WONDERS OF THE HOUSE PRESBA

Book 4: Reflections

Part 1

by

Katrina and Llachlan

Contact: the authors can be reached at bearblue1@yahoo.com or llachness@gmail.com

Series: Wonders of the House Presba
Book 1: Modifications
Book 2: Transitions
Book 3: Encounters
Book 4: Reflections Part 1 | Part 2
Book 5: Diffractions
Book 6: Prisms

Appendix

TV Series: Voyager (with DS9 and ST:TNG Crossover)

Summary:In an infinite number of Universes, it is possible to get lost. And found.

Code: Slash Multiple. F/F/F... M/M. Alt/Het (7/J, T/J, 7/T etc.)

Rating: NC-17 (alternative situations).

Dialog Key: Double quotes and italics denotes Presban fingertalk, or, of course, communication over the commlink. Double angle brackets, 〈〈Words here.〉〉, denotes mind-to-mind communication.

Disclaimers: The Thank you and Disclaimer Bit

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Chapter 25 | Chapter 26 | Chapter 27 | Chapter 28 | Chapter 29 | Chapter 30 | Chapter 31 | Chapter 32 | Chapter 33 | Chapter 34 | Chapter 35 | Chapter 36 | Chapter 37 | Chapter 38 | Chapter 39 | Chapter 40 | Chapter 41 | Chapter 42 | Chapter 43 | Chapter 44 | Chapter 45 | Chapter 46 | Epilogue |



Chapter 1 | Universe Alpha, Delta Quadrant | Bookmarks



Voyager slid into the Alpha Universe undetected, and with little to mark her passage. Lt. Tom Paris' hands flew over the console, guiding the living ship onto its new path with confidence. He knew all too well that old spacers had a tendency to develop a philosophical approach to life; an approach that could rob you of the wonder if you weren't careful. In space, things could take odd twists and turns in a matter of seconds. They could also go completely right. It depended on the variables.

In Voyager's case, the trip back to the Alpha Universe - Delta Quadrant - Sector 5311 went very smoothly. Tom grinned as they left the Membrane behind; he might be an old hand, but the wonder of it all never eluded him.

This time the crew knew what to expect and those who were new to the transition had been trained and warned. As no one wanted to wake up as part of the ship's corridors, floors or other components, people stayed at their places until the journey was done. Fortunately, with the Trans-Universal Engine, moving between Universes took less time than journeying between Quadrants.

There was an abundance of scientific explanations as to why it worked that way, and there were scientists and engineers that could explain it quite well, if only to other scientists and engineers. The actual mathematics and engineering principles were not for the faint of heart or the non-mathematically inclined. The crew of Voyager, however, was composed of the best and brightest from two Universes. They were working on that discrepancy by trying to develop a trans-warp engine for inter-quadrant travel.

They had components of Borg technology, but it was thought that a new composite engine would be better for Voyager, who, as a living ship, was prone to absorbing and adapting to new technology in unexpected ways.

For instance, the Trans-Universal Engine had been combined into a unit in Engineering with control systems on the bridge and in engineering lab 14, along with an emergency station in Astrometrics. At the moment, all the stations relating to the TUE were filled with very intelligent, watchful people.

It was Lieutenant Sayr, the Vulcan propulsion expert assigned to the TUE station on the bridge, who confirmed that the translation had been successful. It was the Captain, Kathryn Janeway, who made the arrival announcement to the crew, and ordered a stand down from yellow alert.

From Voyager's perspective, the trip had been a beautiful experience of communing with her beloved Stinging Sparrow, living ship of Zakeeri origin. It was during the first translation that she and Stinging Sparrow had originally combined their genetic materials, though neither of them knew it at the time. They were a bit more cautious about their contact this time, but still quite unable to help themselves, as they were a mated pair. However, this time, since Voyager was already pregnant, no materials were exchanged and it was possible that the conception had been a one time only event. They were looking forward to being able to check in with the Zakeeri themselves, since the feline-like inhabitants of the Delta quadrant were experts on the living ships that formed part of their family clans.

The tiny being growing within Voyager had not yet reached a point of sentience, but there was a sense of presence that the other living ships aboard Voyager had detected and welcomed during the transition. It appeared that it was indeed viable and sturdy. That little being was one of the first things that Dr. Brahms checked upon after their entry into the alpha-Universe and the very first thing that she had reported to the Captain.

The crew of Voyager, once it was established that they were in normal space again, set about their regular duties without a second thought of worry. They were used to the new and unusual, probably more so than many of their peers. They were also just counting their lucky stars that there hadn't been any unfriendly beings in the area when they entered. As their Captain had once said, "They were Starfleet and weird was part of the job."

After the stresses of the last few weeks, it was good to be home.

==^==

In their Ambassadorial Offices, Kasala, Yar and their assistants were catching up to the reality that they were in another universe. Their assistants now included two Klingons: a brace of just-in-case recent arrivals delivered by Chancellor Worf - the loyal and ever doughty Duras Sisters. Their brother remained in Universe Beta, where he would perform his duties there. They believed they were prepared for anything, but the transition was somewhat disturbing and now they understood the risk that House Presba had taken to get to their universe to warn them.

It was, they were all sure, going to be very interesting in Universe Alpha, especially since they had taken the time to read and assess the public records of Voyager. The Ambassadorial team expected that this universe was not ready for what it was about to receive.

In his personal quarters, Commander Benjamin Sisko, previously the Captain on Deep Space 9, and now a man from non-temporal space, had found the journey less disturbing and more like a taste of what had been his home in the Celestial Temple. In the fluctuating space between the Membranes he had observed others of his kind, though not the Bajoran Prophets, who floated and kept their distance from the travelers, yet they followed the ship like dolphins. Worlds in, worlds out, he had thought during the travels. His words had been received, translated and returned in joy and curiosity. He found no reason to worry the crew of Voyager with this development. If they were meant to know, they would discover it.

==^==

Sickbay was a bit busier than usual after their return to normal space. Many of the crew were suffering from seasick-like sensations, which made sense to the doctors. The brain experienced input, and sometimes that input determined the output; in this case, emesis, vertigo and a general miasma. Fortunately, the cure was easy and hyposprays were administered, much to the relief of those, including their Trill First Officer, who sought their help.

Others had the exact opposite experience and found themselves empty and hungry afterwards. Fortunately, lunch was served during most of the day in mess hall one. Those who had time to stop by did. Others, who were off shift, or going to have duty in two shifts, did what they normally did to prepare.

For Lwaxana and T'Pel, the experience was positively restful compared to their forced first experience in inter-Universal travel at the hands of the Orions. Their transition this time was experienced in the safety of their home with their children. Afterward, they had taken their little ones to The Park. They were not the only ones to do so, as a number of their fellows sought the naturally grounding effects of the natural environment nestled deep within a protected area of Voyager's decks.

They were just relieved to feel their mates close. That was, for them, where home was.

==^==

The command staff had discussed what would happen next and Captain Janeway implemented the plan. "Take us to Voyager's Rest, Tom."

"Aye, Captain." The helmsman had said with relief in his voice. It was nice to do something he felt some control over. Flying and navigating in normal and sub-space was one thing; wrapping his head around the idea of folding universes to travel between points was math that was, quite frankly, beyond him. He engaged the navigation port and set the warp and they were away.

It would take them a few days, since they were trying to be subtle about where and when the vessel moved from one universe to the next. For one thing, they did not want any unexpected witnesses and, for another, they didn't want a competing celestial body in the mix of their calculations. They would rely on Astrometrics to find those spaces. The Pharaoh System in the beta-Universe had been a unique destination because they had the exact parameters already in the system; the data having been unwillingly bequeathed to them by a captured Orion Syndicate computer core. Everywhere else they would have to rely on celestial data. A circumstance that resulted in the exercise of more caution than strictly warranted, but then again, since no one wanted to end up as part of a star or black hole, no one begrudged the extra labour.

Satisfied that they were making good progress toward the planet that had become home-base in the Delta Quadrant, Captain Janeway said, "Lieutenant Ro, Commander Dax, you're with me. Tuvok, you have the conn."

The three women entered the ready room. Ro Laren headed immediately for the replicators and Kathryn turned toward her first officer. "Well, now the real fun begins. I'd like you, Ezri, after we've had a moment to settle in and discuss the options a bit more, to head down to Astrometrics and work with Seven of Nine to make contact with Starfleet. I want you to see the procedure first hand."

Ezri acknowledged the order, and then took the drink that was proffered by Laren. Kathryn also took a mug. They both sipped and both managed to have that same relieved look afterward, though the liquids were of two different substances. Apparently, caffeine, in what ever form it came, was a cure all, even for Dax's space sickness. It took Laren everything she had not to crack so much as a smile.

"Laren, we've been working on that compiled data for Starfleet. Would you please make sure that any last minute messages from the crew are retrieved so they can be sent if we manage contact."

"Why do you say if?" Ezri looked up over the rim of her mug.

"There are a dozen variables that make for good contact. Sometimes the ship has to be at rest. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the connection is just bad, for whatever reasons. Tom compares it to the twentieth century radio. He said in some places they had to stand on each other's shoulders and twist antennas to receive signals."

"That's ridiculous."

"No, its historical fact."

"Hysterical." Ezri took another sip, then elaborated. "We can beam people from point to point, convert energy to matter in specific patterns, but we can't figure out how to reliably receive a transmission."

"Truly absurd." Laren agreed.

"Anyhow…" The Captain gave both women an arch look, "… the point is that we take our chances with these points of contact. The only thing stable is that they are miniature wormholes, which allow us to make contact. If the wormhole collapses, the signal is over. What we're looking for right now is evidence of attempted contact as well as the possible location for sending one of our own."

"Why is that?"

"Well, we've missed one contact attempt, at least. Probably two. That's got to be worrying Admiral Paris, if for no other reason than that he's an old friend and his son is on this ship. He'll keep trying even if everyone else stops."

"Ah."

==^==

In another part of the ship, matters of equal import were being weighed.

"We should use an appropriate human designation." Icheb spoke, though he had privately resolved that at home he would address his newest mother by her given name, and as Dr. Pulaski while on duty.

"A designation could be constructed." Mezoti was reviewing the linguistics database. "In forty-eight percent of the relevant textual material, maternal appellations contain the phonemic pattern ma/me/mo or na/ne/no in the root."

Rebi and Azan looked at one another, but surprisingly it was Azan who spoke. "I would prefer a less artificial designation." He paused. "It does not...feel appropriate."

"Isn't Dr. Pulaski from Krakow, Poland?" Naomi had looked in the crew biographies available to her as the Bridge Assistant. She was practicing providing information in the form of a question, since Seven had suggested that people were thirty-seven percent less resistant to receiving data in this manner. This seemed like an appropriate time to test the theory.

Emina put her puzzle down. "Seus."

"Yes, Emina. That is correct." Icheb picked his sister up. He wanted to encourage the toddler's attempts at vocalization, and the relevant literature had suggested that treating the sounds as meaningful and then providing the correct word was the proper approach. "The Polish word for mother is matka."

They all repeated the word.

"Unacceptable." said Mezoti.

"Agreed." Azan and Rebi replied simultaneously.

"Seus."

The four older siblings looked briefly to one another, communicating along their sibling link, then back toward their youngest sister.

"You know, I'm standing right here." Naomi felt less left out when they conversed now that they all shared Presban among them, but it still annoyed her when they forgot to vocalize. She definitely didn't want them getting the baby in the habit.

"Seus," repeated Emina.

"Acceptable." said Rebi.

Naomi watched them all nod in agreement, and suddenly wished she had a sibling of her own.

Mezoti left the room and returned with the back carrier and traded it to Icheb in exchange for her sister. Once her older brother had the device seated, she and Rebi got Emina strapped in, while Azan provided a distraction to keep her from wriggling.

When they were done, they lined up in front of Icheb, Naomi included.

"Voyager, are you prepared?"

"Affirmative, Icheb."

"Hansen family, initiate protocol 22 bravo."

"Acknowledged." Four voices and a burble responded as the six of them turned and exited the family quarters.

==^==

"Commander Ezri Dax."

Ezri let a full smile spread over her face even though she knew that Seven couldn't see her. "Astrometrics Chief Seven of Nine." She nodded to the other occupant of the room, and then greeted her with a smile as well. "Lt. Jennifer Delaney."

"How may I assist you?" Seven turned to look at her favourite Trill.

"I need a short course on Alpha Quadrant Communications and Micro-wormholes for Beginners."

An eyebrow raised in one of Seven's patented looks of incredulous disbelief was the only response the woman offered.

"Voyager to Commander Dax."

"Go ahead, Voyager." She hit her communicator as she stepped away from Seven, realizing as she did what it was that had struck her as odd about the occupants of the room - both Seven of Nine and Jennifer Delaney were barefoot - and thus weren't towering over her as usual.

"Commander, protocol twenty-two bravo has been enacted."

Ezri hid her smile, having a pretty fair inkling that Seven would challenge her if she were paying attention to her private conversation with Voyager. Her lover had developed an extraordinary ability to detect when she was, as Seven termed it, about to engage in Chaos.

At the request of Icheb, she and Voyager had negotiated how much freedom the children would be allowed to have in order to be children without the ship essentially squealing on them. It was tough to learn from your mistakes if you weren't allowed to make them and while she had no idea what they were up to exactly, as long as no actual blood flowed, Ezri was inclined to respect their privacy. "Security level 3 please, Voyager."

She turned back to find Seven holding out a data PADD. "What's this?"

"Your short course."

Ezri looked down at the PADD and a quick glance showed that several doggabytes of new information had been added. She looked at both women in disbelief. Terabytes of new information she could handle, but she wasn't even sure how big the multiplication factor was to get from there to doggabytes. Ezri gave them both a wan smile and then turned and exited the room. It was going to be a very long night.

==^==

Kathryn entered her ready room to find Laren had already arrived. "Good morning, Darling."

"I take it you slept well?" Laren, whose room abutted Kathryn's, knew that the Captain had done no such thing.

"I'll never tell, Lieutenant Ro." Kathryn gave her mate her best cheeky grin and accepted a mug of coffee.

Laren's grin, while considerably more subdued, was equally bold. "Of course not, Captain." In finger speak, she added, "I'll expect a bedtime story with an appropriate level of detail. From you and Kate."

"Since you seem so familiar with the sleeping arrangements at home, I don't suppose you've seen my First Officer anywhere?"

"Dax's log indicated she'd be in Astrometrics this morning and in the lab on deck 14 for the rest of the day."

"But have you seen her?"

"Actually, no. These were on my desk when I got here this morning." Laren indicated a pile of PADDs, and tried to think of the last time she had seen the Trill. It had to have been a couple of days at the least.

Kathryn picked up one of the PADDs and turned it on. It contained a complete shore leave schedule. She opened another file and realized that the PADD contained several shore leave schedules, ranging from partial to full rotation, and the associated coverages. All the versions had the Prime scheduled for overlapping leave. "Have you looked at this?"

Laren caught the undertone of approving awe, and took the PADD. Wow, indeed. Curious, she called up the duty roster. "Ezri reported for duty at 0600."

Kathryn arched her brow and moved to Laren's desk, to check the schedule for herself. Astrometrics, her office, the conn, various labs and decks, repeat as needed. On a hunch, she checked the security logs, and smiled. The normal level of fractiousness had declined, sharply. "I believe I may have underestimated our Commander Dax."

Laren looked at the data, then at Kathryn. "I don't think you're the only one."

==^==

Whenever one travels, no matter the local, there is always one sure sign of approaching civilization and Voyager encountered it more than halfway to Voyager's Rest.

Traffic.

Security and Navigation reported the early signs of traffic as ships in the distance, but there was also communication traffic. This type of interchange was picked up by Operations and by Astrometrics.

Astrometrics, at this time, was particularly concerned with a certain kind of communications transfer, but all of the data was gathered and sifted in the search for the evidence that a communications attempt had been made by Starfleet.

It would have been an impossible task without the enhanced technology of Voyager and the brilliance of her crew. Megan Delaney was the first to spot something. "I've found one."

Seven of Nine paced to where Megan was stationed. She glanced up and down the display and nodded. "Well done, Lt. Delaney. Try and track down the signal. It may still be viable."

"Right."

Like light, the message traveled as a pulse. Without booster points, the signal would travel at a rate much slower than what might be found in the Federation, where such points were ubiquitous. It was possible, depending on when the signal originated, that any message contained there-in would still be retrievable. However, space was vast, so they would also have to determine the direction the wormhole was facing and trace all the possible lines away from it. It would take some time, but now that they had found the micro-wormhole they could, if needed 'chase', the signal and find it, if it had not drifted too far. A few light years wouldn't make a difference to Voyager. A hundred would.

That was also something that the Astrometrics department would work to determine: whether the chase was worth the effort.

==^==

Ambassador Lwaxana Troi, late of Betazed, gazed around the spacious area that she and T'Pel had been assigned. It was a complete blank slate, open for their imprint, and, like the other diplomatic offices in the area, situated near the second mess hall. She realized, as she evaluated the area, that they would need to speak with their mates about renaming mess hall 2 to something more appropriate to its reputation. Perhaps they might even establish a gift station within it, for replicating knickknacks, or displaying and gifting, though the gift might have a nominal cost that depended on a particular culture's receptivity to the idea of being presented with gifts, many of which would be creative works made by Voyager's crew for the visitors.

Lwaxana began walking around the space, gathering her thoughts for what might be and must be accomplished within its walls. T'Pel would arrive soon to contribute her ideas about the Department of Diplomacy and its set up. Then they would contact Neelix and get his input. His department was to be blended with theirs in that he would continue to have his own office and assistants and still be able to conduct his other duties while the Morale office now had an official home within its confines. As did the newly formed Legal department, which T'Pel, temporarily shedding her own status as an Ambassador of the Federation, would head.

The Education section, headed by the Naquel, one of their tall, willowy, Kutwutchu colleagues, would also report to the DoD. This arrangement would help ensure that there was an adequate amount of the required Federation curriculum covered in addition to the augmented courses that reflected the growing diversity of the crew.

Though she had not yet said as much to Kathryn, Lwaxana knew it was likely that the DoD would see an increase in size in the immediate future. Especially if they anticipated being sent on other journeys where diplomacy would act as a key part of their efforts. So they would plan accordingly. Lwaxana turned to face the entrance and nodded. Mentally she began laying out a design; a waiting area with a fountain, decorative items from the Delta Quadrant and Universe Beta, offices and their connecting hallways here, as well as an interview room and a small conference room.

She began to see the full vision of it and smiled as T'Pel entered the room.

==^==

Voyager's Marines were now a slimmer, seasoned set of troops. They had faced two major battles less than a month apart and succeeded in their assigned tasks. The list of their honored dead was on a digital placard by the entry way of their department. The plaque showed a new name every five seconds, honoring each of their comrades in turn. The Marines had the respect of everyone on Voyager.

However, they had also screwed up. Competing teams had failed to utilize the safeties in the holodeck, and it had resulted in trauma and deep physical injury to the participants. This setback meant that now they were participating in retraining trials and punishment details.

To add to the hazard, their commander, Sara Tucker, was not in the best of moods. She'd lost over half of their remaining troops to reassignment in Universe Beta. Admittedly, it was for a good cause, but that meant that some of her best people were no longer on the team. Which, again, meant retraining so that others could step up and meet the need; retraining that had to happen without the presence of those most qualified to teach. There were other reasons that she was being so harsh, reasons she was less inclined to speak publicly about. But the ex-Captain was feeling personally stung and she wondered if the failure of her marines had added up to enough of a minus to disqualify her from advancing from commanding the Marines to becoming Captain Janeway's exec now that Chakotay had been reassigned to an Ambassadorial post.

There was no way to know and she wasn't inclined to ask. But it did mean that, at least from her troops' perspective, she had gone from their beloved commander to their hated commander overnight.

Not that they wouldn't love her again in the morning.

But at the moment, as they sweated and groaned, their affection was being pushed to the limit.

==^==

The problem, Commander Steve Magnum decided, with being the Supply and Procurement officer, was that while they were en route to a destination, and all the holds and storage areas were replete with useful items and fully stocked with necessities and luxuries, it rather left one and one's assistants with a bit of time on their hands.

And Steve was well aware that his assistants were really not the sort who should have much time on their hands, lest they find trouble. This plethora of unoccupied time was what inspired him to more openly pursue the idea of better living through chemistry.

Not that the ship did not already have a still. But he planned on making something even more ambitious. He and his assistants were spending some time in Voyager's garden.

Technically, they were there on a duty rotation to help the botanists by planting some new seedlings. But they were also establishing a bit of a small garden of their own in the process. They picked a small corner, designated it with its appropriate name and planted fast growing, non-parasitic Romulan grapes, some berries from a nameless planet in the Delta Quadrant, and, of course, a choice group of field grains.

After they were done helping the botanists, they would begin setting up the microbrewery in the Supply and Procurement office in a space that Steve had already designated for it.

If they did it right, and could keep people from plucking the juicy, sweet, and tasty fruit, they could have a Ship's wine and beer to complement the fine dining to be had in mess hall 2.

If they did it wrong, well, it wasn't going to hurt the ship any, and they'd made the botanists' lives a little easier.

==^==

Voyager was still, at least nominally, undergoing repairs from the Battle of Terok Nor. True she had been in fair enough condition to leave the space station, but there were plenty of behind the scenes tasks for Engineering and Maintenance to complete. Chief Engineer B'Elanna Torres was currently engaged in one of the more urgent of those activities. A whole section of deck seventeen's flooring and its associated power system had to be replaced. Thus they had stripped out the injured parts and were now going through the process of fixing them.

If one were to approach from either direction in the hallway, one would have seen B'Elanna's torso and head well below deck-level. This was because she, and a couple of other engineers, were standing in the under-story of the deck, rerouting power again, so they could get started on the repairs.

Fortunately, there was enough room for people to walk around them, so long as the ship did not make any unnecessary and unexpected turns. And most people were in a convivial mood, due to the success in returning to the Delta Quadrant. So they greeted the engineers as they passed by, and sometimes made polite inquiry about the progress. They were gratified to find that polite answers were given, since B'Elanna was in a reasonable mood.

That was always a good sign, because it meant that the repairs were going well.

It also meant, on the whole, that B'Elanna was feeling good in general. A steady home life had done wonders for her state of mind. And, also, she too was glad to be home in the Delta Quadrant, where things were more familiar and - oddly - less stressful.

One stress that remained was that Voyager was still speaking to her in Klingon, except while engaging in repairs and dealing with emergencies, and at home her family and furniture were also speaking to in her native, if unpracticed, tongue. As a measure of self-preservation, B'Elanna had taken to literally wearing the PADD interpretation tool that Kate had given her. She had it strung around her neck, like a giant pendant, so she could grab it quickly when she needed help or needed to eat. Learning the new language was still a struggle, but she was beginning, with the unexpectedly patient instruction of Ezri, to remember more and more of it as she went along. It was like touching a part of her childhood in some ways. Sometimes, like an echo, she could hear her mother saying some phrase or word and it would come back to her.

That side effect was perhaps helped by the fact that she had recently seen her mother and their contact had been good, if far too short. At least now B'Elanna knew that Miral Torres was alive and well, and loved her still. She was just in another Universe, along with her mate, Gretchen Janeway. Thinking of Gretchen reminded her that Kathryn was experiencing a similar sensation of both gratification and loss. It was just one of those things that came with the territory of being space travelers. Sometimes family got left behind.

==^==

Astrometrics had been frenetically busy as numbers were crunched and data was streamed to the processors as fast as the sensors would allow. They had managed to determine the direction of origination for any messages that they were likely to receive from Starfleet, and now they were narrowing the possibilities for the various ranges. On a positive note, it was determined that the micro-wormhole had been comparatively recent in activation. This data allowed them to adequately determine its positioning. Seven of Nine had requested, on behalf of her department, that Voyager pause during the investigation and had their request approved, which also made it easier.

Four hours later they had the signal located and the distance calculated. The signal was viable and worth retrieving. They reported the success to the First Officer.

==^==

Sickbay still had quite a few patients recovering from various battle wounds and in-house training accidents. The injured were in differing states of consciousness, but at least they were alive. Dr. Dezhe, a Klingon woman from a past century, had come to treasure working in the modern version of sickbay. The upgrades in technology were astonishing, but it was the people she enjoyed. Of course, if they had been Humans of a different kind, all sugar and light, she might have made different choices. But Dr. Pulaski and Dr. Zimmerman were individuals who had character, quirks and a dedication to healing that inspired her.

They were also temperamental and sometime abrupt and, if she'd had to say it, admirably Klingon in their base personalities, if not their attitudes.

It made them a positive joy to work with, from her point of view; even if they did try to erase all the scars from the victims. At least she had gotten them out of that habit with the Klingons on Voyager. To a Klingon, scars were important. They proved that you had dared life and lived through it.

Dezhe was sure that the other doctors felt a similar appreciation for her. She had learned to accommodate herself to Voyager's, and, by extension, Starfleet's manner of healing. It was something she had come to value during the aftermaths of the battles and the small crisis that always plagued a Starship.

Voyager's crew functioned better because they were healthy and did not, except for the expected holdouts, try to hide or get along with their illnesses. It was a practical matter and Dr. Dezhe was a practical woman.

Thus, she had taken it upon herself to refresh her studies of medicine under the tutelage of the great Dr. Pulaski along with the help of Dr. Zimmerman. That was what she did with her time when they were not engaged in emergency surgery or walking the floor to check on their patients. She looked forward to it, almost as much as she looked forward to taking one of the Glory Dragon Riding Club tours when she was off hours.

One had to have some fun while off duty, and racing or touring with the GDRC was certainly fun.

"Dr. Dezhe, I have some errands to run," Dr. Pulaski said as she tucked a PADD into her medical jacket and straightened her tunic. One of those errands included checking up on a certain patient who had missed her last appointment and was, according to Voyager, currently located in the Sandrine's holo-simulation on deck 7. "I won't be gone long. An hour at most. You have the floor."

"Yes, Dr. Pulaski. I have the floor."

Kate smiled at the other doctor warmly and then exited sickbay. She knew it was in good hands.

==^==

Commander Tuvok was gratified to see that Voyager's crew had taken on the mantle of regular starship duty like a familiar cloak. There had been some indications of tension among a crew that was still amalgamating into the entity they would become. Possibly it had to do with worry about the transition between universes, but it was nothing that translated into overt issues for security to deal with just yet.

Still, there was reason for the department on a ship, and there were security teams stationed at every other deck - patrolling their two assigned decks on a constant, but alternating schedule. This rotation was to prevent the inattentiveness that grew out of unvaried routines while maintaining their highest efficiency.

Tuvok glanced down at his control panel and read the series of notes that had been transferred from his security officers to his bridge console. The notes were in constant flow at his workstation and kept him abreast of the mood of the ship. Voyager herself also contributed notations of a non-intrusive variety. She was very much conscious of the need for personal privacy, but also acknowledged Security's need for current information. If something struck her as extremely out of the ordinary or dangerous, she was usually the first to ping him. He had come to appreciate her input in the database.

Tuvok made his own additions, correlations and predictions and then went on to peruse the other information flow, the one regarding dangers from outside of Voyager. He noted the passing of a small meteor shower, the increase in certain kinds of energy signatures and a random asteroid or two. But there was nothing that immediately caught his attention.

So, he began his other evaluations and checks while monitoring ship.

==^==

Kate entered the holodeck that was currently running Sandrine's, and began to scan the crowd for her errant patient.

Looking around, it occurred to her that she would be dealing with a new spate of injuries in the upcoming week as the crew let down their guard and partied in the relative safety of home.

Up ahead on the dance floor, the mass of people parted slightly and afforded her a view of her quarry. Ezri was dancing in a smaller knot of people that included the Delaney twins and some of the engineers. She had a drink in one hand, and the other was guiding her dance partner through a set of swaying steps. Kate watched for a long moment, drinking in the supple movements of the lithe Trill. Unfettered by any need to pretend an on-duty propriety she didn't agree with, Kate let herself visually trace the expanse of spotted skin revealed by the sleeveless long jacket. A jacket that was held together by two short lengths of chain and worn over nothing.

A long, low growl rumbled from deep within, vibrating its way out in perfect time to the flare of desire that flashed over her as Ezri continued to dance. A dozen eyes turned her way and she let a rakish grin slide across her face in response, despite her shock at having growled. Unconsciously, she lifted her hand to her mouth and probed the edge of a tooth with a tentative finger. It didn't seem sharper. But then again, she wouldn't have guessed from the evidence of her day that she now had an organ that made growling a new part of her communications repertoire either.

Kate stepped toward the dance floor, but realized, that during her brief discomfiture, Ezri had seemingly disappeared. "God damn it, Ezri."

Torn between curiosity and a real need to find the elusive Trill, Kate let her need to understand what was happening to her win out, and made her way back to sickbay. Besides, Ezri had to come home eventually.

==^==

Tucked in his usual corner, Tom Paris watched the teeming nightlife with a proprietary air of satisfaction. Sandrine's was his creation, after all. He was, a rarity for him, alone. Harry and Steve were otherwise occupied, and had left him to his own devices. A situation he was surprised to find himself enjoying. Not one to examine his life too often, he was, nevertheless, reflecting on the magnitude of changes the last year had wrought.

For all intents and purposes, he was a married man. A happily married one at that. Surprise. He lifted his mug of ale and took a long pull at the amber liquid. Over the rim he watched the dancers on the floor. Jenny Delaney and her sister Megan each gave him a tiny wave and a smile, and he returned them with genuine fondness. There had been a time...

Laughing lightly to himself, he put his mug down. His attraction to the Delaney twins wasn't entirely past tense, but nor were they temptations either. He was married - not dead. Married. Mostly. For second he let himself chase the thoughts echoing through his mind. But before he could decide if the thoughts required action, he began to catch snatches of conversation from the next table. Snatches he didn't like.

"If I'd known that's how to get promoted..."

"Hell, promotion or not, I'd take a night with her."

"You wouldn't last five minutes."

Paris sat up, and turned his head. Tucker and a bunch of her crew were scattered around a table littered liberally with empty and half empty glasses.

"Wow, look at that."

Tom, like the man's companions, turned to look. Megan and Jenny were wrapped around Commander Dax, one on each side, and it appeared the Trill was enjoying their attention. The Commander tipped her head to listen to something Megan said, and whatever the reply was, it made Jenny blush. Hell, watching the three of them made him want to blush.

"Looks like the twins are bucking for a promotion of their own."

"Out of Astrometrics? What kind of department is that anyway? I bet the only scanning that goes on down there isn't with any external sensors."

A round of raucous laughter and a few lowly whispered comments added to Tom's growing distaste. A ship was a ship, and he knew worse had been said about everyone, including him, but he couldn't help his growing anger. And surely Seven of Nine knew what was going to happen if she was really was sleeping with the Trill, though he had his doubts about the truth of that. He had just about decided that he didn't need to step in when two things happened.

Seven of Nine walked into Sandrine's.

Her arrival was commented on in a lewd manner that he couldn't let go, not and maintain any self-respect.

Tom knew just how good Seven's hearing was, and he knew that if he didn't shut them up, she would soon know just which loud-mouthed ensigns thought that she'd look good wrapped around them, and how much the others would pay to watch. He knew she would say their opinions were irrelevant. He knew she would say that she was undamaged. But Tom also knew that the woman was part of what made B'Elanna happier than he had ever seen her and deserved more than spiteful innuendo. He had seen her with the kids, and with her mates. He knew she felt more deeply than any of them had ever guessed.

He stood and took at step toward the table. Besides, Tom thought, Harry would never forgive him for not acting. "You guys look like you could use another round."

Steve would be proud. Diplomacy first.

"Hey. Paris. You've been here awhile. You must have banged the Borg once or twice. It--"

One second he was trying to be nice, the next he had swung at the burly ensign. And then all hell broke loose, and he was ducking a chair. A punch came his way, but instead of connecting with his head, it was caught in a hand he recognized. "Thanks, Seven."

"You are welcome." Seven put her back to his and they pushed away their drunken attackers. Or at least Seven pushed them away, Tom absorbed a few punches in his attempts to remain standing.

"Think we should call for back up?"

"That might be prudent." Seven concurred.

Tom looked over to see that Seven had a hold of one combatant with her right hand, and was twisting the remains of a chair away with the other.

A shift rippled through the crowd, and just as suddenly as Seven had appeared to help him, more of Voyager's crew grabbed their attackers and held them at bay, as security arrived to take over.

He watched as Tuvok looked at Seven before turning to speak with Commander Dax. He didn't really know the new First Officer, but if the look on her face was anything to go by, he was in a pile of trouble. His heart sank even further when Tuvok merely nodded at something Dax said, then left, taking his security team with him.

"Computer, end program, authorization Dax four. Go home, everyone. Except you two." She pointed at Paris and Seven of Nine. "Sandrine's is closed for the night." Ezri flicked a glance at Lt. Paris and caught the flash of chagrin on his boyish face. He was the likely instigator, though it was curious that none of the others had hurled any accusations to that effect. "Mr. Paris, report to my office. Now."

"Yes, sir." He gave Seven an apologetic glance, and hoped for her sake that the rumours were true. Maybe Dax would go easy on her, especially if he told the Commander it was all his fault, that he'd simply had too much to drink and got rowdy. It wasn't like Seven would be able to say differently.

Ezri waited for the room to clear, then raised an eyebrow at her lover. "I can't wait to hear your explanation."

Seven tilted her head, considering her reply. It was not in her nature to lie, but she did not see the value in sharing the extent of what she knew. "I believe Mr. Paris would be the more appropriate choice to explain."

"I know. That's why I sent him to my office, I wanted to give him a chance to figure out his official, I don't have to throw anyone in the brig explanation. From you though, I want the truth. So what happened?"

"Mr. Paris was defending my honour." Seven had taken up her customary stance, feet comfortably apart, hands behind her back.

"And how did you get involved? You just got here." Ezri had seen the blonde enter the bar, but before she could make her way over, the fight had erupted.

A wry grin tinged Seven's mouth. "I was required to defend Mr. Paris."

"Ah." She reached up to touch the corner of Seven's mouth, and brought her fingers away. They were smeared with blood. "You're hurt." Her heart was pounding and she was suddenly viscerally aware of every sound and smell. Seven grabbed her wrist, stopping her from completing the motion that would have brought her fingers to her mouth.

Instead, Seven ducked her head and gently cleaned the stain with her lips and tongue, then clasped her hand. "Soon, síobhean."

Ezri nodded, then disengaged her hand and slowly backed out of Sandrine's.

==^==

The stream of data began automatically processing as soon as Voyager was within the barest range of it, the pre-programmed routines shunting the signal to augmentation buffers. The signal continued to gain strength and compile as they raced towards the strongest point. It was powerfully encrypted, using one of the Federations more recent code sets. One they believed to be decodable by Voyager's crew alone, fully confident that if anyone could unravel the message, it would be the people on Voyager. Two of Starfleet's highest officials trusted, for once, in the Borg. Their Borg.

==^==

Kate Pulaski started a new file on herself, with Dr. Zimmerman's help. They already had quite a bit of data to draw on, but this was really the first time they could watch the progression of the changes in a meaningful way. The CMO didn't mind being the guinea pig in this case.

The holographic man ran his tricorder over Kate's body and made notations about some basic changes. "Your blood pressure is lower, heart rate is optimal. You have a new node here and here," He pointed at her neck, near her vocal cords. "They're very small, but I believe that's where the noises are starting from."

"Why do you think they're happening?"

"Well, in many species, like Klingons, the growl is the first warning system. The purr has been shown to have healing properties. The Presban body changes appear to be pushing toward some common upgrades to your physical performance in general. So there is no doubt there is a reason for its addition to your system. It's also possible that your mates and you hear certain tones in the sound, which alert you to each other's state of arousal - positive or negative."

Kate was nodding. "I was developing similar theories. Let's formalize this a bit and pull from some of Voyager's records. I know she keeps track of us, so she has probably tracked biological changes when the Prime engage in sonic exchanges."

Dr. Zimmerman was nodding. "I assume you have your mates' permission?"

Kate grinned. "They told me they would make themselves available. But let's not make this a paper for public consumption. Use the same kind of protocols that are used for Vulcans and other species with privacy holds. Oh, and see if you can get Commander Dax in here for a baseline before the bonding. Maybe you'll have more luck than me."

Zimmerman snorted, clearly skeptical.

==^==

Ezri stopped outside of the turbo-lift. What had begun as a celebratory night of fun after days of endless work had, somehow, turned back into work. For a second she was tempted to wash her hands of the whole thing and kick it back to Tuvok.

But that meant it would get to the Captain in an official way. Or worse, B'Elanna would decide that it was a House issue.

First things first.

Ezri walked to one of the small conference rooms that shared the corridor with her office, and entered it. Replicating a long-sleeved black shirt, she slipped it on, and then settled the long jacket back over it, carefully adjusting the collar and exposed sleeves. She decided that it wouldn't hurt to have a spare set of insignia, even if not all of the pips would be needed in the long run, so she called up a set and affixed them to the jacket.

Dressed for the part, if nothing else, Ezri made her way to her office.

==^==

Tom heard the door hiss open, but didn't turn to look. Instead he maintained the attention posture he'd been standing in since he'd entered Dax's office. It was the least he could do to show that he realized that she was going to have to clean up the mess he'd made.

His face ached, and he was pretty sure that he was going to have an impressive shiner in the morning.

He watched as Dax crossed to stand behind her desk, and then put both hands flat on its surface. She still hadn't addressed him or even looked directly at him, and it occurred to him that being ignored was almost as effective an intimidation tactic as one of Janeway's looks. Almost.

Dax leaned forward over the desk and caught Paris' eye. "Go home, Lt. Paris."

"Sir?"

"If I ask you what happened, you're going to lie to me. I'm pretty sure I don't need to spend the next hour explaining why we don't punch crew mates. I'm equally sure that this will never happen again. Do we understand each other?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Good. But I suppose I need to punish you." Ezri thought about how best to make her point, but still get some utility from the situation without demoralizing Tom. Thinking it over, she realized she had just the project. The Sochlings would need a rated pilot to finish their project, and not only was Tom Paris was the best pilot on the ship, but he had done a masterful job with the Delta Flyer

Tom didn't reply to that. He just waited, and mentally kicked himself for not leaving when he'd had the chance.

"For the act of throwing the first punch at a fellow officer, during the next two weeks, your off-duty hours belong to Icheb Hansen. For that two weeks, any off-duty hours not claimed by Ensign Hansen are to be spent confined to quarters. Dismissed." She sat down and turned her back on Tom, attention now on her monitor.

"And Tom?"

Tom stopped, and turned back toward the desk, but Dax hadn't moved. He waited, still silent.

"Thank you."

He nodded, knowing she couldn't see it, but he felt a little lighter. It had been the right thing to do.

The doors slid shut behind the helmsman and Ezri leaned back in her chair. One down, one to go.

==^==

Kate Pulaski stepped out of her office in time to hear Zimmerman's comm badge chirp, and him acknowledge it.

Thus she was also present to see the disdain flick across Commander Tucker's fine, but bruised visage as the First Officer's voice was broadcast from the hologram's chest.

"Has Commander Tucker suffered any major injuries?"

"No, just a few cuts and bruises. I don't know what kind of training program you're letting these marines run, but maybe you should assign them a field medic. I had half a dozen of them in here."

"Have the Commander report to my office immediately."

"I'll send her up as soon as I've finished."

"No, Doctor Zimmerman, you will send her up now. Is that clear?"

"It will just take--"

Dax cut him off. "Now. Bruises and all."

Zimmerman opened his mouth and Kate caught his eye and shook her head, in a clear 'don't argue'.

"Very well." He closed the channel and looked at Kate archly. "Someone's a few spots short of composed."

"Tucker, you heard the Commander." Pulaski ignored Zimmerman for the moment and sent the disgruntled marine on her way.

==^==

Sarah Tucker left sickbay behind and prepared herself to face the music. A quick check-in told her that she was the only one marine being summarily ordered to report to the First Officer.

Small mercies, she supposed.

She rang the chime and waited for admittance.

==^==

Ezri heard the chime and swiveled in her chair, to face the door. She still hadn't decided how to handle the situation, but she knew it couldn't wait for her to dither her way through her options either.

The chime rang again, and she was out of time. "Enter."

Commander Sarah Tucker strode into the office, command mask firmly in place, and came to attention in front of the desk. It was clear from the set of her body and her expression that she had once commanded a starship of her own. And that, Ezri realized was the heart of the problem.

"Sit down." Ezri made the words an order, rather than an invitation.

Nonplussed, Sarah looked around the room, unable to find a chair. The only surface remotely appropriate for sitting on was the low bench seat against the windows on the far left, and that had most of the space occupied by boxes.

"I'm waiting, Commander."

Angry, Sarah let her temper flash. "You want me to sit? Then give me a god damn chair."

Ezri kept her gaze even, calling on every memory of Benjamin Sisko that she had, and stood. With one hand she grasped the back of her chair, and propelled it toward the marine. "There are lots of places to sit. But if it's a chair you want, then here."

Tucker caught the chair, and locked her eyes on the Trill's, but didn't sit. She watched as the woman moved from behind the desk and leaned against the front of it. Dax was nearly a head shorter than she was, but at the moment she seemed to dwarf the desk, and Sarah felt the first misgivings.

"That is what you want, isn't it. My chair." It wasn't a question. "Sit."

Tucker dropped her gaze, unable to hold the ghostly blue intensity of the Commander's eyes any longer, and sat.

"Five minutes ago, I had a problem that I was trying to figure out a solution to." Ezri continued, her tone conversational instead of confrontational. "But I just realized, I don't have a problem. You do. And what I really want to know, is what you plan to do about it?"

The leather of the armrest twisted under her grip as Sarah tightened her hold in an effort to keep from jumping up. "Permission to speak freely?"

"No."

"No?"

"No. I have no desire to listen to you justify your behaviour, or for you to rail against the injustice of the situation. It's not my problem. It's yours. Now, I ask you again. What do you plan to do about it?"

Sarah sat back, stymied. Of all the ways she had expected this to go, this wasn't even in the running. Her consternation only grew as Dax smiled.

"Though, I have to tell you, I gotta wonder at the sanity of anyone who would even want this job. Never mind trade in the relative autonomy of your own command to get it. Did you actually like scheduling ship-wide shore leave when you were Drummond's exec?"

"Uh. No." Trading in her autonomy? Sarah reflected back over the last few months. She did have a great deal of autonomy. Janeway told her what she wanted accomplished and left it up to her as to how. Only a near-death mishap had resulted in the Captain stepping in to suggest safeguards, and even then, Sarah had full responsibility for their implementation.

"Ah. Then you were planning to turn in your fourth pip?" Ezri changed her position so that she was sitting on the edge of the desk instead of leaning against it.

"Uh. No." Sarah repeated herself, at a loss for either her righteous indignation or her vocabulary. She shook her head, realizing that she had no intention of remaining on Voyager after they hit the Alpha Quadrant, and Janeway had known it. So rather than fill two holes multiple times, the Captain had made a selection that made for the least retraining and shifting. Damn. "Um, Commander?"

Ezri lifted a brow and motioned the other woman to continue. She could see that she'd made her point, and was curious to hear how Tucker would choose to respond.

"I don't have a problem. Not anymore."

"Glad to hear it." Then Dax stood and leaned in over the Commander, placing her hands on the arm rests to either side of the woman. "Because, I'm only going to say this next part once. If the most vindictive thing anyone ever says about me is that I got my job by sleeping with Seven of Nine, then I'll count myself as well praised. But, and this is the part you really need to pay attention to, if I ever hear about a vindictive comment that associates sleeping with Seven of Nine and the opportunity for professional advancement, I will not take it as a compliment, and will govern myself accordingly. Are we clear, Commander?"

Sarah flinched, but held her gaze steady. "Crystal."

Ezri stepped back. "Good. You are unofficially confined to quarters when not on duty for the next two weeks. The punishment of the rest of your companions is in your hands. You will also tender an unofficial apology to Lt. Paris, as well as to Seven of Nine."

"Understood." And she did. She would have to swallow her pride to do it, but nothing official would be left behind to mar her record. "Thank you, Sir."

"I didn't do it for you." Ezri walked to the door. "Dismissed."

"Aye, Sir." She exited the room without looking back.

==^==

B'Elanna stepped into Astrometrics. She was greeted by her mate, whose attention was on a console. Seven of Nine turned and offered a small smile.

Her gaze narrowed and a small noise of concern rose from within. She stepped forward quickly, "So the rumors were true." B'Elanna touched the bruise gently and then gazed at her wife. "I'm surprised you didn't run a dermal regenerator."

"I will heal."

There was something in the way Seven responded, and the disquiet she sensed behind the words, that alerted B'Elanna and she stepped closer. "Be'nal?"

Seven leaned into their embrace. "It is nothing, Bang'wI. I am merely reminded that there is still a need for patience in some matters."

A hint of old wounds lay under that statement and B'Elanna's brow furrowed as she tried to work it out. "What happened?"

"Nothing that has not happened before and nothing that will not happen again. It is alright."

"Seven?"

The Borg enacted a distraction protocol, something she found to be very effective in these kinds of conversations; when she both needed her mate, and needed to avoid talking too much. She kissed B'Elanna, warmly and deeply and when B'Elanna tried to ask again, she kissed her once more, this time deliberately stirring the fire along their line.

When B'Elanna spoke in reply, it was with a distinct purr. "Let's go home."

So they did.

==^==

B'Elanna was sleeping soundly when Seven gently rearranged her loving clasp and made a quiet escape. At another time she would have stayed with her mate and either attempted sleep herself or watched B'Elanna dream, an occupation that she found highly enjoyable.

However, the ex-drone had much on her mind and a need to occupy herself, if not usefully, then at least with some measure of productive distraction. So she quietly exited B'Elanna's room, cheating a little by using the Nest's entrance. As she had known would be the case, there was no one in there. Seven spent a few seconds just absorbing the peace of the room, then entered her own abode, where she took some time to bathe and refresh herself before changing into something comfortable.

She left her room in her bare feet, and debated exiting via the family level or the adult level, then determined that for her purposes, the one closest would be the most efficient.

She headed to Astrometrics.

The lights activated immediately upon her entrance and she strode toward the console that was currently compiling the data stream. She didn't touch it, merely observed that the file retrieval was at 27% completion. She nodded her head. The results were consistent with her expectations.

The door to Astrometrics swished open. "Lwaxana Troi," Seven greeted, quietly, and then turned.

"My mate," the Betazoid said, as she stepped forward. Their fingertips met in gentle communion. Lwaxana was dressed in a brighter outfit than Seven had grown accustomed to wearing, but there was a pleasant simplicity to it.

"You followed me."

Lwaxana's expression was gentle, concerned. "Darling, I was wondering if you might consider walking with me in The Park."

==^==

It was full night in the earthy recreation area. Others were also strolling, as Seven and Lwaxana were, following the gently lit paths, but The Park was almost empty and those who were walking were far, far in the distance. Those they passed, who happened to be on benches along the pathway, held low conversations, as if between lovers or friends inspired by the quietude of the night setting. There were night time noises, chirrups and tunes that small nocturnal animals made to connect with each other. Firefly-like insects blipped into view and then out, providing their own kind of light to the genial walk.

Lwaxana's arm was tucked into Seven's. They walked sedately, letting the path and whim guide them. The Betazoid let the silence alone, choosing instead to emphasize her feeling of enjoyment in being in Seven's company along their mated extrasensory line. She wanted Seven to speak on her own time, if she was going to. But she also knew that, for whatever reason, her mate should not be alone tonight.

They stopped near the lake and sat on one of the benches there. Lights flashed in the water and above it, as fish mimicked fireflies to lure them in for a meal. The bench they chose was shaded and dark, affording them privacy. They could look above themselves and see the representation of stars in the night sky; tonight they were a recreation of those from Vulcan. Seven leaned into Lwaxana and the Betazoid wrapped one arm around her mate's shoulder.

A few minutes passed and Seven finally spoke, in a quiet, thoughtful tone. "Do you realize that it took Kathryn nearly thirty-three years to accept the possibility of being loved in this here and now? She only had five years with Kate in her timeline, before Kate died." Seven realized that the information she was providing was not as exact as her usual assessment of time, but knew that Lwaxana would understand. "In that timeline she went twenty-three years without anyone to love her at all, save for a few random encounters. No one ever stayed with her. The journey was too long or it was too hard. Or some of us died. And she would not allow us, while we were there…she would not allow any of us near…beyond friendship, because she worried that it might affect how others perceived her command."

Lwaxana's hand stroked Seven's shoulder gently, brushing above the sensitive implant without touching it directly. She wanted to comfort her mate, not stimulate her.

"Even so, in this now, she only dared the pursuit in partial necessity. Though I was wooing her and, I expect, I would have won her, despite the extraordinary intervention of the Anomaly."

Lwaxana chuckled at the edgy tone of determination in Seven's voice. "I am sure you would have, if you managed to convince her before she changed her mind."

Seven turned a bit and they settled themselves more comfortably, with Seven relaxed against Lwaxana's buxom front; grasping the Betazoid's hand in hers. Their fingers twined, lightly. "That would be the caveat. In that sense, I am completely grateful for the Anomaly. The bond between us is irrefutable."

Lwaxana nodded and gently kissed her mate's cheek. "She can't just change her mind."

"No." Seven glanced out over the water and watched as a fish made the leap into the air to capture its meal. "She is ours and we are hers. But, I see now, that her fears had some validity."

"Perhaps, but there were unintended consequences to the decision and she lost what she most needed." Lwaxana squeezed Seven gently.

"As there have been unintended consequences for my own decisions."

"How so?" prodded Lwaxana softly. She knew that sometimes it was important for one to frame one's contemplation in words.

Seven took her time and finally said, "There are those who, in ignorance, have implied that Kathryn's decision to promote Ezri Dax was based on her status as my bedmate."

"And…"

Now Seven really hesitated. "Some have said similar things about me, at one time. It was said that Astrometrics was given to me, rather than a position that I filled." There was a hint of a growl, but nothing deep. It was an old, discarded wound, long healed over.

Lwaxana pressed her cheek against Seven's temple and purred softly, comfortingly. "I suppose it brings up the real question."

"What question?"

"Would it matter if it were true?"

There was a pause in the air, a waiting.

Then there was a soft sound of amusement. "No. I would still have been the best choice. The only choice."

Lwaxana nodded. "Yes." She kissed her mate gently. "As they say, cream rises to the top. It would not matter how you arrived, only that you did well once you had the position."

Seven nodded softly. "Though, it puzzles me. At the same time they were saying these things about me, they were also calling me cold and unfeeling. How would it be possible to be both?"

"There are those who are able to hold opposing ideas in their head without proof or evidence to support either thought."

"Odd."

"It is. But not unusual."

"No. I suppose not."

The silence between them was warmer and softer. They kissed lovingly. "I have been thinking about appropriate ways to address these issues and have come to the conclusion that I may have to treat them individually. As Mistress of the House, I can not have them say such things about my mates. There will have to be consequences. But I will continue to ignore them if such words are said about me."

"Say what you will about me, but mess with my family...."

"Yes."

"It is, I think, something that we all feel." Lwaxana allowed her sense of protectiveness to rise to the surface until Seven nodded in understanding. She understood that they shared a common purpose.

"Also…Ezri Dax." Seven grimaced. "I do not think the Purloined Letter method is working as intended." She brought the discussion back to the conversation about discretion they had shared before she started her affair with the Trill.

Lwaxana contemplated how to answer the hidden question. "Darling, I don't think it has to do with any flaw in your plan. It's just, well, it's very hard to hide the letter in plain sight when it is missing from the desk."

Seven of Nine turned to look at her mate, "Explain."

"Darling, are you aware that Kathryn has not actually seen her first officer in days? Nor have Laren, T'Pel, B'Elanna, Kate, or any of the children, and, I suspect that, but for tonight's incident, the list would include Tuvok as well. I know that I have not seen her, though I do sense her, of course. And, how shall I put this… she has distanced herself from us."

Seven of Nine's gaze narrowed. "Indeed."

==^==

Benjamin Sisko was not, by nature, a patient man. His patience had been a wonderful gift - hard fought for - but a still, for all that, a gift. And so, against his nature, he had waited patiently to hear the sound that echoed through his quarters.

The chime of the door.

He wasn't sure if he spoke or thought the word. But the door slid open and he supposed he must have actually said, "Open."

Ben directed a long look at the shadow standing in his doorway, then decided that more patience was in order. "I have missed you, Old Man, but this is not where you should be tonight. Go home, Ezri." And then he pressed the button to force the doors to shut.

==^==

"Azan Hansen, why are you no longer regenerating?"

Azan looked at the blinking light on the wall. He had heard the doors to the family quarters hiss open and shut twice, so he had known that the house was free of awake adults, but he had forgotten that Voyager would need to be appeased.

"I require your assistance." Not as comfortable with communicating verbally as his siblings, he was having difficulty deciding what to tell Voyager. He knew he needed the ship's cooperation or his mission would fail.

Just then, he caught a flare of thought along his sibling link, and hurried to Emina's room. "One moment please, Voyager."

The toddler was trying to exit her sleeping unit, and he picked her up with some effort, his height making it difficult to lift the child over the edge of the unit. Emina waggled her fingers even as she sent the elements of thoughts through their link.

Azan turned and looked up, addressing the ship. "We are going to find Ezri Dax. We are concerned."

Voyager considered this. She had become aware that the Trill no longer inhabited the guest room, nor had the expected requests for furniture or access to the first officer's quarters materialized. "Ezri Dax is in her office. You will enact family communication protocol three." If they were missed before their return, she would inform the Prime that the children were safe.

"We will comply."

==^==

Half asleep, it took Ezri a moment to register who had entered her office. "Hey, my little Sochlings." She sat up and ran a hand through her hair to get it out of her eyes.

Emina immediately let go of Azan's hand, then crawled onto the makeshift bed, and Ezri enfolded her with one arm and waved for Azan to join them with the other.

"Are you functioning adequately?" Azan looked at her solemnly, and she ruffled his hair.

"I am well. Are you functioning adequately?" Ezri returned the ritual question.

"I am. You have not been home." Azan said quietly.

He leaned against her, and with Emina's weight already pressing against her still tender chest, Ezri had no choice but to lie back down, easing the children down with her as she did. "I know."

Emina had burrowed so that her head was resting over Dax, and she was breathing in a steady series of puffs that told Ezri that the toddler had gone to sleep.

"Does your Mother know where you are?" She wondered how to explain why she hadn't been home, and decided that distraction was as good as an answer.

"We enacted family communication protocol three." He tucked himself against her shoulder and yawned, and she yawned in response.

"So that's a no?" Already asleep, he didn't answer. In a minute she'd get up and take them back to their quarters. Right now she was content to pretend that everything was perfect.





Chapter 2 | Universe Alpha, Beta Quadrant: Presban System | Bookmarks




"You're not seriously thinking of going?" It seemed to Guinan that it would only be mete and right for the weather outside to match the intensity of the misgivings she felt on hearing that Deanna planned to return to the Titan. Lightening would be needed to punctuate the information that the Betazoid was going alone.

"Guinan, I have to. For no other reason than I owe it to Jean-Luc."

"Jean-Luc would understand if you didn't." She wasn't entirely convinced that the message had been from Jean-Luc Picard, but she had nothing concrete to offer by way of objection.

Deanna knew that he probably would, but that didn't stop her from wanting to tell him of her resignation face to face, nor did it obviate her need to put a resolution to her time aboard the Titan, just as saying a personal farewell to Jean-Luc would end her professional association with the Enterprise and its Captain. "I'll be fine."

"Does Asil know?" It was obvious that Guinan was playing what she took to be her trump card.

"She understands the logic of it." It was true as far as it went. Her mate had brought unassailable Vulcan logic to the matter and had been forced by dint of the same logic to concede. It didn't mean however, that Asil agreed with the decision.

"But she doesn't like it." The El-Aurian translated the evasion.

"Jean-Luc is an honourable man and the House needs all of those as allies we can get, especially with how destabilized things are now."

Guinan nodded, but didn't voice her opinion that it wasn't Captain Picard's honour that Deanna needed to worry about - it was Will Riker's.

==^==

Deanna knew as soon as she hit the transporter pad that she'd made a terrible mistake. The mental apologies fogged the room with the unsaid droplets of betrayal.

With one exception.

In front of the exit, stood a woman who, on any other day, Deanna would have found unremarkable. A woman, she realized, that, but for her marriage to Asil and its attendant gifts, she would still have counted as unremarkable. Here was the woman Will had replaced her with: a senior lieutenant, operations gold, middling height, buxom chest, short chestnut hair and relatively striking. Deanna forced her expression to neutrality and stepped down off the pad as though nothing was amiss.

She took what appeared to be a superficial look around the room, while under the surface, she focused on gathering a better sense of what was happening and why. It was clear from the guarded nature of the lieutenant's thoughts that the woman knew that Deanna was an empath. It was equally clear from the nature of masking images that she had no idea how powerful an empath.

Deanna understood the value of being underestimated.

"Commander Deanna Troi, by order of Starfleet command, you are hereby relieved of duty. Formal charges are being prepared, and you are to be detained at the Captain's discretion pending the filing of those charges. Legal counsel will be provided."

She also understood the value of silence. They had expected her to be surprised, and while she was a little taken aback that they had invoked Picard's name to get her on board, she was not a complete idiot. She knew exactly what being AWOL meant.

"Aren't you going to ask why?"

"No." Deanna put as much nonchalance into her tone as she could muster. Seconds later, it paid off as her arm was taken, and she was suddenly, profoundly grateful for the quirk of genetics that had gifted her with solid black Betazoidian eyes. Eyes that could hide their shock. Her captor had unwittingly shown Deanna everything.

It wasn't Will at all. It was Section 31.

==^==

With the fingers of her left hand, Asil snuffed out the meditation candle, pinching the flame into darkness. Pain was not irrelevant, it was non-existent. At least that much of the Kolinahr was still hers. Despite her attempts at disciplining her mind, her thoughts continued to roil, and she was finding it increasingly difficult to wait the agreed upon period of time before retrieving her mate.

She could not fathom how she had been persuaded that letting Deanna go aboard the Titan was either the logical or the correct course of action.

A soft knock sounded at the door and she roused herself from her sitting position to open the heavy stone blocking the entrance to the meditation chamber. "Barin Troi." She didn't quite smile, but she let her affection for the child show in her thoughts at a level where her surrogate son would see it, just as she could see his pleasure simply by looking at him.

He waggled his fingers, and she acceded to his request, picking him up easily. Asil settled him against her hip as she ducked through the entrance. With their bodies in contact, she could read his distress and fear, and it behooved her to act as she knew Deanna would want.

Barin was a child, with a child's fears and did not need an adult's truths. He needed the monsters chased away from his dreams, so she spoke softly, sealing the compact of her thoughts with her words, though there was little of logic in them. "I will bring her home, Barin. This I promise."

He relaxed against her shoulder and she carried him up the steps and into the house, where she was forced to surrender her role of caretaker, and become the commander.

==^==

Asil stopped to speak with Guinan; if the plan was going to succeed it would take them all. Above all else she needed to be sure that Guinan would care for those most dear to her.

The dark eyes of the El-Aurian searched hers intently, and Asil wondered at what the woman found, or if she had found anything at all. "War has come to House Presba."

"You know then."

Asil felt her brow arch in surprise and completely without her volition. Like countless others, she was suddenly struck by the idea that The Listeners heard far more than anyone suspected. "Yes."

"What do you need from me?" Guinan asked.

"The children." The words were harder to say than she had anticipated. It was, Asil supposed, a tacit acknowledgement that it was likely that she would not be returning. With a determined effort she banished the tendrils of emotion that threatened to ride the acknowledgement into being.

The El-Aurian stood quietly for a moment and then nodded. "I'll do it."

Asil dipped her head in gratitude. "I, and my House, thank you." She turned and left the room, heading for the exit. There was much to prepare.

Guinan watched her leave, and when Asil was completely out of the house, she contacted Asil's twin brothers, Vedor and Tuvon, who were the youngest of T'Pel and Tuvok's three sons, with a simple and non-revealing communication. They arrived in almost no time at all. She also contacted Phoebe and Vrald in a similar way; simply offering dinner and some good company.

The scions of House Presba took up position. The estate went into a quiet state of lockdown, the defense systems were unobtrusively set on stand by, and Guinan took the final step.

On a special channel, a tightly aimed message sped through subspace, warning those who needed to know. House Presba was at war.

==^==

In another quadrant, though only four days away at maximum warp, there was another place in a state of quiet lockdown and defense. Admiral Alynna Nechayev and Admiral Owen Paris were not known for their camaraderie. Owen Paris had made an ill-advised decision, and Alynna's niece had paid the ultimate price. The tragedy had served to cement for others the sense of bad blood between them and they nurtured the general belief in that state of affairs by having very observable bouts of audible disagreements, visual displeasure and practical avoidance except when they had to meet.

The lockdown and defense was being conducted at the moment by members their staff, who, at the least, were just trying to duck and cover before the verbal explosives went off. Personal offices were being prepared with soothing drinks and sounds; up to the minute files and anything else that could be thought of to smooth the ruffled feathers that were bound to come out of one of those infamous meetings. One of which was occurring now.

Elsewhere on the impressive Starfleet grounds, the two Admirals were meeting in one of the secure offices designed for high powered decision making. Security had gone over the room with everything they had and the silencer settings were on maximum. A secure channel had been put in place, for communication purposes. And two security guards stood outside guarding, while two lieutenants, who would normally have had no call this early in their careers to be on opposite sides of anything this political, tried to out-glare one other. Absolute loyalty was something that both Admirals commanded.

If those same lieutenants could have glimpsed what was going on inside of the office, they would have been surprised, but not as surprised as Section 31, who had spent an immense amount of effort to ensure that the two Admirals remained at loggerheads.

But that general obliviousness was one of the reasons that the room had been created. Admirals Nechayev and Paris were not the only Admirals who had ever needed the room for the purpose of disguise, planning, and complete, secure privacy. There were no tapes or cameras in the room. The only data devices in the room were those they brought in with them. And the damper field also fuzzed out any bio-spy device that might have been implanted in their clothing or on them during the day. It was paranoid, but effective.

Alynna got straight to the point as she sat down across from Owen. "Have we heard from them?" They both understood who they were talking about. The idea that they did not get along did have some basis in reality. Owen was not her favorite person. But time was a healing factor in all wounds and they had common purpose. Still, just in case, she kept up her bristling persona. One just never knew who might be listening in these days.

Owen shook his head and grimaced. "Not from the Delta Quadrant. But that doesn't mean anything. There have been other times when we've been out of communication range and Kathryn is very good about getting in contact with us as soon as she can."

Alynna ground out. "You will keep me informed." Then she said with a bit of asperity. "You should have kept me informed from the beginning."

The older Admiral replied with equal crustiness. "Janeway was not under your roster, but mine. It was my call to make." This time is was Alynna who narrowed her gaze. Owen continued. "Which brings up our other topic. We have had some news from the Beta Quadrant. Captain William Riker attempted contact with Presba, but according to him he was refused and House Presba was completely unwilling to assist us."

"Really."

Admiral Paris shot Alynna a wry look because of her tone. He arched his brow and somehow managed to make his body language appear both grumpy and disagreeable. "Really. So this brings me to making a special request. Do you think you can send your man Picard …"

Alynna raised her hand and began shaking her head. "I can't. He's at a pivotal location at the moment." Then she dropped her palm to the table and looked thoughtful. "On the other hand, I can contact him about the possibility of sending someone who might be more persuasive. We were aware that there was a bit of strife between Captain Riker and his wife."

"Ex-wife now. The paperwork went through."

"Interesting. Have we received any other paperwork?"

"Funny you should mention it." Owen shoved something that looked suspiciously like an old fashioned manila file folder with laminate paper in her direction. Nechayev took it, opened it and read from it. Then she took the folder to the disintegrator and watched as it disappeared to particle matter. For good measure, she initiated the energy conversion cycle, and not even particulate remained behind.

Her only comment was, "Interesting."

==^==

Sometime later, Admiral Nechayev stalked out of the secure office with a terrible look on her face. The guards flinched. Her lieutenant flinched. And Admiral Owen's lieutenant paled. It had obviously not gone well.

==^==

Deanna submitted meekly, or as meekly as she was able, to being searched.

"A Klingon without a weapon? Well, no matter." The Section 31 officer, whose name Deanna had finally been able to recall as Nuala Corvalis, had made a very thorough search, keeping up a running commentary throughout. It was clear from her tone that she was mocking Deanna for having joined a Klingon house, and deriding with equal measure the Klingon species for their liberal definitions of what constituted a Klingon.

From Corvalis directly, Deanna read that it was more than a necessity of the assignment that motivated the arrest. Every touch of her hands on Deanna's skin told a tale of personal animosity.

Finally it was over, and her original clothes were tossed back at her. One handed, she caught them, but made no effort to feign modesty. The brig worked on Humans so effectively because it was open to view, and lacked privacy. She was of Betazed. A dark, sound proof room would have been a more appropriate parallel.

From Picard, she had learned to never be as expected. Act, don't react. With even, deliberate movements, she slipped her bra around her waist and fastened the catches, before settling it into place. Her underwear was next, then the shirt and full trousers. Deanna smiled at her captors. Her mothers had wonderful taste in fabric. That the material was proof against punctures and most energy weapons was a lovely bonus.
==^==

Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the Enterprise E, stared pensively out the view port of his ready room. He was a fair skinned man, bald at the top, firm of jaw and trim of body. He was renowned as a diplomat and captain.

On his desk was a forgotten cup of Earl Grey tea, which was rapidly cooling. He gazed at the cloud patterns of the planet his vessel was orbiting as if they somehow held the answer to his current problems. The first of which was an urge to be elsewhere.

He had made certain choices in his life, one which precluded having children, though he was the Captain of a generational ship. Because of that, though, he had formed close bonds with certain members of his crew, past and present, and had come to think of them as members of his family. On the communication station of his desk were three separate messages.

The first was from Will Riker, sent sometime ago, with disturbing news about his efforts at Presba with the acting head of the House. Despite the fact that Captain Riker was autonomous, he still fell under Captain Picard's jurisdiction, and so Riker kept him apprised of news and events. But there was something odd about the presentation of the communication; something, aside from the obvious and unusual animosity toward Deanna, that struck Picard like a warning flag.

The second missive was from Starfleet headquarters. It addressed the issue of House Presba and their planetary system from a very different angle, and requested that Picard send someone who would perhaps be more useful in establishing a possible dialog and point of contact there. Starfleet, if not the Federation, needed the Presban on their side, or at least neutral enough territory to allow a footprint, so that, if the opportunity arose, diplomatic ties could be mended between the Klingon Empire and the Federation.

The final missive was from a dear friend of his and it spoke of things that had he had hair, would have set it high upon his scalp. It was this missive that had him contemplating the clouds and urgently wishing that he could order his ship sailing straight to the Beta Quadrant. When Guinan spoke, it behooved one to listen.

A part of him was tempted to go anyway. But the negotiations with this race could make the difference between winning or losing the war with the Dominion. The base metals alone made them important, even if they weren't quite past being a warp one civilization.

Tugging his jacket down, Picard finally made up his mind and turned and paced to the communication station at his desk. "Picard to Dr. Crusher."

==^==

The statuesque redhead packed quickly and made arrangements with her staff. Dr. Beverly Crusher told them that she would be out of reach, but in an emergency, Captain Picard would be able to contact her. She did not say why she was leaving or where she was going. That was classified.

An hour later, she was on a shuttle bound for a space port, where she would find a prearranged berth as a medic with a merchant that was friendly to both factions. That supposed friendliness did not stop her from packing a phaser and her Starfleet medi-kit. One just never knew.

==^==

Auloh was up long past her bedtime, though the adults did not know it, or so she believed. She had been, for a brief time, engaged in watching the adults from one of the access points on the upper story of her home. She had been awake since the brief touch placed upon her brow by her mother and Asil's quiet exit from the room.

As she watched the adults prepare, Auloh had a sense of imminent change and remembered when her aunts and uncles by birth had also engaged in gathering their weapons and preparing their armor. That had been a much louder procedure than what she was observing now. To Auloh, it spoke volumes about the difference in the two Houses. In Qua'lon there was much boasting, but not much fire. In Presba, there was very little boasting, but there was a great deal of fire behind the quiet. It made her once again proud that she had chosen honour and Presba.

The Klingon girl rose from where she was crouching and went back to her bedroom. Once there, she went to the replicator and began scanning through the menu system displayed above it. When she found what she wanted to wear, she placed her order. A stack of clothes, House Presba's full uniform, in her smaller size, appeared.

She withdrew the clothes, and then placed another order. This was her home, and her family; she wanted no other. She would defend it and her brother to the death.

==^==

Twelve Klingons and a Vulcan emerged from the dark recesses of the cavern. All were now full Members of the House Presba.

Asil turned to face them, and met their eyes one by one. They had agreed to die for her if necessary, so it was only logical that she acknowledged them as individuals.

A fourteenth member of the team stepped up next to her and placed a large communications array on the ground between them. "The signals are ready."

She shifted her helmet under her arm, and double-checked her equipment. It was time. "Prepare for transport."

There was no regimented chorus of ayes, and yes ma'ams, instead there was instant obedience, as helmets were affixed to pressure suits, and each warrior turned and checked the seal for a companion.

As she lifted her hand to issue the order for the first of the transports, shadows broke away from the edge of the clearing and stepped into the light emanating from the communications module.

Tuvon and Vedor strode forward together, as always. They did not speak, but fell into line with the rest, already attired in the same manner as the remainder of the team. She nodded her welcome. They were of the Blood, and she felt their chances of success increase, though she would not have asked this of them.

Then two more shadows become people.

"You didn't really think we were going to let you do this alone, did you." Phoebe smiled, the blue-white light making her seem ethereal and feral all at once. "And look," she gestured at her husband, "I brought my mountain of a man. Hell of a two for one."

"I had hoped." Asil looked meaningfully at her sister's midriff and then at Vrald.

Vrald shook his head. "I knew I didn't stand a chance talking her out of it, and if you can't, we're both going." He stood at his full height, his physique truly impressive without the weight of years softening his appearance. "It is a good day to die."

Asil nodded. "Dvanne, take the Janeways and get them kitted out and brief them."

"Yes, ma'am."

Vrald shot her a dirty look, and Asil met it, brow arched. "Your wife does run your household, does she not?"

A rumble of laughter rippled through the gathered Klingon warriors, and, for a split second, Asil thought her jibe might have succeeded where reason clearly would not.

Then Vrald turned his dark eyes to hers, and growled softly. "To be ruled by my wife is no dishonour. To live, unruled, while you risked your life and I did nothing would bar me from the gates of Sto-vo-kor, and not Kahless himself could open them again. I am happy to follow where she leads."

"And your child?"

Phoebe stepped forward and clasped her husband's hand. "Will be with his parents."

Asil nodded. "You have five minutes to be ready, or I will leave without you."

They turned as one and followed Dvanne.

Asil watched them go, touched, though she would never show it. What strange manner of family she had fallen into that only the ties of a marriage a quadrant away made them so, yet their loyalty ran deep and true. Infinite diversity in infinite combination, truly.

She heard the gravel crunch, and left her thoughts to scatter in the night. Even before she turned, Asil knew who she would find standing there, and she knew that this battle she had to win. "Auloh."

"Mother."

"I am glad you came. I have a task for you."

The girl, almost a young woman now, fully decked in the battle uniform of the House, showed her surprise clearly, and Asil nearly let her lips twitch. Her father had been a master at redirecting the antics of his children and she had learned from him how to preserve the dignity of youth.

"Should the House fall, I require you to safeguard Barin until I return." Asil paused, and then lowered her voice. Auloh was not a child. "If I do not return you must keep him safe until his true parents come for him, and you. Will you do this?"

Auloh came to attention, her eyes widened briefly before a look of calm determination settled over her. "I will."

"Be well, my daughter." Asil reached out and brushed back a lock of hair from the ridges that spread across the maturing features, and then turned away. She knew that Auloh wouldn't leave until they did.

For the second time, she called her troops to order. "Begin signal rotation. Prepare to transport."

==^==

Sirella, Mistress of the House Martok, had an interest in House Presba. At first, her interest had been that of a jealous wife, protecting her family. But as that miscommunication had been resolved, her motivation had changed to one of nurturing for the House, and friendship for the Presbans themselves.

As the Mistress of the Imperial House, she had certain resources and privileges that others did not. For instance, there was a direct line between her ship, the Orantho, and the Klingon vessel that guarded Presba. Captain Keyv of the IKS Jornub happened to be a loyal servant of the Empire and had accepted her request that she be kept apprised of any major changes at Presba.

She had recently received, via the Captain, a captured message. The Captain had not interfered with its sending, since it had been clearly sent on its way as a missive of warning. But he did record it in passing. He did not believe that the Titan had managed to grab of the signal, since it happened to bounce off of a transceiver located on the opposite side of the system, in the Federation ship's communications blind-spot.

It was almost as if the signal had been meant to be captured only by Captain Keyv.

Whatever the case, Sirella had the missive now and she made her decisions quickly. After all, her husband had already declared the allegiance. And whoever was dumb enough to ignore Chancellor Martok's declaration fully deserved the consequences of such folly.

War had been declared by House Presba and that meant that her allies would be there.

With a few words into the communicator, Sirella made her orders and the Orantho turned. She also forwarded the missive to another member of the House Martok who would probably be close enough to do something about it. Worf, Sirella was sure, would be very interested.





Chapter 3 | Universe Beta, Beta Quadrant | Bookmarks




The Klingon Judgment sped on its way to Qo'nos. Ambassador Chakotay of Universe Alpha was on his way to his newly appointed place at the capital of the Klingon Empire. He had a loyal crew, a mix of former Maquis and members of House Presba: about fifteen people all told. They would form the core of his staff, acting as body guards, assistants and, if necessary, spies. If needed they could, in emergencies, contact Commander Vah. The Kazon Commander of the Marines had transferred over to the Tor'stag and was in possession of the codes necessary to retrieve any special communications.

Chakotay was a member of House Presba, but his position as an Ambassador gave him a certain amount of latitude. He did not expect to receive any commands from the House leaders that would interfere with those duties. For one thing, Miral Torres also came from Universe Alpha and for another, he had his orders from Captain Janeway, and they would supersede any that interfered with his main task of insuring the safety of Universe Alpha.

Again, though, that was not going to be a problem. The safety of both Universes was also something that General Belle Torres was occupied in. She had taken on the task of ferreting out the enemies of the Klingon Empire among the Orion Syndicate. These individuals and cartels, it turned out, were also enemies of the Federation and Empire in Universe Alpha. Thus, House Presba's purpose was one. He intended to support the General's efforts as necessary.

If he felt any nerves or had any reservations about the whole endeavor, he kept that information to himself.

==^==

A little further away in the Beta Quadrant, Grand Judge Miral Torres went one direction with her mate, Gretchen Janeway; while her daughter, General Belle Torres along with her mate, Annika, went another.

Both had duties that called them to separate endeavors, and, reluctantly, they had parted ways outside of the Bajoran sector.

Miral was off to deal with another case, this time one that was much less fraught with political impact than the trials at Terok Nor. On the way, she and Gretchen would stop by a property that their daughter-in-law, T'Pel, had purchased. It was, in fact, a mirror of the Presba Estate in Universe Alpha. Miral had realized, when T'Pel handed her the portfolio, that she was going to have to hire professional help, but first she wanted to see what they had.

Belle was following a lead to an Altheldu hiding place. The Altheldu had been a Cartel in alliance with the Pharaoh Cartel. They boldly attacked Terok Nor while the Chancellor was in attendance, and so had brought down the wrath of the whole Empire upon the Orion Syndicate. The question would be how to pursue the various arms and associated cartels of the extensive organization. It did help that those who did not share Altheldu's point of view had broken off relations with the syndicate, but others had not. The Empire was facing split rebellious criminal factions, and it was going to get dirty before it could get better. In the meantime, the Empire was also going to have to prepare for oncoming threats from the Delta Quadrant.

Without a more concrete idea of what had brought the Hirogen to hunt the border of the Delta Quadrant, or verifiable sightings of the Hive and the Borg, all they could do was prepare, and hope that it would be enough and in time.

Fortunately for General Torres, she had several allies of her own to draw on. And she was now a Warlord, which gave her certain rights and abilities she did not have previously. Belle began with what she had at hand. She gave Commander Vah his own ship and then told the young Kazon her plan. She would be sending people, reliable people, who she carefully selected, to him for training. She wanted more of the skills they had, and, as Warlord, she wanted them faster than quick. Commander Vah had merely given her a grim smile and told her that if she provided the people, he would make them Marines or they would die trying.

She did not mention that Klingons already had Marines of a kind. She knew what he meant. Klingon Marines did not go through an intensive team training period. It was assumed that they were warriors already when they joined and their rank was given for them to rise or fall from at the beginning. Klingons joined the force and then obeyed according to their belief in their leader and their honor. They were also trained on the go, which could result in haphazard expertise, depending on how good their leader might be.

Her troops, Belle knew, were good. They were trained well and had fought the Hive to a standstill once. She could name a handful of other squads of equal merit. House Martok's forces, for instance. House Presba's Marines, however, would be more than good. They would become what others wanted to be.

The marines that Vah would give her would be trained special forces. And then they would train more. They would be arrogant as Gre'thor, but they would also be effective and deadly, which was what she wanted.

He gave her a timetable, and she started calling in favors and found out who really wanted to be part of her team.

There were two other variables that gave Belle greater confidence. The first was her mate, Annika. The other was her mother, Miral, and Miral's mate.

Annika was a genius. The miracle was that she had originally been preserved and sheltered for the potential beauty of her body. The discovery of her intelligence had come later, by accident. Luck had preserved her afterwards. A blessing of Kahless and Lukara for which Belle would be eternally grateful. She could not imagine her life without Annika.

Belle could not give Annika a rank in the Klingon Marines. But she could give her a rank in House Presba's forces. She could also create a department just for her. The fact that the department was currently stationed on the Tor'stag was merely a convenient coincidence.

Well, and a personal necessity.

Then there was her mother and Gretchen. Her mother, a Grand Judge, had brought House Presba to the forefront of the events reshaping the Empire. Miral's innovative style, her use of Truth Seekers and her absolute dedication to Honor had charged the Empire with new energy.

Miral's mate, Gretchen, had changed the Empire's opinion about what a Human could be, which was what permitted Belle to allow Annika to be more than slave on her ship. Belle's mother-in-law acted as counselor to the defendants in Miral's court cases, advocate in general, and research expert in a team of experts. She was also a phenomenal cook and when Miral had bought a new ship, Belle had lost a goodly number of people to the lure of Gretchen's cooking. Enough to fully crew Miral's ship, in fact.

She had expected it, since they were the same crew-members she had originally acquired from Miral and Gretchen when they gave up the Klingon Judgment.

What she hadn't expected was the sizable care package, in the form of fresh goods and two replicator storage packs, which Gretchen gave to them before they parted ways. One replicator pack was simply more food, which combined the culinary efforts of both Gretchen and Icheb. The second replicator pack was from Seven of Nine, the Mistress of House Presba. It contained the specifications of the various versions of the family uniform, including improvements for armor, secreted weapons, and other assorted items that indicated great love and consideration for her sister and her sister's mate. Gretchen had said, after a sturdy Klingon made the final delivery, "Seven wanted you to have these after they left, as a surprise. And we wanted you to know that you are well loved by all of us. Qapla, Belle and Annika Torres of House Presba. Until we meet again."

==^==

Belle rolled out of the bed, disgruntled to find herself alone. She disdained her robe, and padded naked out to the main room.

"Annika?"

The blonde didn't move, and Belle studied her, more troubled than she was willing to admit. Last night she had woken up to find her mate standing in front of one of the windows, staring out into space. Tonight, she was seated with a book in one hand, and various parts of what looked to be the replicator strewn around her.

With careful motions, Belle came to where Annika would be able to see her, and then slowly bent her knees until she could look her lover in the eyes. "Annika, Be'nal. What is wrong?" She'd noticed an increasing air of detachment creep over her mate - not constantly, at least not yet - but it was there, nonetheless.

Annika let her eyes swim back into focus. When had Belle entered the room?

Belle watched Annika's eyes warm from ice to azure, and noted the small smile that touched the full lips. She relaxed and let go of some of her fear, but not her worry. Whatever it was, it didn't seem to be about them. "Annika?" she asked again.

"I was hungry." The smile grew and became shy, and apologetic. "I did not mean to wake you, Beya." Annika leaned forward and placed a kiss on the lid of her mate's good eye.

Belle waited a heartbeat and then another while the feather-light kisses were lovingly placed along her eyelid and then the edges of the scar. She loved that Annika touched her without hesitation, and with a reverence that made her feel loved more deeply than she had ever dreamed possible. She wanted to nothing to discourage that - ever. Finally, she could take no more, the fire had begun to burn, and she lifted her head to capture Annika's lips with her own.

The instant the Blood fire hit, Annika felt it, felt her muscles clench in carnal delight. Her hips rocked forward and up. The book fell to the floor, forgotten for a second time as her need reduced her world to the touch and smell of Belle. She parted her legs, even as she reached forward to pull Belle closer. "Now."

Belle obeyed.

==^==

Miral and Gretchen bought a new ship, since the House could afford it. The Nawrya was a sleek vessel, roomy enough for a crew of ten, plus her owners and their assistants. The vessel had moderate defenses and could warp where they needed to go, but it was small enough not to draw undue attention in their travels.

They headed toward the planet that mirrored the purchased one in Universe Alpha - Presba. In a way, this was the first real opportunity that Miral and Gretchen had to be alone for an extended period since their first entry into Universe Beta. Their assistants had a room of their own. Their daughters were off to the alpha-Universe. The crew was absolutely theirs, members of the House and thus loyal to a degree that few could really appreciate, and busy with running the ship. Some of them had been with them on Martok's ship early in their arrival to Universe Beta. They had not yet replaced Lwaxana and T'Pel as Truth Seekers for the court, but there were resumes to be read through and there had been several expressions of interest. But, honestly, they did not want anyone who was not a member of the House for the duty. There was a certain amount of trust that had allowed them to have such great success beforehand.

The trial Miral and Gretchen would be handling was far enough away that they had time to visit both Presba and then Risa, if they wanted to. Gretchen was still having moments of laughter and often chortled about their stoic daughter-in-law T'Pel's acquirement of the pleasure planet in this Universe. They had decided to save visiting that one for last. It might need a very thorough assessment.

So they had time and they had space to do what came naturally to new mates when they had such valuable commodities in abundance.

One morning, early on in their journey, Miral and Gretchen were lazing about in bed. The redheaded Human was snugged up against the brunette Klingon, snoozing peacefully. Her head rested on Miral's shoulder, and she had one arm flung across the upper part of Miral's belly while her leg pinned one thigh, lying across it. They smelled of their recent carnal exploration of each other, which continued to bring a happy, contented grin to Miral's face; even as she read the legal files in her PADD.

Nelav had been studiously adding to the collection, as they received more appointments and Miral wanted to stay caught up. The Klingon judicial system might be swift, but that was because they did their homework before hand.

It wasn't anything in particular that set Miral off. One moment she was fine, the next she was rushing to the refresher, while her non-existent breakfast tried to hurl itself out.

Gretchen lay off-kilter and suddenly awake, on her side of the bed, but at least not on the floor. She hastened up and trailed after her mate, "Miral?"

The only response she received was a wretched noise associated with gastronomic unpleasantness. She asked no more unnecessary questions, but more fully entered the refresher. Gretchen ordered a wet cloth from the replicator and stepped around her mate, then knelt beside her and held back her hair.

"Should we go to the med-aid bay?" Gretchen asked and then wiped the brow of her mate.

Miral grimaced and shook her head. "After."

"As you wish, love."

Five minutes later, Miral stood up. She looked paler than normal, but otherwise healthy. There was a puzzled expression on her face, but she let herself be gently cleaned and then led out of the refresher.

They dressed in modest robes, but not much else, and then Gretchen took her to the med-aid bay, which was little more than a small room on the ship with basic medical supplies and a medi-droid. Gretchen helped her mate settle on the bio-bed, and then activated the droid.

"How may I be of assistance?" There was not a lot of personality in the question, but there didn't need to be.

"My wife has been throwing up, but we don't know why."

"Working."

The droid floated to where Miral sat. It used an extensible arm and tricorder, waving it over Miral's body. Finally it paused at Miral's belly. It said, "Evaluating."

Not long afterward, there was a pinging noise, and then the droid said, "Evaluation complete. Patient is gravid. Do you wish to hear recommendations?"

"Pregnant! That is physically impossible. Run the diagnostic again."

"Complying with patient request."

The medi-droid ran the process again, made the same small noises and came out with the same results.

Before Miral could make it go through another diagnostic run, Gretchen said, "We need more information. Are you able to diagnose the basic genetics of the fetus?"

The medi-droid searched its database. "Confirmed."

"If the procedure is non-invasive, please do so now and display the results." Gretchen placed her hand on Miral in a grounding motion and they waited for the revelation together.

==^==

Miral was becoming more grouchy and concerned with each minute. She had been combing through her memory trying to determine, when, if and how something like this might possibly occur. Her only guess had to do with somehow, some-when being drugged. But that was also completely unlikely.

She had no idea whatsoever, how it might have happened. Yes, she liked to drink, but at no time had she ever lost control of her mental facilities, nor had she taken a casual lover in years.

Yet, the medi-droid continued to provide proof that she was undeniably pregnant. It ran through a tertiary diagnostic, this time displaying the results, including a breakdown of the genetics. As the details filtered onto the screen near the bio-bed, both she and Gretchen were taken aback.

The droid beeped again, indicating that it was collating the results, then concluded, "The combined genetic data is consistent with two genetic signatures of persons on board this ship. Their information is stored in the database."

"Display the two genetic signatures and the names of the persons, beside the information about the fetus."

A virtual window popped up. "Gestating parent, Miral Torres, identified as a Klingon female, genetic alterations indicated." Then another virtual window popped up. "Material donor, Gretchen Janeway, identified as a Human female, genetic alterations indicated."

The two women turned to stare at each other, open mouthed.

"Darling," said Miral carefully. "Is there something you would like to tell me?"

==^==

An hour or two later, they were both still boggled by the turn of events.

Neither could explain how it had occurred, but Gretchen established, via the medi-droid, an approximate time for the conception. In tracing her memory back, she said, "You remember, it was last month, that night when we had the conversation."

Miral looked blankly at her Be'nal and said, "Which conversation? My mate, you and I speak to each other often, about many topics."

Gretchen chuckled and snuggled in, though she expected there was going to come a time when Miral would be the one snuggling in to her soon. "We were speaking about the possibility of children."

"Ah. That conversation."

It had been, if not exactly a romantic evening, but in its own way incredibly intense and wonderful. Miral had been the one to point out that, technically, they were both fertile. It had led to a dialog about whether they even wanted to try for more children, now that theirs were all grown.

Gretchen had given Miral a challenging look and had joked, "Well, I guess we can try."

And so they had, in a light hearted, but passionate way. Their dialog, along with those mystic touches, had traced a path of eroticism so bright, they both had orgasmed sharply and deeply, falling into one another for a time. It was one of the rare moments that Miral recalled that she had not been aware of whether she had been conscious immediately after or not. Miral remembered thinking that, if Gretchen had been capable, they surely would have been successful that night.

"But how?" Gretchen said. "I just don't see it."

Miral, who was practical said, "In cloning, all one needs are viable cells. There was, from that point of view, I'm sure plenty of cell exchange going on between us, my mate."

"But you know, and I know, that," Gretchen touched Miral's belly gently and her voice softened, "she is not a clone, Bang'wI."

"No. But she is ours."

"Meaning, you don't want to sweat the details." Genetic alterations indeed, thought Gretchen.

"Someone else will, I am sure."

Gretchen chuckled as she thought of one woman in particular, "Ah, yes, dear Dr. Kate. I'm sure she would be very interested in this news."

"We will tell all when they return." Miral grinned softly. "Satisfied?"

Gretchen stroked Miral's still flat belly and then nodded. "Yes. But let's do find out." She grinned and kissed her mate. "I'd hate for one of us to get knocked up by accident again."

"Be'nal, I guarantee that this child was no accident."

==^==

Deep within the Beta Quadrant, the Orion syndicate had gone to ground. Or, at least, the Syndicate thought they had. But it was an inescapable fact of life that nothing happened without leaving a treasure trove of logistical evidence. Belle looked across the table of her war room at her mate and nodded in approval. "You're sure?"

Annika nodded. "The correlation between the bulk purchases of foodstuffs within this system, and that of a variety of fuel sources and weapons from the other systems is beyond a doubt."

General Martok reached forward and grabbed a handful of the spiced gagh from a bowl at the end of the table. He had fond memories of Gretchen's artistry with the food and was determined to eat as much of her version of it as he could before departing. He eyed Annika speculatively, and wondered what scientific toy or piece of equipment he could barter with her to get the replicator pattern for it.

His scrutiny did not go unnoticed, and he looked back up to find Belle watching him intently. Not a man to quail easily, he made an exception. "She's got the replicator pattern for this." He waved at the bowl.

"Ah, well as long as it's my food, and not my wife…." Belle let the statement trail off, knowing that Annika would blush regardless. She reached over to the bowl and grabbed one of the plumper specimens. Popping it her mouth, she chewed it thoughtfully, before adding another. "You know, maybe we shouldn't go in guns blazing." She grabbed another handful of the worms, then noted the looks she was getting. "What? I can do subtle."

Annika and Martok exchanged loaded glances, but neither one of them spoke. Martok out of a well developed sense of self-preservation, and Annika because it wasn't in her nature.

Belle looked between the two, and then shrugged. Annika would explain later. "Alright, this is what we're going to do."

==^==


Sela reported back to the Tor'stag as soon as the package had been delivered safely into the hands of a trustworthy Agent of Romulus. In her hands, she held the small rectangular packet that she'd been given in exchange, but didn't examine it closely. It did not pay to examine that which was for Belle's eyes only.

Speak of the Reman. Sela came to a stop outside of the General's quarters. Annika was regarding the keypad quizzically.

"Annika?"

The blonde almost bowed, something she hadn't done in weeks. "Lt. General Sela." There was a pause. "General Torres is in the war room."

Sela nodded. She'd known that, but had wanted to drop her kit in her own quarters before delivering her news. "Do you need any help?" The Human was incredibly beautiful, and devastatingly intelligent, but every so often Sela had noticed that the blonde seemed to lose touch with the ordinary.

Annika studied her for a moment, and then apparently made a decision. "I have...locked myself out."

Silently, Sela reached over and touched the appropriate keys on the pad. The door slid open and Annika entered. She watched for a moment more as Annika simply stood in the middle of the room, and then the doors slid shut, ending her view. That woman could be all stripes of weird. Sela smiled; of course Belle had her peccadilloes too. Wasn't love grand?

Sela looked down at her missive, and wondered what its implications would be for her next task. Was there anything in there that would take her near Betazed, and Priam Nael?

She dropped her bag on the floor and let her thoughts flow through and on. The occasion would either arise, or it wouldn't and she would then make time or not, and the message was likely just a simple message about the Romulan Republic's willingness to serve the Klingon Empire in this matter, and a compilation of files about troop strength and the like. On the plus side, she could report that Winn Tech had taken the contract to create the new suits for the marine recruits.

A feral smile touched Sela's lips. Soon, things would get very interesting in the Empire.

==^==

Like the one in Universe Alpha, the Presba Estate that Miral and Gretchen now stood upon had, at one time, been a colony. They walked through the small ghost town, examining the remnants with an eye towards the renovations that would be needed to make the estate, and its environs habitable. "We can hire people to come settle here."

"T'Pel did leave us the information they had on Presba in our other Universe. We can use that a base for design. But somehow, I expect, we will have to make this world our own. It won't be the same."

"No. But I see now why they chose it. It has potential." Miral bent down and picked up a fragment from one of the buildings. It felt solid and warm in her hand. She smiled in contemplation. "Effany," she said. And the Orion stepped forward, a PADD in her hand. "Make a notation to contact our Dunkarian associates. See if they have any farmers who would be interested in trying out on a new planet. Inform them that there might be opportunities for advancement, in special cases of loyalty."

The Orion female quickly noted all of that down and nodded. "It will be done, Your Honor."

Miral smiled at the green woman. It had taken weeks to get her out of the habit of calling herself or Gretchen, Mistress. "Good. We'll need to do some research on prefabricated buildings," she dropped the plascrete onto the ground. "And some quality force shielding. There's animal sign all over the place."

"It will be done."

Satisfied, Miral stood and wrapped her arm around her mate. "It will do."

==^==

The Nawrya did not head straight toward Risa, after all. While they were on their way through the Beta Quadrant they received a request for their aid with a dispute in a system that was near to the Presban one. Miral had agreed to it, since the monetary inducement was lucrative enough to pay for the entire journey there and to Risa.

Because it was a spur of the moment decision, the Town Hall was only filled with the interested parties and their supporters. It was somewhat noisy, but the circle was wide and the Judgment Dais was level, with a chair for the Judge. One really couldn't ask for much more when it came to a small town.

Grand Judge Miral Torres and Advocate Gretchen Janeway took up position where they normally did, with the exception that this time Gretchen stood beside her mate, rather than sitting at her feet. Behind them, Nelav, Effany and T'Sai stood. Nelav had two or three PADDs she was holding for the Judge. Beside the whole group, two large Klingon guards assumed their stations and glared out menacingly at the audience.

Not that anyone was inclined towards foolishness. Everyone on the judicial staff was armed, and Miral's famed bat'leth was exactly where people had grown accustomed to seeing it: stuck point first in the ground, ready to be wielded. In fact, quite a few found that strong symbol comforting.

Miral began with her usual introduction, explaining her purpose in being there and the behavior she expected from those in attendance. Then she raised her hand and Nelav handed her a PADD. The Judge took a moment to read through the contents and then nodded. "Jaear. You will first tell me your side of the story."

"Jaear! He's the one who is…"

"Silence! Or do you really want to see the inside of Rura Penthe?" Miral roared, projecting her voice without descending into yelling.

The Klingon defendant grimaced, and then turned to glare at his opponent.

"Jaear." Miral prompted.

The Andorian began to tell his tale.

Somewhere in the middle of his explanation of how things had gone, Effany began to look somewhat uncomfortable. She fidgeted with the handle of her blade and shifted on her feet. Her mate, T'Sai lifted her fingers and, unconsciously, Effany raised hers to meet them. That small action calmed her considerably.

Then the Vulcan cocked her head and narrowed her gaze. She pondered what to do for a moment, and then considered the consequences. She decided to trust her status in the House. T'Sai stepped forward and pointed. "That man is lying."

There was a stir in the audience. The defendant said, "See! I told you!"

The Accuser, Jaear, shouted, "She's a Vulcan! She would have to touch me to tell if I were lying."

Miral looked up at her assistant, who merely gazed back serenely, then answered the charge even more calmly. "The Andorian speaks half of a truth. For me to read him telepathically, I would have to touch him. However, my mate, Effany, says he is lying. She says she can smell the lie upon him. And I know the honesty of my mate."

The Andorian's jaw dropped. "You would believe an Orion?"

Miral looked at Effany, who appeared like a field beast caught in unexpected light. Then she looked at T'Sai and then Nelav, who nodded her own affirmation. Then she looked at Gretchen and there was a moment shared between them as they both rolled their eyes at their own obtuseness.

Sometimes the answers were there all the time.

Miral grabbed her bat'leth and stood. She said, "That Orion is Effany of the House Presba, Truth Seeker. I would take her word over yours any day. Liar." Then she smiled toothily. "But if I must prove it, then I will. Kjal. Vaq. Bring that Andorian over here and let T'Sai of the House Presba, Truth Seeker, get a good hold of him. I apologize, T'Sai, for the discomfort to you."

"It is my Honor to serve you and the House in this, Judge Torres."

==^==

Tiny chinks, as metal touched on metal, drifted through the open bedroom door, and once again, Belle found herself waking up alone. As had become recent habit, she padded her way into the living area, fully expecting to see Annika staring fixedly into space, and some portion of the electronic equipment in their quarters strewn about in a state of disassembly.

She was half right.

The blonde sat amid a pile of mechanical debris, her short hair splayed in all directions, looking for all the world like a maniacal elf from Ferengi fairy tales. But instead of staring into space, her attention was fully absorbed by a bracket, a bolt, and what were apparently inadequate instructions, judging by the way Annika was rotating the bracket and then the PADD.

"Be'nal?"

She received a dazzling smile, and her heart lifted. It had been a few days since she'd been given one of those full, unreserved grins.

"Let me guess, you were hungry?"

Annika blushed. "I was. But then..."

Belle settled on the floor, moving a pair of relays out of the way. "But then you got distracted." She claimed a kiss, savouring the way Annika's mouth fit to hers, the perfect pressure and flavour of her mate pulling her in, until she nearly lost track of the world. "You know," she rested her forehead against Annika's as she spoke, "you don't have to rebuild the replicator every time you get hungry. It's a multi-use thing."

Annika looked down, but Belle could see the twitch that signaled her mate was close to laughing. "I know. I thought it might be malfunctioning."

"Just because you're never full, it doesn't mean the replicator is broken." Belle leaned back on her hands slightly, and then winced as a bolt bit into her palm. "What is all this anyway? It doesn't look like any replicator I've seen."

A shy smile spread across Annika's face. "It's a crib."

"A crib? Who's pregnant?"

Annika leaned forward and put her hand over her mate's abdomen. "You are."

"But, I can't..." Belle stopped, and then looked down, stunned. "But we..." She looked up again. "How do you know?"

"You don't like gagh."

Belle shuddered. "It's vile."

Annika smiled and reached behind her to pick up one of the covered dishes she'd replicated to test to see if the flavour or texture had miraculously been changed by Gretchen's recipes. It hadn't. She took the lid off, and watched, amused, as Belle reached for a handful, and popped one into her mouth.

She waited, eyebrow arched, until she saw the dawning horror and comprehension cross Belle's face. And then the beautiful and scarred face of the woman she loved more dearly than anyone or anything, became even lovelier, as a wide smile of pure joy appeared. "We're having a baby!"

Annika felt her tears begin to flow, and knew beyond reason that she'd made the right decision that night with Worf. To see that joy, to have a family with this woman, was worth any price. "We are."




Chapter 4 | Universe Alpha, Delta Quadrant | Bookmarks




Kathryn held the PADD with Azan's note in her hands and wondered what she should do about Ezri. She was very clear about what she wanted to do, but not so sure that shaking her First Officer until her spots fell off would meet with Seven's approval, or fall within acceptable Starfleet disciplinary action.

She gave the PADD a wry grin. It would not fall under any approved form of discipline. "More's the pity."

"Kathryn?" Seven inquired.

Kathryn turned to face Seven and Lwaxana. She took the time to greet them thoroughly, exchanging kisses in a pleasant round-robin that, but for the message on the PADD, would have led to the Nest, and an even more pleasant round-robin. "Your lover has run away from home, and, according to this, Azan and Emina have gone to find her." Her words were light and teasing.

Lwaxana snickered softly.

Seven raised her ocular implant, and then tried to stare the Betazoid into quiet; an ineffective attempt that had the opposite effect, and Lwaxana laughed throatily.

"I'm sorry, Darling." She kissed the tips of her blonde mate's fingers, licking the metal bands, soothing the agitation that had begun rebuilding.

Kathryn read the postures, and caught an unusual turmoil along their link. Taking a closer look at Seven, she noticed the faded edges of a bruise along the chiseled jaw, and realized that the familiar tang underlying their earlier kisses was the last vestiges blood. "What am I missing here?"

Lwaxana felt Seven stiffen, and didn't need their bond to read that Seven still feared, on some primal level, that Kathryn would somehow be lost to her. "Go see to the children, I will do this."

Seven nodded. She looked deeply in Kathryn's eyes, seeing the depth of concern and love, and kissed her. "I love you, my Captain. My Kathryn."

Then she turned, trusting Lwaxana to do for her, what she could not do for herself.

==^==

"Voyager, what is the status of Azan and Emina Hansen?"

The answer was nearly instantaneous. "They are sleeping. They are with Ezri Dax, and are safe."

Seven nodded. "And Ezri Dax?"

"Commander Dax is also sleeping."

Then nothing need be done now. She rode the lift to the adult's level and hesitated briefly. Knowing who and what she wanted and needed, Seven stepped through the door. The bed was, unaccountably, empty. "Computer, locate B'Elanna Torres."

"B'Elanna Torres is on deck five."

Seven raised her brow, then turned and looked thoughtfully at the door. After a moment she let her dress fall to the floor, and crawled between sheets that were still fragrant with the musk of their earlier lovemaking. Tomorrow she'd see what needed to be done, tonight she would trust in her Bang'wI, her mate and lover. She would trust in the Epatai.

Cradled in the smell and heat of B'Elanna, Seven let herself fall asleep.

==^==

Lwaxana let her gaze narrow, pinning Kathryn in place with her dark eyes. "You must promise me something, my darling Kathryn."

"And what is that?"

The Betazoid, dipped her head in silent acknowledgement of Kathryn's internal struggle. It was one thing to invoke a submission bolstered by pretense in the safety of the Nest; it was another altogether to demand a surrender of self without surety or guarantee. "Promise me that in this you are Kathryn, mate, wife, beloved lover."

Blue-grey eyes held to hers, their clarity of colour an answer of their own. Held in their intensity Lwaxana was reminded of the costs her mate had paid to be The Captain in one lifetime, and the toll nearly paid in this one. Blazing through her thoughts and shimmering down the link, came the clear message. In this, for tonight, Kathryn trumped the Captain.

"I promise."

"Come with me, Darling." Lwaxana held her fingers out, and used their joined clasp to guide her mate to the plush softness of a couch in the living room. There was a trust, tempered by a worried calm, in the air, and she brushed her lips over Kathryn's temple. "Everything is well, tonight just opened some wounds long thought healed."

Kathryn nodded and waited. Such patience had been a gift of their joining. Or maybe it wasn't patience, as much as the certainty that this was real, that she was loved. Even in what was clearly a moment of turmoil, she felt held by an oasis of abiding love. "Tell me."

"Apparently, your Tom Paris has a wide streak of chivalry, and took on a squad of marines on Seven's behalf. Seven was required to protect him."

"Oh, Gods." Kathryn was amused and appalled all at once. It was so like Tom. And, she admitted, so very like Seven. Then the darker implications settled in. "Why was Tom protecting Seven?" And like a flash of fire, the guilt swept over her as the realization of why hit her. Her body surged, but was held fast.

Lwaxana smiled wryly. "If it's any consolation, Seven now understands why you refused her, despite you both knowing you wanted her." She placed a fierce kiss on Kathryn's temple. "Not, that I believe you were right then, or that you are wrong now."

Kathryn felt the permission in the admonishing words and sagged against her mate. "I wanted her so very much, wanted them both. But I was the Captain." But it wasn't just the rules, and she knew it. Knew that Lwaxana knew it too. "I was scared to love her. Scared of what it would mean to love either of them."

"You are still the Captain."

"I am." They settled then for a moment, and Kathryn let the last ragged wound close, but in doing so, realized that she had left behind scars on her beloved Mistress and Epatai. Wounds that would need more than the salve of time to heal.

Lwaxana wrapped her arms tightly around Kathryn and let her own sense of well-being flow between them. For a second, she debated pulling Tuvok into their talk, then decided that the Vulcan was the person Kathryn would most need to talk to tomorrow as Captain. "There is more, Darling."

"More?" It was already taking more of her energy that she would have guessed not to don her uniform and find out precisely why no one had reported the incident to her; Kathryn wasn't sure how much more she could take.

When Lwaxana didn't immediately reply, Kathryn was forced to think and then answer her own question as the realization set in. "Ezri." She turned her head to burrow more deeply into her mate. "She's running scared." Kathryn supposed it took one to know one.

"She most certainly is, my darling." Lwaxana hesitated, and then added to the truth of Kathryn's observation. "But she is protecting more than her own heart. Ezri believes she is protecting ours."

Kathryn nodded. But she also knew it wasn't true; at least not completely. She had been in the room when Ezri had effortlessly taken Chakotay to his knees. She'd been facing the Trill when the blue eyes had lost all trace of projected Humanity. Ezri Dax was protecting the Captain - and her command. Part of her wasn't even sure that it was her place to do anything; but then, Ezri Dax was no longer just Seven's lover, she was betrothed to the Prime as a whole. The other part was only too well aware that she was the one who best understood what was likely behind Ezri's change in behaviour.

It was time to talk to her Trill.

==^==

The possible repercussions, positive and negative, of their arrival into Universe Alpha had not quite fully been realized by the delegation from Universe Beta. Tasha Yar, however, was becoming more and more aware of just how much freedom she now had in comparison to what she had enjoyed at home. On Romulus she had a certain amount of freedom accorded to her, just for being the Mate of General Kasala. She was even in charge of their estate and so had the power to negotiate and purchase what was needed, as it was needed. Her tether might have been longer, its chains far more delicate, than those of the other slaves in the Republic. But a slave was still a slave, and she was viewed as nothing more than chattel by most.

Here, on Voyager, she was Ambassador Yar and the difference in the attitudes of those around her was striking. It wasn't just the respect of the position, but a general sense of equality that permeated everyone's actions and reactions. And Tasha realized that, despite some appearances, Voyager really was a ship of the Federation, where slavery, for the most part, had been banished centuries ago.

She still had to force herself not to bow in certain ways. She no longer had to symbolically offer her neck to the superior being. Her life, once again, was her own.

Kasala was having less of an adjustment problem than she was, and thinking of him brought a smile to her lips. He was already used to dealing with Humans, or at least a certain Human, on an equal footing. That had been one of the things that had set their relationship apart from others from the beginning, and the very thing that had made it possible for her to love him without reservation. So, for him it was just a matter of scale.

Plus, Kasala had a deep sense of himself and was not threatened by the idea of equality to begin with.

As a result, like herself, he walked the corridors of Voyager with complete confidence, though for very different reasons.

A part of her was terrified and another part gleeful. She was home. Or at least very nearly there. And, in the most amazing twist, Kasala was here with her, which ironically was what made the return home even possible.

Tasha was not so foolish as to think it would all be the same or even familiar, but it didn't change that she had longed to return for such a time; even though she had believed it impossible.

At the moment, Tasha was on her own. Kasala was asleep, or at least had been when she had left him. She had been feeling restless and had decided to perambulate.

It was a common habit of hers. She was known for walking their gardens late at night. Their estate had become, over the years, a true place of refuge for them and she missed the flowers and the winking stars of Romulus.

But the corridors of Voyager held their own comfort.

And she basked in it.

==^==

Kate woke abruptly. Her sleep had been restless, fraught with strange imagery and the sense of motion. She wasn't quite sure why.

She attempted to go back to sleep but, after fifteen minutes, gave it up as futile. Apparently, her body had determined that she had had enough rest to keep her alert. It was a skill she had perfected as a physician.

So she got up and pondered what to do. Kate smiled to herself, aware that she could go bother any one of her mates and be received warmly and with joy. But, she had checked the time and it was late. Her mates, like herself, had duty shifts in the morning.

Slightly bored and as restless out of bed as she had been in it, she briefly scanned the Ship's channel. The holodeck that normally ran Sandrine's was unexpectedly shut down, and the other two were fully booked for individual recreation.

She did not really feel like visiting The Park or watching a holo-vid, and she wasn't much for reading for pleasure.

Kate considered her options and realized that she could do one thing, something that she had been doing by herself for awhile.

Amused self-revelation pulsed in her thoughts and she headed towards the Nest.

A few minutes later, she was examining the items in the toy chest, astonished by sheer range of applications they represented. She pondered what she wanted to accomplish then smiled when she spotted a very useful item. It was simple, smooth, not overly large and followed a basic premise had been around for centuries.

The vibrator was one of Seven's wonderful toys. But its beauty was in its simplicity. It could not be attached to anything. Its only job was to vibrate on certain parts of the anatomy, without ever failing, at whatever speed the user wanted. Kate spared an instant of thought to appreciate the irony that Borg ingenuity had been brought to bear on something the Collective would have deemed beyond irrelevant. Her amused smile shifted and became more sensual. Physical pleasure was not irrelevant in the least.

Inspired by the direction her thoughts had taken, she also grabbed a simple phallus, one that was of decent size, but not really large. This was about comfort and release, not about testing her stamina. She then went to the soft heart of the Nest and began arranging the pillows into a comfortable configuration.

She settled in, wondering what fantasy she might go with. Certainly she'd not had to worry about inspiration lately. Inevitably, Kate found herself thinking warmly of her mates.

And in that warmth, she found the spark. It flickered to life with the combined memory of moments that were hers to call on. The passion she felt about her mates flowed through her. Thought and memory both pulsed erotically through her.

Kate smiled and flicked the vibrator on.

The pleasant hum had its own stimulating associations, and the sub-sonic waves of it rippled deeper still. She closed her eyes and laid back, letting her mind wander through the mental imagery she had already called to mind. She began the process of loving herself.

She had not consciously made the call, but she knew, as soon as they entered the Nest, that their need now reflected hers. Kate opened her eyes. She watched as Tuvok guided T'Pel onto the soft bedding, but did not stop what she was doing. It would have defeated the purpose. But now her mind was no longer on a memory. It was focused on her mates, and the beautiful reality before her.

T'Pel slid into the space next to her, kissing Kate urgently and warmly. Tuvok took a place on the other side. His hand stroked across her chest, sparking up already aching nipples. Kate gasped into the kiss, smiled into it.

Then the eroticism of the moment multiplied when T'Pel covered Kate's hand, the one holding the vibrator, with her own. Tuvok took hold of the other one and guided the penetration in firm, gentle thrusts. Kate purred softly and fell with delight into her mate's love for her.

==^==

Finished in the garden for now, Steve entered his quarters and immediately noticed they had a guest. He wondered what had brought B'Elanna Torres to his home, but as soon as he saw the bruised face of his mate, he understood. He shook his head. "I can't leave you alone for a minute."

"Well, actually," said B'Elanna, "He was apparently fine for a whole hour and a half."

"And then?" Steve questioned, having detected the wry amusement from the Klingon.

Harry spoke as he entered the sitting room with a fresh bag of ice. "Then it was fists, chairs and drunken Marines."

"Darling, I told you if you wanted to have fun, to wait for me."

B'Elanna felt her eyes goggle slightly. It was like she was watching a holo-vid, except with Tom as the princess. It was unbearably cute.

Tom gave Steve a sheepish glance and said, "Well, you know, the temptation was too strong. They were asking for it."

Steve knew that there had to be more to the story, but wasn't inclined to push right that moment. He glanced at B'Elanna, "Thank you for bringing him home."

B'Elanna looked at her ex-boyfriend, and gave Tom a genuine smile. "Actually, I came to thank him for defending the honour of my House, and its Mistress." She didn't mention that she had also come to get details, knowing that getting them from Tom would be infinitely easier than getting them from Seven, or from Ezri.

She reached into her pocket. "I also came to give him this. I don't need it anymore." B'Elanna handed her dermal regenerator to Harry. Their eyes locked for a moment, and a wealth of understanding passed silently between them. Harry knew B'Elanna had found herself in her mates, and B'Elanna knew Harry had found Home in his.

Steve reached out a hand and Tom took it, feeling reassured by the touch. He relaxed as Steve drew him close, and air kissed the bruise forming along Tom's temple and cheek. Tom couldn't still his flinch.

"Tisk. Let's go get this looked at, sweetheart. Then we'll plot revenge." Steve smiled.

Tom suddenly offered a brilliant smile in return.

"Nothing dangerous, contagious, or illegal," B'Elanna warned, more because she had to, than out of genuine concern for the outcome.

Steve pressed his free hand to his chest, "Epatai, you wound me." Then he grinned. "We shall, of course, keep you apprised."

"I look forward to it." Her gaze narrowed, "And make it good. I want you to make it a very memorable experience."

"Oh. Now you've just made it a challenge."

==^==

Rounding the corner on deck two that lead to the First Officer's office, Kathryn was surprised to see B'Elanna sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall. "B'Elanna?"

The Klingon clambered to her feet, and stepped into a warm embrace tempered nicely by a long, soft kiss. "Mmm, hello to you too."

Kathryn let a small grin quirk at her lips. "What brings you to this neck of the woods in the middle of the night?"

B'Elanna left her arm around Kathryn's waist and played with the laces of one sleeve with her other one. "The same thing as you, probably."

"You came to drag her home by her hair?"

Her head jerked back slightly in surprise. "Uh. No." B'Elanna paused, and looked thoughtfully at the door. "You think that would work?"

Kathryn laughed. "Probably not." She sobered.

"Did you really come to drag her home?" B'Elanna studied her mated carefully, trying to read the truth of the situation from Kathryn's body language. She'd become more adept at seeing when something was weighing on her mate since their bonding, but couldn't always discern what it was.

"No. I came to talk to her." Kathryn looked directly into B'Elanna's eyes. "About what fear costs. About the price you make those you are trying to protect pay." Suddenly she felt like she was going to cry, but she had to finish. "I was going to tell her that it costs more not to love."

B'Elanna swallowed, and wrapped her arms tightly around Kathryn. She held her mate and willed her to understand that it was okay, that she had long since been forgiven. After an ageless span Kathryn relaxed into her. A few heartbeats later, she pulled back slightly and let a smile fall between them. "That's so much better than what I had planned."

Kathryn inhaled sharply, the air rushing in, like a choked laugh. "What did you have planned?"

"I was going to call her a coward and yell. The usual." She pointed at a bag on the floor. "I brought genuine Klingon betrothal crockery to throw."

Now Kathryn did laugh. "Oh, gods." A moment later she had her laughter under control. "What stopped you?"

B'Elanna stepped back some more and motioned Kathryn to come stand by the door. She put her finger on her mate's lips to signal for silence, and triggered the door catch from the panel access.

The door slid open and Kathryn looked inside, letting her eyes adjust to the ambient light. Her breath caught.

Curled on the floor of the office on an away mission mattress, dimly illuminated by the star field and the passing expanse of space, lay the Trill. In her arms, Azan and Emina slept deeply.

Kathryn looked at B'Elanna, and lifted her fingers. "Seven left them here?"

"You knew?"

"I knew they had come looking for Ezri, but I assumed she came to get them."

B'Elanna stepped back, and let the door slide closed, then looked back at Kathryn.

Kathryn reached out for B'Elanna's hand. "I think that's a stronger message than either of us could deliver."

"I think you're right." B'Elanna kissed Kathryn. "But I reserve the right to co-opt your suggestion and drag her home if necessary."

"I'll help." She had a sudden impulse to pin the Klingon to wall and ravish her. Fire flared along their link, as B'Elanna caught a hint of what Kathryn wanted, and she gave in, pushing the Klingon against the wall and devouring her mouth with fierce longing.

B'Elanna growled and reversed their positions, slamming Kathryn back against the wall and driving her thigh between Kathryn's legs, surprising them both. "Home, now." Was all she could grind out.

Fortunately, Kathryn demonstrated the ability to think under pressure that made her a great Captain. "Voyager, two to beam to my quarters. Now." She reached up and grabbed a length of hair at the back of B'Elanna's neck, pulling her into another searing kiss even as the transport started.

==^==

Laren was sleeping, dreaming of the shine of sun on a Bajoran lake and silver bands on her lover. In her dream, her mate began touching her, first upon her face - with loving strokes of a cybernetic hand. Then everywhere. The light flared between them - pulsed through them like a long golden thread. In the dream her lover embodied all of them; the heat of her kisses reflected all of their kisses. Laren dove into Seven's touch, reciprocated, dreamed of her hands pressing upon and somehow erotically through the skin, as if their skin was only a sheath of light between them. They blended, heated, touched deeply. It was a mix of memory, dream, connection, and something else that exulted through them.

Then like a wave, pleasure caught her up - them up - and rolled her out of the dream into gasping arcing awareness. She shuddered with the intensity, clutched the bedding underneath her in a powerful grip. It took her awhile to arrive at a point where she was able to roll out of bed.

She realized she was shaking a little, and needful a lot. It was, she realized, the spark - the blaze and call of the mates.

Laren stood and walked to the door that led to the Nest. The door opened and she stepped out. She nearly laughed when she saw the equally affected Seven of Nine. Her gaze also took in the fact that Tuvok, T'Pel and Kate were deeply engaged with one another. She could feel Lwaxana near, but did not spot her. She also knew that B'Elanna and Kathryn were not far away. She stepped towards Seven of Nine and their fingertips met.

She said, her voice taking on the purr that she could not help, "I dreamed of you."

Seven's brow arched expressively, and she responded, "And I of you."

Laren's breath caught and they pressed together abruptly, unavoidably. Willingly, they surrendered and joined their mates in the blaze.

==^==

B'Elanna gazed at the woman between her legs in glazed, happy shock. The orgasm had blasted through her so powerfully that she'd literally shredded Kathryn's bed. White foam-like tufts from the mattress were sprinkled on the top of the sheets. They had dropped from her hands when she'd finally been able to let go.

Kathryn gazed back at her, her continued need for her mate still in evidence. She wiped her lower face with the back of her hand and surged forward to kiss her mate fiercely and hungrily. Then she said, as she nuzzled her Klingon, "It's the call."

"Yes," hissed B'Elanna. She was still catching her breath and Kathryn cradled her for the time that it took, whispering loving words of need and heat.

"We're still going to have to talk to Ezri."

"In the morning. Later."

"Yes. We will."

It was a commitment, whether they still burned or not.

Kathryn then spoke to Voyager. "My ship?"

"Yes, My Kathryn."

"You will let us know when Ezri is awake and functional."

"Yes, My Captain."

"Good. Thank you." Then, smiling with hungry intent, Kathryn took B'Elanna's hands in her own and guided her mate into the Nest with hungry kisses and truly erotic intent.

==^==

Lwaxana was well aware of the intense sensual energy that flowed through her mates. She also believed she had a little time. Her day had been somewhat active and she wanted to be fresh for her them.

As soon as she entered her room, she knew that she needed to hurry. The thoughts of her mates were vibrantly erotic. Carnal need ripped through her, causing desire's moisture to flow and a complete urge to open herself to them. She stripped down quickly and entered the refresher at almost a run. She started with the basics, and the sonic shower did its job. Then she switched to the hydro setting, and that was when she ran out of time.

She felt the chain of release start with B'Elanna, fierce and joyful. B'Elanna had drawn in Kathryn and then Kate in quick succession. Kate, Lwaxana had known, had already been well on her way toward pleasure's peak. That peak cascaded in turn through T'Pel and Tuvok, and then herself in a heady rush, faster than she could really track. Her knees buckled, but she managed to remain upright by slapping her hands against the rail of the shower and holding on for dear life. Pleasure and need and wonder coursed through her and she felt the two dreamers enter the and she shook with the full light of their fulfillment as the chain became complete.

Lwaxana stepped out into the Nest, just as B'Elanna and Kathryn entered. She was grinning as she strode to them joyfully, hungrily. 〈〈My darlings, you made a simple shower extraordinary.〉〉

There was a shared moment of laughter and sultry kisses. Then, as one, they turned and went to join their mates.

==^==

"Computer, end alarm." The first thing Ezri noticed was the absence of Emina's comfortable weight centered over the space in which Dax was curled deep inside her. The second thing was that Azan had the blanket trapped under him in such a way that she couldn't get her left arm or leg free. A situation she had to remedy if she planned to deal with observation number one.

Gently she reached across and stroked his cheek, trying not to startle him as she coaxed the boy from slumber. "Azan." He didn't awaken, but he did shift, and she pulled her arm free so she could sit up.

"Good morning, Ezri Dax." Voyager greeted.

Ezri jumped, Azan spilled onto the floor, and the blanket came fully free. "Good morning, Voyager." There was no profit in yelling at the ship. She ruffled Azan's hair as he lay blinking into wakefulness. "Morning, kiddo."

"Good Morning, Da." He sat up, and then he tilted his head, obviously listening to one or more of his siblings.

Emina ambled back to join them, her hands clasped around an assortment of latinum strips and playing cards. "Da."

Ezri blinked, the knowledge striking her that 'Da' was more than Emina's attempt to articulate the Dax symbiont's name. Setting aside her startled reaction, she gathered the toddler up, and kissed her cheek. "Good morning, little one."

Voyager spoke again. "The Captain wishes to be informed when you are functional." She had observed Ezri Dax over the course of enough mornings to know that what Kathryn believed to be functional did not necessarily match what the Trill would believe.

"Can you give me a half hour or so before you let her know? I want to get these guys home first, and take a run through the shower."

"I can do that, Ezri Dax."

"Thanks." She stood up, lifting Emina with her, and noticed that her side didn't twinge this morning. "Let's get you guys home before your Mother sends an away team to find you."

Azan was still sitting with his head tilted, though he would occasionally nod, or shake his head.

"Azan?" she held her hand out.

He blinked. "Rebi and Mezoti wish to know if you can make pancakes?"

"Pancakes, hunh? I think I can manage those." Ezri stepped to her console and left a message for Lt. Kim giving him the conn plus one for the gamma shift conn officer noting the change, adding that she would be available by comm. "Have them replicate a dozen eggs, four cups of flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and two litres of buttermilk. Oh, and have them set the table." If she timed it right, she might even get her shower.

He grinned. "I will comply."

==^==

"Captain," Voyager prodded Kathryn quietly and verbally with a directed sonic inquiry. "Do you remember your request?"

Kathryn, who was busy at the moment, hummed a response, which Voyager took as a yes.

"Commander Ezri Dax is currently awake and functional." The auburn haired woman sat back on her heels, but did not let go of Tuvok. The Vulcan, who was occupied with another mate, may have noticed, but he too was involved in giving pleasure to address that he was no longer being pleasured by Kathryn.

"And her location?"

"She is currently in the abode of the Prime of House Presba."

"Interesting. Thank you, Voyager."

B'Elanna, who was entangled with Seven of Nine, pulled back from a languorous kiss. "Now?"

Kathryn considered their options thoughtfully. "Thirty minutes."

"Sufficient," commented Seven of Nine.

"I believe so. Kate, my love, would you mind?" The blonde who had been reclining against Laren in conversation looked at what Kathryn was indicating and then at Laren.

"We wouldn't mind at all." Kate stood, and then helped Laren up and they both walked over to where Kathryn was kneeling. They kissed their mate and Captain with true warmth. Then, with tender enthusiasm, they took up the lusty work that Kathryn had summoned them to complete.

Kathryn stood, taking time to kiss T'Pel, Lwaxana and Tuvok in turn, and then walked toward one of the Nest's refreshers. She was followed into the large room by Seven and B'Elanna, who joined her in the shower area.

"How much time do we have?" inquired B'Elanna.

"Twenty six minutes."

B'Elanna gazed at Seven, whose colorful lights pulsed softly all around her body. She then grinned at Kathryn. "We have plenty of time."

She drew the Borg close and kissed her fiercely. Kathryn moved to a point behind Seven of Nine and drew her hands along the blonde's torso. She too kissed the woman, and then she said in agreement and with wanton intent. "Plenty of time."





Chapter 5 | Universe Alpha, Delta Quadrant | Bookmarks




One of the glorious things about being the Supply officer was that it allowed access certain databases that were, in general, closed to anyone other than those with a high enough command clearance. To help with their little plots, Steve, Tom and Harry had come up with several alter egos: mock individuals who only existed in a temporary disk. These non-corporeal individuals were only brought out when it was necessary to pull a prank that required no trail be left.

Thus, Commander Steve Magnum was not in his office, though his bio-signature was registered as being there. He was also not in any location from which he could publicly be seen. He, as his alter-ego, was in a Jeffries Tube, accessing a back panel to a replicator circuit. He wasn't trying to manually set up the system. That would have been unnecessary work for what was essentially a matter of programming for Ensign Itsa Plot. Thus, he had a PADD, with the appropriate tags for Ensign Plot, and which he would dispose of later, attached to the circuit in front of him and was inputting some very interesting options for some foolish marines.

During Beta Shift, the first phase of the plan would begin. That shift had been chosen because it would take longer for the victims to realize what was happening, and by Gamma shift all the evidence would be gone, the allocated memory freed and overwritten, but the results of his machinations would be firmly in place. With a smile, Ensign Itsa Plot signed off and the grinned at the thought of the merriment to about to ensue; at least for the Joking Trio.

==^==

It took longer to force the replicator to dock her account the required rations, than it did to find and produce the required piece of equipment, but Ezri accounted the effort well worth it. If she wasn't mistaken, the Sochlings would appreciate the efficiency of the waffle as a delivery vehicle for all manner of sugars.

"Get the rest of the lumps?" Ezri asked the young Norcadian, looking over the girls' shoulder as she did.

"Yes." Mezoti let a spoonful of mixture pour off the spoon and back into her bowl.

"What about you guys?" She looked to the twins, one of whom had a grip on the bowl while the other whipped the whisk around briskly. Or what passed for brisk at ten.

Rebi answered. "Our mixture is acceptable."

"Let me check." Ezri dipped her finger in the bowl and drew out a gob. It did have some lumps, but as far as she was concerned lumps added to the charm. She licked the batter off, raising her brow slightly at the amount of vanilla.

Three sets of eyes were fastened on her in wide surprise. She slowly pulled her finger out of her mouth. "What?"

"That is against kitchen protocol. Icheb says--"

Ezri leaned down to Mezoti's eye level. "Do you see Icheb?" Without thinking about it, she grabbed some of the flour from the container to her right and flicked her fingers at Rebi.

Azan cracked a wide grin and grabbed some flour, and blew it at her.

In seconds sides were chosen and she ended up facing off against all of them, except Emina, who, unable to reach the flour on the counter, was simply scooping tailings up from the floor and flinging them with abandon.

Deciding she needed to end the battle, Ezri tried to execute a dive and cover roll between the dining room and the kitchen in order to capture the flour supply, and thus proceed to the cooking part of making breakfast. Halfway across she realized her mistake, but it was too late to stop what happened next.

Three perfectly aimed handfuls of flour passed by where she had been, and landed, with an amazing dispersal pattern, on two new targets.

"God damn it, Dax!" B'Elanna's voice overlaid Kathryn's as they yelled in tandem.

Flat on her back on the floor, she tried to choke back her laughter as the flour shrouded forms of Kathryn and B'Elanna came fully into view; a battle she nearly lost when she caught sight of a clearly amused Seven of Nine.

"Mezoti, can you go get a cloth for your parents? And, boys, now might be a good time for a sweeping protocol."

They nodded and silently complied.

"What the hell are we going to do with you, Dax?" Kathryn held out her hand.

Ezri let her smile fall away and looked between the other women, before her eyes came to rest on B'Elanna. She meant it to come out as an off-hand, light-hearted comment, but her voice carried the truth, and she knew it. "Actually, I've been kind of hoping you'll tell me."

==^==

Surprisingly, given the seriousness that was hovering over the event, waiting for its ending, breakfast was a relaxed affair. All of them, Kathryn included, had taken a stab at producing a waffle or two. At the moment she was mopping up the last of some melted coffee flavoured ice cream, while trying not to ruin her dignity as a Warlord and Mom, as she watched Seven look reprovingly at the spread of toppings.

The older children had finished eating and were preparing for their day, while Emina was cuddled in B'Elanna's lap, contentedly playing with a set of beads that the engineer had provided.

"Seriously, Seven, I promise, every topping has protein, vitamins and, for good measure, minerals."

Kathryn snickered, then sobered as Seven pinned her with a very effective glare and a raised eyebrow.

"Perhaps, you would benefit from a day spent managing them when the sugar wears off?"

"Oh, I think that little pleasure should fall to the ringleader over there." Kathryn waved her fork at Ezri, who was looking back at them with an expression of complete and utter impassivity.

"Right, I get it. I apologize for breaking nutritional protocols. I won't overstep again." Ezri stood up from the table, and headed for the door. Then stopped and blinked.

B'Elanna and Kathryn both blocked the way; she hadn't even realized they'd moved. "You want to tell me what the hell just happened here?" B'Elanna growled, in Klingon.

Ezri looked back at Seven, who was standing by the table. Their eyes met, then Seven stepped around her, took Emina from B'Elanna and, without a backward glance, left the room.

==^==

Ezri had long since learned the art of patience. Two older brothers and a disapproving Mother had schooled her in passive resistance. So she was surprised to hear herself speak, and almost as surprised as they were by her next words. "Computer, please state the location of Commander Dax's quarters."

"No quarters are currently assigned to Commander Dax."

"You're avoiding us because you don't have quarters?" B'Elanna threw her hands in the air.

Kathryn though, was looking at her calmly, and with concern. "That's not why at all, is it Ezri?" She stepped forward, noticing for the first time how evenly matched in height they were; the Trill was only marginally taller.

Against her will, Ezri spoke again, her answer pulled by the depth of pain and understanding she saw reflected in Kathryn's eyes. "No."

"Tell me."

"I have no place at all."

"Yes, you do. You belong here. With us."

Ezri snorted, her head drawing back as she exhaled forcefully. "Not when the Lady Sirella refuses." Then there would be no family, no bonding, and if she didn't take care to protect it, no berth either.

Kathryn inhaled, seeing more fully what had provoked the Trill. In the high Klingon she'd been painstakingly learning, she offered her apology. "We're sorry, Ezri Dax. We left to assumption that which we should have made concrete."

B'Elanna stepped forward now, and Ezri knew by the sudden shift in body language that some signal had passed between them, and it was the Epatai of House Presba who would speak.

Part of her wanted to push past them, understanding that if she did, they would let her go, and her losses, while still large, would be minimal. "Stay." The voice was unmistakably Jadzia's.

"This, Ezri Dax, regardless of where you choose to sleep, is your home. Make no mistake; if you want it, we will claim you. You are ours and we are yours." B'Elanna continued to speak in High Klingon. "The Lady Sirella of the House Martok will be paid whatever bond price she demands, no matter the amount or conditions. This mating will happen. Now, I ask you, one last time, will you join with us or not?"

"I will." She was no clearer on what was expected of her, or where she fit, but for the first time, Ezri believed she belonged.

Then, unexpectedly, Kathryn enfolded her strongly. "When it gets too much, come to us, not away. Don't hide from us, my sprite, we need you."

Another set of arms wrapped around her from behind, and she knew that Seven had returned. "Your distinctiveness is required by all of us, síobhean, not just by me."

"Trust us, Darling." This was from Lwaxana, who had joined them .

But it was B'Elanna's kiss that sealed the compact. It was hungry and quiet, filling and demanding all at once, and, in that moment, Ezri caught a glimpse of what they felt for her, as Lwaxana acted as the conduit and amplifier. A wondrous gift of seeing what waited for her if she held true.

They would not be gainsaid in this, of that they were all of an accord.

Overwhelmed, Ezri let herself sink into their physical support. Her tears, when she finally let them fall, were gently wiped away. She didn't know by whom, and, she decided, it didn't matter.

She would be theirs.

〈〈No, little one, you already are.〉〉

==^==

The Counseling Department had experienced a modest shakeup over the past few days, but due to the pre-planning of Counselor Priam Nael, the transition proceeded fairly smoothly. In the end, Captain Janeway had followed the departing Counselor's advice and had offered the Orion Shaman, Orsas, Truth Seeker both a commission and the role as department head. Orsas had, after some contemplation, accepted the duty. Thus, she was now Lt. Commander Orsas, Shaman and Truth Seeker.

The Captain had been open to the idea of maintaining the Truth Seeker identity as useful to the cohesiveness of the department. Plus Janeway believed that given the amount work that had been put into nailing down the both purpose and the duties of a Truth Seeker with The Truth Seeker, Deanna Troi, that it was a legitimate calling and a beneficial position. The title became an official extension for those who were already performing the role, and new recruits would be required to earn the title and complete the requisite training, just like for any other specialized position.

After the amount of careful contemplation she had given to accepting the position it became, to Orsas, a simple matter of rearranging appointments, planning for the continuing education of the counselors, blocking out counseling sessions and the Long Table schedule, so the highest benefit to all might be reaped. All of the counselors had been undergoing an intensive and rigorous course set up by Counselor Nael, in order to fully qualify them as practitioners. Orsas, of course, had already passed. Indeed, most had. But training was something that they still pursued, since now they understood it to be a complementary discipline to what they already knew.

Priam Nael had left Orsas all of her notes, including her observations on how best to integrate the various interpersonal disciplines that were available among the crew so that it maximized the overall health of ship and crew alike. Unfortunately the notes did not include those who were new to the crew. This cadre included twenty survivors from Universe Beta, who had somehow made it to Terok Nor, and were in a multitude of states of well-being. It also included the Emissary of the Prophets, Commander Benjamin Sisko, and, if they chose to it, the Ambassadorial team from Universe Beta.

Orsas wondered if she should take time to contact Tasha Yar personally, or wait to see if the Ambassador made an appearance at one of the long tables. She made a notation in her PADD, without having arrived at a solid decision and then checked her duty shift.

A mild profanity escaped her lips, but it was her own fault. She had not paid attention to the time. It was easy to get lost in the details sometimes.

She hurried to mess hall one so that another might rest.

==^==

Commander Sisko had decided to risk the corridors of Voyager. He was still experiencing a mild and persistent sense of displacement, but he knew it was time to become acclimated to his return to linear time. He had managed to sleep, but only after reassuring himself that the bed was tangible and that he would not sink through it. He was still seeing through physical objects and it made confirming such details important. Ben knew he would adapt, and that his vision would change enough to allow him to function, but he was also aware that it would take some time.

On one level, he found it humorous that he had managed to make it back to his Universe at all, and that, somehow, he was all the way on the other side of the galaxy, still worlds away from his wife, Kasidy. It was ironic. But distance was something he had learned to accommodate. Even in the timeless place of the Prophets he had missed her. It was a yearning that had been difficult to explain to those beings that had never truly been embodied or lived in the linear sequences that comprised the day to day reality of many beings, including his own species.

At a different level rested the sure knowledge that they had learned quite a bit from him in turn. They had tried to warn him of the sorrow to come, so they were not entirely oblivious any more. But it didn't change that it had wounded him.

Commander Sisko's impromptu self-tour led him to visit several places on board the Intrepid class vessel, just out of curiosity. He did it, both as a way to get to know the ship, but also to ground himself in the present, and in the presence of others. Beings flowed around him, going about their various duties and personal routines. He felt their minds, if not the actual contents of their thoughts. He saw the Pah of each one, saw futures written for them in the manifestation of their auras; saw each one striking out from them like a blue star pattern, and saw variety of potential outcomes. He did not close his eyes against the influx of information. It might prove valuable, useful at another time. Besides, soon he would, as did other Bajorans who were trained in such matters, need to touch their ear to get that kind of information from them. That would be, he thought, when he would know he was truly present in this Reality.

He found the main mess hall, in all its glorious activity, and it astonished him - in a good way. He couldn't help the grin that bloomed on his face and he stepped more fully into the chaos.

Shaman Orsas, who had been rushing, was following close on his heels and was not quite paying attention, as her focus had already shifted to where another Counselor was waiting, patiently.

Thus, she bumped up against the Prophet and, through no fault of their own, had her eyes opened.

For a moment, brief and incandescent, she saw Reality as Benjamin saw it. Then, the vision faded and her perspective returned. Since she had already touched him, albeit accidentally, she reached out. "Come, talk with me. I think I may be of assistance. Plus, we can eat."

He looked down at the much smaller woman and smiled. "I do believe you can be." Then he let her lead him to the mystery that was the Long Table.

==^==


Captain Janeway stared at the entryway to the marine's training complex. She had every right to go in. She was the Captain.

Kathryn now knew exactly what had happened in Sandrine's the night before. There were two things that held her back from going inside. The first was that, by the standards of Starfleet, the event had been handled. Commander Dax had dealt with the situation appropriately and within the scope of her authority.

Also, Kathryn had promised Lwaxana she would not go off half-cocked. This was probably because the Betazoid knew that, once Kathryn had long enough to think about it, a good foaming rage would lodge itself in her heart about the issue.

Lwaxana had the benefit of seeing things from Seven of Nine's point of view. But Kathryn had only the promise she had made to cling to. The spark of guilt for failure to stop such nonsense long ago still lingered and added to the mire of emotions that were calling her to act. That was, of course, with thirty-plus years to ruminate on where she'd gone wrong. And she realized that a part of her must have considered that Seven of Nine would no longer be a target once they married. The flaw in Kathryn's unconscious plan was now dazzlingly obvious. She had forgotten Human nature. More specifically; she had forgotten how rough military culture could be, even with the social advancements of their time.

She wanted to throttle Sarah Tucker, and not figuratively either. She wasn't sure she would be able to look at the woman without a desire to knife her in passing. The worst part was, she could possibly justify the urge to challenge Sarah Tucker to a duel. After all, the honor of the Mistress of the House had been impugned.

From a different point of view, Kathryn had every right to come in and put all the misanthropic louts into the brig. The only problem would be that if she did, she'd have to put Tom there too. Under the Starfleet code of conduct, his offense was the gravest, and the one who least deserved it would suffer the most.

Kathryn was a professional, whatever changes might have occurred. All her training had been directed toward knowing when to pull one's punches, whether one wanted to or not.

With a deliberate motion, Kathryn turned and stalked away.

==^==

Kathryn was not, technically, trying to hide. The observation lounge was open to the public. It just happened to be available and empty.

She stared out at the stars, trying to lose herself in them. At least there were stars to be seen. That was a small mercy.

She was aware of him before he entered. Once, she had mistakenly believed that by definition an empathic awareness required strongly expressed emotions as its catalyst, but Kathryn had found that the bond they shared went beyond the easily definable. Her sense of Tuvok contained both depth and light. And they had all discovered that their Vulcan mates were not without emotion, they simply did not allow them to dictate their actions. Tuvok and T'Pel loved as deeply as any of them.

Their fingertips touched and he gazed down at her. He met her equally in the simple kiss that followed. She asked, "What brings you here?"

"You."

She released the touch and turned back to the window that spanned the whole wall. If she looked long enough, she always got the sense that she was falling into the heavens.

Tuvok moved beside her. A Human would have wrapped his arm around her. He would have also asked if she wanted to talk or made some other attempt to to engage her. The Vulcan merely waited, then shifted when she leaned against him to lend her more support.

"I want to tear the whole department down."

"That would be an irrational thing to do." There was no unkindness in his voice. He was merely stating fact.

"I am aware of that," she responded with at touch of humor. "If you had been there, heard what had been said about Seven of Nine, what would you have done?"

There was a flexing of Tuvok's jaw before he answered. "I would have looked for the logical course of action?"

"Which would be?"

"I would have had a word with Commander Sarah Tucker about Starfleet protocol. You are aware that the offenses are actionable?"

"And ship's morale?"

"Is not helped by the disparagement of a member of its senior staff. Nor by sexism in the first place."

Now Kathryn closed her eyes as she felt an upwelling of regret. "I failed her so many ways."

"You are not who you were, and you were not alone in your failure."

"If I don't act, will I be failing her again?" This, she realized, was what she was truly struggling with.

"The matter has been handled." He turned her so that she was facing him. "Captain Janeway, you must let your First Officer do her job."

"And Honor?"

"Those who spoke dishonored themselves. The House honor was defended by Tom Paris and by Seven of Nine. She does not wish the matter to go further."

"Yet, I think it must. In Klingon society, it would be a death-worthy offense."

"However, you, as Captain of a Federation Starship can not call out your crew. This is not the IKV Voyager"

"Well, I could, but it would not result in good things afterward. Although, to be honest, if we were still stuck in the Delta Quadrant, and I knew we weren't coming home…"

"You would have found another way. It would not be good for morale. And it is not who you are, Kathryn." He paused. This was her first true test of balancing her new life against the old. "Your crew, despite the alliances that have formed, are not a Klingon one. Not all would understand."

Her reply was fierce. "They wouldn't have to. I am the Captain."

"A flogging then, perhaps?"

She compressed her lips to stop the immediate laugh, but the spark of humor was there again. "Fine. I shall find a different way to relieve my frustrations."

The unintended innuendo caught them both off guard. He, of course, did not laugh, but hers was an honest response. "I'm glad that you came to find me, Tuvok."

"Always."

==^==

Commander Sarah Tucker returned home to her quarters, tired and grumpy, but on the whole in a better state of mind than she had been the other day. She had called in her fellow guilty marines and told them to each, personally, and as soon as possible, offer an apology to both Lt. Tom Paris and Seven of Nine. Then she had assigned a two week punishment equivalent to her own: confinement to quarters during off hours and extra duty.

She shrugged out of her uniform jacket and paced purposefully toward the replicator. She placed an order for coffee, hot, with two sugars and one cream. Sarah walked away from the replicator and took a moment to look at the ship's channel. They were now en route to Voyager's Rest and would be arriving in approximately a day and a half. The Park's weather indicated it would be sunny tomorrow. "Might be a good day to take the Marines out for a run," she commented to herself. Then she stalked back to the replicator and grabbed the mug.

She sipped without looking. And then spit the liquid out.

Sarah glared at the cup in consternation and then said with confusion and not a little ire, "Water! Computer, run diagnostic on the replicator."

There was a moment of silence, then an answer. "The replicator is performing within acceptable parameters."

Sarah considered that answer. It was possible. Replicators did tend to be error free for the most part, but sometimes one made a hash out of an order.

And at least it was water and not something worse.

So, having decided that it was, perhaps, was just a glitch, she placed a different order; this time for a nice hot meal. She was expecting spaghetti. What she received was a plate of rolls and some butter.

She began, at that moment, to have a sneaking suspicion. Sarah pulled the plate from the replicator, in case it was a one time deal and then placed an order for a different drink. A skinny, tall glass sparkled into view. Like the previous beverage, it was water.

Optimistic, and, at the same time, attempting to verify her conclusion, she made a different meal order. The result was a plate of crescent rolls and some cheese.

She groaned.

Sarah knew that she could, technically, go to the mess hall and that it wouldn't exactly be breaking the punishment to do so, but she felt it would be stretching things beyond the spirit of the arrangement with Dax.

She wasn't sure how it was done, but Sarah suspected she wouldn't get anything out of the replicator as far as food, except for some version of what she was receiving now. The question was be, would it last the whole two weeks, or was this just a symbolic reminder of her transgression.

Funny one though. She had to give Commander Dax credit.

Her communicator beeped. It was one of her marines. "Commander, my replicator is only giving me bread and water."

"Are you a Marine?"

"Yes, Commander."

"Then eat it like a Marine, you hear me?"

"Yes, Commander."

"Oh, and Ensign, tell your compatriots that as long as the food is edible there will be no complaints."

"Yes, Commander."

"Tucker Out." Sarah grimaced, not nearly as complacent about her fate as she'd sounded to the Ensign, and looked at the bread. Then she made the query, just in case. "Computer, please analyze the bread on my plate. Is it…. Nutritious?"

"The bread on the plate contains the full assortment of vitamins and minerals needed for a Human female."

"And the cheese?"

"Please rephrase."

"Please analyze the cheese on my plate for nutritive value."

"The cheese contains the equivalent of a protein meal for a Human female."

"Thank you, Computer." Well, she conceded, it would be boring, but it wouldn't kill them.

Sarah decided that she could probably do with the distraction of a holo-vid. She sat down on her couch, and then used her PADD to register her selection. The holo began.

It wasn't what she was expecting. Instead there was an image of a friendly looking person. "Welcome to Sexism in the workplace. I am your host…"

She groaned. "Computer end program."

"Unable to comply."

Right at that moment, Sarah wished she could growl like the Captain.

==^==

"You don't own much do you?" Kathryn looked at the lone box, the haphazardly crammed bag of clothes, and the bat'leth Chancellor Worf had given Ezri.

"I traveled between universes with an Orb, not with a ship."

Kathryn laughed. "Where do you want this?" She pointed at the overstuffed bag.

"Bedroom."

She grabbed the bag and moved to the specified room, then stopped at the door. "Oh my."

"What?" Ezri moved to join Kathryn. "Oh my, indeed." She looked at her companion.

Together they stood admiring the bedroom, which was clearly not standard issue, and, unless she missed her guess, wasn't anything like the way it had been when Chakotay occupied the quarters. Obviously, she'd clearly been remiss in not moving in sooner.

"Seven of Nine." Kathryn sounded reverent, and Ezri nodded, equally impressed. The room bore the unmistakable stamp of the Borg's aesthetic sense and practical nature.

Tendrils of the mating fire still pulsed within, and Kathryn was growing more aware of the warm heat radiating from Ezri. "We should talk." She wasn't convinced that they had laid all of what was disturbing the Trill to rest, and they had yet to discuss the impact of what had happened in Sandrine's the previous night.

"Yes." Ezri turned slightly. "Now?"

They were face to face, and Kathryn swallowed, pulled even closer by the lingering desire of her mates and the violet shaded eyes of the Trill. "Later."

"Definitely, later." Ezri leaned into the promised touch.

Kathryn realized her mistake as soon as their lips met. Her desire flared along the connection to her mates and was returned, magnified. She needed. They needed. And Ezri was here.

Ezri felt the change in Kathryn's breathing, and knew something was wrong. "Kathryn?"

The response was a low growl, and her body responded instantly, even as her mind made the connection to the mating fire. Another low growl rushed across her ear as Kathryn nipped along the swirl of spots that ran down toward her neck and breasts, and she nearly exploded. Somehow she summoned the will to raise her hands between them, and forced herself not to touch the swells with the spiked nipples that beckoned relentlessly.

With one, now free, hand, she held Kathryn's head firmly against her collarbone to prevent another of the searing kisses that would be their undoing. Fighting the call of the erotic lines spun over the sensitized swatch of spots, she blinked, and then swallowed, gathering enough moisture in her mouth to do more than moan. "Voyager, Kathryn needs…"

Kathryn dissolved into nothing. Unsupported, her knees buckled, and she crumpled to the floor. Her body thrummed with energy that suddenly had no outlet. She slid one hand along the flat plane of her abdomen and tugged frantically at the button of her pants.

She licked her thumb and circled a thickly swollen nipple, even as she mirrored the movement with her other hand, before abandoning the hooded flesh and driving two fingers deep inside.

Hips flexing into her thrusts, her thumb pushed against one of the ridges of nerves that lined the sides of her inner folds, and, at the same time, she twisted the sensitive nipple, triggering her orgasm.

Several deep shuddering breaths later, she crawled onto the bed and collapsed, insensate, into its soft embrace.





Chapter 6 | Universe Alpha, Beta Quadrant: Presban Space | Bookmarks




It took less time for Worf to make his decision than it had for Guinan to ask the question. He had mourned a mate and a wife both, and the Dominion war had left the fate of another whom he had loved unknown. If it were in his power to affect the outcome, he would not lose Deanna Troi.

==^==

Deanna knew they were headed for the Captain's ready room, a destination that would, when the time came, make it easier for her to do what needed to be done. What she couldn't fathom was why they would take her to the heart of the ship.

The brig had interrogation facilities; other decks had conference rooms that could be easily converted to a secure holding area. The ready room had access to command controls. Neither member of her burly security detail knew anything beyond the simple imperative from Corvalis to provide the required escort.

In the turbo-lift, she detected the first hint of fear from her guard. Closing her eyes she let the combination of her hunting lessons from Vrald and her own mental gifts twine around each other as she fixed in her mind their scent and imprint.

It would be good to be able to avoid unnecessary bloodshed; it would be better not to have to look to see her enemy.

The doors opened with their customary hiss, and she was herded onto the bridge then hustled to the ready room. Despite the brevity of her passage, Deanna caught the waves of confusion mixed with fear that swirled around the bridge. Her eyes widened. A large part of the fear, and consequently, a bright swath of anger, was directed at her.

Even some of those she had known since before they joined the Titan were afraid, more than afraid. They were terrified. Of her.

Before she could probe the morass of emotions emanating from the bridge crew, she was nearly swamped by a new set of images and emotions, as she stepped into the ready room.

==^==

Intellectually, Asil had always known that space was cold. Now, clinging to the hull of the Luna class starship, she felt the chill through to her bones. Concentrating, she set aside her reflections, and focused on the task at hand.

Visually, and mentally, she located the remainder of her team, and took a moment to acknowledge their losses. The transport alone had thinned the team; three warriors had not re-materialized, the experimental equipment failing to operate as required.

It was illogical to do so, but her eyes rested on her brothers and Phoebe longer than necessary. To lose them to prototype equipment would be unacceptable.

Along her bond with Deanna a different kind of fear shot into her, and she flinched under the onslaught, but there was nothing she could do until the appointed time. Asil slowed her breathing and sought that place in her that was Deanna.

The needs of the many did not outweigh the needs of the few or the one. Not in this.

==^==

On the bridge of the Titan, the First Officer, Commander Christine Vale, looked at the closed door of the ready room and made a decision.

She crossed the wide expanse of the command level, and descended the stairs, then pressed the chime for admittance. Something was very wrong. It had been wrong for sometime, but until now, she had only had the vaguest of suspicions. Deanna Troi, the Captain's wife, and a fellow officer had been escorted by security into the ready room, the bruising along her arms evident. Rumours of the Betazoid's strange transformation aside, without proof of a clear and pervasive danger, no physical harm should have come to Troi at all, and to take that kind of action with her knowledge or consent was unacceptable.

==^==

Aboard the Orantho, Sirella evaluated the data the sensors had gathered and looked at the ship's Captain.

"It looks like they've gone to ground."

"Anything from Captain Keyv?" The IKS Jornub had been left to monitor the safety of the newly formed colony. House Presba was a minor one, but it was resourceful and wealthy; it would not do for the Empire to lose the fledgling house prematurely.

"They're maintaining cloak in orbit around the moon. We got one short burst tagged to a radiation pulse as soon as we came into range. Keyv reports that there has been an increase in subspace communications between the Titan and the Federation."

She stared at the data thoughtfully. "No fighting on the planet, no fighting in space - doesn't seem like much of a war, does it?"

"Captain, Lady Sirella, we just decoded a transmission burst from the Titan." The young Klingon paled as impatient glares were directed at him. Facts. Not details. If they wanted details, they'd ask. "They report that Troi has been secured, and they will be breaking orbit shortly."

Sirella stood to her full height and stared out of the aft view screen. "All hands, battle stations."

The Orantho was more than a match for the Titan.

==^==

Hand over hand; Asil propelled herself along the surface of the Titan's hull. Hidden from view through port windows by the natural contours of the ship, her suit masked her biosigns; to the ship, if anyone even noticed, she was debris.

Dvanne twisted slightly bringing his large body in line with her slighter, but taller form. Hand signals were exchanged and the time remaining verified.

T minus three minutes.

Asil motioned to Vrald, who passed the signal along his line, and then to Targ, who despite his bulk, seemed, at times, to embody the spirit of the sleek cat for whom he'd been named. He acknowledged and also passed along the ready command.

T minus two minutes, forty-five seconds.

Her wrist computer vibrated softly. The Titan's shields had unexpectedly dropped. She seized the opportunity and risked the verbal signal. "Now."

Obedience was instant.

==^==

Standing at the edge of the crumbled windowsill, Guinan braced herself for the storm breaking. In the rooms below waited the future of the House she had chosen to serve. Above, in a cold black too far to permit sight, but not beyond listening, the battle had begun.

==^==

The commercial freighter came to a sudden enough halt that the inertial dampeners failed in their task of preventing passengers and cargo from hurtling about within the craft.

Beverly Crusher struggled up from the floor of her cabin, and let the force of ingrained habit propel her to the small ship's sickbay. There, she could be of use, and, other than an engine room, it was the place on a ship most abreast of what was happening at any point in time.

The incoming injuries were minor, most of them cuts and scrapes, along with a few cracked and broken bones, but nothing requiring surgery.

Apparently, a medical bay on a freighter wasn't quite the same as on a starship, because the most information she'd been able to glean so far was that they'd boarded by a Klingon ship. Where ordinarily she'd have made her way to the bridge to get more details, she decided that as a Starfleet officer, remaining incognito, at least in the short-term, was probably in her best interest.

==^==

Impossibly, it seemed to Deanna that the already extreme amount of tension in the room ratcheted up another level as the ready room door opened and the Titan's First Officer stepped inside.

Commander Vale looked at the Betazoid, the brighter lights of the ready room allowing her to clearly the extent and severity of the bruises along the supple arms that had only been hinted at on the darker bridge. "Deanna?"

"I'm fine, Christine." She offered the officer a small smile, and accepted the concern she could sense radiating from her. Of more interest was the sharp dislike directed at Corvalis and the worry about Will. What had happened since she'd taken Barin and left the ship?

Probing deeper into the layers of emotion swirling around the room, she tried to grasp what had pulled at her consciousness when she'd first been brought inside. Instinctively, she inhaled, and in a rush her mind put the data together.

The sour, rancid smell of Will, the fear and triumph of Corvalis, the bright flare of need that rushed through Will's discordant thoughts. Hate, love, need, fear and…she met his eyes…hope.

==^==

There was no time for a red-alert, no single second in which to call an intruder alert. The six members of the Titan's beta shift bridge crew dropped simultaneously to the deck, or slumped into temporary oblivion in their seats.

Asil turned to her youngest brother, and, with her fingers, gave the order. "Eject the core, as soon as Dvanne signals that engineering is secure." She was not leaving to chance the possibility that someone would manage to engage the warp drive and take them out of the system and beyond transporter range of Presba.

Vedor nodded, and moved to the correct station. Another of the team had already brought the helm to full stop.

She had felt it the second she'd materialized: Deanna's sharp and instantly repressed joy and relief. Ruthlessly, she suppressed her own response; she had to finish the task at hand.

The screen of her tricorder showed the bio-signatures and hence the locations of the occupants of the ready room, and she fed the coordinates into a new set of transporter buttons. Swiftly, Asil handed them to those who would go in with her. A sharp tug at the link she shared with Deanna called her attention and, reflexively, she closed her eyes. Expecting only the bright colours of her mate, she was amazed to see instead the ready room and its occupants painted in swirls of colour and hues that she knew was part of how Deanna saw the world.

Knowing her mate, Asil resolutely looked away from her beacon of luminosity and studied the others seeking to see what Deanna wanted her know. There. To the side. That was the danger.

Asil, locked in her mental exploration was unaware of the ferocious expression that she now wore; but next to her, Tuvon saw, and despite his own mental discipline, he paled.

==^==

In the ready room, Deanna changed the focus of her scrutiny from Will to Corvalis. Within seconds, Asil would transport into the room, and she knew that her mate would need to know which of the room's occupants was the true threat.

Deanna had felt her, even before Asil's physical form had finished coalescing into solid reality; their bond had flared, announcing that the cavalry had arrived. It had taken more mental discipline than she had thought she'd even possessed to retain the expression of calm acceptance she wore for her captors.

Trying to give Asil every advantage, Deanna tried to send concrete information along their link, attempting for the first time to send more than sensation and thought. She caught a hint of surprise, and then an awe that was swiftly replaced by an anger that Deanna knew to be primordial, ancient, and a true mirror through time of what it had once meant to be Vulcan. 〈〈Sai aduna,〉〉 she whispered through their connection.

〈〈I am here.〉〉 And then she was.

Tuvon overmatched the two security guards, and the Vulcan took a small measure of satisfaction from his success.

Deanna struck out to her left and made solid contact with the center of Nuala Corvalis' chest, sending her into the bulkhead. Peripherally, she was aware that Asil had disarmed Christine, but she remained focused on her target. "What did you do to him?"

Under the blow, Corvalis' head rocked backwards, slamming again into the metal wall. "Nothing," she spat out a mouthful of blood, "that he didn't want." She wanted Troi angry; too angry to be able to make sense of any of the information she might read. And, as long as she stayed away from the Vulcan long enough, there would be nothing left to trace.

But before she could fully aim the palm phaser that had sprung into her hand from the spring loaded clip, Deanna had grabbed her arm and wrenched it back, snapping the bone. Corvalis expelled the scream, letting the sound take some of the pain. She hadn't even seen the Betazoid move. That hadn't been in the report, nor was what happened next.

The fine boned fingers of Troi's left hand reached out and grabbed the side of her face, forcing her eyes to meet those of the hybrid, while an impossibly forceful right held her securely in place. It felt like being gripped by a vice that was inexorably tightening. 〈〈What did you do to him?〉〉

A heartbeat passed and then, on the verge of goading Troi once more, her nerve broke. The question had echoed in her thoughts, not her ears. And a heartbeat after that the information was ripped from her mind.

==^==

The tough part of being a decoy was the waiting. Worf sat in the pilot seat of the small shuttle that he'd landed in the designated hangar bay on the Titan. Outside, a small, but rather formative looking, security squad ringed the small vessel.

He wasn't coming out, and they weren't coming in. A low growl of impatience rumbled into the quiet space.

The four security guards were exchanging worried looks, and rifles were being shifted from hand to hand.

Worf stood up. It looked like he was going to come out after all. He had no objection to dying, but he really hoped that Guinan hadn't exaggerated when she'd given him the shirt. It seemed far too thin to be phaser-proof.

==^==

Captain Keyv brought his ship out from the shadow of the moon and fell into the path that he knew would complement the approach vector of the Orantho. Ahead the Titan hung in space, and he watched in surprise as the warp core was ejected.

It traced a path away from the system, and he wondered if it were set to detonate, or if it would continue to tumble end over end until inevitably colliding with another object in space.

If the battle went well, he decided he would send a team to retrieve it.

==^==

In the ready room, Commander Christine Vale kept one eye on the Captain and one on the Vulcan female who was, in turn, watching her and the Betazoid.

Riker had begun to breathe in long shallow gasps, and his forehead was beaded with sweat. "Is he going to be okay?" She had seen the implacable hatred on Deanna's face as she tossed Lt. Corvalis into the corner, had heard the anguish under the Betazoid's demand for information, and decided that whatever else was going on, the Captain's well-being appeared to be important. That was enough common ground for her right now.

No one answered her. At least not directly.

She saw Deanna, eyes black and without any hint of warmth, lift her head away from the limp body of Corvalis, and turn to face the Vulcan female. Tears had begun to track down Deanna's cheeks, but to Christine, the wet tracks did nothing to mitigate the cold resolve she read from a woman she had always thought of as mobile cookie dough.

The Vulcan nodded and turned toward her. "Deanna believes you can be trusted. You will take temporary control of the ship and establish a geosynchronous orbit around the planet on a heading we will provide." She moved to the Captain's side and laid her hand along his face. Seconds later she straightened, and with the same hand, entered a string of code into the computer. There was another pause, and a meeting of eyes between her and Deanna, then more code was put into the console.

The familiar, feminine voice of the ship's computer filled the air. "Captain William T. Riker is confirmed relieved of command. Command of the USS Titan is transferred to Commander Christine Vale effective immediately."

"Order the crew to stand down, Commander."

Christine watched for a second as the Vulcan carefully gathered the labouriously breathing captain into her arms, and made a decision. She tapped her chest. "All hands, this is Commander Vale, all personnel not involved in Condition Omicron report to quarters, we are secure from general alert."

==^==

With Deanna no longer in danger, and the Titan under control, Asil was momentarily at a loss as to how to proceed. The suffering starship captain now in her arms was a complication she had not planned for. More importantly, she was greatly concerned with what she sensed from Deanna, and were it not for the silently communicated request from her spouse, she would have picked the Betazoid up instead.

She stood, turning over possibility after possibility discarding the majority in less time than it would have taken for most beings to blink.

Deanna stood, deliberately turning her back on the unmoving form that had been Lt. Nuala Corvalis, and moved to where Asil waited. Her mind brushed against the Vulcan's and she read the layer of concern as well as her mate's consternation at having not planned past the point of liberating Deanna. Resolutely, she put her disquiet, anger and guilt aside to focus on what had to be done next. They had to get Riker to a doctor, and she had to get off this ship. Could the medical staff here be trusted? Ogawa was here, but despite how highly trained the nurse was, Deanna doubted she could handle treating Will.

She opened herself to the thoughts of those on the ship, marveling at how easy it had become to pull the images from the ethereal nothing that surrounded them. It was as if some mental stopper in her own mind had been pulled and instead of her essence flowing out, the universe had swept inside.

There. On the hangar deck. Worf.

Asil looked at Deanna as a gentle tendril brushed against her mind, seeking permission to connect. She raised a brow. That was new, but she put aside her curiosity and gave permission. 〈〈Yes, sai aduna.〉〉 She transmitted the endearment sensing that Deanna needed it more than the permission to enter her thoughts.

〈〈Worf is here. He is on the hangar deck.〉〉

And just like that she had a plan. "Computer, open a channel to hangar deck," Asil barely paused before Deanna supplied the correct deck, "four."

"Channel open."

"Ambassador Worf, this is Asil Troi of the House Presba, would you please report to the bridge?" As she spoke, Asil crossed the ready room and placed Riker on the couch that dominated the lower section of the room. She was not surprised, nor disturbed when Deanna moved to his side. In point of fact, she was relieved to see Deanna in motion at all.

"Affirmative." Worf answered, and pointedly looked at the security team that still appeared to not know how to respond to his presence. "Perhaps, you should accompany me," He instructed them and resisted the impulse to shake his head in disgust.

In his day, a security team would have known exactly how to act, and even in the absence of clear orders would have known to secure him and his ship until the situation could be clarified.

==^==

"We have a visual lock." Reported the Orantho's weapons officer.

"Target their weapons array."

"Weapons array targeted."

"Open a channel."

"Channel open."

The Captain pointed at Sirella, gesturing her to speak. This was a House matter, and not yet an Imperial one, though that could change as Sirella willed. "This is the Lady Sirella of the House Martok. You have something that belongs to me. I want it back."

"Incoming visual."

Sirella snapped, "Put it on screen." Her command was acknowledged with an efficient grunt.

On the forward screen the view of the Titan was replaced by a view of the Titan's bridge; a view that featured Worf and Asil.

The Vulcan regarded her calmly, and Worf looked decidedly uncomfortable. Sirella leaned forward, resting her hands on the weapons console. If she hadn't been dealing with a Vulcan, she would have sworn to Kahless that she read amusement from the woman. Looking around the visible area of the Titan's bridge, she spotted a Vulcan male, and a handful of Klingon warriors wearing the sigil of Presba. "You captured the Titan?"

"Yes."

"By Lukara's ghost, there are 350 people on that ship, and you just took it over. You." Sirella was impressed and it showed clearly in her tone.

The growl that accompanied Asil's next words was not friendly. "The House Presba will not tolerate insult, from anyone."

Sirella laughed. "I can see that." She was still marveling that Asil had commandeered a Federation starship.

Asil looked away, then back to the screen. "Lady Sirella," her tone was respectful and the Klingon wondered what she had just missed, "I would like to request a favour."

"I'm listening."

"I had thought to leave Worf to ensure the continued cooperation of this vessel. Is that acceptable?"

In effect, Asil was offering to turn over the spoils of war to House Martok, or to the Empire, Sirella's choice. Sirella chose the Empire, and reflected the choice in her terms of address. "I would be pleased to have Ambassador Worf act as liaison in this."

"As you wish." Asil nodded. "Now if you excuse me, I have things I must attend to. The House Presba thanks you for your assistance. We shall not forget."

And though they were a minor House, and though Sirella's assistance had been negligible, she knew that Asil's vow was neither minor, nor negligible. A profound sense of a destiny begun shivered up her spine. Great things were underway, and now she was a part of it.

==^==

The shuttle cleared the Titan and Asil transmitted a message to those waiting on the planet. Phoebe and Vrald had remained aboard the Titan, along with half the team as well as Tuvon. She had given Phoebe precise instructions with respect to certain logs, records and communications. Where there was one Section 31 agent, there would be others. And Deanna had conveyed the information that the Betazoid was not the end target.

She left the helm to her brother and moved to the aft compartment. "What is Captain Riker's status?"

Nurse Ogawa looked at her, then at Deanna, and Asil realized that the two women knew one another. "His vitals are holding steady, but there seems to be deterioration along his neural pathways. Unless we can determine what the toxin is, the damage will continue. He's slipping into a coma." The nurse looked back at Deanna again, "I don't know if it's reversible."

They didn't know what the toxin was? Asil lifted her hand, and then realized she could bespeak Deanna with a thought. 〈〈The toxin is undetermined?〉〉

Deanna flinched, and her eyes darkened, already impossibly black, they seemed to suck all of the light from her face. 〈〈Corvalis didn't know what it was. Just that it would make Will compliant.〉〉

Asil nodded, and did the only thing she could think to do. She moved next to Deanna and placed her hands on her mate's shoulders, offering her unconditional love. The moment was broken by an incoming transmission, and Asil stepped away reluctantly.

"On screen." She left the door open so she could see Deanna. The image resolved, and Asil knew only the lifetime of practice kept her surprise from registering. "Alexander."

The young Klingon smiled, his wry grin expressing both his acceptance of the situation and his understanding that there was something humourous about the whole thing. "I have someone here that I think you need." Worf's son stepped away, to reveal a Human female. "Dr. Crusher, is looking for my So'chim, and I hear you found her."

"Beverly." Deanna was suddenly next to Asil. "Thank, Imza."

==^==

Beverly Crusher left her patient and went in search of her friend. She had expected to find Deanna hovering outside of the room Will had been moved to, but aside from two Klingons who were obviously on guard, the hall was empty.

She moved through the building that served as the Presban infirmary, noting with idle interest its efficient use of space and prevalence of ambient light from outside.

Exiting to a small courtyard, she saw Deanna sitting on a stone bench. Next to her sat a tall, dark skinned Vulcan, who had her fingertips pressed against the Betazoid's. Guinan, as inscrutable and seemingly as imperturbable ever, her skin tones almost a perfect match to the Vulcan's, bracketed Deanna from the other side.

The physical changes in Deanna were astonishing. The brunette was older than she was, but appeared to be no more than twenty - unless you looked into her eyes. Deanna's eyes, always dark, had lost their light and the effect of the solid black colouring was chilling.

Beverly suppressed the shiver of fear for her friend, and gave Deanna a genuine smile. "Deanna."

While she was studying the Betazoid, the other women had faded away, leaving them alone.

Deanna looked at Beverly. "How bad?"

"He's in a coma. I've flushed his system, but I don't know what the long term ramifications are." Beverly hesitated; she had questions of her own, but she could see how fragile Deanna was.

"Do you know what it was?"

"I've got some samples running, but right now, no. Have you found the person who administered it? Perhaps they know." Beverly caught the flinch from Deanna.

"She did not." Deanna took a deep breath. "I need to know." She stopped again. "I need to know if Will was…" Once more the thought was left incomplete.

Her first impulse was to lie, to reassure, but she saw Deanna's head lift, and realized that the changes in her friend ran deeper than appearances. "I don't know for sure." What she had determined was that he had been given a massive overdose, and the only likely reason for it was to ensure that he remained pliable. "I think he knew what he was doing, but the why may have been unclear. It's a safe assumption that he was pretty confused."

Beverly waited to see if Deanna would speak, and took a seat on the bench. She couldn't make Deanna tell her anything, but she could let her know that she would listen, or not, Deanna's call.

She couldn't help looking past the Betazoid and at the entrance to the medical building to where she knew Will Riker lay, and wondering what in the hell had happened.

==^==

"You're cold."

Deanna registered the shiver as Asil entered their rooms. The taller woman did not exactly sigh in relief, but Deanna felt the Vulcan's response to the ambient heat in the space almost like it was her own.

Asil's voice was gentle, reassuring. "I am fine." She clasped her mate's hand and lifted Deanna's arm. Then she carefully rolled up the sleeve. The bruising was visible still. Asil said, "It is you who are injured." Their hands slid apart until only their fingertips touched. "We will use a dermal regenerator."

It wasn't that Deanna hadn't trusted Beverly. She'd just wanted the Doctor to focus on Will. He'd had the greater need.

Asil led her further into the room, finally stopping by the bed. "Sit. I will return."

"Asil--"

The Vulcan pressed a fingertip against Deanna's lips. Then, without another word, she exited the room.

Deanna looked about their bedroom. Everything looked recognizable, but different. There was a feel to it that she couldn't quite articulate. She sat, obeying her mate's wishes, finding an odd anchor in the action.

Like an echo, Deanna felt and then saw Asil approach. The Vulcan stopped in front of her, and then crouched, setting the tool to the side of her mate on the bed. Then Asil extended her hands. Her long fingers touched the first button of Deanna's shirt and the Betazoid abruptly understood what her mate was trying to accomplish. She reached to help, only then noticing that her own hands were shaking. Asil's were steady, persistent.

She calmly undid Deanna's shirt, then gently helped her remove it. The difference in pace and kindness was striking. "You love me," whispered Deanna.

Asil did not reply. Her hands and her eyes were doing the talking, as she helped her mate disrobe. There was a flash of something as she saw the bruising along Deanna's ribs, a quickly hidden rage. The feeling served no purpose, so she discarded it, but her fingers gently pressed, testing. It wasn't spongy. Nothing was broken.

Deanna gasped in response, "I am sorry, Asil. I should have…"

"It was the right thing to do." Asil lifted the dermal regenerator and flicked it on. "It is obvious that Will Riker's life depended on the timing of your return. The motivations may be unclear, but I do not doubt he would now be dead."

"Now he's merely in a coma." The words were bitter.

"He may recover. Dead he would not."

Logic. It could be so…

Deanna gasped as the regenerator served its purpose and the healing began. Asil's touch continued to be sensitive, briefly stirring against the Betazoid's flesh. It was cooler than normal, which brought that awareness back to Deanna's attention. She wasn't so far into her own problems not to notice her mate.

She would always see Asil.

〈〈You are chilled.〉〉

〈〈You are my fire. It warms me to be near you. I am fine.〉〉

Deanna looked up, into Asil's fearless, worried gaze. She leaned forward, placing her lips on the Vulcan's in benediction.

She wasn't expecting the kiss to flare into need. Not so close to the wounding. But there it was, fierce and bright.

Asil dropped the healing tool onto the floor in favor of clasping Deanna to her. It rolled under the bed, forgotten. They kissed deeply, hungrily.

"Thank you for coming for me," Deanna half sobbed.

"I will always come for you," Asil said. "You are my mate. My chosen."

Deanna gasped into their kiss and flung her arms around the Vulcan. They tumbled onto the bed and lost themselves to the heat which rose up between them.

The curvaceous brunette pressed to her mate, needing the solid comfort of Asil; her body and mind. The Betazoid sought refuge from the vastness that chased her. Asil's touch sparked through Deanna's skin, her body responded, and her heart, which she had feared frozen also leapt. She wept Asil's name, like a prayer for absolution, and found it in the Vulcan's tender, spicy kisses and abiding love

Asil needed the warmth of her mate, not just of her body, but that soul deep warmth that was always there. Like others she too had seen the deep in her mate's eyes, but her training had allowed her to face it and look deeper still. Others outside of their bond, might have thought Deanna lost to the cold. But Asil knew the difference. Where they saw dark and things to fear, Asil saw stars and the fiery inner light of her wife, and claimed them.

Deanna could not hide from her mate, so did not. She did, however, find the state of dress between them inequitable. Her hands clasped the clothes that separated them and shredded them away until they were deliciously skin to skin, touch to touch.

Asil's voice whispered in Deanna, summoning the Betazoid to herself. Her hands and lips also explored, following the luscious lines and gorgeous planes of her mate. She inhaled the scent of her beloved, could pick out the distinctiveness that made Deanna hers. Her sharp teeth grazed along her mate's skin, not pressing. Deanna arched to her anyway, receptive in more ways than one. Asil accepted the invitation and she pressed intimately, filling and connecting them both.

Words floated in the air, erotically spoken, dialects of different worlds and places more inward. All of them providing their own kind of warmth and heat to what was rapidly becoming a bonfire.

Deanna rocked into Asil's commanding touch, their thoughts blended and the Vulcan filled that space, shielded the Betazoid for awhile. "My Aduna," Asil purred.

"Yes!" Deanna called back as she was suddenly cast out past the dark into Asil's light. She felt her mate join her in the erotic cascade, the joy between them was still bright, still theirs.

They fell back to Presba together, warmed in fundamental ways. Whatever else was out there, whatever the cold that burned, there was heat, home, and refuge together.



Chapter 7 | Universe Beta, Alpha Quadrant | Bookmarks



She crouched upon the rock like a wild animal, a feral growl in her belly. She was being hunted, chased through thick, tall green. She had climbed to safety and was looking down at those who hunted. Their faces were indistinct, but she could feel the threat coming off of them like poisonous steam. They loved the hunt and were excited by the chase. They wielded nets, which had not yet caught her, and sharp lances. All who were not them were prey.

One of them held up a part from their most recent trophy and she screamed. The head in his hand turned to face her. Then the head of Kira Nerys opened her eyes.

Deanna Troi, Truth Seeker of the Truth Seekers, woke up sweating, gasping and horrified. At the very same time she was supremely relieved to be awake and no longer captured by that dream. She rose from her cushion-strewn bed and paced to the refresher. Once there, she took a long moment to thoroughly bathe the sweat from her body. The cleansing wash also served to sooth away the immediate tension that had come from awakening in such a state.

But she held onto the dream, or rather to what small fragments of it she could. She was fairly sure it wasn't a premonition, at least not fully so. It did not have that feel to it. She preferred, however, to investigate her dreams, just in case it was more than her mind doing its nightly work.

She went and sat down at her night table, and picked up the datatablet she had for such purposes and quickly entered the date and time. Deanna began recording what she remembered and then her observations and impressions of the same material.

The first thing she noted was that the scenario had seemed familiar at the time. When she thought about the location stripped of the action, she felt the stirrings of a memory. Deanna pulled at the thread of a thought and the more she did, the more the memory came into focus.

It was not her own.

She realized that it must be part of the record that her mother had passed down to her. A wispy memory of a location on Betazed, which she had never been to before, but one a many-times Great grandmother had visited. She prodded the shards of her impressions a little harder, but nothing more specific came clear. It was a place of hiding, and that was all she knew.

It probably no longer existed except in the matriarchal memories Lwaxana had gifted her with.

Deanna left that avenue of inquiry and next pulled at the issue of the hunters. That imagery was probably related to what she had recently learned about the encroaching Hirogen hunting parties, though it could also have been related to any number of Alpha and Beta Quadrant species, or even have been allegorical. She made a notation to look into more detail about it and possibly contact the Seers of Betazed. They might have more of an idea.

The final images were the most personally disturbing: the severed head of Kira Nerys. A Kira Nerys whose eyes had been opened, and whose body bore numerous wounds. Yes, that one was probably obvious, both as warning specter, which leant credence to the idea that it might be a premonitory dream, and as beloved face in the darkness.

The mere thought of Nerys being hurt brought up a surge of anger and sudden spark of a protective instinct. With that thought, came the abrupt realization that, if indeed the dream had been about the new threats from the Delta Quadrant, then something must be done to preserve her Nerys.

She did not register the tone of possessiveness in the thought and it took a moment for Deanna to realize that the growl she was hearing was not a memory. Her hand flew to her mouth, suppressing the noise and it abated with her deliberate choice to be silent. Then, testing, she tried it. The growl was there, low and vibrant.

A part of her thoughts scanned back to a conversation during the first Presban family dinner she had attended, and Deanna remembered the mental flash from her mother when a non-verbal question had been idly asked by Dr. Pulaski as she contemplated the Vulcan, T'Pel: "Does she purr?"

Deanna remembered that her mother had answered Kate with a wink and a nod. Then, Lwaxana had answered Deanna's identical question. "Do you purr?"

Her mother had leaned over and buzzed softly in her ear. "Only with people I love."

It had been shocking at the time, as no Betazoid she knew had such ability. But now Deanna understood that there had been physical changes that came with the gifts that her mother had given her. Just as there had been psychic changes when the Truth Seeker of Truth Seekers had laid hands upon her, and thus passed ability along with the title. What it boded for her future, she was not quite sure. But she did know that, despite her vulnerability in the dream, in real life, she had abilities that would make the difference in a fight.

She had proved it on Terok Nor during the battle for the station. And, if the dream were any indication, she would be proving again.

Deanna looked at the datatablet in her hand, and began another recording. This time she accepted that what she had seen in her dream was most likely a premonition, not necessarily a literal one, but important nevertheless. And so she would need to prepare to protect not only her people, but also Nerys.

==^==

Counselor Nael was still getting used to the sense of weird déjà vu she felt now that she was on the beta-Universe's incarnation of Betazed. In many ways, the world was familiar to the redhead. The same influences emphasized the blending of nature and architectural design that had been true of her Betazed. The same too, was the complete openness of mind to mind communication, with those same courtesies, and respecting of personal privacy. But there was also an edgier sense to living on this world, more martial and privileged, in a way. This world, the Counselor suspected, might not have succumbed to the Dominion so quickly. Of course, that might be because of the number of Klingons who happened to live on it too.

She was also gradually getting used to the idea of being famous. With Deanna Troi's help and at her express direction, a school for Counselor Truth Seekers had been formed and she, Counselor Priam Nael of the House Presba, was its head. The applications had begun arriving as soon as school had been announced and Priam had wondered if perhaps she had bitten off more than she could chew.

On the other hand, she had resources, which had been generously given to her by Captain Janeway. These resources included, along with the expected PADDs containing Voyager's entire medical database, medical replication codes, holographic resource scenes, and the two Orion assistants who had been part of her staff on Voyager. Epatai Torres had also provided a substantial amount of liquid capital in the event of an emergency, or unmet need.

The two assistants, Ensign Cree, who was male, and Ensign Opom, who was female, had proved invaluable. Both of the Orions had began their careers as high-price pleasure slaves, but both had also received extensive training as listeners and problem solvers as part of their education. When she had quizzed them, Priam had realized that the training had essentially made them Counselors, with the only real distinction being an emphasis on physical means of healing the body and the spirit. They had not been the only ones on her staff in such a situation. When she had begun to augment their education to address the psychological aspects of counseling they had taken to the task with great sincerity and enjoyment.

Neither might ever receive a formal Ph. D. from a Federation institute, but they had more than the equivalent qualifications, and she would trust Cree and Opom with her emotional life along with the success of the Counselor's University. They were going to be teaching those who wanted to learn.

One drawback, though, was that the Betazoid students were arrogant and tended to be dismissive of the Ensigns. The students instead preferred to go around their instructors and to try and speak with Priam directly, whether she had time for them or not. However, she expected that once the school really got into session, attitudes would adjust quickly. Or at least she hoped that would be the case.

The plus side was that setting up the school kept her busy, which in turn meant that she didn't think too much about the differences between her Universe and this one. She only thought about the commonalities and what she hoped to accomplish.

The biggest drawback was that all this business meant that she was separated from the one person who had caused her to change her mind and stay in this Universe. Priam found a great deal of irony in that. Still, there was a plus there too; she knew Sela was equally interested in her, and that the pandemonium of the set-up phase wouldn't last forever. She would see the Romulan again and it gave Priam something extremely pleasant to look forward to in the more trying moments of becoming Priam Nael, the upstart Dean of the Counselor-Truth Seeker University.

==^==

The Bajoran Sector, though named for one of the planets in the B'hava'el System, was composed of more than just Bajoran planets and its famous wormhole. Many other planets and systems fell under her auspices, but even as the Bajoran Intendant, Kira Nerys did not try to act as Governor to those worlds. That was precisely what the actual Governors and planetary governments were for. Just as Bajor had its own government, the planets under her purview also had their own civil structures. Nerys merely saw to it that they followed the duties and dictates mandated by the Empire and acted as final authority and arbiter as necessary.

It was not necessarily easy to maintain a balance between the needs of the Empire and those of the planets, but it was interesting work. Nerys happened to be very good at being an Intendant, and she had an extensive staff, which helped. Thus, she could take time to focus on other priorities. In this case, it was preparing Terok Nor to act as a battle station once again, and not just as a tourist attraction, though she had left in place, on the Promenade, the heads of the traitors, complete with stasis-fields to keep the reminders of the price of treachery from degrading. At her direct, and less than gentle, behest, the Ferengi Quark had taken up the challenge of making the station a profitable enterprise.

The Klingon Empire had begun the endeavor of protecting the Empire by stationing Klingon battle ships near the wormhole, for the express purpose of defense against the Dominion forces coming through from the Gamma Quadrant. That venture also brought in funds, since it meant that Terok Nor would essentially become a way-station for hungry, bored Klingons on shore leave. It also meant they need to be kept entertained.

She'd dumped that problem on Quark too.

Nor was Nerys as worried about issues of possible invasion by the Dominion as she used to be. The encounter with the Prophets had been, as promised by Captain Janeway, a revelation. As had the guest that now resided on Terok Nor as a result. Not that she quite knew what to do with her.

The Kai, Opaka Sulan, was like no one that Nerys had ever met before. It seemed as if the Kai had little or no self-interest nor even a rudimentary sense of self-preservation. She carried no weapons at all. On the other hand, she did allow security to follow her around. The problem was that she did not allow them to stop anyone from just stepping up and talking with her. And many did stop, as if they were compelled to meet with this quiet, spiritual woman.

Not that Kai Opaka was in mortal danger at the moment. Very few people knew of her origins from within the Gamma quadrant of another universe, and the Kai did not, as Nerys had feared, immediately start a new religion. She wasn't sure exactly what Kai Opaka did do, other than walk a lot and touch ears.

Nerys was inclined not to interfere, so long as the Kai took the correct precautions. She knew that Opaka had been to Bajor and had visited a few of the historical sites. She half expected the Kai to come ask for a specific location for a temple to be granted, but she had not. She just kept visiting Bajor or walking the Promenade and talking with people, sometimes she touched their ear in that strange contemplative way of hers.

She had touched Nerys' ear.

Actually, it had been more than a touch. It had been a firm grasp, as if Nerys were a mug, and her ear its handle. And the Kai had held on to her for quite some time as her expression changed first to one of deep contemplation, and then to wonder. Opaka had nodded, as if whatever she had discovered was something that, if not expected, made complete sense but said nothing about any of it.

She had smiled and said, in her inscrutable and peculiar way, "When you need me. I will be here."

Nerys still had no idea what it meant, but it had been oddly reassuring and she had tucked the moment in with her other mental treasures. Between the Kai, Deanna and Jadzia, she was feeling much more positive than she had in many years.

==^==

Winn Adami had taken a big risk when she'd made her second contact with the House Presba. It had been somewhat accidental, given that her son had started choking, but at the same time, she was the one who had made the decision to obey the demand of the Human doctor, which had, of course, been an unheard of thing to do. But then, Adami had always been a risk taker. She would not have gotten as far as she had without that particular trait.

So far, her choices had paid off in unexpected, but fiscally fortunate ways. With the help of Presba via the admirable T'Pel's financial backing, a new company had been started.

Winn Security took up the slack left by the sudden absence of the Orion Syndicate, and the associated reliable transit of goods. The company's title described the purpose. Winn Security would provide the guards and the security for merchant ships and businesses. It was closely connected with Winn Tech, which provided the weapons for the security teams. Winn Tech, which T'Pel had also invested in, had also gained a foothold in the Empire's economy by taking on the contract of building the mech-suits designed and created by House Presba for the use of the Empire. There had been other smaller contracts which T'Pel had put in place, and that would continue to provide growth opportunities for the companies.

Despite the absence of the Vulcan financial genius, Adami knew that the fortunes of her company would be carefully watched by House Presba. T'Pel had informed her that she should expect to be contacted by Miral Torres when she had found the right manager for their fiscal welfare. Winn Adami had already filed an application with the Judge.

If there was anything that Adami knew about it was wealth and power and how to cultivate and wield them.

==^==

Terok Nor was not the only place in the Bajoran sector on which gambling could be found. Indeed, there were many other venues spread throughout the Alpha and Beta quadrants, and Jadzia Dax had more than a passing knowledge of where to find the best spots. When she had mentioned to Nerys that she had business to attend to, she had meant it. Prior to going to the station, she had entered the Rogue Star in a race.

Her ship wasn't necessarily the fastest, but she was a terrific navigator and knew more than a few tricks, not all of them garnered over this lifetime; as a joined Trill, she had several to draw from. Such tricks and accumulated knowledge often helped her to stay in, and win, races. Besides, she wasn't after the first prize. Second prize was a modest sum when compared to the first prize, but it was enough to pay the upfront costs of making two cross-quadrant shipments, which made it a worthy goal in itself.

The drawback was the location. The planet was seedy and the town even seedier. It was a truly the epitome of a backwater planet and possibly a haven for the Syndicate, which probably made it a place she shouldn't go. But she did need the cash especially if, as seemed the case, she intended to wooing an Intendant and a Betazoid Princess.

So Jadzia dressed in her most dangerous looking and tight leathers, wore her weapons prominently, and girded herself for the adventure to come.

The bar where the contest lists were posted was crowded, as usual. Given the nature of the game, its participants and its cheering section, this was not a surprise. It was less of a surprise given that, despite its seedy appearance, it was an establishment with a solid reputation for not skimming credits from customers, or watering the alcohol it served. Jadzia stepped into the tavern, ignoring the wolf whistles sent in her direction, and looked for the Ferengi running the show.

She spotted a small crowd around a table that had holographic visual aids posted above it. A small man, someone she knew well, and sedately dressed for his species, was still taking forms for the race.

Jadzia ignored the line-up and went around to the other side of the table. She grabbed a chair, very recently and suddenly emptied of its occupant, and sat down beside the nimble and busy alien. "Rom. How's business."

The Ferengi glanced up, but not at her. "Terrible. But the race will help."

"I'd have thought you'd be busy fixing ships, not signing them up for the game."

"I told Zek I would help him out." He waved briefly at the bar's owner, another of her Ferengi acquaintances.

"Ah."

"He could have been Nagus, you know."

Jadzia nodded her head, but made no comment on that particular topic. Ferengi politics could get very complicated and made for longer conversations than she had time for. "So, where's the list of challengers."

Rom still didn't look up from what he was doing, but handed Jadzia a datatablet, though he could also, just as easily, have pointed her attention upward. It was the same data as on the information board.

She glanced through the list, taking a moment for risk assessment. Then she spotted a name she knew. The Arrogant. "Are you serious? Is she here?"

Rom knew who she meant. He handed a filament to a contestant and took their latinum in exchange. "Captain Maqam has been here for two days."

The Trill grimaced. "Damn. Damn. Damn."

"Perhaps you ought to pick another race." Rom paused and then looked at Jadzia for the first time since she sat down next to him. "Or at least a different bar."

He jerked his head in the direction of Maqam. The Trill followed the visual line with her gaze, and winced. "Oh Gre'thor and its stinking pits." She shook her head. Then said, "Look. I'm still going to race, but don't start the Rogue Star next to the Arrogant, you hear me?"

"But it's a random selection."

"Rom, if you value our friendship…"

Rom waved his hand in acknowledgment. "Fine. Fine. But you better get out of here. I think I saw Maqam look this way."

Jadzia set the tablet down beside Rom, and, as casually as she could manage, she stood up and started toward the door. She was more than halfway there, and harboured the hope that she would make it all the way out, when her way was blocked.

Maqam, a Klingon, was a woman of great height, ample bosom, and a fierce kind of beauty. She was dressed to emphasize all of those qualities. Maqam was also a smart and capable captain, and there had been a time when Jadzia had known her very well.

Too well.

"Jadzia Dax. Fancy meeting you here."

Jadzia summoned her brightest and most charming smile into being. "Maqam! What a surprise. I thought you were still on Qo'nos."

"Oh, that business was finished months ago. It was a…," there was a growl in her voice, "…small matter of honor."

Jadzia kept her smile. "Honor. Yes. I can see where that would be important."

Maqam leaned forward slightly and Jadzia could clearly scent the bloodwine on her breath. "It is strange to even hear you use the word, when you have none."

Jadzia did not rise to the bait, given how dangerous it would be; Maqam had backup, she had none. "We'll, we are all entitled to our opinions."

"Some opinions are worth more than others." She poked Jadzia in the chest. "You owe me three hundred thousand credits."

"Credits that I have to until the end of the year to get to you. A point in time still some months away."

The Klingon's gaze narrowed, but she knew it was the truth. "Well, don't think you're going to get them by winning this race." Maqam pointed toward her own chest. "That prize is mine."

"In the Arrogant?" Jadzia hadn't quite meant that tone to be so disbelieving. But there is it was anyway: veritas without vino.

"Is there something wrong with my ship?" the Klingon woman growled.

"No. No. Of course not. It's a very powerful ship. I have always admired it." Jadzia cleared her throat. "But you have to admit it's not a racing ship. It reaches what? Warp three?" She deliberately undercut what she already knew of the Arrogant's top speed, not really believing Maqam would let her pride overrule common sense and reveal its true speed. But a girl had to try.

Maqam waggled her finger. "Ah ah. You're not going to get me to tell you that way."

"Didn't hurt to try. But you have to admit, the Rogue Star is the faster vessel."

"Hah. My ship would beat yours any day."

Jadzia could not believe the words that leapt out of her mouth. It had to be the effects of falling in love, and the crazy was carrying over. "Care to make a wager on that?"

Now she really had Maqam's attention. Jadzia did her best not to look toward the door, but instead to face the Klingon woman squarely. It was touchy business making bets with fierce and unpredictable women, trebly so if they were Klingon.

Maqam gazed down at the Trill and her expression turned speculative. "A wager. What would you have, that would be of any interest to me?"

"Well," Jadzia took a deep breath and jumped in. "How about if your ship beats mine, regardless of who wins, I give you double what I owe you at the end of the year. And--"

Maqam cut her off. "No. That's too long to wait. If my ship beats yours, you give me your ship."

"And if my ship beats yours?"

"I give you mine."

There was a pause between them and then Jadzia said, "If you win, taking my ship also clears the debt."

"Agreed."

Jadzia thought her heart would throw itself out of her mouth. But she surprised herself with a shout. "Witnesses! Did anyone witness this bet?"

A sudden scrambling of interested parties ensued, consisting of both those trying to avoid being witnesses, and those wanting the task. Finally, three witnesses, including Rom, who were not related to either woman, were selected.

Then Jadzia and the Klingon dropped blood on the ground and it was official.

Jadzia left the bar paler than she went in.

==^==

As the Intendant Kira Nerys had many sources for many types of information. She had gotten to know Jadzia Dax a lot better recently, though she'd always had a comprehensive dossier on the adventurous merchant. From their time together, she personally knew that the Trill was impulsive, passionate, intelligent and enjoyed games - all kinds of games. Thus, when Nerys heard about the race, she knew it would prove to be irresistible to the Trill.

Nerys felt fully comfortable with going, since the location of the race happened to fall within her sphere of authority, though on the far outskirts of it. In fact, a case could, and would, be made that it was her right as Intendant to attend. In addition, she fully expected to receive her share of the profits.

When things were settled enough on Terok Nor and on Bajor, she had her staff make the appropriate arrangements and send out the necessary notifications. She then set out to find out exactly what manner of trouble Jadzia Dax was courting this time around.

==^==

In point of fact, Jadzia was busy putting out fires, literally.

The Rogue Star was a good ship, but it had its quirks. Age did that to a vessel. It gave them personality. In this case, her beloved Rogue Star was having a bad day and had burst a relay unit - into flames.

Jadzia grabbed a fire suppressor and shouted, "Not now! Not now!" She pressed the button on the extinguisher and blew the coolant onto the blazing surface. In short order, she was surrounded by a white fog and the flame extinguished.

When the small cloud settled around her feet, she gazed solemnly at the blackened, charred piece of equipment. Then, with a sigh, she went to where she stored the spare parts and began the process of fixing it. The Rogue Star would be ready on time for the race no matter how deep the Pits Above and Below seemed to grow.

==^==

A few hours later, the Rogue Star was a little more ready. Jadzia had repaired, replaced and fixed until she could fix no more. She was still confident, even though there were more things to do, that the Rogue Star would accomplish the task ahead of her. Admittedly, the goal had changed a bit. Second place was no longer the point. Now she wanted, and needed, to beat Maqam.

The goal was, she was sure, doable. But she had to revise her strategy accordingly and plan for dirty tricks. Not her dirty tricks, but Maqam's. The Klingon who she knew was sure to not play fair.

Especially, since, in a race like this, no one did.

Absently, as she considered what to do, Jadzia fingered the sigil of the House Martok, which she now wore on her jacket. It wasn't until she was halfway through her gleefully wicked planning that she registered the subconscious reminder. She looked down at the insignia and then lifted her head and rolled her eyes. "Kahless on a crutch."

Jadzia began revising her revisions. She might play dirty, but she was going to play dirty with Honor. She was of a House now.

==^==

When the Intendant arrived, surrounded by a mix of burly Bajoran and Klingon guards, pandemonium broke out in Zek's bar as a result. Even the bravest, and most foolhardy of people dropped out of her way as she paced toward the owner of the bar. Intendant Kira Nerys was not smiling.

She stopped before the not quite ready to grovel Ferengi. "Zek of Ferenginar, what have I told you about arranging races without the proper paperwork?"

Zek winced and shrunk down a bit. His hands curled together unpleasantly. He didn't want to answer. He really didn't. But he knew it would go worse for him if he did not. He cleared his voice. "You told me…." His voice stumbled off into terror. He tried again. "You told me, that if I failed to inform you, and failed to pay the appropriate fee, you would take it out of my hide."

"Am I a woman of my word, Zek?"

He winced again, dreading what he knew the answer must be. "Yes."

Kira leaned over and touched his ear, fingering the lobe lightly. "I really don't like doing this kind of thing, Zek. Why do you persist in challenging me? The next time I'm going to have to take this bar and stake your head outside of it. Do you understand?"

The Ferengi nodded his head jerkily. "I do, Intendant. I'm sorry, Intendant."

"No, Zek. You aren't sorry. Not yet. But," she pulled back and gazed at him implacably. "You will be." She turned to one of her guards. "Take this man to the back. I want a piece this big." She measured with her fingers and thumb. "Then tack it to that wall there, above the bar. I want him to remember this, so I do not have to come back to do something worse."

"Yes, Intendant."

Two of her guard grabbed Zek by the arms to restrain the suddenly struggling man, and dragged him out. A third man trailed after them, fingering his dk'tahg. Intendant Kira snapped her fingers at the open mouthed Rom. "You. Get me my twenty percent. Now."

Rom blinked, bowed and scuttled away. When the screams began coming from outside, those who had gathered around to stare at the Intendant and her guard suddenly had better things to do.

Except for one person. Maqam, who was feeling enthralled, and more than a little aroused, by the display of power, sauntered toward the smaller Bajoran woman.

The guard watched the other woman alertly and she raised her hands up, signaling that she meant no harm. Intendant Kira smiled pleasantly. "You seem to want a moment of my time. Why?"

The Klingon woman poured on the charm, well aware of the Indendant's lusty reputation. "I am Maqam of the House Qua'lon. I have admired you for a very long time and merely wished to offer to purchase a drink for you."

"Ah. So you're an admirer. I'm afraid I must decline. I have other business to attend to." Her tone cooled.

"Will you be watching the race?"

"I will be."

"Watch for me to win. Then, if you care to, come celebrate with me."

Rom chose then to show up, and being a naturally garrulous fellow, inserted commentary into the dialog. "It should be an interesting race. The betting pool is quite extensive. You should look at the board. Maqam and Jadzia Dax are racing for ships."

Maqam chuckled. "The poor deluded Trill thinks her ship will beat mine. Hah!"

Rom continued. "She said that Jadzia had no Honor. But I don't think that's true. Jadzia is a very honorable person. She always pays her debts, in full and on time. We've never had a problem with her."

Kira's gaze narrowed slightly, but Maqam failed to note the display of interest. "Jadzia Dax of the House Martok?"

"She owed me…Wait…of House Martok?" Maqam paled. "When did? How did?" Maqam suddenly appeared unsure. "We, uh… we were just teasing each other. We talk like that all the time. So she owes me a little bit and I know she will pay it, but the bet seemed like the way to resolve the issue."

Kira's expression remained pleasantly attentive. "Of course." She looked at the datatablet that Rom was extending to her and said, "Don't give it to me. Give it to my guard."

"Right. Of course, Intendant Kira." Rom hastily changed direction and handed the tablet to the indicated guard. Then he said, "How else may I be of assistance?"

Nerys smiled thoughtfully. "I'm sure I'll think of something later. You're excused."

At that point, Zek was dragged back in, still sobbing. Rom raced over to the other Ferengi and took over his support. The Klingons who had handled the duty retook their places around the Intendant, except for the third, who did as Kira had instructed and hung the a piece of skin on the wall.

"Now that the unpleasant business is over, it is time for us to go. Please excuse us, Maqam of House Qua'lon."

Maqam nodded, suddenly realizing that an attraction to power could have a stinger in its tail. This time, like the other patrons, she stepped respectfully out of the way as Intendant Kira Nerys walked by.

==^==

Jadzia Dax had gunk in her hair and smudges of various types were smeared on her face, neck, arms, shirt, pants, and in a few other places. She wasn't entirely sure how some of them had gotten where they were. She had yet to bathe, because she had been, and was still, busy. Of course, this was precisely when Intendant Kira Nerys chose to show up at her dock.

She had happened to look behind her as she was reaching for another tool from the droid assistant when she spotted the skimmer. It took her a moment to realize that, yes, the silhouette of the occupant was indeed familiar. Jadzia turned to the bot and said, "Thanks for your help. The repairs are done now. Charge it to my account."

The droid beeped an acknowledgment then bustled away.

The Trill jumped onto the nearest stable surface and then down to the next one.

She probably could have taken the lift, but that would have been too slow and Jadzia felt the need to at least attempt to clean up. She was on the ground and running in moments.

Of course, it looked like she was running away.

It was only Kira's total confidence in what she knew about the Trill that kept her from telling her guards to take up chase. But she did wonder. "What is that woman doing?"

"We can fetch her for you."

"No. No. We'll be there soon enough and I'll just ask her."

"As you wish, Intendant."

The open skimmer parked a few feet away from the ramp to the interior of the Rogue Star. Intendant Kira stepped out and said, "You may wait here."

Then she strolled up the ramp to find her lover.

Once inside, she spotted a shirt crumpled on the deck. A little farther in she saw pants piled indecorously against a wall, as if they'd been kicked off. She laughed when she came upon the panties and then, even further in, on the bra. She was still chuckling as she drew nearer the source of a new sound. Nerys entered the small bedroom, as if she had the right, which, as Indendant, she did, and considered whether the sonic shower, which had to be compressed too, would have room for both of them. Then, because she did not feel like being cramped into a small space, she opted to simply wait.

The Bajoran undressed, neatly folded her clothes and set them to the side. Then, Nerys sat down on the bed, crossed her legs and waited for her lover to come out of the shower.

At least now she knew why Jadzia had run.

==^==

The Trill hurried, scrubbing to help the sonic shower do its job. It wasn't water, but it was efficient. She stepped out of the shower, quickly cleansed her mouth, spritzed herself with a pleasing scent, and brushed her hair. Then, she stepped out of the refresher with the intent of picking an outfit for herself. She'd had one in mind, one that she could get on in a hurry, but that idea vanished as soon as entered her room.

Nerys, naked as the day she was born, was sitting - leaning back on her hands and legs crossed - on the bed. "Hello, Jadzia."

==^==

Nerys flowed, like a cat, into a standing position. She was gratified by the change in the Trill's gaze, from surprise to desire. "Are you glad to see me?"

Jadzia stepped forward, and then paused. She stared hungrily at the Bajoran and answered. "Yes." Then she looked confused, "But what are you doing here?"

Nerys' smile was predatory, wanton and incredibly beckoning. "Come to me Jadzia, and I'll show you."

Jadzia swallowed, realizing suddenly that she was faced with a choice: her ship or Nerys. It was not an easy answer to find within, but she knew the truth of it as she gazed at the Bajoran in her cabin. Her need flared, sharp and hot. "Nerys," she whispered and stepped forward into open arms.

As they kissed and the tender, passionate connection deepened, Jadzia realized it was a choice she would make over and over again. She groaned and pulled away. "I don't know how, I don't know why, but I am glad, so very glad to see you."

Nerys who was catching her own breath said, "Really, because from a distance, it looked like you were running away from me."

"Never." The Jadzia paused, "Well, maybe if you were throwing plates at me or something."

The Bajoran's smile widened and she pressed herself into the Trill. "Next time let me see you dirty. My staff wanted to go fetch you."

Jadzia winced. "I was filthy, love. I mean head to toe."

"I like you filthy. I like you clean. I like you. Do you mind if we go to bed now. I've been…needful."

The Trill gazed down at the Bajoran, observing. "Yes, you have, haven't you? It's only been…"

"Shut up and kiss me, Jadzia."

Jadzia grinned softly and leaned forward. "Yes, my lovely Intendant." Then she held the kiss until their vision spun.

==^==

The bed was not as sybaritic as the one Nerys owned, but it was clean and there was room for both of them. Jadzia guided the Bajoran back, steering by memory as much as anything, since she wasn't exactly paying attention. She was still careful, however, and stopped so that Nerys' legs were just touching the side of the bed.

Jadzia slid down Nerys' body, pausing to lick and taste along her breasts, finding the sensitive ridges that would cause her to gasp. The Bajoran's hands locked onto Jadzia's shoulders as the pleasurable sensations thrilled through her. The Trill scooped her hands along Nerys' buttocks, caressing them and pressing lightly.

Nerys began to sink onto the bed and Jadzia's hands floated down her thighs, to behind her knees.

The redhead laughed when she realized that her lover had successfully put her into a compromising position, with her legs parted. Nerys rolled forward a little, resting on her forearms, so she could see what Jadzia intended.

Blue eyes sparkled with tender amusement and delicious lust. Jadzia grinned as she leaned forward and kissed Nerys' inner thighs; first one and then the other. Her hands continued a subtle massage behind the Bajoran's knees. Then she brought her hands forward, using her fingernails to burn a sweet trail from behind the thighs and around and up Nerys hips and belly.

Jadzia rose, as her hands moved up, until she was pressed fully against Nerys and could feel the double pebbled spikes of the Bajoran's breasts against her own. She laughed when Nerys playfully moved against her and pushed back.

Their mouths danced against each other, open and seeking the depth of one another. Jadzia's hands cupped Nerys' breasts, played with them as if she owned them, stroked pleasure along the ridged sides. When she was ready she began to wander the trail downward again, feeling her way, tasting her way, until she was at that small path to heaven.

Jadzia blew a breath along moist auburn curls, and then with no more hesitation, she pressed her mouth against Nerys. She drew her tongue through the moist folds, deliberately sliding against the tender ridges and sacred pearls there. She let herself get lost in the moment, forgetting herself in her task so deeply that she missed the moment where Nerys stopped watching and threw her head back. Jadzia moved with the Bajoran in a heated pulsating, salty and sweet, dance as the other woman's hips bucked to each new flick of her tongue and press of her mouth. Hungrier still, the Trill dove in deeper, wanting more. She brought her hands down, using one to hold Nerys open for her passionate exploration, and the other to join in the press and push, until the Bajoran could hold back no longer.

Nerys' hands clenched in the blankets of the bed and Jadzia heard her name, barely registered it, but heard it, as the Bajoran screamed out her honest joy and pleasure.

When she finally came down from the heights and Jadzia looked into those beautiful eyes which brimmed with light and love meant for her specifically, the Trill knew without any doubt whatsoever, that she had made the right choice.

Nerys, who was still panting; still feeling the flush of passion rush through her, grinned and then pulled Jadzia up. Then, just as quickly, she pushed her over until Jadzia was reclining on the bed. "Now," she said, trailing kisses along sensitive spots, "It's my turn."

The Bajoran, made her own line of fire, drawing patterns and kisses along those flushed marks. Jadzia gasped and arched towards the touch and surrendered to the moment. It took a moment to register that Nerys was speaking, uttering a claim that was hers to make, with each stroke and touch. "Mine."

Jadzia answered. "Yes."

Nerys grinned at the response. Then she captured one of Jadzia's breasts in her mouth, pulling and suckling, before moving on to the next breast where she did the same. Only, at the end, just before she released it, she drew it up with her teeth a little.

"Oh Gods and Goddesses!" Jadzia exhorted by tone alone.

Nerys knew instinctively that she would find a flood if she dipped a little lower. And there was indeed, a great silkiness to be enjoyed. Her fingers slid through the slick curls and into those sweet moist places. Jadzia's hips lifted, inviting her to more access and Nerys accepted. "Mine," she repeated.

"Yes," Jadzia confirmed.

Nerys pressed in and Jadzia rocked against her so intensely that the Bajoran couldn't help the grin. She began then, to stir and press, guiding Jadzia into the next form of the dance. She used her thumb to brush across sensitive points, and fingers to tantalize the hidden sheaths of nerves, as her mouth did its own circumnavigation along Jadzia's breasts and spots.

"Nerys…" Jadzia began to chant, trying to communicate her need and finding it answered though she couldn't finish. "Nerys… oh gods…. Nerys…"

The Bajoran continued to summon the Trill to the high place, to desire's mountain. She brushed up against her, let her feel how wet she was, by drawing herself along Jadzia's thigh. Then she lifted her head and kissed the Trill on the mouth and whispered. "I love you, Jadzia Dax. Come for me."

The words thrilled through her like fire on dry grass. Jadzia felt the universe compress around her; release rushed through her like fireworks and she came, and then came again, and then again.

When she finally returned to the present, she was wrapped in Nerys' arms. The Bajoran was looking at her with concern, a touch of pride and a bit of awe. "I think," Nerys said slowly, "You may have needed me too."

Jadzia couldn't help the laugh. "Yes. I did."

==^==

Deanna Troi of the House Presba, Truth Seeker of Truth Seekers, was having one of those days. It had started off well enough. The weather was fine and the general populous was content, at least for the most part. Her dreams had not been portentous. The University was off to a good start, though there were some issues of status that were still being worked out. Deanna had already promised Priam not to interfere unless things were dire. She was letting the Counselor define what dire might be. Deanna's Council, spread throughout the quadrants, were doing what they were supposed to do.

Yet she, Deanna, was cranky and irritable. There was a reason for it, but nothing that she would have admitted to anyone. It was a simple problem with an easy resolution. She just had not had time to enact the cure.

There had been too much to do.

But she knew it made her difficult to be around and she recognized that even if she took care of the symptoms, the problem would remain.

She missed them. She missed Nerys and Jadzia terribly and she longed for them. But they were light years away and she had responsibilities.

Sighing, she fiddled idly with the stylus in her hand and stared out the window. Her expression blanked and suddenly she was…elsewhere.

It was brief, hardly a heartbeat or two, but it was also clear. She had a vision of her lovers, holding each other, smiling.

When she came back to herself, it was as if she'd experienced a fresh breeze on a hot day. She felt better.

And she knew what she had to do.

〈〈Rynb, attend me.〉〉





Chapter 8 | Universe Alpha, Delta Quadrant: Voyager's Rest | Bookmarks




In another Universe, in a different part of its galaxy, other events were also happening quickly. By the time Voyager and her crew reached Voyager's Rest they were in the company of several other ships in a kind of unintentional convoy. Some of the species that made contact with them were familiar, but others they had never encountered. But they all knew of Voyager. It made for an interesting journey back for the crew and the Department of Diplomacy was suddenly very busy with the unexpected First Contacts. Zakeeri ships of several types and sizes sang out their greetings to the silver beauty and Captain Janeway allowed the scouts to go out and fly with their cousins.

Meanwhile, the message stream had been completely compiled. Seven of Nine, with Voyager and the Zakeeri ships the Three Sisters, along with Dr. Brahms and several other bright individuals were busy processing and decoding the message, which appeared to have several layers to sift through.

It was going to take awhile; a development that made the plans for leave and recruitment much more realistic in terms of timeline.

They were surprised to see what looked like a small space station at a distant orbit from the planet. It was doing brisk shuttle business with the planet's main colony, while larger ships huddled around it like animals at a watering hole. The crew of Voyager was even more surprised to be greeted by the Station herself.

"Hail, Voyager of House Presba, returned from her journey. What stories of valor do you bring?"

There was a pause. Captain Janeway nodded her head. Voyager made up something on the spot. "We bring tales of battle and glory, justice and mayhem. We bring news of those who are not with us, yet are still alive. We bring our families home, so they may commune with their kin."

"Glorious! We look forward to hearing more. Heallig of the Clan Sun Tiger will be overjoyed to hear of your return. Do you have a time table?"

"Our current plan is a two week layover."

"Will you dock here, or do you prefer to land at your Home?"

This time it was Captain Janeway who spoke. "We will be landing on the planet this time. Though you may expect that some of us will visit you. I am curious, to whom am I speaking?"

"Ah, yes, my apologies, Captain. I am Ahpel of the Sun Tiger Clan."

At that moment, Janeway really, really wished Sofuru was where she could see her Zakeeri Scout commander's face when he realized his clan had grown by a space station. She kept her own expression politic. "Ahpel, we thank you for your courtesy."

==^==

From a technical standpoint, the landing of Voyager was a much more graceful and confident affair than it had been the first time. It helped that there was a real docking port to land on; one with vibrant guiding lights and lines. There were also professionals who aided in the process, as well as an assigned window. It wasn't until later that Captain Janeway had found out that they'd been given a privileged berth, one that had been reserved specifically for their return.

The Three Sisters landed beside Voyager, while Voyager's other Zakeeri vessels waited until later to retake their haven within. Stinging Sparrow settled particularly close, somehow managing to convey, without explicitly touching Voyager, that theirs was a special relationship. To those who understood the living ship's psychology, it was a practically a shout of bonded status and merging.

No sooner had Voyager landed, than the struts and other supporting features secured themselves and she opened the doors for the people who were waiting, on both the inside and the outside. This time, when her crew streamed out, they did not carry pieces of her body in need of repair with them, just bits of her affection.

From that point it was controlled mayhem for the next few days.

==^==

Captain Janeway had expected to need to don the mantle of diplomacy for their return to Voyager's Rest, but for once the whole of the responsibility for such things did not lie fully upon her shoulders. The DoD had made plans for events and parties for visitors to the ship. The major schedule was installed on the Ship's channel and holodeck 3 was commandeered for the project.

They did not do this only for themselves. This circumstance was also an opportunity for those who were from the beta-Universe to make first contact and respond to the adventure of being on a new world and a new universe.

"At least this time I don't have to negotiate for parts," Kathryn later commented to Lwaxana as she sipped her wine. She was suitably impressed with the decorations and the set up. "I take it that mess hall 2 is catering."

The Betazoid emitted a slight hiss of displeasure. "Darling, we must do something about that name. It simply does not do justice to the quality of food or drink that they create there."

Kathryn grinned and leaned lightly into her mate. "If you can think of a suitable one, then it will be renamed. Until that time…"

Lwaxana tisked, then smiled at the next guest, another Zakeeri, who came to greet them.

"Warlord Janeway, it is an honor to finally meet you. I have heard much…"

==^==

Those who were not into diplomatic events, on duty, or otherwise engaged were participating in the celebrations all over the town. Mikasa, the first colony, had grown from a small village to a vibrant, small city and they were glad to have Voyager back. Parties were thrown all over the town. There might come a time when Voyager's return wouldn't warrant a full-blown celebration, but that time had not yet arrived.

Among those not participating, though not out of any anti-social sentiment, was Seven of Nine. She simply had better, more productive, and more personally satisfying things to occupy her time. It was possible that it could be argued that she should have attended the diplomatic event, but Lwaxana had been more than understanding about the priorities involved. The message from Starfleet really did have to be interpreted and Seven had finally found a potential thread that would unveil the first layer.

She was currently picking her way through it, navigating the labyrinth of numbers and formulae with deliberate precision. If she could tame this first level, then the next one would be easier. That was her theory.

Thus, she had been excused.

It was, she decided hours later, as the pathway suddenly flared open and revealed the secondary level, a wise indulgence on Kathryn's part.

That had been when T'Pel had appeared. The Vulcan had walked up to her mate and they had touched fingertips. Then she had said, "Even the most diligent must rest, my wife. It is time to come home."

There was a hint of something in her eyes, and behind the words, which intrigued Seven of Nine enough that she had immediately logged her place, and then shunted the data to the others who were trying to solve the puzzle.

"I will comply."

==^==

Of course, she knew how much time had passed. But Seven had learned that there was sometimes a difference between what her internal sense of time indicated, and what the passage of time actually meant in real terms. Seven had to admit, from that perspective; time had gotten away from her.

T'Pel walked with her through the corridors toward their home and, despite the fact that there were only a small percentage of persons on shift, it was busy. The Beta shift had been underway for quite some time. However, T'Pel was unhurried and Seven of Nine appreciated the time with her wife.

T'Pel was not one to make unnecessary small talk. Thus when she said, "The Prime has been given a generous amount of shore leave," it was merely meant as informational.

"When does it begin?"

T'Pel cast a glance at her spouse and said, without so much as raising an eyebrow, "Five and a half hours ago."

Seven considered the data. "I did briefly scan the roster. It has changed. I believed our shift was to begin in two days."

"That would be correct, but Laren discovered a …discrepancy…that needed resolution." There was now a hint of amusement along their link.

"Indeed."

"Yes. It appears that the First Officer neglected to schedule her own shore leave."

"I see." Seven let her own amusement filter through their connection.

"Your family does understand that you will have reason to pursue ship's matters during the shore leave, and but we expect you to make the corrections for time at your convenience."

"I will." It was, reflected Seven, very nice to have her nature respected and embraced.

They walked in silence for a while, drawing closer and closer to their home. "Seven, may I join you in your rest?"

"It would please me if you would."

"Good. I have a proposal to make for afterwards."

"I am very interested in hearing it."

==^==

Sometime later, rejuvenated and refreshed, the two women stepped into the Nest and made their way to the supplies. They began to examine their options with studious intensity, replicating several possible choices. Seven of Nine finally pointed toward one possible unit. "This would perhaps serve well for the experiment."

T'Pel stroked a finger down the long length of the object. "Indeed. It is of sufficient length and satisfactory width." She caressed a knob at one tip. "The proportions are similar to Tuvok's."

"Pleasing."

"Indeed."

They looked at one another then, a bare hint of a smile rested on Seven's lips. T'Pel's expression was intent. The blonde grasped the chosen unit and lifted it, assessing its weight and other factors in one smooth motion. Then she reached with her other hand and their fingertips touched.

She immediately felt a hungry wave of desire flow over her from T'Pel and arched her brow. "We could save the experiment for another time."

T'Pel lightly shook her head. "Aduna, I would like to attempt this. Your theories are intriguing and may indicate another point of change among us."

Seven nodded. "I agree." Then, whimsically, she leaned toward her mate and kissed T'Pel passionately. "However, there is nothing to stop us from warming up first."

T'Pel only had time for the thought, 〈〈Practical〉〉. Then she lost herself in the follow-up kiss.

==^==

Together, they settled in the middle part of the Nest, preparing their space with pillows strategically placed for support. Seven set the unit beside the small space. As one, they stepped into the circle of pillows. The kisses they shared as they settled themselves were succulent and rich. They parted only when they had to.

Then it was a simple matter of positioning. T'Pel was the first to sit and she stretched out her legs so that they formed a flat V. Seven sat down so that her legs were placed along and above T'Pel's thighs. She ran her free hand from T'Pel's face and neck, down between T'Pel's breasts, and further, making a nearly straight line to the point she was most interested in. There her fingers lingered, as she enjoyed the moisture of her beloved. "You are ready," she commented.

"I have been since the choice was made."

Seven's expression became even more sultry. She leaned forward and was met, in another spicy exchange of kisses. Their tongues brushed sensuously against each other as the kisses deepened. It could have been easy to forget their purpose, but they withdrew finally.

This time T'Pel's hand made the journey, pausing to trace lines where lights flickered to the cadence of Seven's pulse and arousal. Seven gasped at the stimulating touch, warmed to it. T'Pel's long journey ended at the juncture between Seven's legs. Once there, she played gently for a moment, also enjoying what she found. "You too are ready," she finally commented.

Seven said nothing at first. Instead she merely leaned over slightly and gathered their tool. She looked at T'Pel. "You are sure?"

The Vulcan nodded.

Seven said, even as T'Pel continued to play with what she had found. "There will be no touching after this."

"I understand," T'Pel responded in a heated purr. However, the Vulcan's hand remained where it was, and it took everything Seven had not to arch to allow even more access.

Instead, with her free hand, the blonde grasped her mate's hand by the wrist and gently brought it up and out. Then, most deliberately, she licked and suckled T'Pel's fingers. The Vulcan moaned and closed her eyes, but offered no resistance.

Seven then freed the other woman. Her gaze held an ocean of desire. "It is time."

T'Pel leaned back, using her hands to aid in balance and lifted her hips. Seven brought the long object forward, choosing an end randomly, since both were tipped with a pleasing enough bulb. Then, slowly, erotically, she drew the shaft along T'Pel's wetness, up and down part of its length until it was, to Seven's estimation, adequately prepared.

At the same time, Seven was already engaging in the experiment, and with each stroke she fed an erotic suggestion that she was, in fact, the one stimulating her mate, stroking the places of delight.

T'Pel's fingers clenched on the surface of the Nest and her eyes narrowed into slits. "In," she commanded, growling as deeply as she needed.

Seven drew the now warmed and wet object downward and then, gently but firmly pushed it where the Vulcan needed it to go. She observed keenly as slick skin embraced the shaft, pulled it in with the thrust. She also knew it was taking everything T'Pel had not to push back. Seven licked her lips, torn between a desire to taste what she was seeing and a need to complete the task. She looked up and was captured in a heated gaze.

Now T'Pel took a hold of the long length. She growled out, "Your turn."

Seven felt that sound spread all the way through her body, and had to close her eyes for a moment. But she nodded her head. By the time she opened her eyes, she was slightly more composed. This time she lifted her hips and it was T'Pel who drew the line, up and down. It was T'Pel who made the nonverbal suggestions, and this time it was Seven who clutched the surface of the Nest as though it were a lifeline. "T'Pel," she growled, "Now."

The Vulcan, thankfully, complied.

Slowly, they both pressed toward each other, deepening the pressure of the device, until they were both filled and comfortable.

T'Pel hissed the question, needing so much, but the trial was important. "Adequate?"

"Sufficient," replied the Borg with equal heat.

"Then, let us begin."

The goal of the exercise was to avoid touching and thrusting, but to send the idea of touching and thrusting along their bond. Thus, they held very still.

Seven of Nine concentrated, feeling the thread of desire and contact deepen between them. She focused first on T'Pel's nipples, imagining taking them in her mouth and suckling warmly, while at the same time imagining that her hands were stroking along her Vulcan's body.

T'Pel groaned in response and Seven felt the minutest push, where they were connected via that shaft. It felt incredible. Then, she found herself moaning, as sensation suddenly cascaded along the edges of her implants, both on her skin and somewhere deeper.

The Borg somehow managed not to thrust back, but it took a great deal of discipline. But she did imagine it. She imagined bucking back, thrusting and feeling the thrust. T'Pel gasped and felt wetness slick along the shaft. She sent over sensations in return, of thrust and push and taste. She lingered on the thought of tasting Seven.

The blonde growled in pleasure and need, feeling the building spiral between them. Then, there was a sudden flare of need between them, raw and unadulterated. Even then they held still, clasping to what their will demanded. Letting the experiment carry forward, but needing so much to be with one another that their impulses and thoughts began to blend.

To one who might have randomly passed by, it would have seemed as if nothing was happening between the two nude women. They were so still they could have been ancient art wrought of skin and bone.

But to Voyager, who could not help observing, there was every indication that there was much going on between them. The two women maintained eye contact, allowing natural blinks and shifts to occur, but always bringing their gaze back to each other. Their breathing altered, their skin temperature changed, their nipples stiffened and ached. There were responsive verbalizations.

And then there were the unintended reactions.

Kate Pulaski, who had summoned the fire, but had never herself been summoned by the mating call, crumpled a cup in her hand. She wasn't the only one. Lwaxana had been holding a plate. One moment, Kate was drinking something light and fizzy in the mess hall. The next, the drink was flowing over her hand and a Zakeeri matron, a guest on Voyager, was telling them to hasten to their mates. Somehow Kate and Lwaxana had managed to be courteous in their reply even as they rushed.

B'Elanna and Laren had been strolling through the town, looking at the new places and pondering gifts. They had marveled at the number and variety of people who lived in the town, and they had been surprised at the number of people who knew who they were. More than one person had greeted B'Elanna as the Epatai of House Presba.

They had been had been just outside of an odds and ends shop when they had cast one look at each other and felt the blaze thrill through them. They had stumbled to the side of the building, into the shadows, where Laren had managed to tap her comm badge. "Voyager. Two to beam…" She hadn't even completed the sentence, before they sparkled over to the vessel.

Kathryn and Tuvok had been at the town hall, being led on a tour by a very enthusiastic Kutwutchu woman who was extolling the virtues of the planet and the system. She had been talking about the preparations that were being made for the harvest festival, which would be happening in several weeks time, when the need flowed over them. It had taken everything Kathryn had not to grab her mate by his lapels and drag him to another room. Somehow, perhaps due to Tuvok's serene support, she managed to hold herself together.

That was, until the Zakeeri mayor passed by and said, "Liandra! Let those poor people go. They can finish another time. Can't you see the need is upon them?" He had then bowed to the Captain. "May your House Prosper."

"And yours," Kathryn had replied. Then she had tapped her comm badge. She hadn't needed to say a word and they were whisked away by Voyager.

In the end, the transporter, and Voyager herself, delivered them all directly to the Nest, naked and unadorned.

There they paused, enraptured, feeling the energy that pulsed between their mates in front of them. That energy reached out, enveloped them even as they moved to the center of the Nest. The bond between them rippled with the intensity. Before they even reached them, as if a switch had been thrown, Seven gasped and arced helplessly, arriving at ecstasy's peak. It threw T'Pel over into her own startled ocean of pleasure, which then sent them all into the greater, brightly lit deep.

==^==

B'Elanna strode confidently into the holodeck wearing her armor and carting around her bat'leth. Kathryn had invited her to participate in a war game based on the military history they had been studying. The Klingon's steps faltered, however, when, rather than encountering a landscape with a squad of troops waiting for her, she entered room with several view screens and a large chart in the middle. Holographic assistants, at least she assumed they were holographic since she did not recognize any of them, were manning some of the stations. Then she caught a familiar gesture and realized that Kathryn must have called in some of the crew for the adventure. They just happened to be well disguised. She still didn't quite know what was going on, but she stepped more fully into the chamber.

Kathryn stood in front of a chart, making some sort of mark with her light pen. B'Elanna did not know what that mark actually represented, but she knew it meant trouble for herself; because it meant it was yet another thing to learn.

Warlord Janeway smiled at her mate. It was somewhat predatory, but also welcoming. She stepped forward and, without thought, their fingertips met. Then they kissed warmly. "Welcome to the war room, B'Elanna."

"War room?"

"Here is where you will lead your troops into battle."

"But…"

"Yes?"

"Klingons lead by, you know, leading."

"General Mvah. Admiral Vtorn. Kahless. They all used a war room when required. A battle should be planned before it is fought. But that's not why we're using one now."

"It's not?"

"No, my very beloved. We are using a war room in order to get used to seeing the whole picture. This is something a Warlord, and a commanding officer, must be able to do. And you, my darling Klingon, need the practice. As do I." Kathryn handed B'Elanna a light pen and directed her to one side of the table.

"Oh. I should put this away then?" B'Elanna hefted her bat'leth.

"No. This war room is part of the scenario. If it gets assaulted by the enemy, we will have to fight our way out or die. Symbolically speaking, of course. The safeties are on. Just minimally so." Kathryn pointed at a spot near one of the consoles, away from the door to the 'outside', but not too far away. Bat'leths were hooked onto the wall.

"Kathryn…"

"Yes, Warlord Torres?"

B'Elanna decided the question wasn't important and opted instead to briefly kiss her mate, then went and placed her bat'leth where it belonged. Then she went to stand by Kathryn and realized that no, the question was niggling at her, and so, was important. "What is this?"She pointed at the chart.

"This is the plan. The map, if you will, of things to come."

There was a certain spark in Kathryn's eyes and B'Elanna realized that her mate was somewhat excited by this process. She decided to go with it. "And, I guess all of these marks mean something."

"They do indeed." She handed B'Elanna an aide memoire with the key marked on it. "Here is your cheat sheet." She then grinned. "Now this time, we'll be working together, but the next time, if you think you're up for it, we'll be on opposite sides."

"Okay," B'Elanna said. Though she was somewhat doubtful, she thought she would humor her mate.

"Excellent." Kathryn tapped her comm badge and said, "Commander Tucker, are you ready?"

Now B'Elanna stared and the other Warlord steadfastly ignored her mate's bemusement.

"We are yours to command, Warlord Janeway."

"The scenario will begin in sixty seconds. You may prep now."

"Thank you, Warlord Janeway."

Kathryn turned to B'Elanna and said, "Here's the plan so far, Warlord Torres. On this hill there are five hundred Klingons with seriously bad intentions and weapons that can smash through forcefields given enough time. This board shows their troop strength--"

B'Elanna had to interrupt. "How did you get Commander Tucker to cooperate?"

Kathryn shrugged. "I'm the Captain." Then she grinned. "And it's good training for the Marines."

"Oh. Right." B'Elanna had a very large inkling that it hadn't been that simple, and that Tucker had lived to regret the behaviour of her and her marines in Sandrine's.

==^==

Two hours later, very winded, slightly bloody and staring down at the holographic body at her feet, B'Elanna realized she felt invigorated and was slightly awed by Kathryn's natural savvy regarding strategy. The enemy had made it to, and through, their doors, but Kathryn had actually integrated it into her plan, whittling down the enemy forces so that there would only be a few to come careening into the war room; which meant that B'Elanna had been able to use her bat'leth after all.

Which also meant, that Kathryn knew her so very well.

She realized that if she did go toe to toe with her mate in another scenario, she would be facing a real challenge and the circumstances would be very different. Then she grinned, suddenly looking forward to it.

"So, same time in two days?"

"I can hardly wait."

B'Elanna stepped forward, grabbed her mate by the waist and dragged her forward. Then with a growl she kissed her passionately. When they pulled back to catch their breaths, the Klingon said, "Me either."

==^==

B'Elanna and Kathryn stepped out of the holodeck, oblivious of their unkempt, cut and bruised status. They talked animatedly, passing by the startled crew who had been waiting their turn for the holodeck.

Kathryn said, "You can be MacBeth and I'll be MacDuff.

B'Elanna thought about it for a second, recognizing the names vaguely. Then it hit her: the book Belle gave her. The book no one thought she could read. "Unh unh. I'll be MacDuff. You be MacBeth."

"Why do you get to be MacDuff? I suggested it."

"I'm the Epatai."

==^==

Ezri sighed, as she walked through the doors to the main sickbay, she'd lasted longer than she'd thought she would have been able to: five days was a good run.

"Ah, Commander Dax, so glad you could grace us with your presence." If Zimmerman had worn spectacles, she was sure he'd be looking at her over the rims.

"Can we just do this already?"

He motioned her toward an empty bio-bed, running a med-scanner at her even as she walked. "Hmm."

She stopped next to the bed. "Hmm, what?"

"Manners, Commander."

Ezri furrowed her brows, in disbelief. "You're giving me a hard time about manners? I've been in Jeffries tubes with a better bedside manner."

He ignored her, continuing to speak as though she hadn't. "Your isobromine levels are a little low, your adrenal glands are in overdrive, and your body isn't breaking down the associated hormones fast enough. If I didn't know-- "

She groaned. Great. "Please don't finish that sentence." It was one thing to be living with the daily torture, and another altogether to have her almost constant state of unmitigated arousal made a permanent part of her medical file.

"Don't finish what sentence?" Kate Pulaski drifted across from wherever the wily doctor had been hiding, very likely aware of the fact that Ezri would have tried to stretch her avoidance of sickbay to six days if she had been present.

Startled, Ezri slammed her hand against the edge of the bed as she jumped, slicing her pinkie on an unexpectedly sharp edge, and growling softly.

Zimmerman spoke cheerily, "I was just going to suggest to our…"

He stopped talking. Pulaski was growling, the readings of Dax's adrenal gland activity had just shot into a danger zone, and the medical tricorder was beeping in warning.

"Ribs fine leaving now." Ezri stepped forward into Kate, instead of to the side as she'd intended.

For her part, Kate tried to step away at first, aware that something very primal was happening to her, to them. Her curiosity won out over what she knew to be common sense. She had to know, and she stepped forward instead. Still rumbling a mix of sultry purrs and low growls, she jabbed one hand at the controls of the med-scanner on the bio-bed, and with the other she pushed Ezri gently backwards. She had to record this.

Their hands brushed, and she registered a wince from Dax even as her mind identified the unique tang in the air that was the blood of the Trill. She captured the damaged appendage in her hand and lifted it so she could see.

Ezri decided that Sirella could go to Gre'thor, and grabbed for the front of Kate's work smock intent on crushing the smaller woman to her, and inviting the mating bite. Too long already she'd waited. They'd waited a half a century; she wasn't waiting anymore.

Her hand never made contact, as Zimmerman's slightly compressed and surprisingly solid form suddenly interposed itself between them.

"Voyager, please beam Commander Dax directly to her quarters."

"Yes, Doctor."

Kate felt the hand she was holding vanish, but she could still feel the lingering warmth of the skin, and see the heat of need in Ezri's eyes. Shuddering slightly, she leaned against Zimmerman. She stared down at the tip of her finger where she'd cut it not so very long ago on Kathryn's tooth, and understood exactly why she'd been summarily tossed from the room. The Blood called.

She pulled back and patted his shoulder. "Thank you." Then she tapped her comm badge

==^==

Ezri walked from the point where she'd been deposited in her quarters by Voyager toward the refresher unit. So far that had been the big plus of acquiring quarters; neither the guest room, nor her office had a shower. Cold showers and hot baths were big on her list of favourite activities right now.

She chose the hydro setting and stepped under the driving pulses of water. It was a complete indulgence but she didn't care. Her jacket slid to the floor of the unit, and she spared a brief thought for her communicator. With luck it was water resistant, if not waterproof.

Quickly, she divested herself of the uniform pants, leaning heavily against the wall to remove her boots so that the pant legs would come free. Her shirt clung to her skin and she found its rough weight against her swollen breasts pleasant, so she left it on. The blood crusted on her hand sluiced away under the warm pressure and she reached around to the counter for her dermal regenerator, to heal it.

Engrossed in her task, she didn't register that she had company until a pair of arms encircled her from behind.

Dermal regenerator still clutched in her hand, she leaned against Seven. "You guys are going to kill me, do you know that?"

T'Pel stepped into the shower, fully naked, and reached for a container of soap. Across the small distance that still separated the two of them Ezri could feel the elevated body temperature of the Vulcan and shivered in response.

When her hands began trailing across the exposed skin, T'Pel started to leach away the heightened spire of Ezri's arousal, letting her fingers stroke and kindle small releases.

With each spasm, Ezri bucked against Seven, allowing the blonde to support her weight, until finally, for the first time in days, she felt rational.

Not sated, but rational.

==^==

The crew of Voyager were not the only ones to be enjoying shore leave. Kasala and Tasha spent quality time with several delegates from a variety of Delta Quadrant worlds. There was less of a sense of paranoia as they might have had in their own universe, but their security still went with them.

Because the Duras Sisters weren't the main delegates, they had a bit more latitude on how they used their time. They'd had a few days to get to know the Klingons aboard Voyager and found them to be good company and loyal to their house. It was Dr. Dezhe who invited them on a hunt, with herself and a few chosen individuals. B'Etor and Lursas had accepted the invitation with enthusiasm, eager to get to know the other Klingon female, and to hunt.

The shuttle was surprisingly crowded. Aside from four other Klingons, there was a trio of Zakeeri, six Ylfians and one local Kutwutchu guide. The attitude of the group was a mix of relaxed and appropriately serious for the occasion. It boded well for the journey and the Kutwutchu had been given the understanding that Klingons would want an exciting hunt. As Voyager's Rest was mostly unexplored, it was probable that they would find that excitement.

==^==

Hours later the entire troop returned back to Voyager, bloody, bruised, and some of them close to broken - but not dead. They also had what they had gone looking for, had brought back the proof and were thus happy. The Duras Sisters were already planning on returning, as soon as Voyager would allow, for another try at the one that got away. Later that night, in the mess hall, the bloodwine flowed and the story of their adventure was shared with those who listened.

==^==

Very much enjoying their leave, and the chance to simply be, several of the Prime had gathered in the family room. They were seated around the space on the comfortable, liberally distributed couches and chairs. Seven and B'Elanna reclined on one sofa. Kathryn and Kate reflected their position, but were augmented by Lwaxana, who sat a little higher on the armrest.

Kate was talking about a fellow physician, and not exactly in glowing terms. "The man is a genius. I hear he even used to be considered suave at one time. But now, god help you, if you disturb him when he's busy. He can burn your ears off with a few choice sentences. He won't retire though, so they keep him on the board."

"I take it he's refused rejuvenation." Kathryn asked. Her fingers brushed gently along Kate's skin, soothing.

"Well, I heard he took it one time, as part of an experimental process. Refuses to do it again on account of his religion, which he claims is Southern Baptist."

Now Seven looked confused, "Southern Baptist do not exist at this time. Nor have they for centuries."

"Exactly. He's just being difficult."

"Now I understand why you chose to go to the front."

"Well, it was either that or be put away for murder. I figured I had a better chance at the front and decided I'd let someone else deal with him for awhile. Then, when the coast was clear and if they still wanted me, I'd give it another go if it I felt like it then."

"Practical of you."

"Well, I will admit, I am a practical woman."

Kathryn grinned, lifted Kate's hand and kissed her mate's palm. "Among other things."

==^==

Ezri leaned down and inhaled the rich aroma of the cut flowers; they were different everyday, and she knew that, despite his lover being in charge of Supply and Procurement Tom had personally paid for and then delivered them.

After the first day, and the simple, 'Thank you, T.' card, they were unsigned, but she knew she'd receive them for another four days, since it had taken him two to figure out that helping Icheb wasn't a punishment. The chime rang, and she moved away from the flowers and settled into the chair behind her desk.

She grinned to herself. "Voyager, can you send the two chairs in front of my desk to my quarters?"

The dulcet tones of the ship sounded amused. "With pleasure, Ezri."

Not waiting for the chime to ring a second time, she spoke, "Come." Then leaned back in her chair and waited to see what Tucker would do. She might have to go over transfers and personnel reports with the woman, but she didn't have to like it, and she didn't have to make it easy.

==^==

Seven, it turned out, had been correct. Once that first level of decryption had been accomplished, the second level was easier, though still challenging for those who were working on it. She did monitor her time while working - choosing to optimize the process rather than push it so that she could enjoy her time with her beloveds and her children. It was Dr. Brahms who made the next to final crack - only to find that the encoded message was only a few kilobytes. The length of the message prompted her to call Seven of Nine.

"I think maybe you should be the one handling this from now on," Leah said. "It's short, but I'm guessing it's tightly packed, considering how much data they used to encode this puppy."

Seven was formal in her acceptance of the task and in giving her thanks. "I will see to it, Dr. Brahms. You have been most helpful."

Leah had flashed a smile at the Borg and then left to pursue interests of her own. But her mind couldn't help going over the implications and wonder what the actual message might be.

==^==

Seven of Nine downloaded what was left of the message into her PADD and began carrying that PADD around with her, to work on during the less occupied time of their shore leave. Thus, while she watched her younger children frolic at one of Mikasa's play yards, she worked on the code. When she bathed in the tub she'd installed in Ezri Dax's quarters, she worked on the PADD. From one perspective, it took her much longer than normal to break the code. From another, she had it done in no time at all.

All that effort was expended only to find that the message itself was twinned into parts. But both data streams contained valuable information. What intrigued her was the informality of the first layer of data.

dear kathryn STOP in hopes you have succeeded in your mission alynna sends regards and congratulations to ambassador troi and ambassador t'pel on the union of their daughters STOP klingon and federation have broken off relations STOP uss titan dispatched to secure base of operations presba for future negotiations STOP attempt unsuccessful STOP request permission of epatai for base STOP we have intelligence to suggest people who shouldn't be are interested in those on presba STOP random element dispatched by picard to assist STOP further assistance from federation unavailable STOP

The second layer of data was more specific and more dangerously telling.

attention captain kathryn janeway of the house presba STOP intelligence reveals section 31 and possible orion syndicate operation centered on the presba planet STOP danger is definite STOP efforts to intercede unsuccessful STOP assistance dispatched by picard STOP assuming your mission success - authorization granted paris gamma eta ganymede action own authority to end threat and fix STOP use means necessary STOP good luck and godspeed STOP

A low, dangerous noise disturbed Seven of Nine's contemplation of the missive. Then she realized it emanated from herself. She grimaced and tapped her comm badge. "Seven of Nine to Captain Janeway."





Chapter 9 | Universe Alpha, Delta Quadrant | Bookmarks




Captain Janeway called a staff meeting. "What is our status on recruitment?"

Ezri flicked a tiny glance at Tucker and then said, "We lost a quarter of our veteran Zakeeri crew, but retained all of the Ylfian and Kutwutchu. The new inductees, however, make up in numbers for what they lack in experience. We have one hundred and thirteen new applicants. They're green, but they are trained warriors."

"Just not trained by us." Janeway pinched the bridge of her nose and thought. Then she let go and returned her attention to her staff. "The message from Starfleet has been translated. The basic content is this: The Orion Syndicate and an underground organization in the Federation have taken an interest in Presba and have acted in accordance with their usual methods. We have been given the authority to go in and house clean as necessary. And we have been asked to establish a base for negotiations on Presba while we do this. This is because," she glanced at Commander Veckma briefly and continued, "The Federation and the Klingon Empire have severed diplomatic ties."

There were a variety of reactions around the table. Some nodded, as if they had seen this coming, some expressed disbelief, while others waited to see what the Captain said next.

"Commander Veckma," she started. Her tone was soft and unchallenging. "I understand that this may mean that you will rethink your desire to stay with Voyager."

Veckma laughed. "Captain Janeway, my loyalty is to the House Presba. I go where you go. My people, who are of the House Presba, will tell you the same. Besides, we like Voyager. We will stay, if you will have us."

Kathryn looked somewhat nonplussed, but pleased. B'Elanna signaled her, "I told you."

"I had to give them the opportunity."

"I know." There was a pause, "I still want to know why Asil said no before I agree to anything about a base. She will have had her reasons."

"Agreed. But let's find out what we need to do first."

Kathryn nodded an acknowledgment. "Thank you, Commander Veckma." She turned away from the Klingon and back to Ezri, "If we strip the training down to the basics, how long would it take to get the recruits ready?"

"We have seven days left of our planned hiatus. We can be ready to leave in five."

"Bold. I like it. Make it so."

"Aye, Captain." Ezri began to input instructions for transmission to the selected individuals.

"The next item of business is planning. Seven, Dr. Brahms, you have something to present to us?"

Seven of Nine stood, then went to the demonstration board. "We have determined …"

==^==

"Commander Dax, a word?" The room was almost empty and Sarah wanted to catch the First Officer before she left.

Ezri looked at Seven of Nine, who had also been hanging back, and smiled with mute apology. If she were lucky, her lover would wait outside. If she were even luckier, Seven would be waiting somewhere a good deal more private. "Sure."

Tucker weighed her words, and decided to be forthright; the Trill seemed to appreciate a certain amount of bluntness. "Look, now that we are facing a combat situation, and some intense training, do you think we can dispense with the bread and water? It's bad for morale."

"What bread and water?"

Sarah stared at Dax, and then comprehension began to set in. Paris. And, not just Paris either - he would have needed help, which meant Kim and Magnum. "Never mind, sir. My mistake."

Ezri lifted her brows, certain that she was missing something devious and delicious. "If there's nothing else then, I have a dinner date this evening at the Golden Bough."

"Golden Bough?"

"The restaurant in The Park."

"It has a name?"

Grinning over her shoulder, Ezri tossed back her reply as she left the room. "It does now."

==^==

"Commander Magnum," Sarah Tucker's voice was overly pleasant. She was standing in the door of his office, preventing it from closing. "May I have a moment?"

"One minute please, Commander Tucker, and I will be right with you." He turned and gave instructions to one of his staff members and then excused them. Soon the office was empty except for the two of them.

"Steve…"

"Sarah."

She groaned. "May I sit down?"

He grinned and waved her to an available secondary seat. "Talk to me, my friend." Steve stood up, walked to the replicator and placed an order. He took a mug for himself and handed her a mug.

She took a long sip and groaned in pleasure. "Oh, I have missed that."

He sat down again and set his mug on his desk, and smiled pleasantly as he waited for her to continue the thought.

"Steve," she began and then gave him a meaningful look. "There is a problem with my replicator."

"There is?"

"It seems it will only deliver bread and water."

He gasped dramatically. "That does sound tragic."

"Please fix it. And, while you're at it, fix my people's replicators too."

"Well," he said as he picked up his own mug, "Sounds like it might be a maintenance issue, but I will see what I can do."

"I swear we have learned our lesson."

Steve took a sip and raised his brow at her. "Well," he drawled. "As we are talking things that we would appreciate being handled. I would appreciate it if your Marines could avoid slugging my Tom when he defends the honor of another. In fact, I would expect them instead to join him in defending the honor of another."

His expression was pointed and Sarah winced. "You're right."

"I know I am." He set his mug down. "Still friends?"

"Always."

"Good. You can expect to see changes soon. I'll have Ensign Plot on work on it as soon as he is free."

"Thanks, Steve."

"You're welcome, Sarah.

==^==

That was odd. Ezri rode the lift down from the adult level. Mulling over her options, she debated returning upstairs and checking another of the rooms. In the end, she decided that if Seven had gone to one of the other bedrooms, then that was where she needed to be, and their dinner reservations could wait.

"Computer, locate Seven of Nine."

And, just as it had the last time she'd enquired, the computer replied, "Seven of Nine is in her quarters."

Definitely odd. Well, she'd take one last look downstairs, just in case, and then head back to her own quarters. She supposed that she could always ask Voyager, but Ezri tried to limit her interactions with the sentient ship to the kind she would have with any corporeal being. Voyager was not her personal intelligence officer; she was…family. Or soon would be. Ezri smiled at the thought. Would that make the baby starship a niece or nephew, or would the tiny being be closer to an child?

Speaking of children, "Hey guys." She smiled at the twins and placed a fond kiss on the top of Mezoti's head. "Have you had a pleasant day?"

"Da!" Emina scrambled up from her toy and rocketed in her direction.

"We have."

"Affirmative." said Mezoti.

"Good." Ezri picked the toddler up and sat down at the table, joining the others.

Azan regarded her. "Are you staying for dinner, Da?"

"Not tonight. But while I have you all here, I have something to ask you."

"Proceed."

Ezri stifled her grin. "Thank you, Mezoti." She helped herself to one of the cookies on the central tray of baked goods. "I find that I have need of assistants. You wouldn't happen to know where I might find an Engineering Envoy, a Command and Operations Envoy, and a Science Envoy, would you?" There was a tug on her shirt, and she looked at Emina, who was solemnly staring back. Ezri kissed the top of her head. "I seem to need a Diplomatic attaché as well."

There was a delightful moment of silent communication between the siblings as they worked out what was being asked. Nods were exchanged and Ezri guessed that it would be Mezoti who spoke.

"Affirmative."

"Well, then crewmen, front and centre." Ezri pinned a pip on each of their collars: blue for Azan, red for Rebi, and yellow for Mezoti. "I expect you to report to my office at the end of classes tomorrow to receive your duty assignments." On Emina's outfit she pinned one of her own gold pips.

"We will comply."

==^==

Seven had no desire to interact with Commander Tucker, and so, rather than wait outside the conference room for an indeterminate amount of time, she had decided that it was, perhaps, a good opportunity to implement something that she had been contemplating since Ezri had been promoted. In truth, she had been more than contemplating it, she had already begun the process, but recognized that it would be prudent to get Kathryn's approval before proceeding further.

Accordingly, she was now staring, with complete absorption at a particularly promising spot on the wall, awaiting the arrival of her spouse.

She felt, then heard, Kathryn enter the room, but did not break off her examination of the wall. The schematics had committed to memory, and she knew exactly where and how to make the cut, but the aesthetics of the matter were a much more difficult matter.

A sharp intake of breath was followed by an admiring sigh. "You, Darling Seven, have been holding out on us."

Seven twitched her lips, and turned from her evaluation. "Indeed."

Kathryn was shedding her uniform with an alacrity that astonished the Borg. "Oh yeah, and as soon as I finish assessing the situation I will make a suitable recommendation to my First Officer as to your punishment." Water had begun to cover the bottom of the large tub. The redhead stepped in and sank into the deepening liquid. "Or reward. It could go either way."

"Clearly." Seven moved to the bathing unit and sat on the edge. She scooped up a handful of the hot water and poured it over Kathryn's chest, leaning in slightly to blow air across the wet path. "Then," she licked the nipple closest to her, "you will not object if I suggest assimilating these quarters into our own."

Kathryn moaned and lifted her hips reflexively, not caring in the least that a small tidal wave had washed over the side and onto the floor. "How," she managed to gasp, "…do you plan on doing that?"

Seven lifted her head and smiled. "I am Borg." The she stood and sent the appropriate commands to her nanoprobes, then inserted her tubules into the nearby comm unit.

The wall seemed to buckle and shrink, the molecular bonds along the programmed pathway losing cohesion under the combined direction of Voyager and Seven. The whine of the transporter cut through the air, and where once had been a solid partition, there was now an opening with a gently curving arch.

Meeting the blue eyes staring at her in total shock through the hole, Seven felt another nascent laugh begin to well up from inside.

"Oh," said Ezri, with what she thought was remarkable aplomb. "That's where you went."

"Yes." They were grinning at one another, and Seven could hear Kathryn chortling in the background.

The children were alternating between staring at them in amazement and staring at the hole in the dining room wall.

"Well, my house is your house." Ezri laughed. "So, tell me, now that you've assimilated virtually the entirety of deck three, can we just put in direct turbo-lift access?"

The Trill watched as Seven's countenance progressed from amusement through to lust-tinged speculation, but it was what came next that she treasured most. Seven laughed.

==^==

Laren, trailing behind a conversing Kate and Lwaxana, paused at the door to the family quarters as it slid open and an unfamiliar yet vaguely recognizable laugh drifted through the open portal.

Curious, she followed her spouses inside, and on into the dining room where the noise was centered.

Not paying the slightest attention to what was in front of her, she came up against Kate, who was standing, unspeaking, her mouth wide-open. Laren followed the frozen gaze and couldn't decide what amazed her more: the gap in the kitchen wall, or the unmistakably laughing Borg.

Then her eyes focused on the laughing figure in the background, and she turned to a grinning Ezri. "When did you get a bathtub?"

==^==

Despite the fact that shore leave was still technically on, many chose to return in order to prepare and help train the newcomers. The importance of the task was not lost on anyone. If there were complaints, they were moderated by the realization that, once again, they were heading towards danger and that it was strategy which had allowed them to succeed so well in the recent past.

An assessment of the recruits, which was normally more extensive, was done quickly. All the doctors and their assistants were on call for health checks. Counseling went into overdrive. The new recruits were given much less time to shake down into their preferred roles.

Fortunately, however, most of them knew where they wanted to go from the moment they'd stepped onto Voyager. The veteran crew with whom many had made contact before arriving provided a glimpse of what they wanted to become. Some areas of the ship may have gained specialists, but it was Sarah Tucker's Marine ranks which swelled; as did Commander Sofuru's and Commander Veckma's.

Then it was a matter of setting the standard and doing the training as quickly, and efficiently, as possible.

==^==


The envoys of Voyager were pleased with their new duties. Each took their tasks seriously. They were the carrier of messages, PADDs, and sundry required items. While it was a demand on their time, none of them would have given up the privilege of behaving in a useful capacity on Voyager. For the younger Borg, it filled a niche within them, a quiet need to be of purpose even though they embraced their childhood.

Her mother, Lwaxana, had given Mezoti a carefully wrapped package for delivery to her SoS in engineering. The sensitive child, using her enhanced and ordinary perceptions, identified the contents quickly: sturdy frame, protective glass. She could guess, based on the destination and recipient, what the purpose of the package might be.

However, she kept her supposition to herself. She had been learning, as she performed these duties, that discretion was an important and useful skill. Thus she practiced.

Mezoti entered main engineering and was greeted by those who were currently manning the various stations. She was focused, but she did reply politely, accessing the appropriate protocols to know which return greeting was correct. At the entrance of the Chief Engineer's office, she paused and rang the chime.

She clearly heard the call of "Enter," even without the amplification of the door's security system.

This was Mezoti's favorite part. She entered the room and her SoS smiled at her. "Hello, my darling Sochling. What brings my little engineer here?"

Mezoti paced towards the desk, even as B'Elanna was standing and walking around to meet her half-way. The Borg child extended the package, held in both hands, to her Klingon mother.

B'Elanna took it, then cast a contemplative look at her child. "Shall I open it now?"

Mezoti nodded somewhat solemnly. Then looked on, curious, as her SoS indelicately shredded the wrappings away.

"Ah." It was half of a sigh and half a word of pleasure. B'Elanna leaned against her desk, and held the picture with both hands. "It's a good one." She turned the picture so Mezoti could look at it.

Mezoti examined the image and decided that she agreed with her mother's aesthetics. "It is." Then, she blurted. "I like it."

B'Elanna grinned and reached with one hand. She slid her palm along the gold of Mezoti's hair. "So do I. Want to help me put it up?"

Mezoti smiled, losing some of her solemnity.

Her SoS went to the replicator and ordered what was needed to attach the picture. She handed those items to Mezoti and walked to the wall. Lifting the picture, B'Elanna purposefully placed the image high on the wall.

The young Borg cocked her head, and then shook it in the negative.

"How about here?" Again Mezoti expressed her opinion. B'Elanna stepped back and said, "Okay. Let's try this side."

They went through several options, until finally, Mezoti nodded. Her SoS teased her. "At last! I shall die knowing we finally found the right spot."

"You are not going to die."

"Not today, true. Okay, darling, hand me the widget."

Mezoti understood now that a widget was simply an alternative name for an object. She made a calculated guess, and smiled when her Sos expressed approval.

As B'Elanna began to work, she asked Mezoti questions about her studies, her free time and how she was functioning. While there were some Borgisms in her responses, the young girl covered quite a bit of territory in her answers, informing her SoS of her progress and her latest experiences with Naomi.

She knew that her SoS was really listening, because then her Klingon mother would ask deeper questions based on what Mezoti had said. After a few minutes, B'Elanna stepped back, tools still in her hands and hands on her hips, and said, "What do you think."

Once again, Mezoti was called on to express her opinion. She looked at it for a few minutes, then said, "It is crooked, but within acceptable parameters."

Her mother smiled, and set her tools down on a nearby tool bench. Then she stepped towards Mezoti and hugged her warmly. "Thank you, kiddo. I couldn't have done it without you."

Of course, Mezoti knew perfectly well that was an exaggeration. But she liked it anyway.

==^==

B'Elanna, Leah and Dr. Zimmerman took advantage of the time on Voyager's Rest to take a closer look at the development of Voyager's offspring. They used a hover lift to approach the shadowed underbelly and got close enough to literally run their hands on tiny convex bump that was where the little ship was developing. They conducted a few measurements.

Dr. Zimmerman lifted his tricorder, "I don't know how this will help. It's a medical tricorder, not a spanner."

B'Elanna was running her own diagnostics, "Well, it doesn't hurt to try, does it Doc?"

"Well, no," he conceded. "And, I admit to being curious." He pursed his lips and ran the tricorder again. "There are some odd indications. But, what concerns me more at this point is that I don't see a point where Voyager will be able to, ah, well, release the child."

"Sofuru has said that most ships develop that structure after the baby has gestated for a few months. He says a ship the size of Voyager might be pregnant for more than a year before she gives birth," said Leah. She attached a monitor to the middle part of the small bump. Lights flickered and sounds beeped when she turned it on.

"Oh, well, good. I was having nightmares considering what a cesarean might require." Dr. Zimmerman began making notations in a PADD. "If what I'm reading is correct, the…uh…fetus does have a developing neurological system. I don't know what these other readings are, they're anomalous, to say the least. But I'll do some research to see if there are any comparisons to be found."

Leah said, "Well, we do have more of a database, thanks to the Zakeeri. I was speaking with Heallig the other day, a very charming woman, about Voyager's potential offspring. She sent me some useful files and provided me with the names of potential midwives."

"Midwives!" Dr. Zimmerman's eyebrows shot up. Then he considered his reaction. "Well, I don't suppose it would hurt. Do you think they can get here before we leave?"

"Well, I think it would only be one person and I don't know. We have three more days and then we're leaving. It might be better if we just planned on handling this on our own for the time being."

The holographic man groaned.

B'Elanna patted his shoulder reassuringly. "Don't worry, we have time. This little bundle of joy will take months to incubate."

==^==

Later B'Elanna was back in her office, where she shared their findings with Voyager.

"A midwife!"

"So I take it you know what they are."

"Well, of course. But those are for biological beings."

B'Elanna considered how to respond. "Voyager, have you ever had a child before?"

There was a pause. "No."

"Then perhaps we might consider that the Zakeeri know more than we do about this?"

"I concede your point."

"Anyhow, Leah and I agree that things seem to be moving along smoothly. We'll have to start monitoring our base mineral and element supplies, because she appears to be drawing directly from our systems. This isn't bad, but we want to make sure that we've got plenty to keep your systems going in good weather and bad." B'Elanna cracked a grin. "We want her mommy to be healthy, after all."

"Mommy." Voyager said the word with reverence.

==^==

Not long afterwards, B'Elanna stepped out of her office only to spot a tall buxom blonde standing at the Chief Engineer's station. She strolled purposefully towards the woman until she was right behind her. "What do you think you're doing?"

Seven of Nine did not bother to look up. Her fingers continued to speed over the panel. "I am inputting two alterations to the plasma injector regulators." Her tone was neutral, her expression haughty.

"What have I told you about making unauthorized changes?"

"They are not unauthorized, they were approved by the Captain." In a few seconds the input was complete and she turned to face the Klingon.

B'Elanna's gaze raked up and down the other woman. "But you didn't pass them by me."

"You were occupied." Seven linked her hands behind her back.

B'Elanna considered Seven's words. "True." She leaned forward and said heatedly and in Presban, delighted to play the game, "I want to take you right here, right now."

"I am not opposed," responded the Borg. Her own body language reflected B'Elanna's heat. "But it might upset your staff."

"Carey, I'm going off duty."

"Aye, Chief."

"Be'nal, if you would care to join me?" She extended her hand and Seven took it without hesitation.

==^==

They held hands for the whole of their walk down the corridor. Their conversation, carried on in their natural Presban, was genial and pleasant.

"So, Mistress of my House, how do you fare?" The formal phrasing of high Klingon had crept into her normal speech, but it amused rather than annoyed her.

"I am functioning at optimal levels, beloved Epatai. Is there an item of House business you wished to discuss?"

"Not exactly. But there is something I am a little curious about."

"Explain." Seven let a light smile play on her lips.

"I couldn't help but notice the PADD on your bed stand. It has some rather interesting tables on it."

"You are referring to my genetic research."

"Is that what you're calling it?" B'Elanna grinned.

"As a House of the Empire we have two Chancellors who have made it clear that they would like more heirs of the Prime. I thought, given that we will be entering Federation space, that there were those on board, whose genetics we might find favorable, who might find themselves occupied with other callings. If we could determine what we need soon enough, and our possible donors are willing, we could store what was needed until we were able to comply."

B'Elanna interpreted for herself. "Meaning, not everyone is going to want to remain on Voyager after we get home."

"If you define home as the Beta or Alpha quadrants, then you would be correct."

"You have a point." They neared the turbo-lift and waited. "But I have to ask. Me and Harry?"

==^==

She would have waited if the turbo-lift had been occupied. But as it was empty when they stepped in and the door closed without letting anyone else into the small space, she could not help the impulse. B'Elanna locked down the turbo-lift doors and gave the command to take them to their deck. Then she turned to her mate, who was vibrating the amusement she felt along their connection. Seven was also already in the process of divesting herself of her clothing.

B'Elanna helped. It seemed to be an afternoon for rituals.

In a mere moments, Seven of Nine's shredded clothing drifted to the floor and the lovely Borg was revealed. "Kahless and his swinging Bat'leth, I love your body," the Klingon said, before she lifted her mate up, pressed her against the wall and soundly kissed her. She pulled back, "And I love you."

Seven responded hungrily as they kissed gain, "And I you." Her legs wrapped around her mate's waist, but she was careful not to compress them. She could feel B'Elanna's arousal increase with the awareness of how receptive Seven was to her.

The Klingon's purr rumbled into the kisses, drawing Seven deeper into their shared desire, and B'Elanna realized that she wanted to be able to do more with her hands. She waited until the turbo-lift was completely stopped at deck 3, and then slowly eased Seven to the floor.

Once solidly supported on her back, Seven let go of B'Elanna and began the process of divesting the Klingon of her clothes. Soon her hands were free to roam and she laid both her palms upon her mate's breasts, loving the way the stiff nipples felt against her hands.

B'Elanna settled between Seven's legs and began a slow wet trail of seduction from throat to belly. She lingered at sensitive points while allowing her hand to stroke through the glorious golden curls of her wife's sex.

This time it was her turn to practice what had been confirmed by T'Pel and Seven. Only she did it with her own twist. B'Elanna pressed her hips where her fingers stroked and began making long slow thrusts to compliment the quicker stimulation, and while doing so she impressed a sensation of taking her mate with one of those lovely long toys and filling her deeply, feeling her deeply. B'Elanna drew upon memory as well as current fantasy, blended them in her thoughts and was surprised to realize how very wet she was becoming. She began then, to talk to her Be'nal, telling her how desirable she was, how hot. Klingon and Presban mixed in with the purred syllables and heated growls.

Seven began to move more urgently, responding to B'Elanna's intimate touch and speech. Her hands searched out secret points that had the Klingon groaning in delight, and in need. Then she moved her touch to the deep places within B'Elanna, tickling and stirring.

B'Elanna suddenly needed more than the thought, she needed the physical connection too. She adjusted her caresses, until she could press in with her fingers and still brush against the sensitive little pearl.

Seven growled in need. "I thirst, my Epatai. Let me drink."

B'Elanna nearly came undone with those words, but she managed. They managed.

And, she gasped as Seven found what was sought. Teasing forgotten, B'Elanna reciprocated, finally dropping down to taste what was hers. Together they built the tower, spiraled up into need with press and release, filling and tasting, sharing those sensations along their bond and feeling their mates' responses, love and heated need, urging them to highest completion. They came together, erupted in wet release, blended and parted in lovers' ecstasy.

While they relaxed in one another's arms, Voyager sparkled them out of the lift and into the Nest. The she passed a set of sonic cleansing waves through the turbo-lift before sending it onward to maintenance to be prepared for a new shift.

==^==

It was late when Kate returned to her quarters. The problem with new recruits was that injuries were much more likely to occur, and enough had happened to keep all the doctors busy. She was grateful when the second shift ended and the number started to trickle down enough for her to justify leaving.

Zimmerman had urged her to go some time ago. "Trust me," he'd said. "I've handled worse."

She had patted his shoulder and said, "I know. That's why I'm staying."

She'd been bemused by the gratified expression that crossed his face. Had no one ever said thank you to the man? No, she was sure they had. He just was like everyone else. He had some insecurities that niggled at him from time to time.

Kate began undoing her smock as soon as she entered the home of the Prime. As it revealed only the undershirt she felt no worries about whom or what might see her, but the symbolic gesture simply allowed her to relax a little more. She did not expect anyone to be up, except perhaps the usual trio. T'Pel, Tuvok and Seven of Nine required less sleep than the rest of the Prime, and the Prime as a whole required less sleep than most. She grinned; it didn't mean, of course, that they didn't enjoy sleeping as much as anyone else.

Kate had begun to truly appreciate that growing stamina. But at the moment, she wanted to shower and then drop on to some soft surface and just close her eyes.

She scented Ezri before she saw her. The younger woman was leaning against Kate's door. Her arms were folded across her chest. "Ezri…" Her voice carried a universe of caution.

"I'm not here to seduce you, Kate. And I don't want to tempt fate when we're so close to home. I just wanted to see you, before you went to bed."

Kate gazed hungrily at Ezri. Finally she spoke "And now that you have?"

Ezri parted ways with the wall she was leaning on and strolled until she was inches away from the doctor. "I'm going to go to bed, where I'm going think of you and…my other betrothed… and I'm going to touch myself until I am incoherent with thoughts of you, just as I have been for days now. But before I do, I need to kiss you, and know I can walk away from it."

"Ezri." Kate attempted to use her tone to warn the Trill away, though she wanted to kiss Ezri as much or more as the brunette wanted to kiss her.

"Laren will be our chaperone."

Kate looked to her right and watched as shadow parted from shadow and her Bajoran mate came into view. She turned her attention back to Ezri. "I see."

Ezri wrapped her hands in edges of the unfastened smock and dragged Kate closer. Their lips touched and lingered, slowly moving, as the kiss deepened into something soul burningly hot. Then as if pulled, they parted, breathing deeply.

"Ezri," said Kate slowly. "You will not be alone tonight." Then she stepped back more fully and walked to Laren, where she drew her mate into a long, sultry kiss. She looked back meaningfully at the Trill. "Good night, Sprite."

==^==

Ezri watched as Kate disappeared into her quarters and took a deep breath before turning to face Laren.

Only, now, Laren was not alone. Tuvok stood beside her. Their fingertips pressed together.

"Ezri, would you mind if Tuvok joins us tonight?"

"Tuvok?" Ezri was trying to wrap her mind around the thought, but her spots were tingling in abrupt sensation and she was finding it difficult to think coherently. There was a primal thought, something she found she had to ask, though she already conceptually knew the answer, since T'Pel clearly did not need a Pon Farr to perform. She so wanted it to be yes. "But can he…"

Laren glanced back at Tuvok, then at Ezri. Then she grinned. "Oh. Yeah." She leaned in and whispered with a soft purr, "For hours."

Tuvok, whose hearing was as refined as always, cocked an eyebrow at them both. "I assure you, at this time, I will only be observing."

"Don't you trust yourself with me, Tuvok?"

The Vulcan's gaze altered, until the hunger in him translated and Ezri drew in a quick, nearly painful breath. What he said next sent shivers up her spine. "No."

==^==

Laren pushed the naked Trill back on the bed, lazily running her hands along her lover's skin. She drew her fingernails along sensitive spots and smiled lightly at the gasp that emanated from Ezri. "Have I mentioned that he likes to watch too?"

She pushed forward, kissing Ezri with lusty warmth. "Of course," Laren continued, "We all do."

Laren felt a thread of amused acknowledgment along the mated bond and responded with a quick erotic suggestion that had Tuvok, who was sitting in a chair nearby, suddenly shift position. He pressed his hands together purposefully. She chuckled into the kisses she spread down Ezri's neck and then chest. She paused to fully enjoy the ripe breasts, loving the way Ezri's nipples stiffened so sharply and the way the Trill arched into the contact.

"Tonight, Ezri," Laren said. Her eyes were dark pools of light, "I can't bite you. I don't even dare nibble. You remember it though, don't you? My teeth scraping over you." She lifted her head and traced a finger down the path she trailed small sharp bites a decade ago.

"Tonight, you'll just have to make do with me kissing…" Laren kissed the tip of a nipple softly, swallowing her desire to fufill the path of memory, keeping her teeth well away, and then dropping her mouth over until she covered the full diameter of the aureole. She swiped her tongue along the nub and swirled it as she drew back to continue. "…Licking…" She drew her fingernails along the moist cleft, tracing the tiny, tiny spots that lined it until Ezri helplessly spread her legs for her so that she was more revealed. Laren deepened the touch, stroking the small bumps that made up erotic nerve bundles before she pressed into the Trill. Ezri flexed around her, bucked against her push. Laren finished what she was saying. "…and filling you."

She kissed Ezri again heatedly and began to thrust. "I hope you don't mind."

Then, while Ezri was still incoherent, Laren moved until she could do all of what she promised -- licking, kissing and filling -- until Ezri cried out in relief and bliss.

==^==

"How goes the training?" Captain Janeway inquired.

Ezri, who appeared to be thinking deeply about something, blinked back into the present.

Kathryn grinned, because she had somewhat of an idea of what was on Ezri's mind. Laren had sent her some spicy little signals before she'd left on an errand.

Ezri pulled a PADD from her pocket and glanced at it. Then she said, "We're on schedule. I won't say they'll be ready for everything when we leave, but they'll follow orders and will be more than likely to survive if we enter combat."

Kathryn nodded. "I'm glad to hear it. So far we've been making good progress, considering the time limit. Astrometrics and the TUE team have worked out the mechanics of delivering us straight to the Presban system. We have twenty four hours in which to wrap things up. B'Elanna and Dr. Brahms will be tweaking the sub-warp speeds to get us where we need in system as quickly as possible. What's the progress with Tucker's marines?"

"They're ready. The mechanical units are all repaired and the Truth Seekers suits have the medical paint tag added. I was thinking, next upgrade, you might consider a tracking bug." Ezri demonstrated by pointing her finger and going, "Tag, you're it. That way if someone runs when they really ought not to, they can be followed."

"Good thought. Make a notation for follow up." Kathryn sat back, "Anything else?"

"The other departments report that they're ready and I desperately want you." Ezri paused and flushed lightly. "I said that last part out loud, didn't I?"

Kathryn laughed. Then she stood up and said, "Kiss me once, then you're excused."

==^==

Icheb was beginning to think that he had erred in extending the invitation to share a meal. Where he and Tal had been conversing easily, there was now silence from the Bajoran. "It was not required for you to say yes." He spoke without thinking, and was disconcerted. He'd been doing that around her frequently, and he found it disturbing.

"What?" She turned to him, eyes wide.

He wished that he knew how to interpret the physiological changes he was detecting; they might help him understand what was happening. "You appear to be apprehensive."

"I am. This is…" Weird, strange, exhilarating, unexpected, scary: it was all of that and more, and to top it off, he was the Captain's son.

The lift stopped and they got off, and it was then that she realized they were on deck three.

He had stopped and was watching her with what she had come to recognize as calm regard. Icheb was seeing her, and thinking about what her reactions and feelings were, waiting patiently for her to continue. She smiled then, and finished her sentence. "…going to take some getting used to."

Icheb nodded, and let out a breath that he had only just realized he was holding, before drawing another so he could speak. "Agreed." He led the way inside the main entrance of the Family Quarters, but stopped walking again, when he realized that she was no longer accompanying him. Worried he turned around. "Celes Tal, are you functioning?"

"Icheb," came the reply, "why is there a hole in your dining room wall?"

He looked from her to the wall in question. "I do not know."

She smiled. "Okay." That was one of the things she liked most about him; he knew what he knew, never pretended to know more, and never made her feel as though she should know more than she did. "So, can you make hasperat?"

==^==

A game was being played in Voyager's Park. It was a very simple game, but there was genuine laughter and pleasure that accompanied it. Three adults surrounded one tiny laughing girl, who carried a little blue ball.

Lwaxana grinned and accepted the ball when it was handed to her, "Good," she said, as it was received. Then, gently, she tossed the ball to the middle of the small circle that she, T'Pel and Tuvok formed. They sat upon the grass, and watched as Emina toddled back to the ball and this time, headed towards a different one of them, in what was, from an outside observer's point of view, an apparently random order. But T'Pel was observant and knew that Emina's choices were not at all random, but influenced by factors of nearness, number of times visited, and simple choice.

Emina toddled to the ball, and then made her way to Tuvok, who looked his daughter in the eye and gently said, "Thank you." Then he took the ball and tossed it to the middle again.

During the game, the adults conversed, enjoying each others company as much as they enjoyed their daughter's. Emina retrieved the ball, and then took it to T'Pel. T'Pel, like Tuvok and Lwaxana, responded verbally, this time in Presban. "Well done." She then gently chucked the ball so that it was more toward Lwaxana's side again.

〈〈Fixing the odds, my darling?〉〉 Lwaxana teased gently.

〈〈For my family? Always.〉〉 T'Pel replied.

==^==

This time, there wasn't a massive celebration for Voyager's leaving. The mayor had said, "From now on, we will only celebrate your return home." Then he'd wished them well and safe journeys.

On board Voyager, as before there were parties thrown by some of the crew of Voyager and some of the crew attended and some did not. People prepared in their own way for the future. A countdown was displayed on the ship's channel.

In the Prime of House Presba's family quarters, they relaxed and communed with each other over dinner and dessert and spent a quiet evening home. Tomorrow, the adventure would begin.

==^==

Tom, Harry and Steve attended the cookout in The Park. The Golden Bough provided the cooks and the meals and the turnout was quite good. Neelix acted as the master of ceremonies and kept the event interesting and entertaining with games and dancing.

Afterward, sated with food and merriment, the trio made their way home. Harry and Steve were talking about the evening and it wasn't until they were at their quarters that they realized that Tom had been unusually quiet.

"Tom, are you alright?" Harry asked. He put his hand on the blonde man's shoulder and looked at him with concern.

"What?" Tom looked more fully at Harry and then at Steve. "Oh. Uhm. Yeah, everything is fine."

"Are you sure?" Now it was Steve who was standing very close and gazing at Tom with concern.

Tom took a moment to really look at both of them. And, after a moment he said, "Guys, would you do me a favor for a moment and sit down."

Harry raised his brows and shrugged. "Sure, Tom. Let's go sit down."

"No. I mean, yes. I mean, you go sit down first. I need to go get something."

"Now I'm intrigued."

"Steve…" Tom pleaded.

"Alright. Alright. We're sitting. Come on Harry, love. Let's go sit and see what our man has to say."

Tom watched as Harry and Steve arranged themselves in the front room of their quarters. Harry continued to gaze at him with puzzlement, while Steve waved his hand as if to say, 'we're sitting'.

He grinned at both of them then went into the bedroom. The event with the Marines and Steve and Harry's reaction to those events had clarified things for Tom in a way that was quite profound. Thus, he reached into his storage closet and pulled out two items that he had acquired once they'd reached Voyager's Rest.

Tom didn't want to wait any more. And tomorrow would have them in a place where it might be important to have at least made the attempt; whatever the outcome. He wanted them to know how he felt about them.

He stepped out of their room. Harry and Steve weren't exactly talking, but he couldn't help smiling at what they were doing. Couldn't leave them alone for five minutes.

"Harry. Steve."

They pulled apart breathlessly, and then grinned at him sheepishly. Steve said, "Well, we did start off on separate seats."

"So you did," Tom said, smiling. "Now, if you can pull apart for just a moment longer, I kind of need you separate enough to do this."

"To do what, Tom?" inquired Harry, even as he was settling back on the sofa beside Steve.

Tom waited long enough to make sure they were really paying attention and then knelt. Harry was still looking at him strangely, but Steve's eyes were going wide. They widened even more as Tom extended his hands. He held wide gold rings with brilliant stones embedded in them. "Steve. Harry. I've been thinking about this a lot." He cleared his throat.

"You see, I love you. More than I ever thought possible. I need you in my life and I want you in my life. And it would honor me so much, if you would consider, even for a moment, the thought of marrying me."

"Thomas Eugene Paris," Steve said in nearly a whisper. "Are you proposing to us?"

Tom swallowed then looked back and forth between the two men he loved more than life. Then he nodded his head. "Yes. Yes I am."

Harry and Steve barely glanced at each other before reaching for Tom. "We accept."

==^==

"What are you doing?" Ezri let her eyes drift up to the ceiling, trying to see how the blonde was managing to hang upside down. Magnetic boots. Of course.

"I am contemplating how to complete the assimilation of your quarters."

The Trill moved forward, and decided that there was one promising thing about the current pose of Seven of Nine; their faces were perfectly level, albeit in reverse. She took advantage of it and nibbled at the full lips, intrigued by the slight differences in sensation a simple change in direction afforded. "You do know," she breathed against Seven, "that I have to give them back when get to the Alpha quadrant?"

Seven analyzed the tone of the words, as much as she read her lover's body language. Ezri was prone to concealing her deeper emotions; the barbs on the ends of seemingly facetious remarks were often the only sign that the Trill was disturbed by something. It had been a surprising discovery. "I believe it is only your office that must be returned." She added a raised eyebrow and a light curl to her lips. Teasing Ezri had proved to be an effective way to discover the difference between Trill's sense of humour and evidence of insecurity. "You have not damaged it have you?"

"You mean other than the dent you and Lwaxana left on the wall by my desk?"

Seven was surprised to feel her face flush. "It was inadvertent. I did not realize that you were aware of its origin."

Ezri stretched her arms over her head and ran her fingers up Seven's sides, then raked them back down again. The feel of restrained power that rippled under her touch was hypnotic. "I think, my Valkyrie, that you just like putting holes in places that aren't supposed to have them. I've seen the holes in your office wall."

"B'Elanna was responsible for those." She curled backwards in response to Ezri's gentle explorations. Being touched in this manner, in this position, was intriguing.

Ezri laughed lightly, more of a hum than anything. "I'm willing to bet that she had the same...inspiration...that Lwaxana provided for you." She swirled her fingers around Seven's nipples, then diverted their course to trace a pattern over the rises and dips of the abdominal implant. Ezri wondered if Seven would enjoy watching the holo-vid of the encounter that Lwaxana had gifted her with, then smiled, she was certain of it. "I saw it all. You were on the desk, legs parted, head tilted back. Lwaxana was sitting in my chair, her wonderful hair unbound and spilling over her shoulders and your thighs. You were both so beautiful."

Seven twisted slightly and used her hand to pull Ezri's lips to hers. The kiss was sweet, and needful, but without the suffocating demand that had dominated so much of their recent lovemaking. She had missed the playful banter. "Perhaps The Emissary was not in error with your designation. You are a dirty Old Man." She dredged up the phrase from one of Kathryn's ubiquitous bodice rippers, determined to provoke the Trill to laugh.

"Is that a complaint?"

"No. It is not." She kissed Ezri again for good measure, only releasing the other woman as she heard Laren approach, and then only so she could greet her mate. "Laren."

Ezri turned to face the new arrival. She grinned at the baffled expression on the Bajoran's face.

"I am absolutely positive that I don't really want to know, but I am going to ask anyway. What are you two doing?"

Seven and Ezri exchanged glances and a dip of the Trill's head told Seven that she was to answer. "I am determining how best to finish combining these quarters. Ezri Dax was providing incentive."

Laren snickered. "I just bet she was."

Ezri laughed. "That's my cue to vanish. Ben is expecting me." She didn't look at Seven, but she knew that if she did, she'd receive a very charming smile. She did, however, step forward and kiss Laren good-bye.

As she left, she could hear the wonderfully enticing moan the Bajoran emitted as Seven kissed her in turn. She doubted that any renovations would get done before they made the jump.

==^==

Ben watched Ezri make her way across the Park, toward where he stood waiting. She was not as vibrantly bright as she had been in the Wormhole, or in the time immediately after, and without the distracting blaze of manifest consciousness, he could see Her more clearly. He smiled. Ezri was more Herself than she had ever been. She was all of them added and entwined in ways that released Her, though She did not know it.

He watched the shifting mosaic and found the surprising threads of Curzon that Ezri had woven into herself. Intrigued, he sought for traces of Jadzia and found them brightly interleaved with those of the Dax symbiont. He had been right; Jadzia's zest had matched the symbiont almost perfectly. Another integrated thread attracted him, and his own experiences let him put a name to its contributor: Joran Dax. Ben wondered if She knew what she had taken of that Host.

Above it all and through it, binding and shaping them, danced that which was uniquely Ezri, and he rejoiced for her Becoming.

"Hello, Ben." She had reached him and was looking at him, wonder of her own on her face.

He dared not embrace her at the moment, though he wanted nothing more than to crush her to him in a hug. "I heard a rumour, Old Man, that you were getting married."

Ezri blushed, but met his eyes, a twinkle in hers. "I heard a rumour of my own. Something about you having a daughter." She held up a PADD and passed it to him.

"A daughter." He was staring down at the information on the screen.

"She's beautiful, Ben. And they're waiting for you to come home."

Home. "Do you know her name?" Ben looked up, and realized that where a scant second ago he could have reached for the information, the knowledge was shrouded in his own fierce joy and he couldn't see past the blockade of emotion.

"Rebecca."

And Ben wept, letting Ezri pull him into her warmth. Rebecca.

==^==

Captain Janeway relaxed into her seat. She examined the data on her command station and nodded. "Status, Lieutenant Sayr?"

"We are ready, Captain. The variant and destination has been set."

"Lieutenant Kim?"

"Cloaking enabled. Departments report secured and ready."

"Helm?"

"Ready when you are, Captain." Paris replied.

"Mr. Paris, warp one. Engage."

"Aye, Captain."

Captain Janeway flicked a glance at her first officer, who nodded back, confirming that the remainder of the ship's departments had reported they were ready to transition. Then she pressed a button and said, "All hands, prepare for transition in approximately thirty seconds." She released the button and then said, "Lieutenant Sayr, on your count."

"Aye, Captain."

The Vulcan began the countdown from the point of Janeway's command. Then, at the precise beat of one, he started the transition.

They wove through the membrane of the Universes like a needle through cloth, though perhaps a bit more gently, as they left no hole behind them. Once again there was a sense of things moving that shouldn't be. The walls and floors became translucent and bright. Those who were comfortable talking realized that their communication was fuzzy and odd, slow motion thick, yet quick. It was like dreaming without the sleep.

The living ships thoroughly enjoyed the event, as they always did. Stinging Sparrow and Voyager spent time together in ways inexplicable, but tender to them. War Flower and Striking Feather communed with the newer ships, showing them what there was to experience in the ocean of the membrane; including singing back to the lights that swam by them, singing and playing like dolphins riding the wake.

Suddenly the stars clarified from the fog and they were in the Delta quadrant of Universe Beta.

"Transition successful, Captain," Lieutenant Sayr reported.

She nodded and took a quick look at her console, then back up to the bridge crew. "Report."

Tuvok said, "There is no detectable communication traffic in this sector, Captain."

"I suppose that is to be expected. Any sign of other vessels?"

"Sensors indicate that there is no traffic through this point."

The Captain nodded again. "Good. That's probably for the best."

She looked to her left and noticed that her first officer appeared to be a bit pale.

Ezri forced her expression into a fragile, tight smile.

Kathryn said, "Are we ready for the next transition?"

Ezri gave her a vague nod, while the others reported their status.

"We have a request from the TUE team to wait five minutes. Apparently the engine is running hot."

"We'll make it thirty, just to be on the safe side." Captain Janeway made the time change known to the ship. Then she said to her first officer, taking pity on the space sick Trill, "Commander Dax, would you mind heading down to sickbay to see what their status is? Lieutenant Paris, take us around the block and let's see what there is to see in twenty five minutes."

==^==

Lwaxana and T'Pel were in the family quarters with their children, Mr. Neelix, and Naomi Wildman. Azan, Rebi, Mezoti and Naomi were engaged in a project, one that required a goodly amount of table space. Mr. Neelix was supervising, or at least watching. Emina was napping on T'Pel. Lwaxana was in the kitchen, gently quizzing the eldest Sochling while he made a light snack for everyone.

Icheb was responding to her last question. "Tal is from the Kendra Province on Bajor. She is very knowledgeable about her home world. She gave me a new recipe for hasperat."

Lwaxana smiled at his quiet enthusiasm. "How do you feel when you're around her?"

He paused mid-motion and considered how to answer. "I have odd physical sensations around Tal. She has a pleasing scent, something that is different from the others. When we are speaking, I sometimes feel as if I am a step behind." His expression turned bemused. "Usually it is because I lost concentration on the conversation to begin with."

Lwaxana chuckled lightly. "She distracts you and attracts you. I can see it. Have you formally asked her out yet?"

"Formally?"

"As in a date."

Icheb shook his head. "I am not sure that she would accept such a proposition."

"There are some drawbacks to having such a...," Lwaxana chose her words carefully, "… Large family."

"It is not that. I think she is growing more comfortable with the idea." He paused, as he laid a dollop of cookie dough on a stone like sheet. "But she is older than I am and very aware of it. I have explained that her age is of no importance to me." Now he looked confused. "But for some reason she became upset with me when I said that." He leaned in, and said conspiratorially. "I apologized anyway, though I am not sure why."

"Icheb, once again, you have shown wisdom where others fail. You were smart enough to recognize a losing battle."

Icheb nodded, accepting Lwaxana's answer. "I am, however, very interested in dating Celes Tal; if she will ever say yes, and if Mother approves."

"Perhaps you ought to try asking Seven of Nine first, and then ask Tal next. That way you will be armed with her support before you make the attempt."

"You think Mother will say yes."

"Darling, if Tal makes you happy, then yes. I know she will."

==^==

Twenty minutes later the TUE team reported that the Trans-Universal Engine had cooled down sufficiently to allow a safe transition. Captain Janeway was suddenly glad that she'd made the time alteration. Ezri had returned from sickbay and reported that the number of individuals affected by the transition had remained within the expected parameters. Kathryn turned to the Trill and said, "Remind me to talk to Dr. Brahms about finding out why that engine starts to," she sought for the word, "overheat after a certain number of transitions. I know we already have a secondary device in place, but I think we need to consider a means to fix the original device too, just in case. I don't want to get stuck in the middle of a point to point transition without some means of repair."

Ezri once again realized that Captain Janeway had the intelligence to go with the command persona and nodded. "Captain, I couldn't agree more."

Kathryn shook her head and sighed. "Ten minutes. That's enough time for coffee." She was about to offer a cup to Ezri, then glanced over and changed her mind. "Commander, you have the conn."

"Thank you, Captain."

Kathryn's lips twitched in amusement and she stood and went to her ready room.

==^==

Captain Janeway returned to the bridge a few minutes later. "Anything interesting happen?"

Ezri, who was looking more comfortable than when she had left said, "Other than the supernova, the swelling musical score and a warp core breech?" Then she let a lazy grin spread over her face, "not a thing. Sadly."

Kathryn cracked a return grin at her first officer and then settled into her chair. "How many minutes?"

"Two."

Janeway pressed the communications button on her chair. "All hands, prepare for Transition."

They went through the run down again, including the count, and then at the appointed moment and speed, the Trans-Universal Engine was activated. They disappeared from Universe Beta on their way to the Alpha Universe and home.

==^==

Voyager of the House Presba entered Universe Alpha, Beta Quadrant, Presban space at full stealth. She slowed from warp to sub warp, and moved deeper into the system, sneaking in like a cat on the prowl. As she did so, she pulled all streams of communications traffic and other available data and poured it to where it would do the most good. Her crew - once able - began rapidly preparing, since they did not know what they were facing. They would be ready for anything.





Chapter 10 | Universe Beta, Beta Quadrant | Bookmarks




After a thorough investigation of their own, they decided not to second guess T'Pel's wisdom on the matter. Nelav, who had become the designated person for such things, contacted Winn Adami. "The House Presba has accepted your application to be our fiscal manager and point representative for business matters. We are sending a copy of the formal contract for your review. Upon your acceptance of the terms and requirements, we will begin negotiations for your salary."

The Bajoran business mogul smiled warmly. "I look forward to serving the House Presba in this."

==^==

It was a beautiful day on Bajor and a lovely day to visit Jalanda City. Kai Opaka had decided that visiting the historical sites of the planet would be a useful point of reference for her. Though she had a growing appreciation of why she had been summoned to this Universe. One that was so desperately seeking balance as it transitioned from a harsh past into something potentially better.

She encountered rich, poor and slave alike and listened to their stories and offered what wisdom she could. She also encountered familiar faces, beings who did not know her, but in whose reflection she could see her own journey. This one in her world was a Ranjen. That one a Vedek. Another a farmer. Yet, here, a businessman, or a doctor.

It was fascinating and took some acclimating.

She visited the analogs of the holocaust sites on her home world, and wept for her people; she studied Bajor's history and considered what she could offer beyond kind words. It was, she realized, a long road that the Prophets had called her to and every now and then she felt terribly alone. But, even then, she knew there were others out there, inspiring changes just as she was. Opaka was keeping her immediate attention on House Presba and on Betazed. The changes for the better had already begun.

She was getting used to her guard following her everywhere. It was not something that she had needed in her first Universe, even when she was on the planet where she died, lived, died and lived all over again. It took almost as much effort to become used to being address as Kai Opaka again, rather than by her given name. It surprised her that she missed being Opaka Sulan.

The fact that she was alive at all in this universe was a result of the direct intervention of the Prophets, and she wondered if she actually needed the guard, or the title, but considered that her people needed her to have them. Status, in this Universe, was somewhat convoluted.

There was a message that needed to be conveyed, she realized. But, she wasn't quite sure what it was yet. So she walked, and while she walked, she encountered, while she encountered, she learned.

It was, she supposed, inevitable that she would meet her old adversary. Not everyone shared the same vision and there were politics in everything, even the clergy. She had heard that Winn Adami had become Kai. It was the will of the Prophets, but she had known Adami as someone who was inflexible and their arguments, debates and differences had been legendary among the priests, though not one revealed among to people. For the people they always presented a united front.

Kai Opaka, who usually smiled easily, found it difficult to find one as the other woman, dressed in business attire, and not in priestly robes, moved sedately forward with a young man in tow. She was followed by her own guard, who paced more discreetly behind, perhaps because they were all Bajoran. Sulan was slightly shocked when Adami took a place at the end of the greeting line that always seemed to form around her whenever she stopped moving. The Kai had more than half expected Adami to budge and elbow her way forward, but like the others, she waited politely.

Kai Opaka greeted, blessed and touched the ear of many before Winn Adami and her companion were before her. By then, she managed to have a real smile of welcome for them.

Adami spoke, unaware of the turmoil she inspired just by her presence. "It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Kai Opaka. I have been asked by Grand Judge Miral Torres of the House Presba to, when you are ready, provide whatever you may need to further your venture here on Bajor."

Kai Opaka blinked. "I do not understand."

"House Presba is prepared to fund a temple, should you require it."

"A temple?"

"Or a garden. Or a small house. Or a big one. All of them if you require it. You need only say the word." Winn Adami handed the Kai a small card. "If you need a ship or finances to purchase servants or more guards, you are to call me. If the purchase is very large, I will need to confirm it with Miral. But small and medium ones, I can do immediately upon request." Adami paused. "This is my son, Jerrod. He is also authorized to help you, and I recommend, for the smaller services, that you contact him. In fact, if you are in need of a personal manager, I offer you his services. He is a certified accountant and quite good at fiscal management and procurement of wealth." Adami handed her a second card.

Now Sulan was really astonished. She looked at both the cards. Then at Winn Adami. She examined the familiar features of the other woman, having once thought she knew them very well. She lifted her hand. "May I?"

Adami had seen the other individuals touched, so she nodded. "If you wish."

Sulan grasped Adami's ear and held it. It was like fire rushing through her palm straight to her heart. She let go, somehow managing to smother the gasp that wanted to rise within her. She gathered herself together and said, "Thank you, Winn Adami. I will be sure to contact you when I need you."

The other woman smiled wryly. "Is my future so bad then?"

As Kai, she couldn't withhold an answer. "Your future is merely not what I expected it to be, Winn Adami. It is not, however, bad. You will find great happiness in the service of House Presba and Bajor."

Now the smile widened. "Somehow," Winn Adami said, "I believe you."

==^==

Nelav handed Miral the PADD, before the Klingon had even asked her for it. The Deian had been doing that more and more often lately; somehow knowing before hand what was needed and making it appear or happen. Miral did not take it for granted, but she did find the why of its seemingly sudden appearance somewhat mysterious.

The judge looked at the notes and nodded her head at the confirmation of details. Then, she handed the PADD to Gretchen.

Her mate took the PADD, managing to deliberately brush gentle fingers over her sensitive skin. Miral looked up into impish grey-green eyes and grinned. "Soon," she promised.

Gretchen smiled back before looking at the PADD. "Do you think he'll actually allow me to help?"

"One must allow for surprises."

"Point. But, it does get old sometimes."

"At least, my beloved, you may sit beside me in a chair."

"Good point. Though, you know, I was never uncomfortable. I miss your hand in my hair sometimes. It was…comforting."

Miral smiled at the memory. "For both of us. But, the cost was too high, Be'nal."

"I know. It's better now." Gretchen smiled and set the PADD on the top of their desk. "Effany has made the family meal today. Are you interested?"

"Silly question."

Gretchen elaborated. "It is an Orion traditional meal, something hearty, not a kebob."

"Meaning it's something most people never see, am I correct?"

"You are. A meal for warriors, she says."

"Interesting that she's serving it before our next trial. Nelav has been hinting at trouble."

"But nothing specific."

"On the other hand, there are those who are unhappy with us. It's better to be prepared." Miral asserted.

That Gretchen agreed with, especially with the baby to consider. "True."

"Well, I'm done reading. Let's go eat and see what our three are thinking."

==^==

The five of them sat around the dining table. "Alright. Tell me what is going on," Miral commanded.

Nelav, brushed back her azure locks and tucked them behind her ear. She pondered how best to answer. "I am sorry, Miral. But the images are not clear. I just know that there is more to this case than what is being seen in the files."

"You believe it to be a trap."

Nelav nodded slowly. "Yes, your Honor. I do."

"Yet, if I do not go, then I have broken my word."

"Yes. Your Honor."

"Then we will go, but we will prepare." Miral picked up a roll and put some of that lovely, meaty spread on it. She opened her mouth and spoke, not quite a half beat behind Nelav saying the same thing. "Make arrangements with K'tar…" Then she stopped.

"I'll make arrangements with K'tar…" Nelav, who was seasoning her meal wasn't looking at anyone in particular, but she was still talking, "…for security and make sure all our weapons are powered to their fullest. Effany and T'Sai will evaluate the location for exit points and arrange for a transporter lock." She finally looked up and flushed even deeper hue of blue than normal.

T'Sai's brow was cocked and Effany was glancing back and forth between Gretchen and Miral, still worried about the possible reactions, even after all this time.

Miral was looking at the Deian with an amused expression on her face. "Please, Nelav, at least let me have the dignity of expressing my thoughts first."

"Yes, Miral."

Gretchen couldn't help the chortle that escaped. "How did we get so lucky to get you on our side?"

Effany, who wasn't the most talkative, said, "Mistress…," she paused and then revised, "… Gretchen, we ask ourselves that question about you and the judge every day."

==^==

They proceeded according to plan, acting as normally as possible given all the warnings ringing through Nelav. Because of her sensation of, "something not right," however, their security guard went first, then Miral and Gretchen. They were followed by Nelav, then T'Sai and Effany, who were all wearing their new Truth Seeker Robes. Then two more guards of the House followed them all.

Miral was just about to set her bat'leth into place, when Nelav reached forward and touched her shoulder. She whispered, "Don't let Gretchen sit on that chair."

It looked normal to Miral, but Nelav was trustworthy. So the Klingon remained standing, forcing her whole group to also remain upright. She glared out toward those who had come to be tried and those who were watching the trial, assessing what she was seeing. It took her a moment to identify what it was that was jiggling her memory, but after a moment she spotted what she was looking for. It was obvious, once her mind had pegged it. The color of several beings in the audience was not quite right. It was off by just a tiny bit. But it was definitely not right.

Once she spotted the difference, she knew and understood why Nelav had been having difficulty. Miral pondered what to do, then opted for Klingon simplicity and pulled out her blaster. This action prompted her people to pull out theirs. All of them, including those of her staff she had secreted away within the audience. She grinned mirthlessly. "There is an old saying among Klingons. Once fooled is my despair. Twice is yours." She then made sure to make eye contact with those who were in the holographic disguises. "I see you. I know you. It is time to give up."

She knew, even as she said the words, that it wasn't going to be that simple. A stocky man broke ranks, pulling his weapon, which prompted his accomplices to do the same and then it was blaster fire, fists, and screaming mayhem. That battle raged around the whole of the room, spilled over into the circle, and out of the room. The only one who appeared to have nothing at all to do with any of it, was the accused who stood, chained and terrified, at the defendant's table awaiting the outcome as the fight that flowed around him.

In the end, there were bodies on the ground, and in the stands. There were broken chairs, railings and even the corner of the dais was busted. Those who had been in the audience who had come for the actual trial had felt as if they'd gotten their time's worth. The Judiciary team looked a bit less formal and a lot more dangerous. There was still blood in Miral's gaze as she stalked back, bat'leth in hand and stared at the accused.

"Did you do it?"

The man quavered, but he didn't lie. "Yes, your Honor. I shouldn't have. I realize it now. But--"

"I didn't ask for an explanation." Miral cut him off, not interested in details.

"Yes, your Honor."

"It seems your accuser has," she kicked the body of the Orion at her feet, "withdrawn his accusation." She stalked over to the defendant. "I don't suppose you know where the key is?"

"N...n...No your honor."

"Could…Oh, hello, T'Sai. Thank you."

The Vulcan grasped the chain and pulled it tight until it groaned under the stretch. Miral stepped back, hefted her bat'leth and then changed her mind. She shifted weapons until she was holding her blaster, then fired it at the point between chain and ground.

The melted metal parted easily and the man was free. Miral said, "I don't want to see you in my court again."

"No, your Honor. You won't."

"Good. Now go." The man bowed hastily, and then ran nimbly around the debris in the courtroom, and then out the door.

Miral grimaced and looked around at the shambles of what had been the local judicial hall. "Someone find the Mayor. I want a word with that person." Her tone of voice did not bode well for that future conversation.

==^==

Empty. Again. This time the spot next to her had already grown cold, so she knew her mate had left the bed sometime ago. Belle rolled to her feet, took up the thin robe she'd begun keeping next to the bed, and slipped it on.

The robe had become necessary when Annika's nightly forays had escalated from dismantling their own replicators to clandestine attacks on any piece of equipment left unattended. It didn't matter what part of the ship. If it was accessible, it was apparently fair game.

"Annika, Be'nal?" Their quarters were quiet and, for once, the main replicator was unmolested. Belle ordered a glass of prune juice, knowing that to order raktajino would be futile, and would only result in prune juice. Her Human spouse was very particular about what constituted a proper pre-natal routine.

Belle exited into the corridor and began to look for signs that the blonde had passed this way, or that. It would have been simpler to ask the ship's computer, but finding Annika had become a game of sorts.

One that occasionally, depending on the location, had the most exquisite rewards. She flushed, and her nipples spiked, as she remembered one such hunt, and the exhilarated abandon with which Annika had received her attentions. That a shuttle in the hangar bay had only marginally hid them had only added to the experience.

Over the last couple of weeks, what had been an almost constant craving for Annika had become something bordering on near nymphomania.

What amazed and astonished her, was that Annika's appetite had grown to match hers, and she was far from being the only one to initiate some of their riskier encounters.

Belle, now on her second circuit of the ship without any apparent sign of Annika, began to shift her thoughts from amorous intent to genuine concern. And, now that she was no longer mentally envisioning exactly how she was going to show her mate how much her presence in the bed had been missed, Belle registered a vague disquiet.

Not one single piece of equipment had shown evidence that a distractible and delectable blonde had spent any time on them.

"Computer, locate Annika Torres."

"Annika Torres is in med-bay one."

The med-bay? Annika hated the med-bay.

Hurrying, she entered the room, and looked around in awe. Every single piece of equipment was in some stage of disassembly. The med-bot was in pieces, lined up neatly on a large sheet, and a naked Annika was intently staring at a round stain on the floor.

"Annika, sweetheart?" She read a tension in the blonde that she hadn't seen since their initial meeting, and Belle knew that whatever was happening wasn't the ordinary, familiar night walking of the last month.

"I am sorry, General Torres."

Belle stopped, as a metallic rush of terror washed through her. "Annika, what's wrong, honey?"

"I will leave. I have dishonoured you." No discernible emotion showed on the blonde's face, and her words were flat.

"Annika, you're scaring me." The blonde flinched, and Belle knelt on the floor, their proximity clearly transmitting the acrid smell of fear washing off the Human. A slightly rancid odor was mixed with it, but she couldn't quite identify it. "I know you're scared too, but whatever it is. It's okay. I promise." It had to be, she wasn't ready to lose this woman for any reason.

"Not this." Annika looked up, and Belle hoped to never see such desolation in her mate's eyes ever again.

She reached out and gently touched Annika's shoulder. "How about you tell me what 'this' is, and we'll figure it out together."

"I am pregnant."

"That's wonderful!" Belle shouted, and then subsided, seeing Annika flinch. "Isn't it?"

"It is not possible." Annika turned then and her eyes were full of tears. "I swear that I have never been with anyone but you. I swear it."

Belle wrapped her arms around her mate. "I believe you, Annika. Shhh. It's okay." She remembered the night of Pulaski's formal bonding. Annika had joined them, wanting to be part of creating their child, but had not been with Worf herself. There had been touches though. She shivered in memory. Delightful touches as Annika's long fingers had augmented what she and Worf were doing. Tender caresses that had sent her spiraling over the edge more than once that night long after Worf had departed.

It was improbable, but it wasn't impossible. "Annika, darling, its okay. I would say that Worf is a very virile man, and you, my love, are apparently very fertile."

The hope and utter relief that sparked across Annika's face gripped Belle, and she felt her breath catch in her throat. "I love you Be'nal. And now we will have two children to share that love." She leaned in to seal her words with a kiss, and was startled when Annika turned her head. "Annika?"

"I need to clean my mouth. I vomited." Annika looked chagrined. "I thought I was ill."

All Belle could do was laugh.





Chapter 11 | Universe Alpha, Beta Quadrant: Presban Estate | Bookmarks




It had been just over week and a half since the capture of the Titan. The sleek Federation vessel still orbited Presba, a war prize of the Klingon Empire. Also orbiting the Estate of Presba was the Orantho, the ship belonging to the Mistress of House Martok, the IKS Jornub, which had been placed at Presba specifically for this kind of incident, and Alexander Rozhenko's scout ship, which had shown up just in time to save, if not awaken, Will Riker.

The crew of the Titan were not quite prisoners of war, yet. The Empire had yet to make their status official one way or another. It depended entirely upon the behind the scenes negotiations currently being conducted with ferocious intent on both sides. None of the crew, with the exception of the acting Captain, Commander Christine Vale, had been permitted to disembark from the ship, and even when on board, they were watched closely by the Klingon security that had been placed aboard the vessel. Commander Worf of the House Martok, Ambassador for the Klingon Empire, maintained order, but did not interfere with the acting Captain in regular ship's business. Aside from the four Section 31 operatives in the brig, the other crew were treated as the Starfleet officers they were, and therefore expected to conduct themselves with honour.

One other Starfleet officer was allowed to come and go as she pleased. Commander Beverly Crusher, currently shepherding the interests of the Federation, spent the majority of her day across the negotiating table from the Lady Sirella, Mistress of House Martok, and making what seemed to be very slow to zero headway. The actions of Section 31 once again proved a barrier to Empire-Federation relations, as, from a Klingon point of view, the Titan had declared war on a House of the Empire, and not just any house at that; it had attacked one that was a declared ally of House Martok. What surprised Beverly, though she realized it probably should not have, was how little support, given the ties its members had to the Federation and Starfleet, that the House Presba had leant to the Federation's efforts.

Not that she could blame them. If the situation was reversed, Beverly wasn't sure how forgiving she would be either; she knew far to well just how long she could carry a grudge.

In the end, there were two saving graces. The first was that it was apparent that the Titan's Captain, Will Riker, had been under the influence of a potent, mind-altering drug and thus, not entirely accountable for his actions. The unfortunate caveat was the not entirely part. Beverly had identified portions of the chemical compound, and it left enough evidence to verify that he had some choice in the matter of his actions. How much control was an open question, because the drug had been designed to delete the evidence. It was even possible that had the dose not been tripled at the end, Riker might have recovered quickly, as, apparently, the substance required daily administration. At the moment, Will was in a coma and therefore unable to defend himself one way or the other.

The other saving grace was that Deanna Troi still considered Beverly Crusher a friend. She was more than cordial during their time together, but there were deep and dark mysteries going on behind the eyes of the Betazoid that still caused Beverly to shiver a little when she looked directly into them for any long length of time. At odd moments, especially after viewing the results of the autopsy on Lt. Nuala Corvalis, her disquiet shifted to a quickly banished fear. Worse, she knew Deanna was aware of, and hurt by, her fear. Only those of House Presba seemed to dare to look deeply, and without fear, into Deanna, and she wondered how they survived it.

Maybe it was love.

==^==

In the aftermath, Asil rarely ventured far from Deanna. It was not that she hovered incessantly, she knew that most individuals needed personal space, she merely arranged to be available when Deanna needed her presence, and to not intrude otherwise. A part of her worried, but the logical side of her allowed the Vulcan Presban to carry on as if she did not. She was just grateful that Deanna continued to allow her in, and so she guarded her mate's emotional doors while those who did not understand battered at them.

At the moment Asil was with Barin, who was not used to seeing his sister so distraught. He was fearless with Deanna, unafraid of the depths of her, but Deanna worried at what he would see, so she kept him gently out. That frightened the youngster more than any words or other actions might have and so, because he was young, he pressed in hopes that she would let him in again.

He was distressed enough that he stopped speaking out loud.

It was only the anchoring presences of Asil, Auloh and Guinan that kept him from retreating even further and into complete silence. Each tried, in their won way to support him, and they each tried to spend as much time with him as possible. Even Deanna spent time with him, but that was, at the moment, no consolation to the devastated young boy, because she was not with him fully.

It grieved Deanna in ways she didn't know how to express that she wasn't able to move past her reactions and fears. As a counselor, she knew that she must. As Deanna, she was terrified of what she had done, and did not know if she could ever leave the fear behind. In the core of her conscience, she worried that she felt no guilt over the killing of Corvalis, only over the manner of it. It was the lack of control, and not the death that ate at her soul, and made her fear for the future.

She would have run away, except for her mate. Asil, who was her anchor and her salvation, who held her through the long nights and waded with her through the darkness.

Deanna wandered their home, not listless or directionless, just wandering and thinking as she tried to cope with her actions. She stepped out onto the balcony and looked up at the sky, trying to draw comfort from the same glorious blue that once caused her heart to sing at its mystery. Today it was just the sky, but she looked out at it anyway, hoping to lose herself, her guilt, her loss and gain, in the illusion of the infinite.

It was an unconscious meditation. Her breathing deepened and her eyes half closed. Her thoughts slowed and stretched. Her mind moved, despite herself, unbidden. Within easy reach she found Asil, who reached back, touched back with deep, abiding love. They twined, for a moment in a long, surprising mental caress. Then she drifted away and found Barin, who was suddenly alert and bright and astonished. Without a pause to second guess the impulse, Deanna reached back and touched him briefly. She knew then, and felt horrible for it, that he wept in joy because of the rarity it had become. But she didn't linger, as if her mind had other purposes. She briefly touched Auloh with a mental hug, and then a brief flight led to Guinan, who touched back with amazing strength, fearless of what she saw in Deanna that astonished the Betazoid. And still, Deanna continued on and out. She hovered over Will, whose once bright light she could see, but not touch and which seemed so dim and distant now. Once again Deanna shifted her world frame, not exactly drifting, but without a goal. Far above Presba, she found Alexander, who was abruptly confused by awareness that someone had touched him, but unable to see anyone near him. Stretching herself further Deanna easily discerned Worf, whose stern, proud manner still caught her breath sometimes. She kissed the crown of forehead ridges as she passed by; felt his swift, baffled reaction, and continued farther on.

Because, at that moment, Deanna knew what she was looking for, and knew it to be a hopeless quest, but one that she must conduct for all that. So, resolute of purpose, she moved on, searching and seeking.

And, like a light in the darkness, she was there.

〈〈Mother?〉〉

==^==

Lwaxana, who had been in the middle of a genial conversation with Mr. Neelix, stopped speaking very abruptly. Her expression changed from outwardly attentive, to one of inward concentration. 〈〈Deanna?〉〉

The response was overwhelming. A wealth of emotions traveled in the next touch: need, hope, fear and terrible grief. Instinctively, Lwaxana wrapped her own emotional responses around her child, communicating a depth and breadth of comfort, love, understanding, and the promise of soon arriving. The moment was so intense that it took a heartbeat or two before Lwaxana realized that it was impossible for Deanna to be this close, impossible for her to reach this far. 〈〈My child, what has happened?〉〉

Deanna's response was the equivalent of an inarticulate wail, and a flinging of her soul against her mother. Lwaxana grabbed hold and held, sending her strength to her daughter. There was an echo along the mated bond, as her mates, recognizing something amiss, responded to aid Lwaxana.

T'Pel stood, passed Emina to Neelix and then pressed her hands against Lwaxana's shoulders. In the psychic distance, there was a sob of relief, but the need was still incredibly strong. Deanna, however, was also joined. They felt her mate, identified her. 〈〈Asil.〉〉 Lwaxana recognized that there was great power there; a wonder-filled sense of something new and potent. Undercutting the recognition was the knowledge that Deanna and Asil were united in their need for them. 〈〈We come, our daughters.〉〉 It was a vow, joined and affirmed by the entire Prime.

They only wanted to know one thing. 〈〈Who has done this to you?〉〉

A name came, bright and hot with anger, but along with the name traveled the ultimate cause: Section 31. The group snarl that rose unbidden and with unconscious volition from the lips of the Prime was terrible to hear and more than one witness to it quailed.

==^==

It fell to the First Officer to stand in the face of the anger of the Prime, and to argue for a measured response to handling the four confirmed Section 31 agents. Dax made her case to the Captain in the Ready Room and tried to ignore the pressure of the eyes boring into the back of her neck; Ro Laren was wrong too. "You can't do it. You can't just swoop in out of nowhere, and then beam them into your brig. This is our universe, and there are other means to your end. Legal means."

Kathryn's expression continued to be pugnacious, her eyes an unforgiving storm-grey, but Ezri pressed on. "Look, what they did was wrong. But if you transport them from the Titan without telling anyone, they're going to think the prisoners are being rescued. They'll try and find out how and you could have a fire fight on your hands. It would be better," she drew breath, deliberately calming her own response, "if you visited the Titan after Voyager is stationed where you want her. And frankly, Captain, right now, I give you about a fifty-fifty chance at even being allowed in the same room with them."

Janeway blinked, and then chuckled rawly. "Only fifty percent?"

"Kathryn, there is murder in your eyes. It's scary as fuck. But you know, and I know, this isn't how to get things done."

"Isn't it?"

"Not if you want to remain as the Captain of Voyager." There was an awful moment when Ezri was sure it could go either way. Then something in Kathryn settled. The anger was still there, but the Trill felt a loosening in her own chest as the maelstrom seemed to pass.

"Commander Dax."

"Yes, Captain Janeway?"

"We will be landing on Presba. Asil Troi will give you the coordinates. You have the conn."

"Aye, Captain."

Ezri started out the door. The stopped. "With or without the cloak?"

==^==

"This is Voyager of the House Presba seeking clearance for landing." Voyager handled her own communications with ground control, broadcasting her voice to the bridge.

"Voyager, you have a go. Landing pad zero one is ready. Uh, we don't see you."

"That's okay. We can see you. Here's a ping so you know we're live."

"Ping confirmed. Traffic has been diverted. Welcome Voyager."

"Thank you, Presba Control. It's good to be home."

==^==

Voyager landed gracefully and easily. Not that anyone witnessed the event. The ship remained cloaked even after landing. The contact with Presba ground control had been on a tight beam and secure channel.

The crew was allowed to stand down from red alert to yellow, and the alert klaxon had already been silenced. The scouts exited their ships and the marines who were on stand-by, began stripping out of their tech suits.

Despite the sense of urgency, there was no hurry. They were there. They had landed safely. Ample time was to be had to freshen up and prepare for a more formal arrival.

Once communication was made more officially, a schedule would be set up so that each and every individual crew member could, if they wanted or needed to, contact their family and let them know they were safe in the Beta Quadrant. Other arrangements could then be made as necessary. They would determine what needed to be done next as they went along.

B'Elanna, Laren, T'Pel and Lwaxana would establish contact with Asil and Deanna. Captain Janeway decided it would be appropriate to have security with them as they went to check on their family. Xepal, Dekut and Kufa formed the core, with Ensigns Chase and Booker as the perimeter.

They would wait until connection was made with their immediate family on Presba before making overtures to anyone else.

==^==

It started innocently enough. She had a headache, ergo, Ezri finally made time to wander into sickbay in search of a cure.

What she found was Kate Pulaski, huddled in her chair staring into space, a mix of anger and desolation plain upon her features. Ezri knelt down next to the doctor. "Hey."

"She's so fractured."

The Trill held her peace, knowing that reassuring words were meaningless. Kate knew far more about what had happened and what it meant than she did. Instead, Ezri stood and leaned against the desk, pulling Kate upward into her arms as she moved.

Kate let herself be guided from the chair and sagged gratefully into Ezri, clinging to the younger woman. She took refuge in the solid body and the warm heat. Her mind was still ablaze with the fire of anger and the echoes of fear and loneliness.

The immolation of the mating fire had been expected, gloriously reveled in, and hotly anticipated, but this…she hadn't expected this. Lwaxana's anguish had washed over them all and became theirs, gathering up their individual pain and tempering the anger to unity of purpose. But it still hurt. The grief was pulsing across the bond, and Kate felt the support of her mates, even as she tried to turn aside the intense rawness, and not draw them away from where they needed to focus.

"I've got you, Dr. Kate." Ezri mumbled more reassurances into Kate's hair, dropping soft kisses on her brow and crown. "It's okay, love."

Then the air was filled with a low growl, and Ezri only had time to register that the blonde was in motion before Kate pinned her against the wall. "Kate…"

Kate used one hand to pull apart Ezri's uniform jacket, the other she used to support them. "I need this. Need you. Please." Ezri was real and here, and she dove for the exposed flesh below the elegant collarbones. "Oh god, please."

Ezri grabbed Kate's hands, one in each of her own, and held them together firmly. "What do you need?"

"You."

"This isn't safe, Kate." Ezri knew she was already at the limit of her ability to resist a mating bite; the likely damage to House Presba's relationship with House Martok and the Lady Sirella not withstanding.

"Make it safe. Make me safe." Kate used her strength to pull Ezri closer, but not enough to break the Trill's hold, and kissed her hard, opening her mouth to swirl over the fine lips and tongue, tempering her invasion only slightly in an effort not to draw blood. "Please, I need this."

Before she could remember all the reasons why they shouldn't be doing this, and why they definitely shouldn't be doing it in the CMO's office in the middle of a yellow alert, Ezri shifted her grip to take both of Kate's hands in her left one. With her right, she fumbled at her belt buckle and getting it undone, tugged the belt free, careful to keep the dk'targ and its sheath from clattering to the floor.

She looped the soft leather around Kate's hands, cinching them tightly. Her knife she pulled from its sheath and tossed onto the desk, the sheath itself she held up to Kate, waiting for permission.

"Oh, god, yes. Please."

"I've got you." She repeated, "and I won't stop, but you need to keep this in your mouth. Promise me."

"I promise."

Before she placed the sheath, bit like, into the blonde's mouth, Ezri leaned forward and slowly, deliberately kissed Kate. She ran her tongue over all the silky recesses and across the full, pale lips, then gently positioned the sheath. "I've got you."

Opening Kate's smock, and pushing aside the thin t-shirt, she used her fingers and mouth to tauten the peaked flesh on the pale orbs, licking and murmuring as she traced a meandering path. "It's okay, love. It's okay. I've got you."

Lightly bound hands pressed on her arm, and she looked up, recognizing instantly what Kate wanted and needed. She placed her forehead against Kate's, their eyes locked together. Ezri lifted her head away slightly so that Kate could focus. "I've got you." She whispered again. The disquiet over the how and why, she pushed aside, her desire to help Kate more important than any disappointment over the circumstances of their first encounter.

When Kate felt Ezri's hand drop to her waist band she brought her legs closer and thrust forward slightly to make it easier. As soon as the fastening was released and the pants began to fall, she wriggled, needing the barrier gone. Clenching her teeth in the leather she breathed a command around it. "In. Now!"

Dax's gaze was troubled, and Kate used her restrained hands to grip the open edge of the jacket, and then moved inside it, tweaking first one nipple, then the other. "Please," she ground out.

Ezri turned her to face the desk, and Kate leaned over the shiny surface, bracing herself on her forearms, spreading her feet apart. For long seconds she waited, then suddenly the touch was there, the slender fingers found their way to her depths. Ezri's hips rocked into her, in time to the thrusts, bringing shocks of pleasure along different nerve endings than the ones inside.

Almost instantly she exploded, and with the physical release, came the tears, and Kate let herself slide backwards and then down, to be held in Ezri's lap, cradled firmly. The sheath was replaced by gentle kisses, and she didn't notice when her hands were freed. Instead she let her world shrink to the beat of Ezri's heart, and gave herself up to the delivered safety.

==^==

Seven of Nine strode into the CMO's office without requesting entrance or seeking permission, she knew she was needed. She found them both, heads together, cradling one another through different kinds of pain. Seven knelt and touched them both, drawing her palms along their faces.

They both leaned into the caress. "It is time to come home now."

Ezri gazed up, not yet ready to let go of Kate. "I had a headache."

Seven of Nine leaned in and kissed the Trill gently. "I will administer an analgesic." Then she turned and kissed the other woman warmly and deeply. Kate finally looked at Seven and drew in a deep breath.

She opened her mouth to say something and Seven stopped her with two fingers pressed against her lips. "It is unnecessary." The touch turned into a caress, erotic and comforting at the same time. "It is understood." She looked deeply into Kate's eyes. "We know."

A slow tear descended along Kate's cheek, and Seven drew her in close and kissed her deeply. Then, as effortlessly as lifting a kitten, she picked her mate up. "Voyager, this is Seven of Nine. Three to beam to my quarters please."

==^==

Had anyone been around to see it, it might have seemed as though nine heavily armed people simply appeared out of the aether, and into being. The environs of landing pad zero one had much to do with the illusion as they were not occupied; there was no shuttle, no greeters, and no audience. Elsewhere, Presba's port was busy, but there was a reason that zero one was laid out the way it was. Sometimes people needed to land with more than a modicum of privacy.

In a few minutes, the emissaries of Voyager, and House Presba entered the concourse of the Port and unobtrusively joined the foot traffic. They walked as if they belonged there and soon stepped out into the daylight. There they flagged down a skimmer. If the driver thought them alien and dangerous, he didn't say anything.

They gave him the address they wanted and that was what caused him to look back. But after glancing more closely at the uniforms, he spotted a recognizable emblem and nodded. House Presba it was.

The tenseness of the passengers translated into the driver, but he was determined to mind his own business, and restrained himself from drawing a sidearm as surety. They arrived outside of the main dwelling of the Estate, and he was paid promptly after they stepped out. Quicker still, he drove off. He knew to the depths of his soul, that he did not want to see what kind of conflict led to people wearing that much hardware on the usually peaceful planet. He did have the fleeting thought that a warning might be in order, but it wasn't his House, and so he stayed out of its business.

==^==

Deanna Troi was at the gate, with Asil and two Klingon guards. She had not dropped mental contact with her mother once it was established, and she had known in ways new to her, the exact distance there was between them. And still, there was something about seeing the physical form of her mother emerge from the distance that was fundamentally reassuring and wonderful.

She ran.

She ran to her mother and was caught up in an embrace that was astonishingly stalwart and tangible. They held to each other, not to immobilize, but firmly in reassurance. Lwaxana kissed her tearstained cheeks, and her own tears blended with her daughter's.

Asil, stepped forward more slowly, but with a similar sense of urgency. She was met by T'Pel, who in a move that would have shocked people on Vulcan, pulled her daughter into an embrace as tight and comforting as that of the Betazoids'.

A few moments and a seeming eternity later, the embraces eased and Deanna and Asil were pulled into hugs by their other mothers who held them with equal ferocity.

"Darling, we have questions and it is apparent that you and I have much to discuss." Deanna nodded mutely in agreement. Lwaxana, who had made the choice to be strong, touched her forehead to Deanna's. "It will be alright." Deanna's breath caught in a brief sob. Her mother stroked her hair gently. "Let's go get Barin. He needs me too. Then we will talk."

Again Deanna nodded. Then she stepped back and unconsciously reached and received Asil's touch. Deanna found her voice. "If you will follow us?"

They entered the home, and just as Deanna had known, Barin too knew to approach the door, he ran, full of abandon and joy, his motion unrestrained by any sense of propriety or dignity. This was his Mother and he cried his need for her unashamedly. Lwaxana caught him up against her, and lifted him easily. Where Deanna had wept, he howled and sobbed deeply and clung, physically expressing that unfathomable longing that had been with him since his mother had literally been ripped from his life.

Comfort came for him from all corners, near and distant, and he felt all of his parents reach out for him, though his tears would not and could not yet stop.

Lwaxana carried her son and let her own tears flow as they walked further into the abode. She saw a beautiful Klingon girl, stretched thin in the gawky phase of youth, who waited with some trepidation. She opened one arm. "Come, granddaughter. Let me hold you."

Auloh stepped forward and received the embrace shyly. Then, she stepped away, only to find herself being embraced again by her other grandparents. It felt odd to think of these youthful women as grandparents, but she had become accustomed to Asil and Deanna, and she would become used to them as well. She found reassurance in the similarities she saw between Asil and T'Pel. Relatives she understood.

Guinan watched the greetings, not necessarily as an outsider, but as a witness. She knew that she would be recognized when it was time. Her eyes shifted in surprise, and she looked past the familiar bodies to one even more familiar and dear to her. "Ro Laren."

"Hello, Guinan." Laren pitched her tone low, for the El-Aurian alone, and she knew she was smiling in a way that she hadn't in a very long time. Then the moment was by them, the noise and demands of duty and protocol sweeping aside the reunion. But there would be time enough and more later. She even knew where to find a box of crayons.

Guinan smiled back, her teeth shiny and bright against the burnished ebony of her skin, pleased to see that Laren was alive and well. Then Lwaxana reached out a hand for her and greeted her personally with a tearful smile. "It is good to see you, Guinan. Thank you for being here."

"It has been my pleasure."

It was Guinan who led them into the study, where she had arranged a small buffet. "I admit I was…expecting more of you."

"We have become a bit more security conscious in recent months," Laren said evenly. It was then that Guinan truly noted the presence of five fierce looking guardians. She smiled.

"I see. So have we." Then she asked, "Should I call Phoebe and Vrald?"

"Vrald?"

"Phoebe's mate. He's a large, burly Klingon with a knack for building things."

B'Elanna chuckled, remembering the name now. "Ah, the architect that Phoebe was going on about."

"Yes. It is a good match," Asil responded. There was a wealth of meaning underlying the tone of her answer and they knew that they were in for interesting stories.

"Let's sit down. Then you can tell us what you need us to know."

==^==

Of course, not everything could be covered with the two younger children present, but the upshot of it was that the immediate crisis was over. Other fires would need to be stamped out in due course, and there were troubling hints that had been garnered from the captured prisoners that led Asil to believe that all was not resolved with Section 31. Still, as the danger was not at a fever pitch, and they did not at the moment need to go straight into battle, it was decided to contact Voyager and share what they knew.

Captain Janeway was glad for the news. "Who is the Federation contact?"

"Dr. Beverly Crusher. She is on board the Titan. She and Sirella have been…negotiating." B'Elanna relayed the information, acting as Epatai, but decided to let Asil handle the rest of the communications.

"Ah. The joys of diplomacy." Kathryn nodded. "Who are we advised to contact first?"

Asil registered the command from B'Elanna to answer, and supplied the information without any hesitation, "The Lady Sirella of House Martok is here. She will want to know that the Epatai has returned to her estate."

==^==

It had been a busy day for Dr. Zimmerman; between the normal every day health issues and the space sickness induced by the transition between the Universes, there had been a steady flow of traffic. Still he had some routines he liked to keep, such as the after lunch meeting where he touched base with Dr. Pulaski.

With PADD in hand he walked into the office, which he knew had been occupied only moments ago. He stared around the room for a minute and wondered how it was possible that he had missed Kate. He knew he had not been that pre-occupied.

He walked further into the office and realized that it was possible that Dr. Pulaski was going to miss their meeting. With a small, "humph," he pondered what to do, then decided to simply leave the PADD on her desk.

Zimmerman was walking out the door of the office when he realized that he had spotted something unusual on the desk. "Is that a knife?"

==^==

"Do you have a moment, my son?" Kate and Ezri had been soothed into sleeping, and Seven of Nine availed herself of a quiet moment with her son.

"Yes, Mother."

"Walk with me?"

Icheb had already been in The Park when Seven located him. He had been sitting on the ground, staring out across the lake, looking at nothing in particular. She reached down and he grasped her hand, accepting her companionable assistance.

They walked, at first silently, together. Seven had come to appreciate the restorative qualities of such moments. Eventually, however, she spoke. "Icheb, I am aware that you have been spending personal time with Celes Tal."

"I find her intriguing. She has much to offer."

"I wish you to know, my son, that your happiness is important to me."

He glanced at his mother. "And yours is to me."

Seven nodded and opted to be more direct. "You have my blessing, both as your mother and as Mistress of the House, if she is of your choosing."

He expelled a breath, and nodded, unaware that he had unconsciously leaned inward. "Thank you, Mother."

She wrapped her arm around him, understanding now the importance of such things, and hugged him as they continued to walk.

==^==

The Operations Officer on board the Orantho blinked and looked twice to be sure of his readings. One did not summon the Captain to look at a sensor ghost. Sure of his data, he finally found the words to describe the situation. "Captain. A ship has decloaked on the surface of Presba."

"Decloaked?"

"It…looks like a Federation scout ship, but it does not match the parameters in the database. It's too big for its class."

"And its class?"

"Intrepid, Captain."

The Captain turned toward an unoccupied officer. "Go get Lady Sirella."

==^==

"Hail them." Janeway ordered, but didn't turn to see if she was being obeyed; she didn't need to.

"This is the Orantho. Who speaks?" The Klingon male glared menacingly through the video feed.

The youthful auburn-haired woman spoke. Her hands were propped on her hips and her expression was determined. "I am Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Starship Voyager, Warlord of the House Presba."

"Warlord!"

She leaned forward a little, narrowing her gaze dangerously and growled. "Do you have a problem with that?"

He really should have waited for Sirella to arrive before answering the hail, he thought to himself. "There aren't any Warlords any more."

"My Epatai, the Warlord Torres, will be most interested to hear you say that."

The situation was, the Captain of the Orantho decided, rapidly getting out of hand. He decided to change the direction of the conversation. "What do you want?"

"We wish to speak with the Lady Sirella of the House Martok regarding House matters. My Epatai has authorized me to establish first contact. We also seek Lady Sirella's permission for access to the prisoners in the brig aboard the Titan. We promise not to kill them immediately." She added the last line to reassure her First Officer, and not because she though the Klingons would necessarily need such guarantees.

The Captain blinked and then felt a tap at his shoulder.

"Move."

He most gladly did so.

The tall Lady of the Klingon Empire regarded the fierce looking Starfleet Captain evenly. There were so many things she wanted to say to this woman. But the pleasantries would apparently have to wait. "What do you want with the prisoners?

Captain Janeway's voice sounded agreeable, but there was something in it that set the hairs on the Klingons' necks straight up. "Lady Sirella, we merely wish to find out their thoughts on matters regarding House Presba."

Sirella spoke slowly, carefully. She was suddenly sure that she did not want to make any abrupt, unexpected moves in the presence of this woman, either at a distance or in close quarters. "I will… consider it."

Again, Captain Janeway was cordial and pleasant, her tones almost soothing in nature. "Thank you. I recognize that you probably have many questions. We would like to provide the opportunity to you to visit with us so those questions may be answered. We bring tidings from locations quite distant, yet affecting the Empire. We wish also a more formal opportunity to make a request of you as the Mistress of House Martok, which may affect the relationship of your House and Ours. If you are willing to listen to our invitation, it would be an appropriate time to invite the Mistress of House Presba to speak."

"Have you contacted your Federation?"

"Lady Sirella, you are our first contact."

==^==

They agreed to hold the remainder of their conversation in a more private location. The Mistress of House Martok moved from the bridge of the Orantho to her personal conference room. Captain Janeway made a similar choice. Then she introduced her mate. "Lady Sirella, this is Lady Seven of Nine, Mistress of the House Presba."

Sirella watched as the mates unconsciously touched their fingertips together in greeting. The two of them seemed to embrace with their eyes alone, and then the tall blonde woman turned back her way, while Captain Janeway stepped out of view.

"Greetings, Lady Sirella, Mistress of the House Martok. I wish to speak to you Mistress to Mistress."

"Go on."

Seven nodded her thanks, "It is our understanding that you are interested in solidifying the bonds of alliance through matrimony. The Prime wish to express our equal interest in such an arrangement. We have a preferred candidate."

Sirella's brows rose in astonishment. "Aren't your children a bit young to begin matching?"

"Icheb is of a marriageable age, but, as with our other children, he will make his own choices in his own time. We are not speaking of matching our children. It would be a match with the Prime."

Sirella sat back, considering the matter and running through a short mental list of acceptable candidates. Worf might do. "House Martok…"

"…has already declared us an ally and thus a possible worthy choice."

Sirella tried to put her own spin on the conversation, and thus to regain control. "I want to know how your Epatai and Captain can claim to be Warlords."

"We destroyed the Pharaoh Cartel in the Beta Universe."

Sirella blinked. Then she leaned forward. She knew the opening to a good story when she heard one. "Tell me more."

"I can do better. I can show you."

==^==

Icheb found that there was a vast difference between asking someone to join him in his home for dinner, and asking that same important someone to be guest at a formal occasion. He recognized the symptoms he was experiencing as butterflies, but recognition did not equal cure.

He stood outside of Tal's quarters and struggled to summon up the courage, which until that very moment had definitely been with him, to ring for admittance.

Icheb was reaching for the chime when the door opened and Tal abruptly stepped out and up against him. Fortunately for them, he was a very physically coordinated man. His arms wrapped around her and he allowed the momentum of Tal's abrupt entrance into his personal space to wash around them.

It felt, other than the shock of it, amazingly good to hold her in his arms. It felt right and instinct led him to draw in the scent of her. He felt a rush of sensation wash over him and he was reluctant to let go, but communication did require a modest amount of distance. Icheb gently released her, with the courtesy comment of, "Are you functioning adequately, Tal?"

Tal could feel that her faced was flushed, and knew that a rosy color likely stained her cheeks. Off balance, it took her a moment to reply. "I…I am." Tal was very conscious of Icheb at that moment and shocked by the primal urge she had to grab him and drag him into her room. She reminded herself that he was not only the Captain's son, but Seven of Nine's as well. Then she managed a meager smile.

He gazed at her with concern, but accepted her word. "I have something I would like to ask you, if you are willing to hear it?"

She nodded, shyly, expecting another invitation to dinner or perhaps to the holodeck.

"My parents are about to finalize their relationship with Ezri Dax. Once their offer is accepted, there will be a formal dinner for Lady Sirella of the House Martok. It would honor me greatly, once the time is set, if you would consent to accompany me."

Tal's eyes widened and her mind seemed to stop, then start again. She considered in a heartbeat a million implications and her thoughts kept tripping at one point. Captain's son. This meant, ultimately, she could not have him. And she shouldn't start what she couldn't finish. Because going to that dinner with him would be a declaration of intent.

But oh, she wanted him.

Tal stepped back from the young man, forcing herself to remain calm. Her expression cooled, because if it didn't, she'd burst into tears right that moment. "I'm sorry, Icheb. I can't see you any more." That was all she managed, even though it tore her heart out to say it.

Then she turned around and fled back into her quarters.

Icheb stared at the closed doors and wondered what had just happened.

==^==

"This stuff must weigh a metric ton." B'Elanna rotated her shoulders, trying to get the heavy padded leather robe to settle properly. The wide flared shoulders made her feel ungainly. Between the stiff pants, the robe and the layers of material, she ventured that sitting was not in her near future; not if she planned on getting back up.

Seven, on the other hand, looked as splendidly coifed and comfortable as in any other of her preferred outfits. The Borg's sole concession to Klingon garb was the long handled axe worn across her back in a supple black leather harness that complemented the red dress perfectly.

"You look beautiful, Be'nal."

The blonde looked pleased with the comment, and dipped her head slightly, before raising her eyes to let the rising heat show. "My blood sings for you."

B'Elanna growled and determinedly pulled Seven against her.

"I knew we shouldn't have left you two alone." Kathryn stepped into Seven's room, her own set of Warlord's leathers molded to her body.

Seven nipped at the Klingon's full lips before pulling back, and allowing Kathryn to greet B'Elanna, then herself.

"Epatai?" Kathryn asked, a long, breath-stealing moment later.

"Let's do it."

They filed out of the room and onto the lift that would take them downstairs to where the rest of the Prime of House Presba waited, their own uniforms and outfits gleaming with attention.

"Voyager, fifteen to transport to the Estate. Engage."

==^==

Ezri felt vaguely ill, and decided the best way to survive this would be to focus her attention on Emina, who was comfortably nestled in her arms. She had been placed in the center of the family, who, in turn, were in the center of an honour guard that had been awaiting their arrival, but it did nothing to alleviate her disquiet or fear.

This was Sirella after all.

They must have been shown to Sirella's receiving room within the resort suite, because they were suddenly in a large space whose sides were lined with Klingon warriors. Ezri decided she was glad that she was short. There was nothing in particular she wanted to see, and every reason not to be seen.

"Lady Sirella, may I formally present the Prime of House Presba, and our children." Seven shifted slightly to allow a view of those behind her. Names were not given, in this they were not individuals. They were the House.

Sirella made a show of looking each one up and down, subjecting all but Barin, and Emina, to an intense once over. Barin she favoured with a tiny smile, while Emina she merely flicked her eyes past. To look at Emina would be to acknowledge the Trill holding her. Composing her expression to one of bored disdain, she looked at the Epatai, instead of the Mistress of the House. "What do you want?"

B'Elanna blinked, and then steadied. She had been warned. This would be a purely Klingon exchange. Pleasantries were for weaklings, indirectness for cowards and House Presba was neither. "Her." She jabbed a thumb roughly in Dax's direction.

"Ezri Dax of the House Martok, attend me." Sirella stood and pointed imperiously at a spot to the rear of the dais. Her gaze remained fixed on Torres. "Epatai, you insult me."

Kathryn rolled her eyes, and signed. "Oh, this is going well."

Ezri looked at T'Pel and Lwaxana who were flanking her, and wished there was a way to communicate to B'Elanna that they had to terminate the discussion now. Lwaxana already had Barin in her arms, so Ezri did the next best thing. She passed the toddler to T'Pel, making sure to come into solid contact with the Vulcan, firmly trying to push the thought that they had to leave.

T'Pel merely nodded, then settled Emina against her. To those in the room, it appeared as though the group were obeying a silent set of drill commands, as the Prime whirled in unison and marched out of the room.

Ezri, whose move to obey Sirella had taken her from the safety of their circle, wasn't sure whether to stay or follow, but schooled her countenance to neutrality.

"And to think, I called Jadzia a Risan slut."

"You forget something, Sirella." Ezri turned to fully face the Klingon. "I'm not Jadzia Dax. And to me that just means you weren't lucky enough to meet a Risan slut." Then she left.

==^==

"What now?" Outside, B'Elanna stared at the approaching Trill, who had turned a remarkable shade of crimson, her spots even more vibrantly coloured than the flushed skin. The Klingon was positive she'd never seen Ezri Dax so angry, and it wasn't for lack of effort.

"Now we send in a neutral party. Who have you got that's not of the House?" They had begun to move away from the exterior of the resort to a less busy green space. Ezri was grateful when Seven wrapped an arm around her waist as they walked.

"B'Etor or Lursa?" Kathryn supplied.

Lwaxana shook her head. "Darling, given the history of the Duras sisters here, perhaps we should look elsewhere."
Kate thought for a second and then said,
"What about Worf?"

Ezri shot Kate a dirty look. "Oh, right, because that's not going to get complicated."

"Guinan."

They all turned to look at Laren, who was unaffectedly braiding a handful of long grass into a bracelet that she handed to Mezoti.

"Just so." Lwaxana nodded, and tapped her comm badge. "Voyager, darling, could you please transport us to the main house."

==^==

"Sirella."

"Guinan!" Sirella stood up from her desk and went to greet the El-Aurian. She kissed the soft cheek in genuine pleasure. "What can I do for you? Is everything well with Deanna?" She had grown found of the Betazoid, and not for the first-time recently, wished that Worf had not just courted, but won the woman. Deanna Troi would have been a worthy addition to the House.

"Deanna is fine. Her family has come."

"Ah, yes. The Infamous Prime."

Guinan settled herself into a chair, and tried to puzzle out Sirella's tone. "I'm curious, Sirella."

Sirella waved her servant from the room; leaning forward to pour drinks for them both. "What about?"

"I was under the impression that you favored a mating between the House Martok and the House Presba."

The Klingon sat up. "bIHnuch-maj! They sent you to grovel for them?"

"Your insults are slipping. The ones who are cowards seems beneath you. And do I look like I am groveling?" Guinan placidly sipped her drink. "Do you truly believe them unworthy?"

Sirella sighed. "No. They are worthy."

"But?"

A shadow crossed Sirella's eyes. "It won't be a true bonding."

"Are you sure of that?" Guinan had seen the changes in Vrald, and even more astonishingly, the ones in Pulaski. "And, does it really matter? It is not unusual for an Epatai, or even a minor noble to have more than one legal spouse."

Sirella stood. "One does not make a member of the Chancellor's Household a lesser wife. It is an insult."

Guinan laughed, understanding the game. "And what is the price of an apology?"

A glint of triumph was revealed in the tiny ripple that passed over the ridged forehead. "The Honour of my House is not a thing for sale."

"But perhaps a member of it might be?"

"It is possible." Sirella smiled. "But it would need to be a very large price."

Guinan nodded, and slid a PADD from her gown. She turned it on, and then passed it over.

Sirella read the contents and then looked up at Guinan, not quite able to hide her astonishment, but pressing on with the charade for form's sake. "Perhaps, I have been undervaluing Ezri Dax. Qu'avan is seeking a mate for a younger son of the House." She pretended to weigh the advantages.

"Sirella."

"Very well. But the Epatai and her mates will have to complete the Kal'Hyah."

"Excellent." Guinan rose. "There will be a formal dinner held in your honour in two days to celebrate the contract."

"I will be there." Sirella escorted Guinan to the exit. "And Guinan, not a word about this." It would not do for the Prime to learn that she was not as opposed as it had seemed.

Guinan dipped her head. "As you wish, Lady Sirella."

==^==

"That's it?" Ezri demanded suspiciously. "You spend four days without food, and that's it?"

"You sound disappointed. Weren't secretly hoping for her to say no, were you?" B'Elanna looked up from where she was lounging and idly engaged in tracing the leather straps of the currently unoccupied weapon harness threaded around Seven's torso. The long handled axe had been carefully set to one side.

"Not hardly. But that was too easy." Ezri knew there had to be a catch.

Laren sardonically interjected. "Unless you count the fact we just doubled the cash reserves of the House Martok."

Ezri paled, even her spots lost colour, and she looked at T'Pel, who met her gaze with a faintly humorous gleam. "You must have had one hell of a year." Ezri paused, her sense of the absurd righting itself again, "And I know a certain Ferengi who would love to make your acquaintance."

Lwaxana laughed, and fitted her body more closely to the Vulcan's. "Well, she did start with her own family fortune, as well as mine. And what are a few credits spread among family?"

"It is not logical to haggle when it has already been determined that the asking price is irrelevant." T'Pel commented.

"What our devious Vulcan really means is that by handing over only a fraction of our reserves and doubling theirs, she efficiently ruined Sirella's fun." Laren saluted her mate with a glass of wine.

Kathryn took a drink of Kate's brandy, then changed the subject slightly. "I'm less worried about the four days without food than I am the trials: deprivation, blood, pain, sacrifice, anguish, and death don't have a particularly cheery ring to them."

A soft snort came from Kate, who had reclaimed her tumbler. "I'd be worried about leaving the God of Chaos over there unsupervised."

Ezri shot her a sharp look, but the grin twigging at her lips ruined the effect. "Ooh, I've been deified. That's even better than a promotion."

Seven regarded them tolerantly. Personally, she was looking forward to seeing what new chaos Ezri Dax would find to occupy her time.

==^==

"Hey." Ezri decided it was past time to personally evaluate the progress of the Sochling's special project, and had expected to find Icheb working on some of the finishing touches he'd inveigled out of Voyager's replicators and matter converters, while at the same time, trying to fend off Tom Paris' suggestions for improving things.

Instead he was sitting against the wall, toolbox unopened, staring into space.

"Ezri Dax, how may I be of assistance?"

"I could ask you the same thing, Icheb Hansen."

"It is irrelevant."

"If it's putting that tone in your voice, I'd beg to differ."

"I asked Celes Tal to accompany me to the betrothal dinner. She did not accept."

Ezri waited for him to speak again if he wished. It was not a situation she could fix, so she refrained from offering advice or asking further questions. Not that she wasn't very curious as to why Tal had declined the invitation, especially since she had seen the Bajoran watching Icheb in the Park when she didn't think anyone would notice.

Together they sat and let the shift wind down around them.

==^==

B'Elanna Torres, Epatai of House Presba, and a Warlord of the Klingon Empire, looked down the length of the wooden table in the dining hall of the main estate house in astonished wonder. Everyone in attendance was a member of her House. Moreover, the vast majority were family, some of whom she'd only just met in person for the first time. She glanced over at Seven of Nine, amused to see that the former Borg drone had adapted instantly to acquiring a new son and a granddaughter. Barin, though sitting on Lwaxana's lap, was engaged in a lively finger-speak conversation with Seven, who was responding with equal vim. Auloh, though less loquacious, was providing gentle corrections to some of Barin's more exaggerated assertions.

Further along the table, she watched Tuvok fondly. The elder Vulcan male and the youngest of his sons with T'Pel, were also engaged in discourse, though not nearly as animated a one as some of the other conversations around the table. Despite that apparent reserve, B'Elanna felt the bond between them, and was able to follow enough of their discussion to fully grasp the immense love and respect underpinning every exchange. She felt a brief pang at the realization that Tuvok had, before the bonding, and more than any of them, been cut off from relationships that were essential to his well-being. The pain was quickly assuaged when Tuvok looked up and met her eyes, his understanding and acceptance clearly conveyed along their connection.

Laren and Guinan were laughing about something, and it warmed B'Elanna deeply: the Bajoran was not one to laugh often, though that had changed recently.

Across the table, and three seats down, Kathryn was still shooting astonished looks at her younger sister, Phoebe, every so often. B'Elanna hummed softly to herself, finding amusement in trying to decide whether Kathryn was the most nonplussed about the pregnancy or about the sheer size of Vrald, and everything that implied about the younger Janeway.

Kate, B'Elanna was sure, was up to something. She had that speculative gleam in her eye that B'Elanna had come to learn meant fun would ensue, usually of the carnal variety.

It put her to mind of their resident Master of Chaos, and she looked further along the table trying to spot what Ezri was doing, but the chair between Azan and Rebi was empty, which was odd. But given it was Ezri, not unexpected. Before she could ask Seven if she knew where the Trill had gone, Emina made a determined dash for one of the meat platters and B'Elanna intervened, rather than risk the entire assembly: toddler and food, tumbling painfully to the floor. Smiling, she let the now distracted Emina feed her bits of the roast, and basked in the revelry of her House.

==^==

Unable to follow the majority of the conversations going on around her, and overwhelmed by the actuality that Sirella had agreed to the match far more easily than Ezri had expected, she made her way out of the crowded hall. Things had become, in a lot of ways, anti-climatic: no thunder, no fury, no need to have held herself back. She had spent so much of the last few weeks trying not to fall in love with the rest of the Prime that she felt a bit disconnected, and she was finding it hard to let go of her reserve now that Sirella had given her consent. And, at odd times, like tonight, it was hard to forget that she was still on the outside. Later, she'd seek them out, but for now, she needed a moment of quiet.

Ezri sighed, and climbed one of the long ladders that rested against the shelves in the library. Something about this room had beckoned to her, and she followed her impulse to explore it further. High up on one of the shelves, she'd spotted a metal and wood device that intrigued her greatly, and she wanted a closer look. With immense care she lifted the object and cradled it into her body as she climbed back down to where she could examine it safely.

Back on the ground, Ezri held it up to the light, and gently blew away part of the thin film of dust that coated it. It was breathtaking.

She had never seen an armillary sphere quite like it, nor had any of Dax's previous Hosts. The graduated metal circles that linked poles appeared to represent the equator, the ecliptic, the meridians and the parallels of Presba, with the planet in the center. Judging by the markings, it was intended to demonstrate the motion of the stars in the Presban system, relative to Presba itself. She spared a fleeting thought to wonder what Worf had done with Jadzia's antiques after her death, and then went back to examining the sphere in rapt fascination.

So rapt that she didn't realize she was no longer alone in the room.

"Hello."

Startled, Ezri abruptly pulled her hands back from where she was gently nudging the rings into the proper alignment to reflect the current orientation of the planet, so that she wouldn't damage it. When Ezri turned around, she was face to face with a breath-taking, petite brunette, who was, in her own turn regarding the Trill intently. Ezri knew who this was: Deanna Troi, one time paramour and fiancée of Worf son of Mogh. "Hello."

Ezri detected a faint edge of amusement in the dark eyes, and let a small grin form on her lips as she waited for the other woman to break the impasse.

"You must be Ezri Dax." Deanna paused, then gave her a once over. "I thought you'd be taller."

"Jadzia hoped you'd be less attractive."

Delighted, Deanna laughed for the first time in eight days, letting it ring into the room.

Ezri smiled back.

==^==

The brig of the Titan seemed to have grown smaller. Outside of the force shields that held the prisoners within the cells, a security team had arrived with three individuals following. The security team was composed of Klingons, but they were followed by two Vulcans and a Betazoid. They were dressed uniquely. The male Vulcan was dressed in a manner that was reminiscent of, but not quite like Klingon armor. The female Vulcan and the Betazoid were dressed in long black robes, each with a distinctive pendant. They were followed by Commander Worf.

The Klingon in charge nodded to the Vulcan male, who addressed the prisoners.

"I am Commander Tuvok of the House Presba. I have been authorized to supervise and participate in the interview that will follow. I now introduce you to Ambassadors T'Pel and Lwaxana Troi of the House Presba, Truth Seekers."

The prisoners looked confused and defiant. The Vulcan continued evenly. "I encourage you at this time to cooperate. You should know that we have been authorized by the Starfleet Admiralty to use any means necessary to bring this matter to an end."

The prisoners cast glances at each other.

Lwaxana and T'Pel touched fingertips to fingertips.

"Now," continued Tuvok, with his customary unflappable Vulcan demeanor, "Our first question is, "What is your interest in Presba?"

==^==

It would have been easy. Lwaxana, despite her pleasant and usually kind mien, had learned some serious truths about herself, and what she was capable of, in Universe Beta. She could easily have lost herself in the darkness and reveled in the power of it. T'Pel and Tuvok were her tether to the Truth of who she was and wanted to be.

Lwaxana also knew subtlety. There was an art to it: ask the question that leads to the flicker of the thought and catch it. This portion of the process was where skills of the glorious and beautiful T'Pel became necessary. She had the ability to aggregate, to take the tiny details that Lwaxana pulled from surface and under-thoughts and make them meaningful.

It was painless, therefore, to the prisoners. Tuvok adroitly asked the questions and noted the answers in his PADD, whether or not they were nonsensical. The prisoners could deny all they wanted, refuse to answer verbally; even believe that their nattering rhymes kept Lwaxana and T'Pel out. They still gave the Prime what they needed.

An hour later and the prisoners were each settled on their bunks appearing somewhat lost and uncomprehending. They knew that something had happened, but what it was, they could not quite recall. However, they were equally convinced that they had held to their will and kept their secrets. Section 31 was safe.

==^==

To Ezri, the dinner was proceeding with interminable slowness, and was, by far, too formal an occasion for real comfort. At the head table, the Lady Sirella, Mistress of the House Martok, reigned over the proceedings, taking especial care to make both her desires and displeasure known in equal measure.

Right now the object of her displeasure seemed to be the very person whose betrothal was the purpose of the dinner, and Sirella was making a number of edged comments about the company the Trill was currently keeping.

Ezri, who had been enjoying a muted conversation with Megan Delaney, coloured at a particularly vicious insult, and moved her arm from the back of Megan's chair to the table. She took a deep breath and was about to swallow her anger for what felt like the millionth time that day, when she saw the embarrassed flush on Megan's face. Fuck it. Megan and Jennifer were good friends, and she was damned if Sirella was going to get away with insulting either of them. In fact, she'd had enough of the sniping and petty insults. Period.

"You know something, Icheb." Ezri stood up abruptly, her chair shot out behind her and crashed against the wall with an audible thud. "Sometimes, you have to make your own happy endings."

From his place two chairs down the table, Icheb merely nodded, not sure what was about to happen, but allowing that it would be interesting.

She didn't go around the table, she went over it, planting one hand on the edge and vaulting over its width with one and a half twist dismount. Feet firmly planted, and every eye turned to her, Ezri smiled. "There's been a slight change in the agenda for this evening. If you'll excuse me a moment." She tapped her comm badge and made a polite request, in Trill, for Voyager to assist her. Seconds later, she dematerialized.

"God damn it, Dax." B'Elanna began to stand, but Seven gripped her forearm.

"Do not. This is now between them." Seven spoke in Presban.

B'Elanna looked at Kathryn, who shrugged in a 'I have no idea either' kind of a way, and settled back in her chair to wait.

As the minutes ticked by, B'Elanna become worried, and just as she was about to ask Lwaxana to find out what was going on Ezri sparkled back into view.

The Trill was not alone, nor was she empty handed. An obviously frightened and nervous, Ensign Celes was with her.

Seven, who along with Lwaxana, was alone in appreciating the significance of the Bajoran's arrival rose to her feet. "Celes Tal, we are honoured you could attend. Icheb, would you please seat our guest."

Icheb rose, eyes fixed on the young woman, and with precise, dignified strides he moved to where she waited.

Ezri nodded at Seven, then grinned at Icheb before whispering to him, "and sometimes, happy endings need a little help."

"ngaDHa." Sirella spat the epithet into the wary silence.

"You know what Sirella? I am so not doing this again." Ezri laughed and walked over to where Seven sat at the head of the table, and leaned in for a long, fortifying kiss. "I think, my Valkyrie, I may have found yet another affectionate designation."

Seven whispered back. "That is only because there is no word for chaos in Klingon."

Ezri laughed, then happened to glance at Tuvok, who was watching events with what she had come to recognize as his tolerantly amused eyebrow; it was slightly more raised than his indignant brow, but less arched than his look of disbelief. She figured it would be all the way up shortly. She hoped. She was less enamored of his angry brows.

Stalking back to the center of the room, she heard Kate ask, "ngaDHa?"

"It is a pejorative reference," replied Seven, "to an undisciplined child."

Ezri laughed again when Kate snorted. Straightening her shoulders, she hefted the bag she'd brought back from Voyager and walked straight to the head of the table, enjoying the sight of B'Elanna's eyes widening.

"I believe," said Ezri, "that you left these by my office. I thought you might want them back." She pulled out a plate and whipped it at B'Elanna, who scrambled unceremoniously out of the way.

Another plate was pulled out of the bag, and this time the Klingon wasn't able to dodge it without risking it hitting another guest, so it shattered impressively against the polished metal studs of her formal jacket. "God damn it, Dax! What the hell do you think you're doing?"

T'Pel, who had the seat next to Kathryn, prudently shifted her chair as she spoke, correctly guessing where the next plate was headed. "I believe that is obvious."

"Indeed." Affirmed Tuvok.

Kate gave them both a look of fond exasperation. "Care to enlighten the rest of us."

"Ezri Dax is proposing in the traditional Klingon manner."

A plate shattered against the wall behind Kathryn's head.

"By throwing dishes?" No one answered her, but then she supposed, it really was obvious at this point.

"bIHnuch!" Another plate was thrown, this time at Laren.

"Ezri!" B'Elanna started to move forward. She had to stop this before she lost her hold on her temper. It helped immensely that she could feel Seven's amusement along their bond. The bag produced another piece of crockery. A jug, this time. B'Elanna was confused; the bag she had left behind hadn't had a jug in it. She looked at it a second too long, and it made unerring contact with her forehead, before shattering on the floor. "Dor-sho-gha!" She roared the epithet.

Kate, highly amused, and figuring that being seated next to Azan made her somewhat immune to an attack, laughed. She was forced to hastily duck away as a heavy bowl flew at her, accompanied by another invective. "Qa'Hom"

Lwaxana signed to a chagrined Kate. "I'm not sure that was an insult."

"What did she call me?"

"Little animal, I believe." Even as she spoke, Lwaxana kept an eye on the Trill. She was enjoying the game, and could feel the building anger in B'Elanna, Kathryn and Laren, but had no wish to be on the receiving end of any of the flying crockery. To T'Pel she telepathically whispered a laughing question, 〈〈B'Elanna or Laren?〉〉

T'Pel caught the plate aimed at her, and fired it back, rather gently considering, and was rewarded with a grin and another plate thrown in her direction. "va, tujqu'," she commented appreciatively. To Lwaxana, she replied, 〈〈Laren will likely lose her temper first, but B'Elanna is the true target. Perhaps it would be prudent to put Voyager on standby, and request that Samantha be available.〉〉

Another volley of plates bore out the Vulcan's prediction, and Lwaxana was surprised to see that it was Tuvok's grip that kept Laren seated, even as B'Elanna finally managed to make it to the center of the dining hall. She suspected that Voyager already knew what was happening, and probably had from the beginning. That bag simply wasn't big enough to accommodate the variety and quantity of crockery being thrown.

Ezri launched a large platter at the advancing Klingon and barred her teeth. The last plate she'd thrown at Laren had splintered magnificently and the flying shards had drawn blood. She could see B'Elanna reacting to its call, and knew it would not be long now. The platter hit the Epatai squarely, shattering and sending more small fragments to score the exposed flesh. Droplets of blood welled in the wounds, and B'Elanna's nostrils flared.

Seven stood, and motioned to the children, even as she signaled her mates. She knew that look. The Trill was about to claim her victory.

"veQDuj'oH Dujllj'e'." Ezri dropped the bag before she'd even finished speaking.

Seven of Nine felt her lips twitch, but prevented her admiration of Ezri's daring insult to the engineer's beloved engines from spreading along the bond. Ezri Dax would not be pleased if B'Elanna suddenly became rational.

A couple of things happened at once.

B'Elanna roared an unintelligible response and hurled herself at the Trill, who stood her ground, letting the Klingon knock them to the ground. And Sirella began to laugh.

The first one was in plan. The second one was not.

Ezri looked over B'Elanna's shoulder; her hands wrapped in the heavy leather garment, holding her would-be mate in place. She'd be damned if she were starting this little ritual from scratch.

Sirella had risen in her chair. "You curse well, Dax." She turned to face Seven. "Lady Seven, are you sure you want this one? I have others."

Seven smiled. "This one is unique. Her biological distinctiveness will add much to our own."

"Very well." Sirella lifted her mug of bloodwine. "Qapla' Balth je' House Presba." She slammed it back down, and then noted that neither woman on the floor had moved. "For Kahless sake, just bite her already."

B'Elanna looked into the violet eyes that so clearly showed Ezri's need. The Trill tilted her head, and B'Elanna was forced to inhale as shallowly as possible, the bared neck and scent of arousal were almost too much. Almost. It wasn't just desire that shone from Ezri's eyes.

She saw that there was a deep hurt there too. B'Elanna looked up and her eyes met Seven's, who automatically moved toward them in answer to the silent summons. Along the link she felt the echoes of agreement.

There were tears now from the Trill, and B'Elanna brushed them gently away with her thumbs.

Seven stood at B'Elanna's side, with one hand resting on the Klingon's shoulder, and she did not remove it, even as B'Elanna stood, lifting Ezri with her.

B'Elanna whispered in Ezri's ear. "The right way or not all. Isn't that what you tried to teach me?"

Kathryn had moved closer, her back to Sirella. Her words were for the Trill alone, though others heard them. "You have been our voice of restraint, of reason, holding us to the course of Honour. Tonight let us be yours."

"You deserve a happy ending worthy of the greatest sagas. We will complete the Kal'Hyah, and then we will come to you." Seven turned to Lady Sirella. "We will begin the Kal'Hyah tomorrow."

For the first time Ezri looked at the Mistress of the House Martok and saw respect in the dark eyes and in the stance of the lithe body. Respect that she'd engendered - not just by her actions tonight, but also by those of her mates to be. Actions spurred by their love for her, and hers for them. She could wait four days. For them, she'd wait forever.





Chapter 12 | Universe Alpha, Beta Quadrant | Bookmarks




The Orion Syndicate ship had been hiding, unnoticed, in an asteroid field outside of Presban space. The crew of the ship had been there a week, trying to determine the best time for vengeance. They weren't exactly comfortable with all the Klingon ships around. So they were trying to wait them out. They listened in on communications traffic, watched the local feeds, and played a lot of card games.

"Captain, we have something new."

"What?"

"A vessel has appeared at Presba."

"How is that news? Merchants have been coming and going since…"

"It's called Voyager."

Glances were passed. "You don't think it's the same ship that the Capels and Doamnă Red want, do you?"

"It's on Presba." Voyager was a Presban vessel.

"Can't be the same ship. I heard it was destroyed."

"Different universe."

"Right, so how do we know this is the one? How many universes have we seen? Five, six? Not likely to be the same ship."

"No, but it's a ship. The And the reward could be substantial if it's the right one."

"And it is on Presba." The conversation came back to the fact that they had planned to attack the planet regardless.

"I've got a bone to pick with them. They killed my brother."

"I thought your brother was killed in the fire fight on Terok Nor during the trial."

"It was their meddling that led to the trial in the first place."

"Ah."

"Okay, we know where it is. We know we want it. Let's figure out how to get it. Chazer, contact…" The speaker snapped his fingers as if trying to draw a name out from thin air. Then he had it. "…Lakiam of the Altheldu Cartel in this universe. If we can get them in, then Pharaoh here will want in too, if only to avenge their losses to the Presbans."

"I feel wealth and fame coming in my direction."

"Don't count your kaza before they've molted. Let's see who we can get in on this and then start planning."

==^==

Another vessel lingered on the other side of Presban space and it too was hiding, though for very different reasons. An equally intense debate was taking place aboard the Oberth class ship

Its commander shook his head. "We're going to have to call the Titan and her crew a loss, but these agents are valuable. We're already running thin." He paused, then clarified his position, knowing he didn't need to be explicit. The price of capture was understood by them all. "And if we can't retrieve them..."

"Damn Corvalis."

"You can't blame her for what the Klingons do." He turned to his intelligence officer. "Bring up the Titan's MSD." The requested design schematics appeared on the display in the conference room. "Okay, here's the ship's layout. If we…"

His orders were interrupted by a message from the bridge. "Commander, we just received a transmission. There's a new vessel on Presba."

"So? Merchant ships have been coming and going…"

"No sir. That's not it. They say it's Voyager."

"Voyager, here? That ship was still in the Delta quadrant a month ago."

"Transponder signal is a match, Sir. I'm still working on visual confirmation."

"Good, stay on it." As far as the majority of his crew was concerned, they were here to support the Titan, and there was nothing out of the ordinary in his request.

"Aye, sir."

"They came here first?" He was talking to himself, mulling over the implications and extrapolating from the intelligence he had received from his sources at Starfleet command. It wasn't a rumour then, Janeway had married into a Klingon house, but did that mean the other information was correct? Was it true that Voyager now had some sort of advanced AI? If it did have a sophisticated new artificial intelligence, they needed that ship.

"I'd say its obvious where their loyalties lie."

He nodded. "Let's take care of these four first. We'll contact base and see what they want us to do about Voyager after our we deal with this."

"Aye, Sir."





Chapter 13 | Universe Beta, Beta Quadrant: Bajoran Sector | Bookmarks




Kira Nerys rose up from the throes of another bout of ecstasy and wondered how she had lived before Jadzia. She grinned down at the other woman who, without hesitation and total abandon, had taken up the call to love the Bajoran and ran with it.

Sweat beaded their bodies and they breathed heavily, recovering. Jadzia somehow found the strength to crawl up Nerys body and begin kissing her again. "I can't seem to get enough of you," the Trill whispered into the kiss.

Nerys pressed ardently against Jadzia, kissed her back passionately. "I know what you mean. But we have to…"

The words were swallowed in the heat of another kiss that curled her toes.

Nerys didn't know where this passion was coming from, but oh, she did adore it.

==^==

An ovoid ship sped across the distance, as the Sandhen hastened on its way toward what Deanna Troi felt was an essential part of her destiny. She did not know quite what was happening, but knew it must have something to do with the changes wrought in her body. Her tongue brushed against a sharp tooth lazily as she considered the timing of things.

What she did know was that she felt driven to seek out Nerys and Jadzia and that she was, at the moment, very grateful that they seemed to be located in the same approximate place. It would make it so much easier.

Whatever it was.

==^==

Rom had been a friend of Jadzia Dax's for a very long time. Much longer, in fact, than he had been Zek's. Longer even than she had been Jadzia Dax. He knew that the arrival of the Intendant changed everything. And, with Zek's transgression, they needed the Intendant's favor more now than before. Thus, if the Intendant happened to be favoring Jadzia then it made sense, from a profit point of view, to make sure that his friend had every advantage.

So Rom gathered a few of his best mechanics and a few friends who were willing to contribute for the right price and went to the berth where the Rogue Star was docked.

Rom understood something that many Ferengi seemed to forget. Sometimes one had to spend a little latinum to get a lot of profit, and sometimes profit was not measured in strips and bars.

==^==

On Betazed, there were those who seemed to forget the principle that profit was sometimes measured in progress. As Dean, Priam Nael had stipulated that those who did not attend classes would not receive the new degree, so many students attended the classes that were taught by the Orions, but, for whatever reason, would not do the work. It seemed to be a barrier motivated by racial prejudice with those concerned and, unfortunately, they seemed to compose the majority of the class.

Dean Nael wrestled with how to address the problem without undermining the Orion instructors in the process. It was at the staff meeting that she found the resolution, not in the students, or in anything she had to offer, but in the instructors themselves. Cree and Opom, had looked at each other and back at her. It was Opom who smiled and serenely replied, "If they do not do the work, we do not pass them. They can always take the class over."

Priam grinned. Sometimes the solution to a problem was to do nothing at all.

==^==

"Why am I here?"

"To make sure the right person wins the race, or the right one loses. Your call." Rom tried to affect being nonchalant, except he felt anything but around Ezri Tigan.

Ezri moved over to him seductively, and brushed her fingers along the one of the Ferengi's longer ear ridges. "And what's the profit in this for me?"

Rom swallowed and punched at one of the controls to bring the small pod around. It came rest slightly above the Rogue Star. "What's the profit for not doing it?" He pointed.

Through the porthole she could clearly see Kira Nerys, head thrown back, torso glistening and slick, her companion was less visible, but the line of spots and the tumble of dark hair revealed her identity anyway. Ezri Tigan knew full well who owned and captained the Rogue Star. Idly, she traced another ridge on Rom's ear.

"Rom," she drew his name out, and smiled when he shifted. "There is no profit in death." Nerys bucked into something Dax was doing with her hand, and Ezri felt her own muscles begin to spasm in response. By the Sacred Pools, Nerys was a beautiful woman. Her sense of self-preservation chimed in and reminded her that the Bajoran might be beautiful, but she was also dangerous. Of course, that had always been part of the attraction. Ezri smiled lightly to herself, in rueful memory.

"Opportunity plus instinct equals profit." Rom could barely get the words out. He very much wanted her to stop what she was doing to his ear. Almost as much as he wanted her to keep doing it.

"The ninth rule of acquisition. You've been studying." Ezri abruptly released his ear. "Make no mistake, Rom. This is a very risky game you're playing."

Rom grinned, fully baring his mouth of crooked, sharp teeth. He wasn't oblivious to the fact that Tigan had yet to turn away from the porthole. "The riskier the road, the greater the profit."

"Now you're just showing off."

==^==

They did eventually have to rest, one couldn't make love for hours and hours on end without eventually needing serious sustenance. Nerys lay awake with Jadzia nestled trustingly against her. The Trill's arm rested lightly around the Bajoran and her breath blew warm and soft against her shoulder. Nerys couldn't help the smile. Jadzia Dax was honestly worn out.

She had seen choice in Jadzia's eyes. The Trill had chosen her, above all else. It warmed Nerys in places that she kept hidden from herself as much as from others. It was, however, what had allowed the Bajoran to give in to wild abandon in the small cabin. Here, for a moment, she was loved and wanted regardless of of her status, wealth or titles.

Nerys played with Jadzia's hair, stroking it, curling it absently in her fingers as she meditated on the strange turn her life had taken. Only once before had she ever been in love, but she put the disquieting memory aside, and looked up through the porthole at the stars wondering where and how Deanna was. It was, lately a common thought, and she wondered if Jadzia shared the impulse.

She looked at the brunette with tender affection, and then decided that a small nap was in order. But first, she had a bit of business to conduct.

Gently, she slid Jadzia's arm away and then scooted around and off of the surprisingly comfortable bed. Jadzia almost awakened, but Nerys soothed her with a kiss to the brow and a whispered promise of return. Then she stepped into the refresher, for a brief sonic shower, just because she would feel better knowing she was clean. Now clothed, the Intendant grabbed her belt, with its knife, small blaster and communicator. She stepped into the passageway and then she made a few calls.

==^==

Jadzia awakened to the smell of food and raktajino. She rolled into a comfortable stretch, and ended up on her side, propping her head on her hand. "You cooked."

"Your replicator did the work." Nerys walked to Jadzia, her hips swaying in that wonderful way, carrying two mugs. She sat down on the bed, just out of reach and passed a mug to Jadzia.

The Trill, amused, sat up and took the proffered drink. She sipped it, but her attention was on the Bajoran. "Well, thank you for the fortification. I intend to need it in a few minutes."

Nerys laughed. "Well, we shall see. You have a race to begin in an hour and a half."

Jadzia shook her head, "It isn't important." She reached over and touched Nerys. "You are."

Nerys leaned in and kissed her lover. Then she pulled back, "That my Jadzia of House Martok, means a great deal to me. But you have made a commitment." Her eyes twinkled, "And I intend to see that you keep it."

==^==

Jadzia felt like all she had been doing for the last half an hour had been staring. First she'd stared when Nerys had said she was going to participate in the race. Then she'd gaped when she'd stepped out into her hallway, which was practically unrecognizable due to the pristine condition it seemed to be in. "What did you do?"

"Don't look at me. I only made a request to delay the race an hour. Well, and asked for some small, minor adjustments to ensure your engine was up to par."

"Par."

"Did I mention that I met someone named Maqam of the House Qua'lon a few days ago?"

Jadzia winced. "No."

"Ah, well, she mentioned that you and she had made a bet. Now, I am not one to say that you must win, but I feel I must point out that you represent more than yourself these days."

Jadzia experienced a twitch in her eyelid.

"I know you were working on that particular issue when I stepped aboard your ship. I admit to…looking around while you were asleep. And I realized I simply could not allow our diversion to cause you the loss of your ship. So I called in a few favors. I don't know how this other stuff happened. But I do recall catching a glimpse of some Ferengi outside the port window."

"Nerys." Jadzia turned around and really looked at the Bajoran. "This was not something you had to do." Then she reached and drew Nerys close. "But, thank you."

Nerys realized that Jadzia didn't quite believe her explanation, but she also grasped that it didn't matter as the kiss she received was completely sincere. "I love you, Kira Nerys."

Nerys couldn't help the grin that bloomed across her face. "Oh, that is very good. Because I love you. I would hate to lose you to something as silly as engine failure."

"I would hate to lose me too."

==^==

"You won't be coming with me?"

They walked arm in arm to Nerys' skimmer. "And be seen racing with my people? What would the Chancellor think of me? I'm afraid that I have to pass."

Jadzia chuckled warmly. "Well, in that case, I hope you enjoy the race from wherever you will view it."

"Oh, I am very sure I shall. I expect marvelous hijinks."

Now Jadzia smiled even more broadly. "I hope I do not disappoint."

She turned and cupped Jadzia's face in her palm. "You will not. Regardless of what happens. You have already proved to me what I needed to know."

They kissed warmly, and then separated.

Nerys grinned impishly. "But, that said, win!"

==^==

The ships took their spaces in their assigned locations. As promised, Rom did not place the Rogue Star near the Arrogant. However, that meant that she had been placed near the back of the starting grid, rather than at the front. Jadzia did not mind. She didn't know what had been done to her engines, but the Rogue Star buzzed with power to spare.

Jadzia smiled as she checked her notes, and then laughed when she saw that they had been altered with small edits and some notations from someone else. Several of her ideas were crossed out. "Not this one." "Not worth it." "Too Risky!" Other ideas, not her own, were added as well as some indications of the changes that had been made to her ship. Clever Nerys.

As she examined the combined navigation and helm controls, she spotted another datatablet. It was a message from Rom. "Zek and I wish you a safe journey, Jadzia Dax." The message faded and another screen exhibited itself, listing out more changes to her ship.

Now she was confused.

But Jadzia was also gratified to find that she had more friends than she expected.

She considered and revised her assumption. Rom excepted, it was more likely, that it was a case of temporary friends. And like all Ferengi, even his friendship had a price. All it would take was a moment of observation and a desire to ingratiate oneself with the Intendant. Ferengi were notorious for seeking an in wherever they could find it.

Not that she begrudged Rom. She happened to like him. He was a great mechanic, and Curzon, before her, had been extremely fond of him.

What she really wished was that she had more time to figure out exactly what had been done to her ship. Shiny it might all be, but that didn't mean it would all work when it was crunch time.

==^==

The Arrogant had a choice spot at the front, which pleased her captain. It was an advantage she intended to keep. Unknown to most, Maqam's ship had recently been overhauled from stem to stern, and she'd had a new warp engine and core installed. Her ship was much faster than it looked.

Her crew were faithful members of the House and experts in their fields. Together they had plotted their course and strategy. Their arsenal of tricks was fully prepared, some of which were already in place along the race route, and would need only a quick signal to be activated.

Maqam was feeling more confident about the outcome of the race by the minute. She had decided early not to let her first reaction to finding out about Jadzia keep her from winning. Besides, it really fell on Jadzia, not herself. All she had to do was not kill Jadzia in the process, and she'd already planned on letting her live.

It was going to be a fun race.

==^==

The Corrigan slid smoothly into place, somewhere in the middle of the pack of racers. Ezri Tigan made adjustments to the console then stepped away from the navigation station. Just because she had not originally planned on participating in the race, did not mean she didn't plan to put on a good show - right up to the very end.

Currently she was alone on the small ship. Her so-called wife had upgraded to a wealthier and joined Trill within days of landing on the planet. It was possible that they weren't even married any more. Ezri refused to check.

She slid into the weapons station and made a few adjustments, sending the controls to the navigation station. She wanted to be able to handle any surprises without having to leap up suddenly. It would have been much easier had Nog been available to help, but the young Ferengi was away on an errand for Zek. Sighing, she made one last check of the information relays.

The course would wind its way through three separate systems, each with their own special challenges. The first was a wide, dangerous asteroid belt that split the system into habitable and non-habitable. The second system held a dangerous gravity well that had to be circumnavigated without allowing one's ship to be dragged in too deeply. The third system was the wraparound, which would bring them back to the start point and was populated by what could be called savages, pirates and the another asteroid system. One that served as the base of operations for those same pirates and opportunists.

She wasn't looking forward to that part. She had navigational skill and plenty of power, but her shields sometimes gave out at the most inconvenient times. She had gotten Rom to look at them before even agreeing to his crazy plan.

Of course, if it worked, it would be worth it.

If it didn't, well, she probably wouldn't be around to complain about it afterwards.

==^==

Intendant Kira opted to watch events play out the holo-viewing room on her ship. Snacks and drinks had been prepared and she settled in for what she was sure would be a fascinating race. Servants came and went preparing the space for her, until she and they were satisfied. She reclined on a comfortable chair.

She could have gone to Zek's bar and no doubt commandeered it. This way, though, she did not have to worry about resentment from the masses that would be there to watch the race play out and keep an eye on their wagers. Nor did she have to be there while others tried to ingratiate themselves with her.

Nerys tossed a popper into her mouth and chewed softly while the announcers named off the ships and described the racers. Then, abruptly she sprung forward, her eyes wide. The bowl of poppers landed on the ground beside her. A servant raced to clean it up. She didn't notice it at all. Her gaze was firmly on the still picture of Ezri Tigan, whose image had her most appropriately looking behind her shoulder.

"Now just what are you up to?" Nerys asked the non-responsive screen.

==^==

A torpedo fired a burst of light across the imaginary start-line to begin the race, and the first ships shot forward. The shenanigans began almost immediately, as the lead ship managed to lay out a spread of debris that would force the following vessels to either shoot, shield or drive really, really well.

"Let the games begin," noted Jadzia with a rueful shake of her head. She flipped her shields on, warmed up her weapons, and prepared for a bumpy ride.

Once out of the figurative start gate, the racers spread out widely over the field of space, filling it like jacks thrown into the wind. They sailed forward, some were faster or more agile than others, but they all had the same basic goal of surviving the expansive and unavoidable asteroid field that marked the first check-point, and then to reach the rough space between it and the check-point in the next system.

Rom, who was observing things very closely noticed that there were three ships that were aligned in a most unlikely formation. The positions of the Arrogant, the Corrigan and the Rogue Star defined a nearly perfect horizontal plane as they approached the asteroid belt. That plane held right up until they hit the edge of the field, when suddenly they all seemed to veer away from one another, shooting up, down, to the side and around the vast rotating objects in front of them.

It was every racer for themselves at this point. This particular field harboured no known hostile entities, but it didn't need them; it was dangerous enough on its own. It would take clever maneuvering to get through it.

Not to say that there weren't traps that had been set previous to the race. Several ships were done in by the abrupt appearance of a potent anti-shielding minefield and an ensuing collision with a randomly moving object. Others had to deal with the tiny droids that latched on to now exposed hulls, and began to board the ships in order to sabotage the engines. Still others had to cope with large opti-net fields that captured and slowed vessels, netting them like giant spider webs between spiraling stones.

Tense, as he watched several ships explode or stall, Rom sighed in relief as Ezri and Jadzia successfully navigated through the hazards. That Maqam had also survived was unfortunate, but not unexpected. Their names were well known in the highest echelons of merchant circles with good reason. They could fly, and when they said they'd make a delivery, they made it. On the race board, the change in odds for the second leg flashed up next to the names of the ships. Rom smiled and added to his wager. The first leg had already proved quite profitable.

==^==

Once she was past the final Gas Giant of the first system, Jadzia set her helm to autopilot and made her way to the refresher. About half of the original racers had made it through the first hazards, and she had taken up a middle position that again tracked behind Maqam. She wasn't ready to overtake the Klingon yet.

Now was the time when she and other captains would be resting and shoring up for the next system, which would require several hours of attentive driving. Thus the need to take care of biological functions while one could.

She ate, she drank, she rested her eyes, though she really did not sleep. She listened to the announcers laying out the details of who and what was still flying, grinning when they talked about the bet between Maqam and herself. Then another name popped up and Jadzia listened with some amusement for a moment, then she opened her eyes abruptly.

"Ezri Tigan. What are you doing in this race?"

==^==

Ezri Tigan was almost mirroring what Jadzia was doing, resting, regrouping, eating and planning. So far things had gone as intended and she was determined to see to it that it stayed that way. She finished her sandwich, slugged down a drink, and then with her updated information, began to plot two new courses. The first was for her ship. The second was for the well-shielded, small bot she had just deployed to run in front of her ship.

That little unit, which was too small and cleverly protected to actually be picked up by the sensors of another ship, allowed her to get information about conditions outside a shade quicker than if she relied solely on the systems of the Corrigan. It could also act as a secondary defense system, with its own tiny, but effective, blasters.

Maqam, as expected, had pulled out the dirty tricks right away. The Corrigan had battled each obstruction as it came. Neither the sliders, which were designed to force a ship's navigation off course, nor the flitters, which were at first glance another system blinder, but were actually data-worms designed to occupy a ship's computers with nonsensical content that would, of course, occupy the person navigating.

Ezri knew she and her bot weren't catching all of the flak being thrown out by Maqam or the some of the other even less scrupulous captains, but they were making, as far as she could tell, a substantial dent in it; perhaps even enough of one that some of those to the rear wouldn't have to deal with the potentially lethal remnants. On the other hand, she also knew that hers was probably not the only stealth assistant out there, which meant that Maqam would have planned for such intervention.

She hated having to think three levels deep, but in this kind of race, you did what had to be done.

The time for rumination passed as her navigational alarm beeped the warning that she had entered the first dip of the gravity well. Ezri smiled. This part was actually fun, and a bit like sliding down a very steep hill at a ludicrously high velocity. The problem came when one hit the bottom of the curve and had to slide back up hill. Her ship would have to be going at the perfect speed and tack at the right angle. Just like everyone else. Of course, that part was exhilarating in its own, 'I hope I live' kind of way.

Normally this would be the point where everyone cut each other slack. But not in this race. The purse was too high, and the odds too low.

Ezri slid into her seat just as the ship in front spiraled out of control. She saw the reason why and groaned. Someone had spared the time to grab some of the boulders from the nearby asteroid belt in a tractor beam and then had let them loose.

Abruptly, Ezri remembered that she hated racing and why.

==^==

Maqam loved racing, especially as her shipped thrummed with power from her new engines. Being out front from the beginning had also helped, since she had avoided some of the nastier surprises that others had left in the way, needing only to be cautious about any traps that were already in place. And, of course, it gave her a chance to contribute to the general mess that was the playing field.

She thought the use of the boulders that one of her crew had suggested had been pure genius, the results of which had caused quite a few chuckles on board the Arrogant. Now it was a matter of simply staying in front and allowing the gravity well to do the work to speed them up. By the end, if they had it plotted correctly, their engines will be saying warp seven, but their actual speed should be nearer nine.

This was going to be the fun part.

==^==

Jadzia wasn't even aware of when she was cussing anymore. She just let the caustic vocabulary rip as needed. One hazard streamed into the next and it took all she had to keep her ship from smacking into the random objects that seemed to pop in to her path on equally random trajectories. At this point, she wasn't even trying to gain ground. She was just trying to stay in the safe zones and not get spun out into the lethal ones.

It might have been fun at any other time, but her hands hadn't left the controls in hours and wetness beaded her forehead.

She was sure she wasn't the only one. Somehow she and the Corrigan had found a tandem. They wove in and out, one in front and then the other, with neither of them particularly trying to gain the advantage. Maqam wasn't that far ahead either, from the point of view of her ship. That, however, did not really mean anything. It could be a false signal, which Jadzia had encountered before.

What she did know was that a goodly number of the ships that had been in the race up to that point had met an untimely, and in some cases, unpleasant end of the line.

Her goal was to make sure she did not meet hers.

==^==

Just because a race was being run, it didn't mean that the traffic stopped at the port. In fact, the opposite was true, as those who wanted to watch the event gathered on the planet, above the planet, around small moons and wherever they wanted, including along the race course itself. In general, the traffic controllers hated this point a race, since those who wanted to catch the beginning were leaving and those who wanted to catch the end were arriving, and traffic doubled as a result.

The general race traffic wasn't the only thing complicated matters. A good race did not just bring in those who had a penchant for such events. It brought merchants, and others who profited from the audience rather than the racers. More importantly, it also brought in people who had wealth and influence enough to make life very difficult for anyone in a position to deny a request.

Thus, they too sweated through the long hours as they did their best to prevent collisions and to guide ships into berths that would satisfy their owners. One such request came from a ship from Betazed. Rynb, who was much more comfortable with this kind of situation, had it well in hand. "The Truth Seeker wishes a space by the Intendant."

"That is restricted space."

"It is not my problem. She is The Truth Seeker."

"We will see what we can do."

==^==

The Intendant's servant really, really did not want to interrupt the Bajoran. But she was, despite the personage she served, of a societal order under that of freemen traffic controllers. She bowed low on entering; in part because it was the thing to do, and in part because no servant wished to provoke the Intendant.

Kira Nerys, who had been watching the race, was enjoying herself. Like other fans she had railed against, or laughed at, the cheats and tricks, depending on their results and who she favored. She had taken time off, of course, to rest, but as it was a live show, she had returned when rested and was gratified to find that both Ezri and Jadzia were rising to the top. Maqam, of course, had kept her lead by means both admirable and devious.

Nerys had been taking notes.

If the Klingon lived, Maqam might prove a useful pawn someday.

The servant waited to be noticed, and felt a rush of adrenaline when she was finally acknowledged.

"What?"

"We are informed that a truth seeker's vessel requests permission to enter the space of the vessel of the Intendant. What shall we reply?"

"Which truth seeker?" Nerys was suddenly very interested in what her servant had to say, but didn't dare hope.

"The Truth Seeker, Intendant."

Now Nerys sat up straight. "Really?"

"It is said, Intendant."

"The Truth Seeker has permission to enter my space. However, ifit is another truth seeker, they do not. Be very sure of who it is."

"Yes, Intendant."

"You are excused. Deliver my message."

"Yes, Intendant."

Nerys glanced at holo-viewer. "Well, this just gets more and more interesting, doesn't it?"

==^==

"Hello, Deanna."

"Nerys."

There was something profound in the way that Deanna was looking back at her, something that caused the hairs on the Bajoran's arms to stand. But Nerys was still glad to see her lover. "Would you like to come to my ship? Or shall I come to yours?"

"I think, perhaps, we should wait until the race is over. I need to see you at the same time."

"Jadzia and I?"

Deanna hesitated, and then gave a nod. "Yes. I…feel a very strong need for you." The Betazoid suddenly looked to the left as if she were sensing something or someone else.

"Are you alright, Deanna?" Nerys did not take that soft tone with many people.

"I will be. I think." The Betazoid smiled whimsically, "I realize it's a bit confusing at the moment. But if I joined you now, well, I'm just not sure I could control myself. And really, you need informed consent."

The Bajoran couldn't quite put her finger on what was different about Deanna. Her lover had the same dark curly hair, the same soft accent, the same deep dark eyes, as she remembered. Nerys put it aside for later and said, "Well, would you mind if I kept you on the screen? I like looking at you, and the truth is, I've missed you and it will make me feel a little more as if you were here."

Deanna's expression brightened. "I would like that very much."

==^==

It looked perfect from all vantage points. Sensors didn't indicate any raiders, natives, traps or potential locations for an ambush. Jadzia calculated the distance and made a snap decision. If she could go around the hazard, rather than through it, she was going to.

Jadzia started to peel off when her comm unit blared for her attention.

She was tempted to ignore it, but it kept beeping. "What!"

"What in Ferenginar's Pits do you think you're doing?"

"Not that it's any of your business, but--"

"Did you, or did you not, review the plans on your tablet?"

Suddenly, as she listened to Ezri Tigan, she knew who had made those adjustments.

"Well, I--"

"Stick to the plan, Dax. We've still got a whole system to get through and you know as well as I do that the route you were about to take has to be spiked. Don't get tempted by easy. Tigan out."

"Wait a--" The signal was cut before Jadzia could get a full measure of ire stoked. She looked back as she passed the one spot where she could have turned off, and then she gave up the notion. She'd stick with the plan. Apparently she had a partner, one who she could say for certain wasn't trying to curry favour with the Intendant.

==^==

Less than a half an hour later, Jadzia was thanking every Deity she knew that she had listened to Ezri. Others, thinking the same as she, had taken the apparently safe path around and had regretted it. The communicated shouts for help and the follow up screams of terror had chilled her to the bone and reminded her why she had chosen a particular route in the first place.

It didn't mean that her route was without those to take pot shots and act as chasers. It wasn't. The Rogue Star and the Corrigan cooperated again, fighting off the would-be boarders and other dangers. The real test, however, would come just as they exited the asteroid belt. That would be Jadzia's one and only chance to make up the time she'd lost to the harassments and the layout of the course itself.

On the plus side, Maqam was not immune to those very same hazards, and had been slowed considerably by one ship that happened to manage a tractor beam grab on the Arrogant. It was to Maqam's great fortune that she happened to have a good weapon's system. But that delay had allowed both Ezri and Jadzia to edge up much closer on the Arrogant's tail.

Jadzia was honorable enough not to gloat. The part of her that was Torias Dax had no such qualms.

==^==

Rom stared intently at the screen, waiting. Then individual ships began to pour out of the asteroid belt like seeds being spit out through the gaps of a wide mouth of teeth. Once again the Arrogant, the Corrigan, and the Rogue Star were aligned, but this time they were strung out. Maqam in the lead, Ezri Tigan close behind, and Jadzia hard on their heels. The gap was closing, though, and it looked like both the Corrigan and the Rogue Starwere still gaining speed.

He watched as both ships shot forward, skimming above and below the Arrogant, which had not yet registered that it was being overtaken on two sides. Then, as if they had planned it, which Rom knew they hadn't, Jadzia and Ezri both let loose a final volley of trouble for the Arrogant, and then both leaped forward, their velocities still increasing.

A satisfied grin split his face, and Rom saw that even Zek was showing all of his teeth in a full smile as Maqam suddenly had to deal with hazards similar to the ones she'd put in play earlier in the game. The video cameras that were tracking the race captured the event from all angles, showing the Arrogant frantically roll through pin-wheeling lines of flash works, laser bots and a dense cloud of shield wreckers that played havoc with the ship's electrical system, and which Rom had personally added to the Corrigan's armament.

In one corner of the screen, he watched as the Arrogant suddenly stalled and her speed fell to below full impulse. It didn't matter that the ship was still moving; at that speed, for all intents and purposes, Maqam was dead in the water.

The exited commentator said, "Can you imagine what would have happened if they had let loose with that volley during the chase through the badlands? They'd be out there until the middle of next month, if they ever made it back. Talk about a lucky break for the Arrogant."

Rom put his wrists together, hands apart, curled his fingers inward the base of his palms, and genuflected slightly to the Blessed Exchequer; he was certain Maqam wasn't feeling very lucky at the moment.

In every corner of Zek's bar, the climax was being watched intently. Most of the patrons were still eyeing the leader board and calculating the pay-outs for the potential orders of finish. Some were assessing their losses, and grumbling about the same dirty tricks that they would have been boasting about if the ships they'd backed had won.

==^==

After that, it was between the two of them and they knew it. Neither Ezri nor Jadzia yielded way on a single meter of distance, though their relative paths had them alternating the lead by less than a quarter of a length of either ship.

Neither of them tried to play any of the usual dirty tricks. The contest between them wasn't about that. It was about pride in their ships, about their navigational skills, about the adrenaline rush, and it had become a rivalry neither was fully conscious of.

The two ships had left the others far behind as they hurtled forward to the symbolic light banner that marked out the end of the race.

It was so much fun that Ezri completely forgot that she had planned to let Jadzia Dax win.




Chapter 14 | Universe Beta, Beta Quadrant | Bookmarks





"Belle, you can't." Sela was standing with both hands flat on the central table in the war room, trying to keep from raising her voice, but not having much success.

The Klingon in contrast, had leaned back in her chair and was contentedly munching the remnants of a plate of roast veldebeast. "If you say it's because I'm pregnant, I will disembowel you."

Sela paused. Belle may have seemed more relaxed, and the threat was said in an offhand way that was unfamiliar, but the Romulan had no doubt she meant it. "You're the General. You direct the battle; you don't go wading into it."

Belle picked up another slice of the meat and placed it on her tongue, savouring its flavour. Forbidden from taking apart the engines, Annika had taken up cooking, with, thought Belle, spectacular results. "I've still got almost six months to go. I'm not even showing yet." Seemingly concentrating on her meal, she was enjoying baiting Sela. Annika had already made it plain that she would not approve if Belle went wading into a battle unnecessarily. She looked up at her Romulan friend, and wondered how long before Sela would invoke Annika's name.

"I know you can handle yourself, but you're going to get other people killed. Those Marines are pretty damned enthusiastic about keeping your incautious hide intact."

Belle laughed, impressed. "Fine. You lead them in." And then, because she'd taken more than her share of mollycoddling and teasing lately, she picked up a data tablet. "What message would you like me to pass on to Priam Nael when you get yourself killed?"

Sela's blush was instantaneous and a deep red so intense, she could feel the heat, even over her scars. Taking the bottom of her tunic in both hands she tugged the garment into perfect order and left the war room, aware, as loud chuckles followed her out, that sometimes you won the battles, but you could still lose the war.

==^==

Sela wiped the blade clean and shoved it back into its sheath. She brushed wet hair away from her face, and stepped over the bodies. It had been a messy, but necessary battle. "How many more?"

"The rest are done," said the Marine commander. Vah's gaze was neutral. "We have two rooms for you to investigate. One room holds the innocent…"

"Innocent?" Sela asked disbelievingly.

"Our Truth Seekers have said."

"Oh. Right. I forgot you had those. You preserve the innocent."

"It is the honorable thing to do."

She nodded. "Yes. It is." She looked out at the empty hallway. The walls were blackened with blaster marks and still smoking. "And the other room?"

"Less innocent, but you will want them for questioning."

"Good. Well done. Contact the General and let her know. Take me to the innocent ones. I want to see these mythical beings."

He nodded firmly. "Of course, Lieutenant General Sela. If you will follow me?"

==^==

Sela stood in the middle of the room surrounded by the disenfranchised, the slaves, the widowed and their children. At one time, thought the Romulan, these same people would simply have been turned over to the warriors as prizes. But times were different.

"You have been freed by the Empire. You will now serve the Empire. You will be taken to a ship where you will be tested and taught what it means to be of this Empire. You will have more freedom than you have ever imagined. But if you test us in this mercy, if you fail to do your duty and act in honor towards the warriors of the Empire that have freed you, you will suffer like you never imagined."

Only one of them dared to meet her eyes. A tall, dark-skinned, woman looked directly at her and seemed to convey the impression that she was choosing to obey. Sela examined her more closely, and noticed the upswept eyebrows that were nearly hidden under shaggy bangs. Now that she knew what to look for, she spotted the tips of elegantly pointed ears. The woman could be Vulcan or even Romulan, but Sela decided it didn't matter. Free was free, and the Empire needed every one.

"Commander Vah, take these people to their new home."

==^==

On waking from what had been a sound sleep, Belle didn't even check the other side of the bed. She got up and pulled on her robe. She had hoped that given how extensive their lovemaking had been earlier this evening that Annika might sleep through the night for a change. It was, apparently, not to be. "Computer, locate Annika Torres."

"Annika Torres is in the forward engine room."

"Kahless' Beard." Belle rushed for the door to their quarters, intent on arriving in the engine room before the smooth motion of the ship came to an unexpected halt.

When she arrived at her destination she was relieved and somewhat confounded. Nothing was dismantled, and there was no obvious sign of Annika's presence. Numerous engineers were present, and while they all stood a little straighter, none appeared surprised to see her. Nor did they seem to be upset that Annika was in engineering. Odd.

"I agree. But you will not participate." Belle heard her chief engineer before she saw him. He sounded...pleased.

The reply was somewhat indistinct, but she recognized the tones, if not the words. Annika. Odder still. Durn had all but demanded that she keep Annika away from his precious engines.

Belle stepped around the large support beam and entered the cramped area where the work tables and tools were kept. Her ridges lifted in surprise. Annika was sitting on one of the tables, wearing, if she wasn't mistaken, a white lab coat and nothing else. The true shock was the plate of rokeg blood pie the blonde was busily eating. The atmosphere in the room was relaxed, and she nodded at the engineer. "Durn."

"General." he moved to stand, but she waved him to remain seated and, instead, came around to see what they were working on.

"Belle." Annika's eyes had lit up, and she wiped one hand hastily on her coat.

"Our tam'jonwI has found a way for us to remain cloaked during weapons fire."

Belle didn't know which to address first: the remarkable achievement, or the nickname, though she had to admit it was a fitting one. Literally it meant quiet engineer, but she suspected Durn intended it as the more idiomatic stealthy engineer. "That is excellent news." With one hand she smacked Durn across his shoulders to show approval. To Annika, she gave a genuine smile. "Definitely news worth getting out of bed for. Now, though, I think its time we returned to our quarters." She offered a hand to Annika, who used the support to return to the ground from the table.

To her utter shock, Durn stood, and nodded at Annika respectfully. "Sleep well, SoSll'joQ." Two endearments? Then it hit her. Durn knew Annika was pregnant.

"Dream of much death, Durn." Annika smiled shyly.

He laughed and sat back down, picking up the plans they had been working on, effectively allowing them to pretend he no longer existed.

Belle guided her mate out of engineering, somewhat bemused by the fact that Annika had taken the blood pie with her. "It's blood pie, it won't run away before we get home."

Annika looked up, in the act of scooping more into her mouth as they walked. "It tastes better when it's warm, and Durn says it will be good for the baby."

The Klingon shuddered. Warm rokeg blood pie was not ever going to be part of her diet - no matter how outrageous the cravings got. "Oh, he does, does he, Little Mother?" Belle teased her with the same sobriquet Durn had used. They had entered their quarters and she took the now empty plate from Annika. "I know you are brilliant, and I'm resigned to hunting you down every night for the next two hundred and forty days, but could you please, please stay out of places where you can be exposed to radiation? For me?" She smiled to take the sting out of her words. "Or if you absolutely can't stay away from my chief engineer, can you at least wear more than this?" Belle ran her fingers lightly over the jacket.

Annika blushed. "I'm sorry, Beya. I just woke up and it made sense."

"I know." Belle moved closer, kissing Annika deeply, surprised to find that she didn't mind the lingering flavour of the pie at all. "But I woke up, and wanted to show you how much I'd missed you when I was asleep."

"Oh." Then Annika smiled, sultry and with mischievous intent, "Show me now."

"With pleasure."

==^==

It was as if Gretchen had a seventh sense; one related strictly to culinary needs. Every time Miral woke up with a craving, she found that the item had been prepared ahead of time and was ready for her in a preservation unit. It didn't matter what it was, if it was filden gagh covered in applesauce, it was there, squirming away.

At the moment, Miral was sitting, eating raw vegetables dipped in a blood-sauce concoction her wife had invented, and reading a fiction file for once. She didn't know how Gretchen had known to spice up the sauce, but the fiery zing made the vegetables palatable, and thankfully there were plenty of them.

The trial dockets seemed to fill quickly these days, but she had asked Nelav to arrange for some free time soon. Miral enjoyed being busy, but she also liked to have fun. It had been awhile since they had done something just for the pleasure of it.

So she asked the Trust, a nickname that seemed to fit their three beautiful assistants, to find someplace or something enjoyable for them all to do - even if it was a local carnival. As long as it wasn't a trial, Miral was interested.

It was too bad, thought Miral, that the Forcas III of this universe didn't have those wonderful contests. Now that would have been fun.

Idly, she patted her belly and smiled. "We'll just have to make our own fun then."

==^==

The Judge was standing, staring out the view port when Nelav entered. The fierce brunette turned and greeted her assistant. "Nelav. What do you have for me now?"

Like her mates, Nelav had taken to wearing the Truth Seeker robes during office hours and during contact with others. They found that it facilitated communication greatly. The robes were respected and only those who had earned them and were freemen were allowed to wear them. At the same time, the uniform lent a serious cast to her assistant's features, as if the robes themselves had some sort of mystic power.

Nelav's brow was knit with concern as she stared down at a datatablet. Miral had learned to recognize it as one of her assistant's first warning systems. "Your Honor, I have a message from one Lord Akkihar of House Abaran." Now Nelav looked up. "He challenges you to a duel."

"I do not know him or his House. I have not adjudicated any case with his people in it that I know about. What kind of duel?"

"I believe it is the usual kind, Your Honor." She cleared her throat. "He also adds that if you fail to take up the challenge you are a coward and less than a Tika."

Miral snorted. "He'll have to do better than that to goad me. Tell him offer denied."

"Your honor?"

"Have I ever told you the story of Tenal? He was the youngest son of the House Brenat. Very emotional that boy, and prone to trouble, because he took offense at any little taunt." Miral walked to her desk and sat down on the edge of it. She smiled slightly at her assistant. "One day Tenal and his friends were leaving a tavern. They had taken in plenty of blood wine and were not in their right minds anyway. A group of local toughs, good boys, but also prone to trouble, passed by the way of Tenal and his friends. Naturally, because it is the Klingon way, insults and boasts were exchanged. Then, for whatever reason, it got personal. Tenal took offense and then his friends did too." Miral took up the small dagger that was always on her desk and flipped it nimbly with her fingers. Her expression was contemplative, almost as if she had forgotten Nelav was even there.

Nelav, meanwhile was listening quite attentively, fascinated. The interesting thing about Miral's storytelling was that it was usually always a surprise, even in the cases where she had heard the story from someone else. She did not know why this was so, but the mystery was pleasant of its own.

"The fight spilled out from the walkway to the street. Most drivers were able to navigate around them, but one was not. That was the driver of Lord K'val, who was not amused at all to have his transport wrecked. That was what brought them to me."

Miral sighed. "I was the only judge that Tenal could afford and K'val was making him pay, you see. I took it, because Tenal was young and I hoped that an older, wiser person might listen to my arguments about the preservation of Klingon blood." Miral shook her head. "It was not to be. K'val also had pride. I suggested mentorship. He called Tenal a low-birthed, no good, spineless coward. Tenal instantly demanded the circle." The knife sunk down onto the desk's surface, point first. "That was that. Tenal was still a young targ, influenced by hormones and gut-fire, and had yet to learn strategy. K'val was bigger, stronger, older, wiser and more savvy. It was over in ten minutes." She looked up at Nelav and took in the Deian's rapt expression. Miral concluded, "I can still see the surprise on Tenal's face."

Now the Klingon woman sighed. "Now, tell Lord Akkihar that his request for my precious time is denied. If he is interested in challenging me, he may meet me at one of the events you have arranged and fight according to their rules. That at least is scheduled so as not to interfere with the Empire's business."

"Yes, Miral."

==^==

Opaka spent days in meditation, wrestling with what she now knew. She threw herself against the walls of her consciousness, of her past and her prejudice. She should have realized that the Prophets would test her, while at the same time as provide her with the answer to the question she had not dared even ask.

The Bajoran Clergy were not celibate, not unless they chose to be or circumstances made it so. It was not an exclusive of caste either, for anyone could be called by the Prophets. In this universe the barriers of caste had been crushed by the humans and then never reanimated when the tables were turned on the Human Empire. Thus, perhaps, priests had not been needed.

She wasn't even sure they were needed now.

What she wanted to do was fling herself into the Celestial Temple and demand the why of it. Of all the people in any universe, Why Adami?

Opaka Sulan was not a woman of pride. Normally. And worse, she knew now that there had been anger harbored in herself that she had not suspected and that scraped against her soul just as much as this other knowledge did.

Thus, she struggled in her meditation, in the contemplation that normally brought her deep peace.

The horrible thing was the scriptures of love poetry that suddenly rose to her consciousness and would not be silenced. She would meditate on one set of scriptures, and unbidden, an erotic set would suddenly come to mind. She would refocus her attention on the original set and then another set would arise. It was agony.

And, by the third day, she realized her choice was to resist or to meditate on the words and try to find solace in the words the Prophets seemed determined to offer her. Even if she couldn't believe it, did not want to believe it.

==^==

"Mother."

"Hello, Jerrod." Adami turned and gazed at her son. He was looking a little less bedraggled these days and was finally completely healed from his attempt at the wormhole. He had made a bargain with her for the privilege of making the journey and the purchase of the ship.

That bargain had been to work for her, for awhile, if he happened to get tossed back into Bajoran space like all the other wreckage.

It had been inevitable.

"I was wondering, if you don't happen to need me tonight, if I might go to the station." Jerrod stood calmly waiting for the response, trying not to let his eagerness reflect too strongly in his eyes.

"You want to see her again."

"She never did touch my ear."

Adami placed her hand against her ear and considered. She recalled the touch, the tingling sensation that had floated all the way through her body. It had never quite left. "Perhaps if we combined it with business."

"Has she contacted us?"

"No, but there are forms that could be delivered to Terok Nor for the Intendant." She smiled as she watched his eyes brighten. It pleased her when her son was happy. She had begun to worry. The adventure with the wormhole had really knocked the wind out of him and, he had fast been sliding into depression. If it had not been for that encounter with Dr. Pulaski, he would perhaps have lost interest in everything. But the arrival of the House Presba, unlike she first believed, had been a blessing.

"If you should happen to encounter Kai Opaka tell her…" She was going to say something along the lines that they were at her service. Other words escaped her mouth though, "…tell her I have been thinking of her. Perhaps, on another visit to Jalanda, she may consider visiting with us."

"I will tell her mother."

"Thank you, my son. Happy Journeys."

==^==

Miral, who was sitting at her desk, reviewing the file sent to her by Winn Adami, looked up. She smiled, "Nelav. You look concerned."

The Deian nodded and folded her hands in front of her. "Your Honor, I have a message from Lord Akkihar of House Abaran." Miral sat back, attentive.

"He was one of the ones who challenged me to a duel."

"Yes, your Honor." Annoyance flickered over Miral's face and then disappeared. By now, Nelav knew the Klingon's body language. She decided to simplify it and this time handed the Judge the datatablet. She simply refused to say the words, but she did warn the other woman. "His words are…stronger now."

Miral didn't even look at it. She would get to it when she could. "Tell me, Nelav, was it offensive enough that you would go after him."

"Your Honor, if you permitted, all three of us would see to it he and his kin ceased to exist in this Universe."

"That bad?"

"Yes."

"Thank you, Nelav. I'm sure I shall find it interesting reading."

The blue-skinned woman started to say something, and then changed her mind. Instead she bowed, deeply and exited.





Chapter 15 | Universe Alpha, Beta Quadrant: Presba Estate | Bookmarks




The Kal'Hyah had been around for centuries and its counterparts could be found in a broad enumeration of cultures, including some early ones on Earth. The common thread was the value placed on certain character traits, including bravery, endurance and commitment. As universal as the traditions seemed to be, the methods and means by which they were celebrated varied widely by participant, historical era, originating culture, and were more than a little influenced by the desired outcome.

It was to be expected then, that Veckma, a Klingon from a long gone era, had one understanding of what a true Kal'Hyah should include; and that Vrald and Dvanne, conceived of it in a way that varied not only from Veckma's, but also from each other. Yet, by the very nature of the respect in which each held the ritual, all had elements to commend them.

Seven of Nine listened politely, in some instances with avid and rapt fascination, but she had her own ideas about the Kal'Hyah. As Mistress of the House, she had final say.

The one consistent feature across all versions of the ceremony had been that of hunger. Shifting through the cultural histories of those the Borg had assimilated, she noted that in many of those species, hunger had been an important symbolic element. To that end, she agreed that there would be four days of fasting. In aid of making it a true exercise in deprivation, and of commitment, Icheb offered to cook the food that would be used to tempt them from their path, and, to some of the mates' horror, his offer was accepted by Seven of Nine.

"Now that's just cruel," Kathryn had commented.

Seven had merely raised her brow and said, "Yes. That is the point. It will be a real test." Then, she pulled Kathryn close and whispered, "If you wish, I will request that he provide a fresh batch of coffee every hour instead."

Kathryn pulled back and looked at her mate and tisked. "Sadist."

Seven kissed her, at first gently, then with heated pressure, before pulling back. Her expression was light. She knew how to joke now. "I can be."

"I'll take the challenge, and then Ezri will know I mean it"

"Ezri Dax will not be there to witness it."

Kathryn smiled, "But you will be."

Kate added to the conversation, "Favorite foods it will be. It's only fair." She lifted a PADD, added her choices, and then passed it, with a smile, to Lwaxana. "Your turn."

Lwaxana grinned, and added a few notations of her own, most of them dishes containing chocolate, and passed the PADD to T'Pel. "I do have a question as to location. Where are we conducting the Kal'Hyah?"

"The Temple." Seven answered, not elaborating.

B'Elanna looked up, "We have a Temple?"

"Presba does, Bang'wI."

==^==

The Temple of the House Presba was built deep into the planet's native rock. Its doorway was ornate, wide, richly carved, coloured in red and gold, and far taller than all of them.

Kate looked up and up and said, "I read about this in a book once. Something about entering a woman's…"

"Don't say it." Kathryn knew it was a wasted admonishment, but felt she had to try regardless.

"Why? We all have…"

Lwaxana started to chuckle, "My darling Kate, your perspicuous and educated vulgarity continues to charm and amaze me."

Kate grinned. "One of the reasons you married me. Well, lead on, Tuvok. Might as well break the…"

"Kate!" Kathryn had known precisely where her mate's thoughts were headed, but she was still slightly shocked that they had been verbalized. Lwaxana was right, Dr. Katherine Pulaski was possessed of the most astoundingly wonderful vulgar streak.

"I was going to say path."

"No, you were not."

Tuvok pushed and the doors swung to the inside.

Kate said, "See, our sons knew exactly what they were doing."

"They adapted elements from several templates."

"If it works…"

B'Elanna said, "Can we go in please? Either we need to get moving or we need to go the Nest. All this talk about sex is...influencing me."

Laren grinned. "I know. It's not the lack of food that's going to bother me. It's the abstinence. Prophets help us if the mating fire decides to have its way with us."

"Please, don't remind me."

Seven said evenly, "If the mating fire should strike, then we will meditate and endure, as we did with Kate."

Kate eyed Seven skeptically, "For four days?" Having been through the mating fire it still astonished her that they were able to delay an hour, never mind days.

"Well, I'll tell you who is not going to be abstaining…" Laren said with a cheeky grin.

"Damn it. Some Trill have all the luck. And we won't be around because we'll be doing this." Kate lamented, even as she followed Laren over the threshold.

B'Elanna pointed at the entrance, imperiously directing her remaining mates. "Less yakking. In. In. In."

Tuvok was already inside and waiting patiently for the rest of them. He stood at the top of a steep sloping pathway that was lit by holographic torches. The red stone changed shades with each flicker and a cool breeze seemed to brush past them towards the open doors.

As soon as they were through, the doors began to shut.

Two people stepped into view - ascending onto the flat part of the pathway. They were dressed in traditional Vulcan monastic garb and did not speak. They were strangers to the Prime, stern and forbidding, but at the same time expected. Like many other Vulcans who had been stranded in Klingon territory, they had opted to settle on Presba. It was possible that they had even traveled deliberately from Vulcan, depending on what logic dictated to them.

But none of the Prime asked. They waited and when the doors were completely shut, the two greeters turned and began leading them down the pathway to their fate.

==^==

Nervous beyond reason, Ezri rang the chime. In the instant before the door slid open, she nearly left.

"I said, come!"

The familiar irascibility brought a smile to her lips and she entered the room. Behind a large desk sat a large Klingon - doing paperwork. Ezri stifled the snort of surprise that wanted very desperately to escape. "Hello, Worf."

Several beats of silence filled the room, but neither of them moved.

"Ezri Dax." He said, finally. "It is good to see you."

"I missed you too."

"What do you want?" His eyes were still on hers, and he felt a tightening in his chest.

"I need a sword-bearer."

"Then it is true."

"It is. Will you be my Tawi'Yan?"

"I will."

"Worf?"

"What?"

"Could I have a hug?" She could see the war in his eyes, but it was no harder waged than the one that she had fought to even be able to ask him.

Worf folded her against himself, surprised that he had missed the feel of Ezri's weight, and made use of a lesson learned at her feet. "Only you could find a way to make Sirella as livid getting rid of you, as she was having to take you in the first place."

Ezri laughed into his chest, then stepped back a half pace, not fully disengaging from his arms. "She offered you to them in my place."

Worf had a sudden vision of Lwaxana, and shook his head. His face had grown ruddy, and he felt the need to mentally recite security protocol forty-seven. That was no way to be thinking about Deanna's mother. He looked down at Ezri, and in his most dignified voice replied, "I would have declined. It would be against regulations."

She lost it, doubling over with mirth. "You've been working on your sense of humour."

The look he gave her was both long suffering and fond, and she laughed until her sides ached and her shirt was soaked with the tears streaming from her eyes.

==^==

It was, Deanna thought, somewhat odd to be on Voyager, a ship that, technically, should still be lost deep in the Delta quadrant. But, now it was on Presba. And she was in its Park, with her mate and her younger siblings. It was refuge at a time when she needed it, a solid reminder that, yes, her mother was in this universe.

She would go home eventually, to the Estate, but she needed the anchor of her wider family. As did her brother. Barin had not quite let her out of his sight. It was the only way he had been able to allow his mother to go to the Presban Temple without him. It helped that his siblings had accepted him immediately and he them. Now he was an older sibling, and he took the responsibility of it quite seriously.

"It is because he had a good example," Asil commented. Her fingers lazily twirled long, dark curly hair.

Deanna's lips pursed lightly, not denying it, but not entirely comfortable with the assessment either. She had not set a good example during that awful week. Asil pressed her hand against Deanna's back in gentle reproof and comfort.

"Do you think she'll be able to do it? Those are nearly as heavy as she is." Deanna indicated the large, heavy iron braziers, which Azan and Rebi had filled with lava rocks and were arranging side by side.

Mezoti was directing Icheb, Barin and Emina in the decorations and other minutia, with Icheb doing most of the heavy lifting. There would be faux logs for seating, a holographic fire for the campfire, torches for lighting and other décor which made the sandy scene of testing complete.

Ezri's challenges would be more public, and somewhat more subtle, than those the Prime would face, and would occur randomly over the course of the next few days. She would be called from the bachelor celebrations to take some of her tests and it was possible that those celebrating with the Trill would follow her to the testing area. Thus, the seating and the setup. Once Ezri completed the test, she would then be released to participate in the other rituals of her change in status.

They planned for the possible spillover. A demarcation had clearly been set between the testing area and the rest of The Park.

"She will find a way." Asil answered.

Deanna leaned against Asil where they stood. The Vulcan accepted the quiet signal and wrapped her arm around her mate. They stood in companionable silence.

Then, as if there were a shift in the wind, Deanna straightened in surprise. It occurred to her then that perhaps she should have asked. After all, her parents had been to another universe. It was unlikely, but not impossible. And earlier, she had - briefly - experienced a familiar sensation and then had simply disregarded it. They had been busy and that effort had allowed her to finally close the gate to the random mental noises around her.

Now though…

Asil, puzzled, released her mate so that she could move and turn to look. She spotted a couple, dressed in robes that seemed both familiar, yet odd.

Deanna knew one of them. Or at least recognized one of them.

The Betazoid started walking, moving quickly. Asil turned and flicked a signal to Icheb, who nodded. Then she followed her mate. There was a surprising intensity in Deanna's reaction and she needed to follow the thread of it to understand.

The groups drew closer together and Asil watched as the blonde woman looked suddenly startled and amazed. Then she let go of the man's hand and abruptly started moving forward quickly, not quite running, but definitely rushing.

Then the brunette and the blonde collided into a hug. Deanna drew back and placed her hands on the other woman's face, looking deeply. Then, in a move that may have surprised the other woman's companion, but somehow did not surprise Asil, Deanna kissed the blonde soundly. They pulled back finally and the Betazoid said, "It is good to see you, Tasha."

The Human's face was slightly ruddy, but also happy. "And it's good to see you." She stepped back and looked the Betazoid up and down. Then she grinned, "And apparently it changed you too, whatever it was. I haven't quite got the story straight. My God. Look at you. You're gorgeous."

Deanna laughed, something she'd found hard to do lately. Then, as soon as she felt Asil near, she turned and reached back and said, "Tasha, I have someone I'd like you to meet. This is my wife, Asil Troi. Asil, this is my friend, Tasha Yar."

Tasha grinned and also turned and reached back to draw her companion near. "Deanna, this is my husband, Kasala. Kasala, this is my friend, Deanna Troi."

The Romulan smiled warmly and bowed. "I have heard much about you, Deanna Troi. It is good to finally meet you."

The Betazoid looked at the Human and blushed lightly. Then she chuckled again. "I can't believe you told him everything."

"Kasala and I have very few secrets," Tasha said warmly. "Besides, it made for some great bedtime stories."

Asil's eyebrow cocked and she looked at her mate. "I am intrigued by this concept. You must tell us more."

Deanna flashed a brief look of humor toward her mate and then said, "Well, if we're going to be sharing stories, I should tell you, Beverly is here."

"Here?" There was a new light in Tasha's eyes.

"Not on board Voyager, but on the Titan. We can call her though." She then paused. "There is some bad news to go with the good."

Tasha reached forward and touched Deanna gently. "With as much time as lies between us, that is not surprising." She stepped back. "But we can catch up later. I understand you are preparing something for the vivacious Commander Dax. Kasala and I came by to see if we might be of assistance."

==^==

Beverly gazed intently through the screen at the Betazoid. "Deanna. What can I do for--"

"Can you come over to Voyager for a little while?" Deanna didn't wait for Beverly to finish her greeting.

The Doctor looked away and then back and said, "I suppose so."

"Good. I have a surprise for you."

"That sounds intriguing."

==^==

Four people waited in the transporter room. One sparkled into being.

It took a moment for Beverly to realize who she was seeing, and what it meant. She had to look twice at the woman, and knew in the next instant that she would forever treasure the memory of the gaze that was being returned. "Tasha! Oh My God. Tasha!" Tears of joy punctuated each exclamation.

They moved at the same time, coming together in a tender embrace. Like Deanna, Beverly kissed Tasha warmly and deeply before stepping back. She up reached and touched her face. "We have missed you."

"And I, you." Tasha stepped back, taking Beverly's hand in her own. Then she led her back to where the other three waited. "Beverly, I would like you to meet my mate. Kasala. Kasala, this is Beverly."

Kasala smiled and bowed slightly, in the Romulan fashion. "It is an honor to meet you, Beverly. Tasha has told me much about you."

Deanna chuckled. "He means all about you." There was a twinkle in her eye. "And me."

Beverly turned to look at Tasha. "No secrets then."

"It would have been impossible. In this universe, Vulcans are touch telepaths, but we do not know about the Romulans. In my other universe…" Kasala lifted his hand and their fingertips touched. "…Romulans share a definite genetic trait with our cousins."

Beverly's eyes widened. Then she smiled warmly at Kasala. "So. You know everything."

Kasala extended his hand. "If you choose, I may know more."

She looked at Tasha, who held her gaze with wise eyes. Then, because some things were worth the entire price one had to pay, she took Kasala's hand fearlessly.

==^==

The first thing Ezri noticed when she entered her rooms was that a dozen bodies were occupying the sitting room. Or at least it had been her sitting room, before Seven had annexed her quarters and began the process of adding their physical dimensions to the family quarters. Ezri wasn't sure what to call the space, now.

Well, other than full.

"Hello." She greeted her visitors.

Mezoti stepped forward. She took a quick look at Deanna, and then nodded, having obviously received encouragement. "We are the Children of the Prime of House Presba, and we are here to judge your worthiness. I will supervise on behalf of the minor members. My sister, Deanna, will oversee for the remainder."

Ezri got a bad feeling when, as one, the Vulcans, the Brunali and the older Betazoid stepped to the side. A red, wobbling projectile was deployed with devastating accuracy and smacked her in the center of her chest. The water balloon exploded on contact, and sprayed its payload of water in an impressive arc.

It had been thrown by Azan, who had quickly rearmed himself.

And the fight was on.

==^==

Despite the mess it had left in her quarters, and the discomfort of having her uniform dry on her, Ezri found she would much rather undergo another round of the balloon fight than what she was currently doing.

Icheb was making her chop vegetables: finely, and precisely. It wasn't enough that they were no longer large. No, small was insufficient. Diced was preferred, at least for the onions. The carrots, or she thought they were carrots, as far as she was concerned they could have been plomeek, had to be julienne, while the starchy itch-inducing thing had to be in cubes.

"What's all of this for anyway?"

"I am preparing Tuvok and T'Pel's preferred dishes for addition to the food tables in the Kal'Hyah chambers. I have already completed the others."

Ezri looked at him and nodded. She began to pay much closer attention to the quality of her knife work.

==^==

The Prime were led downward, past the first level of the temple and then down again. At the second level, they were guided into a square demarcation within a wide, expansive room. The floor was sanded over and crunched where they walked.

They were greeted by a short, familiar woman. Shaman Orsas was accompanied by five other individuals, including Lady Sirella.

"Prime of the House Presba," began Orsas. "You have taken it upon yourself to complete the ritual of clarity, Kal'Hyah. We are here to act as your guides and witnesses for this journey. You will begin with deprivation."

Platters began arriving, carried solemnly by Klingon warriors. They were placed on every available centimeter of table space. When the table space ran out, the food was piled into layers.

The smell of coffee filled the room.

As one, the mates turned to Kathryn, all of them reaching for her in some fashion.

From the side of the room, amused laughter filled the chamber, and they all turned again.

Sirella smiled toothily as she spoke. "Phoebe sends her love."

"Not. One. Word." Kathryn said, having caught the admiring gleam in Seven's eye. "Not one word."

==^==

With Voyager planet side there was little official work, beyond processing the telemetry of the space that surrounded the Presban system, for either of the Delaney twins to occupy themselves with. As a consequence, the large view screen that normally displayed the star field of upcoming spatial regions now displayed real-time data from Holodeck two.

"Got it." Jennifer input a correction, and watched, satisfied as a portion of the Holodeck was reconfigured into a sunken dance area, while the stage become elevated. Tongo and dabo tables, as well as several other gaming devices were already programmed, and she debated adding another raised platform and some poles.

Megan looked up from her workstation. "Are we going to invite Commander Tucker?"

"Ezri would." Jennifer paused. "Of course we don't have to invite her to the whole party."

"All right. Tucker's in. In fact, I think the whole ship is probably coming."

Jennifer laughed. "Have you figured out what to use from Vulcan yet?"

"I did find a few operas, but they aren't terribly uplifting, so no." Megan went back to shifting through the cultural database. It had seemed like such a great idea to theme the party around elements from the cultures Ezri was marrying into, but aside from a long walk in the desert, and music that sounded like a funeral dirge, Vulcan's were short on celebratory nonsense. "We could just go with Betazed ones."

Jennifer rolled her eyes. "You just want to see Dax without her clothes on."

"Half the ship wants to see Dax naked."

"Well," laughed her twin. "If we do this right, half the ship likely will."

==^==

"11-6. Green. Kadis-kot," said Barin, having placed the last piece on behalf of Emina.

Ezri looked from the board to the toddler sitting on Barin's lap, and back at the board. "You've been holding out on me, Emina."

Barin looked back at her. "Emina thinks you are distracted."

"You do, hunh?" She tickled a pink foot.

"Yes," confirmed Mezoti. "You are thinking of engaging in non-reproductive copulation, are you not?"

Ezri felt her spots begin to burn. She knew from past experience that ignoring a question from Mezoti only resulted in more questions at a later time that would be a thousand times more difficult to field. "Yes."

"Da, more." Emina pulled the pieces off the board.

Saved. "You got it. Alright, Barin you go first this time."

Emina passed her brother a red piece, and then sat down next to him, a green piece in her left hand.

==^==

They took Beverly to the Golden Bough, where she was treated to the available fresh meal of her choice. A green man in a tuxedo brought the meal to them on a platter, with a smile. "This is…this is incredible."

"They decided if they were going to have it, they might as well go all out. If you want to see incredible you should go to the mess hall. It's pandemonium down there, and the food is every bit as good." Deanna scooped a bit of fresh made lasagna for herself and blew on it to cool it down. "Of course, I don't think you could get it to be any different. They are very attached to the Long Table now."

"Long Table?"

Tasha said whimsically, "Long story." She chuckled, "Or so they tell me. It started, apparently when the Zakeeri wanted to meet the Hansen children."

"I think I'll wait on that story." Beverly glanced at her food briefly and said, "You know, I need to powder my nose. Would you excuse me for a moment?"

"Of course," Deanna said.

They watched as Beverly escaped to the refresher and Tasha said, "She's having difficulty with it."

"You've become more sensitive." Deanna commented, amused that the brash security officer had morphed over the years into a serenity that suited her.

"Comes with having a daughter. Well, and being a slave. I learned to read faces very clearly."

"I do want to ask you…"

Tasha seemed to be far away for an instant, and then she answered. "I know. One day, I'll even tell you."

"If you're still here."

"Kasala anticipates that this universe will be our new home for some time. We will plant roots here and see what seeds grow."

Deanna's gaze flickered, first to Asil, then away to some unfathomable place. "Tasha, if you'll excuse me for a moment. Suddenly I need to powder my nose too."

"Should I come?"

Deanna cocked her head slightly. "Not yet." She reached and patted the ambassador's hand. "We'll be right back."

==^==

Beverly was stronger than this. She knew she was. She had been through widowhood, an uncountable variety of losses, and her son deciding to leave with a mysterious traveler.

But the sobbing would not stop.

She wept. She wept for them all. She wept for the time that was lost and the harsh memories of Tasha's dying, for knowing that Tasha, as serene as she was now, had suffered greatly for that serenity.

She was curled onto the ground of the public refresher and felt silly, vulnerable, and unable to do anything other than what she was doing.

Then Deanna was there.

The Betazoid pulled her into an embrace, and whispered consolation while and tracing calming circles over her back. When Beverly closed her eyes she recognized the voice of her dear friend, knew who Deanna was at her core, and knew that it hadn't changed, not fundamentally. Beverly cried it out in to brunette's shoulder, accepting the cloth that seemed to magically appear.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry." It wasn't the tears she was apologizing for.

"There is nothing to be sorry for." Deanna brushed stray hairs away and hugged the doctor to her. She cupped Beverly's face in her hand and lifted her attention up. The redhead saw tears mirrored there, saw the warmth that she knew in Deanna reflected.

"It's been a tough couple of weeks."

Beverly hiccupped a laugh. "Yes. Yes, it has." She accepted the gentle swipes which dried her tears. "I am sorry I let you down."

"You didn't, Beverly. There was nothing to be done. It was just shock. And loss. And learning something about myself I did not know."

"Is it going to be a problem?"

Deanna looked out into the nothingness, but returned quickly. "No. I don't think so. Not today, at least." They rested against each other for a moment, and then the Betazoid said, "I don't know about you, but my lasagna's getting cold. Feel like going back out there?"

Beverly looked at the door, considered what it would lead to. and then nodded. "Yes."

==^==

"So, what I want to know is why we haven't contacted Starfleet yet." Sarah glanced around the busy mess hall and chose a seat away from the Long Table.

Steve followed her amiably and sat down next to her. "It's political."

"Janeway should have just--"

"No. She shouldn't have. We're in Klingon Space."

Sarah shook her head again in denial.

Steve decided, once and for all, just to lay it out for her. Sarah could be great, but she sometimes got overly focused on one idea, and couldn't let it go.

"Look, the Klingon Empire and the Federation are at loggerheads, right?"

"Yeah."

"Captain Janeway was told to do whatever it took to handle the problem at Presba right?"

"But the Titan has been secured."

"That is not the problem at Presba."

Sarah blinked. "It's not?"

"No. The problem is that her family, i.e. House Presba, is the only one that has a chance in hell to make real negotiations with the Klingon Empire possible again."

"I must be missing something."

"You are. Have you heard of Chancellor Martok?"

"Yes." Sarah favoured him with a dirty look. She'd been fighting a war, not hiding under a rock. Of course she knew who Martok was - he'd commanded the ninth fleet, after all.

"Who is Ezri Dax?"

"A joined Trill." The obvious, that Commander Dax was Voyager's first officer pro-tem, wasn't likely what Steve was asking.

"Sometimes I think you were dropped on your head while you went through the academy. She's Ezri Dax of the House Martok."

Sarah blinked at him for a moment. Then she really looked at him. Then she said, "Oh!"

Steve nodded. "And that's why you're just going to have to wait. Trust me. Captain Janeway wants everyone to be able to go home, that hasn't changed. She just wants to make it safer. So you might as well relax and enjoy the party." Of course, he was simplifying things a great deal. There was more than politics involved. Love, for instance.

Sarah was nodding her head. "Look, I really am smarter than this."

"I know, Sarah. You just haven't been the same since you lost the Steele. But you've been getting better."

"Yeah. I know. Sorry. Don't know how I missed that."

Steve grinned wickedly. "Maybe it was the bread and water."

==^==

By the middle of the first night, bread and water would have sounded appealing to the Prime. Alone with each other in the stone chamber surrounded by the scent and sight of lovingly prepared food, there was nothing to distract them from the signs of hunger.

And they hungered.

When Kathryn breathed too deeply while shifting position, they all felt her visceral desire for the coffee whose rich aroma clogged all of their nostrils as though they had breathed it in themselves.

When B'Elanna began imagining pulling the flesh from the plump chicken wings, they all felt the pressure against their teeth.

When Kate idly envisioned twirling the large strawberries in the pot of honey and then trailing the confection over Laren's nipples, they all parted their lips.

But even as they hungered together, they reached for each other and subsumed the base need for food under the strength that was also part of their totality. Tuvok and T'Pel reached for Lwaxana's mind and then for Seven's, forming the foundation to wrap them all in a shared strength of will.

==^==

Ezri woke to find the Sochlings, who now included Barin in their ranks, dressed in leathers and armed to the teeth, staring down at her. Behind them stood the hulking form of Vrald, the mate of her sister-in-law to be.

It had proved to be a more restful night than she had anticipated after being solemnly informed by Mezoti and Naomi that they would have a sleepover. Though she did wonder how she had let them talk her into dying her hair and theirs blue, and what Seven would say when she saw Emina's matching locks.

"Ezri Dax, you are required to supervise our hunting expedition on Presba. We must acquire the main course for Icheb."

She looked back over at Vrald. That explained what the Klingon was doing here. He was obviously their appointed teacher, having been living on Presba. In fact, she'd seen a marvelous painting of him and a massive firedog squared off against each other during the hunt with Sirella.

The hunt that nearly got Deanna, Asil, Phoebe, Vrald, Sirella and the assorted Klingon warriors from both Houses killed.

"No, I don't think that's a good idea at all."

"'IrneHnal Vrald has given permission, Da."

Ezri took a second look at the Klingon standing disinterestedly a respectful distance from the bed. "Yes, well, your Uncle Vrald is not the one responsible for you right now, I am."

"Comply, or we will withhold our approval."

"It's still no. I'm not taking you hunting. I'm rather fond of you all, and getting any of you killed is not part of my daily protocol.

Mezoti tilted her head, "You do not wish to be bonded?"

"Sweetie, all of the non-reproductive coupling in the world wouldn't produce enough pleasure over my lifetime, or over all of them, in fact, to offset the pain of being responsible for unnecessarily damaging any of you. So no. No hunting for you, even if it means no wedding for me."

Unexpectedly, Deanna stepped into the room. "The Children of the Prime of the House Presba, formally declare the first trial passed. "

And then Ezri understood. They had already known she loved them, would play with them, entertain them, and occasionally lead them astray. They knew she could say yes; today she'd shown she could say no.

==^==

All of the anticipated revelry aside, Commander Ezri Dax still had ship's business to conduct.

Primarily, she was working on recommendations for replacing personnel who would most likely be disembarking and mustering out here at Presba, or who were transferring to the Titan for debriefing and redeployment by Starfleet Command.

Without knowing whom Starfleet would assign to Voyager, if they assigned anyone at all, Ezri couldn't make a complete org chart, but she could make recommendations for filling some of the more obvious holes that would be left behind.

Ezri looked down at the short list of names that had requested immediate release, and wondered if Kathryn knew how many of her strays, vagabonds and outlaws had chosen to stay. It was definitely something she was looking forward to passing on. She was less pleased with Leah Brahm's request to have Dr. Lenara Kahn join her onboard Voyager. Re-association had already been a problem for Dax and Kahn once, albeit in the personages of Jadzia Dax and Lenara Kahn, and not Ezri herself. She wasn't sure if it had been truly between those Hosts, or the Symbionts. The Rite of Closure would have allowed her to meet Jadzia Dax and find out what had come from Torias Dax, and what from Jadzia, but she had yet to undergo the zhian'tara. Still, Lenara Kahn would be an incredibly valuable addition to the crew complement.

The chime rang. Ezri set aside her worries and got ready to face the next challenge.

"Come." The door slid open as the computer recognized her keyword.

"You wanted to see me, Commander?"

Ezri grinned, this time she'd left the extra chairs in the room. "Have a seat." She waited until Tucker had seated herself, then leaned forward. "I need a favour."

Sarah nodded. "If I can."

"I'd like you to take the conn the night of my bonding party and hold it until Commander Sofuru relieves you, then I need you to spell off with him, and Commanders Veckma and Magnum, until the Captain returns from her leave. But make no mistake, it's you I'm leaving in command."

"Why me?"

"Other than the fact you're the senior officer? Or is there some reason why you shouldn't be left in command?"

"No, Sir."

"Good. Then when you've had your fill of the party, relieve Lt. Sayr."

Sarah waited in her chair, and suppressed her smile, when Dax looked at her in confusion.

"Dismissed."

She got up and left. "Sir."

==^==

"Commander Dax." Sofuru spoke softly, his voice naturally lower and quieter than most of other Zakeeri, but typical of his clan.

"Dax, go ahead." Ezri leaned back in her chair, using the interruption as an opportunity to stretch out her back muscles. She was though, she decided, going to miss this.

"Lady Sirella, Mistress of the House Martok wishes to come aboard."

Ezri laughed. One of the nice things about the Zakeeri was they understood clan politics and could be counted on not to accidentally cause offense, and thus the request was immediately routed her way. She was also certain the Sirella had phrased her request somewhat differently, but she supposed she couldn't hide from the Mistress of her House. It wouldn't be respectful. "Put together an honour guard and I'll receive her in The Park."

Hurrying through the corridors she arrived at the testing area moments before Sirella's group entered The Park. Tucker, who would have actually assigned the team, had done a masterful job in the few minutes that she'd had. Not one of the Marines was less than six feet tall, and all of them were fully armed and garbed in House Regalia.

The instant it was appropriate, she bowed her head and bent her knee marginally. It wouldn't do to be too respectful.

"Your hair is blue. You look like a cha'qu' bird."

"Yes, Mistress." Inwardly, she smiled. A cha'qu' had a noisy repetitive cry and was, as a result, somewhat annoying, but it was not brightly plumed.

Sirella paced to the testing area. "You dared to set up the Braziers?" She looked down her nose at the Trill. "You are puny, weak. It will be a humiliating failure."

Ezri opened her mouth to reply but a warm touch at her back stopped her.

Deanna moved past the Trill and stood next to the Brazier. "While Ezri Dax is being tested for acceptance to House Presba, and the Brazier is of the maternal line of the Mistress of the House Martok, it was felt by the Lady Seven of Nine that it was a worthy test. Though all wish to make this event unique to the individual who is Ezri Dax, and not reproduce that which was Jadzia's trial, Ezri wishes to honour her House and Mistress. For Jadzia, this was a trial of Pride. For Ezri it is a trial of Respect."

"Pretty words, Deanna Troi."

Ezri felt the full weight of Sirella's gaze, and met it as respectfully as she could.

"Begin," said Sirella finally.

Deanna and Asil each moved to one of the Braziers to ensure that they were still lit and that enough embers remained for the test, and Asil nodded in affirmation.

Ezri moved into place. She had never lifted them, but she knew how heavy they were. For an instant she wondered if her shoulder had healed enough to be trying this, but she decided it didn't matter. She had realized something that Jadzia hadn't. The test wasn't about the Brazier placement.

She took several deep breaths, and then lifted. Concentrating on her arms and the corded muscles, she forced them perpendicular to her body. Slowly and deliberately she spoke, careful to hold Sirella's gaze the entire time. "Ko'ma tlang'goS ak-bay, Hava'dak croosh tovah. Ko'ma Kahless. Ko'ma Kahless. Ko'ma Kahless."

Eight heartbeats later, she let the braziers settle on the pillars.

"Walk with me." Sirella had already turned her back and was moving along a path.

Ezri doubled over, the agony in her arm and sides nearly forced her to her knees, but she managed to straighten. Hurriedly she caught up with the Klingon.

"The Prime have passed the first night."

She smiled at the news. Personally, Ezri thought they had been way harder on themselves than they needed to be. "I had no doubts."

"You deserve more than to be a ninth wife."

If Sirella had hugged her, Ezri would not have been more surprised than she was at the moment, and she forwent the impulse to point out that, technically, she would be the seventh wife, since Tuvok was clearly male, and B'Elanna was the center of the union.

Sirella looked at Ezri, and smiled, teeth flashing. She had finally put the Trill at a loss for words. "You are a warrior and daughter of my House. It is my duty to see you respected."

"I am."

Sirella paused thinking of how the dinner had unfolded. "I think that you are. But still…"

"It is a marriage of equals. It is what I want." There was so much more she could say, but one didn't plead with a Klingon. And, if Sirella were watching the Kal'Hyah, then she'd see for herself, or not.

"You did not tell them that they were required only to be sequestered during the night."

Ezri grinned. "I told them. They just thought I was too irresistible to be around."

Sirella snorted. "You do have a certain charm. Of a hyKah beast."

Ezri bowed.




Chapter 16 | Universe Alpha, Beta Quadrant: Presba Estate | Bookmarks




The second night found the Prime assembled once more in the large antechamber of the Presban temple. Their hunger had receded into the background, and they stood in a lose semi-circle awaiting the second set of trials.

"Now you shall begin the tests of blood, pain, sacrifice, anguish, and death."

Orsas stepped away and the two Vulcan guides were suddenly there again. They held an object that looked like a cross between a bed of nails and a grater. "Blood is the essence of life. It is the symbol which seals bonds between oath makers and mates. It is that which is spilled on the battlefield and in birth. Blood sings to those who understand it and appalls those who fear it. Tonight your blood will spill in an act symbolic of your willingness to give your life to your mate to be. Because there is to be blood, there will be pain, but this is not the test of pain. Extend your arms, Prime, and prepare.

==^==

After their arms had been scraped and their blood gathered into bowls and taken away, they had been taken to another room.

Once there the next trial, the trial of pain, was introduced by Shaman Agesu.

The actual trial was more than just a matter of pain; it was also a matter of endurance. They were gathered in a line, beside a long thin blackwood log, with the Epatai in front and the Mistress of the House in back. The log may have looked light, but it was not. More, when they lifted the log, together, the bark on it brushed against the sensitized slashed skin of their arms.

And here was where the challenge entered. Shaman Agesu said to them, "This log is Ezri. If you drop her, you fail."

They were made to hold the log - together. Then walk with it - together - from room to room in the Temple. In each room they stopped and stood. Inside the various rooms, they heard stories about Ezri that Sirella had collected and now recounted, or words of wisdom from one of Voyager's counselors or principles of logic or Klingon ways from the Monks who lived at the Temple. At random intervals the Prime were allowed to set the log down - gently - and rest. But that log was to be their burden until the sun broke the Presban horizon.

==^==

At dawn, they were led into the final room, but they held the log until their guide turned and said, "The day is yours. Sleep and recuperate while you may."

Without speaking, the Prime carried the log to the back-edge of the table and laid it down lengthwise, so it lined up parallel to the wall, and was safe from rolling onto the floor. It would serve as a visual reminder of the reason for their quest.

The room was spartan in its furnishings, but not unpleasant. It had thin pallets on which to rest, as well as the now familiar banquet table filled with food and an assortment of flavored drinks. Water they were allowed to have, and those jugs were distributed among the temptations.

When they finally spoke, it was in low-voiced Presban. Kate broke the silence first. "Drink the water first, but save some. Does this trial allow dermal regenerators?" There was a slight shake of the head from Seven. "Then someone find the alcohol."

"We may not."

Kate grunted a little. "Then water it is. But drink some, we need the fluids."

"I knew there was a side benefit to having a doctor as a mate."

Kate cracked a weak grin. "Well, I only have one word for this whole thing at the moment."

"And that is?"

"Ow."

There were soft chuckles and the mates gathered the pallets to a central location. "Will they refill the jugs?"

"Unknown."

"Three nights we can do without. Four nights not so much."

"Leave a jug full, just in case."

"Agreed."

A quiet order ruled the mates' endeavors. Seven of Nine selected the water jugs from the table and brought them to one of the pallets. Laren gathered cups and Lwaxana poured. Tuvok passed the water to each of his mates, then drank deeply from his own cup.

When their thirst was quenched, Kate turned to B'Elanna, reaching to clean her wounds.

"No, you first." The Klingon gently guided Kate into a seated position, and then knelt beside her. She took one of the napkins and wet it. Then, as gently as she could, she began to clean her mate's gashes. The act was reflected around the room as they ministered and comforted one another in turn.

==^==

The day passed slowly for the Prime.

They did sleep, but it was a sleep marred by pain and stiffness. They became each other's balm, massaging the aches away for one another. They talked during the points of insomnia, reviewing the stories or ideas that they'd heard and digging a little deeper.

"I admit to being amused by the story of Ezri and the targ."

"Do you think she really got it to sleep by playing a Klingon Opera?" Laren was skeptical. Ezri was bold sure, but she also had an innate nervousness, and the Bajoran couldn't quite picture it. Of course, the Ezri of now, was not quite the same Ezri from all those years ago.

"Unlikely. But then Sirella would not lie. She merely relayed her interpretation of the event as it was told to her."

B'Elanna shook her head with a kind of amused respect. "Still funny as Gre'thor."

"Are you going to try it?" Kathryn asked.

"To lull a targ that's chasing after me to sleep with Opera? Kahless, no. I'll leave that little caper to Ezri." The Klingon was quite emphatic in her denial, and small smiles spread around the room as her mates laughed at her expression.

Kathryn grinned, and looked over at Tuvok. "How about you? Vulcan has some terrific opera."

"Perhaps another time." He replied, as expected.

Laren and T'Pel exchanged glances, both well aware that what he meant was no.

"Here love, turn over." Kate nudged a still smiling Kathryn, and began to gently knead the muscles under her shoulder blades.

==^==

For Ezri the day passed in a pleasant, albeit fuzzy, alcohol inspired, haze. She had been taken to lunch at the Golden Bough by the Delaneys, and had never quite gotten around to leaving.

She was, thereby, not entirely surprised when Deanna and Asil came to bring her out to the testing area.

Deanna's stern expression fooled the Trill. "This will be a test of your knowledge about Klingons."

Ezri did a quick mental run through of basic history, facts, and whatever else she and Dax could drag through her not quite sober mind. She gave the Betazoid a lop-sided, challenging smile. "Fire away."

"When Worf is aroused, and in a hurry, which hand does he use to undo his belt buckle?"

There was a general shout of laughter around the testing grounds, but really it was less about the question and more about Ezri's suddenly bug-eyed response. "What?"

"Ah, you need me to repeat the question. When Worf is aroused..."

"Stop! I heard the question, I just didn't believe it."

"It is a test, Ezri Dax."

Ezri blinked at the Betazoid and then at the Vulcan. "Oh, Gods and Goddesses Above and Below The Pits, you're serious."

"We await your answer."

"Wrong Dax, Deanna. I slept with him once. Once. And believe me, I was not looking to see what he did with his belt."

There was more laughter, and a guffaw of disbelief.

Ezri looked up. Her hands and hips were suddenly making shifting motions as she pantomimed a memory into being. Then she snapped her fingers. "That's a trick question. When he's in a real hurry, he just rips the belt off with both hands."

Deanna suddenly grinned. "Well done. Now, here is the next one."

==^==

The Trill knew she was in trouble as soon as the stakes were declared. Ezri gazed at the gathered group of women, pondering the depth of the pool she had just been dropped into, and then realized that it didn't matter. It was sink or swim regardless.

Ezri was suddenly grateful that she was wearing a complex civilian outfit and not her typical version of her uniform; she had a feeling that every extra strap and piece of clothing would matter.

She saw a smile tugging at the serious Betazoid's lips, observed the stoic neutrality of the Vulcan, and pondered the advantages of playing with the two humans who could not keep from looking at each other for any length of time. Ezri turned her attention back to Deanna Troi, and wondered what the outcome of her choice would actually be. "Okay." She agreed.

==^==

Ezri wiggled her bare toes against the carpet while she studied her cards. So far, her shoes and socks were all that she had lost. She knew she was statistically likely to lose more, but she had some options to try before losing her shirt and trousers. There was no law that said which items of clothing had to be first.

She felt a hand stray to her thigh and stay there and resisted the urge to look over at the redhead. The weight was comfortable and warm. It wasn't until that hand began to move that Ezri realized that the good Doctor knew a thing or two about Trill. She risked a look and caught a blithe smile from the statuesque woman.

Then, on her other thigh, another hand gently came to rest for a moment, and then moved. Deanna too looked angelic. She was also playing a mean game of poker, which Ezri knew did not bode well at all for her fortunes.

Ezri evaluated her hand again, and pondered what to do. The answer was simple, of course. Play the deck and narrow the field. "I'll take a new card."

==^==

Tasha and Bev had folded, as much out of their interest in each other at the moment, as because they had poor hands. Bev had lost the last round, and Tasha had wasted little time in claiming the wagered item of clothing.

Deanna looked at Ezri, "You know I used to be worried about Mother seducing my boyfriends." She let a slightly provocative lilt enter her voice. "And now I'm getting one that already has."

Ezri leaned back and raked the nearly naked length of Deanna with her eyes. "Four months ago, it wouldn't have been the boyfriend I would have been trying to sleep with. I'll raise." She threw a chit for her shirt into the pot, and then raised both eyebrows as she watched Deanna.

Deanna sensed her mate's intrigue, and she realized that Asil was getting to see, in reality, a side of herself that she'd always kept hidden - especially from herself. But along with the curiosity she caught an undercurrent of encouragement and approval. "I'll see your raise and call." She placed her own chit, and one that she had won from Tasha, in the pot, then laid down her cards. "Full house, Kings over Queens."

==^==

Oddly, as the game grew more intense, the players grew more relaxed, and the conversation changed from one that was nearly formal and all about the game, to a looser, more personal exchange. It also took tangents that Ezri should have realized would come her way. After all, those questions in The Park had been very direct. What she learned though, as she played the game with these women, was that this was a party of equals. And she was really becoming quite attracted to these women, on a certain level. They were interesting and diverse. It showed in their conversation and their game play.

Asil, naturally, was playing a game of pure strategy, some of the routes she was taking to winning were diabolical. If winning was even her ultimate goal. She did seem to be playing a deft hand that was causing Deanna to lose her clothing in bits and pieces, but at a very subtle rate. It was a tactic Ezri could appreciate; she herself often lost a game others thought she was playing, only to discover to their chagrin that she was playing for very different stakes. Benjamin had told her that Humans would have said she had lost the battle, but won the war, but then, Humans had a saying for everything.

Tasha was playing boldly, but not without strategy. She was also testing Ezri mercilessly, as was Beverly. It was in their conversation, their 'accidental' touches during breaks from the game, when they stood and stretched, brushing against her. It wasn't just that they were touching her, it was how. None of it was objectionable, but all of it seemed to be designed to distract her, and there was a definite sense of seduction.

Deanna, like Ezri, appeared to be playing a game of numbers, slowly whittling away her friend's clothing options. Neither of them appeared to mind. And that clinched it for her; Ezri realized she had a decision to make and she would have to make it soon. She wasn't sure what Tasha's relationship with her mate was like, but apparently there was a certain amount of openness to it, because the Ambassador was fearless. And Beverly, well, Beverly was relentless.

Ezri found herself dealing with increasingly interesting touches, teasing glances, and broad hints. Someone was playing with her feet. Most probably Tasha, she thought, since it was unlikely to be Asil, though she wasn't positive, since it hadn't started until the Vulcan had lost her shoes. Only, Ezri was more than a little certain that the Vulcan had plotted to deliberately lose them that so she could be more comfortable, and not for as illogical a purpose as playing footsie.

==^==

Many hands later, the conversation changed again, and become a little more serious and fairly sensual. Mostly it happened between herself and Deanna as they started sharing stories, though each of the other women held their own, at least in the talking department if not in the clothing one.

Despite her arousal, and her attraction to them, she steered their dialog to safer waters, employing all of the counseling skills and clever repartee she could muster, even as she strove to be about a thousand times more subtle at it than in an actual session, and managed to get Beverly and Tasha to focus on one another. Once that spark was lit, it was like watching fireworks. She was quite in awe of it.

Ezri had turned to see Deanna looking at her with approval. It wasn't the approval of someone grading or judging her, but rather one of someone who appreciated the artistry of what had been done.

And just like that, their dialog had changed again, bringing Asil along for the ride. Deanna and Ezri talked, honestly, and with great ribaldry, but also with some fantastic insights. She was surprised to realize, though, that despite their obvious distraction, both Tasha and Beverly were paying close attention to, and joining in, the discussion. They just happened to be doing it interspersed with wonderful kisses, a few of which still came her way, but that no longer carried an expectation of progressing further.

Ezri counted herself very lucky to have found such good, new friends.

==^==

The evening had continued in its playful, fun, entertaining and pleasantly erotic way. Ezri laughed as she realized that though they were in the middle of hand, Beverly and Tasha were barely paying attention any more. Their kisses had escalated and their lack of clothing, which they now seemed to be losing on purpose, did not help to inhibit them.

She was pleased to still have her shirt, and slacks, though she had surrendered her undergarments several hands ago. Her good fortune in the clothing department was actually a result of winning more than losing, and of having the good sense to fold instead of call the blinds.

Her face carefully neutral, she refrained from looking at her cards again, lest Asil or Deanna catch a hint of how good her hand was. Ezri was sure if she played the bidding, raises and calls correctly, she might actually manage to finally wrangle some clothing from the Vulcan in their group. Asil, out of all of them, was the only one who remained completely dressed, save for her shoes, socks and belt.

Deanna was in her bra and panties and had switched seats. Or rather, she had taken up residence in the lap of her mate, who did not seem to mind at all. The Betazoid too had been playing a deft hand, managing to gain more than she lost, and had maintained her current state of dress for the last hour.

Ezri attributed the difficulty in eliminating her companions from the game to the fact Bev and Tasha had pretty much lost every stitch of clothing they'd had and now she, Deanna, and Asil were essentially using the apparel of the two Humans as chips.

She was preparing to lay down her cards and reveal her hand, when the blonde and the redhead shifted location. Beverly now leaned against Tasha, her hands spread along the other woman's back. Tasha was leaning against the table. They were ardently caressing each other and Tasha's hands had moved to cup the good doctor's breasts.

Ezri glanced at Deanna and found she was charmed by the amused affection and hint of arousal she was picking up from the body language of the Betazoid. She returned her attention to the two Humans and realized that her beverage was in danger and so, with one hand, lifted it out of the way. "I think we're going to have to move this game elsewhere."

"Oh, trust me, we don't have to leave."

Ezri was even more amused and took a drink, finishing it, and then set the empty cup on the floor.

Asil reached past her wife and across the table, and scooped the pot out of the center and toward one side.

"Practical," the Trill said in admiration.

"I have played this game before."

"Poker or strip poker?" Ezri sought clarification.

"Strip poker."

Now Deanna looked at her mate, "You have?"

"At the Academy."

Ezri blinked. She had had no idea that Asil had attended Starfleet Academy.

Deanna leaned forward. "Oh, now that sounds like an interesting story. Was it a male, female or other type of being who roped you into the game."

The Vulcan cocked a brow and said, with great equanimity, "A male, Peter Duncan."

"Easy Pete? You played a strip poker game with Easy Pete?" Jadzia had some very clear memories of playing more conventional rounds of poker with Peter Duncan.

Deanna grinned, as she picked up on her mate's thoughts. "And won."

"Against Easy Pete?" Ezri blinked again.

"I did let him keep his undergarment afterward. He told me it was tradition to leave a man with his pants and enough money for a cab."

The poker table rocked and their attention was brought back to Tasha and Beverly. Tasha was now sitting on the table, her arms stiffened in support behind her. Beverly was standing between her legs, hands on Tasha's thighs, and had apparently pulled back to assess things.

Beverly glanced at them.

Ezri smiled. "Please, play on."

Deanna slid off of Asil's lap, and paced toward Beverly and Tasha. She kissed them both, one at a time, with a tender sweetness. Her hands and body brushed familiarly against her two friends. There had been other times, other places, where the three of them had lost themselves in one another. But for the moment, she had a purpose in mind. Deanna picked up the deck of cards and chips that were threatened by their position. "Carry on, loves. We have a game to continue. The table, however, is yours."

"The whole table?" quipped Ezri.

"Well, half then."

"Half the table it is," Bev's green eyes were bright with amusement and arousal. Tasha looked back by bending her body and tilting her head. One bare foot was planted on the table. She grinned at the Trill. Ezri realized abruptly, that as lost as they had been in one another, they both had known exactly what they were doing.

"You do realize I'm getting married soon."

"All the more reason..."

The cards shook in Ezri's hands and she deliberately stilled them. "Then, if you don't mind my watching, I don't mind the view."

At her purred comment, their skin, which was already at a pleasant flush became a little more ruddy. It was a delightful color on them.

"They don't mind," Deanna confirmed. She settled back in Asil's lap and looped an arm around her mate's neck. Then she kissed Asil. The kiss deepened, warmed into something more profound. The cards fluttered out of Deanna's hands, followed by the heavier chips, which smacked on the ground in haphazard disarray.

Ezri reached for her cup and remembered it was empty. She was going to have to face this dry. At least that was what she thought until she caught movement in her peripheral vision. Beverly lifted a half full bottle, then began to slowly pour the contents over Tasha's breast and belly. The wine trickled in zig zag, contrasting with Tasha's pale skin. Bev set the bottle on the table just outside of the Trill's reach.

Ezri accepted the implied dare and leaned in close to retrieve the bottle. She lifted it to her lips and took a long drink, and then slowly ran her tongue around the aperture, to get the drops that had spilled over the edges. More slowly, and without breaking eye contact with Beverly, she put the bottle down, even closer to the redhead.

Bev held her gaze for another moment, smiled whimsically, and then leaned in and began licking up the rivulets of wine in long, slow strokes. She lingered over pink-tipped breasts, laving the points and pulling them into her mouth, nuzzling the sweet mounds. In the meantime, she was caressing Tasha with firm, wonderful to watch, touches.

Ezri licked her lips. Her body was definitely responding to what she was seeing. In her mind's eye, she saw another redhead, another blonde on the table. The ache that she had been carrying inside, the lingering need, flared.

She turned her head, trying to escape from it. But there was no escape to be had.

Deanna, who had been equally inspired, was now completely facing Asil. Her bra was undone, hanging to the sides. Asil was stroking her mate's breasts with her fingertips, while humming...no...purring...into the kisses that she was sharing with her mate. Those purrs reminded Ezri of Seven's whispers in her ears. Ezri shivered. She looked at the cards in her hand and then at the table.

The Trill inhaled and folded her cards together, then bent over and slid them under her chair and weighted them down with empty cup. She stayed with her head down for a moment, letting the blood rush to her head in hopes that it would cool her impulses. But the truth was, she wanted to watch. She loved to watch. She, Ezri, was a voyeur long before she had ever heard of Dax.

Ezri straightened up. Then, purposefully, she pulled the buttons on her shirt free and undid the snap of her trousers. It sounded like a clap of thunder to her, but no one even looked. Beverly was now licking the wine off of Tasha's belly. The blonde's hands were stroking through her lover's hair, half to provide direction and half just to connect. Asil had slid forward on her seat and both her hands were on Deanna's hips. Deanna's hands were now up and under Asil's shirt. Their kisses had also expanded in the territory being covered.

Deanna gasped as Asil suddenly shifted and then lifted her. The Vulcan carried her mate to the table. Deanna was soon sitting on the other half of the table, not quite parallel to Tasha and Beverly.

Ezri, now positioned between both pairs, observed without touching the other women, but she did touch herself. Trill spots weren't mere decorations, and when aroused, all she had to do was brush her fingertips along certain ones, even accidentally, and those vibrations flowed through her.

She had yet to even touch her own breasts, but the excitement welled from her chest to her belly and lower. She throbbed, all the spots without and within, with each gasp, each tender expression and touch that she witnessed. The exoticness of the Vulcan's and the Betazoid's words blended with the heat of the Humans' blunter statements. Ezri realized that the communicators had come off and were scattered with their clothes, which were no longer on the table, or even near to it. What she was hearing now, interpreting now, was what was truly spoken, unfiltered. Her translations mixed with memory and fantasy, all woven into the brief contact of and with the whole that had been given to her by Lwaxana.

Beverly's long slow trail had taken her to the obvious destination. Ezri watched as the Human moaned into the taste, and Beverly's strength pulled Tasha closer. Tasha's fingers dragged against the table like a cat clawing. Her head was thrown back and any conscious thought of where she was, had faded into the background of pleasure.

Like an accelerant poured on flame, Deanna leaned over and while Asil's mouth was on one of her breasts and a hand moved through molten wetness, she kissed Tasha.

It burned, weirdly premonition-like, because for a moment, that was not who Ezri saw, though she was fully aware of who and where she was.

A part of Ezri's brain recognized how shocking this might be to outsiders, to people who did not understand or share their perspective. But she knew it for what it was. This was a gift. This was a wedding gift, from these beautiful women to herself.

She embraced it fully, exulting in their pleasure and her responses to them. She had no idea what the future really held, but this now was precious, beautiful. Spiritual. Erotic.

Asil thrust into Deanna, whose lovely hips moved to her mate's rhythm, her raven hair spreading out as her head tilted and she thrust back. Deanna's kisses and touches drifted between her mate and Tasha. Ezri's brain briefly played around with the idea of commonality, of how, despite the odds, they all seemed formed to love one another. Excitement blended with analysis. Her eyes followed the way their muscles flowed under their skin, the lines and planes of their physical representation. It only added to the mysterious equation that resulted in deep arousal.

Ezri's momentary observation broke and shattered as the women neared peak. Her fingertips were just below the band of her trousers, but she had lost track.

Tasha arched and clenched and cried out. Ezri's vision clouded, blended fantasy again with reality. She turned her head and the vision continued, carried over as the cries of sensual arrival expanded, doubled. For a moment she was not even in the room, she was with them...with her betrothed. Bajoran being loved by Vulcan, Betazoid, Human, Borg, Klingon, they mixed. Brunette, blonde, redhead, fair-skinned, dark-skinned, upswept ears and ridges, bodies so real as to make her cry out for the need of them.

Deanna clung to Asil with one arm wrapped around her neck and shoulder and their foreheads were touching. She held Tasha's nearest hand, as the Human continued to ride her blissful waves. Beverly was making her own contented noises and now wending a slow path back up Tasha's body.

Asil was still obviously pressing into Deanna, still stirring her into deeper pleasure. Ezri knew that there was a silent conversation going on and though she couldn't hear the words, she could practically see the bond between the Vulcan and the Betazoid deepen, grow stronger, become something new and more wondrous. It was evident to the Trill that whatever had once been between Tasha, Beverly and Deanna it had now been set in its rightful place.

Ezri sat back more fully in her chair, breathing heavily from her own capture and release. The tears were real. The orgasm that ripped through her in response was real. The people who were with her now, were real, but so were her feelings and her need. She felt the lingering doubt disintegrate: disappear. She wanted them. Her desire for each of the Prime was real and deep enough to hold sway no matter who she was with. It was the logical solution, perfect for a Trill who had lived nine life-times and utterly necessary for her well being.

She responded to Deanna's gaze and realized that the Betazoid couldn't help knowing what she knew.

Deanna said, 〈〈You have passed the third test. Your own.〉〉

Ezri nodded, understanding, and was at peace.

==^==

It was the sensation of full lips brushing across hers that pulled her up out of sleep. Before Ezri could deepen the contact, it was removed, and she opened her eyes, groaning as much from the light, as from the loss of the intimate caress. "Good morning," she murmured.

"Umm, good morning to you too." Tasha stretched languidly, her body elongating along the full length of the shorter Trill.

Ezri turned her head slightly to the left, careful not to wake Deanna, who had, at some point in the early morning hours, nestled into Ezri's right side, and availed herself of another of Tasha's kisses.

Deanna stirred, and Ezri turned her head again and kissed the top of the Betazoid's head, trying to soothe her back into sleep. Her eyes met the darker ones of Asil, who was also awake and curled up against her mate from behind.

"I feel like a puppy." Ezri surveyed the bed, and basked in the comforting warmth of her companions.

Beverly, from the other side of Tasha, propped herself up on her elbow. "A puppy?"

"Yup. A very happy, very content, moderately hung-over puppy."

==^==

Deanna, firmly snuggled between Asil's angular, sturdy warmth, and Ezri's surprisingly solid body, surfaced into wakefulness more abruptly than she wished. She let herself hang suspended in the heat of them. The Trill was lazily massaging her skull, and Asil was tracing slow patterns along her arms.

It was incredibly soothing, and she toyed with sinking back into sleep.

〈〈Good morning, my love.〉〉

〈〈Was your sleep a restful one, sai Aduna?〉〉 Asil's touch became a shade more intimate.

〈〈It was. I felt very protected. Safe. Thank you.〉〉 Aloud she said, "Can the two of you do whatever it is you're trying to do secretly, a little more secretly?"

Bev, mussed red hair framing her face, popped up, eyes wide. "You heard that?"

"What do you think woke me up?"

Tasha appeared in view, grinning unrepentantly. "We were just keeping Dax occupied."

"Me? I wasn't doing anything!" Ezri protested. She held both her hands in the air, careful not to pull Deanna's hair. "All appendages fully accounted for."

"You were watching. We didn't want you to get bored doing mattress duty." Tasha kissed her soundly. "Good morning again, by the way."

Ezri broke the kiss and left a smaller one behind to replace it. "Fine, I was watching. But I'm not, by even the most convoluted of marriages, related or about to be related to either of you."

Deanna trailed her finger over one of the buttons on Ezri's shirt, amazed that Trill had managed to keep it on. She seemed to remember Beverly making some pretty determined attempts to remove it. "Asil and I were related by marriage."

Asil, who had discovered that the Trill was extremely rewarding in her reactions to being teased, moved her legs in such a way as to pin Deanna more closely against Ezri, and ran her fingers along Deanna's sides. The resultant tremor moved from Betazoid to Trill.

Ezri blinked. She was suddenly extra glad that she only had to get through the next twenty-four hours; give or take a few. "You two are far too much like your mothers for me to be safe in this bed much longer."

Then, being who she was, and because the night before had gifted them with an easy intimacy, she leaned in and kissed Deanna anyway. If it was less than chaste and maternal, it was also familial and warm. A kiss of love and friendship, not passion. "Now let me up and I'll make breakfast."

Deanna laughed and rolled back. "Pancakes?"

"With chocolate and whipped cream if you want. I might even be able to find where Icheb hid the fresh fruit."

"Bribery will not succeed." Asil intoned.

Feeling duly wicked, and deciding that all was fair in love and marriage trials, Ezri ducked down and kissed the Vulcan lightly. "I would hope that I've already demonstrated that I'm suitably debauched enough to pass."

Bev laughed. "That was last night. This is the morning after."

Tasha who had flowed into the space vacated by the Trill, and who was thus, indulging in saying good morning to Deanna, lifted her head. "I hereby move that Ezri Dax has passed the fourth trial."

"I second the motion."

Tasha smiled at Ezri. "All in favour." Five hands went up, causing a round of giggles to pass among them. "All opposed? Motion is carried."

Deanna moved back into Asil's arms and looked up at Ezri. "On behalf of the adult children of the Prime, we accord you as having passed the fourth trial. Now about those pancakes?"

==^==

They were just finishing breakfast when there was a chime at her cabin door.

Ezri looked at her companions at the table. The only one who was decent, or at least decent enough to answer the door, was herself, and that was largely due to her shirt being mostly buttoned. The other four women, lacking any need for modesty, were in various states of nudity.

Deanna smiled whimsically and touched her fingertips to Asil's. "Let him in, Ezri. He'll get a kick out of it."

Ezri put forth a guess. "Worf?"

Tasha laughed. "No."

Beverly looked at the woman who was sitting on her lap. "You can't tell me that he would be this open minded at home."

Tasha looked deeply into Beverly's eyes. "You are very right. But trust me."

"Oh, I do."

"Good." The Ambassador turned to Ezri, "Please let my mate in, if you don't mind. I'm sure he has just come to fetch me."

"Uh-huh. Are you sure this isn't part of the test? I can grab my dk-targ on the way, defend your honour and all that." Ezri grinned impishly.

Deanna swiped chocolate onto her fingertips. Asil grabbed her hand before it could reach her mouth and licked the potent sauce off. The Betazoid gasped, and then smiled heatedly at her mate. She managed a reply anyway. "Certain."

Ezri called out permission. "Come in!"

The door swished open and the tall Romulan stepped in. "I am here for Tasha."

Tasha flowed off of Beverly and walked straight to her mate. He caught her and pulled her close, and then they kissed with warmth and passion. When the kiss ended their foreheads were pressed together and his hand stroked down her back gently.

They parted.

Kasala smiled down at his mate and replied aloud to the silent conversation he'd been having with his wife. "It is unusual circumstances we find ourselves in." Then he turned and said, "Beverly Crusher, my mate is unready to be parted from you. Will you join us today, perhaps in our quarters, and then at the party?"

Beverly glanced at Deanna who smiled gently and reached to grasp her hand. "Go. How long have you waited?"

The redhead looked at Ezri, "I hope you don't mind, but…"

"Oh please, don't let me keep you. Pleasure is, after all, the principle good and proper goal of all action."

Kasala raised his brows, and a flicker of amusement passed over his finely sculpted lips. "I do not believe that is what you thought last night."

Ezri felt her body flush from the roots of her hair to the last of the spots on her feet, as she realized, that during their heated embrace, Tasha had shared the events of the night with Kasala. Obviously, she had managed to find the part Tobin Dax had contributed to her personality. Well, at least she wasn't sweating too. Fortunately, she had garnered aplomb aplenty from Dax's other hosts, and Ezri gave Kasala a shrug followed by a wry grin. "Think of me as an ethical hedonist."

Tasha laughed and kissed the Trill lightly. "Hmm. A hedonist with a duranium will." Breaking away from Ezri, but not putting much distance between them, she reached for Beverly, pulling her up out of the chair in order to kiss the redhead thoroughly and leisurely.

Breathless, when the kiss ended, Beverly took a minute to compose herself, and then flashed a quick grin at all of them. "You won't mind if I put on a little something more...concealing?"

Tasha laughed. "I had better too. After all, I am an ambassador. Bare skin may be okay for Betazed, Risa and Ezri's quarters, but I have an image to uphold."

Kasala flicked a nipple playfully. "Indeed."

Tasha leaned forward and pecked him on the cheek, then left before he could attempt anything else.

Beverly joined her on the way to the refresher, the walls of which had been successfully reconfigured so that it did not face the main family quarters.

Deanna chuckled as she watched them go. Then Asil fed her another strawberry. Ezri just shook her head in wonder at how things worked out sometimes. The Betazoid cocked her head a moment, and then a sly smile crossed her lips.

"Kasala," Deanna said, "You might as well sit and join us for some breakfast. They're going to be awhile."

==^==

If someone had told Beverly when she had been on her way to Presba on the merchant ship that she would shortly be dancing with two ambassadors from another universe at one of the most incredible bachelor parties she had ever been to, she would have performed a thorough medical scan on them. However, that did not stop her from enjoying herself.

She was not one to throw herself into things under normal circumstances, but she had come to the conclusion that these circumstances most definitely qualified as unusual.

And beautiful.

Tasha was older, but there was a serenity and grace in her that Beverly could not recall. And the love of Kasala for his mate was beyond transparent, as was his fearlessness with her. He knew who she was to him and Tasha knew who he was to her. And somehow, they had folded that love around her.

Beverly wondered if she was perhaps being influenced by the numbers. She was surrounded by as many trios as couples, with the odd quintuple mixed in for good measure. But then she looked at Tasha and knew that there were no numbers involved; it was just something fundamentally wonderful.

Tasha Yar was back. And she had brought a piece of Beverly back with her.

==^==

Ezri let herself fall back off the stage, having decided to abandon playing the large drums in favour of the press of flesh in the dance pit. She wasn't entirely sure who had originally caught her, nor did she care. What was holding her interest was the body wrapped around hers from behind, along with the one melded to her front.

Megan's hand slid round to just under the swell of her breast, the thumb lying along the plump side, but raising no higher. Then, just as Ezri was about to arch back, the hand dropped, and Jennifer rotated her by the waist, reversing the directions the twins were facing. Her friendship with Delaneys was one of her most treasured relationships. In the twins, she had found women who understood her need to play, but respected that she was as physically unavailable as she was emotionally. In her, they had found a lack of judgment and an acceptance not previously accorded to them on Voyager. It helped their bond that all three were in love with the same woman.

Facing a new direction, she spotted Worf, who had just come through the holodeck doors.

Provocatively running her hands over Jennifer's sides, she whispered her apologies and then stepped away.

She moved to where Deanna was swaying in time to the music and, from behind, pulled the smaller woman back against her, to whisper in her ear. "Did you see Worf come in?"

Deanna laughed. "We should go say, hello." She turned to kiss the side of Ezri's neck. "And I see that you have Bev's shirt. Hand it over."

She let Deanna slowly unbutton her shirt, aware that more than a few people had figured out that there was a convoluted game of sorts being played out amongst a group of them, her ego reveling in the attention. More hands than she expected helped divest her of the garment and she let Asil help her into the replacement. The sober Starfleet officer in her realized that their behaviour bordered on the dissolute, but despite the number of Humans, with their oddly constrained sexual mores, in attendance, no one seemed to think anything of it, or read more into it than was there.

And really, she had yet to do anything that she was ashamed of. In point of fact, she hadn't done a few things that she'd probably wonder about in idle moments in the future, but that was fine by her. Everyone needed a fantasy every now and then.

Ezri promptly named original owner of Asil's shirt and claimed it, grinning cheekily at the pair. She let herself thoroughly enjoy the recently donned shirt being peeled off and replaced again. "We better go get him before his scowl becomes permanent, or explodes."

"Or he does." Both women found that funny and leaned against each other as they laughed.

"You know we could really give him something to see." Deanna leaned up and kissed Ezri.

"Deanna, you are trying to kill me. I swear you all are trying to kill me." Ezri took a minute to rest her forehead on Deanna's shoulder, revealing in the unrestrained sensuality of the moment, even as she teased the brunette. "Killed dead."

Deanna laughed again and pointed at Worf. "I think he thinks we're trying to kill him."

"Indeed." Asil cocked her head slightly, studying the tall Klingon in the light of what she had learned over the last couple of days.

Ezri watched as Deanna's eyes widened and the Betazoid looked at her mate. "I don't want to know, do I?" She asked the Vulcan.

Asil let the edge of her lip curl, "Perhaps not, but I would wager that you would like to watch."

Deanna coloured, and Ezri looked back at the Vulcan, impressed. "I think you'd win that bet."

==^==

Tom grinned at Harry. "I think we need to invite the Delaney Twins to throw our bachelor party. This," he paused dramatically and extended his arms as if to embrace the whole thing. "…is awesome."

Harry laughed. "I already asked them. They said yes. But they want a month's notice."

"See, that's exactly why I proposed. You, my handsome man, are a smart guy."

Harry's eyes twinkled in amusement and he lifted his cup in salute to Tom. "Let's go dance. Steve is off winning some replicator chips."

Tom grinned and stood. He gazed out at the full dance floor and wondered how he and Harry would fit. Then he grinned even wider. They'd fit very closely. "To think they won't be worth much in a little bit."

Harry slapped his back manfully. "No, Tom. They'll always be worth a lot to us." He finished the drink in his hand and then wrapped his arm around Tom's waist.

==^==

Icheb wasn't used to being quite this close to Celes Tal, but he was enjoying it. The music in the holodeck was loud and pulsing. He could hear and feel it on several levels. Just as he could sense and feel the Bajoran on many levels.

Tal was smiling at him warmly, her arms wrapped around his neck and hips swaying with his.

He wasn't sure what caused the next event. There was a change in her gaze, in the way she moved. And, somehow she managed to meld closer to him. Then, somehow, her lips were just centimeters away from his.

He closed the distance.

It was a rush of sensation, delightful and urgent. The kisses deepened.

Then she pulled back and stared at him in consternation. "Are you purring?" Tal knew he could hear her, even in the crowd.

His brow lifted and he nodded shortly. "Yes. It is common among the…adults of my family when they are engaged in…"

She covered his mouth with her hand and grinned. "Don't spoil it with explanations. Just kiss me again. And this time, lean in by my ear after. I want to hear it."

==^==

When they were sure that Ezri had slid from sober to drunk, Megan and Jennifer put the next part of the evening into motion.

The lights in the rest of the holodeck dimmed, while those above the raised dais and its poles began to pulse lightly.

Megan signaled Asil, whom she had decided was a lot of fun for a Vulcan, in fact it was Asil's shirt she was wearing, having claimed it from Kasala a few minutes earlier. A lot of fun, and nothing like her father. Though looking at Ezri, who seemed quite happy to be gaining the stoic Security Chief as a mate, made her wonder about that too. Maybe Asil favoured her mother.

Asil used her body to direct the Trill, deciding it would be more efficient to move her across the room under the guise of dancing, than it would be to attempt to convince her to do it on her own. Ezri was surprisingly logical in her objections to requests when she was drunk.

Once there, she maneuvered the smaller woman into a velvet-cushioned chair.

Suspicious, Ezri looked up at Asil. "Wow. You're tall."

"Indeed. Perhaps it is because you are seated."

"Maybe," she agreed. "Why am I seated?"

"So you can watch." Asil, who knew who at least two of the dancers were, took a chair next to Dax. She believed the next little while would prove illuminating.

==^==

"I feel naked." Kate said.

Lwaxana laughed. "You are naked."

"I'm also wet."

Laren snorted. "I think that's the first time in I've ever heard those words from you as a complaint."

"Well, given the buckets of water being thrown on us, that was bound to happen." Kathryn sidestepped the risque comment.

"Is this the trial?" B'Elanna asked. It seemed to her like it could be, if they were expected to be in a situation that was almost guaranteed to trigger the mating fire.

"It is not. This is the designated cleansing period before the trial commences."

"I knew it was too easy." Kate shook her head.

==^==

As a group, they were led into a room that was steaming, miserable, and beyond even the heat of Vulcan. The room was circular, with a pathway that went all the way around it. Their guides and witnesses were stationed around it. Through it, there was a wide cross shaped pathway that divided the room into quadrants. In those quadrants were lava-red hot rocks. The path led to a wide square shaped stage with five stationary platforms, a table with food and delectable items that would not wilt in the heat on one side, and a table with water jugs and ladles on the other. Just in front of those platforms stood Inan, who waited for them as they were led to stand before her.

"Tonight you are about to be reminded about what it is to be Prime of a House, a Clan, a Family. I am Inan, Matriarch of the Orions of House Presba. It falls upon my shoulders to provide to you this experience. So that you are aware, Seven of Nine has not been apprised of the specifics of this Trial. This test belongs to all of you."

Inan moved and waved in the direction of the platforms. "Your trial begins with these five platforms. The first four are to be occupied by the Prime. At the halfway point, you may exchange places, but the platforms must all be filled for you to pass this trial. The last platform is for Ezri Dax, who, unless you intervene, will be brought in from her trials to join you in yours. The one who takes this platform will be required to stay on it for the full night, and bear the burden that will be assigned to it."

"Here are the points you must know. The Epatai cannot join you on these platforms until the second turn. Those of you who are not upon the platforms will be given opportunities to provide comfort to those who are, at assigned intervals. However, you will only be given a small amount of time in which to do so. You will have to choose."

"You will also have to listen. Voyager, please recite the list of the Prime of the House Presba."

Voyager's voice filled the cavernous room and she listed their names from Epatai to Tuvok. Because they were not yet bonded, Ezri Dax was not included.

"Voyager, who are you?"

"I am Voyager of the House Presba. I am a living ship of the House."

Sirella looked slightly astonished, but kept her peace.

"Voyager, explain to Captain Janeway what she must do."

"Captain Kathryn Janeway must not attempt to take a platform in lieu of another. She may assist, she may watch, she may even carry the burden of another. But she may not take their place. She has her own place to fill."

A new platform rose from the ground in front of the other five. "Captain Janeway, you may leave your platform at any time and may return to it at any time, but you may never leave it for span of longer than ten minutes." Inan lifted her hand and a glowing timer appeared above her hand. "Do you understand?"

Kathryn, who felt a sudden heaviness in the pit of her heart nodded. "I do."

"Take your place, Captain."

It was unnecessary to even look at her mates, so she didn't. Kathryn strode forward and took her place, facing toward the other platforms.

Despite the fact that her back was to the mates, she was included in the quick mental conversation, that was mediated by Lwaxana and T'Pel.

〈〈Was it my imagination or were we given the choice as to whether Ezri would be brought in to this trial or not?〉〉

〈〈We were.〉〉 Seven confirmed.

〈〈Do we?〉〉

〈〈No. She has trials of her own which she must face.〉〉

No one commented on the qualitative difference of the experiences, or that they might seem frivolous in comparison. They all understood that Ezri's trials were not necessarily all about Ezri.

〈〈Then someone must take her place.〉〉

〈〈I will.〉〉

〈〈No. I will.〉〉

〈〈I…〉〉 B'Elanna stopped. She couldn't take a spot until the second turn, and this platform had to be filled from the beginning with no change in its occupant. Ice blue eyes locked onto hers and in that moment she understood how difficult her part of the trial would be; she would have to stand by and watch her Be'nal suffer, because B'Elanna knew what the next words from Seven would be.

〈〈Stop. It is my responsibility. I will take her place.〉〉

They couldn't argue the logic of it and suddenly the trial began to make a terrible sort of sense. No matter what they did, there would be those who suffered less and others who suffered more.

〈〈We will stand with you.〉〉 Tuvok affirmed and T'Pel agreed. This choice too was logical. They were all Presban. They all had strength, but Tuvok and T'Pel were also Vulcan.

〈〈Epatai?〉〉 Kathryn pointedly deferred approval to B'Elanna.

〈〈Do it.〉〉

"Inan, we are ready." Seven spoke aloud.

"And your choice?"

"I am Mistress of the House. I will take the place of Ezri Dax."

A quick flicker of approval showed in Inan's expression. "Take your places."

Kate, Laren, Tuvok and T'Pel took the four platforms while Seven of Nine took the fifth. Lwaxana was led to a point in the middle on Kathryn's left, while B'Elanna was led to a point on her right.

Inan smiled slightly. "Of course, this would not be a complete test without the burdens. Voyager?"

Blue light flickered and weighted objects of various types appeared before those on the platforms. "You must hold these burdens during your time on the platform. You may not set them down, though another may hold them for you for a time. These are your children and your obligations. You know the consequence if you drop them. Now, lift your burdens. The trial begins."

==^==

A half an hour passed and Kathryn stepped down from her platform, holding the replica of Voyager in arms. She smiled at the sitting Lwaxana and B'Elanna. They were conserving their strength and watching their own clocks until they could make their move. They had another half an hour to wait. They could stand and walk around, but they could not assist in anyway, until the time was called.

She made her way to Kate and stepped onto the platform with her. "How are you, my mate? Do you need a drink?"

Kate, who was holding a caduceus, smiled. "Kiss me and find out."

Kathryn smiled in return. "You know, and I know, exactly what will happen if I kiss you right now."

"Damn. No. I'm not thirsty." Kate looked amused, "You know, that second night, I wasn't expecting that side effect. I mean, I should have. The blood does call."

Kathryn chuckled and leaned into her mate a little. "Yes, it does." Then she stepped back. "Carry on, Dr. Kate."

"Oh, Always. This…well, it's not nothing, but it's familiar. Doctors stand a lot during an emergency."

Kathryn shifted Voyager in her grasp so she could caress Kate gently, then she stepped off the platform. She glanced at the clock, and then made her way to Laren, who held her sailboat - heavy as it was - with gentle and affectionate care.

==^==

Two hours later, B'Elanna stood and made her way first to the water table, where she picked up a jug, a ladle and a cloth and then passed them to Lwaxana. She then picked up another set for herself. They moved quickly, Lwaxana starting with Kate, and B'Elanna starting with Seven of Nine. It was not their first trip.

"Hello, Bang'wI."

"Hello, Be'nal." She was gratified that Seven looked untroubled by the burden in her hand. It was a multi-colored orb with the sigils of Martok and Presba branded upon it in what looked to be the same shiny silver metal that had once comprised the exterior of Seven's Borg implants. B'Elanna didn't even try to figure out how much it weighed.

The Klingon lifted the ladle, which was filled with water, and held it up to her mate's lips. Seven sipped, drinking her fill and perhaps a little more. Seven's nanoprobes had adapted to the temperature, but the evidence of heat was still there. Beads of sweat liberally dotted her brow and body.

B'Elanna carefully tucked away the wisps of hair that had escaped their bun to cling to Seven's face, and then gently wiped her brow, but not her body. The sweat was helping to keep her cool. "I wish, Be'nal, that I could take your place."

"It is obvious why you cannot."

"I know. My test."

"No, B'Elanna. Our test."

==^==

Four hours, and many small journeys of aid and comfort later, Kate and Laren's objects disappeared and, their mates, B'Elanna and Lwaxana, helped them down and then took their places. Blue light shimmered and new objects appeared on the platform. Lwaxana lifted the heavy scrolls with a smile, but it was B'Elanna who laughed. The miniature warp core simply tickled her. She stopped laughing when a full sized bat'leth appeared beside it, and she realized it was hers, shined and sharpened.

Of course, there were four who could not give up their places. T'Pel held a stacked statue of shiny bars that a Ferengi would have killed for. She appeared, as did Tuvok, relaxed and unperturbed by the heat or the weight of the object she was holding. Though she did accept the succor and the loving attention that she was given. Tuvok's burden was also split in two. A heavy torch and a Vulcan sword were his to carry. Seven of Nine continued to hold the orb and Kathryn continued to hold Voyager.

And they all held each other.

==^==

Inan returned to the square at the six hour mark. "It is now time for a new addition to this trial. I do this because I honor and love you as my kin and I wish you to succeed not just in your quest, but in your lives."

The Orion now let her palms show and then she went to each of the Prime and brushed her hands against their faces. Then she whispered something to them, something personal that only a counselor with access to certain files would know, something that caused a flare of pain in each of their eyes - even the Vulcans.

Given the sudden, devastation in all of them, they did not need to be told. This was the trial of anguish, added directly to the trial of sacrifice.

Yet, even there, even with the urge to shed tears, they knew they had the advantage: unspoken and deep. They reached out and were gathered into each other, loved and held on a level that few others would comprehend. They knew immeasurable anguish and they survived it.

==^==

The last two hours of the trial would have been unbearable without each other's support and love. Those who were free to move did what they could, when they could; sharing the burden, by holding the objects for awhile, mopping the brow of sweat, or providing water for the thirsty.

Inan finally returned. Again she opened her palms and took their faces in her hands and whispered something to them. But this time, when she parted ways from them they felt a powerful sense of relief and comfort.

Lwaxana conveyed what they were all thinking, 〈〈Thank you.〉〉

The Orion Matriarch bowed slightly, but said nothing return. She then summoned the Vulcan monks. "Prime of House Presba, follow your guides. The day is yours."

==^==

For the second time in as many days, Ezri woke in a tangle of arms and legs; a warm body nestled to either side. Her head felt like the inside of a Klingon drum, and she had no idea where she was.

The party must have been a success.

"Computer, what is the time?"

"The time is fifteen-thirty hours."

Mid-afternoon. Not too bad.

The body snuggled on her left began to move, stretching into the sheets. Slowly, Ezri opened her eyes and looked over into the sleepy eyes of Megan Delaney.

"Good morning."

"Good afternoon." Ezri absently twirled a lock of dark hair in her fingers.

"Afternoon? Wow."

"Wow, indeed. You two throw a hell of a party. I'm going to have Seven of Nine make you the official party planners of the House.

Megan laughed and sat part way up, leaning against the headboard.

Jennifer, by contrast, grabbed a handful of the covers and pulled them up over her head. "Too much talking."

Ezri shifted so she was lying partially on Megan's lap. "I don't suppose you could help me with one more little event?"

"Sure, anything for our favourite Trill. What do you have in mind?"

"A breakfast-cum-wedding reception, around sunrise."

Jennifer popped up at that. "That's in twelve hours."

"Fifteen. Will you help me?" She'd been thinking about it since she moved the party forward by a night, but hadn't discussed it with anyone. It just hadn't seemed right to show up at the Presban Temple still drunk or hung-over, and she'd had six weddings. What Ezri wanted this time was to feed her betrothed, soothe whatever hurts she could and just go home with them.

And really, the logistics of who would say what parts of the ceremony was giving her fits. No. She'd make sure she was there at sunrise, knife and bowl in hand.

"Of course, we'll help. That's what friends are for."

==^==

"Are you sure it won't burn?"

"I am sure." Icheb paused. "Perhaps you would like to--"

"Do something else?" Ezri finished for him.

"That seems advisable. You are somewhat anxious."

"Or do you just have someplace you'd rather be?" She teased. When she'd gone back to the holodeck to retrieve some of the gifts she'd been given, as well as to recover a couple of items of clothing that had gone astray, she'd been surprised to find Icheb sound asleep with Tal curled next to him on a couch in one of the conversation pits.

In retrospect Ezri was glad she'd forgotten that Icheb had asked Phoebe and Vrald to take his siblings so that he and Tal could attend the party. If she had remembered, she doubted she would have taken the stage with Beverly and company. Apparently, there were a couple of kinks to work out of the impending instant parenthood.

"No. I wish to be of assistance." But Icheb looked down and she felt bad for teasing him.

"Hey. I was teasing. I think you and Tal are a good match, and you have nothing to be embarrassed about. I, on the other hand, might have a tough time explaining to the Captain why half the ship knows how far down her First Officer's spots go."

Icheb flushed again.

Ezri laughed, ruffling his hair. "It's a good thing we have so many counselors in the family. We could end up a virtual Freudian nightmare." She looked at the heating unit. "Are you sure it's not burning?"

==^==

It was, Phoebe decided, very nice to have the Estate full of children. She knew Vrald was equally aware of the pleasure of it. He had paused to rub her belly and kiss her warmly. She leaned against him while they watched the youngsters.

At the moment they were laughing in the garden, playing a chase game with the tiniest members of the household. She had been worried about Hov and Qul and their responses to strangers, but they took immediately to her nieces and nephews; perhaps because of Barin. Qul was his dog, or rather Deanna and Asil's dog, and she thought the firedog was aptly named, as her coat was the bright orange of an incandescent fire. Hov had been named for the silver threads in his luxurious coat, its glint reminding her of the silver of the stars, and Vrald had cheerfully told her the Klingon word for star was hov.

The children were gentle with the puppies, but their play was active and joyful. It sparked an idea, terrible and wonderful in its simplicity, within Phoebe. "They need a dog."

"Hm?"

"The Prime. You know Deanna and Asil will want to keep Qul here with them. What if…we sent them Hov?"

"Your baby-puppy?" He'd seen the way Phoebe nurtured the animal. He squashed the idea. "You'd weep for days. No."

"But…" Her husband held a gentle finger to her lips.

"However, Qul belongs with Barin. We will see to it."

"I knew I loved you for a reason."

==^==

The rope handle was slick with beaded moisture and Ezri had a difficult time getting a firm enough grip on it to yank it again. Finally, she felt it give, and heard the hiss as more water was dumped on the hot rocks and a fresh plume of steam filled the sauna.

She breathed gingerly, the heat was cloying and the air was sharp with the scent of wood. A fine layer of perspiration beaded all over her body. The same was true for Ben. Worf, however, looked perfectly comfortable; at least with the heat. He was pointedly not looking at her body.

"Will you guys stand with me in the morning?"

"I'd be honoured, Old Man."

Worf looked vaguely in her direction. "Do you plan to wear clothes?"

"It's not a Betazoid ceremony, Worf."

"You did not answer my question."

She had, in fact, planned to wear a very nice, very simple dress, in red, or maybe white, since this was, technically, her first marriage even if it was old hat for Dax. But now that Worf had mentioned it, the idea of showing up naked seemed incredibly romantic. It was also a state of dress that would make it much more likely that there would be fewer objections to canceling the formal ceremony.

Ezri grinned at her friends. "No. I don't believe I will. I'll go to them just the way I am, and that's what I'll say - without them I am nothing, have nothing."

"You're still leading with your heart, Old Man."

"I guess I am."

Worf groaned. "You hate me."

Ben laughed, and Ezri felt her heart squeeze. Prophets, she had missed that sound. Hearing it was worth walking the entire length of Presba without clothes, not just to the Temple.

She wiped away the tears that formed. "No, I love both of you very much."

Ben smiled.

Worf grunted. "Very well."

==^==

Clear headed from the bath and sauna, Ezri slipped on the white shirt she'd been given by Seven of Nine that first day.

On the floor she placed the large candle that Tuvok and T'Pel had given her, while she placed the meditation mat from Lwaxana in front of it. Laren hadn't given her anything tangible, but she had something to give to Laren, so she placed the box she'd carried back from Bajor next to the candle.

Kate had given her one of the ribs that had been replaced after the shooting on Bajor, as a less than jocular reminder to be careful, then had been horrified when she'd taken it and stated her intention to carve a pendant from it. Ezri put it next to the box.

Her pips she placed in a neat row. Kathryn had given her more than a promotion when she'd handed over the third gold pip.

And B'Elanna.

B'Elanna had given her the opportunity to know the rest of them. She knew perfectly well what it had meant for B'Elanna to see Seven with her.

B'Elanna had given her everything.

One night when she lay recovering, B'Elanna had sat with her, they hadn't talked much. Hadn't needed to. But when she'd woken up she'd found a PADD with a bunch of traditional Trill puzzles and some Klingon Operas on the bed stand. The PADD went next to the rib.

Ezri lit the candle. Tonight she knew they suffered the trial of death. The flame strengthened its flicker and she stared into it. While they sat the trial of death, she would sit a vigil of life and love.

==^==

On the final night they were led further into the temple and into what appeared to be a simple hallway with many doors on the sides. Their guide was at the end of the hallway, waiting for them. The Zakeeri Shaman, Enuet, was holding a dry, ivory skull in her hands and waited as each of the mates were positioned by a door. "Birth, Life, Blood, Sweat, Tears, Bonding, Blending, Breaking, Changing. Death is the door which leads to Mystery. Is it final? Is it forever? Zakeeri believe that it is not. Other peoples believe that this life is all that we have. You know what you believe for yourself. But belief or disbelief, Death still is. You will not die today, but you will endure this time in separation. You will be ghosts to each other. Enter your new domain."

The doors swished open, revealing rooms that were completely dark. The outside light did not seem to penetrate. The Prime briefly exchanged looks and stepped in. If they were surprised by the feel of water splashing at their feet, no one articulated it.

The water was not cold, nor was it overly hot. The further they stepped into their rooms, the deeper it got. The floor sloped. Their eyes provided no sense of distance or depth. Some chose not to immediately enter the pool and tried to examine the perimeter of their space by feel. The rooms were small, which meant the pool was small. But it was deep enough, that if a body wanted, they could float.

〈〈Is it cheating to talk to each other?〉〉

〈〈I do not believe so. We are still separated by the rooms. And the Shamans know.〉〉

〈〈They would.〉〉

〈〈I've always loved salt pools.〉〉

〈〈Is that what these are?〉〉

〈〈There is a certain amount of salinity in the water?〉〉

〈〈It's a sensory deprivation exercise. We're supposed to float in the dark and contemplate our navels?〉〉

〈〈I do not have a navel.〉〉

〈〈But you do have a most lovely belly.〉〉

〈〈We are defeating the purpose of this exercise.〉〉

〈〈May I propose we reserve conversation for emergency purposes only, to remain in the spirit of the Trial?〉〉

There was a moment of silence, and then they all communicated as one. 〈〈Agreed.〉〉

==^==

Time passed, elongated into a long line of nothing. They all had their own techniques for coping and, though they did not speak to one another, the bond remained for them. Still, there was a reason the exercise remained in use over the centuries.

==^==

At first the darkness and the solitude reminded Seven of Nine of her early days on Voyager. The isolation there, however, had not been nearly so pleasant. It was, she decided, closer in association to her time in the maturation chamber. She was surprised at the thought, and even more surprised at the realization that there were genuine memories there; not just the inserted instructions or the pain of implantation, but of floating and being.

It was not, Seven decided, a negative sensation at all.

Ro Laren floated. She remembered this. She had been here before, locked into a darkness so deep that she had to make a choice to either embrace it or go mad. It had been colder though; a cold that had seeped deep into her bones and had caused her teeth to keep her company with their constant chatter, until the cold no longer registered, and there were only the memories.

That made this experience different. It was nice not to be cold. Laren let the darkness cover her like a friendly blanket, then, for fun, she began to examine the room in small increments. One just never knew what might come in handy.

Tuvok and T'Pel shared similar methodology in their approach to the rooms. They meditated, not as a means of retreat, but rather as a good use of time. Darkness and Death were not things that Vulcans feared. To fear the inevitable was illogical.

Lwaxana treated it as a spa, not that she intended to make light of the experience, but it was impossible for her to not know her mates were near and truthfully, the time when they had been separated by Universes had been more like death to her.

Kate treated it as a research exercise. She examined each breath and sensation before mentally cataloging it. She did relax into it, since she understood the principles. But she didn't lose herself to it either. Kate knew Death already and had stared it in the face more times than she could count. Her own included. This was, comparatively speaking, a walk in The Park .

==^==

Kathryn recognized the voice when she heard it. She splashed to a sitting position, and gazed warily out into the dark.

"I am pleased. You begin to show your potential. Continue my Warlord. Show the Universes what Kahless calls you to be."

Kathryn remained in that position for a long time afterward.

==^==

B'Elanna floated. It had taken her awhile to trust the water enough to lean back and enjoy it. But once she had, she'd found the sensation comforting and comfortable.

She drifted with her eyes open, beginning to savour the rest the darkness provided.

It was the light that caught her attention. One moment it was completely dark, the next, in the center of the ceiling, there was a brightness which descended and expanded. Then, in that light, she saw a figure step out and stand on the water, looking down at her. She rubbed her eyes with her wet hands, thinking that perhaps she was experiencing some sort of visual hallucination, and that she probably had fallen asleep. Yet, she was completely aware of the water that splashed against her as she bolted up. "Who are you?"

The figure laughed and propped his hands on his hips. "Ask Kathryn, she knows."

B'Elanna contemplated whether this was an emergency or not. "Answer the question."

"You know who I am."

"I know who you look like. Q if that's you…"

He roared, "I am not Q, Epatai!" Then he pointed his finger at her. "In a few hours your Prime will be complete. Bring your House to Greatness, Epatai, and Strengthen my Empires."

And then, with B'Elanna standing and feeling absurdly exposed in the warm pool of water, the light faded and Kahless disappeared.

==^==

The dark gradually gave way to light, until the rooms fairly blazed with the whiteness of it. Those inside the chambers recognized the signal for what it was and stood; they would have been unsurprised to be told they had risen as one. Three chimes rang. Then there was a moment of silence and then another three chimes rang. The sequence of peels sounded one more time, until nine chimes had filled the silence.

The doors opened.

The Prime stepped out, synchronized even in their arrival into the hall, all of them appearing at once.

The Vulcans, Klingons and Zakeeri who guarded the door led them out of the hall, and to a chamber where they had been before.

This time, however, they were led to a new room: a communal shower. They bathed each other quietly, and with affection, profoundly glad to be able to touch one another. When all the salt had been washed away and the bathing was complete, they dried one another with the fresh towels that had been supplied.

The only thing not supplied was clothing.

That, apparently, would come later.

Shaman Orsas appeared at the door of the room. "Prime of House Presba, your night is almost over. Your day will soon begin. Please follow me. There are words yet to be said."

==^==

They returned to the first room. This time the food was gone and the floor sparkled. The guides were gathered, blocking the view of the exit.

Orsas took her position. Then Sirella, who was in the middle, stepped forward, "Prime of House Presba, you come to the end of your journey. These doors lead to your future. What that future is, has yet to be seen. There is only one sure thing. You have earned the right to bond with Ezri Dax of the House Martok, and in so doing you have proved you have the strength and will of warriors. House Martok welcomes the union and looks forward to the strengthening of our alliance through kinship."

B'Elanna stepped forward. "Thank you, Lady Sirella. May the bonds of our alliance prove true and bring greatness to the Empire."

==^==

The guides then stepped away from the portal. Matriarch Inan extended her arm toward the door and it slowly opened to reveal the pathway up. "Prime, may joy be yours."

No one commented that the Prime were exiting with less than they had arrived. The mates, by now, were used to their state of undress and thought nothing of it.

The mates looked to the Epatai. She extended her hand to the Lady of the House. In Presban, she said, "Let's go get Ezri and bring her home."

They began the ascent to the light of day.





Chapter 17 | Universe Alpha, Beta Quadrant: Presba Estate | Bookmarks




Where the path downward had been into darkness, the way up grew more illuminated as the Prime ascended. As they crested the last of the slope, they saw why.

The doors were wide open, the sun, newly risen poured its light into the opening, blinding them momentarily. Lwaxana spoke aloud, her mind aware of what their eyes were not, even as Seven of Nine's ocular implant made the rapid adjustment. "Ezri."

As though the name were a magical incantation removing her burnished cloak of invisibility, they could all see her now; and she them.

Their eyes adjusted further, and, as a group, they became aware that she was flanked by two tall, dark men, a contrast that served to highlight the fact that, standing there, without clothes, she seemed to glow.

Ezri, who had been standing with her back to the door, had no such difficulty discerning the presence of the Prime. To her, they flowed into being, rising from the dark as deities, newly minted. Her chest tightened and she felt the burn of tears, as a fierce joy at the sight of them joined with her desire for them. All of the words she'd had planned simply weren't there.

She didn't know what to do.

It was Seven of Nine who allowed her to recover. "Ezri Dax."

"Seven of Nine."

"Why is your hair blue?"

Ezri laughed through her tears. "Take me home and I'll tell you all about it."

Then she was being enfolded, their hugs and touches promises of things to come and, for the first time, she let herself return the embraces without reservation.

==^==

B'Elanna felt the escalating flood of desire and knew they didn't have much time. The mating fire hadn't caught yet, but it soon would. She pointed over at Benjamin Sisko, who was holding the bowl, and Worf, who had the knife. "In a hurry?" Her voice was light, and her eyes flashed in mirth.

"Yes." Ezri saw no point in dissembling. She favoured them with a half-grin. "I've never eloped before."

Light laughter swept round the antechamber. The tension in the group eased and they became more aware of the other occupants of the room.

Lwaxana, cognizant on several levels of Worf's discomfiture, decided that it was a perfect opportunity to further dilute the heightened sense of each other, as well as to try and force a reaction from the dour Klingon. "Why, Mr. Worf, what a big sword you have."

Kathryn looked between her mate and Worf in confusion. Laren, who was familiar with Lwaxana's fondness for baiting Worf, merely snickered, while Kate, who had caught the nuances in Lwaxana's tone, slowly looked Worf up and down. "It seems very...sharp."

Seven of Nine stepped forward and took the knife from Worf, affecting not to notice his nostrils flare. She thanked him and repeated the process with The Emissary, claiming the bowl. "Epatai."

"My Lady." B'Elanna moved to stand next to Seven, and took the knife. As the last of the cuts were made, she realized they'd made a huge error in judgment. She felt the Blood fire flare to life, and saw it reflected back in the eyes of her mates. "Do you?" She growled.

Ezri saw the change in B'Elanna and knew what it meant. A short ceremony had just gotten shorter. "I do."

"Welcome, Ezri Dax, to the House Presba."

Her hand had begun to burn, the cut pulsing with her heartbeat. "Ben," she gasped. "Now." She'd explain when they re-materialized. If she had the chance.

==^==

Some of the mates may have noticed they were in a holodeck, with food, clothing and other luxuries, but that knowledge was so peripheral to what they were experiencing it did not register in a tangible way.

What they wanted…who they wanted, had undone any plans for simple recreation and relaxation. Yet, at the same time, it would not do to simply ravish her.

B'Elanna gripped Ezri's arm, careful to avoid clasping their hands together. The blood called for something deeper and more needful. She dragged the Trill to her in a powerful grip, locking her arm behind Ezri's back so they were standing chest to chest. "Ezri Dax," she scented her way along the delicately spotted neck and moved upward with the trail. She didn't dare kiss the Trill yet. "Soon you will know what it is to be Prime. We cannot prepare you. Only promise that it will be worth it."

Ezri's eyes had taken on an incandescent violet hue. "Not soon. Now."

B'Elanna snarled a growl, helpless to resist the power of need which welled up in her and knew the way it must have sounded. She let go of Ezri's arm in order to bring her own bleeding palm up, and draw her blood along Ezri's cheek. "You asked for it."

"Yes." Ezri raised her own hand, and mirrored what B'Elanna had done.

The Klingon's nostrils flared and she captured the hand and inhaled the scent. Then she moved quickly, dropping Ezri to the ground so they were locked between each other's legs. She responded to Ezri's needful movements, with her own.

B'Elanna stared into her eyes, willing something that Ezri could not identify yet. Holding back for reasons she could not understand.

Then, abruptly, she did.

Seven of Nine was there, leaning in and kissing her hotly. "You are ours. We are yours."

Then Laren, Lwaxana, T'Pel, Tuvok, Kathryn and Kate kissed her in turn, until she was dizzy with the passion of it. And, she realized that throughout the whole of the time she was being touched, intimately, lovingly, and carefully stirred into pleasure, because they wanted it to be a moment of joy. She neared the peak, knowing she would soon fall.

Then she looked up at her Klingon, fearlessly meeting the intensity of the passion she saw there.

"Now," Ezri begged. She needed what was to come more than she had ever needed anything, or anyone, in her centuries of life.

B'Elanna smiled at her, fierce in her own need and ache. She thrust against a pair of touches that summoned them both, the one that Ezri could not yet know, and the one that was rooted in the physical. "Now." She reached abruptly, clasped her hands in the Trill's and pressed and rubbed hard enough to break the wet path open again. Like a raptor swooping in for its prey, she moved to bite, and realized that Ezri was moving too. She shifted and then her teeth locked onto powerful muscle and she felt Ezri bite into her, hard and swift. Blood flooded their mouths, covered their tongues, and flowed in combination through them from two points of connection.

The rush of pain, of pleasure, and of something ineffable cast Ezri out, flung her into something deeper than she had been prepared for, though she carried the memories of a similar bite.

Dax, who was joined to her, who was part of her, felt it all, and was captured by it just as thoroughly. They were embraced for themselves and their totality.

One.

They had always been one. It was illumination and surrender; they felt the others as they arrived, and also exclaimed their pleasure and joy: first as reflection and then, abruptly as pure presence. Many and one, she and it and them, all things at once.

Scattered thoughts of scattered ages, tore through them all, as the mosaic that made up who she had been, who she was, and who she would be, spun out before them, the tapestry weaving itself into being as they watched, and saw.

She and they were claimed, wanted and needed. Ezri felt pieces of her, which for so long had been scattered, return and find home. She understood then, she was Ezri. She was Dax. She was Ezri Dax. She was of them, and they of her.

The part of her that was purely Dax, reveled in the becoming, reveled in that which had never before happened to a symbiont. It was more than a becoming. It was a Bonding, a Joining, deep and true. They - one - were now part of the Prime.

Ezri felt her new mates, understood that they knew; could not help but know.

And she knew them; knew the losses and victories, the deaths and births, the loves and lives. Ezri ached for them and rejoiced with them.

Ezri felt the fire blaze within.

She gazed up at B'Elanna and, because Trill always could, she growled. "More."

==^==

Ezri knew exactly when her universe had changed. She wasn't quite sure when the room had. One moment, just before her eyes had closed in reaction to what Seven was doing with her wonderful cybernetic hand, it had been one place. The next, she was in another. Seven's fingers touched a sheathed bundle, deep inside, that very few not of Trill understood, and Ezri realized that she did not care where she was.

Ezri flexed and pushed against the blonde's hands, needing so much and receiving absolutely. She felt the others with her, encouraging her pleasure, reveling in it. As she reveled in theirs, in turn.

She looked up, locked onto an azure gaze that was filled with profound love and hungry desire. It was an awe inspiring combination. Especially because Seven was smiling, her teeth revealed and white against ruby flesh, joy transparent, and for her.

Ezri harkened back to an ancient Terran fairy tale that Dax remembered. "My, what big teeth you have."

Seven's smiled widened, and Ezri felt, though she could not have said how, a thrill of sensations stroke along her neck, breasts and thighs. She looked and she could see both of Seven's hands, occupied as they were. There was no way…she gasped as more sensation fluttered across her breasts. She looked to the side to see Lwaxana very deliberately roll her tongue along one of Laren's nipples. Again, Ezri gasped, understanding now what had happened.

"You can do that?"

Seven leaned in and caught a nipple in her teeth. She did not bite down, just held it. Then she released it and laved her tongue along it. Laren gasped and arched.

Ezri grinned, delighted. "You are so going to have to teach me that."

"I will."

The Trill felt a premonition, awareness among the Prime. She looked at Seven and knew. "Later."

"Yes."

Seven kissed the spot on her shoulder, the bite mark, and Ezri knew what was coming. "Yes," she answered the unspoken question. Then hissed upwards as Seven's teeth first brushed, then pierced her skin.

Ezri clutched her lover to her, and pressed into the bite rather than away. Seven licked the wound, erotic lines spinning out from every touch of tongue to skin, and purred into her ear. "Now you, Síobhean."

She felt the explanation there, and knew that her compulsion of late to use her teeth with her lover was more than her normal predilection for the pleasure of it. "Oh." She blinked and felt a thrill of pleasure rush through her. "I will comply."

Then, following Seven's example she bit in return and gasped at the shock of it, the wonder.

Now she was caught up in release, flooding over Seven's hands, as the bond deepened between the mates, sealed her again to them at another level. And she understood what would come over the course of days or when they were ready. "Gods and Goddesses, Above and Below."

==^==

"Hello, Captain."

"Hello, Commander. Do you have a moment?" Kathryn's grin was definitely cheeky. Her kiss was teasing, meltingly hot. "Your Doctor and I would like to have a word with you."

"A word?"

"Maybe more than a word," Kate said. Her touch drifted along the spots that ran down the Trill's side. "In fact," she leaned in and kissed Ezri warmly, "I'd say it's time for an examination, a very close, personal one."

Ezri, who was already reclining, lifted her arms above her head, bowing her body into their caresses, and then brought her arms back down around them to pull them further into her embrace. Kathryn captured a breast in her hand and stroked her fingertips over an excited nipple. She nibbled her way along Ezri's neck, while Kate's soft nips went lower.

The Trill who wasn't that far removed from recent release, felt a burn of excitement everywhere they touched and an abrupt urge to open for them. "Oh my." She had been aware of anticipation, desire for them. But this…

Kate laughed, as one hand stroked over supple skin, dancing along the edge of the pocket where Dax was, and the fingers of her other hand slicked through moist places. "It gets better." Kate moved over Ezri, her expression hot and her breasts succulently swinging as she positioned herself. The blonde glanced down and licked her lips. Ezri groaned and Kathryn, distracting her from the view, captured her lips. But no view was necessary for what happened next. Her hips lifted in instant response to Kate's tasting and knew that her mate spoke only the raw truth.

==^==

This had always been one of her greatest pleasures. Afforded the luxury of lifetimes of memories that crossed genders and freed her from shame, Ezri embraced all that was available and possible.

She slid down on to him, thrilled to the pressure against the nerve sheathes that lined her wetness. Thrilled to the heat as he throbbed in time to their matched rhythm.

With deliberate slowness, she flexed her thighs, rising away from him, and just as she was about to pull free, Ezri sank back down, her fingers digging into the muscles of his chest, as she drove the full length of him back inside. Over and over she repeated the pattern, the sensations increasing in intensity each time. Moving more quickly, she shortened the distance she rose and fell until they were no longer separating. Ezri clung to Tuvok, rocked hard and urgently against him and matched the tempo of the dance he was now calling.

Tuvok filled her and seemed to increase to fill her more, fitting to her tightly as need pushed them together. T'Pel held Ezri from behind, molded to her back. Her nipples were stiff enough to sear, while her hands stroked urgency into Ezri's spots. The Vulcan growled softly in her ear, urging awakening and release.

Ezri reached back, one hand upon T'Pel, one hand upon Tuvok. She kissed her Vulcan woman and thrilled to feel the ardent response. Wildness claimed Ezri and she screamed her release and dragged them into bliss with her.

==^==

The positions called up memories of sickbay, and she knew that Lwaxana and Laren had done it on purpose. She leaned against the Betazoid, sandwiched between the two of them, remembering how beautiful they were and how it had helped to take away the pain to watch them. Now, she joined them.

Laren's fingers thrust deep into her while her other hand held Ezri in place. Laren leaned forward and whispered, "Just wait until we bring out the toys." The Trill shivered in anticipation, completely willing to believe the images that Lwaxana shared with her. But she admitted, she was finding it hard to believe the endurance, the capacity to carry on.

〈〈Don't you realize it yet, my lovely one? We are made for each other.〉〉 There was a push from the Betazoid, firm and seductive, and Ezri toppled again into the rushing song of release.

==^==

It was a time of relaxation. The crushing power of the first mating drive had been met and satiated. Now they rested, all of them, and partook of the food that was there for them. They did not rush into eating. Kate urged them to simplicity and they followed her recommendations, but doing so in such a way that there was no mistaking that there was more to come.

Ezri leaned against Kathryn, basking in the surprising strength and comfort of her embrace. She was examining the Captain's hands, pondering the shape of her nails and wondering. She brushed her fingertips against the edge, curious.

"You know," said Laren who was reclining beside them, idly enjoying her finger-food meal. "You owe me an explanation. I lost a bet."

Ezri looked up and grinned. "What bet?"

"You and the Delaney twins."

"You bet on my," she searched for an appropriate word, and then looked at Seven, "sharing physical intimacy with Megan and Jennifer?"

Kate looked up from her languid exploration of Seven's back. "Actually, I bet on Deanna."

"You let her bet on me sleeping with your daughter?" At first, Ezri thought they'd been joking and had replied in the same spirit, but now it seemed they were serious, and she wasn't sure how she felt about that.

Lwaxana laughed. "Of course. You were a free woman and it was your bachelor party, so to speak. We thought for sure you would have spent some time being seduced. I knew Deanna would tease you to death; but Asil and she, they're bonded tighter than I think they even realize. I thought, however, it would be Tasha who snagged you."

The Trill grinned ruefully. "And it sure wasn't for lack of appeal or effort. I'm sorry you all lost."

B'Elanna snickered. "Not all of us lost."

Ezri raised her brow.

The Klingon laughed again. "Oh, not me, I lost too. I bet on Worf." She nodded in Seven's direction.

The Trill burst out laughing.

Seven lifting her head, replied. "You are never as expected. Even when you should be."

They all laughed at that in their respective fashions, and Laren waved her hand again. "So again, what happened?"

Ezri looked up. Kathryn was gazing at her with warm understanding. They kissed tenderly and she took back the thread of the conversation. "It wasn't that I wasn't tempted, believe me. I may fantasize about Tasha Yar and a poker table for the rest of my life." She let her voice become as serious as she felt, leaving the humour behind in favour of simple honesty. "I just wanted you all more. And you were all suffering for me. It didn't seem right."

Lwaxana smiled and leaned in to kiss her new mate. "I know."

"Oh," said Laren, sitting up. "I have to ask. It's been niggling me since the bonding. Who in the name of the Prophets is Julian? And why do I think my fist needs to find his face?"

Ezri blinked. Julian? Then her eyes widened, and with a rueful, rather than amused, grin, she answered. "Just someone I used to know."

==^==

Ezri hadn't expected to be able to purr so quickly, but she was lying on her stomach, arms crossed under her chin, purring. It could, she decided, be a perfectly reasonable expression of the changes wrought over the day. After all, she already possessed extra nodes on her vocal cords. Or maybe, it was the inspiration.

To her front, in a slightly deeper part of the Nest, Laren was lying on her back, Kate straddling her hips. She knew they were connected intimately, could feel sporadic flutters in her own mons as one of them pressed more firmly against their playmate. That wasn't what held her mesmerized. Kate had a bowl of honey in one hand, and in the other held a strawberry that was partially sliced in such a way as to be able to apply the confection efficiently.

Her intense interest traveled along the nascent mate-link, and she was aware when the others turned to see what it was that she was watching.

Kate swirled the fruit into the honey and pulled it out, and away from the bowl, letting the thin cord that connected the honey on the strawberry to the honey in the bowl drizzle down onto Laren. The vibrant red berry glistened under its coating, and Ezri watched as Kate brushed it lightly on Laren's lips, permitting the Bajoran to nibble at it, but not allowing it be fully consumed. Laren groaned in protest and a laugh rippled through the group as, with an artistic flourish, Kate ran it across both nipples and swirled it in a delicate navel before putting it in her teeth and leaning forward again.

The fruit was shared between them, the red flesh indistinguishable from tongues and lips. Ezri could almost taste the mix of sharp and sweet, and inhaled sharply, her need rising in her again.

Kate, placed another kiss on Laren's lips, then sat up, clearly in search of more fruit, and noticed her mates' attention. "Four days, I've been waiting to do this..."

==^==

B'Elanna didn't want to leave the dream. In it, she was lying, arms spread out, rising above her head. Soft, flexible, bands were wrapped around her wrists. They looked like the same material as Seven's abdominal implant, but that was impossible. Her legs were flung out to the sides, but her ankles were unbound. Frost blue eyes that had warmed to near indigo held her in place, even as the cords restrained her motions. Just a little more and she would be unable to hold back any longer. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes, feeling the loss of conjured visual contact more keenly than the loss of the physical.

And found she had lost nothing at all. "Be'nal," she breathed.

As in her dream, Seven rose above her, moving against her, into her, surrounding her. Instinctively, she grabbed at the silken cords that she knew she'd find looped around her wrists and crossing her palms, and using them as leverage, forced her body up into Seven, welcoming every motion and thrust. "Oh, sweet Kahless, yes." She anchored to Seven's eyes, to the love reflected from them and along their bond; the cords were mere physical ties, but she was grounded by Seven, by her Be'nal, her Bang'wI, her third heart.

"I love you."

Seven thrust again, her abdomen alight with a vibrancy B'Elanna hadn't seen before. "And I you, my B'Elanna. My Bang'wI. My love."

She had no idea which of them hit their pinnacle first, only that they were suddenly swallowed in sensation, drowning in each other, lifted again by their mates and spun into the safety of each others warmth and solidity. This was a reality that could never be matched by a dream, and she threw herself into full wakefulness with abandon.

==^==

The Mate knew as soon as the change was made. Kate felt Him rise to the surface, recognized him as who he was. He pushed deeper inside, enjoying the connection and grinned. "Thank the Creators for toys."

She laughed and pushed back, enjoying the tug and pull. "Yes." She took his face into her hands and smiled. "Hello, Curzon." There was new color in her eyes, love and memory.

"Hello, Katie." She felt so good. So exactly as he had known she would. He wasn't going to be able to hold to it. So he grinned. "We'll talk later."

She gasped, needing both of them right that moment. She clung. "Good. I have questions." Then she looked him in the eye. "Ideas."

Dax chuckled, the tones Ezri's but the manner purely Curzon's, loving the way Kate felt around him. "Your ideas were always dangerous."

"But they worked."

He nibbled her skin. "Yes. They did."

They rocked together and he kissed her deeply. She drew nearer and nearer. He could feel her. His fingers added to the stir and Kate threw her head back as his mouth found her breasts.

He felt Ezri rising again, and prepared to surrender so she could take her rightful place. But she did not subsume him. Not yet. They were both there as Kate suddenly cried out, fluttered around them and brought them into bliss with her.

When Kate returned she cupped the Trill's face. "Ezri Dax of House Presba, you are a marvel."

Ezri turned and kissed Kate's palm. Then she raised her brow. "And you call me Chaos?"

Kate laughed. "I told him, the state of the lab was not my fault."

Ezri arched her brow disbelievingly and Kate laughed even harder.

==^==

It was not possible, thought the Trill, that two days should pass by as quickly as it had. More, she was aware that the desire for her mates still ran strongly through her and she could have gone days more, weeks more, and years more and be satisfied, yet still need them and want them. Satiated, yes, she was, in ways fundamental and beautiful. But there was hunger, all she had to do was turn her eyes and see them and know.

Kate had also made it plain that the mating fire had been reset at zero. "Plan for it. One day you'll be doing something completely innocuous and the next you'll be rushing home tearing your clothes off. Or someone else's if you happen to meet them in the hall. Just be glad we're on Voyager and she knows the score."

Ezri had no doubt, she'd seen it from the outside, and nearly been scalded by it more than once.

Lwaxana had chimed in, "But, my darling, don't worry about it. It's not so much that it eases, so much as we get stronger." She had smiled then, and kissed Ezri in such a way that the Trill was sure her hair was tingling. "Though, it seems you have will power to spare already."

Then, it was time to clean up and prepare to enter the world again.

The shower had been fun and relaxing. She had been led in first and had not been allowed out, until all were clean and all had a moment to cuddle her in the water. It had been skinfully, sinfully, delicious and memorable.

As far as honeymoons went, the Trill decided as she was helped, rather slowly and distractedly into a robe, this one was better than anything Risa had to offer.





Chapter 18 | Universe Alpha, Beta Quadrant: Presban System | Bookmarks




On one side of Presba's system, Section 31 prepared; people were chosen and a strategy fixed upon. Their goal was simple. Remove their four agents to safety, or neutralize them. The possible capture of Voyager was a secondary objective, one that would be attempted if the opportunity arose, or if the planned distraction proved more successful than anticipated.

"Are the mercenaries ready?"

"They are. We should be able to board the Titan easily and get them out. The distraction on Presba is arranged." The agent smiled toothily, "They'll think they're being attacked by the Syndicate."

The Commander nodded. "Perfect. Let's get going."

==^==

On the other side of the Presban System a cluster of ships gathered. Daring plans were being finalized. "We will start here, with the port. Then disable the propulsion system, weapons, and defense systems. At the same time, the teams from Pharaoh will move in and begin to attack the estate. When we have control, we will deliver the vessel to Yun Capel."

The gathered Captains nodded their agreement.

The Presbans would pay in blood for blood.





Chapter 19 | Universe Alpha, Beta Quadrant: Presban System | Bookmarks




"Thank you, daughter-in-law, for meeting with me."

"The honour is mine, Lady Sirella." Seven of Nine did not look directly at the Klingon woman. Her attention was on her children, watching as they played in the grassy yard.

Sirella was not offended. They were family now. She was pleased that Seven was showing her trust in the new status. "I come to you both for personal reasons and for reasons of the Empire."

Now Seven did turn her gaze to the Klingon. "How may we be of assistance?"

"First, it is our wish to present you with this." Sirella offered a rolled scroll.

Seven took it, noting its similarity to the one Ezri had received from Chancellor Worf in Universe Beta. Sirella was watching her expectantly, so she unfurled it. It was hand-lettered, the glyphs bold and sure. House Presba was no longer a minor House of the Empire. It had become a Middle one.

"On behalf of my Epatai, we thank you." Privately, she was looking forward to hearing the oaths and invectives with which B'Elanna would greet the news. The Klingon's tirades were always invigorating.

Sirella dipped her head, but pressed on. "It has been noted by Chancellor Martok that House Presba has an abundance of Ambassadors. It seems to us that these Ambassadors need a place, or perhaps their staff might."

"Perhaps. What did you have in mind?"

Direct and to the point. It was something Sirella was coming to appreciate about Seven of Nine. There was none of that Human deflection that was so maddening in others of her species.

"We want embassies on Presba. One for the Klingon Empire and one for the Federation."

"I propose a third be added."

"A third?"

"It is time, Sirella, that you meet more of our guests. Would you be willing to visit with us on Voyager?"

"I would be honored."

==^==

Lady Sirella had been warned, but still, it was a shock. Yet, at the same time, she had to acknowledge the differences. These Klingon women held themselves differently. It was something in their eyes, in their very bearing; these were women of Honour. Yet, they were not the official ambassadors.

Sirella greeted the Romulan and the Human. "What brings you here?"

"We bring news of the Klingon Empire in Universe Beta and offers of alliance."

"Alliance?"

"Yes. There are," Now Kasala looked at Captain Janeway and then back at Lady Sirella. "…things of which you should know. I will begin with the Hive."

An hour later, Sirella was convinced of both their sincerity and the truth of their urgent warning.

"I will contact my husband, but for now, House Martok agrees that an embassy shall be established on Presba for those from Universe Beta."

Kasala nodded. "Thank you, Lady Sirella. It is good to know that you share much with our own Lady."

==^==

The awareness of something being out of sync had been niggling Ezri at odd moments over the last few days, but she had set worrying at it aside, since the discussion about to be held was important and she needed to focus. B'Elanna passed by just then, and her subconscious took the hint and flared into awareness. The Klingon had not even looked at her. Ezri realized what had happened. Habit had stuck.

She knew the origins. The avoidance had begun for very good reasons. Previous to their mating, there had been a growing and ungovernable fire between them. It had kindled into being the night Seven had taken them both to her bed, and B'Elanna had figured out that Ezri had been deliberately provoking her. They hadn't been together since, they hadn't dared it, and because it was so important to work within the House structures, she and B'Elanna had developed a convoluted means of connecting for work, for instruction, and for consultation; one that kept them, barely, from taking their relationship further. It would not have done for the Epatai of the House to have been the one circumvent the need for the Lady Sirella's approval of the match. But they had become so conditioned to the distance, that now, even though they absolutely had the right to look at one another, their first response was still to avoid body and eye contact outside the Nest.

Amusement colored the Trill's thoughts as she considered what to do about the dilemma. She supposed she could always go to B'Elanna's office, or bedroom, and approach the matter head on. B'Elanna, she knew, would appreciate the directness. The idea appealed to her on a number of levels, and she probably would have run with it, except that Kathryn had asked a rather intriguing, and extremely inspiring favor of her.

==^==

Ezri could have played the damsel in distress to the hilt, all tied up and waiting for rescue. The notion had a certain appeal. However, Kathryn had, along with the plot of the scenario, given the Trill total control of the bad guy forces, which, at least in theory, seemed to contradict the basic idea of a 'rescue the princess' plot. Damsels in distress were not known to fight against their rescuers, so though it had sounded fun, it had needed to be tweaked. Seizing on the idea that she was the prize, and after discussing her idea with Kathryn, Ezri opted to play the scenario a little differently. Kathryn had been very enthusiastic about her suggestion, so the premise was changed to a game of King of the Mountain, and she got to play the King and be the War Prize.

The changes to the scenario meant that the program needed to altered, and Kathryn had given her liberal access to the file. With a little help from some talented friends, Ezri went a traditional route, with a fortress at the top of a hill that was, in turn, surrounded by a moat, and then added her own twists. The fortress was Klingon in design and flavor, while the moat was filled with monsters, both real and fantastic. Traps and hazards were liberally sprinkled along the way, not to mention the army of Spartan inspired warriors to keep the other two women at bay. B'Elanna and Kathryn's fortresses would be on opposite ends, with Ezri, and the hill between them. It was a configuration that led her to alter the landscaping around the mountain significantly; she did not want to be double-teamed at a crucial moment. Ezri grinned, at least not in battle.

For fun and because she could, unlike the two Warlords who were required to dress appropriately for their stations, Ezri planned to wear a different sort of outfit altogether. One that befitted royalty, but was skimpy enough to enhance her status as the Prize. She got help from several sources, including a surprisingly gifted Kate.

"Next time," said the Doctor affably, "I want to be your hand maiden and wear this." Kate lifted up a gold and green bikini and waggled her brows.

"You could be one now, I am positive they wouldn't mind"

Kate boldly kissed her and then said, "Unfortunately, I have a conflict in my schedule."

"Damn." Ezri meant it sincerely. "Cause, Dr. Kate, I'd remove Birnam wood to Dunsinane all by myself to see you in that."

"You've been reading B'Elanna's play."

Ezri laughed. "She made me, said it was all my fault that she had to read MacBeth and suffer through Shakespeare." She picked the top of her outfit up from Kate's bed. "On the other hand, this has been fun and there will be other times, I am sure. Kathryn and B'Elanna have become pretty serious about these games."

"I know! They're like children with a new toy. But it's great. Kathryn needed the mental challenge, and B'Elanna needed the outlet. What we ought to do is get someone to make a scenario that neither of them has planned."

"Aren't they getting help now?" Ezri looked up from her costume, surprised.

"You know, I don't think it occurred to either of them to ask until recently. I think their enjoyment of the scenarios caught them off-guard."

==^==

It was not one of Kathryn's happier moments, since she had been very much looking forward to participating. She was, however, unavoidably detained. It did not mean, however, that the game could not go on.

"Don't worry," Ezri promised, "I'll make it a challenge."

"Thank you, love. Perhaps another time?"

"There's no perhaps about it. I want to play."

==^==

The panoramic view of the battle, as seen from the tower of her fortress, was breathtaking in scope. If it had been real it would have been one for the history books. As it was, there were certain liberties taken in the holo-program to keep things moving along.

Still, Ezri was impressed. Despite the loss of her competitor, it was obvious that B'Elanna took time to assess and plan her ascent. Thus, she let the grunts do the heavy work, clearing out the worst of the hazards, and she let her other officers do the tasks for which they were trained.

Ezri heard the boom before her outer fortifications went down behind her. The crashing shake of the ground underneath her feet was impressive and the Trill wondered if perhaps Voyager was adding in small touches of her own. She made a mental note to talk to the ship about that another time, as she hastened down to the throne room. The flimsy, see-through half-length robe, which only accentuated that which was hidden, wafted around her upper thighs as she ran down the steps. What she wore underneath was designed to be torn off.

A handy view screen popped out as soon as she sat down on the throne, and she ignored the guards. She placed her hands on the armrest and modestly crossed her legs. Now came the fun part. It wasn't going to be easy for B'Elanna, but Ezri hoped to make it worth it.

==^==

B'Elanna entered the throne room triumphant and radiating danger in her aura. Holographic blood dripped down her blade, and her expression was feral and joyous. Her tone of voice was harsh, emphasizing the guttural nature of the Klingon language. "You are conquered, Ezri Dax."

The Trill stood, lifted her arm and pointed melodramatically. The action caused the robe to lift, revealing even more to her mate's eyes. B'Elanna's nostril's flared, even as Ezri was still speaking, "You may have entered my sacred halls, but I am not conquered yet. Guards. Capture her, but do not slay her. She is mine!"

With a flickering motion, the holographic guards flew into action. B'Elanna's eyes widened as she realized that the guards were moving at a speed close to her own capability. She barely had time to run forward and lift her sword to meet the attack, but she was able to deflect the stroke. The sharp clang of the blades as they impacted one another filled the room. An incredible force backed each strike, and that was when B'Elanna realized that these burly light-entities had been designed specifically to be able to take her.

With a howl of joy, the Klingon flung herself into the fight, and called on every nuance of every skill she possessed. The guards pressed her, and she felt, now, the real challenge behind the game. She was caught in a whirl of sensation, light, sound and scent; and she inhaled deeply when she realized there was profound arousal in herself and in her mate.

It inspired her.

B'Elanna did not know she had it in her, but she fought harder, more viciously, until the enemy was on the ground writhing in death agony under her feet. She glared at Ezri as she stabbed the bat'leth down, pinning the last victim into place. Then she stalked toward the Trill, who, still in character, glared back with haughty grace.

As B'Elanna paced forward, Ezri stepped back, pulling a vicious looking dagger from her belt. The Trill flipped it, until the point was between her index finger and thumb. She flung it out toward B'Elanna, aiming deliberately high, and continued to back away. The knife made an impressive noise as it connected with the wall behind the Klingon.

B'Elanna growled dangerously. Ezri growled back and bared her teeth, she felt behind her, but realized that she had somehow wandered too far from the throne, which had the control panel. She knew she had to be somewhere near a tall wide Ionic column, but Ezri wasn't sure what the distance actually was. Her incredible arousal level was making it very difficult to calculate distance and formulate any sort of defense strategy. Particularly since she wasn't really invested in resisting.

Then B'Elanna, who had apparently hit the limit of her patience, rushed the Trill, but the motion had the flavour of a feint to it, so Ezri stepped out of the way.

B'Elanna brushed past, and would have collided with the pillar, except that Ezri caught and held her. The Trill whispered, "Don't hold back. You've been holding back every time we meet outside the Nest. Even here. When you need me so much I can taste it." Ezri's hands drifted around B'Elanna's waist, and she grasped her mate's shirt and tugged it up from the waistband. Then, with a powerful grip, she ripped it open. Her hands pressed against the beautiful heat of her mate and she dragged them up, until she was cupping the Klingon's glorious breasts. Her colder hands against B'Elanna's warmth provoked a shiver in them both.

She moved, intending to place her leg between B'Elanna's, but the Klingon turned quickly, preventing her from making that final block. Before Ezri could try to recover, B'Elanna grasped the collar of the costume. It ripped downward, through the bra and to the side. The Klingon snarled, quite unintentionally, as her other hand grasped the back of Ezri's skull and pressed it forward, until their mouths collided into a kiss. It was so forceful that B'Elanna tasted blood. It rang through her, honest and true. She gripped more of her mate's garments, rending them. The costume shredded like it was gossamer.

B'Elanna noticed, but didn't care. As soon as there was flesh to feel, her hands were there and she gripped Ezri tightly to her. The Trill was pressing deeply into B'Elanna's shoulders and it excited her so much. B'Elanna realized that her pants were loose for a reason, that Ezri had already, somehow, undone the clasps. She let them finish their slide down, dragging them off by pushing down with her feet and stepping out of them. Then she kicked those barriers away.

Their kisses intensified, becoming more insistent. Greedy. She hungered for Ezri, needed the taste of her. Her fingernails scraped down Ezri's sides and the Trill gasped harshly in response. B'Elanna caught the twinge, caught the flare of pain and stopped, abruptly.

She stepped away, her voice thick in her mouth. "I'm sorry."

Ezri, who was still processing what had happened, shook her head.

B'Elanna began stepping further away.

Ezri reached out and grabbed B'Elanna. For an undetermined span of time they wrestled for control. Ezri could feel the spike of excitement begin again in B'Elanna, and then felt the fierce repression of it.

In an odd act of flight, B'Elanna turned, facing the solid strength of the column rather than her Trill. "Don't fight it!" Ezri demanded. "I am your mate!"

"I don't want to hurt you."

Ezri growled into B'Elanna's ear, weight pressed fully against her back, pinning her against the cool stone column. "Do you have any idea how long I've wanted to do this? How long I've waited to feel you move under me, unrestrained, unfettered, unafraid?"

B'Elanna felt her thighs grow slick with a renewed flood of moisture. She closed her eyes and breathed in through her teeth. She tested their line, tested the passion that glowed there. Then she said, "Are you going to talk or fuck?" Her hands were grabbed roughly, and she was spun around to face the Trill, who suddenly didn't seem the smaller of the two of them. The feral thrill that roared through her body took her over the edge, and she lost the heat of her aggression in the waves of spasms that increased her need, even as they returned a measure of control.

"What do you want me to do, Neshoma?"

In that instant, Ezri had returned control of their encounter to her, and B'Elanna felt that she was about to drown in the mix of tenderness and desire that swept over her. "I want you to make love with me."

"As you wish, my Epatai. As you wish."

==^==


They pulled back from the passionate kiss that followed. Ezri drew her tongue along a cut on the Klingon's face. Desire flared in the Trill's eye as the taste of her mate, the thrill of knowing B'Elanna fully, flowed through her. Her own need in was reflected in her motions and the Klingon picked up on it. "The bed?" queried B'Elanna.

Ezri pointed in the direction of the area that she had planned. In this kind of scenario, there were only two possible places, really, to put a bedroom; at the top of the Tower, or behind the Throne Room. Ezri had thought that putting it in the Tower would make it too far away.

B'Elanna crouched and lifted the other woman into her arms. The Trill leaned into the kiss that followed, which turned into a molten reflection of their need.

"You will tell me?"

B'Elanna didn't have to specify what she was asking. Ezri replied, "Yes."

They didn't make it to the bed. It was too far.

The Klingon carried Ezri to the throne, depositing her upon the seat. B'Elanna's touch became more forceful. B'Elanna did not hold back her strength or temper her pace. She trusted Ezri.

B'Elanna spread her mate's legs as she leaned in, kissing, nibbling and lightly biting the spots along the side of Ezri's face and neck. This time, when she stroked along Ezri's skin, she ignored the tiny twinge, finding her reward in Ezri's immediate response, and then a few moments later, she felt the after effect of a burst of pleasure that the Trill deliberately shared with her.

"Oh!"

Ezri grinned, drew her back with both hands. "Now you know."

B'Elanna's hands gripped Ezri's hips. Her fingertips pressed solidly against the Trill's buttocks and she positioned herself so that one thigh was between Ezri's legs. The Klingon pulled sharply, and increasing the breadth of their physical connection. She felt the heated moisture of desire sliding against her skin, and found it, like everything about her lover, intensely exciting.

They exchanged words; breathy, hot, sounds of desire flowed from their lips between kisses as their bodies slid tightly together. They explored each other with deepening fervor. Their hands roamed and squeezed. Fingers plucked, circled, rubbed. Lips connected skin, suckled. Tongues brushed wetly, curled around tender sensitive points. Their touches were more than physical, echoes of pleasurable strokes flowed along each others skin, and places more intimate, until they were both gasping.

B'Elanna growled, "I claim you. My Prize, my Mate." The bite was quick, intense, and unanticipated. It was also perfectly timed. Ezri crested into pleasure's wave, was thrown over the cliff of eroticism and dragged her Klingon with her.

"Yours."

==^==

B'Elanna sat in the throne as though it had been made for her and she was born to it. Ezri sat crosswise in her lap, leaning languidly against the other woman's chest with her legs casually flung over one armrest. The Klingon's hands played lightly on the Trill's skin as they talked, simply and openly and at length - about everything.

"What do you think of being the Epatai?"

"I was scared. But all of you help. I'm not alone, so the burden isn't heavy like I thought it would be. I don't always like it, and I'm never sure if I am the right one for the job. But since I took the responsibility, then it is mine."

"Do you think it was Kahless you saw?"

"I don't know."

"Q?"

"No, I don't think so. They have no problem declaring themselves and would want to take credit."

"Good point."

B'Elanna hummed into Ezri's hair and kissed her temple. "Was it worth the wait?"

Ezri turned so she could face her mate. Her gaze shone with great clarity. "Yes."

"Good." B'Elanna tickled Ezri's spots just at her waist. "I want you to know you were worth it, to me. I loved you from the moment I saw you standing there in Seven's shirt and you dropped your boots and told me it was a good day to die. I just didn't know it yet."

"Really?"

"Yes, really." B'Elanna grinned. "And you know what the best part of all this is?"

"The always available and seemingly never ending, mind-blowing sex?"

"Other than that."

"A wife who blinks?"

B'Elanna laughed, and knew that Erzi could play this game all day. "That is nice, but I had something less carnal and more benign in mind."

"In that case I give up."

She sat up and paused dramatically before tweaking one of Ezri's nipples. "I am no longer the youngest."

Ezri blinked. "Seriously? You were the youngest? I thought Seven was."

"Nope. Seven was born in 2348, I was born in 2349." B'Elanna drew Ezri into a soft kiss, not to press it further but for the simple pleasure of kissing. When she pulled back she continued speaking. "T'Pel was born in 2263, Tuvok in 2264. It took a little digging and some math, plus Deanna spilling the beans to find out Lwaxana was born in 2306. After a lot more digging, and cross-referencing journal papers, I learned Kate was born in 2315. 2336 for Kathryn, 2340 for Laren, then Seven, myself, and..." She kissed Ezri lightly, "...that brings me to you in 2354." B'Elanna paused again and rested the flat of her hand across the pouch-line on Ezri's stomach, careful not to press down. Softly, she finished. "Dax was born in 2018."

"You're a closet romantic." But the words lacked the customary light tone her voice had when she was teasing.

"Not so closet." She met Ezri's eyes, surprised and touched by the shine of moisture in them.

The Trill threaded her fingers through the Klingon's. "Love you, B'Elanna."

"Love you too."

==^==

"Captain Janeway. We wondered when you might grace us with contact." Owen Paris' voice was stern but his eyes twinkled, revealing his genuine joy to see her.

Kathryn Janeway didn't react to the jab. "Admiral Paris. It is a pleasure to see you again."

The Admiral's gaze flickered to the side and then back to her. She made a signal of her own, outside of the view of the feed. "He has someone there with him."

"The feeling is mutual, Captain. I can't help but notice that your signal is coming from someplace a little closer than we expected."

Now Kathryn grinned, and continued as though the distance he was referring to was twenty light years instead of twenty thousand. "We thought, given your instructions, that we might take a moment to address a few problems for you."

"For me?"

"Well, for the Federation and Starfleet, if we wish to keep it less personal."

"I'm listening."

==^==

"Don't you mean Lieutenant Dax, who, if your report is correct is not missing in action, but is AWOL? She should be relieved of duty immediately." Admiral Paris' normally pallid cheeks had become slightly florid as he failed to mask his anger.

Kathryn understood his anger. To be AWOL in a time of war was no longer a capital offense, but it was a career ending one. She also understood why Ezri had done it, and what they all stood to gain by it. "Your lack of foresight surprises me, Owen. You want me to arrest Commander Dax, late of the House Martok, and incidentally my wife?"

Owen looked as if he were being poked hard in the side. "Excuse me a moment. My assistant has a memo she wishes to bring to my attention." The Admiral stood up and left the picture. Then, a few seconds later, he sat down, stroking what was left of his hair smooth. "Commander Dax is hereby assigned to Voyager, in whatever capacity you deem suitable. Now, are you telling us what I think you're telling us?"

"My Mother-in-Law, the Lady Sirella, has a set of proposals to make on behalf of Chancellor Martok, if you'd care to hear them." Kathryn wasn't sure what the Klingon term was for her relationship to Lady Sirella, but she knew Owen would immediately understand the implications of the one she had chosen.

"Captain Janeway of the House Presba, it would be the honor of Starfleet to hear what you have to say at this time." Owen kept a straight face as he replied, but it was clear he was both amused and nonplussed. The combination of the two conflicting reactions combined to an expression of neutrality. Only the fact Kathryn had known him for more than twenty years let her see it.

==^==

Time had worn on, and Owen Paris had lost the amused edge to his voice, taking on instead the tones normally reserved for high-level command briefings or complex diplomatic talks. "I don't know Kathryn, that's quite the ticket you're asking us to write for you."

"When you write that ticket, consider the harm and damage done to my family, by your Starfleet officers. Section 31 or not, they're your agents." Owen flinched. "Also, keep in consideration that the Titan has been remanded into my custody as Warlord."

"Warlord..."

"As a Warlord of the Empire, I am authorized to build a fleet for the protection of my House and the Klingon Empire." Kathryn pitched her words so they were balanced on the edge of serious and sarcastically amused. They both knew she wouldn't this instant declare herself independent of Starfleet and take the Titan with her. But they also both knew it was the form of things that mattered sometimes, not the reality.

"I...see." Owen faltered.

"I am, of course, also authorized to do what I want with those ships and people that happen to fall into my custody." Kathryn was grateful they still seemed to be ignoring the part where she had accepted a military role from a civilization not allied with the Federation.

"Captain Janeway, Warlord of the House Presba, how big was that ticket?"

"Owen, I am very glad you asked. May I present my wife, T'Pel? She, Commander Magnum, and Neelix, have been authorized to oversee negotiations."

==^==

At this point, Janeway brought into play the lessons learned during her days in the Admiralty in the old timeline. Of course, she could have just given them the Titan, but that would have looked bad to the Klingons, which would, in turn, add unnecessary tension to the real negotiations.

She knew, and she knew that they, Owen and Alynna, who was no doubt the mysterious, unnamed assistant, knew the game as well as she. They were only asking for a few unreasonable, largely symbolic concessions, so as to make the negotiations seem much tougher than they really were. If the negotiations also happened to make life easier for Voyager and her crew, then so much the better for all concerned.

The largest issue, from the Admiralty's point of view, was the easiest handled. Voyager and her crew would continue to operate as a Starfleet vessel, its crew subject to the established code of conduct as set forth by Starfleet Command. Any cultural allowances would be applied as laid out in the supplemental regulations. What it really meant, was that Voyager was not a Klingon ship, but would operate in a similar manner as the all Vulcan ship, the USS T'Kumbra. Given that it was precisely how she had been operating, Kathryn readily agreed.

Prisoners would be exchanged, personnel would be transferred. Voyager would be given a rank and status as a citizen of the Federation. It would work out. She just had to let T'Pel do the talking.

What she wished, ironically, was that she had known just how savvy the Vulcan was back when she was an Admiral.

Laren touched her fingertips to Kathryn's and felt her mate's amused respect. Of course, timing was everything.

==^==

For someone who had made some rather remarkable concessions and received alarming news about possible dangers, Admiral Paris looked quite relaxed and pleased. "The Ambassadors will be on their way to Presba in the next few days. We'll be developing a list of transfers to and from Voyager, so expect it soon. Also, plan on a change in rank."

Janeway opened her mouth to respond.

He raised his hand. "Don't speak. Voyager will still be your ship. That is, apparently, non-negotiable. You will be addressed as Captain on your vessel if you want. But we have to at least match, if not exceed, the authority that has been given to you by the Klingon Empire." He grinned a little wickedly. "Admiral Janeway has a nice ring to it, don't you think?

Kathryn paled and Owen laughed heartily. Then he said, "Well, maybe we'll just start you out as a Commodore."

==^==

The shifting of personnel began almost immediately. It was smoother than expected; Commander Dax had already laid a tremendous amount of groundwork. It also came with a surprise or two.

Most notable to her was how few of her former Maquis crew were planning to disembark, and half of those that were, had requested to be able to return after attending to personal matters. She granted all the requests.

The other request that piqued her attention was from Asil Troi. Who, prompt and neatly turned out in a House dress uniform, was standing in front of her on the upper level of the ready room. The young Vulcan waited in the at ease position and it put Kathryn instantly to mind of Seven of Nine. In an flash of insight, she realized that Seven had copied the stance from Tuvok at some point, and adapted it for her own use.

"Captain Janeway."

"Have a seat, Asil." She picked up her coffee cup and leaned back in her chair.

"Actually, Captain, I would prefer to stand if I may."

Kathryn hid her smile, having learned why Tuvok preferred to stand; she guessed that Asil shared his discomfort at knowing what to do with her hands when she sat. She also suspected that the woman's height made folding herself onto a low couch physically uncomfortable. "By all means. Now, what can I do for you?"

"I understand that you are seeking new personnel."

"I am."

"I wish to be considered for such a post."

News apparently traveled fast. "Is this about Deanna's transfer?"

"It is."

"Then you believe she will accept the posting?" It had come as a surprise, though she supposed it shouldn't have, that rather than accept Commander Troi's resignation, they had suggested transferring her to Voyager as a replacement for the departed Chakotay, since no matter how much she might want Dax to remain her First Officer, it was an impossibility. Deanna had yet to give an indication one way or another.

"I do."

"I see." Kathryn thought for a moment, and hen decided that this was a conversation she would prefer to be having with her daughter. "Why," she signed.

"It will be beneficial for her. She is in much pain."

Kathryn nodded. "And you?"

"I will go where she goes. Always."

She leaned back in her chair, and nodded. "I believe I have just the thing. Report to Commander Tucker if Deanna says yes."

"Thank you."

"Don't thank me yet. You haven't met Commander Tucker."

There was a bare hint of quirk on Asil's lips that Kathryn had learned to read as a smile, but no verbal response.

"Dismissed." And then, because she was Mom, and Commodore both, and therefore could, she appended a designation. "Lt. Commander Troi."

As expected, Asil raised both brows, in an expression so reminiscent of her father that Kathryn was spun decades into the past, and to the bridge of the USS Billings and her first command. Shaking her head, she watched the Vulcan leave then went back to her reports and preparations

==^==

Those who would be going back to Federation space began to transfer their belongings to to the Titan. Officially, those being transferred were acting as captors. Unofficially, they were just getting ready to take the Titan home. Commander Worf would act as Warlord Janeway's emissary and deliver the paroled vessel and her crew into Federation space. Once there, he would again assume the role of Ambassador.

At the same time, others had already reached Presba, with more expected. The influx of families and personnel came in on a variety of vessels, some of which would then be stationed in the system. Along with their passengers, they would be bringing building materials for a small base, one that nominally would be House Presba's, but would be a base of combined Klingon and Federation interests. Of course, this would not prevent House Presba from going ahead and building its own fleet, it would merely supplement that effort.

Others of those ships would turn around almost immediately and travel outward in all directions, carrying those of House Presba that wished to return to the places and homes they had left, and not to Starfleet or to Federation worlds.

Even with those options, there were some personnel, and a few family members of both current and newly assigned crew, who would be picked up by the living ship on an agreed upon schedule that would begin as soon as Starfleet had finalized the billets.

Most of those individuals being assigned to the ship would be as green as the new Zakeeri who were on board, and would be molded into warriors and elite troops. Some of those individuals would be specialists who would be joining the greatly expanded Science and Engineering departments.

Kathryn looked down the manifest. She smiled when she saw that Seven of Nine had once again declined a commission and was now officially listed as a civilian expert in astrometrics and propulsion theory assigned to Astrometrics. Her smile widened when she read the side-note Ezri had put next to Seven's name: "Are we big enough for a Chief Science Officer? Nepotic, common sense or mean?"

Two other names on the list stood out. Leah Brahms wished to remain, as did Celes Tal. No family was listed as joining the Bajoran, and she smiled fondly as she approved the request, pleased not to lose her able young assistant. Dr. Leah Brahms had asked that Lenara Kahn be allowed to join her, and for the Trill scientist to be considered for an assignment to Engineering on the TUE team. She didn't approve the request, noting that her mate had looked at it but had neither accepted, nor rejected it, and she wanted to discuss the implications with Ezri first.

Kathryn knew there was history there, and knew that it was at Kahn's behest that the Trill had gone AWOL in the first place. But still…. With that in mind, she also realized that it was well and good to have shared so much with Ezri during their bonding, but that same sharing had also made her aware of how pitifully little she really knew about Trill, joined or otherwise. She hoped that the more she knew, the less Ezri would confound her. Hoped being the key word.

Sarah Tucker's departure was delayed until she could train the new commander for Voyager's Marines, who, barring Deanna's deciding to remain on Presba, would be Asil Troi. Otherwise, Starfleet would determine who it was. However, once that training was complete, her new posting would be at Starfleet Academy. Tucker had met the news with an equanimity that surprised Janeway, and she resolved to keep an eye on the younger Captain; one never knew when a planted seed would bear fruit.

==^==

Others were busy with preparations of their own. In the dark of space and without access to the codes needed to decrypt the Borg algorithms used secure the communications traffic to and from Voyager to the Federation, the agents of Section 31, they remained oblivious to the subtleties of what was going on.

Even had the Commander known, he would not have altered their plans. He merely considered that the troops being sent to the Titan by the traitor, 'Warlord' Janeway were enemy soldiers, regardless of their uniforms. He adjusted their boarding plans to account for the possible consequences of armed resistance and authorized the use of deadly force.

==^==

They walked together as mother and daughter, but as individuals they were as different as night and day. Yet there was a solid core of respect and love between them. It was what made the conversation so difficult. "You are sure this is what you wish?"

Auloh looked up at the stars and was loath to admit any failing in front of her mother. But she had undertaken space travel once to arrive here. It had been enough for her. At least for a thousand years. Maybe ten. Presba, for her, was home. Living in space was not for her. "I am sure."

Asil nodded, considering. "Your reasons are logical. Your Aunt and Uncles could use someone with your skills and knowledge of the Klingon culture. You also are in the middle of your class term." The Vulcan hesitated. "But Barin will miss you."

"And I will miss…," The longer Auloh had lived with her parent, the more she understood her. "…Barin. However, I believe it to be the best for now."

Asil said nothing in response to that statement. Instead, after turning and looking at her daughter for a long time, she reached out and in a rare act, touched Auloh's face, gently pushing her hair back with a soft caress. "I will make the arrangements. If you find that you wish to join us, at any time…"

"I will tell you, Mother."

"We will call one another."

Now Auloh smiled. "Yes. We will."

==^==

Laren, Seven and B'Elanna joined Lady Sirella and Ambassadors Kasala and Yar on Presba. They were conducting a quick investigation of possible sites for the new embassies. Sirella had some definite ideas about location. She wanted the Klingon embassy somehow both near the temple and near the theater. It was possible.

"You know, city planning is so not my thing," B'Elanna commented. "I'm an Engineer for Kahless' sake."

"You are also Epatai," Seven soothed. "Which means you have final decision."

"Isn't Vrald the one who has been helping with the development here? We should invite him in on the conversation. In fact, as Epatai, I hereby officially empower Vrald to make all the building and planning decisions."

Sirella nodded, "Agreed. The design must fit with the local setting."

"If we were to admit that we would love to simply be able to stay on Voyager, would you think less of us?" Kasala asked.

Sirella laughed.

Seven smiled gently and said, "Not that there is distrust, but for matters of security, we might distribute the distance between the Embassies."

"Agreed. It would be prudent."

"Let's check out that other site and see what it looks like."

==^==

"Thank you for taking time to see me." Deanna Troi did not need to be invited to sit. She knew. She knew so much now.

"It is my pleasure, Counselor," said Orsas. She took a seat near the one Deanna occupied. It was a companionable distance, non-threatening. Deanna could face her without having to turn, or avoid eye-contact, if that was what she needed to do. The Zakeeri Truth Seeker, Shaman and Counselor smiled gently. "My time is now yours. What do you wish to tell me?"

"I killed someone."

"I am listening."

Deanna's eyes, already deep and black, darkened more. "Her name was Nuala Corvalis…"

==^==

The mercenaries hired by Section 31 arrived at Presba's Port, disguised as a merchant ship. The ship was a little larger than those that normally berthed there, but that was not enough of a red flag to alert the controllers. There was no immediate disembarkation either, since they were awaiting the signal of those that hired them.

They were a mixed group of beings, comprising of individuals who had fallen into the corps from both quadrants. They had their own code - and it wasn't necessarily all about the latinum either. But latinum surely did help.

The hired soldiers prepared themselves and their weaponry and talked in relaxed tones with one another. The battle would begin when it began. It was just a matter of time.

==^==

The Orion Syndicate ships snuck further into the system. Voyager, had she been in orbit around Presba, would have sensed them right away. But as she was planet bound, her senses were limited to her immediate vicinity, and what information she drew from various sources and feeds. According to the satellites and the other ships that moved in and out, there was nothing out of the ordinary was occuring.

The Syndicate troops prepared themselves for mayhem and anticipated an easy time of it.

Not one of them took into account the number of Klingons on the planet. Nor did they consider that what had happened in the Pharaoh system and during the Battle of Terok Nor in the alternate universe was a matter or skill and not luck. They were too focused on their prize.





Chapter 20 | Universe Beta, Alpha Quadrant: Edge of the Bajoran Sector | Bookmarks




For Ezri Tigan, it was an unfortunate confluence of events and timing.

The two ships landed at the port and were followed by the other ships that managed to survive the race. She knew that eventually even the Arrogant would make it back, since none of the damage was of the permanent kind. Above her, other ships had also begun their descent into the port, but by that time she was out of her ship, and so was Jadzia. Ezri figured she had maybe five minutes.

Jadzia caught up with her before she could take off and lifted her off the ground.

"We did it!"

"Jadzia, put me down before you really do get me killed. Congrats. Sorry about the tie. Well done. Gotta go. Bye."

Nonplussed, the taller Trill set the other woman down. Then Ezri began jogging toward the podium where Rom and Zek stood. Jadzia ran after her, as if it were some sort of foot race. Again they ended up in tandem and both ascended the steps quickly and in step.

Rom held a plaque and a symbol covered strip toward the smaller Trill, and was about to speak, when Ezri cut him off, one sentence running into the other, "Thank you for the award. Everyone raced beautifully. Thanks for letting me participate. Thank you, everyone." She bowed quickly, waved the plaque and the award stipend once, and then turned and leapt off the stage and back onto the ground.

Jadzia whose gaze of astonishment was pretty well matched by others around her, spoke a bit more slowly as she accepted her award. But not much more slowly, since her attention was on the Trill running back to the Corrigan. She smiled for the cameras, waved and then she too leapt off the stage. She recovered just in time to see that Intendant Kira Nerys was on an intersection course with Ezri.

That's when Jadzia realized that she really must hurry, and why.

==^==

"Ezri Tigan, if you want to live, you will stop right there."

The words were staccato and sharp and there was no arguing with that tone. Ezri knew it all too well. More, she knew that somehow, those words had been heard over the hum of the engine of the Intendant's skimmer. Which meant everyone heard them.

On the plus side, there was a hint that she might actually live. On the minus side, that wasn't necessarily a good thing.

Ezri knew it was her own fault. She should have told Rom to send the credits to her account, but there was something about claiming a reward that always got to her.

She slowed down to a stop, and then turned around.

The Intendant stepped out of her skimmer. She wore black and silver from boots to top. "Ezri Tigan. Imagine meeting you here."

Oh, the words were pleasant enough, but those eyes held danger. And Ezri still couldn't help the flutter in her heart. She still couldn't silence the longing for what she could not have. She did managed polite. "Intendant. How unexpected."

"Don't lie to me, Ezri. You know I don't like it." Nerys drew closer and Ezri kept both of her hands in view for the benefit of the Klingon and Bajoran guards who had also stepped out of the skimmer. The only things she was holding were the awards.

"Okay, fine. I knew you were here."

"Interesting. Yet you didn't stop to say hello."

"You were occupied at the time." Ezri didn't mean the jealous tone that leaked into the words, or the subconscious flicker of her gaze toward Jadzia.

"Well, considering that you are supposed to be dead, I suppose I won't hold your lack of ghostly visitations against you."

Ezri considered the chill tones and tried to decide whether she liked that more or less than a real slap. "Rumors of my demise were premature."

"And of your marriage?"

Now Ezri wished she had been slapped. "Over."

She got her wish.

"You should have stayed with me. Then we wouldn't have had to go through this farce. Now I'm going to have to have you publicly whipped. And who do you think that is going to hurt? You?"

The words were sharp, bitter.

Ezri looked up from the slap and knew who exactly who it was going to hurt more. She didn't remind Kira why she hadn't stayed. There was no profit in it.

Intendant Kira stepped back. "Guards, secure the Corrigan. Take Ezri Tigan to the brig and secure her there. We will not spoil the celebration with her blood now."

The guards grabbed Ezri roughly by the arms and began walking her away. She still had the award in her hand.

Jadzia, who had arrived early enough to witness a good portion of the conversation, said only, "Nerys?"

An Intendant never cries. At least not in public, so she straightened her shoulders and steadied her expression.

To Jadzia, the Bajoran seemed to instantly switch personalities. "Jadzia. Congratulations." Then, as if she were the one giving Jadzia the hug, she flowed into the Trill's arms. And was held.

==^==

Jadzia wasn't sure how she would bring it up, but she knew it was one of those necessary details. They walked back toward the Rogue Star. Nerys' arm was looped through her own. "She helped me win, you know."

"She tied with you."

"The bet, Nerys, not the race. And tying for first is still winning." She made sure Nerys was looking at her before she finished. "I'd also be dead now without her help."

Nerys' eyes narrowed, but she continued to walk. "How dead are we talking?"

"I was going to take that one roundabout route."

"The one with all the screaming?"

"Yes."

"She still gets a flogging."

"I thought you tried to kill her." Something wasn't making sense; she'd seen the way Nerys had cornered Ezri Dax at Kate's bonding, and she knew that it hadn't been Dax on the Intendant's mind.

"That's my right as Intendant." It might have been her right, but it was the one thing in her life that she would take back if she could. But it couldn't be undone and they all had to play their parts.

"Ah. But you love her."

"I love you."

"And you love her."

Nerys inhaled and considered whether it was worth it to admit the truth. "Yes."

"I love you, Nerys. More, I know how smart you are. Think of a way." They paused before walking up the ramp and Jadzia stroked her fingers along Nerys' cheek. "I just don't want to see you hurt."

"Or Ezri."

"Well, considering she is my sister in another universe, I'd rather not have to tell Ezri Dax that I got her counterpart killed."

Nerys laughed.

==^==

Deanna watched the events unfold over the vid-feed, surmising that the Trill now in custody was Ezri Tigan. She had seen enough from Nerys the night of the bonding that had added her to the ranks of the Presbans, and returned a Mother to her life, to know how deeply this woman ran in the Bajoran.

She made a decision.

It did not take long for her to make her way to the Siren's Song, and, as The Truth Seeker, it took even less time for her to be escorted to the holding cells. It was several minutes more before the prisoner arrived, in considerably worse shape than she had been during the last glimpses of her on the vid-feed. Deanna did not think Nerys would be pleased by that. Remaining out of sight until the Trill was shoved in small cell; she stepped forward before the door could be locked.

"Leave us."

"Inten--"

Before he could even blink his eyes, he crumpled, unconscious, to the floor. She addressed the other guard. "Leave us and take him with you."

"As you wish, Truth Seeker."

Deanna turned to the much younger Trill, who was watching her with undisguised fascination, and not a little lust. She smiled, keeping her teeth carefully from view. For a long moment, she studied the other woman, trying to pinpoint what had struck her as odd. Then Tigan shifted her stance, looking suddenly identical to Ezri Dax, and she grabbed the incongruence. Ezri Tigan was taller than Ezri Dax. The woman's luminous blue eyes were still firmly fixed on her, open and, she knew, guileless. It wasn't that Ezri Tigan wasn't capable of deceit or subterfuge; it was just that it wasn't her normal mien. "Do you know who I am?"

"Yes." Ezri returned the smile. The Trill was scared, but wasn't going to give into her fear of the Betazoid any more than she had given into her terror earlier. "I do. I'm surprised though."

Deanna tilted her head, curious, not able to completely read the Trill, so effective was the lack of congruence between body language and surface thought. "Indeed." She did think it was charming that the other woman was trying to take hold of the conversation; not many had the fortitude to banter with a Truth Seeker. "Why is that, Ezri Tigan?"

"A Truth Seeker usually means a trial. The Truth Seeker means something epic. I was kind of expecting quiet, and permanent. Probably involving me in many bits."

"Is your crime that serious?"

For the first-time, Ezri was confused, and suddenly wasn't so sure she understood what was going on. "At least one person thinks so."

Deanna stepped closer. That was interesting. There had been a spike of fear, and then of regret. "Will you show me your Truth?" Normally, she wouldn't have asked but she needed this disclosure to be Ezri's choice.

"Why not." Tigan tilted her chin, defiantly. "Go ahead."

Deanna let herself sink into what she was being shown, and realized that Ezri had no barriers, no parts of herself that were locked away and hidden. All of the pain, all of the joy, all of the memories, good and bad were there. Slowly she moved through the images and feelings, absorbing the pain of the death of a brother, the betrayal of a father, the disdain of a mother. Further up she climbed until she found the first places Nerys had touched. She reveled with Ezri in the unabashed joy of discovery and gloried in her fierce passion. Then it unraveled and she felt the pain of the murder that had torn them apart. But it was nothing compared to the anger and hurt, to the profound sense of betrayal as Ezri pulled a knife from her ribs and knew its owner. There was more, much more and she smiled at the purity of elation that had been the Trill's a scant hour ago as she raced, but it was the jealousy and longing that coloured the most recent memories that told her what she needed to know.

"She hurt you deeply. But you love her, still. Why?"

It never occurred to her to tell anything less than the truth. "Because, when she forgets to be a wounded animal she is," Ezri paused, not sure how to articulate what she felt and suddenly too exhausted to chase the thought that had been there so clearly only a second ago. "Nerys."

"Nerys." Deanna said at the same time.

Ezri looked directly at her, and then shrugged. "I knew it would end this way though. I forgot the cardinal rule."

Deanna met her gaze. "Which is?"

"You don't go near wounded animals."

==^==

Maqam waited for the victor. Her First Officer and her Engineer stood beside her. They were officially out of a job, but, because they were loyal, they stood with her and waited too.

Jadzia honestly wasn't stalling. For one thing, she hadn't expected Maqam to make it to the port so soon. For another, after she received news that The Truth Seeker was near, she decided she needed to wash the sweat off of her body. By a lovely bit of coincidence, Nerys happened to love washing sweat off of her lovers' bodies. So the bath ran a little longer, and was a little more closely confined, than usual.

But not too much longer, as neither woman wanted to keep Deanna waiting. In truth, they wouldn't have waited at all, except that Deanna had made the request. And, of course, there was a celebration to attend.

They arrived at the larger of the two port halls in fairly good time, and Jadzia was suddenly the center of a great deal of attention. The Intendant played the role of lovely escort with ebullience, waving to enthusiastic admirers even as her honour guard kept them far at bay. As they stepped further into the room, the other guests parted and Jadzia could clearly see the stage where Maqam awaited her.

Congratulatory, shouts and applause thundered around them as they took their side of the stage.

Jadzia and Maqam greeted each other formally. Then Maqam said, "The House Qua'lon honors its debt." She handed over the datatablet with all the relevant information for the Arrogant and that cleared her debt.

Jadzia knew she might be projecting a little, but she felt she could see the pain in Maqam's eyes. She wondered, briefly, if what she was about to propose would be the right thing to do, but thought she might as well make the offer. "The House Martok, thanks you." Then she said, "I cannot drive two ships by myself. Would Maqam of the House Qua'lon be above captaining the Arrogant on behalf Jadzia of the House Martok?"

The Trill knew it could go either way. But when she saw the wide grin that suddenly spread across Maqam's face, she knew she'd picked the right one. "Maqam of House Qua'lon would be honored."

They clasped arms amid shouts and revelry.

==^==

Not long afterward, the hall suddenly grew a great deal more silent. It didn't happen instantly, but in a gradual wave as the occupants noticed the falling quietude and joined it. It wasn't a pleasant quiet, but neither was it dangerous. Instead there was an air of curiosity combined with apprehension. A wave of whispers circled the room, and a few forced laughs tried to cover the sudden change.

Nerys didn't need to turn around to know who had entered the room. She just knew. Deanna. A tailing of a whisper reached her at the same time, confirming her intuition. She turned in joy, and then froze.

It was Deanna Troi. But she was not alone. Ezri Tigan was with her. She must have clutched at Jadzia, because the Trill turned to her, and said her name. "Nerys?"

She didn't answer, she was too busy trying to decipher what she was seeing and what it meant. There had to be an explanation.

Jadzia looked around the room trying to locate the source of Nerys' sudden pallor, and a wide-grin split her face as she recognized the Betazoid. Her smile faltered as she registered who was accompanying her lover, and she understood Nerys' reaction. If there was one thing Jadzia was crystal clear on about her Bajoran lover, it was that Kira Nerys reacted very viscerally to both having her desires thwarted and betrayal. She wasn't so sure that Deanna hadn't just hit both buttons.

She looked between the two women whom she had grown to love, and suddenly knew what to say. "Nerys." Jadzia put her hand on the side of the Bajoran's face and turned her so they were facing. Softly she kissed her lips. "This is the way. Trust me. Trust her."

〈〈I love you, Kira Nerys. Never doubt that.〉〉

The words rang in her head and she wanted to believe, needed to believe. But her anger made it hard.

Deanna was looking at her directly. 〈〈I am here, my love.〉〉

〈〈Why?〉〉 Nerys hurled the angry question at Deanna, and was surprised to see the Betazoid flinch.

〈〈I can hear you, if you direct your thoughts.〉〉 The unspoken question was answered.

〈〈Why?〉〉 She screamed again.

〈〈You made it a very public arrest, Intendant. It requires a public resolution.〉〉

〈〈She betrayed me.〉〉 Heedless of the onlooking crowd, who was aware that something was happening, Nerys let her anger fly. Jadzia's touch was harder to ignore, and she let the Trill take her hand and entwine their fingers.

〈〈No, Nerys, she didn't. She refused to go back on her word, and she said no.〉〉

Nerys knew then that Deanna had all the details. It was over. She backed away to leave and found she couldn't move.

〈〈It is not over. I love you. All of you. I will always love you. But today I am saying no. And in the morning I will still be here and I will still love you.〉〉

Nerys swore that Deanna's voice softened in her mind, though she wasn't sure how she was even hearing her lover.

〈〈You tried to kill her and she loves you still. Do you really want to throw that away? I have seen her in you, Nerys.〉〉

Nerys looked at Ezri, and frowned when she saw the mottled bruises along her jawline and the cut on her left cheek. Her normal insolent look was gone, but Nerys wasn't sure what name to give the expression the Trill currently wore.

〈〈She is fine. Your guards were merely over zealous. Do you trust me?〉〉

Here it was again. The choice to believe, or not. And so she did. It hurt too much not to. "I do." She whispered the words aloud in reflex, but knew that Deanna heard everything behind them.

With a strength of will made possible only by Jadzia's touch, Nerys spoke again, her voice steady, following the mental directions Deanna gave. "You have made a ruling, Truth Seeker?"

"I have."

Deanna moved closer and Nerys kept herself from reaching out for solid contact. "Then the matter is ended."

She watched as Deanna turned to Ezri, and seemed to stare at her for a long moment. A slim, male Betazoid appeared suddenly at Deanna's side, and motioned to the Trill, who followed him. She was still watching, when Ezri turned around and looked back. Their eyes met, and Nerys realized that Deanna had just saved more than the Trill's life; she just wasn't sure what that meant.

Deanna had come close enough that she could feel the other woman's body heat, and Jadzia had moved to stand between them, her body connecting theirs. "I believe," said Nerys slowly, "that you were going to join us on the Siren's Song?"

"Yes. I am."

"Now?"

"Now."

==^==

Leaving required farewells to be made, congratulations to be accepted and returned, and a few instructions to be given, but by the time they left the party had revved back up and was once more in full swing. The skimmer was waiting and they stepped in, silently, one after the other. The guard closed the door behind them and waved at the driver to go on.

Once again Jadzia was in the center. It hadn't been a conscious choice on her part, but Nerys seemed to need her there and Deanna was not opposed. The Betazoid's gaze was mysterious and dark and she wasn't revealing her purpose yet. It would wait until they were in a more private location.

Soon they were at the Intendant's vessel and Nerys led them forward and up. They passed several of her guard, and her servants. "My room?"

"I would prefer a room close to yours, first," Deanna said. She continued with, "One that does not have a bed in it. I'd…be too tempted. And it is important that you understand what it is I'm about to ask of you."

Now Nerys was really curious and a touch concerned. She glanced at Jadzia and knew she was not alone in her emotional state, but they both held their peace. Explanations would come soon enough.

"My room is actually part of a suite. We can use the greeting area."

"That will be sufficient."

Upon entering, Deanna realized it was more than sufficient. It was stunning. It was as elegantly appointed as her own rooms, but at the same time there was just a splash of something that made it uniquely Nerys' abode.

"It's beautiful," Jadzia commented.

Nerys grinned. "It's my home away from home. I might as well be comfortable."

"That would be one word you could use. I might use the word expansive. It's ten times the size of my cabin. I don't know how you managed in my little cubicle."

"You were there."

"Ah." Now Jadzia blushed.

Nerys laughed. "So cute. I'm going to have to make you blush more often."

Deanna smiled slightly and said, "A most worthy goal."

"Speaking of goals, the guard is outside, this suite is spy proof, and I'm just dying to know what it is you've been waiting to tell us."

"Perhaps you ought to sit down."

"I feel fine standing."

Deanna did not sigh. But she opted for frankness. "I am Presban."

The two other women looked at each other, then at Deanna. "You're of the House Presba?"

"That too." She sighed. She stepped closer to Nerys and asked, "Have you noticed anything different about me yet? Look closely."

Nerys shook her head and Deanna stepped even closer, somehow faster than the Bajoran could process. "What?"

"I am a true Presban. As my mother, Lwaxana, is Presban. It is a thing of the blood, and being of the blood comes with gifts, but it also has costs."

"Blood?" Jadzia asked.

Nerys was suddenly aware of the way her pulse was beating, the nearness of the Betazoid and a sudden flash of white. "Your teeth. They're sharper."

Now Deanna grabbed Nerys and pulled her close. She inhaled the scent of the other woman, "Yes. They are." She pressed her lips against the Bajoran's delicate cheek. "They're for mating, you see. Clean bites."

"Bites?"

"Mating." Jadzia added, suddenly understanding what Deanna was trying to convey. "You're asking us for something a bit more permanent than a marriage contract, aren't you?"

Nerys turned her attention first to the Trill, then, arching back, she looked at Deanna. "You want me that much?"

"I do. But you have to know the cost first."

"Tell me. Now."

"Let me show you instead."

"Yes."

That was all the permission Deanna needed. She drew Jadzia close, so she could embrace them both, then shared what she knew.

==^==

"Yes. Now."

"Nerys, this is not something to be impulsive about."

"I completely disagree. It absolutely is the one thing I must be impulsive about. In fact, I would say it is imperative that of all the things I ever do, that I must, this instant, do this."

The problem, of course, was that Deanna had no desire to wait either. She could not pull up a strong enough argument in herself, though she wanted, very much, to do the right thing.

"Jadzia?"

The Trill chuckled. "I agree with Nerys." Then, she hugged Deanna closer and growled softly in her ear. "Besides, I want you so much I hardly know what to do with myself. The answer is yes, Deanna."

"And the fact that I am of House Presba?"

"We'll work it out. The Chancellor has met your parents, remember, and you're the Truth Seeker. I expect the Lady Sirella will count coup over the match."

The amusement was shared between them as they remembered that fateful day.

"What do we do now, then?" asked Nerys.

"Take me to bed," said Deanna, her eyes suddenly became deeper and her gaze hungrier. 〈〈I burn.〉〉

==^==

Nerys room was not merely sybaritic. It was elegant and surprisingly peaceful. It just happened that the bed was the centerpiece. They had begun undressing in the previous room and their efforts carried over into the next destination, as they divested sartorial hindrances from one another amid exchanging kisses and lingering caresses.

They were naked by the time they made it to the bed. This time it was Nerys who was brought into the center, but she had no complaints as she was pressed gently upon the bed. She understood the reasons why.

The deep growls that filled the air were audible evidence of some of the changes in Deanna, and her loving noises thrilled through each of them, affecting them in similar, but different ways. As Deanna let them in, let them feel her need and want of them, there was a presence behind the sensations. Nerys' excitement heightened and they deliberately touched her in ways that were reminiscent of that first night they were all together. She pressed against Jadzia's stirring touches, clenched tight to Deanna's shoulders and drank in those strong, supple kisses.

Deanna's purrs buzzed in her ear, 〈〈Nerys. Now.〉〉

The response wasn't a word, just a totality of feeling. Yes. Nerys wanted what it meant. Even if she had to give up her calling, she would have said yes. She felt the spike, the moment of urgency that let her know that she was so near to the peak. She felt Deanna's kisses flow down her neck, her shoulder. She felt the brush of teeth against the meat of her shoulder and knew what came next and surrendered. 〈〈Yes!〉〉

The bite was quick, intense, stinging and full. Nerys cried out and her whole body responded in complete exultation. Sweet, powerful sensations rippled through her in cascading waves and the pain: the pain and something else slid through her.

Deanna felt the rush, the singing truthfulness of the blood. She knew Nerys, inside and out, would know her anywhere and when. She shuddered in quiet amazed ecstasy and knew her mate. Deanna kissed Nerys, who was still crashing along the waves of bliss, kissed her hard even with her mate's blood still on her lips. She knew her mate's bliss, surrendered to it and called back for more.

Jadzia was aware that something amazing had happened, something more than just pleasure's release, the backwash sent tingles dancing over her spots and set the nerve sheathes that lined her erogenous zones afire with need. She heard it in Deanna and Nerys, could perceive the reflection of it. It would be her turn soon. But first, she understood, Nerys had to complete what had been started.

Nerys returned from the point of bliss, felt the caressing touches of both Jadzia and Deanna still upon her. She inhaled deeply, loving the way they felt, but knowing that what Jadzia was sharing with them was true. Deanna was letting them see, letting her see.

Nerys kissed Deanna back, forcefully, with her eyes fully open. "Your turn."

〈〈Yes.〉〉

Deanna's dark gaze pulled her in, summoned her to do willingly what must be done.

Nerys licked that beautiful neck, nibbled at it, and then slid her kisses along slope of Deanna's shoulder. She understood the why of the location. Her teeth weren't sharp like Deanna's. It would hurt.

The Betazoid pressed her hand against the back of Nerys' head. "Yes," she verbalized. "It is good."

There wouldn't be an orgasm, Nerys worried, not wanting to rob Deanna of the same pleasure she had felt.

Amusement along with a promise, danced through their minds. 〈〈There will be later.〉〉

Nerys laughed and then, with that laugh as distraction, she plunged her teeth into Deanna's skin. The blood of the Betazoid filled her mouth, surprised her with its taste, and then with the warmth of it, as the golden rush flashed through her body. There had been no way for Deanna to prepare her for it. But she knew. Her eyes grew wide as genetic knowledge flooded her system, barreled through her consciousness.

She would never be the same.

And, she would never be alone.

〈〈Deanna.〉〉

==^==

Jadzia, needful beyond words, saw the change in Nerys' gaze. She knew something deep had happened and wanted more than anything to be a part of it.

Deanna, who felt for the first time in days, as if a part of her that was missing had slid into place, stroked her fingers along the spot on Jadzia that she intended to mark as hers.

The intensity of Deanna's gaze and purpose, sent shivers along Jadzia's spine, and as she had assisted Deanna in pleasuring Nerys, so did the Bajoran reciprocate. They kissed her together, caressed her together and lovingly brought her to destiny's peak.

〈〈Are you sure?〉〉

〈〈Yes.〉〉

Jadzia trembled with the need for release, the hovering edge of it. When she arrived, it would be screaming. Deanna smiled, revealing sharp, white teeth. 〈〈Good.〉〉

Then she pulled her Trill close, hovering her mouth over that point.

"Do it." She begged and ordered all at once. With her hands, Jadzia grabbed hold of the cushion beneath her, held tight as ecstasy pulsed through her in glorious waves. The pain she hardly felt. But she felt the echo of Deanna's bliss, knew that Deanna felt the bond flow. She was still arcing in pleasure's grasp when Deanna kissed her, and then kissed her some more.

The flood of images and the non-verbal cognition of Dax coalesced into a bright pinnacle of pleasure as the symbiont gathered the emotions and the experience into itself and fed back to Jadzia the joy of knowledge gained, of new things known. They were one, they were home, and they reveled in the totality.

Jadzia shivered with aftershocks, but had no desire to hesitate. She pulled away from the kisses, and looked into the Betazoid's hungry gaze, testing.

Then, seeing what needed to be seen, she pulled Deanna over. Nerys caught on immediately, smiled at the unspoken plan.

〈〈This time,〉〉 thought Jadzia very clearly, 〈〈you will sing.〉〉

They began then to love Deanna, bringing her to the same realm of pleasure they had known, and sharing their joy in this new thing between them. Soon she was gasping in with need, bucking against Nerys' hand and drowning in Jadzia's kisses.

Jadzia felt the impulse, understood what it meant. It was strong, this need to complete the connection. She found her point, knew it was right and bit down. Deanna bucked into it, pain subsumed by pleasure.

This time it was Jadzia who felt the claiming, the flashing rush of something beyond her ken, which flowed through her and through them. Dax again signaled its joy as the bond flooded it with the knowledge of two new lifetimes, and their legacies were added to those who had come before. The profound sense of wonder trilling through her from Dax, carried echoes of Curzon and of Audrid, and she knew her mates felt it too, and shared in the wonder of it all. She understood, knew as Deanna knew and Nerys knew. She was theirs. They were hers.

==^==

The Bajoran Intendant awoke from a deep, comfortable slumber of the kind of sleep she hadn't had in years. She rose to consciousness slowly, but not regretfully.

〈〈Hello, Beloved.〉〉

Nerys smiled. 〈〈It's morning. And you still love me.〉〉

She felt Deanna affection and amusement wash over her.

〈〈Yes.〉〉

Nerys, turned and snuggled into them, basking in the tender embrace. Deanna's fingernails traced light patterns on her shoulder blades. The Bajoran sighed happily. She felt Jadzia slide up into awareness. 〈〈Did you do that?〉〉 Nerys asked Deanna, unused to the degree of awareness she had of her new mates.

〈〈No, my mate. It is one of the gifts.〉〉 Now Deanna turned fully to face Nerys, and she stroked the Bajoran's face. 〈〈You will never be alone again. You will never need to fear with us〉〉 She smiled. 〈〈We may say, no. But it will always be an act of love. And you will know it.〉〉

〈〈I'll know.〉〉 The thought was hopeful, comforted. "I'll know."

Jadzia rolled over, wrapped her arm and leg around Nerys from the other side. "Yes, you will. And if you forget, I know just how to remind you." She nuzzled Nerys and drew her hand up to cup and play with the Bajoran's breast.

And Nerys, completely and utterly aware of what was to come next, smiled.

==^==

The problem with being on board a ship with Betazoids was the total quiet. On the other hand, she was as safe as a person could be and Ezri Tigan had come to appreciate that refuge was a valuable commodity. Her award and prize slip were on a table in the guest room when she arrived. The Klingons had confiscated it, and she honestly had not expected to see any of the credits or the plaque again.

She was unsure as to Deanna's purpose at the moment. Ezri only knew the facts she had been witness to, which were that she had been interviewed, found guiltless, and somehow, like a miracle, Deanna had convinced Nerys to step back.

Another thing she knew, one which she truly had not known until this night, was that she got to Kira Nerys just as much as the Bajoran got to her. It had been in Nerys' eyes, when she had taken in the extent of her injuries. That rage had not been directed at her way. It was, oddly, a genuine consolation.

Ezri set the plaque down on the table and made her way to the bed. What she ought to do was clean up, figure a way to get onto the Corrigan and then leave immediately. That was what she ought to do.

But she was weary from all the running, which was finally over.

So, the Trill lay down on the mattress, closed her eyes and drifted quickly to sleep.

==^==

Time passed and Ezri awakened to wonderful smells, which encouraged her to awaken more fully. She rolled out of bed, mussed and barely presentable and turned her attention to the table. She noted, with some amusement, that the food had been nibbled.

She would have eaten it anyway. She somehow doubted that Deanna Troi intended to poison her after saving her life.

Despite the gurgle in her belly, she felt the need for the refresher first.

Later, clean and relaxed, she ate and fully enjoyed the meal. She wondered what to do while she waited for whatever was to happen next.

As she finished her last sip of spice tea, there was a chime. "Enter."

The Betazoid did, bowing slightly. 〈〈The Truth Seeker requires your presence.〉〉

"Well, lucky for her, it seems I am quite available."

〈〈Indeed.〉〉

==^==

It had been hard to stop what they were doing, but there was unfinished business and Deanna was intent on seeing to it that at least one more piece of Nerys was set to order before they continued. It took a bit of bribery on the Betazoid's part. She offered her mate chocolate.

The lovely hedonist grinned and said, "I accept."

Jadzia looked intrigued. "What's chocolate?"

Nerys grinned at her, unrepentant in her failure to reveal more information. "Something which you will enjoy."

They dressed and beamed to The Truth Seeker's vessel, straight to the conference room. Once there, Deanna promptly became quietly busy. They felt the purposeful focus along their mated line.

Then they witnessed the results.

Servants entered the room, setting drinks and food before them. They bowed and moved away. Deanna said, out loud, "She is still finishing her breakfast."

"Meaning, we might as well enjoy ours?" Jadzia grinned.

"It seems appropriate."

"Oh, it is." Nerys said. "I need the fortification as I intend to use it up as energy quite soon."

"And the chocolate?" Jadzia asked, still curious.

"It comes after."

Jadzia nodded acceptance and began to eat. It was good.

==^==

The meal was swept away and they arranged themselves into an order of receptivity. Deanna sat at the head of the table, with Nerys to her right and Jadzia to her left. They all knew that if Ezri chose not to stand she would park herself at the far end of the table opposite Deanna. It would just be her way.

Ezri chose to stand.

"Ezri Tigan," Nerys began evenly. "Your privileges in regard to Terok Nor are restored. The Corrigan is released to you, its berthing fees paid. You will find that credits have been added to your account as amends for injuries experienced while incarcerated. By my authority as Intendant, your record has been cleared."

Ezri blinked.

She stepped forward and then turned, stepped away and then turned again. Ezri raised her hand, with her index finger extended. She opened her mouth to respond, but her thoughts were flooded with incoherencies.

Nerys stood up, and walked past the long section of the table toward the Trill, until she was standing in front of Ezri. "I loved you, and I love you still. But I recognize that I have…" She hesitated. Intendants do not apologize.

〈〈But lovers do.〉〉

She looked back at Deanna and nodded. 〈〈But lovers do.〉〉 she acknowledged, and then continued talking to Ezri. "… caused you much grief. I sorrow at my contribution to your pain."

"Grief? Pain? You killed my best friend. You tried to kill me, Nerys." Ezri opened her shirt, violently tugging the garment apart. A long thin scar ran diagonally from just below her left breast, thickening and becoming ropey as it crossed the plane of her flat stomach, where it traveled a section of the unused pocket, sealing it, and ended on the right, just below her navel. "Do you know how much I was offered to kill you?"

Nerys flinched, involuntarily, and opened her mouth to hurl out an accusation, but she felt and heard Deanna.

〈〈Listen to her. Hear her out. It is important that she gets to express this or it will fester between you.〉〉

"No." She kept her voice even and calm, though she was anything but.

"One million bars of gold pressed latinum. Up front." Ezri stepped forward; her eyes rimmed red, the irises gone violet.

"Why did you say no?" And suddenly Nerys was sure that the Trill had said no, because if nothing else, Ezri Tigan was very, very good at what she did, and unlike her former lover, she would be dead. She knew too, what the answer would be, but she needed to hear it.

"I told you. I'm loyal to my friends. You just never believed me."

Nerys took at deep breath, and a chance. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have killed Brunt."

"And me?"

The time for absolute truth had come, and if she ever had any hope of salvaging anything at all of what had been between them, she had to tell it. "It's the only thing in my entire life that I regret."

Now Ezri really was speechless. Then she narrowed her gaze and looked past the Bajoran and at The Truth Seeker. "Where is Kira Nerys and what have you done with her?" Never had she expected to hear those words from Kira Nerys. Never.

The Intendant laughed.

Deanna merely said, "I made her my mate."

==^==

Ezri had to sit down then. Nerys caught her before she could land on the floor, and half walked and half carried her toward the table. "Mate?"

"Yes," nodded Nerys. "You don't think I would have said that on my own do you?" She settled Ezri into a seat next to hers. The Trill stared hard at Nerys, as if trying to decide what to believe.

"Then you didn't mean it? She made you say it." Ezri rolled her shoulders together, no emotional fight left to deal with the hurt of that possibility.

Nerys lifted Ezri's chin, forced herself to meet the vibrant sapphire blue of the Trill's eyes, and not hide anything. "No. I meant it. I'm not going to make a habit out of repeating it either, but I meant it. All of it."

"You married The Truth Seeker?" Her mind reeled back to the secondary cause of her shock.

Nerys laughed. "A little more than married."

Finally she said, "Prove it."

Which was a ridiculous thing to say with The Truth Seeker present.

Nerys loved Ezri for it. She unzipped the front of her jumpsuit, down to her belly button. Smiling she pulled the cloth away from her shoulders and slide it down.

The Trill stared, then stood up and, after checking with a glance, touched first one shoulder, then the next. "Klingon Ritual? You took the Oath?" Then it really hit. "There are two bite marks."

Jadzia answered. "We are bonded by blood."

Ezri growled, and then leapt over the table to grapple with Jadzia. The names and imprecations she tossed in Jadzia's direction had nothing to do with rationality at that moment. The taller Trill stood, and caught the other woman in her arms and allowed herself to be propelled back, until they were on the floor with Ezri on top. At first.

Jadzia pushed with hip and body, and flipped them both over, until she was on top. She took advantage of her height and strength to hold the other Trill down, keeping Ezri from striking her.

"I risked my life to keep you from losing that Creator be damned, ship of yours, and this is how you repay me? You couldn't at least have waited until I'd left the system?"

"Ezri, it is not what you think it is."

"Then what in Ferenginar is it? You took the Blood Oath!" And once again, she'd been disposed of, replaced. Traded in for a better model.

"Yes. I am mated with her. But--"

Ezri howled a rejection of the premise, even her marriage contract had only been short-term, but this, this was forever. The slim hope things would right themselves between her and Nerys was gone. She wanted to be happy for Nerys, but she couldn't summon up the magnanimity required. Tears leaked from the side of her eyes. She tried to push Jadzia off, refusing to stay in the same room with them any longer.

〈〈Ezri Tigan. Do you trust me?〉〉

The cool tones of the question cut across the emotions. She did not answer in a word. But the acknowledgment was there.

〈〈Nerys is my mate too. Do feel the same anger for me?〉〉

"I don't know what I feel for you, I don't know you." Ezri refused to conduct the conversation silently.

〈〈I would know you.〉〉

"You are hers."

〈〈You would reject me?〉〉

"Yes. Ezri's Supplemental Rule of Acquisition, self preservation edition: You can steal property and lives, but never wives."

〈〈Without even knowing what is being offered, you would deny yourself? 〉〉

"I…don't understand."

〈〈Ezri Tigan, we offer you us, all of us. Your choice does not have to be made today. It does not have to be now. But it is there for you. But if you do accept, you must understand the consequences.〉〉

"Why?"

〈〈Because you call to her. To us. You are already part her and now of us, whether you know it or not〉〉

"And these consequences?"

〈〈I am fully Presban.〉〉

Ezri had heard of House Presba. She had not met them, Terok Nor was, as a rule, a place she avoided going, but she had heard of them. Had watched the news feeds in fascinated awe like everyone else. She was breathing hard, but the angry tears had stopped. "You're of the House Presba?"

"That too."

Jadzia rolled up off the floor, bringing Ezri into a standing position too. "It is a matter of…blood."

"But you have a symbiont." It was every Trill's duty to safeguard the symbionts.

"Dax and I are more one today than ever before."

The younger woman glanced back and forth between them. "I need to think about this." She looked back at Nerys, "I can come to the station?" It would be nice to thank Odo personally, and to see Quark, even if he was going to demand restitution for his errant Dabo girl.

"Any time."

"You are also welcome on Betazed."

The Trill laughed. "Well, that is good to know." Betazed was not a profitable planet for anyone in her line of work. Too few secrets and too many truth seekers. Suddenly Ezri felt overwhelmed, she shook her head, wanting to believe what she was being told, but needing equally to get away from it. "I need to get back to my ship."

"As you wish." Deanna respected the Trill's obvious wish not to engage in telepathic communication, and spoke out loud.

"The Siren's Song will be here for another day, Ezri, if you'd care to join us for dinner, or maybe to talk."

Jadzia deemed it wise to remain silent. She was still unsure as to why Ezri was furious with her, but apparently untroubled by Deanna.

Ezri backed away, then bolted for the door.

Nerys looked at the door for a few seconds longer than she turned and said, "Well. That went better than I expected."

Deanna shook her head and grimaced. "I don't know about you, but I definitely need some chocolate now."

Nerys agreed.

==^==

Jadzia looked at the chocolate offering being delivered to them. She could smell that it was good, knew it would be delicious to the taste, and she could sense Dax eagerly awaiting another novel experience, but she wasn't ready for it. "Deanna…"

The Betazoid's gaze was filled with understanding. 〈〈Go.〉〉

"Excuse me." She stood up and then started off. Then she stopped. "Save some for me?"

"Of course."

The impulse carried her out of the conference area when she remembered that they had beamed aboard. Ezri was probably halfway to her own ship by now. It was possible that if she didn't hurry the Corrigan would have already taken off. Jadzia reached out. 〈〈Deanna, I need help.〉〉

〈〈What is your need, beloved?〉〉

〈〈Aside from you? Has she left yet? If she has, I need transport. She'll beat me otherwise.〉〉

〈〈She has gone back to her quarters to retrieve her plaque.〉〉

Jadzia grinned, unable to help it. 〈〈Good.〉〉

Then she began to run.

==^==

Ezri knew she probably should have left it behind, considering that the last time she'd taken the time to claim it, it hadn't gone well at all, but for some odd reason she needed that plaque. Her world had been so rocked that she needed a tangible symbol of both her honour and skill. Besides, it was hers.

Something had to be hers.

The chime rang. She debated whether to answer or not, and finally settled on the idea that it must be a servant on an errand. But she turned so she could see the door anyway. "Enter."

Jadzia Dax strode through the door with purpose in her gaze. "Ezri Tigan, I have something I want to say to you."

Ezri stepped back and took an unconscious fighting stance, prepared for anything. "What?" She tossed back.

She was so…Ezri at that moment that Jadzia momentarily lost track of her thoughts, and she understood the glimpses she had seen in Nerys. Her whole expression changed, taking on a now unrestrained sensuality.

Ezri's heart stopped for brief pause. Or maybe time stopped, because the next thing she knew Jadzia was standing very, very close, and she hadn't made a single move to prevent the intrusion. A growl vibrated between them, an unfamiliar feral, emanation that started with Jadzia and was both surprising and stimulating. "This is not something you should run away from, Ezri."

Still feeling burned, her answer was caustic. "What is?"

"This." Jadzia leaned in precipitously, her hand cupping the back of Ezri's head, and kissed her.

Ezri was caught off guard, and a flash of remembered arousal flared in her, then lit. She kissed back. She didn't mean to, but the rough kiss transformed and deepened into something she needed. Her hands began exploring.

Jadzia felt the delighted laugh of Deanna through their bond. She pulled back and said, "No one can replace you, Ezri. We feel you in us."

"We?"

"Do you need more proof?" This time Jadzia grasped Ezri's face in her hands, and kissed her slowly. She delicately stroked the spots at Ezri's temple, then brought her hands down and let her lips slowly travel one side of the Trill's face and then the other. Ezri was leaning against her for support by the time she was done. Jadzia whispered in her ear, purred the answer. "The offer is from all of us. It would not have been given to you by the Truth Seeker if it were not so." She nuzzled the other Trill's neck. "Come back with me and see the truth."

"Why me?"

"The blood calls, Ezri. We can feel you with us already."

"Ridiculous." Jadzia had unknowingly given her the same answer Deanna had, the corroboration lending weight to the truth of things. But Ezri wasn't prepared to yield quite yet, the stakes were too high.

Jadzia's gaze turned mischievous. "Come and find out." She pulled back, offering Ezri her hand and the choice.

The stillness hung between them long enough, that Jadzia thought Ezri might choose a different path. She didn't know what the other Trill was thinking, but she could see the fight in her eyes; knew the shades of those irises as well as she knew her own.

Then, as if the decision had weighed on a mental coin toss, Ezri grabbed her hand. "Oh, just take me to them."

==^==

Nerys had discarded her clothes and was sitting in a very comfortable chair, with her legs propped on the conference table while she scooped ice cream into her mouth. Her bare feet seemed incongruous with the austere beauty of the room. But apparently Deanna did not mind. She was still dressed, but there was a definite casualness to her body language. She too was enjoying the cool concoction.

She set her empty glass down and thought, 〈〈They come.〉〉

"No dear, not yet. But soon, with any luck." Nerys licked the spoon in a particularly lascivious manner and winked.

Deanna laughed.

==^==


Both Nerys and Deanna had finished their confections, by the time the two Trill walked back into the conference room.

Jadzia had refused to let go of the other Trill's hand, just in case Ezri changed her mind.

Ezri, however, had moved from confusion to into curious and was ready to know more. Thus, as soon as they were more fully into the room, the smaller woman paced forward and planted her hands on the table. She said, "I'm ready to hear what you have to say."

"Good," said Nerys. She looked at Deanna and nodded.

Light sparkled in the room and they were transported away.

==^==

Intendant Kira's bedroom was pristine by the time they arrived. All evidence of the night's activities had been tidied away, and it stood ready.

Ezri looked around the familiar confines, and then back at Nerys. "You've redecorated."

"You've grown your hair out."

Jadzia shot a look at Deanna wondering if things were suddenly going to degenerate into more posturing between the two ex-lovers, but the brunette had a small smile on her lips.

Nerys, abruptly found it difficult to wait. She went and sat upon the freshly made bed. Holding Ezri's eyes, she patted the space beside her. "Come here. I won't bite. Yet."

The words caused an involuntary shiver to skitter through her in a full body memory. She decided that it was the expedient, practical course of action, and so did as the Intendant bid. "Tell me."

Jadzia crawled onto the bed, until she was behind Nerys. She encircled the Bajoran with her arms and Nerys leaned back into her.

Deanna settled beside Ezri, and Trill was suddenly aware of the warmth of the other women. The Betazoid brushed the back of her hand against the side of Ezri's face and said, "It began almost two months ago at my Mother's and my other parents' formal bonding to Kate Pulaski."

==^==

"How many people know about this?" Ezri asked the question to buy some time to digest that Deanna had accepted a genetic legacy from people who lived in another universe, and who had somehow, miraculously, become more than the mere mortals they had started as.

"It is hard to hide anything on Betazed."

"While very true, it doesn't answer the question."

"A few trusted beings and part of my council."

Ezri looked thoughtful. Then she smiled. "I'm a trusted being."

Deanna leaned forward and purred her next words. "You are."

The Trill, pleasantly startled, leaned forward in return. "Are you sure you want to…I mean I'm just--"

She felt a small push from behind. Then their lips touched, silencing her.

〈〈You are not just anything. You are Ezri Tigan, and I am sure. We are sure.〉〉 Deanna wrapped an arm around Ezri and pulled the Trill close.

==^==

They undressed her slowly, taking their time. They lingered in their attention to her skin, kissed, tasted and caressed sensitive spots and erogenous points, until she was gasping with need. If there was a part of Ezri that wondered what it was that allowed this in them, there was another that reveled in their deliberate and focused actions. They wanted her to know, before the bond, that this was their choice.

Nature urged her to open for them, to press up and rock against the loving invasion. They whispered to her, purred to her, the noises they made pulled her deeper into the Eros of the moment. It was a web of sensation that they wove for her.

And then, Deanna let her in, let her see in reflection that they were all there, all wanted, all needed - her. She couldn't help but believe then, because Deanna hid nothing. And that was when Ezri became aware of Nerys' building need and the nearly unconscious urge and seeking that warred with the waiting.

Ezri then moved from receiving into reciprocating, drawing the Bajoran toward her, kissing her hotly. She pulled back only long enough to say what needed to be said without reservation. "Yes." Whatever else that was between them would either work out or be forgiven from this moment on. This was now and she needed them so very much.

Nerys growled and Ezri clutched at her shoulders, unprepared for that erotic noise, but she growled back in her own fashion. With what Jadzia was doing to her, she very nearly came. She knew then how close she was and heard the echo of Deanna's thought to Nerys.

〈〈Now. She is ready now.〉〉

〈〈Yes.〉〉

Nerys withdrew from the kiss sharply and what struck Ezri odd was her expression. It was so very serious and intensely erotic. And that was when she made her final choice. She arched her neck, and pulled Nerys down sharply. She kissed the other woman's collarbone deliberately and knew her intention had been conveyed.

〈〈Yes.〉〉

In two heartbeats, she felt first the press of lips upon the arch of her shoulder at the inside edge of the trail of spots, and then the bite.

Ezri arched up, at first in shock, and then in a powerful wave of pleasure. She bit back then, while she was still sensate enough. Nerys' blood filled her mouth, hot and coppery and something else. Warmth of a golden kind, new and amazing, flooded though her and Ezri's mind was opened.

Her mates embraced her, fully and completely as she was. In that moment she knew them and they knew her. She fell into astonished bliss and wept for the incredible joy of it.





Chapter 21 | Universe Alpha, Beta Quadrant: Presba Estata | Bookmarks





The doors of sickbay swished open, and Ezri strode in. She wasn't sick, hadn't been shot recently, and felt like a million bars of gold pressed latinum. Therefore, when Zimmerman had sent her a request to drop by, she was more than happy to oblige him.

She nodded to Icheb, who was taking instructions of some sort from Dezhe, and knocked on the door of Zimmerman's office.

"Ah, Commander Dax, I didn't actually expect to see you for a week."

Ezri laughed. "You caught me in a moment of weakness. What can I do for you?"

"Actually, it's what I can do for you. Now that you've joined the Prime, I need to redo your inhibitor."

"My what?" Ezri stepped back. "Look, I only came down here because I thought you had questions about staying on Voyager, your rights, rank, that sort of thing. If you don't I'm out of here."

He ignored her, waving a medical tricorder over her. "That's odd."

"What's odd?"

"You don't have an inhibitor."

"And again, I ask, my what?"

Zimmerman put one hand on his elbow, and the other on his chin. "Birth control. You know the implant that regulates fertility. I can't believe that in this day and age..."

She held up her hand. "Doc, have you ever seen or heard of a Trill hybrid?"

"Well, no."

"That's why I don't have an inhibitor. Now can I go?"

"Not yet. Kate wants me run a few benchmark tests since you're our only fresh Presban, so to speak."

Ezri grinned at that, well aware of why Kate wasn't running the tests herself. "Fine. But make it quick. I have much First Officering left in my day."

He grunted. "You can't rush quality work." On the large med-screen to the left he put the scan of her that Kate had taken after her surgery, on the right, began appearing an image of what she looked like now.

The image on the right began beeping, and a blue zone appeared, centered over her chest and pelvis.

"Hmm."

"Hmm?"

Zimmerman opened a file on a PADD and began to read. Ezri was amused to see that his lips moved, but not amused enough to keep from clearing her throat. "Hey, remember me? The worried patient?"

"Oh, there's nothing to worry about. You've just acquired a couple of extra organs I'm trying to identify. One seems to be part of the symbiont. But the other one," he pointed, "here. I can't find a reference for."

Ezri blinked and took a second look at the screen, then down at her body, and then back up at the screen. "A new organ?"

"It appears to be vestigial."

"Vestigial, as in not present in mature members of a species? Or, vestigial as in no purpose?"

"You're apparently the expert in Trill physiology. You tell me." Zimmerman moved his hand toward his chest with its comm badge, and Ezri moved quickly to cover his mouth with her hand.

"Not a word. A girl has to have some secrets, or where's the allure?" She pulled her hand back, and put her fingers to his lips.

"This goes against my better judgment, I'll have you know."

Ezri, still somewhat shocked, took another look at the screen. "I'm explicitly invoking my doctor patient privilege over this. In return, I promise that it won't harm my health." At least she hoped it wouldn't. She really didn't have a clue what it was for, and Dax didn't know either, which meant that neither had Audrid Dax who, as a previous head of the Symbiosis Commission and developmental biology researcher, should have known.

"You'll report to me every two days? No arguments?"

"Four. But you need to lock down that file, and I can't come into main sickbay. Kate will take all of one extra visit from me to figure out something's going on. Let me have a portable scan unit, and I'll send you the files."

Zimmerman looked at the Trill, who had as determined an expression on her face as he'd ever seen. He sighed lustily. "All right."

"Thank you. Now if you don't mind, I have a job to do." Ezri left the room, without looking back.

==^==

Deanna, fully spent, at least for the moment, collapsed on top of Asil. She inhaled deeply as she buried her face into the warm, supple skin of her mate. The scent of Asil was as addictive as chocolate, she decided. And just as restorative.

Asil, for her part, was languidly enjoying the weight of Deanna draped across her body.

"Do you think Ezri will let us take her bed with us?" Now that she had accepted deployment to Voyager, they would be getting quarters of their own, but she allowed that she was going to miss this wonderful bed.

"Perhaps if you offered a suitable incentive."

Deanna lifted her head, propping her head onto stacked fists. "And what, my wicked Vulcan wife, do you have in mind?" Always a sensualist, she had discovered recently that she was also an unrepentant exhibitionist and budding voyeur. Even more delightful had been the realization that Asil too had her own streak of unconventionality.

"Visiting privileges. It would be only logical that Ezri would wish to personally ensure that we were taking adequate care of it."

"You know, that's one of the many things I love about you. Your impeccable ability to always know what the logical course of action is."

Asil flexed her hips and flipped them over. With her greater height, she was easily able to capture a dusky nipple in her mouth, while sliding her fingers through the luxurious curls surrounding Deanna's sex. Paying slow, careful attention to both places, she waited until she knew she had her mate's full attention. Then she stopped, and lifted her head, stilling the motion of her fingers at the same time.

"Oh, gods, stopping is not the logical choice." Deanna half-sobbed and half-laughed her plea.

"Indeed." Said Asil, but she plunged her fingers home, and let out a light laugh, as Deanna's entire being radiated pleasure and joy. "I believe you are correct." She brought her mouth back down and tongued her way around the puckered areola, then nipped at its bud.

Deanna's hands moved to pleasure points of their own, and Asil surrendered into the sensations. It was the logical thing to do.

==^==

If news of transfers had begun to travel around the ship, Kathryn decided there were a couple of conversations she needed to have, in person. "My ship, could you tell me where I can find Commander Dax?"

"Commander Dax is in The Park."

She got up from her desk, and in response to Laren's questioning glance, gave her mate a rueful smile, but didn't say anything. Laren knew as well as she did the unpleasant task that awaited her. It wouldn't have been a problem, except that Ezri had turned out to be damn good at her job. Better than Chakotay, truth be told. Instead, she leaned in and accepted a warm, gentle kiss and a reassuring pat on the backside.

"Kathryn, she knows it's coming."

"I know. It's just..."

"Yeah. It's just." Laren shook her head.

Kathryn laughed. "Yeah, that."

It didn't take long for her to get to The Park, but she couldn't see Ezri. The Trill was off-duty now, and she had neither wanted to call her to the ready room, nor handle it at home, which had made The Park feel like the perfect place. "Janeway to Dax."

"Dax, here."

"Where are you?"

"In The Park."

"Where in The Park?"

There was a pause of sorts, though Kathryn could hear odd noises through the still open channel. "About fifteen meters to your north, and look up, way up."

"A tree? You're in a tree? God damn it, Dax." The asperity she'd kept out of her voice during the location query had crept into her tone in spades. Kathryn turned in the indicated direction, and watched, with no little awe, as Ezri effortlessly descended the tree with an artistry she hadn't been aware the Trill possessed. Her breath caught in fear, as Ezri's release from a branch about four meters off the ground sent her into a set of tumbling rotations, only to end with Ezri nimbly landing on her feet, knees slightly bent.

"What exactly did I do to get a God damn it this time? I'm not the only one that climbs these, you know."

"Yes, but the last time I looked you weren't Ylfian either."

Ezri's eyes darkened. "Maybe," she purred. "You should look again."

Kathryn's body responded instantly, but her mind pushed aside the flare of desire, temporarily at least. "I'd be happy to take you up on that later. Very happy."

"But, you've come for these." Ezri reached in her pocket and pulled out an assortment of solid gold pips. She handed them to Kathryn, and began to walk back up a path, using her other hand to guide her mate along with her.

"Not, literally, no." Kathryn looked down at them, and realized, even without the benefit of the link, that this had to hurt. Ezri was the only one losing in the deal, everyone else kept their rank gain, got a promotion, or, at the very least, a transfer someplace commensurate with what they'd had on Voyager. "You know why you got the job."

"Oh, I know. I just didn't expect to like it so much. On the Defiant, I dealt with a crew of forty, and Captain Vaughn didn't really leave me a lot to do. But here..." Ezri straightened her shoulders. "Really, Kathryn, its okay. I don't think you're getting my quarters back, Seven of Nine has them under assimilation, but my office is all ready for Deanna to take over."

Kathryn was surprised. "You already knew."

"Deanna came to see me." Ezri stopped and leaned against a tree, and guided Kathryn to stand in front of her. She rested her chin on her mate's shoulder from behind, and wrapped her arms around the slim waist.

"I'm sorry. I should have told you right away." Kathryn's sense of humour flashed. "On the bright side, I kept you out of a Federation penal colony for desertion."

Ezri laughed. "Much appreciated. I would have hated to be the first Dax to do hard time."

Kathryn let herself rest against Ezri's warmth, enjoying the slightly warmer body temperature of the Trill, though she was always surprised by how cold Ezri's hands were. "This is a real mess, love."

"No, it's not. Hell, we've got two children under five, three others that aren't getting any less adventurous, and orders from Martok to have more. Maybe, I'll just resign altogether and stay at home. So to speak."

She turned in Ezri's embrace, so that they were facing. "Is that what you want?"

"It"s an option."

"I guess it is." Kathryn tilted her chin and let herself be kissed. There was something very illicit feeling about standing under a tree, in a public park, necking with your spouse when you happened to be a Commodore, and the spouse in question was technically still your First Officer. Startled, she pulled back. "I'm a Commodore."

Ezri grinned. "I had heard."

"No. I'm a Commodore, which means I have a ton of new work to do. And someone is going to have to do my old job."

"Kathryn, there is not enough gold pressed latinum on all the Ferenginars, in all the Universes, to make me want your old job."

"Well, you couldn't be the Captain. Not yet. Not for a long, long time. We need to talk to Laren." Kathryn put the pips back into Ezri's pocket and patted it gently. "Hang on to these. You're going to need them." Then she clasped her hands behind the Trill's neck and pulled her into another long, thoroughly inspiring kiss.

==^==

"You can't be serious." Ezri looked at Laren. "This is because I wouldn't get up this morning, isn't it?"

Kathryn laughed. This was more fun than she'd expected. It wasn't often that they got one up on the Trill.

Laren shook her head negatively. "I"m more than happy to have you lounging around in my bed, nor do I recall Lwaxana complaining."

"No," said Ezri, saucily. "She wasn't."

"This time, someone owes me a bedtime story, but we're digressing. And," Kathryn looked pointedly at the Trill, "I suspect that was the intent."

"You really are serious." Ezri stood up and walked over to the window. Half-expecting to see a star field, despite the fact they were planet-side, she blinked.

"I am." Kathryn watched the war play out visibly in the Trill's body language and on her face. She could also feel it, but she didn't think Ezri was aware of it. "And just so that you don't feel too out of your depth, you can still be in charge of shore leave schedules. I am, however, keeping both Lt. Commander Ro and my ready room."

Her remark had the intended effect and Ezri let out a sharp bark of laughter. "You are sure."

"I am."

"All right then." Ezri grinned. "But Deanna can learn to do her own shore leave schedules."

"Laren, call a meeting of the senior staff for first thing tomorrow morning. It's time to introduce them to Commander Ezri Dax, Officer Commanding, USS Voyager."

"Aye, Commodore."

"Good. Any questions?" Kathryn was already up and out of her chair, ready to leave.

"Just one." Ezri gave a small shrug and a smaller smile. "What exactly is my job?"

Kathryn laughed.

==^==

"You know. We could share the office." Deanna said. They were taking a few moments to catch up on a personal level, having restricted their earlier meeting to discussing the first officer's position, and what it was like to serve aboard such a unique vessel.

Ezri considered the notion. It was a good idea, but she pretended to object, knowing Deanna would see through it and play along. "What and have a resentful First Officer, who feels done out of an office and quarters? That could lead to a mutiny."

"I could be bribed."

"Oh, you could, could you?"

"Umm." Deanna sank down into the hot water.

Ezri dipped her fingers in the water and flicked some at the Betazoid. "No way are you getting my bathtub. Kathryn would divorce me if I even hinted at getting rid of it."

"Actually, Asil is quite enamored of your bed."

She laughed. "Asil is enamored of it. You, of course, hate it, and are only going along out of matrimonial solidarity."

"She said to offer you visiting privileges." Deanna handed Ezri a well-soaped cloth and leaned forward.

Obligingly, she took the cloth and began to scrub, working out a knot of tension along one shoulder as she did. "Tempting. Very tempting and the best deal is the one that brings the most profit. Though, Seven would make you one of your own."

"True. But we like yours."

"I hadn't noticed. And, not that I mind washing your lovely back, but where is your rapacious Vulcan wife?"

"With Commander Tucker."

Ezri winced, in sympathy. "She can have the bed."

==^==

Sarah Tucker had the rare experience of knowing that she, and no one else, had blown it. She, herself, had looked the gift horse in the mouth, and disdained it.

Sitting across from her was the person who would be taking her job. Somewhere else on the ship was the officer who had earned the position she would have killed for.

Instead, her rigidity had resulted in a posting to Starfleet Academy. She supposed it was a mark of how much she'd grown over the last few weeks that she didn't resent Asil Troi. There was envy true, but it wasn't born of jealousy, just of the realization of what her own behaviour had cost her.

Steve would be proud of her growth, she supposed. Of course, he was also staying on Voyager. For him, it had become home. Not even the Steele had been that for her.

"I've reviewed the reports on the capture of the Titan. I don't suppose there is anything about you that isn't in the records, that you might like to share?"

"There is not."

Sarah smiled. Troi hadn't said that there wasn't something to share, just that it wouldn't be shared. "You know how to order people into danger, and you know how to bring them out alive. The rest," she waved her hand in the air, indicating the office and visible equipment, "is just paperwork and training."

She continued. "Natok, he's Ylfian, and Dukath, one of the Klingons, are both good men, they know the score and won't let you down. You also have a squad of Truth Seekers assigned to you, Tald coordinates them right now."

Asil took the PADD that had been slid across the desk. She could sense regret and ambivalence, not as strongly as Deanna would be able to, but she was, nevertheless, aware that Tucker did not want to give up her post, and was, despite that, acting with honour and grace. "Thank you. I will contact you again if I have questions. And perhaps, you would conduct the handover briefing?"

"I'd be happy to help with that. Is there anything else?"

"Not at this time." Asil stood, dipped her head in acknowledgment and headed for the door.

Sarah watched her leave. Then expelled a long sigh. That had gone much better than she'd thought it would. Which was good. She might have become a little hidebound fighting the Dominion War, but she wasn't stupid. Janeway was a rising power in the quadrants, and she would have need of good officers.

She just had to earn a position.

==^==

Kathryn, at the end of a very long day, wanted nothing more than some quality time with her family, and a cup of coffee. The lower level of the family quarters appeared to be deserted, so she made her way into the kitchen, which was not deserted.

She froze.

Slowly, so as to not disturb Icheb and his guest, she backed out of the room. She would use one of the replicators in the Nest.

"Kathryn," Seven's frost blue eyes warmed perceptibly. "I am pleased you are home."

"Hold that thought." Still adjusting to the sight of Icheb kissing Tal Celes in the kitchen, she programmed a whiskey, straight, non-synthaholic, and downed it in one gulp.

"Is something wrong?" Seven had put aside the item she had been working on, and was standing next to her looking concerned.

"Icheb is in the kitchen. With Ensign Tal."

"I am aware of that. Icheb and Celes Tal are preparing dinner for everyone."

"Oh, they're cooking alright, but it's not food."

Seven tilted her head, and raised her ocular implant. Kathryn, she realized, was having difficulty processing Icheb's new romantic affiliation. The look on her mate's face was most amusing.

Kathryn obviously misread her amusement for confusion. "Ensign Tal was kissing Icheb."

"Ensign Celes." Seven corrected gently. "Her Bajoran name is Celes Tal. And," she continued, "I do not believe that Icheb was objecting."

Kathryn took a minute to digest the information. "I see. And when did this little development occur?" She now had the sneaking suspicion that though Megan had been Icheb's guest at the betrothal dinner, she had really been there as company for Ezri, and the Trill had fetched the Bajoran to be Icheb's date.

"You do not find Tal to be an acceptable choice?" Seven was honestly baffled. Though she would not have chosen Celes Tal as a romantic partner, she could appreciate that Icheb would. The young woman possessed many admirable traits.

"Well, she is a decade older than he is."

"And you are a more than a decade older than I, B'Elanna and Ezri." Seven paused, deciphering the expression on Kathryn's face, and decided not follow up on her realization that age, as much as rank, had played into her mate's decision-making process in the previous timeline. So many things that were irrelevant seemed to matter so much in Human relationships.

"It's his first relationship. I just don't want him to get hurt."

"Kathryn, it is also hers. Icheb possesses an equal capacity to damage Celes Tal. They both know the risks of first love."

"Yes, well. You married all of your lovers."

Seven favoured her with an absolutely adorable scathing look.

Kathryn snickered, enjoying the flash of humour from the Borg. Now much more relaxed, and since Seven obviously knew and approved, along with the fact that really, since the Anomaly, maybe even a little before, she'd grown to like what little she knew of the young Bajoran, Kathryn decided she really didn't have any strong objections to the relationship. "Does B'Elanna know?"

"Not at this juncture." Seven watched a wide, full smile, accompanied by a gleam in the slate blue eyes, spread over Kathryn's face, and wondered if she should be concerned.

"Can I be there when you tell her?"

==^==

They were lying together; Kathryn nestled against Seven, each needing a moment to regain their breath and equilibrium.

"Wow."

"That word is insufficient."

Kathryn traced a finger across the blinking lights on the blonde's abdomen. "Mmm. I never get tired of watching these. And I think I could spend forever trying to find new combinations and colours."

"I will comply, and make myself available for forever." Seven tilted her mate's head up and kissed her. "I have missed this."

"Me too."

"Kathryn." Seven hesitated. "May I ask you a personal question?"

She rolled slightly onto her side, so that she could better see Seven's face. "Always, my love." Inwardly, she smiled, a part of her nostalgic for their ritualized philosophical discussions.

"Were you truly concerned that I was too young for you?"

"Not after the first time you kissed me." She sobered, and made sure that Seven could not only see her eyes, but that the link between them was as open as she could make it. "I was scared, Seven. So scared and so afraid, that I never even stopped to think of how cruel I was being, and I'm so very, very, sorry." Tears were burning at the edges of her eyes, and she blinked, fighting to keep them from spilling onto her cheeks.

A mesh wrapped thumb gently wiped away the growing moisture, and lips even softer kissed her eyelids. "I love you, my Kathryn. I loved you even then. But I am very glad that you have allowed yourself us."

"Oh, darling. Me too." And she let the tears fall, knowing that here, with this woman she needed never be afraid again.

==^==

B'Elanna looked slowly between Icheb and Tal. She blinked, and then turned to Seven. With her fingers, she flashed a brief query at her mate. "Is there something you'd like to tell me?"

Seven, who was also watching Kathryn, considered her reply. "Icheb and Celes Tal are in the initial stage of a romantic relationship."

Across the table, Lwaxana nudged Laren, who, in turn, attracted Ezri's, and then T'Pel and Tuvok's attention. "Seven just told B'Elanna that Icheb is dating Tal."

A few seconds later, B'Elanna became aware of the scrutiny of her mates. None of them looked even remotely surprised. "Did everyone but me know?"

==^==

"Guinan." Her name was said with a soft hint of joy. "It has been a long time."

"Tasha, it is good to see you. I'm sure you have many stories."

Tasha glanced at her mate, then at the El-Aurian. "I have plenty of stories to tell."

Guinan smiled warmly. "Well, let's get you into your rooms and you can begin with how you are doing?"

Tasha laughed.

Kasala, Tasha, and their staff, had been given the choice of staying at the Estate or at the Resort. The resort might have been more neutral, but Romulans, at least in Universe Beta, believed in accepting the hospitality of trusted people. They opted to stay at Estate Presba until the Embassy was established, then they would move into their home there. It would not take long, and meanwhile, they had a safe location in which to rest and conduct business.

This arrangement was good, since the estate was too big with just herself and Auloh, or so the El-Aurian thought. Vedor and Tuvon would also be staying at the estate, which would provide another level of security and comfort.

What had been interesting had been the reaction of the twins to the presence of the Duras sisters. Of course, they had not expressed much in the way of emotion, just yet. But the El-Aurian was sensitive to changes in body language. It was part of her listening skills.

Guinan found she was definitely looking forward to watching events unfold in the days to come.

==^==

The shuttle was a sleek, stylish little ship and B'Elanna was finding it a joy to fly. Icheb had taken the best of the Delta Flyer and a few things purely the unschooled inventions of the Sochlings; they had seen no reason not to combine traditional aeronautics with more standard fare.

Like the Delta Flyer it had a combined control unit, but instead of a joystick, it had a two handed column that rose out of the helm, complete with a second set of controls, if desired. In fact, in a lot of ways, it resembled the ground vehicle controls of some of the machines the GDRC used for touring on the holodeck. "I am Lt. Commander B'Elanna Torres, watch me fly!" She pulled back on the column, and then turned it slightly, effortlessly banking the shuttle. "Kate is going to love this shuttle."

Seven of Nine beamed with maternal pride, while Laren stood up from her seat and moved to lean over B'Elanna, expectantly. "My turn."

She took a moment while handing over the helm to reflect on what a motley crew they made: the Chief Engineer, the Commodore's Adjutant, and the Head of Astrometrics. Definitely not the expected composition for an away mission to scout habitable regions on the Presban moons.

Of course, she thought as she looked over at Seven. That wasn't the total purpose of the trip. They were giving the shuttle that the Hansen children, along with Naomi and with a little forced labour from Tom Paris, had built for Kate its unofficial shakedown cruise.

So unofficial a trip that only a select group of other people knew it was occurring. Ezri, since she'd been shepherding the clandestine endeavor from almost the beginning and had been the one who requested they test it - cheekily handing them a picnic basket and a bottle of wine as she did so. Icheb and his siblings knew, of course. Deanna Troi knew, since, as the new First Officer, approving away missions was now her job. Kathryn knew only that they were on an away mission, not that they were testing the shuttle.

"How in the name of the Prophets, did they keep this a secret?" Laren looked around, impressed.

"They didn't. They just didn't tell anyone." B'Elanna checked the engine readings.

Laren snorted.

B'Elanna walked past Seven of Nine, who was at her station, evaluating the incoming telemetry, and plotting a course of stops that would most efficiently meet their needs. And just because her life had changed dramatically over the last year, and because she could, the Klingon paused long enough to give the extraordinarily beautiful woman a long, sultry, pulse pounding kiss. It was the kind that could make lose their balance, and she nearly lost hers.

Then, after having managed to fluster the ex-drone, as well as herself, she moved back toward the front and Laren. Yep. Things had changed and it was good.

Laren, who was testing the configuration of the buttons on the sides of the butterfly-design, said, "You really shouldn't tease her like that. We're too close to home to do anything about it properly."

B'Elanna clasped Laren's chin with one hand and drew her into a fiery kiss of their own. When she pulled back she gave the Bajoran a wicked grin and a wink before settling playfully into the seat next to the navigator. "... ah, but that's the point isn't it. Anticipation." B'Elanna tucked a spanner back into the toolkit she'd taken to carrying in her uniform jacket. "We have plenty of time. And…" she looked meaningfully at the aft section of the small craft. "I believe our instructions were to thoroughly test all of its capabilities."

Laren tisked and then winked at the other brunette. "Overconfidence, B'Elanna. That is what is going to do you in. You'll be swaggering one moment and then on the ground another."

"I'd like to see you try."

"She has succeeded many times, B'Elanna Torres, during training sessions and other, more interesting activities." said Seven who, equilibrium restored, finally felt able to join the banter.

"Well, that's only because I let her. Special circumstances."

"Oh, you are pushing it, Klingon," Laren retorted.

"Bring it on, Bajoran."

==^==

The quarters in the aft of the shuttle were generously proportioned. The bed was positively luxurious compared to lesser craft. It practically called out to be utilized in ways perfectly appropriate to its specifications.

After their third tour around the moon, Matleh, and having established five possible sites, B'Elanna called a break in the endeavor. "It is time," she said, "to test other features."

Laren raised a brow. "Orbit or land?"

"Orbit. Might as well see if the autopilot works."

"It will work," Seven of Nine said with confidence.

"I know," said B'Elanna. "But a test is a test."

Laren nodded agreement, and brought them into an orbit with a pleasant view. She set the necessary equations and commands. "Engaging Autopilot now."

Then, she stood. "So, what do you have in mind, fearless leader?"

B'Elanna stepped close to Laren and burred an answer, "I was thinking we might have a bit of a picnic in the bedroom."

"Epatai, where you lead, I will follow."

==^==

Seven arranged the meal on the floor after spreading the blanket that had accompanied the basket. The other two women helped by opening the wine and settling down beside their beloved spouse.

"I do believe," said B'Elanna, "that we have children who might count as being precocious."

"Really? What clued you in?" Laren made a wide pantomime of gazing at the room of the shuttle and the Klingon gently slugged her shoulder.

"Thank Kahless they're on our side."

Seven smiled as she finished pulling out sundry items and laid out their meal.

B'Elanna picked up a Deviled Egg and waved it, "Next time I build a shuttle, I'm inviting the kids in on the design."

"A worthy idea." Seven approved.

"I wonder if we could convince them to install a spa-tub."

"Laren, my love, I like the way you think."

"Considering the source of my inspiration…" Laren patted Seven of Nine's thigh, "…I think you ought to be praising your other wife."

==^==

Food eaten, wine sipped and appreciated, they lounged for a moment, just enjoying each other's company. They had, over the course of the meal, divested themselves of some portions of the uniform: jackets, shoes and socks. Conversation had moved back to their secondary reason for being in the shuttle and they were talking about the sites they had examined.

It wasn't anything in particular that shifted the mood. Or rather, it was a small detail, possibly a shift in lighting or simply a word said in a particular way. There was a communal pause. Then Laren leaned forward and kissed Seven.

The blonde embraced her, bringing her closer and the kiss escalated. "Beloveds, I think it is time."

They agreed. And, for a moment, they were all able to step back from the heat of it. They cleared the remnants of their meal away and then, gently stripped one another of the rest of their clothing, kissing and teasing along the way.

It wasn't the fire, quite, but there was urgency in their kisses. And love. They drifted to the bed, touching one another tenderly, speaking to one another just as tenderly, until they were reclining with Seven in the middle.

It was skin on skin on skin, touching and being touched and so many kisses. The bed became an afterthought, comfortable as it was. Their attention lingered on each other as they explored each other anew.

Seven pulled B'Elanna up, needing to taste her mate, while Laren, who had an equal need, took a place between the Borg's powerful legs. She stroked a path along the ley lines of her mate, following the light through blonde curls and down.

B'Elanna gripped the headboard and was surprised to find that there were bars to hold onto. She threw her head back and laughed and then gasped in pleasure.

They summoned one another and Seven employed the trick she was teaching Ezri. Laren groaned in delight and did her best to bring light into Seven's world.

They climbed higher together, spiraled up, until finally one of them called out and the others followed bliss' trail.

Afterwards, they snuggled together, kissing leisurely. Laren quipped, "I do believe this test has been passed."

==^==

It was a concatenation of elements. At the same time as Section 31 authorized the mercenaries to begin their distraction, the Syndicate vessels became visible in orbit of Presba. One ship dropped down, entering the atmosphere of the planet, while the other three took on the task of distracting other ships in orbit with weapons fire. The distraction mostly worked, though the Orantho got in a few good shots at the ship that was descending toward the planet.

Warnings were broadcast as quickly as possible, but that didn't mean that the surprise wasn't total.

"How many mercenaries did they hire?" queried one of the agents assigned to watch Section 31's vessel.

"Apparently enough," said another with a laugh.

"Cut the chatter and watch our backs, we only have a small window before we lose it. Has the Titan brought up her shields yet?"

"No, Commander. But their weapons are coming online."

"Get us in there."

"Aye, Commander!"

==^==

On the ground, the mercenaries poured from their ship and spilled out onto the tarmac, or were beamed to what were considered strategically important points of the small city, while others were beamed onto randomly chosen ships for the purpose of distraction. The weapons master of the Orion Ship mistook one of the mercenary vessel for Voyager and fired a streaming double line of phaser fire, which struck deploying mercenaries and their ship. Explosive balls of fire arched into the sky.

The weapons master expected to get a pat on the back. What he received was a slap to the back of the head. "Not that one, idiot!"

By the time the Syndicate vessel had turned around for a second flyby, Voyager had been alerted to the problem. Anyone who happened to be using the port exits was forced to scramble, either to get in to, or off of the ship, as the red alert sounded. She was closing the doors as she sprang from the ground and headed skyward, like a tiger leaping.

While some of her crew were on Presba's surface, there had been no shore leave scheduled at that point, so most were at their stations or in their quarters. And, as a result all duty stations were quickly manned.

It was, perhaps not the most elegant of maneuvers, and there ensued, as a result, a considerable number of bruises, bumps and broken sundries as the ship was shaken roughly, but within minutes they were in the atmosphere. By the time the captain of the Syndicate ship understood what was happening they had climbed through the stratosphere and burst into space.

Meanwhile, the mercenaries were finding out that those who lived on Presba were fully willing to defend her. Colony life, even with the protection of shields, had become an armed one after the discovery of the Presban Tunneler. Thus, they may have come in firing, but they were stalled by the volleys of return phaser and blaster shots.

Those that tried to transport into House Presba's Estate house, found the way blocked decisively. They had to settle for firing from outside the shielding and that left them vulnerable to the mostly automated defense system. The part that wasn't automated was manned by Vedor and Tuvon. The Vulcan twins made a very good team.

The few that managed to make it to their appointed strategic point found that security guards existed on Presba; angry, burly Klingon security. Of course, the Klingons loved it. They thought it was all in good fun and a rousing good time to boot.

Where the mercenaries had more success was in transporting onto the random ships. This success was because they kept their teams small and their goals even smaller. Once on board, they headed for the engine rooms.

Unfortunately, Voyager was one such random ship.

==^==

The agents made it to the Titan, beaming straight into the brig before the shields were raised. They engaged the guards within the room. One of the Klingons had time to slap the communicator on the wall, but not enough time to say anything before he died. However, the sound of phaser fire carried over comm.

"What was that?" Demanded, Commander Worf.

The Alpha shift Security Officer answered, "We've been boarded. They're in the brig."

"Send a security team, set up force fields and keep them contained on that deck."

"Aye, Commander."

Then Commander Worf turned his attention to the battle ahead. The Titan shook as it was hit, but the shields were not penetrated. The ship, however, had a few holes in its sides from when the shields were down. Force fields were keeping the air in while those decks were cleared. "Fire when ready," he commanded, his eyes gleaming with excitement. Two pulses of light flared out and struck the Orion ship's shields. His expression tensed into a smile of challenge. Now it would be a matter of seeing whose shields gave out first.

==^==

An alert pulsed loudly in the shuttle and vibrated the bed. Red light flashed over the room. The three women piled out quickly and raced to the front of the shuttle. Seven slid into her seat first. She gazed at her console. "It is an attack." Somehow she managed to say that exciting news in complete neutrality.

"On…"

"Presba. Orion Syndicate."

B'Elanna snarled. "Laren, you have Navigation. Get us back to Voyager."

"Aye, Commander."

The Klingon slid into the shotgun seat and looked down at her panel, suddenly appreciating her kids' sense of humor. Usually the weapons console was behind the driver's seat in Starfleet designs. She'd never understood that choice either.

She flicked on the weapons and defense panel and suddenly a new panel slid down from above the operations station. She pulsed the shields up and brought the weapons bank online. "Ooh. What fun toys you have, little shuttle."

Laren, who had moved them away from Matleh, was in communication with Voyager. "Voyager, this is Ro Laren, we're on the way."

Voyager sounded, for the first time in a long time, a little more mechanical than usual. "Acknowledged." Then there was a pause, "Request you avoid damage."

Laren replied, her expression stern, "We'll be careful. You too. Love you. Shuttle out."

"Let's get home and kick some butt."

==^==

Voyager crested out of the atmosphere like a surfer on a wave and shot into space. She had time to pick her exit point and went out firing, adding to the effort that was already underway. One Orion Syndicate vessel had had enough and suddenly, imploded, tearing itself apart. She flew through the debris that was right in front of her, absorbing the shattered, flying refuse into base components and energy for her shield. The rest flowed around her, to smack against and deplete the shields of the Syndicate ship that was following her.

"Welcome to the party," was the communication from the Orantho.

"Wouldn't miss it," Commodore Janeway replied, even as weapons fire from the enemy sizzled along their shields. The ship rocked gently. The inertial dampeners were still online.

That was all the conversation they had time for. They were soon completely engaged in the battle.

==^==

It was really just a matter of chance. Voyager's attention was focused more outward than inward, her crew was hastening to their battle stations, the positioning of the original transport had been lucky. They were close to main engineering, but not quite in it. They slipped into the door of the room next door and found it empty.

The mercenaries had a moment to glance at the room and assumed that they would encounter some resistance in a few moments. One raced to a panel to see what sort of damage they could do. He scanned it quickly. "Hey, it's some sort of navigation station."

"Oh," said another. "Really." He looked at his companions. "Can you override the bridge."

"I don't know. Possibly. Some of these keys are very strange."

"Well, can't hurt. Let's see what havoc we can wreak."

==^==

"Did you?"

"They got nothing from us."

"Excellent."

The agent slapped his comm badge. "We're ready."

"Unable to transport. The shields are still up on the Titan."

The agent cursed. And then had a sudden realization. There weren't supposed to be shields up at all. The ships weren't supposed to fire at the Titan. They were…wait…they weren't supposed to be there at all. He cursed again.

Suddenly they were not alone in the brig any more and the agent was required to fight again and thoughts about plans unraveling were shoved to the back of his mind.

==^==

Voyager's flotilla of smaller ships had not yet leapt into the fray, but the small shuttle Laren was piloting had kick. They contributed substantially to the damage that was being done to the final Orion Syndicate ship. The Syndicate vessel was beginning to pull apart as they neared Voyager.

With the danger eliminated, Voyager temporarily dropped her shields to allow the shuttle inside. The Orantho and the Titan were splitting away to nurse their wounds. The two mercenaries chose that moment to toggle switches they really shouldn't have been touching. With the heat of battle dropping quickly, Voyager had just enough time to realize that they were there and what they were doing. Waldos extended and a warning was given to security and to those in engineering. "Halt, you are enacting a dangerous protocol."

The mercenaries turned as the doors slid open, intending to fight. The shuttle slid closer to the docking bay. A phaser was fired and an arm flung out.

It was chance again. A falling hand slapped against a button.

Voyager disappeared.



End of Chapters 1-21 |   Continued in 22-Epilogue   |  Bookmarks



Back to Cargo Bay 2