“Everyone make it all right? Transporters didn't leave anything behind? Add anything unexpected?” Jim joked as the second group arrived by transporter. Someone down here liked them because, despite the reports that no one was allowed to transport into the city, the coordinates the Enterprise had been sent put the invitees practically on the steps of the great hall where the investiture ceremony was in progress.
“Transport to and from Delgasian IV has been show safe for fifty point three years,” Spock said, but Jim could tell it was the half-Vulcan's way of teasing him.
A few of the others, the senior officers who'd stuck with the Enterprise after the battle with the Narada cracked a smile over Spock's new sense of humor. Uhura, unfortunately but not unexpectedly, did not. She had been perfectly professional on duty but was still pointedly snubbing the captain and his first officer while off duty. Jim hoped they could find a way to help her get over it before he lost the best communications officer in the fleet.
“Enough flirting, you two,” Bones snapped, inciting chuckles. “We have business to attend to.”
“Excellent point, Doc,” Jim chirped. They had made good time and should be able to see the last few hours of the ceremony, especially since they had been allowed to shave the two hours of travel from the usual transporter point to the great hall. With a bounce in his step, he led his crew to the intricately carved, two story doors that formed the entrance of the Delgasian ceremonial hall.
The six native guards stopped them at the door. They were humanoid with dark, craggy skin and almost canine features. Each carried a heavy spear and wore the local equivalent of plate mail. “By what authority do you approach this sacred place?” one guard intoned as they all pointed their spears at the Enterprise crew.
“We come at the request of your Dergin,” Jim replied. His heart beat hard in his chest. He was pretty sure they'd let him in, but it was a tricky matter in Delgasian tradition. Technically, he had to make his arguments for being late to the Dergin, but the Dergin wasn't quite in control yet.
“You are late,” another guard snapped.
“For the sake of my desh't'en, it could not be helped,” Jim replied politely. Somehow that was enough. The guards stepped back and the doors opened.
Inside was a hall reminiscent of the old cathedrals of Earth, except instead of angels and saints the carvings and windows showed warriors and old battles. The nave was full of natives as well as representatives of dozens of cultures. At the far end of the open space was someone in robes declaiming the duties of the Dergin.
Spock, as the tallest of their party, led the way to the other Federation representatives. There was space for their entire party near the front of the nave, to Jim's relief. That position was one of respect towards the Federation, but it would not have been unreasonable for the Delgasians to reassess the seating after the Enterprise didn't show up.
This part of the ceremony was fairly dull, the fun stuff like ritual combat having taken place days earlier, so Jim just listened with half an ear while he looked around. The guards that stood between the ritual area and the observers had the mastered a blank expression and stiff posture reminiscent of pictures of the guards around Buckingham Palace back in the days of the British monarchy. All except the one right in front of Jim, who was looking directly at the captain instead of off into space. Jim wasn't sure just what he'd done to deserve the attention, but he did his best to ignore it for now.
Beyond the guards was the Delgasian declaiming the Dergin's duties. His robes proclaimed him to be … eh, Jim didn't remember the correct title, but it translated to some kind of warrior priest. Behind him was the Dergin, or rather the being who was almost the Dergin, would be in another one point seven three hours if everything continued on schedule.
Damn, Spock really was rubbing off on him.
Jim studied the man who would lead a planet and found himself under matching scrutiny. There was an intriguing degree of curiosity and challenge in those eyes, and Jim was never one to step down from a challenge. None of the reports had said anything about Delgasian's being telepathic, so Jim met the future Dergin's eyes and refused to back down. The Dergin did the same.
This stalemate might have lasted the rest of the day if not for the last phase of the ceremony. A real bruiser of a Delsgasian stepped forward holding a weapon that reminded Jim of an old European halibard, a long staff and a big blade on the end. The Delgasian swept the weapon out to one side, then swung hard for the Dergin's neck.
Jim only caught the motion from the corner of his eyes as he refused to look away first. And he won. The Dergin looked away first, but only once the blade had stopped after just creasing his neck. Red blood began to trickle down his robes as he turned slightly to look at his attacker, and smiled.
In Delgasian society, warriors held the highest rank, and only the strongest and most fearless could lead, according to tradition. In the past, if a potential Dergin had flinched at this point in the ceremony, the attacking Delgasian was supposed to continue the swing and take the failure's head off. Jim wasn't positive they'd still do that today, but it seemed he wouldn't have to find out today. The Dergin had held his ground and earned his rank.
A medic of some kind came out as the blade was pulled back, staunching the wound and slathering it with some kind of black paste. The paste was designed to prevent infection but would leave a scar, the mark of a Dergin. A faint tightening of this Dergin's features was the only sign of how much the procedure stung.
And that was it. The ceremony was over. Now the Dergin would meet with the representatives in the courtyard outside the great hall, and the true political maneuvering would begin.
Jim filed out with the rest of the observers, wondering just when he'd be called up to meet the Dergin. No offworlder had ever been able to figure out how the order was chosen, though some pretty good correlations had been made between the order and how much time a person spent with the Dergin at the receptions after each day's ceremonies over the previous days. Maybe. The Delgasians weren't telling. But since Jim hadn't even been here the previous days, chances were he and his crew were at the bottom of the list.
Which meant he was fair game when Captains Avery and Cho cornered him just outside the great hall doors.
“What the hell happened, Kirk?” Avery snapped.
“We've been playing a pretty dance all these days,” Cho added. “You were the one the Delgasians requested. We've been stuck making excuses for your tardiness.”
“Didn't Starfleet get in touch?” Jim asked. “We had a medical emergency. The Delgasians should have been informed.”
Avery looked at Cho. “Might explain the pointedness of a few questions,” he said.
“Maybe,” Cho conceded. “But if they were told, they never told us, and Starfleet sure didn't.”
“I wish I could help,” Jim said in a conciliatory tone. “I really do. But I did what I had to do.”
“Did what you had to do?” Cho snapped. “What you had to do was be here, proving what great warriors the Federation has. The only reason Starfleet gave you a ship was pressure from the Federation council.”
Jim hid a wince. He'd heard that rumor before, and it was probably partly true. He was way too young and inexperienced to have been given a ship, especially that ship. But he had hoped that as he showed just what he and his crew could do, the rumor would go away.
Jim wanted to snap back at them, to throw a punch, but he resisted. He'd like to think he resisted because he was becoming more mature than that, but it was really because he could sense Spock approaching and he knew how disappointed his first officer would be if he started a fight already. So he glared, and a moment later Spock and a Delgasian guard appeared at his shoulder.
“The Dergin wishes to see you, Captain,” Spock said.
Jim didn't hide his surprise but quickly covered it. “Very well, Mr. Spock,” Jim said. He nodded to the other captains. “Gentlemen ...”
Spock led the way to the far side of the courtyard where the Dergin held court. Jim was glad to see his crew standing just beyond the guards that cordoned off the greeting area.
“Us netting a spot so high up the food chain should give the cultural experts a headache,” Jim joked.
“I am not certain I am correctly interpreting your colloquialism, but I believe that is an accurate assessment. Based on previous observation, as the last to arrive we should not be the first summoned to greet the new Dergin,” Spock replied.
Jim's brow furrowed and his head jerked in surprise. “First?” he squeaked.
“Indeed,” Spock replied, while the others nodded.
“Huh,” Jim muttered, scratching the side of his head. “Big headache then … well, might as well get it over with.” Jim stepped forward through the gap between two guards, Spock at his left shoulder, Bones at his right, and the rest of the crew in formation behind them.
Stopping approximately five steps from the Dergin, at a mark in the stone of the courtyard, Jim stopped, pressed his left palm to the right side of his chest, and bowed slightly. Too deep a bow implied Jim was a subordinate, but too shallow implied he was superior. He and Spock had spent several hours arguing over the right angle to hit.
The Dergin must have approved because he looked pleased when Jim straightened, at least for a moment. His face quickly stiffened, and he asked, “You are Captain of the Enterprise?”
“Captain James T. Kirk,” Jim said formally.
“So tell me, Captain, why did you choose to avoid most of our ceremonies, you who we so specifically invited?”
“Forgive us, honored Dergin,” Jim said. “It was no choice but rather what had to be done. My desh't'en was at risk. Had we not journeyed to his people immediately, he would have died.” He ignored the gasp from Uhura. He expected she'd be the only one to understand what Jim was implying.
The Dergin's eye ridge rose in an almost human expression of disbelief. “For two generations, Federation negotiators have been telling us that humans have no equivalent relationship to our desh't'en.”
“Humans do not,” Jim agreed, “but Vulcans do.” He held out his left hand, first two fingers extended and was hit with the buzz of energy he still wasn't used to when Spock's fingers crossed his. “May I present my first officer, Lieutenant Commander Spock?”
“The one who traveled aboard the Narada with you?” the Dergin asked eagerly.
“I could not have defeated Nero without him,” Jim said fondly. Bones coughed, probably covering a chuckle.
“And you claim he is your desh't'en?”
“As I understand, your desh't'en is the warrior who fights by your side, the one closer than blood, with whom you share your whole life, from battle to procreation,” Jim said.
“A simplistic interpretation, but you do show a measure of understanding,” the Dergin said. “But if your people have this understanding, why have your negotiators insisted there is no similar relationship in Federation races?”
“For Vulcans, the concept of t'hy'la is very private and rarely discussed with outsiders,” Spock replied. Jim really hoped that the Dergin believed them, or else Spock speaking was going to get them into trouble. Only as desh't'en to Jim did Spock have the rank to speak. “However, as Vulcans are no longer a warrior race it is possible that those who visited your planet may have known and not made the connection.”
“Explain,” the Dergin commanded.
“Vulcans stepped away from the way of the warrior millennia ago, choosing the path of logic over emotion. It saved our race from destroying ourselves, but many of our traditions and sacred concepts descend from those older days. T'hy'la is now defined as one closer than family, a sibling of mind and soul, closer than a lover though lover they may be. In those days where warriors ruled, t'hy'la was also the warrior who you trusted at your back and with whom you shared all aspects of your life.”
“By which definition do you claim Captain Kirk as your t'hy'la?” the Dergin asked, mangling the pronunciation of the Vulcan word, but not beyond comprehension.
“Both,” Spock replied simply, turning to look at Jim.
“We have guarded each other in battle, and there is none I trust more at my back,” Jim said, catching Spock's eye and smiling slightly. “He is my friend, my lover, my husband. In Federation Standard there is no word to truly describe our relationship.”
Whatever the Dergin was looking for, apparently he saw it, or heard it. “Desh't'en you are. You will remain until the end of the week so we can prepare a proper ceremony,” he said, looking pleased. “Your Federation will permit this as it will improve the ties between my people and your Federation. Perhaps I will not even listen to the Klingon representatives.”
Jim didn't let his jaw hit the floor, really, though he had a feeling a few of the jaws behind him were hanging loose. “We would be honored.”
“Good,” the Dergin said loudly, slapping Jim on the shoulder. Delgasians were noticeably stronger than humans, so Jim would have fallen over if Spock had not caught him. “Now, introduce me to your fellow warriors. I am most interested to meet the heroes of the battle over Earth.”
Spock had believed that his t'hy'la had correctly interpreted the Delgasian society when he said they would forgive the delay in arrival because it was to save Spock's life. He had not expected, however, that they would be as welcomed as they were. The Dergin gave Jim and Spock permission to call him by his given name, though it was unpronounceable to humans, and insisted they remain with him while he greeted the representatives.
The surprise and disbelief on the faces of the other Starfleet captains was almost enough to elicit the emotion of pleasure on the part of Spock. The anger of the Klingons was even more appealing. It would appear that the Federation had won this battle. For now.
After the last delegate had been greeted, the Dergin invited the Enterprise crew to a private dinner. “After all, we must plan your bonding ceremony,” he said.
“We do not require anything complex,” Spock informed him. “Our bond is recognized by the Vulcan elders on Shi'masu as well as Starfleet.”
“Ah, but if you do not have a proper ceremony how will you attract females to carry on your bloodlines?” the Dergin asked. “We cannot permit the bloodlines of such fine warriors to end. The Federation needs such as you.”
They had collected several members of the crew. Spock could not miss the pained look in Nyota's eyes, and knew there was nothing he could do about this but give her time. In contrast, Bones broke into a coughing laugh.
“God, just what we need, a whole passel of mini Kirks,” Bones muttered to Scotty.
“Actually, Spock's family has already helped us make some arrangements,” Jim replied, doing his best to ignore Bone's loud exclamation of, “What?”
Jim had been correct, the doctor's reaction was most fascinating.