Jim dropped his duffle bag onto one of the beds and walked over to stand beside the Vulcan. They both stared silently out of the window for a moment before Kirk finally replied. "No?"
"No." Spock turned toward his captain, one eyebrow slightly elevated. "I checked the weather report only six point three hours ago. Snow was not expected." He contemplated the blowing and rapidly accumulating white flakes with ill concealed distaste. "I am certain of it."
"Hmm." Jim glanced out the window again and then shrugged and turned to his friend. "Well, we are in the hills of northern Pennsylvania, and it is Christmas Eve. So in spite of what the meteorologists have to say, I can't claim that I'm all that surprised myself." He smiled faintly. "And anyway, it's good for us."
Spock's eyebrow inched up. "Good for us?"
"Having our best predictions blow up in our faces occasionally."
"Indeed?" Spock obviously was not convinced. "And how is that, if I may ask, good for us?"
"It keeps us honest. It reminds us that we don't have as much control over things as we think we do." Jim turned and walked across his room to his bag and began to pull his clothes out and arrange them tidily on the bed.
Spock turned from the window to study his captain. Kirk had an unsettling way of uttering illogical pronouncements with so much conviction that it was impossible to dismiss them out of hand. And yet, Spock could not for the life of him see how a lack of control ever could be of any benefit, for any reason. His brow furrowed slightly as he studied the scene outside. "It appears to be a rather severe storm," he ventured, as a gust of wind shook the window panes. "Perhaps it would be prudent to return to the Enterprise before it worsens."
Jim dropped his sweater in a heap on the bed and swung around to face the Vulcan, aghast. "Return to the Enterprise? After all the trouble I had getting this place? After all the trouble we both had getting the time off to begin with? You've got to be kidding."
Something in Jim's voice made Spock bite back the obvious reply: that Vulcans never kid. Instead, he regarded the human gravely, noting the signs of stress that were apparent on Kirk's expressive face. He needs to rest, Spock thought to himself with a surge of protectiveness. He has not yet recovered from Arrakis. Out loud, he said, "You have more experience with Earth weather than I. If you think that it is safe..."
Kirk scowled and picked up his sweater again, this time neatly folding it before he placed it on the bed. "We'll be fine. It used to snow in Iowa all the time. It didn't usually get this deep," he admitted, glancing over his shoulder at the Vulcan, "but the wind was much worse. We're sheltered by the woods and the hills here."
"That is most fortunate," Spock said dryly as another merciless gust howled away outside.
"I think," Kirk said slowly, looking around the cabin, "that this place is perfect, no matter what the weather decides to do. If it's terrible out, we'll just stay inside and relax. We can talk or read books, or just... hang out."
Spock surveyed their accommodations impassively, noting the spare but adequate furnishings. The room held two single beds, an assortment of threadbare but comfortable looking chairs, and a crudely built pine table with a couple of benches. There was also a bookcase that was positively straining with books; apparently Jim's friend Mullan, the one who owned the cabin, was a bibliophile like Jim. But it was the antique woodstove in the kitchen area and the large fireplace--the centerpiece of the room--that held Spock's attention at the moment. He attempted to suppress a shiver: the cabin was far too cold for his comfort.
Kirk saw his friend tremble and frowned. "We'd better get this place warmed up," he told Spock. He gestured toward the woodstove. "Believe it or not, I know how to work that thing. Can you start a fire in the fireplace?"
Spock walked over to the fireplace and studied it carefully before he replied. There was a simple damper system; apparently, one had only to pull on the iron bar that was located just below the hole of the chimney to open it. Beside the fireplace was a copper bucket crammed with kindling. An old wooden box near the hearth held crumpled paper, dry wood chips and old-fashioned matches. "Yes," he finally said, after his inventory.
"Good." Kirk opened a small door beneath the round belly of the woodstove and then stood up to adjust the flue. "You open everything up when you're first getting the fire started," he murmured, half to himself, "and then shut it down once it's underway. We have one a lot like this back home in Iowa--my mom claims she can heat a three county area with it."
Spock listened to Kirk as he assembled his own fire. He placed the dry kindling carefully upon a base of paper and wood shavings, then selected a few larger logs and laid them on top, being careful to leave space between the wood so that air and flame could get through.
Kirk quickly had the woodstove roaring; he damped it down expertly and proceeded to roam about the cabin as Spock continued to stoke the fire in the fireplace. Spock listened to his captain's restless footsteps behind him, wishing that there was something he could do to ease the human's disquiet. He hoped that this trip would do for Jim what a week's time had not: ease the memories of Arrakis.
"You know," Kirk said slowly, "to really get into the experience of this thing, we probably ought to fix our dinner on top of this woodstove."
Spock turned and looked at the woodstove dubiously and then rose gracefully to his feet. "A rather daunting task, I should think."
Kirk sighed. "Yeah, that's what I think, too. Let's just use a phaser and make it quick and easy. I don't think I've got the energy to be a pioneer tonight."
Jim, on the other hand, seemed to be completely unaware of the storm: he stared into the fire with focused concentration, eyes narrowed as if he were trying to work out some sort of particularly challenging problem.
In the flickering firelight, Spock studied the human surreptitiously, his brow creased in concern. He had some idea of what was bothering Jim; it was how to address it that was causing him difficulty. He had spent the better part of a week trying to determine whether he should question his captain about Arrakis, or if he should remain silent. He still had not reached a decision, although he had devoted an inordinate amount of time in the attempt.
For now, he concluded, he would take the safe route and steer the conversation toward another topic.
"It is unfortunate," he ventured, "that your mother had plans to travel to Taygetta over the holidays. It must be some years since you have been able to be on Earth at Christmastime."
Jim did not look away from the fire. "Yes," he finally said. It's been six years at least--maybe more. But my aunt was really excited that Mom was coming, and I know they'll have a great time together." He turned to Spock. "When I found out she'd planned the trip, I didn't even tell her that we'd be on Earth. I knew that she'd feel like she had to cancel, and that she'd insist we come to Iowa instead of here." He shrugged and turned back to the fire. "To tell you the truth, I'd rather be here. It wouldn't be the same anyway, with Sam on Deneva. And Christmas in Iowa was always such a big, noisy production... I'm not in the mood for any of it this time around, I guess."
Silence fell for some time, a silence broken only by the roaring of the winter wind and the crackling of the fire.
Spock was the first to speak. "Tell me about Iowa," he said.
Kirk did not take his eyes from the fire. "Iowa," he repeated slowly. "You already know about Iowa--I've told you pretty much everything there is to tell." He shrugged dismissively. "I grew up on a farm on the plains, helped plant and harvest corn, take care of the animals... then left for the Academy, just as soon as I could."
"You were anxious to leave?"
Kirk selected a long piece of kindling from the bucket. He leaned forward and poked absently at the fire with it, causing a cascade of embers to fall from the grate to the brick below. "I suppose that just about everyone loves their home. But I knew I didn't belong there--not really." He glanced quickly at Spock, and then turned his attention again to the fire. "Yes, I was anxious to leave. Anxious to find the place where I belonged."
The Enterprise," Spock said.
Kirk nodded. "Of course, back then, I didn't know about the Enterprise. I was thinking about space, being out there, exploring..." He stared into the flames. "I knew that was where I was meant to be."
The Vulcan considered the human silently. Spock always wanted to know everything about everything, but most of all about Kirk. Though he suspected that his urge to understand this man was not based even remotely upon logic, still he could not help himself from indulging his curiosity, now that he and Kirk were alone. "Your rural upbringing," he finally hypothesized, "must have seemed confining to you. Is that what led you to venture into space?"
Kirk pursed his lips thoughtfully. "No," he said at last. "In fact, I think it was quite the opposite."
"Yes. I think it was the freedom I knew as a child that made me crave the... the expanse of space."
Kirk smiled. "I don't think people who haven't grown up on a farm understand what the life is like. There's a lot of hard physical labor, of course. But it isn't really a confining life, or at least it doesn't have to be. I had land all around me, and I had a horse." He turned his face from the fire to look at Spock. "From a very young age, I was allowed to launch off on my own... spend the day, if I wanted to, riding for miles." He hesitated, and then said, "I guess in that sense, I've always been an explorer. I just traded the horse and the land for the Enterprise and space."
"I have never ridden a horse," Spock confessed.
Kirk closed his eyes at the memory. "Well, you've missed something, then. If it's the right horse, and the right rider, it's... well, it's an incredible experience."
"You had the right horse?"
"God, yes." The nostalgia that tinged Kirk's voice was palpable, even to an emotionless Vulcan. "A little Arabian mare named Firefly." He prodded at the fire again, his thoughts far away. "She was smaller than most of our other horses, but she could outrun every last one of them. I can still see her, galloping full tilt with her tail streaming out behind her like some kind of a victory banner."
Spock watched Kirk's eyes flicker in the firelight. He knew with certainty that Jim was seeing not the flames of the present, but the horse of long ago. Intrigued, he waited, in hopes that the human would continue speaking.
"I used to ride her sometimes without a bridle or a saddle. It seemed like I only had to think about where I wanted to go, and she knew. I'd just wrap my fingers in her mane and let her run--let her fly across the fields and leave the others in the dust."
"The speed must have been exhilarating."
"It was. But it was more than that." Kirk hesitated and then bit his lip, suddenly embarrassed. "You wouldn't understand."
"I might surprise you," Spock said quietly.
Kirk glanced at the Vulcan inquiringly and then gave him the ghost of a smile. "You might at that," he admitted. "In fact, you do that quite consistently." He turned back to the fire. "All right, I'll tell you--even though it is illogical. What it was that was so wonderful about riding that particular horse wasn't the speed. It was the connection."
Kirk nodded. "Riding a horse bareback is not an easy thing--there's nothing much to hold onto. Even the most skillful rider is likely to fall if the horse shies or tries to unseat him."
"It must have been dangerous, then, to ride bareback at such a high rate of speed."
Kirk shook his head. "Not in the least."
Spock's eyebrow rose slightly.
"I knew she wouldn't shy, and wouldn't try to unseat me," Kirk explained patiently. "I wasn't taking any risk at all when I rode her like that." He shut his eyes again, conjuring the memory. "I can never explain it, what that felt like. It was speed, and power, and trust, and best of all, it was..." He thought for a moment, searching. "The only word I can come up with is 'communion.'" His smile was wistful and unusually tentative, when he looked again at the Vulcan. "Communion. That's what it was: two completely different creatures, bound together by the spirit. It felt... beautiful."
Spock found that he could not speak any more than he could take his eyes from Kirk's face. He waited, with his heart pounding too fast in his side, until Kirk spoke again. "Do you understand?" the human finally asked him.
"Yes," Spock said, very quietly, and dropped his gaze.
Neither of them spoke again for some time. Spock finally got up and walked over to the window; gazed out onto an alien world full of swirling snow and blue shadows and silver light. Looking up, he saw that the moon was high in the night sky, but its glow was nearly obscured by the storm. All that was left of it was a smudge, a white thumbprint against a starless backdrop. Its shape constantly shifting with the vagaries of the atmosphere, it appeared bizarre to Spock, who still was accustomed to the clear, dry climate of Vulcan. This is the world of Jim and of my mother, he thought, and had to suppress a wave of loneliness at the knowledge that he did not belong here, any more than Jim had belonged in Iowa. He shivered, only in part because of the frigid air that seeped though the window.
"I think," Jim said slowly behind him, "that we should both sleep here in front of the fire. It'll be warmer."
Spock glanced briefly at the beds; they both looked cold, too distant from the fireplace's blaze. "Logical," he told his captain.
Kirk nodded; his face expressionless. "Good. What do you say we lay out our bedrolls and turn in, then? It's been a long day."
"Indeed," Spock agreed. He did not fully admit to himself his relief at not having to leave the comfort of the fire, or of Jim's side.
Rising up on one elbow, the Vulcan regarded the human with alarm: Kirk's eyes were shut tightly, but his cheeks were wet with tears. "No," he whispered, over and over again. "Please no."
Spock reached out and clasped Kirk by the shoulder. "Jim, wake up."
"Why didn't I tell you?" Kirk whispered. "Why? Why? Why?"
This time Spock shook his captain gently. "Jim," he called, more insistently.
Jim's eyes snapped open and gazed directly into Spock's.
"You were dreaming," Spock said softly, suppressing his own distress at the grief he saw on his captain's face and at the tears that wet his lashes.
It took the human a confused moment to process what Spock had told him, but when he did, his relief was tangible. Taking a shuddering breath, he reached out slowly and grasped Spock's arm as if he needed physical proof of the Vulcan's presence. "Thank god," he said, shutting his eyes against the memory of the nightmare.
"What was it?"
It took Kirk so long to answer that Spock nearly asked him again. Finally, Kirk said, "I was on Arrakis, wandering through empty streets. It was exactly... exactly like it was that day, only there were no corpses."
"Yes," Spock said encouragingly, when Jim hesitated.
"You were down there, too, but I'd lost sight of you. The longer I walked, and the more emptiness I saw, the more I felt poison in the air." He shivered again. "Death--that's what it was. Certain death, if we didn't get out of there. I can't tell you how I knew that, but I did."
"What happened next?" Spock prompted, when Kirk fell silent.
Kirk looked at him, and Spock was startled to see that his captain's eyes were filling with tears once more. "I started to run through the streets, calling your name into the communicator. You didn't answer. I was desperate to find you, to get you out of there - but I couldn't find you, and you didn't answer. I... I finally ran so far I left the city. I found myself on a path, and then in a garden." He covered his eyes with his hands. "It was so real--I can't get it out of my mind."
"What was it?"
Jim sat up and wrapped his arms around himself as if to shield himself from the memory. "It was you," he said softly. "You were lying in the garden - dead. You had your communicator in your hand, but it wasn't open. I knew then... you'd heard me call, but you hadn't been able to answer me."
Spock sat up and ever so gently touched Kirk's shoulder; mindful somehow that the human needed reassurance of his continued existence. "It was merely a dream... a nightmare," he reminded Kirk. "Not real."
Kirk laid his hand on Spock's and finally sighed in relief. "Yeah," he said at last, sagging back into his bedroll. "Not real. I'm... sorry I woke you up."
"No apology is necessary," Spock assured him, settling into his own sleeping bag.
Kirk did not speak for so long that the Vulcan nearly became convinced that his captain had gone back to sleep. He was almost drowsing himself when a soft voice beside him disproved this theory.
"I... know you don't like to be touched, but... is it O.K. if I put my hand on your arm until I get back to sleep? It may not be logical, but..."
"Your touch will not disturb me in the least," Spock told him, lying quite outrageously.
Indeed, as Kirk fell at last to sleep, Spock was aware no longer of the hiss of the dying fire or of the howling of the wind. His world had been reduced to a human hand upon his arm, and to this thought: He wept for me.
Sure enough, Jim was standing on one of the benches, apparently in the final stages of fastening a spruce bough over one of the cabin doors.
"Merry Christmas," Jim told him as he clambered down from the bench.
"And the same to you," Spock replied politely, surveying Jim's handiwork. "I assume this adornment is in honor of the occasion?"
Jim nodded and put the bench back by the table. "It doesn't seem much like Christmas to me, somehow, and I thought a little evergreen might help. I didn't dare cut down one of Mullan's trees, but I didn't think he'd mind if I just filched one branch."
Spock rose to his feet and regarded the spruce swag thoughtfully. "The scent is quite pleasant," he admitted, "but I must confess I have never understood the connection between various kinds of coniferous woody perennials and Terran winter holiday festivities."
Kirk shrugged. "If you mean 'What does evergreen have to do with Christmas?' it's a cultural thing. And it actually goes back to before Christianity--to the druids, I think. They saw the evergreen as a symbol of the promise of spring after the hardship of winter."
"And the Christians adopted it as a sign of eternal life?"
"Yes. There are lots of traditions, symbols and stories surrounding evergreen trees--like the triangular shape having to do with the holy trinity, for instance. And I remember my mother telling this legend about the Christ child and a pine tree."
"Indeed? What was it?"
Kirk began to set the table for breakfast. "Well, supposedly, when Joseph, Mary and Jesus were fleeing Herod's soldiers, Mary became too weary to travel any more. An ancient pine that had grown hollow with the years invited them to stop and rest within its cavity. When the soldiers came near, it closed its branches down and kept the three of them safely hidden until the danger had passed."
"A most... human story," Spock commented. "Highly fanciful."
Kirk looked out of the window onto the frozen landscape. "True," he agreed. "I liked to hear it as a kid, but now that I know how brutal and dangerous the universe can be... Well, it's a bit of a stretch to think that even Christ could expect mercy from nature."
Spock's eyebrow shot up in astonishment, the bitter observation was so unlike anything he would have anticipated Kirk would say. He opened his mouth to formulate a reply, but Jim forestalled him.
"Have you ever used snowshoes?"
Spock blinked at the sudden change in subject. "No," he answered. "There is a rather limited call for them on Vulcan."
Jim's mouth quirked, but it fell short of a smile. "Vulcan smartass. I asked because there are two pairs of them in the woodshed--I used one set when I went out to cut that branch. The snow's so deep out there I would have been up to my knees otherwise. I was thinking that after breakfast, we could put them on and go out for a little hike." Seeing Spock's look of skepticism, he added, "They're not as hard to use as you think."
Spock considered illustrations of snowshoes he had seen in the past, recalling their odd badminton-racquet-like shape, elaborate weaving, and complicated appearing system of thongs and bindings. "That is most reassuring," he told his captain solemnly.
Pausing to look up into the sapphire sky, he reflected that it was almost as if the two of them had been transported to an entirely different planet. It seemed utterly incredible that the night before, this landscape had been ravaged by raging winds and blowing snow: everything surrounding them was so peaceful this Christmas morning that the silence seemed almost unnatural.
He gazed around him, squinting against the blinding, omnipresent whiteness of the world. The rolling Pennsylvania hills lay under a glittering, diamond-strewn blanket, a blanket that softened every hollow and curve until it was impossible to make out the true contours of the environment. All trees--from the loftiest to the lowliest--were bowed under the weight of their heavy winter burden; some of the smallest shrubs were bent over so far that their tops arched down into the drifts beneath them. Will they straighten again when the snow melts? Spock mused to himself. Or will their shape be forever changed by the storm? Involuntarily, he looked up ahead to Jim.
As if sensing Spock's eyes upon him, the human turned around. "You doing O.K.?"
"Good. I didn't think you'd have any trouble once you got used to them." Jim gestured toward a dark row of trees a few hundred meters to the left. "Let's head toward that forest--I've got a feeling the snow won't be quite as deep there."
Spock nodded his assent and followed silently behind his captain, navigating carefully down every slope and around every snow-disguised obstacle. A startling flash of red distracted him momentarily; its presence was so dramatic in the relentless sea of glittery white and cool blue shadows. Following it with his eyes, he determined it was a bird, specifically a male cardinal. He watched it flit, exposed and brilliant, from bare branch to bare branch until it disappeared at last into the dense sanctuary of a waiting spruce. Mercy from nature, Spock thought, as he saw how perfectly the little bird was hidden among the down swept limbs. Perhaps, he considered, the legend of the pine tree was not as ill founded as he had first believed. He had the illogical whim to tell that to Jim, to point out to the human that they had perhaps both been wrong, but his captain had forged on ahead without seeing the cardinal and was rapidly increasing the distance between them. And after all, it proves nothing, Spock thought to himself self deprecatingly. Other than that you have spent too much time among the humans, and that you are in danger of becoming shamefully fanciful yourself. He hastened on to catch up with Jim.
They reached the woods at last and quickly realized that just past the tree line the ground plummeted away into a fairly steep ravine. Stepping a little into the sudden dimness of the tree-shrouded interior, Kirk peered down it speculatively.
"Hmm," he finally said. "It'll be a little bit of a workout to get down there, but I think we can manage it, if we take it slow."
Spock's mouth curved in an infinitesimal smile. He had been on enough hikes with Jim to have had experience with the human's unswerving proclivity to find the most challenging path and to pursue it with single minded determination. He had known, therefore, that the ravine would have an irresistible appeal.
"Indeed," he agreed, but his tone was absent-minded: his attention had been called by the sight of a pine tree that jutted up just past the edge of the embankment and soared up into the sky. Studying it, he saw that it was much taller than those around it. At least twenty-five meters tall - perhaps more, he thought to himself. Scanning its trunk, he determined that its diameter must be in excess of ninety centimeters. It would have to be relatively old to have reached such a size in this environment, he thought.
Dimly, he heard the snapping of twigs a little distance away from him and knew that it was Jim trying to figure out the best starting point for their descent. He studied the closest limb of the tree, noting that its needles were much longer and softer looking than those of the spruce bough Jim had cut earlier that morning. Frowning, he ran through the list of types of Earth conifers that would be indigenous to this area. None seemed to quite fit the description of this particular tree. A specimen would be required, he decided, in order to identify it with any degree of certainty.
"Over here, Spock--it's not quite as steep."
"One moment, sir." Cautiously, Spock leaned out over the gully and reached toward the closest cluster of needles. They were very nearly out of reach, but he calculated that if he moved just a few more centimeters forward, he should be able to get hold of the very end of the cluster and draw it toward him so he could twist it off from the tree. He stretched his arm out further, took a step, and managed to grasp one small bundle of needles in his gloved hand.
Unfortunately, that was the exact moment that his right snowshoe decided to clamp firmly down upon the edge of his left snowshoe, throwing the lanky Vulcan off balance just as his hand closed down around the supple branch. He felt himself start to lurch forward and tightened his grip instinctively, but his weight was too much for the spindly branch to bear and it snapped off in his hand. With a muffled sound of surprise, Spock tumbled off over the edge of the ravine, clutching the bunch of pine needles tightly as if could somehow halt his descent.
For an indeterminate span of time, Spock's world was a jumbled mass of white and green and cracking branches. He heard Jim shout his name from up above, felt the sharp lash of a sapling against his left cheek, and saw one of his snowshoes tumble down the bank before him. He could do nothing, he realized, to stop his precipitous descent. Sliding, rolling and bouncing, he finally crashed down at the base of the gully, long arms and legs splayed.
The Vulcan lay motionless for a moment in an attempt to regain his breath and to assess the damage. To his surprise, he found he was unhurt, other than a slight throbbing at his right wrist that turned out to be caused by a glob of snow that had worked its way between his sleeve and glove cuff at some point during his fall.
"Spock! My god!" This time the voice was accompanied by a tremendous crashing sound; Spock turned his head and saw Jim hurtling down the bank at breakneck speed, snowshoes skidding, arms flailing, apparently with no regard for his own safety. Spock had no time to reassure the human before Jim was beside him, bending over him, face nearly as pale as the winter snow.
"Jesus Christ," Jim said, his voice shaky. "Jesus-Christ-Jesus-Christ-Jesus-Christ."
"I am unhurt," Spock finally managed to inform him, and struggled to sit up.
Jim fell to his knees on the ground beside Spock. "Don't try to move," he ordered. "Let me check you over first."
"Jim, please believe me. I'm fine." In spite of Jim's remonstrance, Spock sat up and continued, "The deep snow and my various layers of clothing cushioned my fall. I am not injured in the least." He studied his captain's pale countenance for a second and added, "I'm sorry if I alarmed you."
"Alarmed me!" Jim exhaled loudly. "I was sure that you'd been killed. What the hell happened, anyway? One minute you were there, and the next..."
Rather sheepishly, Spock held out the cluster of needles. "I wished to obtain this specimen," he told the human meekly, "in order to identify its type and to study its structure. In an attempt to procure, it, however, I -"
Jim gaped at the bunch of needles in disbelief that quickly turned to fury. "You decided," he said slowly, "to launch yourself into midair to get it? What the Ð"
"It was difficult to reach, but I calculated that I could do it safely. Unfortunately, my Ð"
"Well, you obviously calculated wrong." Jim's eyes snapped with anger. "Do you have any idea how much you scared me just now? How I thought that you..." He stopped short and shook his head. "Forget it. Just forget it. Take your stupid specimen and let's get the hell out of here." He scrambled to his feet and started to brush himself off, still glaring, his hands shaking.
Spock got up as well and attempted to remove as much snow as possible from his coat and pants, all the while surreptitiously studying Kirk. He was utterly baffled by the human's reaction to his fall; he had clearly heard utter panic in Jim's voice. In the seven point eight months that he had served with Kirk, he could not recall a time when he had seen the human be swept away by terror the way he had been today--even at times when the life of every crewmember had been at stake.
A half-formed theory began to grow within Spock's brain, a theory so nebulous that it felt suspiciously like gut instinct. On a wild impulse he decided to act upon it, rather than to ignore it, as any logical Vulcan should do. Reaching out tentatively to touch Kirk on the shoulder, he said, "Jim. What happened on Arrakis?"
His captain flinched as if he'd been struck. "You know goddamn well what happened," he muttered. "Plague. Plague so horrendous there were no survivors." He jerked away from the Vulcan and turned his back.
"Both distressing and unfortunate. But... you have seen the aftermath of disaster before. You've witnessed plague, famine, war... and yet Ð" Spock stopped and swallowed nervously; he was unaccustomed to acting on hunches, and he was all too aware that he was in unfamiliar territory. "And yet," he continued determinedly, "you have not reacted in this manner."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Jim grated without turning around.
"I am talking about a kind of bitterness that I have noted in you this past week that is most contrary to your nature. I am talking about panic--and about your nightmare last night," Spock said. "I think something occurred on Arrakis that you have not told me."
Slowly, Kirk turned and faced the Vulcan. In the shadow of the tree-shrouded ravine, his eyes appeared very dark; Spock caught his breath at the pain he saw in them and waited with some apprehension for the human to speak.
"You want to know about Arrakis," Jim finally said slowly. He took a shuddering breath. "O.K., I'll tell you, then. Arrakis was the quietest place I've ever been. There were no voices and no traffic and no sound at all but our footsteps. It wasn't a peaceful quiet: it was a dead quiet, a toxic quiet. It was the kind of quiet that made the hair stand up on the back of your neck and made your heart beat fast as if you'd just been chased. You walked into any store and had to go around or step over half a dozen corpses--all of them just fallen wherever the person happened to be when the plague hit them. On the street-- more bodies. In the school..." He stopped and looked away. "I guess I can't tell you about the school yet." He looked back at Spock, his expression fierce with grief. "The entire population, Spock - all just dropped in their tracks by that... thing."
"Raverman's Syndrome is the most lethal and fast-spreading disease yet discovered in the galaxy," Spock told him. "There is generally very little warning of impending death, once a person becomes infected."
"There was no warning," Kirk said flatly. "These people were just going about leading their happy or unhappy lives... and they just fell. Just fell wherever they were standing at the time."
"Yes," said Spock encouragingly when Kirk stopped. He was certain there was more.
"It became apparent we weren't going to find anyone alive," Kirk finally went on. "I told the landing party to separate and try to do a body count--and then to report back to me at our beam down point in half an hour." He shrugged and stared off at some undefined point in the forest. "I guess I mainly just wanted to get out of everyone's sight for a while--I thought I might cry or throw up, and I didn't want anyone to see me if either happened."
"What did you do after the landing party dispersed?" Spock asked when Jim hesitated again.
Kirk dropped his gaze. "I... wandered. It didn't really matter where you went: the story was going to be the same anyway. I ended up near a row of houses--and on an impulse, I went into one of them." He shot a quick look at Spock, and then looked away again. "I was calling out, which was stupid: I knew by then no one would answer."
A tiny breeze came up and knocked small bunches of snow from the boughs of the trees all around them; the sighing of the branches sounded unnaturally loud in the peaceful forest. Spock shivered, but not because of the winter cold.
"It was a beautiful house," Kirk continued. "There was a tiled fountain in the middle of the entrance, crystal and mirrors everywhere, plush carpets and luxurious furniture--it was the sort of house that someone had loved and had lavished attention upon."
"As I recall, the Arrakians were a prosperous people who were known for their love of beauty."
"There was no one in the house," Kirk said as if Spock had not spoken. "I should have just left. But instead..."
"I went through the door in the rear of the house--the one that led into the garden."
Spock's castoff snowshoe was lying in a drift nearby; absently, Kirk walked over to it and picked it up. Staring down at it as if he'd never seen it before, he finally brought it back to Spock, who took it wordlessly, his eyes never leaving the human's face.
"The garden was incredible," Kirk continued. "Lush and luxuriant--so different from the world of death outside. There were huge exotic flowers that hung down from golden arbors; every tree was alive with songbirds--there was color and sound everywhere. And that scent..." His voice trailed off. "The smell of life, of growing things. It was like a little paradise in the middle of hell. But... it almost made what was outside seem even worse." He shut his eyes, remembering. "There was a path."
"A path of stone, twisting off into the center of the garden. I- I followed it."
Kirk's words came haltingly; Spock noted that the human's hands had bunched up into fists.
"I found them there--in the middle of the garden."
"Two young men."
Kirk pressed his lips together, his eyes narrowed. It was the same expression, Spock noted, that he had had last night when staring into the fire. Spock leaned forward, studying Kirk's face intently, certain that an answer or at least a clue was about to be disclosed.
"Are you cold? We ought to be heading back," Kirk said shakily, averting his gaze.
"I am not cold," Spock said. "Tell me about the men you discovered."
"God," Jim murmured, looking up into the sky as his eyes filled with tears. "I don't even know why it bothers me so much - why I can't get the memory of it out of my mind. Damn it," he added fiercely as one tear escaped and wet his cheek. He brushed it away angrily with the back of his gloved hand and said, "All right: They were lying on a blanket underneath a tree--naked--in each other's arms." He glared at Spock as if the Vulcan were personally responsible and added, "They'd come to the garden to make love. Instead..."
"They died," Spock finished softly.
"Yes," Kirk said; his voice harsh with grief. "They died. Do you want to know more? Fine: Their eyes were still open. They were staring at each other. They were smiling. They died... smiling." He turned away. "Now you know everything there is to know about Arrakis. So let's get the hell out of here before we freeze to death."
"Why does it bother you?"
Jim stopped in his tracks and wheeled around, his face pale with fury. "Because it's so goddamn unfair, that's why! They had everything, Spock--everything! And it was all ripped away from them in a tiny instant by that... that horrific thing that came out of the void and wiped them out. This is the kind of universe we live in." He gestured toward the branch of evergreen, his expression a study in disgust. "You want to know why legends like that dumb pine tree story exist in the first place? Because we need them. We need them to help us to lie to ourselves, to tell ourselves that there is certainty in this life. If we didn't have them, we'd have to face the truth--and we'd be so paralyzed by it that we probably wouldn't be able to take another step."
Spock looked down at the little evergreen branch and considered the legend that Jim had told him that morning. For some reason, he remembered, too, the cardinal that he had spotted just a half an hour earlier. "I must disagree," he finally said. "I do not believe that either the druids or the Christians saw evergreen as a symbol of certainty. I think they saw something else entirely." He bent down to fasten the snowshoe again upon his boot.
"Really." Jim's voice was harsh with bitterness. "And what, may I ask, do you think that was?"
Spock looked up and gave the human the slightest shadow of a smile. "Hope."
"Well, after what I saw on Arrakis, I don't think that's much to go on. Those two men are dead, and there's nothing that can undo that--certainly not hope, or wishes--or anything else for that matter."
Spock straightened; the snowshoe once more secure. "True. But as you've pointed out, they did have everything once. Do you think it's possible for people like that to live without hope--or to die without it?"
Jim shook his head wearily. "I don't know. And it doesn't matter, either. Let's get out of here before we freeze to death." He turned away.
Something in Spock's voice made Jim turn around, albeit reluctantly. "What?"
Spock gripped the branch more tightly in his hand as if it were some sort of talisman against the repercussions of what he was about to say. "I... I must ask you a question before we leave. No, that is not quite accurate. I must ask you two questions."
"If I answer, then can we get the hell out of here?"
"I must ask you this: Is your grief," Spock continued doggedly, "truly for what those two men lost... or for what you believe you, yourself, have not yet found?"
Jim's eyes widened and his face went utterly white.
Perhaps my theory is indeed correct, Spock thought to himself with a thrill of something that felt as bright and brilliant within his side as the flash of a cardinal's wings against the snow. Before he could lose his courage, he forged on. "My second question: In your dream last night, you said there was something you wished that you had told me. What was it that you wanted me to know?"
The human stepped back and brought his hand up to his chest as if the question had pierced him through. "Ask me," he whispered, "anything but that."
"Jim." There was a tinge of reproach in the Vulcan's voice. He stepped closer to his captain and looked down inquiringly upon the human's upturned face. "Can it be true that you trust me less than your horse?" Very gently and ever so cautiously, he touched Jim's cheek. "Tell me. I promise you: I shall not let you fall."
He had to wait for an almost unendurably long amount of time before Jim finally replied. "No," the human said at last. "You wouldn't, would you? You never have--not once in all the time I've known you." He reached up and captured the Vulcan's hand in his own. Meeting Spock's eyes resolutely, he said, "All right then. This is what I didn't tell you--what I've never told you. I... I love you."
Spock's grip on Kirk's hand tightened. "Yes," he whispered. "I believe... I knew that."
Jim shook his head. "I don't think you understand," he said, his eyes still full of apprehension, "exactly what I'm trying to say. There are so many kinds of love, you know. Love like a friend for a friend, and love like a brother for a brother, and -" He stopped, bit his lip nervously and then finally took a deep breath. "And love like..."
But Spock had already gathered the human into his arms, had already begun to bestow upon Kirk's mouth a series of deep, heartfelt kisses that utterly precluded any possibility of talking. "And love like this," he finished for Jim, once he finally pulled away.
"Oh," Jim said when he finally found his voice. "Yes. Exactly. Love like this." He reached for Spock, his eyes bright with relief and desire.
Spock fell into his captain's embrace eagerly. Closing his eyes, he inhaled the scent of Jim and of the clean winter air and of the tall snow-covered evergreens. Jim was holding him, murmuring words of love, pressing December cold lips against his neck. And it all seemed fantastic, unreal--and utterly, completely right.
I shall never live without this again, he promised himself. In the distance, the cardinal began to sing, but Spock could see no betraying flash of red against the snow. It's doubtless safe within its refuge, as I am in mine, he thought. He pressed his cheek against the top of Jim's head and smiled.