'm not stupid. Bones, are you telling me that my life was worth more than the millions of lives which would have been lost when the Klingons and Romulans attacked the entire Federation system?"

McCoy could not answer. Now he was being judged, and he had no defense.

"It would have been Uhura and Chekov's ship first, and we would have been sitting back there watching it all on a viewscreen. Then we would have waited in some office for the first attack of the K'loran'ti, Bones. And after that, all the planets in that system; and sooner or later they would have gotten Earth and all the planets which were helpless to defend themselves. If you had been in my position, could you have stood by?"

There was no need to consider the question. "No, Jim."

Kirk nodded. "And you would deny me that? You would have kept me alive for a few more hours until we could have died together?" Kirk paused and emphasized the next point. "The illogic of waste, my friend. You would have sacrificed millions of lives for your own security in one man's existence. That is what your daughter meant when she told you you were playing God. Do you understand that?"

Now McCoy experienced searing shame. Jim was right. He had been angry with his friend for dying on him ... because he was too selfish. He had been afraid of loneliness and so had been denying Jim his own way of choosing death and making a decision which was basically correct.

"I'm sorry, Jim," McCoy whispered.

"I didn't think of it like that."

There was a long moment of silence, and McCoy could feel his anger and disillusionment about Jim fade a little.

"And you shouldn't give up, either, Bones."

McCoy glanced at his friend, shocked.

"I'm not," he protested.

"Bones. You've given up on life, which is exactly what you have been accusing me of ever since you left Star Base 7. Not exactly a reasonable thing to do, now is it?"

"No."

"All right, then." Jim's voice became brisk. "Turn around and go back."

"What?"

"Your hearing hasn't deserted you, my friend," Kirk smiled. He waved a hand back in the direction from which McCoy had come. "It's not your time. Go back."

McCoy turned to look at the tunnel and shook his head. "I want to stay."

For the first time, Jim Kirk seemed sad. "That will come soon enough, I'm sure. Now go."

The doctor hesitated a moment. "Jim? I have two questions."

"What?"

"Are you ... happy, here?"

The captain nodded. McCoy sighed and asked the second question. "Is Spock here, too?"

Laughter rolled around the two men. "Yes, he is, Bones. Are you surprised?"

Leonard had to smile, too. He waited, reluctant for the moment to be lost. Kirk looked at him for a long minute, as though to remember his friend exactly.

"You have work to do, Bones. Get back there and do it."

Without warning, McCoy felt himself being pulled backward. The light faded gradually and Kirk's figure disappeared with the light. There was a tremendous yanking sensation and...

...he was lying on the floor, clutching his chest. Joanna stood over him, leaning against Ellen. The two women were crying and his daughter said over and over, "There must have been something else I could have done. I'm a nurse and I should have been able to help him somehow..."

McCoy grimaced with the sudden return of the pain. Already, it had receded a little, but he wanted to be able to talk and say something to comfort his daughter. He couldn't figure out how to get her attention, though, and only lay completely still, afraid of a recurrence of the pain.

Ellen looked down and gasped. "Joanna!" she cried loudly. The nurse noticed what her aunt had tried to say and fell to her knees.

"Daddy!" she sobbed. "Oh, my God! But you were dead!"

"Had you fooled, did I?" he managed to whisper.

Joanna kissed his forehead and said, "You had a heart attack, Dad, but we've sent for an ambulcar. We'll get you to a hospital. Hang on!" She took his hand in hers and squeezed.

Echoes of Jim's words remained in his ears (had he imagined that? he wondered suddenly. And never really knew the answer), and he returned the light pressure with his last bit of strength.

He was content to lie here forever with his daughter close by.

THE END