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For several minutes after their instructive conversation, Spock sat in silence, watching as the human before him slowly digested what he had been told. Interest, fascination, thoughtfulness, and finally a bit of unease all paraded clearly over the physician's lined face, ending in a look of utter dread as McCoy obviously realized the final topic they had not yet discussed. What was it the Terrans called it, the mammoth in the room?

Spock was in completely uncharted space, here. He had never been forced to interact with anyone, Vulcan or otherwise, who had been a victim of this type of assault. The closest experiences he had had with this sort of trauma were the two occasions in which he had been of aid to the captain; the first, in healing the damage to the human's mind after Jim had been subjected to torture at the hand of Dr. VanGelder's machine (1) - and the second, after a nearly disastrous landing party on a world of vibrantly telepathic beings who had been unaware of their visitors' taboos regarding personal mental privacy. He remembered the landing party with a shudder, for he had expended nearly all his mental and physical strength in holding a shield around his terrified captain's mind as it had been relentlessly bombarded before they were able to call for emergency beam-out, and it was an experience neither of them ever discussed after that night due to its intense horror for both. (2)

Spock himself had, of course, been subjected to a very close equivalent, however mechanical, by the Klingons when the Organian Peace Treaty was being brokered (3), but thankfully the damage had been controllable, and his trauma less than even a full Vulcan's would have been at such an invasion. And, however brutal, Starfleet officers were trained to resist torture, including mental torture; and machine was by no means the psychological equivalent of a knowing, sentient attacker.

But this…this was a matter which even after forty-eight hours he was unable to reconcile in his mind. Two entire days, spent in doing little but recalling in crystal-clear eidetic detail every mission upon which they had embarked during the past four years, mentally reviewing every medical report, every captain's log, every mission briefing, every alien contact - anything and everything his perfect memory could readily supply, to indicate when this assault had happened.

And he had come up with exactly nothing.

McCoy was obviously reluctant to speak, reclining upon the half-raised bed's pillows and staring morosely down at his hands as they picked at a wrinkle in the blanket. Finally, the human sighed, and looked up with resignation darkening his eyes.

"I guess you're not gonna let me get by with just filing a medical report?"

"Negative, Doctor. However…if it is your preference, regulations state that I could call the captain, and you could report to him instead of myself," Spock said quietly, though he would indeed be slightly dismayed, if McCoy decided to do so.

"Oh good grief no, Spock," the doctor exclaimed hastily, accompanied by a vehement shake of the head. "It's got nothing to do with him. And he'd have kittens if he found out, anyhow," he added hurriedly, suddenly unable to meet Spock's severe gaze.

But Vulcan intuition had already caught the slip, and a cold chill began to creep down Spock's spine as he leaned forward unconsciously in his haste to know. "Doctor…by my allowed presence, then, I take it that it does, in fact, have 'something to do' with me?" he asked, illogically hoping for a negative answer.

He had never understood the Terran phrase about 'the heart sinking' until McCoy swallowed hard, but finally nodded, not looking at him.

"I…I do not understand, Doctor," he said, not even realizing the stumble in his horrified attempt to make sense of the pieces. "Did it occur when we were last on Vulcan?" It was the only possibility which seemed at all likely, but surely none of his few kin present at the kal-if-fee would have performed such an unspeakable act, risking such before so many witnesses!

"No, no, Spock. Nobody you know, I promise," McCoy said quickly, and seemed sincere enough.

This was not logical, and he had no frame of reference from which to draw conclusions. "Doctor," he began, in a final act of desperation which dictated tact was not an element he had time to employ. "I require an explanation. When and where were you assaulted in this fashion?"

"Spock, I don't really -"

"Doctor McCoy, I have spent the past forty-nine-point-seven hours in a constant state of memory recall, bringing up every day of the past four years of this mission in an effort to ascertain when and where this…atrocity, could have been committed," he snapped. He knew he must be visibly showing his anger, stirred from the righteous indignation of the Ancient Ways, because McCoy's eyes grew quite wide suddenly. "That such a thing should happen and not one being on this entire ship noticed, is beyond inexcusable, and when I discover who should have prevented it, I assure you the consequences for that individual will be dire."

Whatever he had expected, whatever humanly emotional and trauma-filled reaction he had braced himself for, he in his wildest imagination had not expected the doctor to blink for a second at him in surprise, and then burst into delighted laughter.

"Careful, Mr. Spock," McCoy said with a grin, leaning forward to pat his arm. "That darned emotional backwash is showin' again."

"Doctor, your levity is inappropriate!"

"Annnnd I see why half your kids in Sciences seem to think you're adorable when you're ticked off," the human muttered, still with that most infuriating grin. Spock's brows clenched fearsomely, and he opened his mouth to demand the physician give him a straight answer. "All right, Commander," McCoy interrupted his intended tirade, holding up a remonstrative hand. "Put away the mental lirpa for a second, will you. There's nothing you can do to the person responsible, and it's no one's fault but mine that no one knew anything about it. All right?"

"Negative," he said through clenched teeth. "It is a classic textbook symptom for victims to take responsibility for their attacker's actions -"

"Oh, come on, Spock!" the doctor exclaimed, shaking his head. "I'm taking responsibility for not reporting it, not for being…a victim." The word sounded awkward on the human's lips, painful and stilting. "I…in my defense, Spock," he added, levity vanishing as he stared down at his clenched hands, "I didn't realize really, until you told me, how serious it was. I guess I've broken regulations by concealing an assault. Any medical officer would probably have pronounced me compromised for a while afterwards on principle, and I could have endangered our mission this week if you hadn't been able to talk me down."

"Doctor, to blame yourself for ignorance of an alien attack's mental severity is akin to blaming a child for not knowing how to tie his bootlaces before being shown how to do so," Spock replied, in a much more controlled tone. "I may assume from your reaction, then, that it happened during a mission, and you were able to hide the fact?"

"Not so much able to, as just not really eager to broadcast it," McCoy muttered.

Spock was silent, his heart clenched deep within and his mind still reeling. "I still should have seen the indications," he finally said quietly, the words brittle with regret and self-recrimination. "A human might be excused the oversight - but not I. There is no excuse for my lack of perception, Doctor, and for that I can never sufficiently apologize."

McCoy looked sideways at him, a faint smile softening his face. "There's a darn good excuse, Spock, and it's that I avoided you for a good month afterwards. Jim thought I was just creeped out by what had happened; he didn't know just how much I was. Or why."

Well, that narrowed the timeline down quite a bit, as his and the Chief Medical Officer's interactions were nearly as constant as his and the captain's. Their times of conflict had been quite violent and long-lasting at times, as both of them were capable of holding grudges when pushed far enough, but those times had certainly been very few, and nearly always easily explained.

And then, with startling, icy clarity, he suddenly realized the only possible time it could have been.

And the only possible identity for McCoy's attacker…

Ponfo mirann…it had been himself. (4)

He vaguely realized that the human was nearly shouting his name over the violent ringing in his ears. The plasticene chair wobbled precariously as he leaned forward, face ashen, and brought his steepled fingers to his face in a desperate effort to control his shattered reactions.

"Spock. Spock. Listen to me, Commander."

He had done this; in another world, yes, in another universe, but it had been he who had committed the unthinkable, the unforgivable. It was of little wonder, the human's utterly terrified reaction while in the brig, to his suggestion of a kash-nov. Who would not be afraid, of such a thing committed by one who should have been trustworthy.

"CHRISTINE! Get in here, I need you!"

How could a human, a mere defenseless human, so effectively hide the hurt and the damage that no one ever knew? So expertly manipulate psychological evaluations after the return journey? So successfully bury the trauma and continue to function normally, never betraying the event to anyone who had been present or not been present?

So readily trust again? So easily forgive?

The hiss of a hypospray and the ensuing flood of clarity that parted the pall clouding his mind brought him back to full awareness. Despite knowing that the relapse was due to his complete mental exhaustion and utter lack of shielding against it, the knowledge compounded his shame and guilt, and he closed his eyes against his joined hands in an effort to regain focus.

"Any better?" the doctor's gentle voice asked in his ear, and he nodded mechanically, not trusting his voice for the moment. "Thank you, Nurse. We're fine - just gonna need to be alone for a few more minutes. No, I promise I won't let him strain himself. Yes, I'm aware! We'll both sleep when we're done here, I swear, I just need to deal with this first."

The nurse's murmured protests accompanied the click of her heels as she reluctantly exited the ward and locked it again, transitioning to a deathly silence within.

He inhaled slowly, and lowered his hands with a bleak shake of the head. "Doctor…I…"

"Spock," the human interrupted him firmly, leaning half-off the bed to look him in the face. A thin finger pointed straight between his eyes. "D'you remember what I said back in that cell after I accidentally kicked you out of my head the first time?"

He shook his head, more out of reflex than anything else, because he could barely focus on the present, much less the recent past.

"I said I wasn't afraid of you," McCoy said bluntly. "And I meant it, Spock. I am able to tell the difference between you, thank you very much."

"That…does not negate my desire to apologize for an unspeakable wrong, done by a being you felt you could trust," he whispered.

"It should negate your guilt over something you didn't do, though," was the quiet answer, delivered in a tone much more calm than Spock's was going to be for some time, now. He vaguely wondered if perhaps his Vulcan control had been part of the transference, for the human was reacting far too well to this ghastly situation, and far better than he himself was. "And, now that you've talked to me about the whole thing…" McCoy trailed off with a half-shrug. "I think he was just tryin' to do that whole cash-cow thing, not the actual fusion. It wasn't pleasant…actually it was painful, but I don't think his intention was to just attack me."

The utterly appalling bastardization of High Vulcan made Spock choke down an odd desire to laugh, another human impulse he was struggling to curb under the onslaught of mental exhaustion. "Kashkau-esta, Doctor," he managed, with a nearly straight face.

"Whatever. Human tongues aren't made for that mishmash you call a linguistics bank. But seriously, Spock." McCoy sighed, and waited until he reluctantly made eye contact. "I really think that's what he was trying to do; he just wanted information, and that was the fastest way to get it. You said yourself, it's used in medical emergencies, and for all we know it might not even be a crime in that universe."

"That does not excuse it, by any means, Doctor," he replied. "You were clearly not consenting to it, regardless of intent or result. The crime is the same."

"Spock…" The human sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose with one hand. "That may be true, but I also didn't make much of a struggle to stop him. I was…too scared, all right?" he admitted, a shamed blush coloring his face. "But I didn't try to stop him, so maybe he took that as consent. Who knows, in that universe, maybe he was used to communicating that way with his version of me? And whatever happened, I don't truly think he meant to seriously harm me." (5)

Spock was highly hesitant of that far too tolerant mindset, as it seemed too close to what was called survivor's syndrome to be healthy. His face must have betrayed those thoughts, for McCoy snorted, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling. "Don't go psycho-analyzing me, Spock, for pity's sake," he drawled, throwing one arm up to crook it easily behind his neck. "I'll take the dang psych eval now and make a full retroactive report, you can go get Chapel and have her do it right here if you want."

He nodded solemnly. "I still regret, Doctor, that I subjected you to something of the same invasion, without knowing the specifics were so…personal. Ni'droi'ik nar-tor, McCoy." (6)

"Regret, Mr. Spock? Illogical." Blue eyes smiled at him, thawing the chill of shame that had seemed to wrap its way around his heart during the last hour. "But if you want to make it up to me, you can teach me some of that mental shielding and meditation stuff you're so good at."

"There exists very little possibility that your chaotic mind would be capable of performing adequately in that area," Spock said dubiously.

"That's as may be, Commander," the human retorted with a flash of the old fire. "But if you ever have to mess around in my head again, I'd like to not end up with a migraine afterwards if at all possible. You teach me how to shield a little, and maybe I'll let you back in sometime if you promise to not screw things up too bad in there?"

Spock eyed the outstretched hand for a moment, before throwing Vulcan caution to the solar winds and accepting it in the gesture of human friendship and forgiveness they both knew it was.

And if an eerie sense of foreboding swept through them both at the connection and its understood promise…well. Stranger things had happened in the vestigial aftermath of a mind-fusion.

Within the next hour, McCoy succumbed to the dose of painkillers Chapel had administered at the same time as Spock's hypospray, and was soon apparently at peace and sleeping serenely, free of any lasting trauma from an ordeal that still filled Spock with horror. However, he remained awake for several hours, unable to move away, unable to shake the feeling that he must be responsible for keeping watch over this remarkable man, who had during this last mission displayed more mental strength than Spock had been aware a human could even possess. He sat in the hard chair beside the bed, watching the sleeping physician, and wondered at the dichotomy of helplessness and fierce strength which so characterized this unusual being.

Something had changed between them, today. And whether Jim realized it or not, something had changed between them all. Time only would tell what impact the alteration would have.

And it was thus that their newly-restored captain found them much later that evening, when he once more ventured bravely into the lion's den only to find McCoy dead to the world and Spock sound asleep in a cold chair beside the doctor's bed, head drooping on his slowly rising and falling chest.

Creeping up on the sleeping pair, Kirk suddenly grinned with all the wicked mischief of a pent-up child. After all the potential blackmail he knew the two of them had accumulated on him during his second childhood, it was good to know he had at least one thing to strike back with now.

Apparently, their ferocious CMO drooled when he was asleep on heavy painkillers.

And their equally ferocious Vulcan First Officer didn't snore. He purred.

Like a cat.

Like a tribble.

He'd never heard anything so adorably weird in all his life.

And that included Bones singing pat-a-cake, and Spock trying (and failing miserably) to read a nonsensical story like James and the Giant Peach aloud…ha! His grin widened at the remembrance, for he'd just realized that whatever blackmail the two of them had on him, he had just as much, if not more so. That was good, because he'd the feeling he had a lot of damage control to do aboard this ship in the next few weeks.

Because who wouldn't pay good money to see their grumpy CMO swinging a giggling baby around and making airplane noises, or their stoic First Officer giving a shrieking toddler a ride on his shoulders as he obediently trotted down the corridors in accordance to the child's demand to 'go faster'?