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Beta'd by Distracted, to whom all due thanks!
They both woke at the same instant.
Something was wrong. Something was dreadfully wrong.
Without any warning whatsoever T'Pol had suddenly gone into convulsions. Her slight body was now twisting and thrashing on the cot like something impaled, her head flung back until the neck tendons strained like cheese wires as she fought for air.
In the first seconds of horror, Trip thought she was having some kind of nightmare. Then, as Atio'annan ran in, unshielding a small horn lantern, he realized that the healer must have been asleep outside the door of the tent in case of just this eventuality. He'd been expecting it.
Considerations of propriety or any other such absurdities went flying out of the window. He threw his arms around her, trying to support her and help her in any way he could, while terror rose in his throat to choke him. Possibilities hurtled through his stunned brain, each worse than the last. Some kind of allergic reaction to something she'd eaten – some sudden and virulent disease – poison – she couldn't take this for long, her body was too weak to cope with the stress on her blood vessels, already under attack from that damned toxin. And this had to happen after those few magical moments last night!
"Do something!" he yelled at the healer, who was indeed trying to pour something from a beaker into the Vulcan's mouth, but her throat was locked shut to facilitate those terrible gasps for oxygen. He could feel the man's helplessness.
"I can't. It's the ihaile venom. It does this sometimes – only rarely – "
"She was supposed to have weeks yet!"
"I know." He heard the hopelessness, the defeat. "I'm sorry."
"NO!" Trip snatched her up off the bed and pulled her into his arms. "Don't go – don't leave me – t'hy'la!" In of his rare optimistic moments he'd sneaked a peek through the UT database in search of Vulcan terms of endearment; there didn't seem to be many, but he'd found that one, and memorized it in hope that some day he'd have the opportunity and the cause to use it. Now it sprang to his tongue in desperation.
She was long past hearing him. Her breathing began to fail. Foam and blood gathered at the sides of her mouth.
He didn't feel Malcolm's hand come to rest softly on his shoulder. He didn't feel anything except a blind fury of grief and desolation and rage and guilt that it was going to end like this, everything snatched away from her because of some goddamn bite she'd gotten, because she'd been too busy looking out for him to look out for herself. Shiránnor, he screamed out inside his head. Shiránnor, for God's sake help me! But Jon wasn't here to call her, and she wouldn't hear, wouldn't know. Maybe even Phlox couldn't save his t'hy'la now. He'd never got around to calling her that, never got the chance, though somehow he'd hung on to the hope that someday the time might be right when he'd surprise her with it. Now it was never going to happen.
He dropped his face so that his cheekbone rested against hers, feeling the hot harsh breaths rasp against his ear with longer and longer intervals in between. Her body was just twitching weakly now, and the pulse was leaping erratically under her jawline. The strain was going to tell on her heart soon, and that pulse would simply ... stop. More emerald blood ran out of her mouth, mingling with his tears. She'd bitten her tongue or the inside of her cheek. Blood. He'd always associate this goddamn place with blood as long as he lived.
He stood up, carrying her as though she weighed nothing. "Outta my way!"
"Get your pistol. If anyone tries to stop me, shoot them." He didn't wait to see if Reed obeyed his order. The world had disappeared except for the portion of it that led to the river.
The dark shape of Mahé'lanné was just outside the tent flap. In another life he might have wondered why; it might have mattered what the warlord thought and did. The only thing that counted now was that he didn't try to stop him and therefore Malcolm didn't have to shoot him. Even that was something that floated past at the very edge of his consciousness.
The night was very still. He had no idea of the time: there was no hint of dawn yet, only the enormous arch of the starry sky overhead, watching him intently as he strode down the avenue between the tents. A sentry moved forward at the rim of his vision, but was stilled by a word from someone and therefore did not become a demonstration of how phase pistols work.
She was still breathing. He didn't have to look, he could hear it, and as long as he could hear it his legs could keep moving. He fastened his eyes on the broken dark shapes of the trees that lined the river, and tried to pick up speed, but the ground was uneven and if he fell...
Someone was beside him, one hand gripping his arm in support, lending him keen eyesight. "Step a bit high... clear for a bit ... No, come this way..." He stared down at her face, contorted and smeared with green stains, and she was still breathing. His world was still intact. But the pauses were becoming longer and longer, and...
The tree shadows swallowed him briefly and disgorged him onto the riverbank. Fra'heálla had gone. There was only the water, dark and secret, glittering with a million shifting reflections.
The shock of the cold would kill her.
He looked up at the stars. The Great Dance, she'd called them. I can't believe, lady. I can only believe that you believe. Is that enough?
If he stopped he would never move again. He kept going. He walked into the river, feeling the brutal chill of it mount up his legs. The rocks underfoot threatened him, shifting as though to pitch him headlong into the grief that would scar him for the rest of his life.
He stopped. She was limp in his arms now, all the strength gone. She was dying. The shallow gasps had a rattle in them.
His legs were shaking as he turned around. The mountains were jagged against the sky in the east, visible only as an absence of stars. It's up to you now, lady.
There was no way to search for how the river bed was, no time for caution. He put one leg back to balance himself and bent his knees, keeping his body upright and T'Pol cradled tightly against him. Up came the water in a steady, deadly flood, pushing against his abdomen, swirling around his elbows, reaching inexorably for her.
No response. No breathing.
He screamed out and fell down on to one knee. She disappeared into the water, and he buckled forward over her, searching for her mouth in the turmoil and the cold and the sparkling. Somehow he got one hand on the back of her head, in the hair streaming out like weed; he found her lips, and made a seal. All the breath in his warm body passed into hers in a great exhalation of love and need and desperation. Breathe with me, T'Pol. Breathe for me, t'hy'la. Come back to me.
The right arm that had hung lax behind his shoulder suddenly jerked up to grip around his neck. Her outflung left hand shot up to clutch his hair. Her eyes flew open, staring into his with utter incredulity.
"YES!" He came up out of the water in a single strong lunge, sucking in air only in order to yell the word at the top pitch of his lungs, feeling her turn and cling on to him, her grip strong enough to make him wince. Strong, Vulcan-strong again; he'd treasure every bruise that her fingers left on his body. She dashed the wet out of her face, gasping, as she looked around in total bewilderment.
Trip. Just call me Trip, darlin'. You will one day. When you feel right about it. And I'll get to call you t'hy'la. Can't wait to see your eyebrows when I lay that on ya. Though I bet you'll say I haven't said it right, just to zing me. And you'll teach me how to say it the proper way, the Vulcan way. We'll have time. I'll make sure we have time.
"I have the feelin' you won't like the explanation, Sub-commander." He began wading back to the shore. Malcolm had even braved the water past knee deep to come to meet him, which in the circumstances was borderline heroism, Trip thought with a grin. The armory officer's eyes were like saucers, but his face was irradiated with delight.
"What ... how ...?"
"Don't ask. I couldn't explain if I had to."
"When Phlox and the captain see this you bloody well will have to. In spades!" He turned and sloshed back to shore alongside him.
"Maybe I'll have thought of somethin' by then." They grinned at each other.
"I would be grateful if you would allow me to stand now, Commander. I feel perfectly able to do so." Even when she was as bedraggled as a soaking cat T'Pol retained her dignity, and being held cradled in a Human's arms in public for a moment longer than strictly necessary probably violated at least a round dozen Vulcan codes of etiquette.
Tucker set her back on her feet with as much delicacy as if she had been made of the finest china. For one thing, it let him hang on to her for just an extra couple of seconds.
Mahé'lanné and Atio'annan were standing side by side, watching. Even if they'd been human their faces would probably have been pretty unreadable.
"I sure hope I didn't offend you, doin' what I did." Trip lifted his chin and faced them. "I don't know what put it into my head. But seein' what it's accomplished I can't be sorry for doin' it. And I'd do it again if I had to."
"That is understandable." The warlord inclined his head gravely. "I do not feel it any province of mine to take offence at what the Goddess has done. And I am more glad that I can say that She saw fit to do so." He took off the cloak he was wearing, and stepping forward he placed it around T'Pol's shoulders with courteous grace. "The night is chilly enough even without your being wet through, Lady T'Pol."
"Thank you, Lathaichan." Dignity was one thing, practicality was another; now that she was separated from the warmth of Trip's body, the cold of the night was obviously beginning to make itself felt. The cloak was thick and soft, lined with fleece. She wrapped it around herself tightly. An acute observer might have thought that her fleeting glance towards Trip was ever so faintly wistful, but the expression was so sternly banished that it might only have been imaginary.
"I think we'd better get back to camp straight away so we can get you all dried and changed." Atio'annan gestured shyly. "And perhaps a glass of warm mulled wine...?"
"That sounds great." By his enthusiastic tone Malcolm obviously knew what it was. Some Merrie Olde English specialty, perhaps. Though it probably wouldn't taste quite the same as what he associated with the description. Still, anything at all that had the adjective 'warm' attached to it exercised its own powerful attraction at that moment. Trip was only wearing his Starfleet blues, and now they were soaking wet they were worse than no protection at all. Malcolm, in the same state of relative undress, but dry from the thighs upward, was already shivering with the cold.
The five of them walked rapidly back to the camp in silence. There, in very short order, towels and blankets were produced, the braziers were stirred into life, and everyone found out what warm mulled wine tasted like here. It wasn't quite what it was in England (Merrie, Olde or otherwise), but it was still pretty good at driving out any lingering chills. By which time the first fingers of a lemon dawn were stroking shyly at the fringes of the western sky, and at least three of the company were perfectly ready to return to their beds and go happily back to sleep again.
Much further downstream, a solitary figure finally padded out of the river and shook herself vigorously before catching up her long head-hair and twisting the worst of the water out of it. The cold had had no effect on her, but she was very tired. It had been a long and taxing night; even for a Skair, sorcery of this magnitude was draining. This was the first time she had taken part – naturally an unseen and unsuspected part – in the nyhai-vra of a new warlord. She knew what to expect, of course. The long gash on her forearm was washed clean by the river water. It would heal soon. As for the ihaile venom, Skaira were resistant to it. It would make her a little nauseous for a few days, but that was all. The bruises were rather more troublesome, of course, but her body was strong and healthy: they would pass. She looked up gratefully at the fading stars, the memory of that anguished cry still echoing in her mind: Shiránnor, for God's sake help me. Had she been other than she was, it might not have been possible. By comparison to the ritual injury inflicted during the nyhai-vra the woman's plight had been such that the murmur of the river had been almost drowned out by the sound of the waves of the Endless Ocean. But the Goddess had been merciful.
He had seen. He had remembered. He had understood.
Now they both had to remember the words she'd used to them last time: Happiness is too brief to be wasted.
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