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(You can download a Vulcan-English translation here.)

 

 

So. It’s decided. They’re going to Vulcan for the holidays.

 

It’s a combination of circumstance and necessity. Kirk runs a multicultural ship, crewed by representatives of forty-seven worlds, and only thirty of those are Terran colonies. Tradition is important, especially when you’re far from home: it’s a little piece of where you came from, carried close to your heart, reminding you who you are when the edges get blurry. Admiral Kirk has been away from Earth for long enough now to know that something simple, like a candle lit at the appropriate hour or a ritual phrase softly whispered, something that can be discarded with neglect or contempt when your feet are safely planted on native soil, becomes considerably more meaningful when the ground falls away and everything familiar is gone. So he’ll grant leave requests where he can, and he’ll requisition thirteen pints of Arulian seawater for Commander Ch’kar’s Ving Shresh Na’Kulia, and he’ll switch Ensign Polk’s gamma shift every fiftieth night to allow him to keep to his quarters for the consumption of the ritual string. This is part of his responsibilities as captain of a Federal starship. It comes with the territory.

 

But the fact is that, despite Starfleet’s best efforts, the cultural make-up of the crew remains overwhelmingly Terracentric. It’s better now than when Kirk first took command, but figures seem to have gotten stuck at the 80 percent mark and don’t tend to fluctuate more than a point or two in either direction. That means that, at any given time, 78 to 82 percent of the crew will be Human, and approximately 70 percent of those will celebrate some sort of mid-winter festival. Some of them are from the colonies, and the orbital paths of their home-worlds don’t line up in any meaningful sense with the Terran northern hemisphere; Ensign Camberwell, for instance, has been in the service for three and a half solar years now, while his home planet has completed less than a quarter circuit around its distant star. His birth certificate lists him as almost two years old. Lieutenant Abukara, on the other hand, was born on Atarashi Nihon, where a rather extreme nutation of the planet’s axial tilt renders the seasons somewhat unpredictable. She has celebrated winter equinox twice in the past six months, but doesn’t expect another in the next five years. Other colonies, such as Sigma Gallia IX and Biederman’s Planet, take roughly one solar year to orbit their sun but peak at different periods, so that midwinter on the former generally falls somewhere in March, and on the latter is anywhere from late June until mid-July.

 

They are the exceptions, though. No one’s exactly averse to throwing a party every couple of months to make sure everyone on the ship is covered, but December is the month when it begins to get serious. Mistletoe starts turning up over the doors to the mess hall. A shrine is erected to Ganapati in one of the meditation rooms and incense dances on the air, twisted into fragrant eddies with every step. Chanukkiyot and kinara appear on rec room tables, and some evenings they are the only light source in the room, simulated flames licking arcane shadows up the darkened walls while the crew chat softly at their leisure or sit in contemplative silence. Lussekatt and tangyuan and vadai appear on the synthesizer programs, and festive garlands compete with kente cloths in a joyful explosion of color wherever the eye falls. It’s not quite the quiet, snow-spun Presbyterian Christmas of Kirk’s childhood, but it’s magical in its own chaotic, ebullient, cacophonous way, and he’d cheerfully risk court martial to defend it from the worriers in Starfleet HQ who spend five weeks of every year panicking that someone’s going to get offended by something.

 

As captain, he’s required to show his face at the various celebrations and know enough about what’s happening at each one as will allow him to avoid any major faux pas, but he stands slightly apart from all of them, and that’s the way it should be. The two years he was on Earth, he dutifully returned to Iowa on December 24th and hightailed it back to San Francisco with indecent haste two days later, but, aside from that, it’s a long time since Kirk has had the luxury of shore leave over the midwinter celebrations. Vulcan follows an entirely different calendar to Earth, of course, but he’s always imagined that it’s much the same for his first officer, when he’s imagined it at all. It’s not that Kirk gave no thought to Vulcan festivities before they bonded, it’s just that he’s always got the impression there weren’t any, and Spock has never exactly encouraged idle speculation about his cultural heritage. So it comes as something of a surprise to discover that not only does Kirk need to revisit his opinions on Vulcans, parties, and the predisposition of the former to the latter, but that his first officer has been actively avoiding a major annual event on his home calendar for as many years as Kirk has known him, with the same diligent attention to detail that he applies to everything that he considers important. Oh, and he’s decided that he wants to go this year.

 

“It is the vokaya farr,” he says, standing poker straight in the center of Kirk’s quarters, hands folded neatly behind his back. A beat. “I have consulted the duty roster for the period in question and there are no logistical objections.”

 

Kirk resists the urge to point out that this is hardly surprising, given that the duty rosters are created at the first officer’s instruction and signed off by him. Nor does he utter the words fait accompli, although he is sorely tempted. But he does feel that it’s appropriate to remind the man with whom he shares his life and a sizable portion of his conscious thought that Spock’s not the only person in the room who can speak more than one language.

 

“The Time of Memory?” he says, with an open-faced smile that’s designed to fool precisely no one. “I don’t believe I’ve heard you mention that before.”

 

Spock hesitates. It’s the tiniest fraction of a pause, but it’s impossible to miss.

 

“It is many years since I have celebrated the ceremony on Vulcan,” he says slowly, which is an answer to something, certainly, but not the question implicit in Kirk’s statement.

 

So why now? It’s on Kirk’s lips, lined up and ready to be spoken, but he catches it before it can escape. The fact is, he doesn’t need to ask; he knows the answer. It’s different now because this year is different. They are different, both of them. So much has changed in the past four months that it’s difficult, some days, to believe that they are the same men who set out from Spacedock more than eight years ago. Every morning, without fail, Kirk wakes to the presence of a warm, angular body in the bed beside him and his breath catches in his throat, because it doesn’t get any easier to believe that his friend is back, and that he wants Kirk with the same kind of hollowed-out, covetous ache that barely lets them tumble through the door of his quarters at the close of shift before distracted hands are tearing at each other’s uniforms. It’s a good thing that it turns out it’s possible to command a starship in a permanent post-coital haze, because otherwise they’d all be in trouble.

 

So, no, there’s no need to ask. Spock has softened around the edges, but he’s still trying to fit into his new skin; Kirk understands that because he hasn’t quite ironed out all the kinks yet himself. This has to be learned.

 

Besides which, Spock’s face remains impressively inscrutable, but there’s a palpable and steadily-increasing spike of something discordant bleeding across the bond. Kirk hasn’t mastered the subtle art of decoding the hazy threads of thought transference yet, but he’s been practicing the subtle art of decoding Spock for much longer. He knows a thing or two about Vulcan prevaricatory tactics.

 

“Well,” he says lightly, “no doubt it’ll be an improvement on replicated turkey and Scotty’s bagpipe recital. Lord knows, I didn’t miss that while I was grounded.” He flashes a smile, though he can tell by the way the steady whine of discomfort inside his skull barely flutters that it hasn’t succeeded in disguising the trace irritation that prickles just beneath his skin. It’s possible that this is not a new development - this complete and total inability to have emotional secrets from his first officer - it’s just that it was easier to manage before he knew about it. “Very well. Send the forms to my terminal; I’ll sign them off.”

 

Spock nods. “Admiral,” he says, and he takes his leave.

 

Kirk sits for a moment in the silence of his quarters, staring blankly at a screenful of deuterium spoilage figures. His right hand toys absently with a stylus that’s resting on the desk, fingers twisting and sliding along the narrow strip before he realizes, abruptly, what his unconscious is trying to simulate and stops. It’s not as though he doesn’t know he’s going too; it’s only that he’d prefer to pretend that he has some say in the matter, and a part of him that doesn’t exactly make him luminous with pride would like to actually be asked, instead of tacked onto the package as though he were a necessary piece of equipment that mustn’t be left behind. He’s the captain of a damn starship. He’s a Starfleet admiral. People throw functions in his honor, and the fact that he hates it when they do that is tangential to the point of the present debate.

 

Plus, it’s a few years since Kirk’s had cause to be in Sarek’s company, and that was before he was sleeping with the man’s only son. There has, to date, been no comment from the ambassador’s residence on the subject of their bonding, which Spock has taken in stride, but Kirk can’t imagine it bodes well for familial relations with the in-laws.

 

It could be a long vacation.

 

 

*

 

 

Spock accepted the logic of joint showers with alacrity in the first days of their relationship, although he has a tendency to complain about the water when he’s tired. Kirk lets it slide, mostly because he was expecting more of a battle, and this seems like an easy win. But his companion is quiet tonight as they wash away the evidence of their lovemaking, suds frosting the dark hair of his chest and pale skin slick and almost luminous beneath its sheen of water. He’s not usually given to conversational repartee while he’s focused on the serious business of bodily ablutions, but neither is he generally completely silent. It’s like showering beside a greenish monolith with faint residual priapism.

 

Kirk says nothing, but makes a point of pressing his body against Spock’s as he reaches behind him for the sponge. It usually does the trick; when Spock is chewing something over, he has a tendency to forget that there’s someone else present, and it often speeds things along to remind him.

 

“You experienced pain today,” he says, sure enough, as Kirk works cloth and soap into a foamy lather and sets to scrubbing at his underarms beneath a jet of tepid water.

 

Ah. So that’s what that sudden spike of anxiety in the transporter room was about. The headache had been settled in for some hours by the time Spock beamed back up with the away team; it hadn’t occurred to Kirk to connect the one with the other.

 

“It was nothing,” he says lightly, and he’s not dissembling: compared to the blinding, searing, white-hot pain that sliced through his skull every time they moved out of each other’s immediate vicinity in the earliest days of their bonding, today’s low-level, background throb really was nothing extraordinary. It’s a sign of just how comfortably everything is settling. “Bones gave me a hypo; I hardly noticed.”

 

“Nevertheless…” says Spock, but Kirk silences him with a soggy eyebrow, turned over his shoulder.

 

“Nevertheless,” says Kirk, “it’s a marked improvement on last time, correct? I think we’re getting the hang of this.”

 

“There should not be pain,” says Spock, with immutable Vulcan obstinacy.

 

Kirk reaches out and hits the manual cut-off switch. The water abruptly stops.

 

“I don’t particularly feel like having this conversation again,” he says pleasantly, and steps out of the cubicle. Steam billows out with him, but the bathroom air is cool and damp. “There shouldn’t be, but there is,” he calls over his shoulder as he pads through to Spock’s quarters, where a wave of heat hits him full in the face like a wall. “I thought we’d agreed that there was nothing to do but wait it out? It’s getting better, after all.”

 

It’s also the principle reason that Kirk’s overnight bag is packed and stowed alongside Spock’s at the foot of his bed, ready for transport to Vulcan tomorrow along with the Enterprise’s vacationing captain and first officer. It’s not likely that Kirk would have excluded himself from the trip, given the choice… but there’s that operative word again: choice. The fact is that the bond they share is a source of transcendent joy and unparalleled connection, but… it’s an adjustment. It’s an effort for his center of self to make space for another consciousness, and it’s taking a while for things to resolve. When they’re together, it’s as though there’s a current of pure contentment feeding his frontal cortex and it’s as much as Kirk can do sometimes to keep his beatific smile at bay. His temper is slower to fire and his thoughts are sharper; Bones has even, grudgingly, conceded a marked improvement in the admiral’s blood pressure and general holistic health. But there’s currently a limit as to how far Spock can travel without Kirk before the absence starts to be… problematic.

 

Ergo: Vulcan. Still, it’s got to be better than Riverside.

 

Probably.

 

They’re not going to Sarek’s house; Spock has assured him of that, with something like relief in the depths of his own, scrupulously impassive eyes. It will be more like a clan gathering, he says, on the ancient lands of his family. Not the place of koon-ut-kal-if-fee either, he made certain to specify, presumably in response to the sharp, prickling horror that accompanied the logical progression of Kirk’s thoughts; rather, the clan lands of the vokaya farr are determined by matrilineal succession, or, since Amanda is, of course, clanless on Vulcan, in their case, they will be traveling south to the lands of her ko-kai t’dor, a sort of honorary Vulcan sister, whose family unofficially adopted Spock’s mother when she chose to call their planet her own.

 

Kirk scrubs the worst of the water out of his hair and throws the towel in the cycler, before pulling the sheets back and settling himself on the mattress. Spock gave up complaining about damp pillows the same night he realized they’d be sleeping on irregular patches of cooling semen; he has made vague comments about the logic of washing after sex only to sleep in a soiled bed, but the wonderful, the truly magnificent thing is, if it really bothered him, Kirk would know. He’d know and they would fix it, but it doesn’t, so they don’t have to. Spock climbs into bed now, still moist and faintly perfumed from their shower, and his hair is slightly askew where it has been disturbed at some point in his walk from the bathroom. These are the moments that knock Kirk’s breath from his lungs, and he sees Spock quirk an eyebrow at the warm, joyful smile that spreads slowly across the admiral’s face at the sight of his second-in-command, naked and glorious, moving towards him.

 

“It’s nothing,” says Kirk as the brow continues its relentless interrogation onto the mattress and the pillow beside him. “A stray thought; nothing more.” He leans over, presses a kiss to the soft, cool flesh of Spock’s lips. “It’ll be a long day tomorrow,” he adds. “We’d better get some sleep.”

 

 

 

*

 

 

T’Mira and her husband, Sonal, have a home in the center of Vulcana Regar, but her family lands are further south, along the Na’ree River Valley, and the coordinates that Spock specifies materialize them in the transporter room of an upmarket lodging house in the port town of E’shanah. Kirk turns a grin that he doesn’t quite feel over his shoulder towards his taciturn companion, nods his brief thanks to the youth who has moved elegantly forward to retrieve their luggage, and steps off the pad and into his lover’s world.

 

The air is clearer, fresher, than Kirk remembers it from their last visit, but that could just as easily be a trick of pathetic fallacy and Human emotional resonance. Either way, it’s a refreshing change from the recycled atmosphere-substitute on board his ship, with its permanent faint odor of plastic and ozone, and he sucks in a deep lungful of it now as he follows their host from the room and into a wide, airy pergola. On one side, the path opens onto a spacious, tree-lined courtyard, and on the other to a sharp cliff that looks out onto the sparkling azure of the Voroth Sea and the jagged, red-brown spikes of the Vor’kuvtra archipelago. A thin breeze barely stirs the dust as it twists lethargically over the flagstones: it smells of salt, of blossom, and heat tempered only by the proximity of water.

 

Their room is small but comfortably appointed, with a large, floor-to-ceiling window that looks out over the steep descent into the town. There are two beds. Kirk is not entirely sure what to make of this, but he pointedly kicks off his boots next to Spock’s feet as his bondmate lowers himself onto the nearest mattress and, after a moment, strips off his tunic in the sweltering, cloistered heat and tosses it onto the thin sheets.

 

Spock glances up. “The temperature discomforts you?”

 

Not only the temperature, but it feels like the wrong moment to voice that thought. Kirk lowers himself onto the bed beside his First and stifles a sigh. “A little,” he says.

 

A nod. “This is often the case.” Spock’s hands are folded in his lap, his spine is poker straight, and his gaze is fixed rigidly at a point on the floor. Kirk has not seen him so closed off since his unexpected appearance, all Vulcan-robed austerity, on the bridge of the Enterprise that first morning of the V’Ger mission. He fights the urge to ask him if he’s all right - Spock does not particularly approve of redundancy, and he especially doesn’t care to have his attention drawn to any emotional leakage - but instead he reaches out, closes his fingers over Spock’s. Anxiety spikes between them, fizzles dangerously, and settles into a background hum of uncertainty and vague comfort.

 

“I’m going to take a shower,” says Kirk. He stands, turns over his shoulder to glance down at his bondmate. “Are you coming?”

 

“Thank you,” says Spock, “but I believe I must meditate.”

 

 

*

 

 

As late afternoon drops the midwinter sun low on the horizon and slows the heat to a lazy, syrupy crawl, they travel the short distance to the flat scrubland by the river mouth, where a ring of torches, flickering listlessly beneath an apathetic sea breeze, describes an elegant campsite pitched with perhaps twenty-five, thirty canvas shelters. The sky hums with activity, aircruisers moving restlessly in an endless grid above them, and theirs is not the only vehicle to descend on the circle of fire in the coarse, loamy sand of the estuary banks; Kirk counts three others, and a fourth that rises, emptied of its passengers, as their doors slide open onto the wide, brush-scattered flats.

 

Spock unfolds himself stiffly, as though he’s made of jointed metal, and reaches out a hand, almost absently, in the ozh’esta. Kirk looks at the outstretched fingers and purses his lips. They are not, typically, inclined towards demonstrative affection in public, and this feels… forced, as though it’s for the benefit of others. But, even as the words enter his conscious thought, he realizes that this is exactly what it’s for: because they are bonded, because this is what’s expected, and because this is Vulcan, where how you do something is almost as important as whether or not you do it at all. He knows that Spock is acutely aware of his reluctance, even without the sullen note of irritation that flashes between them, mostly because he knows that Spock is no happier about the state of affairs than Kirk, but he is on Spock’s world now, and the usual rules, temporarily, do not apply. So Kirk clears his throat, a pointed gesture designed to telegraph any final measure of discontent that might still be hiding behind a veneer of politesse, and joins his hand to his bondmate’s.

 

It feels, he thinks, like junior high all over again. But something settles between them, and that’s enough for now.

 

Thus appropriately outfitted, they approach the camp. Close to, the heat from the torches weaves a stifling blanket with the afternoon thermals rising from the ground, and Kirk feels a thin sheen of sweat slick his skin beneath the loose cotton robes that he’s donned in deference to tradition and - more pressingly - the Vulcan climate. The fabric feels coarse and alien against his flesh, admitting a thick, turgid breeze that clings to the moisture on his thighs and his belly with every step, prickling his protesting skin, and, though the robes are considerably more comfortable than the uniform he wore for beam-down, he is acutely aware of the absence of pants.

 

They make their way through a forest of guy-ropes and into the central circle, glimpsed briefly from the cruiser as they descended to the ground, and alive now with quiet activity. Kirk grew up in rural Iowa; he has spent a healthy portion of his youth beneath canvas, burrowed into a sleeping bag with a brother or a friend by his side and loons crying in the darkness, and he has a very specific picture in his head of what camping for pleasure - as opposed to camping planetside while he waits for his crew to mount a rescue mission - is supposed to look like. This is not it. He’s certain that there ought to be an air of cheerful transgression to the assembled crowd, a sort of satisfaction at the inversion of normal affairs, and a general inclination towards whisky, canned food, and, possibly, song. At the very least, somebody ought to be eating something made from corn syrup. Instead, there are three distinct groups sitting quietly in afternoon meditation; a group of seven children, cross-legged on the sand, peering intently at a holographic games board of some persuasion as one of their number moves a shimmering, egg-shaped counter three places to the right; a young father mind-melding with a fractious toddler; various adults bustling past with the air of those engaged in serious and important business; and a group of elderly women reading quietly beneath the shade of a wide awning that fronts one of the smaller tents.

 

Kirk purses his lips around an escaping grin and feels Spock’s quirk-eyebrowed question hover, unspoken between them. He shakes his head to dispel the interrogative glance and says, quietly, “What happens now?”

 

“The formalities have not yet begun,” says Spock. “We are at liberty until sundown.”

 

Liberty - true liberty - would involve a cold shower, a cool, dark room, and a bottomless jug of iced tea, but Kirk will take the privacy of a tent and the absence of a Vulcan sun. Besides, Spock has contained his rising discomfort behind an immaculate facade of blank-faced serenity, but anxiety, jagged and insistent, is bleeding through the bond and clouding the edges of Kirk’s thoughts.

 

So he flashes a warm smile at his companion and hopes it speaks the words he wants it to say, the ones that answer a question that Spock will never so much as acknowledge, let alone ask. “Very well,” says Kirk. “I guess we should check out our quarters. I believe I have a crash course in vokaya farr to get through before supper.”

 

 

*

 

As the sun finally sinks below the distant horizon, frosting the restless ocean in shades of amber and saffron, the lengthening shadows slice through the heat, and Kirk follows Spock out of their tent and into the center of the ring of torches. The darkening air is cooler now, chilled to a pleasant summer’s day, and alive with the spicy fragrance of a dozen different meals that simmer in pots over the cooking stoves scattered beneath awnings around the corral. The population has swollen as the dusk has deepened, and the campground buzzes now with soft conversation, the passage of feet, life flowing from point to point across the wide circle, like the heartbeat of a large, unwieldy beast. It’s not quite a party, not as Kirk would define it, but there’s an unmistakable atmosphere of… not excitement - he hesitates to use the word even in the privacy of his head, now that his head is no longer entirely private - but perhaps… anticipation? It doesn’t quite satisfy, but he can’t put his finger on why, and he can’t come any closer. Anticipation. It will have to do.

 

Galactic space is not exactly abundant with Vulcan delicacies, but Scotty has persuaded the synthesizers in the officers’ mess to fabricate something that Spock has proclaimed not entirely unlike k’vass, and apparently, this is a safer option than the abortive ameelah experiment, which ended up looking like burnt carpet tiles and smelling considerably worse. Kirk has no basis for comparison, but he understands that ameelah is supposed to be a dessert of some description, and he can’t imagine that anyone has ever deliberately created a festive dainty that resembles some kind of industrial waste. Spock is not happy with their contribution to the table, but he’s a man of logic, and he knows when technology has beaten him. Kirk suspects that, come the New Year, he will lose his lover to the inner workings of the synthesizer control banks for however long it takes him to reorient their calibrations to his satisfaction, but, he supposes, that’s the sort of Vulcan obsession he ought to encourage. Everyone benefits in the end.

 

Spock’s parents had planned to arrive by lunchtime but were delayed in ShiKahr, which is a development that has provoked comment from neither their son nor his bondmate, but which has prompted a mutual whisper of satisfaction across the link that neither of them has acknowledged. As they cross to the spreading gadzhak table, however, a sudden spike of discord from the bondsite tugs Kirk’s head around to follow his companion’s gaze, and his eyes fall on the unmistakable figure of Vulcan’s Ambassador to Earth, poker straight and austere, nodding stiffly in response to a particularly garrulous gentleman of middle years. To one side, partially shadowed in the torchlight, his wife regards him with frank amusement disguised as careful attention.

 

There is, of course, no word in Standard to describe the sensation of someone else’s sigh, or the mental equivalent thereof, echoing in one’s brain; it’s not an experience for which Humanity has frequently required linguistic tools. Kirk clears his throat to dispel the creeping sense of spiders inside his skull, shifts his bottle of k’vass beneath his right arm, and, with a kind of weary resignation, reaches out his left hand in the ozh’esta. Spock meets it with neither antipathy nor any particular enthusiasm, and, armored once more against disapproval, they make their way towards the small crowd.

 

Amanda sees them first, and her face breaks into a wide, unrestrained smile.

 

“Spock!” she cries, clapping her hands to her chest. It’s a curiously diffident gesture, and Kirk finds himself wondering if it’s designed to leash some less socially acceptable urge to reach for her child, to pull him to her the way another Human mother might. He returns her smile, although it’s manifestly aimed exclusively at Spock, as Sarek makes his apologies to the man who has him cornered, and turns, slowly, like shifting granite in the shadows.

 

“My son,” he says, and nods.

 

If Amanda registers the chill in her husband’s voice, she gives no sign. There’s a restless energy humming around her, as though she’s lit from within by some kind of hyper-kinetic joy, but she keeps it tightly bound beneath a flawless veneer of propriety as she turns to Kirk.

 

“Welcome, Captain,” she says warmly.

 

“Admiral,” corrects the Ambassador. He inclines his head in Kirk’s direction. “We honor your achievements, son of the house of Sarek.”

 

Kirk returns the gesture. “Thank you,” he says. He’s 90% certain it was a compliment, but, truthfully, only because Amanda’s beatific smile has widened.

 

“Admiral. Of course. Forgive me,” she says pleasantly.

 

Kirk smiles smoothly. “Perhaps we’d be safer with ‘Jim’,” he says.

 

“Very well,” she says. “Jim. We’re so pleased you could be here.”

 

Kirk’s not entirely sure who that’s addressed to, so he nods and glances meaningfully at his silent bondmate who, to his credit, animates sufficiently to answer, “You honor us with your invitation.”

 

“Your honor is due to T’Mira,” answers Sarek. “And to her fore-fore-mother, who awaits your greeting.”

 

“I am aware of the protocol,” says Spock. “V’Shevik was resting when we arrived. We will greet her at the ceremony.”

 

“You will present your bondmate?”

 

“I will.”

 

“And is he aware of the proper customs?” asks Sarek, as though there’s no one else present. Kirk clears his throat.

 

“I prefer to be addressed directly, Ambassador,” he says. He keeps his voice as level as he can, but there’s no disguising the layer of umbrage hidden just beneath the surface.

 

Sarek blinks, and twists his head, fractionally, so that he’s looking at his son-in-law. There’s a long, evaluative moment of silence.

 

“My apologies, Admiral,” he says, as it’s just beginning to edge into uncomfortable. “I simply wished to ensure that my son had conveyed sufficient instruction to you in our traditions.”

 

This would, in fact, be the first time anyone has so much as mentioned presenting Admiral Kirk to anyone, but he’s not about to admit that.

 

“He has,” says Kirk. He could wish that Spock’s eyebrow had not arched at quite that particular moment, but Sarek’s not looking at his son, at least.

 

“Very well.” A patrician nod. “Observance is an important element of our ceremony, Admiral. It would be… an unfortunate reflection on our house, should there be any breach of protocol.”

 

Given that Kirk is not entirely certain that he and Spock will even get another moment alone before the ceremony starts, let alone any chance to discuss what the proper etiquette might be when he’s presented to V’Shevik, it’s nothing but bloody-minded obstinacy that makes him answer, “I’ll endeavor to avoid bringing shame upon the family, Ambassador.” And it’s sheer belligerence that causes him to add, “Am I to understand that you have some reservations?”

 

Sarek offers an impassive stare. “Naturally,” he says, as though he’s not quite sure he’s understood the question.

 

“I see,” says Kirk. He sucks in a breath, though it does nothing to temper his rising irritation. He can feel the first notes of interrogative consternation trickling across the bond, though they’re modest enough to ignore for now. “Have I given you some reason to doubt my capabilities, Ambassador?”

 

“On the contrary,” says Sarek. “You are unusually gifted among the Humans of my acquaintance, Admiral Kirk. Nevertheless…”

 

“Nevertheless,” says Kirk. “among the Humans of my acquaintance, we call that ‘damning with faint praise’, Ambassador Sarek.”

 

A beat. “It was not my intention to offend you,” says Sarek, and he’s almost certainly telling the truth. It’s only that he seems to lack even the most rudimentary conception of where offense is likely to be taken. Kirk finds himself wondering, not for the first time, how Amanda tolerates him.

 

But now is hardly the time. Even if Spock hadn’t tilted his head to regard his bondmate with what feels like needles of rising alarm shot directly into his psi-center, it’s supposed to be a festival. And, in case he’d happened to forget that fact some time in the moments between leaving their tent to contribute a bottle of celebratory Vulcan booze to the feast table and taking their place alongside the massing ranks of seven generations of Amanda’s adoptive clan, all decked out in their best and least solemn robes, a single, dolorous clang of a gong sounds from somewhere amongst the canvas, billowing into the encroaching night and chasing a flock of unseen creatures by the river into a noisy, scattered ascent. The festivities have started.

 

So Kirk makes himself swallow his annoyance, bury it beneath many years’ training in the arts of diplomatic smoke and mirrors. He smiles tightly and he says, “There can be no offense where none is taken, Ambassador.”

 

It’s not enough to lay the bones of the argument to rest, but it’s enough to patch over the cracks for now. And isn’t that what the holidays are all about?

 

 

*

 

The torches cast a dome of flickering orange over the camp, veiling the emerging stars behind a hazy wall of light, as they take their place in the expanding circle of families that is forming just inside the ring of fire. Kirk finds himself on the edge of their group, standing to the right of Spock, who has placed himself between his bondmate and his parents, though whether this is by protocol or simply as a living buffer against the residual animosity is impossible to say. Kirk turns his head to nod a greeting to the woman by his side, but, though she raises an eyebrow in either surprise or acknowledgment, she says nothing. It’s possible he’s committed a grave breach of etiquette, he supposes, though he’s fairly certain it would be exasperation, rather than gentle amusement, that would prickle the edges of the bond link if he had.

 

In the center of the corral, bounded from the dusty estuary floor by an ancient circle of stones, is a shallow pit, blackened with many years’ use, and surrounded by four smaller torches, unlit, and louring in the darkness. Kirk has yet to be introduced to V’Shevik, but it doesn’t take any particularly acute deductive reasoning to determine the identity of the woman who enters the arena now, to a kind of hushed, expectant silence from the assembled crowd: tall, but stooped with age, hair as white as the light of the Watcher, face so lined with wrinkles that it seems to have collapsed in on itself, like a peach left out too long in the midday sun. She shuffles forwards, one hand leaning heavily on a cane, the other gripping the arm of a man many years her junior - too young to be a husband, too fair-skinned to be a son; Kirk guesses he must be the bondmate of one of the many grandchildren or great-grandchildren who watch from the patchy shadows. He carries a burning taper in his free hand and a small urn, awkwardly, in the hand that supports the elder.

 

Kirk glances quietly around the circle as they shuffle forwards towards the central pit. The air is sharp with something that smells distinctly similar to gasoline, drifting in fits on the lethargic breeze and, though most eyes are fixed on the arena, he has the sense that he’s watched, surreptitiously, from behind the curtain of shadow that shrouds the far side of the assembly. He’s used to being known, or at least renowned, on Federal worlds; it’s just something that goes with the territory, he guesses, and, if he feels no particular need to either accept it or embrace it, it makes no sense to resent it either. But this is different. He’d be very surprised to learn that anyone gathered in the circle tonight is in any way enamored of his presence or his achievements; he suspects that they just want to know why he’s here.

 

They’re not the only ones, of course. He’d quite like to know the answer to that himself. But he pushes the thought aside, fixes his eyes ahead, focuses instead on the tableau unfolding in the quiet, flickering darkness before him.

 

By the circle of stones, the younger man has just finished touching the taper to the gas-soaked torches, and they spring to light with a faint, combustive whoomph. V’Shevik takes her time orienting herself in the absence of her sentient arm-rest, re-centering her gravity over the cane beneath her left hand, and he waits until she has settled before he reaches out his hand, palm upturned, cupping the urn. She takes it from him with trembling fingers, sucks in a breath that distends her bowed shoulders and puffs out her chest, then tilts her head up towards the sky.

 

Na’shaya, pi-maat t’nash-veh,” she says in a loud, clear voice - thinned by age, trembling slightly, but confident, fortified by the kind of easy self-assurance that comes from many years of the world’s working exactly the way it’s supposed to. A shaking hand turns through 180 degrees above the pit, upending the contents of the urn into the dark trench. “Kal’voh palikau vokaya farr.”

 

Another boom from the gong agitates the still air, and the first of the families steps forward: an elderly woman, younger than V’Shevik but not by much, flanked by a man of similar years and followed by an assortment of daughters, their bondmates, their children and grandchildren. By bonded pair, they step up to the pit and greet V’Shevik with el’ru’esta or with ta’al, on bent knee where age and agility permit, or with a simple, deferent bend of the head where muscular flexibility is likely to prove capricious. She’s swaying a little already, as though her spine is reluctant to support her weight, but the only acknowledgment comes in the form of a steadying hand from her companion, surreptitiously offered and accepted with manifest reluctance. Kirk thinks he recognizes that measure of stubborn, immutable pride, the kind you could bounce rocks off, the kind that will admit to nothing, regardless of the evidence, and warmth pools in his belly, tugging at the corners of his lips. His eyes flicker sideways to the tall, shadowed figure by his side, all angles and sharp, aquiline contours frosted by the coruscating yellow torchlight, and he finds himself wondering, vaguely, about the acoustic properties of canvas; or, more specifically, about the level of sound it can be relied upon to contain. Drawn by the sharp spike of arousal, or perhaps only by the sense that he’s being watched, Spock’s head tilts, fractionally, towards Kirk, eyes sliding sideways to meet his lover’s, and he straightens, shifts his stance, in a way that tells Kirk he’s understood the nature of his thoughts very well. Kirk drops his eyes, grins into the dark, dusty sands.

 

There are perhaps fifteen separate familial groups present at the circle. Amanda’s is presided over by the youngest matriarch, and so, by tradition, they are the last to approach the circle of stones, which is now completely occluded by a tide of bodies, haloed by the low light of the central torches. Spock reaches out a diffident hand as they fall into step behind his parents, fingers outstretched, and Kirk completes the ozh’esta with a due sense of obligation and weary performativity; accommodating his partner is one thing, but he’s certain that Spock is no more comfortable with the arrangement than he is himself, and Kirk has never been one for false decorum. This touch that links them ought to be a source of pride, of glorious affirmation, after all those years of uncertainty and longing. Instead it feels… reductive, as though they’re children dancing to someone else’s tune.

 

The crowd parts to let them through, and the air in the center of the ring of bodies is alive with the perfume of a hundred fragrant fire-oils, hovering on the still night air and clamoring for recognition. They twist against the sensitive receptors inside Kirk’s nostrils, inundating and overloading his olfactory system, which screams a protest and tries to make him loose a wholly inappropriate sneeze. He clears his throat, blinking rapidly to dispel the flood of water that washes his irritated eyes, and drops to his knees with Spock and his family, free hand raised in the ta’al.

 

“Welcome, daughter of Saramis,” says V’Shevik. The dialect she speaks is not far removed from Spock’s native tongue, bar a slight difference in the pronunciation of certain words, and Kirk finds that he follows it easily enough. “And welcome to your family.”

 

“Thank you, honored one,” answers Amanda in flawless Vulcan. “We come to serve.”

 

“Your service honors us,”says V’Shevik. “Who do you bring with you?”

 

“I present my son’s bondmate, honored one,” says Amanda, and it’s just possible that a hint of pride colors her words. Or perhaps it’s only that they’re not spoken in V’Shevik’s disinterested monotone, the one that’s making Kirk feel distinctly as though he might as well not be here. “He is James Kirk.”

 

“Come forward, James Kirk,” says V’Shevik, which is, he supposes, the logical next step; he could have worked that one out, had he taken the time to think through how this was likely to play. Still, he can’t quite banish all traces of reluctance from his bearing as he gets slowly to his feet, moves forward the three steps to the clan matriarch through a suffocating blanket of scent, and drops, on brief reflection, back to his knees. Close to, he can see the strain in her limbs, the tiny tremor of her robes as protesting joints labor to keep her upright. She drops her eyes to regard him for one long, uncomfortable moment and he feels himself bristling under her scrutiny, feels the eyes of the assembled families on him, as they wait for her to speak. Then she says, quietly, “You are human.”

 

It’s hardly the keenest of observations, nor did she need him to kneel in front of her to establish this fact beyond reasonable doubt. He answers, simply, “Yes.”

 

A beat. Then she nods.

 

“It is a good match,” she says and Kirk, unseen, blinks away his surprise. “Welcome, son of the house of Sarek.” An unsteady hand rises, gestures towards the slick walls of the pit. “Join us as we mix the ceremonial oils.”

 

It’s so completely unexpected that Kirk finds himself turning an uncertain head over his shoulder to meet Spock’s eyes, which widen meaningfully in an uncharacteristically Human gesture of chagrin. Chastened, Kirk rises, slowly, taking the time to ensure that Spock’s parents are already on the ascent, and he stalls, brushing sand from his robes where they’ve been pressed into the dusty earth. When he looks up, Amanda is holding out an urn to him with a smile on her face.

 

“Take it, dear,” she says, in quiet Standard. “V’Shevik has asked you to pour it.”

 

He has the sense of some kind of honor very pointedly bestowed, though it’s slightly lost on him if he doesn’t understand the significance. But he takes the vessel from her, as the crushing weight of ferocious scrutiny bores holes in the back of his skull, and crosses to stand beside Spock at the edge of the circle of stones. Here, he hesitates. It didn’t seem that difficult when he was watching everyone else, but, then again, they’ve been doing this for years; they’d know if there was some kind of traditional high-ceremonial arm-flick designed to obviate any implied slander against the matriarch, her immediate family, or the Vulcan people as a whole. All he noticed was a lot of people tipping oil into a hole in the ground.

 

In a low voice, as his hand hovers over the trench, Kirk mutters, “For pity’s sake, tell me if I’m about to do this wrong.”

 

“I will,” says Spock, with conviction. It’s categorical enough to counter any lingering doubts clouding the edges of Kirk’s confidence; after all, Spock is every bit as invested as Kirk is in making sure his bondmate doesn’t screw this up. Maybe it is just a question of upending an urn. Kirk hopes so; it’s basically all he’s got.

 

He purses his lips and tips the beaker sideways. Thick, viscous liquid flashes in the half-light, tumbling out of sight into the oleaginous blackness. The universe holds its breath. Realistically, it’s not possible that ages pass, that stars form in the hearts of distant nebula, that protomatter congeals into planets that orbit, spin and die. But Einstein’s theory of relativity has nothing on a circle full of shadowed Vulcans and an ancient, hallowed ritual torn from the mists of time.

 

Rom,” says V’Shevik at last, and Kirk’s inner diplomat releases a long, shaky sigh. He glances at Spock, who nods faintly.

 

Satisfied, the elder turns to the crowd. “The oil is poured,” she says, in ancient, formal Vulcan. Her hands tighten on her cane, feet shifting arthritically against the sand as she turns, slowly, through ninety degrees, one-twenty, one-fifty; a laconic arc that takes in the entirety of the circle. Then, in her usual dialect, she asks, “Who among us will light the fire?”

 

It’s a clear dismissal, though sophistically articulated. Forgotten for now, Kirk takes a step back from the circle of stones as a sea of hands erupts from the assembled children. It’s not quite a clamor - there’s not a sound to be heard, although half a dozen of the youngest members of the party have reached for their tip-toes - but the air has abruptly shifted, as though a buried seam of juvenile excitement has ignited.

 

“No one?” says V’Shevik, and Kirk’s brow furrows. If she were any race but Vulcan, he’d be describing her voice as monotone, but, comparatively speaking, she sounds… giddy. And the question isn’t precisely logical, given the massive - and slightly hysterical - response. “No one?” she asks again, in what might pass for affronted surprise amongst those who habitually deny the presence of any kind of inflection in their daily speech. “None among us will light the fire?

 

Kirk glances around him at the tide of small hands, feeling slightly unbalanced, as the arm-waving steps up a notch, edging towards politely frantic. He’s not quite sure what just happened, but it sounds like… fun? A sidelong glance at Spock, arms folded neatly behind his back and face set in stoic indifference, is unhelpful, but a small softening around his companion’s eyes tells him that his efforts towards non-engagement are largely for show.

 

As the smallest members of the congregation escalate their desperation into a kind of a hopping dance, to the stone-faced consternation of their elders, V’Shevik relents and reaches into the pocket of her robe for a supply of fresh tapers, which disappear into the crowd like breadcrumbs beneath a flock of pigeons. The adults have taken a step backwards now, as the children begin forming themselves into a very Vulcan line behind the tallest of their number, who is reaching up even now to light his taper from the torch by V’Shevik’s head.

 

“It is a great honor to be the first to cast the flame into the fire pit,” says Spock, in a low tone, and there’s a fondness in his voice that turns Kirk’s head towards him. His First is not smiling, of course, but his face has softened, lost in memory. A low whoosh from the circle of stones and flames leap upwards, a gentle explosion of light that haloes the heads of the assembled youths. “It falls to the eldest unbonded child; however, all may participate. The lighted tapers symbolize their membership within the clan’s collective memory.” A beat. “It was something to which I looked forward with great anticipation.”

 

Which is, Kirk supposes, Spock’s way of saying that not everything in his childhood was misery and non-conformity. He risks a half-glance sideways at his bondmate’s parents, who are watching the growing conflagration with expressions, variously, of bland indifference and rapturous delight. It’s Amanda’s face that confirms Kirk’s growing suspicion. On Earth, she would have hung a stocking over the fireplace for her son, made snow angels in the front yard, pasted together a gingerbread house; on Vulcan, she has the vokaya farr and a fire pit fed by tapers dropped from excitable small hands. And the look in her eyes - warm affection, vicarious joy - tells him what he needs to know.

 

Now it feels like a party.

 

 

*

 

 

The feasting lasts until dawn, though the youngest children are ushered off to bed well before the small hours grow long, and, in any case, “feast” is not entirely accurate when applied to Vulcan festivities. There is an abundance of food, certainly, and it is sumptuously flavored in a manner that is consistent with high ceremony, but it is ostentatious only inasmuch as it has a slightly higher saturated fat content than the nutritionally balanced meal that they were served at lunch.

 

The k’vass seems to be popular, though. Kirk accepts a glass from Amanda as they file past the gadzhak table to place sensible portions of high-fiber, low-sucrose comestibles on their earthenware plates, and finds it, quite unexpectedly, to be reminiscent of buttered rum, which is certainly not what he’d call sensible fare. Sarek abstains, but Spock, presumably to show willing, since he’s responsible for the stuff, sips conservatively at a small beaker over a period of several hours, and gradually loses a little of his habitual rigidity as the liquid disperses. By the time they make their excuses and absent themselves to the privacy of their tent, his ozh’esta has lost its air of obligation altogether, and his fingers slide against Kirk’s in a manner that’s almost obscene.

 

“Mr Spock, I believe you are drunk,” says Kirk happily as their canvas door falls into place behind them, and attempts to test his theory by gripping a steel-corded Vulcan buttock through the thick fabric of the robes that shroud it, and using that purchase to pull his lover towards him.

 

“Negative,” says Spock, with a reasonable display of indignation that is entirely undermined by the way he drops his mouth to Kirk’s and presses a full and rock-hard erection against Kirk’s hip. Cool lips worry at Kirk’s throat, scraping across the day’s stubble as Spock’s hands tug at the upper fastening of his bondmate’s robe to expose his collar bone. “I will allow that the quantity of k’vass I was persuaded to consume has had the effect of lowering my inhibitions somewhat. However,” he adds, as he finds the waist fastening and opens the front seam to fully expose Kirk’s chest, “I remain in control of my faculties.”

 

“Don’t misunderstand me,” says Kirk, stifling a yelp as single-minded Vulcan lips fix on his left nipple. “It was not a complaint.”

 

The inner fold of his robe is secured via an old-fashioned hook-and-eye nestled against the seam at the back of his hip. Spock is more practiced at the mechanics of his native attire and, in any case, he’s now kneeling in front of Kirk, at eye-level with the final fastening; it makes sense to leave the divestiture of his clothing to the man whose position and experience best equip him for the job. Kirk feels long, graceful fingers unhook the clasp that holds the fabric in place, and lets his head roll back on his shoulders as the robe falls open, exposing the length of his body to the cool darkness.

 

There is a pause where, by all reasonable expectation, there should be more touching. “Ah,” says Spock.

 

Kirk cracks an eyelid. “Problem?” he asks. He can feel the warm moisture of Spock’s breath ghosting along his inner thigh; it’s making it very difficult to think in full sentences.

 

“Negative,” says Spock. “I simply had not expected…” He glances up as Kirk tilts his head sufficiently to peer down at his lover, knelt before his insistent, straining erection. “It is not our custom to wear undergarments underneath the robe,” he says.

 

Kirk feels his eyebrows reach for his hairline. He cannot imagine how he’s going to get through tomorrow night’s festivities, armed with that knowledge. “I see,” he says.

 

Spock nods. “It is of no consequence,” he says, and hooks two long fingers through the waistband on either side of Kirk’s shorts. One swift, elegant tug, and Kirk’s cock is jutting into the chill night air.

 

Only for a moment, though. Only for as long as it takes Spock to reorient himself, grip the base of his lover’s swollen penis with one hand and guide it into the cool dampness of his mouth. It’s a damn good thing, Kirk thinks, as the world whites out around him and the entirety of the universe narrows to the knot in his gut and the rush of pleasure tightening his balls, that they’ve been obliged to moderate their lovemaking to the exigencies of Starfleet’s standard staterooms and their paper-thin walls. He’s not entirely certain all the children are asleep, and there are some things they just don’t need to hear.

 

 

*

 

 

The nocturnal festivities are designed to allow the participants the leisure to sleep through the worst of the days’ heat for as long as they continue, and so the camp wakes late the following afternoon, well into the sun’s lazy descent. Kirk has never found it easy to invert his diurnal rhythms - he’d prefer, on the whole, to forego sleep altogether than to try and flip the cycle on its head. But it turns out that, when one’s body clock is already skewed by beaming down from an environment that is three hours behind the local time, after which one attempts to cap a day’s travails in a high-temperature, low-oxygen environment with the kind of orgasm that can knock a man’s legs out from underneath him, one might not have a whole lot of input into whether or not one proceeds to pass decisively out and sleep for eleven hours straight.

 

He drifts back gently from a black sea of oblivion, drawn inexorably into wakefulness by the soft hum of voices from outside the tent and the brush of a stray wisp of hair across his face, agitated by the portable cooling system that moderates the thick air beneath the canvas hide. Spock has rolled away from him as they’ve slept, though their legs are still tangled, and Kirk slides onto his side to wrap an arm around that narrow, angular chest and press his mouth to the curve of sinew that links Spock’s shoulder to his throat. A deep breath from his lover speaks of consciousness returning, and long fingers flex against the coarse fabric of the sheet, fluttering upwards to curl around Kirk’s.

 

Without opening his eyes, Spock says, “Have you achieved an adequate period of rest?”

 

Kirk rests his head against his bondmate’s, lining up his ear against Spock’s in a way that has yet to lose its novelty. He smells of the desert, of their bed, of sex.

 

“More than adequate, thank you, Mr Spock,” he says. “And you? It’s not like you to sleep so late.”

 

“I believe,” says Spock slowly, “that my internal systems may have required a longer period of latency to metabolize any surplus or unfamiliar nutrients consumed last night.”

 

Kirk grins into the olive-hued skin of his partner’s neck, but refrains from verbalizing a translation. Though he does commit the phraseology to memory; it’s likely to serve him well the morning after Bones’ planned birthday celebrations on Risa next year. Instead, he says, “I’ll leave you to your period of latency, then. Though perhaps you could point me in the direction of the facilities? I need to visit the head, and I’d prefer to avoid a major cultural incident.”

 

The facilities, as it turns out, are vast and sprawling and encompass the entirety of the Na’Ree River, by which Kirk understands that he’s supposed to get washed with his clothes on. He leaves Spock meditating and ducks out through the forest of ropes and burlap, skirting the quiet arena - deserted now but for a handful of children and a single, dauntless soul poking diligently at a steaming pot atop a stove - to make his way down a narrow, rocky path to the river’s edge. The air is cooler here, sweetened and clarified by the water, and he’s surprised, though gratified, to find himself alone. Unobserved, he opens yesterday’s robes to the waist and steps, gingerly, into the shallows.

 

It’s colder than he expected, warmed as he is by the heat of a desert sun, and it makes him suck in a discontented breath, but he’s sticky with sweat and yesterday’s semen, and he’s going to have to spend several hours’ quality time with his father-in-law after sundown. Kirk would prefer to do that without the evidence of abandoned fornication gluing his pubic hair into one homogenous lump, thank you, and the only way to avoid this is to wade waist deep into water so sharply frigid that it makes a high whine of discomfort sound in his ears, loud enough to trail a kind of lazy alarm from the depths of the meditating mind of his bondmate. Kirk shakes his head, though he’s not sure if the action is significant in any meaningful sense, but it does settle the interrogative disquiet into a low-level amusement that proceeds to ignore him as he takes a deep, steadying breath, and submerges himself beneath the gently lapping waves.

 

Shock screams inside his skull for an affronted moment, but really, all things considered, the water is only comparatively cold, and his body remembers quickly. By the time he’s surfaced again, his skin is prickled with goosebumps, but the moisture that clings to it is pleasant, like a shield against the worst excesses of the excoriating sun. His robes, weighted down with water, drag at his shoulders as he scrubs a hand perfunctorily across his chest, his armpits, his face and hair, his pubis and, after a moment’s pleasant reflection, his anus. A temperate breeze carries a faint odor of salt, of plant life, of smoke and spices and warm cooking oil, and the occasional, distant shout of a circling sea bird. Kirk is tempted, briefly, to strip off his heavy, sodden clothing and lie back on the current, let it take his weight while he stares up into the uninterrupted ochre sky. Later, perhaps. For now, there is an empty growling in his stomach that reminds him it’s been several hours since he last ate and an impatient prickle at the back of his skull that tells him that his bondmate’s meditations are not proceeding according to plan and that he might be amenable to distraction.

 

He scrambles up the shallow incline, saturated fabric sucking at his skin, and settles himself on a sun-baked, flat-topped boulder to wring the river out of his robes. This is how Amanda finds him, moving so quietly across the scree-scattered path that it’s only when her shadow lengthens across the riverbank that he realizes he’s no longer alone, and it suddenly occurs to him to wonder about the etiquette, on a desert world, of scattering so much viable liquid onto the parched ground.

 

She’s humming quietly to herself as she moves, but pulls up sharply when she sees him, shock blanking her face. “Oh! Admiral,” she says. “Forgive me; I didn’t realize there was anyone here.”

 

He rises to his feet, as smoothly as several kilos of sodden fabric will allow, hurriedly re-fastening the clasp of his robe. “Mrs Sarek,” he says. “I was just getting ready to leave. Please” - he indicates the river with a sweep of his hand - “help yourself.”

 

She offers him a warm smile. “Thank you, Admiral,” she says. “I’ve been accustomed to having this space to myself for too long, I believe. I shall enjoy having another illogical Human to share it with.”

 

He returns the gesture with a smile of his own. “I’m surprised it’s not better frequented. The water is remarkably refreshing.”

 

“Ah, yes,” she says, “but you’re thinking like a Human. This is mid-winter, remember? Sarek has complained several times since we arrived about the chill in the air.”

 

Laughter rumbles in Kirk’s chest. “I’m not sure I’d be able to keep a straight face if I was to receive a similar complaint,” he says.

 

“You won’t have to,” she says cheerfully. “Let them chalk it up to illogic. I find it rather endearing, watching them try to puzzle it out.”

 

Kirk’s grin widens. “Yes,” he says. “I believe I have some experience of that particular mode of entertainment.”

 

She laughs. “No doubt you do,” she says. Her eyes flicker towards the river. “Is my son still asleep?”

 

“He’s meditating,” says Kirk. A beat, while he probes a section of his brain that remains resolutely alien to him, despite his best efforts. “Not particularly successfully, if my judgment is correct.”

 

She nods. “Ah, the bond.”

 

“Yes.” He searches her face for any hint of disapproval, but, truthfully, he’d have been surprised to find it. He likes Amanda. “I’m not quite fluent in interpreting it just yet, I’m afraid.”

 

An affectionate smile lights her eyes. “Try not to worry about it,” she says. “It ought to come in time.”

 

“Did it…?” says Kirk, and hesitates. He has no idea of the mores attached to this aspect of the society he’s joined, though he can hazard a guess. It’s not exactly a topic of casual conversation. Cautiously, therefore, he opts for an ambiguous, “May I ask…?”

 

“You may,” she says, brightly, without any hint of boundaries transgressed. “And it did. After a fashion. My husband informs me that our link is adequate. From my perspective, of course, it’s much, much more than ‘adequate’, but, then again, we do tend to cherish those things that we never thought to want, don’t we?”

 

He’s not sure he’s ever heard it expressed so eloquently; though, in the entirety of his existence, she’s the only other person in possession of the necessary frame of reference to put it into words.

 

“We do,” he agrees.

 

She smiles. “It was the same for me,” she says. “This… adjustment. It takes a little time, a little perseverance. A little… faith, I suppose, but don’t tell Spock I said so. You seem like a sensible man, Admiral. I’m sure you’ll work it out.”

 

The words are light, friendly, but unmistakably a coda. He stretches a wide smile across his face, nods to her, and gathers the trailing hem of his robes off the ground in a fat, dripping hank of fabric that requires the application of both hands.

 

“I believe it’s time for me to exchange these clothes for something a little drier,” he says. “I’ll leave you in peace, Ma’am.”

 

“There are kreyla in our tent if you’re hungry,” she says pleasantly. “It’s several hours until the evening meal, and it’s quite a walk to the shi’vokaya.”

 

“Thank you, Ma’am,” he says. A quiet breakfast with his bondmate’s father is the opposite of appealing; he’ll stick to the Starfleet-issue ration-pack in his suitcase. Though he might be persuaded to reconsider if there’s coffee. “I’ll see you later at the ceremony.”

 

“You will,” she says. “And - Admiral?” she adds, as he’s turning to leave. He twists his head over his shoulder to glance back, and she smiles. “Thank you for bringing him back. I thought we wouldn’t see him here again… after what happened.”

 

Kirk feels his brow furrow. “After…?” he says. “I’m sorry, Ma’am. I’m not sure I follow.”

 

“Oh!” Her eyes widen as a sudden flare of distress blanches her face. “Admiral - my apologies. I thought… I was certain he said you were at his koon-ut-kal-if-fee…?”

 

One eyebrow arches as a tiny prickle of unease worries at the back of Kirk’s skull. “I was,” he says. “But I still don’t see…”

 

Amanda’s head tilts sideways; her right hand has closed a tight fist around the fingers of her left. “Surely you understand?” she says. “It’s only natural that he wouldn’t want to share this time with the woman who…” - the fingers twist as she searches for a less-loaded synonym, and comes up short - “rejected him.”

 

T’Pring?” says Kirk, with an indignation that takes him entirely by surprise. It lacks finesse in every aspect, from the tone of moral outrage right down to the uninspired content, but it comes from a part of his id over which he has no conscious control. “She’s…?” But no, he reminds himself. He tries again: “I would have seen her.”

 

“Indeed,” says Amanda, but she looks positively alarmed now. “She and her bondmate are currently offworld. They were unable to return for this year’s celebrations. Admiral… I’m sorry. I thought you knew?”

 

He twitches his eyebrows, sucks in a steadying breath. It’s certainly the sort of information she might have expected him to possess. “No doubt it was mentioned at some stage in our preparations,” he says carefully, and she nods, though he’s sure she doesn’t believe him. “I’m… happy I could facilitate your son’s presence here this year.”

 

She nods again, but she says, “You must understand, Admiral - her mother is T’Mira’s cousin. It was how we were able to establish the match.”

 

Small wonder the eyes of the congregation watched him like predators at the watering hole last night. He wonders which of them belonged to T’Pring’s parents.

 

“Of course,” he says smoothly, with a smile he doesn’t feel. “If you’ll excuse me, Ma’am? I ought to check in with my ship before breakfast.”

 

“Of course,” she answers. Her voice is even, but her eyes are troubled, and he feels them on the back of his head as he turns and scrambles up the rocky shoreline to the path.

 

It’s not unreasonable to think that Spock would not have wanted to discuss it. They never have, not really: it’s one of those things, another mission that could have ended badly and didn’t, and the fact that events this time involved Spock - and certain circumstances that he does not care to revisit - have not encouraged either of them to probe beyond the skeleton of a story fit for the official report. Kirk’s not even sure he has the right to be angry, because it’s not as though the information was critical, beyond a Human need to know. T’Pring is not here, nor is her husband, and the chances of her family making any kind of overture towards their daughter’s ex-partner and his new, Human bondmate are laughably remote. It’s Spock’s business. Kirk’s wounded pride carries no weight here beyond the metaphorical, and that doesn’t tend to hold a whole lot of sway in the kind of argument you can have with a Vulcan.

 

At the edge of his consciousness, a tiny tendril of speculative disquiet speaks of dark thoughts worrying their way across the bond. Kirk focuses on breakfast and, after a moment’s consideration, k’vass; that, it appears, is what it takes to cause Spock to abruptly lose interest, and the tendril withdraws. It’s useful information, to be filed away for another time; perhaps when he’s better equipped to test out the limits of all these frustrating new possibilities. For now, though, as he picks his way across uneven shale and into the thick blanket of desert heat, Kirk cannot shake the uneasy feeling that he might have stumbled, inadvertently, across the real reason why they’re here, and that logic might have very little to do with it.

 

*

 

By sundown, the buzz of voices in the camp has risen to a kind of sibilant roar, softer than it ought to be, but pervasive in a way that quiet conversation just isn’t; at least, not in Kirk’s experience. He has not mentioned the conversation with Amanda, and, though he’s caught a couple of quizzical looks, quickly buried when he turns his head, Spock has not asked.

 

“Please don’t tell me,” says Kirk irritably, as he’s obliged to fasten a fold of ridiculously heavy and ornate fabric across his shoulders, in defiance of all common sense and basic decency in the stifling heat of a post-sunset desert camp, “that we’re expected to maintain the ozh’esta for the entirety of the journey?”

 

The pause lasts just long enough to be an answer in itself. But Spock says, “It is not prescribed, no.”

 

“Over five kilometers?” says Kirk, with what is not supposed to be incredulous disbelief, but which comes out as such just the same.

 

“Should you experience difficulties…” Spock begins, but Kirk, who has finally worked out what the hell is going on with the clasp, tugs his mantle into place and shakes his head.

 

“Let’s just do this,” he says, and throws back the burlap door.

 

Sarek and Amanda are standing outside their tent, fingers linked with the ease and efficiency of long practice. The ambassador has slung a large, bulging sack over one shoulder; she carries an unlit torch in her free hand, and neither of them has so much as broken a sweat in the close, stuffy air, despite the woolen cloaks that they wear. She smiles as she sees them, inclines her head gracefully in a gesture of welcome. Sarek nods.

 

It shouldn’t matter, of course, Kirk thinks, as V’Shevik, supported again by her dark-haired companion and an ornate cane, steps forward to light her beacon from the central fire pit. A litter waits for her on the edge of the circle, and the younger man helps her step inside, helps her settle the torch against her arm so that she doesn’t have to support its weight. It should not matter. T’Pring’s people, whomever they might be, are nothing to him; she is nothing to him, not now, not after the way things turned out. She’s someone Spock used to know; God knows, Kirk has enough of those skeletons littering his own closet. The eldest matriarch steps forward to the pit, dips her own torch into the flames. It could be her, of course: the look that she casts up into the assembled circle could be seeking him out, evaluating and appraising the man who took over where her daughter’s daughter did not care to remain. Is it important to know for sure?

 

Of course not. Nor is it significant that Spock chose not to tell him. What’s important is that he’s wearing wool in 100-degree heat and he’s got a three-mile trek ahead of him, behind fifteen flaming beacons and a crowd of people who think it’s damn well cold out.

 

Once again, they are the last family to approach the circle of stones. The wall of scent has dissipated in favor of the more prosaic odor of burning fuel, but the heat is like a knife, slicing through his skin and prickling a film of sweat over his protesting flesh, and Kirk can feel his fingers sliding uncomfortably against Spock’s in a manner that makes him want to drop his hand and wipe it fiercely against his robe.

 

“Are you in discomfort?” asks Spock in a low voice, as they follow his parents from the center of the arena to fall into line behind the waiting families. V’Shevik’s litter, the propulsion of which was the subject of the most genteel and civilized battle of wills to which Kirk has ever borne witness, is carried at the head of the line by four male members of the congregation.

 

He shakes his head. “It’s a little better now,” he says honestly, because, frankly, after standing by an oven in the middle of a sauna, even the desert seems temperate by comparison.

 

Spock turns a skeptical gaze sideways, motion enough to attract Sarek’s arch-eyebrowed attention. “If you experience…”

 

“I’ll let you know,” says Kirk curtly, and the line begins to move.

 

Away from the camp, with its permanent veil of torchlight and enveloping skin of tents, the sky is dark and clear, speckled with scatter-shot starlight that’s just close enough to the constellations he remembers from the Iowa night canvas to disorient him as his brain struggles to trace the ancient patterns. T’Khut has not risen yet, and the shadows are full and black, brimming with the restless sounds of the wilderness and the distant rush of water against hidden rocks. The beacons give off light enough to trace a rudimentary path through the scrub, gray sand against gray, but packed by the passage of feet over many years into a rough byway, and, as it widens into the desert proper, the procession begins to lose its structure, fanning out across the available space, and breaking down the family groups into pairs of bondmates, parents with their brood, unbonded youths. Released from strict propriety, the younger children separate into ragtag allegiances structured roughly by age, skipping along the sidelines, stopping to examine an unusual item of desert flora by the wayside, or banding together to play some kind of war of words that seems to consist, largely, of groups of toddlers reciting things at each other. Polite conversation hangs over the assembly like a warm and pleasant cloud; it tugs at the fraying edges of Kirk’s irritation, settles it into a low background hum.

 

About half a mile into their walk, Kirk’s arm is already losing sensation in its extremities and the effort involved in maintaining the ozh’esta is not exactly mitigating the uncomfortable river of tacky sweat that’s running down his spine and pooling in the crack of his newly underpantsless ass. He has caught Spock shooting the occasional surreptitious lightening-glance in his general direction, and has been studiously failing to notice or acknowledge the creeping trickle of concern that hovers in the air between them, because there’s basically nothing you can do to combat a gesture that’s so heavily invested in denying its own existence. He won’t drop his hand, though; not while Sarek is four steps away and waiting to disapprove.

 

A little way ahead of them, some of the older children - teenagers by Terran standard, though he has no idea what that makes them on Vulcan - have coalesced into a group of four and approached the elderly matriarch of their family to ask, in a scrupulously polite tone that in no way disguises the nervous anticipation beneath it, if they might possibly help her shoulder her burden. In the moment it takes her to turn her head, consider them, and offer an imperious nod, the anxiety that freezes their expressions in place would have convinced Kirk that it was no small request, even without the heavily censored rapture that breaks over them like the dawning sun as she consents. He turns to Spock, eyebrow quirked, and his lover shoots him a sidelong glance and answers, quietly, “By tradition, the matriarch carries the family’s memory-torch to the shi’vokaya. It is a great honor to be allowed to assist her in this.”

 

“I see,” says Kirk. He’d like to ask if Spock has ever sought this permission of his own matriarch, but he can’t think of any answer that doesn’t trail heavy sadness in its wake. Spock’s clan is headed by his own mother, and any acquiescence on her part is immediately suspect; there is no glory in the petition. And what if he never asked?

 

“Perhaps,” says Kirk slowly, because he’s certain the overture will not be welcome, and he’s fairly sure it’s going to get him into trouble regardless, “your mother might care for your assistance now?”

 

“Jim…” says Spock in that low, weary tone of his, the one that’s the verbal equivalent of an eye-roll. But further along the line, Kirk can see the torch passing to a man several years Spock’s senior, so he’s quietly confident that the protest is not born of shame or ignominy.

 

“Look,” he says, “we’re less than a mile from the campground, and this damn ozh’esta is cutting off the circulation to my fingers. Please. Ask for the torch before I have to return to the Enterprise with my arm in a goddamn sling. Because you’d better believe I’ll find a better story than this to tell Bones when he asks how it happened.”

 

“I do not follow,” says Spock, though he consents to drop his hand. It’s an elegant motion, unhurried and bearing no vestigial trace of concern; a casual observer might decide that he’d simply grown tired of the gesture and elected, of his own free will, to discontinue. But it calls him a liar just the same.

 

With evident reluctance, Spock speeds up his pace to reach his mother, a few steps ahead, and Kirk hangs back, rolls the kink out of his shoulder, watches the bright flare of joy and love that crosses Amanda’s face as she turns to greet her son. The moment feels private, and he turns his head away, glances out over the desert at the play of starlight on barren sand, at the louring monoliths that jut from the scree and cast arcane shadows across the darkness. There is history here, a wealth of knowledge that hums in the air like the promise of thunder: unbroken aeons of life and civilization, love and death, glory and despair. He thinks, perhaps, he’s beginning to understand the imperative behind this night’s festivities; there’s a sense of belonging in history that calls to the soul in a manner that’s almost primal. Maybe that’s what Spock is hoping to find. Maybe that’s why they’re here.

 

Kirk turns his head back towards the clan, back towards the man who shares half his soul and none of his secrets. Spock has fallen into step alongside his mother, torch leaning comfortably against his shoulder and swaying with the movement of his body as they pace the ancient trail.

 

His father is another matter altogether. His father is now beside Kirk.

 

If he’d thought it through, of course, Kirk would have realized that, in a clan of four and with the matriarch engaged in walking alongside the torch-bearer, it will be very difficult to unobtrusively avoid the only remaining member. He busies himself in observation for as long as he can, and it’s not entirely prevarication; he has visited so many worlds now that he can no longer count them all - ice planets of imposing crystalline obelisks and fur-clad natives huddled into their underground cities; great gas giants with their sky colonies suspended over an infinite chasm; leafy, verdant jungles populated by sentient plants - but his only experience, before this trip, of his bondmate’s home-world has been from the occasional stolen glance snatched between swings of a lirpa. It’s different here, he thinks, than the lonely altar where he very nearly died: low trees spring, reluctantly, from the friable soil, and mobile shadows scatter the night, black against black. He hopes, one day, they’ll come back here and see this country on their own terms.

 

He’s so engaged with his own thought processes that he doesn’t see the small child, rushing him at knee-height with her head crooked over her shoulder to follow the pursuit of an older brother, until she has collided with his thigh and fallen backwards onto the path with enough force to scatter a sizable cloud of dust. Her face collapses, as a Human child’s might do, and he bends down without thinking, catches her below the arms and lifts her to her feet before the trembling lip can become a wail. The brother’s eyes widen in response and he reaches out a hand, curls it around her small fingers, and pulls her along after him, glancing back once with a hooded, reproachful glare, before disappearing into a sea of mobile robes.

 

“She has not passed her third year,” says Sarek, just behind and to his left, and Kirk fights the urge to roll his eyes. “Her mind is not yet contained. It is considered… improper… for her to have contact with those outside her immediate family.”

 

“Should I have left her in the dust?” says Kirk, with what he hopes is less irritation than he feels.

 

“Her brother was at hand,” says Sarek, which, Kirk supposes, translates as a yes.

 

“I’m not in the habit of ignoring a child in distress,” he says.

 

“The distress was fleeting.” Sarek turns his head to meet Kirk’s eyes for the first time. “It is fortunate that your psi-center is not well developed. Her family would be most discomfited to learn that she had shared their thoughts with you.”

 

Kirk purses his lips around the rising tide of acrimony swelling in his chest. “Then I guess my Human inadequacies aren’t all bad,” he says tightly.

 

“On the contrary,” says Sarek. “There are no doubt circumstances in which psi-nullity might be considered advantageous.”

 

The concession is entirely unexpected, and it throws Kirk for a loop. It’s - possibly - an olive branch. But it’s a damn strange one, and it’s come out of nowhere. He’s not sure what he’s supposed to do with it.

 

Slowly, he says, “We’ve found, as a species, that we tend to get by quite well without.”

 

“And yet,” says Sarek mildly, redefining the nature of ‘brief’, as applied to their temporary entente, “you have chosen, like my wife, to enter into a union for which you are evolutionarily unsuited.”

 

Ah. Kirk feels, perversely, on firmer footing now that the sniping is back.

 

“As you say, Ambassador,” he says, “your wife made a similar choice. I see no reason for you to disapprove of your son’s decision.”

 

“I do not disapprove,” says Sarek. “I merely find it regrettable.”

 

And there it is. It’s a relief, almost, to have it out in the open. You can’t fight a ghost.

 

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” says Kirk, more calmly than he might have expected. “But I’d like to know why.”

 

“You must agree that the arrangement is not ideal,” says Sarek.

 

Ideal? Kirk could almost laugh, if the tone of bland certainty wasn’t so infuriating. Their bond is damn near perfect. He’s certain that nothing in his life has ever given him greater joy, and he’d be prepared to bet his ship that Spock would answer in the same voice.

 

“I will agree to nothing of the sort,” he says. “And I hardly see your basis for making such a statement. Is your own marriage not founded on exactly the same terms?”

 

“It is not,” says Sarek.

 

“I am Human,” says Kirk. “Your son is Vulcan. I fail to see the difference between our arrangement and yours.”

 

“Perhaps broad similarities can be drawn between Human pairs, Admiral Kirk,” says the Ambassador, with maddening calm. “However, the same cannot be said of tel. Each bond is different.”

 

That sounds an awful lot like semantics to Kirk. But two can play that game. He says, “Then, by definition, you are not equipped to pass judgment on our bond.”

 

“You mistake me, Admiral,” says Sarek. “I do not judge.”

 

Kirk snorts a humorless laugh. “No?” he says. “Your arbitrary distinction between your bond and mine says otherwise.”

 

“The distinction is not arbitrary,” says the Ambassador, with what Kirk recognizes as a tone from which all traces of impatience have been scrupulously excised. “The two are not comparable. For myself, the union was logical. For my son…” A beat, and he turns his head away to gaze out over the dark sands. “…I could have wished for a different match.”

 

Kirk shakes his head, a brittle smile tugging, unseen, at the corners of his mouth.

 

“You mean, of course,” he says, “that you wish he hadn’t chosen another man.”

 

The words disappear into a sudden silence that falls between them. Kirk can hardly hear the gentle susurration of nearby voices over his anger, over the pounding rush of blood in his ears, and it takes him a moment to realize that Sarek is not speechless with indignation - and in fact, now that he thinks about it, that doesn’t sound much like Sarek’s style at all - but that he’s glanced sideways at his son-in-law with one sharp eyebrow elegantly arched and an expression of polite consternation.

 

It’s difficult to be certain, but it’s possible that the ambassador is genuinely surprised.

 

“Why should I?” he asks.

 

The simple question, guilelessly phrased, knocks some of the wind out of the sails of Kirk’s righteous indignation, and his sharp retort dies on his tongue even as he draws breath to spit it out.

 

“Because…” he says, and stalls. He tries again. “Every father… surely a man’s comfort in his son is at least partially predicated on the continuation of his family name?”

 

A patrician brow furrows. “Is that the opinion of your own father?”

 

That’s… a conversation that hasn’t happened yet, in fact, though Kirk’s not about to admit as much. When he’s thought about it at all, he’s imagined gentle surprise, given the fact that it’s not that long since they were gathering in a small church in upstate New York to raise their glasses to Kirk and his brand new, and very female, wife. But it’s not as though he’s never brought a man home for Thanksgiving in all his forty years. Just… never a Vulcan, that’s all.

 

He says, “My brother and his wife had three sons before they died.”

 

A nod. “My brother is still living,” says Sarek. “As is his son, and his son’s three children. Our family name will survive.” 

 

A couple of soft, thoughtful footsteps carry them forward, and Kirk says, “But you chose a female bondmate for your son.”

 

“It was the logical choice,” says Sarek. “But you mistake me Admiral. It is not your gender that disturbs me.”

 

That leaves only one possibility. “Me, then,” says Kirk faintly. “You object, specifically, to me.”

 

“My reservations are no reflection on your person,” says the Ambassador. “You are a man of integrity, moral virtue and accomplishment, Admiral Kirk. All of these are traits that are highly prized among my people. Moreover, your tendency towards illogic is surely no more egregious than that of any other member of your species.” Kirk huffs a quiet laugh that Sarek pointedly ignores. “I believe,” he adds, “that, with time and a little training, you might become sufficiently adept at the mental disciplines to make a suitable partner for a Vulcan mate.”

 

A Vulcan mate. Non-specific. “But not your son,” says Kirk.

 

“My son is not like other Vulcans. Your offense is unnecessary,” he adds, as Kirk’s eyes widen in a sudden rush of anger. “I am his father. This is a simple statement of fact.”

 

Kirk shakes his head. Through the furious smile that has tightened the corners of his mouth, he says, “Everything he does - everything, all of it… In some way, it’s all for you. He went to Gol, Ambassador, to cut out the noblest part of himself, so that he could be the man you require him to be, and nothing, nothing, is enough for you…”

 

“He is at war with himself,” says Sarek, and, though it’s not precisely a denial, it’s delivered in such a tone of quiet conviction that it knocks a little of Kirk’s certainty down a notch. He turns his head, but the ambassador is not looking at him. “A man ought to know to which people he belongs. I have always been certain. As have you, Admiral. But my son…” An impassive glance towards the tableau ahead, and Sarek’s expression does not change, but the air around him shifts, almost imperceptibly. In another man, Kirk might call it melancholy. “My son is torn between two worlds,” he says. “He cannot be fully Human, and yet there is enough of his mother in him that he cannot devote himself wholly to the Vulcan way.”

 

“I don’t accept that,” says Kirk. “Ambassador, I’ve known many men and women whose devotion to their traditions lapses markedly when they break orbit around their home-world. Your son is not among them.”

 

“And yet,” says Sarek, “He was not able to maintain tel, the most fundamental precept of our society.”

 

“He was,” says Kirk stubbornly. “He is. But you don’t mean our bond, Ambassador, do you? You mean T’Pring.”

 

Sarek inclines his head. “The match with T’Pring was… unfortunate,” he says. “But it was not always so. It was made in the hope that, not only would he have recourse when he came to his Time, but that it would bind him more closely to a sense of himself.”

 

A humorless laugh. “If that was the intent, Ambassador,” says Kirk, “then it failed. Catastrophically.”

 

“I am aware of this failure,” says Sarek. “Their minds, as it transpired, were not compatible. Yet there is no reason to believe that another might not be more able to accept him.”

 

“I agree,” says Kirk. “Mine, for example.”

 

“Perhaps.” Sarek keeps his eyes fixed resolutely ahead, hands folded neatly at the small of his back. “He will always feel his difference; that cannot be changed. I had simply hoped that, with the right match, he might begin to reconcile the duality that has always denied him the tvi-sochya.”

 

Duality. It’s a conversation they’ve had, obliquely, many times. And there’s no way to make Sarek understand this, there’s no way to frame it in terms that will have any meaning to a man who has always been certain of his place in the universe and the proper ordering of things. Once upon a time, he took a Human wife in defiance of logic and the principles he now extols; once upon a time, clearly, he was open to the possibility of another way. But years and experience have closed over that chink in his soul; they have normalized his decision in his eyes, made it fit parameters that he can live with, and his wife has accepted this, as Kirk accepts that side of Spock, because that’s the way it has to be. But it’s forced the ambassador further into a stark, monochrome world of black-and-white decisions and black-and-white behavior; a world in which his son is a disquieting shade of gray.

 

Kaiidth,” says Sarek now. “His choice is made. What is done cannot be undone.”

 

Kirk purses his lips around the belligerent rejoinder that’s trying to force its way out, because he’s reasonably certain that this is as close to agreement as they’re likely to get, and, truthfully, he cannot see the value in arguing the point any further. If they’ve returned to Vulcan for Sarek’s blessing, then the trip is a waste of time, but he suspects Spock already knew that. Kirk supposes he can forgive his lover a lapse of logic in this respect, though he’d prefer it didn’t come equipped with a woolen cloak and a midnight trek across the desert sands.

 

But he watches his bondmate, haloed by the light of T’Khut and many beacons, as he turns to answer his mother’s question, watches her lay her hand gently on his arm, watches him accept the touch without reservation. There is love there, visceral and fierce, no less than that strident sense of possession, of desire, of defensive vigilance that tightens Kirk’s own chest every time he looks at the man he has chosen. It’s love, primal, ferocious and unshakeable, the first instinct of every functional Human being, and etched indelibly into Spock’s patchwork soul. It’s not logical, but he tried to deny it once and it very nearly destroyed him. The ambassador did not see this. He cannot understand.

 

Kaiidth, then. It’s not satisfactory, not by a long shot. But it will have to do.

 

 

*

 

 

The shi’vokaya is an ancient system of shallow caves, burrowed into a limestone drumlin that rises out of the desert floor like a sleeping behemoth, milk-white and pearlescent in the light of the Watcher. V’Shevik’s porters set down her litter at the entrance and her attendant helps her to her feet, arm outstretched and steady as a hunk of granite as she leans heavily against him, unsteady feet gingerly testing for purchase on the sand-swept ground. She won’t relinquish her torch to him, though, and so he’s obliged to tuck her cane under his free arm and take all her weight against his right flank, as, thus equipped, the clan makes its slow and erratic way into the mouth of the cavern.

 

Their hands are joined again as they follow the cortege through a wide, sonorous grotto that sucks the soft whispers of the assembled party into a cavernous blackness in a manner that explicitly discourages idle conversation. Spock has scented discord on the air, but there has been no opportunity to ask, for which small mercy Kirk is presently counting his blessings. He’d quite like the chance to sort out his thoughts to his own satisfaction before he’s obliged to put them into words for benefit of someone else, and it feels as though every moment of his time, every minute of every hour, is accounted for at present. That’s only a problem if he needs the privacy of his own head, of course, but the trouble is, he rather thinks that he does.

 

The sound of trickling water up ahead gives way to a spreading pool of thin, opal starlight and, as they round a bend in the tunnel, torchlight casting arcane shadows and shimmering waves of glistening silica up the rough-hewn walls, Kirk sees that they’ve come to a wide vault that opens onto the distant sky above through a ragged, vine-hung fissure in the ceiling, down which water pours in a narrow cascade. V’Shevik leads them to the base of the waterfall, where it opens onto a dark pool that disappears into the measureless darkness beyond, and, with some difficulty, slots her torch into a crude bracket carved from the rock itself. In the sudden wash of light, Kirk can see that the ground beneath it is a latticework of curling, runic script, etched deeply into the stone and worn shallow by the passage of time and feet, and, as the clan matriarchs file solemnly in behind her and fix their own torches into their ancient holders, the patchwork lithograph opens up, spreading across the cavern floor and vanishing into the shadows. Kirk’s Golic cursive might be a little rusty, but he’s quietly confident that he knows a thing or two about hieroglyphs, and he’d be prepared to bet that parts of the thick tapestry of words are several hundred years old at least.

 

Buried beneath the earth by cool, damp rock, the air is moist and several degrees colder than the desert floor. For the first time, Kirk begins to understand the purpose of the heavy woolen mantle, and, glancing quickly around the ragged circle that has formed inside the cavern, he can see now that the assembled company is in some discomfort. But V’Shevik, moving unhurriedly, takes another taper from her commodious pocket, lights it from her torch, and throws it carelessly into a large trough that is cut deep into the center of the cave. Flames spring to life in a combustive burst of fire and gasoline, licking bright yellow light up the nearest walls and coloring the low ceiling in amber and gold.

 

Ki’sarlah vokaya farr,” says V’Shevik in her unfamiliar Vulcan cadence. “Change is the essence of life. Only memory endures. And memory is the essence of ourselves.”She looks up, casting her gaze around the group, and her eyes fall on Kirk. She nods, a tiny gesture, almost intangible, but he’s certain he saw it. “In memory, we endure, and immortality is in memory. Tonight, we will join our memories in the hall of our ancestors, and live forever in the words that go forth from this place.”

 

A beat, and her sharp gaze drifts across the crowd of faces. “Let it begin,” she says.

 

As she takes a seat on a stool that her aide has materialized for her, Kirk leans his head, quietly and unobtrusively, towards Spock’s ear and mutters, as surreptitiously as he can, “What happens now?”

 

But before Spock can answer, an elderly woman has scrambled to her feet to move closer to the circle of firelight. She folds her hands behind her back, tilts her head towards the ceiling, and, in a loud, clear voice, she says, Vesht akarshif, lesh Vuhlkansular ulidar t'falek, t'salur mazhiv heh t'yon-dak yon-dukal. Sharush solektra yakul etek - salan tam-tor fi'urozh heh vok-tor kahrlar. Tusa na'kusut heh kali-tor na'rishan…

 

 

*

 

There is food, simple and unostentatious - whatever can be carried, in bulk, in a burlap sack - but positively decadent in its liberal application of butter and spices and, possibly, sugar. There is epic myth and saga, rendered in ancient and modern tongue, and he follows what he can and turns a plaintive eyebrow on Spock where he loses the flow of the story in the depths of flowery heptasyllabic meter. There is also music, which initially provoked a guilty stab of second-hand embarrassment right in Kirk’s gut that endured for the first five songs, but, as the high-sucrose food flows and the heat from the fire laps soporific waves of contentment along his gradually thawing bones, he thinks he finally finds the racing, breathless heartbeat beneath the earnest exercise of chord and lyric; either that or it’s finally broken his will with its systematic, methodical sincerity, and, quite frankly, either is possible.

 

In the quiet moments, Kirk watches the children, cross-legged by the edge of the fire pit, straight-backed and enraptured as the stories lengthen and deepen and wind through times past, present and future. And he thinks of the Christmases of his childhood, before there was expectation and ambition and conditional approval: curled, forgotten, into a corner of the sofa with a full belly and a heavy head, while the adults, loosed from the normal rules of propriety, laughed and stumbled over each other’s sentences, a cacophony of do you remember when…; or bundled into a thermal jacket that couldn’t quite hold the sharp December wind at bay, hands closed around a candle, singing ancient carols whose words were blurred by familiarity; or nestled into the circle of a grandmother’s arm - the moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow - bedclothes drawn up tight against an Iowa winter, mouthing along with her as she read…

 

He’s sitting on the cavern floor, insulated from the chill by thick layers of robe and cloak, beside, but not touching, Spock. Their hands are centimeters apart; he knows this without looking, and, unseen in the darkness, he stretches out a finger, two fingers, across the damp rock, until they connect. A tiny hitch in his bondmate’s throat, and Kirk peers back over his shoulder to find dark eyes fixed on him, and a warm smile spreads like melting butter across his face. Whatever else might have happened, whatever else it might mean, this, this is why Kirk is here.

 

As the night approaches the midpoint and T’Khut spills mother-of-pearl across the silver ribbon of water that tumbles through the ceiling, Kirk is aware of a massing hum of excitement just on the edge of conscious thought, as though the cavern itself is vibrating to a pulse that he cannot feel. At first, he’s inclined to dismiss it as the by-product of candy, small children and the temporary suspension of routine, but, as the Watcher climbs higher in the sky, it becomes clear that it’s not only the younger members of the congregation that glance surreptitiously around them and fidget in place; everyone is waiting for something. So, if he’s not clear on what format that something will take, it’s not precisely a surprise when V’Shevik shuffles to her feet as the dying strains of an ode to Khosarr and Akraana fade into appreciative hush, and strikes her cane three times against the floor. Kirk imagines that the purpose of the action is to call the assembly to order, but it’s entirely superfluous; absolute silence has fallen like a blanket before she’s even fully upright.

 

Family,” she says into the vacuum of expectant stillness. “The hour of memory has come.

 

Extrapolating from a control group of one, Kirk would have to conclude that feverish enthusiasm is not something that Vulcans will admit to experiencing, but he’s seen Spock run a tricorder over something unexpected enough times to have a reasonable idea what it looks like. There’s something in the way that heads suddenly turn on shoulders to peer at companions, in the way a half-dozen small spines suddenly snap to attention, in the way throats are abruptly cleared all around the circle and the air hisses with the soft whisper of straightening robes. Close to V’Shevik’s station by the dark pool, the eldest matriarch, whose family has led the celebrants throughout the ceremony, unfolds herself from the ground in a single, stiff-jointed movement, and says, in another accent altogether, “Honored mother, I present Sarvor, son of Necati, and T’Pria, daughter of T’Soa.”

 

Across the circle, another woman rises to her feet. “Honored mother,” she says, and at least hers is the same dialect as V’Shevik’s; Kirk’s linguistic skills have been tested sorely enough tonight. “I present Stoch, son of T’Kai.”

 

A swirl of displaced air as the woman to Kirk’s right stands to say, “Honored mother, I present Sovesh and Silvan, sons of Veraal.”

 

And finally, from the eastern corner, a woman who looks to be only a few decades older than Amanda plants her feet on the rough cave floor and says, “Honored mother, I present Laris, daughter of T’Vana.”

 

“Stand, children,” says V’Shevik, and six small Vulcans rise to their feet as though they’re competing in a perpendicularity contest. The elder’s eyes travel the circle in a slow arc, liquid ebony in the darkness, and she nods once, leaning heavily on her cane.

 

Then, in perfect Standard, she says, “James Kirk, stand.”

 

He’s never been a man to doubt the evidence of his own ears, but even Spock wasn’t expecting that one - he can tell by the sharp intake of breath, abruptly silenced, as though that means it never happened - and it takes him a moment to process the fact that a Vulcan ceremony has casually wandered off-script. There are a couple of difficult seconds, in which Spock offers nothing in the way of helpful advice, before Kirk’s brain catches up to his sense of suspended disbelief and activates his sluggish leg muscles, with a meaningful glance towards his confounded bondmate.

 

“James Kirk,” says V’Shevik now, “as the Watcher passes overhead, we bring forward the sons and daughters who have come of age and we welcome them into the clan memory. In this way, the flame is passed each year to the next generation. But you were not raised in our ways.”

 

He thinks he has an idea of what’s coming next, and he purses his lips around a spreading frown. “No, Ma’am,” he says.

 

“You have joined the house of Amanda,” she says. “And you have joined our clan.”

 

The idea fades a little, but it’s not quite extinguished. “Yes, Ma’am.”

 

Another nod. And she says, “Will you join our memories?”

 

See, this is the moment where it would be really, really useful to have had some kind of advance warning, so he could corner Spock and make him explain in minute detail, with diagrams if necessary, what exactly that request might involve. Because he’s perfectly certain that there’s only one possible answer he can make, and it would be really great if he knew what happens after he does.

 

Well. There’s no time to worry about it, at least. “I would be honored, Ma’am,” he says, and the room seems to release a collective breath.

 

With Herculean effort, V’Shevik lengthens her spine so that she stands a little straighter, a little less stooped by the weight of years. If pride were a tangible substance, energy that flowed through measurable space, he thinks she would be radiant right now.

 

“Step forward, James Kirk,” she says, “and I will give you our thoughts.”

 

It’s not quite as it was last night. If anything, it’s substantially more uncomfortable - not only are all the eyes of the room focused on him, but he’s also skipped to the head of a line consisting entirely of small children, and he’s the only one of them that doesn’t know what’s going on. Instinct makes him drop to his knees at her feet - from his limited experience of the Vulcan matriarchy, 90 percent of which has been acquired in the past 36 hours, this seems to be the preferred format - and he guesses by the way the silence does not abruptly go nuclear that it’s probably correct.

 

Her hand reaches for his face, folded into the familiar configuration, but it stops short of connecting with his cheek, fingers hovering millimeters above his flesh.

 

“This is not your way,” she says. “Are you prepared?”

 

It would help if he knew what he was preparing for, of course, but he says, “I am.”

 

Soft, aged skin presses gently against his, and buried nerves tremble where her fingertips touch. It feels like the air before a thunderstorm, focused into five small points of contact, and she says, in a low voice, “My mind to your mind. My thoughts to your thoughts…”

 

He and Spock have melded often, of course, since they bonded, and his inner self has gradually learned to accept the needle-sharp intrusion of another consciousness, but it has always been known, a familiar pattern of thoughts and perception, sliding along the ragged edges of his psyche like pieces of a puzzle falling into place. V’Shevik enters gently, mindful of their difference, but it’s still an effort not to pull away, to break the link that binds them and shield himself against her. Panic flares, and he forces it down, centers himself as Spock has taught him, and, like the far-off sound of rainfall on corrugated iron, he feels her approval, tempered with the faintest hint of surprise. Kirk bristles at that, because it would be nice, just once, not to feel like everyone on this planet is continually amazed to discover that he’s capable of complex thought, and that, idea, spiked with affronted indignation, provokes a rush of chastened apology. Kirk, mollified, opens around the concession, and, like a tepid river of mercury, he feels the essence of V’Shevik surge forward, flowing directly into his center of being.

 

It brings with it… everything.

 

 

*

 

 

He opens his eyes, and for a hazy, disoriented moment he can’t understand why he’s staring upwards into a pale, wizened face haloed by the night sky; his brain is reaching for desert sands stained green with blood, great fortresses of men and warriors who stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the onrushing hordes, a terrible armada on the iron-gray waves of the Voroth Sea. Then the fragments of temporal disconnect snap back into place, and there is the sound of water dropping from a great height into fathomless depths, the shallow silence of a crowd of people making no sound, and there is V’Shevik, retracting her fingers from the meld points, folding one hand over the other on her cane, nodding slowly.

 

Svi’pi-maat na’shaya, James Kirk,” she says. Then she lifts her head and calls, in elegant, formal Vulcan, “Come forward, Sarvor, son of Necati, to receive the memories.”

 

It’s a clear dismissal and, if he’s not quite sure of the etiquette of his retreat, neither does he suppose anyone is likely to judge him for it. Besides, the focus of the room is now directed at the young boy, perhaps seven or eight Terran years old, now making his way towards the elder with the grim-faced terror of a man approaching his own gallows.

 

Kirk finds his way back to the smallest matriarchy and drops to the ground beside Spock. At the waterfall, V’Shevik has finished with Sarvor and his cousin, and, by the looks of it, Stoch too, as twin boys now approach the head of the circle. It didn’t feel as though the meld lasted less than a second, but, then again, he knows from experience that time is capricious in that place between consciousnesses. The possibilities this opens up have been a whole hell of a lot of fun to explore.

 

Spock glances sideways at him, one eyebrow quirked in such a familiar pattern of consternation that Kirk cannot help but grin, reach for his bondmate’s closest hand, link them together. Spock’s fingers are cool and damp, stiff with the cold, and instead of meeting Kirk’s ozh’esta, he twists his hand upwards, closes it around his partner’s. At the head of the circle, V’Shevik is announcing the entry of seven new k’war’ma’khonlar into the collective memory to the Vulcan equivalent of enthusiastic applause - which is to say that everyone radiates silent and conservative approval - and Spock tilts his head, just enough motion to make Kirk turn towards him.

 

He says, softly, “There is something I wish to show you. Will you permit me?”

 

Kirk flicks his eyes towards the elder at the waterfall, back to his bondmate. “Now?”

 

“The meldings are complete,” says Spock. “The v’hral t’vokaya has now passed. This is the time for houses to join together and share their own memories in the privacy of the family.”

 

Ice-cold horror hits Kirk right in the gut, like a phaser beam set to the high end of stun. “We’ll be melding with Sarek?” he hisses.

 

Spock does not grin. Of course he doesn’t. But he radiates amusement as he says, “No, Jim. We are bonded. We are our own family.”

 

“Ah,” says Kirk. A beat. And then, “Ah.

 

 

*

 

They are not the only bonded pair to break away from the circle itself, though Spock is now sufficiently uncomfortable in the chill that they go no further than the jagged edge of flickering firelight, prickling the primal gloom in a manner that serves only to emphasize how very, very dark it is. Shadowed by the watery orange glow, Spock lifts Kirk’s hand to his face, easing each finger into the appointed place, before mirroring the gesture against Kirk’s cheek. Where V’Shevik’s touch was like the greasy hint of static on a dry, thundery day, Spock’s is like closing a circuit.

 

He says, “You have been troubled this evening.”

 

Kirk feels his eyebrows arch. “I thought we were melding.”

 

A small nod. “I prefer to ascertain the source of your dissatisfaction first.”

 

“Dissatisfaction?” says Kirk, and a measure of guilty contrition prickles at his conscience. He knows better than to think he can hide these things from the bond. “No. More… bewilderment, Mr Spock. I feel a little like Dorothy, without the scarlet slippers.”

 

To his credit, Spock does not pretend to misunderstand, though it’s a prime opportunity to practice a little cultural hauteur. He says, “Perhaps I have been precipitous in requesting your presence at this ceremony.”

 

“If it’s important to you,” says Kirk firmly, “it’s important to me.”

 

“Nevertheless…”

 

“Yes.” Kirk nods, looses a small sigh. “Nevertheless.”

 

Fingertips flex against his face, and the skin beneath them tingles, as though a current passes through it. “I debated the wisdom of this enterprise,” says Spock. “It was not without reservation that I requested leave to attend.”

 

“I gathered as much,” says Kirk.

 

“It has been… a demanding experience.”

 

Soft laughter. “That may be the understatement of the year.”

 

“Do you regret my decision?”

 

Now, there’s a loaded question. And it’s not one with an easy answer. The first instinct is to offer a vehement no, shake his head as firmly as he can without dislodging the gentle press of fingers against his cheek, but the truth is that an honest response would be somewhat more qualified. He knows this shows on his face, in his eyes, although Spock scarcely needs a visual aid to read his equivocation this close to the meld.

 

And so he answers, “I’d like to understand it.”

 

“Ah.” A deep, hollow breath; a gentle dip of the head. “Then, if you will allow me…?”

 

There’s only one answer to that. Kirk nods.

 

“My mind to your mind,” says his bondmate softly; deep, rich tones, like velvet in the darkness. “My thoughts to your thoughts…”

 

…And the world darkens, fades away, slides into shadows as their selves connect, slot together, coil around each other. It’s like free-fall, but for the briefest of moments: a sense of weightlessness, of being everywhere at once, of watching him watch himself and neither knowing nor caring which eyes are his. Our minds, one and together, says one of them, and it doesn’t matter which; the thought belongs to both of them and, possibly, neither, in a way that makes absolutely no sense outside of the meld. There is a moment of pure, sublime chaos, like frozen needles in the middle of his brain, like a thousand tiny eruptions scattered across his pleasure centers, like the roar of a million voices - all the thoughts that mass and swarm and charge at once - and then there’s an explosion of silence, rushing out from somewhere deep within, and the sense of…

 

Home.

 

Home: it’s a cold, sterile metal husk, shielded from the vacuum by the flimsiest of shells; it’s a billet overlooking the Bay; it’s a glass-fronted mansion on a sea of ochre sand; it’s a hundred soulless lodging-houses on a hundred indifferent worlds. It’s all of these places and none of them; it’s isolation, it’s solitude, it’s constant difference. It’s learning not to feel the daily wounds, it’s understanding how to decide to want the inescapable sense of distance, it’s discovering the way to be one person to the world and another beneath a thick veneer that cannot be breached. It’s is this all I am and nothing more? And it’s answering, yes.

 

Quiet chill. A life in stasis, confined to a narrow cage with gossamer walls that look out onto infinity. Duty and reward. Satisfaction without contentment. Ataraxia.

 

And then… Color. Subtle at first - pastel-hued against a neutral background - too bright for eyes that have become accustomed to the half-light. There is resistance at first, but mechanical: a default response. There is touch, where touch had been all but forgotten: fleeting but electric, sparking a spreading warmth just below the surface. There is a smile without artifice; kindness without precondition or expectation; eyes that neither look away nor stare. The colors deepen, bright patches on a barren landscape picking out the wide swathes of gray, and it becomes possible, for the first time, to wonder if something has been missing. The self explodes into indecision and inner conflict: safe despair or capricious hope? Is it even possible to choose after so many years of atrophy? But now there is gold and cerulean blue where once there were washed-out watercolors, fading with neglect, and it turns out that the decision is already made; it happened when he wasn’t looking…

 

Hesitant advance. Chess. A smile like warm honey, like the light at the end of a long journey. Blunt, square fingers curling around a blue-clad sleeve, and it’s an effort not to pull away at first, but there is room for practice. Easy laughter that welcomes him in, demands his participation, teases but does not mock, and he’s never understood the difference until now, because where would he have learned that one is used to shun and the other to include? Casual glances from across a crowded bridge, the knowledge that he is watched, the shift of air behind him as a figure in gold approaches his console. Closeness, physical and mental, the sense that their thoughts are aligned, and the easy joy he reads on his CO’s face at the evidence of their affinity.

 

A hundred missions at each other’s side. The understanding that he would die to protect his captain. The sudden realization that his captain would die to protect him, and the cold rush of horror tempered by something else, something warm and unfamiliar. Emotional security, and a smile that tells him more than he’s ready to acknowledge. Friend, thrown casually into conversation as though it was never in any doubt. The first touch of his mind, like a coiled and wary animal, the fearlessness with which it opens to him, the sense of suspension over a fathomless abyss, the sense that here is a man who can never be completely known. The complex pathways that beg him to follow, the delicate balance of intellect and instinct, the compassion, the fire and the hunger, and the love.

 

The love. It’s like a glowing ball that envelopes the world; it lights him from within. It’s in every loaded look, every touch, every gesture. It’s in the command that turns a starship off-course from Altair VI at the risk of his career and reputation. It’s in the clear smile and unsteady walk that carries him to the bridge while he bleeds out from a stab wound to his stomach so that his friend need not make an impossible choice. It’s in the strong hands that catch him as he falls, that cling to him and release him only reluctantly to the doctor’s care; it’s in the stone-faced dread that can barely ask the question that twists in his throat. It’s the terror and the ecstasy, it’s the arm slung casually around his shoulder, it’s the hope that lights his eyes when they meet his friend’s. It washes over Spock; bright, simple light that throws his callow prevarication into stark relief. It fills him, it makes him who he is supposed to be. It accepts and cherishes him, it seeks out those shameful hybrid fault-lines and commends them as virtues. It makes him re-see himself through the eyes of a man who wants him to be nothing more nor less than he is.

 

Loving James Kirk is not a choice. It is no more a conscious decision than the color of his blood. He is Vulcan in his body and his mind and in his soul, and the planet that made him will always be inside him; it is important to know this, to understand how it shapes his conscious thought, his desires and his aspirations, his sense of himself. But he used to believe that this began and ended with the Disciplines that grew out of the sands and a people who could not trust their capacity to feel, as though his story was his self, as though his past was the only sure measure of his future. And it turns out that this is the essence of identity, certainly, but identity is more than the land that gives a person life. It has taken him many years to discover this.

 

These are my memories, ashal-veh, k’hat’n’dlawa, esh t’ak’shem. This is my people; these are the traditions that bind us. They help us to understand who we are, and for many years, I believed they described the foundations of myself. But they are only a single thread in an unfinished tapestry; they are barely one small fraction of a complex whole. They illuminate less than they shadow.

 

This is who I am. I know this because of you. You are the voice that brings order to the chaos.You are the light that makes it possible to see what has been hidden from me for so long.

 

You are the answer that I have sought.

 

 

*

 

 

Dawn is a ribbon of silver on the distant horizon as the ceremonial party returns, weary and footsore, to the circle of torches by the river. Some of the younger celebrants take up a space by the edge of the fire pit, some bring bottles, some fetch kreyla and kaasa fruit, one cradles a ka’athyra, another pulls a vluhn from her shoulder bag and strums her fingers experimentally across the taut, resonant surface. But others fill beakers from the central water vat with an air of fatigue loosely caged behind a veil of propriety; some usher tired children towards the doors to their tent, some offer an occasional, enervated el'ru'esta to friends and family as they pass by on their way to bed. The late winter sunrise prorogues an official end to the night’s festivities, but there’s a soporific cloud hanging over the camp that speaks of a general sense of closure. By unspoken consent, Kirk and Spock pass by the late revelers and, wordlessly, head for their quarters.

 

In the privacy of the dark tent, they undress each other slowly. Unhurried hands take their time over clasps and fastenings, easing back folds of fabric to run gentle fingers over liberated skin: a patient, deliberate brush of flesh on flesh that trails little, shuddering ripples of electricity beneath the surface that it touches. Their mouths move lazily against each other, tongues twining, rolling together; hips are pressed tightly against hips, fixed in place by mobile arms that trace the length of each other’s body in slow, languid arcs. Desire is a slow-burning blaze in the pit of Kirk’s belly, twisting and roiling in his gut and in the erection that slides along an answering hardness at his lover’s groin, but it’s an easy turmoil of longing, an urgency that has forever to play out.

 

And when they finally make it to the bed, robes falling carelessly to the ground as unthinking feet carry them the short distance across the darkness, they fall elegantly and efficiently, bodies sliding effortlessly into alignment, locking down and settling into a measured, even rhythm that moves them in steady, agonizing increments towards the pleasure that whites out the inside of Kirk’s skull, that closes him off from everything but the rising tide of need. By the time Spock lines himself up against the entrance to his body, edges gently inside, begins to move with all his habitual care, orgasm is already accelerating towards them both, filling Kirk’s head with a low, insistent roar. Spock comes first, but Kirk is not far behind, eyes and mouth thrown wide as climax claims him, shudders through him, appropriates him and lays him waste. His fingers tighten reflexively, gouging olive crescents in his lover’s cool skin and the bond sings a high, keening cry of unconditional pleasure: a primal clamor of connection unparalleled, connection unsought, connection unimagined.

 

In the hazy afterglow, his hands reluctantly release their grip and slide awkwardly up the length of Spock’s spine, along his arm, his wrist, his down-turned palm, laid flat against the coarse fabric of their sheet. Kirk folds his third and fourth fingers beneath his thumb, presses the middle and index against their twins on the hand above his, turns his face inwards to press a kiss to his lover’s throat. This is it, he thinks fiercely. This is worth the scrutiny and the censure, it’s worth the sterile desert heat and the slow-burning irritation that flares with each censored reproof hidden beneath hooded eyes. It’s worth the frustration and the confusion; it’s worth the hollow, sucking anxiety that haunts every step of every mission. It’s worth the white-hot, lightning-slices of pain that flare behind his eyes sometimes when they move too far apart; it’s worth a thousand hours of grinding, background headaches while the strange and beautiful thing that binds them settles. It’s worth all the pain, all the years of doubt, the separation and the grief. It’s worth everything that has come before and everything that will follow, because this is it. This is the light that he’s been searching for, too. This is his answer.

 

 

*

 

 

As the third night falls, the families gather by the circle of stones for the last time. By the light of the Watcher's ascent, V'Shevik speaks softly about the bonds of family and the bonds of memory, about the unbroken line that runs directly from the youngest members of the k’war’ma’khonlar through to the women who walked with Surak, about the traditions that keep their ancestors alive. Kirk stares into the flames of the fire pit and thinks he sees, reflected there, the faces of children unborn, men and women who will walk these sands when they are long since dust, and find, in the meld, the faces of a Vulcan and his Human lover, who made their own stories and set them adrift on the seas of memory last night.

 

As V’Shevik’s words fade into the lengthening shadows, the Houses step forward, one by one, to light a taper from the fire and carry it back to light their asenoilar, and wisps of pungent, fragrant smoke curl into the night, hanging like ghosts on the cooling air. Then, as one, the clan moves forward, stepping up to the fire pit and lifting handfuls of dust and sand to cast onto the flames. When the fire is extinguished, buried beneath the weight of the thin earth for another year, V’Shevik says, quietly, “It is finished. Go in peace.”

 

There is, apparently, a kind of post-ceremony feast once the ashes have cooled and the darkness has sucked the heat from the ground: small cooking trenches replace the central fire pit and chase the bite from the air, and families break bread together, catch up on each other’s lives, make matches, preserve and nurture the bonds of friendship. It’s another kind of sacrament, a ritual as old as society itself, but the players are as important as the game: it’s for the men and women who know their own place in the universe, who know that the ground beneath their feet belongs to them, and they to it. It’s not for two men whose world is elsewhere.

 

So there’s no regret as the aircar arcs elegantly into the quiet night, rising above the unpredictable desert thermals until the Na’Ree opens up below them, a wide, shimmering mantle of silver and opal beneath the planetrise, and the circle of torches becomes a flickering brand on the dark estuary floor. Spock’s face is pale in the milky half-light, still and quiet as marble, impassive and utterly unreadable… but for the faint hum of satisfaction that swells between them, that settles something twisted and unquiet in the deepest reaches of Kirk’s unconscious thoughts.

 

He smiles, warmth in the cool night air. “Let’s go home,” he says.

 

 

*

 

 

It’s the small hours of the morning, ship’s time, when their shuttle finally docks, and, though the Enterprise still has the feel of a community at revel, she has taken a breather between parties, and the corridors are quiet as they make their way to Kirk’s quarters. Someone has thought to switch on the candles on the miniature tree that his Yeoman insists on setting up in a disused corner of his desk each year, and which he’s tended not to discourage because he likes the way the room looks when it’s the only source of light. It tempers the darkness with a gentle, ethereal glow that softens their entrance and draws Kirk to a halt in the center of the floor.

 

Spock falls quietly into place beside him and the bond hums contentedly, whispering words unspoken. After a moment, Kirk reaches out a hand, links his fingers through Spock’s, and comfort flares brightly between them.

 

Quietly, Kirk says, “I believe I approve of your decision.”

 

“My decision?” says Spock.

 

“To return to Vulcan for the festival. You asked me if I regretted it.” A beat. “I don’t. Quite the contrary, in fact.”

 

“Ah.” Spock stands for a moment in quiet contemplation, long fingers idly moving against Kirk’s. “I am gratified.”

 

And Kirk thinks he also understands it, finally, though he won’t say as much. Some thoughts don’t need to be voiced. Because the truth is, they are different, both of them, but they are still the same. Spock didn’t stop being Vulcan when they bonded any more than Kirk stopped being Human: their union does not represent a rejection of the place that made him, but, rather, an understanding, at last, of how to be all the different facets of himself in a way that makes sense to him. That’s what’s changed: not any fundamental essence of who he is, but an acceptance that the paradigm to which he’s been trying to adhere elides some aspects of himself that he simply doesn’t want to live without. It’s not a question of trying to struggle into a new skin, but of casting off an old one that never really fit.

 

So maybe it’s easier, now, to take pleasure in the simple things that call to that primitive, cardinal part of the soul that simply wants somewhere to belong. When there’s no piercing sense of inadequacy haunting every failure to conform, maybe it’s easier to want to share that pleasure with the man he loves.

 

Maybe. They still have a lot to learn about each other, it seems. But that, too, seems less like a challenge than a promise.

 

“I believe,” says Spock now, soft voice rich and warm in the silence, “that it is traditional, among some Human communities, to receive a night-time visitation on the eve of the feast day from the anthropomorphized embodiment of the winter festival.”

 

Kirk’s brow furrows as he translates from Spock into Standard. “You mean Santa Claus?” he says.

 

An eyebrow arches, as though the commander of a starship ought to be less obtuse. “Indeed,” says Spock. “Perhaps you would care to examine the pediment of your replica conifer for evidence of his attentions?”

 

Indulgent laughter rumbles in Kirk’s chest; he has no idea how his companion has managed it, but, as he crosses the two strides to his desk, it’s clear now that there’s a small parcel tucked between the trunk and the bulkhead, shadowed in the gloom.

 

“Mr Spock,” he says, as he retrieves the package and leans against the back of a chair to examine it. Red paper glistens in the watery glow, enveloping a squat, blunt object with the consistency of thin cushions. It feels… familiar. “You shouldn’t have.”

 

“I sought Dr McCoy’s advice as to the customary offering,” says Spock as Kirk tears back the wrapping to reveal… yes, socks. Three pairs: black, white and gray. Unornamented. “He assures me that this is consistent with Terran tradition.”

 

Kirk is about to make a mental note to have a quiet word with his CMO about the ethics of Vulcan-baiting, particularly as regards in-jokes and cultural pastiche, but, as he looks up to offer a wry smile of thanks to the man that shares one half of his soul, something in his eye - some hidden warmth, the faintest flicker of amusement, ruthlessly restrained - sends the thought scattering on the heels of a more pressing understanding that he really ought not to underestimate his bondmate’s interpretative skills, or his capacity for incisive self-parody.

 

“Mr Spock,” he says, and a warm grin creases his face, pools joy and contentment in his belly, “you really shouldn’t have.”

 

“Merry Christmas, Admiral,” says Spock, and he very nearly manages not to look smug.

 

The smile edges wider, escapes all efforts at restraint or conscious control. Kirk reaches out a hand towards his lover, who accepts it without hesitation, allows himself to be drawn close. Two Vulcan arms circle Kirk’s waist, unreservedly, and Spock locks their bodies together with a small breath that may or may not be a sigh of satisfaction.

 

Taluhk nash-veh k’du,” says Kirk in a low voice, as Spock drops his forehead to rest against his bondmate’s. Warm breath ghosts across Kirk’s cheeks, worries at the fine hairs below his ears.

 

Spock closes his eyes. Heh’isha nash-veh k’du, t’hai’la,” he says.