Hello and Goodbye

By Distracted

Rating: R

Genres: adventure drama romance virtual season


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This story is number 19 in the series Virtual Season Five

Back to Betazed: Hello and Goodbye

by Distracted

Rating: R again… just for one scene of bond severance anxiety therapy.

Genre: Romance, Drama, a tad of Action/Adventure

Summary: Part of my "Virtual Season Five" series. A sequel to Back to Betazed: Ace in the Hole. The Enterprise finally makes it to Betazed, everyone meets the Matriarch, TnT deal with the temporary loss of their bond, and we find out quite a lot about Betazoid politics and family relations.

A/N: Soap opera time. Get out the hankies. ‘Nuff said.

T’Pol fought her way stubbornly to consciousness. Before opening her eyes, she knew that she was in sickbay. The murmur of soft voices, the quiet beeps of monitoring equipment, and the distinctive rustling and squeaking produced by over a dozen different exotic animal species in cages in the near vicinity made her location unmistakable. Despite the noises all around her, however, T’Pol’s first impression upon awakening was of an oppressive silence. She opened her eyes and stared in puzzlement at the ceiling, trying to reconcile the two, and realized with a feeling of sudden and unexpected panic that the silence was in her head. The bond was gone.

She sat bolt upright with a wide-eyed expression, instinctively searching for her bond mate with both mind and body. The attempt drove a dagger of white-hot pain behind her eyes, and she fell gasping backwards onto the biobed… but not before she found what she was looking for.

Trip Tucker lay on a mobile stretcher beside her. He was pale and motionless, with a bandage around his head, but he was breathing. She reached for his hand despite her pain, grasping it tightly. His fingers were limp and unresponsive, but his hand was warm. She closed her eyes and exhaled heavily. The silence in her head remained. Despite intense concentration, she sensed only vague agitation and anxiety. She wasn’t certain whether what she perceived were her own emotions, or whether she sensed weak shadows of the emotions that, as a touch telepath, she would normally have picked up from any being with whom she came into direct physical contact. The pain worsened as she attempted to break through the barrier that was evidently preventing her from full mental union with her bond mate.

“He is alive and well, Commander… merely sedated,” said an unfamiliar, quiet female voice. “He became extremely agitated when he woke about an hour ago. I made an error when I allowed him to remain in a bed out of sight of yours. His injuries are minor, but he sustained them trying to find you. I thought it best to sedate him until you awakened.”

T’Pol opened her eyes, squinting slightly with the intense discomfort in her head. A dark-haired, fair-skinned young woman with pupil-less black eyes and a concerned expression stood at her bedside. The woman smiled sympathetically.

“I know that you’re in pain. Don’t try to link with your mate. You will only intensify your discomfort… and his,” she said.

T’Pol closed her eyes again and focused on blocking the bond… putting up a barrier the way she’d done when she was having problems with her emotional control and wished to spare Trip the trauma of her mental turmoil. Immediately, the pain in her head was reduced to a more tolerable level. She opened her eyes and gazed at Trip’s sleeping face for a moment as if to reassure herself that he was still there, and then returned her attention to the Betazoid woman, who was looking at her with an approving smile.

“What…?” T’Pol began weakly.

“Don’t try to speak, Commander. In a moment, I will give you something for your pain, but I had to speak with you before we reach Betazed,” interjected the young woman softly. “I am Marella of the Sixth House, medic on the Saber of Betazed. We have developed a method of defense against the Romulans, which you and your mate have unfortunately just experienced first-hand. Please accept my sincere apology, but we had no idea that you were on board, and our captain would have most likely still have decided to attack had she known.” The Betazoid medic grinned ruefully. “Captain Irana isn’t known for her diplomacy, but she gets the job done.”

The young woman searched the room briefly with her eyes. Finding it quiet, she stepped closer to the bed and sat beside T’Pol on a chair she pulled up for that purpose. She fixed her eyes on T’Pol’s face intently, and began to whisper urgently.

“My captain and crewmates are all members of the Sixth House… just as you and your mate are… and we are all loyal to the Matriarch. That cannot be said for everyone on Betazed. For that reason, and because telepathic contact will be extremely painful for both you and Commander Tucker for at least the next several days, I would like your permission to place a telepathic shield over both of you. If certain parties on Betazed were able to read the two of you, and the source, effects and range of our ‘weapon’ became known to them, we would lose the element of surprise. Thus far, no one affected by our tactics has been in a position to describe them to the enemy. We’d like to keep it that way.”

T’Pol searched the woman’s face. She saw no reason to mistrust her, and her request seemed highly logical. She nodded, but raised her hand in protest as the woman reached to touch her, and asked one final question.

“This feels very much like what happened when Lianna…” she began.

“You mustn’t speak of it, Commander,” insisted Marella. “You will put the child in grave danger if you do.” T’Pol’s eyes widened in sudden understanding, and she fell silent. She closed her eyes, wincing slightly as Marella placed cool hands on her forehead, and a blanket of profound silence descended over her mind. Not even background emotions came through. She opened her eyes again in sudden inexplicable anxiety and turned her head, gripping Trip’s hand tightly and staring at him intently as Marella pressed a hypospray to her neck, injecting her with a pain relieving sedative. She fought the effects of the sedative, against all logic fearing that as soon as her eyes were closed and she could no longer see him, somehow he would disappear. Marella walked to the head of his stretcher and placed her hands on Trip’s head as well. The sedative finally won out as T’Pol’s eyes closed. His hand remained clasped securely in hers.

Captain Jonathan Archer exited Engineering, where he’d just been briefed by Lieutenant Commander Hess on the structural repairs that were underway following the Enterprise’s ambush by the Romulans. Although the battle had been over for a mere three hours, internal repairs were almost complete, and the weapons repair teams, let by Lieutenant Commander Reed, were also well on their way to restoring full weapons function. External hull repair and the repair of the shield emitters could not be done at warp, and would have to wait until their arrival at Betazed, but at least now they could fight back if the Romulans were stupid enough to attack them again in the presence of the small but extremely deadly Betazoid vessel that was their escort.

Archer had reviewed the sensor recordings of the Saber of Betazed’s contribution to the recent battle. Neither he nor Lieutenant Commander Reed had been able to discover the nature of the weapon that had disabled the two Romulan ships so efficiently. He was headed toward sickbay, hopeful that Phlox had discovered an answer to the mystery. He was definitely not going to sickbay to check on his wife. She was the least of his worries right now, and perfectly able to take care of herself. That fact did not prevent him from standing at the threshold as he came in and scanning the room rapidly with his eyes, looking for a head of long, thick, eminently touchable dark hair.

The noises emanating from the next room suggested that Phlox was busy feeding the animals. “She’s not here, Captain,” said Crewman Cutler over her shoulder as she walked by, headed toward the menagerie carrying a dinner tray in her hands. “The doctor sent her back to her cabin to rest over an hour ago.” Judging from the determined expression on Cutler’s face as she brought Phlox his dinner, she’d decided that she was going to convince him to make the time to eat.

Archer gave her an exasperated look. Surely he wasn’t that obvious! He watched her cross the room and enter the menagerie with a puzzled expression. Mind reading must be a female thing. I wonder if they can all do it? he mused. Then he chuckled wryly. Maybe that’s why they expect us to be able to do it too, he thought in amused resignation. He followed Cutler into the next room.

“You must eat, you stubborn thing! You know you get cranky if you don’t,” Cutler was saying teasingly as she stood within the circle of Phlox’s arms. He smiled fondly down at her and bent his head towards her. Archer cleared his throat. The two of them jumped like guilty teenagers. Crewman Cutler, red-faced, pushed away from the doctor and, avoiding Archer’s eyes, murmured, “Excuse me, Captain,” as she brushed past Archer to exit the room. Phlox stood looking at her as she left with a dreamy smile on his face. Archer cleared his throat again.

Phlox pulled himself together with visible effort and turned his attention briskly to his friend. “I’ve got good news, Jon!” he said brightly. “Both Commander Tucker and Commander T’Pol regained consciousness while you were overseeing repairs!”

Archer eyed him with a tolerant smile. “Marella informed me of their condition nearly an hour ago. She said they’re sleeping off the pain medication she had to give them for their headaches, but she couldn’t… or simply refused… to tell me exactly what happened to them.”

Phlox sighed and nodded ruefully. “I was told that the details were a matter of security … but I do have a theory,” he added helpfully as he led the way out of the menagerie, leaving his dinner on the counter, untouched.

The two men approached Phlox’s work station, where the doctor pulled up the data he’d collected.

“You’ll see here that the neurochemical scan that I did of Commander Tucker’s brain an hour ago shows changes very similar to the changes on this scan, done slightly over one year ago after the Romulan incident on Betazed,” began the doctor.

The scans in question just looked like so many colored lights and wavy lines to Archer, but he did remember the incident in question.

“Do you mean, when Lianna had her little tantrum and short-circuited every telepath within a kilometer of the Sixth House?” he asked. “I thought you said Trip was affected then because he was linked with Lianna?” He looked at the doctor in horror. “You don’t think they’ve got a five year old child on board their vessel helping them kill entire ships full of Romulans, do you?” Just the idea of using a telepathic child in that fashion… a child undoubtedly powerful enough to sense the death agonies of each person on board the doomed Romulan ships… was enough to make him sick.

Phlox shook his head reassuringly. “No, Jon,” he assured his friend, “I’ve already asked Marella that question, and she looked as repulsed by the idea as we are.” He pulled up another pair of scans.

“I’m not sure how they’re doing it, but they seem to have developed a way to reproduce a slightly weaker version of the same effect. It’s not identical, though, because the crew of the Betazoid ship doesn’t seem to be affected by it,” he mused.

Archer nodded, and stood looking at the second set of scans for a moment. When Phlox stood studying them in apparent fascination without elaborating, Archer asked with mild impatience, “Do you mind telling me what we’re looking at?”

Phlox eyed him for a moment, and then sighed. “What I’m about to tell you is necessary information for ship’s security, but I don’t like violating doctor-patient confidentiality. You need to promise me that this information will not go beyond this room, Jon.”

Archer eyed him in disbelief. “How can I promise you that before I know what the information is?”

Phlox looked Archer straight in the eye. “If what I’m about to tell you becomes public knowledge, it may very well destroy the careers of both of your senior officers. Their susceptibility to this Betazoid weapon is a security risk, and you need to know why they’re both susceptible, but no one else does… and no one else should. Promise me, Jon. Trust me on this.”

Archer eyed the Denobulan’s earnest face for a moment, and then brusquely nodded. “All right, Phlox. I promise. Tell me.”

Phlox turned to the console and brought up two scans side by side. The brain structure was subtly different, and the color patterns varied widely. The scans had almost nothing in common.

“These are neurochemical scans done on Commanders Tucker and T’Pol when they were initially posted to Enterprise,” began Phlox. He reached forward and pulled up another set of scans. “…And these are from shortly after their return from Vulcan following T’Pol’s illness about eighteen months ago.”

The structure was the same as before in each scan, apparently demonstrating the minor anatomical differences between the Vulcan and the Human brain, but the color patterns had dramatically changed in both of them… and they were identical to each other. Archer studied them for several seconds with a puzzled look, and then turned to Phlox.

“I can’t read these damned things, and you know it, Phlox. Tell me!” he said in a frustrated tone of voice.

Phlox looked down for a moment, as if he were having second thoughts, and then met Archer’s eyes. “They’re bonded, Jon. Permanently. It’s an unbreakable mental connection. The telepathic weapon that affected Commander T’Pol also affected Commander Tucker because, for all intents and purposes, the two of them are a single mental entity.”

Archer’s eyes widened as he took in the information. “So all this time when they’ve been looking like they’re almost talking to each other without saying anything?...” he asked in a disbelieving voice.

“Not ‘almost’, Jon… they’re fully capable of carrying on a complete conversation mentally… probably from halfway across the ship at least,” replied Phlox.

Archer gave him an incredulous look. “Why? Why would they do that to themselves? I can’t imagine either of them being comfortable with another person’s thoughts inside their heads…. especially not Trip!”

Phlox exhaled again. He paused, considering his words. “The bond is a traditional part of the Vulcan marriage ritual,” he stated finally. Some things were better left unsaid.

“Marriage,” repeated Archer in numb surprise, with his eyes still fixed on the scans. “Trip told me that I’d be better off not knowing, but I had no idea…” His voice trailed off, and then he looked at Phlox sharply. “You knew all along!” he said accusingly.

Phlox nodded, avoiding his eyes. “I’m sorry, Jon. The deception was necessary… just as revealing it now is necessary.” He looked up with a forthright stare. “I regret the need for both.”

Archer exhaled heavily, crossed his arms over his chest, and stared unseeingly at the console in front of him, his face a study of conflicting emotions. He was silent for several minutes. His eyes returned to Phlox with a hard and determined expression.

“So now that we know they’re susceptible, how do we keep this from happening again, Doctor?” he asked brusquely. Phlox gave him a small, pained smile, and cleared his throat before speaking.

“Marella has informed me that she has placed what she calls a ‘shield’ within the minds of both commanders, Captain. It is a technique which is used therapeutically on her planet for patients who have sustained a telepathic trauma. It will also temporarily protect both of them from the effects of the Betazoid weapon. She assures me that once Commander T’Pol is fully recovered, it will be a simple matter for her to learn blocking techniques to protect both herself and Commander Tucker. She will still be susceptible to the clandestine use of whatever it is that causes this effect, but Marella assures me that the technique is very unlikely to be used in that fashion. If Commander T’Pol uses the blocking skills she is taught whenever she is in the vicinity of a Betazoid ship in battle, she should be well-protected, and will also protect Commander Tucker.”

Archer nodded in understanding. “Inform me when either of them wakes, Doctor,” he said in a businesslike fashion, avoiding eye contact. “I’m going to try to get some sleep.”

The captain of the Enterprise turned and walked toward the exit. His jaw was set in anger, but the pain on his face was unmistakable. Eyeing his friend with resignation, Phlox followed his progress toward the exit with a regretful expression.

“Yes, Captain,” he replied with a sad smile. “I’ll keep you informed.”

Jonathan Archer strode down the corridor toward his wife’s quarters. His mind was in turmoil. He needed to know that she was well, but he’d been too ashamed to ask Phlox. Surely she must have had bruises… and who knows what other injuries he’d left after his rough and ready use of her for his own selfish needs.

A drink with a friend would have been just the thing about now, but the only two people on Enterprise that he’d really considered his friends were now unavailable to him… one permanently mentally bonded to a woman whom he’d once considered more than a friend, and the other… well… he wasn’t certain whether the other had ever been a friend. It was hard for him to fathom the workings of Phlox’s mind. Any man truly capable of loving three women at the same time had to be odd from the Human point of view, but Archer wasn’t sure he trusted himself anymore to distinguish oddness from genuinely alien thought processes. Friends trusted each other. Did Phlox have a different definition of friendship?

He reached Elena’s cabin, and had stretched out a hand to ring the door chime when his eyes fell on his wrist chronometer. He paused. It was 0300, dead in the middle of the night by Elena’s sleep schedule. He sighed and dropped his hand. She needed her rest. After all he’d done to her she deserved to have an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

He turned reluctantly, and walked down the corridor toward the turbolift. The lights in the corridor were dimmed. Elena’s quarters were several decks away from the repairs that were still underway, and so the hallway was deserted. The turbolift opened, and he stepped aboard. Lieutenant Commander Reed stood in the lift with Lieutenant Sato. She was leaning on him, and he had one arm wrapped around her for support. His hair was slightly mussed, and both of them appeared to be on their last legs. They abruptly separated, and Malcolm perked up to forced attention when Archer boarded the lift.

“Good morning, Captain,” Malcolm said with British correctness. Hoshi gave the captain an exhausted smile by way of greeting. Archer smiled at them wryly.

“Relax, Malcolm… it’s three am,” he said with a dry chuckle. “How are the repairs coming?”

Malcolm’s stiff posture loosened up… very slightly. “We’ve completed the repairs we are able to complete at warp, Captain… and Lieutenant Sato has made considerable headway with decoding the scrambled messages in Romulan that we recorded during the battle.”

“We were both headed for the dining hall for something to eat before getting some sleep, sir,” piped up Hoshi. She eyed his face for a moment, and, in her own unfathomable way, somehow knew that he was aching for companionship. “Would you like to join us?” she added hesitantly. Malcolm gave her a look of disbelief. She smiled at him beseechingly, and he reluctantly smiled back. He turned to his commanding officer.

“Yes, Captain…” he agreed, “We’d be pleased to have you join us,” he said politely.

Archer smiled back at the two of them. The offer was tempting, but they didn’t need an old man as a fifth wheel.

“I appreciate the invitation… but I think I’ll hit the sack,” he replied. The turbolift opened.

“Goodnight, then, Captain… sleep well,” came Hoshi’s tired voice behind him as he stepped out of the lift with a polite nod and walked slowly down the hallway toward his cabin.

Finally reaching his quarters, he opened the door and headed directly toward the shower in near pitch-blackness, reaching for the light control on his way. He’d pulled his shirt off over his head, his attention focused on the door to the bathroom, when he heard a rustle and a sigh from the direction of the bed. He turned, startled by the noise, and was faced with the sight of his wife, dressed in a filmy black negligee and shielding her eyes from the sudden illumination, sitting up in bed with a drowsy smile on her face.

“Can you dim the lights, Jon? They’re pretty bright,” she said softly, in a voice husky with sleep. He stared for several seconds in disbelief before he reached for the control and dialed the lights to minimal intensity. Then he approached the bed, eyeing Elena as if he thought she might be a figment of his imagination. Porthos, displaced from his warm nest at Elena’s back by her sudden movement, jumped off the bed and, curling up into a ball atop his pad on the floor, immediately went back to sleep.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” Archer began hesitantly. His eyes roamed her tousled head and sleep-heavy eyes, lingered on her full lips, and then paused at the sight of what the nearly transparent negligee revealed as she sat up in the bed. He cleared his throat.

“… what are you doing here?” he finished wonderingly, finally noticing the rings of mottled bruising around both of her upper arms. She smiled invitingly and patted the mattress beside her. He sat down as if in a daze, and reached out a tentative hand to touch the marks on her arms remorsefully. His eyes met hers.

“I did hurt you!” he said with a sick expression. He dropped his hand, afraid to touch her and cause her more pain. His eyes dropped to her slender waist. He swallowed. “Is the baby all right?...”

Elena smiled and raised a hand to his stubbled cheek. Her eyes sparkled irrepressibly as she said, “They’re fine, Jon… both of them are fine.”

For a moment, he just sat and blinked at her. “Both of them?” he repeated in utter amazement.

She bit her lip to keep from laughing at his expression. “Doctor Phlox said that it wasn’t surprising, considering the fact that multiple births run in my family, and the fertility drugs I took to ensure pregnancy also increase the risk of twinning. We’ve got a matched set… one boy and one girl… the DNA scan confirmed it.”

Her smile faded a fraction as she studied his stunned expression. “Are you all right, Jon?” she asked in a concerned tone.

Archer looked at her as if she’d gone crazy. “Am I all right?” he asked her with a ruefully amazed laugh. “You’re the one who’s just been assaulted… and then, while the doctor is examining you for injuries, you find out you’re going to have to raise not just one… but two children all by yourself… not to mention the danger of having twins as your first pregnancy at an age when any pregnancy is high risk…” Elena grasped his hand and opened her mouth to protest.

“There’s no use trying to fool me Elena… I did my research,” he insisted. “If I had known beforehand how much risk this pregnancy entailed…” He gave her a frightened and frustrated look. “… and now with twins it’s even worse!”

Elena smiled at him tenderly. “Jon… it’s going to be all right. My mother had triplets, and had a child after that. Two of her sisters had twins. The women in my family are built for having babies.” She raised both of her hands to his face and rose to her knees on the bed, looking into his eyes with every bit of love she could muster. He returned her gaze with an expression that pleaded for forgiveness.

“As far as your so-called ‘assault’ is concerned…” she whispered, “… you had every right to be angry, and I know that it was never your intention to hurt me. I needed you every bit as much as you needed me.” She searched his face, and smiled with tears in her eyes. He had that ‘Porthos begging’ look again, “… and if you really need me to say it… then I forgive you, Jon,” she finished, laughing softly through her tears. He smiled back at her hesitantly. Maybe she was right. Maybe everything was going to be all right.

They smiled almost shyly at each other for a moment, and then Elena sat back, making a shooing motion with one hand and then waving the other in front of her nose, grinning teasingly.

“Go shower, Jon… you’ve been up for nearly twenty-four hours now, and it shows. We’ll get some sleep, and then you can show me how much you missed me.”

Archer grinned back, and got up to shower… and shave. Suddenly, he really didn’t feel that tired. Elena must not have been very tired either, because she was still awake and waiting for him when he got into bed.

Galen of the Third House stepped out of his private ground car… a seeming extravagance which was a necessity rather than a luxury for a physician whose entire practice consisted of home visits… and walked up the front drive of the Sixth House. As he approached the front door, Mariana, the chatelaine, opened it and granted him entrance without a word. She led him toward the Matriarch’s bedroom with a concerned look on her face. The salt and pepper haired Betazoid physician deliberately refrained from reading her surface emotions, wishing to grant her some privacy, but the sorrow was plain on her face.

How long has she been unresponsive? he asked her silently as they walked rapidly down the hall.

I checked on her an hour ago, and she was alert, replied the stout, motherly woman. Lianna went in to visit her and couldn’t wake her about a quarter of an hour ago. That’s when I called you.

The two of them entered the sick woman’s room, which contained a desk, now sadly empty for months since the Matriarch had become incapable of fulfilling her responsibilities within the Ruling Council, and a large curtained bed. Tucked beneath the covers, in the center of the enormous bed, was the white haired, emaciated and pitiful being that was all that remained of Amelia, Daughter of the Sixth House, and Matriarch of the Ruling Council of Betazed. It pained Galen to see what the cancer had done to her in only nine months. Although she was several decades his elder, he’d always thought her beautiful… and she, in turn, had never treated him in the condescending manner that so many women of importance adopted when dealing with a male physician. He’d been so happy for his eldest son when Amelia’s daughter Ariana had taken the boy as consort, and his granddaughter Lianna was the light of his life.

The small child lay in the bed with the dying woman. Her head of dark ringlets shared a pillow with her grandmother’s sparse silver curls, and she had both arms around the old woman’s neck. Galen expected to see tears, but Lianna’s face was wreathed in smiles when she saw him enter the room.

Hi, Grampa! she sent enthusiastically. Come link with us! Gramma’s telling me a story!

Galen eyed the unresponsive woman doubtfully, and then turned to look at Mariana with a questioning expression. She shrugged.

She’s been saying that for days now while the Matriarch sleeps, replied Mariana. I suppose the child could be picking up her dreams… or perhaps it’s just her imagination, she added pragmatically.

Galen approached the bed and sat down carefully beside Lianna. The little girl lay with her eyes closed and a happy smile on her face. As Galen checked the Matriarch’s pulse… it was thready and weak, but still present… and pulled back her eyelids to check for eye movement, Lianna actually laughed, and then opened her eyes, regarding her grandfather with childish amusement.

Gramma says you’re doing a great job, Grampa… so you can stop tryin’ so hard. She says she’s just saving her energy for when Jonathan gets here with his new wife.

Galen cocked his head and regarded his granddaughter sternly.

Mariana and I don’t hear a thing, Lianna… are you certain Gramma is talking to you? he asked.

Mariana placed a hand on his shoulder then, and he picked up her surprise. He turned his head toward her with an inquiring expression.

Lianna hasn’t been told anything about Enterprise, or why the ship is returning, said the housekeeper. The Matriarch thought it would be upsetting to the child to hear of the conflict within the Ruling Council. Unless she can read my deeper thoughts without my knowledge… and she’s still noisy enough when she does a deep reading for me to at least know she’s there, I think… the only way she could have known about Captain Archer and his marriage is from the Matriarch herself.

Galen raised a brow and turned back toward his granddaughter.

Lianna… he asked curiously, Would you tell me one of the stories Gramma was telling you?

Lianna grinned, and snuggled up next to him as he sat on the bed beside her sleeping grandmother.

Trip-T’hy’la always starts with ‘Once Upon a Time’… she confided to him in all seriousness. So… she began, with a dramatic pause. Once upon a time… there was a beautiful captain named Jonathan, and he rescued a smart and brave little girl named Lianna with his wonderful ship and his crew… and his bestest friends T’Pol and Trip-T’hy’la… and then he came to Betazed….

Commander Trip Tucker lay on one of the bunks in sickbay’s isolation chamber, propped on one elbow, studying his wife’s face as she slept beside him. When he’d awakened from his enforced rest four hours before, the Betazoid medic had explained to him that the combination of mental trauma and the sedative she’d been given would probably keep T’Pol asleep for several more hours. While she slept, the doctor had updated him on his latest theory… and had informed him of Jonathan Archer’s newfound knowledge of their marriage bond. An explanation had to be found to explain their collapse to the rest of the crew, however. It was Phlox who’d come up with the idea of a “virus” that they’d both picked up on Earth during their stay. It was as good an excuse as any to allow both of them to remain in isolation until T’Pol awakened and they were accustomed to functioning in public without the bond.

Trip smiled, and reached out a hand to run his fingers softly through the wisps of hair at T’Pol’s temple. She would be frightened when she woke, although she wouldn’t admit it, of course. He only hoped that she wouldn’t be as terrified as the last time their bond had been severed. Phlox had reassured him, telling him that she was aware of the situation, and knew that the interruption in the bond was a temporary thing… but Phlox hadn’t been with her when she’d awakened in his arms after her rescue from the Romulan ship. He’d never seen her need physical reassurance so badly… and so frequently… as in those days following her return to Enterprise. Trip had been more than pleased to provide it, of course. It had been a pleasant change to be needed so intensely… but the change had scared him a bit. He couldn’t help worrying about what would happen when she eventually lost him. It wasn’t a subject he liked to dwell on.

T’Pol stirred, sighing softly… like a small child dreaming. Trip allowed his fingers to travel to the side of her face, and then traced the delicate point of her ear as he watched the expression on her sleeping face with fascination. In sleep, she made no attempt to hide the pleasure his caresses gave her. Her lips parted, and she rubbed her cheek against his hand like a cat. He smiled. It came to him, then, how he could provide her with the reassurance she required before she’d even had the chance to be frightened, and he lowered his mouth to the sensitive skin beneath her chin, caressing it gently with his lips. She lifted her chin to allow him better access, and whispered to him drowsily.

“What do you think you’re doing, Commander? We’re in sickbay…” Her voice trailed off as he reached for the fastener of her uniform at the back of her neck, opened it all the way down to the dimples in her lower back, and reached both hands inside and beneath her undershirt, cool against her feverishly warm bare skin. She moaned softly.

Trip chuckled with his lips against her neck. “I’m your wake-up call, darlin’,” he teased. “The doctor put us in isolation for ‘observation’… but he’s just watchin’ vital signs. Nobody expects us to go anywhere for a day or so yet… but you’re wastin’ all our time sleepin’!” He rolled away from her and tugged the top of her uniform down from both shoulders. She helpfully pulled her arms from the sleeves after eyeing the room and assuring herself that they were, in fact, quite alone and unobserved. He pushed her uniform down to her waist, lifted her undershirt, and his skillful hands made their way forward to join his busy mouth.

T’Pol caressed his blonde curls and looked down at him, her face solemn and wide-eyed, as he cupped her with his palms and suckled like a hungry infant. He felt her gentle touch, and paused to look up at her and smile. His smile faded as he took in her stricken expression. Laying back to place his head on the pillow beside hers, he gathered her tenderly into his arms. She tensed for just a second, as if trying to deny her fears, and then melted into his embrace, grasping him around the abdomen and holding on for dear life.

“It’s gonna be okay, T’Pol. I’m not goin’ anywhere,” he whispered. His hands rubbed her bare back softly and reassuringly. “We’ll get through this. We did fine before, remember?” He pulled back and looked her in the eye with a loving smile. Her eyes searched his face for a long moment, and then she raised a brow, placing her arms around his neck.

“I believe that I am not yet fully awakened,” she said matter-of-factly, her eyes, belying her dry tone, fixed themselves on his lips as she spoke. “Perhaps with further incentive, I might find myself sufficiently… aroused… to begin my day,” she murmured. His answering chuckle was stifled by her lips as they covered his mouth eagerly. He was too busy after that to laugh at her poor attempt at humor.

The Saber of Betazed’s medic sat at a small table in the corner of Enterprise’s dining hall that morning in the middle of alpha shift. Most of the crew who’d been up all night doing repairs had been replaced by junior personnel and had been allowed a few hours of additional sleep. The senior personnel were now trickling in by twos and threes to eat something before going back on duty. Although Marella had only been introduced to a few of them, her black Betazoid eyes gave her away, and the new arrivals were giving her table a wide berth. It seemed that no one wished to risk having their innermost thoughts read by a stranger.

Marella tried not to take it personally. Many non-telepaths were wary of her people until they were convinced by experience of what any Betazoid would tell them… that no one on her planet with any scruples whatsoever would ever be caught dead doing a deep reading without permission. Reading anything other than surface thoughts without another person’s consent was tantamount to assault, and was unthinkable to the average Betazoid. There were occasional exceptions, of course… and there were even tales of aberrant psychopaths using their talents for coercion… but the criminals in question were generally discovered and apprehended very rapidly. It was hard to hide amongst a planet full of telepaths.

Marella took a sip of her juice, and then caught sight of Lieutenant Travis Mayweather as he entered the dining hall. She watched him as he ordered his breakfast, her eyes studying his muscular form and exotically dark skin with clinical appreciation.

My sister may be a foolish young girl… but she certainly has excellent taste in men, she thought wryly.

Lieutenant Mayweather turned, carrying a plate piled high with eggs and bacon, and searched the room briefly with his eyes. To her surprise, he began walking directly toward her table when he saw her sitting there. As he reached the table, she sensed a fleeting impression of hopeful anticipation before she deliberately shielded his thoughts from hers.

“May I join you?” he asked, with a friendly smile. She returned his smile with a tolerant one of her own.

“Please do,” she replied. “It seems that you’re the only person brave enough to do so this morning, Lieutenant.”

He grinned good-naturedly and shrugged before taking his seat. “The others just don’t know how strong the Betazoid prohibition against reading others without permission runs, ma’am. I’m the only crew member in the dining room this morning that’s ever been to Betazed,” he confided. Then he turned his attention to his plate and began enthusiastically devouring every bite. She watched him in silent amusement for several moments. Apparently, all that muscle mass required a very high protein intake.

He scraped the last bit of egg onto his fork with the slice of bacon in his fingers, and then tucked both of them into his mouth. Thankfully, he took the time to chew and swallow before he spoke. Marella was favorably impressed. Not every young man would have bothered.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you…” he began diffidently, obviously nervous about something. She deliberately avoided opening up to his surface thoughts just to satisfy her curiosity. It wouldn’t have been polite.

“Umm… you said you were ‘of the Sixth House’ when the captain introduced you yesterday. Do you by any chance know two girls named Arabella… and… um…,” he paused thoughtfully, ”… maybe Lara of the Sixth House?” He smiled at her weakly, as if he were afraid that she might say yes.

Marella sighed. I suppose I’ll have to tell him sooner or later, she thought regretfully. Time to get this over with.

She met his eyes matter-of-factly. “Arabella is my younger sister,” she told him. “Her closest friend… the other young lady that I’m assuming you’re referring to… is called Lana.”

He let out an embarrassed laugh. “Lana… right… I remember now.” He paused, suddenly appearing rather worried. “Did your sister tell you… I mean… do you know…?”

“Arabella and I are very close. She confides in me about everything,” replied Marella emphatically. At least she does so after she’s caught… so I can defend her from Mother, she thought in resignation.

The lieutenant swallowed. She could have sworn that his beautiful face became paler for a moment. Then it took on a determined expression. “I’d like to contact your sister, ma’am. Can you tell me how I can do that?”

Marella’s eyes narrowed. “My sister is quite occupied with her studies at this time of year, Lieutenant Mayweather. She has little time for recreational love play at the moment.”

Mayweather, who had paused to take a large gulp of milk as she spoke, choked most spectacularly on the mouthful he was trying to swallow, and looked at her in almost comical horror as he caught his breath.

“Is that what you think… that I’m just calling her for sex!” he wheezed in shocked surprise.

Marella returned his gaze evenly. “You will be on our planet no more that a few weeks, and then you will be gone again, Lieutenant. What other reason could you possibly have for wishing to contact my sister?”

The Human’s dark face twisted in sudden anger. “What other reason! Do you think that’s all a man can think about!”

Marella’s expression didn’t change, but, despite the barriers she’d placed for politeness’ sake, she could sense his anger bleeding through. She dropped her shields just a bit, and was hit with a blast of righteous fury.

“You do, don’t you! You don’t believe I might actually have feelings for a woman I’ve only met once!” he continued vehemently. Her eyes widened slightly. He, at least, believed that he was telling the truth.

“So… you’re trying to convince me that you’re actually in love with my sister?” she asked dubiously.

Travis shook his head, rolling his eyes. “No… I don’t love her,” he said flatly. “How could I after knowing her less than a day?... But I like her… a lot… and there was something…” His voice trailed off, his expression puzzled. He stared off into the distance for several seconds. Then his eyes met hers again.

“I’d just like to see her again, that’s all,” he finished in a calmer, earnest tone.

Marella gazed back at him almost pityingly. He’s not even a telepath, and he’s been affected by her foolishness as well, she thought sadly.

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant…That won’t be possible,” she replied adamantly.

The Human sat back in his chair and eyed her with resignation. Then he nodded. “I guess I can’t blame you, ma’am. It’s not like we’ve got any chance for a future together.” He sighed and pushed back from the table, picking up his empty plate. “Thanks for the company,” he told her, and left her there with her thoughts. She watched him exit the dining hall, looking subdued and somehow… deflated…, and then a thought occurred to her.

If he was just looking for a partner for love play, why didn’t he ask about Lana when he discovered that Arabella was unavailable to him?

The only reasonable explanation she could think of for his behavior caused a pang of alarm. She’d have to speak to Arabella when they arrived on Betazed. What had her sister done to the poor man?

Ambassador Anis Faa sat at table, sharing luncheon with Rianne of the Fourth House, Matriarch-Elect of the Ruling Council of Betazed, and Elren of the Fifth House… its sole male member. Rianne and Elren were discussing something telepathically. They made no attempt to hide their conversation from her, but their thoughts were exchanged so rapidly, and with such complexity, that she was barely able to grasp one concept in three. Her skills were definitely improving. There was a time when she’d caught less than a tenth of a typical Betazoid telepathic conversation.

The table had been set in the formal gardens of the Fourth House, to one side of the pristine rock garden, with its sandy floor neatly raked into complex spirals by a gardener whose sole job was to design and execute a unique pattern every day. She ignored the plate of food before her, and absently curled a lock of her shoulder-length auburn hair around her forefinger as she watched the wizened old man walk backwards, dragging the rake in precise and even motions through the sand with a look of serene concentration on his face.

Is the food not to your liking, my dear? sent Elren slowly and distinctly.

She smiled at him, reaching out a hand to rest it briefly atop his where it lay on the table. I’m just watching the gardener. What’s his name… so that I can compliment him on his work? she sent back hesitantly and with effort. She glanced at the weathered old man. The ancient gardener returned her gaze with a grateful smile, and tipped his straw sun hat to her before returning to his task.

Elren smiled at her tolerantly, and glanced toward Rianne with an inquiring expression. The dark haired woman raised a brow at both of them rather impatiently.

I believe we have more important things to discuss, Anis, she sent dryly and clearly. Also, my dear… If you plan to spend a significant amount of time here on Betazed, you must learn how to deal with servants. Speaking too familiarly to them will only make them uncomfortable.

Anis smiled politely at the Matriarch-Elect. “If we must discuss things of importance, Rianne…,” she replied, emphasizing her use of the woman’s given name rather than her title, “… then perhaps we should switch to the spoken word.” She gave the Betazoid woman an apologetic look. “You are aware, I’m sure, of the fact that my telepathic skills are inadequate for anything but the most basic of social conversations.”

Anis paused as she regarded Rianne expectantly. Rianne’s brow wrinkled slightly, and then she shot an annoyed glance toward Elren.

I see that you haven’t neglected her education, Elren. Her shields have greatly improved since our last meeting, she shot to him as rapidly as she could. Anis gave no sign that she’d understood.

She has more aptitude for shielding than for communicating… but I am working on her. Soon she will have the skill to testify in the Ruling Council chamber unaided, he fired back at top speed. Once you convince her to take your side with the Human captain, her testimony may be of value. The council members will believe her to have the Human’s best interests at heart.

Good, replied Rianne impatiently. I tire of these luncheons and of her vapidity. Speaking to the gardener… the very idea!

Elren’s smile froze on his face. He cut his eyes at Anis, and then replied with machine-gun rapidity. Careful, Rianne… she understands a good deal more than you think she does. The grey templed but still beautiful Matriarch-Elect rolled her eyes impatiently at him.

Anis watched their exchange with a carefully polite and neutral expression on her face… and her shields at full strength. It’s a pity that Elren is such a lying bastard, she thought regretfully. He’s such a beautiful lad… and the best shag I’ve had in years.

Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Reed eyed the captain as he sat in the command chair. For the first time in three weeks, the man had an affable smile on his face. Instead of perching himself on the edge of his seat with both hands gripping the armrests… his usual posture while on the bridge… Jonathan Archer sat with his back and shoulders in contact with the backrest and his legs extended. He looked like a man sitting in an easy chair in front of his home viewscreen after a hard day at work… completely relaxed. Malcolm raised a brow and grinned to himself. The rumors at breakfast must have been true, then. One of the stewards had gone in to clean Elena Archer’s room two days ago and had found it completely empty. The little woman must have forgiven him and moved in. The lucky sod.

Must be nice to be able to live openly with a woman instead of doing all this sneaking around, he thought enviously, his eyes traveling without his volition to the communications station, where the woman who’d shared his bed the night before was busy communicating with Betazed’s primary orbital station.

“This is the U. S. S. Enterprise to Betazed Orbital Station… we request permission to dock for repairs,” said Lieutenant Sato in a no-nonsense voice. For once, she was too occupied with what she was doing to do one of her spooky “mind-reading” tricks and catch his eye from across the room while he studied her. She looked a bit tired. They all did after the all-nighters they’d pulled to complete internal repairs... but he and Hoshi were perhaps a little more tired than the rest of the crew after taking advantage of the privacy afforded them by the enforced sickbay stay that Phlox had ordered for their roommates. Come to think of it… the captain looked pretty fatigued as well. It was hard to tell with T’Pol, but despite her usual air of unflappable composure, he thought he’d seen her suppress a yawn earlier in the shift.

Hasn’t anyone on the bridge gotten any sleep in the past several days? he wondered. Perhaps not… but they all seemed to be in a pretty good mood. All except Lieutenant Mayweather. He just looked depressed.

“Acknowledged, Enterprise… ,“ came the reply. “You may proceed to your designated berth.”

Lieutenant Mayweather’s head came up as the coordinates for their spacedock assignment appeared on his console, and he guided the ship smoothly into place. Captain Irana’s face appeared on the main view screen.

“Captain Archer, I would ask that both you and your crew remain on board until I arrive. We have some issues to discuss before anyone on board your ship sets foot on Betazoid soil. As long as you remain on board your vessel, you remain unaffected by Betazoid law. If you disembark, however… even on the station… you may be subject to arrest,” she said blandly.

Jonathan Archer stared at her in disbelief. “Arrest! No one said anything about being arrested!”

The Betazoid captain exhaled heavily, looking back at him as if he were an errant child who was trying her patience.

“I will explain further when I am aboard, Captain. Please have a confidential meeting area prepared when I arrive. Irana out.” The view screen went dark, reverting to a lovely view of the planet Betazed from orbit.

Archer sat for a moment, thoughtfully regarding the view screen. His smile was gone. He looked rather worried, in fact.

“Lieutenant Sato… contact sickbay and inform Marella that her captain will be aboard shortly. Have her meet us in my ready room…. and please contact my wife and have her meet us there as well. It sounds like I may be in need of legal representation before this is over,” he said ruefully.

Captain Irana of the Sixth House, the commanding officer of the Betazoid Defense Fleet’s prototype telepathic strike ship the Saber of Betazed, stepped out of the airlock and into the corridor, flanked by two rather tough looking but identically handsome young men armed with decorative swords… and quite serviceable looking side-arms. To her surprise, she was met by a single escort. The Enterprise’s Vulcan First Officer stood before her with an impenetrable expression… and equally impenetrable shields.

“Welcome aboard, Captain,” said the Vulcan woman. “Please follow me. Captain Archer is waiting for you in his ready room.” Her eyes swept over the Betazoid captain’s armed escort with subtle disapproval. “Your escort may remain here.”

Irana eyed the commander’s stiff-backed posture. Marella had done a remarkable job with the Vulcan’s shields. She gave nothing away telepathically. The Betazoid captain nevertheless had the distinct impression that T’Pol of Vulcan was less than pleased with her.

“These are members of the Sixth House household guard, Commander,” replied Irana. “Although I am a member of the Sixth House, only members of the Royal Family are entitled to an honor guard. They are here to escort the matriarch’s consort to the grounds of the Sixth House.”

T’Pol raised a brow. “They must remain here, even so… or relinquish their weapons to our security personnel before proceeding,” she countered evenly. At her words, a three man security detail consisting of Lieutenant Commander Reed and Crewmen Mitchell and Morris stepped out from the corridor intersection behind her. Their side-arms remained holstered, but were displayed just as prominently as those of Irana’s companions.

At the sight of Enterprise’s three-man detail, both young Betazoids came to attention. The one on the right spoke.

“Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Reed?” he asked respectfully. Malcolm stepped forward with a puzzled expression. He exchanged a glance with T’Pol.

“I’m Reed,” he replied cautiously.

“We are Sub-Lieutenants Berik…” he indicated himself with a brief gesture, “…and Coran.., “the other young man nodded and briskly tapped his heels together, “…of the Sixth House household guard. It is an honor to meet you, sir. Our commanding officer sends his regards… as one household guard member to another. Is there somewhere that we can go to discuss security precautions for the matriarch’s consort while he is on planet?”

Malcolm eyed the two young men in surprise. The last thing he’d expected was to be treated with deference. Apparently, his honorary appointment to the Sixth House household guard was taken seriously by someone. With his eyes still fixed on the two guardsmen, he addressed T’Pol.

“Ah…. Commander? I believe that I can vouch for these gentlemen. With your permission, I’d like to allow them to retain their arms. Morris, Mitchell, and I will escort them to the armory for a strategy meeting.”

T’Pol gave him a considering look. “Very well, Lieutenant Commander,” she conceded. “They are your responsibility. You may proceed.”

With respectful nods for Irana, the two dark-haired young men joined the Enterprise security team, and the five men proceeded up the corridor toward the armory. Irana stepped forward to join T’Pol. They walked down the corridor in silence and then stood side-by-side, waiting for the turbolift. The Betazoid captain glanced down at the diminutive Vulcan woman, and then up again toward the closed turbolift doors.

“I am pleased that you are recovering,” she offered quietly. “I understand that Commander Tucker is back on duty as well. I apologize for the discomfort and inconvenience, but it was unavoidable, I’m afraid.”

T’Pol’s brown eyes looked up at her coldly before returning to stare at the lift as it opened.

“I am Vulcan, Captain. Vulcans do not require apologies… but I would strongly suggest that you exercise more caution in the future. My discomfort is irrelevant, but I will not tolerate further injury to Commander Tucker. I suggest you keep that in mind.”

Marella sat at the conference table in Jonathan Archer’s ready room. The prevailing surface emotions in the room made her wish that she had not been invited to be present for this conference. Telepathic talent was not required to detect the unbearable tension that radiated from everyone in the room.

“Captain… What did she mean by arrested? It sounds like the Betazoids think you’re some kind of criminal,” protested Hoshi with a concerned expression. “Elena and I found nothing about criminal charges in our investigation of this contract dispute.”

“That’s because we’ve focused our attention on contract law, Hoshi,” put in Elena Archer ruefully. She rotated the PADD she carried in Hoshi’s direction. “Look what I found just a few minutes ago in the database when I did a search on ‘inheritance law’.”

Hoshi studied the screen. Her eyes met Elena’s in consternation. “His contract is considered a part of her estate! How can that be? A marriage contract ends when one of the parties dies!”

Elena sighed. “A Contract of Consortium is not a marriage, Hoshi… it’s more like an indentured servitude contract,” she said. “Until the bearer of the contract… or their legal heir… releases the consort from his contract, he is legally bound to continue to provide services. Violation of the contract by providing such services to anyone else is punishable by law. Not only that, but violation of a contract with the Matriarch of the Ruling Council is considered treason, and falls under military jurisdiction. The punishment for treason is death.” Her eyes met her husband’s. Marella could sense her apprehension. Archer returned her gaze with a reassuring smile despite his obvious fear.

Marella gazed from one of them to the other. There was no question in her mind now that what the Matriarch-Elect was doing was wrong. She realized finally what the woman was up to. In the absence of an adult female heir, when the Matriarch had become incapable of performing her duties both to the council and to the Sixth House, the Ruling Council, caving in to pressure from the Matriarch-Elect herself, and in defiance of all tradition, had named Rianne… a common member of the Fourth House… to the Regency of the Sixth House. There had been no regent of any royal house who was not herself a member of that house in nearly five hundred years. The appointment had abruptly made Rianne the most powerful… and potentially the wealthiest… person on the planet. “Potentially” was the key, for Lianna’s inheritance would be held in trust for her until her twenty-fifth birthday. Rianne couldn’t touch it. Jonathan Archer’s inheritance, on the other hand, was at the disposal of anyone who held his contract… and rumor had it that the Matriarch had been very generous with him.

Commander T’Pol entered the ready room then, followed by Captain Irana. Captain Archer stood up and gave the Betazoid a polite nod. Elena stood up as well, as close to Archer’s side as was socially polite, and stared daggers at the Betazoid woman. Marella sensed pure territorial protectiveness from her.

“Welcome aboard, Captain Irana,” said Archer warily. He eyed T’Pol questioningly, as if surprised that the Betazoid was unaccompanied.

“I came with two members of the Sixth House household guard, Captain Archer. They are currently discussing security measures with your Chief of Security,” said Irana, reading his surface thoughts and answering his unspoken question as if he’d spoken aloud. Marella sensed Archer’s annoyance. She didn’t blame him. What Irana had just done was considered extremely impolite, even on her homeworld… except between intimates.

That was uncalled for, Mother, she sent to Irana impatiently. Why must you make him uncomfortable? Doesn’t he already have enough to worry about?

I have called you to task before about failing to address me as ‘Captain’ when you are on duty, Marella. I am aware that no one in this room can hear us now, but you mustn’t get into the habit. It’s poor military discipline, sent Irana acerbically in return.

Marella exhaled heavily. Yes, Captain, she replied with silent emphasis.

Irana turned back to Archer and gestured toward his seat. “Let’s not stand on ceremony, Captain. I’d like to brief you as best I can on the situation on-planet.” As Archer took his seat, she pulled out the chair between Archer and Lieutenant Sato and sat down, displacing Elena Archer from her place at his right hand and blandly ignoring the look that Elena gave her as the angry Human was forced to move down the table to sit at Hoshi’s opposite elbow. Archer gave his wife an apologetic smile, and then turned his attention to Irana.

“It was necessary to meet on board your ship, Captain, because the Matriarch-Elect has monitoring devices and living eyes and ears on board my vessel,” was Irana’s first surprising statement.

Archer raised a brow at her. “I thought that, as acting Matriarch, she was the Commander in Chief of the Betazoid Defense Forces… and your commanding officer, Captain,” he replied.

Irana nodded in resignation. “She’s also the titular head of the Ruling Council… as well as of the Sixth House… but that doesn’t mean that some of us don’t object to the tactics that she’s using to maintain herself in power.” Her eyes met Archer’s with a forthright stare. “What she’s attempting to do now is to maintain control over an estimated thirty percent of the assets of the Sixth House by maintaining control of your contract. In addition to that, she is attempting to maintain personal control over the defense technique that my daughter has developed by preventing us from disseminating it throughout the fleet. We’ve lost four ships in the past month to incursions by Warbirds, and our intelligence indicates that there is at least one Bird of Prey command ship stationed in our system… yet the Matriarch-Elect refuses to allow Marella to teach the technique to the rest of the fleet. Overthrowing a Matriarch has been done before. It generally requires a military coup. Fortunately for all of us, the true Matriarch is not yet dead. If we can convince the Ruling Council of Rianne’s treachery, the Matriarch can name another successor. A vote would be a mere formality after that. If the Matriarch is still capable of such an action, it may prevent civil war… but I haven’t been allowed close enough to her to determine if she is still well enough to help us. Rianne has agents within the Sixth House household guard.”

T’Pol spoke up. Her expression was neutral, but she sounded almost… curious. “The defense that your ship used to defeat the Romulans… it isn’t a device?”

Irana eyed her cautiously. “I cannot reveal the nature of the defense, Commander. Although you are shielded, all of the Humans in this room could easily be read by any Betazoid unscrupulous enough to ignore our cultural prohibitions. I seriously doubt that Rianne’s agents will be concerned about the ethics of reading another without permission… and if my suspicions are correct, there may be others on Betazed who are in direct communication with the Romulans.” T’Pol returned her gaze consideringly, but said nothing.

“How can we help?” asked Archer with a determined look.

Irana gave him an amused half-smile and nodded approvingly as she eyed him from head to foot.

“I can see why the Matriarch wanted you, Captain. You’re certainly a go-getter!”

Mother! interjected Marella in silent exasperation.

Archer rolled his eyes… but he seemed pleased by the flattery. Elena Archer, however, was most emphatically not. She gave the tough captain who’d had the nerve to eye her man with such impertinence a challenging look.

“I’m assuming, then, Captain Irana, that you want us to attempt to see the Matriarch,” she said flatly.

Elena Archer had, in the course of her research in Betazoid culture in the past week, finally discovered a photographic file of the true Matriarch of Betazed. She’d been properly penitent for not believing her husband. They were both still suffering from the sleep deprivation that had resulted from her sincere apology.

“Won’t that be rather dangerous?” she continued in a concerned tone. “It seems to me that the Matriarch-Elect will want to prevent Jon from seeing the Matriarch… to avoid the risk of him being formally released from his contract before she dies.”

Irana nodded in agreement, giving Elena an impressed look. “I see that you have grasped the complexities of the situation.”

“I’m a lawyer,” Elena shot back dryly. “Complexities are my thing,” she said.

Irana’s lips twitched involuntarily. Marella sensed that her mother found the Human woman amusing. She doubted that Elena Archer would be pleased by that fact.

“I have informed the loyal members of the household guard of our impending arrival, and we will go directly to the grounds of the Sixth House via Enterprise shuttlepod,” replied Irana. “The Matriarch-Elect needs your husband alive. If he dies or is released from his contract before the death of the Matriarch, the entire estate goes into trust for Lianna. I don’t think Rianne will risk harming him.”

Archer and Elena exchanged a disbelieving glance. “So we’ll just waltz right in and trust that a dying woman will release me from my contract, name a new successor, and prevent your planet from falling into civil war before the Matriarch-Elect’s soldiers arrive to arrest us?” asked Archer dubiously. “That’s your plan?”

Irana crossed her arms over her chest and looked back at both of them tolerantly. “Do you have a better idea?” she asked with an ironic smile.

Archer looked at T’Pol, who simply raised a brow. Hoshi gave him a shrug and an apologetic smile, and Elena just sighed in resignation. He smiled ruefully and stood to activate the comm. “Lieutenant Mayweather, please report to Shuttlebay One and prepare for departure.”

“Yes, Captain,” replied Travis.

Irana eyed Marella. A pleasing voice, she commented cryptically. Did you speak with him?

Marella rolled her eyes. Yes, Mother… he agreed to leave her alone, she replied silently. Irana nodded in satisfaction. Her eyes returned to Archer as he stood near the comm.

“Archer to the Armory,” he continued.

“Reed here.”

“Please bring a security contingent and our guests and meet us in Shuttlebay One, Mr. Reed... bring whatever gear you consider appropriate.”

Galen of the Third House stood on the periphery of the landing field on the grounds of the Sixth House, flanked by two matching sets of household guards… waiting near the car. He checked his pocket watch impatiently. It never failed. In the entire twenty-seven years that Irana had held his contract, she’d never been on time for a scheduled meeting with him. It was puzzling. She was a career military officer, and was infallibly punctual for everything else. At the beginning, he’d thought that it might have been because she wanted to take the extra time to be beautiful for him. Over the years, however, he’d come to believe that it was simply because Irana’s private life would always play second fiddle to her career.

He sighed. It was useless to delude himself. His relationship with Irana was a mutually beneficial business arrangement… nothing more. He’d thought that it could become something else once, but that had been when he was young and naïve. He smiled wistfully. He could still recall her matter-of-fact manner at their first meeting. He was still in mourning at the time. The holder of his first contract, the mother of his only son, had not only left her child a sizable inheritance, but she’d also managed to arrange an extremely favorable contract for her beloved consort before succumbing to the complications of her chronic heart condition. It hadn’t seemed to matter to Irana that her new consort came with a six year old boy in tow. In fact, his experience with raising a child was, in her eyes, an asset. Her needs were simple. He would assist in the production of the necessary “heir and a spare”, and raise said children while maintaining her household. In return, she would provide the finances required.

Life when the girls were small had been wonderful. When they were born, Irana had spent the expected two months home with each of them… the longest continuous periods of time that she’d spent at home in their entire twenty-seven years together… and then she’d gone back to active duty, leaving him in charge. He loved both of his daughters to distraction… and had loved his son in the same way, despite his gender, until the poor boy had succumbed to the virus that had orphaned Lianna.

Galen had just completed his medical training at the time of the tragedy, realizing a long-held desire to become a physician. He’d broached the subject with Irana once their daughters were in boarding school… a tradition insisted upon by their mother which had left him home alone with little to do. Surprisingly, Irana had not objected to his ambition, and had paid his way without argument. He soon understood her ulterior motive. Once he’d graduated and become the Matriarch’s personal physician, his services were in great demand, and he’d finally become able to contribute financially to the household.

His relationship with Irana had always been characterized by the dull routine of everyday life… the life of the household without her… irregularly interspersed with periods of intense activity and excitement while she was home… usually only for days at a time. While home, she’d spend all day doing activities with the girls… and sometimes with Daron as well… and all night with him… enthusiastically making up for the long months of enforced celibacy aboard ship. Once the girls were in school and unable to drop everything to visit when their mother came home on leave, the visits dwindled in number, coinciding with school holidays at first, and then petering out to perhaps twice yearly when Marella and Arabella became busy with their own lives. He missed them. The last time she’d come home had been for the birth of their first grandchild… the result of Arabella’s disturbing decision to bear a child without benefit of marriage or procreative contract. They’d gotten into a vituperative argument. She’d blamed him for the situation, accusing him of inadequately supervising their daughter. He’d responded with the opinion that the situation had more to do with Arabella’s willful and determined nature, obviously inherited from her mother, than it had to do with any dereliction of duty on his part.

He expected that very soon… perhaps on this trip, now that Arabella and Marella had both moved out of the house… Irana would be coming to him with papers releasing him from their contract. The idea was physically painful, but not unexpected. Maintaining a contract of consortium for twenty-seven years was highly unusual. They were designed to be temporary. Most couples would have long since either married or parted ways once the children were old enough.

Galen raised his head and shielded his eyes from debris as the muted roar of the shuttlepod’s antigravity units filled his ears. The shuttlepod descended slowly into the center of the landing field. As soon as the shuttle came to rest, he started forward. Time was of the essence. He had to assume that the Matriarch-Elect would be informed of the shuttlepod’s arrival, and that a military security detail would be arriving very shortly to take Jonathan Archer into custody. They had to get him to the house and to the Matriarch as soon as physically possible. The shuttlepod doors opened, and Marella stepped out. She gave him an anxious but welcoming smile.

Hello, Papa… is everything ready? she asked.

He smiled at her reassuringly, and stepped back as she was joined by her mother. Irana had her shields up firmly.

“We need to proceed directly to the house, Galen,” she said aloud. A muscular brown-haired man in a blue military uniform stepped out behind her with a stunningly beautiful brunette on his arm. Galen eyed her in admiration before he responded.

“The car is this way. Please hurry,” he told them. He’d made no attempt to shield himself, and he caught sight of Irana’s irritated expression at his appreciation of the beauty of the Human woman… presumably Jonathan Archer’s new wife. He could see why the man had temporarily taken leave of his senses and married her despite still being under contract to the Matriarch.

The four of them proceeded in the direction that he’d indicated. They were followed by three more men… two in Sixth House household guard uniforms, and one black haired fellow in a blue uniform who was fully armed and armored in a flak jacket and helmet. They proceeded toward the car as well. It would be a tight squeeze… just as it surely must have been aboard the shuttle.

A third group exited the shuttlepod… two similarly armored men that took positions with pulse rifles at the ready on either side of the open hatch, and a third, obviously the pilot, who evidently intended to stay on board the shuttle for a more rapid getaway. The pilot was young, dusky skinned, and quite handsome. Galen realized abruptly who he must be. He stepped forward, intending to introduce himself.

“Galen!” called Irana sharply. Galen exhaled. She was right. There wasn’t time. He contented himself with a smile and a nod at the young man, who returned his smile in a friendly fashion, and then turned and jogged toward the open ground car, which had already started to move. He stepped up to the sideboard and grabbed the guard rail, holding on securely as the car sped toward the main house with four household guardsmen running behind.

Elena Archer stepped out of the car, accepting Jon’s assistance with a smile, and then tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow possessively before walking rapidly into the house with the rest of the group. She craned her neck to get a view of their surroundings as they rushed in. The place was enormous! The gardens looked like they stretched out for miles. As they practically sprinted down the hallway, she caught tantalizing glimpses of room after room through partially open doors, each elaborately decorated with beautiful artwork, draperies, and gorgeously carved wooden furniture.

How much money did he give up when he married me? she thought with trepidation. A trickle of doubt began to enter her mind. Would Jon regret giving up the virtually unlimited wealth that his contract with this woman could provide him?

The portly middle-aged woman who had opened the door for them led them to a set of double doors and, panting from the effort of staying ahead of them in their race down the hallway, opened them. She led the way into a sumptuously decorated bedroom. The Matriarch’s physician glanced at the housekeeper with a grateful smile, obviously dismissing her telepathically, for she smiled at him fondly and left the room. He approached the bed. In the center of it was a tiny, frail, white-haired woman. She was barely recognizable as the sturdy, smiling old woman whose picture Elena had found in the Betazoid database. He sat down beside her and gently took her hand, gazing at her sleeping face. When she failed to respond, he bent down and whispered into her ear. She remained motionless. The only indication that she was still alive was the almost imperceptible rise and fall of her chest beneath the bedclothes.

While the eyes of everyone else in the room were fixed on the drama unfolding in the center of the huge curtained bed, Elena saw the double doors open slightly. A small child with a head full of coal black curls slipped into the room. She looked up at Lieutenant Commander Reed, who stood guard at the door dressed in full combat gear, and smiled impishly up at him. To Elena’s amazement, the dour security officer, who’d never smiled in her presence… not even at her wedding in which he’d participated as a groomsman… grinned back at the child with uncharacteristic good humor. The little girl searched the room briefly with an inquisitive look, and then gazed into Reed’s eyes again. He reached out and awkwardly patted her on the head, whispering an answer to her silent question.

“They’re back on the ship, sweetness,” he told her softly. “I’ll tell them you asked for them… I’m sure that when all this is over they’ll want to see you.”

The child smiled back at Reed in gratitude, and then walked up to Jon, whose attention remained focused on the Matriarch. She tugged on his sleeve, and he finally noticed her.

“Why, hello, sweetheart!” he said with a gentle smile. He hunkered down to the little girl’s eye level and looked her straight in the eye. The tender expression on his face brought tears to Elena’s eyes. Jon looked up at Elena from his position near the floor.

“Elena, this is Lianna, the Matriarch’s granddaughter… and the sweetest and smartest little girl ever to board the Enterprise,” he said with a grin. He turned back to Lianna, who was grinning back at him. She leaned forward to whisper in his ear.

“Grampa doesn’t know how to wake Gramma up,” she confided conspiratorially. “She’s been waiting for you, though. Wanna go see her?”

Jon’s smile immediately became sadly wistful. “I’d love to, Lianna… but I don’t think she’s…” His voice trailed off as the child took him by the hand and pulled him to the bed. Elena followed, her fingers tucked into the crook of Jon’s opposite elbow. Lianna released him at the bedside, and climbed into bed with her grandmother. Elena fought back tears as the angelic little girl slipped her arms around the dying woman’s neck and laid her head on the pillow beside her.

The Matriarch’s physician… Had Lianna called him Grampa? Betazoid family relationships were so complicated! ... stepped back to allow the child to say what appeared to be her last goodbyes. Less than five seconds later, to absolute astonishment of everyone in the room, the Matriarch opened her eyes. Her gaze was lucid and intelligent, and her eyes went directly to Jonathan Archer.

“You took your own sweet time getting here, young man,” she chided in a weak raspy whisper. Her lips upturned slightly in the faintest of smiles, softening her reprimand. Jon’s eyes filled with tears, and he smiled back at her fondly.

“Thank you for waiting, Amelia… you’re always so patient with me,” he replied softly. The Matriarch stared at his face for a moment, her smile becoming more obvious, and for a second Elena could see the affection that the old woman bore for Jon shining in her eyes. Then the Matriarch fixed her gaze on Elena herself. Elena found herself unable to look away. She sensed something in her head… like a tickle or an itch, only inside. It lasted only seconds before it was gone.

“Forgive me dear, but I don’t have time to be polite,” murmured the old woman dryly. She smiled at Elena in satisfaction. “You’ll do,” she said. Then she turned back to Jon.

“I want this witnessed!” she announced in a firmer, louder voice… to the room in general. Captain Irana, Marella, and the two household guardsmen stepped forward and formed a circle around the bed where she could see them. When the others were arranged to her satisfaction, the Matriarch raised her painfully thin and fragile hands. Gesturing for Jon… and only Jon… to kneel, she grasped his hand and placed it in Elena’s. Holding their two hands within her grip, she said,

“In the presence of these witnesses, I release my consort, Jonathan Archer of Earth, from his obligation to me and to the Sixth House. I give him into the care of Maria Elena Sanchez of Earth, as husband. May he serve her faithfully and well.”

Jon glanced up at Elena with an ironically raised brow and an amused smile, and seemed not the least bit offended by the Matriarch’s choice of words. Elena looked down at him with an intrigued expression. His easy acceptance of the situation was something worth exploring later… when they were alone. She leaned down with a small answering smile on her lips and gave him a gentle kiss on the mouth. It seemed the appropriate thing to do under the circumstances.

After saying these words, the Matriarch seemed to lose what little vigor she still possessed. Her hands dropped from theirs as she sank back amongst the pillows. Throughout the entire performance, Lianna had kept her arms clasped about the old woman’s neck, and her eyes closed in apparent intense concentration. As her grandmother sank back into unconsciousness, the little girl opened her eyes.

“Grandmother Irana?” she called, beckoning urgently with one hand for the Betazoid captain to approach the bed. “Gramma wants to talk to you… Come quick! It’s almost time for her to go.”

Elena exchanged a puzzled glance with her husband as he rose to his feet. Was it just a polite form of address that she wasn’t aware of… or was the child related to virtually every Betazoid in the room?

Elena stepped back from the bed, pulling Jon with her as Irana approached the dying woman. Lianna closed her eyes and grasped her grandmother’s neck once again. The ancient woman opened her eyes… just barely. She appeared to be nearing the end.

“Get a witness, Irana,” whispered the Matriarch. Irana beckoned the two household guards to within earshot, and returned her attention to the woman who was, even on her deathbed, her ruler and commanding officer.

“Yes, Matriarch… how may I serve?” she asked gently and respectfully.

“Hear me, people of Betazed…” began the Matriarch in a barely audible whisper. Elena’s brow went up. The Matriarch was reciting the formal language which preceded a Matriarchal decree… one of the few customs still remaining from the time when Betazed had been an absolute monarchy. The Matriarchal decree was generally used now only to announce a unanimous decision by the Ruling Council, but the duly elected Matriarch still had the power to use it at times of deadlock within the Council.

The Matriarch continued. The room became absolutely silent as its occupants strained to hear her words.

“… I, Amelia of the Sixth House, Matriarch of the Ruling Council and Keeper of the Sacred Saber of Betazed, do appoint Irana of the Sixth House as Regent of the Sixth House, with all privileges and responsibilities associated with that position.”

Irana gasped. The dying woman paused for breath. Not a noise was heard in the room as the onlookers wondered if she would be able to speak again. She struggled for another breath, and went on in a raspy whisper.

“I charge her with holding the house intact and maintaining its prosperity in preparation for the day when Lianna may take her rightful place as my successor. As is customary, I also grant my hereditary seat on the Ruling Council to the Regent of the Sixth House. May she serve you well.”

The Matriarch’s voice trailed off as she grasped Irana’s hand. The Betazoid captain opened her mouth to protest, but fell silent as the old woman’s eyes held hers intently for several seconds before they closed… finally… for the last time. She had a peaceful smile on her face… the look of a woman satisfied with a job well-done.

Lianna lay with her grandmother until after she’d taken her final breath, and then opened her eyes. She ignored the empty shell lying on the bed, and looked around the room, just as if she were a perfectly normal child searching for comfort. She found it in a stunned Irana, who staggered as Lianna threw her arms around her neck, sobbing. Irana… still in shock over the life-changing burden that had just been handed to her by her commander-in-chief… absently patted the child on the back as she cried. The Matriarch’s physician… Irana had called him Galen, Elena remembered… stepped forward and took Lianna from her without a word. He wrapped the grieving child in his arms and sat down on one of the tapestried chairs beside the bed, rocking her and crooning softly into her ear. Within moments, she’d quieted, with her thumb stuck into her mouth.

The room was quiet then. No one knew quite what to do… until the sound of running footsteps was heard in the hallway. There was an urgent pounding on the door.

“The soldiers are here! “ came the frantic voice of a young man. Malcolm opened the door with his weapon at the ready. He was faced with the near-panicked face of one of the younger members of the household guard.

“The others are trying to delay them in the foyer,” he told them in a rush. “The car is this way. Follow me!”

“I’ve got a better idea, Captain,’ said Malcolm as they rushed past him and down the hall. He activated his communicator.

“Reed to Mayweather… how about a lift? Meet us at the south garden entrance…. immediately.”

“We’re on our way, sir!” replied Travis.

“Oh… and, Lieutenant? You may have to unload some of the ordnance I brought to make room for everyone. Make sure it gets transported back aboard… wouldn’t want to lose it before we have the chance to use it.”

Commander T’Pol of Vulcan, in command of the Enterprise in the absence of her captain, walked into Engineering in the middle of alpha shift. The reason she’d given to the bridge crew for leaving her station in the middle of her shift was that she intended to check on the progress of repairs by discussing them in person with the Chief Engineer. The actual reason why she felt compelled to seek out the ship’s Chief Engineer was something else entirely. She was greatly puzzled by her own behavior. It was simply not logical… but… there it was. She needed to see him… and touch him… to reassure herself that he was, in fact, still there.

She had no idea exactly where else she expected him to be, nor did she have any reason to suspect that he’d suddenly leave the ship for some inexplicable reason. She knew that what she was experiencing was a side effect of the temporary severance of their bond. Her inability to sense his presence nagged at her like a toothache, even though she knew precisely where he was, and had even reprogrammed the sensor display on one arm of the command chair so that it gave her a continuous readout of his location… in a vain attempt to provide herself with sufficient reassurance to remain at her post. The need to touch him was, nevertheless, quite intense, and very distracting. She’d decided finally that the most logical course of action would be to give in to it, thereby eliminating it… at least for a while. Her head turned as she heard a distinctive southern drawl emanating from his office.

T’Pol proceeded to walk briskly toward it at a speed which she intentionally kept considerably slower than her instincts told her to travel. Approaching the open door of the engineer’s office, she caught sight of Trip, with his blonde head bent over an array of PADDS laid out on the deck, deep in conversation with Lieutenant Commander Hess. The woman was leaning over his shoulder with her hand braced on his back for support as she studied the PADD he was indicating. T’Pol felt an irrational urge to order her to stop touching the commander in such a familiar manner. She refrained from doing so, and merely cleared her throat. Trip looked up, took one look at her face, and turned to Hess, hurriedly handing her the PADD they’d been discussing.

“Go ahead and get a team on this one right away. I’ll be right out after I have a chance to update the commander on our progress,’ he said briskly. His smile was friendly, but not overly familiar. Hess nodded, and smiled back briefly in a similar manner. She eyed T’Pol rather cautiously as she brushed by on her way out the door, and shut it firmly behind her. T’Pol paused to lock it before returning her attention back to Trip.

He eyed T’Pol in amusement from where he sat at his desk. “Did ya have to look at her like you were about ta wring her neck, T’Pol? I can tell ya right now… scarin’ people to death is no way to get good work from ‘em.”

T’Pol flushed a faint green, and averted her eyes. “She was… touching… you,” she said quietly. “… in an overly familiar manner.” Her eyes shifted about the room before returning to his. He was smiling at her tolerantly. Her expression became stony. She approached the desk and glared at him over it. She had the presence of mind to whisper the next words that came out of her mouth.

“I have the right to object. I am your wife,” she hissed.

Trip exhaled heavily, and got up from his chair with a concerned expression on his face. He rounded the desk. T’Pol followed his progress toward her with eyes widened from her efforts to restrain herself. Her arms were crossed over her chest, and she gripped her own upper arms in a white-knuckled grip. Trip reached her, and placed both hands lightly on her shoulders. His smile was gentle and reassuring. She closed her eyes, offering no resistance as he took her into his arms and pushed her head to his chest with one hand. She gave in, finally, to her need for his touch as her cheek came in contact with his jacket, and she released her grip on her own arms, wrapping them around him with a heavy sigh of relief, pressing the full length of her body against his.

“It’s gettin’ worse, isn’t it?” he whispered softly into her hair. “Yesterday ya went all day before ya got this bad.”

“I am unable to meditate or sleep. It is affecting my control,” she murmured in reply, gripping him tightly, trying to get even closer. “The intensity of my… need… has not changed. I am simply having more difficulty controlling it.”

He buried his lips in her hair and gave her a squeeze in return. “How can I help, darlin’?” he asked softly.

“I sought assistance from the doctor yesterday. He gave me medication which he said would help me sleep, but without the ability to meditate, I had some rather… unpleasant… dreams,” she replied under her breath. “I thought that perhaps neuropressure followed by close physical contact throughout the night might work… but we’d risk discovery.”

Trip chuckled. She felt his chest move beneath her cheek, and his warm breath stirred the hair on the crown of her head. Suddenly, she felt heat… traveling from a point below her navel and spreading like the lick of flames to the rest of her body. It was no longer merely his touch that she craved.

“We’ve risked a lot more in the past for no good reason,” he replied, his voice rumbling in his chest. The vibration sent shock waves through her. “I think a little one-on-one time could be arranged,” he murmured with a smile.

Trip held her securely for a moment, and then… almost as if he couldn’t help it when he had her in his arms… his hands began to move. He rubbed her back with deliberate sensuality, in smooth strokes through her uniform, bent his head forward to inhale the fragrance of her hair, and then groaned softly. It was apparent to T’Pol that he was very reluctant to release her. The total body contact afforded by their embrace was almost as effective as the bond would have been in communicating his arousal. She tilted her head back to look him in the eyes, lifted her arms to wrap them around his neck, and shoved him back against the desk, pressing her hips insistently against the bulge in his uniform.

“T’Pol!” he protested under his breath. “We can’t…”

His voice trailed off as she laced the fingers of both hands into his hair, and pulled his mouth down to hers, gently tugging at his lower lip with her teeth. He moaned in helpless surrender and cupped her from behind with both hands, abruptly tugging her forward against him as he deepened the kiss with ravenous enthusiasm. The heat in her belly was abruptly transformed into a conflagration.

T’Pol moved her hands to his chest then, still returning his hungry kisses, and began to unfasten his uniform. He came to his senses at the touch of her warm, smooth hands as they insinuated themselves beneath his undershirt and onto his bare lower abdomen. He pulled away then, with tremendous effort, and grasped her hands in his… stilling them for a moment. He gazed into her eyes with a serious expression, breathing heavily.

“T’Pol… we really can’t do this!” he insisted softly.

“Why not?” she whispered breathlessly in challenge, raising a brow with the barest hint of an upward turn to her lips. Her eyes locked on his as she pushed him to a seated position on top of the desk. “The door is locked, and in the state we are currently in, it would hardly require much time,” she added practically.

“You’re not thinkin’ straight, T’Pol… what if somebody hears us?” he hissed.

She unfastened his fly, exposing his straining blues, and then reached behind her own neck to deal with her uniform, now a mere nuisance which impeded the satisfaction of an overwhelming need to touch her bond mate in the most intimate way possible.

“Then I suggest that you remain silent,” she retorted in a barely audible whisper as first her uniform, and then her grey undershorts, fell to the floor… leaving her dressed in nothing but her close-fitting grey undershirt. She gently freed him from his blues and climbed into his lap. His eyes widened, and he let out another involuntary groan as she settled herself upon him.

Trip closed his eyes and arched his head back, leaning on his elbows as she rose up and down astride him. She knew that if they took too much time with their activities, someone would be knocking on the door. The sheer danger of their situation heightened her arousal to almost unbearable levels. She reached between their bodies and added the help of her own hand to the mix. Trip opened his eyes and watched her with a hungry expression as she pleasured herself while she rode him. He smiled, gazing directly into her eyes. She stared back at him… wide-eyed and with her chest heaving… and then came with a soft gasp. The gasp was his undoing. He reached blindly behind his back and cleared the desktop of PADDS with a sweep of his arm. They clattered to the floor unheeded as he grasped her by the hips and flipped her over with her back on the desk without missing a beat, driving into her for mere seconds before reaching his own explosive release. A cry escaped him… quickly suppressed… as he collapsed on top of her. T’Pol exhaled completely, gently caressing his head as he lay with his weight pinning her to the desktop. She was sexually sated for the moment, and the presence of his body within her and covering her assuaged a large portion of her urgent need for him, but the urge to touch him remained.

Perhaps if we completely remove our clothing next time, the skin contact will prove to be more effective, she thought with clinical detachment.

The comm suddenly came to life. Captain Archer’s voice filled the small office.

“All senior command staff report to my ready room immediately.”

Trip chuckled in amazement, shaking his head, and levered himself up from where he lay atop T’Pol. She sighed. It never failed. Where had the man come from? He was supposed to be on Betazed!

Trip grinned at her ruefully as he stepped aside to allow her to get dressed. “At least his timing’s getting better,” he said jokingly as he rapidly adjusted his clothing. She raised a brow at him with a resigned expression and bent to collect her uniform from the deck. She was not amused.

Crewman Nick Rostov approached Commander Tucker’s office with a data PADD in each hand. Finding the door unexpectedly closed and locked, he tucked one PADD beneath his arm and reached out to ring the door chime.

“I wouldn’t go in there if I were you, Rostov,” called the lieutenant commander from her work station. Rostov turned to her in puzzlement.

“Why not?” he asked.

She left her station and walked toward him, lowering her voice to a stage whisper.

“Commander T’Pol’s been in there with him for the last ten minutes… and boy is she pissed about something!” said Hess with a sympathetic grin. “Judging from the way she looked when I left the room, I sure wouldn’t want to be in his shoes!”

Rostov turned toward the door and listened carefully. All he heard was complete silence.

“It’s awfully quiet in there for them to be arguing,” he said in a perplexed voice.

Hess walked up to stand beside him, straining to hear what was going on in the room... Just for Commander Tucker’s protection, she told herself. Despite the rumors constantly traveling around the ship about a romance between the two commanders, Hess had never been convinced… and the way that Commander T’Pol had been acting lately, she wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Vulcan turned out to be dangerously unstable.

A clatter suddenly sounded from inside the office… as if every portable object in the entire room had fallen to the deck at once. Rostov and Hess exchanged looks of alarm. A few seconds later, they heard a brief wordless cry.

“Was that Commander Tucker?” whispered Rostov, looking at Hess in bewilderment.

“I can’t tell!” replied Hess with a look of concern. She reached hesitantly for the door chime, and a general announcement from the captain came over the comm.

Hess and Rostov exchanged another baffled glance.

“I thought the captain was on Betazed,” said Rostov.

Hess shook her head and shrugged. Then she grabbed Rostov by the arm and pulled him aside as if she were discussing repairs with him as the door to Commander Tucker’s office opened and he emerged, looking none the worse for being the target of Vulcan ire. Commander T’Pol followed closely on his heels. She had a look on her face that was as close to seriously pissed as Rostov had ever seen on a Vulcan. They proceeded to the exit and down the corridor without speaking to each other.

“I see what you mean, Lieutenant Commander,” whispered Rostov wryly.

When Commander Tucker entered the ready room with Commander T’Pol at his side, he was blind-sided by a small guided missile with a head full of dark curls. Lianna literally launched herself from the arms of the distinguished looking middle aged Betazoid male who carried her directly onto the engineer’s chest, happily shouting, “Trip-T’hy’la!”

Despite the seriousness of the occasion, everyone in the ready room with the exception of T’Pol burst out laughing. The child’s enthusiasm was contagious, and lent an air of hopefulness to an otherwise rather grim situation. Lianna covered Trip’s face with a series of sloppy wet kisses, and then turned to look at T’Pol, reaching a hand to touch the Vulcan gently on the temple. T’Pol placed her hand over the tiny hand at her brow. Lianna smiled at her then, and held out her arms. T’Pol gathered the child to her solemnly, attempting to maintain some modicum of Vulcan dignity with so many witnesses on hand, but Lianna ruined the effect by grasping her tightly around the neck and squeezing… only releasing her when she began to gasp for air. Travis suppressed a smile. Hoshi laughed aloud, and then stifled it with her hand. Archer and Elena exchanged an amused grin, while Malcolm smirked… just a little. Trip was too busy wiping the sticky wetness from his face to notice.

Pulling back far enough in T’Pol’s arms to look her in the eye with a puzzled expression, Lianna cocked her head at the Vulcan, evidently trying to communicate with her telepathically. Both Trip and T’Pol winced as an ice-pick of pain struck them simultaneously behind the eyes. Lianna’s brow wrinkled in concern, and then she turned her head to look at Marella, who stood behind the older Betazoid male, staring at the little girl reprovingly.

“I apologize, Commanders. Lianna is quite old enough to know that one should never try to force communication through protective shields,” said Marella, with a stern look at Lianna.

Lianna looked down with a shamefaced expression. “I’m sorry,” she said in a small, forlorn little voice.

Trip reached out and ran his fingers through her curls. “That’s okay, munchkin… we know you were just happy to see us,” he said with an indulgent smile. Lianna smiled back, and then laid her head on T’Pol’s chest, tucking it beneath her chin and settling in happily. The Betazoid male raised an amused brow, grinned wryly, and held out his arms.

“Come, Lianna. The grownups have a lot to discuss,” he told her firmly. The little girl simply gripped T’Pol about the neck more firmly, with a stubborn set to her mouth that told everyone in the room that she had no intention of going anywhere.

T’Pol lowered her cheek to the child’s head briefly and closed her eyes for a moment. Then she spoke.

“I believe that Chef received a shipment of foodstuffs from Betazed this morning,” she said calmly. The adults in the room all looked at her in puzzlement. What could her statement possibly have to do with anything that was under discussion?

“If I’m not mistaken, I do believe that there may be an uttaberry pie in the mess hall. If you ask Chef, I’m certain he’ll be able to find it for you.”

When she’d realized that the captain expected her to stay on Enterprise in command and not join the landing party on the surface, T’Pol had developed a sudden inexplicable craving for uttaberry pie. Chef had indulged her. There was still more than half a pie left.

“Uttaberry pie!” asked Lianna. Her head came up from T’Pol’s chest as she looked her in the eye with a gleeful grin. T’Pol nodded solemnly.

The Betazoid man took the hint.

“Come with me, Lianna, and we’ll find you some pie. Then you can visit some more, all right?”

The little girl glanced from T’Pol to her grandfather with a conflicted expression. It was as if she knew that they were trying to bribe her… but her stomach won out. After giving T’Pol a squeeze, and Trip another sloppy kiss on the cheek, she slipped down from T’Pol’s arms and walked to her grandfather, taking him by the hand.

“C’mon Grampa… I want pie,” she ordered.

“Yes, ma’am,” said the man in amusement. He grinned conspiratorially at T’Pol, and was then pulled out of the room by a hungry little girl.

As the rest of the occupants of the ready room watched her leave with smiles on their faces, T’Pol exhaled fully to regain control, and then took her seat at the conference table. Taking this as a signal to begin, the Betazoid captain… now the Regent of the Sixth House and the Matriarch’s chosen successor… took a seat as well. The others followed suit. Archer remained standing. His face was grim.

“The Matriarch-Elect doesn’t want to start a war with Earth,” he began. “That may be the only reason why this ship isn’t under attack as we speak.”

Trip’s brow wrinkled in concern. “Just what did you do down there, Cap’n?” he asked in dismay.

Archer exhaled heavily in frustration. “It’s complicated, Trip…” he told his friend. “Suffice it to say that Betazed is on the verge of civil war… and we’re right in the middle of it.”

Suddenly, the room rocked with an impact that felt like weapons fire. Archer’s head came up.

“Travis… get to the helm and get us out of here!” he ordered. Lieutenant Mayweather jumped up from the table and literally sprinted out the door. They were still in spacedock… sitting ducks for anyone with enough firepower to disable their engines. Fortunately, they’d just gotten the shields on line. He turned to the occupants of the room.

“All those who are not members of my crew should go immediately to sickbay. It’s the safest place on the ship.” He turned to his wife as the bridge crew raced to the bridge to take their stations.

“Elena, I need you to escort the Regent and her party to sickbay… and make them stay there!” His eyes locked with Irana’s as he made the statement. She sighed, and then nodded in agreement. Her life was no longer her own to risk. Archer turned back to his wife and gave her a hard, fleeting kiss on the lips before joining his crew on the bridge. Elena watched him leave, and then took a deep breath as another impact rocked the ship. She turned to the others.

“Follow me,” she said.

Jonathan Archer stepped out onto the bridge. The view screen still showed them in orbit around Betazed, and still firmly ensconced within their spacedock berth.

“Why are we still here, Mr. Mayweather?” asked Archer brusquely as he reached the command chair. T’Pol finished doing whatever she was doing to the sensor display and then yielded the chair to him, stepping back to her own station. Lieutenant Commander Reed answered Archer’s question.

“The first volley got our impulse engines, Captain… we’re not going anywhere,” he said in resignation.

Archer’s face took on a grim expression. An explosion lit up the viewscreen.

“What was that?” he asked, bringing up the external sensor readings available to him in the arm of his chair. Malcolm looked up from his console in dismay.

“That was the Saber of Betazed, sir,” he replied.

“They’re firing on their own ships?” asked Archer in bewilderment.

The mystery was solved very shortly when an entire squadron of Romulan Warbirds streaked across the view screen. They were out of range of Enterprise’s weapons, and so ignored the Earth ship completely, advancing on the ships of the Betazoid Defense Fleet which ringed the planet in scattered formation. Although of comparable size to the Warbirds, the Betazoids were no match in maneuverability. It was going to be a slaughter. The only ship in the fleet who’d been a match for the Romulans had just been destroyed. Archer’s eyes narrowed. It was as if the Romulans had known precisely where to hit first in order to inflict maximum damage to the Betazoid defenses.

As the bridge crew looked on in horrified anticipation, the Warbirds did the unexpected. While a few of them engaged the Betazoid ships, the remainder formed a corridor of protection which extended from the planet’s atmosphere all the way out to a range which exceeded Enterprise’s short range sensors.

Lieutenant Commander Reed, manning the long range sensors, announced in a startled voice, “There’s something coming, Captain!” As he made the statement, a ship became visible on the view screen. Easily ten times larger than the Warbirds, its configuration was still obviously Romulan. As it approached the planet, still safely out of range of the Enterprise’s stationary weapons arrays, Archer could see the wing-like markings painted on its hull.

“That’s a Bird of Prey!” he said in surprise. The Romulan response to the need for a vessel capable of single combat with a ship the size of Enterprise, Birds of Prey had been rumored but rarely seen seen since the start of the war. The larger ship positioned itself within a protective shell of smaller Warbirds at the periphery of the planet’s atmosphere.

“It’s activating weapons, Captain,” said Reed as his gaze remained fixed on his sensors. He looked up with a sick expression on his face. “It’s targeting the surface of the planet,” he continued.

The occupants of the bridge watched helplessly as a high-powered disruptor beam sliced through the planet’s atmosphere. Archer swallowed.

“I thought the Romulans preferred nuclear warheads for orbital bombardments,” said T’Pol calmly.

Malcolm, who’d targeted his sensors now toward the planet, replied, “Apparently, they were going for precision rather than mass destruction.” He looked up from his sensor display as Archer turned his head to look at him with a puzzled expression.

“The beam took out the building where the Ruling Council Chamber is located… and nothing else,” said Reed. His brow went up in ironic appreciation. “An impressive achievement from orbit,” he added grudgingly.

Archer turned back to the view screen. The Bird of Prey now seemed to be simply hanging in orbit… waiting for something. Within less than five minutes, the Warbirds had all ceased to engage the Betazoids, and had gathered about the Bird of Prey in a dense protective formation. A few of the Betazoid ships were breached hulks floating in space, but most were intact. Inexplicably, the survivors seemed to be standing down as well, congregating about the space station in a disorganized group, as if waiting for orders to attack… or not. Archer was certain now of only two things… the Romulans had had help from someone with detailed knowledge of the Betazoid defenses… and the Enterprise was in serious trouble.

“Lieutenant Commander Reed, organize our security forces around the airlocks and prepare to repel borders.” He was taking no chances. He activated the comm.

“Archer to Sickbay,” he said with grim determination.

“Phlox here. How may I help you, Captain?” asked the doctor cheerfully.

Archer closed his eyes and smiled wryly despite himself. The man would probably be cheerful on his way to the executioner’s chair!

“Send the Regent and her witnesses to the bridge immediately, Phlox,” said Archer. He exhaled, looking out over the scene visible in the viewscreen with trepidation. “We have a situation.”

The End (until the next installment)


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