"Final Graduation" Part V

Author - bat400 | Genre - Alternate Universe | Genre - Angst | Genre - Deathfic | Main Story | Rating - PG-13
Trip * Malcolm Fanfic Home

Sequel to: Final Graduation (Part 4)
Author: bat400
E-mail: batfic400@yahoo.com
Part: 5/8
Rating: PG-13, for some violent images
Codes: R, Tu, T'P violent images, deathfic, AU to canon Xindi Arc.
Betas: Quiz Mistress, M.S.
Archive: Any houseoftucker, Warp Five Complex, EntST*. All others request please.

Summary: The full measure of devotion. Alternate ending of the Xindi Arc. A shorter version of this story appeared under the title, "Graduation Day."

Disclaimer: Characters, places, and various incidents belong to Paramount. No monies were requested or received for this fiction. Header quotations from the works of Dickinson.



If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain:
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,

I shall not live in vain.

Part 5.

On a map it looked as if Santa Fe was the closest city, but when he tried to rent an aircar there, the woman on the COM said he’d be better off taking an air shuttle to Cortez and renting there. “As the crow flies you’re right, but it’s safer to follow the main roads if you’re not from around here. You’ll be on the auto-guide until you turn off at Mexican Waters, and then it’s a straight shot to Chinle.”

Reed had wanted to make a rude remark at “safer.” But now, on the short hike into the area Joseph Begay had highlighted on his map file, he could appreciate the advice. It was only June, but the sun beat down like actual blows. A breakdown might prove fatal in these canyons. He had put the car down on one of the only flat patches of ground, just above a dry streambed. The map and the GPS reading said he was only a half mile from where Begay was sure T’Pol was living, but the dry pounding heat and the rough footing made him glad that it was no farther.

Enough of that; he told Travis he’d find T’Pol. There were too few of them left to leave another one behind.

If T’Pol had wanted to find a better spot from which to avoid people, she probably could have, but this had to be near the top of any list. And if the she had wanted to hide herself within any group of people fundamentally at ease with the concept of “go away and leave me alone” this wasn’t a bad choice either.

When Reed had arrived in the small dusty town, it became quickly obvious that nearly everyone he spoke to knew her or knew of her, but no one was particularly interested in his finding her. They weren’t hostile, just unhelpful. The best he got was lips pursed out toward the barren looking horizon somewhere east (or south) of them and the recommendation that “the Vulcan lady lives out in the canyons. Catches mice out there.”

Then while fueling his rental vehicle at the hydrogen depot, Reed had noticed that the owner had a scouting troop banner on the wall behind the counter. Ya te'eh. Yes, Joe Begay was a scout leader. His boys were mostly from south of Chinle, down the Natzlini Wash toward Rock Mesa. A scout, you say, Mister Reed; what ranking? An Eagle Scout? Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, troop 18? Would Mister Reed, sure, Malcolm, like to get some coffee after the depot went on automatic for the night?

Reed did not mention T'Pol until they were finishing their coffee, an interesting conversation later. Instead of responding, Begay suggested they meet the following morning at a target range. So Reed found himself at a rough homebuilt firing range, stumbling his way through a morning with thirteen scouts between the ages of twelve and seventeen, letting them show him their clunky old projectile rifles and early energy bolt weapons. They also asked, and he answered, their stark, bare questions about the Xindi War. Begay had watched the interchanges, more or less silently. When the boys all left for their dinners, Begay suggested Reed would want to buy some gear before going out to see "the Vulcan lady."

A days after, Reed had a map to a cabin near Segetoa Springs, a bedroll, rations, and minimal survival gear, as well as a ludicrous looking but very serviceable wide-brimmed hat.

Begay had advised, “She gets her supplies taken out to her by one of the Yazzie girls down by Bonito. They won’t help you. They like her and think she doesn’t want to see anybody, any time. She comes into town or goes over to Window Rock about every month or so. Yeah, she’s kinda sick. Has a palsy; trouble with her hands. When I’ve seen her she’s always real quiet, business-like. But she got into a fight in Window Rock, and some people say she’s a little wild, a little strange. If you’re her friend, you ought to jest go – see her. She’d havta be a real monster to refuse you a place to sit in the shade and get some water, once you got out there.”

Reed paused again to make sure he was making progress down the wash to the spring. Canyon walls rose up steeply on either side and the dirt and sand that had collected in the bottom supported no grass, only widely spaced plants with flat lacey leaves or spiky fronds. But most of these were in bloom and small bees and gnats gathered around them. He came around a sharp turn and scrambled up into a narrow side channel of the canyon.

Here one wall was entirely in shade, although the morning sun would have hit it. In a hollow not directly in the wind, he saw a very smudged, but recognizable boot mark in the dust – a small narrow footprint. The GPS signal said he was right on top of it. A few more steps and he saw a very small building, no more than a single room. It looked as if it were coated with an adobe mix, natural or synthetic, and built into the rock wall on a ledge, a good seven meters off the floor of the wash. Reed came a bit closer and saw the narrow trace of irregular steps, some natural, some artificial, nearly invisible, that led to it.

Most of the ground surface was solid rock, but there was some dust. The wind through the canyon was swift, blowing the dust up. Reed put his palm into the patch at the foot of the steps and watched the edges of the impression he made only slowly eroding in the wind. Satisfied, he sat down in the shade of the canyon wall to wait for T’Pol to decide to come out and see him.

She waited until the sun was very low by the angle in made on the opposite wall. He heard the narrow door open and looked up to see her standing there above him. As she stood there, still, he didn’t see anything abnormal at first, but then he noticed that she was wearing braces on both her wrists, and that the fingertips of her left hand trembled.

Her voice was nearly drowned out in the whistle of the wind. “Are you hungry, Mister Reed?”

He nodded, and she said, “There is not much room in here. Leave your gear.”

The cabin was tiny, clean, and very bare. A single bunk was built into one wall and above it, high enough to allow you to sit on the bunk, was a wide shelf with scanning equipment, and other electronic gear, tools and containers. On the wall in between was a tabletop, folded away. There was a very small table where a bi-metallic reaction stove sat, a stool, and a chest. Under the table was a basin.

She had a pot on the stove, and there was the scent of herbs, and maybe carrots and turnips.

Reed said, “Hello, Sub-Commander.”

“I no longer hold that rank,” she said. Reed now noticed that she had a slight droop to her left shoulder. She sat on the bunk and gestured to the stool, and he sat down.

There was a long pause and he could hear, very faintly, the sound of the broth in the pot bubbling, and much louder, the wind. Despite the shade and the thickness of the walls, it was very warm inside.

“I had imagined that having no public COM registry would have prevented this. You have come to try and get me to come away from here.” She said.

“Not necessarily.”

“Then you have come to determine my state of health and why I am on Earth and not Vulcan.”


She inclined her head and her hands on her lap trembled. “What if I simply told you that I do not wish to be ‘rescued’ from my current situation?”

“You know I wouldn’t believe you unless you answered those questions you mentioned. And you know I won’t leave you, here, because you didn’t abandon me, there.”

“It was logical to attempt a rescue. We had not determined the prime targets of the nest chambers or the food storage areas. There was a chance that your party had that information. Additionally we could not afford to lose additional personnel.”

“It was still horribly dangerous. And it was illogical for you to be part of the rescue party.”

“I owed it to him.”

“Captain Archer?”

T’Pol merely rose, went to the chest and retrieved a potato masher, and a large handful of greens. She stood next to Reed and began to mash the vegetables in the pot on the stove. The awkwardness of her movements showed her disability. T’Pol had always been so graceful. She came close to tipping the pot off the stove, and when Reed put a hand out to try and steady it, she managed to replace it with one hand, and stopped his hand from touching it with her other.

Her fingertips were warm against his palm, and he remembered when he had been so cold, hanging there in a haze of pain from the Xindi torture-surgery, and T’Pol’s hand against his had felt so hot. Hayes had started crying again when they had heard the noise, and Reed had strained to make out the source. The torches had shone directly on them and he had tried to shield his eyes with his one functional hand. Someone had gasped loudly and Reed saw T’Pol’s figure (he knew from her size and how she moved) coming toward him. He jerked out his arm and his voice was like a rusted door opening, “Don’t. Booby-trap,” but she had already taken his hand. And so they had hung there a bit longer as their rescuers scanned them to see if they had been given any implants, and T’Pol’s hot, clean hand had held his clammy, cold, bloodied one. Hayes had begun screaming as he now saw by the lights that Mareno was hanging there with them, stone dead.

“I have it,” she said unnecessarily as she righted the pot and began to rip the greens into the simmering soup.

“Lieutenant Commander,” she said slowly, “If I explain my situation to you, will you respect my current need for privacy?”

“T’Pol, if you are safe and getting adequate treatment for whatever is wrong, I’ll go away and not bother you again, if you wish.” He did not give his definition of “safe.”

She nodded and continued with the meal. She began to speak in almost an absent-minded fashion, as if this story was something she had considered in her mind so many times that it was becoming boring to her.

“There is a disease that afflicts the nervous system of Vulcans. It is chronic and there is no known cure. It is called ‘Pa’nar’ and I have contracted it. Eventually it will affect my nervous system to a debilitating extent and I will no longer be able to care for myself. That is highly unlikely to happen very soon, but I will not live the typical lifespan of a Vulcan female. Currently the physical effect is fairly limited, as you can see. I am fully capable of collecting biological specimens for the firm with which I have contracted, and of caring for myself in this location so long as I have my current arrangement of being brought supplies.”

She had brought out spoons and two bowls; one was a small mixing bowl. She also brought out a container and took from it two large rounds of soft white-golden bread, flecked with brown toasted splotches.

“I down- and up-link COM messages from a microwave unit antenna mounted above us at the lip of this canyon, so I am not as unaware of the outside world as you may think. I see a neurologist in Window Rock once every two months. She is in contact with a xeno-physiologist at Starfleet Medical. Together they are monitoring my condition.”

T’Pol now looked up from seasoning the soup. “So,” she said, “there is no logical reason for you or Lieutenant Mayweather to be concerned. I am fine.”

Reed had listened silently. Now he tried to approach T’Pol’s revelation in a calm and logical manner, to appeal to her own outlook. “T’Pol,” he said, “I am very concerned and very regretful that you’ve been afflicted with this, ‘Pa’nar.’ But wouldn’t you be able to get better treatment back on Vulcan?”

She ladled soup into the bowls. “No. This disease is neither the focus of much study or attempts to combat it or its effects by Vulcan physicians, nor is it well understood by the general public on Vulcan, being quite rare, and having negative associations. Doctor Phlox was able to devise a treatment as effective as any after he had examined the most advanced Vulcan studies. The physicians I am working with have Doctor Phlox’s research. I am receiving the most advanced treatment and monitoring.

“Now, this soup is quite unpalatable when cold. I suggest we consume it. You may keep your current seat, but please turn away from the bunk.” When she saw Reed’s startled look, she continued, “I will be sitting there and I do not wish for you to see me eating.”

She held her soup bowl and the bread in splinted, trembling hands.

Reed turned and cautiously began to eat, listening as he heard her sit on the bunk. “Besides,” he heard her continue, as if it were perfectly normal to eat facing your guest's back a bare two feet away, “I enjoy the taste of this fry bread made by Blind Ben Yazzie’s daughter, Myra. I have no wish to leave.”

“Blind Ben Yazzie?”

There was a pause while, he assumed from the sounds, T’Pol was chewing and swallowing. “It is not a pejorative referring to his disability,” she said. “Instead it is a descriptor to separate him from five other Ben Yazzies who live in this immediate area.”

As they ate Reed suspected that T’Pol’s infirmity had affected her motor control so that she felt self conscious about being less careful and precise. He could hear her spoon clattering against the sides of her bowl, and various smacks and noises as she got the food into her mouth. The poor woman. How horrible for someone of an alien race who had mastered mental self-control to be betrayed by a physical ailment. He considered how to ask her the potentially embarrassing question he had formulated. The soup tasted harsh and salty. The bread was an oily, tasteless mass to him.

Finally, Reed heard T’Pol rise, and he turned around again. She was bending to get the basin. They piled the dishes into it.

“We can clean them outside,” T’Pol said, picking up a small spray bottle, he assumed of cleanser. Before she could pick up the basin, Reed took it, and carried it out.

The sun had not yet set, but it could only be seen high on the opposite wall. They were entirely in shadow. Together they walked to a small structure below and beyond the cabin that Reed hadn’t seen before.

“A composting toilet,” she explained.

She began to scrub the dishes with sand. Reed now realized from desert training, and long ago Scout camping, what she was doing and helped her, setting each scoured item onto a bare rock. The soiled sand went into the toilet, and T’Pol sprayed the dishes and basin with the waterless cleaner.

“It is cool now,” she said. “We can sit here for the time the disinfectant metabolizes.”

As they sat Reed finally asked, “T’Pol. Surely the Vulcans could make use of the same research that Doctor Phlox had documented? Why did you feel the need to leave Vulcan again? You said, 'negative associations?'”

He could not have been more startled by the response. The tremor was much more pronounced, her entire arms shook. Her face had gone from placid neutrality to a fierce snarl of rage, and she rose up and glared down at him.

“How would you like your every colleague, co-worker, and acquaintance to pity and despise you? To be disgusted by your presence as they simultaneously congratulated themselves on their enlightenment at allowing you to be in the same room with them?

“How would you like every introduction to begin, ‘And this is Lieutenant Commander Reed, who was stripped naked and touched and scratched and penetrated by giant chittering monsters? Who cut him open and pulled out pieces of him? But we recognize it was not his fault?’ Be reminded, ‘This is the same Security Officer Reed you’ve heard of who was unable to keep nearly half the complement of his ship from dying on the mission?’ To have thrown in your face under the guise of concern, ‘We cannot consider him to be completely sane because he snaps at his co-workers, and does not show appropriate reaction to others?’

She was advancing toward him, tears welling up and streaming down her cheeks. He carefully rose, realizing that even in her state, she could easily injure him. Or herself.

“Because that is what it was like for me on Vulcan! Because I was T’Pol, the crazed! T’Pol, the unwary! T’Pol who was foolish and flattered enough to trust a diseased pervert to perform a dangerous act with her! T’Pol who is pitied. My own parents are disgusted by me! They cannot understand how I failed to heed obscure and vague warnings they gave me as a child!”

She rushed past him, toward the steps to the cabin, weaving and stumbling.

Reed went after her, calling her name, begging her to stop, to listen to him. He reached out and touched her shoulder and she whipped around, clipping his arm with a blow from her fist that knocked him back, almost off his feet. And then she had clambered up to and through the cabin door.

And everything went very still. The wind whistled around him.

He had seen T'Pol overcome with emotion only twice in his life, and both experiences were ones he wished he could forget, they were so full of contradictory feelings for him.

On the Seleya she had been affected by the Trellium-D the Vulcan crew had been trying to use. He had berated himself for having mistaken her instructions and damaged the computer relays, and had only later realized that he had followed her instructions exactly -- that she had begun spouting nonsense under the influence of the chemical. On the return trip, she had thrashed in the rear of the shuttlepod screaming incoherently as the Captain and Hawkins tried to restrain her, and he had felt guilty that he had been considering his own "correctness" instead of his shipmate's health.

Before the mission into the Expanse she had once been infected with an alien spore while on a landing party, something that Phlox described as similar to the pollen that had affected an entire landing party early in their explorations. They had locked down Deck B while he and his people tried to capture her. She had draped herself around him, her warm breath fogging the outside of his EV helmet faceplate and the pressure of one of her legs starting to wrap around his calf. She told him she had seen him looking at her, that he could have her right then and there. He'd felt eaten alive with shame. Mentally mooning and slobbering over her body in that semi-detached way he'd always had with attractive women and she had been completely aware of it.

He'd mistreated her, or at least he'd not mentally respected her rank, herself. She'd saved his life, saved all their lives, saved Trip on that damned miserable planet with the hellish winds and the poisonous pollen. Reed would never have even known Trip, not really, if she hadn't helped get them all back safe.

He climbed up the steps in the fading light, careful to avoid her if she decided to come rushing out that door. He could not, he would not leave.

"T'Pol," he called. "I'm not leaving you. You're not well. No matter what happened, no matter how they treated you on Vulcan, you don't deserve to be this ill. No deserves to be harmed like this; no one deserves to be unwell."

He listened, and he could hear her. She had come to the wooden door. He could hear ragged breathing, and almost grunts of pain or anger. She was right behind the door, no more than a foot away from him. Instead of backing away to avoid the swing of the door, he carefully leaned in toward it, placing his face and the palms of his hands against it.

"I won't leave you, T'Pol," he said. "You're my friend and I won't leave you like this."

There was a pause, and he started, but did not move when there was a sudden hard impact to the other side of the door.

"Go away," she snarled, the sound almost a growl. "I'm not fit to be around anyone, especially a friend. Please."

"I ought to call emergency medical or the sheriff," he said. "You need help."

There was a bitter laugh from inside, high and breathy and ironic. "You can't call any of them," she said, "it's too dark for a Human to climb out of the canyon to high ground signal them with your COM. It's probably too dark to safely remove the air car from wherever you parked it."

He doubted that, but said, "Then I can't leave, either. It's too dark for me to get back to the aircar. I didn't bring an adequate torch."

"Liar!" came a snorting laugh. There was another pause.

"I will not let you see me anymore like this, but I promise you, I will not harm myself. Oh, no!" More of the hysterical laugh. "No, this happens. Too often. I will take my sedative and go to sleep. I do not harm myself."

She did not speak to him again, though he called her. He could hear her moving around inside, and once for a few moments, he saw the light from behind the one small window. Finally he heard creaking noise. The bunk? Not knowing what else to do, he decided to trust her and wait for the morning.

He carefully felt his way to his gear, unrolled the sleeping bag and pad, and laid it across the path, directly under the steps. He climbed in and tried to think about what she had said. When had she caught this disease? How had she caught it? Was it sexually transmitted? That certainly was what he had inferred. Had she contracted it on Vulcan after the Xindi War?

No. No. She had been sick on Enterprise. Not the Trellium-D; before that. Phlox said it was a spore, but was that all? What would a Vulcan be embarrassed, ashamed about? Emotion. Those other Vulcans. The emotional ones. My God, Archer had ordered them to leave, suddenly changed Reed's instructions and had them accompanied until they left. Vaguely revealed an argument, a disagreement of some kind, with T'Pol and the other Vulcans. It had been damned strange.

And after that, T'Pol had behaved so oddly sometimes. Not very oddly for a Human, but oddly for someone who was supposed to control and bury their emotions. Fits of emotion. Fits and shaking.

The fits she had had when Trip was killed. He vaguely remembered them; T'Pol snapping at Archer, throwing something in the mess and breaking it. Grace notes over his own crushing symphony of self-pity and sadness and anger. They had played some horrible hymns at Trip's funeral service. Before they'd ejected the body out into space again. A tight orbit around a star. Cremation, that was clean. A fire -- a clean fire. Reed was freezing and wished he had a fire. Like the one they'd all sat around on the Rogue Planet. And the Captain had seemed to want to speak to T'Pol about something so he'd gotten up to leave and tapped Trip on the shoulder and they'd both gone to bed. And it was cold after they weren't moving around anymore, and sometime in the endless night Trip had moved his sleeping bag over closer and he had been half awake and started, and Trip had patted him on the arm and said, "Jus' me," in a sleepy voice, and they had both gone back to sleep. And then Trip was dead and the night was endless and he'd never wake up again. And Reed curled tightly up in the sleeping bag, clutching his arms tight around himself and his hands under them and drummed his thumb against his deeply calloused fingertips, and thought he would never be warm again.

Reed woke from the sunlight hitting the canyon wall, high up, over T'Pol's cabin. The sky was a bright searing blue, without a hint of cloud. Before he could get out of the sleeping bag, the door of the cabin opened, and T'Pol came out.

When she reached the bottom of the steps, he'd rolled out of her way. She looked at him with clear and unclouded eyes and said, "When we have prepared for the day, I would like to speak to you. I am very sorry for yesterday's -- spectacle."

"If these outbursts of emotion are caused by the -- Pa'nar -- you don't have any reason to be ashamed of showing them to me, T'Pol. Just as you shouldn't be ashamed of my seeing palsy in your hands."

"And yet, I am disturbed by showing either," she said, quietly. Then she turned and walked out toward the toilet compartment.

They both cleaned up. She used a basin of water out there, drawn from a cistern, and then got him one as well, asking him to dump the used on a clump of plants growing by the toilet compartment. The plants were covered in tiny orange buds. She had nurtured them there. They would be blooming soon.

Breakfast was tea and toasted fry bread, which tasted somewhat better to Reed now. He offered, and she accepted, portions of applesauce out of the rations he'd brought. She was going out to collect specimens from her "trap line" and he went with her. She wore a large, serviceable, definitely feminine sun hat. He wore the hat Begay had suggested he buy. T'Pol glanced at it a bit oddly.

All through the canyon she had traps. They were very small; she could hold one in her palm. In most traps there was a rodent -- like a house mouse, but smaller and with a fawn coat. They could be held firmly in a little collar by the opening. From each creature T'Pol took a small sample of blood, and then dabbed a bit of blue dye on the back before letting it go. A few times she found mice that had already been dyed, and these she simply released.

As they walked, and sometimes climbed, a very long and tenuous conversation was pieced out. They made plenty of stops when Reed would start gasping, the altitude and heat too much for him. She would not clearly answer all he wanted to know, but she clarified what he had guessed.

She had been infected by one of the Vulcans from Tavin's ship, although she had not realized it for nearly a year. Transmission was through a mental contact. T'Pol's companion in this "meld" must have been infected. She had not known this, but she had tried to stop the mental contact; it had been painful, increasingly unpleasant, and he had forced her to continue and submit to it.

Reed was horrified by the idea that Vulcans might be capable of forced telepathy. Could it be used as a weapon? Could anyone's thoughts be "stolen?" To his relief T'Pol explained that it could only be performed among Vulcans, and the initiation was only possible for a small genetic minority. The brain structure of other species was too different for such contact to be possible. Vulcan physiologists had categorically shown the brain structure of Vulcans to be unique to the species.

She would not tell Reed the name -- although when he mentioned Kov, the only one of them he'd spoken with, she strongly indicated a negative. Why hadn't Archer taken him into custody? Because she had requested that the Captain simply get him off the ship as quickly as possible. She had not even explained, at the time, all the details to Archer.

She had been ashamed. She had been unwise. She had tried something regarded as deviant, foreign, beast-like, primitive. As emotions were primitive. As Humans and Andorians and Klingons were primitive, she explained stiffly, with a hint of both embarrassment and irony. She had known the act was abhorrent, but she had been unfamiliar with the disease it sometimes spread. It was not something proper for discussion in a Vulcan home or school. And Reed realized that there were layers upon layers of chauvinism, and tradition, and ignorance at work on the shame that she felt, the anger that she felt.

T'Pol had been assigned to the Enterprise because her supervisors thought she was familiar with Humans, that she had an ability to work with their emotions and not to be disgusted by them, to observe without judgment. She had applied that same objectivity to other Vulcans, and added a willingness to experiment with a male she had found attractive and exciting. And then she discovered she had trusted the wrong person, and trusted too much.

Phlox theorized in some abnormal cases the meld would excite neurons so that they would continue to fire in an abnormal way, eventually producing the syndrome called Pa'nar. Pa'nar excitations would randomly fire the brain's control of normally voluntary muscle function. But, more importantly to the shunning of victims of the disease, was a loss of emotional control, a breakdown of inhibition. A Vulcan so afflicted would pass the "excitation" along if he had this mental contact again.

And so, she had come here. To a place that reminded her of her home, but without other Vulcans. Humans might view her seizures as problematic, and even disturbing when they turned on anger, as the one the day before had. But Humans would not find them disgusting, horrendous, deserving of putting her away. And if she laughed or cried, well, that might merely be eccentric, backward, or out of place.

It was coming into midday, and there was very little shade. They sat in the lee of a cliff, resting, and drinking water. Now T'Pol said, "Do you believe me now when I say that I am unharmed by my preferred location?"

To Reed the land did have a certain harsh beauty, but it was alien and threatening. Reed kept thinking of all the ways someone might die out here. But T'Pol seemed completely relaxed. She had pointed out plants and named them; named animals by tracks and scat, and birds by their song. She was an enthusiast of this place. The data she was collecting for her company was not difficult to retrieve, the analysis simple. She told, in a calm voice, of observing these animals and plants, of writing short monographs on the nature of the canyons. She wrote of no new discovery, nothing a Human had not seen before. But it was all new to her, and that made it worthwhile.

"T'Pol, you seem to have all the necessities arranged for. But surely the isolation is difficult? Aren't you -- disturbed when you have these 'spells?'"

"It is better when no one else is here to see them. I know that Humans are unlikely to be as shocked by them as Vulcans are, but they seem to be worse when I am in close proximity to others.

"I am trying to understand emotions better. In light of my move here."

"How can you do that, if you so seldom see other people?"

"I read," she said. "Human fiction. Emotion somehow seems more accurate when related in fiction. Also, I am fond of poetry. I prefer poems with set meter and rhyme; Emily Dickinson among others."

Reed laughed. "I'm sorry," he said, "I just never imagined that you would like poetry. Particularly, poems about Human emotions. Pretty limited of me, I suppose, to pigeonhole people by their reading habits."

Trip had told him that Superman was layered with subtext. Every time he saw a child reading a comic off a flimsy-PADD, Reed wanted to demand they explain the appeal.

T'Pol was looking at him, a deeply considered look. "And you, Mister Reed, I am aware of your efforts at Starfleet, from technical summaries. What do you do to occupy your spare time?"

Without pausing to consider, he blurted out, "I try not to have too much of that." Then he haltingly said, "I mean … what I meant to say was … I'm very busy with work. The work with Weapons Research, and I've been asked to review some plans for the academy they want to start. I'm very busy."

She glanced at -- what? His hand? -- and then to her own trembling hands, laying in her lap. T'Pol said, "You are not the only one capable of tracing records, and speaking to third parties, and making deductions. Malcolm. I will call you that since you have said we are friends. Malcolm, you were exceedingly disturbed by our casualties in the Expanse."

"Weren't we all?" he interrupted.

"Yes. But not all of us developed a nervous physical habit we still follow. Not all of us are as noted by our colleagues as much for our defenses against the friendship of others, as we are for technical knowledge."

Reed felt indignation about to erupt from him, when suddenly T'Pol darted out with her shuddering hand and grasped his clenched left hand. She pulled it toward her and he let her open it up. She held his hand and gently touched his rough, calloused, fingertips.

"Close your eyes," she said, very softly. He didn't know what she was up to and gritted his teeth, tensed. "Think of yourself on a turbulent ocean," she continued. Sudden panic flared in him.

"I am sorry," T'Pol said quickly, "Focus. You are miles from any water. You are climbing in these canyons. You cling high above the ground, but you have the power to secure your footfalls. You will not lose your grip. The stone is perfectly secure. You are in control."

T'Pol kept stroking his finger tips. The touch was not in any way exciting, which was certainly how he had once thought about the possibility of being touched by her. It was soothing, calming. He was high up on the canyon wall, climbing. He would not fall. Reed felt all the rancor flowing away, away for the moment. Just the sadness remaining, just the grief.

"What are you doing to me?" he asked, not particularly worried. "Is this some sort of mental --?"

"No, of course not," she said, a little sharply. "All Vulcans can do this, it is only focused meditation. I am merely thinking with you. Think. Think of climbing. You are in control.

"Malcolm, when you spoke of keeping to busy with work to have spare time, you became upset and stabbed at your fingertips with your thumb. Do you remember that you started this 'response' after Commander Tucker was killed?"

Reed opened his eyes, blinking in the bright light. "I don't really know. It's really a bit blurry. Someone showed it to me -- a trick, to stop thinking about things. I couldn't stop thinking about Trip, and I would do this. Sort of like getting a little electric jolt to stop you from doing something. I don't think I really thought about it, about him, while we were still on the mission. I guess it didn't work anymore, when we got back home."

She asked, "Do you think about Commander Tucker now?"

"I try not to."


Reed said, "I owe it to him to remember him, and all the others, but it hurts too much. I should have kept it from happening." Reed had a sudden, jarring thought that he shouldn't be bothering T'Pol with his problems. He had come out here to this dry hell hole to help her. He gently pulled his hand away from hers.

T'Pol looked out on the white hot desert. "You cannot deny your nature. And to try to protect those you love, those you honor, is part of that nature. The emotions surrounding that need are also your nature.

"Emotions are not of my nature. Emotions are part of my disease. The worst among them all is regret."

There was a long pause. Reed could feel the moisture being sucked right out of his skin. "Regret for things you failed to do?" he asked.

"No," she said simply, "for the things I did and should not have done. It could have been you, you know; it could have been anyone. But I picked someone most likely to be hurt by it." Reed hadn't the faintest idea what she meant.

They made their way back to the cabin, now in the shade, protected by the canyon walls. He could not insist that T'Pol leave this place. Despite her illness, she was content here, for now. She had objectively examined her options, and she had chosen this one. To live among emotional Humans, but away from them. To avoid the pangs to her emotions by living apart, but to seek to understand them by study.

When she asked him to stay another night, Reed agreed.

They sat inside and talked while she analyzed the blood samples. He asked her what fiction she had read and was, again, surprised when she indicated some of the most "Human" of all stories, with interactions of odd characters and a cavalcade of emotions: Dickens, Austin, and pure fantasies, like Tolkien, and more recent fiction by Hebrin, especially her stories about the rebuilding after the Eugenics War.

Like Reed, T'Pol enjoyed poems from the Victorian and Edwardian era. "Boy's poems," Reed called them, full of patriotism and high ideals, popular again just two generations before, in the aftermath of the Wars the Vulcans had found them recovering from at First Contact. She found the extreme emotions depicted fascinating, alien, and instructive. She found the penchant for considering death and the possible afterlife to be obsessive, the longing for youth likewise.

"Old age and experience are considered the epitome of achievement and goal for Vulcans," she said.

Reed countered, "What you consider old age lasts longer for you than for Humans. And, if I understand, you normally enjoy it with far less illness than Humans do."

She considered him. "Do you consider poetry instructive and stating moral tone?"

"Generally, yes."

She quoted, "'If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not have lived in vain…' and yet, the inevitability of death seems overwhelming to Humans; impossible to escape. 'There is room in the halls of pleasure, for a long and a lordly train, But one by one we must all file on, Through the narrow aisles of pain.'"

"But Wilcox wasn't necessarily talking about death," Reed countered, "she was writing about the pain of all sorts of suffering, all though life. Other poets speak of death without much fear, and at the end of a long, worthwhile life, perhaps it's not an enemy."

"An example."

He answered, "'I must go down to the sea again, to the vagrant gypsy life, To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife, And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow rover, And a quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.'"

She raised one eyebrow.

"Masefield." He answered.

"But he postulates the presence of a 'laughing fellow rover.'"

"Yes," said Reed, softly, "that's best."

There was a silence in the little room. And Reed desperately tried to think of nothing at all.

T'Pol said, "If you do not wish to answer, do not do so. Do all Humans feel the need for a 'best friend?' As poets describe it?

Reed answered, "'Best' is relative. Some Humans make friendships easily; some break them just as well."

She quoted again, and Reed felt his chest tighten as he heard the familiar Woodberry poem, "'In the width of the world there were no such rovers-- Back to back, breast to breast, it was ours to stay; And the highest on earth was the vow that we cherished, To spur forth from the crowd and come back never more, And to ride in the track of great souls perished Till the nests of the lark shall roof us o'er.'

"Is such a friendship necessarily separated from the feelings involved in what is termed 'romance?'"

The turmoil Reed would have felt if anyone else had asked him this question was less because T'Pol was not Human. She was not trying to trick him, or embarrass him.

He said, "Romance, as in the feelings married people have? Because, now most Humans would like to imagine their spouses are their 'best' friends. That wasn't always true when marriage was the only means to raise children and secure prosperity for one's self."

"Yes," she answered. "Your description of historic Human marriage is of great similarity to the idea behind 'marriage' on Vulcan, although compatibility is considered laudable."

Reed continued, haltingly, hoping to explain it to her, and perhaps to himself as well, "So, can a best friend be a 'soul mate?' Yes. Does one have to be? No. Can such a friendship be 'romantic?' Yes. Must it be? No."

Her eyes were very wide and dark as she watched him. "Was Commander Tucker your best friend? And were you, his?"

He was hanging onto the canyon wall in the dusk. There was no light to see where to cling. But, suddenly, he knew there was a handhold just beyond his hand, and he stretched farther out, felt it, strong and unbreakable. He pulled himself up and over the ledge.

"Yes, he was," Reed said, suddenly sure that he could tell her this. "But I don't know exactly how Trip felt about me. I wish someone could tell me. I feel horribly guilty for wanting to know."

"I cannot answer that," she said, "but that you were friends to each other is certain. A Vulcan would have seen it as easily as a Human. Is reciprocity necessary for such things among Humans?"

"T'Pol," he said, "if Trip didn't feel exactly for me what I feel for him, it wouldn't change my feelings. But I think most people would think that wasn't -- normal. And maybe if I knew he'd felt something similar, then I would feel less -- crazed. Somehow more justified to be as ruined as I am."

T'Pol's eyes strayed from his face over his body.

"Not ruined, here," Reed said, resting his palm on the left side of his shirt front, over the long hideous scar it covered. "That's just meat." He closed his hand into a fist and pressed it over his heart. "Ruined in here. I can't seem to stop feeling so -- pitifully sad." He bent his head down and raised his hand to press his forehead. "And here. I can't seem to think of any good things, just death. I ought not to feel this way."

She bent toward him from her stool and cupped her hands in his line of sight, the fingers jerking slightly. "How many emotions lie in my hands," she asked, "and how deep are they? Are they superficial, or full of meaning?"

He looked up at T'Pol. "That question doesn't make sense," he replied.

"Correct. All you can know are your own feelings. No one else can measure them and say, 'they are too great; they are misplaced.' Think of Commander Tucker as your friend, without other concern. Don't be afraid.

"And as for you," she said, "You are back from a great journey, one where much was lost and much was saved. No one can deny how badly you have been hurt, but now you must decide. Are you to be Frodo or Sam? Will you be the hero who was wounded and never recovers? Or will you be the hero who builds something for himself and others?"

"T'Pol," he asked, "How did you learn all this? Just by reading Human books?"

"No. By being wounded, and having wounded others."

He left early the next day to avoid the great heat of midday to return to the air car. T'Pol told him how to contact her and stood at the foot of the steps to her little house while he put together his gear. When he finally stood, he saw the odd look on her face again.

"You looked at me like that yesterday, too. What is the matter?"

"It is your hat," she said carefully, as if to avoid any hint of emotion. "I saw Commander Tucker once in such a hat. It did not quite suit him, I thought, but it appears even more out of place on you."

Reed found himself smiling. "I’m just an ol’ cowhand," he said, in a sudden memory of watching old films with Trip. He continued, "I wish Trip could see me; he’d laugh his arse off."

"You may be correct. Figuratively, of course," she said.

Reed piloted the vehicle back to Cortez and took the air shuttle that evening to San Francisco. He dozed on the last leg of the journey, and dreamed of riding a horse, something he had never done. It was like flying. At one point Trip was riding alongside him. In the dream, Trip asked, "Is the trail ahead safe?" And he had answered, "I'll make sure it is."

End of Part 5.

Final Graduation (Part 6) is a continuation of this story.


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