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Cultivation

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After several years of following the Earth seasons and the cycle of planting, growth, harvest, and winemaking, Zhaban had begun to feel settled in a way that he had never dared to on Yuyat, a way he had not felt since his childhood. It did not make sense. The sun was the wrong color, the air sometimes too dry and sometimes too hot, and the soil a strange scent. The first year, it was that smell of the soil that was the hardest to adjust to. He had no words to describe how different the smell was from his uncle’s vineyards or the fields of Yuyat. He realized, one morning as he walked the rows with the Admiral, that he couldn’t recall the smell of Romulan soil at all anymore.

“Tie, please,” Picard said, holding out a hand as he inspected the palissage. Zhaban was staring down at the dirt, and didn’t hear him clear his throat. “Zhaban?”

“Pardon? Oh. Apologies, Admiral.” He handed over a tie and leaned forward, lifting a vine and holding it so Picard could tie it to the frame.

“You’re distracted.” Picard harumphed as he fastened the tie off and stepped back.

“Just a momentary thought,” Zhaban said, matching his pace as they resumed walking. “About terroirs.”

“Your accent is improving,” Picard said, and paused to scrutinize another vine, leaving it as it was after a moment of contemplation. “What was your thought?” They reached the end of the row, and he stopped to look at Zhabon from beneath the brim of his hat.

“I cannot remember how the dirt smelled,” Zhabon admitted, and turned to the next row. “It does not matter, really -”

“No, it does,” Picard interrupted, softly. “I can finish, if you’d like to join Laris. There’s only a few more rows to inspect.”

“She would scold me for leaving you to finish alone,” Zhaban countered, and began walking. “To be clear: the smell of Earth soil is not unpleasant. I just realized I can’t remember the others now.”

Picard walked the row with him in silence, holding up a vine as Zhaban tied it to the frame. “I once had an experience on the Enterprise,” he said, as they turned onto the next row. He didn’t talk about his old ships very often, only when old crew came to visit him, so Zhaban turned his full attention to Picard. “We encountered a probe which was emitting a nucleonic beam. It was an archive of sorts, and it brought me into a simulation of a world known to its inhabitants as Kataan.” He sighed, looking out over the vines, but he seemed to be seeing something else for a moment. “The Kataani primary went nova a millennium ago, but the probe was launched to preserve their culture and knowledge, and as we were the first ship it found, and I the first person to speak to it, all of those memories were given to me.” He glanced at Zhaban. “That is where I learned to play the flute.”

“The one in your study?” Laris had asked once, and Picard had only said he’d learned it long ago. They both had accepted that as the brush-off it was, but whenever the Admiral locked himself in his office and played sad melodies on it, Zhaban would find Laris standing in the corridor, listening to the music with a far-off look on her face. She had played the lute as a child; when Zhaban had met her she had calluses on her fingertips, but they were long gone. He realized Picard was speaking and pulled his attention from long-ago memories.

“Yes. That is a Kataani flute. It was in the probe, along with all the data they had complied to send. But the simulation only worked once, for me. I had a wife and children in that life, a long career. And now, I am the only person in the universe who remembers how the light felt at sunrise.” He crouched, running his fingers over the soil. “Kataan’s soil was sterilized by the nova long before the star actually flashed over. They all died after they launched the probe. I think about them often as I walk through the vineyard, because no one else can.”

Zhaban watched him as he brushed the dirt from his fingers before smoothly standing again. “Do you remember how the Kataani soil smelled, then?”

Picard’s lip curled. “I remember thinking it reminded me of home, before its star destroyed it. But I couldn’t describe the smell to you, any more than you could describe Romulan soil to me. I only know that I did know it, once.” He looked over the vineyard again. “Sometimes I’m not so sure that’s what they intended.”

“You can play their music,” Zhaban pointed out. “Perhaps that’s of more use than a memory of a scent.”

Picard’s eyes, when they turned back to him, were knowing. “Are the useful memories the only ones worth keeping?”

“Do we keep the memories we do not use?” Zhaban retorted, and it was his turn to sigh, looking out over the vineyard. “What was your wife’s name?”

“Eline,” Picard said, after a long moment. “I became a man called Kamin. We had a daughter we named Meribor and a son we named Batai after my dear friend.” He rested a hand on the vine frame, leaning into it. “And Meribor’s son was named Kamie. He never knew adulthood.”

Zhaban was silent for a moment. “I had cousins that I knew as a child. And I just realized I cannot recall their names.”

“But you remember them?” Picard gave the frame a little shake and stood back upright.

“I do. We used to play in the fields.” Zhaban’s smile felt almost like a grimace. “A useless memory.”

“But you keep it,” Picard concluded. “What is useful is different for everyone, perhaps. Pass me a tie.”

Zhaban did, and reached down to hold the vine up while the Admiral fastened it to the frame. They finished their work in companionable silence, and gathered their tools to begin the long walk back to the house. “I would like to buy an instrument.”

Picard turned his head, stride unhurried. “For yourself?”

“No. For Laris.” Zhaban kept his gaze on the ground, watching for stray vines and uneven ground. “She played a type of Romulan lute as a child. Earth has similar instruments, I believe?”

“Hmmm.” Picard watched him for another moment. “I can see if there are any luthiers in Paris or London who have the experience to create the correct design for her. Is this to be a surprise?”

Zhaban was not good at surprises, not with Laris who knew his every tell, and he said so. Picard just laughed at him. “Fine. We will discuss with her over dinner. It would be nice to have another musician in the house.”

“Don’t look at me,” Zhaban said quickly. “I have no sense of tone. I will listen.”

“It’s nice to have an audience,” Picard said mildly, and opened the door to the equipment shed. Zhaban took a deep breath as he stepped inside, and let the smell of earth and growing things fill his lungs.