- Text Size +
Story Notes:

This was originally written for Beyond Dreams 7, a K/S zine by Beyond Dreams Press, printed March 2004. I owe a debt of gratitude to my cheerleaders Jenna and Dusky, whose encouragement allowed me to write from the heart.

 

Learning Home

by sundara

 

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

                                              T. S. Eliot

 

 

      It was after the Klingon cease-fire treaty, more than a year after, when I stepped aside and gave in gracefully to the next batch of overeager space jockeys chomping at the bit. I had long since given up command of the Enterprise-A-they'd decommissioned her and put her out to pasture as a living museum, better than the alternative-but I'd stayed in service to help the fledgling relationship between the Klingon Empire and the Federation, at the behest of their new chancellor.

 

      Needless to say, it felt...strange, participating as a chief advisor to the Federation and Starfleet and the Klingon High Council. Yet I'm glad I did. It stretched me, took me beyond the limitations I'd imposed upon myself at the time, and I can only hope it helped the Federation and the Klingons make that step, too.

 

      But that's in the past now, somebody else's worry. Now my days are filled with other challenges, personal ones. And I say it's about time. I've spent over forty years dedicated to Starfleet service to the detriment of nearly everything else in my life, so I'd like to spend a few years dedicated to personal goals, ones I'd pushed aside or ignored over time.

 

      Not everyone thinks I'm making good decisions. Well, that's their problem. I figure at this stage in life, I can pretty much do whatever I damn well please. Chalk it up to senility or obstinacy or whatever else you can come up with, it's still my choice. The universe it still out there, filled with unexplored answers to questions nobody's even figured out yet, and a few of those answers are mine. I may not have all the questions, either, but that's all right. I'll figure it out eventually.

 

*****

 

      "I love you, Uncle Jim, but honestly, I think you're nuts." Peter Kirk shook his sleek auburn head, his faintly quirked mouth softening the pronouncement. The knife in his hand never stopped flashing silver, and the pile of chopped vegetables on the table before him grew steadily.

 

      "Oh you do, do you." A slow grin edged along Jim Kirk's mouth. The oil in the pan spat at him, and he slid the thickest and largest of the vegetables in first.

 

      "Not that my opinion will stop you. I think you've been crazy for years and, I admit, we've all benefited. And-oh, do the calawari seaweed last. It cooks fast." Peter leaned his tall, lanky form over the cooking island and set two overflowing bowls next to Kirk's elbow.

 

      "Get the na'waht sauce from the cooler, would you? And speaking of nuts...get the Andorian bacca nuts, too." Kirk stirred the food with a rare economy of motion, relaxing in increments as the air filled with wonderful scents and a hypnotic sizzle.

 

      Peter passed over a small container to Kirk, then dumped the used knives and bowls in the recycler and leaned on the counter, chin in hand, watching him work. "I've come to the conclusion a little craziness must be in the Kirk genes."

 

      "I'll have you know your father was the soul of pragmatism," Kirk said, vaguely objecting to Peter's decision. He thought for a second. "That is, once he was well past puberty. He had a moment or two in his youth."

 

      "He must've taken after a completely different ancestor than Grandma, Granddad or you. I've heard the stories about Granddad. I've seen the truth about you. And Grandma...." Peter shook his head, tossing a soft container of bacca nuts on the counter. 

 

      "What about your grandmother?"

 

      Peter snorted and turned to get dishes and utensils ready for dinner. "Believe me, Uncle Jim, Grandma was just as crazy as you in her own, unique way. I, uh...I never told you about my sex education, did I."

 

      It wasn't a question, and Kirk looked up from the pan at the half-rueful, half-embarrassed tone in Peter's voice. "What sex education?"

 

      Peter gave him a slow, ironic look and rolled his lips together thoughtfully. "When I was the tender age of thirteen, Grandma decided to give me the full-scale media learning experience with one of her biology education vids."

 

      Kirk's hand stilled. "The bio-ed vids she made for instructing non-humans in human biological matters?"

 

      Peter glanced up from where he was pouring drinks. "Those are the ones. I look back and realize it's a wonder I wasn't psychologically scarred for posterity, you know, with Grandma's clinical voice-over describing the most graphic, the most erotic display I'd ever seen in my young, puberty-ridden life. Do you know how hard it is to reconcile nearly, uh, getting off in your pants with your grandmother's professional voice droning on in the background? I don't know how many tries it took before I stopped hearing her voice narrating in my head every time I tried to...you know, during those early years," Peter added, laughing out loud now.

 

      Kirk stared at him in fascinated horror, oblivious now to the sizzling pan.  

 

      "So you can see why I think the majority of Kirk genes aren't quite straight on the beam," Peter concluded with no remorse and a great deal of amused irony. "In my expert civil engineering opinion, of course."

 

      "Well, damn." Kirk stared with reproach at the pan when it gave an angry hiss and absently added the next bowl of ingredients. "My god, Peter...." Kirk started to laugh. "She made those vids when she was teaching human and xenobiology at the university, after I was in Starfleet, or I might have gotten the same treatment."

 

      Or not, he thought, as a sudden remembrance of his own thirteenth year momentarily dimmed his amusement.

 

      With a mental nudge, he turned old memories of Tarsus aside and glanced up at his nephew. Peter's amusement sparked his own again, and they laughed out loud together. Kirk felt a surge of love for his nephew, glad for the opportunity to be with him after all the years and opportunities lost.

 

      Peter made it so easy. He was an open book. No poisonous anger lurked in his pages because of the past and Kirk's role in it, so unlike his own son.

 

      Kirk's laughter faded. "You know, Mom never missed sending a weekly letter the entire time I was in Starfleet. I miss her.

 

      Peter touched his arm briefly, a connection for which Kirk felt grateful. "I do, too, Uncle Jim."

 

      The past seemed closer than ever, all around him, pressing heavy and deep as the ocean beyond the transparent aluminum wall.

 

      From a bowl, Kirk slipped the seaweed into the pan for the requisite ten stirs before turning off the heat. "I don't know about you, kiddo, but I'm hungry. Let's eat."

 

      Kirk listened to Peter's recitation of his daily activities on the job as they ate, content to add the occasional comment or nod when appropriate, feeling a close part of his only remaining family's life. No one else was left now, his parents, his brother and sister-in-law, his son...all gone. A few barely-known cousins floated around somewhere on Earth, but they really didn't count. Peter was it, and Kirk was determined to enjoy his company as much as his nephew allowed.

 

      "So he heads for the airlock, wanting to make sure the crews have followed his imperial orders, and I told him he'd better wait. Thought he was going to bite my head off. I never said a word, just held up his forgotten oxygen tank. The look on his face was priceless." Peter pushed his empty plate away. "Kept thinking I should've just let him go through the airlock cycle and rid myself of one annoying, egotistical design engineer." His face creased in disgusted outrage.

 

      "It's the same all over, Peter. I saw it in the service, and out in space, they were the ones who put everyone at risk. By the time I was command grade, I'd learned how to cull that kind from the crew before they caused serious trouble. Don't worry, you'll learn."

 

      Peter sighed. "I hired him, a huge mistake."

 

      "Peter, you're running a prestigious operation. The government of this planet wouldn't have hired you if you didn't have the experience and credentials to do the job. Planning and building an entire underwater city-dome is one hell of an undertaking, pardon the pun." Kirk grinned. "Naiad is going to be beautiful."

 

      "I think so." They shared a moment of satisfaction before Peter shoved back from the table, removing dirty dishes. "So you're really serious about this survival thing on Vulcan? Talk about attitudes...except for Mister Spock, of course. I'd like to see him again, he's actually fun to be with," Peter said, and grinned.

 

      "Not too many people would put it quite that way." Kirk grinned to himself and busied himself with the pan on the stove. "Vulcans can be difficult to deal with for many people," he added. "The months I lived there showed me a...different face than they tend to show the public. And yes, I do want to participate. It's called kaunshaya kali-tor, an adult survival challenge."

 

      "Want some Poseidon fruit? Harvested near here." Peter pulled a bowl containing palm-sized fruit from the cooler. "I still think you're crazy. Ever since your retirement, you've conjured up one extreme thing after another to do. I don't know why you left Starfleet. You're not exactly an old fossil ready for a museum, and all your adventures make that rather plain."

 

      "Why thank you." Fond exasperation curled through Kirk. "I know you think it was a mistake for me to retire, Peter, but it was time." He gazed sightlessly at the wall port and the constant underwater display, sifting through words. How to explain what he'd felt, what drove his decision?

 

      "About the time of the Klingon treaty, I realized that I-I'd lost my edge, and experience only makes up for some of that loss. A commander should never find himself continually distracted by personal things-feelings, thoughts, needs. In space, it could be fatal. I found myself-" An ironic smile crept out as he waved a hand, tone slightly self-mocking. "I found myself replete with all of the above. Maybe because in my single-mindedness, I shoved them aside for so long. Who knows?" Kirk shrugged. "Time for the new kids to grab for the brass ring. That's why we trained them. I needed to move on."

 

      Peter slouched against the table's edge, nibbling on fruit. "You may have moved on from Starfleet, but it's rather obvious you're still addicted to that adrenaline rush, Uncle Jim."

 

      "Now you sound like Leonard McCoy. You can't tell me that swimming the aqua forests here on Aquius is too extreme for me."

 

      "No, not like your last stunt on Eccipal, air-gliding off ten thousand foot jagged cliffs. And I'm glad you're here. Just...be careful on Vulcan, okay? I can't imagine any survival challenge on that planet being a piece of cake." Peter placed his arm around Kirk's shoulders. "I don't know why, but I'm kind of partial to you and want you around for a while."

 

      "It's a good thing I didn't send you details of our missions while you were growing up," Kirk said as he chewed the slightly bitter, pungent, pale green fruit. They were definitely a taste to which one needed to become accustomed.

 

      Peter shuddered. "I'm glad I didn't know." He squeezed Kirk's shoulders one last time before moving away toward the living area. "I want to check on the fabrication crew, make sure everyone's okay. I'll be back in a little while, Uncle Jim. Maybe I'll whip your butt at chess when I return."

 

      "Don't hold your breath," Kirk muttered, peeling the faintly fuzzy skin off of one of the berries, hoping to dispose of the unwanted bitter flavor along with it.

 

      Peter's laughter floated back into the apartment as the door slid shut behind him.

 

      Kirk popped the naked fruit into his mouth and a sweeter flavor burst over his tongue. Borrowed pleasure crept through Kirk at the thought of his nephew-full of piss and vinegar, his mother used to say. Peter was successful in his chosen field, he was well-adjusted (despite his early sex education, it seemed) and held his own with Kirk in both chess and verbal sparring. Kirk's family might be small, but it was his.

 

      As was his time, now. Like an itch in the back of his mind, the lure of a Vulcan survival challenge had hovered since before retirement, since Amanda had mentioned it a few years back. Kirk chuckled at the memory. McCoy had been regaling Amanda with the tale of Kirk's header off El Capitan and Spock's last minute rescue in an attempt to elicit yet more disapproval for what he deemed Kirk's "death-wish." He had ended up sorely disappointed and accused Amanda of "adding fuel to a burning fire" when she in turn mentioned that Vulcan had a voluntary ordeal that would challenge the hardiest of outdoorsmen. A desert survival challenge, it was similar to but much harder than the childhood challenge. When Kirk had become interested, Amanda directed him to ask Spock for more information.

 

      The idea of it had intrigued him and appealed to his competitive nature. Spock had been strangely reticent when questioned, and Kirk had figured that his mishap on El Capitan would not be soon forgotten by his over-protective friends. Yet he still pulled enough facts out of his annoyingly tight-lipped friend to feed what had eventually blossomed into a minor obsession.

 

      For some inexplicable reason, the idea of going to Vulcan for the challenge touched something deep within him. Kirk acknowledged serious disadvantages due to his physical make-up and his lack of detailed knowledge about nuances of the Vulcan challenge, despite an exhaustive and frustrating computer search on any and all information pertaining to it, and yet...he'd survived one deadly Vulcan ritual with the odds stacked against him. In comparison, this one would be easy. The thought of actually going to Vulcan to participate made something within him sing in anticipation.

 

      Peter's computer nestled in an alcove next to the underwater display. Pausing by the wall port, Kirk leaned against the edge. The border of the great aqua forest stood twenty meters from the dome. Giant leafy fronds waved in the mild current. Oceanus' lights illuminated the water for tens of meters, revealing a constant motion of life and color in a never-ending display of live art. Great yarmiks, their white skins glowing, gamboled and played in the open depths. Schools of golden yellow pie-eyes shimmered in ever-undulating waves. An occasional dharnah, what the locals called a saber-tooth cat, caused a frantic scattering of denizens: the large, bewhiskered, iridescent purple and red scaled creatures were reminiscent of Terran catfish, with the addition of a mouthful of pointed teeth. Aquius was a continual exhibition of the incomparable beauty of nature, and for the first time in years, Kirk could take as long as he wanted to enjoy it.

 

      Turning away from the port, Kirk sank down in the console chair with a small grunt. The computer screen sprang to life as soon as he laid fingers against the keypad. He made short work of initiating a subspace call to Earth, charging the costly indulgence to his own personal account, and sat back to wait in an expected lengthy queue. He'd barely had time to start creating a list of things he wanted to accomplish over the next few weeks when melodious chimes sounded, and the brassy red and orange of Vulcan's embassy logo flashed upon the screen, then made way for a pleasant-faced embassy aide.

 

      "Greetings. How may I assist you?" The Vulcan female's voice was well-modulated and carried a certain warm inflection that spoke of long-time assignment among humans.

 

      It reminded him of Spock. It had been too damn long since he'd been with him in the flesh, the longest than they'd been apart since the end of the first five year mission-which was not a separation fraught with good memories. Calls and correspondence were all well and good for the short run, but it was now stretching out into a year since they'd been in the same place at the same time. The time he'd spent since retirement had brought home to Kirk how attached he'd become to his old friend, and how he very much missed him.

 

      "I'd like to speak to Ambassador Sarek, if he's available. Tell him it's James Kirk." Kirk cheered himself with the knowledge he might soon see his favorite Vulcan again, if all went as planned.

 

      "One moment."

 

      The screen flickered for barely ten seconds before a Vulcan male Kirk recognized appeared on the screen, and Kirk repeated his request once more to Sarek's assistant. The Vulcan aide's expression matched his features, bland and spare, honed down to bare essentials. "The ambassador is in residence. One moment, Captain Kirk, while I see if he is available."

 

      The screen glared with shades of red and orange as Septhis put the call on hold. Kirk squinted at the bright colors, so different from the cool blues and greens of the water world he was on. Vulcan's embassy logo sketched a stylized image of fire and passion, brimming over with a virtual intensity, as if giving vent to their planet's heat and fire in a way the people dared not do themselves.

 

      Spock was on that planet now, a hero returned triumphant, or as much a hero as the Vulcan people would make of him. His human ancestry no longer held him back. No doubt the unattached women were eyeing him with a mind to settling down and starting a new family, with a son to solemnly learn the Vulcan mind rules from his father.

 

      That's what Spock needed. After everything he'd been through, he deserved everything that Vulcan could give to him, including a family and a sense of belonging. Nobody deserved happiness more than Spock.

 

      Kirk ignored the dull pain in the back of his head that flared any time he thought of Spock, content and settled on Vulcan. There was no room for the jealous feelings that simmered when he contemplated Spock's future, none whatsoever. They were irrational and unworthy of the friendship that existed between them, so Kirk shoved them back and slammed the door on them. He wished nothing but the best for Spock. They both could pursue whatever they chose now, no holds barred, and if Kirk really wanted a family, then he too could get one.

 

      But it wasn't what he dreamed of. He'd had a wife, and all too quickly their unhappiness had driven them apart, and he'd had a son, whose choices had brought his life to a disastrous end. Neither experience had given him much of a reason to hurry up and try again. On the contrary. So he chalked up his jealousy to yearnings for things that would never be and put them away, focusing on goals that were immediately attainable and, to his mind, a lot less potentially damaging.

 

      Red and orange shapes of fire finally shifted to dull tones on the screen. "James. I trust all is well."

 

      Sarek's face and eyes appeared sharply defined against the pale background. Spock's father still epitomized the planet Vulcan to Kirk, with his hawk-like nose, piercing gaze and acerbic tongue. Stereotypical, he knew, and not a very accurate picture at that, but nonetheless true for him. Not an altogether flattering image, either, yet Kirk held the highest degree of respect for the Vulcan ambassador, and greatly enjoyed the mental challenge of conversation with him.

 

      "It is, Ambassador. I hope all is well with you and Lady Amanda."

 

      Signs of aging were evident on the elder Vulcan, lines Kirk hadn't noticed a year and some months earlier at his Starfleet retirement ceremony, but Sarek's voice remained as firm and resonant as ever.

 

      "Despite her advancing age, my wife refuses to stop teaching." The faintest touch of querulousness echoed in Sarek's words. "She is currently engaged with her students at a seminar on Babel. I was told to ‘enjoy my status as a bachelor for the week.'" Sarek quirked an ironic brow. "Amanda possesses a unique Terran sense of humor."

 

      Kirk swallowed all but the mildest of smiles. "I believe your son inherited that from her, Ambassador. Along with her unique will." Not to mention his father's Vulcan stubbornness, twice as mulish as anything Amanda had to bequeath, Kirk thought to himself.

 

      Sarek almost sighed. "Both character traits became apparent at the most inappropriate moments when Spock was young."

 

      Kirk couldn't hide the grin at that. "Sometime I'd like to hear your recollections of those moments, Ambassador. However, for the present, I've called with a question I hope you can answer."

 

      Sarek inclined his head briefly. "How may I be of service?"

 

      "Thank you, Ambassador. Some time ago, I learned about the kaunshaya kali-tor.... I need to ask you if offworlders are allowed to participate." Kirk could hear the elevated beat of his pulse in the silence that reigned as Sarek stared thoughtfully at him, his eyebrows raised.

 

      "There is no prohibition for that eventuality," Sarek said finally. "Even though no one not of our world has ever participated in kaunshaya kali-tor as far as I am aware, the challenge is one that fully embraces the ideology of IDIC, more so than some other of our rituals."

 

      Kirk released a relieved breath. "Then, Ambassador, I'd like...I was hoping...." He hesitated, feeling unaccountably nervous, and started again with more decisiveness. "I would like to ask if you'd help direct me in the proper manner of becoming a participant."

 

      A slight frown creased the corners of the older Vulcan's eyes as he gazed narrowly at Kirk. "You have discussed this with Spock?"

 

      At the unexpected question, Kirk felt off-balance. "Uh, actually, yes, we talked about it. Spock seemed rather...surprised at my desire to participate. He wanted me to think more about it. But my mind was already made up."

 

      Something in Sarek's eyes shifted and he sat painfully straight in his chair. "I see. James Kirk of Earth, art thee asking me to proceed as thy sponsor for kaunshaya kali-tor?

 

      At the Vulcan's sudden stiff formality, Kirk anxiously wondered if he'd stepped onto some invisible Vulcan toes. He'd been responsible for some of the most important decisions in the Federation, and yet Sarek usually managed to reduce him to feeling like an unruly ten-year-old. He cleared his throat. "Yes, Ambassador, I am. I sincerely hope my asking was not inappropriate."

 

      "On the contrary, James." Tension appeared to ease from Sarek's form as he threaded his hands together in his lap, much like Spock did when relaxed and conversing. "It is highly appropriate. I would be honored to put forth your petition to the proper council. Arrangements will be made for the first available date that coordinates with Spock's current schedule."

 

      "Spock?" Kirk burst out.

 

      "The trial lasts a Vulcan ten-day. I doubt Spock would appreciate being removed without prior planning from the schedule to which he is currently committed." A humorous look invaded the elder Vulcan's eyes. "Since your singular presence in this ancient challenge is prohibited, in addition to being impossible, it becomes necessary that we wait until Spock is free to accompany you."   

 

      "I see." Kirk nodded and sighed. Of course they wouldn't let an outworlder participate alone. He hadn't even thought of that possibility. He had certainly wanted to persuade Spock to accompany him, but not with quite this level of necessity behind the request.

 

      "Patience is a Vulcan trait well worth cultivating, James."

 

      "So your son has often said to me," Kirk said, amused in spite of the way things were going. He wondered if Spock's patience would survive finding out he'd been volunteered without discussion to baby-sit his impulsive human friend in the grueling Vulcan survival challenge. "Ambassador, please forgive my repetition, but...is it truly acceptable that an outworlder participate? I wouldn't want to be the source for any...social burden, for Spock or your family."

 

      "James." Sarek shook his head faintly. "With all that he has experienced, my son's unique status among our people stands out more than ever before. In the past, you have been someone on whom Spock depended for acceptance and support. It is quite logical that my son would participate in kaunshaya kali-tor with one who has risked everything for him. If the situation were different, it would be Vulcan's loss, but instead, you will be our most welcomed gain. As for general opinions, do not be concerned with them, James, as they are usually formed with a lack of critical data, and are therefore of inconsequential value." 

 

      Kirk blinked, both confused by and deeply moved at what seemed a very warm response from Sarek. "Ambassador, I....thank you," he said simply. "But I admit to being puzzled as to how there might be loss and gain in this, especially with me as gain."

 

      Grey eyebrows rose with Sarek's obvious amusement. "I meant it literally, James. As your sponsor, because you are without clan, I am charged with making you a legally binding member of my family. You will be a son to me, and for that, I am most honored to act as sponsor."

 

      Kirk knew his mouth had fallen open in a very unattractive way. "Ambassador, I can't ask you to commit so much just to help me participate in the challenge. It's not right."

 

      Sarek drew himself up in the chair at his most intimidating, spreading his hands out flat on the table before him. "On the contrary, James Kirk, it is our way. It is impossible to do anything less and would be a considerable insult if an attempt were made. And now," he said, aborting Kirk's effort to speak with a slight wave of his hand, "we will speak no more of it, as it is decided."

 

      Thus spake Sarek, Kirk thought wryly. He swallowed the words that crowded on his tongue.

 

      "I shall make all arrangements," the Vulcan continued. "Be prepared to appear on Vulcan in approximately one Standard month's time. Do not concern yourself with personal necessities for the challenge. They will be supplied for you. Will you be traveling to Earth before traveling to Vulcan?"

 

      Kirk thought fast, his mind whirling. "No, Ambassador, I don't think so. I believe I'll stay here on Aquius II visiting with my nephew until it's time to leave. Peter's working here, in charge of building a new residential dome. It's been a long while since we've spent time together."

 

      "Very well. It is good you seek out your family. I will send the information as soon as arrangements are made." A pleased expression tinged the edges of Sarek's face as he lifted his hand in the ta'al. "Live long and prosper, James thaan'sa-fu."

 

      Wishing he'd learned a lot more of the Vulcan language and deciding he'd best do so quickly before the challenge, Kirk attempted the ta'al with mediocre success. "Live long and prosper, Ambassador." 

 

      The link ended, and the screen went blank. Kirk sat back staring sightlessly at it, never blinking when Peter's ready-screen popped in. He could already feel the swift, hot breeze that blew daily off the desert, could taste the grit of sand and dirt flung skyward by those relentless winds. He recalled the landscape in the vicinity of ShiKahr as a scene from Dante's worse nightmare: huge, pointed rocks upthrust toward the sky; the sun a bloated, red giant pressing down and tinting everything the color of just-spilled human blood.

 

      Kirk knew there were temperate zones near the polar regions, but he'd never visited them. To him, Vulcan would always be a desolate, wind-scarred place, where extremes lurked behind the mildest façade, a place of kali-fee, of passion, madness and death; a place of fal-tor-pan, of death turned into life.

 

      Since the time he assumed command of the Enterprise and inherited his science officer and future friend, there'd been a strange kind of fate that kept connecting him to Vulcan and her people. Now it seemed that by accomplishing the kaunshaya kali-tor, he'd be a true son of that world, an actual member of the ruling clan.

 

      Kirk shook his head in bemusement. Once he'd nearly died by the clan son's hand in a shocking ritual lead by the clan leader herself.  Later, he'd fled to Vulcan sanctuary an exile from everything in his life, bringing their son's body home to rise from the dead. 

 

      Maybe third time's the charm, he mused. Neither exile nor interloper, he now returned to Vulcan as a simple participant in an ancient ritual, practiced by a logical people living in a harsh world. A challenge of basic survival, a rite of passage.

 

      The Vulcans were big on ritual and rites. Kirk understood the appeal-after all, he'd joined Starfleet with its military rules and rituals. Rituals created a framework in an otherwise uncertain, chaotic world. They created place markers in life and helped define relationships and establish meaning in every culture. They were important, heralding a significant change or growth.

 

      It seemed quite fitting that he take part in such a ritual at this time in his life. Maybe the kaunshaya would help him figure out what it was he now wanted to do.

 

*****

 

      Kneeling for an untold length of time on hard, unforgiving stone was not the worst torture I've ever endured, but it sure ranked up there on the discomfort scale. I was pretty proud of myself for keeping all evidence of it off my face, though. Not hard to do with T'Rin staring down at me like a bug on a specimen glass. 

 

      I am well acquainted with why most humans tend to be uncomfortable around Vulcans. Those dark, unblinking eyes always seem like they're reading our minds. Not true, of course, without intentional physical contact, but still, I think our human reaction is automatic given our psychic vulnerability and ignorance, and the Vulcans' unusual intensity of focus.

 

      T'Rin reminded me of T'Pau, Sarek too, for that matter. Same hawk nose, same gimlet-eyed stare. Family resemblance ran strong in the House of Surak gene pool. I couldn't help but glance sideways and take a look at the profile next to me. Yes, long nose, same shape eyes, but these were crinkled at the edges, matching the quirk at the sides of his mouth, and his stare was sideways, peering at me through the corners of his eyes.

 

      He was laughing at me. Oh, god.... It was all I could do to keep my face straight. Just what I needed to do, burst out in a huge grin right in T'Rin's face. Not only would I not be participating in kaunshaya kali-tor, but I had a strong idea that it'd be a long time before I was welcomed back in private Vulcan circles.

 

      I'd worried for the past few weeks that Spock would be pissed off in his tight-lipped way at being forced to accompany me in the challenge, getting dragged away from all of his experiments and work at the VSA. But that familiar lift of his brow, the humor in his eyes, so much like my Spock of old, well...the relief made me slightly giddy.

 

      We're okay; Spock's okay with this. I owed him for once again putting my needs ahead of whatever he wanted to do. It seemed it's always been either me or Vulcan, and even after Genesis, after the fal-tor-pan when Vulcan brought him back to life, I don't think I ever stopped fighting for a piece of him. Something selfish in me just couldn't bear to see everything in him swallowed up whole by this endless red planet.

 

      Later...the Klingon affair, and for the first time I had begun to understand what I'd been doing to Spock all those years by forcing him to be or do something without asking him. I hadn't liked it at all when he did the same to me with the Klingons. It hadn't been fair, regardless that Spock had been correct, and it wasn't fair to Spock to do the same thing to him. I supported him in his decision to come back to Vulcan a year ago, but there was a part of me that screamed in protest, and feared losing him. It wasn't rational, and yet...it has been a year since I've been with him.

 

      I didn't get to see Spock yesterday after I arrived on planet, and I wasn't able to talk with him after I made the arrangements for the survival challenge with Sarek. Whatever experiments he was conducting kept him out in the field and made it impossible for me to reach him. Damn, but I really missed him. The last time I talked with him was a few months ago, after I traveled to see Peter. When I mentioned to him I might be coming to Vulcan to visit, he seemed very pleased. I think he's missed our daily discussions and chess games, too.

 

      After Khitomer, we grew very close. I was no longer young, and it had been a close call. I think Spock felt it, too. Even though retirement had been the right thing, I don't think I'd been fully prepared for losing Spock's daily presence in my life. I hadn't realized how integral a part of my life that stubborn, brilliant being had become. This past year taught me that calls and correspondence can't make up for not having the people in my daily life who define who I am. If there's anyone who defines my life most, it's Spock.

 

      When I arrived yesterday, Sarek and Amanda kept me busy with legalities concerning clan membership, and informed me Spock was busy himself with last-minute arrangements for his own leave of absence. After not seeing him for a year, the urge today to give him a rib-breaking hug was nearly strong enough to ignore his father and the clan elders who observed our reunion.

 

      Life on Vulcan really agreed with Spock. He wore the same dust-and-dun colored desert clothing as I did, with the hood pushed back off his dark hair. It had grown a little since he's been out of the ‘Fleet, and the desert winds that blew under the huge stone roof over our heads have disturbed it into less than its usual perfection. His skin tone, normally sallow from years of deep space living and etched prematurely from the Genesis experience, deepened to an olive-bronze from daily exposure to his native sun. The color softened the harsh, aged look the Genesis process carved into him and lightened a dark look I'd noticed in his eyes since his experience with Sybok. Whatever he did since returning home, it was good for him.

 

      T'Rin and another elder took turns speaking, quoting Rurik and Surak, something about the heart and logic. Surprising, hearing a speech that acknowledges the heart and its urges at a Vulcan ritual.

 

      I took a hyno-tutor crash-course a few weeks ago to imprint complete knowledge of all forms of Vulcan's spoken and written language into my memory. It's been a real mind-bender at times, because the cultural background and perspectives that create their language were so alien to my own, and some conversations and their underlying ideologies left me with a distinct feeling of schizophrenia. Unfortunately, I didn't have much time to practice speaking it with Sarek and Amanda, but beggers can't be choosers.

 

      "Who speaks for the clanless one?" T'Rin's voice rang out suddenly in the thin air of the open-sided portico, startling me. 

 

      "I do, T'Rin." Sarek stepped forward from behind us, exuding that unique aura of calm power that I'd come to appreciate during crises. I really was amazed and moved that he agreed to officially make me his son for this event. After all, the challenge lasted for only ten days, but the adoption was irreversible and for life.

 

      "Hast thy clan approved thy new member?"

 

      "It has been so recorded, T'Rin. James Kirk of Earth is now James che Sarek, son of the House of Surak."

 

      "So be it. James che Sarek and Spock cha Sarek, approach."

 

      We stood and took the few steps to T'Rin, as had the other five pairs of challenge participants in their turn. I'd been mistaken in my assessment of Spock as babysitter; it seemed no one participated in the challenge by themselves. All tersu were admitted only as part of a pair-which makes sense, given that this wasn't exactly a walk in the park and that virtually no safety precautions existed.

 

      Spock's hand touched my forearm, and he gestured that we should kneel. I didn't quite suppress the groan as my knees made contact once again with that damned hard stone, and saw Spock's amusement in his glance at my offended body parts. Our eyes met and his brow raised, and without a doubt I knew what he was thinking of. I swore to myself I was going to have to put sand in his pants in the next few days or enact some other annoying act of revenge for making me have to bite my tongue on inappropriate humor once again.

 

      A few years after Spock's return from the dead, our patrol had taken us to a first contact with the beings of No-ho-an-de. Spock and I had been required to attend the many interminable rituals and feasts given in honor of our new-found friendship with the No-ho-an-de. By the time the ritual three days were over and we could beam back up to the ship, I could barely walk. My knees had borne the brunt of three days on the floor of the ceremonial gathering place. It seemed that our new friends had jointed legs with some kind of built-in cushioning, and folding their legs up under their bodies was their traditional posture for the ceremony. Needless to say, it wasn't mine.

 

      McCoy had confined me to bed on the ship for a day afterward to allow the swelling and stress on my knee joints to subside. Even though I'd wondered if I would end up with permanent damage, one more day of confinement had really tested my patience, and I had loudly announced it to my audience.

 

      Spock, bless his irreverent soul, had inquired what patience I was referring to, as he hadn't seen much evidence of any, and that I had no real reason to complain since I was suffering from no lasting harm and I'd successfully garnered a new alliance with a world with apparently much to contribute to the Federation. His comment certainly put me back in my place and calmed me the hell down from an incipient temper tantrum. After that, he'd only have to give me that look of his and say simply that my knees could stand it, and no matter how frustrated I had gotten, it prodded me to refocus on a problem in a much more objective way.

 

      When I was younger, I never really grasped the significance of the people in my life. I knew their uniqueness, their value both to me and to Starfleet and the Federation, which was enormous. But I didn't fully understand the significance of them. It took me years of living, with plenty of pain along the way before I did. Fate, luck, karma, God...call it whatever your belief system demands, but something brought us together, I believe, with the intent that we should accomplish the things we did. None of us would have had the impact we had without the others; truly the sum of us was greater than the individual parts. All in all, I think it was a pretty good trade off to save the galaxy a few times over. After all these years, for good or ill, Spock and McCoy and the others held a piece of me, and I a piece of them, but of them all, Spock owned by far the most important part.

 

      I am my brother's keeper, and he is mine. It only took me forty-some years to figure it out.

 

      As these thoughts went through my mind with the speed of light, T'Rin grasped my head with surprisingly gentle fingers. I didn't even try to stifle the spreading warmth and happiness my silent recollections had brought me, and I knew they echoed loudly under T'Rin's hands. A slow, faint wind blew through my mind, then I felt a surging shift, as if a small wave had broken through me and dissipated. Her hand was gone before I could register the loss, her long fingers moving to curl briefly on Spock's temple.

 

      "As it has been since the time before the Beginning, thee come in strength together to prove thy worthiness." 

 

      Her words echoed up as if from a distance, and I had to fight the urge to shake my head like a dog to clear my ears. Whatever it was she'd done, I could still feel the effects.

 

      "Endure that which lies before thee, overcome all obstacles, and strengthen that which lies within. This is the path of challenge thee have chosen. Thee art prepared in mind. Art thee prepared in body?"

 

      "I am."

 

      "I am." My words echoed Spock's by a millisecond.

 

      "So be it." T'Rin nodded at us, and I pushed up with a silent grunt from the unforgiving stone floor, returning with Spock to our place in the small line of participants.

 

      A gong sounded, deep and resonant, echoing off the ancient stone ceiling and floor. "This marks the beginning of the ten-day. Let the sands of Vulcan test that which thee carry within. Let it remold thee into the shape of thy life to come."

 

      Adrenaline flowed through my bloodstream. I felt more than ready for whatever Vulcan's desert could throw my way. I was up and off that damned stone floor, and I'd passed whatever test T'Rin had conducted. And I was finally standing with Spock.

 

      "Spock," I said softly, mindful of the others moving around us now that T'Rin had stepped down from the dais. "It's good to see you. I tried to contact you these past few weeks, but you were never home."

 

      Spock stepped closer to me, his words low. "I am sorry to have missed you, Jim. With three remote experiment sites to attend, work has kept me busy."

 

      "Which is good for you." And it really was, despite my disappointment. Spock had always thrived on staying busy and useful. "Sarek arranged to have our things brought here for us. They're waiting over there." I pointed to the small mound of items we were allowed to lug with us into the wilderness. "So...." I gave him a ghost of the grin that I'd been holding back during the entire ceremony. "I'm ready, you look ready...when do we leave?"

 

      Spock glanced at the knot of clan members standing with Sarek. "The elders will call us when it is time." He took a good look at me, and those brown eyes of his crinkled with a hidden smile. "Jim, you're looking quite well. Your traveling has obviously agreed with you."

 

      That did it, I couldn't hold back a grin for that. "I was thinking exactly the same thing about you, Spock. You're actually bronzed. You've been spending a lot of time outdoors."

 

      He nodded. "Yes, I've been supervising students in an experiment set up on T'Khut, on Surva Tor. The altitude is quite high, the atmosphere very rare, allowing a rapid effect on the skin. It has been necessary to monitor our exposure time."

 

      "Well, you look rested. Which is all for the best, considering." I shook the layers of my robes, letting air circulate beneath them in an automatic gesture to cool off. In the distance, heat waves rose from the desert floor already, even though it was only an hour past dawn. The days brought temperatures well in excess of forty degrees Celsius out in the desert. Maybe Peter was right and I really was nuts.

 

      I smiled to myself at the memory. "So we're both rested and ready.... We can catch up on everything while we're out there." I knew the challenge was not a race, but I had the urge to get started, as if the sooner out there, the sooner and safer back. I also knew the energetic, reasonably comfortable way I felt at the moment would not last for long. The desert would do its best to make me feel miserable.

 

      "Perhaps, if all goes well. If not, I have taken the next two ten-days afterward as vacation, sufficient time for such things, and in much more comfortable surroundings." He eyed me with an amused expression. "Given your fondness for proximity to large bodies of water, I arranged for lodgings along the bank of the Sanay pilash. It is our largest river, situated far north in the province of Mau-yan. The environment there is much more temperate, which we will no doubt enjoy after a ten-day on the Forge."

 

      "Why, Spock. That sounds wonderful." And it did, even more so because he'd thought of such an idea and arranged the time off from his work. "Now I have something to look forward to when the heat threatens my sanity."

 

      "Jim...." Spock stepped closer to keep his words private. "When my father told me you'd petitioned him for admittance to the kaunshaya, I admit I was quite...surprised. You had said nothing in our recent conversations leading me to believe you were contemplating this step. It was never discussed beyond our conversations of a few years ago."

 

      "Ah, but I did tell you I was planning to come to Vulcan. Before I said why, though, I wanted to make sure I would officially be allowed to participate. Didn't want for us to plan on it, then find out it wouldn't be possible. You know, when I called your father, I did have a moment of anxiety, wondering if you might not be interested. I had hoped to ask you myself, but every time I tried, I couldn't reach you, and Sarek said he'd take care of it."

 

      "Jim...." Spock looked at me with obvious affection. "There was no doubt about my response. Look within. Your concern was never necessary."

 

      I looked up into Spock's familiar, intent eyes, and spoke the truth that had become plain to me since retirement. "I missed you this past year, Spock.... After the past thirty years, you're a, a part of me. I couldn't let more time go by without coming here."

 

      His face shifted with great satisfaction.  "I, too, have missed you, more than you know. For us to attend the kaunshaya with my father's sponsorship is, to me, a gift beyond price." Deeply meant words from my usually reticent friend, and they touched me deep inside.

 

      Spock's expression suddenly became very serious. Reaching out, he grasped my arm tightly with his long fingers, surprising me with his action. "Jim, Sarek arranged for sufficient tri-ox and salt tablets for you. You must promise me you will remember to take them regularly, and drink sufficient water."

 

      "Of course." I recalled the months I'd spent on Vulcan during my exile. I'd never last a day without the tri-ox and salt, never mind the water. "But I trust you to bug me anyway if I forget. That'll be your job," I said jokingly to ease some of his sudden tension.

 

      Spock frowned at me silently for some long seconds. "Jim, I will once we're together, but until that time, it is important that you remember on your own."

 

      I looked at his oddly intent face and a sudden apprehension shot through me, leaving a sick feeling in my overly warm and perspiring body. "Spock...what do you mean, once we're together?"

 

      Now it was Spock's turn to eye me with unease. "Jim...you are aware that we will be separated at the beginning of the challenge?"

 

      "Separated?" I was stunned. It was one thing to want to attempt the challenge with my best friend, a native of the planet, but it was quite another to traipse off into the unknown Vulcan wilderness all by myself. I might be crazy, but I'm not stupid. "Uhhh....no. That I didn't know."

 

      Spock looked down. "That is my fault. I assumed.... I should have left the project and returned to ShiKahr sooner so that we would have time to discuss everything." He stepped closer to me, obviously concerned, and slid his hand down my arm to close around my wrist. His fingers moved, stroking the pulse there and scattering my thoughts with the unexpected feel of it. "The separation is an integral aspect of the kali-tor, necessary to achieve our goals. However, trust Sarek, Jim. It would not be logical to expect an outworlder to attempt the kali-tor by himself. He has arranged for someone to travel with you during the initial days." Spock frowned at me. "I apologize. I had assumed that Sarek would inform you of these details."

 

      "I guess that was one little detail he left out," I managed with some irony, off-balance from his surprising revelation and from the way he was touching me in front of his father and clan elders. "I arrived late last night instead of the previous day as I had originally planned. We've hardly had time to discuss much more than the legalities of becoming a member of the clan."

 

      "Which leaves us little time now to clear up the confusion." Spock captured my other hand in his. "Jim. We can accomplish this despite your being unprepared...of this I have no doubt. Trust in yourself. Ask your companion to explain anything that you don't know. I will now do what I can." Turning us away from the others, he raised a hand to my face.

 

      "Spock...." I couldn't muster up a coherent question. I was too focused on the feel of Spock's hands upon me, his body close to mine. His heat seemed to sear me and moved deep inside, centering on a place hidden within that smoldered with energy. It was Spock, moving through me, energizing something inside with a simple thought, then withdrawing quickly. I felt a similar wave of disorientation as after T'Rin touched me, but something even more disconcerting: I felt liquefied inside from Spock's touch heating me deep in my belly.

 

      Blinking in confusion, I turned my hand over and grasped Spock's arm before he could move away. "Spock, I...what did you just do?"

 

      He gave me a direct look. "I touched naf, illuminating it. Turning it on, if you will. It has been dormant for a long time. It is crucial for us in the desert."

 

      Naf-my mind interpreted it as that-which-is-us. I had no idea what those enigmatic words meant, and it looked like I wouldn't get to ask because the elders chose exactly that moment to speak up.

 

      A tall, gray-haired Vulcan with a squarish face stepped forward. "It is time. Prepare yourselves."

 

      "Spock, wait-" I couldn't let him go, not when I didn't understand what he meant, much less how I felt about what he'd done. The heated feeling still lingered.

 

      "Jim, we must go. She who travels with you will guide you in the way of things." Spock pressed my hands once before stepping away. "Remember," he said, and headed toward the area where half of the group seemed to be gathering to leave.

 

      I didn't move, struck dumb by everything that had happened. When Sarek murmured my name discreetly, I turned automatically.

 

      "James, this is R'Kal cha K'erat. She is to travel with you initially. R'Kal, my son, James che Sarek.

 

      I looked up and saw a Vulcan female standing before me, shorter than average and with unusual light brown hair and a rounded face. Her eyes were a light brown also, and were openly examining me in a not-unfriendly way, for which I was inordinately grateful. I'm not sure I could have dealt with a cold, supercilious Vulcan judging me, not when my insides still smoldered from whatever the hell Spock had done.

 

      "It is an honor, James che Sarek."

 

      This was my desert guide. I eyed her, wondering if she could answer all the questions I had. "You honor me, R'Kal cha K'erat, by your willingness to help."

 

      "We must now attend the elders as we prepare to be taken to the place we will begin." R'Kal held out a slender arm and gestured to the group on the opposite side. She nodded gravely to Sarek and headed over to the group.

 

      "James, I take my leave of you. R'Kal is one worthy of your trust. Do not hesitate to depend upon her for guidance in all things."

 

      I took a deep breath and nodded. No sense in complaining to Sarek about the lack of knowledge now; it was a little late.

 

      Sarek nodded and walked away, leaving me to walk to where R'Kal stood at the far edge of the ancient open-sided stone structure. My head still swam from the mini-nova Spock had set off in there, unlike anything I'd ever experienced before. Before I went, I turned and looked at where Spock stood waiting with the others.

 

      The desert morning beyond limned him with a deep orange light. He stood tall and straight, his features lost in the light's glare. I kept feeling the heat of his touch burn its way deep, touching me inside in a way my friend never had before.

 

      The feeling stayed with me long after I turned and walked away from him.

 

*****

 

      By the end of the second full day, any memory of his body being comfortable was merely a dream. Muscles Kirk hadn't felt in years-if ever-throbbed like a toothache. His calves, his feet, his thighs and gluts, they all bore the brunt of walking in ever-shifting sand and heavy gravity.

 

      Moving through the deep sand of the Vulcan desert was strangely like motion on water: constant readjustment for balance in a shifting environment. At the end of the first day, Kirk had felt vaguely motion-sick. R'Kal had noticed and, in her straight-forward manner, patiently shown him what she hoped were the necessary acupressure points to alleviate his symptoms. Dutifully, he sat and applied the needed pressure and wondered if there were any more magic spots to take away the ache in his legs and feet.

 

      R'Kal was the elders' compromise to Kirk's unfamiliarity with the planet and the challenge. She explained that kaunshaya kali-tor was normally done by participants operating independently of any outside help, but in Kirk's case, they had made a gracious allowance. More than likely, they'd realized he wouldn't have stood a snowball's chance in hell to survive if they hadn't intervened. He was glad they had. He would rather survive than assuage his ego. Out here, ego was a luxury he could ill afford.

 

      There was only sand, and heat, and the endless, red-tinged light. Peter was definitely right. He must have been certifiably crazy.

 

      After a long rest period during the heat of the day, they were on the move again with the life-saving task of finding water. Because of his greater need, Kirk discovered he would have to hunt and refill his containers every second day.

 

      "Here." R'Kal stood up from where she had knelt in the sand. The evening sun cast long shadows behind her. "There is water here. Come, learn."

 

      Kirk caught up to her and dumped his pack off his shoulders without ceremony, automatically taking a swig of water from the long, skinny, flexible container slung across his body. "Okay, show me."  His throat felt hoarse from breathing constant grit and dust in the painfully hot, dry air.

 

      One lone finger pointed from beneath her swaddling robes. "See the manoc vine? You must look hard."

 

      He took a deep breath and went to his knees rather more heavily than he'd wanted, but at least he was closer to the ground. Pulling his goggles up, he peered at the sand where R'Kal pointed, and saw nothing but...sand. "I don't see it."

 

      She grasped his hand and drew it, extending his fingers out and touching them to something wiry and firm. "Feel it? It has no leaves, only a thick, tough tuberous root system. It will extend such roots upwards to the surface to utilize the light in a kind of photosynthesis right in the plant fiber itself. Extremely adaptive and hardy. But like all things, it needs water to survive. And it leads the way to the underground water sources."

 

      He fingered the vine some more, then removed his goggles. "R'Kal, I can feel it, but I swear to god I can't see it too well. It's...it's the exact color of the sand. Maybe...translucent. Maybe my eyes are effected by your sun."

 

      "Translucent." R'Kal frowned, obviously thinking hard. "That is fascinating. It must be due to the light waves reflected back from the surface of the manoc, and the differences between Vulcans' and humans' visible spectrum. How we uniquely see light," she explained. "Possibly a function of the light spectrum present under our sun as opposed to Earth's. I am not positive; this is a matter better understood by your tersu, Spock. I am an artist, and my knowledge of light and color stems from that."

 

      Kirk gave her a tired grin. "I'd say you're doing just fine, R'Kal. Believe me, I'm glad you're with me. So...how do we get the water?"

 

      "Because you cannot see it easily, you must learn to sweep through the sand with an object to find a piece of the manoc." R'Kal rummaged in her pack and took out six long, sturdy tubes. "Standard desert equipment. You may use these for sweeping. For now, depending upon the depth of the water, we connect them and begin to work them into the sand."

 

      It was tedious, enervating work, shoving the filtering tubes down through endless layers of sand, then painstakingly hand-pumping at various levels to see if something flowed. The stars had been out in a darkened sky for two hours before the first trickle appeared, but it cheered them, and Kirk wearily followed R'Kal's directions on positioning the water containers so that no spillage would occur.

 

      Kirk felt grateful as he drank his fill of the warm, mineral-laden water. It was wet and plentiful, and at that point, those were the only things that mattered. Carefully capping the container, he pulled himself up from his reclining position in the sand to grab a nutrient bar. He'd learned the hard way it was best to ingest food during the cooler hours of the night.

 

      Exhausted, Kirk wrapped up tightly in his robes, taking care to leave no skin uncovered, and lay back in preparation for a short rest before moving again. R'Kal had informed him at the start that they would follow his physical needs as much as possible, since his human body had a greater vulnerability to the environment than her Vulcan form.

 

      He'd had a few hours of ego angst about that, until the heat and gravity had begun to overcome him the first day. After that, he gratefully took rest stops every so often, and the rest shelter they erected during the heat of the day had proved to be essential to his continuing health.

 

      "We are fortunate it is the dry season," R'Kal spoke quietly as she, too, rested a moment. "In the wet season, the le'matya and other creatures come down from the mountains and roam these lands."

 

      That surprised Kirk. "Do they allow the kali-tor during that time?"

 

      "Yes. All tersu at that time are armed with the ahn-woon and lirpa, quite effective against even large predators." 

 

      "If you know how to use them," Kirk added ironically.

 

      "It would not be very logical to petition for participation if one were not fully prepared for all eventualities." Pause. "For Vulcans," she added diffidently.

 

      Kirk couldn't help a whimsical smile as R'Kal backpedaled. "It's all right, R'Kal, I understand. And you're right. I entered this challenge with the expectation that I'd have Spock to show me the way, teach me things peculiar to his planet that I needed to know. I'm not ignorant enough to expect a challenge of this kind on an alien planet to be a piece of cake."

 

      "A piece of cake?"

 

      He grinned at her confusion, recalling Spock's literalism in the early days of their friendship. "An Earth Standard colloquialism. Means easy, sweet. Pleasant."

 

      "I understand. Interesting...I have never heard another language's colloquialisms translated literally into Vulkansu before. I would be interested in learning more." They lay close enough that R'Kal must have seen his raised eyebrows, and she added, "They appeal to my artistic nature. Vulkansu is a language largely literal in terminology. Few figurative phrases are used in everyday speech, and those that do exist stem from the earliest ancient tongue."

 

      "Before Surak."

 

      "Yes."

 

      Kirk wriggled a more comfortable shape into the sand beneath him and stared up at the sky. He had no way of knowing how far from civilization they currently were-the desert they were in stretched for thousands of kilometers across the main land mass-but they were far enough away to remove all artificial sound and light from the environment. Silence lay like a heavy cloak over the desert. Only the faint sounds of the wind passing over dunes rose and fell in his ears. The stars were brilliant in this neck of the galaxy, much more plentiful than where Earth was located, stuck far out as it was in a spiraling arm where the density of celestial bodies thinned quickly. Vulcan's sister planet, T'Khut, had not yet risen, and the stars glowed like fireflies in Iowa on a hot summer's night.

 

      "James?" R'Kal's voice was tentative.

 

      "Yes?"

 

      "I have a question, if I may ask it."

 

      Kirk chuckled. "Ask away. Please don't stand on ceremony with me, R'Kal. We've only got each other out here, and I have nothing to hide."

 

      There was silence while she digested that, then, "Why did you not know of the exact process in which the challenge is conducted? Surely Spock described everything to you prior to the kaunshaya ritual."

 

      "Well, actually, no, he didn't. He was away on site, working. I haven't talked with Spock in many ten-days. Sarek didn't go into specific details, and unfortunately I didn't know enough to ask pertinent questions. What little I found written about the challenge didn't mention the detail about being separated, either." He shrugged. "I was pretty surprised when I found out that we wouldn't be doing the challenge together. Have I mentioned how grateful I am that you volunteered to babysit me?" he added lightly.

 

      "It is an honor to serve," R'Kal answered with all seriousness. "T'Rin and the elders approached me three ten-days past with the request. I was a logical choice. I am not from Spock's clan, they who not only preside over the challenge, but also have their homesteads in and around the desert. I am from the Vrtujklanmc clan, centered in the northern province of Mau-yan, and a much different climactic zone. While I have all the necessary training needed for desert survival, as is given all Vulcan children, I do not have the practical experience as one from Spock's clan would have. My tersu, S'Taal, is from Spock's clan, thus I am participating in the kaunshaya kali-tor. It was determined that pairing you and me in this manner would not give either of us undue advantage, as it might have done if you had been paired with someone with more desert experience, one of the other tersu from Spock's clan."

 

      "I see." Trust the Vulcans to be seriously logical to that extent.

 

      He heard R'Kal sigh and shift in the sand. "After we rest, we will have at least seven good hours before the heat becomes too hot for walking."

 

      As he waited for R'Kal, Kirk watched the stars slowly arc through the sky and took stock of himself. Yesterday he'd spent adjusting to the excessive heat and gravity, while learning details of the desert from R'Kal. Today, he felt sore all over and tired, but not as overwhelmed by the environment as he'd been. For the first time since they had started out, Kirk felt as if he were beginning to think clearly.

 

      The memory of Spock touching him lay always in his mind. "Touching naf," he'd said. An echo of that physical sensation rolled through him every time he thought of Spock. It was disturbing and distracting, and like a budding addict, he found himself wishing that Spock was there to do it again and recreate that breathtaking intensity.

 

      That-which-is-us. Right then, he wanted to be with Spock with an almost physical intensity, and suddenly realized he had no idea how they would meet up.

 

      "R'Kal, let me ask you something." Kirk rolled over on his side and propped himself up on his elbow. "Where exactly are we heading, and how are we aiming for it? Is there a predetermined site where we're all to meet up?"

 

      Silence reigned long enough that Kirk peered over to find R'Kal staring at him, a strange expression on her face making him sit up. "What? What it is?"

 

      "I...." Frowning, R'Kal threw back the hood and robes around her head and neck.

 

      As it had been every time she'd bared her head, her short, golden brown hair was a pleasant surprise to Kirk's eyes. This time, though, his gaze immediately sought her troubled hazel brown eyes.

 

      "I am deeply disturbed by your questions," R'Kal admitted. "They reveal a depth of ignorance about the kaunshaya kali-tor that I find quite...shocking."

 

      Kirk rubbed a hand through his hair, sighing inwardly. Damn this planet's tight-lipped attitudes toward off-worlders. In this case, it appeared to be not only misplaced, but potentially harmful. It seemed the third time was definitely not the charm.

 

      "I apologize for my ignorance, R'Kal, but I honestly don't know the answers to those questions. You're right, they are obviously things I should be aware of, in case something happens to you. It would be inexcusable for me to put your life at risk because of my ignorance. I'm hoping you can remedy the situation," he said, "and explain to me what I don't know."

 

      R'Kal sat motionless for some time, gazing down at her hands in her lap. "I will attempt to do so," she said. "However...you must understand. I am at a loss as to why you do not have the answers to these questions already. It makes no logical sense to me. But a reason must exist, and by discussing these things, perhaps I might better understand how you have come to be in the position where we find you."

 

      She looked up at him, and for the first time since he'd asked his questions, her expression softened. "Please understand, James. In no way do I hold you responsible for your lack of knowledge. That lack is the responsibility of Spock's House. It is they who should have adequately prepared you for the trial in which you are participating. That they did not is utterly...mystifying. Nevertheless...." She frowned slightly again, her rounded face creasing between her eyes and at the corners of her straight mouth, and sighed, a more demonstrative Vulcan than Kirk was used to. "Perhaps I should start at the beginning.

 

      "Do you recall the exhortation T'Rin gave to each of us? ‘Endure that which lies before thee, overcome all obstacles, and strengthen that which lies within.' It is the main reason for the existence of the kaunshaya kali-tor. In the time before Surak, we were a warrior race, a warrior culture. Those who lived lives dedicated to their lord or matriarch as guardians of the clan lived separately, apart from those they protected. Because of this, it was necessary to mate within the group. With their lives dedicated to the art of war, they wanted one who complimented and augmented their abilities."

 

      "A shield mate," Kirk murmured.

 

      "Shield mate...yes, that is a fitting description," R'Kal agreed. "They adapted training trials into methods by which warriors could determine who among their group would be the most compatible. The kaunshaya kali-tor that exists today is the successor of those ancient tests, codified and ritualized since then within a non-combative culture. In the past, our culture valued overt power, and all talents were utilized to increase the leader's position and strength. Over thousands of years, Vulcan societal values shifted to things of the mind: science, art, literature. We have not had a specific warrior class since the pre-reform era, but we do still recognize the many values of a well-disciplined body."

 

      "Mens sana in corpore sano," Kirk said. At R'Kal's confused look, he continued. "It's an expression in an ancient Earth language meaning a healthy soul in a healthy body. A little insight from a few thousand years ago on Earth."

 

      R'Kal tilted her head down in acknowledgement. "Then your people also understood the value of balance between body and mind in times past. Please forgive my lack of knowledge concerning Earth culture, James. It has not been a high priority for my studies." R'Kal paused, her eyes shifting to something behind Kirk, and she lifted her chin once. "T'Khut rises."

 

      Kirk turned his head and saw the horizon brightening, a steady glow strengthening beyond the dunes and rock formations until the rim of Vulcan's sister appeared over the edge of land. Much bigger than Earth's satellite, T'Khut loomed large over the desolate landscape, its pale face casting an anemic light on sands that normally reflected a reddish hue.

 

      As the winds freshened with cool night air from the distant L'Langon mountains, Kirk felt a comforting sense of the familiar. During the day, nothing on Vulcan seemed remotely like home; it was foreign, truly alien. But under the night sky, bathed in the light of T'Khut, this alien planet took on a more recognizable cast, reminding Kirk of Earth in an instinctive way. He could be walking in Mongolia through the Gobi, with the mountains in the distance, or across the Sahara under a full moon-an exceedingly full moon, to be sure, but still. These moments bridged the gap between alien and the familiar, and implied that a commonality existed.

 

      R'Kal continued to watch T'Khut rise ponderously over the horizon. "At one time in our distant past, we revered the star and the planet that dominates our sky. To the ancients, they were the Father and Mother of our people, life-giving forces whose whim dictated our lives."

 

      "We, too, have had many religions among our people that attributed sentience and unique personalities to the bodies in our skies." Kirk smiled at R'Kal. "I think our peoples are more alike than not, at our core."

 

      R'Kal turned her thoughtful gaze to Kirk. "Perhaps, although our peoples have some inherent differences which create important distinctions." She pulled her robe up around her neck again as the breeze continued to cool. "It is those differences which are at the heart of the kaunshaya kali-tor, James, and which are most important."

 

      Kirk leaned forward. "Then tell me, R'Kal, so that I may at least try to participate fully and not be a burden to anyone."

 

      "It is the link within that is the key," she said. "It is that which leads us in the proper direction, and keeps us connected with another while we traverse the wilderness alone."

 

      A quiver of something he couldn't ignore flashed deep in Kirk's belly. "Link? What link?"

 

      R'Kal stared at him. "The link you share with your tersu, the mindlink T'Rin ascertained was present at the beginning ritual. Given the proper state of mind, it can act as a signaling device, allowing separated mates to find each other over great distances. It is not something that all couples develop to that extent; however, all who pass through kaunshaya kali-tor will have it."

 

      Kirk jerked to his feet. Beneath him, an ocean of rapidly shifting sand made balance difficult. "Go on, please explain further," he said. The world suddenly seemed as if it were tilting on its axis. R'Kal hesitated, still staring at him, but he moved away with awkward steps, turning his face to T'Khut.

 

      R'Kal continued, her voice less forceful, softer, as if she could sense his uncertain mood. "That is the main function of kaunshaya kali-tor for those who choose it, to help create a deeper link between two who come together as mates. It is not the path of the lesser, of consorts, the koon-ut-kali-fee, but of a deeper union, of tere'wuh." She stood up behind him, sand crunching beneath her feet. "It is not widely chosen in the present. K'aaj, my brother, says it is a burden in our modern times, one for which he has no aspirations."

 

      "What kind of burden?" Kirk was pleased that the confusion inside him could not be heard in his voice. "And what is...tere'wuh? The...the meaning in my head isn't making sense."

 

      "Understandable. It is directly from the ancient tongue, not commonly used in this way. It means literally, ‘together one.' That is the burden of which my brother speaks. The connection that develops when one chooses the kaunshaya is...deeper than the usual link. It is for those who desire more intimacy and oneness. It has many rewards for those who achieve it, but as with most things that give much, it also demands much. Not many are drawn to become a part of another that deeply."

 

      Kirk turned around to face her. "You were."

 

      "I was," R'Kal agreed. "Desire is an emotion, one my people have struggled hard to turn their backs on out of fear-at one time, our emotions put us on the verge of self-destruction. But there are those of us who believe that kaunshaya is more sacred than the path of Gol, and has a much more practical and positive impact upon modern society; that perhaps one day, old fears will no longer rule us, and instead, a more balanced and open desire for oneness will eventually take their place."  

 

      "That's...a beautiful sentiment, R'Kal, one worthy of aspiration." Kirk had never heard any Vulcan say anything remotely like R'Kal's assessment of her own people. Maybe all Vulcans weren't as tight-lipped and repressed as Spock's clan.

 

      So...he had a mind link with Spock. Try as he might, Kirk couldn't think of any particular time it could have formed.

 

      He remembered in great detail each time Spock had joined their minds, many times over the years, usually because of some crisis or threat, never because of the simple desire to do so. The idea had cropped up sometime after their first few melds, what it might be like if they opened their minds to one another for no reason other than the sheer joy of sharing with a close friend.

 

      But Kirk had thought of the intimacy of such an act, and while it was something he didn't fear-quite the reverse, in fact-he also knew he could not impose upon his friend's privacy by asking him to join them in such a way for Kirk's personal gratification.

 

      Somehow, sometime, though, a link had already formed between them, unknown to him, and that made Kirk's intentional silence rather moot.

 

      It also seemed to make them kind of...engaged, and currently in the uniquely grueling process of forming a Vulcan marriage. Grueling he'd been prepared for. It was the married part that came as somewhat of a shock.

 

      Why hadn't he known about the mind link; why hadn't Spock said anything about it?

 

      Kirk rubbed his forehead.  The first time he had participated in a Vulcan ritual, he figuratively and nearly literally died at Spock's hands. And this time?  He took a deep breath and let it out, trying to think clearly. This time, he would end up bonded to Spock.

 

      The feeling deep in his brain and in his belly started again.

 

      R'Kal stepped directly in front of him. The light from T'Khut shone on her, painting her hair a pale shade and casting her face in shadows. "James che Sarek, I have shared much with you, because you are now of Vulcan and have the right to this knowledge. I ask you to tell me now how you have come to be here, tersu of Spock cha Sarek. I know you have been together in Starfleet for many years; you have been taken into Spock's House as son, and yet you do not seem to comprehend the significance of the ritual in which you are participating. How can this be?"

 

      She had laid out the facts concisely, like rocks in the desert. Kirk looked into the distance beyond R'Kal, where indistinct forms lay dormant in the uncertain light, vague threats in the unknown. Memories crowded in, thirty years of friendship that spanned not only the galaxy, but pushed the limits of life and beyond. He and Spock had fought their common enemies and each other, at times; they had fallen in and out of love with various women on various planets, had supported one another in their own unique kinds of madness to which they had succumbed. Together, they had saved worlds. And when it had been necessary, they had even died for each other.

 

      Thirty years...enough experiences together for two lifetimes. Had he ever really known Spock?

 

      How could they have had a link for no doubt years, and he not known?

 

      "James."

 

      Kirk pulled his wandering attention back to the present, back to the woman standing before him with a faint frown creasing her face, drawing down her pale, winged brows.

 

      How can it be?

 

      Kirk shook his head. "R'Kal, to be perfectly honest with you, I really don't know."

 

*****

 

      It probably hovered at about forty-three degrees Celsius on this balmy mid-morning on Vulcan's Forge. There was nothing but sand and rocks as far as the eye could see-possibly the dark smudge on the horizon was the L'Langon mountains; I'm not sure. We had been walking that day for nearly eight hours, on and off, with little else to do but struggle through the constantly shifting sand, aiming for either the dune tops or the flatter areas, and think.

 

      I'd thought about the past, about attitudes and perspectives, about assumptions and reality. Other than the specific subject matter, it was not much different from any other time I'd gone back to nature, instead of being surrounded by the artificial environments in which I'd spent most of my life. Something about nature, its grandeur and scope, has always brought me face to face with myself...and I'd always tried to be willing to look in the mirror.

 

      McCoy once said to me that I fancied myself a philosopher-king in the ancient tradition. At the time, I wasn't amused...the "king" part of the equation had rankled, touched my insecurities and ego-which, of course, he'd rightly meant to do. Bless him, that man always had a way of pricking my balloon if it got over-inflated. Where would I have been without him? Dead, or possibly an unhappy autocrat stalking the halls of Starfleet Command with the other petty rulers.

 

      It's hard to lie to yourself as you get older, and I knew damn well my tendency to expect everything and everyone around me to order themselves according to my will. That trait had underscored my strength of command, and coupled with empathy, created a charisma that I willingly used as a leader. But occasionally, empathy got overridden by other concerns, and at those times, I could be a complete bastard, fixed solely upon my goal. A necessary tendency for command, yes, but a horrible trait when it came to a personal life.

 

      Which was one of the reasons I was so willing to retire. I believed we all experience a...a deepening of who we are as we get older. A settling into traits and tendencies that we express best. I knew I had, and was very grateful that life kept offering me a place in which to be that person. I'd almost thrown it away once in my ignorance, but thank God, I woke up enough to fight for it again, and got back everything that meant something to me. I'd been lucky, very lucky. 

 

      But as much as I loved the life I've lived, as much as it felt impossibly good at times to be living my best destiny, I also knew it couldn't last. Nothing lasted in this universe; entropy ruled us all. Quite frankly, as I neared retirement, there was a part of me that felt...relieved, knowing that I didn't have to go on, spending the rest of my days as the one in command, the one with all the answers, the one everyone depended upon in times of crises. I could give it up, walk away, put down the mantle of responsibility. Let go of some of the things that had boxed me in.

 

      I think it's pretty simple...after everything I'd been through, I was just tired. Tired of the burdens of command. Seemed almost sacrilegious to admit it after all the hard years I worked to get and keep it.

 

      Spock's and David's deaths changed me. Things happened, and they either fit our ideas of reality or they didn't. And if they didn't, then we're forced to change our viewpoint or go mad. I'd learned to refuse death as an option in my life at a young age. And when death finally hit right where I lived, directly as a consequence of  my own poor command decisions, I guess something in me...broke.

 

      You'd think that getting Spock back from the dead would have healed the wound of losing him...but no. I'd believed you could cheat death, trick it, fool it with a sleight of hand, until it taught me that any time I'd done so had only been an illusion. It wasn't me at all, it was only fate stepping in to turn the tide. Death taught me that when it wants its due, it will have it. Raise as many from the dead as you like, death will find a way.

 

      Death took my son instead. I guess I held myself together with anger during the years after that, and...when I eventually relinquished my anger with the Klingons, there wasn't much left to keep me going. I felt tired, run down. There had to be something more in life than what I had. All I thought about was getting away, getting out of uniform, with nothing more important each day than watching the sun rise and set and looking for a new inspiration.

 

      Well, I watched the sun rise and set here. In fact, at the moment, the rising and setting of this red sun ruled my world. I was sore, unbelievably hot and exhausted, and I found it hard to think beyond my discomfort with any kind of sense at all about me and Spock and what I was doing here.

 

      "It is time." R'Kal's voice sounded loud to my ears after hours of silence. "We will rest here."

 

      "All right." My own voice sounded rusty and dry, and I realized it had been a while since I had sipped any water. Too absorbed in my thoughts, not a safe thing out here.

 

      By now we had the routine down pat and, with little fuss and extraneous chatter, fell into it. In short order, we had a Vulcan-style lean-to dug into the bottom of a large dune, with as much sand as we could manage surrounding it for natural insulation. It was still hot as hell underneath, but not as hot as it would get out in the direct sunlight, with scorching heat reflecting back from the sand.

 

      The first things I did after crawling into the dim space were drink water, take another shot of tri-ox and swallow a few salt tablets with more water. I might be confused as hell about a lot of things, but not about that. Survival was always the first consideration, the basic necessities of life. When R'Kal crawled in behind me, I knew there was another survival issue I needed to deal with.

 

      "R'Kal, you need to teach me how to use the, uh, link. I'll need to know how to locate Spock."

 

      "That is most wise," she acknowledged. "After we have rested, I will instruct you." With little fuss, she drank her water and ate a nutrient bar.

 

      It was R'Kal's habit to use the midday rest period to meditate and, I'm assuming, discover in which direction her partner, S'Taal, was located. In and among my serious thinking all night, I'd realized that S'Taal and Spock were not making their way together in the desert as R'Kal and I were. I felt reasonably sure they had been dropped off somewhat near each other, otherwise pairing R'Kal and me would be illogical, and no doubt the elders had planned everything with exemplary logic.

 

      But still, there would come a day when R'Kal would need to go her own way to meet S'Taal somewhere in this wilderness and, to meet Spock, I would need to go mine. For that, I needed to be prepared. 

 

      R'Kal finished up her small meal and packed away the remains. "It is best to sit. Lying down will induce sleep," R'Kal said as I readied myself. She must have seen something on my face, because she paused in her own preparations. "You have a question?"

 

      I fiddled with the water container, searching for the right words. "R'Kal, I'm not Vulcan. I don't even score well on human psi tests. I've got to admit, I have serious reservations that I can do this."

 

      And I had to. My desert survival could hinge on me getting it right. I couldn't just sit alone in the middle of the desert and hope that Spock reached me before the ten-day was up. It was dangerous alone out here. That's what made it a challenge.

 

      Bless that young woman...she didn't dismiss my concerns, but sat and thought a while about what I'd said. The dimness of the shelter and the midday heat were powerful soporifics. I was both physically and mentally exhausted after the long night's walk, and wearily set to applying some of the acupressure techniques R'Kal had demonstrated to keep alert.

 

      "James, I have an idea, but it would require us to meld. I must be frank with you...other than S'Taal, I have never done so with anyone outside of my family or teachers, much less someone not Vulcan. I would do my best to limit exposure. However, I do not know if you would find it...distasteful to do this." She looked down at her hands, restless in her lap. "It is considered quite an intimate thing to us; we do not practice it indiscriminately."

 

      "Humans feel that way about sex and physical intimacy. In general," I added.

 

      R'Kal looked back up, her curiosity piqued. "How interesting. A Vulcan's sexuality outside of the pon farr is inconsequential, unless it occurs within the context of a bond. Only then does it take on any significance because of the greater mind involvement. Once a youth learns the proper mind rules for full shielding, sex becomes little more than a physical drive that is easily indulged or sublimated according to one's wish."

 

      Now that was a big surprise to me, and I was curious to learn more, but it would have to wait. "R'Kal, I trust you. If you think a meld would help me learn what I need to know about using this link, then let's do it. I've melded many times with Spock, and twice now with Sarek, so it's not an unknown process to me." I smiled. "I've been told I have a very dynamic mind."

 

      R'Kal gave me a look that I'd learned to interpret as highly amused, and nodded. "Very well, let us begin." She scooted closer to me, throwing off her outer layer as I had already done. "There might be a momentary confusion. Please do not be alarmed."

 

      She flexed her hands and paused to center herself, drawing three deep breaths, then placed her slender fingers on my face and murmured the usual induction. There was nothing for a while, then...like a slow curtain parting, I felt a cool breeze sweep into me.

 

      R'Kal's presence was different than either Spock's or Sarek's, lighter, airier in some fashion. I could almost imagine her floating on the breeze with wings. I felt as if I soared with her, flying through a sky filled with blues and reds, purples, greens and yellows. Colors, iridescent and glowing, for which there were no names. We moved through them quickly, and I realized R'Kal was searching for something, a specific color with a certain meaning. Spock....

 

      As soon as I thought his name, we were drawn to a small, incandescent light. It pulsed with colorful energy. I found it infinitely attractive and, in awe, reached out to touch it. It quivered in my hand, radiating up my arm and

 

      Heatsun worryJim Jim...Jim?

 

      Spock...Spock??

 

      As easily as that, I was surrounded by Spock's presence. I could sense his physical state, sense his concern about my own state, which I shrugged away as not a problem. How was he, where was he, these were what I wanted to know...and I felt his amusement roll through me in waves.

 

      The years have not changed you...still as you were thirty years ago

 

      Laughter. He was laughing, his emotions as honest and open as I'd ever experienced them, and I couldn't help it, I was suddenly laughing, too, wordlessly, joyfully, letting it rock through every part of me.

 

      This was what I had wondered about all those years ago. We were laughter, singing it together through the indescribable light, and I lost any sense of time as I moved in happiness through the place where I found Spock.

 

      Something tugged at me, something outside and not of the laughter. I tried to ignore it, wanting only the sheer bliss of the moment, but I couldn't ignore the insistent tug-tug-tug. The annoyance finally pulled me away from my joyful state.

 

      James.

 

      R'Kal. I could see her waiting, standing with what seemed like wings of energy spread out around her, her life energy.

 

      James, you must focus on locating Spock.

 

      Her message was clear and brought me back to an awareness of my purpose: locate Spock. I turned back to the pulsating light, hesitant in case I lost myself in it once again. A tug on my hand made me look around. R'Kal had given me another color to hold in my left hand, something...grounding, an anchor. Keeping a tight grip on it, I reached out and touched the light again. The wonder of it shivered through me again, startling me with its compelling effect, but the anchor kept me grounded to my purpose.

 

      Spock...I need to know where you are... show me.

 

      And as easily as that, the images came to me: wordless, instant knowing. I saw him in relation to me, knew our relative positions, and knew he saw all of this himself. I couldn't have said it in scientific terms of distance and direction, but I knew.

 

      Possibly four days away.

 

      The message, soft and ephemeral, echoed faintly as the weight in my left hand dragged heavier and heavier, pulling me away from the beautiful light. I reached out once again, but it was receding in the distance, faster and faster, the heavy weight taking on more and more substantiality until

 

      I was sitting in the lean-to. R'Kal was looking at me, one of her hands gripping mine. A sense of loss pervaded every part of me. I hadn't wanted to leave, and the resonant echo of the link beckoned me back irresistibly.

 

      "It worked." My throat was parched, and I wondered how long we'd been sitting there as I traveled in my mind.

 

      R'Kal smiled at me, a small shifting of facial muscles that spoke volumes. "Yes." Slowly, she released my hand, and passed me my water container. "Drink."

 

      What I'd experienced, the feelings and sensations, still held sway over me, moving through my body like the finest champagne.

 

      This was what I'd believed Spock could never want, and yet he had been utterly unguarded and welcoming.

 

      "Is it always like that?" I fumbled with the water container's cap, awed in spite of myself at what I'd found within. I'd always thought of myself as a simple man in most respects. But the Vulcans and their mind links...so bland on the surface, so complex inside-still waters running deep. I'd only scratched the surface of Spock over the years. Even the past melds I'd shared with him had only hinted at what I'd just experienced. 

 

      There was no doubt he was at peace with his human half, and therefore with my human emotions and foibles. I would need to be at peace with the Vulcan in him and everything that it meant in a bonding.

 

      "The connection is unique to everyone, the sum essence of the two individuals who compose the link. You see how strong it is within you...this is not something new, but the result of many years together."

 

      "Many years...." I shook my head. I'd had this hiding within me for years and hadn't known it.

 

      "Now that you've experienced locating the link within, you should be able to access it by yourself with some practice."

 

      I drank my fill of water as R'Kal did the same, and I watched her, enjoying her economy of motion and the grace of her movements. "You're very beautiful, you know," I said, and smiled to see her sudden confusion. "Like an angel or fairy, all spun filaments of light."

 

      Her eyes widened and she looked down, capping the water carefully. "S'Taal has a name he calls me, ginsha. It is from a very ancient tale. The ginsha are beings who abide in the sky and only make contact with ground-dwellers on the highest mountains. They are described as made of the light of the stars, as the points of light in the sky."

 

      "I'm glad S'Taal sees that in you. You deserve someone who cares for you like that." I wrapped my exposed skin carefully in my robes and lay back, unable to hold off the exhaustion that dragged me down in every part of my body. "It's good to be known."

 

      I thought of the joy and peace and timelessness I'd experienced with Spock and, for the first time in years, something deep within me relaxed.  I'd been close to Spock for so long; no other being was closer to me-yet I hadn't known we shared a mind-link, the very thing I'd secretly wanted to experience.

 

      It suddenly seemed very probable that the link, even though I hadn't known of its existence, had affected me on a subconscious level.

 

      The time after the original five-year mission had been one of the most miserable of my life. At the time, I'd thought it stemmed from losing the Enterprise. Later, I'd ruthlessly grabbed control of her when the opportunity arose, trying to assuage the lost, empty feeling that had plagued me since losing her. But as I looked back at the situation with new eyes, I realized my driving sense of emptiness hadn't really begun to abate until Spock reappeared.

 

      Losing the Enterprise a second time seemed more than enough reason for the pervading sense of unhappiness that plagued me during the following time back in the Admiralty. All my friends were around me, Bones, Spock...so it never crossed my mind that anything else other than my job could be the source.

 

      It seemed so clear to me all of a sudden. The link...it was the link I shared with Spock that had been at the source of all my dissatisfaction and chronic unhappiness since the end of the first mission.

 

      My knowledge of Vulcan mysticism and biology had never been extensive. I only knew what Spock had shared with me, and what little I'd picked up during my stay on Vulcan after Genesis. The Vulcans themselves were typically reticent about their idiosyncrasies, so searchable literature on the subject was sparse. I know; I'd listened to Bones bitch about it enough over the years.

 

      But it certainly seemed logical to assume that a link, once established, was never intended to remain unused. I'd bet everything in a Vulcan-in Spock-yearned toward a sense of completion and biological equilibrium through a functioning link with another being.

 

      How had Spock managed to ignore it all these years? Was that what his retreat to Gol had been about?

 

      I cringed at that thought.

 

      Spock had been willing to give up every single thing in his life to avoid telling me about the link...and I, I had secretly yearned, but held my tongue and deemed it unfeasible and shoved those ideas right out of my conscious mind. What a pair we made-saving the galaxy, risking our lives time and again, yet too afraid to talk plainly to one another.

 

      Fate had either been kind by bringing us here...or it had gotten fed up with waiting for us to figure it out. The unlikely series of miscommunications and assumptions Spock, Sarek and I had made leading up to the kaunshaya was almost ludicrous. Part of me wanted to laugh at our stupidity, but another part wanted to cry-for all the wasted time, for all the unhappiness and restlessness I'd known, and all the unknown suffering Spock had endured for years.

 

      I thought of the link-the naf, Spock called it. That-which-is-us. I remembered touching it, so beautiful, and Spock touching me, and immediately, the heat of desire bloomed again in my mind and belly.

 

      Spock had nothing to fear. I couldn't imagine anything I wanted to do more than have Spock's hands on me and mine on him, to explore the angles of his body as he explored the corners of my mind. It felt one and the same, body and mind, a consuming reality of love intertwined in every part of me.

 

      The naf, our connection, appeared with ease in my mind. Finding it was so effortless this time, and with glee, I reached for it. Too much time had been wasted already, but no more. Spock was there, and we had much to share.

 

*****

 

      Kirk lay drowsing in the late afternoon heat, reluctant to awaken fully from his sleep. The air felt stifling, but the sand beneath him was cool and molded just right to his body. He hated to lose the little bit of comfort it gave him.

 

      Only two more days, or so Spock assured him. He wondered how Spock could know time and distance enough to calculate an estimate, but then again, hadn't he always expected Spock to pull things like that out of his hat without question? He chuckled out loud at the idea. Spock was still giving him command updates.

 

      Kirk reveled in the deep connection that he felt constantly now since he first had "talked" with Spock through the link. It had gone from being fully dormant to being constantly on, humming along in the background like voltage through a wire.  He couldn't imagine some of the dour, cold Vulcans he'd met being party to something so warm and...so emotionally fulfilling. Then again, maybe that's how the link was used, as a device where they could vent and experience, however much they allowed, their powerful feelings.

 

      No problem with his Vulcan in that area...Spock had no trouble expressing his emotions in the place where they were connected. Two more days, and they could express them in person. Kirk smiled at the strange but very welcome idea. For the past day, his imagination had been running rampant along with his libido. Every thought of Spock now brought with it a longing to be with him. He'd spent hours while walking yesterday, compulsively imagining every aspect of Spock's face and form, to a frustrated end. He wasn't Vulcan. He couldn't meditate his longing into the background, nor did their daily communion seem to lessen his need.

 

      Stretching out cramped muscles, Kirk reached for his water container, sitting up to sip mouthfuls. The water was getting low. It was later in the day than usual, too, he noted as he rolled out of the lean-to, stood and stretched some more. The sun had almost disappeared below the horizon and T'Khut's glow would soon light up the northern edge. And R'Kal still lay sleeping. Strange.

 

      He leaned back inside to lay a gentle hand upon her arm. "R'Kal."  No response. "R'Kal, wake up."

 

      When she did not stir, Kirk crawled all the way in and framed her face with urgent hands. "R'Kal." A jolt of fear shot up Kirk's spine at her unresponsiveness.

 

      R'Kal's head sagged to the side when he released it. Without hesitation, he yanked apart the layers of her robes and felt for her heart. It beat steadily under his hand, fast and light, and though he could only assume it was a normal rhythm, he felt a tremendous, short-lived relief.

 

      Poison. Rolling her to the side, Kirk checked her neck, then her head beneath the strands of her short hair, and found nothing. Traced down one shoulder, then her arm with both his hands; nothing. Traced down the other...and there it was. On her hand, a bruised-looking, puffy, ugly yellow-green color surrounding what looked like a tiny wound. Damn it.

 

      With shaking hands, Kirk ripped into his pack and yanked out the medkit, scrounging around inside until he found what he needed. He set it, applied it to her neck and pulled the trigger, fearing he was too late as the hiss of medicine discharged into her. How long had she been lying there that way?

 

      R'Kal had told him about the desert-killer, the esh'staya, their first day out. She had carefully explained that though their bite was poisonous, they could only penetrate on bare skin, not through cloth, due to a very small mandible-mouth area. Their main prey were the lizard-like populations of the desert, thin-skinned and easily overcome. As long as clothing was kept over all exposed skin when in sandy areas, the odds were supposedly against being bitten.

 

      Her description of them reminded Kirk of Earth's scorpions, small, fast-moving, multi-legged. And he'd wrapped up religiously every time he'd laid down to rest, carefully covering his hands and neck and head. She had said the poison was insidiously swift.

 

      T'Khut was well up over the horizon, vying with the lowering sun for dominance in the sky by the time he prepared the second injection. Wait thirty minims; if no response, inject a second dose, the directions read. So he did, impatient for results.

 

      He pushed back the hanging sides of the lean-to, opening it to the cooler evening air and letting in some light. After that, he chewed on a nutrient bar without tasting it and plotted various courses of action to take. Water was a problem; they were low and had been planning to hunt for it after waking up. That would need to be done as soon as possible.

 

      When R'Kal moaned and shifted, he kneeled over her in a flash. "R'Kal, it's James. You were bitten on the hand, the esh'staya. I injected you twice. Can you speak?"

 

      "...wah-"

 

      He could hardly hear her, but knew. "Here, easy." Holding her head up slightly, he let water trickle slowly into her mouth from her container. "Easy. Easy." He placed her back down, smoothing the hood back from her face. She blinked and seemed unable to focus her eyes. Her skin still felt much hotter than it should be.

 

      "James...."

 

      "I'm here, R'Kal. What can I do? Do we need to get you to medical care?"

 

      "No...." Her hand grasped weakly at his, surprising him. "Need...healing trance. Need...."

 

      "Okay, a healing trance. I'm familiar with them. You sure that'll work? I'll have us packed out of here in five minutes if we need to get you medical attention. We'll just go east until we reach ShiKahr."

 

      Her hazel eyes closed and a fine sweat beaded upon her face as she stirred restlessly. "No...too far. Healing trance."

 

      Kirk sighed. "Fine. You're going to have to let me know when you need help waking up, though, since I can't sense that. Can you do that, R'Kal? R'Kal." Her eyes had fallen closed, and he shook her hand to wake her.

 

      She stirred, her eyes opening slowly. "I will. Water now...."

 

      She was so weak, nothing more than a hot, limp bundle. He helped her drink her fill, letting her rest back against him as he held the container to her mouth. When she‘d had enough, she turned her head away. "I must begin the trance," she murmured, an edge of pain in her voice matching the lines of pain around her eyes and mouth.

 

      "All right, let me check your clothes first, then I'll wrap you up."

 

      Kirk lowered her to the ground like a baby. Slender beneath the robes, she was all lean muscle. As he methodically checked all of her clothes for more intruders and carefully rewrapped her, layer by layer, he wondered how old she was. Young enough to be his biological daughter, most likely.

 

      His jaw tightened at her pallor and weakness. Too many young people lost over the years, too many lives cut off before they had a chance to live them. Not another one, not today, he prayed, feeling very helpless watching R'Kal suffer. Please, no more.

 

      R'Kal had already sunk into trance by the time he'd finished wrapping her like a mummy and thought of one more thing. He rummaged around in her pack until his fingers found the small container, twin to his own, a protective salve for the mouth. With gentle fingers, he smeared some on her slack lips and sat back, watching her chest rise and fall with shallow breaths. Now it was up to R'Kal; all he knew how to do was keep her safe.

 

      For the hundredth time, Kirk wished Spock were already with him. With his sophisticated mind abilities, no doubt there was something that could be done to assure R'Kal's recovery. On the other hand, maybe there was something Spock could communicate to him that he could do for the present.

 

      Settling on the sand next to R'Kal, Kirk took deep breaths and reached within, desperate for sight of the place where Spock resided within. He wandered in his own endless landscape an interminable length of time before catching sight of a spark of light. With a sense of relief, he extended himself toward it.

 

      Spock!

 

      With each daily communication, clarity of contact had grown in Kirk's mind to an amazing extent. Immediately, Spock's presence surrounded him.

 

      T'hy'la, what has happened?

 

      R'Kal was bitten by esh'staya. I've injected her twice, and she's gone into trance. But Spock...she's so desperately weak. She needs help now.

 

      Kirk could feel Spock's consternation, twin to his own worry.

 

      She talked before going into trance?

 

      Yes...she became conscious after the second injection. But so weak, Spock.

 

      S'Taal will know something is wrong, but we have no idea how far away he is at this point. Jim, I will arrive as quickly as I can, but you must see to her until then. Keep her hydrated. Her body's need for water will increase due to the poison's effects. At the moment, that is your greatest concern. If her temperature increases drastically, it may become necessary to counteract it. How is your water supply?

 

      Low... I'll need to find more immediately, before her need becomes great.

 

      Then go. And t'hy'la...be cautious. Do not go so far you become lost, and be wary of more esh'staya nearby.

 

      I've already searched R'Kal...I'll search the rest of our things. Spock....

 

      I know, t'hy'la...I will be with you all the time.

 

*****

 

      For the first time since entering the desert, Kirk was pathetically grateful for the time-eating occupation of searching for water. As their journey had worn on, he'd discovered that under the light of T'Khut and a small hand light, the manoc vines were visible to his naked eyes.

 

      He fell into a rhythm, using the siphoning tubes as a ground sweep, swinging them back and forth over the surface of the sand and holding close the feelings he had shared with Spock during their contact. He had always depended upon having Spock by his side on the bridge and during a crisis on the Enterprise, someone to lean on and who could lend wisdom and strength when needed. The active link, however, was even better. Spock's strength and surety became his as easily as breathing in the air.

 

      Kirk checked on R'Kal after an hour passed, and another hour went by before he found a vine. Grateful, he began the tedious job of twisting the tubes down and pausing at various levels to use the hand pump. 

 

      Either he didn't have R'Kal's knack for judging the depth, or the water source was drying up. After hours of work, all Kirk could show for it was two containers filled, not enough for R'Kal's needs. He was tired and hungry, glad enough to fall into the shelter for the remainder of the night, resting up to tackle the water situation again tomorrow.  

 

      R'Kal was as he'd left her, as still as the mummy she looked like, her breathing shallow and regular. Kirk stowed the water, took care of his daily tri-ox and salt, and ate a thoroughly boring but adequate meal of nutrient bars and water before lying down. They would survive this, all of them. He insisted on it.

 

      And when they did...food, freshly prepared and cooked, with flavors exploding in his mouth...water, enough to submerge himself in, cool against his hot skin...sheer heaven. The first thing he'd do upon leaving the desert would be to wash and eat a decent meal. After that...no doubt there were family obligations-his new family, of the forbidding faces and gimlet eyes-that would have to be addressed. Perversely enough, he was looking forward to it immensely.

 

      And after that...according to Spock, two ten-days in a Vulcan equivalent of paradise. Kirk grinned at the thought. Hell was usually the image that came to mind when thinking of Vulcan, not a tropical zone. But of course, it could be hell for all he cared, because he'd be with Spock, and right now, that was the only thing on his mind. Constantly. His body vibrated from the energy generated when they touched through the link. The thought of what might happen when they actually touched in person was enough to slowly drive him crazy, so in his own self-interest, he kept his thoughts on the problems at hand.

 

      Kirk resisted an urge to reach over and touch R'Kal and feel the warmth of her skin. Normally they'd be walking now, taking advantage of the cool of the night and the high position of T'Khut to get in some good miles. Kirk thought of the heavy burden S'Taal must be feeling, with no immediate way to help R'Kal and no way to get to her quickly.

 

      Kirk had a sudden memory of an empty chair, a broken voice on the comm, and the utterly overwhelming chaos of his thoughts as he made the long trip from the Enterprise's bridge to main engineering. Fighting against arms holding him back, fighting against the truth...then the crush of grief upon him, almost more than he could bear. The feel of cold, hard, transparent aluminum beneath his hand instead of the vivid heat of pale olive skin.

 

      He turned to watch R'Kal, her face a pallid moon in the shadows. "Fight hard, R'Kal." He didn't want to meet S'Taal only to turn over a cold and lifeless body to him. No one's last memory of someone dear should be the cold, chill touch of death.

 

      Instinctively, he reached for Spock's presence within, drawing on it to chase away the memory of bottomless grief. No more grief now. No more distance between them, no formality, no feeling shut out or left behind. Assurance was constant, and Kirk didn't hesitate to let his need show. There was no room in the desert for ego, and he learned there was no room between him and Spock for it, either. Their need was made plain before each other and, for the first time, Kirk knew he could hand over his heart with no fear of having it turned against him.

 

      Kirk slept restlessly that night despite his fatigue, waking every so often to check on R'Kal. The winds had picked up late, blowing in from the west, stirring up the sand and bringing a cooler air scented with things he couldn't identify from the mountains. He secured the shelter's sides against the wind-driven sand, leaving the leeward side slightly open for circulation, and lay back down.

 

      Sand blew against their shelter, skittering across the material with every gust, and the material itself shook and rattled as he lay there, pacing his own breaths to R'Kal's breathing and listening to the desert dance in the wind. He wondered how S'Taal was and when he would arrive. Wondered how Spock was faring in the wind storm, without shelter....

 

      But Spock was at home here in the desert, he'd be fine...wished they hadn't had to come out here separately...they'd be fine....he'd be fine....

 

      "I am fine," a deep baritone acknowledged, and Kirk looked up to see Spock standing there in front of him, the light of T'Khut pouring down bright as midday.

 

      "Spock, it's so good to see you." Kirk reached for him, relaxing from the feel of a warmer-than-normal body next to his. "I'm worried about R'Kal and S'Taal, and you, too."

 

      "Jim, be at peace," Spock said. He placed both hands on Kirk's shoulders, grasping him tight. "You have done all that is within your ability to do. The rest is up to R'Kal and S'Taal. Through their link, he can lend her his strength. When he arrives, S'Taal can meld with her and speed up her healing. Until then, keep yourself safe. I will be with you soon."

 

      "But you just got here, Spock. I don't want you to leave," Kirk declared as Spock retreated into the desert. "Stay. Don't leave...."

 

      Kirk's own voice woke him up. Startled, he sat upright. Back muscles protested the sudden movement and drove any lingering sleep from his mind.

 

      No one was there. The wind still blew, R'Kal still breathed, and it was still the middle of a long night.

 

      He must have fallen asleep. It had seemed so real: Spock's presence, his voice, the heat of his hands. Keen disappointment lingered even now from Spock's leaving.

 

      Kirk lay back down. It was a hell of a thing to feel this kind of emotional and physical frustration at his age, like an overly hormonal adolescent.

 

      But he wouldn't trade it for anything.

 

      The next day crept by at an impossibly slow speed. If Kirk had been ten years younger, he would have packed up the camp, made a travois for R'Kal from the lean-to, and set out in Spock's direction in an effort to get help for R'Kal as soon as possible. But he had to believe R'Kal and Spock knew what was best, and they had said to stay. It left him antsy and restless, but he stayed and waited, nothing but time on his hands and too much to think about.

 

      The long, blistering day crawled by. Kirk dozed off and on through the day, took care of his needs, thoroughly checked and repacked their stores, and monitored R'Kal. Her mouth and skin seemed drier than ever, and it worried him. As the sun began its long, slow descent to the horizon while the temperatures soared, he decided to attempt hydrating her, in spite of her trance. Cautiously, Kirk wet her mouth with water, squeezing scant drops between her lips and letting them roll down her throat one by one.

 

      It was damned tedious, but Kirk comforted himself with the knowledge that it seemed to work. The water disappeared without causing her any physical distress, and her trance remained undisturbed. He kept repeating the long process every hour until T'Khut rode high in the sky. Then it was time to begin the mind-numbing hunt for water once again.

 

      The day's heat in the sand warmed the soles of his desert boots as he walked away from the lean-to. He was beginning to understand the real purpose of the challenge: Reduce their world to nothing but sun, sand, heat and water, the most basic elements. Scour away all extraneous things, and the thoughts, feelings or ideas that weren't basic to survival would no longer be a barrier to the fundamental truths that lay at one's core.

 

      As he swept the sand for manoc vines, Kirk touched the radiant place of connection he had within. Spock was only a thought away, and it lightened his heart.

 

      Family, connection. It was that which had driven him, and that which he had now in abundance.

 

      Their connection was precious and rare, and Kirk knew he would hold onto it tightly with everything in him. Spock needed him, and he needed Spock, in every way-it was as complex and simple as that. That was the truth the desert had revealed to him.

 

*****

 

      I was really worried about R'Kal. She was still in the trance, and the longer it took, the more I was afraid that she couldn't let me know she needed help to wake up. I'll hit her when the time comes, however strange it feels, but that time better come soon. 

 

      A combination of environmental factors and stress must be affecting me, maybe the tri-ox shots-honestly, I didn't have this problem years ago on the bridge of Enterprise. My bladder was very...active. There I was, just me, T'Khut and the stars as I watered the sand. R'Kal was fascinated from the start by how "frequently" I needed to go-"such a waste of water"-and it became a kind of joke between us. In one end and out the other isn't a phrase often heard in the Vulcan language. R'Kal gave me that straight-eyed stare of hers and said that perhaps Vulcan healers could improve upon the inefficiency of my human system, or I'd be the only member of Spock's clan with a sunburned lok.

 

      I almost choked on the water in my mouth when she said that. It was amusing to think how everyone believes Vulcans are dull and boring. Their wit must be the best kept secret in the Federation.

 

      I'd been thinking about what she said, about being a member of Spock's clan. About being an actual member of his family. The way they accepted me without question, even if I didn't realize to what end. Watching R'Kal silently struggle for her life stripped me raw, and the only thing that had brought me any sense of relief was knowing that Spock was with me, somehow, sharing my fears and shoring me up with his strength. It was...hard to describe, and utterly incredible.

 

      He should be showing up anytime. I didn't know about S'Taal, but I hoped to God he got here soon. I'd taken to sitting up at the top of our dune at night, sitting watch for wandering travelers. With the lean-to sides rolled back, I could keep an eye on R'Kal at the same time. It was damned hard, keeping alert with nothing to look at but kilometers of shadowy sand and the occasional rock formation, so I used a little trick I'd learned years ago and began a narrative composition in my head: Dear Peter, you may have been right. Your Uncle Jim was probably nuts.... 

 

      I was describing the desert under the light of T'Khut to Peter when I saw something moving on a far ridge. I grabbed the ‘noculars, dialed them into focus and.... "Spock? Spock!" I jumped up and waved my arms in the air. The figure paused, then started toward me unevenly.

 

      A minute later, I could tell it wasn't Spock. It was S'Taal, and he looked exhausted. Dark circles sat under his eyes, fine tremors indicated muscular fatigue, and I could tell he hadn't been drinking enough. Probably afraid to drink enough water because he'd have to stop and replenish it.

 

      "James che Sarek," I muttered by way of an introduction and led the tall, rather muscular Vulcan down the last dune to the shelter.

 

      "S'Taal cha Senet. How is R'Kal?" His concern seemed about all that kept his legs moving.

 

      "Still in trance. I'll admit, I'm worried. Shouldn't she have come out of it by now?"

 

      He gave his head one sharp shake. His fine, dark hair, so like Spock's, was dull with grit and sand. "No, not if she was very weak. It is not uncommon for the trance to last this long. I will meld with her and discover her condition."

 

      I stopped him before he ducked under the lean-to. "S'Taal, wait. Why don't you sit, drink the water you haven't been drinking and eat something first? You won't be any use to R'Kal if you don't take care of yourself."

 

      S'Taal looked surprised at that. "Yes, of course, that is quite logical. I-I have not been thinking clearly. The mind rules have been difficult since...." He trailed off uncertainly, wandering into unfamiliar emotional ground.

 

      That much, at least, I could explain. "No wonder...it's understandable. Your mate is very ill. You've been spreading yourself thin, uh, overextending your resources. Pushing yourself to the brink physically and committing much of your mind energy to R'Kal. Now sit."

 

      We crowded into the lean-to. S'Taal collapsed easily next to R'Kal, his attention absorbed completely in her.

 

      "Here, drink." I pushed a full water container into his hands and waited as he opened it and drank a healthy amount. "Now eat." I handed him a nutrient bar. He opened it methodically and chewed it by rote, seemingly more aware of the still figure next to him than the food in his mouth.

 

      I hovered until the bar was gone and he'd sipped more water. "Is there anything else you need before attending to R'Kal?"

 

      S'Taal looked at me clearly for the first time. "I am in your debt, James. Without your care, R'Kal would be...and I-" He stopped, looking quietly stricken.

 

      "Take care of our ginsha, S'Taal," I said gently. "I want to see her shine again."

 

      He looked startled by my words, then nodded once and sat close to her to ready himself. "This may take some time," he warned as he bent over R'Kal and pressed his fingers to her head.

 

      I watched them for a while, then decided that I'd be of more use water hunting, since there were now three of us. Gathering the equipment as quietly as I could, I set out in the opposite direction from my previous forays. Things were indeed looking up; it only took me an hour to find the manoc and trace it back to where it disappeared deep in the sand. Before I started threading the tubes down, I walked back to check on S'Taal; they both were exactly as I'd left them, and nothing appeared wrong to my untutored eyes.

 

      As I worked the tubes down through the layers this time, I didn't rush it and stopped frequently to use the hand pump, afraid I'd miss the water. I didn't this time, though. It took me over four hours of hand-pumping, but I headed back to the shelter with five full containers of water, and a full belly from drinking my fill.

 

      T'Khut pressed down low in the southern sky as I climbed up the last dune before the shelter. The three of us had enough water for two days. I was very tired, but not too tired to stop and appreciate the beauty of the waking desert. The western sky already glowed with fiery colors, heralding the sun's imminent arrival. Mentally, I bid farewell to the cool night air, already anticipating a bit of food and a long rest in the coming heat.

 

      At the top of the dune, I paused, wondering suddenly if I should construct a flag of sorts to stick up there, so that Spock might have an easier time locating us. I could use the siphon tubes and a piece of cloth.

 

      Then I looked down and saw a figure standing by the lean-to, his face turned up toward me.

 

      Spock stood there, tall and solid. No more gaunt leanness to this Vulcan; maturity had brought with it a hard-won contentment that translated itself into his body. Spock had always been someone I depended upon without hesitation, but this Spock...this Spock was someone I would rest against and feel protected by when life overcame my own strength, and when he was overcome, I would return the favor.

 

      "Spock!" The relief I felt was dizzying. Grinning like a fool, I slid cautiously down the side of the dune with five water containers bouncing heavily from my shoulders. "You made it in two days." 

 

      The look he gave me rivaled the sun in brilliance. "Jim."

 

      When I skidded to a stop at the bottom, I stood for a moment, drinking in his reality with thirsty eyes, then reached for him, just as I did in my dream. "Spock."

 

      It was awkward as our arms went around each other for the first time with this new awareness between us, but only because the five water containers bumped together and blocked our reunion. Laughing, I let Spock begin unloading my haul, one at a time, from my shoulders.

 

      "Spock, you look good," I said, sounding like a silly besotted idiot. He was the color of sand from head to toe from the grit that covered him. Still grinning, I reached up and brushed some of the grit away from his eyebrows and eyelashes so they appeared dark again.

 

      "Jim."

 

      Seemingly unable to say much more than my name and stare at me with those chocolate eyes of his, Spock appeared no less foolish than I, which cheered and amused me greatly. We were truly a pair, it seemed.

 

      The last of the water removed from me, Spock reached out and touched a gentle hand to my face, brushing at dust in my hair. He took a deep breath, and refocused. "R'Kal has emerged from the trance while you were gone. She is resting now, S'Taal also. The healing meld depleted his energy."

 

      "Oh, Spock, that's so good to hear." R'Kal was going to live; the relief was sharp and poignant. "Everything's okay?"

 

      "I believe so. However, she will be weak for some time. Jim, your actions saved her life."

 

      Shaking my head, I looked away, unwilling to think about what might have happened had I not been there to discover her. "It wasn't her time, Spock. She and S'Taal have to make little S'Taals and R'Kals. And, uh, from what I know about Vulcan plumbing, that'll take a while. So they've got lots of years ahead of them."

 

      Spock made a noise at that as he reached out and pulled me to him. "Jim. You have acquitted yourself with much ability. I know the clan elders will be astounded; I think they feared the worst. I, too, was worried for you," he added, his voice grave. "But I should not have been, since I know you so well."

 

      A small tremor shook the hand he raised to my face, his fingers tracing a path from my temple to my chin and eliciting a matching tremor in me. It was as if he traced that path right along my nerves, his touch branching down into my weary body.

 

      "There will be no clan voice raised in objection to our joining after this. You have more than proved to them that at heart, you may also be called Vulcan."

 

      His fingers shifted and pressed, and everything blurred and went white. There was no gradual transition as when we accessed the link at a distance; instantly Spock was within. There was no space between us like the other times. I could feel him within me, within my body, as if he too were at home there. Whatever boundaries existed between us seemed insubstantial. I was held and surrounded, all parts of me splayed open.

 

      His action took me by surprise. Spock's presence in this way was breathtaking, overpowering, and all the frustration I'd been holding onto crested and spilled out. Instinctively, I pulled him to me, taking his mouth with mine.

 

      Nitroglycerin...one big spark and explosion. I felt mouths, wet and warm, meshed together, tongues thrust together and entwining, bodies hot and straining, and through it all, Spock...not cool, not composed, but made of fire and need and desire, showing me a part of him only hinted at over the years. Spock...his need for me took my breath away and lifted me up higher than I'd ever been. His hands moved upon my body, both reverent and carnal, finding nerve endings that blasted me with sensation when he touched them.

 

      I had no thought to pull away as we rushed toward explosion like flame on a fuse, but grabbed at Spock with everything in me. The sensations crested and I cried out, shattering into incoherent pieces as the white took over, the white became everything.

 

      When I next had consciousness, I was lying on the sand with Spock, wrapped in his arms. I blinked and moved, trying to regain some of the intelligence that had flown away on wings of pleasure.

 

      "Oh my god," I said, unable to speak louder than a murmur.

 

      "You should yell at me." Humor blazed out of Spock's eyes, belying his words.

 

      I was starting to feel less like a jellyfish in mind and body. "Yell? Why?"

 

      Spock sighed, giving every evidence of contentment. "I have not been so lacking in finesse since my youth. It is quite shocking."

 

      I pushed the heels of my hands into my eyes and rubbed, but it didn't help much. My mind still felt like limp spaghetti, and I still had a tendency to see stars bursting everywhere. "Um. Uh...any more finesse, Spock, and I might not survive the next time."

 

      "Traditional Vulcans would say we just gave in to an illogical act, ending in a shocking waste of water in this desert environment."

 

      Spock's words redirected my attention to things I'd been ignoring, namely, the congealing fluid cooling against my belly. "And we'll have to waste some more water to clean it up."

 

      "Didn't R'Kal instruct you in the Vulcan way of washing with sand?" Spock ran a hand up my back and into my hair.

 

      Catching my breath, I lifted my head from his chest and looked at the being underneath me. It was the same face I'd seen for years, long nose, dark eyes, surprisingly full lips.  Even his gaze was familiar, banked fire in hooded eyes, and I realized nothing had changed. This was the Spock I'd known years ago, only now I could appreciate all of him, the brilliance and beauty of his mind, and the strength and appeal of his gorgeous Vulcan body.

 

      All of our history together crowded into the silence, thick between us, painting an image I was already familiar with. Contrary to what I'd thought, there were no surprises here, and for the first time I realized this was the appeal.

 

      I thought back on all the threats in our lives, times of loss, sacrifice and dying.

 

      We'd had enough of all that. It was long past time we started living for each other.

 

      Full of love, I placed a hand on Spock's face, felt his warm skin under my hand. Ran fingers along the slightly graying fringes of his hair. Watched love spill from his eyes.

 

      And I thought, oh yes, we can do this, as the brilliance flared open in my mind.

 

******

 

            Kirk relaxed back on the bed against his backrest, enjoying the unusual feeling of body hair cushioning him. Spock's wandering hand, never far from Kirk, traced idle patterns down his body. He felt totally boneless and completely at peace. "Excellent choice for a honeymoon, Spock," he murmured.

 

            The water in the Sanay river was a little warm for his taste and an interesting shade of green due to a high copper content, but otherwise, surprisingly nice. Tropical trees and plants grew all over Mau-yan province, even in the midst of ShiMau-yan. There was actual soil here instead of sand, making it the main growing region of the planet, and the high temperatures since they had arrived had been no more than thirty-three degrees Celsius. Today it was breezy and sunny, with a high, thin streak of rare clouds painted across the sky.

 

      "Honeymoon." Spock said the word slowly, drawing it out as if he were testing it on his tongue. Kirk could feel the vibrations from it deep in Spock's chest. "Does that mean you call me ‘honey' and moon over me?"

 

      "How do you know about mooning? And don't think I won't." Kirk stretched out a lazy foot and rubbed the leg next to his. A faint breeze stirred the trees clustered outside the bedroom's open sliding wall, and sunlight danced over and around them through the leaves. "Especially when we're in company."

 

      "I would rather you did not," Spock said. There was a decided crispness to his words. "Or I shall be forced to retaliate. As for my knowledge, I know a great many things."

 

      "Hmm." Kirk could attest to that. "Retaliate how?"

 

      Spock only laughed, a low, soft sound that Kirk had discovered he found incredibly erotic. He thought it an odd thing to attract him, but supposed it had something to do with having Spock show him his emotions so easily. Or it might have something to do with the first time he had made conscious connection with their link, and the spontaneous joy and laughter they'd shared, a memory which even now warmed him.

 

      Relaxing deeply in Spock's embrace, Kirk drifted for a while, lulled by a low-level feeling of arousal and his bedmate's body heat soothing his own body, still sore from the desert sojourn and the continual heavy gravity.

 

      "Why did you not ask my mother about her true motive when you had the opportunity at our bonding ceremony?" Spock spoke softly in Kirk's ear, pulling Kirk from his mindless wandering. "I had thought you were set on discovering if she suspected or knew about the existence of our link when she mentioned the kaunshaya to you."

 

      Kirk thought back to the heavily attended family ceremony. "I started to, but...." He shook his head. "I didn't want to risk admitting I didn't know anything about us until recently." At Spock's muffled snort, Kirk continued with exasperation. "How would you like your family to find out you'd all but gotten bonded without even knowing what was going on?"  

 

      "Jim." Spock's breath made faint whuffs on Kirk's ear, as if he were laughing. "There is no shame in lacking information."

 

      "Why is it I just don't buy that?" Kirk words held a wry inflection.

 

      There was no way he ever wanted anyone else to know he'd been completely in the dark about the challenge's true purpose. It was bad enough his nephew had known he'd thought it only a survival challenge; Peter would never let him forget it.

 

      "Frankly, Spock, I'd prefer to let that specific bit of knowledge go no further than those few who were already aware of it." He turned a little toward the sunlight streaming over the edge of the bed. "Oh, by the way, speaking of family...Sarek called while you were out this morning." Kirk stretched, enjoying the sensations of being sandwiched between a Vulcan body warming his back and the Vulcan sun warming his front.

 

      The hand on his stomach stilled. "Why did my father contact us?"

 

      "He wanted to talk with me. Apparently, members of the clan have been putting their heads together and have come up with some ideas they want to discuss with me when we get back."

 

      There was a lengthy silence behind him, then, "Such as?"

 

      "Ideas on what I want to do with my time and how I can contribute to the clan."

 

      Spock was still for another long moment, then his hand began its aimless stroking again. "They have wasted no time, I see. I find that fascinating."

 

      "What? Why?"

 

      "You, a human, have become a member of one of the most traditional clans on Vulcan, as did my mother, the first human to marry a Vulcan. I am not privy to the exact trials she endured, but I do know that it took my mother years to prove to the family and the clan that she was worthy of being called one of them. And now, only one ten-day after you were taken into the family by Sarek and bonded with me, the clan is already making plans for what position you will occupy."

 

      "So, I take it that's good?"

 

      "They will never know what hit them," Spock said dryly, and tightened his arm around Kirk's middle. "Already, they do not. Therefore, good is a relative term."

 

      "Well, since I'm their relative now, it must be good." Kirk glanced over his shoulder and chuckled at Spock's pained expression. "I told Sarek I'd be more than happy to talk about whatever they had in mind, but only after we've come back to ShiKahr. He did apologize for interrupting our time together."

 

      "As well he should. Because our bonding did not take place at the onset of pon farr does not make this time together any less important. Sarek is well aware of that."

 

      Kirk stilled at Spock's words. "Spock...that's something I want to talk about."

 

      Spock nodded. "Pon farr."

 

      "Yes," Kirk said, shifting around so he could see Spock's face.

 

      "Our initial exposure to the reality of pon farr was less than ideal. You need not worry, Jim, because there is nothing at all similar between my relationship with you, and that which was between T'Pring and me. Neither T'Pring nor I wanted the other in any way, but biology overrode our wishes to forget our betrothal link existed. The debacle that occurred during my pon farr was the result. It was twisted and distorted, a perversion of what it could have been."

 

      "Well, then." Kirk burrowed his fingers through the thick mat of dark hair on Spock's chest, liking the sensual feeling of it. "I can't honestly say I'm sorry, because her loss was my gain."

 

      Spock threaded his fingers over Kirk's. "A healthy bond will prevent discomfort for either of us. It modifies and channels the biological imperative in constructive ways."

 

      "That's good to know." And it was; his relief was genuine. However.... Kirk tugged a bit on Spock's chest, a frown forming as he did the math in his head. "The kali-fee was twenty-five years ago, Spock," Kirk said slowly, searching Spock's face. He wanted to know, but hesitated to come out and intrude on what Spock might not want to discuss. "That's enough time for you to experience pon farr more than once." 

 

       Spock's hand tightened over Kirk's as he nodded. "Yes." His reply was rough and sorrowful, and Kirk waited as Spock sorted through whatever feelings the memories invoked.

 

      "I went to Gol for a reason, Jim, to learn the techniques necessary for suppressing the biological instinct." He sighed in surrender. "Pon farr was the way of my ancestors, the reality of all Vulcan, yes, but...as time passed after the kali-fee, I found I did not want to be enslaved by the Vulcan cycle and forced into a bonding out of necessity. I had two choices: bond, or take the emotionally stultifying path of Gol. Our relationship and my time among humans had awakened something in me I could not easily forget or put aside, and I found the thought of a purely logical bonding...abhorrent."

 

      Sadness gripped Kirk at his words. "To learn how to suppress the cycle, you had to give up everything, everyone, all of who you were to do it. Spock...." The weight of wasted years bore down hard on him, an almost physical pain. "Why didn't you tell me before you left?"

 

      Spock's gaze mirrored his regret. "Because I did not fully understand what you were to me, not before Gol. You must understand, Jim...at the time of our first five year mission, I was ignorant in many ways for a Vulcan of my age. Because I had left Vulcan so young, because I was betrothed to one who held no regard for me, because I had scant exposure to what most Vulcans experience as a family bond, I had few experiences to show me what a normal functioning mind link was truly like. The first time I realized what was hidden deep within my mind was at Gol, when the elders began the mind-teaching. The knowledge nearly undid me. It was inevitable that I failed in the end. I found myself unable to let go of that connection to you...and then you called to me."

 

      Kirk leaned his face into Spock's chest, absorbing the crisp, oddly sweet odor that rose from him and finding a measure of peace as Spock's arms enclosed him tightly. "All those people that V'ger killed in its effort to reach the creator...and yet I can't wish it hadn't happened, because it gave you back to me. Spock...." He pushed away so he could see Spock's face. "All that time. Why didn't you come to me after V'ger?"

 

      "Jim. You were my commanding officer."

 

      "Not exactly an insurmountable issue," Kirk murmured. "Then what about later, on Earth, when I was not?"

 

      "I-" Spock touched fingers to Kirk's face, his shoulders falling in defeat. "You married while I was at Gol and, as far as I was aware, were widowed during the rush to intercept V'ger. I was unable to see how telling you at that point could be considered a wise decision. I simply did not know where to start. I was at a loss to know how to approach the subject."

 

      Kirk bent his head into Spock's touch. "That's true...we never talked about our time apart, or anything personal for a long time. You wouldn't have known my marriage had been over long before V'ger. All that was left was our contract. There were only six months left on it, and we'd agreed to let it quietly expire. It was...hard, when Lori died. She didn't deserve it. I didn't love her anymore, if I ever had, but she didn't deserve that."

 

      "Jim, I could only think that you were grieving for your loss, and needed time to deal with it. Because I was no longer attempting to eradicate my emotions, my cycle could not be fully transmuted. I...I found temporary relief when it became necessary."

 

      "Oh, Spock." The thought of both of them so lonely for no reason other than their incorrect belief about the other saddened him. "And time went by, and then Khan, and Genesis.... I always felt as if something in me broke when you...and now I know why. David's death on top of yours didn't help." Kirk felt a warm touch on his arm and turned his hand over, letting Spock slide his hand in and clasp it. A simple action, but one rich with meaning and depth, and Kirk allowed himself to be comforted in his remembered grief, and gave a measure in return.  "Spock, it's a miracle we're together today, given everything that's happened."

 

      He leaned up to kiss Spock lightly on the cheek, but Spock pulled him in for something deeper, a long mating of mouths that heated Kirk further, notching up his arousal. He'd been so long without feeling anything like it, so many long, dry years when his heart seemed unable to respond to anyone, that he reveled in the juncture of loving and wanting, letting it simmer within and warm him completely.

 

      Spock examined his mouth after, running fingers over Kirk's lips. "Did you know that, as a general rule, Vulcans do not kiss as humans do? It has long been considered an act too emotional in nature."

 

      Kirk settled against Spock more comfortably. "So...kissing is too emotional, but the sex act isn't?"

 

      Spock shrugged. "The sex act is a biological drive; kissing is not necessary to its completion. It supposedly encourages emotional excess and intimacy."

 

      Typical Vulcan double talk. "And a bonding doesn't?" Kirk shook his head. "Spock, for a highly logical people, Vulcans can be masters of a ridiculously circuitous logic."

 

      "Clarity is difficult when fears cloud the issue. For the most part, Vulcans fear strong emotion; therefore, any argument they construct concerning it is most likely faulty."

 

      "R'Kal and S'Taal kissed." Kirk thought of the two younger Vulcans, obviously so in love and connected to one another. "They were very open about their feelings, much more so than I've seen before in other Vulcan couples."

 

      "Other than Sybok, you have only seen the prevailing cultural opinion in Vulcan society, Jim, that of conservative tradition. There are, in fact, diverse interpretations of Surak's writings, leading to a myriad of subcultural groups and behavioral norms. Sybok's was an example of the radical fringe opinion."

 

      Kirk gave Spock a squeeze. "And they're outcast from clan and family, aren't they? So I imagine they don't stay here."

 

      Spock sighed. "No, they do not."

 

      "Tell me about R'Kal's clan."

 

      "They are from this province, a much less harsh, more nurturing environment. Social science has long understood that environment shapes attitudes; therefore, it follows that clans residing here would tend to be less rigid and more nurturing in their societal norms."

 

      "That's fascinating, Spock. So, if I kiss you when we go out...."

 

      Spock gave him a measured look, and Kirk tried not to grin. "While the northern clans may be less conservative, I sincerely doubt it extends to indulging in public displays of labial affection." Spock leaned in and nuzzled Kirk's ear. "However, what we do in private is our affair. Perhaps you would like yet another demonstration of how the bond can enhance our sexuality."

 

      Kirk gasped as Spock's warm breath blew over his dampened skin, and from the promise that deepened Spock's voice. "You know," he said, much distracted, "begging is unbecoming in a man my age."

 

      "I could dispute that." Spock's laughter in his ear was quiet and pleased.

 

      Seduction from his own private seducer. Amused and aroused, Kirk relaxed back into Spock's arms, willing to follow his lead.

 

      Spock turned them on their sides, spooned together, enveloping him from behind, cocooning him in living flesh. It was both soothing and arousing to feel the rough-soft movement of hair on legs and arms and body against his own. Spock's was no soft female form, but hard and sinewy, long and solid.

 

      Hands moved on his body, heat from each finger tracing pathways along his nerves, waking up synapses that were rapidly becoming addicted to Vulcan love-making techniques. Spock took his time and coaxed them to life, coaxed every pathway on his torso, on his hips, in the jointure of his hips and thighs, the tender inside of his arms, the small of his back, awakening, teaching him to take pleasure from a simple touch. Spock attended to his chest, pausing on his nipples with electric fingers, eliciting a gasp from Kirk as the spark entered there and centered between his legs.

 

      The link was alive. Kirk felt it humming between them, vibrating from the energy it contained. Hands on his cock, an exquisite sensation, all pressure and energy, heat and pressure and dear god, it was almost more than he could bear. He reached behind him blindly and found Spock's cock, hard and hood splayed, more than ready. Natural lubrication oozed from beneath the hood, dampening his hands and lower back. He remembered how it tasted, a musky, sweet flavor on his tongue, recalled the look on Spock's face when he had done so, so open and wanting, and he groaned out loud.

 

      The link shimmered wider, leaving him open. Spock caressed him from within it, a liquid heat sliding along nerves and muscles and leaving a swath of pleasure in his wake until he knew a voluptuous surrender. 

 

      Take me in, t'hy'la.

 

      Spock's mind-voice slid into awareness as his presence slid along Kirk's nerves. He wanted all of Spock, wanted to tear down any barriers separating them. He bent his leg forward, gasping from Spock's fingers on him, in him, opening him wide.

 

      Do it, all of you, yes...please, please

 

      He was wrong. A man of his age could beg prettily, and Spock heard, moving in the link, moving over his body, an embarrassment of riches and pleasures of the flesh. The sheets against his skin, hard muscle, soft hair, long fingers touching, grasping onto each other, preparing him for Spock. It all ran together, ran along his nerves and bled together into one pleasure, one pleasure piercing him-oh yes-making him soar. The heat, pressure inside, moving in rhythm now, scraping over tender skin, moving faster, holding him back, making him wait-now now-pushing him up and over, over, over- 

 

      T'hy'la  t'nash veh

 

      oh yes, yes Spock...Spock

 

      There was nothing then but the shape and taste and brilliant color of their union.

 

******

 

      It was late afternoon when Kirk awakened. The sun had moved away from the open wall, slanting across the yard and leaving the room in shifting shadows from the hovering trees.

 

      "Jim." Spock reached out and spread his hand upon Kirk's cheek. "You are well?"

 

      "Yes." Kirk rolled over and draped himself over his bondmate, propping his chin on his hands resting on Spock's chest. "Yes, very well. That was...extraordinary."

 

      "Nash-veh ashau tu," Spock murmured, enfolding him in a firm grip. "Kwon-sum," he said, his voice deep with emotion. "Jim, the bond will not always be easy. We cannot hide from each other; the truth of our feelings will always be known. But it does offer certain ameliorating...side effects."

 

      "We'll just have to adopt a hard and fast kiss-and-make-up policy for disagreements. Or hard and slow version, even better."

 

      Spock gave him a tolerant look. "Your humor has gotten worse as you've gotten older."

 

      Laughing, loving the feeling of lying naked on Spock's Vulcan-strong frame, Kirk settled against his bondmate and drifted in the rare, wonderful feeling of being both known and loved. He thought about the mind-blowing sex they'd had earlier-Spock was right, the bond allowed for some unbelievable sex-and about an entire family waiting for him, people he hadn't met and yet who had already made a place for him in their lives.

 

      All of the unfulfilled yearnings that had become so insistent in the last few years had ceased their clamoring. For the first time in a long while, Kirk thought of the future with a true sense of contentment. As he had been on the Enterprise, he was exactly where he needed and wanted to be, and he gave a mental nod of thanks to the hand of fate.

 

      "Spock, I may have retired, but don't ever let me stop being an explorer."

 

      "Why would you not do the very thing that expresses your being at its deepest levels? It is who you are," Spock said.

 

      Oh my. Yes.

 

      He'd found his home once again.

 

 

      The end.

*****

 

      Old men ought to be explorers

      Here or there does not matter

      We must be still and still moving

      Into another intensity

      For a further union, a deeper communion

 

                                               T.S. Eliot

 

You must login (register) to review.