A Brief Respite
"What the hell happened to you?" McCoy slowly stood from the desk, watching Jim walk toward him with a slight limp to his gait. He suppressed a curse. "I just left you two hours ago."
Jim's expression was stern and uncompromising and the bleeding cuts on the right side of his face only accentuated his anger. For the first time since McCoy had known him, Jim looked unapproachable.
Jim stopped in front of McCoy's desk, favoring his right leg. The side of his mouth was swollen and faint bruises colored his skin at the base of his neck. His spine curved slightly, as if the weight of his shoulders dragged on him. He looked dead on his feet.
"Lieutenants Hendorff and Garick are coming in for autopsies," Jim said in a low tone. "I want your report by the time we get to Earth."
He saw something primal in the brilliant blue eyes. He had seen Jim chagrined, mischievous, playful, and sometimes angry, but he had never seen such raw hatred in his friend. It was a sharp contrast to the weariness that emanated from Jim.
What the hell had happened down there?
He smelled blood and something cauterized and sour that stung his nose. He studied Jim's features with a clinical eye. Whatever had happened on Kronos, Jim looked like a man who had battled the devil...and probably lost.
"You didn't get Harrison?" he asked cautiously, eyeing the bruise just above Jim's left eye.
"We got him," Jim said in a guttural tone.
His eyes narrowed. He saw a faint ribbon-like mark on the line of Jim's jaw. He reached out and gently tipped Jim's chin. "Is that a boot mark?"
Jim angled his chin free. "What can I say, Bones. Klingons don't play fair."
"Let me check you out," he said, clasping a hand around Kirk's bicep. The muscles beneath his fingers were lax with exhaustion.
"Bones, I'm tired. I want to take a shower and get the ship out of here before a Klingon cruiser shows up."
"Is the warp drive fixed?"
"Then what's your hurry." His grip held firm. "Jim, you just returned from a planet bleeding all over the floor. Do—"
"I'm not bleeding all over the floor."
"—you want to spread something to every crewmember on this ship?" McCoy finished sternly. "Or every person on Earth?"
"I was deconned in the Transporter Room," Jim said with some edge.
McCoy frowned. "That doesn't eradicate blood-borne pathogens and you know it. You tangled with Klingons, Jim. God only knows what diseases they could pass on to you."
Jim remained in place. McCoy could see his indecision as he stood, weighted with weariness that went bone deep.
"I have to check you out," he said quietly and took a few steps, pulling his friend with him.
When there was no resistance, he continued to steer Jim into a private back room. They had just stepped through when a team of ensigns entered the Medical Bay pushing two gurneys with body bags.
Medical facilities on a starship heavy cruiser were state of the art, but lacked privacy. Medical had to be able to respond to significant causalities if needed, and offering private rooms to each patient was unrealistic. There simply wasn't the space. But each medical bay had isolation cubicles for the critically ill that offered private baths. He took Kirk to such a room.
He wanted to talk to Jim. He knew that Jim would be more inclined to open to him if they were in a place where the Captain felt less exposed. Jim did not easily open to people under any circumstances, but given the events of the past twenty-four hours and Jim's sullen mood, he knew getting the young man to converse wasn't going to be easy.
Kirk walked to the comm unit on the wall and punched the call button. "Kirk to bridge."
"Bridge, Sulu here."
"Any sign of life out there, Sulu?"
"Everything is quiet, sir."
"How about Engineering? Any word on the warp drive?"
"Still working on it, sir. Chekov doesn't have an ETA."
"Keep me posted. I'm in Sickbay."
Jim cut the transmission and leaned on the wall, taking his weight off his right leg. In the small space, the rank odor of Klingon permeated the room. McCoy had hear border patrols brag they could smell a Klingon before their sensors pick up movements. Now he knew why.
He remained just inside the closed room, studying Jim. He wasn't certain if Jim was going to make it to the bed or not. He was just about to approach his friend with help, when Jim moved.
Pushing himself away from the wall, Jim began to strip out of his civilian clothes.
"Wait a minute, Jim," he said. "I want to do a preliminary first. Take a seat on the bed."
Jim dropped his jacket to the floor and, without looking at McCoy, continued to undress. "I want a shower first."
He watched as Jim continued to undress, noting how slow and heavy the younger man's movements were, like a man operating under water. Jim's fatigue was palpable to him. He silently cursed himself for not doing a more complete medical exam on the captain before leaving orbit. He knew that Jim's vitals were off their normal medians, but the man had been under fire just hours earlier. Higher blood-pressure and stressors were to be expected. Now he was wondering if he'd missed something.
"And I want to make sure you don't pass out in there. Your vitals were off before you decided to battle Klingons. I can only imagine what they are now."
Jim slipped his boots off. "I'm taking a shower."
He knew that tone. Despite Jim's obvious fatigue and whatever was going on with him emotionally, his tone left no room for argument.
"It'll take five minutes," he said.
"Then it can wait."
"If it could wait, I wouldn't have brought you into this room. Damn it, Jim, you're making my job ten times more difficult than it needs to be. Now get on the damn bed."
Jim stopped undressing. He didn't look at McCoy, but stared at the far wall away from where the bio-bed was placed.
"Bones, don't push me." His tone was flat and cold.
McCoy's eyes narrowed. He couldn't see the full expression on Jim's face, but something in the stillness of how Jim held his body, how he had completely stopped what he was doing told McCoy that he was right on the edge and having difficulty controlling his reactions.
"Okay, Jim," he said carefully.
Jim resumed undressing.
He heard a stifled groan as Jim pulled off his shirt. He soon understood the reason: dark bruises were already appearing along Jim' ribs and shoulder. He walked to stand behind Jim. A fist-sized deep bruise discolored the skin just beneath the kidney on Jim's right side. He gently touched the bruise.
Jim jerked at the touch and moved out of his reach, turning to look at him.
Sadness had replaced the anger he had seen earlier. But it was more than sadness that he saw in the blue eyes. There was grief and despair and a helplessness that came from not being able to act on his hatred.
"Sorry you let him live?" he asked quietly, studying his friend's eyes.
And like that the mask dropped in place. In short, decisive movements, Jim unzipped his pants and slipped then off without taking his eyes from McCoy.
Jim stepped into the shower. The door slid shut behind him. It was his silence that was making McCoy uneasy. Jim was not by nature a silent man. His passions and emotions ran deep and he freely expressed himself, whether it was a good idea or not. To see him silent and withdrawn meant that he was struggling with a submerged personal issue.
He knew how Kirk felt about Pike, and Pike in turn had taken the young man under his wing, mentoring him into his new role as captain. Never knowing his own father and lacking that guidance from the day he was born had made Jim a classic rebel. McCoy had noticed in the four years he had known Jim, that the young man was not one to step away from a fight. He took unreasonable risks without fully weighing the consequences and yet he always seemed to be two steps ahead of the game.
Pike's death had obviously hit him hard. McCoy had tried to contact Jim early the next morning when he had been told about Pike's death and the attack on Starfleet Command, but Jim had been brusque on the communicator, his tone flat. He hadn't wanted to talk.
He had given Jim some space, knowing the man needed time to mourn, and thinking that he could get an examination in later that evening. He had been surprised when he had gotten the alert that Enterprise was scheduled to depart on an emergency mission. He had sent Jim a priority to see him at Starfleet Medical for a full medical examination.
The Captain had not shown.
He looked around the small room. At least this mission didn't have them jumping into volcanoes and running from angry spear-chucking natives.
It was over…at least for now. They were going home.
He ordered a fresh uniform for Jim and deposited the blood-stained civilian clothes into the recycler bin. He began preparing for a thorough examination.
After fifteen minutes, the shower door opened and Jim stepped out, freshly washed with a towel wrapped around his hips. He spotted the clean uniform waiting for him and reached for it. McCoy was faster.
"Just the essentials, Jim."
Jim glared at him. "I'm in a hurry."
He could see the shower had refreshed Jim, given him time to get control of his thoughts and emotions. That would make McCoy's job both easier…and harder.
"I want to do a full examination," he said.
Kirk scowled. "Don't your instruments tell you everything?"
"They tell me exactly what I need them to tell me. Now get on the bed."
Without a word, Jim put on his Starfleet issue briefs, wincing as he bent down. He stood for a moment and rotated his neck from side to side, stretching the muscles.
McCoy crossed his arms over his chest.
Jim looked at the bio-bed, which also served as an examination table, and sighed heavily. He blinked several times as he stared at the door and for one uncertain moment, McCoy thought he'd flee – uniform or no uniform. But he walked to the bed and sat on the edge, groaning softly as his body protested the movements.
Within seconds the monitor showed all Jim's vitals. As McCoy had suspected, blood-pressure and respiration showed an increase, as did the pain indicator. There were slight chemical imbalances due to the severe bruising, fatigue and pain. Liver panel looked good. Full blood panel was normal -no internal bleeding. There was a slight decrease in kidney function on the right
Jim hung his head and stretched his neck again.
"Headache?" McCoy asked without looking away from the monitors. He frowned. There was a slight decrease in function to the right kidney. He'd have to take a closer look.
"It's all right," Jim answered.
Of course it is.
He spared Jim a look and noticed he was blinking as if trying to clear his vision.
"Are you having trouble seeing?"
He returned his full attention to the monitor. There was nothing in the readings that indicated any head trauma. Still….
"Did you get hit in the head?"
"Probably," Jim said shortly.
Irritated, he turned completely away from the monitor and gave Jim his full attention. "This is serious, Jim. I'm not asking out of curiosity. I need to know what to look for or we're going to be here for hours."
Kirk's expression tightened. "I don't know. I guess so!"
McCoy shook his head and pulled out his scanner. The bio-bed monitor told him Jim's vitals, but the scanner could narrow in on specific areas. Right now he wanted to examine the bruise above the kidney and make certain there was no organ damage.
"How long is this going to take?" Jim asked.
"I haven't even gotten started," he said crossly, his scanner poised over the ugly bruise. "You know, if you let me examine you before we left, this process would be a lot shorter."
Jim said nothing, but remained perched on the edge of the bed. The engines were silent and that made the room even more still.
"What's your hurry, anyway? You got your man."
"We left over two dozen Klingons dead down there, Bones. If we don't get out of here before they discover what's been done, you'll have a lot more to worry about than me."
"Well, right now I only have you." He gently probed the area around the kidney. Jim stiffened under his touch. "Klingon do this or Harrison?"
"Klingon, I suppose."
McCoy scowled. "You don't remember?"
"Bones, I had two dozen heavily armed Klingons that were trying very hard to kill us. I didn't have time to take notes."
He activated the scanner and studied the results that poured into his PADD. "But you don't think it was Harrison."
The kidney was bruised, but not lacerated or ruptured. Still plenty painful, though he doubted Jim would ever admit it. The organ would heal on its own in a few days if no further trauma occurred.
Jim hadn't responded to his prod and he craned his neck to see the younger man's expression. "Jim? Why don't you think it was Harrison?"
"Because Harrison wasn't fighting us, he was fighting the Klingons."
He walked around to the front of Jim.
"Why would he do that?"
"I have no idea," Jim said, meeting his eyes.
Anger was still there in the blue eyes. It seemed alien to him, misplaced in a man whose eyes lit up in the thick of a fight; who disarmed his opponents with his charm and confidence; who, even when being reprimanded, managed to maintain his charisma. Now, as McCoy looked at his friend, he realized that Harrison sparing the landing party's life only served to fuel that anger.
McCoy placed the scanner over Jim's right shoulder. There was more bruising and the tendons had been strained, causing some inflammation. His gaze dropped to Jim's hands and he frowned. He set the scanner aside for a moment and gently examined the injured hand. His fingers deftly moved around knuckles that were raw and swollen. He felt the tendons inflamed and slightly displaced, and at least one bone moved under his ministrations.
Jim sucked in a sharp breath and pulled his hand away.
He looked at Jim for a moment. The young man's expression was closed and carefully guarded, something he had not seen in years.
"Lie down," he ordered Kirk.
Jim opened his mouth to object.
Jim's jaws clamped shut. He hesitated a moment, meeting McCoy's glare than let out a short breath and rolled onto his back. Everything was a battle with this man when it came to medical care. McCoy was accustomed to having to throw his weight around to get Jim to comply with the simplest of requests, but he was not accustom to this seething anger that was evident in every move the man made.
He looked down at the prone figure on the bed. Despite all the bruises, Kirk was in great physical shape. He had an athletic body and a metabolism that kept up with his high energy. Keeping weight on the young man was always a challenge for McCoy. Jim burned calories like an Olympic swimmer, often causing him to be hypoglycemic.
"When did you eat last?" McCoy asked.
"I don't know."
Probably before Pike's death, McCoy thought. Certainly not since. Blurred vision and rapid heart rate were signs of hypoglycemia, as was despondency. But those symptoms could also be a result of being in a physical fight. The monitor would not show what he needed to know to be certain. He would have to take a blood sample.
He frowned and pressed a call button on the wall and grabbed a thin instrument from a nearby table.
"I'm going to draw some blood." He pressed the extractor against the inside of Jim's arm, right above a faint blue vein. Within in seconds the vial filled with blood. "You know you need to watch this, Jim. If you go too long without eating and stressing your body the way you are it can lead to seizures and unconsciousness."
"I've been busy."
"Well so have I, and I don't need you in Sickbay in critical condition because you didn't take the time to eat."
The door opened and a nurse entered. He handed her the vial.
"Let's get a Kat Laser in here and the Hyerbyte for his hand."
Jim remained still and silent on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. McCoy returned his attention to his patient. He moved his hands over the lean ribs, pressing his fingers into the firm muscles.
Jim pulled away slightly with a grunt.
He stepped back. "You've got a few fractured bones in your hand that I'll have to repair, and I'd like you to stay under a laser for those bruises. Ribs are bruised, but that's not news to you."
"I need to get back to the bridge," Jim said in a flat tone.
"I need an hour to treat you."
"I want you to examine Harrison."
He blinked at the sudden command. "Is he going somewhere?"
"Then he can wait," he said and moved to the foot of the bed. "Do you have any pain in your knee?"
McCoy took a breath. "Jim, you're favoring your right leg. Where's the pain?"
He did not see any bruising or swelling on the leg or knee and the scanner didn't show any ligaments or tendons damaged.
"It's not in my leg," Jim said reluctantly.
He looked towards Jim's hip and the faint bruising. Not enough to warrant a limp in a physically fit man. "Are we playing twenty questions? Because I've got all day to do this."
It was always a power struggled with Jim, especially when he was lying on McCoy's table. It required all McCoy's skills to keep control of the situation, not only from a medical standpoint, but from a psychological one, as well. Jim really wanted to keep all his pain to himself and hated McCoy's prodding, as much as he hated the exposure of the scanners and monitors that refused him privacy.
"I think it's my back," Jim said shortly.
"Now was that so difficult?" His fingers expertly probed the knee joint, feeling for anything unusual. As he probed, he watched Jim's face, noting the tension and scowl. Annoyance, but not pain. "Roll onto your side."
Jim awkwardly rolled onto his side and that told McCoy just how uncomfortable he was. McCoy's fingers felt along the right side. He barely pressed in the area of the bruised kidney.
Jim's body galvanized. He cursed through clenched teeth and held himself rigid. Suddenly pale, a fine sheen of sweat coated his tense face.
McCoy heard the monitor increase in rhythm as Kirk's heart rate skyrocketed with pain. He put a hand on Jim's hip both as a way of comfort and control. With the mood Jim was in, it was entirely probable that he would simply hop off the bed and end the examination.
The door opened again and the nurse entered with the laser. Right behind her was the Hyerbyte being wheeled in by the technician. The Hyerbyte would help to mend the bones and cartilage in Jim's hand.
It took twenty minutes for the laser treatment, during which Jim remained unusually cooperative, or at least silent and unmoving. While the treatment was in process, McCoy prepared a cellular regeneration injection for Jim's kidney. Under normal circumstances, the kidney would heal on its own with rest, but given that it was so sensitive and painful for Jim, he decided to stimulate the healing process.
As the laser finished, he dismissed the nurse. Jim remained staring at the ceiling with his closed expression, his body taut. McCoy put a hand beneath his shoulder. "Sit up."
Jim rolled into a sitting position with a soft grunt. "Can I get dressed now?"
"No." McCoy was already moving behind him with his hypo. He put his hands gently above the area of the bruised kidney.
Kirk jumped slightly at the touch.
"Easy. I'm going to inject you with a cellular regrowth serum. It's going to go directly into your kidney. It'll accelerate the healing process, but it's going to hurt."
"Wonderful." He didn't turn around.
McCoy drew a breath and steadied Jim with one hand. He pressed the hypo onto the bruised area. Every muscle beneath his hand went rigid. Jim instinctively pulled away from the pain, his spine arching.
"Hold still, Jim." He repositioned his hand to the front of the ribs to keep his patient in place while the hypo emptied into the damaged kidney.
Jim's spine curved with relief as the hypo withdrew. McCoy could hear him draw a few shuddering breaths.
"It should start to feel better soon." He moved to stand in front of Jim and carefully examined the injured hand, positioning it into the narrow platform on the Hyerbyte and set the machine.
"How long is this going to take?" Jim asked in a clipped tone.
"That's a lot of damage," he said evenly. "Maybe half an hour."
"I need to talk to the bridge."
There was no way he was going to allow Jim to get off the bed. He never forgot that Jim was a master tactician, that his mind was always working at several levels at a time – assessing, analyzing, scheming. This could have been a ploy to get closer to the door, to get off the bio-bed that was revealing far more than he was comfortable with. But then again, Jim was captain and they were in enemy territory. Without a word, he handed Jim a communicator.
Kirk looked at him, fuming for a moment before opening the communicator. "Kirk to bridge."
"Spock here, Captain."
"What's our status, Spock?"
"Still no warp functioning, and no sign of any ships in the area."
"Meet me in the brig in half an hour."
McCoy set the communicator aside and watched his friend. "How's the headache?"
"I'm going to order you something to eat."
"I'm not hungry."
"You're going to eat anyway. You want to have all your strength to interrogate your prisoner, don't you?" He punched the order in on the PADD.
"I have no intention of interrogating him."
Something in Kirk's tone made McCoy's blood freeze. He studied Kirk, who was staring blankly at the wall. Kirk's hand was under the pulsating light of the Hyerbyte, but he seemed not to notice.
"What's going on, Jim?"
Kirk remained silent.
McCoy set the PADD down and stood in front of Jim. At first glance, McCoy had thought Jim's expression was closed, tightly controlled, but at closer inspection he saw pain and something else.
"You look dogged," McCoy said.
"I'm following my orders," he said in an empty voice.
"Since when do you do that?"
Jim's eyes snapped up to his. "What's that supposed to mean?"
He looked closely at Jim, knowing he had struck a nerve. "Didn't Admiral Marcus order you to kill Harrison? Instead you risk your life to capture him and bring him back to Earth."
"No more of a risk than firing seventy-two torpedoes at the Klingon home world and hope they don't notice."
"Two dozen Klingons killed…I think they'll notice."
Jim didn't look away from his stare and he could see Jim was looking for a fight.
"Why is it so important to bring Harrison back, Jim?"
The machine beeped and he was forced to turn from Kirk and reset the pulsations. The technology worked in sequences, building and repairing in layers. It wasn't going to make the hand like new, but it would take the pain and swelling down and start mending the bone and cartilage.
"I hate him, Bones."
The words were so soft, he almost missed hearing them. Without being told, he knew what had happened to Kirk's hand. He calmly finished setting the machine then turned to Kirk.
"Firing torpedoes at a man thousands of kilometers away is pretty impersonal," he said. "Smashing your fist into someone's face on the other hand…"
Jim wouldn't look at him, but he could see from the muscle jumping in Jim's jaw that Jim didn't like what he was saying.
"Seeing someone who has hurt you suffer can feel a lot more satisfying."
"What would you know about that?" Jim asked in a hollow voice.
"More than you think, Jim."
For long minutes there was only the sound of the machine. Then Jim spoke.
"I keep seeing Pike…lying there…." Jim's voice drifted and his eyes unfocused. "One moment he's alive and the next he's dead. Just like that, everything that was him was gone."
He understood only too well how quickly and irrevocably beings died. "Death haunts every living thing, Jim, waiting for the opportunity to pounce. I've learned firsthand how the simplest of wounds can turn fatal in a matter of minutes."
"This isn't about being at the wrong place at the wrong time," Jim said tightly. "We're not supposed to get gunned down in our conference room."
"And people aren't supposed to die of broken legs, but they do." He realized he sounded callous and tried again. "There aren't any guarantees, Jim. You know that. And so did Pike."
He knew how important Pike had been to Jim. The Admiral had recruited him, mentored him, and had seen greatness in him when Jim couldn't see it in himself; Pike had rescued him from an aimless and mediocre life. Pike had been Jim's toughest critic and strongest advocate; an advisor, a mentor, a father and a friend. And Harrison had taken all that away.
For the first time he wondered what or who was going to keep Jim grounded. Pike had a way of balancing the young man's reckless nature. Jim kept pushing the proverbial line, and it seemed to McCoy that Starfleet kept moving it, giving the young man more leeway than was reasonable. This mission was clear evidence of that fact.
"It happened so fast…" Jim said quietly.
He drew a breath. "Jim, as a doctor I've come to understand that there is a fine line between life and death. It's fragile and thin. Sometimes that line holds and sometimes it doesn't."
Jim glanced at him. The expression in his face had softened slightly. "You really have to work on your bedside manner, Bones."
He scowled lightly. "I was going to tell you that you have to play the hand you're dealt, but you hate my metaphors."
Jim turned away. "You're not even listening to me."
"I'm listening, Jim. I'm hearing a lot of empty words."
"I told you I hated him," he said defensively.
"Yeah," McCoy said, nodding. "And what about that? You were more than eager to dump seventy-two torpedoes on top of this guy and be done with him. Then suddenly you're personally leading a landing party to the goddamn Klingon home world to save this guy. Why the change of heart?"
"It wasn't to save him, Bones." Jim looked up at him with eyes intensely bright. "It was to bring him back to Earth. I want people to know what he did. I want it to mean something. I couldn't save Pike, but I can do this – I can make the man who killed him pay."
"What do you think, Jim, that if you'd moved a second or two quicker, there would've been a different outcome? There's nothing you could have done that would have changed Pike's fate and there's still nothing you can do."
"Are we done here?"
"Sometimes people just die, Jim. As a doctor, I've learned that lesson well. Any surgeon with his salt will tell you he'd rather be lucky than good."
"That's it?" Kirk challenged. "I think I like your metaphors better."
The Hyerbyte finished and McCoy carefully examined Jim's hand.
"The swelling's down, but the fractures are still unstable, so take it easy on the hand."
Jim nodded once and slid off the bed.
McCoy handed him the fresh uniform and watched him dress. Jim's movements were more determined. He showed no signs of the pain of his hand-to-hand combat, but he was still wound tighter than a drum. McCoy could see the muscles along his back torso bunch with tension.
Jim quickly finished dressing and headed toward the door, his strides strong and purposeful. "Meet me in the brig."
"You can't be Harrison's judge and jury, Jim."
Jim stopped at the door and turned to look at him with a tight expression. "I've already been his judge. I let him live, didn't I?"
For a long moment they faced each other in the isolated room where no one could see or hear them, where no one would know how much pain Jim was in, how much grief he was dealing with. McCoy could see his friend wanted credit for allowing Harrison to live. It was the moral thing to do and it had cost him his sense of peace and righteousness. McCoy only hoped it hadn't cost him too much.
Something slid over Jim that McCoy had seen before – the mask of the commanding officer who pushed aside his own pain and well-being for that of his duty. At that Kirk turned and strode away without looking back.
"Eat something," McCoy shouted after Kirk. But the door had already closed.
A/N - Special thanks to my betas Carol and Alice for making the story more complete.