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“We’ve been shut up in a lot of places over the years,” McCoy said, “but this could be the dullest of them all.”

“Do you find that constantly walking the room’s circumference makes it more tolerable to you?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact.”  But he stopped; he hadn’t realized until then that he’d actually kept at it long enough and hard enough to work up a sweat, one that, in the cool room, made his skin feel chilled and clammy.

Having paced the whole place out a couple dozen times, as Spock had pointed out with his usual sensitivity, McCoy was well-equipped to understand it—what little there was to understand.  It was a small, egg-shaped cell with gray walls shaped from something squashy and viscous, like a jelly with a bad temper; it returned any pressure they put on it.  The floor appeared to be some distant relation of the same stuff.  There were two hard bunks with thin blankets, one sink with a tiny soap dispenser (he’d expected the soap to come out stinking of astringent, but instead it had a faint scent like gardenias), and a toilet.  There was a metallic-looking rectangle, about a hand-width tall and an arm-length wide, that he and Spock figured to be some kind of pass-drawer.  Currently locked.

What worried McCoy most—what had kept him pacing like a cuckoo-clock bird, probably—was that there wasn’t any door.

He could accept a jailbreak being impossible.  But he would have liked a door all the same.

He said, “They used to have—I don’t know, maybe a thousand years ago or more, all the way back in the Dark Ages, even—something in France called an oubliette.  The name came from the French word for ‘forget,’ and that’s what the thing was for.  It was a kind of hole or a cupboard, and they’d throw people in it and just—walk away.  They’d forget about them.”  He rubbed a hand across his face, telling himself he couldn’t really feel the prickle of stubble there.  They hadn’t been in this fix that long; that was just his imagination playing tricks on him.

“I do not believe we have been forgotten,” Spock said calmly.  “Neither by our captors nor, more significantly, by the Enterprise.  But as always, doctor, your notes on human barbarism are fascinating.”

He’d been sitting on his bunk for the last hour, stiff-backed and poised—thinking, McCoy was sure, not meditating, since his eyes had been open the whole time.

McCoy sat down opposite him.  Spock was something to look at, anyway, something that wasn’t gray and forbidding and unfamiliar.  “Fine, I’ll bite.  Who do you think’s got us?  And why?”

“As of yet, I cannot say.”

“But you’re betting they’re waiting on something.  Watching us, maybe.”

“Yes,” Spock said.  “Our accommodations suggest that they intend us to live, at least for the moment.  Otherwise it would have been simpler not to provide for basic hygiene.”

“But there’s no door.”

“No door visible to us.  Or perhaps this cell was grown around us—the construction material has a biological quality to it.”

He couldn’t say he liked that thought much.  It was like being inside something’s belly.

Spock said, "What is the last thing you remember before waking up here?”

“I told you.  Surveying Cellire III.  You, me, Jim, Chekov, and Ensign Park.”

“More specifically.”

McCoy paused, trying to sift through memories that felt muddled somehow, out-of-sequence, like someone had stuck a spoon in them and whisked them around.  He must have taken a knock to the head—except he’d checked himself and Spock over when they’d come to in this place, and he hadn’t found any physical damage on either one of them.  It wouldn’t be the first time they’d come across someone capable of doing this kind of tampering without leaving a mark, though.

“It’s hazy.  Kind of jumbled.  But I think I was talking to you, actually, going over the possibilities of some kind of fern—the tricorder gave the chemical composition similar to old-school aspirin or willow bark.  A natural pain reliever.  And then—like you said.  We woke up here.”  He almost itched with the urge to get up and pace again, but he’d had enough of Spock’s raised eyebrows for one afternoon.  And after having told him about the oubliette, he didn’t suppose he was in much of a position to defend the human approach to things.  “What about you?”

“The same, though my memories are also unusually vague.”  A little bit of reluctance hedged in that last word, McCoy could tell—Spock didn’t like his mind getting unruly on him.  Probably disliked it even more than most.  “I’m unaware of how any action we took could have precipitated this.”

“So am I.”  He rubbed his cheek again.  No, the stubble wasn’t in his imagination, was it?  “Spock, tell me whether or not I need a shave.  I feel like I’m losing my mind.”

“If you wished to remain clean-shaven, yes.  I would estimate your current situation as two days’ worth of growth.”

“And you’re still smooth as a baby’s bottom.”

He half-expected Spock to say something about the metaphor, but all Spock said was, “Vulcan facial hair grows much more slowly.”

“Must have taken your other self a lot of work and time to get that goatee he had, then.  You know, the Terran Empire one.”

“That would stand to reason.  But it would also seem irrelevant to the matter at hand.”

“I’ve exhausted the matter at hand,” McCoy said, though at least he could stop fiddling around with his incoming whiskers now that he knew they were really there.  “So we’ve been here a while, then.  I’m not thirsty, though, just hungry.  What about you?”

Spock reminded him—of course—that Vulcans didn’t get as hungry as humans, but conceded, in a roundabout way, that he could eat.  Unsurprisingly.  He had kind of a sallow, waxy look to him.

“It’s the cold, isn’t it?” McCoy said.  “They’ve got the temperature in here down too low for you.”

“It is bearable.”

“But not comfortable.  The last thing we need is your health is getting compromised.”  He whacked his hand against the wall, unsurprised by now when it whacked back—there was at least a sound there, a kind of wet thudding that made his skin crawl.  “Hey!  Why don’t you come and talk to us for a change?  What’s the point of keeping us here, anyway?  What do you want?”

A voice, smooth and cool, came into the room—at first the sound was clotted, because the glutinous wall was still parting to form the grid of holes of some kind of speaker, but then it cleared up.

“You are Dr. Leonard McCoy and Commander Spock, of the USS Enterprise.  You are human and Vulcan, respectively.”

“Remarkably perceptive,” Spock said, his tone so acidic that McCoy was half-surprised it didn’t sizzle through the wall all by itself.

“Vulcans are stronger than humans,” the voice observed, “and more physically resilient.”

“He could still do with it being warmer in here,” McCoy said.  “Standard temperature for Vulcan comfort is—”

“Irrelevant.”

“I would disagree,” Spock said.

The voice went on, and McCoy had the feeling that its owner had gotten to some kind of point where they would have gone on from here just the same regardless, no matter what he and Spock had said; this bit didn’t feel scripted so much as inevitable, like the end of an avalanche after the first rumble had set the whole thing up.

“It is inordinately difficult for a human to injure a Vulcan.  Therefore, all the transactions you will have with us will be paid in the particular coin of Commander Spock doing injury—specified injury—to Dr. McCoy.”

“No,” Spock said flatly.

“The act must be performed by Commander Spock upon Dr. McCoy; Dr. McCoy may not do it himself.  You’ll both need to eat soon.  If you wish to be fed, the price is Commander Spock breaking one of Dr. McCoy’s fingers.  There will be no negotiation.”

McCoy stood up, a phantom ache already in his knuckles, like the beginnings of arthritis.  “Listen here, you goddamn kidnapping phantom, you don’t get to tell us—”

“The speaker grille is gone,” Spock said.  “They’re no doubt choosing to ignore us.  They may continue to listen, but they have ceased being willing to communicate.”  He swung his legs up onto his bunk and lay down—maybe the single most voluntarily relaxed position McCoy had ever seen him in, in all the time they’d known each other.  Normally when he saw Spock flat on his back, it was only because he was in sickbay.

“Moving around would keep you warmer,” McCoy said.

“It will also burn calories.”  Spock closed his eyes.  “They are testing us.  I have no intention of complying with their demands.”

“I’d say that’s easy for you to say, since your stomach’s not the one growling, but then, maybe it’s harder because it’s not your finger.”

He’d been kidding about his stomach, but as he said it, he could feel the hollowness inside him.  His belly was empty all the way from belt buckle to backbone, his mother would have said.

He said quietly, “That’s why they kept us knocked out for a day or so.  They were waiting for us to get hungry.”

“Undoubtedly.”

“Jim and the others could be in the same fix we are.”

That was the first time since they’d gotten here that he could say for sure that Spock really looked worried; he pressed his lips together.  “Unlikely.  He is not close by.”

Right—he’d forgotten Spock had that unearthly knack for dowsing Jim.  But unlikely wasn’t impossible, and as far as answers went, Spock had felt more comfortable dropping that undoubtedly talking about sheer speculation.  Which meant this was half wishful thinking.  Maybe even more than half.  Not being able to sense Jim anywhere in the vicinity didn’t mean he couldn’t be in a cell just like this one a mile or two away.

Well, he wanted to believe Jim was free and clear, too.  He could do with some wishful thinking—wishful thinking logical enough to pass muster with Spock, even.

He said, “Then all we have to do is wait.”  He lay down himself, looking up at the slightly domed ceiling.

He tried to think about how he was already bored, because it was at least a distraction from how he was already hungry.

***

By that time the next day, though, there was no contest there.  His stomach was occupying the whole of his attention.  It had turned into a battle of him vs. Spock, who might as well have been made of iron for all the sign he was showing that he hadn’t had a bite to eat in three days.

“For God’s sake, Spock, it’s one finger.  I’d do it myself if they’d let me.”  They’d moved the bunks around and were sitting knee-to-knee now, making it impossible for him to miss that Spock was looking at everything in the room but him.  And he’d have bet his last hypo that Spock would look at any other piece of him right now before he’d even spare a glance for his hands.  “Don’t make me wheedle you into it, dammit, it’s unnatural.”

“It is unnatural for me to do you harm,” Spock said.

He’d picked up a thing or two from Jim over the years—if they were talking at all, it was already a negotiation.  Good.  “Why, it’s nothing but natural.  At least for a human—we creatures red of teeth and claw.  And Vulcans—just think back to those old bloodlines, before Surak came along to save all of you from yourselves.  What you mean is it isn’t civilized.  And I’d agree with you, up one side and down the other.  But we don’t have much of a choice.”

“There is always a choice.”

“All right,” McCoy said quietly.  “Well, then, here’s mine: I’m hungry, Spock.”

Spock finally looked at him.

Would it be mercy or cowardice to pretend he couldn’t read the feelings written there?  Maybe there wasn’t a right answer: the two of them usually ran up against the lack of a right answer.

Finally, Spock said, “I assume you would have a preference of which digit.”  His voice was hoarse and dry, like it’d had all the life sucked out of it.

If it was his finger on the line here, why was he feeling like he was the one hurting Spock?

Well, there he had a right and easy answer: because he was too glad himself that this situation was fixed up the way it was.  He’d cringe away from the thought of breaking one of Spock’s fingers, too.

“Left pinky,” McCoy said.  “That’s my dumb hand anyway, and it’s the most useless thing on it.”

Spock nodded.

With a slight quaver low in his gut, McCoy stretched out his hand.

He said fervently, “There’s not a damn thing wrong with you doing it.  I know that even if you don’t, you stubborn hobgoblin.”

That time Spock didn’t nod.  Every inch of him stubborn as hell.  “Would you like a warning?”

“Never works,” McCoy said, “and I can tell you that from long experience.  The best thing is to just—”  He hissed in a breath, swallowing down a cry of pain as he felt the bone crack.  Nausea rippled through him—more than he probably would have ordinarily had from such a little break.  Funny how much circumstances mattered.

And poor Spock.  He looked like he could have been carved out of wood.

McCoy gathered himself.  “Thanks.”

No response there, but he couldn’t say he’d really expected one.

What he did expect—and what he got—was the pass drawer in the wall sliding open towards them.  He guessed he couldn’t quarrel with their response time, anyway.

The plates in the drawer were hot and foggy from some sort of steam table, and the food smelled delicious—at least to a starving man.  For blackmailing sadists, their hosts were considerate, right down to providing an all-vegetarian plate for Spock.  But like hell was he going to say thank you for any of it.  He’d choke first.

He went ahead and set his broken finger as best as he could under the circumstances, and then he dug into his hard-earned meal: a slab of something beef-like with all the life cooked out of it, smothered in gravy, mashed tubers of some kind, a dinner roll, a limp salad, and what he would have sworn was actual okra.  He was so ravenous that it took him a few minutes to notice that Spock wasn’t eating.

“Spock.  You can lecture me all day about Vulcan hardiness, but I know you still need to eat.”  He looked at his swollen pinky and Spock’s rigid face and added, “Whether you’re hungry or not.  Jim’s going to find us, and when he does, it’d be helpful if we could walk out on our two feet and not make him have to drag us.”

Appealing to Spock’s faith in Jim was, he thought, the right tack—Spock knew how long the odds of rescue were, probably knew it down to the third decimal place, and he knew finding them would be like finding two needles in a whole hay barn.  But even Spock had his articles of faith, and Jim was one of them.  They might have to wait a while, that was all.

Assuming, of course, that Jim was free himself.

“You’re no good to anybody half-starved,” McCoy said.  He tore into the dinner roll.

Spock joined him at last, eating with such a mechanical slowness that McCoy got impatient even watching it.

“What’s got you so riled, anyhow?  Pacifist or not, I’ve seen you forced into spots where you had to do worse than this.”

“Not as deliberately, doctor.  And not to a friend.”

“Ah, so this is one of the days we’re going to admit we like each other.”

He was almost ashamed of how much good it did him to see that eyebrow arch up as expressively as ever.  “I said nothing of the kind.”

“Mm-hm.”  He polished off the last of his plate, streaking his finger around the edges of it to catch any lingering gravy—starving men couldn’t be too proud, and he liked the look of mild disgust it roused in Spock—and then sat back against the wall, letting his head loll against the gummy organic whatever-it-was.  “What do you think they got out of that?  You said they were testing us, fishing for something.  Did they catch it?  Did we pass or fail?”

“I considered that they might take sustenance from pain,” Spock said.  “However, it seems unlikely—and their restrictions for it needlessly complex, if pain was their only objective.  It is my hypothesis instead that we are the subjects in a kind of psychological—and anthropological—experiment, one designed to test our mutual cooperation and its endurance.”

“You know what I’d do to test somebody’s sense of cooperation?  Give them a puzzle to do together.”

“Then it is most unfortunate that you are not our captor.”

“I’ll say.”  He watched with satisfaction as Spock continued to eat.  He’d get to be a voyeur if he wasn’t careful.  “So what comes next?”

“I can answer that.”  It was the voice from the now-you-saw-it, now-you-didn’t speaker, still cool as a cucumber.  “Sonic showers for each of you can be procured, Mr. Spock, by the extraction of one of Dr. McCoy’s teeth.  Again, we are not particular as to which.  We will provide you with the necessary pliers, upon your request  Pain relief can be obtained by twisting any currently-splinted bone out of alignment.  The price of your next meal will be the breaking of another finger.”

“Oh, is that all,” McCoy muttered.  “What are you going to ask us to do to keep the water running?”

“That is being provided for you.”

Spock, with probably a greater sense of the priorities at hand, addressed the speaker with a pretty fine attempt at feigned calm.  “We are Starfleet officers.  If you wish to negotiate with the Federation—”

“We do not.”

“I assume you are monitoring us, given the speed with which you provided our meal.”

“You are under constant surveillance,” the voice said.

“And would I also be right in my speculation that all this is an object of study for you?”

This time he got no answer.  He waited a long moment and then turned to McCoy and twitched his eyebrows at him in the Spock equivalent of a shrug.  They watched as the grille sealed itself up again.  Quite a cold shoulder to turn on someone.

“I can go without the shower, personally,” McCoy said.  “The painkillers too—they’d have to really load me to the gills to make that kind of price worth it, anyhow.”

“I concur.  And I can assist you with certain meditation techniques I’ve found helpful in that regard.”

“Those might come in handy around about the next time we need to eat.”

“Let us hope that when that time comes, we are already elsewhere.”

“Amen to that, but let’s not go counting our chickens.”  He didn’t know when he’d become the hard-headed realist of the two of them, unless it was right around the time their jailers decided he’d be the one getting his bones broken.

“I do not believe chicken comprised any portion of your dinner.”

He didn’t see the point right now in chasing the figure of speech all around the yard until Spock agreed to catch it.  “Probably not.”  He covered his mouth and yawned.  “I’m going to bed.  I can’t stop you from staying awake and I can’t stop you from indulging in all this self-flagellation, either, but my medical opinion is that you should try to sleep it off.”

“Sleep will not change anything.”

“I don’t know.  Sleep’s a marvelous invention.  Knits up the raveled sleeve of care—or so I’ve heard.  And right now you’re raveled.  Vulcan, heal thyself.”

He lowered his voice.

“The odds are good I’ll regret saying this, especially since the walls have ears, but if I had to be in this fix-up with anyone, believe it or not, I’d want it to be you.  If you and Jim were in trouble, I wouldn’t have the first idea where to look for you.  And if I were here with him—for starters, since he’s a hell of a lot more breakable than you are, the bastards could have us switching off.  But mostly there’s something about you that’s a good distraction for me, whether I like it or not—whether you like it or not.  It’s a full-time job, managing the emotions of a man who doesn’t like admitting he has them.  It keeps my mind occupied.”

Spock studied him, with that hard-to-bear look of his that somehow suggested vivisection, and then he said quietly, “I consider that a compliment.”

“Of course you do.  It was meant as one.”  Looking at Spock in the dim light of their little cell, McCoy felt a wave of fondness for him, one he hardly knew what to do with.  Spock had never struck him as the hugging type.

“What is it?” Spock said.

McCoy shrugged, his shoulders tight.  He didn’t quite know how to put it.  “I don’t like the last time we touched being you breaking my finger.”

“An understandable preference,” Spock said.  He moved a little closer, some kind of tacit permission hovering in the air between them, and when McCoy braced himself against Spock’s arms, all his fingers except the busted one curved around his biceps, Spock didn’t pull away from him.  He just let McCoy hold him that way, in some kind of half-embrace that was like a wrestling match about to start.

A damn deceptive concept.  If it were a wrestling match, it’d be a foregone conclusion that Spock would come out ahead: it was too hard to knock a Vulcan over.  But that was only physically.  In reality, in every way that mattered, Spock was already down for the count.

He made himself loosen his grip.  His little finger twinged at the movement, giving him a spiteful reminder of its existence.

He said, “My face itches.  Where my beard’s coming in.”

Spock raised an eyebrow.

“What do you think they’d make us do for a razor?”

“I do not suggest,” Spock said, “that we ask.”

***

They didn’t.  But it wasn’t much longer—even Spock had lost track of time—before they had to resort for paying for another meal.  And another and another.

On this go-around, it was easier to talk Spock into it; the arguments he’d already made were a groove that they could slot into and slip along.  He wasn’t sure he liked it getting easier, though—he wasn’t sure it was good for either one of them for this to slip into tacit acceptance.  Amazing how easy it could be to warp a person’s thinking, under controlled circumstances like this.  They’d used up three of the fingers on his left hand and one on his right by now, and their generous hosts were now letting them pay with a dislocated shoulder instead.

“Coercive economics,” he said.

Spock had his own shadow of beard now.  It gave him a piratical air that went well with the old eyebrow trick.  He had the flat of one hand resting on McCoy’s left shoulder, and even though they’d apparently eased into having a conversation instead of getting the thing done, he didn’t take it away.  “Our situation?”

“It’s an example.  If that’s what they’re testing for, I can provide them with about fifty other examples, from the company stores on mining planets to the blood-draining on Pava-Ken.”  He raised his voice.  “Is that what you’re after, with all your cruelty?”

“Many psychological studies forbid telling the subjects of the experiments exactly what is being tested.”

“I know that,” McCoy said crossly.  “And even more of them forbid imprisoning people and starving them half to death and letting them stink to high heaven.”

“True.  Our captors are not invested in the best practices of the field.”  His hand tightened minutely on McCoy’s shoulder.  “Are you ready, doctor?”

“As I’ll ever be.”

Spock did it.  It was easier for him than it would have been for a human, with that Vulcan strength: there at least wasn’t any question of him yanking on McCoy’s arm until he got his shoulder out of its socket.  He did it right up close and easy, popping out the bone as easily as he’d pluck a grape off its stem.

The pain was bad—worse than the finger had been—but the sound was the hardest part.  A kind of wet thock.

He sank his teeth into his lower lip, breathing through the hurt, trying not look at the distorted shape of the bone beneath his tunic until he could get his roiling stomach under control.  At least the advantage of doing this when they were dying of hunger was that he had nothing to throw up—and there was another advantage at that.  All those missed meals had made his bones stand out a little more starkly.  It was easier to feel them now, easier to break them and move them around.

He had to get himself under control.  He could feel a sheen of sweat across his forehead.

“Dr. McCoy?”

“I’m fine,” he managed.  “Fine, just give me a minute.  I’ve got to work myself up to putting it back in place.”

Not recommended medical practice, of course, but what about this was?  He couldn’t go around all hours with a useless left arm.

Spock said, “I could—”

“No, no, I’ll do it.  They won’t let me break myself, but they at least haven’t gotten in the way of me doctoring myself, not yet.  I like feeling productive.”  He exhaled, examining the angle of the bone, considering the possible techniques.

He got so caught up in it, he almost jumped out of his skin when the pass drawer clanged open with their dinner inside.

He’d rarely seen that kind of naked anger on Spock’s face when Spock was in his right mind.  It made him smile.

“Spock, I’m flattered.”

“I will get the plates,” Spock said, refusing to acknowledge the prod.

Him turning away was as good an opportunity as any.  McCoy straightened out his arm as best as he could and—as quickly as he could, to try to cut down on the pain—shoved his shoulder back into place.  He accidentally bit down on his tongue somewhere in there, and at least the sudden hot blood in his mouth was a distraction.  Though what worried him was that, more than anything else, the taste of it sharpened his hunger.  They’d been running on too little for too long.  They couldn’t go on like this, eating only whenever they were about to pass out.  He couldn’t, anyway.

Between his busted fingers and his tender shoulder, he still didn’t trust his left hand, so he left that arm limp at his side as they sat down to dinner; he tried not to fall on it like a ravening wolf.  It was the same food each time, down to the salad with its leaves curling up at the edges from the heat of the plate.

They ate in silence—and this time Spock ate faster than he had before.  So the hunger was getting to him too, then.

Their plates were clean all too quickly.

There’d never been a demand to pass them back, so they’d hung onto them; they were clutter, but they were something besides the dullness of the room.  Potential monkey-wrenches, maybe, if they got lucky, though he couldn’t say they’d have the brainpower for much inventiveness.  Not on this diet.

They’d been playing the waiting game, and they’d been losing.  They needed to do something else.

“We’ve got to start complying more,” he said abruptly.  “We won’t live to get out of here if we go on like this.  Logically, you’ve got to agree with me.”

“Logically,” Spock said, which didn’t feel like an agreement at all.

McCoy pushed his plate to the side, letting it rumple up the thin blanket on his bunk.  “We might have to go for the painkillers, too, at least if they’ve got something in them to kill infection.  I don’t like the way my left ring finger’s looking.”  The skin there was just the tiniest bit stretched, a shiny red.  “And the soap and water’s just not cutting it.  We need to barter for a higher temperature in here, if they’ll go along with it.  You look like death warmed over.  You should see yourself.”

“Your requirements seem extensive.  And unduly comprehensive.  I am quite well.”

“No, you’re not, dammit.”

“In any case…”  Spock just pointed to the familiar spot on the wall, where the grille was rematerializing.

“Here comes the latest menu,” McCoy said.

“The price of your next meal is a brief period of drowning,” the voice said blandly.  “Commander Spock must fill the sink and hold Dr. McCoy’s mouth and nose beneath the surface of the water for no less than one minute.  The price of sonic showers remains the breaking of another finger.  Painkillers are no longer an option.”

There was a creaminess to the voice that he was starting to realize he loathed; no matter what they went through in here, in their cramped little cell, the voice just went on offering them their cramped little Hobson’s choices, unruffled and unchanged.  If it had only shown a little human emotion—

A little Vulcan emotion, even.  A little anything.  Just a drop of kindness, of commonality that they could lean on.

“The increase in temperature you requested will be given in exchange for Commander Spock breaking Dr. McCoy’s arm.”

The wall solidified again.

“You know, what I like is how damn formal they are.  They imprison us, starve us, and torture us—by proxy anyway—but heaven forbid they slip up on a title.  Just wouldn’t be proper.”  He reached over to his empty plate and ran one finger across it, looking for any crumb he’d missed.  “Anyway, what I was saying before still holds.  You ought to go ahead and break my arm, and I ought to get some practice holding my breath.  Even one meal a day would let us waste away a little happier than we’ve been doing.”

“I have an alternative proposal,” Spock said.

“Don’t you always.  All right, I’m listening.”

“A mind meld.”

“With them?”

Spock shook his head.  “Between the two of us.  It would allow for—private communication.”

And they were as short on privacy as they were on food.  He wouldn’t stand in line for a Vulcan mind-meld, but under the circumstances, he wasn’t going to turn it down.  They’d done it before, and it hadn’t made his blood run green.  What was it Spock had said after that time with the Melkotians?  Sadly, I have observed no improvement in your customary illogic.  Meaning his brain—human as it was—was still his own.

“Sounds good to me.”

They moved the bunks again, putting them just a leg’s width apart.  He’d offered days ago to start doubling up, to donate a little of his body heat to Spock, but he’d gotten turned down flat; Spock’s own little brand of illogic that he didn’t much like being called on.  Prioritizing modesty and privacy over sheer dumb survival.  Though he guessed he had to admit that their modesty, such as it was, had taken a considerable hit since they’d gotten swallowed up by this monstrosity.  Maybe it made sense to cling to whatever scraps they had left.

Now Spock was about to climb inside his head.  Evidently all that had fallen by the wayside.

Spock’s fingers rested lightly on McCoy’s brow and cheekbone.

M’Benga had told him once that those weren’t really meld-points in any true sense of the word, that it was no easier for a Vulcan to access the mind that way than through any other kind of touch.  Their telepathy was ordinarily weak; skin-on-skin contact made it incredibly strong.  But any skin would work just as well.  Doing it like this was sheer custom, established to drive home the intimacy of the act, to make it clear that it wasn’t something to be done casually.

He didn’t have a clue why they’d need the reminder.  Surely nobody could get used to this kind of mental cross-wiring.

“My mind to your mind,” Spock said.  “My thoughts to your thoughts.”

Spock’s mind was like water—elemental and pervasive and changeable, so much more so than you’d ever expect to look at him or listen to him or, hell, serve alongside him for year after year.  He always steeled himself for this, and it was always easier than he’d been prepared for.

The room around them seemed to melt, which he took as an incredible relief.  It’d been a couple days now since he’d even been able to think himself outside these walls.  Hunger had made his mind shrivel up, and apparently his sense of scale had gone with it.

But now it was just him and Spock in an endless, starry darkness.

Good to have some breathing room again, he thought at Spock.  Even if it is imaginary.

I am glad you approve, Spock said, all supercilious Vulcan sarcasm still firmly in place.  I too find our continued captivity—irksome.

Ah, irksome.  I’m assuming that’s the opposite of fascinating?

Indeed.

The space around them warped, becoming the familiar bridge of the Enterprise—the good old Enterprise, enough right now to get him choked up.

He turned that feeling outwards instead.  Why, Mr. Spock, you’re homesick.

Yes, Spock said with a disarming kind of simplicity.  It made him ache even worse than the sight of the bridge.  As are you.

He was always the one willing to get sloppily sentimental right up until the moment sentiment was all he had left; then he had to get stoic or face the feeling of scraping against the bottom of his soul.  Spock, it struck him, was the other way around.  Spock gave it up for you only at the end.  Which meant, he figured, that they were in even worse straits than he’d been thinking.  It wasn’t like he’d been able to look in a mirror the last few days.  He probably looked even worse than Spock, like the hunger had tap-danced all over him.  Maybe they were at the end of their rope, then, and he was stuck grabbing at the wrong handhold.  The thing to do wasn’t to comply and buy time and try to survive but to die, now, with a little dignity.

He could die like this, sure.  With the quiet of Spock’s mind against his own.

That is not what I wanted to tell you, Spock said.

You would disagree with me even when I’m trying to tell you I don’t mind dying with you.  What, then?

I believe our minds together might create a kind of powerful mental searchlight, for lack of a better term, that would at last allow me to locate the Captain.

I’d be glad to know Jim’s safe, sure.  But getting in touch with him won’t do us any good unless you can tell him where we are.  And if you can, it’s news to me.

Once created, the link between his mind and ours might persist enough to allow him to “feel out” our location.

So you want to use me like a kind of telepathic battery, McCoy said.  To amp you up so you can holler for Jim.  And then the two of you will play “hot or cold” until he finds us.  That’s the grand plan you worked out.  He couldn’t be sorry for it, not when it gave him this kind of amusement.  This is even more of an emotional stab in the dark than your move on the Galileo Seven.  I’ll tell you what it is: you’ve got a pronounced weakness for throwing up your hands and just praying Jim sees.

I do not go so far as to pray, Spock said, and at least things were normal enough that he was a little miffed, a little snippy.  McCoy would have been worried about him otherwise.  But I would submit that there is, after years of highly developed self-reliance--  He stopped.

That it’s nice to have friends?  To be rescued?  To trust somebody?

Spock didn’t address any of that, which likely meant all of it was right.  He said only, And, in this case as on the Galileo, my own life is not the only one at stake.  Your presence factors in.

Damn Spock for putting this lump in his throat.  At least in this in-between mind-space, he didn’t need to clear out it out before he could talk.  Vulcan love poetry must really be something.  God help us all if you ever get into the greeting card business.  Well, if you’re going to do this, let’s get on with it while we still have the blasted energy to sit up straight.

It is not a simple solution, doctor.  In order to achieve maximum strength and range, I may have to blot out our conscious minds.  Spock showed him some sense of what he meant—some image of the two of them as tangled-up beams of light, blindingly strong but indistinct.  Not anything you’d mistake for being human—or half-human—either.  If the plan is a success, we will most likely wake up in your sickbay.  If it is not—

We won’t wake up at all.

Correct.

McCoy shrugged.  Nothing here I’m holding onto, Spock, aside from you.

There was a kind of giddy relief to the proposal, honestly.  Besides, it had been more or less what he’d already been thinking—that it wouldn’t be so bad to die like this.  And before, he hadn’t even considered there could be a drop of hope attached to it.

He said, If you live and I don’t, give M’Benga the keys to the store.  He’s earned them a hundred times over.  And I know you won’t give Christine a hug for me, but dammit, have somebody do it.  And tell Jim--  He swallowed.  Tell Jim it was always a pleasure.  From the start right up to the damn finish, however it ended.  Tell him that and make him believe it.  Anything you want me to pass on from you?

That is pointless.  It is highly unlikely that you would survive when I did not.

Oh, for God’s sake.  He turned his head, knowing somehow that he was really doing it, doing it down in their poor, starved, shivering bodies; he was pressing his cheek and forehead further into Spock’s hand, trying to make Spock feel him.  Then if you live and I die, don’t tell yourself anything from me, just for that.  Sit there in silence if that’s what makes you happy.

He had the sense Spock didn’t mean for him to hear what came next.  It felt like a bit of flotsam, broken off Spock’s mind, cast out on the waters—

it would be a very loud silence

—and unintended.  He’d swear right then that he could tell every loop and whorl of Spock’s fingerprints where they were pressed against his skin.

Oh, you know, he said, unable to even stay riled at him now.  You know what I’d tell you.  His hands, free in the real world, reached out, closing around Spock’s left, the free one.  Pain flared up along the broken lines of his fingers, but he held on anyway, held on for dear life.

Light us up, he said.  Let’s see how brightly we burn.

***

He’d say it once and once only: Spock had been right.

They woke up in sickbay.  His sickbay: that unique perfume of Starfleet-issued antiseptic cleaner and the faintly vanilla-like scent of the hypoallergenic fabric softener on the bedsheets.  The reliable old thump of bio-monitors running in the background.  He didn’t open his eyes until he was sure he could do it without sending tears spilling down his cheeks.

The first sight he saw was Jim Kirk, who looked like he’d been through his own private war or at least his own private boxing match: one cheekbone flattened out black-and-blue, an ear that seemed to be held on with primitive black stitches, and one arm in a temporary cast.  He broke out into a sunny grin when their eyes met, though.

That might fool plenty of people, Jim, but it won’t fool me.

“What the hell happened to you?” McCoy said.  His voice was a dry croak.

Jim poured him a cup of water and helped him angle the straw.  “Oh, I’d say about more or less what happened to you and Spock.  Only rank has its privileges, so I wound up with more room to walk around.  Our search team found me a day or so before we found you—by then I was getting your signal.”  His voice tightened.  “That cell they had you in, Bones—”

“Must have smelled like a cut-rate menagerie by the time you found us.”

“Didn’t we all.  I had to leave and shower before I suffocated your staff.”  He rested one hand on McCoy’s knee.  “That’s where Spock is, by the way, getting cleaned up.  He came to just a few hours before you did.”

“And I bet he found time to get in a word or two about it being his idea that saved us.”

“He talked a little,” Jim said.  He had a more solemn look now.  “And I talked back—but I think he’d benefit most from talking to you… if you’re up to it.”

“Up to it?”

“Psychologically.  I’m under strict orders from M’Benga to mention that, that you don’t have to.”

“God, Jim, you can’t think I blame him for any of it.”

“No,” Jim said.  Fine crinkles showed at the corners of his warm eyes.  “No, I know you better than that.  But it still had to be said.  It wouldn’t be unreasonable, you know.”

“Spock would tell you I’m not reasonable myself.”

“Spock would be right.”  He squeezed McCoy’s knee and stood, wincing a little.  “I’m stiff as a board.”

“I could guess.  Did someone stitch your ear back on?”

“Ms. Chapel assured me the tissue-repairer will have it as good as new,” Jim said, which McCoy supposed meant yes, and I don’t want to talk about it.  “The rest of me, too.  Don’t worry about me.  You and Spock—you were the ones who went through the wringer.  I think I’ll see that cell of yours in my dreams every night for a month.”

“What was all of it?” McCoy said.  “What was it for?”

“Ah.  Spock said to rub that in, too—not in so many words, of course.  A psychological experiment—a kind of reverse planetary survey, checking to see whether the Federation met the local standards for honor and sacrifice.  Well, we do.  Hurrah for us—until we destroyed a fair bit of their equivalent of a university getting out of there like our hair was on fire.  I don’t think we’d be as welcome now, but Command can live with that.  They can live with Park getting a field promotion, too.”

“She and Chekov—”

“Came through all right.  They got left out of it; sacrifice is something that's only expected from the top-down.  I'd have done you and Spock a favor if I'd suddenly kicked you down a couple of grades.  The Cellirians are great respecters of rank.”

Huh.  “So I noticed.”

“Anyway,” Jim said breezily, probably passing over a Bosch painting’s worth of suffering, “here we all are home again.”

“You’re a rotten patient, but you’re an even worse visitor.  Too damn chipper by half.  Go get yourself fixed up.”  He reached up, not quite knowing why, and took Jim’s hand the way he’d taken Spock’s.  Jim’s palm was warmer, rougher.  “Even looking like something the cat dragged in, you’re a sight for sore eyes.  We always knew we could count on you, Jim.  Don’t ever doubt it.”

Jim’s clench around his hand was almost spasmodic, jarring his still-tender fingers; there was a desperation there the man would never fully admit to.

“Get well, Bones.  And—”

“I know, I know.”  He settled back against the pillows.  “I’ll remember to talk to Spock.”

Not, he thought as his gaze followed Jim out of sickbay, that remembering would be hard.  It still felt unnatural to be without him.  Maybe Spock had been sewn to his mind as clumsily as someone had sewn on Jim’s ear, but, as with the ear, the stitching was holding all the same.  He felt better the moment Spock walked through the door; a paradoxically brutal kind of easing of tension, like an ornery horse had just put one hoof straight into his stomach.

“The Captain said you were awake,” Spock said.

“Awake and stuck with about a dozen IVs.  Of course you’re already up and on the mend.”  He regretted it the second he’d said it—he’d meant it just as a jab at that Vulcan healing, too damn quick by half, but it wasn’t like Spock wasn’t already raw over being the one to get out relatively unscathed.  He shook his head.  “Never mind.  But this is the only time you’ll catch me wishing I had green blood instead of red.  I’d like to shake off starvation and look as good as you.”

“Yes, your appearance is remarkably poor.”

The ceremonial return blow—good, so he was forgiven, then.  He let his eyes slip closed.  “I can still feel you, you know.”

“It takes time for the effect to fade.”

“It’s not a problem.  Just noting it, that’s all.  How long were we like that?”

“Three days.  My vital systems were able to support yours to prevent us from dying of thirst, which is fortunate.  When they found us, our state was near comatose.”

Our state.  As though they’d been one body, one mind.  Hell, it had felt like that anyway, so it might as well be true.

With his eyes still closed, what he saw of Spock was only in his mind’s eye: that cool waterfall rush of him.  Maybe the Romulans were right to lean so hard on all that elemental thinking.

He said, “It’s not your fault, you know.  None of it.”

“The culpability lies with the Cellirians,” Spock said.

He was getting to be a goddamn unwanted expert in all these ways Spock had of echoing you back at yourself without actually ever agreeing with you.  “I mean it.  Everything you did in there was to keep us alive.  We didn’t have any other choice but to play out their sick little experiment.  Or are you going to blame whoever roughed up Jim for leaving him looking the way he does?”

“It would be counterproductive,” Spock said dryly, “as the culprit in that case was the Captain himself.”

That got his eyes open.  “What?”

“That is my hypothesis.  Ensigns Chekov and Park were never captured, and so could not have been used as tools against him.  The rest of the crew has, to the best of my knowledge, been occupied solely in conducting the necessary searches.  The Cellirians could have inflicted the damage themselves, but they seem to have a hands-off policy towards their test subjects.”  He paused.  “Also, I have seen the Captain’s unrefined attempts at sewing before.  I recognized the stitching on his ear.”

“So he kept himself flush, by Cellirian standards, by playing the heavy against himself.  Leave it to Jim.”

“Quite possibly.”

He scrutinized Spock.  “But you don’t think so.  You think—”  He remembered what Jim had said.  Great respecters of rank.  They’d left the ensigns alone, but they’d taken him, Spock, and Jim.  He could more or less follow what the test had been for him and Spock, but for Jim—Jim in whatever more spacious cell they’d put him in—

Even Jim, tough or not, wouldn’t have kept his weight up in a situation like that, not if he was paying every bill with his own blood.  He’d only have gone through all that for somebody else.

He said slowly, “We never ran out of water.  That was the one thing they always gave us free and clear.  They said it’d been provided.  No, was being provided.”  Like it had been part of an ongoing agreement.  More coercive economics.  His eyes were hot.  “Sawed his own ear off,” he muttered.  At least it explained why he’d been so all-fired vague about everything.

“We had a moment of physical contact,” Spock said, which for all McCoy knew meant Spock had proved pretty damn huggable after all, “and what I saw suggested your speculation is accurate.  As did our connection during the signaling process.”

“That’s cheating.  You led into it with that fancy footwork about recognizing his sewing just to make yourself look smarter, then.”

Eyebrow up.  “It would be highly inappropriate to divulge something I gathered telepathically.  Unless, of course, I was only confirming what you already knew.”

“With loopholes like that, you’d be a fine lawyer.”  He rubbed his eyes.  “Well, I stand by what I said.  If you’re forgiving our one-eared captain for everything, you ought to forgive yourself, too.  With even better reason, since you had me right in front of you haranguing you through it every step of the way.  And you had my whole soul wrapped around yours like a python.  If I blamed you, you’d know it.  Did I?”

Hunger had made Spock’s face gaunt, and whatever time he’d spent healing hadn’t fleshed it out again, not yet.  But even so, the angles of it softened a little now.  “No.  You did not.”

“There you go.  I’m right and you’re wrong, as usual.”

“A fascinating analysis.”

“Oh, lie down,” McCoy said.  “Stop showing off that you can stand up.  I’m sure you’re still on bed rest even if they let you hop up for that shower.”

“It was a somewhat exhausting process,” Spock conceded, lying down on his neighboring bed.

Never in life did he plan to admit how good it was to hear those monitors giving him the steady reassurance of Spock’s heartbeat.  Some things a man took to his grave.

“They didn’t know what they were doing,” he said.  “Those Cellirians.  If they’d just asked us how all that would have worked out, I could have told them, start to finish.  The times that try men’s souls—they didn’t even come up with anything good enough to scratch the surface.  I was never going to wind up hating you.  Jim wasn’t going to wind up hating us.”

“They have an extremely powerful—and well-concealed—society, with considerable technological advances.  But their system of ethics left much to be desired.”

“I wish I could have seen Jim blast a hole in their ivory tower.”

“Judging by her recent promotion and her apparent new nickname, I believe the actual blasting was done by Ensign Park.”

“Jim mentioned the first part.  What are they calling her?”

“Fireball.”

He chuckled.  “Now that’s something for her to write home to her parents about.  Fireball Park.  –You’d be a hard person to nickname, you know.”

“For which I am immensely thankful.”

It couldn’t be too long before M’Benga put his foot down and sent Jim in here with them, doctor’s orders, if only because that ear would be making everyone nervous.  But McCoy had seen Jim when he’d been without the Enterprise a while, and he was like a cat brought back home again, needing to scrutinize every room to make sure it was just the way he’d left it.  Probably right now the best medicine was to let him wander around half-purring.  As long as he wound up with them in the end, that was fine.  That was the important thing—being together.

“You were good company,” he said.  “Not that I’d go so far as to book us another stay at the same resort.”

He thought about Spock’s fleeting thought—it would be a very loud silence—and tentatively reached across the gap between them, fumbling with his stronger hand until he had his fingers tangled up in Spock’s sickbay scrubs.  He could feel the two of them all meshed together.  It would have been just the same, he thought, he would have done it all to himself if he’d had to, if they’d let him, even if it had only been for Spock.  He could have told the Cellirians that too.  There were things that three of them wouldn’t do for each other—things they couldn’t do and stay whole—but for God’s sake, suffering had never been one of them.

There wasn’t a single decision in that whole mess that he’d change.  Not one.

Spock’s fingers wrapped around his wrist.  “Yes,” Spock said.  “I understand.”

And now, finally, McCoy could feel he really did.  He let go.  “Good, because I was getting tired of saying the same thing over and over.”

“Really, doctor?  Considering how frequently you repeat yourself on numerous subjects, you must be in a constant state of exhaustion.”

“Around you?  You bet I am.”  He rolled over, facing Spock.  “I’m going back to sleep.  You should too.”

“To 'knit up the raveled sleeve of care,’” Spock said.

“Except we’re not raveled.” He knew that like he knew his own name.  “We’re fine.”