Veral felt only an almost imperceptible push toward his seat as the train pulled out from the station at Gol, though in fact the acceleration during those first few seconds was profound. He took a PADD from his bag. Selesh had written him a short letter to which he had yet to reply. He read it over again, and composed a brief reply as the train crossed the uninhabitable stretch of desert in southern Na'ree.
He saw many things clearly now that had been confused in the wake of his removal from the Eian. Selesh would not toss away a friendship of nearly two decades because Veral had not informed him that he had returned to the planet. His parents would not be shamed because their son had staggered under the weight of trauma and mental illness. T'Lin cared for him, in fact wanted his presence in her life.
The train stopped twice before it reached the Straight of Ha'zen. A few kilometers out from the straight, it went underground, starting a steep descent that the inertial dampeners prevented the passengers from feeling. Veral put his PADD away while they were in the tunnel. When the train emerged, it was passing through farm fields. The crops--he did not recognize what was growing--were bright gold and purple against the red-orange sky. The sun was bright enough even through the tinted window to make his third eyelid slide shut, but he did not look away. The colors of his home world were a pleasure to him.
Several hundred kilometers further, the train stopped in Klan-ne, where he transferred to a smaller, older, slower local train that took him inland to Slor-masu Klomak. There, he picked up another train that went south of Shi'aluk, and from there, it was a twenty minute ground shuttle ride to be dropped off at the terminal outside of Shi'aluk, which was still nearly seven kilometers from his final destination.
T'Lin, he thought, was more removed from civilization than the monastery he had just left.
He could have gotten into one of the automated ground cars available at the terminal, but a gentle breeze was blowing from the northwest, where the sea lay just two kilometers further. The air was warm and pleasant. Shi'kahr was a land of extremes, swinging from sweltering heat in the day to sometimes dangerously cold at night. Xir'tan was more moderate, cool even at the height of the day, and warm enough at night that it was not uncommon for families to sit out in the open air into the early hours of the morning without so much as a fire pit to warm them.
Still, it was not without its dangers. Out of the corner of his eye, Veral could see a sahr-kastik swarm. Their iridescent red wings were beautiful, but the sting of just one would leave an adult in agony and could easily kill a child. It was far from the most poisonous creature in the area.
As he walked, he contemplated T'Lin. The last letter that he had received from her had assured him of her continuing good health, excepting the sudden attacks of severe pain that continued to plague her. Her last scans had shown no more abnormal cell growths. All of her many organ replacements and skin grafts had been fully integrated into her body. Her team of burns specialists and surgeons considered her healed to the point of no longer needing their services.
She was now only under the care of a doctor specializing in pain, and another who aided her in her mental recovery. She had resisted the latter at first, saying that her body had been harmed, not her mind, but in her most recent letter she had said that she found T'Aj useful, on days when resentment started to build up and she could not on her own see her way back to logic.
It was an improvement that he had not thought possible when he had first received a detailed report of her condition. That had been not long after she had arrived on Vulcan following her injury. He had gotten such updates weekly thereafter, and he had spent hours poring over her medical charts and writing recommendations to her medical team. Often, these came back with notations that informed him that, while they recognized that he was a skilled physician, he was a generalist who was currently working as a front line trauma doctor. He might have some experience with stabilizing burn patients, but he was not a burns specialist, to say nothing of the fact that the toxic nature of the haseen gas that had burned her had caused complications that made her case especially complex and difficult even for those entirely immersed in her care on a daily basis.
He understood now how illogical it had been for him to allow himself to obsess. Spending nearly all of his limited free time immersing himself in her case had certainly contributed to the difficulties that had led him to seek refuge at Gol. Yet, like so many things, at the time he had not been able to see it.
The road that he had been walking on transitioned from gray stone to black when he crossed from the common property onto the private land of the family. From there, it was only one point four kilometers to the flight of stairs that led to the front door.
The house was tall, as houses in this part of Xir'tan usually were. The area was sparsely populated, but had an abundance of arable land on a planet where that was at a premium. Before, when Vulcan had been always hovering on the edge of famine, every square meter of that land had been precious, and they had learned to build up rather than out.
Now, with weather control technology and replicators and interplanetary trade, they could afford to relax somewhat and build pleasure gardens where once had been crops, but the tradition of the architecture remained.
He scaled the steps and waited for the house computer to alert the residents to his presence. The door was opened by Suvin. The boy had grown taller since the last time Veral had seen him, but he was still very much a child.
Veral took in the formal reception area with a glance. It was sparsely but finely decorated. The reception table was made of the polished black stone so common to the area. It held a glass pitcher and cups, now empty, but clean and ready to be filled with water to welcome guests. The family sign, a stylized tree with branches woven through the crest of the clan, was painted on one wall.
At home, the public was permitted only into a formal receiving area separated from the private spaces by ornate doors. Here the lowest level of the house seemed to serve a similar function. Two abstract sculptures sat on either side of the stairs leading up to the rest of the house. To keep visitors from accidentally glimpsing what did not belong to them, a heavy curtain hung at the top of the stairs.
Suvin led him up the stairs, through the curtain, and down a short hall into the common area. This was the true soul of a home, and Veral found it immediately pleasing. It was neither chaotic nor painfully formal. All who were gathered there rose when he entered.
He addressed himself first to the eldest in the room. "Peace and long life, Honored Foremother."
She was slightly stooped with age and her hair was entirely white. A distinctive scar on her throat caused by the leth'ar-kur virus, a sickness which had not been seen in over two hundred and fifty years, confirmed his suspicion that she was nearing three hundred.
She raised an eyebrow. "I see no gongs here, child. Call me T'Reya, or t'sai if you must, but save your formality for the rituals."
"Yes, t'sai," he said. Even now he could feel his father's disapproving stare at his back if he dared think to call a woman nearing her fourth century by her common name.
A girl stood very close to T'Lyra. He thought at first she might be Suvin's bondmate, but she was at least ten. A man, tall and wiry in build, Veral knew to be T'Lin's father, Xan. Her mother he had seen once before, briefly, before he had left for the Eian. T'Lyra remained as she had been then, more classically beautiful than her daughter, average in height and thin to the point of appearing frail, though her dark steady eyes declared her anything but.
He allowed his gaze to linger on T'Lin. She wore simple red pants and a tunic in a matching fabric that was embroidered with black thread at the hem and cuffs and neckline in a geometric pattern. Her hair was loose, shorter than she had worn it previously. It fell to her shoulders and was tucked behind her ears.
Her face was a masterwork. The surgeon had been an artist. Veral recalled his earlier letter asking why, if it was acceptable to remake one's home to be aesthetically pleasing, it was not also acceptable to remake one's face. He had not understood T'Lin's answer then, but he did now.
There is something more than aesthetics at work in the face of a person, she had written, and indeed there was. The surgeons might have been tempted to fix the asymmetry of her eyebrows, and give her a broader nose and a stronger chin. They had not attempted any such improvements, however, and he was grateful for it. He would have borne any changes in her appearance with equanimity, but to find her exactly as she had been was a gift, and made him realize that it was indeed impossible to improve on that which was already perfect.
The girl was Pel. She caught his attention once he properly looked at her. Her eyes were light in color, and the third eyelid was missing. He noted how closely she was hovering to the others and realized that she was an esta'olaya.
He held out his hand to her. She hesitated for a moment, then took and pressed his hand between both of hers, and he could sense her gratitude for his understanding. When she released him, she and Suvin returned to what they had been doing. Pel gave Veral a questioning look, and then, seeming satisfied that she would face no judgement from him, slid closer to Suvin so that their bare arms were touching.
T'Lin gave him a slight nod of thanks and gestured for him to join her at the table with tea. "Pel is with us often. Her mother and mine are t'hy'la."
T'Lin poured out the tea. Veral wondered for a moment at her taking the duty from T'Reya, who as the eldest in the room had right of precedence, before realizing that they had entirely dispensed of ceremony now. T'Lin had done it because she was closest. He allowed himself to relax. It was not his home in Shi'kahr, but it was still his home. There were no more forms to hold to.
T'Reya stayed in the corner of the room, working at a stone carving. The piece she was working on was small and her movements were delicate. Her hands were strong and steady despite her advanced age. T'Lin followed his gaze. "The sculptures by the stairs below are hers," she said.
Xan and T'Lyra took a single cup of tea with them, then left to return to their own interests, Xan to a book and T'Lyra to the computer console in the corner of the room. Pel and Suvin were bent over a puzzle of some kind that had taken over much of the center of the floor. No one was speaking, but everyone was aware of the others.
When he had gone to Xhenat and expressed his intention to leave, he had half expected her to argue him out of the idea. Instead, she had expressed her approbation of his choice. "You have found healing in Gol," she had said. "The peace you seek is not here. This is not your path."
He wondered if Xir'tan was his path, his peace. It seemed unlikely. His life--mother and father and friends and work--had always been in Shi'kahr. And yet.
T'Lin extended two fingers two him in the ozh'esta. He responded in kind, running two fingers down the back of her hand, around her wrist and back up. Unable to resist, he took her hand and turned it over, examining the back, then the palm, tracing every tendon and vein. He pressed two fingers against the middle of her palm and sent the faintest of telepathic impulses.
T'Lin raised an eyebrow. "The functionality of the telepathic nerves in my hands has been fully tested. It is at ninety six percent of my previous baseline and likely to remain there." Ninety six percent recovery of nerves that had been damaged as severely as hers was more than they had had any right to hope for, but they were her hands, and he mourned even the slight loss in their sensitivity.
He nodded. "Yes, of course. I only wanted--"
"--to check for yourself. So I see." She brushed her fingers against his once more and said, "Servants are not our tradition here. You will have to put your own things away. I can show you to our rooms."
He followed her up two more stories. The suite of rooms was small. Two sleeping areas, neither larger than his room at Gol, were connected by a larger sitting area. The three rooms had no doors between them, but curtains that were currently pulled back. He looked in his room.
"You had my bed sent from Shi'kahr." It was a large bed, custom-made for him, designed to hold only his length but also his weight. He could sleep on something more forgiving than the stone floor at Gol without the sensation of not being supported at all. It took up much of the room, but there was space enough to walk around it.
"It was a small thing to have it beamed here, and I thought you would be more comfortable in a bed built for your size," T'Lin said.
A small thing to have it transported, yes, but it meant a great deal to his comfort. He turned to look at her, and held out his fingers in the ozh'esta once more. She only lightly touched her fingertips with hers, and they stared at each other for a time before they both, discomfited by the intimacy of the moment, dropped their hands and eyes.
T'Lin sat on the stool by the window and, tilting her head to one side, observed him. "Did you realize your purpose at Gol?"
"To some extent." He sat on the floor at her feet. "I healed a great deal, but there are still things that I struggle with."
"You are still having nightmares?" T'Lin asked.
"Are they of what happened to me?"
"You feature in them frequently, but not exclusively." He found he was not yet ready to speak of the contents of his dreams, even to her.
"Perhaps what you need is simply time. Be patient with yourself."
"You, I suppose, have a great deal of experience with patience."
She inclined her head in agreement, but said nothing. He looked up at her. "How are you?"
"I am as well as can be expected, all things considered. It was a difficult experience." He knew she was not speaking only of the sheer physical pain, though that had no doubt been profound. Modern techniques were very, very good at managing pain, but there was no escaping such as she had endured without suffering. She had spent twenty three days in a medically induced coma encased in a bio-regenerative gel while they coaxed her damaged nerves to regrow. That had been followed by nineteen major surgeries to replace her face, eaten away by the haseen gas, using lab-grown skin and cartilage, and to replace her lungs and repair her throat and sinuses and everything else that had been damaged by the caustic cloud. There had been other minor procedures as well, too many to recall them all though he had read her file so often he could recite parts of it by rote.
With the organ labs so backed up, and eyes requiring such specialized equipment, it had been months before her sight had been returned to her. She had been trapped in a mutilated body, undergoing surgeries sometimes on a daily basis, and blind besides. It was hard even to think of.
"I regret that I could not come home to you." He could have made things easier for her. There was a reason the family of the very ill were encouraged to spend as much time with their sick relative as was reasonably possible. The mere presence of a familiar mind close by--a bondmate, best of all--had a measurable effect on patient outcomes. They needed less pain medication, improved faster, were less prone to emotional disturbances... As new as their relationship had been and was, their mental bond was strong and stable. He could have been a great help to her. Instead, he had been trapped light years away, working to care for other people.
"You did your duty," T'Lin said softly. "It was right that you stayed where you were."
"That does not make it easier."
"No." She straightened her shoulders. "I was not without aid. My mother was with me often, and my father and brother at times. I endured it." The corner of her mouth quirked slightly. "I learned patience."
They sat in silence for several minutes, until it was time to join the family for a meal.
They ate in the open air, on the roof, from which they could see for kilometers out into the sea. The food was simple, and good: cold plomeek salad, and pok tar, garnished with a green flower he did not recognize. They ate in silence. Veral had not realized how much he had missed a proper meal--not just the food itself, but the attendant company and traditions. At Gol, of course, his meals had been silent, but they had also been solitary. Before that had been the Eian, where meals were eaten either in hasty bites between patients, or in a noisy cafeteria surrounded by people who did not understand that meals were times for the silent contemplation of the food and the company, and not for discussing holonovels or complaining about supply shortages.
When the meal was cleared away, the water was brought out. Unlike the formal water jug below which was delicate and designed for infrequent use, the one for the family was made of heavy red-orange glass, and might well have served the family every day for centuries. They passed the water around, each person pouring out for the one on their left. When they all had water before them, they drank, and the silence of the meal was ended.
The sun was still high, but it was beginning its descent. Xan and T'Lyra and T'Reya were discussing a book that they had all read. Suvin and Pel were talking of their puzzle with T'Lin.
The parapet around the roof was decorated with a geometric mosaic design in hues of purple and green. Veral contemplated it, and made a note to ask T'Lin about it at a later date. She was more knowledgeable and insightful about architecture and design than anyone he had ever met.
He had been half-listening to the conversations going on around him, and so knew at once when Suvin addressed him.
"Did you fight in the war?"
Veral tensed, and was for a moment angry at being reminded of what he had managed, for a few short moments, to forget. He relaxed the hands he had tightened reflexively. "I did not. I was assigned to the Eian, a medical ship. We never saw combat."
"Could you have fought?"
"I spent a great deal of time considering that question. When I was thirteen, I read Venok's account of The War of the Seven Stones, and the atrocities recounted in that book left me certain that war and violence were to be avoided if at all possible. I still hold to that, but it is not always possible to avoid them. If there was a clear threat and no other options were open to me, yes, I believe I could fight, and kill."
"What was the worst thing you saw?" Pel asked.
"There was no one worst thing," he said. A hundred memories came into his mind at once. Ensign Colt sobbing into his chest after receiving the news that his sister had died. Captain F'Dos and her low keening wail after learning that her sacred forelock feathers had been burned beyond repair. Chief Nras so distraught over his injury that his skin began to turn green and peel. "It was, collectively, the worst experience of my life. There are a few moments which stand out, but I have no desire to recount them."
The children fell silent at this, and after a moment the conversation moved on to other things. He stayed quiet, enjoying the opportunity to listen to everyday talk about common things--the need for a new desalinization plant, an anthology of poems that had recently come out, and how to lay out the garden that was planned for the winter.
T'Lin was making the case for a Xab'rari style bench in the garden when she stopped in the middle of her sentence, stiffened, and dropped the glass she was holding. Veral, closest, caught it before it hit the table. Suvin ran into the house and appeared a moment later with a small medkit. He dug out a hypo and handed it to Veral.
Veral did a quick drug-dose-patient check out of habit, though these hyposprays were designed for lay users and were pre-loaded with the correct amount of medication. He pulled her hair aside and injected the medication between the vertebrae in the back of her neck. It would take approximately ten point six seconds for the medication to begin working, and there was nothing else that could be done for her.
T'Lyra was pale and her lips were pressed together. The maternal telepathic bond faded with age, but T'Lin was very close to her mother, and it was not surprising that it remained strong between them. Veral made a note to teach T'Lyra some of the techniques that were generally used by the spouses and parents of patients in severe pain. It frustrated him that it had not been done before now, but of course so many medical personnel had been sent away to the war that non-critical care was by necessity rationed.
He could block out a good deal of the pain, but she was his bondmate, and they were in close proximity, and the pain was intense. He felt it despite his training, and he felt also the moment when it changed from fiery agony to a profound dull ache.
T'Lin drew a shaky breath. T'Lyra moved to support her, but T'Lin leaned toward Veral instead. Veral caught his mother-in-law's eyes for a moment. There was acceptance in them, but also a slight wariness, as though she was not entirely convinced that this newcomer could be trusted to support her daughter in her most vulnerable times. He wanted to reassure her that he could and would give everything for T'Lin, but now was hardly the time for such a conversation, and besides it was actions were what were needed to convince T'Lyra, not words.
"She will be most comfortable inside, on the couch by the window," T'Reya said.
It was easiest to carry her, and Veral could sense her amusement as she remembered another, less fraught time, when he had carried her similarly.
T'Lyra appeared with a heating pad that they placed behind her back, and Xan set out a cup of hot Terran ginger tea. Suvin and Pel had disappeared, but not before lighting the incense burner in the corner.
It would have been disastrous for him to come here directly after leaving the Eian. Going to Gol had been a wise choice, poorly made. His reasons for going had been illogical, even emotional, but bad reasoning had still led him to the right conclusion. Coming to T'Lin would have placed a weight of responsibility on her at a time when she needed support, not additional burdens.
And yet. "I am sorry I could not come sooner."
"I am as well, but I am pleased that you are here now." She spoke very softly. Her exhaustion was profound, and she was still in pain. He had no right to trouble her with his own illogical regrets.
He hovered until T'Lin opened her eyes just slightly and said, "I prefer to be alone."
He was left adrift then, with nothing to do. He reviewed the notes on her case. There was nothing new to be read there, though he did update the log of attacks to reflect this latest one. Encouragingly, the average time between attacks was lengthening, but there remained no pattern to them. Two weeks might pass between attacks, then three would strike within a matter of days.
Every doctor who had reviewed her case believed that, in time, her re-grown nerves would no longer be prone to firing at random, and the pain would stop. The scant evidence supported that conclusion. Yet there was not enough evidence to know for certain. The techniques that had saved her life were too new, too little tested on Vulcans, for there to be any assurances.
He needed physical activity. He asked T'Reya what in the house needed doing and, with an understanding gained over centuries, she sent him to rip up vines and clear space for the new garden. He worked for hours, until his arms and legs were shaking and his back was a knot of pain, but at the end of it his mind had cleared.
He was filthy, covered in gritty mud, with plant debris in his hair and dirt under his nails.
It had never before the war occurred to him to be grateful for the chance to clean himself in the normal way. The Eian had had only sonic showers, and while he could have replicated for himself tetau-sok'i, the sonics were free, while the replicator would cost credits that he preferred to save for other things. Besides that, the bathrooms on the Eian were entirely wrong. They lacked the comfort of a hot room. It was easier to accept the sonics than try to replicate the comforts of home in a place that was too cold and colorless and metallic to ever be comfortable.
Here was a proper hot room with stone benches large enough even for him to stretch out on, freshly made tetau-sok'i to clean his skin and hair, a clean stack of wash clothes, and cool water to wipe himself down at the end. He rubbed himself down with tetau-sok'i and lay back on one of the benches to allow the surfactants time to clean his skin. The heat and humidity were sufficient to make him sweat, and to make the muscles in his back begin to relax. He did not want to sleep, but he put himself into a light trance, until the step of another person brought him back to full alertness.
Suvin was nearly as dirty has he himself had been, and had besides a blossoming bruise on his thigh. Whatever the child had been playing at had been rough and muddy. Veral closed his eyes again, thinking that it was very gratifying to think that the boy could play without the threat of the Dominion hanging over him.
"What was it like to live on an alien ship?" Suvin asked, taking the bench opposite Veral.
"Blue," Veral said, and waited to see if the child would catch his meaning.
He didn't. "Blue?"
"Most species perceive light waves shorter than five hundred nanometers differently than we do, and Starfleet has a tendency toward the color blue in all of their design schemes."
"You couldn't see?"
"I could see perfectly well to function and do my work, but blue is a very dull color to be surrounded with. The entire ship seemed, to me, flat and...cold." He looked around and the rich colors of the room. "It is much more vibrant on Vulcan." He thought many of his alien colleagues would have questioned that statement, but, both literally and figuratively, they didn't see what he saw when he looked at the rich shades of red and brown and green and yellow of his home world.
Suvin said nothing else, and Veral drifted back into his meditations, until the tetau-sok'i started to dry on his skin. He dampened one of the wash clothes and carefully wiped himself down. He got most of the tetau-sok'i out of his hair by combing it with a fine damp comb before wiping it with the wash cloth, and then he retrieved his clothes from the cleaning unit, where the nanites had left them once again perfectly clean and soft. It was astonishing what became luxuries after a period of deprivation. He had lived in scrubs on the Eian, rarely taking them off except to sleep, and often not even then. They had nanotechnology to self-clean, and were sanitary within minutes of being covered in body fluids, but they were nothing like clean kur-kastik cloth.
He supposed he would eventually be used to being home, but he did not think he would ever again fail to be grateful for it.
"It will rain soon," T'Lin said.
The house was quiet. Suvin was at the home of one of his tutors. Xan had gone to work on his boat, and T'Reya was with a sculpture student who came down periodically from Nal'shin to work under her tutelage. T'Lyra had been in the garden earlier, and was likely still there.
They sat on the floor by the large window that looked out at the sea. The sky had turned a peculiar shade of red-yellow that he had never seen before, and the sea was choppy. He could see boats out by the horizon, and though he knew that their experience and their technology kept the crews quite safe, they looked to him small and fragile against the expanse of the sea.
Two of her architecture books were open between them, and a pot of tea was safely off to one side where it would not accidentally be knocked over. Veral traced a line of one of the drawings.
T'Lin shifted her weight.
He looked up. "You are in pain."
"Only from staying in one position for too long. Pel wants to know if she can use you as her touchstone tomorrow, at Katra fi'Salan."
"It is what she calls the person she can go to if she becomes touch starved. It was her idea to start designating someone in advance. She says it is calming, to know where she will go, if the beads she uses for tactile focus are not enough." T'Lin's voice was calm, but her eyes were wary, as if she expected him to refuse.
"Clever. Tell her I am honored, and she is welcome to use me as such. I am surprised at her asking me. She hardly knows me."
"You knew her for what she is at a glance, and you did not draw away from her. Most people do when they first meet her. They try to hide their reaction, but they do."
"The esta'olaya need touch to focus and calm their minds, sometimes at what most would term inappropriate times. They act in ways contrary to all the cultural norms because of it."
"Yes. I understand why people draw away. I only...I would prefer if Pel did not see it. She has known since she is a toddler that she is not entirely like the rest of us, though most are so carefully polite."
The storm broke. A huge bolt of lightning lit the sky on fire, and the clap of thunder seemed to shake the room. He read the amusement in T'Lin's eyes at his startling. He stood and watched as the rain came down in a solid sheet. "How often does it rain here?"
"It varies by season. In the winter, it is very wet. In the summer, we will get two or three storms every month. A storm of this intensity comes generally once or twice a year."
"Is your father's boat still on the water?" He could not imagine anyone being on the sea when the rain was coming down with such force as this.
"Of course. I do not doubt that he went out because he knew this was coming. He says that he never feels more focused or more challenged but when he is at sea in a storm." She paused and he felt something from her that he could not at first place. Regret, tinged with a deep pain that was not physical. "He is quite right. It is an experience like no other. I would have gone with him, but my condition makes me a liability in a situation where everyone needs absolute focus." She paused again, then added, "There are a number of things that my condition currently makes it inadvisable for me to do."
Veral sat back down. "I am sorry for it."
T'Lin closed her books. "As am I. And...angry. No, that is the wrong word. Vengeful. I was not before, but now that I have the energy to think about what happened to me and to so many others, I want to see every Cardassian in existence dead." She paused. "T'Aj says this is why I must see her so often."
"Your counselor is entirely correct. It is good that you see her often. But I do understand."
T'Lin had not fought in the war. She had examined her conscience and found that it would not permit her to deliberately set out to take lives. She had joined instead the Gol'nev, placed for the duration of the war under the direction of the Federation Aid and Mercy Corps, and had been assigned to humanitarian work on a nearly derelict space station. The station had been slated for demolition before being appropriated by the FAMC, and she had processed the refugees who came flooding in from the war ravaged systems. She had provided them with what was possibly their first good meal in days or weeks, assigned them a place to sleep, and treated minor injuries.
There had been nothing in T'Lin's job, nothing in the entire system where she had served, that had been of service to the Federation's military offensives. There were no weapons on the station, no ships beyond the aging freighters and passenger ships that had been used to flee the Dominion forces and a single--small, old--Starfleet vessel that patrolled the area. There had been no tactical reason at all for the Dominion to attack.
But they had attacked. T'Lin had been caught in a cloud of haseem gas released when the cargo bay suffered a direct hit and containers of dangerous chemicals, rated to withstand a hand phaser but not the guns of a Cardassian warship, had burst open. It was astonishing that she had survived long enough to be rescued--several others caught in the same chemical cloud had not. She had escaped with a few dozen others on one of the passenger ships that had been about to drop off refugees and instead found itself fleeing the Dominion once again.
When he thought of the agonies she had experienced and continued to endure even now, and all the other suffering that had been caused by this war, he wished fervently that no cure had ever been found for the Changelings, and that every one of them had died horribly.
Such thoughts were a violation of all his fundamental principles, but they were part of who he had become. The war had changed him, and it was foolish to think that he could return to who he had been before he had gone away, before T'Lin had been hurt, before he had daily checked the casualties list to see if any of the people he cared about had died.
Selesh had fought. It was a common name and he had tensed every time he had seen it on the casualty lists, though each time he read on it was someone of another clan, the child of another family. He had felt relief to know it was not his friend, all the while aware that it was someone's friend, someone's husband, someone's son.
He thought of all this, and he knew what hate was.
T'Lin was watching him intently. He was careful, now, not to shield himself from her, even when his thoughts were such as might make her think worse of him. She had a right to know all of him, good and bad. She did not appear to judge what she sensed from him, however. She only nodded slowly and said, "Yes, I believe you do understand."
He heard a faint footstep outside of the room. T'Lyra, most likely. The steps continued past.
"I am told," T'Lin said, "that the pain will probably stop eventually, but they cannot say with any certainty that it will be so."
"The data is limited," Veral acknowledged.
T'Lin nodded. "No one has ever before survived prolonged exposure to vaporized haseem gas." She looked out at the rain for a moment, then back to him. "Is the medication used to control my pain teratogenic?"
He blinked, surprised by the question. "No." Sensing there was more to the question than the reproductive side effects of the drug she used, he continued, "There is nothing that would prevent you from having a normal pregnancy, whether you continue to need the medication or not. If you are still experiencing attacks of pain when you choose to get pregnant, it would be wise to involve a midwife even prior to conception, and you may need more frequent visits than most mothers. Chronic pain in the mother can have a deleterious effect on the mental development of the fetus unless precautions are taken. But with appropriate care, there is nothing to prevent you from having a healthy child."
"Nothing to prevent us from having a healthy child," T'Lin said. Veral nodded. "That is gratifying to know."
"If it was a concern, why did you not ask your doctors before now?"
T'Lin looked down at one of her books. "The answer is not logical." She looked up. "If there was a chance I would not be able to have children, I thought it would be easier to hear it from you."
He touched his fingers to her temple, brushing their minds together, and offering what reassurance he could. When he drew back, he asked, "Is there anything else you wish to know?"
"Yes. Pon farr. If my nerve pain were to strike while you burn and are..."
"While I am temporarily lacking in higher brain function," Veral finished, so that she did not have to find a more diplomatic way to say it. She tilted her head in acknowledgment. Veral paused, considering his words. "The literature about pon farr and disability is surprisingly robust, far more so than the literature about pon farr in the healthy population." He felt her surprise and explained, "It is logical when you consider it. The medical community has never been successful in getting people to open up about their personal experiences, no matter how many conditions of anonymity we offer. The healthy population has the privilege of staying silent."
T'Lin understood. "The ill and disabled have no such privilege. They are forced to interact with the healers and reveal what they would rather not, because they need their help."
He nodded and paused again. He had slipped into speaking clinically, in generalities, because he did not want to talk about the specifics of their situation. Setting aside that illogic, he forced himself to begin speaking, through he found himself staring at his hands as he did so.
"Your pain manifests in sudden attacks. If it were to happen while I am in the grip of the fever, worst of all if happened while we were engaged sexually...I would likely panic. A violent reaction is unlikely, but ineffectual attempts to help could make it worse. You would need to keep me calm, and administer the medication yourself, because I would not likely be able to help you. It would be a terrible thing for you to have to manage me, and your own treatment, while in such pain yourself. And the pon farr would still need to be resolved, though the attacks leave you tired and aching, which means that despite your pain and exhaustion, we would need to continue our sexual activity."
He paused, forced himself to meet her eyes, and said, "If you wished to be free of a husband, no one would blame you. Men died disproportionately, so I could likely find another. There would be no dishonor in not wishing to be so thoroughly...discomfited. If you made a petition for divorce, I would support it."
He had rather hoped for an immediate refusal, but T'Lin fell silent, considering. He could not feel hurt at that. The scenario he had described was horrific. After a time she spoke with slow mentation. "No. Breaking the bond would be difficult for both of us, but the pain would last longer for you. I do not need to be a healer to know that males suffer the worse for a broken bond. Then you would have to go through the trouble of finding another mate. I do not wish that for you. More selfishly, perhaps less logically, my condition has taken so much from me already. I do not want it to take you also. I have grown to...prefer you to most people.
"We speak, in any case, of things which may happen. I may still be suffering from nerve pain when next you burn. An attack may happen at the worst possible moment. I am not going to pursue such a drastic, difficult course because of possibilities." He felt her grow suddenly wary. "Would you prefer a less damaged wife?"
"I want no one but you," he assured her and she relaxed.
"Then the matter is settled. We will face the challenge together."
The wind was less violent, but the rain still pounded down in a steady sheet. Veral laced their fingers together. The esta'olaya were not the only ones who sometimes needed the comfort of touch.
White lights hung in the air illuminating the ceremonial ground where the people gathered for the Katra fi'Salan. Someone was playing the flute, and a male voice was singing the traditional dirge of the lost katra.
T'Reya sat on a low wall with a man of about her age. Veral looked at the gongs, used earlier in the ceremony and still present, and back at T'Reya. "Honored Foremother."
The man said, "You are the husband of T'Lin."
Veral bowed slightly. "I have that privilege, Honored Forefather."
"You speak with a Shi'kahri accent." He pronounced it Shirkahri, and seemed even to place an emphasis on the intrusive 'R' that was the hallmark of the Xir'tani accent.
"Forefather, I am of Shi'kahr."
"You are of Masutra. That you have been disadvantaged to live in the desert instead of by the sea where you belong does not change that."
"With respect, I prefer the desert."
"That is unfortunate."
Veral, unable to think of anything respectful to say, remained silent. T'Reya looked at her companion. "Let the boy go, Xhil. We are fond of him, despite his Shi'kahri ways."
Xhil gestured him away. Veral nodded respectfully and moved away, deeper into the crowd. He was startled to find himself with a child attached to his hip a moment later.
Pel looked up at him. "I thought perhaps you were gone."
"I would have informed you if I had to leave."
Pel took his hand and placed it on the back of her neck. Veral was aware of the sideways glances the action caused, but he resisted the urge to move them into the shadows.
"I kept my place at the ceremony. It was hard, but I did it. Now I need--do not move your hand."
"My sister Ulin died at Inak Nor. Hers is a katra fi'salan."
"My father suffers. We all suffer, but my father suffers most. Ulin was his favorite child. They were alike in many ways."
Veral had seen Tenat at the ceremony. He had allowed no improper emotion to show on his face, but it was obvious that he was as a man gutted.
"Likely he finds comfort in you and your brother."
Pel shook her head. "No. He is angry with us because we are not her. It is an observation which I am not supposed to voice, but I wanted to cling to my mother at the ceremony and I did not, so I am allowing myself to say it. You are a healer. You can be trusted with our secrets."
"You have my silence. Give your father time. You are a comfort to him, even if he cannot see it right now."
Pel hummed thoughtfully and pulled away. "The Federation is giving aid it can hardly spare to keep alive the race of people who killed my sister."
"Few, perhaps none, of the Cardassians who remain on their ruined world were complicit your sister's death."
"I know what they did to people at Inak Nor. I know the medical experiments carried out there. I do not care if they were not directly responsible. No culture capable of such evil should be suffered to continue."
"Have you read no Vulcan history? Cultures do change. Aid may gain us an ally. Vengeance will accomplish nothing."
"Let them starve. Vengeance requires action. Leaving them to the consequences of their actions is simply justice."
"I do not agree with your concept of justice, nor of vengeance."
"Because I am a child."
"Because you are wrong."
A lyre joined the flute, and a feminine voice took over for the masculine. The area was crowded with people who did not wish to go home after the ceremony, not this year.
Pel took his hand and pulled him over to a low bench. She leaned against him when they sat. "I am not usually so...needy. Today has been hard."
"Do not make excuses for what you need, nor apologize for needing it."
"Not everyone thinks as you do," she said, very softly. "Many have told me of how the esta'olaya are so very useful as diplomats to planets where the customs demand touch. Sometimes I think most people expect me to go away when I am old enough, to a planet where my idiosyncrasies are regarded as normal, and proper Vulcans will no longer have to be discomfited by them." She looked up at him. "I am not an alien."
"No. You are Vulcan, and I am sorry for you that our culture has made you unwelcome."
After a moment, she said, "Sometimes I do wonder if perhaps I am an alien. I am so unlike the others. They do not like to be touched. I will never understand that."
"You more like them than different from them. I do not mean to minimize your concerns, but I doubt that there is anyone who has not at one time felt so set apart from their peers as to wonder how they can possibly fit into their society. I have wondered it myself many times."
"When I was a boy of five and already so large that I towered above my playmates and was always reminded not to play too roughly for fear of hurting them," he said. When he had been seemingly the only man in Shi'kahr without a bondmate. Now, when he still expected to hear the alarm of incoming casualties at any moment though he had been home for months.
They sat in silence for a while longer, then Pel pulled away and went to dance with the other children. He looked out at the crowd. The dance the children performed was ancient. It mimicked the final steps of the dead as their katras were lost into the wind. The adults were largely silent. Most years, only a handful of people had recently known loss, but this year nearly every family had been touched. Pel's sister, one of T'Reya's great-granddaughters, Xan's nephew. Those were only the few he knew of. And for nearly all of the war dead, no katra had come home.
T'Lin found him and gestured for him to follow. "I told Pel we were leaving. She has assured me she will be fine."
He followed her out of the meeting place and into the town. Nearly everyone was either at the gathering, or at home. Very few people lived in the town itself. They had once. Old houses, barely habitable to modern eyes, spoke of a time when the poor lived and worked in squalor under the pitiless eye of the wealthy who owned the boats. It was thousands of years since these houses had been used as dwellings. Many had been torn down. Others now housed services--a library, a medical clinic, a school, curio shops, and musicians' studios--luxuries that would have been unimaginable to those who had once occupied the space.
The streets were paved in gray and red stones. The town was quite dark, but as they went, lights detected their presence and illuminated so that they could see their way to walk. They stopped by a stone wall and looked out into the unfathomable darkness of the sea. Several thousand kilometers away was the continent of Han'shir.
The sound of the waves breaking and the smell of rotting vegetation and the damp, sticky way the air felt made him remember, with astonishing clarity, the color of the sky after a storm at sea. He startled.
"What is it?" T'Lin asked.
"An ancestral memory," Veral said. "Of--" He tried to focus on it, but it was slippery and it twisted away from him. "Of working on the boats. It is a very old memory." Somewhere in his genetic past, the memory had been formed by a woman while she carried her daughter within herself. The women of that line had passed the memory down to each succeeding generation that they carried, and finally it had come down to him. How many generations had come and gone between the woman who had stood on the deck of a boat staring out at the red-orange horizon and him?
It was not probable that her katra had been preserved. A poor boat's woman would not have been counted worthy of it. Yet, he carried something of her, and though he could not pass down the memory to his offspring, his sister might. The woman's memory would continue to live even beyond him.
"Katra fi'Salan. May they be remembered," T'Lin said.
"May they be remembered," Veral echoed.
T'Lin asked, "Do you like tofu?"
Veral nodded. It was a contentious food on Vulcan. Terran soy was a major import, but those who disliked it claimed the mere presence of it on a table could put them off of their meal.
He followed her into the kitchen. T'Lin set out a block of tofu, plomeek root, coarse ground ug'yon-kur, and koleem oil.
She handed him the tofu, sealed in a food stasis container. "One centimeter cubes."
He looked around. "Where are the gloves?" T'Lin looked at him questioningly. "You do not wear gloves when you prepare food?" That was unsettling.
He sensed bemusement from her. "I wondered at your father wearing gloves when I saw him preparing food. I thought perhaps he had a contagious illness."
"No. We always wear gloves." He reminded himself that there was nothing unhygienic about food prepared with clean bare hands. It was simply not done. Rather, it was not done in Shi'kahr, or any of the surrounding areas.
"If you find it very distasteful, I can replicate a pair of gloves."
Veral took the tofu from her. "No. I will adapt," he said, and touched food that he was preparing to eat with his bare hands, something he had not done since he was a very young child, testing boundaries by deliberately ignoring the rules. At least they did not eat with their hands here. He had adapted to seeing that too, on the Eian, but the first time he had seen a Terran eat the dried flat bread they called tortilla chips and then lick their finger afterward, he had fully realized what was meant by 'culture shock'.
T'Lin left him to the chopping and heated the oil on the stove, adding the ground ug'yon-kur when it was hot. When the tofu and plomeek was chopped and mixed, she poured the hot oil over it, and put it into two bowls. They ate in the kitchen, sitting on stools at a high table. They were close enough that their knees brushed. He was aware of the heat coming off of her body, and the sound of her breathing.
When they were done eating, Veral removed the dirty plates and cleaned the kitchen, aware of T'Lin watching him the entire time.
When he was done, T'Lin said, "My first bondmate rejected me when we were still young."
Veral sat, and was quiet. She had not spoken of her first bonding previously.
"It was painful at the time, but now I see I was fortunate. He showed signs of instability early, and publicly. He did not hide what he was." She looked away. "He had a tendency toward violence. He lacked control. He rejected the very idea of control. I believe he thought it beneath him. In the beginning, when he first began to reject what it is to be Vulcan, he wanted to make me like him. When he found that I would not become like him--in no small part because my parents and his saw what he was, and intervened to separate us--he became very...angry."
Veral said nothing, but she read the question in his mind.
"He never harmed me physically. He did me very little harm at all, in fact. He was even so considerate as to declare himself v'tosh ka'tur. It might have been complicated otherwise."
Had he not rejected all of Vulcan society, and his bondmate with it, their being bonded would have become complicated indeed. A marriage contract could not easily be broken. If he had been shown to be a danger to her, a legal case could have been made, but if no clear threat could have be shown... She might have severed ties with him to some extent, but when he burned, Vulcan law would have prioritized his life over her rights. Kal'i'fee would have been her only recourse, and who would have fought for her?
I would have, he thought, but of course that was a foolish idea. He would never have known of her existence.
Pon farr was their curse. It tainted them. It forced them to compromise, to make impossible choices.
T'Lin sensed some of what he was thinking, and touched his hand. "I do not bring this matter up because it troubles me. I rarely think of it. I know what suffering is, and it is not the rejection of a selfish boy with no sense of duty or honor. I only wish for you to understand that because my bondmate and I were drawn apart before we completed our adolescence, there are certain experiences common to that age that I lack."
He realized what she was saying, and very nearly winced. "You came to our marriage with no sexual experience."
"Yes. You need not be concerned. I lacked experience, not knowledge. You were not subtle about what you needed. What transpired between us that day was entirely acceptable for what it was, but it was pon farr, and necessarily unpleasant for both of us, especially under the circumstances."
He drew a breath, and waited for her to continue, but her reticence had reasserted itself. He slowly breathed out.
"There are aspects of sexuality that are far more enjoyable," he said.
She nodded. This too was part of the curse of pon farr. Their sexuality was so tangled up in it, in the bone-deep shame of it, that they struggled to express themselves in explicit terms even with each other.
It had been easier with Najin. Their adolescent experimentation had had the all ease of naivete, but of course that was one of the reasons for early bonding. He and Najin would have gone to their marriage with no embarrassment.
He and T'Lin had known nothing of each other, and it had been, among other things, mortifying for both of them to be so exposed before a stranger. Veral's memories of that night were indistinct, but he clearly recalled his self-consciousness as T'Lin had helped him from his robes. Even in the depths of plak tow, he had retained enough of himself to feel that humiliation.
They were both struggling past that mortification even now, but they had to overcome it. Sex outside of pon farr was not necessary, but that did not make it unimportant. In just over four years, he would burn again, as surely as Vulcan would continue in its orbit. If they could cultivate a healthy sexuality now, pon farr would be...not pleasant, precisely, but far, far better than it would otherwise be.
He brushed his fingertips against her. "Will you come upstairs with me?"
It was late-evening, and dusk was settling. Their rooms were nearly dark, but neither of them wanted a light. They stood facing each other.
"What do you need?" T'Lin asked, wary and tense though she was trying not to be.
"I do not need, I want," he said. "I am entirely in control of myself. This for our pleasure."
The tension he sensed from her eased. "I know," T'Lin said, "but I am grateful to you for saying it. What do you want?"
He touched her face, finding the meld points, showing her what it was that he could not seem to speak. When he drew back his hand, T'Lin caught it before she could let it drop.
She brought his thumb to her lips, and touched her tongue to the top of it. Veral caught himself before he gasped. T'Lin, staring at him, ran her bottom teeth across the pad of his thumb, and he shivered.
Veral swallowed. "You were clever to have my bed sent," he said.
T'Lin touched his face. "Yes, I was."