Snow whispered where it touched. If he listened hard enough, he could hear it tell him secrets. Flakes clung to his cloak: delicate white stars making obscure constellations on a black void of wool. They fell in his hair, on his eyelashes, tickled his nose and cheeks. He had long ago lost any sensation in fingers and toes and the tips of his ears.
On the horizon, the sun rose. Yellow-white G2 star. He had always found the quality of Earth's sunlight all wrong. It fell too bright on eyes—desert-evolved or not—which were accustomed to the orange cast of a K1 star. Shadows cut sharp.
There were no shadows now. The sky was slate grey, snow grey. Like his thoughts.
He clutched the book—a real book of paper and cardboard backing—more tightly under his arm. The plastic in which he had wrapped it made a crinkling sound. His attention centered on a child swaddled in pink like a stuffed pillow; she waded knee-deep in drifts and squealed in delight, mittened hands threw up puffs to scatter down around her. She was coming dangerously close to a cord of wood stacked beside the house.
Her father set aside the snow shovel with which he had been shoveling the walkway, retrieved her and raised her high on one shoulder to carry her back with him. She was small. The watcher in the street knew she would be three years old with the next Earth month. Her father went back to shoveling. The child returned to waddling in his wake, pouncing on snow mounds and pulling them down, obliterating the path he had just made neat. He turned, saw what she had done and set down the shovel with a solid plunk. "Jenny! No!"
She just laughed, grinning up at him defiantly from the opening of her parka hood.
It was the child who saw the watcher first.
He had been observing for twenty-seven minutes. Having come this far, he now stood irresolute fifteen meters away in the middle of the street. Two words on the inside of a book cover had brought him:
To be dedicatee of a book was a singular honor. But for him to be dedicatee of a book by this particular author with whom he shared such a painful past was a bafflement. A puzzle. It demanded an answer. Maybe the author had known that. But why now? After eleven years, why bait the trap now? Not that he had responded immediately. The book under his arm had been in print six Terran months, seven days. A series of events in his own life had been necessary before he could bring himself to make this journey.
Now he stood fifteen meters from Jake Sisko, who had squatted down to speak to his daughter. He wondered for perhaps the hundredth time how to approach this remeeting.
The child solved the problem. Pointing directly at him over her father's shoulder, he heard her say clearly, "Somebody's watching us, Daddy!" And she waved at him, little mittened hand wobbling up and down rapidly. "Hi!"
Not knowing what else to do, he raised his own hand in return. At that moment, Jake twisted to look. Letting go of his daughter, he stood slowly—or perhaps Salene's mind just cast everything over the next few seconds in slow motion. Jake walked down the path toward the street, stopped an arm's length away as if not trusting himself to come within striking range. For a long moment, they stared.
Age had defined the lines of Jake's face, reminding Salene how brief ran the span of human years. Jake was a man, his height finally grown into, the roundness gone from his shoulders, his chest filled out. He was big, bigger than his father. He did not slouch where he stood any longer. Yet he was still beautiful: that rare purity of profile which carried no false feature, no blemish but the small freckle on his right eyelid. Salene had always thought that freckle saved him from insipidity.
Yet what shocked Salene more than any physical change in Jake, what nearly sent him reeling back, was the sudden pulsing sense of Jake's presence. The bond. It was still there.
Well, what did you expect?, he asked himself sarcastically.
He thought even Jake might have felt something because he frowned slightly and shook his head, then looked back up at Salene, opened his mouth, shut it.
The child picked that moment to interrupt. She had waddled down the path while the two of them had stood staring stupidly at one another; now she walked right up to Salene, tugged on his cloak. He glanced down into the little face, into eyes that muddy-green color which sometimes turned up in children of mixed parentage. She asked, "Who're you?"
"Jenny Gwen—let him go!"
He looked back at her father. Jake had come a few steps forward. "I will not have her for breakfast."
"I didn't think you would." Jake's tone ran cold with all the unspoken accusations of eleven years. "I just didn't want her to force any unwanted human feelings on you."
Such bitterness! Not undeserved. Salene met Jake's eyes for a moment, then squatted down to face Jake's daughter. "My name is Salene."
"Sa-lene," she repeated and smiled at him. She had her father's sweet smile and probably his fine bone structure, though under cheeks still plump with baby-fat, it was hard to tell. Her skin was Vulcan teak, a little darker than his. The hazel eyes were her most striking feature. He wondered what her mother looked like. Sarah Fernandez. It was only a name from the About the Author note in Jake's book: "Jake Sisko lives in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, Earth, with his wife, Sarah Fernandez, their daughter Jennifer Gwendolyn, three cats and one newt."
The wind blew his hair and the child noticed his ears, walked around his side to inspect them more closely, then reached up a mittened finger to touch the left one. Salene saw Jake tense. "They are supposed to be that way," he told her.
Though her hands had a child's awkwardness, she was very careful as she explored the ear, then moved around to touch his eyebrow. Like all children, the differences fascinated her. Her little face was pinched with perplexity. "I am a Vulcan," he said.
She repeated that, too. "Vul-can." Then she grinned, as if delighted by something. "Pointy ears!" And she broke into giggles.
"Jenny Gwen!" Jake snapped.
Salene raised a hand, shook his head. "It is all right. She means no insult by it."
"I like them!" she said as if agreeing, though he doubted her vocabulary included 'insult' yet. She looked up at her father, smiled. Jake sighed and let it go. Salene suspected the child had already learned that her smile could excuse a multitude of sins. She was utterly charming; it devastated him. Here was what he could never have given Jake Sisko.
"What are you doing here?" Jake asked him then.
Salene stood, pulled the book out from under his arm. The title showed clearly through the transparent plastic. ANSLEM. "This."
Jake glanced from book cover to Salene's face. "It's been out a while."
"Indeed. And to great critical acclaim—as it deserves. I understand that it was nominated for the Baytaw Prize? You finally discovered what to do with the characters."
"I had help. Somebody pointed me in the right direction eleven years ago."
Salene removed the book, opened it to the dedication page, read: "'In loving memory of my mother, Jennifer Martin Sisko; and to Salene, for a clear eye, tactful honesty, and no compromises.' I am...deeply honored, Jake." Closing the book, he looked up. "But this was undeserved by me. It was a long time ago. You have matured greatly as a writer, and this story has changed profoundly from the version I read. I do not believe I contributed much to it, in its final form. So—I must confess myself perplexed by the dedication."
Jake had listened quietly while his daughter wound round and round his legs, as if he were a living Maypole. The adults might have their conversation but she would be sure she was noticed. Now, Jake smiled bitterly—an expression new to his face since Salene had known him—and said, "It's a writer's prerogative to dedicate his book to who he wants."
"Agreed. But is it not equally the prerogative of the dedicatee to inquire as to the reasons?"
"You came a long way to ask why."
I had ghosts to face, Salene almost said, but closed his lips on it: a metaphor more suited to Jake than to him. Instead, he replied, "I did not think a letter would do."
"You thought a letter was good enough for goodbye."
Only thirty-three years of ingrained control saved Salene from wincing visibly. "That was...one of the more short-sighted acts of my life."
Before Jake could reply, the child piped up. "I'm cold! We go *in* now!"
Jake lifted her onto his hip, then turn back to Salene. "If you came sixteen lightyears to ask why, I guess I can give you coffee. Come on." Turning, he started up the walk. Salene followed, snow swirling around him.
The house smelled of pine from a tree in one corner. A tree in the house? Ah. He had forgotten the month: late December. Christmas had just passed in most of Western and parts of Eastern Earth.
Red and blue decorations enlivened a dark wood sitting-room. The place had a rustic air. A fire burned in an archaic cast-iron stove. Salene moved towards it, felt his extremities tingle as they revived. A pot of water sat steaming on top. "Why is there water on top of your stove?" he asked, turning. Jake's daughter had gone tearing off up the staircase while Jake stood in the kitchen, pouring real-brewed coffee into two cups on the breakfast bar. The kitchen was fully-appointed. Jake must still cook.
"The water humidifies the air. Otherwise it gets dry in here with the stove going."
"Where did you find such an antique?"
"I didn't. Sarah did. Antiques are her hobby, though she took most of the smaller ones with her."
Salene blinked. "Took them with her?"
Jake brought over the coffee, set it in front of Salene. "Take off your cloak. There are hooks on the wall by the door." Salene did so, hung it beside the tiny pink coat which belonged to the child.
He turned back then, let his eyes take in his surroundings with more care: a sofa, a chair with a cat sprawled in it, a pair of lamps, a bookshelf with real books beside the staircase, a half-full fishtank with algae all over the sides. The newt? Otherwise, the room was strangely bare. Christmas decorations, shoes, and scattered toys had initially hidden that fact. He saw a man's things; he saw a child's things. He did not see anything recognizably a woman's. "Where is your wife, Jake?"
A long pause. Jake wasn't looking at Salene. "We've separated."
At the base of his spine, Salene experienced a shivery burst that flashed weakness down his legs and spread out low in his abdomen. He did not have a name to put to the sensation. It kept him silent for ten breaths, then he asked, "How long?"
Salene sat down across from the man who had once been—and still was in his own heart—his dearest friend. "I am sorry."
Jake looked up. "Really?" His tone made the question sardonic, not curious.
The child's return interrupted any reply Jake might have made. She gallumped down the stairs, a large stuffed animal in her arms—some marine mammal. Salene was not well-versed in Earth's flora and fauna. Coming over to him, she pushed the nose of the animal right up against his face. "She kiss you!" The timing was bad; he twisted away almost violently.
"Jenny!" Jake said. "Come here!"
"Shut up, Salene." But Jake was looking at his daughter; she glared back, then reluctantly approached. He caught her between his knees, took the stuffed animal out of her hands and set it on the floor. She reached for it but he had scooted it well out of reach. "Jenny. Jenny Gwen, look at me. Do you have your listening ears on?" Giving up on the toy, she raised her face and made an odd popping sound with her mouth. "Use person talk, Jenny, not newt noises. Do you have your listening hears on?"
Dropping her chin, she said sullenly, "Yes."
"It's not considered polite to touch Vulcans. Mr. Salene has been very patient with you, but it's time now for you to stop. Why don't you go upstairs and play for a while? Daddy wants to have a grownup conversation, okay?"
"Jenny, go upstairs. I'm going to count to three. One...."
She did nothing.
She skipped out from between his knees, darted in to snatch the stuffed animal, then backed up a dozen steps, stopped, as if to see if he would make good his threat.
"Two and a half...."
"I go!" And she dashed up the stairs.
When she had disappeared, Salene said, "She lives with you?"
"For the time being. Sarah's on assignment to a new space station. That's what she does: station architecture."
"Then you met on DS9?"
"We met here in Pennsylvania. I was visiting my grandparents. They told me about a local professor who was interviewing people who'd grown up on space stations, for planning research. She wanted to make stations more kid-friendly." Jake shrugged. "I agreed to talk to her. Turned out, she'd grown up on one, too. We had some things in common. She asked me out and we started seeing each other. After a while, I asked her to marry me." Jake looked off. "It's not the stuff of exciting novels, I'm afraid."
Salene wanted to ask what had happened to Jake's marriage, but did not feel it his place. Eleven years ago he had given up all right to know about Jake's private life. He sipped his coffee instead and stared at the black iron stove.
Silence stretched. Finally, Jake shifted. "So. How about you? What've you been up to for eleven years?"
It was not sarcastic, or bitter. Just a question posed offhand—like one might ask at a casual meeting between acquaintances. Yet what he and Jake had been to one another.... Salene had come here prepared for anger, for abrupt dismissal, even for cold refusal on Jake's part to acknowledge him. But to be reduced to a mere acquaintance!
It was the perfect cruelty, of course. The perfect revenge. What better way to humiliate a Vulcan than to care less?
Standing, Salene walked away a few steps, moving like a man drunk or disoriented. Finally he looked back at Jake, whose face was nearly blank. He did not even have the good grace to look victorious, which made his victory unassailable.
"What have I been 'up to'? I have eaten out my heart over you. Does it please you to hear it?"
Jake blinked. Salene watched the full impact of his admission register. Blankness disappeared, the eyebrow twitched—almost Vulcan that. There was a pinched look about Jake's mouth. Then he bowed his head and stared hard at the carpet under his feet. "Damn you. You had to push it, didn't you?"
"If the other option was to be treated as if I did not matter—yes."
Jake stood, stalked over to face Salene. "You could have come six months ago. Why didn't you?"
Salene sidestepped that question to re-ask his own. "Why did you dedicate a book to me after eleven years?"
Jake threw up his hands, turned half away. "I don't know! But if you came now, why didn't you come before?" He turned his head to glare. "You want to be treated like you matter, but you don't treat me as if I matter to you!"
"Then why didn't you come?"
It was an accusation, not a question.
"I...did not want to be manipulated."
That shut Jake up. There were tears in his eyes; he had always been emotional. Once, Salene had prized that. "I needed you," Jake said finally.
"I am here." What other response could he have given?
Jake started to move forward, hesitated, faltered, cooled. He waved a hand and turned away again, all the way around. "It doesn't matter. It was a dumb thing to do, the dedication. I didn't have any business doing it; I was just confused. My marriage was falling apart. I don't know what I thought that dedication would accomplish."
The answer seemed obvious to Salene. "You did something you knew I would have to respond to, either to express gratitude or curiosity." He paused, added, "That was why I initially refused to come."
"So why did you, finally? You didn't have to; you made it clear once that you didn't want me around."
Salene paused, thought how to answer. He could sidestep the truth and preserve his pride, but had he wanted to preserve his pride, he would not have come here at all. "It was never a matter of not wanting. It was a matter of choosing between two things I wanted too much."
For a moment, Jake said nothing, clearly taken aback. Then his face shut. "I didn't think Vulcans ever wanted; that's a feeling."
Salene looked around himself, anywhere but at Jake. "I feel."
"You said that once, too. I was stupid enough to believe you."
"I did not lie!" It was a snap, no other description for it. Reining his temper, he walked back to the stove. It was hot, like this feeling in his chest. It made his skin tight, made his heart tight. "When I left you, I left my soul."
Behind him he heard clapping, slow and mocking, and spun around. "How poetic," Jake said.
To admit to emotion was bad enough. To admit to it and not be taken seriously— He was moving almost before he knew what he was doing. He grabbed Jake by the wrist, jerked him close...and had nothing to say. At the root of it, this wasn't about declarations. Jake had no reasons to believe him. So he leaned in the rest of the way and kissed him. It was brutal. Teeth bruised lips. He had Jake by the nape of the neck. Jake had both hands on his upper arms, to draw him close or shove him away. A wrestling match: each trying to dominate the other on grounds neither had expected but perhaps both had wanted too much. Salene could feel the bond pulsing in his own mind, the wish to link with Jake almost overwhelming—as overwhelming as this intense desire reawakened after long dormancy. They pushed against each other like a pair of phalanxes at the clash of shields.
Jake broke off abruptly, jerked his head around to the stairs. Salene remembered then, too: the child. She was not there. Jake let out a breath, let Salene go. "What in hell was that?" he muttered.
Salene stepped forward again, back into the circle of Jake's personal space—but he kept one eye on the stairs. "Which part? The anger or the desire?"
Jake set a hand on Salene's hip—very carefully, as if he thought Salene might break. "This is insane. It was eleven years ago. I'm not attracted to men. I have a daughter, and a wife, if we can work it out. You have a career, and a family that doesn't want to hear about me."
"All true, if not precisely accurate on the details. Only part of my family would not wish to hear about you."
"My elder brother."
"You said your family would disown you."
"I was young." And foolish. But he did not add that.
Jake backed up, raised his hands. "This is going too fast. What did you come here for? To disrupt my life again?"
"I told you—I wished an answer regarding the dedication."
"And you got one. My marriage was falling apart. I guess it reminded me of you!"
"You said you needed me."
"I did. Then."
Jake made a helpless gesture. "I don't know! I don't understand any of this! You just...drop back into my life and expect me to take you on faith."
"No, I do not." He wanted to touch Jake again, knew it would be unwise. "I did not intend what just occurred—but I cannot say no part of me had hoped for it."
"What did you think was going to happen if you came here?"
"Honestly? I thought you would not talk to me."
"Despite the dedication?"
"Yes. I simply felt compelled to see you again." He let a faint, bitter smile touch his lips. "The dedication provided an excuse."
"So now what?" Jake asked.
Salene shrugged by way of answer. He really had no idea. He had not thought to get this far. Jake picked up their cups, went back into the kitchen and poured more coffee. He did not look at Salene. "Do you want to stay for lunch? It's still snowing out there."
"Do you wish me to stay?"
"I wouldn't ask otherwise!"
"Then I will stay."
It was a strange afternoon. Not comfortable. After lunch, the child was put down for a nap. She went reluctantly, might not have gone at all had Salene not promised a song. She was fascinated by him. And he was fascinated by her, by the sheer fact of her. Jake's child. That she was charming and apparently clever for her age only added to the effect. When she was finally asleep, he came back downstairs. Jake sat in the near-empty dining room on the other side of the kitchen, staring out the front bay window at the snow coming down in the street. His feet were up on the sill and he had a steaming cup of coffee in his hands. There was a second chair for Salene. "I did not think you particularly cared for coffee," Salene said by way of greeting, took the chair.
"Started drinking it at the Pennington Academy in New Zealand, but I didn't actually get to like coffee till I lived in Rome a few years. They know how to make real coffee in Italy; they roast the beans, not burn them."
"What were you doing there?"
"Going to school."
"In Italy, not New Zealand?"
"I stayed at Pennington two years. I guess I learned something." He took a sip of coffee. "That's not fair. I did learn something, but I learned more outside classes than in them. I decided I'd do better with a degree in something else. If all you study is writing, you have nothing to write about. So I travelled for a few years—all Earth's important old cities left standing after the Third Word War. I went to Leningrad, Calcutta, Nairobi, Istanbul, Mexico City, Cairo, Athens, Barcelona, Venice, Casablanca. Quite a list, huh? And those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head." He grinned. "Finally settled in Rome. Took comparative literature there, with a year at Cambridge after. I think I lived in their library—a real one, with real books. It's wonderfully Gothic. Nog thought I was nuts."
"You are still friends with the Ferengi?"
"Nog didn't walk out on me."
Salene rose, stalked away through the kitchen. Behind him, he heard Jake rise also. "Don't leave. I'm sorry."
He stopped but remained turned away towards the sitting room with its stove and denuded Christmas tree. "There is nothing for which you need apologize. You are correct. Nog did not betray his friendship with you. I did."
"I never understood why. I read the note you left, but couldn't you just have told me those things? Did you really think I'd be so selfish I wouldn't let you set whatever limits you needed to?" A hesitation. "I'd have taken you on any grounds you named. You were my friend first."
"You still do not understand, do you? It was never you I did not trust! It was myself." He turned a little to stare at a neat line of canisters on the cabinet until his eyes went out of focus. "You were the unwitting victim of my own weaknesses. That is why I left. I would not victimize you further."
"Couldn't you let me decide for myself? If you'd talked to me—"
"I'd never have been able to leave you."
"That was the idea, dammit!" Frustrated, Jake threw his coffee cup. It crashed against the wall, the last dregs of coffee streaking brown on white. Being plastic, the cup itself did not break but the sound startled them both.
"You're going to wake your daughter."
"No, I won't. A Klingon bird of prey could go screaming through her room at warp nine and it wouldn't wake her." Jake came into the kitchen to grab a rag, dampen it and go back out to wipe up the coffee. Salene followed, picking up the cup where it had bounced away against a baseboard. Jake had finished cleaning up but remained squatting, staring at the wall. "If you had to leave then to 'protect' me, why show up again now? Do you think it's going to hurt less when you leave this time?"
Salene frowned down at the blue plastic of the cup. "Do you wish me to leave?"
"That wasn't what I asked."
"No, but it is what I asked." He walked over to stand next to Jake.
Jake did not look up at him. "You got what you came for—a reason for the dedication."
Jake finally turned up his head. "What are you trying to say?"
Squatting down as well, Salene frowned at the wood floor between his knees. "If you wish me to stay, I will. If you wish me to leave, I will. I did not come intending to cause you pain. I came because I could no longer stay away. My own weaknesses again. But I will not victimize you twice."
"Why don't you show me the respect of letting me decide this time when I'm a victim?"
That made Salene glance up. There was anger in Jake's face, and something else. "I want you to stay," Jake said. "But only if I can trust that you won't disappear on me again. If you can't give me your word, then yeah, I want you to go, and not come back."
"I can give you my word," Salene said solemnly.