With an abbreviated gasp, T’Pol jolted awake.
The first thing she realized was that she was completely and utterly alone. Apart from the sole rucksack pressed up against the wall of the small cave next to her head, there was no sign of Trip and if she had not been able to feel him in the back of her mind, she very likely would have panicked. The last thing she remembered with any real clarity was seeing Ferran topple and Trip enter her cell, his body taut with tension and his eyes filled with barely suppressed fury. He had come for her, just as she knew he would, and suddenly, the forbidden tales of pre-Surak Vulcan males who would burn worlds and cross endless expanses to reunite with their chosen mates had not seemed so unlikely. T’Pol could remember him speaking, but his words had been jumbled nonsense that her drug-addled mind could not quite comprehend. It had not mattered, though.
Because he had come for her.
She gave her surroundings a closer look, noting instantly the sound of rain outside, beating a steady but soft tattoo against the rock. Here, in this cave, she was sheltered from the elements which had no doubt been Trip’s intention. An old, musty smell filled the air and there was so little ambient light present that T’Pol could barely see anything more than a meter distant. After several long moments, she was finally able to identify the entrance – it was in the floor of the cavern and overlooked the sharp incline leading down, out of the cave – and crawled to it.
The cave appeared to be high in a series of low cliffs that overlooked rocky terrain with numerous pathetic-looking trees and bushes. From the placement of an overhang concealing the cavern’s mouth, T’Pol suspected that locating this spot was quite difficult and would normally require considerable happenstance or judicious use of advanced technology. That Trip had found it at all would seem to indicate that he was using her personal scanner.
She retreated to the small bedding area – it was little more than a thin blanket stretched out atop the hard rock – and assumed her usual meditative posture. The urge to panic remained quite strong, but she could feel Trip growing closer with each moment and that reassured her more than she wanted to admit. Her relief – and bemusement – grew at the sight of her holstered phase pistol atop the rucksack. She checked the weapon’s charge and placed it on the cave floor near her waist before leaning back. There was nothing else she could do but wait.
So she closed her eyes and began to meditate.
She felt Trip’s approach long before she heard it, and the warm knot of foreign emotions filling her senses roused her from her recuperative trance. When Tucker finally crawled into the cave, a flood of exhaustion and pain almost knocked T’Pol down. She started to rise, but he waved her back to her seat and staggered across the tiny cavern so he could drop a second but much smaller pack alongside the first.
“You okay?” he rasped with a voice that seemed rough and broken.
“I am,” T’Pol replied, her eyes as wide as she could get them as she watched him detach his holster.
“I think we’re safe for a while,” Trip said. He half-pulled the pistol free to check its charge and T’Pol flinched at the white-hot spark of anger that rolled off him. “I found a river about ten kilometers from here, ditched the groundcar and then sank a boat.”
“A boat?” T’Pol repeated.
“Yeah,” Tucker replied. “Used up the last of this pistol’s power making sure that thing went to the bottom.” Comprehension came at once.
“You hope any pursuers believe that we escaped via this watercraft.”
“’cordin’ to the map you had,” Trip said, his voice growing thicker and more slurred with each word, “it’s a tributary that connects to their equivalent of the Mississippi.” He placed her scanner on the ruck next to his depleted phase pistol and began staring at her.
“An effective ruse,” she commented before leaning toward him in an attempt to make out his features in the dark. “You came for me,” T’Pol said abruptly, surprising even herself. That was not what she had wanted to say, although she could not have stopped the words from tumbling out of her mouth if she’d tried. It was too dark for her to make out his expression when he glanced at her, but judging by the bright flash of surprise she felt through this … bond, it would have been fascinating to see.
“Of course I came for you,” he snapped back. “Did you expect me to just abandon you?” he demanded. T’Pol shook her head.
“It was not logical for you to endanger yourself for me,” she murmured, even though a part of her silently acknowledged that she would have done the same without hesitation. Trip grunted.
“Do you think I give a damn about logic when it comes to your safety?” he asked rhetorically. “You’re all I’ve got, T’Pol.” Another jumble of emotions slammed into her and she could not begin to decipher their meaning. “You’re all I’ve got,” he repeated softly, the comment so heartfelt that it was almost physically painful to T’Pol.
“How long has it been since you slept?” she wondered. Trip shrugged.
“Dunno,” he answered. “Four, maybe five days.” He flashed his fingers. “Huh,” he grunted. “Maybe longer.”
“Then if we are safe for the moment,” T’Pol said, “you should rest.”
“Not before we talk,” Trip retorted. He crouched in front of her and she was struck by how bad he truly looked. Dark rings were under his far too bright eyes and he was not blinking as often as he should. His wet hair was plastered against his skull, which only served to emphasize the gauntness of his face. The unappealing beard he had not yet been able to rid himself of dripped and he absently scratched at it. Trip had the look of a man on the verge of utter collapse but, if the turbulent emotions rolling off him were any indication, he was desperately afraid to do so. “What the hell did you do to me?” he demanded sharply.
T’Pol looked down, unable to meet his eyes.
“I do not know,” she admitted softly. Another spike of alien emotion jabbed into her brain – it ran the gamut from anger to fear to surprise and sadness. “Trip, you must believe me that this as foreign to me as it is to you.”
“But you suspect something,” Trip guessed flatly. T’Pol looked up and met his eyes.
“Do you remember when we spoke about Koss?” she asked. He nodded. “I have reason to believe that there is a … physiologic basis for the tradition of new spouses spending a year together.” Trip’s eyes widened, but she pressed on quickly. “There are legends among my people about psychic connections we call mating bonds, but they are generally given no more credence than the human myth about love at first sight.” He opened his mouth to reply, then apparently thought better about what he was going to say, and hesitated before plunging on.
“And you didn’t know this could happen?” T’Pol instinctively bristled at the accusation.
“As I have never been married, Charles,” she retorted tightly, “I have no way of knowing whether this hypothesis is accurate or not.”
“I just …” He trailed off and ran his hands through his wet hair. “So this is just a natural thing for Vulcans,” he said. “Would have happened regardless of who you were stuck here with.” Overwhelming surprise and sadness merged with disgust, and it took T’Pol a long moment to realize he was disappointed. On instinct, she reached out with one hand and touched his face with her index and middle fingers.
“You believe there was a romantic connection between myself and Captain Archer prior to our crash landing here,” she said simply. Tucker’s eyes shot up and he started to speak. “You were in error, Trip,” she continued over his stumbling remarks. “I was never more than the captain’s friend.”
“T’Pol,” he began, but she kept speaking.
“In the stories of my people,” she said, her fingers continuing to caress the side of his face, “the mating bond is something that cannot come into being without mutual consent and was cherished as a union of two katras.” She frowned slightly at the sliver of fear still echoing through the bond. “You are afraid that your will is not your own now,” she ventured, and from the way Trip’s jaw tightened, she’d guessed correctly. “I cannot control you, Trip,” she said.
“Darlin’,” he replied with an exhausted smile, “you’ve never needed some sorta brain connection to control me.” T’Pol raised an eyebrow at the illogical statement – she was able to instantly recall a dozen different instances since she came aboard Enterprise where he had been unnecessarily recalcitrant toward her – and his smile brightened for a moment before fading. “I wasn’t in control of myself,” Trip admitted. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I could feel you in my head but it was like someone else was callin’ the shots.”
“I suspect the bond drives mates to protect each other,” T’Pol said. Trip blinked again, suddenly seeming to notice for the first time her hand on his face. She watched as he unconsciously leaned into her touch, his eyes slipping shut and an expression of peace chasing away the exhaustion. Physical contact seemed to further enhance their psychic connection and the deluge of emotions racing through him were so powerful, so overwhelming that she had to fight the urge to pull her hand away. They sat there in silence for long moments, not speaking.
T’Pol could not remember ever being so content.
With a sudden hiss of pain, Trip lost his balance and fell forward, nearly knocking T’Pol to the ground when she instinctively reached out to steady him. She almost gasped at the tidal wave of muted agony and bone-deep weariness coursed off him. On the heels of that, a rush of self-recrimination made her head spin. She had done this to him. If it were not for the bond, he would not have driven himself to the brink of emotional and physical collapse.
“You need to rest,” she said smoothly.
“I do,” Trip agreed in a dully, emotionless voice. “I really, really do.” He slumped back into a seated position and began fumbling with his boots. T’Pol batted his hands away and took over for him, quickly stripping off his shoes and damp shirt. Trip’s eyes drooped closed as she worked his equally wet pants free and he fell heavily against her. By the time she was done, he was already losing the battle with his body’s demand for slumber. She pushed him to stretch out over the thin blanket but, to her surprise, he curled toward her, his head finding a pillow in her lap and his arms wrapping around her waist possessively. “Haven’t even got to kiss you yet,” he mumbled.
A heartbeat later, he was asleep.
T’Pol considered her awkward position for a moment before using her arms to shift her body closer to the wall. With a solid surface at her back, she relaxed slightly and looked down at the sleeping man who had become so essential to her well-being. A sigh escaped her lips before she could prevent it, and she began carding her fingers through his too-long and still damp hair. Not for the first time, she had no idea what to do.
Her remarks to Trip about mating bonds had been rampant speculation on her part with little intrinsic evidence to support her theories beyond this unexpected firsthand experience. It was entirely possible this … connection was simply a by-product of a meld performed incorrectly, and would eventually fade with time. And then there was the Pa’nar. Had she infected Trip with it as well? Would it even affect humans? What if she had permanently shortened his life expectancy because of her illogical and overly emotional connection to him? T’Pol did not think she could live with herself in that case. The innocents who had died when she shot Menos were one thing, but Trip? He was something else entirely and she knew that she would not survive him long in that case.
The list of questions continued to mount, each as troubling as the previous. What happened now? Trip had great regard for her, true, but was she truly capable of giving him what he needed in a mate? For that matter, was he capable of providing her what she required? Admittedly, she had begun to rely on him far more than he likely realized, but was she foolish enough to deepen this … relationship with him knowing full well that the Pa’nar made her time limited? It seemed selfish on her part – Trip was a man who cared deeply, so her death would hit him hard even without the added emotional entanglement inherent in the sort of relationship he clearly desired of her. And why had T’Les not told her about these bonds? Surely, one’s offspring needed to know this sort of thing.
Cast out fear, T’Pol told herself sharply. Right now, Trip needed her alert and awake, not struggling with questions that had no answers. Whatever was decided, it would need to be made by both of them now. Their every option had to be examined in a logical manner – no matter their personal desires, survival remained their primary goal. Indulging in dangerous emotions like affection and longing while in their current situation was both illogical and dangerous. Surely Trip could understand that.
Once more, she found herself staring at Trip’s sleeping form, her fingers moving through his hair rhythmically. It was soothing, hearing his breathing and feeling his heart beat under the fingers of her other hand. The turbulent emotions that had been pressing at her mental defenses were quiescent now, but she could still feel the strange non-Vulcan flavor of his mind as he slumbered. Random images occasionally flickered across her mind’s eye, but they were too disjointed and without any context for her to make sense of them. Trip began shifting in his sleep, making distressed sound while his eyes twitched, and T’Pol reached for her ruck with one hand. It took several long moments, but she found one of the thermal blankets salvaged from their survival pack.
“I am here, Trip,” T’Pol whispered as she draped the blanket over his body. At the same time, she stretched out with her thoughts to brush up against his mind. He relaxed instantly, though she was not sure if it was due to the psi-touch, her voice, or the added warmth. “When you wake,” she promised, well aware of how illogical it was to speak to someone this deeply asleep but not caring, “we will talk.” Her lips curled up once more as hope, long suppressed flared brightly. “And I will tell you about the starship I learned of,” she said. “Perhaps we can go home after all.” She fought the urge to laugh as a ridiculous thought occurred to her. “And perhaps one day,” she added with a smile that she never would have given if someone were present to see it, “I may introduce you to my mother.”
In response, Trip mumbled something incoherent and wrapped his arms around her waist even more tightly.
And outside, the rain continued to fall.