It has been said that the greatest gift a man can bestow is to give his life for his friends. That is not so - there is a greater gift. I know; once, it was given to me.
It was the President's reception on Cornel V. There were Ambassadors from a dozen planets, Cornelian dignitaries, elegant men, beautiful women. Jim and I represented Starfleet - Spock, engrossed as usual in some research, had elected to remain on the Enterprise.
I was talking to the wife of the Terran Ambassador when the bomb was thrown. Why? I never knew. Rebels, freedom-fighters, terrorists - take your pick. Whatever the motive, the result was horrifying.
Over the bodies of the dead and dying I somehow scrambled towards the yellow-clad figure; Jim had been nearer the blast than I - could he still be alive? I could hear the rescue parties already at work, but they would take some time yet to reach him; fire had taken hold, and trapped by a fallen beam he lay perilously close to the flames. Even as I reached him his clothes caught alight, and I had to smother the flames with my bare hands before I could raise the beam and move him clear.
With Jim in my arms I staggered towards the door; shocked faces turned to me, and someone gently took him from me. He was alive - I registered that fact as for the first time I became aware of the pain from my badly-burned hands. I remember trying to say something about the Enterprise just as a hypo hissed against my shoulder, and oblivion claimed me.
I recovered consciousness in my quarters on board the Enterprise. I was alone. It was only when I tried to sit up in bed that I realised that my hands were heavily bandaged, and I remembered what had happened. Jim! I must get to him - he would need me. With some difficulty I got to my feet; after a few moments the dizziness passed, and I began to dress, my movements unusually clumsy. As I pulled on my boots Nurse Chapel came in; she would have protested but my glare silenced her.
"How is the Captain?" I enquired.
She looked away. "He's in sickbay, sir. You should be resting; Dr. M'Benga said... "
"I'm the Chief Medical Officer on this ship, not M'Benga," I growled, brushing past her; she followed as I headed for sickbay.
M'Benga was leaning over Jim; Spock stood at his shoulder, as he had so often stood at mine. From my vantage point I could see his face clearly - so that was how he looked at such times; usually I was too occupied to notice. As he became aware of my presence, the cold Vulcan mask closed again over his face.
M'Benga straightened, and I saw the readings over the bed.
"Your report, Doctor?" I asked crisply. Like Nurse Chapel, he knew better than to argue, and handed me his notes. It was... very bad. The burns were superficial, but several bomb splinters had penetrated Jim's body. One lay very close to his heart - if it moved even a fraction, and it easily could, it would kill him.
"Prepare for immediate surgery," I ordered.
M'Benga shook his head. "I can't risk it, Dr. McCoy; I don't have the experience. I could kill him."
I glanced at Spock. "How long to the nearest Starbase?"
"Four days." His eyes didn't move from Jim's face.
Four days! To wait four hours would be a risk. "We've got to try," I told M'Benga. "He doesn't have much time - you'll have to operate. I'll supervise, guide you as best I can."
He nodded slightly. "If you think it essential, Doctor, but the chance of success is slight."
"A slight chance is better than no chance at all. I'll be in my office - call me when you're ready."
Seated at my desk, I stared down at my useless hands, knowing with bitterness that I had the skill to save my friend's life, yet could not do so. The door to my office opened and closed. Gradually I became aware of someone standing patiently, waiting; I raised my head to meet Spock's dark eyes.
"I must speak with you, Doctor."
I motioned him to a chair. "Well?"
"I must... make a decision; there are... several questions I must ask."
"Without an operation, the Captain will die?"
"Yes, and soon. The splinter could move at any time."
"Dr. M'Benga has little chance of success?"
I sighed wearily; he always had to have things explained in precise detail. Then I relented - after all, he had allowed Jim to come closer to understanding him than anyone else, and if he thought of him as a friend, he would naturally be concerned.
"That's true," I answered. "He has insufficient experience, and the surgery involved is extremely delicate. It's not much of a choice, Spock, the operation will probably kill him, but he'll certainly die without it."
"You could perform the operation successfully?"
"I believe so - I've done similar before. He'd have a better chance, certainly... but I can't operate like this."
He sat in silence for what seemed like a long time, then raised his head and met my eyes steadily. "Suppose... " Uncharacteristically, he hesitated, then went on, "Suppose it were possible for you to operate?"
"Don't be a fool, Spock!" I said sharply. "You must know I'd give... "
"There is a way," he said slowly, "if you can trust me completely."
"How do you mean?"
"There is a form of the mind meld, a total fusion of personalities. I can suppress my own mind, and allow you to control my body. With your skill directing my hands, you can operate on the Captain. You may find the closeness of the fusion... disturbing, but it will work."
I stared at him in disbelief. Jim and Spock had often linked in the past, but I knew the Vulcan disliked doing so with anyone else, and not even with Jim had he attempted to do as he now proposed, allowing me total control.
"Do you trust me so much?" I asked huskily.
The dark eyes held mine unswervingly. "I do," he said quietly. "We have said... many things in the past, Doctor... but you must know... not even for Jim's sake could I allow this link to anyone else."
I could not speak, only reached out to him; he took my hand gently.
"There is no time to waste," he reminded me.
"What must I do?"
"I will establish the initial link first. Lie down on the couch, please."
I obeyed, and he sat beside me, his fingers touching my face. Despite my utter confidence in him, for a moment an instinctive fear overwhelmed me, and I drew back. He waited patiently.
"I'm sorry," I whispered.
"I understand. Relax, and trust me... trust me... "
This time I remained unmoving as his thoughts touched my mind; I would never have Jim's easy familiarity with the meld, but I knew I could trust Spock's integrity completely. As the link formed and strengthened I was aware only of his eyes, holding mine so that I could not look away. His thought reached me clearly.
"The link is formed, Doctor; are you prepared for the fusion?"
"Yes. What happens now?"
"I must submerge my personality and allow you to take over. I would suggest that you give yourself a little time to become used to controlling my body before you begin the operation - you will find that my reactions are faster than yours, and it may confuse you at first. When you have finished, return here; you will have to initiate the separation, as I will be unable to. Reach for the mind link as you have seen me do, and call me with all your concentration. Do not be afraid, Doctor. Trust me, and all will be well."
"I do trust you, Spock. I'm... ready now."
His mind moved again, and darkness descended on me; when sight returned, I was looking down at my own body, lying on the couch as though asleep.
It was a... very strange sensation. My eyesight seemed much sharper than normal, and there was a subtle... difference in my perception of colour. I stood up rather shakily, and moved around the room. As the minutes passed, I grew more comfortable in this unfamiliar body; co-ordination improved, and I became more accustomed to my heightened senses. I remember - curiously - thinking how cold it seemed, and realising that this was how the normal temperature of the ship must feel to Spock.
When I was sure of my control I entered sickbay, where M'Benga and Nurse Chapel were preparing for surgery; they stared at me in surprise.
"Mr. Spock!" exclaimed M'Benga. "I think you'd better wait outside, sir."
"It's not Spock," I told them, conscious of a momentary amusement at their puzzled expressions. "It's McCoy. I've linked with Mr. Spock - I'll operate on the Captain myself. Finish the preparations, please - we have no time to waste."
I passed the next few minutes examining the instruments I intended to use; to my relief, my - Spock's - hands manipulated the delicate equipment with the deftness I had acquired through long familiarity.
When all was ready I approached the bed. Now I must forget that the man who lay there was my friend; for the next few hours he could only be an anonymous patient whose life depended on my skill - to think of him as Jim would only impair my concentration. At the same time I must try to forget that I stood within an alien body; I must have confidence in myself, in my abilities - yet surely no surgeon had ever operated under such strange circumstances. I drew a deep breath, and signalled to M'Benga.
Some remote corner of my mind registered the passing of time as I worked steadily on. It was incredibly delicate surgery I must perform - the splinter lay very close to the main artery, and there was no room for error. Yet I must also work swiftly - Jim weakened rapidly under the strain of the long hours of surgery; indeed, at one point his heart stopped beating, but life support sustained him until I could continue. Spock's physical strength kept me on my feet, with none of the fatigue I would normally have expected, and his keen sight and quick reflexes were invaluable. The mental strain was intense, however; I could not quite forget the curious circumstances under which I worked.
At last I closed the incision in Jim's chest, and stepped back; all that my skill could do for him had been done. Now everything depended on his own will to live. I could safely leave him to M'Benga now, and went to clean up, becoming aware of a numbing exhaustion that always seems to overtake me at such times - perhaps it's only the relaxation of tension.
It was while I was washing that I caught sight of myself in the mirror, and paused to peer closely at my reflection. Staring into the dark eyes that looked back at me, I wondered then how it must be to wear this face, to walk among Humans so clearly marked as an alien. How did he meet so calmly the sidelong glances, the whispered comments that were meant to be overheard? I had teased him often in the past, but we both knew how little substance there was in my barbed comments - others, I knew, judged him more harshly.
I felt a sudden surge of anger on Spock's behalf. To save Jim he had been willing to violate his deepest instincts, reveal his carefully hidden heart. My presence in his mind must have hurt him unspeakably, yet he had been prepared to suffer even this for his friend's sake. He had courage - I had always known that; but I had dared to call him cold, unfeeling - now I knew the extent of the injustice I had done him. Few men, even if they possessed his abilities, would have had the grace, the courage, to make such a sacrifice.
Only then did I remember that, linked as we were, he would be able to sense my thoughts and emotions. Once I would have been embarrassed, now I was only grateful that he would be aware of the change in my attitude.
Deep within my mind I felt him move in warning - it was time to break the link. So total a meld, if sustained too long, could be dangerous to both of us. Responding to that warning I returned to my office, sitting, as he had done, on the couch. As he had said, Spock's personality was so deeply submerged in mine that I must open the way for his return. Awkwardly, I copied the gesture I had so often seen him make, placing my hands on the sleeping face; I strove to make my mind a blank, then called to him with all the mental force I could summon. Gradually I became more aware of his presence - he was responding, taking control. Then, for one brief moment, our minds touched, totally open to each other, and I saw Spock as he was, his dreams, hopes, fears, all clearly revealed to me; and I knew that he saw my mind and heart with the same clarity.
We would never speak of it; nor, I think, would either of us have wished to. I am, in my own way, almost as reticent as Spock - for many reasons, I often hesitate to display my true feelings openly - and he, of course, rarely drops that Vulcan mask; but in that moment, we both experienced a true understanding of ourselves and each other.
Not even with Jim could we share that discovery, but he would know that our relationship had changed - he was so sensitive to Spock's moods that it could not be otherwise - and it would please him.
Slowly my eyes opened, and I looked up into dark Vulcan eyes that would never again seem alien to me. There was anxiety in the gaze that hold mine, and I smiled reassuringly, seeing in response the familiar raised eyebrow.
"Are you all right, Doctor?"
"Yes - just let me get my breath. All this dashing about from one body to another - it's worse than the transporter!" I complained, knowing that I must not refer, even obliquely, to what had just passed between us, and taking refuge in my usual sarcasm. As I expected, his other eyebrow rose as I went on. "Well, I suppose I'd better go and see what sort of job you've done on Jim."
He seized the opportunity I had given him, and replied in his usual cool tones, "The hands may have been mine, Doctor, but the skill - or lack of it - was yours."
I grunted, and levered myself to my feet; he paced soundlessly behind me as I returned to sickbay. M'Benga straightened from the bed as we entered.
"The Captain should come round soon, sir; the readings appear to be satisfactory." He left at my nod of dismissal, and Spock moved to take his place at Jim's side. How often in the past we had shared such a vigil, but never with such a complete understanding as now. As the minutes passed, and Jim did not awake, I began to grow concerned.
Glancing up, I caught Spock's gaze again; the dark eyes were glowing with confidence and trust. Heartened, I turned back to Jim, just as his eyes flickered and opened. He looked at me steadily for a moment, half-smiling, then his eyes turned to Spock, knowing that the Vulcan would be there. They exchanged a long, silent gaze, and for the first time I did not feel shut out by their complete acceptance of each other, for now I understood; then he sighed wearily, and relaxed against the pillows.
When I moved to run the scanner over him, he focused on my bandaged hands, and a frown of concern creased his forehead. "Bones, you're hurt! What happened?"
"0h, it's nothing much - just a few burns."
"Then how... I suppose M'Benga operated on me?"
"No, I did - but I had some help."
He glanced from me to Spock, sensing, as I knew he would, that something important had happened between us.
"Spock?" he questioned.
"Yes, Captain. Dr. McCoy and I used a meld to achieve total fusion of our minds. I am... pleased... that we succeeded."
"Right!" I said firmly. "That's enough chatter for now. Jim, you've just undergone major surgery - you need rest. And you, Spock. You've just performed a long and taxing operation - or rather, your body has; fatigue is going to catch up with you soon. You might as well spend the night here, where I can keep an eye on you - but no talking."
For once, he obeyed me meekly; soon they were both asleep. Leaving instructions with M'Benga, I returned to my quarters, yielding at last to my own weariness.
The last few hours had taught me much, and I felt... humbled. Spock had given me the greatest gift I could ever have imagined. It is comparatively easy to give a life for a friend if one cares enough; he had given me much more - he had trusted me enough to show me his heart. Pride, which had been our strongest shield, our greatest curse, had finally been overcome, and I had gained a friend, a friend whose worth, I suspected, I had only just begun to learn.
In that moment, the last lingering regrets for the life I had once known vanished for ever. I had come home.