Donna S. Frelick
I should be dead, he thought, swinging the ax over his head and bringing it down in a clean sweep to split the piece of oak in front of him. In fact, though it didn't particularly bother him, Jim Kirk could think of no logical reason why he should not be dead. Just seconds before, he'd watched the bulkhead disintegrate in front of him, knowing with cold certainty that the vacuum of space beyond would kill him.
And yet here he stood, breathing, heart pumping, sweating with the effort to make one piece of wood into two, over and over again. Nothing else seemed to matter very much. The clean air, the warm sun on his back, the feel of the ax in his hand, the wood yielding to his strength--those were real. His sense of what had happened on the engineering deck of the Enterprise-B was dissipating like a dream upon waking.
He paused to look up at the mountains that hovered over his little hillside. (Were they there a minute ago? He couldn't remember.) If this was heaven, it looked awfully familiar. He'd seen those mountains before, he knew, but he didn't have the will to pull the memory out into his conscious mind.
He picked up another log, hefted it for the sheer pleasure of feeling the weight in his hands, placed it on the stump and split it with a single, seamless motion. He smiled, feeling the warm satisfaction bubbling up into his chest out of all proportion to the simplicity of the act.
He was enjoying himself so much he didn't bother to stop when someone came into the clearing from the wooded path below. "Beautiful day," Kirk commented, though he wasn't at all sure the man was real enough to answer him.
"Yes, it certainly is."
Terran English, with what used to be called a British accent. And was that a uniform? The man looked more like a colonial diplomat than an angel.
Kirk pointed at the pile of unsplit logs. "Do you mind?"
The man looked confused, then caught on. He handed Kirk another log. Kirk split it with pleasure.
"Captain...I'm wondering," the man said hesitantly. "Do you realize--"
Kirk suddenly caught a whiff of something on the sharp mountain air that was not woodsmoke. "Hold on--do you smell something burning?" He turned and saw the cabin--odd that he hadn't really noticed it before. It, too, looked familiar; he headed straight for the door, opened it and went inside.
The smell was stronger inside--and there was the source of the smoke. "Looks like somebody was trying to cook some eggs," he said, grabbing the smoking pan off the stove and dousing it in the sink.
He remembered the man at the doorway and gestured to him. "Come on in," he said, realizing where he was. "It's all right. It's my house." But that wasn't quite right either. "At least it used to be. I sold it years ago." He was absolutely confused about the setting. Was it nine? Eleven? I can't seem to...
"I'm Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship....Enterprise."
Picard looked slightly embarrassed, though Kirk had no idea why he should. And Kirk didn't really feel like listening to any long explanations. This was his old cabin in Idaho, accurate down to the last detail. How he'd gotten here he had no clue, but the realization sent a thrill of wild exhilaration through him.
Picard was trying to explain something, but Kirk cut him off. "The clock," he said in wonder, touching it to confirm that it was really there. "I gave this clock to Bones."
"I'm from what you would consider the future," Picard said, as if it was of great importance. "The twenty-fourth century."
Kirk heard a bark at the door, was astounded to see the huge, gangly Great Dane that belonged to it bound into the cabin. "Butler!" he said, kneeling to pet the animal. The dog nuzzled him happily. "But you...how can you be here?" He looked up at Picard. "He's been dead seven years."
A voice, feminine, playful, called from the bedroom above. "C'mon, Jim, I'm starving! How long are you going to be rattling around in that kitchen?"
He stood slowly, hardly daring to believe what he'd heard. "Antonia?" he whispered.
Something that Picard had said finally penetrated to Kirk's conscious mind, but it only served to confuse things further. "What are you talking about?" he said, his voice still hushed with emotion. "The future? This is the past."
"This is nine years ago," he said, opening the box he'd long ago left on the table by the door. The horseshoe was still there where he'd put it. The sight of it made him ache with regret. "The day I told her I was going back to Starfleet."
He wandered back to the kitchen, picked up two large speckled orbs from the counter. He smiled a little sheepishly at Picard. "These are Katarian eggs--her favorite. I was preparing them to soften the blow." He looked at them, remembering. Remembering Antonia.
"I know how real this must seem to you," Picard said, as if he might know from experience what Kirk was feeling. "But it's not. This isn't really your house. We're both of us caught up in some kind of temporal nexus."
Without thinking Kirk cracked the eggs into a skillet and started scrambling. "Dill," he said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Dill weed. In the cabinet, second shelf to the left, behind the oregano."
Picard moved to get it for him. "How long have you been here?"
Surely that was an important question, a question he should have thought of himself. He tried to dredge up the answer. "I don't know, exactly. I was aboard the Enterprise-B, in the deflector control room. Then the bulkhead in front of me disappeared, and I found myself out there just now chopping wood, right before you walked up."
"Look," Picard said, finding the words with difficulty. "History records that you died saving the Enterprise-B from an energy ribbon eighty years ago."
Kirk struggled to focus on the problem, but the relevance of it kept slipping out of his grasp. And Antonia was waiting. "You say this is the twenty-fourth century?"
"And I'm dead."
"Not exactly. As I said, this is some kind of ..."
"Temporal nexus, yes, I heard you." He turned the scrambled eggs out onto a plate, put the plate on the waiting tray and looked around. "Something is missing."
The toast popped out of the toaster on cue. That's it, he thought. Perfect.
"Captain, look, I need your help," Picard said urgently. "I want you to leave the Nexus with me. We have to go back to a planet, Veridian Three, where someone called Soran is destroying a star. Millions of lives are at stake!"
Kirk couldn't find the response Picard seemed to want from him. In fact, the man was beginning to get on his nerves. He grabbed the breakfast tray and headed up the stairs to Antonia. "You say history considers me dead," he said, looking back at Picard. "Who am I to argue with history?"
"You are a Starfleet officer! You have a duty..."
"I don't need to be lectured by you," Kirk said, angry now. Would that blasted word duty follow him even into the grave? "I was out saving the galaxy when your grandfather was in diapers. Besides, I think the galaxy owes me one."
Picard seemed to slump with despair. Obviously, he'd expected something quite different from Captain James T. Kirk. But, damn it, I came into this world just plain old Jim Kirk. I should be able to go out the same way.
Kirk paused, trying to put what he felt into words a stranger would understand. "I was like you once," he said finally. "So worried about duty and obligation I couldn't see past my own uniform. And what did it get me?" He looked around the cabin, so familiar, so much a part of something he'd given up. "An empty house."
He'd made a choice once, standing just outside this cabin. A necessary choice, one that had seemed inevitable at the time. Now he couldn't remember what had led him to choose the path he'd taken. Whatever reasoning he'd used, it just didn't seem valid now. Death, however illusory, had given him a chance to change his mind.
"Not this time," he said, starting back up the stairs. "This time I'm going to walk up these stairs, march into that bedroom and tell Antonia I want to marry her. This time, it's going to be different."
He kicked open the bedroom door and slammed it behind him, hoping Picard would get the message and go back to whatever reality he knew. But as Kirk stood on the threshold of what should have been his bedroom, his own version of reality took an abrupt turn. Where he'd expected the old iron bed and Antonia smiling at him from the center of a nest of pillows, he found rough wooden stalls, massive beams overhead, horses.
"This is not your bedroom," Picard said unnecessarily from just behind him.
Kirk smiled. "No, it's not. It's better."
"This is my uncle's barn in Idaho. I took this horse out for a ride. Eleven years ago, on a spring day just like this one." He opened the barn door, took in the sights and sounds and smells of the day he remembered now as if it were yesterday. "If I'm right, this is the day I met Antonia." He looked back at Picard, elated. "This Nexus of yours--very clever. I can start all over again and do things right from day one."
The horse was already saddled--of course!--and Kirk swung onto the beast's back with nothing in his mind or heart now but to follow this fantasy to its miraculous conclusion. He left Picard and his overblown notions of duty behind and rode to meet the bliss he knew was waiting for him on the ridge overlooking a certain meadow not far from his uncle's barn in Idaho.
God, it was a glorious day--the air as crisp and clean as spring water, the sun casting canted shadows from just above the snow-dazzled peaks, the first green of spring just brushing the aspens and beech along the creeks. As he'd done so many times in those open meadows, Kirk gave the horse her head, let the sensation of speed and power and unalloyed freedom rise in him until it closed out conscious thought. He was a vibrating string at the heart of a symphony of sensual joy, unanswered questions forgotten.
He reached the meadow where one day long ago he'd looked up to see Antonia astride the big roan, but he didn't stop there. He urged his horse on to take the jump over the ravine that guarded the trail up the ridge. It was a wide jump, over a deep cleft in the earth that promised painful death for both man and horse should either hesitate, but Kirk gave it no thought. He kicked the horse purposely in the flanks and held on tight as the animal gathered itself in mid-stride and pushed off the edge to sail over the chasm and land gracefully on the other side.
Kirk knew immediately something was wrong. He reined in the horse and turned to look at the ravine he'd so thoughtlessly jumped. My God, he thought, I didn't even hold my breath. There was no fresh surge of adrenaline in his blood, no pounding heart, no triumphant swell of pride. Jumping that ravine had always been a test for him. Never before had he jumped it without the experience leaving some mark on him.
He spurred the horse again and ran like hell for the ravine. Once again he felt the animal's muscles bunch under him and their conjoined weightless flight across the gash in the rocky Idaho hillside. Once again, he landed on the other side with a spine-compressing definitiveness. Once again, he felt nothing.
Now he was certain. Even the ecstatic hum of pleasure that had filled him as he rode away from the barn had subsided to nothing more than a mild, residual buzz in his chest. He suddenly felt naked, as if his blanket of illusion had been ripped away, leaving him exposed to the wind and cutting rains of reality.
His vision had shifted irrevocably to reveal the truth, like one of those ancient drawings that looked like a colorful pointellist abstract until your brain perceived the pattern in the colors and dots. Once perceived, that pattern could never be hidden again.
An illusion of this complexity, he marveled, of such power! And yet this fantasy of the mind had been undone by an inconsistency only his body could perceive. When he and Spock and McCoy had faced the phantom Earp brothers in what appeared to be the OK Corral, it had taken a mind-meld with the Vulcan to break the dream's hold on him.
The Melkotians had created an illusion out of a trivial detail in his mind, a cultural myth he'd harbored without even being aware of it. The Nexus, too, had found something inside him to build an illusion on, one of many intersections in his life where one path might have led to this particular vision of heaven.
He remembered vividly standing at that crossroads, truly believing Antonia and the heart-flooding beauty of the high country was all he could ever want.
Jim Kirk wrapped his hands around the steaming mug of coffee and shivered a little in the cold April morning. It was too early yet for the sun to have lifted the mists from the creek bottom below the barn. The high mountain meadows of his uncle's Bitterroot ranch were still shrouded in purple shadows, waiting for the warming touch of old Sol. Even as Jim watched, the sunlight dropped from the snowy slopes of Big Shoulders to the fir-covered ridges of Rag Top. In another hour, as he knew from uncounted mornings spent watching from Uncle Jack's wide front porch, the first rays would gild the tall grasses in this little valley and creep up the broad wooden steps of the house to touch him.
Butler wasn't waiting for the sun. The huge, clumsy Great Dane was busy trying to wake up everything within a hundred meter radius of the ranch house with a nudge of his snuffling muzzle. None of the creatures he flushed out of hiding--a pair of warblers, a chicken, a chipmunk and several grasshoppers--appreciated the wakeup call. He began to bark furiously at the chipmunk, which had found a secure perch on the top of the woodpile from which to criticize.
"Butler!" Jim called out in the sternest voice he could muster. "Come on." The dog abandoned his quarry immediately and floundered up on the porch. "Here. Lie down, that's a good dog. Leave him alone--you've already had your breakfast." The half-grown pup lay down obediently at Jim's feet, waiting with barely contained excitement for his reward--the pat on the head that Jim always gave him when he did as he was told. Jim didn't disappoint him.
Uncle Jack clumped out onto the porch and lowered himself carefully into the rocker next to Jim's. The old man wasn't getting around quite as well as he used to, Jim noted. He guessed it wouldn't be long before he was visiting his father's brother in a group home in Coeur d'Alene, though it would likely kill the old man to give up the ranch.
Jack's grin repeated itself in well-worn creases in his lean, brown face. "I believe that old pup has taken a liking to you, Jim."
Jim smiled indulgently down at the adoring brown eyes. "Yeah, he's a good dog. We understand each other, don't we, fella?" Butler wriggled in agreement.
"Wish you'd take him with you then," Jack said. "Critter's too damn energetic for me."
"I wish I could," Jim said, smiling to think of the mess Butler would make of his tiny San Francisco apartment.
"Yeah, I don't suppose a Starfleet Academy instructor'd have a whole lot of use for an animal that size," the old man joked.
Jim laughed. "Oh, I might have a use. But I'd have to rent a separate apartment just for the dog!"
"Well, by God, I finally got a laugh out of you," Jack said. "I was beginning to think you'd grown your own private raincloud just above your head there."
Jim humphed and took a deep gulp of the rapidly cooling coffee. "That bad, huh?"
"Can't say I've seen it worse, 'cept maybe that summer after your dad died."
Jim and his brother Sam had spent part of that horrible summer with Uncle Jack. It was the only thing that had kept Jim from shattering into a thousand tiny pieces after they'd learned his father wouldn't be coming back from his last mission.
"Uncle Jack, I never..."
"Ah, hush up," Jack said. "I don't know how I'd have made it myself without you boys." He coughed to cover up the quaver in his voice. "Damn, I'm getting sentimental in my old age."
Jim put a hand on the old man's bony knee. "Thanks anyway."
Jack nodded and looked away and for a long time they were quiet, listening to the warblers greet the sun. "How long has it been now?" the old man said finally.
"How long since you've been in space? Since you've had a ship of your own?"
Too long, Jim thought, but he said nothing.
"That's the problem, isn't it?" Jack said, piercing Jim's armor with a steady, hazel-eyed stare. "You're just like your father. Stay away from your damned ship too long, and it's like you ain't been with a woman regular."
Jim stood up and took a few steps toward the edge of the porch, as if the act of moving would rid him of the chip he always seemed to be carrying on his shoulder lately. "Ah, hell, Uncle Jack, I logged my last hour on the bridge of a starship years ago. I'm an admiral now."
"And that means you have to be stuck behind a desk?"
"That means I have to get my brass tail out of the way and let someone else have a chance to play hero for a while."
"Oh, I get it. Someone younger, you mean. What are you, all of about forty-five?"
"I'm almost fifty, Uncle Jack," Jim said, realizing how silly it must sound to someone on the high side of ninety.
"Used to be a man couldn't be trusted with a ship command until he was at least fifty. Your problem is you just peaked too early."
Jim acknowledged the kernel of truth in the joke with a tight smile. "Maybe."
"Maybe it's time to move on--ever thought of that? Starfleet's not the only game in town, y'know."
Jim tossed the rest of his coffee out of the cup and onto the grass with a practiced flick of the wrist. "I've been thinking about it." He turned to grin at Uncle Jack, hoping he'd convince the old man to drop the subject. "Need an extra hand around the place?"
Jack grimaced. "Son, you wouldn't know the difference between a steer and a milk cow if the evidence was staring you straight in the face."
"You have to admit I'm a pretty good rider, though."
"You oughta be. You spent enough time around them damn cow ponies as a kid."
"Maybe I'll saddle Belle up and take a ride this morning." The need to move was becoming critical. Talking was only bringing up all the problems he'd come out to Idaho to escape. He'd hoped the end of the academic year at the Academy and the peace of Uncle Jack's ranch would put him in a calmer frame of mind. So far it wasn't working.
"Good idea," Jack said with a grin. "I'm getting a little tired of looking at your ugly face." He got up slowly and stretched the stiffness out of his legs. "Why don't you take the ridge trail up to the old Turner place? I hear it's for sale. Might be a good investment--for the future, I mean."
Jim looked back from his study of the protective peaks framing his uncle's little cove in mock surprise. "You mean I'm not going to inherit all this one day?"
"Hell, no," the old man laughed. "I plan to live forever."
"I believe it," Jim said softly and started toward the barn.
Some horses, like some people, are content to amble through life, taking a little taste of the grass here, a little nibble of the clover there. Belle wasn't one of those. Belle never ambled when she could trot, never trotted when she could cantor. Belle liked to run--as fast and as long as her rider and her lungs would let her. She suited Jim just fine.
The two of them crossed the shallow creek behind the barn, then he let her go, and Belle tore off across the broad shoulder of meadow beyond. She slowed a little when they reached the wooded rise that led to the upper pastures, but only to be sure of her footing. When the ground leveled out and the trees gave way to rippling grass again, she stretched her legs and ran until Jim's own blood sang with her joy.
They followed the long sweep of grass into a narrowing vale, crowded on one side by gathering hillsides leading up to the steep ridge, dropping on the other to a broken edge of ground at the lip of a deep ravine. At the far end of the meadow the ravine followed the course of the stream at its bottom to close off access to the ridge trail. Jim gave Belle a gentle tug on the reins, wanting time to gauge their approach to the obstacle.
The horse slowed obediently, although Jim figured she did it just out of courtesy. The ravine had never fazed her, but it had always scared bloody hell out of him.
Maybe it was the stories Uncle Jack used to tell his gullible nephews about the herd of Indian ponies that charged screaming over the edge during a thunderstorm one dark night. Maybe it was the fact that you couldn't see the bottom of the ravine for the shadows and the tangle of undergrowth down there. Or maybe it was just that you had to let go and trust the damn horse to get you over.
For whatever reason, Jim felt a thrill of irrational fear every time he jumped that ravine to reach the ridge trailhead. It was a fear he refused to tolerate in himself, a fear he fought to conquer every time he took the jump (which was every time he visited Uncle Jack--Jim insisted upon it). No matter how many other tests of courage he passed in his life, this was the one that really counted.
He fixed his take-off point and shifted the reins minutely in his hands. Then he dug his heels in Belle's flanks to let her know it was time and molded himself to her back. She responded eagerly to his signal, took the last of the meadow at a full gallop and launched herself into thin air off the ravine's near bank. Jim felt his body leave the saddle, becoming completely weightless for the space of a heartbeat. A moment's hesitation as his mind resisted leaving control of his survival to a mere animal cost him a perfect landing on the other side. He was a centimeter too far to one side as Belle hit the ground running, a miscalculation that sent a jolt of pain up into his ribcage as he jounced awkwardly back into the saddle. Gasping, he reined Belle in and put a hand to his abused last rib.
Well, it wasn't pretty, he thought, trying to catch his breath, but I still beat you, you bastard!
He looked up at the snap of a twig on the path and flushed red with embarrassment. He had no idea how long she'd been there watching him, but from the look of tolerant amusement on her face, the woman had been there long enough to see him make an ass of himself.
"Hello," she said, approaching him slowly now that he'd seen her. "Still having a little trouble with that jump, I see."
Still? A memory touched his mind briefly--a vision of a young woman sitting astride a big roan on the ridge overlooking the meadow. "I've been fighting that damn thing for years. One day, I'll get it right," he said lightly. Belle tossed her head, impatient to be off, but Jim held her in close. He was suddenly in no hurry to be anywhere.
"Relax and trust the horse," she said, riding off a short distance to get in position to show him just how easy it was. "Don't anticipate her moves; just wait to feel them in your legs."
Jim swallowed and tried to ignore the images that had suddenly leapt to mind. He watched as she spurred her horse to a gallop and took the jump with all the fearless grace he had lacked. She turned on the other side and came back the same way, effortlessly, confidently, in perfect control.
"Beautiful," he told her as she reined in next to him. The thick auburn waves of her hair, gathered loosely at the base of her neck to spill down between her shoulder blades. Her long legs and the youthful curves of her body. Her wide brown eyes and the smile flashing white against the smooth olive skin of her face. The way she moved on that horse. All of it. Beautiful.
"Eighteen years of practice," she said. "I've been making that jump since I was twelve."
She was older than she looked. But Jim suddenly felt very conscious of the mark his twenty additional years had left on him.
"I'm Antonia Arundar. We met a couple of years ago."
"On the ridge trail. I remember," he said. It had been a day much like this one.
"You were on your way back to San Francisco, as I recall," she went on.
"That explains it."
She tilted her head slightly. "Explains what?"
"Why I didn't take the time to get to know you better."
She smiled as if he'd only said what she'd expected. "Maybe we'll have a chance to do that this time."
"I'm taking a ride up to the old Turner place. Want to come with me?"
"Can't," she said. "I've got to head back up the valley. I have a buyer coming to look at some horses this morning."
"Another time then."
She nodded and turned her horse back toward the trail. "Your Uncle Jack knows where to find me."
"Antonia Arundar?" Jack said, breaking a biscuit in half to sop up the gravy remaining on his dinner plate. "Oh, hell, yeah, every red-blooded American male of the heterosexual persuasion in this county knows who she is. Not that she'd give any one of them the time of day." He looked up at Jim. "'Course now you might be a different story."
"Oh, I don't know. She's probably got someone a little less...experienced in mind."
"Jesus H. Christ, Jim! These young boys don't have the slightest idea what to do with a woman like that. And she knows it, too. A little experience is a good thing when it comes to loving."
Jim shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Uncle Jack was nothing if not direct. "That wasn't the reason I asked about her."
"Oh, sure, just the facts, huh? Okay. She used to spend summers here when she was a kid. Her daddy was Turkish, some kind of muckity muck in the Black Sea Confederation. Her mama used to hate coming here. She generally went to stay with her people in Rome when Daddy and Antonia came out to the ranch.
"Anyway, when Antonia finished school and got bored wandering around the planet, she came out and took over the ranch. Folks around here just about had a fit, figuring this spoiled rich girl wouldn't be much of a rancher. They were wrong. She's got just about the best string of ponies in the state by now--and she's making good money."
"Where did you get all this?" Jim said, amazed at the details the old man seemed to have at his fingertips.
"Grange meetings, where else?" Jack stood up and started clearing the dinner things away. Jim moved to help him and they worked for a while in companionable silence. "What did you think of the Turner place?"
"Nice view," Jim said noncommittally. "Needs some work."
"Yeah. Nothing you couldn't handle though, I expect."
"What makes you think I'm interested?"
"Well, I don't know if you're that interested in the cabin," Jack said with a sly smile. "But it's clear as day you're interested in that girl. And if you ain't figured out yet that a few weeks spent fixing up an old cabin might give you lots of opportunity to get in tight with her, then you're a lot dumber than you look."
"Come on, Uncle Jack," Jim protested. "What am I going to do with a cabin and twenty acres of pine in Idaho?"
"Oh, you'll figure something out." Jack laughed. "Or she will."
In the end, it hadn't been difficult to come to terms with the Turners' agent. The cabin and sloping plot of land at the far end of Split Ridge had been a vacation home without vacationers for years. The last branch of the Turner family had long since given up the summer trek to Idaho from their home in Vancouver. They were anxious to sell.
Jim started work on the place the day he signed the contract, hauling supplies up the narrow, switchbacked road from the little town of Dawson in Uncle Jack's ancient hummer. Within a week, he'd wrestled the leaking water pump into submission, replaced several power panels that had been appropriated by nest-building mice and cleared the area within a ten-meter radius of the cabin of snake-sheltering weeds and deadfall.
After another week of cleaning, patching and painting, Jim declared the cabin fit for habitation and unceremoniously dumped his kit bag in a corner of the upstairs bedroom. Uncle Jack came to see how he'd made out and had a beer with him on the freshly scrubbed front porch. "Well, here we are setting up housekeeping, and you still haven't seen hide nor hair of Antonia?" the old man teased.
"Thought maybe I'd take a ride tomorrow and see if I couldn't find her myself," Jim said with a grin.
"Belle'd be grateful for a little exercise," Jack agreed. "By the way, you got little lights going off all over that comlink at home. Don't you ever answer your mail?"
Jim felt a mild twinge of guilt. Some of those messages were getting a little old. But, damn it, I'm supposed to be on leave. "Hmm," was all he said.
Jack took a long quiet look at his nephew, then got up to leave. "Place looks nice, Jim. Looks like home. Oh, and you can keep that old hummer for a while, 'til you decide what to do."
"Thanks," Jim said, watching the old man climb into his vehicle and crank it up for the ride down the ridge. "Be careful going home."
He waved as the old man followed the track around the curve of the hill and out of sight. Then he sat watching the stars from the darkened porch for a long time, as if his future could be divined from the constellations or the alignment of the planets. He'd once navigated his life as easily as he'd navigated through the limitless distances of space. But now, for the first time, he found himself without a chart, without a course, without even a destination. So he drifted, praying for a landmark in that sea of stars, until the cold and the loneliness finally drove him inside to bed.
Jim woke up with Antonia on his mind. The thought of her, of what it might be like to touch her skin, to run his hands through her hair, to kiss her, made him ache to be with her. He wanted to see her smile again, wanted to watch her move with the grace that had captured him that day at the ravine. Face it, Jim, he told himself, you've got a gigantic schoolboy crush working here. And we both know what you really want to do. His body emphatically concurred.
He planned to saddle Belle up and take the valley trail to Antonia's ranch later that morning. But one minor chore after another took his attention and stole his time, until morning faded into afternoon. He'd just about finished up when he noticed the wood box was empty. The cabin had no source of heat other than the circulating fireplace--he supposed the Turners had thought it romantic--and the nights were still cold enough to sting. With a groan, he gave up the idea of a ride down the valley, stripped off his shirt and went to work with the ax.
He worked steadily, rhythmically, in the late afternoon warmth, enjoying the feel of the ax biting into the wood. Maybe the day hadn't turned out quite like he'd planned, but it hadn't been a bad one either. And as Uncle Jack would've put it, this sure beat hell out of sitting behind a desk all day.
After a while he stopped to admire the growing pile of split wood at his feet and the view of the mountains beyond. And there was Antonia, riding out of the trees where the ridge trail dead-ended into his front yard. He smiled. Perfect!
She pulled up and dismounted as soon as she caught sight of him, walking the rest of the way across the clearing to greet him. She was tall--almost as tall as he was--and though she must have been riding for nearly an hour, she still managed to look coolly elegant. Not that her clothes were anything but functional. It was just that the slim jeans she wore hugged her in so many of the right places, the white of her oversized shirt set off the dark skin of her throat so perfectly. Jim's eyes widened in pure appreciation as she approached.
"Jack said you'd bought the place," Antonia said. "Thought I'd come up and welcome you to the neighborhood."
"And a lovely neighborhood it is, too," Jim answered.
She smiled as her eyes shifted to his bare chest and back to his face. "Yeah, I couldn't help but notice."
Jim flushed, but whether with embarrassment or excitement he wasn't sure. She seemed so self-possessed, as if everything he said or did only confirmed what she'd predicted. He wondered how she would react if he simply followed his own instincts--now, rather than later. Or had she predicted that, too?
Antonia tied the horse to a tree at one end of the porch and took something from the saddlebag. She came very close and held it out to him. "For your new home," she said.
He opened the velvet bag and pulled out the heavy, hand-sized object inside--a painted, be-ribboned...horseshoe. He looked at Antonia, perplexed.
She laughed. "People hang them over their doorways--for good luck." She pointed at the lintel above his own front door. "See, there's even a nail already in place."
"So there is," he said, with a grin. He stepped up on the porch and hung the lucky horseshoe in its proper place.
Then he turned back to Antonia. She was standing so close to him now he could smell the perfume rising from her skin--spicy and warm like honey and cinnamon. "Thank you," he said, unable to keep himself from touching her.
She smiled, leaving her hands in his for a brief, breathless moment. "You're welcome." She pulled away then and turned to look out at the last buttery rays of the setting sun falling across the grass. Jim watched her quietly from where he stood by the door.
"Tell me," she said finally, "What brings a man like you out here?"
"What do you mean?"
She looked at him, playfulness not quite hiding the scrutiny in her eyes. "Well, I can see you're handy enough," she said, waving at the cabin. "But you don't look like a rancher to me. Maybe you're just thinking about a little vacation. A few weeks of mountain air, then back to the grind in San Francisco?"
Jim understood there was more to the question than there might appear. But he wasn't sure of the answer himself. "What if I said I bought this place to have an excuse to be near you?"
"I'd say that was an expensive bit of flattery," she said with a little laugh.
He stepped closer, slid his hands up her arms to her shoulders, feeling the soft cloth and the delicate muscles underneath, waiting for a sign from her. "I don't see it that way."
Antonia smiled, encouraging him. "Do I seem that hard to get?" She brought her arms up around his neck and pressed close.
"Not anymore." He kissed her upturned mouth, tasting sweet desire on her full, soft lips. His arms encircled her slender body and held her gently, as if they held a fragile bird.
But there was nothing fragile about the way Antonia returned his kiss, nothing shy or innocent about the way she moved against him. He realized with a rush of intense pleasure that this had been part of her plan all along, that this--the warmth of his mouth on hers, the slick feel of the sweat on his skin, the hard promise of his body--was what she had come to him for.
Her lips were at his ear now. "Let's go inside," she whispered, sending a pulse of electric fire through his veins. He took her hand and led her upstairs, pulled her down on top of him on the big iron bed and began again. She met his melting kiss with a fire that consumed him, answered his touch with a devouring flame. They made love on her terms, in the heart of the nova of passion she created. They ignited in a collision of impossible forces, flared to a firestorm of unbearable, cataclysmic heat, cooled at last to throbbing embers as their searing need subsided.
Yet even in this moment of ultimate intimacy he could feel her holding back. It was as if she had told him this much I'll give you and no more--no more than what she had given others, and nothing of her deepest desires. He understood; some things she would hold in reserve until she knew he could be trusted with them.
After a while they went downstairs again to share a simple meal in front of the fireplace. They talked and laughed and explored each other as new lovers do. She told him about her childhood on the Mediterranean, her stern father and distant mother, the independence the ranch had given her. He told her about his friends, his life in Starfleet, the frustration he felt at the Academy. But he didn't tell her everything. Some things he also held in reserve.
"It's late," she said finally. "You don't mind if I spend the night, do you?"
"I'd counted on it," he said, smiling.
She looked up at him with a warmth in her brown eyes that made his heart suddenly race in his chest. "You know, when I rode up here this afternoon I only wanted to spend some time with you. I wanted to make love to you. You're not like the other men I've known. I was curious."
"Now it's my turn to be flattered," he said, laughing softly. "I hope I met your expectations?"
"Oh, yes," she said, kissing him lightly. "You were everything I'd imagined." She kissed him again, teasing him. "But now I have another problem."
"Oh?" He brushed his lips against her ear, her neck, her bare shoulder. "What's that?"
She put a hand to his cheek, turned his face to hers. "Now I find that sex is not enough after all. I want something more from you. Does that frighten you?"
God knows it should, he thought. Bitter loss had taught him what the price of love could be. Everything he loved was beyond his reach, perhaps irretrievably lost. His ship, his life among the stars, the dreams he'd always had before him were only memories now. But Antonia was here, her body warm and wonderfully present in his arms. It would be so easy to let her love him. He was only Human; his need overwhelmed the truth.
"No," he said. "It doesn't frighten me."
"Then make love to me, Jim," she whispered. "I want to be sure."
Upstairs, in the pool of moonlight spilling across the bed from the window, the light washing her naked skin with silver, he did as she asked. He took his time. He used his experience and his intuition to love her the way she deserved to be loved. He loved her through wave after wave of shuddering response, each one more intense than the last. He loved her until at last she yielded to him deeply, completely, without reservation.
By morning, God forgive him, Antonia was his. And Antonia, though she couldn't have known it, held what was left of his broken dreams in her hands.
"You bought a what?"
Jim Kirk laughed at the expression on his old friend's face. Leonard McCoy stared back at him from the BellComm's screen, the very picture of horrified disbelief. "Are you out of your mind?"
"Actually, I think I'm saner than I've ever been," Jim told him. "It's quiet out here, Bones. A man has time to think. When are you going to come out and visit?"
"Never, if I can help it," McCoy groused. "So you can spare me the tourist office platitudes. I'll save this Romulan ale I got for you until I see you back in civilization. When are you coming home?"
The smile retreated from Jim's face. Time to get to the point. "I don't know, Bones. I've asked Morrow for an indefinite leave of absence."
"Indefinite? You're not thinking of making this permanent!"
Jim took a deep breath. "Why not?" he said lightly, trying to pass it off as a joke. "Beats riding a desk."
"Now, look, Jim, if you're saying you've had it with that damned Academy post, I'm with you. I've been telling you for years you need to get back your command. But hiding out in the country's hardly the best way to go about getting a ship."
"A ship command is no longer an option, Bones," Jim said tightly. It hurt him to say it, even after all this time. "That's what they've told me, and that's what I've told you."
"And just when did you start taking no for an answer?"
"Since I got a better offer," he said, angry now. Damn McCoy for putting me through this! Can't he just be happy for me for once?
"Oh, I see," McCoy said quietly. "Who is she?"
This time. Isn't that what you meant to say, Bones? "Are you really interested, or do you just want another opportunity to lecture me?"
McCoy shrugged. "That's up to you, Jim. You wouldn't listen to my advice anyway. But I wouldn't be much of a friend if I didn't warn you just the same. You don't have to tell me that she's beautiful and intelligent and independent--they all are. I was there to pick up the pieces when the others got through with you, too, remember?"
Jim slapped a hand on the desk in frustration. "Damn it, Bones, can't you imagine just for a moment that it might be different this time?"
"Yes, I can imagine it," McCoy said acidly. "In fact, I remember at least one woman with whom it was different. But she's still got her ship. She's somewhere riding a warp in subspace right now, and you're stuck on the ground. And I can't imagine that you'd be happy with that situation for very long."
Trust McCoy to bring up Kate Logan. Kate, who was as lost to him as the Enterprise. "Don't you get it, McCoy? It's time to move on. I haven't even seen Kate in almost fifteen years."
"Not counting all those newsnet reports and merchant marine journals you've collected over the years," McCoy muttered.
Jim went on as if he hadn't heard him. "Hell, it's been seven years since I've given any orders on a starship. I'm a glorified babysitter, teaching kids four hours a day, or a janitor, going from star system to star system, cleaning up Starfleet's mess. Antonia..." He stopped, wondering who he was really trying to convince. "This could mean a new life for me, Bones. You have to admit there isn't much left of my old one."
"If I was talking to anybody else, I'd agree with you," McCoy said, sympathy replacing some of the disapproval on his weathered face. "But I know you, Jim. You may think isolating yourself from everything that could remind you of Starfleet will cure you of that addiction you have to risk-taking behavior, but you're wrong. That particular monkey is stuck good and tight on your back, my friend. You won't be rid of him so easily."
"Risk-taking is a young man's drug, doctor," Jim shot back. "Maybe it's time I outgrew my taste for it. Maybe it's time I finally settled down somewhere before I roll the dice once too often."
McCoy looked at his friend for a long moment, as if he could find the truth in Jim's face despite the distortion of the viewscreen and the distance between them. Jim didn't know if the truth was there to find, but he suspected his determination was clear enough.
After a while, McCoy shook his head slowly. "I guess Starfleet's Chief of Operations is none too happy about this."
"Morrow's ready to throw me in the brig," Jim said wryly. "But he's holding my Academy post open until the end of the fall semester. I wouldn't push him any further than that."
"Not if you want to keep your head firmly attached to your shoulders," McCoy agreed with a smile. He paused, considering his words. "Well, Jim, I don't think it's going to be easy, but I wish you luck," he said finally. "God knows you deserve a little happiness. I wouldn't stand in your way for a minute, you know that."
Jim accepted the implied apology with practiced grace. "Thanks, Bones. I'll be in touch soon. Kirk out."
In truth, it was months before he spoke again to anyone from what he'd begun to think of as his old life. The spring ripened into summer, the summer faded into fall and he gave little thought to the world outside that valley. By day, he shared Antonia's world of horses and hard work and profit and politics. By night, he shared Antonia's bed--and her love.
"Are you happy?" she asked him one night as they lay together listening to the owls calling across the ridge.
"Ecstatic," he murmured, half asleep.
"No, I don't mean did you have a good day," she said, suddenly intense. "I don't mean did you like what we had for dinner, did you enjoy making love?"
"I did have a good day, " he said, awake now, but not quite willing to be serious. "I did like what we had for dinner, and I always enjoy making love."
"I mean," she said pointedly, "is this the life you want? Are you happy here with me?"
He pulled her close, wrapped her in his arms to reassure her. "Yes, Antonia, I'm happy here with you. What's this all about?"
She sat up so she could see his face. "Damn it, Jim, before I met you I didn't need anybody." She stopped, and Jim realized she was crying. He sat up beside her, reached to brush the tears from her cheek. She took his hand and held onto it as if it was a lifeline.
"You start hanging around the ranch, and I discover I need a business partner," she went on. "You start riding with me, and I discover it's no fun to ride alone. You make love to me once, and suddenly I want you all the time. I see you with that goofy dog, and I want to have your babies. What is happening to me?"
He gathered her up and held her, stroking her hair and suddenly feeling every day of the twenty years between them. "It's only what we wanted, Antonia," he said after a moment. "It's only love. Nothing to be frightened of, remember?"
"But I am frightened, Jim," she said, lifting her eyes to his. "I'm frightened because I think I'm about to ask you to sign a marriage contract with me. I'm frightened that you might say no. I'm frightened even more that you might say yes."
There it was at last. He'd expected it. He'd even been tempted more than once to suggest it himself, but he'd always held back. Now that the subject was open between them he hesitated. Maybe I'm a little frightened myself.
He started to speak, but she put a hand on his chest. "No, don't say anything." She shook her head. "I thought I was ready for this, but I don't think I am after all."
"No. We go up to the high pastures in a couple of days to bring the mares down. By the time we come back, we should both know what to do."
Jim could see she meant what she said, so he let it go. But he lay awake for a long time that night, contemplating the death of old dreams, and the birth of new ones.
The impact of transtator technology and duotronic computers was felt nearly everywhere on the home planet of Homo sapiens sol. But there was still only one cost-effective way to move a herd of horses from the high mountain pastures of summer to the protected valleys where the animals would spend the howling winter--the hard way, with a gang of sunburnt wranglers on horseback to keep the herd together and moving along the steep, narrow trails.
The ride up to the high pastures had taken a day and a half. The ride back would take twice as long. By the second day of the return, Jim Kirk knew two things for sure: There were few places on any world that compared to these mountains for fearsome, compelling beauty. And horses weren't as smart as they looked.
He had plenty of time on the way up to confirm the first observation. He'd never been this far up into the rugged country and every turn in the trail brought another wonder. Antonia, however, seemed unaffected by the blazing yellow of the turning aspens, the crystalline clarity of the stream they crisscrossed several times on the switchback trail, the jagged borders between earth and sky. She was unusually quiet, withdrawing into herself to find the answers she was looking for. She was curt with the crew, and they quickly discovered that they were better off solving minor problems on their own. They threw some questioning looks in Jim's direction, but generally kept their noses out of what they figured wasn't any of their business.
On the way back, of course, nobody had time to ponder the vagaries of Human interaction. They were all too busy chasing down strays, coaxing wild-eyed animals through narrow passages and across slippery, noisy streambeds and making sure the number of horses they bedded down at night was the same number they put on the trail in the morning. Belle performed admirably, despite her greenhorn rider, but Jim had little good to say about the animals they were escorting.
Around noon on the second day, a line of leaden stormclouds topped the mountains to the west and began to settle down over the ridges and valleys. The woods above and below the trail grew dark and quiet, waiting for the rain. Jim could feel a change in the trail riders, almost like that of a crew on alert; they were watching for trouble in the herd of skittish horses. One of the wranglers gave him a terse warning: "Whatever happens, just try to keep 'em together, Jim. If we're lucky, it'll just rain."
Jim caught the rest of it without being told. He could imagine what a loud clap of thunder or a flash of lightning would do to the nervous herd.
The rain began gently enough, but soon was pouring down in a heavy curtain. The falling water made a slick, muddy mess of the trail and found a way through his rain gear to trickle down his neck. Sheets of it narrowed his vision to a few feet; Jim could hear the rest of the herd above and below him on the trail, but he couldn't see them. He lost sight of Antonia, riding at the head of the herd, and could only assume that the wranglers bringing up the rear were still there.
It was late afternoon when they pulled up at a bend in the trail and word came back to Jim that Antonia needed him. He rode forward to find Antonia and Rick, the trail boss, where the trail dipped down to a crescent of river-washed rock beside a stream. Jim recognized the place--they'd crossed it easily on the way up--but the stream had swollen into a brown, roiling flood thirty meters wide and God only knew how deep. Jim's heart began a slow, heavy thudding in his chest.
"I don't know, Ms. A.," the boss was saying. "It looks pretty fast, but it don't look too deep yet. Maybe we could make it if we went right now."
Antonia flashed Jim a quick grin. "This is where it gets interesting," she said. "If we don't cross now, we'll have to turn around and make camp three or four miles back. If it stops raining before nightfall, the stream might go back down some before morning."
"But if it keeps raining, we're stuck," Jim surmised. He tipped his face up briefly to check the sky. "Can we get across before dark?"
"If we can keep everybody together," Rick said. Jim noted the tension in the man's lean face--that was a big "if."
"Have you sent anyone across?"
Antonia smiled grimly. "That's the next step."
Rick nodded and nudged his horse down the path to the water. The trail boss picked his way carefully over the rounded stones and urged his horse into the water at the shallowest point. The horse tossed her head and snorted at the cold, rushing water, but went forward without protest as the water covered her forelegs. She walked as long as she could, then began to swim as the water rose to her flanks. The current was strong and pushed her downstream a few meters before she made the other side and climbed out onto the muddy bank.
Her rider took her back upstream along the open flat above the riverbank--Jim figured the stream regularly topped that bank and stripped the flat above it clean--and came back across. This time the horse made it nearly all the way on her feet.
Rick looked up at them from the streambed and nodded. "Not too bad if you keep out of that hole there." He pointed to a spot in the center. "I say we go."
Antonia looked at Jim. "Sounds good to me. How about you?"
"It's your call. You know your crew."
She took a deep breath. "Okay. Let's do it. Take the word down the line, would you, Jim?"
He rode back along the long string of horses and gave the order to each of the wranglers. When he'd done that he took up his place again toward the center of the herd and gently urged the animals forward with the rest. The thought of crossing that raging ribbon of water was sending a steady pulse of adrenaline through his veins, speeding his heart and shortening his breath. But he struggled to keep the excitement out of his voice as he spoke to his horses. Everything depended on keeping them calm.
The herd moved slowly as those in front began the crossing, but the horses jostled each other anxiously, sensing the danger up ahead. As his section approached the place where the trail dropped down to the river, thunder rolled overhead and the rain came down in torrents. Wranglers cursed and fought to keep the animals in line. Jim cursed and fought along with them, turning a mare and her colt here, cutting off the escape of another pair there, thanking God again for Belle's talent at out-thinking her members of her own species.
He managed--barely--to keep his section together until his turn came to brave the stream. He had time to locate the hole the trail boss had warned them about and turn his horses upstream from it before he and Belle plunged into the water. From that moment on he didn't think, he only reacted, feeling the strength of Belle's muscles working against the current and the icy cold of the brown water creeping up his thighs, watching the animals in his care to keep them turned toward the opposite bank, hearing the roar of the water over the stones and the shouts of the other wranglers above the rush of his own pulse in his ears. It seemed like forever, but they were safely on the other bank in less than a minute. He pushed the horses ahead of him up the bank and turned them out on the flat with the others.
A flash of lightning and the sound of thunder close by spooked the excited horses on the flat and Belle took off after a trio of breakaways before Jim had a chance to catch his breath. He chased the three down and cut them back into the herd, then he circled the perimeter to keep them there as the rest of the herd came up. Two or three other wranglers joined him on his watch. Together, they were doing a fair job of keeping the animals calm in the midst of meteorological chaos when Jim caught the sound of shouting down at the river.
He turned to see the last of the herd coming across with one of the rear guard, and all hell was breaking loose. Four horses--two of them a mare and her colt--had drifted away from the others and were headed downstream. The wrangler who had started across with them had his hands full with the rest of his animals, who all seemed to want to head off in different directions. Two riders splashed into the stream to help and managed to get downstream of two of the breakaways. But the mare and her colt were headed into the hole, their noses turned downstream.
Jim did a quick headcount--five wranglers up on the flat, three in the water. There was no one left to help but Antonia--and himself. He signaled to the woman next to him, she nodded understanding, and he turned back to the riverbank. He reached the bank just as Antonia plunged into the boiling brown water after the mare.
Jim didn't wait to see if she and the big roan could handle it. He turned downstream and kicked Belle in the flanks, racing down the flat for fifty meters before heading her down to the water. He spotted Antonia several meters upstream from him, struggling to turn the mare back toward the bank. She'd gotten a rope on the mare, at least, and the roan was strong enough to hold the two of them against the current. They swam for the shore, slipping and floundering as they reached the shallower water.
The colt was not with them, though, and Jim searched the angry waters for any sign of the little one. There was nothing--then he saw the little brown head strain skyward above the water just upstream. There was no time to try and outrun him. The colt was nearer the opposite bank and moving fast. It would be a race to get to him before he swept by Jim's position and was lost altogether.
Jim urged Belle into the water, bent over her neck and talked to her, pushing her to move quickly before it was too late. Belle seemed to understand and strained to make time against the swirling current. She was off her feet and the water was washing around Jim's legs when they reached the colt. His hands were cold and fumbled with the rope. In the pounding rain and roaring water, he missed his first throw. He tried again--made it--and hauled on the line to bring the struggling animal up tight against Belle's flank.
Jim glanced up to the nearer bank, thinking to get out of the water there and cross the river again where the footing was better. But the bank had steepened into a bluff--there was no hope of climbing out on that side. He turned Belle around and headed back across the water, fighting to keep the colt's head above water. As the three of them lunged toward the shore, wranglers crowded the bank and splashed into the shallows to help, shouting encouragement.
The crew surrounded them as they came ashore. Someone grabbed the colt and set him on his spindly legs on the bank. Someone else said he reckoned they couldn't call Jim a greenhorn anymore. The rest laughed and thumped Jim on the back until he winced. Jim put up with it for a while, until the adrenaline drained out of his system and left him wanting only to find someplace warm and dry and quiet.
Jim looked around for Antonia, but she and the trail boss were already up on the flat, shouting orders to set up camp. He shrugged off a feeling that she was avoiding him and followed the others back to the herd. He did his part to bed the horses down for the night, working easily with the crew that accepted him as one of their own now. He hadn't felt that kind of warmth since his days as a junior officer. Captains inspired loyalty from their crews; they rarely got friendship. Admirals seldom inspired either.
The rain stopped after a while, the thunderstorm rolling off to the east and carrying the rest of the storm front with it. The last rays of the setting sun slipped out from under the shrinking blanket of clouds and spread an illusion of warmth over the grateful camp. Jim met tired grins everywhere as he made his way to the tent he shared with Antonia.
The trail boss stopped him and offered a drink from a slim flask. "Did good today, Jim," Rick told him. "You saved your sweetheart a pile of credits. That colt is worth five hundred easy."
The whiskey burned pleasantly on the way down. "Thanks," Jim said.
The boss nodded in the direction of Antonia's tent. "Uh, you might want to give her a little while to cool off. She's pretty steamed."
The boss took a swig from his flask and offered it to Jim again. "Women are funny that way sometimes. A man goes out and gets himself almost killed and when he comes back she smacks the fire out of him. Hell, if she loves him for being a man in the first place, how come she gets mad when he acts like one?"
Jim laughed. He felt too good to worry much, and he figured the whiskey had already begun to make a philosopher out of Rick. "I don't know, boss," he said, handing back the flask. "But I have a feeling I'm going to find out." He slapped the man on the back in thanks and moved on. Chances were good that flask--and others like it in camp--would be empty before midnight. The crew was in the mood for a little celebrating.
And so was he. Antonia, however, did not share his mood. She was, in fact, more than a little steamed, as Rick had put it. "Just what in hell did you think you were doing out there today?"
Oh, yes. Plenty steamed. But she stood at the other end of the tent in nothing more than a shirt that hit her mid-thigh and the flush of anger in her face only made her more beautiful. He resisted the urge to mention it, suspecting she'd go directly for his throat if he did. "My job," he said evenly. "Like everybody else."
"Going after that colt was a job for a professional," she shot back. "I pay people to take those kinds of risks--people who know what they're doing."
He shrugged out of his sodden rain gear and began unbuttoning the soaked shirt underneath. "I think I handled it pretty well," he said, knowing his bland reaction would drive her crazy.
"You could have been killed, you arrogant son of a bitch!"
He looked up, then, hearing a little more edge to her voice than seemed called for. He pulled off his wet shirt and hung it carefully over a line at the top of the tent before he answered. "The worst I could have gotten was dumped in the stream. I might have been embarrassed--I might even have lost five hundred credits worth of horse--but I wasn't in any danger of being killed."
In an absolute blind rage, she put both hands in the center of his chest and pushed him toward the tent flap. "Oh, you think not? Well, I've got something to show you, smartass." She pushed him again, this time to the side so she could go out of the tent first. "Come on."
Jim thought it best not to remind her to put some clothes on. In fact, he had to run to catch up to her once he untangled himself from the tent wall. A look at her face as she turned to make sure he was following convinced him he'd better not laugh either, though the situation definitely warranted it.
They were headed away from the flat, up a little wooded rise that Jim figured roughly paralleled the river. The land got steeper as they walked and a low, rumbling sound gradually grew in his ears as they went on. After a minute, he recognized it--they were coming back toward the river.
Suddenly, Antonia topped the rise in front of him and stood waiting for him to catch up. The sound of the water was a numbing, throaty roar now, the sound of reckless power constrained between high bluffs and catapulted endlessly into the arms of gravity. He reached Antonia's side, and, drawn by the scene below, stepped perilously close to the broken edge that marked the boundary between heaven and earth. Below him, less than a hundred meters from where he'd caught that colt, the river turned a bend and launched itself over the mountainside. Impossibly far below, the water gathered itself again and continued its rush to the sea.
"That's what was waiting for you if you'd slipped up today," she shouted. "And everyone but you knew it."
The sight of that murderous drop, with the sunlight shattering into rainbows in the mist above the falls, sent a charge of excitement through his body. Fear? Yes, certainly. That much raw kinetic energy generated fear in any living creature. But Jim recognized something else in the exultant expansion in his chest. He'd felt it before, though it had been a long, long time.
Antonia stood looking at him, anger and desperate disbelief in her eyes. She looked betrayed, as if she saw a thief where she'd expected to see a rescuer. The look on her face broke his heart. He wanted so much for her to understand.
She turned abruptly and headed back down the path. He went after her, caught her arm, turned her to face him. "Antonia, even if I had known the risk I was taking, I wouldn't--I couldn't have done anything differently. I did what I did because of what I am. Surely you can't have been with me all this time and not know that."
She shrugged out of his grip and stepped away from him, as if she had to find a safe distance from which to speak. She found a haven against a large outcropping of rock, the stone at her back providing protection. She refused to meet his eyes. "All I could think about was that water going over the edge. All I could see was you lying broken at the bottom."
He came closer, smoothed the hair away from her face, brushed her lips with his. "I'm here, Antonia. I'm alive."
"Until I saw you in that river today I had never been afraid of anything in my life," she whispered fiercely, her hands digging into his back. "Nothing! If this is love, I don't want it."
"This is not about love, Antonia," he said. "It's about life." He reached down and slipped his hands under her shirt, raised it so he could press close and feel her naked skin against his. "We beat death today," he murmured, his lips close to her ear. "That's the most powerful feeling a Human can have--to look death in the face and live. It's like food when you're starving, like water when you're dying of thirst, like sex.
"You can't tell me you don't feel it, too," he whispered. He kissed her again, seeking a need that matched his own. She responded with a sigh that sent raging chills down his spine, with a kiss that urged him to overwhelming passion. Jim knew she wanted to believe otherwise, but her body expressed its own truth, even as his did. There was no denying it. And, like the irresistible rush of water below them, there was no stopping it.
He removed the few clothes that still separated them and joined them in a single, fluid movement. She welcomed him with a moan, moved with him for an endless time with the strength of flowing water, came with him finally with the power of victorious life.
And the ceaseless voice of the river carried the sound of their triumph over the mountainside and away.
Sex--even the best kind of sex--resolves few issues between men and women. Jim Kirk had had enough of it--of all kinds--to know. He wasn't surprised to discover the same unanswered questions that had followed the two of them up the trail to the high pastures had followed them back down to the ranch in the valley. The uncertainties lay between them like so many river crossings that neither he nor Antonia had the courage to attempt. And no amount of sweat in the night would be enough to get them over.
Jim began to find reasons to be at his cabin when Antonia was working at the ranch. He took Butler--nearly full-grown now--out for long hikes along the ridge. He rode, he worked, he tried hard not to think. He was afraid of where his thoughts might take him.
He should have known better than to show up at Uncle Jack's place when one of those moods was on him. Jack was both perceptive and blunt. "What the hell's eating you now, Jim? Don't tell me you and that girl are already getting tired of each other."
"No, I wouldn't put it that way," Jim said with a thin smile.
"What, then? Dragging your feet about getting married, I expect. Still trying to keep your options open. Women hate that, you know."
Jim sighed. Uncle Jack probably hadn't been with a woman in twenty years, so who was he to give advice? "Let's just say we're both a little touchy on that subject."
"Well, damn, Jim, it's not like you're committed forever, like it was a hundred years ago. Why not sign a contract for a year, see how it works out?"
If only it was that easy. It was meant to be, of course. That's what the marriage reform laws had intended. But the laws didn't completely account for the Human longing for forever. "I'm not sure we're ready for that."
"Oh, for cryin' out loud, boy. She's young, she's beautiful, she'll have pretty babies. Marry her and be happy. That's what life is supposed to be all about."
"Okay, Jack, okay," Jim said, still smiling, but looking for some way to get the old man off the subject. "We're thinking about it. Have I got any messages on your comlink?"
"What's the matter? You stop carrying yours?"
"Lost it somewhere," he lied. Actually he'd left in San Francisco on purpose. Jack had apparently forgotten that he'd showed up without one. How many weeks ago?
"That explains why my board is lit up like a Christmas tree, then."
Jim got up and went in to the big old desk in a corner of the great room of Jack's house. Most of his messages were of only marginal interest--details about his apartment or reminders from various services. Several were from Admiral Morrow, Commander-Starfleet. Those he carefully avoided.
Only one was worth answering. He entered the code to call Spock back.
"Admiral. It is gratifying to hear from you."
His old friend was not above a touch of irony, Jim knew. He smiled. "Reprimand accepted. I've been rounding up horses for a few days." Not strictly true, but close enough.
Spock appeared to consider Jim's statement. "I would be interested to hear more about that at some later date."
"But right now, you have something more important to discuss," Jim deduced.
"Indeed. Admiral Morrow has asked me to speak with you."
Of course, it was impossible for Spock to look uncomfortable, since it was theoretically impossible for him to feel uncomfortable. But Jim could have sworn he saw the tiniest change in his friend's demeanor. Jim wasn't about to make it easy for him. "Yes, I'm sure he did."
"Jim, you must admit the admiral is in a difficult position."
"How so? Surely there are other instructors who could teach what I teach at the Academy?"
"There are indeed other instructors. But there are none who can teach what you teach, since there are none who know what you know."
Jim accepted the compliment with a little bow. "Thank you, Spock."
"Filling your post at the Academy creates some difficulties, but it is not the most significant problem. The most significant problem is that one of Starfleet's best officers has evidently given up his career without explanation. It is very difficult to argue with someone who refuses to engage in debate."
"My thinking exactly, Spock."
Spock sat motionless for a moment, choosing his words. "I would not presume to debate you, Admiral. Especially since I suspect your arguments would be largely emotional ones, invulnerable to the assault of logic."
"A logical assumption, my friend," Jim said, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
"However, I am instructed to tell you that Admiral Morrow intends to fill your position at the Academy with another officer at the beginning of the next term unless you immediately request to be reinstated. The staff change would be permanent."
Jim nodded. "I understand."
"I must also tell you that in those circumstances I would be inclined to accept the position I have been offered at the Vulcan Science Academy."
"You, Spock? Give up Starfleet?"
"I might ask you the same question, Admiral."
Touché. If Morrow had intended to force a decision out of him with guilt, the strategy was working. "It's checkmate, I see, Spock," he said, and saw Spock nod once slowly.
"Tell Morrow he'll have an answer in forty-eight hours."
The sky was raining blue-green fire. Sheets of it fell to the earth somewhere beyond the mountains; electric, undulating waves of it throbbed against the black of night. Tongues of multicolored flame danced in the darkness--the silent splendor of the Aurora Borealis.
"God, it's beautiful," Antonia breathed.
"Beautiful," he agreed. Here, in the chill of midnight, holding Antonia on the porch of his cabin in paradise, the flamboyant beauty of that shimmering curtain was spectacular indeed. But beyond that wall of light, Jim remembered, uncounted wonders put Earth's heavens to shame.
The wonders of the universe--his to behold in another life, as distant, as different from his limited present as the flaming barrier at the edge of the galaxy was from this pale glow in the magnetic flux of Earth. That life, that destiny, exerted a pull on him now stronger than any force of gravity, or desire.
Antonia said something, but he didn't catch it. She nudged him. "Jim, did you hear what I said?"
He looked down at her, suddenly aware of how far he'd drifted. "Sorry. What?"
"Oh, never mind. I have a feeling I'd lose you again before I finished the sentence." She pulled away from him, sat on the porch step, hugging herself against the cold.
"I'm sorry, Antonia," he said, reaching out to touch her face. "I've had a lot on my mind lately."
"So I've noticed. When are you going to let me in on the secret?"
"It's no secret. Starfleet wants me back. They won't extend my leave much longer."
"But I thought... Oh. So this was just a few weeks in the country. You never intended to stay."
The bitterness in her voice surprised him. Did she really think what they'd shared was just a diversion to him? "Antonia, I wouldn't be considering marrying you if I'd never intended to stay."
"I thought you'd forgotten about that," she said softly.
He bent to kiss her. "No. I hadn't forgotten. Had you?"
"No." A smile briefly lifted her face. "It just seemed easier to avoid the subject."
He nodded. Even now he was reluctant to speak of the future. The choice he was facing was too painful for words. "I needed some time to think."
"So. Have you come to any conclusions?"
"Give me another night, Antonia," he said, running a strand of her hair through his fingers. "I love you. I want to be with you. But Starfleet...Starfleet has been my life for so long. It's hard to think of retiring."
"Are you sure that's all that is holding you back?" she said quietly.
"What do you mean?"
"Tell me who Kate is, Jim."
A band of guilty apprehension tightened around his heart. Jealousy? But how...? He'd had plenty of lovers before he met Antonia. He assumed she'd had her share as well. They'd never discussed it. In fact, they had avoided most discussions that involved the past; that was the way he'd wanted it.
"Kate is someone I knew a long time ago," he said finally. "She wasn't the only one. I didn't know you were interested in hearing about all that."
"I wasn't," Antonia said. "You talk in your sleep."
The pressure in his chest increased. "I never used to," he said.
"Oh, that's true enough," she said, with an ironic smile. "You slept quite soundly before we went up to the high pastures."
He took the jab and said nothing. How could he defend what he wasn't even aware of? He didn't know what his subconscious might have communicated; the dreams Antonia blamed him for vanished each morning and left him nothing.
"I read once that Starfleet officers are conditioned not to talk in their sleep, to keep them from revealing strategic secrets to their lovers. Is that true?"
"Yes," he said. The training wasn't particularly pleasant, but it was effective for short periods.
Antonia looked at him, weighing his reaction. "I can't help thinking--I stayed awake all last night thinking--what kind of woman would make you cry out in your sleep despite all that training?"
"I love you, Jim. I want you to stay with me. But I won't share you--even with a dream." She got up and started inside. At the door, she turned and said one more word: "Choose."
Jim heard her climb the stairs to the bedroom, saw the light go out to leave him in a darkness blacker than the sun-charged night around him.
Choose. But Antonia could never know the choice she was asking him to make. Kate Logan was only a part of it, like Spock and McCoy were part of it. Lover and friends, brothers-in-arms in the great adventure that had been his life among the stars--a life Jim had never fully revealed to Antonia and never expected her to understand.
Jim looked up to where the leaping aurora burned in the night, obscuring the stars. There, he knew, lay 40 Eridani, where he had "died" on the blistering red sand of Vulcan to save Spock's life. And there, Ceti Alpha, where he'd left a superman to build a new world. And there, from Rigel across a third of the arc of heaven, the heaviest trade route in the galaxy. Even now, somewhere along that route, Kate Logan pursued her own future, a future they once sought together, even though they were light-years apart, because they dreamed the same dream.
Kate had been out of his reach for so long. Yet she lived in his heart, in that part of him that longed for the stars. And he would think of her, and dream of her, as long as he looked up to find the course of his life.
He blushed red with guilt, though there was no one to see him, no one to hear his thoughts. He dreamed of Kate, yet he loved Antonia, loved her enough to come within a micron's breadth of marrying her. He loved her because she was young and spirited and smart and ambitious. He loved her because she loved him and wanted desperately to make him happy.
But that was something she could never do, not completely. Antonia didn't know the real Jim Kirk; she loved only his shadow. She loved a man who wanted nothing more than to forget, because it hurt too much to remember what he had lost. She offered that man heaven--her world and all that she had. And had Jim been the man Antonia thought she knew, he would have taken it gladly.
But Jim Kirk looked up and knew he could no longer hide from himself. His future could not be found in this golden valley as long as a heaven full of stars overarched it. He would give up this illusion of heaven for the promise of the real thing, though the promise might never be realized, though he might never recover the life and the woman he loved, though the Enterprise and Kate Logan might truly be lost to him forever. He would take that risk; to do otherwise would mean the real Jim Kirk was dead and beyond resurrection.
Deep in the night, while the unearthly
fire still burned overhead, he went in to Antonia. Seeking reassurance, she turned to him,
enfolded him. Seeking comfort, he made love to her for what he knew would be the last
time. For though he loved her, it was not Antonia's face he saw in the darkness. And
though he longed to stay with her in paradise, another, truer destiny called him back to
his own world.
Kirk stood at the edge of a ravine that no longer held any power over him, stood outside an illusion which no longer clouded his emotions, and remembered his last morning with Antonia as it had really been.
He had been charged with restless energy, filled with a guilty sorrow that would not let him sleep. He got up early and left Antonia sleeping peacefully as the first streaks of dawn lightened the sky above the mountains.
Downstairs, he paced impatiently until the sun began to reflect off the snow on Big Shoulders. When it was finally light enough, he went outside and put his muscle and his grief into splitting one piece of wood into two, over and over again. He worked until his pain was manageable, until he no longer felt he would explode into broken shards when he told Antonia what he'd decided.
Then he made her breakfast and took it up to her, tried to put on a good face while she ate. But it was no use--Antonia soon saw what he was trying to hide. She put the unfinished tray of food aside.
"After last night, I thought you'd decided to stay," she said. "I was wrong, wasn't I?"
"I've decided to go back to Starfleet, Antonia." He didn't know what else to say. He wasn't sure that anything he said wouldn't hurt her more.
She looked at him, dark comprehension settling over her features like a shroud. "And there's nothing I can say to change your mind."
He shook his head.
"I won't wait for you to come back," she said after a moment.
There would be no coming back. He said the words that would end it. "I won't ask you to."
A single tear escaped to run down her cheek, but he could see the cold anger winning out over anything else in her face. When she spoke again, the bitterness seethed in her voice. "Just tell me one thing, Jim. Did you ever love me, or did I just imagine this whole summer?"
"I still love you," he said quietly.
"But you're leaving anyway."
He took a breath and said, "I have to."
"You lying, selfish, cowardly son of a bitch," she said, her voice shaking with rage. She slapped him, hard, and waited tensely for him to respond. But he took the stinging blow in silence. She was wrong. Leaving her would take more courage than facing death had ever demanded from him. He met her eyes, knowing he was doing the right thing for both of them, but all he found there was wounded pride and the beginning of a smoldering hatred.
Antonia pushed him roughly away from her and got up from the bed. "You used me!" she hissed, throwing on her clothes. "I was just some...some test of your manhood, some bimbo to get you through your little mid-life crisis! I can't believe I was so God damn naïve."
Jim got to his feet, pleading with her. "Antonia, no!"
"Shut up! I don't think I can stand to hear another word!" She was shouting now, all the insecurities and doubts she'd harbored over the summer boiling out onto him. "You might have told me you'd made up your mind to go before you fucked me last night!" Gathering up the last of her things, she shoved him out of her path. "I guess it was plain dumb luck that you remembered the right name to call out at the end, huh?"
Jim grabbed her arm before she could storm out the door. "Stop it!" He made an effort to lower his voice. "You want to hurt me, I can understand that. But, believe me, Antonia, I never meant to hurt you."
"You really believe that don't you?" she said, her face inches from his. "You sorry bastard. Go on back to Starfleet. Get the hell out of my valley. You don't belong here. I can't imagine why I ever thought you did." She snatched her arm out of his grip and walked out.
If Antonia ever understood the sacrifice he made that day, Kirk never knew it. That was the last he ever saw of her, except from time to time on the trails. And when he had said goodbye to Belle and Butler and Uncle Jack the next day. He visited them when he could, and had been heart-stricken when Butler had died a few years later. But that day, James T. Kirk had returned to San Francisco the way he had come--alone and searching.
Standing here in a place without time, Kirk knew he had no regrets about the way things had turned out. His place had always been in the stars, with Spock and McCoy and his crew, with Kate. His life had always been lived on the edge of death--saving the galaxy, protecting his friends, making a difference. He'd proven it over and over again in the years since he made his choice.
This placid dream was not heaven. It had never been heaven. If anything, it was a special kind of hell. What was it Uhura always said--be careful what you wish for? The choice he had made so long ago was the same choice he would make today.
If what Picard said was true, all his friends had long ago grieved for him and put him behind them. If Kate still lived, she would have long ago closed off the part of her heart that loved him and moved on. But time was not the immutable force his ancestors had once thought it to be; the Nexus was proof enough of that. As Spock had said, there were always possibilities--and perhaps the Vulcan wasn't the only one who could come back from the dead.
But first there was work to do. Kirk watched Picard ride over the shoulder of the meadow toward him--another captain of the Enterprise, less brash, perhaps, than he himself had been, but no less brave. Another agent of Starfleet with a problem only James T. Kirk could solve; Kirk would have laughed at the irony of that thought if two hundred fifty million lives hadn't depended on it.
Kirk sighed, his mind made up. If only James T. Kirk would do, then far be it from him to argue with the captain of the Enterprise.
That is, he thought, with a future captain of the Enterprise. After all, I'm not quite dead yet.
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