Splash Down - Part Two

by Juli

November 2003


It wasn’t until he caught his third ukas that Malc’m realized how much trouble he was in.

Of course, it wasn’t so much catching ukas as it was gathering. The slow-moving creatures had a heavy, gritty skin that helped them camouflage themselves against the ocean floor. In addition, their purple hue closely matched the color of the sand, making them even more difficult to find. Ukas were rare enough and difficult enough to find that they were considered a great delicacy by the Sa’an. Only the fact that they were far from the Pod gave Malc’m hope of finding any to bring back to his guest.

Catching ukas took sharp eyes, knowledge of where to look, and a lot of patience. Normally, Malc’m possessed all three, but with J’han Taan waiting for him, he was eager to conclude the hunt and return to the human. Typically, Tc'hla was eager to help him, using her big snout to root through the sand, whuffing with excitement as she uncovered one of the tasty animals to present to Malc’m. This hunt, however, she was lagging behind or even trying to place herself between Malc’m and the sandy beds he wanted to search.

“What has gotten into you?” Malc’m grumbled. Using one of the hand signals that Tc'hla had been trained to recognize, he asked if she was all right. Tc'hla, however, just rolled over in the water to show him her underside. No trained signal, that, just natural body language that clearly indicated that she was disgusted with him.

“Feeling put upon, are we?” Malc’m responded to the sulking creature. “I don’t know why you don’t like J’han Taan. He seems perfectly nice to me.”

Malc’m hung motionless in the water, tail swishing idly to keep himself from drifting. He brought the aki that hung around his neck to his mouth and clicked it against his teeth as he contemplated his ukas catch. It was hard to tell with a legged creature, but J’han Taan seemed to be a large male and would probably have an appetite to match. Certainly, he was bigger than Malc’m himself. That didn’t necessarily mean much, since the vast majority of adult Sa’an males were bigger than Malc’m… yet another way he’d disappointed his father.

Wanting to escape the unhappy thought, Malc’m returned to his contemplation of J’han Taan Acha. He couldn’t help but wonder what the human would look like as a Sa’an. He would be an imposing figure, no doubt, Malc’m decided, absently fingering his aki pendant while he thought. All that length of leg would translate into a tail of considerable size. It would be green, to match J’han Taan’s eyes – a striking color. Swimming by his side would be -….

W-H-U-M-P

For once, Tc'hla was able to take Malc’m completely by surprise. The two rolled top over tail in the water amidst a flurry of bubbles. Malc’m reached for his weapon by reflex but the familiar soft grip of teeth on his wrist stayed his hand.

“Tc'hla!”

Tc'hla bit down marginally harder on Malc’m’s wrist, still nowhere near breaking the skin. When he cried out, she immediately released him, circling the Sa’an with agitated movements. Malc’m had been about to scold the wpa’ne soundly but stopped when the import of her behavior hit him.

Circling was a protective action.

Instinctively, Malc’m hunched in the water, eyes scanning the area around him before he allowed himself to relax. It was clear – but it so easily could have been otherwise. Tc'hla had caught him daydreaming, a dangerous lapse for a scout to make. And, what had he been fantasizing about? J’han Taan Acha. A human. A legged creature in Sa’an waters. Instead of guarding against a stranger, he’d been keeping the male comfortable and gathering ukas for him.

Malc’m moaned low in his throat. He’d been daydreaming like a lovesick calf and neglecting basic open water survival protocol. On top of that, he’d been collecting ukas as carefree as a lover gathering coral blossoms in a cultivated garden. Ukas – which because of their rareness and their delicate flavor were a favored courtship item.

And Malc’m had been gathering them to give to a male not even Sa’an.

His father would have been horrified. Malc’m wasn’t so sure that *he* wasn’t horrified. Tc'hla sensed his distress and stopped her circling to dive down by his side. Whuffling, she nuzzled her nose under his arm and Malc’m buried his face into her fur.

“No wonder you don’t like J’han Taan,” he admitted to the animal. “The way I forget myself where he’s concerned is dangerous.”

Tc'hla made a satisfied chuff and Malc’m smiled in spite of his worries. He lifted his face and scratched the sensitive spot under her chin as both an apology for his behavior and a reward for making him realize how he’d been acting. He knew what he had to do. He would leave off catching ukas and go to the human’s vessel to look for the communication device. J’han Taan would eat the food never knowing it had a special meaning and then he would communicate with his ship. Soon he would be gone and Malc’m would never again have to worry about his strange reaction to the alien male. He was greatly comforted… until he realized the fingers of his other hand were once again stroking his aki pendant.

Malc’m dropped his hand as though it had been bitten.

Like all Sa’an, Malc’m had gone in search of his aki when he’d reached the age of adulthood. Finding the one item in the ocean that exactly matched the color of their eyes was an important rite of passage for young Sa’an. Completing the search often took several days – alone – in the wilds. Success proved they were mature enough to survive… and that they were of an age to find their mate. By offering your chosen mate your aki, you were offering him or her a piece of your soul – not an action taken lightly.

Malc’m’s father had scoffed when he’d announced he was ready to undertake his aki quest, calling it a waste of time. Even if he found it, St’art had said, there would be no Sa’an willing to accept it to mate such a one as Malc’m. Malc’m had responded by finding a perfect match in mere hours. Even Mad’ne had been surprised at the speed of his success – the quickest any in his Pod had ever accomplished. Despite his accomplishment, St’art had been right – no one had wanted to exchange aki with Malc’m. The fact had upset his sister more than Malc’m himself. He’d never met anyone he’d felt the urge to give a piece of his soul to.

Until, apparently, now.

It was with twin feelings of fear and excitement that Malc’m realized what his actions since meeting J’han Taan meant. He must have realized subconsciously all along that the human was his mate, that’s why he’d been so protective of him and eager to help him. It was funny, in a way. Mad’ne had always told him that when he found his mate, that he would know. He wished he could tell her that she was right.

Tucking the last ukas he’d caught into the carrier hanging from his mesh belt, he signaled for Tc'hla to follow him. Keeping an automatic eye out for dangers, he swam swiftly back to J’han Taan’s craft. Even with the human’s description, it was difficult to locate the communication device, but with the same sea craft that made him an excellent scout, he finally persevered. Tc'hla eyed the small box with distain, refusing to help carry it. That was okay with Malc’m. He’d been doing some thinking while retrieving the unit and had a task for her.

Taking out one of the message sticks that had been devised for him, he quickly scratched a series of markings on it. Malc’m only hoped that the Scout Leader back at the Pod would be able to remember the code; they’d rarely had to use it before. Holding it out for Tc'hla, he gave her the signal to take it back home.

Tc'hla refused.

Malc’m repeated the signal, with more vigor, and reinforced it with the vocalization that indicated he meant business. Reluctantly, the wpa’ne took the message stick from him. He ruffled the fur at the top of her head before urging her on her way. Tc'hla looked back at him with eyes that pleaded not to be sent away, but Malc’m held firm. He loved Tc'hla dearly but J’han Taan was his mate.

With mixed emotions, Malc’m began to swim back to the cave where the human waited. He knew what he had to do and he knew it was for the best, but his heart ached just the same. Moonlight filtered through the clear blue water and, on a whim, Malc’m swam to the surface. It was risky, since many of the more dangerous denizens of the ocean swam in the layer just beneath the surface, but Malc’m dared it anyway.

His head broke above the water and Malc’m looked up at the night sky, temporarily cleared of seasonal storms. Which star was J’han Taan’s? He wished he knew but he supposed he’d never find out. J’han Taan was his mate, the only being he would ever be able to trust with a piece of his soul. Malc’m knew that now. But, instead of planning for a life together, Malc’m knew his responsibility to J’han Taan was to get him back to the sky where he belonged. Malc’m’s world would be even more lonely, having had a taste for what it might have been like to share his life with someone, but loneliness was an old friend by now. Malc’m would endure and J’han Taan would be safe, in the world where he belonged.

Taking one last look at the sky that was his rival for his mate, Malc’m dove back down into the deep.

*******************

Malc’m was gone so long that Jonathan began to worry. It was easy to be beset by doubts, left alone in a dank sea cave. As he’d already observed, being abandoned would be a death sentence for the human. It also didn’t sit well with the captain to have to sit back and wait to be rescued. T’Pol would no doubt say it was a good exercise for his pride; Jonathan just found it damn annoying.

It was with a deep sense of relief that Archer saw the ripples in the water that indicated that Malc’m was returning. This time, Jonathan knew better than to reach out. He didn’t want to give Tc'hla another chance to rip his arm off.

He needn’t have worried - Malc’m was alone and visibly tired. When he got closer, however, Archer could see the quiet triumph in the other man’s face. For a moment, there seemed to be a trace of sadness behind his expression, but it flickered and was gone before Jonathan could be sure.

“Is this your communication device, J’han Taan?” He asked, brandishing a small waterproof case.

Archer grinned ear to ear. “You found it!” He eagerly accepted it when Malc’m handed the package over. “Thanks - I appreciate how much you’ve done for me.”

“I’m sure you would have done the same, had our positions been reversed,” Malc’m responded, ducking the compliment.

The Sa’an watched with interest as Jonathan opened the case and removed the communicator. With practiced ease, Archer flipped open the small device. “Archer to Enterprise.”

His call was answered by unrelenting static.

Jonathan frowned and fiddled with it before trying again. “Archer to Enterprise. Do you read me?” When this attempt was just as unsuccessful, he growled softly in frustration.

“What’s wrong?

Agitated, the captain ran an hand through his hair. “It can’t get through. I don’t know if it’s because of ionic interference in the atmosphere or if there’s something in the cave that’s blocking it.”

Malc’m considered the dilemma. “Did it work before when you were on the surface?”

“Yes,” Jonathan answered. “But, as you’ve pointed out, that’s not an option.”

“Not for you,” the other man countered, “but it would be child’s play for me.”

Jonathan looked at his companion. “I thought you said your people didn’t like to stick their heads out of the water?”

Malc’m made an impatient noise. “I said that most Sa’an don’t... but I am not most Sa’an.”

Archer found himself oddly reluctant to put Malc’m into any potential danger. “What if there are any more of those Noi-ta hanging around?”

His protest made Malc’m laugh. “What if there are? J’han Taan, I live in these waters. Yes, there are hazards, but they are part of Sa’an life. I will gladly do this for you. Will you let me?”

“I’ll have to show you how the communicator works,” Jonathan said, continuing to hesitate.

Malc’m waved off his concern. “Before I was a scout, I was a Shroud Guardian. And I’m a fast learner. I do not think it will be a problem.”

“Well, then,” Archer conceded. “I guess I’ll accept your offer, with my thanks.”

The awkward silence was broken by the growling of Jonathan’s stomach. Malc’m’s smile disappeared and was replaced by a guilty look.

“I forgot, I brought us something to eat. Wait there.”

The Sa’an unceremoniously turned and dove, the smack of his tail spraying water all around. Jonathan was closer than he usually was when Malc’m dove and got drenched. Shrugging, the captain slipped out of his wet uniform and, upon further consideration, his black long-sleeved top. Judging by Malc’m, the Sa’an had no clothing issues and he certainly didn’t need the garments for warmth. By the time Malc’m returned, Archer was down to his bright blue underwear.

That fact was not lost on Malc’m. “You’ve... changed,” the bemused Sa’an commented.

“Just removed a couple of layers,” Jonathan explained. “They need to dry and they’re not really necessary in here anyway.”

“Ah,” Malc’m murmured. “They are protective coverings, then. I’d wondered.” Before Archer could respond, the Sa’an offered up a squiggly creature. “I don’t know what your species typically eats, so I hope this will suffice.”

“I love seafood,” Jonathan assured him as he sat down at the pools edge and dangled his feet into the water. Taking in the sight of the wriggling disk-shaped creature, however, he couldn’t help but swallow in reflex. “It’s not... sentient... is it?”

“‘Shan-tent?’” Malc’m repeated, the UT not having an equivalent word in his language.

“Sentient - thinking,” Jonathan explained. “My people have a taboo against eating a self-aware, intelligent being.”

“As well they should,” Malc’m said firmly. He shuddered at the idea. “No, ukas are purely animals, no higher mental abilities at all.” The Sa’an snapped the ukas he held and the wriggling stopped. Taking a white-colored cutting utensil out of the mesh belt that now adorned his waist, Malc’m started cutting it up.

Jonathan sought a comparison. “What about Tc’hla? She seems to be more intelligent than an ukas.”

Malc’m snorted. “J’han Taan, the rock you’re sitting on is more intelligent than an ukas.” The Sa’an finished with his task and offered Archer a strip of meat. “As for Tc’hla, she’s smart enough to train for simple tasks but that is the extent of it. I don’t think you could consider her self-aware.”

Jonathan took a tentative bite of his ukas meat. The captain was surprised to find it quite good. Nodding his gratitude at his host, he continued the conversation. “Where is Tc’hla, anyway? I hope you didn’t banish her from the cave on my account.”

Malc’m glanced up at Archer and then bent his head back down, seemingly fascinated with his task. “No. I began thinking about our earlier discussion and I sent her back to the Pod.”

Archer swallowed his last mouthful in order to ask, “Did you change your mind about introducing me?”

The Sa’an man looked embarrassed. “Actually, I’d been quite neglectful of my duty. In spite of how friendly you are, the Pi’mka should have been informed of your presence.” Malc’m sighed. “I’d rather hoped you’d be gone by the time they found out. I hadn’t counted on your device not working properly.”

Jonathan frowned. “You think they’ll react that badly to my being here?”

“Not exactly,” the other man reassured him. “I don’t think they will try to do you any direct physical harm.”

“But....” Archer prompted when Malc’m’s voice trailed off.

“But they may order me to withdraw and leave you to find your own way back to the surface,” Malc’m reluctantly finished.

Both men were silent. They were each well aware of the implications of that possible action.

“Well, then, I’m doubly grateful for your offer to take my communicator and try and reach my ship.” Jonathan said. “Thank you.”

Malc’m looked at Archer with eyes full of worry. “Perhaps I should do that now. My people won’t be arriving just yet but you’ve already been here for a tide cycle. You were worried that your companions might assume you’re dead and leave you behind.”

The human captain was tempted but then took a closer look at the man offering. There were strain lines in Malc’m’s expression. If Jonathan were any judge of character - human or not - they were the signs of exhaustion and not just concern.

“I think you’re done quite enough for one day, Malc’m,” Jonathan answered. “I don’t think your - Pi’mka? - would thank me for wearing out their best scout by doing my errands. I know how I’d feel if someone unnecessarily burdened a member of my crew.”

The Sa’an’s eyes widened. “*Your* crew? J’han Taan, are you a Pi’mka of your people?”

“Not all the humans,” Archer temporized, “but that’s what being the captain of the Enterprise means. I’ve the highest rank and therefore the ship and its crew are my responsibility.”

It took a moment for Malc’m to process that information. When he had, his reaction wasn’t quite what Jonathan had expected.

“Are you insane?” Malc’m sputtered. “What is a Pi’mka doing, risking himself by exploring an unknown world?”

“Ours is a journey of exploration,” Archer explained defensively. “We approach each encounter cautiously but I like to believe that most of the people we meet are willing to at least make some sort of non-hostile contact.” Sheepishly, the captain scratched unnecessarily at the back of his neck. “Although, I have to admit, sometimes my first officer and my tactical officer have had the same opinion as you’ve just expressed.”

Malc’m glowered and moved restlessly in the water. “At least some of you humans have a smattering of sense, then.” Coming to a decision, the Sa’an held out his hand. “Show me how to use this communicator and I’ll go now.”

Jonathan didn’t move. “I thought we’d just established that you need to rest first.”

With the water’s clarity, Archer could see the other man’s tail swish in an agitated manner. “You being a Pi’mka changes everything. I need to contact your people right away, so they don’t retaliate against mine for what’s happened.”

“Malc’m, did the Sa’an cause the storm or the lightning that brought the shuttlecraft down?” Jonathan didn’t really think they had, but was trying to make a point.

“No,” came the decisive reply.

“Then all you’ve done is rescue me, at risk to yourself, and seen to it that I’m as comfortable as you can make me. You’ve even helped recover some of my equipment and are planning on assisting me in contacting my people.” Archer spread his hands as he finished talking. “What is there for my people to retaliate against?”

The other man’s agitated movements slowed down as he considered Jonathan’s claims but Malc’m still wasn’t convinced. “But in rescuing you, I also brought you to a place that you cannot leave on your own. What if this ‘crew’ of yours views it that I, as a representative of my people, am holding you against your will?”

Not with T’Pol in charge, Archer couldn’t help thinking but was careful not to mention it. The Sa’an seemed spooked enough by humans as it was, he didn’t want to introduce the concept of Vulcans. “No, trust me. They aren’t going to launch any attacks against the Sa’an. In fact, my crew will thank you and your people for helping me so much.”

Malc’m didn’t respond and Jonathan decided to change the subject. “The ukas is good, thanks. We have terrific meals on the Enterprise but fresh seafood is hard to find.”

His companion’s breath seemed to catch at the mention of ukas but then he seemed to accept the awkward transition. “So, tell me, J’han Taan, how does an air breather like you develop a taste for food that comes from the water?”

Jonathan smiled and gathered himself to explain life lived walking in the air. From Malc’m’s careful questions, it was clear that the other man had a thirst for knowledge. In his turn, he peppered the Sa’an with questions with life under the waves, careful to keep them vague enough not to alarm the wary scout that Archer was trying to gather sensitive information. Instead, Archer learned the best way to capture an ukas and how deep it was necessary to go to escape the surface storms.

“I don’t think I’ve ever talked this much,” Malc’m finally admitted. He’d dipped his head under the water and then came to the stone lip Archer was sitting on. Leaning against it, the Sa’an rested his head on his arms. “Do your people always verbalize this much?”

Concerned, Archer leaned forward. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to dominate the conversation....”

Malc’m reared back, upset at Archer’s dismay. “No, no, it’s not that….” He dipped his head under the water again before explaining. “I guess it’s because I’m a scout, I’m not around others as much.”

Both men fell silent. Jonathan wasn’t quite sure what to say, especially since he sensed that Malc’m was keeping something from him. He wasn’t much of an explorer if he didn’t press for more information, but still... he found himself unable to pursue the topic. Malc’m was a quiet man but a sense of loneliness and isolation was radiating off him. A scout wasn’t that much different than explorer, except Jonathan had the benefit of traveling with his entire crew. He couldn’t imagine what it must be like, to be cut off from most of your people. The isolation must be crushing.

Realizing he’d finally found a way to repay part of the kindness he’d been shown, Jonathan launched himself back into the conversation. For a while, at least, maybe he could do something about Malc’m’s loneliness.

*******************

Jonathan couldn’t sleep. He shifted on the cave floor, trying in vain to get comfortable. For his peace of mind, he would have liked to blame his insomnia on the hard surface on which he was resting. In truth, however, he was haunted by a pair of blue-gray eyes.

Since leaving Earth, Jonathan had met a lot of aliens; he’d even kissed one or two. Never, however, had Jonathan felt such a connection with another being. Hell, he’d never felt such a pull to even another human.

When he was with Malc’m, he wanted to find ways to coax out that shy smile. When Malc’m left, he missed him more than he should, given the short amount of time he’d known the other man. Even his thoughts of Enterprise had an alarming tendency to morph into thinking of ways Trip could retrofit a cargo bay so that it held water….

Enterprise.

Jonathan sighed as he thought of his ship and his duty. Truly, he did not want to abandon either. Still, he couldn’t help but regret the responsibility that would inevitably take him away from this fascinating world – and from Malc’m.

Tomorrow, Malc’m would take the communicator to the surface and contact the ship. The process of leaving Water – and Malc’m – would begin. With any luck, Jonathan would be back amongst his people before another day had past.

He would once again be Captain Jonathan Archer… but he had a nagging feeling that a part of him would miss being J’han Taan Acha until the end of his days.

*******************

“I think I’m ready, J’han Taan,” Malc’m said firmly but with good humor.

The two men had spent an inordinate amount of time going over the communication device. Malc’m was a fast study with the equipment and picked up on the technology quite readily. Teaching him the necessary phrases needed to converse with the Enterprise’s crew, however, had taken a little longer. The UT was too delicate to risk a journey to the surface, so Jonathan had done the best he could to prepare Malc’m and trust that Hoshi Sato would be able to sort out the rest.

Even so, the captain seemed reluctant to send Malc’m on his way.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Jonathan asked yet again. “I appreciate your willingness to help but I don’t want you to unduly risk yourself.”

“We’ve discussed this already,” Malc’m countered. “I’m a scout. The waters I patrol on a daily basis are just as dangerous.”

Malc’m didn’t protest too vehemently. Although he was used to having others question his abilities, he’d never experienced protectiveness from anyone other than his sister. He found he rather liked the feeling and, knowing it would soon end when J’han Taan returned to his own people, he’d been reveling in it, but enough was enough.

“Well….” Jonathan continued to vacillate. He wasn’t normally a man given to hesitation where action was concerned but the idea of Malc’m risking himself on Archer’s behalf was unsettling.

“J’han Taan, let me do this for you,” Malc’m drifted over to the rocky ledge that Jonathan knelt on, moving so skillfully through the water that it hardly rippled. Greatly daring, he placed one hand on the human’s knee. “Please.”

Malc’m was a Sa’an and had no idea of what a dog was, but that didn’t stop him from having the most affective pair of “puppy dog” eyes that Jonathan had ever seen.

Archer caved.

“All right,” Jonathan relented with a sigh. Before he handed over the communicator, he couldn’t help but add one last admonishment. “But be careful.”

“Always,” Malc’m promised. He reached for the device. The two men’s fingers touched briefly and Malc’m bit back a moan as he felt the warmth from J’han Taan’s skin seep into his own.

“I’d best be on my way,” Malc’m said hoarsely. He kept his words terse to hide his reaction.

“All right,” Archer repeated, somewhat dazed.

Malc’m noticed that J’han Taan seemed reluctant to drop his hand.

“I’ll be fine,” Malc’m reassured him, eager to remove the anxious expression from the human’s face. After J’han Taan nodded his agreement, Malc’m dove, tail slapping against the water as he propelled himself down.

Malc’m’s leave-taking was a bit more vigorous than necessary, due to the way his body hummed. It had never occurred to him that J’han Taan might feel the mating pull as well. But the way it had felt when their fingers had touched, the way J’han Taan was reluctant to let him go, the way the human seemed to watch him all the time… all could be read to indicate that J’han Taan was feeling a connection as well. It would best, Malc’m decided, to get this errand over with quickly. The human belonged with his own people and was eager to return to them. If that was J’han Taan’s wish, then it was up to his mate to see to it that it got done… even if J’han Taan didn’t know that they were mates.

Would never know that they were mates.

As he swam, Malc’m kept a wary eye out for predators. He’d picked up his t-da’ho weapon, stashed outside the cave more out of habit than any lingering concerns over J’han Taan. For a moment, he missed Tc’hla keenly, the wpa’ne was a real asset when it came to spotting dangers. When he thought of her likely reaction to a trip to the surface, however, that sentiment stopped. Tc’hla was not what J’han Taan would call sentient, but in her furry, animal way, she had a talent for conveying her displeasure. No, she would not like this task at all.

For the umpteenth time since leaving the cave, Malc’m checked the communication device. Yes, it was still packed safely away, protected from the water in its carrying case. Under his breath, he muttered the phrases that J’han Taan had taught him, reflecting on the irony that J’han Taan Acha had been saved by the one Sa’an with the vocal experience to be able to do this errand. Not only would most of his people have been to content to let a stranger drown in the first place, but even if another *had* rescued the human, they wouldn’t have possessed the vocal prowess to assist him. His mate was a lucky man.

The closer Malc’m got to the surface, the harder it became to swim. That, and the general lack of the more dangerous denizens of the deep, concerned him. Sure enough, when his head broke the surface, he could see a storm bearing down on him. Cursing softly under his breath, he chastised himself soundly. He shouldn’t have listened to J’han Taan. He should have taken the device and gone the night before, when the weather was clear.

Knowing he had only a short amount of time, Malc’m swiftly looped his t-da’ho in his belt and pulled the communicator out of its case. Using his body to shield it from the waves, he flipped it open. Static greeted the action, but to his inexperienced ear, it had a different sound than the static when J’han Taan had tried to use it in the cave.

Breathing deeply to settle his nerves, he spoke into the device. “J’han Taan Acha.”

Malc’m startled when he received an immediate response, almost dropping the communicator. It was a male voice that answered him, excited.

“Cap’n Archer?” Was the only phrase in the gibberish that followed that Malc’m understood. He swallowed the pang of jealousy that someone else would respond to his mate’s name with such enthusiasm and steeled himself to complete his task.

“J’han Taan Acha,” Malc’m carefully repeated. “J’han Taan Acha a-live. B’nth suuur’face.”

The Sa’an flinched when lightning struck, the massive bolt too close to comfort. The storm was moving swiftly and becoming uncomfortably close. As if mirroring that fact, the voice coming through the communicator became increasingly strident.

“J’han Taan Acha a-live. B’nth suuur’face,” Malc’m repeated desperately, managing to get the message out one last time before an even bigger lightning strike hit – even closer to him this time. He watched with dismay as the glowing energy crackled and skittered across the swells of water, flickering with a dangerous blue light as it as it rapidly danced his way across the waves.

Knowing he’d waited too long, Malc’m dove desperately. He was glad, now, that Tc’hla wasn’t with him. He could swim much faster than she could; the wpa’ne would have had no hope of escaping. Despite his powerful tail being able to propel him through the water like a knife through ukas flesh, Malc’m wasn’t quick enough. The energy burst from the lightning strike was even faster and he was caught in the fringe of it.

As the blue cloud of power washed over him, his every nerve end felt like it was being ripped out of his body. Malc’m’s last thoughts were of J’han Taan’s face and, clutching the communicator to him like a lover, the Sa’an lost consciousness.

*******************

“Damn, I lost the signal.”

Trip pounded on the shuttle’s console in frustration. The tiny craft was being battered by strong winds. They’d been at it all night, taking advantage of what had been a brief lull in the weather. Travis was piloting the shuttle and, even with his youthful enthusiasm and boomer experience, had finally started showing the strain. Tucker hated to admit it, especially to himself, but his own optimism had been stretched to the limits as well.

Until they’d caught a fragment of Captain Archer’s name being transmitted over the communicator.

Due to the ionization in the atmosphere, the signal had badly broken up. It didn’t sound like Jonathan’s voice, but still Trip and Travis had looked at one another in amazement. Trip had fumbled to make a response, but they’d received no new information, just a repeat of the first message. Then, silence.

“Can you triangulate on the signal?” Travis asked desperately. For once he didn’t call the commander ‘Sir.’

“I can try,” Trip bit his lip as his fingers flew across his console, hands steady despite the way the shuttle dipped and rolled with the wind.

“T’Pol to Shuttlepod Two,” T’Pol’s voice was cool, a drop of calm in the midst of the tempest buffeting them.

“We’re a bit busy, Sub-Commander,” Trip growled. He knew what was likely coming and wasn’t happy about it at all.

“The storm is rapidly intensifying….”

“Oh, noticed that, did you?” Tucker muttered under his breath.

He hadn’t transmitted that comment, however, so T’Pol continued as though uninterrupted. “You need to return to Enterprise immediately.”

“No,” Travis whispered.

Trip agreed with the helmsman. “Enterprise, we received a message about the cap’n,” Tucker said desperately. “We can’t leave now.”

“If you don’t return now, you may very well meet the same fate as the captain’s shuttle,” T’Pol countered firmly, but then her voice softened minutely. “We received a portion of the same transmission on Enterprise and are analyzing it now. When the storm abates, our rescue efforts should prove more successful.”

Trip was ready to argue more, but then the way the shuttle buckled and shivered in the wind finally penetrated his awareness. “Acknowledged,” he said with a sigh. “We’re on our way back.” Shoulders slumped, he turned to his companion. “You heard the lady, Travis. Head us back up out of the atmosphere.”

“But, Commander,” Mayweather protested. “Another storm is coming, we *have* to stay. They might not survive another one.”

Trip wanted to verbally bite Travis’ head off for vocalizing his own worst fear. He restrained himself, however, keeping in mind that Cho and Mayweather were lovers. That fact added a whole new dimension to the ensign’s worry.

Putting a hand on Travis’ shoulder, Trip tried to reassure the younger man. “Leastways we got a message from ‘em, Travis. That’s something.”

Tucker wasn’t successful. Travis looked devastated, even as he obediently – if reluctantly – adjusted the shuttle’s course back to Enterprise. “But the message didn’t say anything about Ruth. Only the captain.”

Trip swallowed. Cho was a friend and a colleague, but he’d known Jonathan for years. His ties with his friend and captain went much deeper than with the security officer and he was embarrassed to admit that Archer was the primary focus of his own worry. “Travis, that don’t necessarily mean….”

“Don’t, Commander,” Mayweather interrupted, an unusual tone of authority in his voice. “Just don’t.”

Give the helmsman’s distress, Tucker didn’t comment on any insubordination and the rest of the journey was punctuated with an awkward, worry-laden silence.

*******************

A scent wafted on the water. It was an essence that Tc’hla connected to her beloved Malc’m’s unhappiness and normally it would have sent her in the other direction. But Malc’m himself had sent her to find the nearest of his people. Tc’hla swerved and modified her course. She would give her message to these scouts, instead of going all the way back to the Pod. Then, she could return to Malc’m.

Not being a thinking creature, Tc’hla never wondered what a pair of scouts were doing in her Malc’m’s territory.

*******************

Caves, Jonathan decided weren’t the best place for pacing. At least, the one he was trapped in wasn’t. It wasn’t big enough and the floor was uneven and made him stumble, but Jonathan paced anyway. Pacing was the only way to handle his agitation.

He shouldn’t have let Malc’m go.

He had no choice but to have let Malc’m go.

Intellectually, Jonathan knew he’d had no other options. He needed help getting out of that cave and Malc’m was his only way to get it. Unfortunately, he also realized that intellect had little to do with it.

Jonathan stopped pacing abruptly and rubbed his forehead. Alone in the cave, worried, Archer finally had to admit to himself the depths of his feelings. Malc’m had become important to Jonathan and not just as his only link to the outside world. That shy smile and quiet courage had won Jonathan over without him even noticing. With such a quick onset of feelings, Archer’s first thought was that maybe it was a case of infatuation. It only took a moment of concentration, however, before Jonathan discarded that idea. He’d been through enough infatuations, including a memorable week he’d spent thinking he was attracted to Trip Tucker, to know the difference. What he felt for Malc’m went deeper than a mere crush, for all the newness of the relationship.

The fact that the man he was attracted to had a tail didn’t bother Jonathan at all. Part of the reason that he was bisexual was that he cared more about the inside of a person than their outer package. Besides, he admitted to himself with a rueful smile, the tail was actually a big turn on. Jonathan was a sailor at heart and what sailor could resist a mermaid?

Jonathan was laughing at his own foolishness when Malc’m returned.

When he noticed the ripples in the water that heralded the return of the Sa’an, Archer turned expectantly. His pleasure at Malc’m’s arrival, however, quickly dissolved as he got a good look at the other man. Malc’m looked… drained. Even paler than normal, the tailed man appeared to be almost gasping. As Jonathan watched, appalled, Malc’m’s head sunk beneath the surface of the water, one arm flailing and reaching for the rocky lip to the cave floor.

Without thinking, Jonathan jumped into the water and grabbed the Sa’an. Malc’m struck out at him at first, then seemed to realize that he was being helped rather than attacked. At that point, he went limp in Jonathan’s arms and allowed himself to be hauled to the surface.

“What’s wrong?” Jonathan asked, feet treading furiously as he struggled to keep them both afloat.

“Lightning strike,” Malc’m shuddered, struggling to talk. “Couldn’t swim fast enough. Not able to dive deep enough.”

“Aw, hell,” Jonathan swore. It was the captain’s turn to pale. It was one of those storms that had brought his shuttle down and killed a member of his crew; he was all too familiar with their power.

Malc’m resisted the seductive warmth of J’han Taan’s body. He wanted nothing more than to curl into the human and let unconsciousness take him – but he had to see to his duty done to his mate first. “I got your message through, J’han Taan,” he said weakly. He held up a charred communicator with a trembling hand. “I’m sure your people heard me, but I’m afraid your equipment is now damaged.”

Jonathan grabbed the ruined device and tossed it up onto the rock ledge. “I don’t give a damn about the communicator. What can I do to help you?”

Malc’m shuddered again. “I’m fine, J’han Taan.” His eyes closed involuntarily.

Worry escalating, Jonathan gently shook the injured Sa’an. “Malc’m, you’re *not* fine – now what can I do to help you?”

Blue-gray eyes blinked open slowly as Malc’m roused in response to J’han Taan’s urgent tone. “I’ll be fine, J’han Taan. Just let me sleep and don’t…” Another tremor wracked his body and the other man pulled him closer in response. “Don’t let me sink to the bottom or-… or let me dry out. M-m-make sure I stay w-w-w-et.”

Utterly trusting in the human to keep him safe, Malc’m gave in to the siren call of unconsciousness. The last thing he saw before closing his eyes again was J’han Taan’s worried face.

Jonathan looked down at the Sa’an cradled in his arms, it not taking long for him to realize why Malc’m was so afraid of sinking - he wouldn’t want to drift out of the safety of the cave and become fish food. As for the drying out, no doubt that had something to do with Sa’an physiology. Jonathan wasn’t doctor enough to guess why it was important, but he could certainly see that it didn’t happen.

Bracing himself against the ledge, Archer slipped down into the water up to his neck and, tucking Malc’m’s head under his chin, he carefully kept it submerged. It wasn’t the most comfortable of positions, but he’d manage. After the sacrifice Malc’m had just made on his behalf, it was the least he could do.

*******************

The tension was thick enough on the Enterprise’s bridge that it would have taken one of Chef’s butcher knives to cut through it.

“Ensign, report.” As usual, T’Pol seemed unaware of the heightened emotional state of the rest of the crew.

Hoshi stepped forward. “Commander Tucker and Travis were right – they heard what they thought they heard. The voice is definitely indicating that Captain Archer is alive.”

Pushing a couple of buttons, she played the message for all of them to hear. “J’han Taan Acha a-live.” Came the alien voice, then a burst of static. “…suuur’face…”

Travis shifted uncomfortably and Hoshi gave him a sympathetic look. Mayweather wasn’t the only one who’d noticed that Ruth Cho had not been mentioned.

“Unfortunately,” Hoshi summed up, “the repeat of the message wasn’t any clearer. The storm scrambled the signal badly and that’s the best I can clean it up.”

Everyone looked at T’Pol expectantly.

“Before the next atmospheric event interfered,” the Vulcan explained to the rest of the senior crew, “we were able to successfully scan the general area.”

“So, you know where the transmission came from?” Trip asked, hope making his tired, bloodshot eyes light up.

“Not precisely, although I was able to triangulate on a quadrant from which I believe the transmission originated.” T’Pol’s fingers flew and an area of the planet’s surface was highlighted. Unfortunately, it was an area that was hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers in diameter. Worst yet, there were only tiny land masses included in the vicinity. Mostly, it was kilometer after kilometer of open water.

“Is that the best you can do?” Trip asked.

“Given the ionization in the atmosphere at the time, we were fortunate to have garnered that much information.” If she hadn’t been Vulcan, the others would have sworn there was a hint of defensiveness in the sub-commander’s voice.

“What about the biosigns of whoever sent the signal? If it wasn’t the Captain, who or what was it?” The question came from Ensign Lebbick, Cho’s second-in-command and acting Chief of Security.

“Because of the atmospheric interference, it is difficult to ascertain,” Doctor Phlox answered. “But I am reasonably certain that the readings are not human; perhaps not even humanoid.

“You mean the Cap’n an’ Cho are down there, in the water, at the mercy of God-Knows-What kind of alien?” Worry made Tucker’s accent thicker.

Phlox didn’t even try to smile. “Yes.”

“The let us hope that the weather clears again soon,” T’Pol commented dryly. No one else seemed to know what to say.

 

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