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"I do not understand T'Reya." Tenat said.

T'Lin finished loading the last of the weeds into the compost pile and got herself a drink of water. She took a seat next to him, and when she had quenched her thirst, said, "She is an unusual person."

"Yes, but I am not speaking of her eccentricities. I am speaking of that." He nodded in the direction of what would eventually be a sculpture garden on the property of the new house, where T'Reya and Xhil were engaged in one of their enthusiastic collaborations, talking over one another, speaking too loudly, and, what was most suggestive, standing far closer than was commonly accepted as proper for public behavior. T'Reya grabbed Xhil's hand and pressed it against a piece of stone, holding her hand on his as she talked.

T'Lin colored slightly and looked away. "They went to Risa together." That was why T'Reya had not been on Vulcan when the unfortunate incident with Suvin had occurred. Her eccentricities aside, her presence would have been a comfort then.

"And came home still unbonded," said Tenat.

"Perhaps they bonded and said nothing?"

Tenat shook his head. "I do not think so. T'Reya might bond without registering it with her clan-family, although I doubt even she would be so brazen, but Xhil would not."

He was probably right. "People have taken note nevertheless."

Tenat spread his hands. "People always take note when something unusual happens." He glanced behind him. "As my wife well knows."

T'Lin looked back in surprise. She had not heard T'Asair approach. T'Asair gave them both a disapproving look but addressed her words to her husband. "I wonder at you speaking about her. Surely you know how unpleasant it is to have people talking about you."

Tenat pressed his lips together and said nothing. T'Lin stared down at her hands, knowing that T'Asair was right. She had no business speaking of T'Reya and Xhil behind their back. In a community as small as this, secrets were hard to keep, and everyone knew that Tenat and T'Asair were not presently cohabiting. His move into a small apartment in the center of town had indeed been noted by most of the town, and a few people had even seen fit to discuss a matter they were not a part of. T'Lin had disapproved of that, and it was hypocritical to speak similarly of T'Reya and Xhil, even if they were close enough to her that she had an interest in their affairs beyond simple curiosity.

Tenat rose from the stone bench and fetched a glass of water from the nearby pitcher. He held it out to T'Asair, who, like T'Lin, was dirty and flushed from working in the garden. T'Lin continued to examine her hands and pretended ignorance of the small drama playing out next to her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw T'Asair turn away without a word. Tenat stared after her, and then poured the untouched water back into the pitcher and set the glass down.

"I should return to my work," he said, and walked away. A plumber by trade, he was figuring out how they would replace the aged pipes in the new house to bring them up to modern codes and tie them into the current water system.

When he was gone, T'Lin sighed. She wondered sometimes what would have happened if she had died. She did not think that Xan's grief would have overwhelmed him as thoroughly as Tenat's had and that he would run away from his remaining family as a result. She did not think that even if he had, T'Lyra's resentment would be so intense as to cause her to reject water from him. But had T'Asair and Tenat ever thought that such a thing could happen to them? One never knew if or how one would break until it happened.

She rose from the bench and gestured to her mother who was several meters away, indicating that she was leaving now. T'Lyra nodded, and T'Lin set off for home, to quickly shower and change her clothing, and then to the port, where she caught a ferry to Klan-ne. It was not absolutely necessary for her to use the school's holosuite to complete her assignment when Shi'aluk had a holosuite of its own, but it gave her a reason to go to Klan-ne. Veral was working a sixteen hour shift at the hospital there, and if he was not over-burdened with patients, they might be able to spend a few minutes together, and perhaps even have a meal. He had been busy, as had she, and she missed him.

She arrived at the holosuite on the campus of the University of the Vuhlkantra in Klan-ne just in time for her allotted two-hour reservation, signed in, and began her assignment. It was a randomized scenario in which she was required to assess a situation and make a determination about how to proceed. It was designed to test her ethical reasoning, as well as her judgment and her ability to react logically instead of emotionally to an extremely fraught situation. She had been warned that there was never a good choice in these exercises, and that proved to be true. She was placed in the role of a social worker on a space station and presented with an older man suffering from dementia and being abused by his family. The family was not from a Federation world, and she had no legal authority over them or their ship, but the man's wandering from his ship had placed him on the station, which did give her the option of acting to protect him. Pursing legal action would lead to a possible interstellar incident, however. Also, he did not understand why she was trying to take him from his family and kept begging her to go home.

In the end, she had him treated by a doctor to tend his wounds, tried to give his family resources to better deal with having a mentally unwell person on their ship, and sent them on their way, well aware that she had possibly sent the man off to die of abuse and neglect.

When the scenario dissolved around her, it was jarring. She had nearly forgotten that none of it was real.

"Exercise completed," the computer announced. "Self-assessment is due tomorrow by the ninth bell."

T'Lin went to one of the many meditation chambers offered at the school, sat in the cool, dark space, and reoriented herself to reality. When she had settled, she went to the library, found an unoccupied study pod, and wrote up her self-assessment, including justifications for her actions. After re-reading it twice, submitted it to her instructor, not at all certain she had done anything right.

But there was no sense in ruminating. After being so thoroughly exhausted by the ethical exercise, she wanted something easy, and pulled up some practice exams from the calculus class she was taking for fun. It was soothing to work at something which had a concrete answer waiting to be found, and she lost herself in it for nearly forty-eight minutes until she was interrupted by a gentle tap on the glass.

By convention, the study pods at the university were as inviolable as a monk's cell. For an aide to interrupt her indicated that something was very wrong. She closed the holograms suspended in front of her, opened the door to the pod, and raised a questioning eyebrow at the aide.

"There is a call for you from the hospital in Klan-ne."

T'Lin reached immediately for the bond with Veral and found it present--of course it was present. If he or anyone else who threaded through the tapestry of her mind had died or was near death, she would have felt it before now. The bond was silent, a blank wall that usually meant he was involved in some sort of mental work with a patient. She went to the row of communication booths that lined the wall of the library, entering the one that the aide gestured to.

A woman in healers robes was on the screen. T'Lin closed the door, and the woman said, "I am Healer N'Livek. You are the bondmate of Veral?"

T'Lin squared her shoulders. "I am."

"Something has gone wrong with a meld that your husband performed on a patient." Before T'Lin had even finished processing the sentence, N'Livek quickly added, "The first thing to know is that when the meld failed, it failed safe. There is no reason to believe that there will be any lasting damage, especially if we have your help."

"Anything," T'Lin said. "What do you need?"

"Come to the hospital. I will meet you at the main entrance and explain everything."

T'Lin nodded, and closed the comm. She went to open the door to the comm booth and pulled the door the wrong way twice before stopping, taking a breath, and running through an elementary discipline to get her anxiety under control.

Dakh pthak. Nam-tor ri ret na'fan-kitok fa tu dakh pthak. Cast out fear. There is no room for anything else until you cast out fear.

The school was on the other side of Klan-ne from the hospital. She briefly considered a transporter, but the walk to the nearest transporter station was nearly ten minutes, and N’Livek had not indicated that this was the sort of emergency necessitating a site-to-site beaming. Still, she all but sprinted out of the library and to the nearest streetcar station. She eschewed the automated street cars that followed a pre-determined route around the city and ordered a direct ride. When it came, she took a seat, punched in her destination, and spent the five-minute ride trying to keep her anxious speculation from running ahead of her knowledge.

The meld had failed safe, whatever that meant.

N'Livek met her at the entrance as she had indicated she would, and took her up to the third floor, and into a small sitting room. T'Lin sat and said nothing. She stared at N'Livek, waiting.

The healer seated herself, and said, "Healers meld with patients for various reasons. Ideally such melds are done in calm, controlled settings, with full informed consent on both sides, but there are times when circumstances are not ideal. Veral had to perform what is called a rapid-response meld earlier today. As the name suggests, those are done quickly, with limited information, and always carry an element of risk for both patient and healer."

She paused here, and folded her hands, then continued, "There are people in this galaxy who will go to great lengths to hide what they know from telepaths. There are various ways to do this, most of which are not relevant to this conversation. Many, including the ones used here on Vulcan, are not harmful to those who would touch the mind, but there are…snares that can be set in the mind, and which not only prevent a telepath from gaining access to the mind, but also attack them in the process."

T'Lin sucked in a breath between clenched teeth. N'Livek ignored the lapse. "As healers we are aware of this. Our training addresses it, and we build fail safes into our minds to account for the possibility. The mind your husband attempted to touch included one of these traps, one so…vicious that it is illegal throughout the Federation. Fortunately, his training immediately caused him to initiate one of these fail-safe procedures, and he protected himself. In doing so, he went deep within his own mind, losing any connection to the things outside of himself. Protocol dictates that in these cases we move the affected healer to a safe location and wait an hour to see if they revive on their own."

The word 'protocol' eased her tension more than anything else had. This was not shocking or unknown. There were systems in place to deal with it. She took a breath, and relaxed.

"As I said, this particular mental attack is vicious. It is unsurprising that Veral remains withdrawn, but it would be best if he were to emerge from himself relatively soon. There may be some minor injuries to his mind that need tending. Another healer needs to examine him."

"You cannot examine him as he is?" T'Lin asked, speaking for the first time since she had arrived. She was pleased to find that her voice did not shake at all.

"We can, but right now he is injured and suspicious. Another mind attempting to contact his, even one that is not entirely unknown to him as a colleague, could be seen as potentially hostile, and drive him further into himself. There are ways around this, but…a bondmate is ideal in this scenario, and since we have one available to us, you are the logical choice to meld with him, and assure him that it is safe for him to emerge."

"What--what if he does not respond to me either? What if I drive him further into himself?"

N'Livek raised an eyebrow. "If that happens there are other things that can be done, but--" Her eyes softened into something like amusement. "I have heard the way the timber of Veral's voice changes when he talks about you. The strength of the bond between you is clear. I think it extremely unlikely that he will not welcome you into his mind, once he recognizes you."

T'Lin set that observation aside to meditate on later. "What do I need to do?"

N'Livek rose and gestured for T'Lin to follow. They went to a small room, where Veral was lying face up on a biobed, one specifically designed to facilitate melding. T'Lin had been on one many times herself, as the healers had slowly re-integrated the traumatic memories that her mind had tried to lock away before they caused her brain to destroy parts of itself. The bed had a seat at the head of it, where the healer sat.

The lights had been dimmed, and the room was warm. N'Livek affixed a cortical monitor just under T'Lin's ear. "You will be left alone with him, and no one will disturb you unless there are signs of distress. All you need to do is enter his mind, and once there, to assure him that he is safe, and he can emerge from the mental fortress that he has taken refuge in. And you may indeed find yourself in some sort of fortress. People create various mental constructs to assist them in these cases. I do not know what he has constructed for himself, but it will be something that makes him feel safe and secure. Do not be surprised if he does not at once agree to leave. He was violently attacked and may need time to trust that the threat is indeed gone. Gentle persuasion will work better than fervent argument. Do you have any questions?"

"No." Something occurred to her. "Yes. Is it safe? This attack, there is no chance if he emerges from his…fortress, he will be harmed?"

N'Livek raised an eyebrow and gave T'Lin an approving nod. "A prudent question. It is safe. This has been verified both through brain scans, and through a light meld--one which did not attempt to reach his core self, but would have been able to detect if the attack was on going. There is no reason to suspect that he is in any danger."

She paused to see if T'Lin would ask any follow up questions, and when she did not, she pointed to a small door in the corner of the room. "I highly recommend that you use the toilet before you begin. This meld may last longer than you are accustomed to, and while body processes slow in a meld, they do continue. It is unpleasant to emerge from a meld only to realize you need desperately to empty your bladder." There was a wry note in her voice that said she spoke from experience.

When she was alone, T'Lin took her advice, and used the toilet. She also sat down and took several minutes to meditate and fully clear and calm her mind. If her purpose here was to convince Veral it was safe to emerge from the fortress in his mind, being anxious herself would not help. When she felt sufficiently calm, she sat down and looked at Veral. She studied his face in the dim light, tracing his features with her fingers. He did not appear to be in any distress. His face was calm, his eyes closed, his lips slightly parted. His breathing was slow and steady. She put her hand on his side and felt the rapid hum of his heart, using it to further ground herself.

Taking a deep breath, she placed her fingers onto the meld points. For a moment, there was no response from his mind, and then all at once she sank into him, and found herself in front of Veral's home in Shi'kahr.


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