DISCLAIMER: Star Trek and all the characters belong to Paramount, Viacom and whoever else had a finger in Roddenberry's pie. The story is copyright (c) 2003 by Joanne K. Seward. Originally published in Encounters IV. This is an attempt on my part to soften the "that was last week, this is now" phenomenon which drives me crazy. If someone is in love during episode 30 (for example -- I'm not really sure which episode of TOS that would be...) and the love interest dies, shouldn't their grief and pain carry over into at least the first minute or two of episode 31? But the powers that be apparently don't see it that way. So we, the fans, have to fill in the blanks. Here's one of my blank-fillers. Hope you enjoy it.

A Different Sort of Paradise

Joanne K. Seward

"Personal log, Leonard McCoy, MD. ... Some time has passed since the events which took place on the Amerind planet, but Jim's spirits have not returned to their accustomed level. Though not as irritable as he was prior to 'liberating' the Romulan cloaking device, he is a far cry from his usual, easygoing self and I am concerned. However, there's no regulation against bein' a mite touchy. That being so, all I can do is wait. End entry."

The chief medical officer of the USS Enterprise reached forward and switched the recorder off, then sank back in his desk chair with a heartfelt sigh.

"Aww, hell. If he'd just talk to me." McCoy picked up a stylus, fiddled with it, threw it back down. "Talk about wishful thinking ..." Or as someone used to say, 'If wishes were skimmers, beggars would fly.'"

Time and again as he prepared for bed, McCoy's thoughts returned to the captain's problem. "If only he'd talk about it ..." He made a disparaging sound at the very idea of Jim Kirk discussing a problem willingly.

"Damn," the doctor muttered as he climbed into the bunk. He tugged the lightweight blanket up over his shoulders and ordered the lights out. "I'd have about as much chance of getting a shell-mouth to open up by saying 'pretty-please.'"

* * *

James T. Kirk sat in the command chair of the Enterprise, posture stiff, silence absolute. He'd hardly spoken two sentences since his arrival on the bridge, seven-plus hours ago.

Worse, the captain's mood had communicated itself to the rest of the bridge crew. Only minutes ago, Chekov had dropped an electronic clipboard. The resulting clatter had caused everyone, with the exception of Spock, to jump as though red alert had sounded.

At the time, Montgomery Scott's broad shoulders had been wedged inside the confined space beneath the engineering station, tinkering with a 'wee bit o' a problem.' Startled by the unexpected noise, he came up too fast, whacking the back of his head solidly on the edge of the console.

"@#$#!" he grumbled in a rolling Scot's burr.

All over the bridge, mouths twisted upward at the corners, only to be tugged back into submission. More than one darting glance was directed toward the center seat and its silent occupant.

Realizing his was the only voice to be heard, Scott poked his head out, an abashed grin crossing his reddened features. "Sorry, Cap'n."

Kirk's only reply was a brusque nod.

First Officer Spock swivelled to face the captain's back, one eyebrow drifting upward at Kirk's lack of response. Normally Kirk would have made some sort of irreverent comment that would have had the entire bridge crew save himself aching with pent up laughter. Clearly, something was bothering the captain, and had been for some time. Perhaps, the time had come to broach the matter.

After checking the Science station to see that everything was in order, Spock turned his seat over to the young officer who would man it for the next eight hours and followed Kirk into the waiting turbolift. "You are very quiet today, Captain."

Although phrased as a statement, Kirk recognized the interrogatory note in Spock's voice. A long moment passed. Not meeting Spock's eyes, he replied, "I have a lot on my mind."

"I see." The Vulcan didn't miss the curt tone of voice, or the tense set of Kirk's shoulders. He clasped his hands behind his back, keeping his tone carefully neutral. "Might I inquire whether your meditations have brought you to any conclusions?"

Kirk made a sound which Spock had learned to interpret as disgust. "No. I seem to keep going over the same ground."

"Perhaps you are too close to the problem."

"Maybe," Kirk agreed, not offering any additional information.

Uncertain whether to continue his questioning, Spock remained silent until they reached their destination. As they stepped out of the 'lift, he decided to try again. "Would you care for a game of chess this evening?"

Mustering up a smile, the captain shook his head. "How about a workout instead? I could stand to let off some steam."

Brow cocked at the colloquialism, Spock said, "A workout would be quite acceptable."

"Give me an hour to get some paperwork squared away," Kirk replied as they reached his door.

"Acknowledged," Spock murmured, then strode toward his own quarters.

Alone, the captain entered the cabin. The door whispered shut. In blessed privacy Kirk allowed his posture to betray his emotions.

* * *

The two men met in the gym at the appointed time. Almost immediately Spock found cause for concern. The captain attacked each exercise as though he were fighting off hordes of Klingon invaders. More than once, the first officer felt inclined to urge caution. Knowing however that any implied rebuke would merely spur the Human to greater excess, Spock vowed to, as McCoy would phrase it, 'bite his tongue.'

Watching Kirk pummel a punching bag into submission, it occurred to the Vulcan that a live adversary would perhaps provide the outlet the captain craved. He approached Kirk, halting just beyond the range of the heavy bag. "Perhaps you would like to work on some Vulcan unarmed combat moves?" It was a logical solution, Spock thought. His greater strength and proficiency would provide the captain with the strenuous workout he clearly desired; the stylized technique would supply an element of safety.

"Sure," Kirk replied, his face and upper body already gleaming with perspiration. They moved to the center of the floor. Spock made the traditional Vulcan gesture of respect for one's opponent. Kirk echoed it, then the combat commenced.

Never had Spock seen his captain so single-minded during a friendly workout. Move for move, Kirk matched the Vulcan, making up in determination what he lacked in strength and skill. The Vulcan was hard-pressed to protect himself without harming the captain. More than once he had remind himself of his opponent's more vulnerable physique. Only when Spock held the captain firmly pinned to the mat, did the Human concede defeat.

"You win," Kirk panted, chest heaving with the effort to breathe.

One dark brow on the rise, the Vulcan helped Kirk to his feet. "I was not attempting to 'win,' Captain." He paused to control his own breathing. "I was merely attempting to prevent serious injury to either one of us."

"Sorry." An embarrassed flush suffused Kirk's perspiration-glossed features. "I guess I got carried away."

"Indeed," Spock said, putting unusual emphasis on the single word. He handed a towel to the captain, concern evident to one who knew him well. "Something is bothering you." He waited for a moment as Kirk wiped his face. "Perhaps if you were to talk about it ..."

Kirk gave a wry laugh. "It seems everyone has the same idea."

"Everyone?" Spock inquired quietly.

"You ... Bones. He's been hovering. Uhura, too. She made one of her motherly attempts the other day. That's pretty much everyone."

"Hardly. However, I will not debate the issue with you."

"Not worth the breath, huh, Spock?" Kirk chuckled, but Spock noted the laughter didn't reach his eyes.

"Since I am aware of the Human tendency to defend statements that are patently untrue, your surmise is correct, Captain. Given your present outlook, it would not be a worthwhile undertaking."

Borrowing a strategy from McCoy, Spock proceeded to firmly insert another barb. "Nor should I find it pleasant to have to defend myself from you in reality."

Kirk placed a hand on Spock's shoulder, smiling. This time the hazel eyes held a warm light. "Not likely. You could subdue me with one hand tied behind your back."

Spock's eyes softened in response. "Only if I were to employ a neck pinch -- something I prefer to avoid where my commanding officer is concerned."

Rubbing that part of his anatomy dramatically, Kirk said, "I'm glad to hear it." Then, snatching up the sweatshirt he'd discarded earlier and draping it around his bare shoulders, he headed for the turbolift, neatly evading any further discussion.

"Jim..." The name trailed off into nothingness. Spock had intended to point out that Kirk could not continue in his present manner, but he realized it would be futile.

"I believe I am now better able to understand what Doctor McCoy is referring to when he applies the term 'frustrating' to the captain." Spock sighed, then one inky eyebrow rose to a precarious height as he recognized another point of commonality. "Worse, I have begun conversing with myself ... "

* * *

"Notify me at once if there's any problem with Thorsen," McCoy called as he backed into the turbolift. He held the door open with his shoulder as he continued, "The readings are ambiguous, but I'd bet my right hand we're going to have to operate ..." Unable to think of anything else to add, he stepped the rest of the way into the car and found himself face to face with the captain.

"Oh ... Jim."

"Bones," Kirk acknowledged with a nod, then, to the 'lift computer, said, "Deck five."

"I, uh, wasn't expecting to find you here." McCoy cursed himself for sounding like a fool. Wasn't this what he'd been waiting for? A chance to speak to Jim alone? Grabbing at the unexpected opportunity he looked him up and down, doing a quick eyeball exam, taking in the form-fitting workout pants, the gleam of sweat on Kirk's muscled chest.

Catching the once over and recalling similar ones in recent days, Kirk asked, "Wouldn't it be easier to order me down for a physical? Or sneak a subdural monitor into me when I'm asleep?" Hazel eyes burned into the doctor as the captain awaited a reply.

"Ha!" McCoy exclaimed, not surprised that Kirk had been aware of the scrutiny he was undergoing. "Shows how much you know. Getting you down to Sickbay for a physical is a major undertaking, and do you have any idea how much it stings when we inject biomonitors? You'd squeal like a stuck pig. It was bad enough when I injected that subcutaneous transponder."

He narrowed his eyes, attempting to gauge Kirk's mood. Deciding to chance it, he smiled, saying, "Of course, I could send Christine. I have it on good authority that it hurts less when she gives injections!"

Reluctantly, Kirk joined the CMO's laughter, recalling the occasion when through a haze of pain and medication, he had made that very comment. "Sorry, Bones, but I refuse to be held responsible for remarks made under the influence of your 'noxious potions.'"

McCoy met Kirk's gaze and held it, nodding in satisfaction at the color that flooded his cheeks, the slight relaxation of facial muscles. "Good. I was beginning to think you'd forgotten how to laugh."

Immediately defensive, Kirk brushed the remark away. "I've been busy." Turning his attention to the location indicator, he inquired in a carefully reasonable voice, "Why don't you tell me what this is all about, Bones?"

McCoy frowned. Kirk wasn't that obtuse. "I thought I just did." The lift came to a stop and the two men stepped out into the corridor near Kirk's quarters.

Kirk focused puzzled eyes on the physician. "I don't get you."

Without waiting for an invitation, McCoy followed the captain down the corridor and into his cabin. "It's simple, Jim. I'm concerned about your mental state."

A look of annoyance flickered across Kirk's even features, but all he said was, "My mental state is just fine, Doctor." Silently he stepped to the dresser and snatched up a clean set of underwear then strode to the closet.

McCoy picked up on Kirk's use of his title and threw it back at him. "Sure it is, Captain." He propped himself on the edge of Kirk's desk, eyes never leaving the younger man. "That's why you've been so gosh-darned touchy, and why you berated Uhura, unjustly from what I've heard, for that foul-up with the subspace communication from Starfleet." McCoy waited a moment. When Kirk didn't reply, he said, "Yeah, I heard about that one. There's nothing wrong with the grapevine."

Kirk ignored the implication that there was something wrong with him. "I apologized to Uhura," he stated, his voice studiously calm. He turned to face the CMO, a clean uniform in his hands. "Now, do you have anything more to say, or can I shower in peace?"

McCoy swung his head back and forth in negation, frustration showing in his eyes. "Believe me, Jim, there's a lot more I could say, but it won't do either one of us any good right now. Go ahead, take your shower. Just remember, I'm always here. And if you can't talk to me, try Spock. He's a good listener. Much as I hate to say it, some of his advice isn't half bad, either." The doctor stood, and without another word, strolled to the door, leaving Kirk to stare at his retreating back.

* * *

Seated in the command chair, Jim Kirk fidgeted restlessly. Three quarters of the way through the shift, and almost twenty-four hours after his encounter with McCoy, there was an unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach that refused to be ignored. It had been there all day, growing stronger with each passing minute. He'd known what Bones was after, just as he'd known what Spock was getting at. He'd even half-hoped the doctor would refuse to leave when he more or less threw him out of his quarters. Now, added to his other concerns was a nagging sense of guilt for the way he'd treated his friends.

The captain knew McCoy was worried about him, knew he'd only given the physician more reason for concern. He'd have to make it up to him, somehow. Maybe dinner and a glass of that sipping whiskey McCoy enjoyed so much ... Bones would understand it was his way of saying he was sorry. He always did.

Decided, Kirk jabbed the intercom button, then inhaled sharply. "Damn!" He peered at the ribbon of scarlet already welling from his index finger, then back down at the sliver of bare metal protruding from the arm of the chair.

"Captain?" Spock's better-than-Human hearing had detected the quickly stifled exclamation.

Kirk turned to face him. "No cause for alarm. Just a cut finger. I think I'll survive."

Spock came to stand at Kirk's side. He examined the injured digit carefully. "Perhaps you should allow Doctor McCoy to examine it."

"Spock, it's just a cut finger!" Kirk's brow furrowed, exasperation warring with fondness for his first officer. He moved the injured finger toward his mouth.

Spock's right eyebrow ascended dramatically. "Really, Captain. That is most unhygienic."

"Well, do you have a better suggestion--" Kirk grimaced. "No. Don't bother, I already know the answer. All right, Mister Spock." He stood, acknowledging defeat. "I'll let Bones put a band-aid on it. But remember, I'm doing this just for you."

"Highly illogical, Captain. It is your finger that is injured."

Kirk grinned crookedly as he stepped into the waiting turbolift. "You have the conn, Mr. Spock. And by the way, see if Scotty can get someone from maintenance up here to repair that switch."

"Of course, Captain." Spock slid into the command seat as the doors of the lift closed, hiding Kirk from view. His other brow rose to join the first as he murmured curiously, "A band-aid?"

* * *

Leaning against the wall of the turbolift, Kirk peered at the bloody finger then, defiantly, stuck it in his mouth. Why had he allowed himself to be urged into this unnecessary trip to Sickbay?

Guilt, he responded wryly to his own question. But that didn't explain why Spock was so set on it. The first officer had enough experience with injuries to know this one wasn't serious. If not because of the finger ...

Being the captain of a starship is like living in a goldfish bowl, Kirk mused. He shook his head as another ruby-colored drop trickled off the end of his finger. I should've grabbed something to keep it from dripping all over the place, he thought. Oh, well ... Again he shoved the finger in his mouth as the lift slowed and he entered McCoy's domain.

* * *

Leonard McCoy caught the sound of the Sickbay doors whooshing open. Looking up, he was just in time to spot the captain in the act of taking a blood-streaked finger from his mouth. "Don't you know how unsanitary that is?" he demanded as he ushered Kirk to a treatment area. Knowing better than to expect an answer, he added, "What happened?"

"Cut myself," Kirk said, feeling silly. He held out the hand. "It's nothing, Bones. Just a scratch."

"I'll be the one to decide that," the doctor said with a touch of acerbity. "But ..." He eyed the finger carefully. "For once, I happen to agree." All the same, he ran a scanner over the injury, then reaching for an antiseptic spray, cleansed it thoroughly. "Hell, you didn't need me to take care of this." He looked up expectantly. "What's the story?"

Kirk grinned. "Spock seemed to think I should make a trip down here, so I promised him I'd come and get a band-aid."

The mention of Spock sparked McCoy's interest. With a thorough knowledge of first aid and the instincts to go with it, the Vulcan would certainly have recognized the trivial nature of Kirk's injury. Guess I'm not the only one who's noticed the captain's emotional state, McCoy ruminated.

He kept the thought to himself, saying, "A band-aid! They're almost prehistoric. I'll bet that pointy-eared hobgoblin you call a first officer is up there right this very minute, searching through the library computer for a reference." He chuckled as he picked up a protoplaser and switched it to its lowest setting. "Would you like me to kiss it and make it better, too?"

Kirk chuckled as well. "That's okay, the protoplaser will do just fine, Doctor McCoy."

"Glad to hear it," McCoy quipped. "I have it on good authority that kissing spreads germs!" He finished with the instrument, then ran a scanner over Kirk a final time. "There. I think you'll live."

Kirk slid off the table. "Thanks, Bones--"

"Wait a minute, Jim--" The CMO laid a hand on Kirk's arm. "According to this," he said, waggling the scanner in front of the captain for emphasis, "you could use some rest."

Kirk shrugged him off. "You know how it is ..."

"Yeah. When they made you captain of a starship they took away your right to a good night's rest. But I think there's more to it than that. And, like I said the other day, I'm here and I want to help."

Kirk flashed a low wattage smile at his friend. "I know you do--"

McCoy didn't let him finish. "Fine, so let me. C'mon, we'll have an early dinner, and you can tell your friendly family doctor all about it."

Kirk sighed, but decided to give in gracefully. After all, hadn't he been about to call McCoy for that very reason when he sliced his finger open? "All right. Just let me tell Spock I'll be gone longer than expected."

* * *

Dinner was a quiet meal. Kirk appeared lost in thought, and McCoy was content to leave him be. "Do you want dessert," he asked finally, watching the captain poke aimlessly at the rice noodles remaining on his plate.

Kirk's head flew up, startled by the unusual question. "You mean you're letting me near the dessert selector? Is today my birthday or something?"

McCoy grinned. "Nothing like that. But your weight is holding steady, and there's a lot to be said for an occasional treat."

"Well, in that case ... " Kirk headed for the forbidden selector.

"Right," McCoy responded. "How about taking it back to your quarters?"

Kirk inhaled deeply, then let his breath out in an extended sigh. "I can't shake you off, can I?" he asked ruefully.

McCoy kept his tone level, unthreatening. "You could if you really wanted to, but ..." He let the sentence trail off, allowing the captain to divine the unspoken corollary for himself.

Kirk pressed the proper buttons on the selector, then turned to watch as McCoy removed two cups of the murky liquid Starfleet called coffee from the beverage slot. "I get it. The dessert is a bribe."

"Nothing so blatant," the physician demurred. "You know that old children's song, 'A Spoonful of Sugar'?" Noting Kirk's affirmative, he explained, "Well, just think of the pie that way. Y'know, something to make the medicine go down."

Kirk sighed and stared at the gooey confection on his plate. "Even chocolate cream pie can't work miracles, Bones."

* * *

Reaching Kirk's quarters, McCoy placed the coffees on the desk, then settled himself for a protracted wait. This wasn't the first house call he'd made on the captain of the Enterprise. He knew what to expect.

For several minutes Kirk paced the confined space like a caged beast. Even his sandy hair and tawny eyes seemed to contribute to the simile. Feeling as though he were at an old-fashioned tennis match, McCoy watched until he couldn't stand it any longer, then, in a tone of command said, "Sit down and drink your coffee before it turns to ice."

"I think I'm going to need something a bit stronger," Kirk remarked quietly.

"So have it, but stop pacing. You'd drive anyone to drink!"

A smile touched the captain's features as he opened the bottle he knew McCoy favored.

"Should I take that to mean you'd like some too, Bones?"

"Damn right," McCoy confirmed. Then, as Kirk poured the golden liquid into two glasses he went on, "Now out with it, Jim. What is it that's got you tied up tighter'n a pair of rattlesnakes screwin'?"

"Elegant," Kirk commented dryly.

McCoy was having none of it. "Enough!" Frustration showed on the doctor's usually sympathetic features. "Talk to me; that's all I'm asking you to do."

The captain raised his glass and took a sip. "I don't know where to start."

"How about with Miramanee?" McCoy asked, then held his breath, waiting for the explosion.

It didn't materialize. Instead, Kirk's voice was glacier-cold. "Miramanee has nothing to do with this, Doctor." His back was to the doctor, but McCoy could read tension in the broad shoulders.

"No one can lose someone they've loved without it affecting them, Jim. You lost two people. Miramanee and the baby." He kept his eyes glued to Kirk, clinically noting the way Kirk inhaled sharply at the mention of the baby.

"I got my life back." The words were dull, apathetic. It was as though after that one reaction he'd put a damper on his emotions.

"For a price."

Kirk whirled to face him. He leaned his hands on the desk, blazing eyes meeting McCoy's. "A price paid by Miramanee and our unborn child, is that what you're implying?"

McCoy flinched, but didn't hold back. It was always better to face Kirk with his problems. "It's what you're thinking."

"Because it's the truth. Miramanee and our child died because of me. Me, Bones. If it weren't for me, they'd both be alive. How do you think that makes me feel?"

"You're wrong. If it weren't for you, she would have married Salish--"

"And what would have been wrong with that?" The words exploded from Kirk.

"She'd still be dead," McCoy said, resisting the urge to answer in kind. "They all would. Think about it ... Salish didn't know how to get to the deflector mechanism any more than you did. He would have failed, and assuming they'd married, Miramanee probably would have died in an incident similar to the one Spock and I broke up. If not, she would have died when the asteroid struck the planet. Either way, she'd be dead." He knew his words were cruel. He reminded himself that often a doctor must inflict pain before he can assist healing.

Kirk dropped into the desk chair, unshed tears making golden eyes shine all the more brilliantly.

C'mon, Jim, let it go, McCoy urged mentally, knowing how difficult it was for this man to relax his guard. Kirk hadn't shown any overt signs of grief when the physician confirmed Miramanee's death, nor since, but the feelings were there. Let it go, he thought again. This isn't natural. Not for you. You're not Vulcan. You care too much.

"It was all my fault, Bones ..."

McCoy took a sip of whisky, then raised his eyebrows. "I see. You intentionally fell down into the obelisk and stuck your head into that beam, hoping you'd end up with amnesia." The CMO's customary drawl was overlaid with a coating of sarcasm. The time for sympathy would come later. "You were there, that's all. You know what they say. Shit happens. You were lucky enough to land in it."

Kirk rolled his eyes. "Elegant," he said, repeating his earlier comment.

Observing him closely, McCoy saw the tiniest smile touch Kirk's lips. His eyes twinkled in response. "Yeah, well, sometimes a little earthiness helps to remind us we're not gods."

"You think that's what I'm trying to be when I blame myself for Miramanee's death ..." Kirk wasn't sure if he was asking or telling.

"If the shoe fits ..." McCoy paused, then took a breath. It was time for another unpalatable possibility. "There's more, Jim. I think you're relieved that you didn't have to make a decision regarding Miramanee."

The captain's eyes blazed in sudden anger. "How dare you say a thing like that? I thought you at least would understand. I'd never been so happy in my life. I had a wife I loved and a child on the way. I'd already begun building a cradle--" Kirk broke off with a gasp. Voice suddenly raspy. "It's as though I'm fated to destroy every woman I love."

"That's depression speaking," McCoy said sternly.

"Is it?" Kirk closed his eyes, trying to stem the tears that threatened. "I wonder."

"Tell me about her," McCoy urged. Now that Kirk was talking, he could be of some use.

"What is there to say? She was beautiful, but you know that. She was gentle and loving and brave. She could sing like a bird and run like a deer ... and I loved her." Kirk leaned forward, folding his arms on the desk. He laid his head on his arms, hiding his face. "I loved her, Bones," he repeated. An almost inaudible sob escaped his throat.

McCoy sat, forgotten, a silent guardian. His heart ached at the sight of this man who'd borne more pain in thirty-odd years than most people would in an entire lifetime, wrestling with the grief and loss he'd been trying to deny. More than once he almost reached out a hand toward Kirk. Each time he drew back, knowing Jim would try to control his emotions, try to smother them, to don the armor of starship captain if reminded of his presence. Finally the noiseless sobs grew less racking, then tapered off completely, leaving the captain limp and exhausted in their wake.

"You okay?" McCoy asked quietly, blue eyes watchful.

Kirk nodded, not lifting his head.

"Here." The doctor held out a handful of disposable tissues. "You'll need these."

"Thanks." Kirk's voice was raw. He didn't look at McCoy. McCoy glanced at the time display blinking in the corner of Kirk's computer screen. "You should get some rest if you intend to go on that landing party tomorrow. Think you'll be able to sleep, or would you like me to give you something?"

"I'll be okay." The hazel eyes were still focused on the smooth surface of the desk. "I have a lot of thinking to do."

"All right." McCoy stood, laying a gentle hand on Kirk's shoulder. "You know where to find me if you should change your mind."

"Right. Thanks again, Bones."

McCoy shrugged. "What are friends for?" He dumped the forgotten coffee in the recycler, then eyeing the unappetizing goo that was all that remained of the uneaten pie, tossed it in as well. With a final admonition to "Get some rest," he headed for the door.

* * *

The obelisk towered above them, its polished surface reflecting the light of Hammond IV's young sun. Kirk squinted at it then lowered his gaze to the lacy ground cover, this planet's grass-analog, his eyes tearing from the glare.

Or that was what he told himself, fiercely denying any connection between the artifact and the obelisk on the Amerind planet.

From where Spock stood at his side, Kirk could sense a quiet but powerful concern. Forcing himself to meet dark eyes that saw too much, knew him too well, the captain began to stroll toward what had once been a village.

"Must have been quite a civilization," he commented, hoping to put the Vulcan off the scent. Knowing he would sound as though he were babbling, he continued all the same. "Rasmussun can't wait to get the archeological base set up. If it weren't for the greater than earth gravity he'd be floating away, he's so exci--"

"Captain!" Spock grabbed Kirk's arm, propelling him to a position where he was shielded by the first officer's body. In a sequence so rapid it was impossible to distinguish individual motions, he whipped his phaser out and fired at the bladdersnake that had risen up before them, venom sacs bulging like a child's water-balloons. The sacs burst spewing the deadly toxin across the pale green turf.

Above, Leonard McCoy spun at the sound of phaser-fire, the medicinal plants growing from the rocky outcropping utterly forgotten. On the plain where a native village had once existed, stood Spock and Kirk in silent tableau. The Vulcan's right hand gripped a phaser, obviously the one that had just been discharged, his left, the captain's arm. The ugliest snake the doctor had ever laid eyes on lay dead at their feet.

Though unable to hear their words, McCoy could see clearly, the bright yellow sun spotlighting the two men against the backdrop of the deserted village. Intently, he studied them as though watching some archaic form of silent entertainment.

Spock's lips moved. Kirk replied with a wave of the hand and a shrug. Again Spock said something. Expostulating, McCoy suspected from his expression of deep concern, a look quite distinct from the bland mask he normally wore.

Kirk smiled stiffly then rested his hand on the Vulcan's shoulder for a moment before moving off toward some rather undistinguished vegetation. Spock followed close behind. As they walked, Kirk raised a hand to his temple.

McCoy didn't need a medicorder to know that the captain was suffering from a stress-induced headache. Sinking to his knees, the doctor considered this new wrinkle. He'd hoped the talk he'd had with Kirk would have resolved everything. After all, Kirk was far more resilient than any other man McCoy had ever dealt with. However, the captain's apparent inattention to his surroundings pointed up the fact that he was still in the grip of his emotions. If he couldn't get his feelings under control it would be McCoy's unpleasant duty to relieve him of command. And that, the doctor knew, was the best case scenario. The alternative didn't bear considering.

Aching for the pain his friend was experiencing, the physician resolved to increase his surveillance beginning here and now. The overhang was a perfect vantage point and the Science department would no doubt gather sufficient data on the medicinal herbs and plants of this planet. For his part he was going to sit here and keep an eye on his number one patient: the captain of the USS Enterprise.

* * *

Midnight found Jim Kirk awake and prowling the corridors of the Enterprise. He'd had a couple of drinks and done much thinking since returning to the ship, but none of it seemed to help. His mind was filled with a whirling kaleidoscope of images called up by his discussion with McCoy and the archeological sites he'd visited today: Miramanee as she'd looked on their joining day, when they made love, when she told him she was expecting his child, when he'd last seen her, a gentle smile lingering on her cold lips... More than once he wished he'd lost those particular memories when he regained the rest of his memory.

Finally, unable to remain in his cabin any longer, he'd pulled on an old pair of jeans and a threadbare Starfleet Academy sweatshirt and gone for a walk. The halls and passageways of the Enterprise were almost deserted, and, except for an off-duty crewmember hurrying to his bed, Kirk didn't encounter anyone. He roamed the ship from stem to stern, losing all sense of time and place. Passing Sickbay, he gave the doors a cursory glance but continued on his way.

"Jim!" Rapidly advancing footsteps caught up with, then fell into step at Kirk's side.

"Bones..." Lost in his thoughts, the captain hadn't heard the doors slide open as he strode down the corridor. "What are you doing up at this hour?"

"Minor emergency. Lieutenant Enriquez was trying to impress Spock with his dedication. If you want my medical opinion, he overdid it." McCoy shook his head and sighed. "Eighteen hours on his feet with no break. He spilled some chemicals he was using." In answer to Kirk's unvoiced question, McCoy continued, "Chemical burns on his hands and arms. Damnedest part of it is, you'd think Enriquez would know better than to pull a stunt like that. He's no fresh-from-the-Academy ensign."

A glimmer of a frown crossed Kirk's tired face. "Enriquez has always been overzealous. Take a look at his record. Every one of his commanding officers has made the same comment. Will he be okay?"

"Yeah. The damage is superficial. 'Course there's no saying how he'll be feelin' tomorrow morning when Spock gets finished with him. I have it on good authority that Vulcan of yours can melt duranium with his 'unemotional' reprimands."

Kirk's short laugh was completely lacking in humor. "I'm glad I'm not in Enriquez' shoes right now."

McCoy looked him over, taking in bloodshot eyes and rumpled hair. "Are you? From the looks of you, your own shoes aren't fittin' too well at the moment. After all that fresh air I thought you'd be asleep long ago."

"You know how it is." Kirk ran his fingers through his hair, making it look even worse. "The body was willing, but the brain refused to listen."

McCoy's weary features took on a look of concern. "Do you want to go back to Sickbay? That offer of something to help you sleep still stands."

Kirk shook his head. He stopped at the turbolift and pressed the call button. Almost immediately the doors slid open and the two men stepped in. "Deck five," he ordered, then, "If three generous shots of Altarian fire-whiskey didn't do the trick, I doubt anything will."

McCoy grinned wickedly. "I have something that would do it, but not on top of that much booze. You'd have the gran'daddy of all headaches tomorrow."

"Thanks." Kirk grimaced. "I think I'll pass." He led the way to his cabin, knowing McCoy wouldn't leave him now. "You were right, you know."

McCoy's eyebrows flew up and his eyes opened wide despite the fatigue that had been weighing them down only moments earlier. "About what? That you needed to talk? It wasn't hard to figure out, Jim."

"Do you want a drink?" Kirk asked, his back to the door.

McCoy shook his head in a negative, waiting for Kirk to continue.

"Me neither," Kirk said, collapsing into the chair behind his desk. He went on without stopping, almost as though he were speaking to himself, leaving McCoy momentarily confused. "That too, but what I really meant was, you were right about there being more to my problem. I've given it some thought in the past few hours. I can see things more clearly now." He folded his hands in his lap, not meeting the doctor's eyes.

Glad you can see things clearly at this hour, Captain. My eyes feel like they're full of gravel. The words remained unsaid as he lowered himself into the other chair and leaned back, ready to be friend and confidante. He nodded, understanding. "It's hard to see the problem when you're smack in the middle of it."

"Hmmph. Spock said the same thing. Fact is, sometimes you don't want to see it." Kirk's voice was tight, reflecting the tension in his clenched hands. He stared at a point somewhere beyond McCoy's shoulder, never meeting his eyes. "I didn't want to see it. Instead, I've done everything I could to avoid it."

"That's okay," the doctor said mildly. "Sometimes you need a little time before you can deal with things."

"Sometimes you don't want to deal with them," Kirk said, his voice taking on an insistent tone.

McCoy frowned. "I'm not sure what you're getting at."

"Bones, don't you see? You said it yourself. Part of me has been grieving for Miramanee and the baby, but another part is relieved that they're dead. What would a man like me do with a sweet young wife from a primitive planet? A woman -- no, a girl -- who'd never even seen the crudest oil lamp until I 'invented' one for her."

Alarmed at the direction Kirk was taking, McCoy said, "Now wait a minute, Jim. I said you were relieved at not having to make a decision. That's not the same as being glad Miramanee died."

Kirk met McCoy's gaze, hazel eyes burning feverishly in a pale face, making the doctor want to turn away from the pain and self-condemnation they held. "Maybe I am."

McCoy was around the desk in a flash, his face only inches from Kirk's, eyes narrowed, as though he could delve into the captain's mind the way a Vulcan could, forcing him to see things as they really were. "Right! and I suppose you're gonna tell me you go around kicking puppies for the fun of it! Get down off your high horse, Captain, and think about what you're saying. "You loved Miramanee. You wanted the baby. You also wanted your life back. That doesn't mean you're happy about her death. It doesn't mean you would have deliberately hurt her. All it means is you're glad you didn't have to make a difficult decision.

"Had Miramanee lived, you would have made that decision. But she didn't, and the little part of you that hides deep inside, the part that would prefer to have all your decisions made for you, the cowardly part of you is relieved. That's all. It's normal, Jim. You're normal. Anyone in your position would feel the same. It just proves you're human. But you're not glad Miramanee is dead ..."

Suddenly becoming aware of his fingers digging into Kirk's arms, McCoy relaxed his grip and leaned back against the edge of the desk. He smiled, embarrassed at his outburst, then took a breath. "Well. I guess you can stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Captain."

"I guess I can ..." A ghost of that same awkward smile touched Kirk's lips. "So, you think I'm just reacting normally?"

McCoy looked exasperated "Didn't I just finish telling you that? Of course you are." He stopped and eyed Kirk speculatively. "I have a prescription for you, Jim. I'll warn you though, you may not like it very much."

Kirk raised his eyebrows. "What else is new?" he joked, then spotting McCoy's annoyed frown, added, "All right, I know that look. I'll shut up and listen."

"Good. I want you to consider what you would have done if Miramanee had lived. No--" McCoy held a finger in front of his mouth. "You said you'd listen, so hear me out. Think of as many different alternatives as you can. Work them out, think them through like you would if this were a problem presented to you as the captain of the Enterprise. Try to determine what you would have done if you'd had a choice." McCoy straightened up, relieved Kirk had remained quiet long enough for him to finish.

"I don't think--"

"I'm not askin' what you think, Captain. I'm telling you. As your friend, and as your doctor. I think it will help." Mouth wide, he tried to muffle a yawn. "That, and a little sleep!"

"Okay, Bones. I'll give it a try." Kirk stood too, then rubbing his arms where McCoy's fingers had pressed into the flesh, he said, "Maybe you should work on your presentation, though. I'm going to have bruises tomorrow."

McCoy laughed as he headed for the door. "With some people, talking doesn't seem to work. You have to use a more physical approach."

Hands on hips, chest thrust forward, Kirk asked, "Are you implying that I'm stubborn, Doctor?"

"Stubborn? Un-unh. Thick as a brick? Maybe!" McCoy ducked through the door before Kirk had a chance to reply.

* * *

McCoy decided to leave Kirk alone for a few days. 'Letting him stew in his own juices,' was the way he phrased it to himself. In the interim, he gathered bits of information, listening in on conversations as he waited for the lift or stood in line in the mess hall. His best, albeit unwitting, informant was a certain ensign, who commented innocently, but a trifle loudly, "Eet's a relief the keptin is off the warpath. I vas afraid to breathe." Given the circumstances, the phrasing struck McCoy as unknowingly poignant.

Now, as he watched Kirk emerge from the pool on the recreation deck, water streaming from his muscular body, McCoy was able to personally confirm the ensign's comment. "Well! You're in fine form today. Plannin' on tryin' out for the Terran Olympic team, Jim?" "Just getting in a little exercise." Kirk grabbed a towel and wiped his face, then slung the absorbent fabric around his neck. "You were right, you know." He slid into a lounge chair, his swim suit making a squeaky noise against slick cushions.

McCoy sat as well. "Uh-oh," he said with a wry grin. "If I remember correctly, the last time you said that, I lost the better part of a night's sleep."

Kirk chuckled. "No guilt trips today, I promise." He cocked his head, looking at McCoy out of the corner of his eye. "But I am glad to have a chance to talk to you."

"Oh? That's good ... I think."

Hazel eyes twinkled. "Don't be so suspicious, Bones. I wanted to tell you I tried that 'prescription' of yours. I did what you said. I thought about alternatives."

"And?" The chair beneath him was uncomfortably damp, but McCoy ignored the wetness, curious to hear what Kirk had to say.

Kirk gave a little shrug. "And ... it helped."

"C'mon, Jim, that's not much of an answer. Did you come to any conclusions, any earth-shattering decisions?"

Kirk raised his eyebrows. "Not really. It's the kind of thing where you can say 'I would have done this,' or 'I would have done that,' but it's all speculation. There's no way knowing for sure."

"I see." There was more to come, McCoy was sure of it. "Just your typical command decision."

Kirk grimaced at the doctor's words. "I would have done my best not to harm Miramanee, the baby, or her people."

"Hmmph." A reasonable enough assumption. However, as soul-searching went, it was a little shallow. McCoy decided to borrow Kirk's own favorite maxim, and push until something gave. "Would you have stayed with her, Jim?"

Something passed over those expressive features, altering the honey-colored eyes, changing the contours of the firm lips. "I ... I don't think so. Despite the temptation ..." Kirk paused. "Despite the pain ..." He shook his head. "My life is here, Bones, not with a primitive tribe on a paradise planet."

"Un-hunh," McCoy said, noncommitally. This was more the sort of thing he'd been looking for. "What about other alternatives? Did you discover any?"

Relieved at any change of subject, Kirk nodded almost eagerly. "Actually, I did. It came down to three choices." He ticked them off on his fingers. "Stay; go; or go, but try to visit."

McCoy's eyes goggled. "Starfleet would just love that last one."

Kirk chuckled softly. "Believe it or not, Doctor McCoy, this sort of thing has happened before--"

"I don't doubt it," the CMO interjected dryly.

"--And each of those alternatives has been chosen at least once."

McCoy gave Kirk the kind of look he would give if the captain had offered to sell him the old Golden Gate Bridge back on Earth. "You been staying up late nights, reading fairy stories, Jim-boy?" he asked in his best drawl. "Peter Pan, maybe?"

"It's been done," Kirk insisted. "Only once, as far as I could discover, but ..."

"Talk about having your cake and eating it too! So ... " McCoy leered a little, hoping to get a real laugh out of Kirk. "What's the name of the mystery officer?"

A huge smile formed on Kirk's face. "Sorry. Confidential."

"Hmm ... " McCoy assumed a disgruntled air. "Maybe I should check with Chapel. You might be due for a physical sooner than I thought." Spotting Kirk's sudden dismay, he grinned wickedly. The grin softened into an affectionate smile as he realized he'd almost let Kirk lead him down the garden path. "Never mind about that. What are your feelings now?"

Kirk looked away for a moment, then met McCoy's probing gaze squarely. He'd known the doctor wasn't going to allow himself to be sidetracked for long. "It ... hurts ... It hurts a lot." He closed his eyes for a moment, then he drew a deep breath. "But I can live with it. Thanks, Bones for... Well ... you know."

McCoy nodded, understanding even those things that had been left unsaid. He examined the captain closely, taking in the relaxed posture, the even respiration, the liquid-gold eyes, their depths knowing grief and accepting it. The sorrow would always be part of Kirk, but now the healing could begin. "It's good to have you back to normal, Jim."

Kirk peeled himself out of the lounger. He stretched, enjoying the pull of well-toned muscles. "It's good to be back to normal," he replied. He strode to the side of the pool and entered the water with a perfectly executed surface dive.

McCoy stood too, watching as Kirk struck out toward the far side of the pool, strong arms cleaving the water in a powerful butterfly stroke. Sensing a presence at his side, he turned to find the first officer watching as well.

"The captain has resolved his conflicts." There was no question in Spock's words.

"Mmm. You even use the right psychological jargon, Spock," McCoy muttered, but there was no heat in the words. Turning back toward the water, he said, "Look at him. He could have been almost anything. Athlete, diplomat, Indian chief ... starship captain."

"Indeed. A man of the captain's intelligence and drive would be a success, whatever his field of endeavor." Spock fell silent, eyes following Kirk's lithe form as he reached the end of the pool and disappeared beneath the surface in a twisting underwater turn. "However, even the strongest man sometimes requires a friend's assistance, Doctor. You have shown yourself to be such a friend."

McCoy's eyes widened and he turned to face the first officer. "Why, I'm not certain, but I think that's either compliment or a thank you!"

"It was intended as both," Spock answered gravely.

"Well, it's greatly appreciated, but in this instance, I can't say that I did much to earn it. I just pointed out a few things, and let Jim take it from there." Remembering the rumor that had reached his ears about a certain workout, McCoy added, "It seemed a hell of a lot more logical than letting him beat me up."

Spock's eyebrow rose, wondering how McCoy had come by his information. He considered for a moment, then nodded. "You may be correct." Kirk turned and began another lap, this time using a relaxed breaststroke. "However, I have been told there is a time for everything ..." Spock's voice trailed off suggestively.

"Ecclesiastes." McCoy grinned. "Well, better you than me!" Changing the subject, he said, "Speakin' of time, I okayed Enriquez' return to duty. He went back to work a couple of hours ago."

"It is good of you to info--"

Just then, Uhura's voice issued from the wallcomm. "Doctor McCoy, report to Sickbay. Mister Spock, your presence is required in chemlab two. Repeat, Doctor McCoy to Sickbay, Mister Spock to chemlab two."

Velvet brown eyes met sapphire, then two sets of lips uttered a single word. "Enriquez..." Spock looked toward the ceiling in a thoroughly Human appeal. Inhaling deeply, he said, "It is unfortunate, Doctor, that your abilities have been insufficient to meet the challenge presented by the somewhat over-enthusiastic lieutenant." He headed for the 'lift, long strides covering the distance rapidly.

McCoy followed at a jog-trot. "I'm just an old country doctor, Spock, not a miracle-worker. I can't alter a man's personality."

"Of course," Spock murmured, boarding the turbolift. McCoy could almost swear he heard the Vulcan sigh. "It is as I always suspected ..."

Silently treading water, Captain James T. Kirk watched his two friends until the closing doors intervened. A stellar grin formed on his water-beaded face as he dove beneath the waves created by the other swimmers.

It might not be paradise, he thought, but it certainly has its compensations.

The End