Spock and McCoy were mud-soaked and weary by the time they beamed aboard the Enterprise – and McCoy was disgruntled and cranky to boot. Their mission to harvest Arcasian lily blooms had been successful, ensuring the med team on board could finish their work on the annual space-flu vaccine, but the task had been hampered by poor weather conditions and outdated maps.
And if that wasn't bad enough, they now had to attend a party.
Jim had been planning this fancy-dress ball for weeks now, and would be embarrassed and disappointed if his two best friends didn't show up. He had ensured against such an eventuality by dropping casual reminders here and there – "ever since you two hooked up, nobody else gets a chance to see you" and "senior officers need to boost morale" and "we're going to set up a space-pong table in the corner, I bet you guys will win it again".
So Spock would have to forego his meditation tonight, and McCoy would have to ignore his longing for a long, hot bath in the silence of his own quarters.
"Well?" asked McCoy, rounding on the Vulcan as though this whole situation was somehow his fault. "What costumes are we wearing?"
"Since fancy dress is a human custom, Doctor, I leave the planning entirely up to you."
"Huh. You do that when it suits you. Weren't content to leave the planning up to me this morning!"
Spock merely raised an eyebrow, making no allusion to the fact that McCoy's earlier refusal to accept Spock's advice had caused several hours' delay to their work.
McCoy was acutely aware of his recent errors of judgement (it had become painfully obvious that "gut feeling" was not the most efficient way to find a rare flower), and he knew also that he should not have left the plans for the party to the last minute. As he clambered around the bed, with one boot off and his muddy overshirt catching around his ears, he felt that Spock's silence was deliberately intended to highlight his state of disorder.
The doctor slumped down on the bed and rubbed his face. "Urgh, dammit, what costumes do couples wear these days? Oh, God only knows what the kids are into now. No time to put any effort into this anyway. I don't know - Beauty and the Beast? I mean, it's been done to death, but there should be plenty of options available for it on the catalogue, so...?"
"Very well, Doctor." It took very little to trigger an argument when McCoy was in one of these moods, so Spock said no more.
"Alright, then." There was an awkward pause. "Well, you'd best use your own replicator, there won't be time to run off two costumes on mine."
The Vulcan inclined his head. "I will come to collect you in precisely half an hour." He turned towards the door, but looked back when McCoy chuckled darkly.
"Suits us down to the ground, anyway. Beauty and the goddamned Beast."
Spock stared for a moment as McCoy shuffled off into the bathroom, and then he left the room.
Spock sat at his computer, waiting for the replicator to finish synthesising his costume. It was hard not to be offended by McCoy's last remark, and the more he turned it over in his mind, the more disturbed he became. He had been aware for the last few weeks that his relationship with the doctor was going through what might be termed a "rocky patch", but he had attributed this to the stress of the recent medbay inspection, the incident of the Malvolian dispute and the terrifying happenings on Perperon IV. When he and McCoy were alone, all the passion was still there, but some of the good humour seemed to be missing. Instead of bickering their way comfortably through the long evenings, they often lapsed into uneasy silences. Spock had even wondered if the human was unwell, given his perpetually harried expression. Or if he was starting to tire of Spock's company.
Vulcans are slow to open their hearts – but equally slow to close them. Quietly desperate not to let this relationship slip through his fingers, Spock had redoubled his attempts to appease the doctor. He bit back his usual sarcasms, avoided contentious subjects and even, on occasion, came to close to backing down (in arguments that were not important to the running of the ship, that is). But things had not improved.
Still, there had been no open animosity between them. This sudden jab at Spock's mixed heritage had come out of the blue. McCoy was grouchy, of course; irritable, undeniably; prone to exaggeration, yes – but never unkind. Until now.
Spock suspected that if anyone else had called him "a goddamned Beast", he would have reported it to Starfleet command. But McCoy was his mate, his own, his very own and he could not bear to break away from him. If this relationship was indeed dying, he would stick with it until the very end.
To remind himself of the character he was to assume tonight – and to distract himself from his anxieties – he glanced through some image files of the latest 23rd-century remake of the classic film. It would not have been his own choice for a fancy-dress party, but he understood that it was important to let one's human partner have their way in such matters. Furthermore, there was a twofold advantage to this arrangement. Firstly, he would be able to cover his face for the entire evening, which was a useful way to minimise socialising and to hide the unwanted emotions that threatened at the back of his fatigued mind. And, better still, he would get to see McCoy in a dress. It was not an image he had ever considered before, but it was a pleasant one. Jim had always jokingly referred to the doctor as a "southern belle", which the Vulcan had never understood. Upon consideration, though, McCoy would be excellent at playing the part - and would look very beautiful, of course. Would he perhaps sonicate the hair from his chest, or leave it there for all to see? Both options sent a frisson down Spock's back, and he glanced at the chronometer.
There were just fifteen minutes to go. Spock began to don his unwieldy costume, leaving the theme music from the latest Beauty and the Beast playing in the background.
"For who could love a Beast?" the song trailed off.
Who, indeed? thought Spock.
He stood before the full-length mirror and saw a strange, forbidding, half-breed monster with the ears of a devil and the eyes of a weak and damaged human. He had not yet put on the mask.
"Alright, alright, I'm nearly ready!" called McCoy from the bathroom.
Spock paced up and down. There is something about wearing a cape that makes pacing eminently satisfying. Especially when awaiting a dramatic costume reveal.
At last, the door swooshed open. "Well, how do I look?" drawled the doctor – and then he stopped in his tracks.
The two men looked at each other in silence for a long minute.
"I thought... I thought– " stammered McCoy.
"Indeed, doctor. So did I."
McCoy was dressed as The Beast.
The two beasts pulled off their large shaggy heads and continued staring at each other in undisguised astonishment. Then McCoy broke into a chuckle. The chuckle became a giggle. Soon, the giggle became a full-grown belly-laugh, and the doctor dropped into a chair and clutched at his heaving stomach with his enormous paws.
The corner of Spock's mouth was twitching. "Neither of us would succeed as a Communications Officer," he observed dryly.
"Well, dammit Spock, I thought you were going to break out the heels and the eyeshadow! I was looking forward to it!"
The Vulcan raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms. "Undoubtedly some of the blame for this miscommunication is due to me, but your words were misleading. After all, you did compare me to the Beast."
"Indeed, doctor, I recall your words quite clearly. You said that this costume "suits us down to the ground" because we are like "Beauty and the goddamned Beast"."
McCoy flushed red. "Jes– did you think I – Spock, what did you think I meant? Oh, come on, Spock, who's the one has been acting like a grouchy old beast for the last few weeks?"
Spock frowned slightly. "You were referring to yourself? I had certainly observed that you seemed perpetually dissatisfied of late. I assumed that, as I had foretold, you were coming to regret saddling yourself to a half-breed who cannot satisfy your emotional needs."
McCoy slapped his own forehead in frustration. "You're the one who regrets saddling themself to me! And don't you dare go around calling yourself a half-breed. You're better than any Vulcan or any human I've ever met – and you know it!"
The Vulcan's expression softened perceptibly, but McCoy did not see. He was slumped on the edge of his chair, with his head in his hands.
"I assure you that I have never regretted entering a relationship with you, Doctor. I confess that I am most relieved to hear that you are not, in fact, tiring of my company. I must have misinterpreted your behaviour. I find your ever-shifting emotions most difficult to read." There was a pause. The hum of the idle computer filled the room. "We are already late for the party, Leonard. Are you ready to leave?"
The human did not move. He heaved a sigh, and then spoke in the direction of the floor. "You thought I was getting sick of you?"
"Indeed, I susp–"
"Have I done nothin' right in the last month? I just screw up everything I do, don't I? Messed up the inspection, ruined that damned negotiation session, can't even arrange a nice evening with you. This place is gonna be the death of me. I should never have come out here. I'm just a simple doctor, and medicine is all I can do. You Starfleet folk are always trying to make me be something else - one day, a guerrilla fighter, the next day, a diplomat, the next day, a magician. And I can't do any of these things. All I can do's my job. Used to think I'd be a good husband and father – huh! – you know how that turned out." Suddenly, McCoy raised his head and returned Spock's gaze with watery eyes. "So I'm sorry if I'm as bad at relationships as I am at everything else. I'm trying my best, Spock. But you make it so goddamned hard!"
Spock weighed this pronouncement carefully. "I am aware that I am not an easy person to live with, Doctor. Perhaps I am too abrasive with my remarks -"
"Abrasive? You're not abrasive. You're just so... so aloof and patronising, and sometimes I can't stand it. Look, I know I'm not refined like a Vulcan, and I'm not a match for you when it comes to being competent and patient and suave. But– Spock?"
"It used to be so nice. What we had together. I mean, we used to disagree all the time, but we understood each other. We'd both say stupid things sometimes, but then we'd argue it all out and everything would be OK. And I always made mistakes, but you used to just snark at me and then I'd sass you right back, and we all knew there were no hard feelings. But now... it's like you've given up on me. When I do something you don't like, you don't even react. You just go on acting all elegant and long-suffering, and take no notice of me. I guess you've seen what I'm like by now, and you figure that there's no hope that I'll ever change. But I want to be worthy of you, Spock – you're all I've got – and -"
Spock pulled McCoy abruptly into his arms. "Leonard! You are quite mistaken! It is never my intention to be aloof or patronising. If I have been somewhat reticent of late, it is because I have been...afraid. Afraid you would leave. I was trying to avoid causing you offence. I only wanted to make you stay."
The tears in McCoy's eyes threatened to spill. "You really think I'd ever leave you?" he chuckled, in a choky voice.
Their eyes met; Spock moved in for a kiss, but the doctor chose to bury his face in the Vulcan's neck instead. They stood locked in this embrace for quite some time, with Spock's lips pressed to McCoy's temple, and McCoy's hand stroking the back of Spock's head.
Eventually, the human pulled away and wiped his eyes. "C'mon," he said. "Let's go and win some space pong."
"That is my intention, Doctor."
And having readjusted their cumbersome costumes, they strode off together, paw in paw, in the direction of the party.
The effect was somewhat spoiled when McCoy's tail caught in the automatic door. Spock chided him for not taking better care of his costume, and McCoy retorted back with vigour. And they bickered their way... happily ever after.