I Can't Hear What You Say by Polly Bywater
Summary: Tom and Chakotay meet an alien who teaches them they should listen to their hearts.
Categories: Other Male/Paris Fanfiction Characters: None
Genres: Romance
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 1 Completed: Yes Word count: 33850 Read: 5845 Published: 29/09/03 Updated: 29/09/03

1. complete by Polly Bywater

complete by Polly Bywater
Title: I Can't Hear What You Say
Author: Polly Bywater
Feedback: Pollyabywater@yahoo.com
Pairing: P/m, C/Tu
Rating: NC-17
Archive: ASCEML, Cha_Club, TPDorm
Disclaimer: Paramount/Viacom owns all rights to the Star Trek Universe and the characters therein, worlds without end, amen. The planets ZaworthIa and Za'shas, their inhabitants, and their legends are products of my own mind. No money is made from any of it.
Summary: Tom and Chakotay meet an alien who teaches them they should listen to their hearts.
For clarity, telepathic speech and 'overheard' thoughts are set off by **'s.
Personal note: This story started out as one thing and then morphed into something else, as stories sometimes do. Call this the 'Anti-"Kiss Me Goodbye"' (with kudos to Cheryl Forbes, who scratched my itching imagination.) I started wondering what would happen if Tom met an alien who could tempt him willingly away from his life on Voyager. Since I have been writing stories for my own enjoyment based on my imagined world of ZaworthIa for over ten years now, I decided to conjure up a scenario that would satisfy my longtime love for ZaworthIa as well as my more newfound devotion to C/P fanfic. The title, 'I Can't Hear What You Say', is from a line in the Pink Floyd song 'Comfortably Numb'. (I love them, too.)

I Can't Hear What You Say Part One

It is, perhaps, a very human vanity that believes the galaxy revolves around human doings, for within the galaxy are so many species, races, and states of being that humanity often becomes merely an afterthought. Events set into motion by others, however, often seem to manage to sweep humanity along somehow, with effects both great and small...

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

ON a cloaked world near the Romulan Neutral Zone, seven linear years before Voyager was lost in the Delta Quadrant.

The entity known as Q appeared before the Fire Queen in his trademark flash of white light. Ysaulte'h merely looked at him and waited.

Q bowed his head, taking in the palpable aura of power that surrounded the woman. She was classically beautiful and whipcord lean. Silver streaks in her coppery hair and a few tiny lines at the corners of her eyes were the only visible marks of her age. At 150 Standard years old, a human would have judged her a third of that, at most. No amount of time could alter the force behind her color-shifting eyes, the irises swirling in ever-changing hues.

Q was a bit taken aback to find he felt an almost frightened awe. ZaworthIans were among the most powerful telepaths in the galaxy, second only to the Q themselves, and ZaworthIans remained in humanoid form only because they chose to.

"Ysaulte'h du'Zaltana, I presume?" He finally asked, and the Fire Queen nodded.

"I am," she said, watching him with her immense calm, as if strange beings materialized in front of her all the time. Then again, perhaps they did, for the Zaltana's skill at healing was also of galactic renown.

"I am Q," he told her, with a humility that would have astounded Jean-Luc had he witnessed it.

"How may I serve to assist thee?" The Fire Queen asked politely, as aware of Q's power as he was of hers. She was unafraid. She had long ago ceased to fear mortal doings.

Q met that ageless stare and abruptly realized nothing but the unvarnished truth would be accepted.

"I have become aware that I will owe you a great favor."

"The favor of the Q is a double edged sword, is it not?" She smiled, and Q was surprised to realize he felt that smile in his mind as well as his assumed human bones. He shored up his mental defenses, for all the good it did. He stood before the Fire Queen as she sat on the Fire Throne itself, and there was little that could be hidden from her here. Not even by Q.

"What would you require of me?" He asked a bit impatiently, because he *was* a Q, after all.

"One wonders what I shall be doing to earn this supposed favor," the Zaltana said mildly, one silky sable eyebrow arching high.

"I assure you, Madam Fire Queen, it is nothing you wouldn't do anyway," Q admitted, and allowed her the privilege of seeing into his mind, so she would know he was sincere.

"Then why come to me now?"

"I would rather be in the position of having favors owed to me," he replied, again as honestly as possible. "Will you concede?"

Ysaulte'h considered this carefully. She knew what the entity before her was capable of doing. There were many wishes, not the least of which was the opportunity to have the Fire King in her arms once more. Still, like the Fire King himself, she was a creature of duty; to her world, her people, and her family before all. The survival of the House du'Kefirah was an oath-sworn task, and Ysaulte'h could trace her lineage ten-thousand years, all the way back to the first Fire Queen of her world.

"Very well. Here is my wish. There is a moment in time in which my grandson Jal'kadin lost his life. Do you know it?"

Q slipped his mind into the rivers of nonlinear time and observed the occasion of which the Fire Queen spoke, and found he knew the moment well. Jal'kadin of ZaworthIa had sacrificed himself to save the lives of his sisters and the crew of a certain starship... a starship with which he was more than passing familiar, the Enterprise D.

"It might be I already owe your people a favor for that," Q noted, and watched the Zaltana shrug.

"Jal'kadin chose his course of his own will. It is not the way of our kind to count favors, Q." Ysaulte'h sighed. "His passing premature. There were things he was meant to do in this life that still need doing."

"So you want me to spare him?"

"I, myself, as the living voice of my Mother Za could do that, if that's all it was," she pointed out, and Q raised his own eyebrow and nodded, trying not to look startled by this admission.

The Zaltana motioned with her hands and painted him a mental picture, of a world on the other side of the galaxy where a revolution was occurring, a war to break a yoke of alien slavery. The freedom fighters were humanoids, long and lean and fair, with eyes that matched the Fire Queen's mutable, iridescent irises.

"ZaworthIans? In the Delta Quadrant?" Q was quite amazed. "How did they get there?"

"Of that we are uncertain. Their existence has only lately become known to us. They need help."

"Easily done." And Q lifted his hand, but the Fire Queen reached out with her power of thought and forestalled him.

"It is not my wish for their struggle to be taken from them. They hold victory in their grasp. What they need is to be reminded of who they are. They need a leader. They need a child of the House du'Kefirah. It is the wish of my Mother Za, and therefore, it is my wish as well."

Q let himself feel that immense power behind the Fire Throne, the living force of the Zaltana's world. It hummed at a level even the Q themselves scarcely comprehended, whispering of the origins of the universe and timeless. ZaworthIans existed with their planet in an almost symbiotic relationship, and the Zaltana tapped that power at will. Fortunately, her ethics were as great as her abilities.

"And you wish that leader to be Jal'kadin," he said, returning to the subject at hand.

"Yes. Take my grandson from the point of his death and deliver him there. Explain the circumstances fully, and tell him this is his duty, now."

"It will be as you wish, Madam Fire Queen." Q bowed once more. "I'll be seeing you."

"No doubt," Ysaulte'h said a bit dryly, and the entity vanished into another bright flash of light.

"Well, my Mother, it is up to Jal, now," she murmured to her deity. The loving possession of her world's spirit soaked into her, relieving every care, and the Zaltana found herself smiling. It was good to know the grandson of her beloved Fire King would live again.

- - - - - - - - - -

ELEVEN linear years later in the Delta Quadrant, on the world Za'shas.

**My Prince, the watcher is here.**

Jal'kadin turned from the window of his office, where he'd been staring out over the city of Khorodon, and gave his friend and personal assistant a level glare. It failed to intimidate, since Jal's irises were green with amusement.

"Mirek, will you never stop calling me that? How many times have we had this conversation? If you cannot call me by my name, refer to me as K'intohr. It *is* my proper title as governor of this world." Mirek gave him a wry grin but said nothing, and Jal sighed. "Very well, send Shar in."

"Greetings, Jal'kadin," Shar said with a smile, having heard the entire conversation. She gave a slight bow, and allowed her prince to seat her on a long, low sofa. Mirek shook his head with a disapproving snort and left the room, pulling the door shut behind him.

"You have news for me, Shar, that could not be told by mind?" Jal asked, eyeing her curiously. Like the majority of his people, Shar was slender and lovely, with pale brown hair and fair skin. Jal had often wished she stirred his heart, but in the long years since the war ended he had yet to meet anyone who could manage that. Part of him wondered if that was a function of having been dead and taken from the life he'd known... but then, not even a planetary governor could meet every person on his world, so there was hope, he supposed. He put that thought behind walls and gave the watcher his full attention.

"It was my belief this news better told between us alone. We have detected a ship intrasystem, my Prince," Shar said, and watched him frown, his irises shifting dark. Not because she used the title, either. Having taken so long to rid themselves of the aliens who tried to enslave them, no one among the Za'shasa was too sanguine with the notion of contact from starships.

"Have they detected us?"

"Not yet. You should know, My Prince, it is a Federation vessel," Shar told Jal gently, and watched his eyes brighten with surprise.

"A Federation vessel! How can that be?" Jal exclaimed. "Are you certain?"

"We scanned their library computer and records. The U.S.S. Voyager, Intrepid class, registry number NCC 74656, with a current crew complement of 144. It was pulled into the Delta quadrant four Standard years ago by something called the Caretaker array. They are alone here, the thought extant that their loved ones in the Federation believe them dead. They are trying to go home."

"Home." Jal'kadin got up and went back to the window, and Shar watched his hands rub over his fiery copper hair. Despite his formidable mental shielding, she was aware of his sudden feelings of homesickness. The prince seldom referred to his life before he came here, although he'd been most thorough in teaching them of the homeworld as well as how to control their psionic abilities. Love of duty followed was born and bred into the children of the Fire Throne, she knew, and Jal'kadin would never complain or wish himself elsewhere, but Shar also knew there had to be times when he missed the Alpha quadrant and the planet of his birth.

"Jal, perhaps you *should* contact them. Our scans reveal they are in need of dilithium crystals and food stores. We could help them, and it would give you a chance to –what is the phrase- catch up?"

"Humph. If they've been out here four years, they're hardly current themselves, Shar," Jal protested absently, occupied by the notion of seeing people- *humans* again. Jal'kadin had never once mentioned it to the Za'shasa, but his grandfather, the Fire King, had been human... what's more, he'd been a starship captain. There was an undeniable fascination in the idea of meeting starfolk again. He turned back to his watcher, the person in charge of planetary defenses, and scratched his chin.

"Shar. Your impression of them?" This was the determining factor. It was one thing to scan for facts and figures, and quite another to scan by mind for threat or hostility.

"They are tired, but determined. They are lonely, but not depressed. It is clear they have suffered in this region of space. I sense many battles and many regrets, and I do not sense they were the aggressors. Their captain holds them well. She is very strong, very confident."

"That would seem to be endemic to starship captains," Jal murmured, a half-smile on his face that the watcher let pass without comment. She had something else to say.

**Perhaps it is time we stepped back into the galaxy, my Prince.**

Jal'kadin nodded.

**Perhaps it is. You are in favor of it, then?**

**I am. Of course, my Prince, the decision is yours alone.**

**I will think on it.**

**Think quickly. They will only be intrasystem for another two days, and they are scanning vigorously for mineral supplies and food stores.**

"Sah'des'ka," the prince said, a ZaworthIan term that translated roughly as 'I see how it is'. **Thank you, Shar.**

The watcher got up to leave, pausing to see Jal'kadin turn back to the window, but this time his eyes were on the sky.

- - - - - - - - - -

"Uh, Captain?" Harry's voice sounded a little odd, and Kathryn Janeway turned to look at her Operations officer.

"Yes, Mister Kim?"

"An extra planet just appeared. It's 148 million kilometers distant from the star in this system and reads class M."

"'Just appeared', Mister Kim? A class M planet that is almost exactly one A.U. from its sun 'just appeared' not 60 million kilometers from our current position?"

Harry grimaced. He knew how crazy it sounded, but the facts were the facts. It didn't help that everybody on the bridge was looking at him like he'd grown two heads.

"Yes, Captain. Sensors did not detect the planet until," he checked his readings, "two point six minutes ago. I verified the readings before I told you."

The captain got up and came to Ops herself, and Harry wasn't even irritated by the fact that she felt the need to see the readings for herself.

"Captain, we are being hailed," Tuvok reported then, and Kathryn shook her head and patted Harry on the shoulder before she went back to her seat. "The transmission originates from Mister Kim's mystery planet."

Harry winced again at that, aware Tom had swung around abruptly to face the viewscreen, probably to hide his laughter. Tuvok was a real comedian, some days.

"Well. Put it onscreen," the captain said, sparing a quick glance at Chakotay that said 'What now?' and getting a tiny shrug in return that answered just as plainly 'Who knows?'.

The viewscreen cleared to form an image of a tall, lean humanoid male, and there wasn't a person on the bridge, including Tuvok, who didn't suck in a little extra breath at his appearance. He was so flawlessly handsome that 'beautiful' made a better description. High cheekbones, slanting, almost Vulcan eyebrows; a fine, narrow nose, full, sensual lips, a strong chin, and the most amazing fall of long, coppery red-auburn hair... but what really startled everyone was his eyes. The irises were no single color, but shifted through a spectrum of shades and hues. It seemed impossible even while they watched.

"Starship, welcome to the Za'shasa system. I am Jal'kadin, governor of this world. Permit me to apologize for our unexpected appearance. We have learned through unfortunate experience that 'discretion is the better part of valor'."

Everyone on the bridge who was familiar with Terran literature felt a start at the governor's choice of words, spoken as they were in a low, husky baritone. It took Kathryn a moment to respond.

"Thank you, Governor Jal'kadin. We appreciate the need for caution. My name is Kathryn Janeway, captain of the starship Voyager. We represent the United Federation of Planets. We would value an opportunity to meet with you and discuss the possibility of trade."

"We would value that opportunity as well, Captain Janeway. Please feel free to take up orbit around Za'shas. We will send you transporter coordinates when you arrive. Jal'kadin out."

The viewscreen went blank, then Harry had the presence of mind to put the planet onscreen, fiddling with the magnification until they could clearly see Za'shas. It was a lovely world, as fair as Earth in its blues and greens and golds... but there were also large scattered stretches of black, scars where nothing seemed to grow.

"Impressions, people?" Kathryn invited, curious to know what her crew thought.

"He knew we have transporter technology," Tom remarked idly, reminding them that the use of that technology was quite rare in the Delta. He stared at the planet and went on. "Word gets around. Maybe our reputation preceded us. Those dark areas look like they were caused by some kind of battle."

"Sensor readings confirm the residual effects of explosive detonations on the surface. Readings from several areas indicate the use of plasma cannon or the equivalent. The blast pattern of these areas is consistent with atmospheric bombardment. Other locations suggest ground to ground weapons fire," Tuvok noted.

"I don't detect anything to support the kind of energy output it would require to cloak an entire planet," Harry piped in, adding another unusual observation after checking something on his board. "Captain, he spoke Standard. His words weren't filtered through the translator first."

"Send a copy of the governor's transmission to the doctor, and ask him if he knows anything about races with that type of eye development," Chakotay suggested on a hunch, and Kathryn gave him an inquiring look. "I don't know. Something about what he said."

"'Discretion is the better part of valor'?" She asked.

"The actual quotation is 'The better part of valor is discretion', from the Shakespeare play Henry the Fourth, Part One, Act Five."

"Thank you, Mister Tuvok," Kathryn said, mentally rolling her eyes. "Delta quadrant aliens with weird eyes who misquote Shakespeare and speak Standard. I don't see how we can pass that up. Mister Paris, ahead half impulse, assume a standard orbit when we get there."

"Yes, Ma'am!" Tom sang out with his usual insouciance, his hands on the conn automatically laying in coordinates and approach vectors. It was an activity the pilot could perform without his full concentration, which was a good thing, because Tom was still shaken by the governor's appearance. Those eyes! On some level, Tom was convinced those eyes saw far more than superficial things... and he was startled to find he wanted to know just *how* far that vision could reach. Maybe far enough to see beneath his flyboy façade? Far enough to look past the hopeless longing he felt for someone he couldn't have?

Tom sighed to himself and set Voyager on her way.

Chakotay watched Tom and wondered why *he* suddenly felt... nervous.

- - - - - - - - -

The coordinates had appeared on Harry's station via a computerized transmission, and both Harry and Tuvok had checked and double-checked them. The intended location would place the landing party on a large, airy plaza within the planet's largest city, and near that city's largest building. Nothing unusual about that, at least.

Further scans revealed the Za'shasa had a spaceport, and also possessed warp capable, albeit small, ships... as well as the minerals required to propel them, including dilithium crystals. The world's population was only around three million, which seemed rather sparse.

The doctor had searched his data base, and announced that there was indeed an Alpha quadrant race that reportedly possessed eyes that shifted colors like the governor's. His information was exceedingly skimpy. They were called ZaworthIans and were not part of the Federation. Their world was very near the Romulan neutral zone, and the people had a reputation for being telempathic healers. Of course, there was no way to know if the governor was, in fact, ZaworthIan.

Kathryn had chosen Chakotay, Harry, and Tom to transport down with her, leaving Tuvok in command. Tuvok was calmly aggravated about that, a reaction only the people who knew him best could recognize, but Kathryn was in full 'first-contact' mode and undeterred. Armed with phasers unobtrusively belted, they beamed down as they had so many times before, into the unknown.

- - - - - - - - - -

Jal'kadin paced, an action Shar and Mirek observed with some amusement. Of course, he sensed their emotions, and turned that bright-eyed glare on them full force.

"You think this is funny? This is the first time we've had outworlders here since we banished the thrice-damned Kazon!"

"My Prince, we do not laugh at the situation, merely your reaction to it," Shar supplied in her cool, musical voice, and she and Mirek then had to laugh out loud at Jal'kadin's shocked expression. Jal was quick to see the humor in it, and joined them unreservedly. He was fortunate to have friends who challenged and supported him, and he knew it.

The laughter was still written on his face when he heard the whine of the transporters, and he turned to watch the glittering columns of light resolve into four people- four beautiful *human* people, standing there and looking about with a mixture of interest and caution.

**Fascinating process**, Mirek remarked softly by mind.

**I'll explain it later,** Jal answered silently as he walked up to the female. She was a short, trim figure with lovely sharp features and reddish hair, and Jal thought she reminded him vaguely of his sisters.

"Captain Janeway, welcome to Za'shas. This is the city of Khorodon, our world capital." He held out one hand in the Terran fashion; after a momentary hesitation, she took it and they shook hands gravely. Jal politely made an effort not to eavesdrop on her thoughts.

"Governor Jal'kadin. Thank you." Proud of herself for not visibly reacting to the alien's unearthly beauty, she motioned to the men behind her, and Jal extended his hand to each in turn. "My first officer, Commander Chakotay. My operations officer, Ensign Harry Kim. My senior pilot, Lieutenant Tom Paris."

When Jal'kadin held the pilot's hand he felt his heart stumble in his chest as some odd current seemed to jump between them. Great Mother Za, he'd never reacted to meeting anyone quite like this; although the
memory of greeting a gorgeous, dark-eyed Betazoid swept over his thoughts and reminded him he'd come close. Jal forced himself to let the pilot's hand go before his mental shielding could betray him, and hoped his voice was even when he spoke.

"Welcome to Za'shas, gentlemen. Allow me to introduce my staff. Shar Vinzane, my minister of planetary defense. Mirek Roush, my chief of staff."

"Ah, is that what we're calling my position this week, my Prince?" Mirek wondered with a smile as more handshakes were exchanged all around. "Last week I was an administrative assistant, and the week before it was 'chief cook and bottlewasher'."

Jal'kadin gave his friend an affectionate smile, and realized he should have known Mirek would see how unsettled he was.

It didn't occur to either of them that Mirek's standing joke or Jal's reaction to it could be interpreted as something else entirely... particularly by a certain pilot, who was already kicking himself for feeling more interest than he ought in the Za'shasa governor. Tom assumed instantly the two men were lovers, and wished he knew why that made something in the vicinity of his heart ache. He pushed that thought away and buried it, and Tom Paris had shields that could thwart even a ZaworthIan's surface curiosity.

"A moment, Captain, before we go inside. Shar?" Jal drew her to one side.

They watched the slender woman put one hand to her temple and briefly close her eyes. It was almost a relief. No one among the landing party had quite come to terms with the mysterious impact of those swirling irises, and having three such gazes directed at them was almost too much.

**Our defensive system is intact, my Prince. The starship is shielded as well.**

**Excellent. Thank you, Shar.**

"My Prince, I live to serve," Shar said with a faint smile that grew as she glanced from Jal'kadin to the human pilot. Jal made a face at her that the landing party couldn't see, and his minister of defense wiggled her eyebrows at him.

**These 'humans' are quite exquisite, Jal. Seeing you and their pilot together is almost more than the eye can bear.**

**Good grief, Shar!**

Jal'kadin cleared his throat and took the captain's arm, hoping she wouldn't notice his faint blush.

"Captain Janeway, I hope you will permit us to protect your ship while you orbit Za'shas. I can assure you, the planetary cloak will affect none of Voyager's systems. Please contact your ship and verify that, if you wish."

"Thank you, Governor, I will," Kathryn said, and tapped her comm badge. "Janeway to Tuvok."

"Tuvok here."

"The governor has informed me that the... planetary cloak... is now protecting Voyager as well. Is the ship all right?"

"All ship's systems are functioning normally, Captain," Tuvok said after a moment.

"Thank you, Tuvok. I'll be in touch. Janeway out." She looked at the Za'shasa a bit grimly. "How does your cloaking system work, Governor? Or should we refer to you as Prince?"

Jal chuckled softly, a sound that they all felt along their bones.

"It amuses the Za'shasa to call me their prince, but for you and yours, 'governor' will do quite nicely, Captain. As for the cloaking system, that might take a bit more explaining. Perhaps we could go inside and discuss it over a cup of coffee?" Jal led her into the nearby building through a large double door.

"Coffee? Real coffee?" Kathryn said, hardly daring to believe him.

Tom elbowed Harry and muttered "There go the dilithium crystals", and the younger man was hard-pressed to hide a grin. Both quelled instantly under a glare from Chakotay, and they all followed the governor and the captain inside the low, wide structure. Tom and Harry found the minister of defense walking beside them, while Mirek escorted the commander just ahead.

"This is our Hall, our seat of government," Shar said quietly, curious about these humans, especially the pilot. It wasn't until she met his eyes square on that she began to understand part of her prince's sudden, poorly hidden fascination. The human's eyes were the blue of a Terran summer sky. Jal had once shown her in a mental picture. Shar also realized it was the same blue that was only equaled in a pair-bonded, happily mated Za'shasa's irises. Interesting, that this human was so mentally barricaded. She could sense very little from his mind. The younger one, now, his mind spoke freely of his excitement and interest. Shar found it refreshing, and contrasted it with what she sensed from their commander. Chakotay's mind was well ordered but unsettled, with caution and protectiveness paramount.

"Your buildings seem awfully new," Harry noted in a low voice. The walls were sparsely decorated; a few paintings and sculpture scattered about.

"We were at war until about ten Standard years ago. We have had to rebuild almost everything," Shar admitted easily. "We were invaded by a race called the Kazon. Perhaps you know of them?"

"Yeah, we've had a few run-ins," Tom admitted, glad when the minister had turned that intense stare off him and onto Harry.

"They thought to make slaves of us." Shar shook her head. "It took us five years and almost half our population to... dissuade them."

The conversation was interrupted then as Jal'kadin led them into his office, motioning the landing party to take seats around the large room. Mirek excused himself gracefully to go see to coffee preparations. Shar sat on the sofa, between Tom and Harry, while the captain and Chakotay sat in chairs before Jal's desk. Jal'kadin himself did not sit, merely hitching one hip on the edge of his long desk.

"You are not from Earth?" Jal'kadin asked Chakotay curiously, and the commander felt an odd shiver at becoming the focus of that inestimable stare. Kathryn stiffened beside him.

"Not originally, Governor, no. My ancestors left Earth a couple of centuries ago. What would you know about Earth?" It was a less than polite question, but Chakotay used such a soft tone it took Jal a moment to appreciate that.

"I am... originally... from an Alpha quadrant planet myself, Commander. The homeworld of the Za'shasa is a planet called ZaworthIa." The governor's voice was perfectly even, but something in it drew Tom's attention, and he found Jal'kadin watching him. Their eyes held for an instant, and it was the governor who dropped his gaze and turned back towards the captain.

"How did you get here?" She asked him, as always, hoping for a shortcut home.

No one among the landing party caught the fact that the Za'shasa already knew Voyager was from the Alpha quadrant, without having been told.

"The Za'shasa have been here for around five thousand Standard years, Captain, and we actually don't *know* how that happened. My grandmother sent me here eleven years ago, to assist the Za'shasa."

"My Prince, you are being modest," Shar interjected. "Jal'kadin did far more than merely assist us. He taught us what we needed to know as ZaworthIans, helped us control ourselves and unify our forces. Without his assistance, the war would have gone on much longer."

"The war?" Kathryn asked, turning to look at the defense minister. It was no easier to meet her eyes than it was to meet the governor's.

"The Kazon invaded this world," Shar said for the second time that day, and added something else, so they might know the honor done them. "You are the first outworlders to visit us since the war."

"I didn't know Kazon territory extended this far," Chakotay remarked a bit harshly. He had nothing but bad memories where the Kazon were concerned. He glared at the floor, and missed Tom and Kathryn sharing a worried glance.

"It doesn't any more," Jal'kadin pointed out gently, easily recognizing that the big dark man was discomfited. "You've had problems with the Kazon yourselves, I take it?"

"Not so much the last couple of years," Kathryn responded. "How did you yourself get here, Governor? Who is your grandmother?"

"My grandmother is ZaworthIa's Fire Queen, Captain Janeway. I doubt that means much to you, but she is a very powerful person, with very powerful allies. After I died—" Jal'kadin won himself four shocked stares, and shook his head. "Forgive me for being blunt. I forget how that must sound to people unfamiliar with the situation. I suffered a most unfortunate demise in the Alpha quadrant, after which I was revived and brought here on my grandmother's wishes by an entity named Q, to take up the responsibilities of the Fire Throne towards the Za'shasa."

"Q?" Now Kathryn knew her eyebrows were crawling up her forehead, a reaction the rest of the landing party shared.

"Ah, you know him. Q does get around," Jal remarked rather wryly. "Do not trouble yourselves, he hasn't been here since the day he dropped me off." Their mingled apprehension at the mention of Q was too obvious for Jal to overlook.

Kathryn sat back and wondered what in the hell she wanted to ask next. Something didn't quite add up. While she was trying to figure that out, Mirek appeared with a salver that held a pot of coffee and seven plain white mugs. He set the tray on the governor's desk and started to pour.

"Oh, it *is* real coffee," the captain practically whispered, and the smiling Za'shasa handed her the first cup. She inhaled deeply then sipped, a blissful look crossing her face. "*Thank* you."

**We must make certain the good captain takes a supply of beans with her, my Prince.** Mirek thought to Jal'kadin, who was trying to restrain a smile.

**Indeed, Mirek. It is gratifying to bring so much pleasure to a beautiful woman with so little a thing, is it not?** Jal teased his friend. **I doubt, however, the dear lady would be so pleased by it, did she know Q had supplied it.** That had been a gift from Q for Jal'kadin personally, because of the reason for his death. The strange entity had conjured up entire crops of coffee shrubs in the Za'shasa mountains because he found out Jal liked the beverage. The plants had thrived.

**Yes, well, no need to tell *all* our secrets, my Prince.**

Mirek made short work of serving everyone, and even Chakotay, who was generally a tea drinker, had to admit the Za'shasa coffee was very good.

"Then you *are* a prince, Governor?" Tom startled everyone by asking, and Jal nodded, another faint blush mantling his cheeks.

"I would not use the title, but—"

"But, you are an heir to the ZaworthIan Fire Throne, and the title yours by blood and right," Mirek noted, and to their visitors it had the sound of an old argument. Jal'kadin went to the window and looked out with a sigh.

**Mirek, we are a long way from the Fire Throne.**

**Does it not feel nearer today, my Prince?** Mirek asked seriously, and Jal turned to smile at the starship captain. Mirek was right, the Alpha quadrant *did* feel nearer to him today.

"I have been eleven years trying to convince my friends to call me by my name. I do hope I will have better success with you and your people, Captain. We stand on little ceremony here, as a rule," Jal supplied quietly.

"If you'll call me Kathryn, you've got a deal, Jal'kadin," she offered impulsively, and he turned that bright smile on the rest of the landing party.

"Tom, and Harry, is it? May I call you thus?" He asked to their nods. "But you have only the one name, Chakotay?"

"It's the custom of my people, Governor." And just that simply, some kind of battle line was drawn. Jal'kadin was at a loss to explain it at first, then he wondered if perhaps the commander mistook his interest in the captain. Chakotay appeared very protective of her- of all the humans, really, but particularly the female. Jal would have given a lot to know what the stern officer would make of the true object of his attention, but to dig around in the man's mind would be rude, at best. Some hint of disturbance caught Jal's attention then, and he turned his regard on Tom Paris.

Tom was carefully *not* watching Chakotay, but for a brief instant the surface tenor of his thoughts was quite audible to the sensitive ZaworthIan.

**Jealous, Chakotay? You are *so* wasting your time. Again.**

That was interesting, Jal thought to himself. The pilot apparently concurred with his own assessment. The commander *was* jealous, but the tone behind the pilot's words was unusually bitter, as if that realization was an old and painful one. Jal found himself wanting to make up for every pain that the beautiful, blue-eyed blonde had ever suffered, and silently groaned when his friends reminded him he hadn't shielded that thought as well as he should.

**Oh, Jal. Do you know what you're doing?** Mirek asked, a measure of his concern apparent in his use of the nickname, and Shar was as quick to bespeak him.

**Use care, Jal. That one is difficult. His mind is well guarded, you know.**

**You both say that like I have a choice in the matter. Have you learned so little of the ZaworthIan way?** Jal'kadin strengthened his mental barriers and shut them out, so he could reflect on the fact that their warnings were already too late. The attraction he felt towards Tom Paris was immediate and strong, and very much in the tradition of his people. It was less a physical thing than a matter of mind and emotion, a questing of the soul... although certainly, the physical attraction was there as well.

"Forgive me, my mind wandered," Jal'kadin said to the humans, suddenly weary. "Shar, perhaps you and Mirek would take Kathryn and her officers to see a bit of our city? Kathryn, if you will tell Mirek precisely what your ship needs, we can begin negotiations."

It was plainly a dismissal, reinforced when the governor turned back to stare out the window.

The captain rose gracefully and made their farewells, sparing herself a narrowed glance at Chakotay that just as plainly said she thought he'd been rude. Chakotay only grew more impassive, following Shar, Mirek, and the captain out with Harry quick on his heels. Tom lingered behind on some impulse he couldn't have explained to himself had he tried.

"Governor- Jal'kadin. Are you all right?"

"Tom. I am well. Thank you. Why do you ask?" Jal'kadin wondered curiously, sensing a concern that echoed in those impossibly blue eyes.

"Your irises went very dark for a moment. Do the colors reflect your emotions?" Tom was startled to see those eyes wash over bright green at his question.

"In fact, they do. You're very quick to notice that so soon," Jal said, chuckling softly. "My grandmother spent six months listening to diplomats try to persuade ZaworthIa into the Federation, and they never once caught on. She used to laugh and call it a 'state secret'."

"You miss her."

Jal felt his throat tighten at the compassion in that voice.

"I do. She's an exceptional person. What about you? Any one in the Alpha quadrant you miss?"

Tom moved to stand beside Jal, and they both out looked over the city as Tom tried to decide how he wanted to answer that.

"I have family there, but we've been... we're not close." For a wild instant, Tom wanted to tell this man everything. Caldik Prime, his father disowning him, being kicked out of Starfleet, his time in the Maquis, prison, and how life in the Delta had been so much easier. He fought back the urge and settled for far less. "I don't have a lot of reasons to go back."

Jal was struggling with himself not to feel too encouraged by that, when another question occurred to Tom.

"How did you know Voyager is from the Alpha quadrant?"

Before Jal could answer, Shar was speaking to him by mind.

**My Prince, they want to know where the pilot is.**

"ZaworthIans and Za'shasa are empathic telepaths, Tom. For us, to communicate in thought alone is as simple as speech. We shield, of course, so we don't 'eavesdrop' on others against their will. That is considered impolite as well as unethical under normal circumstances, although strong emotions or particularly 'loud' thinking will reach us despite our mental barriers. And I should tell you, Shar just informed me your crewmates are looking for you."

Tom felt his eyes go wide, knew his surprise was written all over his face, and just as quickly understood it didn't matter. Jal'kadin would feel it anyway.

"That's amazing!"

"It doesn't trouble you?" Jal asked, hardly daring to believe it wouldn't. "We scanned your ship before we made contact."

"And we scanned your world before we beamed down. I think we're even," Tom replied, thinking that if he'd been enslaved by the Kazon, he'd damned sure be using whatever means he had to make sure visiting starships were peaceful.

"Janeway to Paris."

Tom exchanged a wry look with Jal'kadin as his hand moved to his comm badge.

"Paris here, Captain."

"We're waiting for you on the plaza, Lieutenant." Her voice was clearly impatient. Jal grinned at Tom in a moment of pure commiseration.

"May I?" He asked, and motioned at Tom's comm badge. Tom nodded, curious to see what the governor planned to say. "Kathryn, this is Jal'kadin. I apologize for detaining your pilot. We were talking, and quite lost track of time."

And from right where he stood, Jal could hear the commander's sour thought- **Paris, talking? That'll be the day. He's probably seducing the man.** A flush of pure fury rushed over the ZaworthIan, an emotion he knew would be sensed by every citizen in Khorodon, if not farther. He closed his eyes to spare Tom the sight of his irises going black with rage, and got a hold of himself, sending out a mental apology at the same time... and after thinking about it, warned his populace that there were outworlders among them that while welcomed, were liable to broadcast their thoughts, and for the Za'shasa to shield accordingly.

"Captain, permission to remain here. The governor's invited me for lunch," Tom said hurriedly, not sure what had upset Jal'kadin, but well aware he *was* upset, and he couldn't leave him like that.

"Granted, Lieutenant. We'll meet up with you later." It didn't take psychic powers to hear the question in her voice, but Tom ignored it.

"Thank you, Captain. Paris out." He made sure the channel was closed, then put a hand out to gently touch Jal'kadin's arm. "Are you sure you're all right?"

Jal couldn't prevent a tiny shiver at the touch of Tom's hand, and that same mysterious current flowed through him once more. He forced himself to move away, slowly, so the human wouldn't think he'd taken offense.

"Tom... tell me, is that short for something? Thomas, perhaps?"

"Yeah, actually. Thomas Eugene Paris."

"It's the habit of our people to use given names. Would you mind if I called you Thomas? You can call me Jal."

"That's fine, although there seems to be a contradiction there, you know," Tom pointed out with a faint smile that Jal returned.

"If I promise to explain it to you, Thomas, *will* you have lunch with me?"

"I'd like that, but don't feel obligated because I told the captain—"

"I don't feel obligated." Not the way you mean, anyway, Jal added with an inner chuckle, dismissing the human commander and his harsh thoughts for now. "You merely -what's the saying- beat me to the punch."

"In that case, I'd be delighted, Jal. Please tell me you've never heard of leola root."

"I have not, in fact. Show it to me. Picture it in your mind."

A bit uncertainly, Tom did as told, concentrating on the appearance of raw leola root. He felt an odd warmth in his mind that vanished as quickly as he noticed it, and realized he'd closed his eyes. When he opened them, Jal was smiling at him again, and he had to bite back a gasp at the glow of that greenish gold gaze.

"To my knowledge, we do not grow that particular plant on this world, Thomas," Jal reported, and watched Tom smile back at him. It occurred to Jal'kadin that he could get very accustomed to seeing a happy look on that beautiful face.

"Lunch is sounding better and better," Tom almost whispered, realizing for the first time that the ZaworthIan was a bit taller than he was, and he had to look up to meet those fascinating eyes. The discovery entranced him on some level he couldn't quite understand.

"Then we have only to decide what to eat. There's an Italian place down the street—"

"You're joking," Tom protested, and Jal started to laugh.

"I promise you, I am *not* joking, Thomas. Take my hand?" Jal'kadin held out his open palm. Tom laid his own against it, and the governor twined their fingers together in a strong grasp. "Allow me to show you *our* transporter. It's still faster than yours."

Tom could only nod, feeling distantly stunned, and it was as if the ZaworthIan merely wished them there. With no sense of time loss nor dislocation, they suddenly appeared in a small, homey-looking café, distinctly Italian in décor, right down to the red and white checked tablecloths and the candles half-melted into empty wine bottles. Several Za'shasa patrons waved courteously and grinned, and the good humor was almost palpable.

"Unbelievable," Tom muttered, and Jal couldn't tell if he meant the restaurant or their method of getting here.

A thin, white-haired elderly woman approached them with a welcoming smile, her irises green with delight.

"My Prince, it's good to see you. Is this one of the outworlders?" The old lady asked, speaking out loud to be polite, and pretending not to notice that Jal'kadin was holding the human's hand.

"Yes, Desrai, it is. This is Lieutenant Thomas Paris, of the starship Voyager."

"Welcome to my humble establishment, Lieutenant. Your presence honors us. I expect you've been in many such places across the galaxy. I am anxious to see how our efforts will measure up."

"Thank you, Ma'am. If the smell is any indication, it will measure up just fine," Tom said rather bemusedly, the rich aromas of tomato sauce, garlic, basil, and cheese hitting his nostrils hard. He could have been standing in the Bocce Café on Green Street in San Francisco instead of on an alien planet 70,000 light years away.

"Your usual table, my Prince?"

"That will be fine, Desrai. Thank you," Jal said, and only then realized he still held Tom's hand. He felt himself flush as the elder twinkled her amusement towards him with glittering emerald irises.

**He is a lovely one, my Prince, and it pleases me to see you thus.**

**Desrai. You please me, old friend.** Jal said with a quick, one-armed hug. Desrai had been one of the motivating forces behind the Za'shasa revolution, despite losing her lifemate and her children in the conflict. She'd welcomed Jal'kadin wholeheartedly, and her support was invaluable. During the difficult last days of the war, opening an Italian restaurant had been a joke between them, once he'd explained to her just what one was. When the Kazon had been defeated and the rebuilding begun, she'd insisted on fulfilling that ambition, deciding she was ready for 'the quiet life'. Her efforts had proven very popular among the Za'shasa as well as with Jal'kadin himself.

He led Tom to a booth in the back and finally released his hand, motioning the pilot to sit across from him. Tom slid into his seat still feeling half dazed, but not so much that he didn't instantly miss the warmth of that grip.

"My grandfather believed that you could find a good Italian restaurant on almost any populated planet in the Alpha quadrant," Jal remarked quietly, giving Tom a chance to catch his bearings.

"That's true. It's a little... unusual... to find one here, though."

"I like Italian food," Jal admitted a bit shamefacedly, as if he was embarrassed to admit that was all the explanation that was required. It made Tom smile.

"So do I. What do you recommend?"

"The manicotti and the lasagna are always good, and Desrai makes a pasta dish with shrimp and pine nuts that will make you weep with joy," Jal teased, amazed at Tom's open acceptance of what had to be bizarre circumstances for the younger man. Jal had been told all his life how adaptable humans could be. It was plainly the truth.


"Well, the Za'shasa equivalent. We're vegetarians, mostly, but we make an exception for nonsentient seafood."

Desrai brought over a bottle of wine, pouring them each a glass.

"Compliments of the house, my Prince, Lieutenant. Are you ready to order?"

"I'd like the pasta with shrimp and pine nuts," Tom decided, and looked into Jal'kadin's swirling gaze with a smile. "Joy is good."

"Yes, it is. I'll have the same, Desrai. Thank you," Jal said softly, quite lost in those blue sky eyes. Joy, indeed.

- - - - - - - - - -

Chakotay was fuming, and to make it worse, he wasn't even sure *what* he was so angry about, except he knew it involved Tom Paris. Mirek and Shar had taken the landing party on a quick tour of Khorodon via a clean and obviously well used public transportation system that consisted of auto-driven trolleys. They'd pointed out their medical facility, a couple of the schools, the spaceport, and had ended the tour at a war memorial not far from the government building where they'd started. They'd met several Za'shasa citizens, who were unfailingly polite, but the friendly warmth the aliens showed Kathryn and Harry was noticeably missing when it came to Chakotay.

Shar had taken Kathryn and Harry aside to point out some statistics about Za'shasa losses during the war when Mirek paused beside Chakotay and crossed his arms. Chakotay looked at the tall Za'shasa, irritated to realize he was the same height as Tom Paris, and didn't notice the alien's darkening irises.

"Tell me, Commander, are you ordinarily an angry person, or is there something about us that particularly bothers you?" Mirek finally asked, wondering how honest this human would prove to be.

The question hit Chakotay like a dash of cold water to the face, and he closed his eyes for a moment. He was ashamed to admit he'd been so sure Paris would do something to screw up the negotiations that *he'd* been the one nearer to doing that.

"I apologize, Sir, for giving that impression. I've seen nothing here that could offend me. Your people have made incredible progress given how recently the Kazon were here."

Mirek sensed Chakotay meant that, but was only partially appeased. He wanted badly to know why the commander was so vexed by the idea of his lieutenant spending time with Jal. The odd human seemed to think little of the younger man, but Mirek was willing to accept his prince's perception of Tom Paris was much clearer, despite their brief association. Jal's perception, after all, helped save all their lives. Mirek had found the commander's earlier thoughts presumptuous... then again, Jal himself had been so audibly furious it was hard for Mirek to determine his own feelings.

**Careful, Mirek. It is unclear to me how much our prince plans to disclose about our abilities,** Shar warned him, to which Mirek responded with a mental snort.

**Jal'kadin took the one to Desrai's. I expect there will be little he has not told by the end of lunch.**

Shar laughed silently.

**Still, use caution with the commander. I do not feel he is certain of his own feelings.**

Mirek had to agree with that. He held his hands open to Chakotay in a 'let it go' type of gesture.

"Apology accepted, Commander. Kathryn? Shall we go inside and discuss Voyager's needs?"

"Yes, thank you, Mirek, but I'd like to have a word with my first officer. Mister Kim, you go on ahead."

"Yes, Captain."

"Of course. Come inside when you are ready. My office is next to Jal'kadin's. We will wait for you there." Mirek turned to go in, and everyone recognized the amusement in the alien man's eyes. Chakotay got the clear idea that Mirek knew he was fixing to get his ass chewed by his captain. Harry followed with Shar, the younger man throwing him a quick and sympathetic glance that made Chakotay squirm inside with embarrassment.

"Chakotay. What in the hell is wrong with you today? Ordinarily, you're the best officer on board for first contact situations, but I'd have to judge your behavior today as sadly lacking, Mister. Can you explain yourself?" Those blue-gray eyes were lasered in on him, and Chakotay bit back a sigh.

"I'm sorry, Captain. I've already apologized to Mirek, and I'll be happy to apologize to the governor, too."

Kathryn was about to ask him if he thought that was an explanation, when her eyes were caught by something down the block. She touched Chakotay on the arm and pointed his attention to it.

Jal'kadin and Tom were walking towards the capitol building, deep in conversation, two bright heads bent close together and catching the sunlight. Tom's hands were waving to emphasize something he was saying, and the looks on their faces were relaxed and cheerful. The governor's laughter rang out in response to whatever it was Tom said, and Kathryn noticed the passersby stopped to smile at him and Tom with indulgent affection.

Then Tom saw Kathryn and Chakotay standing there, and his face went instantly still, all traces of that lovely good humor gone as if it had been wiped away. Kathryn felt something in her chest ache as she realized how very seldom Tom Paris looked happy, and it took her a moment to notice how the Za'shasa had turned their eyes from Tom and the governor towards Chakotay. As if her attention was some kind of signal, the Za'shasa ducked their gazes and hurried away, while the governor and Tom walked over slowly. The governor looked rather grim.

"Captain. Commander." Tom's voice was calm and even.

"Lieutenant. Enjoy your... lunch?" Chakotay asked, and everyone was surprised when Jal'kadin moved to stand between Tom and the commander. Kathryn got the definite impression the governor was protecting Tom from Chakotay, which was ridiculous. Wasn't it?

Jal was thinking that the human female was fairly perceptive, at least. The rather snide innuendo behind the commander's question to Tom made him angry all over again. He saw Mirek at the door, watching them, and wondered why he *or* Tom should have to put up with this. Tom's sudden apprehension at seeing the commander had been unmistakable.

**My Prince, if you do not wish to 'put up' with the commander, then don't,** Mirek told him silently. **Do not forget whose world this is.**

**Thank you, Mirek. It is a timely reminder.**

"We had a delightful lunch, thank you, Commander," Jal'kadin said, his tone quite cool. "Kathryn, did you enjoy your tour?"

"Yes, thank you, Jal'kadin. Khorodon is a beautiful city. Your people have come so far since the war."

"I have been told that Za'shas had many beautiful cities before the war. We've had to start over from scratch, I fear." The governor turned a level gray stare on Chakotay. "I hope you will forgive me, Kathryn, but it would please me to have the commander transported back to your ship. I do not believe he appreciates what he has seen here, and negotiations might go more smoothly without him. To assure you that I do not intend for you to feel unprotected, please feel free to have another officer transported down in the commander's place."

Tom's eyes went wide, and a dark flush mantled Chakotay's cheeks. Kathryn gave a mental shrug, feeling like she'd come in halfway through a vid and was unable to figure out the plot. She resisted the impulse to bow to Jal'kadin and say something along the lines of 'as you wish, my Prince', because what he'd said so obviously sounded like a royal edict. Instead, she looked at Chakotay and lifted one eyebrow.

Chakotay set his jaw.

"I apologize for offending you, Governor."

Jal wondered what the human would say if ordered to apologize to Tom, but recognized that as a waste of time. And what could Jal say? I heard your thoughts, Commander, and they angered me, because you hurt Tom's feelings? Not hardly.

He stared stonily at Chakotay, and the captain gave an audible sigh.

"Report back to Voyager, Commander. Relieve Lieutenant Commander Tuvok and ask him to transport down."

"Yes, Captain." Chakotay's hand went to his comm badge and he requested transport. Nothing further was said until he vanished in a column of sparkling light.

"May I add my apologies, Jal'kadin?" Kathryn asked quietly, only half aware of the deep breath Tom took when Chakotay was gone.

"That is unnecessary, Kathryn, but thank you. I should tell you for your own understanding, as I explained to Thomas earlier. ZaworthIans and Za'shasa are telepaths, as well as empaths. Although we possess mental shielding that prevents us from casually listening to the private thoughts of others, strong emotions and some surface thoughts come through. Your Commander Chakotay was very hostile. We found that, and him... painful."

Kathryn was silent for a minute, digesting that information. It explained a lot, and she finally realized the governor had known Voyager came from the Alpha quadrant without having been told. She herself had sensed Chakotay's irritation today, and she could see how it might make a telepath uncomfortable.

"I understand, Jal'kadin. Ordinarily, Commander Chakotay is a very even-tempered individual—"

**I just bring out the worst in him,** Tom thought hard, and knew Jal heard him when the ZaworthIan turned around and smiled with only his eyes, irises a soft dark green.

**Will you explain it to me, Thomas?** Jal asked gently, careful to keep his mental touch on the surface of Tom's mind.

**I'd like to, Jal,** Tom replied, surprised to find it was true.

"—but in any event, Mister Tuvok is more suited to contact with telepathic species. He is a Vulcan, and his people are touch telepaths," Kathryn said, relieved to see the governor was smiling again.

"I am familiar with Vulcans. I am sure his is a much more restful presence. They follow the edicts of nonemotion and logic, do they not?" Jal'kadin wondered idly, and the captain nodded as the transporter effect shimmered before them. Tuvok solidified into being.

Once again, Kathryn made introductions, but this time Jal'kadin did not reach to shake Tuvok's hand. Instead, he made the ta'al, and spoke in flawless Vulcan.

"Mene sakhet ur'seveh, Tuvok."

"Peace and long life, Governor," Tuvok responded, one eyebrow on the fly, a reaction Kathryn and Tom observed with hidden smiles of their own. Then Jal turned back towards the captain.

"If you don't mind, Kathryn, I'm going to take Thomas with me and show him around, since I cheated him out of his tour earlier. Mirek is waiting," and Jal pointed to his watchful, patient chief of staff. "I am sure you will be able to manage the negotiations without us. Perhaps you and your officers will join me for dinner?"

"Thank you, Jal'kadin. We would be honored," Kathryn said, and spared herself a good hard stare at her lieutenant. Tom grinned faintly, and she gave a tiny sigh. Whatever was going on between her chief pilot and the governor was their business, she supposed, and she trusted Tom to conduct himself appropriately. "Mister Tuvok?"

Tom watched them walk away before he looked at Jal.

"Thank you."

Jal'kadin waited until they'd resumed walking before he asked, leading them towards the war memorial in the center of the plaza. They were quite alone.

"Why does Chakotay treat you so?" Jal asked seriously.

Tom looked around, noticing for the first time the lush greenery and trees that spotted the surroundings. This was a lovely spot, clean and well cared for and nothing at all like the filthy bar where he'd first seen Chakotay, so many years ago. Nothing at all like he himself had been, for that matter, but Tom found he wasn't afraid to tell Jal'kadin the truth.

"When I was introduced to Chakotay, I was at a very low point in my life. I was a drunk- an alcohol abuser. I had been cashiered out of Starfleet following an accident that killed three people. The accident was my fault, and I lied about it. After that I had trouble finding honest work. I hired out my piloting skills on a strictly mercenary basis, and I didn't ask too many questions. When I wasn't flying," Tom paused briefly, then forged on. "When I wasn't flying, I was whoring myself for liquor and food. Chakotay looks at me and still sees a drunken, mercenary whore. He's never been able to see past that."

"Then he must be an extraordinarily blind fool, Thomas," Jal whispered, stopping Tom with one hand on his arm. "Because that's not what I see at all."

Tom met that bright gaze, and shivered at the heat in the ZaworthIan's wildly swirling irises, so many colors he didn't even have names for. He had to go on, had to tell this man everything, no matter how much it scared him.

"You don't know everything, Jal. I was in prison. I traded my ass to get what I wanted, easier work details, a better cell block—"

"Your life?" Jal'kadin interrupted, and watched Tom go pale.

"Yeah. My life," Tom said, and looked away. "Chakotay thinks I whored myself to Janeway to get out of prison. He thinks I betrayed him by being on Voyager. I was assigned as a civilian observer, to lead Voyager through a section of space called the Badlands. Chakotay was a Maquis captain, a revolutionary, a fugitive from the Federation. Janeway was supposed to capture him... but the Delta quadrant got in the way."

"Are you defending him, Thomas?"

"No! Yes. Maybe. I don't know. Jal, I—" Tom hesitated. He'd never said this to another living soul. He could hardly bear to admit it to himself. "I love him. I've been in love with him since the first time I saw him."

"Oh, Thomas." Jal'kadin put a hand on Tom's face, turning it back towards his. Those blue eyes were glittering with tears, and Jal felt his heart break. "Thomas." He put his arms around the younger man and pulled him close, sheltering him, gasping inside his mind at the feel of that long body pressed against his.

"I promise you, I will not alter your thoughts, or your heart... but I hope you will give me a chance to change them. Grant me the opportunity to show you... an alternative. Please."

"That wouldn't be fair to you, Jal."

"Let me decide what is fair to me, Thomas. I would have you think on what is fair to you," Jal whispered, stroking that silky fair hair and sensing the cracks widening in Tom's self control. "It's all right. Let it go."

Tom started crying, and couldn't stop. It felt so good to be held, comforted, wanted. So good to be with someone who knew the absolute worst about him, and still cared. He put his arms around Jal'kadin and lowered his head to that strong shoulder, and relaxed his guard for one of the few times in his lonely life. Maybe there *were* alternatives...

- - - - - - - - - -

Chakotay had gone to his quarters at the end of his bridge shift and meditated. He had that sense of having done something irretrievably stupid, although he wasn't exactly certain what it was. It had taken him a long time to reach the spirit plane, and an even longer time for his animal guide to make an appearance. When his spirit wolf had finally shown up, all she would do at first was glare at him, her golden eyes bright and hard.

"So, child. You are troubled, and you do not understand why," she eventually said, and Chakotay was surprised at the irritation in her tone. "At what point did you lose your balance?"

"I met some aliens today—"

"You meet many aliens."

"These were... different. They seemed to know us."

"That provoked your anger?"

"No, not exactly. It made me—" he still wasn't sure. His spirit wolf shook her head, an odd gesture for her, and one he'd seldom seen her use.

"You need to think on what you felt. Identify the emotions and admit what was inside *you* that provoked them. Remember, you are responsible for what you feel, not others. Remember your seventh direction, Chakotay."

He found himself pushed abruptly out of the spirit plane. He got up and put away his medicine bundle, then fixed a cup of tea and sat down on his sofa. Think on what he'd felt, huh.

He'd been angry. Anger was easy to recognize, but anger was a symptom, and not a cause. He'd been envious, because the governor had made getting rid of the Kazon sound so simple, when Chakotay *knew* that wasn't true. What had their minister of defense said? Half their population lost in the war? Obviously anything *but* easy.

He'd been jealous, which wasn't as easy to admit. Jealousy was a symptom of fear. Fear of loss. What had he been afraid of losing? Kathryn?

Chakotay thought for several minutes that must have been it. The aliens *were* fascinating. Beautiful, intelligent, pleasant and kind... but was there any part of his mind that seriously thought Kathryn would be seduced away from Voyager by coffee and good looks? Not really, and he and Kathryn didn't have the kind of relationship that would preclude other involvements, anyway. They were friends, good friends, and while he loved her dearly, he wasn't in love with her.

He wasn't in love with anybody, he insisted to himself, and became aware of a hollow feeling in his gut. Like whistling in a graveyard, because the fear was still there... and Chakotay knew he was somehow lying to himself, but the truth was so huge and so unbelievable he couldn't make himself face it.

He wasn't in love. He couldn't be.

He pushed the whole thing out of his mind and concentrated on reviewing the week's reports until Kathryn commed him to let him know she, Harry, and Tuvok were back on board.

"Where's Paris?" Chakotay heard himself bark, the anger back full force.

"Tom stayed on the planet at the governor's invitation, Chakotay."

And suddenly it was all so clear to him. He told Kathryn good night, and sat there staring at his hands, while his insides twisted into knots. Yes, he *was* jealous. He *was* afraid of losing something- No, not something. *Someone*.

He *was* in love. With Tom Paris.


Kathryn sat in her ready room, her head in her hands, and wondered why she felt so... sad. Negotiations had gone well- better than well, they'd gone quickly. The Za'shasa had agreed to supply Voyager with not only dilithium crystals and food stores, but coffee as well. In fact, the coffee had been a gift; already beamed aboard and not dependent on whatever Voyager had to offer in trade. Mirek, the governor's chief of staff, had requested very little, in her opinion. Mostly cultural stuff; books, vids, music recordings, and the like. He'd also requested information from the medical database, but not actual medications or equipment, which might have been a problem.

Mirek had explained that so many forms of entertainment had been lost in the war that the Za'shasa would be overjoyed to have anything Voyager could supply, since entertainment had, of necessity, been a low priority for a world faced with rebuilding so much. It hardly seemed a fair trade to her, but both Mirek and Shar had assured her and Tuvok the governor would be quite pleased.

The governor had certainly seemed pleased, when he'd finally made a brief appearance with her chief pilot. Kathryn sighed. That was the problem, wasn't it? Tom had looked so relaxed, standing beside the ZaworthIan. There had been absolutely nothing overt, no behavior she could have protested. They hadn't touched in her presence. Still, something about the way they occasionally glanced at each other had set alarm bells ringing in her head. If Tuvok noticed anything, she hadn't been able to tell, but Harry had watched Tom with an anxious frown that had only been partially relieved when Tom smiled at him.

The landing party had transported back up to Voyager at 1900 hours, without Tom, because Jal'kadin had very politely asked Kathryn if she minded allowing Tom to stay. She'd taken Tom aside and asked him if that's what he really wanted to do. He'd looked at her, that blue gaze so dark and serious when he answered "Yes, Ma'am," and what else could she have done? She'd given her permission. When she, Tuvok, and Harry materialized on Voyager, Harry had practically glared at her, but he'd said nothing. They were supposed to go back to Khorodon at 2030, for a state dinner, and Kathryn rather doubted Tom would be leaving after that, either.

For the first time, she allowed herself to wonder if Tom Paris might not be leaving Za'shas at all.

- - - - - - - - - -

Jal'kadin threw himself down on the sofa and stretched luxuriously, watching Tom, who hovered near the door. They'd walked all over Khorodon, Jal making good his promise of a tour. The spaceport had particularly interested Tom. He'd assessed the Za'shasa starcraft with an experienced eye, and found their tidy little warp-capable ships to be quite impressive. Complete to cloaking devices, phasers, and plasma torpedoes, the Za'shasa fleet was small but "loaded for bear", which was an idiom he'd had to explain to the ZaworthIan. Jal, upon understanding the reference, had laughed appreciatively and agreed. He had done nothing as blatant as offering Tom his own ship, but had casually commented on their need for qualified pilots. Tom thought the elegantly designed ships would be a joy to fly.

Eventually, they'd ended up back at the capitol building, so Tom could check in with the captain. Tom hadn't been surprised when Jal asked Kathryn if he could stay, but he knew the captain had been. It made him wonder what his face was revealing, because she'd looked so anxious when she asked him if that's what he really wanted. Harry had looked anxious too, Tom thought, and he was sorry for that. He hoped maybe he'd get a chance to talk with Harry later.

Once the landing party left for Voyager, Mirek and Shar had graced Jal and Tom with huge, approving smiles, and Tom understood then that the suspicions he'd had about Jal's involvement with Mirek were unfounded. Citing their thirsty and footsore condition, Jal had taken his leave of his staff and invited Tom to see where he lived, taking him there with his 'faster' transporter. Tom had finally realized it was a function of psionic ability, like their planetary cloak. He found it all fascinating.

"This is your home?"

"It is. You sound surprised," Jal teased, sensing the emotion very clearly.

"It's not your typical governor's mansion," Tom pointed out, amused. Jal's home was a small, single story house on the edge of town, half hidden inside a grove of tall trees. There were lots of windows, and it was comfortably furnished, decorated with restraint in bright, primary colors. It appealed greatly to Tom. It felt like a home.

"The people wanted to construct a grander palace, but I –what is the saying- put my foot down. It would have been an appalling waste of resources. My needs are few. There is an axiom among my family, in fact. 'The House favors the simple life. It keeps us humble'."

Jal gave him that slightly embarrassed, slightly shamefaced look that always made Tom smile.

"And having said that, forgive me," Jal said, and a couple of iced drinks appeared on the small table in front of the sofa. Tom had to laugh, as amazing as it was.

"Humble, huh. So you're not just telepathic, but telekinetic as well?" He asked, sitting beside Jal and handing him one of the glasses before tasting his own drink. Fruit juice, just tart enough to balance the sweetness, and very refreshing after their long walk. "This is good, thank you."

"You're welcome. For my people, the use of the term telepath is rather a blanket description. On ZaworthIa, it's referred to more informally as 'Talent'.

"Tell me about your family," Tom urged, and stretched out beside Jal, both men putting their feet up on the table. Near enough to touch, although they didn't. They were savoring that tingling undercurrent of anticipation, feeling no rush to move their relationship along.

"How far back do you want me to go?" Jal asked with his own grin. "I can trace my bloodline directly to the first Fire Queen of my world, the Zaltana Akilah du'Kefirah. It was she who first learned how to harness the psionic abilities most ZaworthIans are born with. There is a very long and strange story in that. My grandmother Ysaulte'h met her once, went back ten thousand years in the past to do it."

Jal's smile broadened at Tom's wide-eyed expression, feeling his astonishment.

"Oh, it's true. My grandmother—" Jal shook his head. "My grandmother is something of a rebel. She is half Romulan, for one, and she chose a Terran for her Fire King, a prince of stars."

Tom thought he'd heard his share of unbelievable things today. He was coming to learn there was unbelievable, and there was *unbelievable*.

"Your grandfather was a human from Earth? A 'prince of stars'? What does that mean?"

Jal merely looked at him, and Tom caught his breath, a too-brief picture in his mind of a shining white starship, set like a pearl against a lush emerald planet he somehow knew was ZaworthIa, with a flash of a fair-haired man in an old style uniform of command gold. It was gone too quickly for Tom to recognize the face.

"A starship captain? Your grandfather was a starship captain?" Tom figured he was probably squeaking by this point, and didn't care.

"I've never told anyone here," Jal admitted with a shrug. "Not that I'm ashamed of it, mind you. It's just not something we discuss. Grandmother explained to us about Starfleet's Prime Directive, and she never wanted Grandfather to suffer any consequences as a result of her choices. You have to remember, ZaworthIa turned down the Federation's offer of membership, and the Federation wanted us very badly at the time."

Tom thought about that for a minute, and could easily imagine somebody's career going down in flames over that whole scenario.

"Who was it?"

"If I tell you that, I have to marry you," Jal deadpanned, and suddenly he and Tom were roaring with laughter.

"Okay. It'll keep, I guess," Tom eventually said, wiping his eyes. He couldn't recall a time when he'd laughed so much. "Your grandmother was half Romulan?"

In answer, Jal set down his glass and put his hands to his hair, pulling it back to reveal his ears. The pinnae tapered up to delicate points, startling Tom with an unexpected urge to stroke them.

"Courtesy of my great grandfather," Jal explained a bit huskily, blinking against the sensual curiosity he could feel in Tom's mind.

"They're beautiful," Tom whispered, then shook his head and cleared his throat. Not yet. "What about your parents?"

Jal'kadin accepted the change of subject graciously. He wasn't ready either, and they didn't have time to do everything he wanted to do with this exquisite man. The state dinner was looming over their heads, and Jal was wishing he'd never issued that particular invitation.

"Grandmother bore her Fire King twin daughters, one of whom died shortly after birth. Her other daughter was my mother Jezrael. She married a distant relative, my father, Dyer d'Gnaur, Negus ul Etumuuyea. He was also a direct descendant of the Fire Throne. His ZaworthIan ancestress emigrated to Muuye around four thousand years ago. I am one of three, a triplet. I have two older sisters, Zahara and Jaeotise. Zahara still lives on ZaworthIa, while Jaeotise lives on Muuye. They both have children of their own."

"Etumuuyea. Wasn't that the star system the Romulans tried to take over from the Federation?" Tom concentrated and could remember seeing some of the news vids as a student at the academy. "The Enterprise D helped re-establish the rightful government eventually."

"Yes. The Romulans killed my parents, and the Federation abandoned system Etumuuyea to the Empire. It is a pattern the Federation repeated, I suppose, with your frontier worlds and the Cardassians," Jal realized. Tom had explained to him the complex situation that had given rise to the Maquis. The parallel with what had happened to his father's worlds was quite remarkable, Jal thought. He was glad ZaworthIa had never seen fit to enter the Federation... but it gave him pause to realize he had something in common with Chakotay.

"I'm sorry about your parents," Tom said gently, reaching out to catch Jal's hand. "My mom died when I was a kid. It's rough."

"Thank you, Thomas. I'm sorry for your loss, too. It must have been very difficult for you. Have you any family besides your father?" During their afternoon ramble, Tom had told Jal'kadin about Owen Paris and their subsequent estrangement following Caldik Prime.

"I have two sisters, much older than me. By the time I was old enough for them to consider me sentient, they were leaving home for college. We've never been close," Tom said wryly.

"So we are both babies of the family, then," Jal remarked, and they grinned at each other for a moment. "No easy thing, that."

"No." Tom hesitated, but he had to ask. "How were you... killed?"

"Hmm. That's another long story. My sisters and I were on the Enterprise D when it went to liberate Etumuuyea of the Romulans. Of course, the Romulans weren't quite anxious to give up their prize. The short version would be, there was a battle, and I was shot down and killed."

"Shot down, as in out of the sky?"

"Well, the outer atmosphere, in my case," Jal said wryly. "It came as quite a shock, dying."

"You remember it?" Tom was horrified.

"I remember dying. I don't remember being dead. When Q... revived me, only a few moments had gone by subjectively, although in linear time, I was dead for about a year," Jal explained.

Tom thought the prince was practically twitching with discomfort.

"You know, I remember when I thought time really was linear," he said, squeezing Jal's hand and grinning at him.

Jal was relieved to have the moment lightened, and grateful Tom was perceptive enough to notice his need. It had been hard for Jal to bear Tom's earlier shaken dismay. He was also afraid Tom would be disgusted by the facts surrounding his resurrection, although Tom didn't seem to have the grudge against Q that his captain did.

Tom finished his drink and set the glass aside, abruptly shifting his position to lay his head in Jal's lap and hang his feet out over the end of the sofa. He thought Jal's mental shielding must have become a bit eroded, because he could clearly sense the other man's discomfort and fear surrounding the circumstances of his death, and subsequent life. And as far as Q was concerned, how could Tom feel anything but thankful?

"How much time do we have before that damned dinner?" He asked, so closely echoing Jal's own thoughts on the subject that the ZaworthIan had to laugh.

"Not enough," Jal said regretfully, stroking the soft blonde hair off Tom's forehead. "How long will Voyager stay?"

"That depends. How slowly can your people gather up all the trade items?"

"The food stores are already assembled. The dilithium crystals could take a little longer. A day or two," Jal said, chuckling a little at the way Tom had phrased the question.

"B'Elanna- that's our chief engineer, will want to test the crystals before we leave. That'll take another day or two," Tom remarked.

"Perhaps I should invite your crewmates to take shore leave. That could add at least a week," Jal commented quietly.

"We don't get a lot of opportunities for shore leave, so I'm sure the captain would jump at the chance... but that would be kind of hard on the Za'shasa, wouldn't it? A bunch of unruly aliens running around blasting their thoughts?"

Jal'kadin smiled into those blue eyes, his own thoughts in a bit of a spin. This man Thomas was a treasure, so strong, but not unbending. Fair, without being inflexible. Adaptable, without being weak. Intelligent, but not arrogant. Imagine, being concerned for the Za'shasa thus, and able to turn his understanding around to view his crewmates as the aliens.

Jal loosed his second sight, Tom's spirit a brilliant glow of psionic force that he could perceive, luminous and pure. It made him feel blessed to be a ZaworthIan, to have the gift of that perception.

"Have you any idea how special you are?"

Tom started to shake his head, protesting inside. He wasn't special, not Tom Paris. He was damaged goods, just superficial looks and piloting skills to recommend him. Jal took Tom's hand, and lifted it to his own throat, pressing those long fingers against his pulse.

"Let me show you how *I* see you, beautiful Thomas," he begged, an agony of anticipation in his voice.

"Yes," Tom whispered, and Jal'kadin joined their minds, showing Tom the universe as it was meant to be seen, with them as part of a whole.

Heat, washing over him, the noon sun in the desert, blazing. So easy, so right, and so like coming home in some manner Tom couldn't explain. He became pure energy. No longer tied to a physical form, he was a creature of thought, of light and magic, adrift on a limitless ocean of sparkling isochronal power. Not alone, never alone, Jal's presence a bright rainbow of iridescence beside him... then in a peculiar twist, Tom could see himself through Jal's perception, saw his own radiant soul in a dazzling aurora of colors.

**It is not the way of humanity to have this vision before the end of life, but Thomas, know this, we are one with the Infinite, valued and beloved.**

Perception twisted again, and Tom could sense billions of shimmering islands in the ocean of light, dimly aware he was seeing the essences of other people, other lives. The enormity of what Jal was giving him flowed over his consciousness. Proof of the immortal soul...

An odd sensation of movement, then, and suddenly Tom was in his body once more. He opened his eyes, wondered when he'd closed them, and found Jal'kadin looking at him. The ZaworthIan's irises had shifted to a lambent, glowing amber, and Tom's mouth went dry as felt arousal bring him instantly, painfully erect, in direct response to that almost electrical stare.

"Oh, sweet heaven," he whispered, his voice shaking as his hand on Jal's throat moved involuntarily to stroke that smooth, smooth skin. Jal's head fell back and he moaned, the sound humming along Tom's nerves. He turned his head to nuzzle the impressive erection that had leaped to life in Jal's lap, and the ZaworthIan gasped.

"Thomas. Stop, before I can't. Your captain- the dinner—"

"Fuck the dinner, Jal," Tom said, moving to open the other man's trousers, which took a moment given the unfamiliar method of fastening. However, Tom was inspired, and in no mood to be denied.

"Oh, now *that's* beautiful," he murmured, freeing Jal's hot length, noticing with admiration the ZaworthIan had inherited something else from his Romulan great-grandfather. He ran his tongue between the twin ridges and listened to Jal cry out, and allowed himself to wonder how it was going to feel to have Jal'kadin inside him... and Jal, who heard that unvoiced question, groaned and shuddered. It was almost too much, feeling Tom's arousal on top of his own, and Tom had barely touched him. Jal didn't know if either of them would be entirely sane afterwards, but it was a form of insanity he was unwilling to do without. Fuck the dinner, indeed.

**Thomas. Let's be fair about this.**

**What do you mean?**


Jal shifted his position until he was stretched out on the sofa beside Tom, only in the opposite direction. He opened Tom's pants in record time, since he was familiar with Alpha quadrant tailoring, and wondered what his lover would say if informed Jal had the ability to wish their clothes away, altogether.

"Oh, my God," Tom whimpered as Jal caressed his sex with hotter than human hands, then bent to taste him.

**Exquisite flavor,** Jal said into his mind, and Tom couldn't tell which was the greater turn-on, having that voice touch his thoughts, or Jal's hands and mouth on his cock. He buried his face in the silky thatch of copper hair at Jal's groin and breathed deeply, inhaling the singularly delightful aroma of aroused ZaworthIan male, all spices and sensual musk.

**You smell exquisite, my Prince,** Tom announced, and licked his way up Jal's length, accompanied by the shocked pleasure he could *feel*, a live current linking his nervous system to Jal'kadin's. Then he took Jal fully in his mouth, and the ZaworthIan could think no more coherent thoughts at all, just rambling, disconnected shouts of joy and encouragement. His hand wrapped around Tom's erection was hardly necessary, Tom was so stimulated just from Jal's reactions to what he was doing... and when Tom relaxed his throat muscles and sucked Jal in deep, the resultant orgasms were shared by them both in blinding waves of ecstatic bliss.

Tom awoke to find Jal'kadin licking him clean.

**What are you doing?**

**Washing you, of course. We have ten minutes to get to Desrai's for dinner with your captain.**

**Shit. We're never gonna make it.** And after a beat, **If you don't stop doing that, we're definitely never gonna make it.**

**Mmm. Don't tempt me.** But Jal hauled himself upright and propped Tom up as well. "We’ll make it, but it will require some ZaworthIan magic, sweet Thomas."

"You're taking the Captain to Desrai's for a 'state dinner'?" Tom said, starting to catch up. "Boy, Janeway will love that. It'll be the best meal she's had in four years. What kind of ZaworthIan magic?"

"Do you have a clean dress uniform in your closet?"

"Well, yeah. Where else would it be?"

"Sarcastic mouth," and Jal leaned over and kissed him, the clinging warmth of their lips and the salty tastes of their mingling flavors threatening to incinerate what was left of their brains.

**Oh, so good.**

**More. Yes. Open your mouth, Thomas.**

**We are going to be *so* late,** and this last, whimpering little thought from Tom reminded Jal'kadin of his duty. He broke the kiss unhurriedly, allowing himself a final suck on that clever tongue, and pushed them apart.

**So sweet.**

**You know, in some cultures, the kisses come first,** Tom remarked, when he could think clearly again, and Jal laughed.

**I'll try to remember that next time. May I point out, you started this.**

**I did not! Well, maybe I did, but the way you looked at me. I couldn't help it.**

**I would look at you like that for the rest of my life, if you would let me, Thomas,** Jal'kadin swore, and Tom shivered under that warm amber gaze.

"I'm... thinking about it, Jal." And Tom was. It had been there in the back of his mind since Jal'kadin had talked about alternatives. The temptation to say yes was almost overwhelming, but Tom knew that every quick decision he'd ever made had ended in disaster, and he was determined to give this the consideration it deserved.

"I know you need time. I just want you to know where *I* stand, sweet Thomas."

**Please don't call me that in front of the captain,** Tom teased, and lifted a hand to Jal's head to stroke one slanting ear. **Thank you, Jal, for making me feel... wanted.**

**Wanted is the least of it, beloved. Now, picture in your mind your closet and your dress uniform, please.**

Bemusedly, Tom did as requested, and could not have been more shocked when his rather rumpled duty uniform was instantaneously replaced with the neatly pressed dress version.

**I know. It's dreadfully lazy, but even Grandmother was known to do it this way a time or two. Now for me.** With the same dramatic speed, Jal'kadin's simple trousers and shirt were replaced with a silky bronze tunic and slacks.

"You look incredible," Tom breathed, loving the way the color picked up the highlights in that glorious hair, as well as how the material clung to those lean, well-defined muscles.

**Thomas, so do you. Now please, I beg you. Stop looking at me like that or we'll never get there.**

"Uh-huh? And whose fault would that be?"

They started laughing, and were still laughing when Jal took Tom's hand and transported them to Desrai's.

- - - - - - - - - -

Chakotay had taken a turn around the bridge, just habit, really, since he knew Kathryn, Tuvok, and Harry were off the ship. A state dinner that *he* should have been attending, had he only managed to stop lying to himself a little sooner. He still couldn't believe it. Couldn't accept that he'd deluded himself for so long, using hostility, anger and resentment to cloud his true feelings.

Now he sat in Sandrines, with a drink in his hand he didn't want. Didn't want to want, rather.

His mind insisted on enumerating every time he'd talked down to Tom, every time he'd been short-tempered and rude and downright hateful, every time he'd believed Tom was the same person he'd been when they met... when Chakotay should have known better than anybody on board what kind of changes Tom had made in his life. He'd seen it with his own two eyes, watched Tom go from being a bitter, guarded cynic who held nothing sacred and didn't want to; to a caring, honorable and reliable individual with the heart of a lion. He'd seen it, but he hadn't seen it at all... and had he ever even thanked Tom for saving his life? He couldn't remember. All he could remember was giving Tom shit about claiming that life-debt.

Looking back, Chakotay understood that he had based his expectations of Tom on his own assumptions. Tom Paris, son of the Admiral. Spoiled rich Starfleet brat who trashed his own career, killed three people and then lied about it. Tom Paris, mercenary, drunk, and whore. Tom Paris, traitor to the Maquis. Convicted criminal. Tom had been all of those things and yet, none of them. Not really. Tom Paris, who had come forward and confessed his lie before a Starfleet board of inquiry, when all he'd had to do was keep his mouth shut. Tom Paris, who lived to fly, and took whatever job he could find to get himself back to the stars. Tom Paris, who never would have been in prison if Chakotay had taken better care of him. If Chakotay had seen Seska as the traitor *she* was, and protected Tom from flying into a trap *she* set up. That seemed so obvious now that he thought about it. Seska had hated Tom from the first. Had she known somehow? Foreseen this day, when Chakotay would finally figure out what he wanted?

He swirled the synthehol around in his glass and stared into it, wondering how he'd become so blind. What was that saying? 'There are none so blind as those who will not see'. That was Chakotay, the Mystic Warrior, who was supposed to be in touch with a higher reality. What had he done? He had willfully refused to accept the person Tom Paris truly was... but apparently his heart had done that anyway, somehow, despite himself.

Only now, it could be too late. When Chakotay re-filtered his experience on Za'shas through the light of this new perception, he could see the attraction the governor felt for Tom, and although it pained him to admit it, he knew Tom returned the feeling. His mind flashed on the memory of watching Tom and Jal'kadin walking down the street together, Tom so excited and animated and *happy* - then the look on his face when he'd seen Chakotay standing there, that cautious, deliberately blank expression. Chakotay couldn't blame Tom, because he also remembered opening his mouth and being an asshole, again. And Tom had known it was coming. That hurt the worst. Tom had *expected* that from him.

Chakotay set down his glass and rubbed his hands over his face, not surprised when they came away wet.

- - - - - - - - - -

Tom was still smiling, unable to prevent the expression from returning every time he thought about the captain's face, when she'd found herself in an Italian restaurant in the middle of the Delta quadrant. Her eyes had gone as wide as a child's, and when Desrai had plunked down a plate of biscotti with a cup of steaming cappuccino she'd almost squealed. It had been the farthest thing from a 'state dinner' that any of them could have imagined. Tom, Jal'kadin, Mirek, Shar, Harry, Tuvok, and the captain had sat around a big table and torn through platters of spaghetti and at least three bottles of wine. Desrai had joined them for dessert, and the stories had flown fast and furious, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Desrai had had them falling out of their chairs with her dramatic stories about the "challenge of the restaurant business", and Kathryn had returned the favor by relating various tidbits of life on Voyager, including the warp ten experiment and the consequences of her and Tom becoming giant lizards. Tuvok had thrown in the occasional example of Vulcan humor, which really was intensely funny, in a dry sort of way, and Mirek and Shar had thoroughly embarrassed Jal with tales of his acclimation to life on Za'shas. Other patrons had wandered back and forth, welcoming the officers from Voyager and engaging in casual conversation, until the entire restaurant took on the atmosphere of a party. It was a cliché, but a good time was had by all, and Tom ended up glad he and Jal hadn't missed it.

He buttonholed Harry while Desrai was trying to talk Kathryn into another piece of tiramisu, taking his friend's arm and leading him outside with a silent explanation to Jal'kadin.

**He's worried about me, Jal.**

**I know. I can feel it. Perhaps I should assure your friend my intentions are strictly honorable.**

**Oh, God, that'll *really* scare him!** Tom laughed, but there was just enough truth in what he said to convince Jal to let Tom handle it.

"Okay, Har. Out with it. What's on your mind?" Tom tipped his face up to the sky and counted stars, bright in the clear night.

"You are, Tom. What's going on with you and the governor?"

Tom wanted badly to ask Harry what he *thought* was going on, since he would have thought arriving at Desrai's hand in hand with Jal'kadin should have been explanation enough, but he bit the impulse back. Harry was his best friend, his *only* friend for so long, and he deserved Tom's total honesty.

"Har, I like him. I like him a *lot*. When I'm with him, I feel... happy. And you know what? I *like* happy." Tom didn't have to add that 'happy' was a far from common state for him. Harry knew.

"You hardly know him."

"Harry, he's a telepath. I probably know him, know the way he thinks, better than I know anybody on Voyager, except you. Yeah, we haven't known each other long. I'm not sure that matters."

"Has he asked you to stay with him?"

"Not in so many words, but he's made it pretty clear that's what he wants."

"Are you going to?"

"I don't know yet. I told him I need time, to think it over. I'm not rushing into anything, Har, despite what it looks like."

"Tom." Pure misery in that voice, then that backbone of Harry's took over, the same one that four years ago had said 'I don't need anyone to choose my friends for me'.

"If he makes you happy, you should go for it. I'll understand."

"You're the best, Har," Tom said, knowing what it cost for Harry to say that. "I really admire you, you know."

"Yeah, well. If you stay, you can name your first kid after me," Harry said, only half teasing.

"If I stay, you've got a deal," Tom promised, throwing an arm around Harry's shoulders before leading him back inside.

**Is everything all right, Thomas?**

**More or less, Jal. More than less,** Tom added, with a smile for the ZaworthIan that was so bright it was almost painful to look at.

**Good. I took the liberty of approaching your captain about shore leave.**


**She's thinking about it, and no, I am *not* eavesdropping. I meant that in a general sense,** Jal said, returning Tom's smile.

There wasn't a person in the restaurant who couldn't see what the two men were coming to mean to each other. The Za'shasa were thrilled. Their prince had been alone, and lonely, for much too long, and the fact that his Thomas was an outworlder made them no difference. Not when Jal'kadin's mindset so plainly reflected his joy. As for the rest of the landing party, reactions were mixed.

Kathryn cleared her throat and spoke.

"Jal'kadin, I'd like to talk to my senior staff before I make a decision to allow shore leave. I'll let you know in the morning, if that's acceptable."

"Kathryn, of course." The governor turned that smile on her, and she was surprised to realize she felt a stab of envy for her chief pilot.

"Thank you for a delightful evening, all of you. Mister Paris, I'd like a word with you."

"Yes, Captain." Tom followed her outside while Tuvok and Harry made their farewells.

Kathryn crossed her arms over her chest and sighed, not sure how to begin. Whatever she'd been going to say went right out of her head when she looked at Tom, *really* looked at him. His face was so open, smile still lingering, those blue eyes warm and unguarded. She couldn't bear the idea of saying anything that would take that away.

"Tom, you're off duty until further notice, but I want you at the morning briefing."

"Captain?" Tom hoped he didn't sound as astonished as he felt. He'd been sure she was going to order him back up to Voyager.

"Take the time you need to be sure of what you want, Lieutenant. Don't make any quick decisions." She hesitated, wondered if she was about to go too far, and said it anyway. "Tom, promise me you'll talk to me first, before you decide to leave Voyager."

"Is it written all over my face, or what?" Tom burst out, shocked, and Kathryn couldn't help it, she had to laugh.

"Well, yes, Lieutenant, actually it is." She put one hand on his arm and squeezed. "Promise me?"

"I promise, Captain. Thank you."

"Then I'll see you in the morning, Mister Paris. Don't be late."

By this time, Tuvok and Harry had come out, with Jal'kadin behind them. There was another round of goodbyes, and Tom had to suffer Tuvok's grave inspection for a long minute, but all Tuvok said was "Good night, Lieutenant Paris," while Harry threw in a quick hug. Soon enough, they transported up to the ship, leaving Tom and Jal staring at each other bemusedly.

**Am I to understand from your reaction, this is tantamount to a 'seal of approval'?** Jal'kadin asked him curiously.

**Close enough for government work, anyway,** Tom said, then had to explain the idiom, enjoying Jal's resultant laughter. "Do we need to go in to say good night?"

"Not hardly," Jal remarked with a grin. "Just think it. They'll 'hear' you."

So Tom did, and heard the answering farewells when Jal silently relayed them. It came to Tom; he could get used to this... it wasn't what he'd thought telepathy would be, having someone in your head all the time. The Za'shasa were too well shielded for that. It was more like having someone nearby, to call on, someone who would answer when you needed. Like being part of a big, extended family.

He'd once dreamed of life being that way on Voyager, but it had never seemed to work out. There, except for Harry and maybe Tuvok, he was still treated as scum by the Starfleet crew. Between Caldik Prime and his time with the Maquis, he'd pretty well burned his bridges with them. As for the Maquis crew, most of them, except maybe B'Elanna, took their cues from Chakotay and treated him with a mixture of contempt and hostility. At least they didn't threaten his life any more. Chakotay *had* put a stop to that. Tom had always been very aware, though, that Chakotay protected him on the captain's orders. Not out of any actual concern for his wellbeing.

It occurred to Tom that Chakotay would probably be glad to see him gone. The misery of that thought was a huge weight, crushing in his chest, and he turned to Jal with a sigh.

**Can we go home?**

**Sweet Thomas. Of course,** Jal said, closing his eyes for a moment, deeply affected by both Tom's pain, and his having thought of Jal's house as 'home'.

Jal took his hand and whisked them there.

- - - - - - - - - -

Harry wandered into Sandrines, too unsettled to go to sleep. He was trying to convince himself that he was happy for Tom. He wanted to be, anyway, but all he could think about was what *his* life was going to be like with Tom gone. No jokes, no crazy scams, no audience for his clarinet playing, no holo-adventures, no pool lessons. Nobody to listen to him break his heart over going home, nobody to kick him in the ass when he needed it. No best friend. He tried to shake off the depression he could feel creeping in; after all, it wasn't as if Tom was dying, and that was a reality out here they'd both had to face over and over... Still, Harry thought Tom was part of the heart of Voyager, and it was a damned shame Tom didn't feel that way.

So when Harry's eyes landed on Commander Chakotay, sitting alone in a dark corner of the holobar, the frustrated anger that rushed over him promptly settled on a target. He stomped right over, wine and temper not giving him time to think, and flung himself down in a chair across from the startled XO.

"Well, Commander, you should be happy! You're finally going to get rid of Tom Paris, and you didn't even have to lift a finger to do it!"

"What are you talking about, Ensign?" Chakotay didn't even look at him, which just made Harry madder.

"What did you think would happen?" Harry asked in a harsh whisper, not even bothering to answer the question. "Did you plan this? Did you think if you treated Tom like shit long enough, he'd finally give up and leave the ship? Well, it worked. Congratulate yourself, or better yet, congratulate *him*. He's met somebody on the planet who makes him *smile*, Commander," and Harry's voice broke. He pushed back from the table and left as abruptly as he'd arrived, not wanting the commander to see him crying, and never noticed the anguish on Chakotay's own face.

- - - - - - - - - -

Kathryn invited Tuvok into her ready room and fixed herself a cup of coffee. She'd had so much cappuccino at Desrai's that one more cup wasn't going to make any difference, and it was such an unexpected luxury to be able to have real coffee again that she couldn't resist. Tuvok settled for a cup of herbal tea, which he promptly set aside in favor of steepling his fingers and watching her.

"What are we going to do if Tom decides to stay on Za'shas, Tuvok?"

"I assume that is a rhetorical question, as there would be little we *could* do about it, Captain." Tuvok supposed they could forcibly remove Mister Paris from the planet and confine him to the brig until Voyager was sufficiently distant from Za'shas. He did doubt, however, that the governor would let it be quite that simple.

"Maybe it's a philosophical question. Did you see Tom's face?" Kathryn sipped at her coffee, reflected absently on how *good* it was, and waited to see what Tuvok would say.

"Lieutenant Paris did appear... uncharacteristically pleased. The Za'shasa are extremely powerful telepaths. Perhaps the lieutenant has been affected by his mental contact with the governor."

"You could tell they were in... mental contact?" Kathryn asked, surprised.

"It was apparent to me," Tuvok admitted, having sensed the subvocal conversation without being able to actually hear it.

"Do you really think the governor is influencing Tom in some way?"

Tuvok considered this, and finally shook his head, very slightly.

"No. Not against the lieutenant's will. If Mister Paris is being influenced, it is in the way any human is influenced by emotion."

"'Uncharacteristically pleased'. That says it all, doesn't it, Tuvok?" Kathryn asked, her tone unhappy.

Tuvok lifted one eyebrow, but he said nothing further, merely offering his captain the silent support she seemed to need.

- - - - - - - - - -

Tom and Jal'kadin were lying on Jal's sofa, with the lights low and the quiet soothing. They were wrapped up in each other's arms, merely holding on. Tempted though he'd been, Jal had resisted the urge to simply wipe Tom's pain away. It was a thing he could do. There had always been healers in the House du'Kefirah, and emotional pain responded to empathic healing as well as the physical kind, but he'd chosen to ease Tom's aching woe in the human fashion.

After wishing Tom out of his dress uniform and into some loose drawstring pants, he'd done the same for himself, then pulled Tom down onto the sofa and embraced him. It hurt Jal's heart when Tom commented on how rarely anyone had just held him. Despite their telepathic abilities, ZaworthIans were accustomed to a great deal of physical contact, and Jal had always assumed humans were the same.

**I'm sorry,** Tom eventually said.

**For what, a'shas?**

**For lying here thinking about *him*... and what does that mean, 'a'shas'?**

**You need not apologize, Thomas, and 'a'shas' is a ZaworthIan endearment. It translates as 'my soul'. The name of our world, Za'shas, means Za's soul.**

**Who is Za?**

**The living force of ZaworthIa. My homeworld is alive, Thomas. She speaks to those with ears to hear. It is a power I am unable to explain, part of the Infinite, Creation itself. Our Deity, if you will, but She is part of us as well.**

**And Za'shas? Is it alive?**

**I have always thought all the planets thus, including your own, but Za'shas does not speak to me. Not like ZaworthIa does.** Jal pulled Tom closer and rested his cheek on that silky head. **It may be that it is not yet time for Za'shas to speak, or perhaps it is just not time for the Za'shasa to hear Her.**

Tom's mind fell silent, thoughts hidden behind his own formidable mental barriers, and Jal didn't want to pry, although he could have. It would have taken some effort on his part, surprisingly enough.

Tom felt that radiating curiosity.

**Ask. What do you want to know?**

**How is it that you shield your mind so? Your surface thoughts, your conscious thoughts, most humans disclose these easily, but not you, Thomas. Why?**

**I've spent most of my life hiding what I really feel, Jal. I probably started when I was a kid,** Tom admitted.

**I doubt there was a person on ZaworthIa who did not know how my sisters and I felt about any given thing, any time,** Jal said wryly, saddened to realize how very different Tom's life had been.

**You were lucky to have people who *wanted* to know how you felt, what you thought. My father never wanted me to have a thought he didn't put in my head.**

**That is almost incomprehensible to me.**

**Then your children will be very lucky, too,** Tom said, and Jal very privately wondered what those children might look like. ZaworthIans tended to have very dominant genes, but Jal rather favored the notion of a blue-eyed, blonde baby. Wishing such, however, was premature, and he dismissed the idea to the back of his mind.

**You know, your ability to shield your thoughts this way would be considered a Talent on ZaworthIa.**

Tom had to laugh, amazed at how much better he felt after a few minutes in this man's arms. He moved until he was lying half on top of Jal, looking down into those incredible eyes, a hundred shades of green and gold still visible in the dim light.

**I didn't think humans were generally very talented, psychically.**

**Oh, you'd be surprised. The Talents are sometimes subtle and seldom recognized as such. Grandfather was a man of great intuitive reach. He called it 'gut instinct' but it was Talent, plain and simple.**

**Mmm. And what does your gut instinct tell you, my Prince?** Tom asked, and lowered his mouth to Jal'kadin's, savoring those full warm lips, tracing their outline with his tongue before they parted in an involuntary groan. He was quick to take advantage, exploring that moist heat with his tongue, stroking it over Jal's and loving the flavor.

**It tells me... that your instincts are much better than mine, sweet Thomas.** An odd sound like a mental gasp, then. **Oh, again, love. Deeper.**

And Tom was only too willing to comply, giving in to his earlier urge to stroke those elegant ears, copper hair like silk in his hands.

**Beautiful. You're so beautiful,** Tom told him silently, mouths fused together. Tom had the fleeting, idle thought that it was awfully nice to be able to keep talking while kissing, then Jal's hands were holding his head and slanting their mouths even closer, and coherent thought became more difficult. **So good. Want you.**

Jal was drowning, the touch and the heat and the hunger sinking his will past the level of reason. Tom was pulling a response out of him that was purely ZaworthIan, purely spontaneous, and Jal was helpless against it, feeling his mind slide with natural grace into Tom's. Arousal, doubly reflected and shared, became a storm that raged between them, and Jal cried out his joy at having Tom's thoughts in him.

**Thou, beloved! Please, now!** And just like that, their clothes were gone, wished out of the way with telekinetic impatience, leaving the miracle of skin to skin contact. Both men gasped for badly needed oxygen, then their nerves clamored in a thrill of new information as their bodies moved against each other.

"Oh! Too much!" Tom whimpered, feeling Jal arching against him as well as feeling everything Jal felt, having Tom covering *him*, the sensations mirrored and multiplied until neither could tell where one ended and the other began. Jal sensed that faint fear and made a determined effort to grab onto his self control, forcing his mind back in his own skull and easing them down until that imperative demand lessened to a dull roar.

"Forgive me, Thomas," he whispered, holding their foreheads together and closing his eyes. "I had no right. I would take you as my own, make you mine in the way of my ancestors, mark myself so deep in your thoughts that even death could not separate us. I should have told you— warned you—" A pair of tears managed to seep free of those tightly squeezed eyelids, and Tom felt his own throat try to close.

"Shh, baby, it's all right," he soothed, wiping those tears away with trembling fingers. **God, I'm so close to wanting that too. So close to loving you completely. What you're describing sounds like heaven, Jal. Please, don't be sorry. It's my fault. If I wasn't in—**

**Thomas, no. Don't even think it.** Jal opened his eyes and took a deep breath, meeting Tom's worried expression. "Not your fault, and not mine either, then. A lesson."

**Does this mean we can't make love?**

The disappointment in that mental question made Jal smile, despite everything.

**It just means I'm going to have to be... careful. You have a profound effect on me, sweet Thomas.**

**That's good. I'd hate to think it was one sided.** Tom levered himself up on his arms and crawled off Jal, standing beside the sofa and holding out his hand. "Do ZaworthIans believe in beds, or is that a human peculiarity?" He asked with a grin, blushing a little when Jal paused to inspect him with obvious approval.

"Oh, I think I can provide a bed that will satisfy at least one peculiar human," Jal teased, loving that smile. Loving Tom.

He took that offered hand and stood, then endured Tom's own inspection with good humor before leading him down a short hall. There were two doors one side and one on the other. All were shut.

"Bathroom's there, kitchen's through that door. Now close your eyes."

Intensely amused to see the Prince of the Fire Throne acting like an eight-year-old kid, Tom shut his eyes as ordered and let Jal cautiously lead him into the bedroom.

**Just another moment,** and Jal'kadin wished, that powerful force of will bent on making his Thomas happy. **All right, love. Open your eyes.**

Tom made some inarticulate little sound, astonishment whiting out his thoughts. Hundreds of candles flickered all around, reflecting off one wall that was glass from floor to ceiling, and the largest bed he'd ever seen in his life, covered in satiny material the color of a midnight sky, complete to stars. It screamed of decadent indulgence, and Tom loved it.

"Incredible," he finally managed. "All this, for me?"

"Well, the windows and the bed were already here. I like to sleep," Jal explained, that faintly embarrassed look on his face.

Tom smiled.

"What a shame you aren't going to get much sleep tonight, then," he said in a voice like velvet, and watched those ZaworthIan eyes shift amber.

**Ah, Thomas. You're going to have to give me a minute,** Jal said, holding up a hand. He had to turn his back on Tom to do it, but he set meticulous shields around the raw bonding center in his mind, carefully blocking that yearning need that urged him to forge the link of hearts with his Terran. The shields had to be set, or he wouldn't be able to help himself, he knew... and Jal'kadin would sooner burn out every bit of his Talent than make that link without Tom's full and willing consent. Even if he never got it, he would still have more than he'd dared dream of in this bed last night.

When he was satisfied there would be no risk of forgetting himself, Jal turned back around and caught his breath in an audible gasp. Tom was lying in the center of the bed, the candlelight shining on his skin and transforming it to gold, that fair hair a glowing halo. His erection rose high and proud, its base surrounded by another patch of glittering hair, and one long fingered hand stroked indolently across a flat belly. Jal felt the heavy pooling of blood in his own sex, and saw the flush that crossed Tom's face as Tom watched him.

**Beautiful,** Tom whispered in his mind, and Jal shook his head.

**That word best saved for thee, my well beloved,** he thought in involuntary ZaworthIan, then had to translate it at Tom's inquiring glance.

**a'dia hava. Sounds like music,** Tom said, repeating the lovely endearment. Jal moved towards the bed like he was hypnotized, thinking a bit wildly that he had to touch Tom, just to make sure he was real. Tom held open his arms, and Jal settled against him slowly, as if he feared a sudden motion might frighten Tom away.

**Thomas. Magic.**

"You feel good too," Tom murmured, running his hands over the silky smooth skin of Jal's back, hesitating when he came to a raised welt of flesh that started just left of Jal's spine and disappeared at his flank, about waist high. **What's this, baby?**

**Scar, from my death,** Jal explained absently, shivering when Tom ran his fingers along the length of the mark.

"Why didn't Q get rid of it when he healed you?" Tom asked, genuinely curious.

"He *didn't* heal me, Thomas. All he did was restore my life and keep me alive long enough to get here. As to why, who can say where Q is concerned? Desrai and Shar took care of me until I healed myself, with Mirek's help. It took a while, and there was never time to get the skin regenerated with the war."

**Let me see.**

Jal slid off Tom to lay on his stomach, hissing a bit when his erection pressed into the surface of the bed. Tom scooted down to look. The scar was a bit paler than the surrounding skin, and spoke eloquently of what had to have been a very painful recovery. He bent down and kissed it, wishing he could take it away that simply... and since he was in the vicinity, he licked his way on down Jal's spine and rubbed his hands over those lean buttocks, enjoying the way Jal twitched in reaction.

**Open your legs, Jal.**


**Trust me. Do you have any massage oil?** It materialized beside his knees, and Tom fought back the urge to laugh. He moved between Jal's feet and picked one up, oiled his hands and started to rub, startling Jal altogether.

**Oh, great Mother Za, that feels wonderful. How did you know?**

**That your feet hurt? Just psychic, I guess,** Tom teased, and Jal started laughing, thinking only Tom could make him feel such an unlikely combination of arousal and amusement.

"I've never had my feet rubbed," Jal mumbled, amazed at how good it felt.

"Ooh, virgin feet. I'm so glad I get to deflower them," Tom said, sucking a toe and winning himself a surprised yelp.

**That's not all you'll get to deflower,** Jal thought, thankful he didn't have to say this out loud.

**You've never been with another man?**

**Thomas... I've never taken a lover. Male or female.**

Tom froze for a moment, then resumed what he was doing, kneading his knuckles into Jal's heel.

**Why not?** He asked, trying not to sound as shocked as he felt. A person this passionate, sensual, and physical was a virgin?

**ZaworthIans don't have... casual sex. We usually mate for life,** Jal admitted, and Tom couldn't prevent his pained groan. He was suddenly desperately afraid of hurting Jal, and kicking himself for not even having considered that he *could*.

"Shit, Jal'kadin! What are you doing with *me*? The virgin and the who—"

**Stop *right* there, Thomas,** Jal ordered, flipping over to face Tom and very aware of what was running through his mind. **You are *not* to consider yourself thus. I forbid it. Do you think me stupid?**

**Of course not,** Tom winced under that diamond bright glare, suddenly reminded that this beautiful naked man was royalty on more than just two worlds.

**Then concede to my judgement, and accept yourself as more than worthy, beloved. I want *you*. It is to my benefit that you *have* experience, and I know you won't hurt me.**

**Jal. What if I leave?**

**Then I'll miss you, of course, but I'll be happy to have had you with me, for however long, Thomas.** Jal sat up, so he could cup one hand under Tom's chin and look deep into those uncertain blue eyes.

**Hear me. The given Talent of the House is the voice of truth. I cannot lie to you. Whether you stay or go is immaterial now, because I will want no other. That is the ZaworthIan way, and I knew it from the moment I first touched your hand. Had you gone back up to your ship in that same moment, it would have made no difference. If we had never met, I might well have gone to my death without giving myself in love. I will never regret this, no matter what happens.** He gave Tom a minute to absorb all this, then asked one more question.

**Do you no longer want me?**

**Are you nuts?** Tom's involuntary thought was immediate, although rather indelicately phrased, and Jal had to laugh, relieved. He leaned forward and kissed Tom, lingering for a long moment on that delightful mouth before drawing away.

**Then you may proceed,** he teased grandly, waving an imperious hand in the air.

**By your command, my Prince,** Tom replied, laughing as well. He waited while Jal resumed his former position, and switched to the other foot, and by the time he'd progressed to massaging Jal's calves and the long muscles of his thighs, the man was groaning in earnest.

**Thomas, you're melting me, love.**

"Mmm, I hope so. You have spectacular legs, you know," and Tom wished he could think of an adequate word to describe Jal'kadin's ass as he transferred his attentions there. Pure bliss oozed out of the ZaworthIan's mind as Tom kneaded and rubbed that firm flesh. Tom worked over Jal's entire back, aiming to completely relax his virgin lover and gentle him to Tom's touch... and Tom was very conscious of what an enormous privilege he'd been granted. It gave him the strength of will to set his own arousal aside, as well as guard himself from getting too lost in what Jal felt.

**Turn over, baby,** Tom requested silently, moving back a bit.

It took Jal a minute to comply, but he finally managed to roll onto his back. He looked at Tom, who felt his guts clench at the unfocused swirl of those remarkable eyes, the irises awash in colors.

**What, beloved?** Jal asked faintly, quite lost.

"You are so damned beautiful." Tom shook his head. That wild copper mane spilled across the pillow, revealing those slanting ears. Tom smiled to himself, and set out to make some serious love.

He wanted to kiss those ears, and did, stroking the tips with his tongue before loitering on to Jal's throat. Judging from the writhing reaction he obtained, the prince was acutely sensitive there, and Tom was cautious with his teeth. Jal was far from idle, long fingers busily learning the contours of Tom's neck, shoulders and back, but he would occasionally freeze with subvocal sounds of surprise as Tom demonstrated something about his body he did not know. When Tom traced his fingers through the fine silky hairs on Jal's chest, then teased over Jal's nipples, Tom actually felt that sharp mind come undone in a rush of pleasure. With a private evil grin, Tom followed his hands with his mouth and suckled, rewarded with a mental shriek.

By the time Tom had tasted and explored his way to that magnificent erection, he was panting for breath and fighting for his self-control. Jal's incoherent need was flooding over his own mind, openly begging, and Tom's willpower had become a frail reed, indeed. He placed a hand on Jal's thigh and watched those gorgeous legs fall open in a purely instinctive response, kneeling between them before retrieving the massage oil. He briefly debated on having Jal turn back over, but decided he *had* to see that face- there was only going to be one *first* time for this.

Tom lifted Jal's ass and tugged a pillow beneath him, slicking his own wanton sex before he went any further, knowing if he delayed much longer he'd be unable to touch himself without coming. With infinite care, he prepared Jal'kadin, dimly grateful to sense his lover knew no fear, only an ever-increasing mindless hunger that was burning them both alive. So hot, his ZaworthIan prince, so hot inside... and Tom felt like his brain was melting, too.

It cost Tom the last tattered remnants of his control, but he centered his cock at that small opening and slowly eased his way into that waiting channel. Watching Jal's face, as Tom took him from virgin to lover; then Tom finally, *finally* let down his guard, opening up, wanting to feel what Jal'kadin felt at that moment.

Full, full of Tom, and oh, the heat, like the heart of a star, like dying and being reborn; stretched and owned and never another, taken, impaled on that hardness, but no pain, no pain, that demanding possession all there was and mindblinding with rapture... Tom threw back his head and screamed, feeling it all, weeping with the sheer thrill of being sheathed in that tightness, the clasp of Jal's body so unbelievably good and strong as he started to move, Jal screaming inside with joy.

Tom planted his hands near Jal's shoulders, shifting his weight and thrusting into his lover, mouths near enough to kiss, tongues tangling. That ecstatic shock went through *him* every time he rubbed over Jal's inner gland. Jal's erection was trapped between their bodies, the sensations building higher and higher until it was almost unbearable. Those ZaworthIan eyes, open and unseeing and blazing in opalescent gold, like falling into the sun... and then they were; caught in the gravity well, disintegrating, exploding in a nova bright blast that shattered reality, reflected and shared till nothing was left but the candlelit dark.

- - - - - - - - - -

Oh, Za. He had not known. It was the only thing Jal'kadin could think for a very long time, the single thought gibbering around and around in his head. He had not known.

Eventually he became aware of other things. Thomas, stretched out on top of him and still lost to consciousness, his breath a reassuring sigh in Jal's ear. The candles were guttering low, and he wished them extinguished with a quick push of thought, wishing away that burned wax odor, as well. Now he could see the stars through his glass wall, although they were nothing next to the stars he had seen a while ago. That notion amused Jal, and he smiled involuntarily.

It occurred to him to wonder how much psionic 'noise' he'd made, since he'd quite lost control of himself. Jal figured he'd be in for it with the Za'shasa... in fact, he wouldn't be surprised if ZaworthIa had heard him in the Alpha quadrant. He checked the status of his mental shields, and found them secure, amazingly enough. Jal wondered how much more intense it could possibly have been with the bondlink. He rather doubted he and Tom could have lived through it.


He felt his face go red, as well as the rest of him, when he recognized that unspoken voice. Well. Apparently he'd guessed right.


**I need not ask if thou art well, I perceive.**

She was *teasing* him! Jal allowed his laughter to echo by mind, unwilling to disturb Thomas.

**The link of hearts was not forged?**

**It's complicated, Grandmother.**

**Show me.**

The order was compulsory, brooking no argument. Jal silently replayed the course of the day, leaving out only the intimate details. When he had finished, there was a long silence, although Jal could still feel the touch of her thoughts.

**Ah, Terrans. Gotta love 'em.** Ysaulte'h finally remarked, and Jal was so startled he could not help but laugh out loud. Tom moved a little and made Jal groan, and just as clearly Jal could hear his grandmother laughing at him.

**As fine in his way as the Fire King, Jal. Hold thou true to the Way, whatever happens.**

**I will, Grandmother,** Jal swore, and she was gone, leaving him to feel the magic in Tom's waking thoughts.

**Baby? Are you okay?** Tom finally managed to raise his head, and Jal wanted to laugh again at the dazed look in those blue eyes, but he settled happily for a warm, sweet kiss.

**Does that answer your question, beloved?**

**Oh, yeah. Definitely okay,** Tom thought vaguely, still trying to figure out if all his extremities worked. **Were you *talking* to somebody?**

Jal was a little surprised Tom could tell.

**My grandmother wanted to know if I was all right,** he said with a grin, and watched Tom blush as intensely as he had.

**Oops. Too loud, huh?** Tom said. The humor in it hit him suddenly and he started to laugh. **Oh, God. I feel like my girlfriend's father just caught me with my hand down his daughter's shirt!**

The mental picture amused Jal, and they laughed together. Tom got up and padded into the bathroom, bringing back a warm damp cloth which he used to gently clean Jal'kadin. That loving task done, he slid into bed and they cuddled close. Jal fished for the sheet with his foot and eventually covered them, and Tom noticed for the first time the stars through the glass wall.

**That view is stunning.**

"In the morning, the sun will awaken us," Jal informed him, fatigue like a haze in his mind. It came to him he'd been up since dawn yesterday, and dawn today was only a few hours away.

"What time will that be?" Tom wondered, yawning widely, and thinking the same thing.

**Around five, ship's time, if I have it figured correctly,** Jal replied silently, trying to stifle his own yawn. **Sorry. It really has been an exhausting day.**

**Yeah, it has, baby. You know, five is perfect,** Tom pronounced, and favored Jal with a lazy, speculative grin.

It made the ZaworthIan shiver.

**Why?** He asked, half-afraid to hear the answer.

**That will give us two and a half hours before I have to be at the morning briefing. You still have one more first time coming.**

Jal caught his meaning and moaned.

**How am I to sleep now?**

"Easy. Just close your eyes, and dream, sweet Prince," Tom whispered, stroking Jal's hair until those tired eyelids drifted shut, and Tom followed along shortly after.

- - - - - - - - - -

Chakotay couldn't sleep. Morning briefing was scheduled for 0730, and it was almost three; too late to comm the doctor and ask for a sleep aid. Not that Chakotay would have. He didn't think there were enough drugs in the universe to buy him any sleep tonight, but there were advantages to sleepless nights. They gave a man a lot of time to think.

He lay in his bed and let Harry Kim's accusations run through his mind. Chakotay thought there might be a kernel of truth in them. He'd never considered himself a coward, but maybe he *had* been so afraid to risk his heart that he'd subconsciously tried to push Tom off the ship. Loving Tom could prove to be the greatest challenge of his life, particularly now, when it looked like a lost cause.

Chakotay was a specialist in challenges and lost causes. After all, he was a Maquis.

He decided abruptly that he wasn't going to be a coward about this, not any more. He was going to have a talk with Tom Paris, and *really* talk. The first thing he'd say would be an apology. A sincere one. He would admit he'd been wrong, and because Tom was a fair man, Tom would listen. This Chakotay knew.

Then he was going to explain why he'd behaved so badly. He would tell Tom the truth.

He was going to tell Tom Paris he loved him.

And with that decision made, Chakotay turned over and went to sleep.


Tom awakened to something so unusual he couldn't remember the last time it had happened. The morning sun, shining through that glass wall, was bathing him in heat and light. Only halfway above the horizon, and painting the room in pale pink and orange hues, it was a remarkably lovely and natural way to wake up. Sure beat the voice of Voyager's computer, anyway.

Jal'kadin was a comforting warmth behind him, and Tom turned over to see how the sunshine looked trapped in that coppery hair... and the vision was as wonderful as he'd expected, a myriad of tiny rainbows creating a halo of fire. Jal still slept deeply, one hand tucked under his face; that face as unguarded as a child's, and just as precious. Tom was struck by the sudden urge to awaken Jal, and tell his prince he'd decided to stay, just for the privilege of waking every morning to this sight.

Tom sighed, and pushed that urge aside. Yesterday had passed like a whirlwind, hardly giving him any time to think, and last night— last night— His eyes closed against the rush of arousal the memories prompted. Making love with Jal'kadin, being inside that hot, lithe body, thoughts and feelings just as intertwined. It had been an experience beyond anything Tom had ever known.

He'd had a lot of sex in his life. Some of it was good. Some of it had been expedient. And some of it couldn't be called sex at all, if the definition of sex included the word consensual. None of it had felt so overwhelmingly *special* as what he'd had last night. In an odd way that Tom could only dimly perceive, Jal had healed something inside his soul. That subliminal sense of being defiled, corrupted, dirty— that was gone. Tom felt... clean. Untarnished.

**Well thou doth, beloved, for such my hope for thee. My more than worthy.**

The words in lyrical ZaworthIan, translating directly into his mind. Tom opened his eyes to see Jal'kadin watching him, irises swirling dark indigo and gold, skin luminous in the dawn sun.

"Do you know how beautiful you are? Especially beautiful in the morning," Tom said quietly, smoothing one hand over Jal's cheek.

"Because you say it, a'shas, I will believe it, but the true beauty is in you."

And a startled Tom realized *he* believed that, too. In his whole life he'd never felt particularly beautiful. Beauty, to him, included something more than mere physical attributes. It meant a purity of form and spirit that could satisfy all the senses and stir the soul. He'd known he was good-looking, shit, he'd been told often enough, but usually under circumstances that tainted the words and left him feeling cheap... but when Jal'kadin of ZaworthIa, the Prince of the Fire Throne said it, the words felt new.

Tom smiled, and Jal smiled back, loving Tom's look of satisfied, confident acceptance. Jal thanked his ancestors for the privilege of helping that wounded heart heal. It wasn't all Jal wanted *from* Tom, but it was all he wanted *for* him, that Tom should know his own worth, and be sure of himself.

**Thank you,** Tom told him by mind, making it a blanket statement that covered everything from last night to how he felt right now. Another advantage to being with a telepath.

**You are very welcome, love,** Jal replied, and made certain Tom understood all that *he* meant, so much more than just the polite response.

Tom understood him quite well.

**Are you sore, baby?** He asked next, a bit concerned. Jal considered it for a moment, and shook his head.

**I don't think so. Of course, I haven't tried sitting down, yet,** he remarked with a grin, relieved when Tom stopped worrying. It was sweet, but unnecessary. **Minor pains are easily resolved, Thomas. I need only wish to make it so.**

**I guess that's true. *I* was going to suggest a hot bath,** Tom said, the picture of total innocence, and wondered how long it would take his prince to catch on.

It didn't take long. Jal'kadin blushed, thoroughly delighting Tom, who leaned over him to capture his mouth in a kiss that was passionately self-explanatory.

**As I said, beloved, your instincts are much better than mine... and a hot bath, with us in it, sounds ideal.**

**Mmm. Then let's go.**

But it took a few minutes before they could bear to separate long enough to start the bath.

- - - - - - - - - -

"Chakotay, show me the roster with the group for the next scheduled shore leave. I want to see it before I make a decision about accepting the governor's offer."

Chakotay gave Kathryn a wry glance that went right over her head, and he wondered how many cups of the Za'shasa coffee she'd had. She was practically bouncing off the bulkheads, and he doubted she had slept at all. She'd commed him far too early to meet her in her ready room, where she'd rather frenetically related some of the details about the 'state dinner' as well as Jal'kadin's invitation to the crew for shore leave. She hadn't mentioned Tom beyond the fact that he was there, and Chakotay hadn't asked.

He pulled up the roster and transferred it to a data PADD, handing it to her and waiting patiently. She scanned the list of names and made absent little uh-huh sounds for a while, then shook her head at one entry.

"This isn't going to work. Andrews and Harper just had a screaming match in Cargo Bay One the other day. If anybody goes, it's going to be people who can control themselves, at least a little. Can you work on that?"

"Of course, Kathryn," Chakotay said soothingly, and for his trouble earned himself a narrowed glare.

"You think I've had too much coffee, don't you?" She accused, and he had to laugh.

Kathryn tried to look stern, but she couldn't resist those dimples.

"Well, you're right. I did. I just have to build my tolerance back up, I suppose. I'm glad to see *you're* in a better mood today."

"I meditated yesterday afternoon," Chakotay supplied, thinking the whole truth should probably wait until Kathryn was calmer... even though it was a mighty temptation to see if she'd just vibrate into pieces when he told her. Since he really did consider himself her friend, however, he restrained the impulse. "We still have forty-five minutes before the briefing, Kathryn. Why don't we go to the Mess Hall and see if we can find something to soak up some of that caffeine?"

"That's probably a good idea, although it's hard to face Mister Neelix's efforts after that wonderful dinner last night. An Italian restaurant in the Delta quadrant!" And she regaled him with the menu while they went for breakfast.

- - - - - - - - - -

**Yes. Just like that, baby. Oh, God, that's so good. You feel so big in me, and you're so warm. Slow. Take me slow. Oh, yes. All the way. Now hold still, just for a minute.**

Tom was gripping the edge of the tub one-handed, Jal behind him and in him to the hilt, and they felt so incredibly good together Tom suspected the entire universe was going to hear about this, if not from Jal then from him. It was all he could do not to scream now, that double ridged length so high and hard and hot inside him. He was so close to his climax he had to squeeze the base of his own erection to stop it.

Jal had bluntly asked Tom to talk him through it, since he'd been so far out of his head last night he wasn't sure how to proceed. Tom had found the resultant mental conversation so erotic he'd been halfway to coming before Jal even touched him, and now they were both hanging onto their self-control by their fingernails.

**Thomas. It's— It's—** Jal didn't have Standard words, he didn't even have ZaworthIan words for the way it felt to be buried inside Tom's tightly clinging flesh. He leaned his forehead against the back of Tom's neck and fought for air, feeling like he was about to explode.

**I know, baby. Just hang on. Let it ease up a little before you move, or it'll be over too soon.** Tom managed to explain, panting. Eventually, that immediate desperate urgency passed, and they both took a deep breath, the bathwater lapping around their thighs.

**Does it always feel like this?** Jal gained the presence of mind to ask, thinking rather wildly he couldn't see how humans ever got anything else done, if it did.

**No. It's *never* felt like this. Pull out a little, that's right. Back, now. Oh, sweet heaven. God, so good. Again, baby. Do it again.**

**Oh! Oh, Thomas! That's- like lightning, burning me.**

**Yes. Burning. Give me your hand, baby.** Tom demanded, on the ragged edge of insanity and pretty sure he was about to lose coherent thought. **Around me, like that. Oh, shit, that's good.**

**I can't—**

**Don't. Don't think any more. Just fuck me. Hard.**

So Jal did, and it wasn't very long at all before they were both screaming.

- - - - - - - - - -

**Thomas, I am so sorry!**

Jal'kadin, who had never bitten anybody in his entire life, was shocked to realize he'd sunk his teeth so far into the back of Tom's neck that he'd drawn blood. Tom was trying very hard not to laugh at his sweet innocent.

**I promise, it's all right, baby. It felt good.** And oh, God, had it ever. **It's not unusual for humans.**

**I'm not human,** Jal pointed out just a little sulkily, well aware of Tom's amusement.

**Blame it on your grandfather, then,** Tom teased, twisting his head around and kissing Jal until the prince started to laugh. They were still lying in the tub; Tom sprawled on his back on top of Jal's chest. Tom was surprised they hadn't drowned, but then, they'd sloshed over half the tub's contents onto the floor. Jal's bathtub was half the size of the bed, which meant it was huge, and it was a treat for Tom to be in a tub long enough for his height.

**I can heal the wound.**

**It's not a wound, it's a love bite, and I want to keep it.** Tom moved off him with a groan. **I've got to get going. If I'm late for the morning briefing the captain will kill me.**

**I assume you don't mean that literally.**

**Hmm, you haven't seen Janeway's Death Glare, but no. Silly.** Tom leaned in for one more quick kiss, then splashed his way out of the tub and grabbed a towel. **There's an awful lot of water on the floor,** he noted, practically wading to the hall.

Jal climbed out behind Tom and helped him get dried.

**I'll take care of it later.**

**Dress me?** Tom invited with a grin, and Jal laughed again.

**As you wish, sweet Thomas, although given the choice, I'd rather undress you.** Tom's uniform appeared on him, neatly pressed and clean and complete to socks, boots, and comm badge. **Now you see him, now you don't,** Jal added, startling a burst of laughter out of his Terran.

**Thank you. I'll be back as soon as I can.** Tom promised, holding him for a moment. **I hate to go.**

**I know, love. I can feel that,** Jal admitted. It made his heart sing. **Do you want my transporter or yours?**

**Better use mine.** Tom sighed and pulled himself away. He checked his appearance in the bathroom mirror and finger combed his hair, and figured he'd do. "Paris to Voyager. One to beam up. Energize."

Jal watched him vanish, and couldn't stop smiling.

- - - - - - - - - -

Harry thought it was one of the stranger morning briefings he'd ever attended.

The captain was downright jittery, explaining the Za'shasa's offer to extend shore leave privileges to the crew as well as the potential ramifications relating to the Za'shasa's telepathic abilities. She spoke in a rapid-fire pattern of speech Harry ordinarily associated with battle situations.

Tuvok was his usual impassive self, offering only his opinion that he believed the Za'shasa were sufficiently mentally shielded to tolerate having the crew as visitors without harm to either themselves or the crew.

B'Elanna was crowing over the promised new dilithium crystals; Neelix was thrilled about the food stores and gabbled at length about what he could do with -or to- them.

Chakotay wore his stoic, serene mask, but kept staring at Tom, and Tom...

Well, Harry was waiting for Tom to ooze right out of his chair, he was that relaxed. If he hadn't occasionally fidgeted in his seat, Harry would have thought he was on something. Then it occurred to Harry *why* Tom was fidgeting, and *why* he was so relaxed, and Harry felt his face go beet red. Of course, Tom picked that moment to look at him, and Harry blushed even harder when Tom gave him a sunny smile.

"Mister Paris. Do you have anything to add?" Kathryn asked, hard put to restrain a bad case of the giggles, because despite his immaculate appearance, Tom was so obviously freshly fucked she was dying to laugh. Ensign Kim's reaction didn't help her sobriety any.

"No Captain."

God help her, she couldn't resist.

"So you believe the governor is sincere about his offer?" Kathryn eyed Tom closely, wondering if she could get *him* to blush, too.

"Oh, very sincere, Captain," Tom replied smoothly, but there it was, a pink flush crawling up those high cheekbones.

Her work here was done, Kathryn said to herself, and for a horrified moment thought she'd spoken out loud, but apparently command conditioning outlasted caffeine.

"Thank you, Mister Paris. That will be all, people. I'll inform the governor that we will gratefully accept his offer, and shore leave parties can commence transporting down after I talk to him."

Everybody stood. The briefing room emptied out except for Kathryn, Tom, and Chakotay.

"Captain, could I have a moment?" Tom asked, and Kathryn's good humor faded abruptly as she realized this was it. Tom was going to tell her he was leaving Voyager. Before she could answer, Chakotay stepped in.

"Tom, I need to talk to you, please."

Kathryn headed for the door and paused. She didn't know what her XO wanted to talk to Tom about, but she was glad for the reprieve.

"Tom, come by and see me when you've finished with the commander. I'll be in my ready room."

"Thank you, Captain." Tom waited until she'd left the room, then looked at Chakotay. "Your office, Commander?"

Chakotay thought that would be a mistake. Neutral territory would be better. Tom had already put on his game face, he noticed with a pang, that still, expressionless façade that said he was waiting for Chakotay to hurt him somehow.

"Here is fine, Lieutenant— Tom."

"That's the second time you've called me by my name, Commander. I wasn't sure you remembered it."

Ordinarily that lightly mocking tone would have pissed Chakotay off. Not today, not any more. There was too much at stake, and after watching Tom during the briefing, Chakotay knew he was running out of time. If he hadn't already.

"I owe you an apology," he said, staring into those blue eyes. He saw them widen for an instant, then Tom schooled his expression and the façade was back.

"Why, whatever for, Commander?" Now the tone was frankly sarcastic.

"Chakotay. This isn't about Voyager."

Tom threw himself into a chair and winced, ever so slightly, and Chakotay felt his heart quail. He pushed it aside relentlessly. Tom had crossed his arms and was leaning back in his seat, plainly cooling his heels.

"All right, Chakotay. What's it about, then?"

"I haven't been fair to you," Chakotay began, peering at Tom through his eyelashes. When Tom didn't react, he went on. "I realized, after I was sent away from the planet yesterday, that I've never given you a chance. I've been letting myself believe you're the same person you were when I recruited you into the Maquis. I never gave you any credit for the changes you've made in your life... and I've treated you like shit for years."

Using Harry's phrase got a reaction. Tom had gone pale, all that lovely color draining out of his face, but he didn't say anything. Chakotay took a deep breath and continued.

"It was hard for me to admit to myself that I'd been so unfair. I had to ask myself why. What was *in me* that wanted to believe the worst about *you*? I found out I was using all those hard feelings to hide something from *myself*."

Chakotay had thought Tom was pale before. Now he seemed almost ill, he was so white, but Chakotay had to go on. He had to get this out. He was scared to death.

"I was afraid to see the person you really are, because I was afraid to admit that I'm... I'm in love with you, Tom."

Tom literally flinched, and covered his face with his hands.

"Why now? Why are you telling me this now?" He whispered harshly, and it began to dawn on Chakotay that Tom wouldn't act like this if he didn't feel *something* for *him*. He dropped to a crouch beside Tom and put one hand on Tom's knee.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry it took me so long to realize—"

Tom leaped out of the chair and put the conference table between them. He looked as if he could keel over any minute, he was that ashen and shaky. Chakotay stood up and started towards him.

"You don't understand, Chakotay! I— Jal— *Damn* you! Why *now*?"

And that was the instant Chakotay's comm badge bleated.

"Janeway to Chakotay."

"Chakotay here." It took him a moment to answer, and his voice was unsteady.

"Have you taken care of that problem yet, Chakotay?" The captain asked, and Tom's head rocked back like he'd been struck, a terrible pain in his eyes.

Chakotay immediately realized Tom thought Kathryn was referring to *him*. Tom thought *he* was the problem Chakotay was supposed to take care of, and he probably thought this whole thing was some kind of setup, to seduce him away from the governor.

"Chakotay?" Kathryn's voice was impatient.

"I'll have to get back to you, Captain." Chakotay tapped his comm badge off. "Tom, it's not what you think."

"How do *you* know what I think?" Tom asked with admirable scorn, but those blue eyes were filling with tears, and Chakotay didn't think Tom even knew it. "How *could* you know?" His voice was trembling, now.

"I want to know," Chakotay said the only thing he could think of, and watched Tom sway.

"You'll never know," Tom whispered, and Chakotay was afraid he was going to fall down. Before he could get to Tom's side, he saw Tom close his eyes and heard him whisper something else.

"Jal. Get me out of here. Please."

Tom vanished right in front of Chakotay's eyes. Chakotay reached for the spot where he'd been, and sank to the floor, heartsick.

- - - - - - - - - -

Tom stumbled to his knees, crying so hard he couldn't see, couldn't hear, could do nothing except hurt. Jal pulled him into a hard embrace and started weeping with him, and Tom vaguely knew his empathic, telepathic prince was picking up on all that pain. It didn't matter. He was helpless against it, the raw agony flaying across his heart and mind to leave him shaking convulsively. Jal picked him up and carried him to the bed, lying him down and holding him, almost covering him, like he thought he needed to keep Tom from flying apart. Tom huddled into Jal's warm strength and sobbed.

Eventually, that first immense wave of betrayal and anguish receded. It left Tom feeling like he was drowning in grief, but at least he was able to hear Jal's unspoken words again, and able to answer, if not coherently.

**Thomas, love, what happened? What's wrong?**

**I can't— I— He said— Lies! And the captain— I can't!**

**Hush, love. You don't have to try to explain. When you're ready, just think about it as it happened, and I'll follow along. When you're ready.**

Jal knew that even if Tom tried, he wouldn't be able to keep himself from replaying the details of whatever had hurt him so badly. That was the nature of humanity. It was part of a learning process, a hard part, thinking and rethinking and asking "why" and "what if". It would be better for Tom to do it soon, in order to seek some resolution, but Jal would follow Tom's lead and not push him. He could have searched it out of Tom's mind, and he still might, if Tom was unable to confront it. He'd prefer Tom to tell it on his own, though.

Despite the fact that there was Romulan blood in Jal'kadin's veins that was screaming for retribution, now, against whoever had injured his Thomas so.

Jal very carefully pushed that urge behind him and concentrated on easing Tom's pain, reflecting comfort and love as best he could, his hands stroking those shuddering shoulders. At length Tom calmed, sobs dying away to an occasional hitching breath. Jal pulled away so he could see Tom's face. Tom still looked shattered.

**God, Jal, I'm so sorry,** Tom thought sadly, wiping the tears off the ZaworthIan's cheeks with trembling fingers.

Jal hadn't even realized he'd been crying, too.

**I shouldn't have dumped all this on you,** Tom said, filled with remorse.

**My beloved, where else should you take it, then? Do you not know, it is my privilege and honor to support you?** Jal wished a soft cloth into his hand, and used it to tenderly clean Tom's face. **There is nothing that pleases me more than for you to need me.**

**Nothing, huh.** Tom tried a faint smile, but Jal'kadin was not deceived, although he saluted the effort.

Tom met those serious eyes, the irises dark shades of violets and browns. He heaved a sigh.

**Can I tell you what happened?**

**Just show me. Remember it, as it occurred,** Jal urged gently, enormously proud of Tom for being willing to go through it so soon. Tom was so strong, so resilient, and he didn't even know it.

Tom took a deep breath, and started at the beginning, with the briefing. Running through everything, how everybody looked, what was said, and by whom. He came to the part where Chakotay wanted to talk to him, and cringing inside with his fear of hurting Jal'kadin, relayed that unbelievable confession as well as his own mixed reactions.

Tom's shocked disbelief, the confused anger he'd known at Chakotay's explanation of his actions. Even the wild leap of joy he'd felt for one incredible instant. A joy that had crumbled into dust when Tom realized his heart was being riven, sundered, crushed; because he *did* love Jal'kadin, he felt committed to his prince, and he *wanted* to stay... And screaming in his mind, wondering *why* Chakotay had chosen *now* to speak, when it was too late, too late, oh God, *too late*.

Then the captain's interruption, and understanding it was all a *lie*, some kind of trick dreamed up to lure him into staying, and that stinging sense of betrayal he felt towards not just Chakotay, but the captain as well. Had they planned this between them, or had Chakotay *volunteered*? Anything to keep the captain happy, because *she* was the one Chakotay really wanted, always had been...

And the pain bit deep again, clawing at Tom's soul, until he was soundlessly weeping. Great and bitter tears that spilled out of his eyes and soaked his hair. Unbearable to Jal'kadin, who rested his forehead on Tom's as he tried to center his thoughts, absorbing the implications of what he'd learned.

**Thomas, love. Enough. Rest now.** Jal'kadin of ZaworthIa, who *had* to have some time to think, reached into Tom's mind and 'pushed', sending his beloved to sleep with a light kiss. A fine irony there, that Jal, who knew his Terran fairy tales, perceived with his own aching distress.

He sat on the edge of the bed and rested his head in his hands.

- - - - - - - - - -

Kathryn went looking for Chakotay when he failed to appear on the bridge at the beginning of his duty shift. She'd checked his location with the computer, and was informed he was still in Main Briefing, but he didn't answer her comms... and Tom Paris was apparently off the ship, although there was no transporter log to confirm that, and he hadn't been by to see her first. Something was badly wrong, she thought, terribly worried when she walked into the conference room.

What she found scared her half to death. Chakotay was sitting on the floor, his face quite blank, and she called his name twice before he finally looked at her. She was about to call for a site-to-site transport to Sickbay, when he shook his head and whispered no. She sat down beside him and was completely shocked when he leaned his head on her shoulder and started to shake.

"Kathryn, I fucked this up so bad," he said, his voice like broken glass. "Fucked up beyond all recognition. Isn't that the phrase?"

She put her arms around him, desperately wishing she could ease her friend's obvious pain.

"What happened, Chakotay?"

So he told her, starting at the beginning, from the time he'd figured out the reason behind his behavior on the planet to the scene that had just occurred.

Kathryn flinched when she heard about her own unknowing participation in this debacle, understanding very well what Tom must have thought.

"It's not your fault," Chakotay said, aware of her reaction. "It's mine. I can't even blame Tom for falling in love with Jal'kadin. I hid from myself too long, left it too late."

"Where *is* Tom?"

"When he—" Chakotay had to clear his throat, remembering that look of agony in those blue eyes. "When he thought we- He asked Jal'kadin to get him out of here. Then he disappeared. I assume he's with the governor now."

"Shit," Kathryn swore, rubbing her forehead. "I've got to talk to him."

"I believe you had better talk to me, first," a voice said from behind them, and Kathryn and Chakotay turned around to see the Prince of the Fire Throne standing there.

- - - - - - - - - -

"Jal'kadin," Kathryn said, startled, and she and Chakotay got to their feet.

The ZaworthIan's eyes were space black and glittering, and Kathryn Janeway, starship captain, put herself in front of Chakotay without even thinking.

"I am not here to hurt him, or you, Kathryn," Jal reassured evenly, recognizing that instinctive gesture for what it was. "I would not have to be *here* to cause harm, in any case."

"Then why *are* you here? Where's Tom?" Chakotay snapped, wondering in the back of his mind why the intruder alert hadn't sounded.

"Thomas is sleeping. He was... devastated. He showed me what happened." Jal walked around the conference table, hoping the humans would relax a bit if he put something between them and him. He pulled out a chair and sat down, waving at Kathryn and Chakotay to do the same, and it was a tribute to his force of personality when they followed his lead. They all sat there for a moment, staring at each other; then Jal folded his hands on the edge of the table and began.

"At first, of course, I was furious. Had I acted on my first impulse, Voyager would have found herself ten thousand light years away, minus her captain and first officer. It is very difficult for me to feel my Thomas hurting so."

Chakotay winced, whether from Jal's reference to Tom being *his* or his reference to Tom's pain, Jal couldn't tell. He went on.

"It is plain to me that Thomas believes what he *perceived* was the truth, but I could not accept that, having met you. I had not sensed in you, either of you, the kind of duplicity that could conspire to injure Thomas in this way. So I began to wonder if there was some possibility of a misunderstanding."

Jal'kadin lifted one eyebrow and waited.

"Did Tom tell you *everything*?" Chakotay asked, not too sure yet that his days weren't numbered. The governor's speech was measured and formal, as though he was holding himself under control with an effort.

"I know it all, as if I myself had been here." Jal turned to the captain. "Kathryn. Your part in this—"

"Was purely coincidental, Jal'kadin. I commed Chakotay to ask him about something else, a problem with the landing party roster. It had nothing to do with Tom," Kathryn admitted, and looked a sideways apology at Chakotay. "Tom had asked to speak with me, and I told him to see me after he spoke with Chakotay. I was- I assumed he was going to tell me he wanted to leave Voyager, and frankly, I didn't want to hear that, but I would never stand in his way if that's what he really wanted."

"I am pleased to know you would not betray Thomas so, Kathryn. I could not feature that you would."

"Thank you, Jal'kadin," Kathryn said faintly, wondering 'what next?' She was soon to find out. The ZaworthIan rose and walked around the table, resting one hand on Chakotay's shoulder, and neither Kathryn nor Chakotay could move.

"The commander and I are going to discuss his feelings. I give you my word, Kathryn, I will return him unharmed." And Kathryn stared helplessly as Jal'kadin and Chakotay vanished.

- - - - - - - - - -

Chakotay found himself standing on a vast plain of ankle-high bluish grass, the sky stretching endlessly above him in its alien shades of pale rose-gray. Strange. He'd never even noticed yesterday what color the Za'shas sky was. Jal'kadin stood nearby, the only other living person in sight, the wind whipping his bright hair back from his face and revealing to Chakotay, for the first time, those pointed ears. Jal'kadin was dressed in black, and Chakotay wondered if he had chosen the color deliberately, for the ZaworthIan looked more than a little intimidating.

"Why did you bring me here?"

"Do you truly not know? I would have truth from you, Commander."

"You want to know if I'm really in love with Tom."

"That is part of it, yes." Jal'kadin gestured out over the plain. "At one time, the Za'shasa had a city here. The Kazon bombed it into nonexistence. Two hundred thousand Za'shasa lost their lives in that attack alone. After ten years, the grass has only started to grow. There are other areas on this world where the grass will never grow again."

Chakotay shivered involuntarily, despite the warm sunshine, and realized Jal'kadin was watching him closely.

"I brought you *here*, because this is who we *are*; Chakotay *and* Jal'kadin. We have both known war. We have both known loss. We have both sacrificed our lives to pursue a duty that was thrust upon us. Thomas has told me of your Maquis. The Cardassians killed your father and took your world, he says. The Romulans killed my parents and took my father's worlds. It seems we have a lot in common, you and I, and I believe you must be honorable man, Commander, or Thomas would not feel for you the way he does."

"I don't know how Tom feels," Chakotay said harshly, thinking he would not ask this man to explain Tom's heart to *him*.

"I am going to explain it anyway, as soon as you explain yours," Jal pointed out, answering that surface thought.

"If you can read my mind, why don't you just find out for yourself?"

"Do your feelings shame you too much to speak of them?"

"No! No, I'm not ashamed to admit I love Tom." Chakotay hesitated for a minute, and looked straight on into the ZaworthIan's eyes, trying not to feel undone by that dark, swirling gaze. "I *am* ashamed of the way I've treated Tom. I'm ashamed that I let the fear of loving him blind me to my feelings. I didn't even know how I felt about him until yesterday. I am ashamed of that."

Jal'kadin nodded. *This* was what he wanted to know.

"Will you voluntarily show me the truth in your mind?"

"If I refuse, will you still look?"

"No. But I will go home, where Thomas is in *my* bed, and tell him of his captain's innocence, and that I could not learn the truth from Chakotay's mind. And I will keep him, and love him."

Chakotay flinched.

"Aren't you going to do that anyway?"

"That decision belongs to Thomas, but I tell you, if you cannot prove you speak the truth, you will leave him no choice, and I find, Commander, that I want Thomas to choose me because I am what he *wants* and not because he feels he has no alternative. Let me make this clear, however. I will take Thomas any way I can get him."

"Except through dishonesty, apparently. Why *don't* you just send Voyager and me away?" Chakotay asked, grudgingly admiring the ZaworthIan's forthright demeanor.

"And let Thomas live the rest of his life believing that you betrayed him? Let him suffer that pain all his days? Perhaps you have not heard me. I love Thomas more than my own life. Do you?"

"See for yourself," Chakotay invited abruptly, half-expecting Jal'kadin to touch him, but the ZaworthIan merely closed his eyes. Chakotay felt an odd warmth, as if he'd been covered in a hot blanket, then the sensation faded.

Jal'kadin was staring at him and shaking his head, seemingly unaffected, but he had gone pale, and his irises were a curiously light gray. It gave him an almost blind appearance.

"Are you all right?" Chakotay wondered involuntarily.

"It has been said before, but the human capacity for self-deception is remarkable." Jal'kadin turned his back on the commander and let the wind hide his face with his hair, trying not to scream. He had so hoped Tom was right, and that Chakotay had lied. Instead, he found a lonely longing for Tom that almost rivaled his own. Shit, to borrow Tom's word.

He stiffened his spine and turned back around, reminding himself he was a du'Kefirah of the House du'Kefirah, an heir to the Fire Throne, and strong enough for this and all.

"Thomas loves you, Chakotay. He has loved you since the moment you met," Jal'kadin announced, his chin high, and watched the human reel. "Do not think this is the end of it, because Thomas loves me, too."

"What are you going to do?" Chakotay almost whispered, finally recognizing the pain behind those mysterious ZaworthIan eyes.

Jal wished he knew.

"I am going home, to Thomas. I will tell him— I will *show* him, what I have learned. I will make sure he understands the decision is his, and I will not hurt him. I will *never* hurt him. Can you say the same?"

Jal'kadin's voice was rough and angry, and surprisingly, Chakotay found it increased his respect for the governor. This was something he could understand.

"I can't say that. I'm only human. I make mistakes."

"Then it is fortunate for you the choice is not mine to make."

"Jal'kadin," Chakotay paused, aware it was the first time he'd called the man by his name. "Thank you."

Jal said nothing. He could think of no words to say. He sent the commander back to Voyager, stood alone on the plains of his world, and threw back his head and screamed.

- - - - - - - - - -

Tom awakened and stretched lazily, smiling at Jal, who saw the precise moment when he remembered what had happened on Voyager. That smile faded as if it had never been, and Tom closed his eyes and groaned.

"Oh, God."

**Thomas, love, there is something you should know.**

**Give me a minute, baby.**

Tom got up and went to the bathroom, and Jal thought wryly that Tom had better hurry, before he lost his nerve. He didn't have to think about how to say this, thankfully. All he had to do was let Tom see it as it happened. It was Tom's reaction that he feared. Jal already knew how much Tom's conflicted feelings affected him, and that was before, when he didn't believe Chakotay was sincere. How much worse was it going to be when Tom knew the truth? Jal was seriously afraid he was going to place an intolerable burden on Tom. He was equally afraid it would be no burden at all, and that Tom would find it simple to choose Chakotay.

He stood and went into the living area, sinking into the sofa, quite unable to bear the idea of showing Tom how Chakotay felt in his own bedroom... then again, the only room that wasn't filled with loving Tom was the kitchen. Jal wondered rather sadly if he'd end up having to move from this house, and it occurred to him that at some level, he was already certain how Tom would decide. Tom had loved Chakotay for years, and had known *him* for a Solar day. He would be stupid to forget that, and he should prepare himself accordingly, although he had no idea how to prepare himself for losing Tom.

He supposed all he could do was keep reminding himself it was Tom's choice to make. Tom was a creature of free will, and Jal had to keep it that way. He was reminded of his sister Zahara explaining to Jean-Luc Picard why ZaworthIa would not enter the Federation. That too was a question of free will. Zahara believed ZaworthIans would influence humanity's decisions and affect their development. It would never be clear whether humans made choices based on their own racial imperatives, or merely reacted to what ZaworthIa thought they should do.

He wanted very badly to talk to Zahara, or Jaeotise, or his grandmother, although he knew what they would say. Particularly Ysaulte'h, who had sacrificed her bondlink with her Fire King so he could follow his duty. She rarely spoke of it, for even a century later the pain was so fresh she could not bear the subject. Jal knew he should be glad he had not forged that link with Thomas, but at the same time, he longed to have known that joy. Just once. But had he not already known more of joy than he'd dared dream?

**Baby, are you okay?** The look on Jal's face frightened Tom. His irises were muddy and dull, almost lifeless, until the ZaworthIan saw him standing there. Then the colors swirled a bit brighter, but not by much.

**Thomas. I was lost in thought. Forgive me.**

**Of course. You had something to tell me?**

**Something to show you. Come, sit with me.** Jal'kadin took a deep breath. **I want you to see this as it happened, so I am going to put it into your mind, and you will witness it as if you were there. If you are able, please wait until I am done and do not interrupt me.** Jal didn't think he could get through this if he couldn't do it all at once.

**All right.** Tom didn't bother to hide his apprehension. Jal was clearly disturbed. Even his unspoken voice sounded stilted and brittle, as if something inside him had broken. He settled into the sofa beside Jal, and the ZaworthIan took his hand.

**I went to Voyager while you were sleeping,** and Jal replayed the course of his morning, deliberately blocking his own perception, so he wouldn't have to feel whatever reactions Tom had until he was finished, and he didn't finish until he reached the part where Chakotay had thanked him and he'd sent the commander back.

**That's it. The whole megillah, if that's the correct idiom.** Exhausted, Jal leaned away from Tom and pressed his face into the backrest of the sofa. He couldn't look at Tom. Not yet.

"You think I'm going to leave you," Tom said, having to speak it out loud because Jal'kadin was so plainly *not* *listening* to him. "You think I'm going to just beam up to Voyager and go on my merry way in some fantasy happy-ever-after with Chakotay, don't you!" Now Tom was shouting. He was furious.

"God damn it, Jal'kadin, look at me! Don't you know I was going to tell Janeway I was staying here with you before all this shit blew up? *Look* at me!" Tom grabbed Jal by the shoulders and yanked him around, his heart breaking at the tears running down that beautiful face. Jal still wouldn't meet his eyes, and Tom did the only thing he could think of. He seized Jal's head in his hands and kissed him, hard... at least it started out hard, but as Tom leaned into the kiss the magic took over, and he licked and teased and stroked those lips with his tongue until Jal opened his mouth with a groan. Tom could taste those tears, salty sweet, and he curled his tongue around Jal's and sucked, losing himself in the flavor and heat of his prince.

**Baby, listen to me. I love you. I can't leave you. I'll never be able to leave you. Please believe me.** How could he explain what it meant to him, not hearing what Chakotay said to Jal, but hearing what Jal had said to Chakotay? That heartfelt, unselfish declaration of devotion was like a miracle. *Here* was Tom's wish come true.

**Thomas. Chakotay—"

**Chakotay had *years* with me that *he* decided to waste! I'm supposed to forgive him and forget you? I don't think so!**

**Thomas, stop. I can't think.**

**Good. Don't think. Because I'm *not* stopping.** And Tom wasn't, hands busy on Jal's tunic, opening it to the waist and pushing it off his shoulders, touching that satiny skin underneath and making the ZaworthIan shudder. Still kissing him, and dizzy with it. So exquisitely responsive, his prince. Tom moaned into that hot mouth when Jal'kadin finally reached up and held his face, slanting their lips even closer together.

**Thomas. Love you. Love you. *Please*, stop. I can't control- too raw, unshielded. The bond-**

**Yes. It's what I want. Mark me, Jal. Come into my mind and make me yours. I want you.**

**You don't know—**

**I *do* know,** Tom insisted, finally breaking the kiss so they could breath, and saw those wonderful eyes, glowing like small suns, so bright and golden. The color of arousal, he'd finally realized. The color of Jal's need and want for *him*. Beautiful. How could he even consider leaving, when everything he'd ever wanted was right here?

**I love you, Jal'kadin. I will love you when we're old, I will love you when our bones are dust, and I will love you when the stars are cold. There will be no other for me. Take me as your lifemate, in the way of your ancestors.**

**Thomas. Are you certain? Once done—**

**Yes, I'm certain... a'shas.** My soul. Tom watched Jal smile brilliantly at his use of the ZaworthIan endearment, and was never more sure of anything in his life.

**Then as you wish it, so shall it be.**

As tradition demanded, Jal took Tom's hands and placed them on his throat, then wrapped his own hands around Tom's neck. Not tightly, just enough pressure to feel the life pounding under his touch... then Jal took Tom out of his body, freeing them once more to sail through that ocean of the Infinite, where they existed solely as thought, but together this time, conjoined. The ritual words of Jal's ancestors rang with joy; lyrical ZaworthIan translated directly.

**Thou art with me, in body as in spirit. Live we tied by minds by hearts forever safe, secured. Into what Is, I call for witness, set into eternal truth, thou art an anchor, constant unto everlasting stars, yet even stars shine not before thee, my bondmate, my bond-companion. Shown thou this my heart, so shown my soul, so known. These to thee the very measure of my thoughts, as thine in me. Thou worthy, well with which to stand, sword thou art, so too a shield. One voice, ceasing never, within and without. Hear now the All! Thou art the center of my soul!**

The limitless power of will behind the vow stripped every defense, displaying their open hearts, reintegrating reality around them as that sense of the Infinite faded, leaving Tom and Jal'kadin in their bodies, but locked together in mind.

Tom moaned, feeling *everything*, Jal's long throat under his hands, the way his hands felt to Jal, warm and gentle... the feel of his pulse throbbing under Jal's palms, the way his own skin felt, at Jal's fingers. The sensations doubled and quadrupled in a geometric procession of tactile stimulation, and it was nothing compared to having Jal'kadin's mind in his, and his in Jal's. All there, all that love and concern and desire, echoing, reflected. Palpable, and impossible to doubt either Jal's emotions for him, or his for Jal.

**Jal. It's so beautiful. I *didn't* know.**

**I knew it could be thus. It's you, Thomas, who makes it beautiful.**

Tom looked into those shining eyes and gasped. Jal's irises were a color Tom had never before seen on him, a pure and perfect turquoise blue, like the skies of Earth.

Jal felt that awe and wonder and had to laugh, the happiness welling up out of his mind and irrepressible, catching Tom in its tide and filling *him* with delight, expanding and flowing outward until there was nothing in the whole wide world besides this giddy, joyous exultation... then a deeper euphoria overtook them, possessing them in harmony and grace as the World spoke.

**My children, thou art favored in My sight, beloved of Me, faithful and true. I am well pleased with thee, Jal'kadin, Thomas. There is no thing beyond thee as Mine. My Zaltan'ohrs.**

That Voice faded, with that loving sense of possession, leaving Tom and Jal staring at each other in dumbstruck astonishment, and quite unable to form a comprehensible thought for several long minutes.

**Jal. That was- Was that-** Tom finally stuttered out incredulously.

**Yes. Yes, it was. The living force of our Za'shas, our World. She *spoke* to us!** Overcome, Jal grabbed Tom's hand and took him outside through the rear door, going to his knees on the grass and pulling Tom down beside him. **Can you feel it?**

Tom threaded his fingers through the grass until he touched the soil directly, and found, to his profound amazement, that he *could* sense a Presence in the ground, a low but distinct hum of power.

**Oh, it's there! *She's* there!**

Tom looked at Jal, who had the immediate and audible thought that he *had* to have Thomas, now, right now, right here, and Tom, hearing it, had to close his eyes. He was sure at some involuntary level his own irises must be turning amber.

Their clothes were gone and they were in each other's arms before Tom could take his next breath, Jal'kadin beneath him, kissing him, the passion and the hunger mind-blinding in its reflected strength. So much, the sensations too intense to identify whose was whose; the velvet warmth of clinging lips and searching tongues, the teasing tickle of chest hair on nipples, the slick and wanton need of rubbing erections, the luxuriant sprawl of legs, and hands, hands everywhere, touching and stroking with love.

**Now. Take me now.**

**I'll hurt you.**

**You won't, love, *feel* us. Do it.**

And Jal was right; there was no pain when Tom entered him, no pain at all, only that shatteringly ecstatic sense of completion that drove them screaming over the edge, together.

- - - - - - - - - -

"Tuvok? Are you all right?"

The Vulcan carefully reinforced his mental barriers, closing his mind to that brightly perceived impression of a supernova, exploding across his inner vision. He looked up to find Commander Chakotay standing beside him, staring at him worriedly.

"I am well. Why do you ask?" Tuvok wondered what his face had given away.

"You were... smiling," Chakotay explained, still a bit unnerved at turning around and catching that expression on the Vulcan's face. It hadn't been the faint half-grin Tuvok occasionally conceded. It had been a full-force, open and frankly sensual smile that Chakotay didn't think Tuvok was even aware of sporting, a suspicion confirmed with the Vulcan's next words.

"Was I? Interesting." Tuvok inspected the commander with a lifted eyebrow.

"It's not that long until the end of shift. Maybe you should go back to your quarters and get some rest."

Tuvok thought about that, and decided to follow the commander's advice. The love and joy that was riotously radiating from Za'shas reminded him strongly of his marriage bond to T'Pel. If he were human, Tuvok would say he missed his wife. The place in his mind where she'd lived was empty now, their mating link strained to virtual nonexistence by the great distance between them.

"A logical suggestion, Commander. Perhaps you will accompany me? I am... not myself." What he was, was lonely, Tuvok thought involuntarily, then suppressed that thought, and the emotion.

"Of course," Chakotay replied, surprised.

Chakotay let Kathryn know he and Tuvok were leaving the bridge. He was grateful to be off duty, himself. After the governor had returned him to Voyager, right back to the briefing room from where they'd started, he'd sat there for a while trying to decide what he should do next. If anything.

He'd had to face so many hard truths in the last two days, and he wasn't done yet. He asked himself if he could be as unselfish as Jal'kadin... and if it came to what was truly *best* for Tom, was that honestly *him*? Tom had a chance for a life here that could only be described as a dream come true. Chakotay hadn't asked Jal'kadin to show him what *he* felt for Tom, he hadn't had to. The ZaworthIan's devotion had been obvious. Tom would be the center of Jal'kadin's life, treasured and adored beyond reason. He'd have ships to fly and the challenges that went with rebuilding a war torn world. He'd have an extended family in the telepathic Za'shasa who would comfort and shelter him, and he'd be safe from the terrors of the Delta quadrant.

Chakotay tried to imagine how it would be for Tom on Voyager, with him. There would be love, but there would be misunderstandings and the inevitable arguments, too. There would be times when Chakotay had to put duty before their relationship, when his work would have to come first. There would be hard feelings and harassment for Tom from the crew, no matter how much Chakotay tried to prevent it... and there would always, *always* be the very real chance that one or both of them could be killed.

If, after weeks or months or even years together, Tom lost his life in some battle or from some disease, Chakotay knew he would grieve. Like his mother had grieved after his father's death, but she had gone on, because that's who she was. That's who Chakotay was, too, a survivor from a long line of survivors, born and bred. His people endured. On the other hand, if *he* was the one who died, what would happen to Tom? He didn't think it was arrogance or hubris to suppose that Tom would be destroyed.

If he looked at this from the perspective of what would be best for Tom, there was only one choice... but like Jal'kadin had said, the choice would be Tom's. There was irony in the notion that under other circumstances, Chakotay would be protecting Tom from Delta quadrant aliens. Now he wondered if he should be protecting Tom from *him*.

Chakotay realized with surprise that he was standing outside Tuvok's quarters, and the Vulcan was looking at him with that expression that said he hadn't been listening.

"I'm sorry, Tuvok. I was a million miles away." Well, more like a few thousand kilometers, but he wasn't going to tell Tuvok that. He looked at Tuvok then, really looked at him, and the Vulcan seemed preoccupied himself. It made Chakotay wonder. "Is it difficult for you to be near the Za'shasa? Do you sense things from them?"

"In fact, I do. I suspect that under ordinary circumstances I would find the telepathic resonance tolerable, however, there is a great deal of... turbulence currently emanating from the planet. It is quite... distracting."

"What kind of turbulence?" Chakotay asked concernedly, curious to know if Tom was involved somehow.

"Perhaps we might go in, Commander, and I will endeavor to explain," Tuvok said, preceding Chakotay into his quarters. The ambient temperature was warmer inside, for which Tuvok was grateful. There were some days the human chill of the ship was wearisome to him. He excused himself long enough to replace his uniform for a heavy meditation robe, feeling the need for the added warmth it provided, and emerged to find Chakotay had replicated them both a cup of tea.

"I hope you don't mind, but I thought you could use it," Chakotay said.

"Indeed. Thank you, Commander."

They sat down on the sofa and Tuvok debated on how best to proceed as he sipped his tea. It would be difficult to describe the psionic emanations in words, particularly Standard words, which lacked the clarity and precision of Vulcan. A possible solution occurred to him, and Tuvok didn't pause to analyze why he thought Chakotay should witness this, or even why *he* wanted to feel it again, for that matter.

There was no one in the Delta quadrant who knew that proximity to ZaworthIan pair bonding could induce peculiar effects in Vulcans; and of course, those rare few in the Alpha who knew weren't there to warn Tuvok.

"Commander. The most expedient way to demonstrate the turbulence would be for you to experience it directly, in the mind-meld."

Chakotay gave him a wry glance.

"I've already had one telepath in my head today, what's one more?"

"I do not understand."

"The governor wanted to know how I felt about—" Chakotay hesitated, and shook his head. "Never mind. Go ahead, Tuvok."

"Very well."

Tuvok set his teacup down and turned towards Chakotay, who mirrored his actions. Tuvok steepled his fingers for a moment, preparing his mind, then reached out and set his fingertips against Chakotay's face, murmuring the words that helped him focus on joining their thoughts. He kept the meld shallow at first, until he was certain Chakotay was coping adequately, and noticed the faint, fading residual evidence of the governor's earlier interest.

**What did the governor wish to know, Chakotay?** Tuvok asked, subconsciously deepening the meld.

Somehow it was easier to say this without actually speaking, and Chakotay had no problem telling Tuvok everything that had happened during the last two days, including his own concerns regarding Tom's best interests. The calm clarity of Tuvok's mind helped him center his own, and Chakotay felt his unhappy anxiety ease as if Tuvok had pulled it out of him.

**I believe you do yourself a disservice by imagining that Tom's life with you would be difficult, but in any case, it is a moot point now,** Tuvok offered gently, expanding his perception to share what was happening on the planet below.

Chakotay caught back a gasp as he felt what Tuvok did, that overwhelming sense of rapturous exaltation, visible to his mind's eye like a huge comet blazing in a night sky.

**What you sense is similar to what bonded Vulcans feel. This, however, is of a rather larger magnitude,** Tuvok explained dryly. Chakotay understood what he meant immediately.

**That's Tom? And Jal'kadin? That's what they *feel*?** Chakotay was astonished, and too fascinated by what he getting from Tuvok to fully comprehend what it meant for *him*.

**Not them alone, Chakotay. The entire planet rejoices with them.** Three million telepaths, more or less, caught up in their prince's joy and reflecting it. Little wonder Tuvok was affected. **It is very—**

**Beautiful,** Chakotay supplied before Tuvok could choose another word. **It's beautiful.**

**Yes,** Tuvok agreed, opening their minds to drink even deeper of that exhilarating bliss. It was an almost addictive rush, which for Chakotay soothed pain and regret and sense of loss. Tuvok reacted a bit differently, becoming acutely aware of T'Pel's absence.

**Thank you for showing me this, Tuvok.**

**You are not distressed?**

**Ask me again, when we leave here and Tom stays, but right now? No.** Something settled inside Chakotay as one of his questions to himself was answered. **I love Tom enough to be glad for him.**

**Your lack of selfishness is enviable, Chakotay.**

**Tuvok? Does all this hurt you somehow?**

**If I were human, I would say it reminds me of how lonely I am,** Tuvok admitted, a confession he would never have normally allowed, but he was quite undone by all that psionic resonance. Chakotay could suddenly feel the hollowness inside Tuvok's mind, that ache for his own bondmate... and Chakotay, who couldn't stand seeing anybody in pain if there was something he could do about it, acted on impulse. He used the meld to reach into Tuvok's thoughts, wrapping the Vulcan up in comfort and compassion, drawing that sad longing into his own mind to let it diffuse.

When, or why, it became something different, neither Tuvok nor Chakotay would ever agree. They would eventually decide to blame it on Tom and Jal'kadin, and that conclusion would attain the status of a private joke between them.

Chakotay found his hands holding that warmer-than-human face, his mouth devouring those lush and yielding lips, while arousal raged through him with all the subtlety of a warp core breach. Tuvok was captured by his own need and willingly surrendered, flinging aside restraint and decorum and self-control to return that ravaging kiss. The mind meld transmuted into something else entirely, a living current binding them in shared sensations.

They landed in the floor, with no clear idea how they got there, and Chakotay rolled them over, covering Tuvok with his body. Tuvok felt hot and strong and overpoweringly good beneath him, and Chakotay groaned as their erections pressed together through their clothing. He lifted his mouth off Tuvok's, near enough to catch the Vulcan's breath.

"Ah, Tuvok. If I stop kissing you long enough to undress us, will you promise not to change your mind about this?"

"Chakotay, I can assure you, I have no intention of 'changing my mind'," Tuvok replied, demonstrating this by unceremoniously pushing Chakotay's tunic off his shoulders. "I would suggest, however, that we pursue this in a more optimal location." Tuvok felt Chakotay smile against his mouth, felt that amusement in his mind, and couldn't withhold his own answering smile.

"That's two in one day," Chakotay noted, pulling back just far enough to see it. "I feel lucky."

"Should you desire to 'get lucky' you will arise and take me to bed," Tuvok pointed out, and Chakotay laughed out loud, getting up and offering Tuvok his hand. Tuvok stood, and they looked at each other for a minute, no doubt in either mind that this was what they wanted. Chakotay reached out and caressed Tuvok's face, smoothing one eyebrow and admiring its slant.

"Come on," he said, and took his Vulcan to bed.

- - - - - - - - - -

Hot, so hot, Tuvok's hands on him, Tuvok's mouth on him, that beautiful contrast of light and dark a visual feast. Chakotay arched his back and moaned as the Vulcan's interminable curiosity was fully focused on *him*; Tuvok having apparently resolved to taste and touch his entire body, such sweet torture... igniting fires along his nerves.

Skin to skin and sliding against each other, Chakotay slick with sweat in the heat, still nothing as hot as Tuvok himself. Like being branded, he thought dimly, flipping them over determinedly, intent on his own explorations.

Tracing the curves of those luscious lips, gasping when Tuvok sucked on his fingers, an unmistakable message in the gesture. Gliding down to linger over brown nipples, scents and flavors of some honeyed spice, alien and fascinating and wholly absorbing. Tuvok's hands in his hair, on his face, outlining the pattern of his tattoo and transmitting that mysterious electrical charge to his mind.

Going further, savoring that delicious length. Hearing Tuvok groan and delighting in the sound, relishing their need; the fire blazing ever higher. A silent order in Chakotay's thoughts, demanding. Now. Now. Now. Oiling his fingers, and his unanticipated lover, learning that Tuvok was even hotter *inside*.

Driving into Tuvok's molten depths, freed by that Vulcan strength to be as wild as he wanted, and the wildness in their minds matching the passion in their bodies. An inferno now, consuming, until the flames were all that existed, a searing explosion of heat and light that burned them together...

- - - - - - - - - -

Chakotay raised up on one elbow and ran a finger along the slant of Tuvok's ear. He suspected he was grinning like an idiot.

"Are you all right now?"

"An insufficiently emphatic description, I believe," Tuvok replied gravely, but those ebony eyes were shining. "I would apologize for being affected by the Za'shasa's psionic emanations, but an apology would imply I had regrets, and I do not."

"That's good, because I don't either," Chakotay said, surprised to find it was true. He had no regrets about Tuvok, but there were no more regrets about Tom, either. Somehow in the middle of all this, he'd accepted Tom was a missed opportunity, and the heartache of that thought was almost gone. One thing was certain. Chakotay was going to make sure he never missed any more chances for happiness.

He leaned over and licked that tempting ear.

"Am I to understand from that gesture you are desirous of a repeat performance, Chakotay?" Tuvok asked, a smile in his mind that Chakotay could feel.

"Maybe a reciprocal performance," Chakotay suggested, and watched Tuvok's lips curve.

- - - - - - - - - -

**I just want to know three things.**

**What would those three things be, my beloved?**

**First, explain to me why, if it's your habit to use given names, and you call me Thomas, that you asked me to call you Jal?**

**Because that is what my family calls me, and I knew when I met you, Thomas, that you would be my family. Well, I hoped, anyway.** Jal turned over and looked into his lifemate's beautiful eyes. **What's the next thing?**

**Can we send Voyager all the way to the Alpha quadrant?** Tom asked seriously, understanding a little better now just how much power Jal'kadin could wield, particularly now that they were bonded.

**If that is your wish, my Zaltan'ohr."

**That's what Za'shas called us. What does that mean?**

**It means we are the kings of our World,** Jal said, and smiled at the astonishment that information produced. **When would you like to send your crewmates home?**

**Tomorrow is soon enough,** Tom decided, his hands on Jal's head pulling their lips together.

**What's the third thing?** Jal asked quickly, before he forgot how to think.

**Mmm, always so good. What's your grandfather's name?**

Jal'kadin started laughing.

**Ask me in 280 days, and I will tell you, beloved. Any more questions?**

**Will you make love to me now?**

**Oh, gladly, sweet Thomas.**


Ten Terran lunar months came to pass upon the world Za'shas, and the Zaltan'ohr Jal'kadin gave birth to the son of his Fire King Thomas. As it had once been pointed out, Jal'kadin was *not* human, and Thomas was exceedingly pleased.

The young prince, Harry James du'Kefirah by name, grew up happy and healthy and very well loved by all.

The End!

Author's note: In case you're wondering, there is, in fact, a sixteen chapter novel titled 'Horizons of Fire' that details the relationship between Jal'kadin's grandparents; how they met, how they fell in love, and how Ysaulte'h ascended to the Fire Throne. It was my first effort at fanfiction, and I wrote it purely out of love (and lust) for a certain starship captain. There is a second novel, 'Horizons of Duty', which is one of those WIP's that may never be finished. It relates the story of Jal'kadin and his sisters and their efforts to wrest their father's star system from the grasp of the Romulans. I am currently working on revising 'Horizons of Fire' so it can be posted on my webpage, (as of 9-29-03) but that will take a while yet.
This story archived at http://www.tomparisdorm.com/viewstory.php?sid=2681