Mr. Spock just told us in the calmest, flattest voice you'll ever hear, that our new alien friend, the mama Horta, found our appearance revolting. Even though he had no expression, no vocal inflection, and no gestures to go with that pronouncement, I could just tell he was cackling with unholy glee on the inside.

I take the bait. I always do. I can't explain it—but even when I know he's joking, I can't stop myself. Something in me needs to put him in his place. And right then, Spock isn't exactly himself, so it isn't fair of me to jump on him, but that's exactly what I do.

"Now tell me," I say, "did she happen to make any comment about those ears?"

You have to admire Spock. The overgrown elf doesn't miss a beat.

"Not specifically, but I did get the distinct impression she found them the most attractive human characteristic of all. I didn't have the heart to tell her that only I have—"

And Jim, he seems to think that teasing Spock is a good way to bring a mission back under control, to level things out, to stand firm on his feet again. I understand what he's doing. Except for maybe his brother, Spock is the closest relationship Jim's ever had, and if he can draw him in, focus on something silly like Vulcan ears, he can come back from the deaths he feels so deeply and claim life with both hands, for himself and for Spock. And for me, and all of us on the ship.

"She really liked those ears?" the captain says incredulously—but not too incredulously, because while I sometimes really do mean to mock our honored science officer, Jim never does.

Spock seems to understand all this on some level, or maybe Jim can get away with teasing that nobody else can, because of how close they are. He's pretty quick on the draw, and jumps right back with, "Captain, the Horta is a remarkably intelligent and sensitive creature, with impeccable taste."

"Because she approved of you?" Jim seems to be trying to do the eyebrow thing now—it rubs off on you.

"Really, Captain, my modesty—"

"Does not bear close examination, Mr. Spock. I suspect you're becoming more and more human all the time."

Spock raises that one eyebrow. I swear to God and the sweet baby Jesus, if they threw me off this ship right now and I lived to be as old as a damned Vulcan, I'd think of Spock every time I saw anyone raise an eyebrow.

His eyes meet Jim's, then mine. You have to look hard to see the twinkle of Vulcan humor, but it can be found. "I see no reason to stand here and be insulted."

Jim and I laugh, because for Spock those couple of sentences are practically a stand-up routine. That's what I mean by "he's not himself." But I've got my eye on him.

"Ahead Warp Two," Jim says, settling back into the command chair. Now I'm awfully fond of my boy Jim, so I give him a smack on the shoulder and lean against the chair. And I'm still chuckling a bit, 'cause I can admit the Vulcan comedy show was pretty funny.

But it's not really funny. It's been just one day since they dragged me down into that tunnel to fix that Horta. And I'm not a total stranger to the ways of logic, so in order to fix her up I thought of something that had silicon in it and would stick, had it beamed down, and went to work on the old gal. Hell, I'm just glad they didn't ask me to stay and deliver the babies.

While I was patching her up with Starfleet's version of brick and mortar, Spock was in a mind-meld—apparently his second one of the day. I've seen this before, when he melded with Dr. Van Gelder, who had seemed to be crazy but had had his brains stirred around with a spoon. Mind-melding's a practical skill to have, and the way I understand it, Vulcans used to just go around using it on each other all the time, before the days of their boy, Surak, and the whole culture of logic.

Except I knew way back when, months ago, that it was a huge deal for a Vulcan to do. They spend hours in meditation every day, take long retreats in the dessert, and raise their children with icy glares and withdrawal of affection, all to keep those mental walls up and to keep their emotions in control. And with the mind-meld, they just push all the walls down and open up those giant Vulcan brains to every chaotic, overwhelming emotion the other person has. I read up on it after the Van Gelder thing, and it seems that if the emotions are too much, they can have this sort of mental drowning in the waves of feeling, and they won't be able to come back.

Which isn't to say that Spock with his walls down isn't entertaining. I've seen the show before, and it sure as hell is worth the price of the ticket, but even I can't sit here all day and be entertained by a mentally crippled Vulcan. He was…I guess I'll say "compromised" before we even got to the Janus system.

First we had that Psi virus, and it wasn't that long ago, just a few months. I don't even know exactly what happened, except that Christine got infected and confessed her undying love for him, and then he had some kind of breakdown. The way I heard it, he only snapped out of it when Jim caught the bug and needed Spock to save the ship.

Then the spores, just a couple of weeks ago, when Spock fell in love with that girl, that cute little blonde scientist, back on Omicron Ceti Whatever, the first time he'd ever let himself care so openly for anyone, even Jim, and it was all taken away from him. By Jim, of course, because when Spock's thinking clearly, there's nothing more important to him than Jim, no matter what Jim takes from him. So he faced that girl in the corridors for two weeks, until we dropped the colonists off on Starbase 27, and he pretended it didn't mean a thing.

How does a man get to be thirty-some and still be able to look you in the eye and say, "For the first time in my life, I was happy?" But this is Spock, and this is Vulcan life, and Spock would have considered it disloyal to be happy before that. Maybe he doesn't feel that way now—I honestly don't know, because I'll be damned if he'll discuss it with me—but he was in a lot of pain in there, and he'd just been able to start rebuilding those walls to keep a handle on it.

Then yesterday, Jim made him tear them down again.

I saunter casually over to Spock's science station. I know he hears me coming, but as long as Jim isn't paying too much attention, I'm all right.

"Interesting little episode back there, wasn't it?"

He doesn't lift his face from his scanner. "Indeed."

"You think we'll ever have any of those Horta kids serving on starships?"

"It would be difficult because of the oxygen atmosphere and terranormative conditions," he says, still not looking up, "but with some preparation, accommodations could be made to allow for a Horta's biological needs."

"It'd be something to see," I say. Then I lean in just a little, drop the good-old-boy grin, and say quietly, "This shift is over in two hours and I expect to see you in the by-God sickbay in two hours and five minutes. Don't make me pull medical authority on you."

He goes still. Spooky still. Vulcan still. Point for McCoy. Spock knows damn well what I'm talking about.

But you have to give him credit, he still tries to get out of it. "Doctor, I am aware of no medical conditions that would necessitate my presence in sickbay."

"That's bull hockey and you know it, Spock." That eyebrow again—he apparently doesn't approve of my colorful metaphor. "You check the hell in with me or I'm going straight to Jim and telling him everything."

He pulls back from the monitor and stares straight ahead. He's struggling, probably pissed as hell at me for the emotional blackmail and still not secure behind those mental walls. He sits there for a solid minute or two, those long hands clenched into fists on his lap. If he decides to take a swing at me, I'm in trouble, but I know he won't. Not on the bridge. Not in front of Jim.

"Very well, doctor," he says calmly, but I know I'm not imagining the subtle whip of violence in his voice. "I fail to understand your logic, but I shall report at the end of shift."

I straighten up, give Spock a now-that-didn't-hurt-much smile, and turn back toward the center of the bridge. Jim's watching us, but he's not too worried. He reminds me of a mama that knows her boys are going to fight but she keeps an eye out anyway so nobody gets really hurt.

"I've got to go research silicon-based life forms," I announce as I walk by Jim's chair and toward the turbolift. "Spock says it won't be long before we have the critters serving on starships, and the only thing I know is how to pour a bucket of pavement all over them."

Jim laughs as I mean him to, the turbolift opens, and I step in. I give one last meaningful look to the back of Spock's head before the doors close. Doesn't matter that he's facing the other way and pretending I don't exist. He knows.

I'm not actually going to research silicon-based life forms, though I'll be damned if Spock's thoughts on having Horta serving on starships haven't whacked me in the curiosity-bone. Back in my office, I put it on the twenty-foot-long to-do list that I keep in my head and turn to my computer.

"Computer. Call up personal messages. Searching for Jabilo M'Benga, originating on Starbase Forty-Seven."

I'm sure I'm rock solid on Spock, but I sent a message to the only non-Vulcan expert on Vulcans I know of. I need backup on this. Now I'm just waiting for his reply.

"One message from Jabilo M'Benga, originating on Starbase Forty-Seven."

"Yeah, that's it."

I sit down and pour myself a dram of whatever's close by. The good doctor's face comes on the screen. He looks like a college football player.

"Dr. McCoy! It's an honor to hear from you, sir. You folks are already getting pretty famous back home…and now you've discovered a silicon-based species? What I wouldn't give to see some of the things you get to see! If you're ever passing by the Vanguard, look me up, okay? We'll have a drink and share fish tales."

He looks down and seems to be checking a padd, or maybe a tricorder, and when he looks back into the transmitter, his face is utterly serious, and he's the renowned medical man I was consulting.

"I've looked over the notes you sent me, and I think you're right to be concerned. The Vulcan way of life can be very healthy—I mean, the whole control of your emotions thing is probably something humans could learn a lesson or two from, right?"

Right. I swirl whatever this is I'm drinking in its glass.

"But yeah," he says, "the Vulcan mind is more complex than people realize. And it's not just that they are capable of extremely volatile emotions. They also have psychic abilities—which they suppress along with their emotions. So inside their heads, they are building walls inside walls inside walls, like those Russian nesting dolls, to keep their strong emotions and their psychic powers inside. If they choose to, they can open the doors in those walls however far they want and let some emotion or psychic ability seep out. And they do choose to do so sometimes."

He sits back, sighs, and shakes his head. "Now imagine a giant with a sledge hammer coming in and smashing it all down. Yeah, the Vulcan feels love, but he feels everything, and he feels everyone else's emotions, too, because he can't rein in the telepathy. As long as he's alone with his girl, it's fine, right? But you can't stay alone with your girl forever."

He chuckles. "Even if you'd like to.

I hadn't thought about it…well, I'd tried damn hard not to think about it…but I honest-to-God hope that Spock had some time alone with his gal back on the spore planet. If you're gonna have your head messed with, you should at least get some action out of it. And I know it's different for Vulcans, but Spock seems like the loneliest sentient being I've ever known.

But I've got to build him back up and give him walls to hide behind again.

"Let me know how it goes," M'Benga says. "Message if you need some help."

Well, it was nothing I hadn't expected. I'm not an expert in Vulcans like M'Benga, but I catch on pretty quick. I down the contents of my glass, but put the decanter away. If Spock's coming down, I'll need my wits about me.

At exactly five minutes after the end of alpha shift, I feel him arrive, silent as he is. His fury vibrates in the air. I'm not a man of action like Jim, so I have no interest in provoking Spock's temper to prove some point. Whether Spock wants to admit it or not, I'm every bit as much of a scientist as he is, and I know my discipline. My discipline just happens to be people.

"Come on in, Spock," I say casually. No point starting the fight before it has to start.

He steps into my office area, stands at parade rest, and clasps his hands behind his back. I turn in my chair to look at him. That Vulcan face looks like it's carved from dilithium—hard and angular and sharp, like it wants to cut me. I'll have to be careful, but I'm not going to let him intimidate me.

"Take a seat." I kick out a chair and nod toward it.

"No thank you," he says stiffly. He focuses on a point on the wall somewhere past my shoulder.

"Suit yourself."

"Please get to your point, doctor."

I nod slowly. "Fine, I'll just do that. It's been a rough couple of weeks for you, you're not performing at optimal levels, and I'm mandating five days' recovery time."

"Your diagnosis is unfounded and inaccurate, Dr. McCoy." His voice is empty and flat. I shudder a little, because I know how strong he is and it's damn scary, but if he won't take care of himself someone has to do it and I guess it's my job. "I will return to duty at alpha shift tomorrow."

The hobgoblin turns on his Starfleet-issue boot and heads toward the door.

"Just a damn minute!"

He pauses and turns slightly back, but his body's so rigid I know I don't have much time.

"You seem to be under the impression that that was a request, Spock." I stand, walk up to him and poke him in the chest for emphasis. "It was an order."

"I am under no obligation to follow orders from you unless there is a medical emergency involved," he says coldly. "There is none in this case."

"Yes there by-God is!" I'm doing it again, but I can't stop. The colder he gets, the hotter my temper burns, and the more control he uses, the less I use. It's always this way between us. "In the past few weeks you've had all your Vulcan emotional and psychic barriers demolished time and again—first by that Psi virus, then the spores, and then by my count four God damned mind-melds—three of them just yesterday! You think I don't know what that does to you, you green-blooded, pointy-eared Vulcan? You're acting unstable and irrational and you're not in control of your emotions—if you were you wouldn't be standing there vibrating like a banjo string 'cause you're so angry with me."

"You are in error, doctor," he says through clenched teeth. "I suggest you leave it alone!"

He raises his voice, practically yells those last words, then stumbles back in shock. I don't even react, just let the sounds and feelings hang in the air. He braces himself against the wall. I wait. He stands straight again, smoothes out his blue tunic, then clasps his hands behind his back again, trying to pretend he didn't just freak out on me.

"I am in control of my emotions, doctor."

"I'm not arguing anymore, Spock. You need to enter a healing trance—by my estimate about a three-day long one—" I'm slightly gratified to see that eyebrow go up "—and then you need a couple of days to meditate and get your head straightened out."

"I have duties," Spock says. "The captain—"

"Ah, yes," I say softly. "Glad you brought up our boy Jim. Let's be honest now, Spock. You and I both know that Jim's the one person in the world you'd do anything for. That's admirable and understandable, and I'm sure you know he'd go to the wall for you, as well." He starts to speak, but I hold up my hand. "Shut the hell up for a minute. He sees your mind-meld ability as one more tool in his arsenal, like your scientific knowledge or your freakish ability to calculate odds down to the thousandths place. He doesn't know what it costs you."

"I am aware of that."

"And since you've never seen fit to let him in on that, I assume you don't want him to know."

"It is of no concern."

"Bull hockey. It's of plenty of concern to me, your friendly country doctor."

"I have taken an oath to place all my skills and abilities at the service of my captain and this ship."

"And Jim's taken an oath to protect the ship and crew. If he knew what mind-melds did to you, he'd never ask you to do another one."

"I am aware of that." This time his rigid shoulders relax, even slump, if Spock can be said to indulge in something so human. "And he did not ask me to meld with the Horta. I offered."

"Of course you did." I smack my palm against my forehead. "Three times. Spock, if you quote me I'll damn you for a liar, but you're the most unselfish, loyal, honorable officer I've ever met. But you can't go slicing yourself open every time you think the captain might find it useful."

"I hardly—"

"Never mind." I wave my hand at him. "Here's the bottom line. You take the five days and I'll keep my mouth shut. You force my hand, and I'll get Jim to issue the order, and I'll tell him whatever I have to to make it happen. If you want your mad Vulcan skills to be available to him in some future crisis, you'll play it my way."

He pauses, takes a deep breath, and nods curtly. "Understood."

It galls him, but what can he do? I feel like a heel, using his loyalty against him that way, but it got the job done. And I won't pretend I don't feel a little bit of satisfaction in the victory.

"Good. I'll come by and wake you up in three days."

"I'm sure it will give you great pleasure, doctor."

He's back in control, but I can still hear the bitterness beneath his voice. And he's right, of course, the idea of smacking Spock upside the head has definite appeal.

"Get out of here, Spock. I'll make sure Jim knows he won't see you for a few days."

"Very well." He turns stiffly and leaves the office.

I sit down and exhale—I didn't realize how tense I'd been. I pour another glass of—what was I drinking? Andorian brandy. Three mind melds in one day, and he thinks he can just traipse on back to the science station. I won't break my promise—exactly—but I'm going to find some way to let the captain know that he has to ease off when it comes to making Spock do that sort of thing. He'd want to know.

I click the intercom button. "McCoy to bridge. Get me the captain."

"Kirk here."

"Your shift ended half an hour ago, Jim. I need you to report to sickbay at once."

"What for? Bones, I really don't need—"

"Quit arguing and get down here, or I'm sending Spock up to persuade you!"

It's a total bluff, obviously, but I learned that skill from the best. And I'm holding all the cards.

"Is that where Spock went? All right, Bones, on my way."