Title: Learning Home (1/3)
Rating: Adult only
Word Count: 25,375
Summary: Even though retired, Kirk can't resist a challenge. Sometimes, though, challenges deliver more than you expect.
A/N: Big, big hugs and thank-yous to my cheerleaders and editors, Jenna and Dusky, who consistently supported me to write from my heart. If you haven't ever read their Beyond Dreams Press zines, you don't know what you're missing. This was originally written for Beyond Dreams 7, printed in March 2004. And it wouldn't be complete without throwing big, wet kisses to devohoneybee, who has always, always listened.
If you are interested, a sort-of prequel, Passages, is available also. It was originally the first two chapters of the long novel I had planned...then I realized I'd never be able to complete the novel by the deadline. So I dropped those chapters, trimmed down the story outline, and wrote Learning Home. But I really, really *liked* what I'd written in those chapters, so it's with great pleasure I have it now online, available to read.
Learning Home, Part One
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.
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.
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." 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.