She was beautiful, he noted.

His mouth almost twitched.

So very beautiful. Even when she was shockingly filthy and literally on the edge of being harried, if her control didn't keep careful watch over a Romulan's temper.

He leaned against the estate’s cool stone, being absolutely careful not to make even the smallest of sounds, knowing full well her sharp hearing would catch him instantly.

And draft him.

The small anteroom looked like some horrific combination of mixing an explosive device and a natural disaster. Mud—the irony of it on Vulcan did make his mouth move—was plastered knee high along all the walls. Its fascinatingly scribbled chaotic application bore testament to the developing creativity of the tiny talons that had ‘painted’ with it. Great piles of it were congealing in ‘travel paths’ all about the tiles. Sinuous streaks marked delicate tail tracks, and bizarre hollows inside deeper mounds noted particularly pleasing wallows where a wriggling body had worked its way happily almost to the cool flooring itself. A great shallow bath -- with a tub's breadth and a pan's height -- filled most of the remainder of the small room’s space. An undulating, writhing roll of mud within it showed the source of the mess. And the source of the barely directed chaos.

Rrelthiz’s hatchlings.

Sent to her friend to learn diversities in culture even while having their own differences respected.

They were, he noted with vast amusement, somehow even more active than Saavik had been as a child. Although, truth be told, Spock had not known Saavik at this age.

Six fragile and utterly excited whipping tails frothed and flung more mud everywhere as tiny sinuous bodies dove and rolled and clambered seven-fingered over each other within the pan. Coated slickly in protective mire, their black bodies and colored stripes were almost camouflaged entirely. A useful fact not lost on them as they repeatedly attempted ingenious ‘escapes’, their merrily glittering liquid eyes, piping screeching hisses, and wildly flinging tails showing how utterly humorous they found this ‘game’ with Saavik.

Saavik: her normally pristine tunic and pants were slathered with the damp clinging mud. Had she simply joined the writhing bodies in the pan, he was absolutely certain she could not have possibly gotten more mired. Her bare feet, her fine fingered hands and fair skinned arms below the rolled tangle of her sleeves, and even the delicate skin of her face were crisscrossed with thin green lines. Bloodied scratches where sharp talons had unintentionally scored her during their owners’ antics. Although with the thick smears of muck everywhere, most of the bleeding had stopped quickly. Her dark chestnut hair was coming unbound, wet mud-thick tangles clinging to her face and neck, giving her a wild look made all the more intense by the almost predatory way she crouched by the pan. Her cheeks were flushed with exertion as she stubbornly fought the losing battle of trying to keep all six tiny bodies in careful sight and in the bath. A pail of warm water stayed near one knee to keep the mud as safely soothing liquid for the fragile black skins.

Only someone with experience in the worst tasks in field study would not have been shocked. Which was why Saavik, who was experienced, had picked the anteroom, containing the mud bath from the rest of the house.

One of the more inventive ones, Bbhes, if what Spock could see of his identifying stripes was sufficient for recognition, coiled and launched himself for the outside. He actually caught the edge of the pan, but his talons skittered with insufficient purchase and he flipped dangerously fast out of control over the side. Spock’s eyes widened. As active as the Carreon’s offspring were at this stage, they were still horrifically delicate.

Saavik’s hand shot out.

Bbhes wriggled with the shrieking hiss that amounted to Carreon giggles, and snortled his tiny muzzle along her skin. His tail instantly wrapped around her fingers as his tiny talons clutched into her for hold. Fresh drops of emerald welled up as Saavik fixed the infant with a stern look.

“Your mother will be most displeased if you harm yourself.”

That got the rest of the brood shrieking in their version of outrageous laughter. The desert home took on the sounds of a rain forest to go along with the earthy smells.

Bbhes stretched his lithe neck out to its fullest length to nibble happily on her nose. “Sssafe! Sssafe witths Sssaavik!”

A mud streaked eyebrow rose. “Indeed?”

“Yesss! Sssaavik keep sssafe from--” He flung seven fingered talons wide apart to take in the entire world, nearly unseating himself and forcing Saavik to make a second snatch to keep him. “—evverytthsing!”

That got her other coated eyebrow up. “I . . . see.”

All six of the little brood nodded wildly in confirmation of the unassailable fact, tails sending mud flying in all directions.

“Mmmotthher sssays!” they chorused.

Spock could tell from Saavik’s face that an impending discussion with Rrelthiz was coming. Rrelthiz would bob her amphibious head rapidly, her tail swirling in placating sweeps. Then she would take Saavik’s hand in her seven taloned hands and look up at her with those huge liquid merry eyes. She would ask in amused sibilant tones what Saavik, when she had so hero worshipped Spock, had thought of his abilities.

Apparently, the same line of thought occurred to Saavik, for her face softened, easing some of the tension out of her body in the process. And she sighed.

That got all six little necks straight up in query. Instantly curious eyes caught the carefully filtered light from above as they tilted their heads back and forth.

“Wwhhat tthhiss?” demanded Bbhes. He drew out a long soft hiss in almost perfect mimcry of her sigh and stretched his muzzle out as far as he could reach to stare up into her eyes.

All the children piled up against the side of the bath nearest Saavik, instantly interested. Their sharp talons clutched each other and the edge of the pan as their tails curled.

“Wwhhat tthhiss? Wwhhat tthhiss?” they demanded, too, almost chorusing their repetition of her sound. They sounded like a pack of panting fireplace bellows, especially with the visual of six little throat sacs waffling.

Carreons were extremely fascinated by new sounds, Spock recalled with wry humor.

“It is . . . difficult to explain,” Saavik hedged.

Six pairs of black eyes abruptly lit.

“A sssttorry?” they shrieked in delight.

The next moment Saavik had to lunge to steady the pan as a sentient mud wave scrabbled up over the side and into her lap. She grimaced ever so slightly as tiny talons clung and climbed and delicate tails wrapped tightly around everything for balance. When they were safely secure, she very, very slowly and smoothly settled herself against a muck plastered wall.

“In human culture, it is called a ‘sigh’. On Vulcan, the word is jItpa.” It amused Spock to absolutely no end to see her so bedraggled and yet falling instantly into her own version of what Bones had so irreverently once called Spock's ‘lecture mode’. She clasped her hands loosely in front of her in unconscious echo of him and a small muddy body promptly settled on top of folded fingers. All over her, muzzled heads laid comfortably against her and liquid eyes watched unblinkingly with the single-minded attention of the very young. “It is a release of breath which, when varied in sound or duration, changes meaning to give a variety of expressions. I first learned it from Ambassador Spock.”

His eyebrow instantly rose in curiosity.

The Carreons chattered in sudden excitement, sensing the beginning of their story.

“When I was young--”

“New hhattchhed?” hissed Ssaalz in eager query. Spock recognized, with some partiality, the youngest and most curious of Rrelthiz’s brood. And the one named for friendship’s Blooded mark - a relationship bound not just by choice, but through one saving the other's life or honor.

In Rrelthiz's case, both her life and honor had been saved by Saavik.

His wife stroked tiny Ssaalz fondly. “Approximately ten years after being newly hatched.”

Then she had to pause and give stroking to all the others to soothe the jealous squeaking and ferocious sibling tail lashings for competing attention. Once everyone was happily wortling in their throat sacs again, she continued.

“Ambassador Spock had been trying in vain to encourage me to read--”

Six pairs of eyes went positively huge in disbelief.

Spock’s amusement grew. Their mother had told them of Vulcans' voracious reading habits.

Saavik colored. “I preferred to be physically active.”

Ssaalz tilted her head curiously. “Play?”

“Explore.”

Sounds of understanding spread through the brood.

 “And I was having . . . difficulty . . . reading.”

“But—Vvulcan!” protested Bbhes.

Spock could see Saavik visibly trying to avoid mentioning any number of sensitive subjects.

It was tiny Ssaalz who saved her. The smallest of the hatchlings mournfully stroked Saavik’s finger with her little talons. “Yyou ssmalll, ssame me. Hhhard keep up. Allwaysss behhind.”

Saavik looked down at her name’s memory with something deep that needed no words. “Yes.”

The story had to be paused again as the hatchlings crawled all over Saavik and Ssaalz, giving soft comforting hisses and gentle, encouraging muzzle rubbing.

Tiny Ssaalz’s tail curled in a return of happiness and Saavik’s face had eased again.

“Ambassador Spock believed that I should not give up--” she fondly touched Ssaalz’s head again, “—so he searched to find something that would capture my interest. Enough to make me hold still long enough to read it.” Her eyes glinted in memory. “Unfortunately for him, he chose the human tale Treasure Island.”

He had been fortunate not to give her the Vulcan tale, Falor's Journey, or she might have disappeared in Falor's footsteps for five years.

The Carreons wriggled in excitement.

“Sssay!” they demanded.

Spock winced, remembering the near decade of life he had lost, and had a sudden flash of foreboding.

It was well into the late night when Spock let Rrelthiz past the House outer wall. The stars shown almost surreally bright against the deep velvet of the dark. Vulcan’s desert heat and fiery sun’s wake had long since past, and the night’s wind brought a cool moisture mingled with the spice of its smell.

Rrelthiz bowed deeply to Spock, her graceful tail swinging in her pleasure to see him. “Spock! You have come home!”

He returned her bow, his grey robes sweeping the long worn stone of the interior walkway. “My duties ended early.” His eyes caught sight of the pouch she wore slung down over her lithe chest. “Soon your children will be too large for you to carry.”

“It is so!” Her great liquid eyes grew lovingly sorrowful and she sighed.

Spock's eyebrow jerked up of its own accord.

Rrelthiz tilted her head in confusion. “What troubles you?” Then sudden alarm made her tail stiffen. “Saavik--”

Spock shook his head, not quite knowing where to begin. “Saavik told your hatchlings a story.”

Rrelthiz looked very confused now. “What harm--?”

Spock resisted the urge to brace himself with a deep breath. Rrelthiz began to worry her seven fingered talons together. “Spock . . . .”

“Are you . . . versed in Terran literature?”

The Carreon skittered back and forth. “Some. Why--”

“Do you know Treasure Island?”

That stopped the Carreon completely. “Saavik gave me this . . . . Spock,” she said sternly, “tell now.”

He cleared his throat. “She was explaining what a ‘sigh’ was--” He could see himself in her liquid eyes “And the hatchlings . . . . They are most . . . curious.”

She didn’t move.

“So Saavik . . . . Ssaalz . . . you named her most aptly. When she heard the story . . . she responded the in.... ah, same way Saavik did when she was a child.”

Now Rrelthiz looked like she might faint.

“After Saavik had washed and oiled the hatchlings, settled them in for a nest nap, Ssaalz decided she was going to reenact. If you recall, the subject matter of the story that provoked the initial, ah, event--”

Rrelthiz’ hissing gasp was very loud in the night air.

“She decided she was going to go treasure hunting.”

 

Rrelthiz’s black eyes dulled in horror.

“Apparently, Carreon hatchlings are extremely efficient diggers.”

“Spock,” managed Rrelthiz slowly, her talons glinting in the starlight, “what has happened to my hatchling?”

“She waited until her siblings were sleeping and used the House’s sehlat exit to go outside the estate proper.”

The Carreon almost did faint now.

“However, Saavik had previously engaged the lock on the main gate as a precaution, so Ssaalz was routed to my mother’s garden.”

Rrelthiz’s muzzle wrinkled in sheer relief. She gave Spock a dark look. “Your mother’s garden is well shielded from the heat of your world. You have worried me over nothing!” Then her tail stiffened in alarm. “You said she dug--Oh, the roses!” She wrung her talons. “She did not harm your mother’s roses?”

Spock shook his head. “She did not dig near the roses.”

Relief made the Carreon’s tail droop.

Spock cleared his throat. “She dug near the outer wall.”

Confused, Rrelthiz cocked her head. “I do not understand why--”

“And, ah, she went under it.”

Rrelthiz gave a hissing shriek and bolted in a streak of black for the garden.

But Spock’s commanding shout brought her skittering to a halt.

“Saavik watched her do it.”

Rrelthiz’s jaw dropped. “She . . . she watched?!”

Spock met her eyes, his chin lifted reprovingly.

Rrelthiz’s body eased. Her head lowered. “Yes.” When her head lifted, her eyes were soft. “Saavik would not let harm come to my hatchlings.”

Spock’s shoulders relaxed at last. “She has been . . . greatly concerned you would be . . . displeased. I assure you; she did not let young Ssaalz come to any harm.” His mouth moved. “Ssaalz, like her namesake, appeared to require an unmitigated self-actualized success.” His eyebrow lifted. “Saavik was prepared to hide a treasure for her to find. However, in all fascination, Ssaalz found a shard from my mother’s antique Limoges china in her digging beyond the outer wall. Father broke one of her cups during . . . .” He had wondered at some point what had caused his very controlled father to break delicate china, but he would not admit -- even to his own conscious -- that it was most likely their first Time of Mating. “--during some provocation. Gold edged with pink roses and green twisting leaves. It has been buried, many years now.” His eyebrow lifted. “You will no doubt be told the grand adventure in some detail.” His eyebrow twitched. “Repeatedly. Ssaalz made a most impressive sight to her siblings, so proudly clutching her treasure on Saavik’s shoulder. Her tail has not touched the tile since.”

Rrelthiz gave an abrupt hissing laugh. “Now I will be pulling them out of the ground until they are seeking their own mates!”

Spock eyed the main doors of the House. “You will have to chisel them loose here first, I fear.”

“They are most fond of Friend Saavik.”

“Yes,” he nodded, then looked back at the Carreon with open amusement in his dark eyes. “However, I was being most literal.”

Rrelthiz winced. “Oh, poor Saavik! Vulcans and Carreon mud play do not balance well. I will apologize.”

Spock shook his head, his eyes sly as he remembered Saavik’s earlier image. “There is no need, Rrelthiz. In spite of all the, ah, spiritedness of a Carreon brood, Saavik greatly misses them when they leave.”

“How do you know this, Spock?”

The irony was not missed on him. “She sighs.”

Confused, the Carreon followed him up into the House.

And Spock found himself thinking again of her harried expression beneath smears of mud that tangled her dark hair.

And then the sheer triumph on tiny Ssaalz’ muzzled face as she clutched her treasure.

His wife was beautiful, he noted again. Most beautiful, indeed.