Changing of the Guard

By Distracted

Rating: R

Genres: adventure drama romance virtual season

Keywords:

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This story is number 20 in the series Virtual Season Five


Back to Betazed: The Changing of the Guard

By Distracted

Rating: R for one shower scene. I honestly couldn’t resist after having the shower dream sequence from “Damage” running around in my head for nearly a year.

Disclaimer: Enterprise, her crew, and the Romulans belong to Paramount. I made up just about everything else… except Peter Rabbit. He’s the brainchild of a wonderfully creative lady by the name of Beatrix Potter.

Genre: Romance, Action/adventure

Summary: Here’s the finale of my virtual season five. It’s a sequel to Back to Betazed: Hello and Goodbye. The plot by Elren of the Fifth House to take over the Betazoid government comes to fruition, and we find out what the Betazoid secret weapon is all about. Trip and T’Pol solve their bond problem, and Travis gets a big surprise.

BTW… for Irana, I’m thinking maybe Julie Andrews in her role as the queen in “The Princess Diaries” (with dark hair) … paired with a more nurturing, slightly older but still gorgeous Richard Gere for Galen. Whatcha think?


 

Irana of the Sixth House, Regent of the Sixth House and the Matriarch’s chosen successor, paced the floor in the center of sickbay with a disgruntled expression on her face. The sounds of weapons fire which had vibrated the huge Earth vessel had ceased, and she was itching to know the outcome of the battle. Hell… she was itching to be in the battle. Unfortunately, the unexpected promotion she’d received at the hands of the dying Matriarch only hours before had made her direct involvement problematic, to say the least. The Regent of a royal house, and the probable future Matriarch of the Ruling Council, if the Council’s vote followed the traditional precedent, did not risk her own life when there were others to do it for her. Her understanding of this fact did not make her current situation any easier to deal with. She looked about the room, and caught sight of Elena Archer having a conversation with Marella. The two of them sat there talking as if they had no concerns in the world. Irana approached them and stood with her hands on her hips. They didn’t seem to notice her.

“So you’re talking about betrothal in infancy?” asked Elena in disbelief.

“I’m talking about genetic screening in infancy, with procreation based on the outcome of screening,” Marella clarified in an excited tone. “Just think about it…. Every hereditary disease that’s caused by a recessive gene which must be carried to the offspring by both parents… virtually wiped out in a single generation! And the diseases caused by dominant genes won’t be too far behind once the genetic analyses are made public. Who’d want to breed with a known carrier of disease? ” Her black eyes shone with enthusiasm. Elena gave her a dubious look.

“So… what about love?” she asked.

Marella smiled at her, shaking her head. “You don’t understand our culture very well if you’re asking that question, Elena. Love is irrelevant to the discussion. All I’m suggesting is that an intelligent woman should choose to breed with a man for better reasons than a beautiful face… or how well he fills out his breeches.” The two women exchanged a speculative look. “Although bedding a man for those reasons is perfectly acceptable, of course,” said Marella with a mischievous grin. Elena laughed.

Marella went on earnestly. “A large percentage of procreative contracts in our society are made for reasons which have nothing to do with emotion. I’m the result of one such pairing, and my family gets along fine,” she insisted.

Irena winced. I suppose I deserved that, she thought ruefully. She gazed at her daughter’s earnest face. What kind of a mother have I been if my daughter truly believes love to be unnecessary? She sighed… and then shook her head. There were more important things to deal with right now.

“If you ladies are done with your chat, I suggest we call Archer and find out what the hell is going on,” she said brusquely. “I don’t like being kept in the dark.” She glanced around the room, as if just noticing that something was missing. “And where are Galen and Lianna?” she asked. Her impatient tone couldn’t hide her obvious concern. She’d sent Coran and Berik after them as soon as the attack began. The two guardsmen should have located them by now and brought them to safety. She wished then that she had more men to send after them, but space on the shuttle from the surface had been at a premium. She’d only brought the two young men because she needed to assure their safety. As the only native Betazoids not belonging to Irana’s immediate family who’d been present at the time of the Matriarch’s surprising deathbed declaration, their telepathic testimony would eventually be needed if Irana had any hope of carrying out the Matriarch’s final wishes.

She turned as the sickbay doors opened, revealing a pair of uniformed young men escorting Galen, who was carrying a distraught and crying Lianna. Fear and anguish radiated from both the little girl and her grandfather. Irana dropped her shields without thinking, and rushed to Galen’s side.

What’s happened? Why are you so upset? she sent with urgent concern, laying one hand on his arm and the other on his cheek.

Galen blinked at her for a second in shock before he answered. Irana realized abruptly that in her stressed state she had revealed more than she intended… and that her shields were down completely in Galen’s presence for the first time in nearly a year… since the top secret nature of Marella’s telepathic defense technique had first required complete confidentiality. She felt his confusion. His certainty that their contract would soon be at an end by her hand was shaken by the intensity of the concern he sensed from her. She raised her shields again hurriedly and pulled her hands away. Now was not the time for emotionalism. There was a battle in progress. Her eyes met Galen’s apologetically as she shut him out again to deal with the situation in an efficient manner. He smiled at her hesitantly, and she sensed hopefulness from him for just a moment before the lines of telepathic communication between them shut down. His willingness to forgive all things gave her a tremendous sense of guilt… but she pushed that aside as well. There was simply no time to deal with it. Her eyes went to Lianna, who had a grip around Galen’s neck and was sobbing uncontrollably. She reached out a hand hesitantly and placed it on the child’s head. Galen answered her unspoken question. After so many years together, sometimes telepathy wasn’t even required for him to know precisely what she needed.

“We were in the lift, on the way here, and she suddenly screamed… and then she started crying like this and wouldn’t stop,” he told Irana over the little girl’s heartbroken sobs. “I tried to get her to show me, but she refused. She said something about ‘burning and hurting and now they’re all gone’… but when I pushed she put up her shields… and you know how impossible it is to get through her shields!” he added in frustration, holding the crying child tightly to his chest and stroking her curls in a fruitless attempt to calm her.

Irana’s eyes widened. The child’s range must be much larger than anyone had suspected. She was obviously picking up the battle. With her eyes focused on Lianna, she led Galen to one of the biobeds. She climbed on to it herself and held out her arms for the child. As Galen tried to pry the little girl’s arms from around his neck, the comm sounded. Elena and Marella gathered around the biobed as Phlox emerged from the menagerie to answer the comm.

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

“Lianna?” whispered Irana, as the child resisted the transfer into her arms. “It’s Grandmother.”

Lianna raised her head to look at Irana. Her grip about Galen’s neck loosened slightly. Irana gazed into the little girl’s eyes with a calm and reassuring expression. ”Come and show me what’s wrong,” she said firmly. “Then I can make the bad people go away.”

Lianna’s tear-filled eyes searched Irana’s face for a moment, and then she lunged for her, wrapping her arms around her neck and dropping her shields completely. Irana wrapped her arms around the child and gasped as her telepathic range abruptly expanded from a few dozen meters to what felt like kilometers. Linked with Lianna, she felt the little girl’s abject terror and confusion. Groups of minds whirled within a dark, lifeless emptiness which Irana finally realized was the vacuum of space. She tried to get her bearings by focusing on one small group, only to have it snuffed out in an instant… in a flash of white-hot agony. Amidst the bright clusters of minds, intently focused on their tasks, she sensed darker, dimmer groups. Less blindingly bright and somehow more alien, they were scattered in and around the others. The thoughts emanating from them were similar… not evil, but more intense… thoughts of duty and devotion to a cause. As she watched, the alien-feeling groups gathered together in a large cluster surrounding a larger concentration of like minds. It felt like dozens of them, all in close proximity to each other. The only thing she sensed from them was a feeling of anticipation.

Lianna? called Irana into the darkness. Where are you, dear? The huge emptiness made her disoriented and dizzy. She couldn’t believe that a five year old was capable of such range. She couldn’t believe that anyone was capable of it.

Here, Grandmother… I’m here, came a childish but powerful voice at her side. She sensed the child’s presence, then, as the light which illuminated the darkness, permitting her to see what lay scattered within it. Most of the brighter clusters had congregated about a group of hundreds of brightly shining minds… a group that could only represent the Betazoid space station. Her field of focus narrowed even further, to encompass the Enterprise itself. The Humans barely created a flicker within the darkness. She turned her head. Lianna’s presence was blinding.

I think the fighting is over, Lianna. I’m sorry you were frightened, my dear… but battles are very frightening things, sent Irana gently.

I’m sorry your friends are gone, Grandmother, Lianna sent back. Irana caught a flash of memory from her… the cool and well-ordered thoughts of Commander Carona, her second-in-command on the Saber of Betazed, well-known to Lianna from dozens of visits during leave, eradicated in an instant in a flash of agonizing heat. Irana’s chest tightened in grief and disbelief. Her ship was gone… and Lianna had been linked with a member of the crew when it happened. The child had likely been drawn to Carona’s mind because it was familiar to her… and had directly experienced her death, and then the deaths of every other Betazoid who had died in the battle… and all this mere hours after the death of the Matriarch. No wonder she was hysterical. It was a wonder she was still sane!

Let me show you something, Lianna, sent Irana gently. She sent love and reassurance to the grieving little girl as best as she was able in the midst of her own sorrow. Then she showed the child how to construct a small island of grief within her own mind… a place to contain her distress until there was time to deal with it. Lianna followed her grandmother’s lead, and tucked the terrifying memories of death and destruction securely away into a small corner of her mind. Then she raised her shields again, cutting Irana off from her amazing mental map, but protecting herself from further trauma in the process. Irana felt bereft and powerless for a moment, reduced to sensing only what was present within her own limited range. She exhaled shakily and opened her eyes, looking down at the tiny child’s tear-stained face with a gentle smile.

“Better?” she inquired softly. Lianna nodded wordlessly, with a small hesitant smile in return. Irana drew her close and held her tightly.

Phlox softly cleared his throat. Irana raised her head and gave him an inquiring look. He smiled at her apologetically.

“The captain has requested your presence on the bridge, Regent. He says it’s urgent,” said Phlox quietly.

Irana glanced at Galen apologetically, then handed Lianna briskly over to him and swung her legs to the side of the biobed. She placed a hand on his arm as he gathered his granddaughter to his chest. Their eyes met.

“We have much to discuss, but it will have to wait,” she told him with a small smile. He nodded, smiling back at her with a hopeful expression. His eyes followed her as she got up from the bed and strode purposefully into the center of the room.

“Coran… Berik… you’re with me. The rest of you stay here,” she ordered as she swept out the door.


 

Commander Trip Tucker stood in the center of the frenetic whirlwind of activity that was Engineering.

“The impulse engines are our number one priority!” he shouted to Hess over the pandemonium. “What’s our status?”

She approached him with a PADD in hand. “The new engines hadn’t been installed yet at the time of this most recent attack, sir,” replied Hess with a triumphant smile. “The Romulans just fried the ones we’d cobbled back together after their last ambush.”

Trip returned her grin. “Let’s install the new ones, then... and then we can get the hell out of here!”

The doors to Engineering opened, and a petite figure entered at a brisk walk. She slowed when she caught sight of Commander Tucker, alive and well. Commander T’Pol approached the two engineers.

“The captain suggested that I provide assistance with getting the impulse engines online,” she told them with admirable calm, considering the fact that she was still a bit out of breath from her trip from the bridge. Trip smiled at her knowingly, with his tongue buried in his cheek. From the look of her, she’d sprinted all the way. He took the PADD from Hess’ hand and, under cover of showing the Vulcan the schematics displayed on the PADD, touched two fingers lightly to the back of her hand. Although her gaze remained coolly fixed on the PADD, her respiratory rate immediately slowed. She closed her eyes briefly and exhaled. Then the engineer handed the PADD back to Hess.

“If you’ll man the matter transporter, Lieutenant Commander, we’ll do the installation from this end,” he told Hess. The female engineer nodded politely, and left to do the heavy lifting the easy way. Getting the old engines out and the new ones in with the transporter would take only a matter of minutes. Then the two commanders could get the connections in place.

Trip and T’Pol walked side-by-side toward the impulse engines. Her eyes were fixed firmly on the task ahead. He gave her an amused glance.

“So the captain sent you down here to help, huh? In the middle of a battle?” he asked teasingly.

T’Pol glanced back at him tolerantly. “The battle was over,” she pointed out reasonably.

Trip bit his tongue to keep from laughing. The captain had probably figured out on his own that he wasn’t going to get any work from T’Pol until she’d made certain that her mate was well. T’Pol still didn’t know that Archer knew about their marriage and the bond. The captain hadn’t been back on board long enough to have the meeting that he’d requested from Trip as soon as the engineer had awakened in sickbay following the placement of their mental shields, and Trip hadn’t seen the need to worry his wife with the knowledge. She had enough on her plate already just trying to stay functional in the absence of their bond.

“I merely suggested that my assistance might accelerate the process of getting our engines back online,” continued T’Pol. “The captain agreed.”

“And I’m very pleased that he did, Commander,” replied Trip with exaggerated politeness and a broad grin on his face. “I don’t know what we’d do without you!”

T’Pol eyed him in puzzlement, as if she wasn’t certain whether he was serious or not. He grinned back at her… waiting for it… and then nearly fell over laughing when her brow went up.

“I fail to see the humor in our current situation, Commander,” T’Pol told him in a genuinely perplexed voice as they arrived at their destination. The new engine materialized precisely in place as they watched, and then the two of them began working to connect power couplings with well-practiced ease. Trip’s face sobered as his hands automatically went through the proper motions. He glanced at her apologetically for a second, and then focused his eyes on his work.

“You’re right, T’Pol,” he admitted softly. “We’re in a dangerous standoff, and until you and I finish this, we’re sitting ducks.” He smiled at her briefly then, and shrugged. “I just get so tickled when you need me so much,” he whispered, meeting her eyes almost shyly. “It makes me happy,” he said simply.

Her huge brown eyes met his blue ones solemnly. “I will keep that in mind,” she murmured. Her hand stole toward his beneath the access panel where they both were working, and her fingers caressed the back of his hand for a second. Then she sat back and pulled a tricorder from her belt.

“I will check the connections as you complete them,” she told him calmly.

Trip smiled at her suddenly businesslike demeanor, and got back to work.


 

Anis Faa, Earth’s first ambassador to Betazed, sat up shakily where she lay on the path that had until recently led from Earth’s embassy to the building which had housed the meeting place of Betazed’s chief ruling body. The impact of the destructive ray that had destroyed the Ruling Council chamber had created a tremor which had thrown her off of her feet. A fine grey dust covered every visible surface. It was ash… the only apparent remnant of the structure and all of its occupants. A gaping hole where the building had been was evident, but there was little wreckage, and no bodies that she could see. To the side of the path where she sat, Elren stood, briskly brushing the thick, clinging ash from his clothing and hair. He had an annoyed expression on his face.

“This will be impossible to clean!” he muttered to himself.

Anis eyed the little man in disbelief. He’d had shields up with her for days now, claiming that the council was in the middle of deliberations which were highly classified, but his nonchalant manner suggested to her that, at best, he was strangely callous about the deaths of Betazed’s entire ruling body… and at worst, that he’d actually expected the attack. She instinctively bolstered her shields as he approached her with a reassuring smile on his face and reached down to help her up. It would never do to reveal her suspicions until she had the resources to prove them.

“Are you all right, my dear?” he asked her solicitously. His handsome face and collar length black curls were dusted with grey, and a bit of flying debris had scored his forehead, creating a colorful display of bright red blood from an otherwise minor injury. His previously immaculately white coat and breeches were stained with ash and blood. He was the absolute image of the grieving hero.

She nodded wordlessly, dropping his hand as soon as she was on her feet. Behind her barriers, her thoughts were racing. Unless another member of the Ruling Council had somehow escaped the destruction, the man before her was the sole remaining member of the Ruling Council of Betazed. It seemed to her suddenly very strange that he’d insisted on leaving the deliberations of the Council to personally escort her the two hundred meters from the embassy to the Council Chamber for her testimony concerning Earth’s marriage customs as they related to Jonathan Archer. Her eyes returned to the smoking hole that had once been the planet’s center of government. People were beginning to exit the other buildings in the complex. Cries of dismay and horrified screams filled the air as the friends and loved ones of the Council members… those, at least, who worked within the complex of government buildings… realized the extent of the destruction. Elren turned toward the sounds, straightened his shoulders, and pulled something out of his pocket. To Anis’ bewilderment, it appeared to be a bottle of eye drops. She watched him as he tilted his head back and filled each eye. The excess ran down his face, creating tracks in the ash on both cheeks. Then he matter-of-factly closed the bottle and placed it back in his pocket.

He turned to Anis and held out an elbow to her, as if he were still planning to escort her into the Chamber. At her appalled look, he said with a rueful smile, “My allergies, my dear… all this ash. One must go on, after all.”

She nodded, and forced herself to give him a hesitant smile. She placed a hand in the crook of his arm, and they began to walk. She’d never seen him carry or use allergy eye drops before, and he’d used so much that they looked like tears running down his face. Her eyes went back to the scene of destruction. Security officers in uniform were beginning to arrive to control the crowd, members of which searched the blackened, incinerated area fruitlessly for signs of survivors. It was obvious that there were none. A large ground transport had also pulled up. A news crew had piled out of it and was beginning to set up their equipment. It was in this direction that Elren escorted her. She realized then that he’d very carefully prepared himself for this moment. As the two of them approached the news crew, one of them recognized him. Two women, one bearing a camera and the other a microphone, began their approach. Elren straightened. His normally somewhat arrogant expression was abruptly transformed into one of shock and grief. He gently pulled his arm from beneath Anis’ hand and patted her arm soothingly, looking up into her eyes with a beautiful, sad smile.

“Stay here,” he whispered. “I’ll take care of this.”

Then he strode majestically toward the waiting reporters.

Anis watched with a resigned expression. Whatever else he is… she thought ruefully, … the man is certainly a bloody fine actor!


Captain Jonathan Archer sat tensely on the edge of his seat with his eyes focused on the view screen. After the fast-paced destruction of the Romulans’ initial attack, and then their inexplicable cessation of hostilities in the face of imminent victory, the Romulan Bird of Prey and its large group of smaller Warbird escorts hung in orbit over Betazed. The dozen or so remaining Betazoid ships seemed reluctant, quite understandably so, to engage such a superior force, and had gathered around the space station in protective formation. The two forces were less than a kilometer from each other. Enterprise was stuck in spacedock, in the middle of the conflict with no means of escape and precious few options for defense… but her captain wasn’t quite ready to give up yet. His eyes turned to Hoshi. Her attention was entirely focused on the earpiece she held in her left ear.

“Are you picking up anything that might tell us what’s going on, Lieutenant?” he asked hopefully.

She held up a hand as she listened closely for a moment, then raised her head and looked at him with a resigned expression.

“The Romulan transmissions are all in code, Captain. Give me a few hours, and I might be able to make sense of them,” she told him with a sigh. “The Betazoids aren’t saying anything. It’s almost like they’ve all agreed to stop communications for a while to do something else… “

Hoshi’s voice trailed off as an idea occurred to her. She reached for her console, adjusted the comm system to pick up transmissions originating from the planet’s surface, and listened closely to her earpiece once again. Then she smiled. “I’ve got something, sir!”

The dust-covered, blood and tear-streaked face of a slim and strikingly handsome Betazoid male appeared on the viewscreen. He looked familiar to Archer. As he began to speak, the turbolift doors swooshed open to admit the Regent and her two-man escort onto the bridge. She paused in front of the lift and stared at the screen in shock. Behind the distraught-looking man on the screen, the blackened ruins of the Ruling Council chamber were clearly visible.

“Here me, people of Betazed…” began the man in a hoarse voice choked with grief, looking directly at the camera with a determined expression.

“No!” exclaimed Irana in vehement disbelief. “This is impossible!”

Archer recognized the man, then. He was Elren of the Fifth House, the junior-most member of the Ruling Council, and its sole male member. Elren paused, as if to collect his thoughts, and then continued his announcement in a clearer, resounding baritone voice. His expression was dignified, yet vulnerable, as if he were deliberately suppressing his distress for the benefit of those around him. Despite his apparent sincerity, Archer found himself immediately disliking the man. He had the air of an actor playing a part.

“I, Elren of the Fifth House, by all evidence the sole remaining member of the Ruling Council, accept the burden that this heinous act of destruction has laid upon my shoulders.”

Irana stepped forward to stand beside Archer near the command chair. Her jaw was clenched in anger.

“The little rodent certainly didn’t waste any time!” she muttered.

The camera panned behind Elren to show the full extent of the devastation.

“As acting Monarch of Betazed, my first task will be to discover the perpetrators of this hideous crime against all Betazoids, and assure that they are brought to justice.”

The camera returned to his face. He gazed directly into the camera lens, seeming to hold the viewer’s eye with a look of honest determination. Then he dropped his bombshell.

“I have been notified by numerous reliable witnesses that the source of the orbital attack which has all but destroyed our government was the Earth ship Enterprise.”

Archer cursed vehemently. He got on the comm. “Trip! We need impulse engines now!” He turned to Mayweather. “As soon as we get the go ahead from engineering, get us out of here, Lieutenant!”

“I was just about to call you, Cap’n… we’ve got three of the four engines up and runnin’. I can give you seventy-five percent impulse,” came Commander Tucker’s voice over the comm. Travis glanced back at his captain with a question in his eyes. Archer nodded wordlessly, and the helmsman turned back to his console. The Enterprise broke free without warning, trailing bits of umbilicals and fragments of the docking arms that had held her in place.

“This betrayal, quite frankly, surprised me by its violence… but the lack of respect toward our late Matriarch demonstrated by the Enterprise’s captain should have been a warning to me that treachery was likely,” Elren continued as Travis piloted the ship away from the station. The smaller Betazoid ships which had gathered about the station scattered to make room. They had apparently not been given orders to attack. Or perhaps they’re deliberately delaying… their captains and crews all know that he’s lying, thought Archer.

“Put the ‘Monarch’ on audio only, Lieutenant,” Archer said to Hoshi angrily. “I need to see what’s going on.”

Irana leaned toward Archer. “The Romulans will pursue us when we withdraw, Captain,” she whispered. He met her eyes, nodded in brisk agreement, and then raised a brow at her, waiting for the suggestion she obviously intended to make. She gave him a forthright stare.

“My crew is all dead, except for Marella… but all I need are six Betazoid telepaths for the telepathic defense to work. There are six of us on board. We’ll need to be on the bridge,” she said softly. Archer blinked. He couldn’t believe what she had just revealed to him. All that was required were six minds? There was no hardware involved? His jaw clenched. One of the six was a five year old child.

“Are you certain you’re willing to do this?” he whispered back. Irana gazed back at him in resignation.

“If what I suspect is true, Captain, we will soon have little choice,” she told him flatly.

Elren’s voice came over the audio. “I am pleased to announce that, in view of Earth’s unprecedented betrayal of our trust, our Romulan neighbors have agreed to set aside hostilities and join with us in a new spirit of cooperation. They have agreed to assist us with the apprehension of these criminals. Peace negotiations between Betazed and the Romulan Empire will begin as soon as our mutual enemy has been neutralized. I am exceedingly grateful for their assistance, as I’m sure we all are, and I am looking forward to a long and prosperous alliance between our two peoples.”

Archer locked eyes with Irana as they both suddenly realized the full extent of the new monarch’s betrayal. He reached for the comm panel on the arm of his chair.

“Bridge to sickbay. Send all of our remaining Betazoid passengers to the bridge immediately,” he said in a grim voice. “This is an emergency.”

“Captain!” said Lieutenant Commander Reed in a voice prepared for battle. “The Warbirds are breaking formation to pursue us!”

Archer nodded briskly. “Tactical alert. Gunners man their stations,” he ordered. “Stay at impulse, Travis… head toward the asteroid field. We need to draw the Bird of Prey away from the planet. I don’t want debris raining down to the surface when we destroy the damned thing,” he said… rather optimistically. Malcolm grinned. It was time to blow things up.


 

Marella stepped out onto the bridge with her father. They each held one of Lianna’s hands as she walked between them. The little girl was solemn and subdued, and had insisted on walking rather than being carried once they reached the turbolift. The turbolift doors closed behind the new arrivals, and then immediately reopened, admitting a coolly efficient Commander T’Pol to the bridge. She pushed past them with a nod of acknowledgement and, after laying a hand briefly on the top of Lianna’s head in response to the child’s welcoming smile, took her place at the science station.

“The impulse engines are back online, Captain,” she said calmly, replying to Archer’s quizzical look. He gave a satisfied nod and returned his attention to the forward viewscreen.

Marella exchanged a look with her mother, who stood with Coran and Berik near the command chair.

I tried to explain it to them, Mother, sent Marella hesitantly. We’ll have to practice linking first…

Irana exhaled, and nodded. Her eyes returned to the viewscreen. The Enterprise had entered the asteroid field. Lieutenant Mayweather’s consummate piloting skills had already resulted in the destruction of three of their pursuers via impact with asteroids. The ship’s rear gunner had taken care of two more before the Warbirds had discovered a safe following distance. Distances were hard to judge within the asteroid field with so many other obstacles to avoid, however, and so an occasional Warbird traveled within reach of the Enterprise’s weapons arrays. When that happened, the Romulan ship was invariably short-lived. Archer’s tactics were obvious. He was attempting to thin the ranks of the Warbirds while the telepathic defense was being prepared. Irana gave him a respectful nod, and then stepped back to join the others in front of the turbolift, directing the two guardsmen to follow her.

When they reached the others, Irana extended her hands to grasp the hands of each of the young men. They, in turn, clasped hands with Marella on one side and Galen on the other, closing the circle. Irana nodded to Marella to begin. The medic was the strongest adult telepath present. It had been her observations of the effects of Lianna’s instinctive defense of her grandmother over a year before that had led her to develop the technique to begin with, and she was the most adept at teaching it.

This defense is easy to do once you’ve learned it, and physical contact is not necessary once you’ve got the basics, but forming the circle aids learning, and we don’t have time to practice. She eyed both young guardsmen sternly. Even if it becomes painful, don’t break the circle, she warned them. We may only get one shot at this. If Enterprise is destroyed, our people will become slaves of the Romulan Empire. Coran and Berik both turned a bit pale at the idea, and stood at rigid attention in the circle. Marella turned to Galen with a concerned expression.

Are you sure you can do this, Papa? she sent to him alone. She gave him a small smile. I know you’re a lover, not a fighter, she teased gently. He smiled back reassuringly. I can do anything if it protects my family, love… you know that, he replied. She exhaled and nodded in reluctant agreement. Then she looked down as Lianna tugged on her hand.

Are we gonna make the bad people go away now, Aunt Marella? she asked with complete innocence. Marella winced. There was no way to completely protect the child from death and violence in this situation, but she still hated the idea of using the little girl’s talent in such a destructive fashion. She crouched down to Lianna’s eye level.

We’re just going to practice finding the bad people first, Lianna, she sent gently. Then, when Captain Jonathan says so, we’re gonna put them all to sleep so they’ll stop shooting at us, okay? Lianna nodded, wide-eyed. Marella’s gut twisted.

You remember what to do after they fall asleep, don’t you? she asked the child.

Lianna grinned and nodded. I put my shields up really strong and hide so they can’t find me! she recited triumphantly. Marella smiled approvingly and nodded.

That’s my girl! she sent heartily, sincerely hoping that the child would obey, and thus spare herself the trauma of experiencing the deaths of every one of their Romulan attackers. She was certain that Archer would waste no time being merciful. It was quite obvious from their actions in past encounters with the Saber of Betazed that the Romulans would not appreciate being spared after being defeated, and would not hesitate to destroy the Enterprise and the entire Betazoid fleet if the roles were reversed.

Marella stood and released Lianna’s hand. She faced her mother across the circle. Irana’s face was set in sorrow. The loss of her crew had hit her hard. Marella dropped her shields and sought her mother’s thoughts, exactly as they had done so many times on the Saber of Betazed. Irana’s shields dropped as well, and Marella inhaled deeply as her mother’s sorrow and a deep sense of guilt filled the link. Abruptly, a rush of secure, stable affection and comfort joined them, bringing relief of pain and solace from grief. Both Marella and Irana smiled as they recognized Galen’s solid presence. Irana turned to him and met his eyes. He smiled. Marella could sense his relief as he was able to feel Irana’s love for him for the first time in nearly a year. This war had caused so many losses. She was pleased that her parents’ affection for each other had not been one of them, and was rather surprised by its intensity. Two other presences joined them, fortifying Galen’s stable foundation and bringing to the link a sense of determined devotion to a cause.

When the adults were stable in the link, Marella reached down and grasped Lianna’s hand, completing the circle.

Now, Lianna… she sent, steeling herself for what was to come.

Lianna joined the link, and suddenly the bridge of the Enterprise vanished. Their world expanded a thousand-fold. Over a dozen clusters of determined minds, blindly focused on the task of destroying the enemy, surrounded them. Marella led the others, and began the search for their true goal… the group of over a hundred such minds which represented the primary threat to her home planet and to the Enterprise… the Romulan Bird of Prey.


 

Captain Bwaxana of the Betazoid Defense Fleet vessel Ringbearer felt only shame as she watched a member of her own house so blatantly betray everything and everyone she held dear. Elren had long been the butt of jokes within the Fifth House. The way that the brazen and beautiful hussy had slept his way into a position on the Ruling Council had made him notorious. He’d then surprised everyone by proving to be a surprisingly efficient administrator, despite his other skills. Unfortunately, it now appeared that her first impression of him was correct. He was prepared to prostitute himself to anyone who could give him power. In this case, his most recent bed partner appeared to be Romulan.

“Captain, I’m receiving orders from the Monarch himself,” said her communications officer, a thickset young lieutenant from the countryside of the Fifth House’s traditional lands by the name of Rosella. “We have been ordered to pursue the Earth vessel and assist our allies with its destruction.” The disbelieving expression on her face echoed Bwaxana’s own opinion of the order.

The Betazoid captain sat back, gnawing thoughtfully on the inside of one cheek for a moment. Then she spoke.

“Acknowledge the order, Lieutenant,” she said with a sigh. She addressed Ensign Lana at helm. “Pursue the Earth ship as ordered, ensign.”

The beautiful young helm officer protested.

“But, Captain! We all saw the Romulan vessel fire on the planet! How can you…?”

Bwaxana turned her head and gazed sternly at the young woman.

“A pursuit is not an attack, Ensign. Obey my order,” she said firmly. Then she gave Lana an amused but reproving look. “Trust me, Lana. I’m the captain, remember?” The girl reminded Bwaxana of herself at that age… consistently challenging authority.

Lana’s eyes widened. Obviously, her commanding officer had a plan. She nodded reluctantly, and moved to obey with a chastened expression. “Yes, Captain. Sorry, ma’am.”


 

Subcommander Terak of the Bird of Prey Akhdhael leaned forward in his chair, staring with growing irritation at the tactical display which stubbornly insisted on continuing to supply him with confirmation of his Warbird pilots’ incompetence. He’d made a serious error in judgment when he had allowed Enterprise to go free at Galorndon Core. The Earth ship had seemed helpless at that time… an unworthy opponent for a Romulan Bird of Prey. Her upgrades had obviously altered that equation. Unfortunately, his superiors were fully aware of his error. The commanding officer of a fleet of this size usually held the rank of full commander. He’d been given the opportunity to correct his error, but not the promotion that he was due. The deliberate slight rankled him.

His Warbird escort had remained virtually untouched by the Betazoid Defense Fleet. The data given to them by the Betazoid’s groveling girlish ruler identifying the ship they’d destroyed at the very onset of the battle as the only one capable of effective defense had evidently been correct. Once the Enterprise had entered the fray, however, a process of gradual but constant attrition had begun. His Warbirds were now reduced by fifty percent in number. Only twelve were left, and they were being forced to keep their distance by the uncanny accuracy of the Earth ship’s phase cannons. Terak clenched his jaw in determination. The longer firing range of a Bird of Prey was needed. He would have to leave the Betazoids unguarded. He sat back in the command chair.

“Break orbit and follow the Warbirds,” he told the helmsman brusquely. “It’s time to finish this.”


 

“Only twelve Warbirds remain, Captain… but the Bird of Prey has left orbit and is on a course which will bring it within firing range in approximately seven minutes and thirty two seconds,” said Commander T’Pol coolly.

Lieutenant Reed smirked at the commander’s “approximation”, keeping his eyes glued to his tactical display and his hands poised on the weapons controls. It had been several minutes since a Warbird pilot had gotten careless enough to fly within range of his phase cannons, but the smaller vessels’ effective range of fire was much shorter than Enterprise’s. They were required to approach the larger ship within her cannons’ range of fire in order to make an effective attack. It had apparently not occurred to them that what they were doing basically amounted to suicide tactics against the unfailing accuracy of the Earth ship’s cannons and torpedoes. Even if it had, Malcolm doubted if the outcome would have been any different. Romulans were fierce and merciless opponents, but they weren’t much for independent thinking in battle. The Warbird pilots would no doubt continue to attack until none were left as long as they had orders to do so.

Archer swiveled in his seat to eye the Enterprise’s Betazoid passengers, all linked together in a circle with their eyes closed in front of the turbolift.

“Regent?” he questioned softly. Irana spoke. Her eyes remained closed.

“We’re ready when you are, Captain,” she replied in a calm reassuring voice.

Archer exhaled, and then turned forward again. “Wait for my signal. If you can only disable one of them, go for the Bird of Prey,” he told her.

Irana’s lips twitched upward slightly. “With Lianna in the link, I don’t believe that will be a problem,” said the older woman wryly. “Our defense should have an effective radius of at least a kilometer, Captain.”

Archer raised a brow, smiled slightly and nodded his head in appreciation. Then he addressed Hoshi. “Open a channel to the Bird of Prey, Lieutenant.”

She complied, and then gave Archer a nod.

He sat up straighter in his chair and addressed the comm camera with a grimly determined expression. “This is Captain Jonathan Archer of the USS Enterprise to the unidentified Romulan Bird of Prey. You have engaged in an unprovoked attack on an ally of Earth. Stand down and retreat from this system immediately, or you will be destroyed. This is your only warning.”

The viewscreen remained dark, but audio communications came to life.

“This is Subcommander Terak of the Akhdhael. You are no longer an unworthy opponent, Captain Archer, but you are greatly outnumbered. It is you who should prepare yourself for a glorious death. You and your crew have fought surprisingly well. I salute you.” The transmission came to an abrupt end, and the Akhdhael began to accelerate toward the Enterprise.

Archer exhaled heavily, and then set his jaw. “Set a course toward the Romulan ship… full impulse, Mr. Mayweather. Mr. Reed, have all gunnery officers cease fire. Let the Warbirds in closer.”

Malcolm gave the order. Less than a minute later, an impact shook the ship.

“Aft shields are down to seventy-five percent. No appreciable damage, Captain,” reported T’Pol in a cool voice. The Enterprise accelerated toward her goal.

“Inform me when we are within one kilometer of the Bird of Prey, Commander,” replied Archer. The bridge shook again.

“The starboard phase cannon is no longer operational, Captain,” reported T’Pol helpfully. Archer sighed. The Warbirds were getting braver.

“Distance, Commander?” he asked impatiently.

“One point seven kilometers…. One point five…. One point two…. We are now approximately one kilometer from…” She never finished her statement.

“Now, Regent!” ordered Archer.

The group in front of the turbolift stood there with their hands linked and with looks of concentration on their faces for mere moments. Then they broke the circle. Coran and Berik stood to either side of the four family members with their eyes fixed on the view screen. Irana, Galen, and Marella paid no attention to the battle. Their attention was entirely focused on Lianna. They surrounded the little girl in a protective embrace, blocking her view of the view screen. Galen gathered her against his chest and turned his back to the battle, murmuring words of comfort. Marella and Irana each put an arm over his shoulders on either side, clasped their forearms together behind his back, wrapped their opposite arms around Lianna, and waited.

Initially, nothing seemed to be happening. Within moments, however, it became apparent that the Warbirds had stopped firing. The Bird of Prey continued on its heading toward Enterprise, but when it reached firing distance, its weapons failed to activate. It continued to travel in the direction it had been heading without deviation, coming so close to the Enterprise in its flyby that Lieutenant Mayweather was forced to change course to avoid collision. As it passed by, three Warbirds collided with the Bird of Prey, ripping an enormous defect in one of its huge wings with the explosions of their warp cores. The ship decompressed, spewing atmosphere and debris silently into the vacuum of space. The remaining Warbirds continued on course as well, some entering the asteroid field to explode against the huge hunks of rock… others continuing back in the direction of the planet. They were obviously without intelligent guidance to direct them, for they made no move to retreat, attack, or to avoid obstacles in their path.

“Captain, the Betazoids are coming. There are twelve ships,” said T’Pol calmly into the appalled silence on the bridge.

Irana looked up from her protective huddle. She stepped forward and approached the command chair. Archer turned his head away from the disconcerting view to look at her quizzically.

“I believe I may be of some assistance, Captain,” she offered with a polite smile. She nodded at the comm. “May I?...”

Archer gave her an ironic smile in return. “Be my guest, Regent… It’s the least I can do!” he told her. She nodded regally and then stepped in front of the comm camera.

“Hailing frequencies, Lieutenant… if you please?” she asked Hoshi pleasantly.

Hoshi’s lips twitched in amusement. “Yes, ma’am,” she replied with a dry chuckle. Malcolm smiled. The abrasive Captain Irana had turned out to be more capable of diplomatic behavior than anyone had given her credit for.

Irana straightened. Her pupil-less black eyes gazed directly into the camera. She had never looked more worthy of command.


 

“This is Irana of the Sixth House, Regent of the Sixth House, and the Matriarch’s chosen successor on the Ruling Council. As I am sure you are all aware, the Romulan ship which we have just destroyed was the ship truly responsible for the attack on the Ruling Council. Our fellow Betazoids on the surface have been misled by a traitor to our people. Elren of the Fifth House conspired with the enemy during time of war, and has no right to name himself ruler of our people. Join us in ensuring that the Romulan Empire will think twice before sending another ship into our system, and then join with me. Together we can rebuild the Ruling Council and ensure that Elren is punished for his crimes.” She paused for a moment, and then dropped her distant, regal mask. She looked out at the viewscreen, and recognized the markings on the closest ships as they approached. Their captains had been her friends for years.

“Bwaxana… Dalena… Fredrika… you know me,” she pleaded with a hopeful expression. “Trust me now!”

“The three lead ships are powering up weapons, Captain,” interjected Malcolm with a worried expression.

“Hold your fire, Mr. Reed,” replied Archer, holding up his hand. He eyed the screen expectantly. Abruptly, the three Betazoid ships peeled away and began to pursue the remaining Warbirds, targeting their warp cores with precisely placed torpedoes. After a few seconds, the rest of the Betazoids followed suit. Within ten minutes, not a single intact Romulan vessel remained.

“We’re being hailed, Captain,” said Hoshi.

Archer sat back in relief. “On screen,” he said.

The face of a grey-haired woman appeared on the viewscreen. She smiled. “It doesn’t really look like you needed our help, Irana… but we’re glad to give it anyway,” she said with a chuckle.

“Your assistance is always greatly appreciated. You know that, Bwaxana,” replied the Regent, smiling in return.

“You’ve come up in the world since we last shared a drink, Regent,” returned the captain of the Ringbearer with a somewhat skeptical look.

Irana nodded with a rueful expression on her face. “Tell me about it!” she exclaimed. “And here I was thinking that it was almost time to retire and get married,” she told her friend wryly. Bwaxana laughed.

“Does Galen know you have plans to make an honest man of him?”

Irana raised a brow. Galen’s joyful excitement at her statement radiated across the bridge, and brought a broad grin to her face. “He does now,” she replied.


 

Elren of the Fifth House, the self proclaimed monarch of all Betazed, had appropriated the library of the Fifth House as his center of operations. Although a common member of the Fifth House by virtue first of consort contract, and then by marriage to the administrator, he had maintained an office within the magnificent old house for years, ever since he’d taken over administrative responsibilities from his late wife. The titular head of the house, a doddering, senile old woman by the name of Rolanna, doted on him like a son. In her eyes, he could do no wrong. He took every available advantage of that fact.

He was newly bathed and primped, and wore yet another pristinely white cutaway jacket with lace peeking out from beneath collar and cuffs. His matching breeches were trimmed in gold braid. Although he’d specifically ordered the looser trouser cut for comfort’s sake, he was still unaccustomed to the way the new style de-emphasized one of his finer physical features. He eyed his crotch, and then shrugged. He was Monarch now. He had no one to please but himself.

“What do you think, Anis… the silver or the gold?” he asked his human companion as he preened before a full-length mirror placed near the desk from behind which he intended to broadcast his coronation announcement. He held circlets of filigreed metal to his brow, one in solid silver… a wide, etched band with the symbols of all of the Great Houses engraved upon it… and the other a woven fantasy of gilded wire… the symbols represented by patterns of white gold woven into the yellow.

Anis paused to give his question due consideration. She seemed subdued. Probably still in shock from the attack… he thought. For such a physically substantial woman, she’s such a sensitive thing!

“The silver would be considered more masculine on my homeworld,” she told him diplomatically. “But the gold suits you.” She gave nothing away telepathically. He’d been so busy with his plans for the past several days that he’d failed to notice exactly when she’d developed sufficient skill to shield herself from him so completely. He smiled at her reassuringly. No doubt she was shielding her fear from him, so as not to spoil his mood in this time of triumph.

“There’s no need to be frightened, my dear. You’re safe from reprisal here in the Fifth House. Despite your connections to Earth, no one will dare harm you once you’ve become my wife.” He’d decided to keep the Human by his side. Her unique perspective was useful. She’d already regaled him with tales of ancient human kings and their power… and he enjoyed the way that she was so pitifully grateful for his attentions. Unlike every other ungrateful, controlling, manipulative woman of his acquaintance, Anis actually needed him.

She gave him a small flirtatious smile. “How can I be afraid, as long as I’m with you, your Majesty?” she replied softly. She’d informed him that the title was the appropriate manner of address for kings on Earth. He rather liked it.

He settled the circle of frothy gold lace onto his brow amidst a cloud of black ringlets and straightened his shoulders. “I like this one better,” he announced in satisfaction. “It’s prettier.”

“Pardon me, Monarch,” came a young man’s hesitant voice at the doorway. Elren turned with an expression of ill-disguised impatience and raised an imperious brow. The smooth-faced household guardsman smiled tentatively.

“I’ve been sent to tell you that there’s something on the news vids right now that might interest you, sir,” he said shyly.

Elren sighed and rolled his eyes. He would have to teach these boys to be more self-confident. “Then come in and activate the vid screen for me, son,” he replied tolerantly.

The handsome young man flashed a brief and brilliant smile at Anis before walking to the console and activating the control. Elren frowned minutely as he watched her eyes follow the boy out of the room admiringly afterwards. He’d opened his mouth to comment on her inappropriate appreciation of the help when the melodious voice of the newscaster caught his attention.

“This transmission was just received from the bridge of the Ringbearer, one of the surviving ships of our Defense Fleet. In it, Captain Bwaxana of the Fifth House reports on the battle, and on the progress made so far in apprehending those responsible for the attack on the Ruling Council,” said the announcer. Her calm and matter-of-fact countenance was immediately replaced by the face of the grey-haired captain of the Ringbearer. Elren turned to Anis with an outraged expression.

“I never authorized any such transmission!” he protested.

“I am Captain Bwaxana of the BDF cruiser Ringbearer,” said the level-headed looking older woman as she gazed steadily into the camera. “I have been selected to be the spokeswoman for the remnant of the fleet. Admiral Emala fell in the first part of the battle today. Her ship, along with many others, was destroyed by a Romulan Warbird less than two hours ago. Those of us who remain witnessed the attack on the Ruling Council chamber with our own eyes….” Orbital footage of the Romulan Bird of Prey firing on the surface of Betazed followed her statement.

Elren cursed explosively and took five long strides to the library doors, throwing them open violently. “Someone call the vid station!” he shouted, red in the face and with a most unroyal panic in his voice. “I want to talk to the incompetent bitch that allowed this to be broadcast without my permission!”

Behind him, the broadcast continued. Everyone in the house was evidently glued to the closest vid screen, for no one came to investigate his outburst. He stood in the doorway to the library with an impotent snarl on his face.

“People of Betazed, you have been misinformed. Our true enemy is the Romulan Empire… and with the assistance of the Earth ship Enterprise, the Empire’s latest attack on our world has been avenged!” continued Bwaxana. Sensor footage of the collision of the Bird of Prey with three Warbirds, and its subsequent depressurization, followed.

Finally coming to the conclusion that the entire household was deliberately choosing to ignore him, Elren stormed back into the library and roughly deactivated the vid console. He moved to the window and stood with his arms crossed over his chest, staring blindly out of the window and thinking furiously. Things had been going so perfectly! There has to be a way to salvage the situation, he thought. He turned and looked at Anis pleadingly. Her expression was unreadable.

He heard a clatter behind him, and turned to find four members of the Fifth House household guard with their hand weapons trained on him. Their faces were impassive and determined. He looked from one to the other with a panicked expression. Then his face twisted into an ugly, petulant scowl.

“I order you to lower your weapons!” he shouted impotently. “I am your Monarch! Obey me!”

When the young men made no move to comply, Elren ceased his futile attempts at verbal persuasion and attempted to gain control of their minds. Their shields held strong. Unlike the Romulan that he’d controlled so easily, the guardsmen were fully trained telepaths… too strongly in control of their own minds to be easy targets. He changed his strategy, focusing all of his attention on the guard with the weakest telepathic powers, trying to force him to turn his weapon on his fellow guardsmen. His eyes locked with the young man’s, and sweat broke out on his forehead as he forced his way past the boy’s shields and took control of his motor functions. The guard’s gun hand wavered a trifle, and then Elren felt his control of the fellow ripped from his grasp. His efforts to reconnect met with a shield wall stronger than he’d ever experienced before. His eyes turned to Anis in shock. She was shielding him!

“Help me, Anis! Help me think of what to do!” he begged her. His beautiful eyes grew wide as he pleaded with her. She simply stared at him with a resigned, rather pitying expression. “I could tell them that I was misinformed!” he told her in an eager, placating voice. “I could tell them it wasn’t my fault!” She smiled ruefully and shook her head as the guards restrained him.

“That’s just the trouble, Elren,” she told him… granting him no special title or privilege. “It is your fault, my lad… and you’ve been a very naughty boy!”


 

Lieutenant Hoshi Sato sat at a table in a quiet corner of the dining hall nursing a large chocolate malt. Her empty dinner dishes were still on the table. Malcolm hadn’t actually promised to meet her for dinner… the repairs on the weapons systems would likely continue well into beta shift… but she couldn’t resist sitting at their usual table and lingering over dessert. After all, he might finish early and get hungry.

The sound of a childish giggle caught her attention. She looked up to see Lianna sitting at a table across the room with Marella and Commander T’Pol. The child was feeding the Vulcan bites of something. It looked like the pie that she’d been promised before the battle. As Hoshi watched, the child gleefully shoveled a huge bite into T’Pol’s mouth. T’Pol blandly nodded her thanks with her cheeks stuffed as full as a chipmunk’s, and then began to chew, valiantly attempting to maintain her decorum in the face of adversity. She over-filled her own fork, chewing all the while, and offered it solemnly to the little girl, who leaned forward with a giggle and wolfed down an enormous bite of her own. Marella sat benignly looking on, evidently present at the table solely to make certain that no one choked on their food. Hoshi bit her lip to keep from laughing aloud. It was hard to believe that their rigidly proper First Officer was capable of such behavior.

There was evidently much more to her than met the eye… and Lianna was an expert at forcing her to reveal herself. On the bridge, when the Regent had left the circle to talk with the Betazoid fleet, Lianna had promptly wormed her way out of Galen’s arms and made a beeline for Commander T’Pol’s station. She’d tugged on the Vulcan’s arm until T’Pol had relented and picked her up. After the Regent’s conversation with the captain of the Ringbearer, when Marella and Galen had gone to collect Lianna, the child had announced, in a voice clearly audible to everyone on the bridge, that she would not go with them because “Trip-T’hy’la is busy, and my T’Pol needs a hug”. Her statement had earned a puzzled look from Travis, and knowing grins…quickly suppressed… from both Malcolm and the captain. Hoshi was certain then that the captain knew more that he was telling about the relationship between the two commanders. T’Pol had turned bright green, and had looked about as mortified as a Vulcan was capable of looking. Captain Archer had kept a straight face when he’d ordered her to escort their Betazoid guests to their quarters… at least until she’d left the bridge with the Betazoid contingent in tow… whereupon Hoshi, Malcolm, and the captain had all burst out laughing, to Travis’ complete bewilderment.

Commander Tucker entered the dining hall, picked up a mug of something to drink, and then headed toward the table where T’Pol sat with the Betazoid medic and her young companion. Hoshi smiled when she saw him, and took another sip of her malt. His presence boded well for her plans for the evening. She doubted that he’d leave engineering unless repairs had been completed, so if he was here, Malcolm couldn’t be far behind. The blond engineer looked dead on his feet.

When Commander Tucker arrived at the table, T’Pol took one look at him and sent him back for food with a few choice words that were inaudible to Hoshi from where she sat. Amazingly enough, he didn’t argue. His ready compliance might have had something to do with the fact that Lianna, by that time, had slipped down from her seat, grasped him firmly by the hand, and was tugging him toward the food dispensers with a determined look on her face. There was no point in arguing with both of them.

Left alone at the table, Marella and T’Pol seemed to be discussing a topic with great seriousness. Hoshi strained to hear what was being said, wishing just once for Vulcan hearing, but the two of them were simply too far away. Whatever their discussion was about, they seemed to come to an agreement about something. T’Pol nodded, and then Marella rose from her seat and placed both hands lightly on the top of the Vulcan’s head for a few seconds. She removed them and sat down as Commander Tucker returned to the table with his meal, accompanied by Lianna, who was carrying a plate containing yet another piece of pie. Lianna’s face lit up when she reached the table, and after carefully placing Commander Tucker’s dessert on the table next to his dinner plate, she promptly climbed into T’Pol’s lap and wrapped her arms around the Vulcan’s neck. T’Pol, for her part, eyed Trip blandly over the top of the child’s head with a raised brow as he laughed at her predicament, and then closed her eyes. She appeared to be meditating. Hoshi could see Lianna’s face over T’Pol’s shoulder. Her eyes were closed as well, and she had an uncannily serene expression on her face for a five year old. They remained in that position, unmoving, while Trip ate his meal, conversing in a friendly fashion with Marella.

Malcolm entered the dining hall, then. Hoshi watched his lean, muscular form as he collected his plate of food and a beverage, and then began to walk toward her with a wry little smile on his face. She returned his smile, sighing in pleasure as she watched him walk. The man was so beautiful. Even exhausted and unshaven, he had a physical grace when he moved that reminded her of a predatory animal. She found herself devoutly hoping that he wasn’t as exhausted as he appeared to be.

“You didn’t have to wait up for me,” he told her in a preoccupied tone, as he sat down at the table and began to wolf down bangers and mash as if he hadn’t eaten in a week. “I won’t be much company, I’m afraid. It’s skof and kip for me tonight. I’m all in,” he said incomprehensibly, with his mouth full and his attention focused on the plate in front of him. She eyed him in puzzlement. She prided herself on her English vocabulary, but sometimes it seemed as if the language he spoke had nothing to do with English at all.

“Skof and kip?” she asked him with a baffled expression.

He swallowed and then laughed. “Sorry… just something my grandfather used to say… I think it’s really old British military slang,” he clarified with a shrug. He took another bite of sausage dipped in mashed potatoes, returning his eyes to his plate. “Means food and bed,” he mumbled while chewing. Hoshi suppressed a smile. That sounded like an excellent plan to her as well.

A childish squeal came from across the room. Hoshi looked up to see Commander Tucker, with a huge smile on his face, being attacked by a small dark-haired mop-headed little girl. Marella removed her hands from his head, and stepped back, laughing, as Lianna rested her forehead on Commander Tucker’s and threw her arms around his neck. No one said a word at the table across the way, but there seemed to be a lively conversation going on nonetheless. T’Pol looked on with a curiously hungry expression. Her eyes never left Commander Tucker’s face. He made eye contact with her over the little girl’s head, and Hoshi could have sworn she saw him blush. Lianna whispered something into his ear, and he pulled back and stared at her in shock.

“I’ll tell you when you’re older, you rascal!” he said aloud in an outraged voice loud enough to be heard across the dining hall. The little girl giggled, gave him a wet kiss on the cheek, and then slid down from his arms. She approached T’Pol again and laid a small hand on the Vulcan’s cheek without a word. T’Pol’s expression softened, but she said nothing. Lianna and Marella left the dining room hand in hand. After they left, the two commanders eyed each other for mere seconds before standing in unison and making a rapid exit. Hoshi grinned.

Malcolm, completely oblivious to the goings on across the room, scraped the last bit of potatoes from his plate and licked them from his fork with a satisfied sigh. Hoshi whisked both fork and plate from his grasp and efficiently cleared the table. She returned from depositing the stack of dishes in the recycling unit to find Malcolm slowly sipping his tea. He sat with his eyes closed and his chin on one hand, half asleep at the table. She rested her hands on his shoulders as she stood by his chair and leaned down to whisper in his ear.

“Come on, Malcolm,” she murmured softly with a sly smile on her face. “I need a place to crash tonight… my roommate has a guest over. Let’s go tuck you in.”


 

Irana lay skin to skin with Galen beneath the covers of the small bunk in the cabin she’d been assigned so that she could get some rest in preparation for their return to Betazed in the morning. She hadn’t yet gotten any rest at all. Galen had been assigned the adjoining cabin, but after so many months apart, they had both decided that separate quarters were unacceptable. Her head lay on his shoulder as she ran her fingers through the crisp black hair on his chest. It was laced with grey now, but the hard muscles beneath it still felt marvelously firm to the touch. The feel of his skin beneath her fingers and against her leg as she slid it up and down his thigh merged with the sensation of his mind fully linked with hers until she had difficulty determining where he ended and she began. His unwavering love for her, despite the way she’d pushed him away, was a solid warm foundation in the back of her mind, while her forebrain was currently occupied with the memories of their most recent bout of lovemaking… and guilt over how she’d shut him out of her life in the year since the war had begun, and indeed for many years prior to that in her quest for the perfect career.

You have enough to concern you, Irana, he chided her gently. Stop dwelling on the past. He wrapped his arm securely about her shoulders and pulled her more closely against his warmth, sighing in satisfaction. His contentment made her smile wistfully.

I never meant to hurt you Galen, she sent back in regret. I thought I was keeping you safe, first by providing for you and the children financially, and then by insuring that you knew nothing of value to the enemy… but all I did was cause you pain.

His rueful chuckle rumbled against her ear. I won’t deny that I’ve been angry and hurt more times than I can count, Irana… but I’ve always understood why you feel such pressure to achieve. It can’t be easy to be the one solely responsible for the income in our household. I should have offered to help you earlier. He sighed and pulled back to look at her in the face. Their eyes met. She could see the hurt in them. He looked genuinely confused. Ever since I began working last year, though, it seems like I’ve just pushed you farther away. At times, I’ve even sensed jealousy from you. What have I done to make you jealous? I’ve always been faithful to you… I swear it! She could sense his frustration and puzzlement, and raised a hand to stroke his cheek.

You do realize that for the past six months, your financial contribution to the household has been greater than mine, don’t you Galen? she sent wryly. It was petty of me, but I suppose I’ve been just a bit jealous of your success. I’m sorry. Shame flooded the link to join the guilt. Galen sighed in resignation, and embraced her more tightly. His forgiveness flooded her mind, chasing away the shame. They lay together, skin pressed against skin, with their minds linked and their arms and legs wrapped around each other.

I’ve missed this. I should never have shut you out. I should have told my superiors to go stuff themselves when they told me it was necessary, she sent after several minutes. She could sense Galen’s amused agreement, but he objected nonetheless.

Irana… he sent back patiently, If the Romulans had learned how to protect themselves from Marella’s defense, our entire planet would now be a part of the Romulan Empire. The fewer people who knew about it outside of military circles, the better. He paused, and she picked up a hint of mischievous good humor. … so stop worrying about it and tell me when you’d like to get married, he added with a grin.

She laughed dryly. I’m getting awfully old to go naked in public, Galen. You’d better give me at least six months to get in shape before the ceremony…

The comm console attention tone sounded loudly in the quiet room. Irana sighed heavily, and then rose from the bed with a groan of protest and walked unselfconsciously bare-skinned to the wall to answer the comm. Despite her protests to the contrary, Galen’s appreciative gaze, and the feelings she was picking up that accompanied it, told her that the efforts she had made to stay in shape despite her sixty-plus years of being alive were paying off. She met his eyes with a knowing smile as she activated the comm.

“Irana here.”

“Sorry to disturb you, Regent… but you have a personal call from the surface of Betazed. It’s from your daughter,” said the beta shift comm officer. Irana smiled more broadly at Galen.

“I’ll take it in my cabin,” she told the comm officer. Then she walked to the vid console and sat down without bothering to dress. She activated the screen, and the face of her youngest daughter appeared. Arabella looked tired, but her lovely young face lit up in excitement when she saw her mother.

“Mother! I’m so glad to see you!” she blurted. “You’re all over the news! They’ve run the footage of the Matriarch’s statement at least five times in the past hour!” She gave her mother a puzzled smile. “How did you get it? Cameras aren’t allowed in the Matriarch’s bedchamber.”

Irana smiled and laughed. “Apparently, our human allies weren’t told that, and their Chief of Security had a recording device running in his tactical helmet the entire time… not exactly the traditional way, but the footage certainly came in handy. The traditionalists will get their proof tomorrow. I plan to do the witnessing ceremony at the council meeting.”

The Betazoid constitution specified that in the event of the death while in office of one of the Great House representatives, the titular head of that house would serve as its representative until elections could be held. The clause had occasionally been invoked in the past, but never before on such a grand scale. The heads of every Great House on the planet would be meeting on the grounds of the Sixth House the next day to choose a new ruler of Betazed. Technically, the ruler could be any one of them, but tradition gave precedence to the previous matriarch’s chosen successor. The successor was usually chosen from another house, as Rianne had been. No one knew how the other Great Houses would respond to the prospect of having two matriarchs in succession from the same house. The outcome of the conference was therefore uncertain. Irana found herself hoping that another suitable candidate for matriarch would step out of the woodwork and relieve her of the burdensome responsibility. Thus far, unfortunately, no one had offered.

Arabella’s eyes then traveled from her mother’s face to the rest of her, and her state of complete undress registered.

“Is somebody getting married?” she asked half-jokingly. Galen stepped up behind Irana and knelt, wrapping his arms around her upper chest and grinning at his daughter over Irana’s shoulder. Most of his body was hidden by Irana’s, but his bare arms and shoulders were visible. Arabella’s face lit up into a broad smile.

“No!” she protested with a laugh. “I though she’d never ask you, Papa!”

Galen shrugged as Irana looked back at him with a loving smile. “I guess I’m just irresistible!” he quipped, with a waggle of his brow, and then kissed Irana gently on the lips. Arabella giggled.

Galen looked back up at the screen. “Speaking of irresistible, where’s my baby girl?” he asked eagerly. Arabella’s smile became mischievous.

“I thought you’d ask, Papa,” she replied, “… so…” She bent down out of view of the camera and came back up holding a wide-eyed infant. “I gave her a bath and got her ready for you!” she finished with a flourish.

The baby’s cherubic face was swarthy compared to her mother’s, and was surrounded by a misty nimbus of dark fuzz that stood out from her head like a soft halo. Her huge pupil-less eyes were a deep brown color. Her right thumb was stuck firmly into her mouth. When she recognized her grandfather’s face, she smiled a sticky wet smile around the digit in her mouth without removing it. Then she pulled out her thumb with an audible pop and reached for the vid screen with a spit covered hand, leaving smears on the camera lens that Arabella, laughing, was forced to wipe clean with the towel she had conveniently hung over one shoulder for just such an emergency.

“No, Maya… don’t touch,” she chided the infant gently, grasping her hand and wiping it dry. She gave her parents an excited grin. “Watch this!” she said. Turning to Maya, still smiling, Arabella said in a sing-song voice, “Say hi to Grandpop and Grandmother,” as she mimicked waving with one hand. The baby, still toothlessly grinning, raised a hand and began opening and closing her fist in imitation. “See?” said Arabella triumphantly. “Isn’t she smart?”

Irana smiled and nodded in agreement as Galen made silly faces at the vid screen. The infant certainly seemed to be quite intelligent. Irana’s feelings of anger and frustration over the circumstances of her granddaughter’s birth had not completely faded, but she was beginning to come to terms with them. Maya’s conception and birth had been, and always would be, something over which no one but Arabella had any control. There was really no point in penalizing the child for her mother’s rash decision. She only hoped that as the child grew, her telepathic abilities would prove to be sufficient to allow her to function in Betazoid society. As far as the issue of Arabella wanting to set up housekeeping with a loveplay partner as if she were a consort or a husband was concerned… well… there was no point in even discussing it anymore. In Irana’s view, loveplay was loveplay… and household contracts were for the production of children. It made perfect sense to Irana, but Arabella and many other young people of her generation were changing the rules that Irana had always accepted as fact. It took a good deal of getting used to.

Maya laughed aloud at Galen’s antics… a deep, throaty chuckle. Irana laughed as well, despite herself. The child was really very sweet. With her exotically dark complexion and unusually light colored eyes, she was the image of her father. What Arabella had done to the poor boy was truly a crime. Irana eyed her daughter for a moment, and then decided to make some waves.

“I met Lieutenant Mayweather yesterday, Arabella,” she said. “He seems quite charming.”

Arabella smiled a fondly reminiscent smile. “He is, isn’t he?” she agreed complacently. “He’s gorgeous too… and smart!” Her smile widened suddenly as she looked at her mother in surprise. “Lieutenant? He was an ensign when we met!”

Irana looked back at her in exasperation. Galen, too, was now eyeing her in puzzlement.

“Arabella, sweetheart, if you have such regard for Maya’s father, why are you doing this to him?” asked Galen in a bemused tone of voice.

Arabella bounced Maya on her knee absently, and gazed back at her father as if she had no idea what he was talking about.

“’Doing to him’, Papa? What am I doing to him?” she asked in frank bewilderment. “He wanted loveplay and a pleasant evening when we met… nothing else. Lana and I gave him that… and quite a bit more if I recall!” she added with a mischievous grin. “Then Lana and I decided that he’d be the ideal father for our child, and I was the closest to ovulation,” she explained matter-of-factly, as if decisions such as hers were made on the spur of the moment all the time. “We’re not asking him for anything.” She shrugged. “It’s been over a year now. He probably doesn’t even remember our names,” she said lightly.

Irana shook her head and regarded her daughter sternly. “You’re wrong about that, Arabella. Marella told me that he came to her and asked about you specifically by name… simply because you and she were from the same house. He remembers… and you owe him at least a word of gratitude and the opportunity to hold his own child.”

Arabella pulled the baby to her chest defensively. “Maya is not his child, mother! She’s mine and Lana’s. He’s got no right to her!” she insisted.

Galen gave her a reproving look. “All you have to do is look at her to see that he has some right to her, Arabella! How can you deprive the man of at least meeting his own daughter?” he asked in an outraged voice. Irana could sense his hurt over his daughter’s cavalier attitude.

Arabella’s expression immediately became contrite. She could obviously see the pain on her father’s face. Irana sat back to let Galen handle it. As often as Irana and her younger daughter had argued about everything under the sun, almost from the moment of the girl’s birth… and sometimes nearly to the point of physical violence… Arabella had never been able to bear upsetting her father.

“Arabella, sweetheart…” said Galen with forced patience, “…the man is a military officer. He’s not going to take Maya away from you. He’s got no place to keep her and no legal right to custody if you refuse to acknowledge his paternity.” He shook his head at her with a rueful smile. “What you’re doing just isn’t right, baby girl,” he said quietly. “You know that all I want is for you to be happy… but think of Maya. She’s got the right to know her father as well.”

Arabella’s eyes welled with tears at her father’s disapproval. She swallowed, and then pulled Maya closely against her and buried her lips in the infant’s soft cushion of hair, closing her eyes. Then she lifted her head and gazed soberly at her father.

“I’ll think about it, Papa… I promise,” she said softly. Tears began to spill down her cheeks. “See you both tomorrow,” she hastily added in a choked voice, and suddenly reached forward to deactivate the comm.

Irana sat looking at the darkened screen with Galen kneeling behind her. He rested his chin on her shoulder.

Will she agree to let him see the baby, do you think? sent Irana with resignation. Galen sighed and smiled wistfully.

I’ll talk to Lana. Perhaps she can convince her, he replied. He stood and reached for Irana’s hand. He smiled at her reassuringly. If you’ll use your connections to get young Mr. Mayweather included in the landing party tomorrow, I think something can be arranged, he sent. He pulled her up from the chair and into his arms. His smile became sweetly enticing. Now stop worrying about it and come back to bed.


Trip walked briskly beside his wife through the corridors of Enterprise. Until Marella had removed their shields, he’d been physically exhausted from the repairs he’d been doing on the ship for the past several hours. He’d wanted nothing more than to see Lianna for a few moments, and then to spend thirty minutes in a hot shower before going straight to bed. The physical fatigue was still there, but it now took a back seat to the overpowering need that he was sensing from T’Pol through the bond. He was a bit frightened by it.

Are you sure you don’t wanna go see Phlox before we head to your quarters, T’Pol? Seems to me that somethin’s wrong, he sent, his concern for her momentarily dominant in the bond. Isn’t this problem of yours supposed to get better when the bond comes back?

She stared straight ahead as they walked, her jaw clenched in rigid control. The doctor cannot help with this, Trip… but I believe that I have discovered the problem, she sent in return. They arrived at the door to her quarters, and he motioned for her to precede him. During the entire trip from the dining hall, they’d neither spoken nor touched one another. The door closed behind them. T’Pol immediately turned and pinned him against the bulkhead, reaching for his left temple with her right hand. He didn’t resist. The bond allowed him to immediately understand her intent. Her need for him was not physical. If it had been, their encounter in Engineering earlier that day would certainly have solved the problem. She needed mental contact with him desperately. Reactivation of the bond had only served to make the solution to the problem obvious to her. She craved a meld. Nothing else would do.

Trip smiled at her, and raised his right hand to her temple as well. He closed his eyes and tried to relax completely, offering no resistance to her now desperate search for contact.

“My mind to your mind…” she muttered aloud. The rest was unnecessary. He felt her fierce need surround him, penetrating his conscious mind and burrowing deeper. She was in no mood for gentleness, and the contact was almost physically painful. He ground his teeth together and forced himself not to resist. When she reached that core of emotion within him where his love for her superseded all other considerations, she stopped, drawn to its bright comfort. He felt her love for him. It was buried within her subconscious, and she called it other things… things like “affection”, “protectiveness”, “possessiveness”… but he knew very well what it was. He reached for it, and felt the joining that resulted when their katras met. The result was more intensely satisfying than a hundred orgasms… a resolution of tension and satisfaction of need that was so complete he felt for a moment as if he were leaving his body behind to join with her in hers. Following their explosive meeting of souls, the aftermath of complete union was almost anticlimactic. They became I.

He/she opened her eyes, and was momentarily disoriented as he abruptly felt a strong sense of deja-vu. The face she was looking at was Trip’s, and then, mere seconds later, his viewpoint changed suddenly, and he was looking at T’Pol’s face. She was smiling. They were smiling. The overwhelming need was gone… replaced by serene contentment.

This has never happened before. What’s happening? he asked herself. Then she answered his own question. Before, only our minds were joined. Our katras are joined now… but we can’t stay like this. It’s not safe.

Their breathing rates, body temperature, and heart rates, usually so disparate, had by this time stabilized to a level midway between Vulcan and Human norms. The change disturbed the Vulcan’s body not one whit, but the being that was now both Vulcan and Human could feel the Human’s body struggling to maintain itself under the strain. The part of him/her that had once been T’Pol of Vulcan became concerned.

It is time, now, ashayam, she thought wistfully.

Simply thinking of her beloved as a separate entity began the process of separation. Trip/T’Pol cried out in protest as she/he experienced the sensation of being violently ripped apart. Trip stubbornly held on until the last possible second, unwilling to be left alone, even at the risk of his own life… but T’Pol refused to allow him to risk himself. She ended the meld abruptly, pulling her fingers from his temple and wrapping her arms about him in comfort as tears of loss streamed down his cheeks. Her presence within his head comforted him, partially assuaging his grief over losing the total union they’d experienced only too briefly. He felt her sorrow and regret at causing him pain, and he pulled back from the embrace, cupping her cheeks in both hands.

Don’t be sorry, darlin’! he sent gently, smiling through his tears. Never be sorry… not for what just happened.

She returned his tearful smile with a wide-eyed, solemn look. I might have injured you, she sent remorsefully. We must never do it again.

He reached out with the fingers of one hand to caress the wispy hairs in front of her left ear, smiling ruefully at her. I suppose not, if it’s gonna be that hard to separate every time we do it, he reluctantly agreed. His eyes met hers questioningly. It worked, though… didn’t it? he sent, already knowing through the bond what the answer to his question would be. The sensation of overwhelming need had vanished. He felt only calmness and control from her.

It did, she responded briefly, with Vulcan serenity. He gave her a slightly wistful smile. In some ways, he was really going to miss being needed. He pushed away from the bulkhead and stretched his rapidly stiffening muscles, avoiding her eyes.

“Guess I’ll go take a shower, then,” he said aloud. “I must be kinda ripe by now,” he said with half-hearted humor.

“Stay here, and I will shower with you,” replied T’Pol, to Trip’s surprise. His eyes met hers questioningly, but the bond gave nothing away. He wasn’t even picking up desire from her.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked in a puzzled voice.

She nodded wordlessly, and then reached behind her neck to unfasten her uniform. She paused, raising a brow at him expectantly, and he began to undress as well. After they both stood nude in the center of the room, T’Pol simply walked to the bathroom and turned on the shower. The moment seemed surreal to Trip. There were no sexual overtones in the bond at all. The two of them could have been recalibrating the warp coils together for all the interest that T’Pol was showing in his body at that moment. His interest level, on the other hand, was definitely on the rise. He watched her enter the shower and arch her head back beneath the spray of hot water, running her fingers over her hair to push it out of her eyes. The movement caused her back to arch, displaying her beautiful breasts. The urge to touch them was overwhelming. He stepped into the shower behind her, and laid his hands softly on her shoulders, running them down her upper arms and across her chest to grasp a slippery double-handful. The physical contact deepened their mental connection, and he realized then that, although his wife’s control had greatly improved, her outward appearance was highly deceptive. He felt her amusement as he lowered his mouth to the junction of her neck and shoulder, slaking his thirst on the droplets of water that clung to her skin.

Did you truly believe that I felt no desire for you, t'hy’la? she sent teasingly.

Her head dropped back, and she gasped in pleasure as he stepped closer to her in response to her question, molding his body to her back and buttocks, and rubbing his silky smooth shaft against her as his mouth found the point of one ear.

I was beginnin’ to wonder for a minute, there, darlin’, he sent back with a grin. His hands left her breasts and traveled southward, smoothing the wet, slippery plain of her taut abdomen. One arm pulled her more firmly against him as his pelvis began to thrust against her with more insistence, and his opposite hand strayed between her thighs, searching for just the right spot… She shuddered and gasped softly as he found it.

I was merely practicing my control… Her thoughts strayed momentarily. The rhythm of his hand and his body intensified. I wanted to see if the meld had… She moaned and strained against his hand. … if it had improved my ability to shield my thoughts and emotions…. He pushed her forward with practiced ease so that her arms were braced against the wall, his hand still busily occupied, and bending his knees, entered her with a groan. All thought left them both for a long moment as he stroked her both from within and without. Their completion, when it came, reverberated intensely through the bond. Trip had no idea whether he was experiencing his own orgasm, hers, or an incredible combination of the two. Although it fell far short of the explosive near-death experience that the joining of their katras had produced, it was certainly a damn good, much less life-threatening substitute.

I didn’t think it was possible… but I think the katra thing has actually made sex better! sent Trip woozily as he pulled away from her and reached for the wall to steady himself. His legs were rubbery, and he felt light-headed, as if he were about to pass out… but the grin on his face rivaled any that Phlox had ever sported. T’Pol turned, still breathing heavily herself, and wrapping one arm about his waist, carefully lowered him to the floor of the shower. She lifted a hand to his cheek, gazing at him in concern.

The stress of the meld followed so soon by vigorous physical activity has exhausted you, husband. Let me help you to bed.

Trip rested his head against the back wall of the shower and smiled at her sleepily. He reached to the floor of the shower and grasped the soap, lifting it to his own eye level. She took it from him with a puzzled expression.

We can’t go to bed until we’re clean, he told her with a pleading expression. Then he grinned suggestively. Can I watch?

T’Pol stood over him with a speculative look on her face, and then stepped beneath the now lukewarm spray of water and began lathering her body, deliberately taking her time with it. Trip watched the show with drowsy appreciation. By the time she’d reached her feet and ankles, parts of him were already starting to sit up and take notice.

Wonder if I can convince her to soap me up like that next time, he thought wistfully. Looks like fun…

T’Pol finished her rinse, and then reached down to help him to his feet. He didn’t realize she’d heard him until she knelt before him and began to soap his legs.


 

Lieutenant Travis Mayweather shut down the shuttle’s engine, secured the control panel, and followed the rest of the landing party. The trip down had been a very tight squeeze. With the Regent and her family, the captain and his wife, Commanders Tucker and T’Pol, and the two Sixth House guardsmen on board, it had been standing room only in the shuttlepod. It was a relief to get to the surface and get some air.

Travis stepped out onto the landing field on the grounds of the Sixth House, and very nearly turned back around again to hide. The field was lined with over a hundred young men in uniforms of various kinds. A closer study of their manner of dress revealed it to be military, in at least a dozen different colors and styles. Each group of ten or twelve guards… for household guards were obviously what they were… wore a uniform which was unique, but they all blended harmoniously into one colorful whole. Beyond the guards milled a huge crowd of spectators, kept at bay by the cordon surrounding the perimeter of the field. As he watched, a car approached at a slow crawl through the crowd, which parted to allow it passage. The entire scene was eerily silent, as the spectators communicated telepathically with each other. When the car reached the periphery of the field, the guardsmen separated to allow it to enter the protected area. A wisened old woman sat in the car. She made no move to exit, but sat looking expectantly at the others. Her eyes met the Regent’s. Irana nodded graciously, and then moved forward to take her seat at the woman’s side. Galen followed, and then Marella, holding Lianna securely by the hand. Commander T’Pol led the way next, glancing at Commander Tucker, who then whispered something to Captain Archer. He turned to his wife, who was fortunately standing close enough to Travis for his words to finally shed some light on the situation.

“The woman in the car is Rolanna of the Fifth House. As the eldest head of a Great House present today, she’s been chosen to escort the Regent to the council meeting,” murmured the captain to his wife. “She’s also the leading candidate for matriarch after the Regent.” He smiled wryly. “Trip says she’s about a hundred and twenty years old.”

Elena Archer raised an amused brow. “Might be a pretty short reign if she’s elected,” she whispered as the group walked forward to take their seats. The captain chuckled and nodded.

“I think that’s the general consensus,” he agreed.

They all found seats in the open car, and then the vehicle made its way with ponderous slowness through the dense crowd and back toward the house. Travis found himself sitting directly across from the wrinkled white-haired old woman. Her black bird-like eyes looked him over from head to foot. Then she gave the Regent a questioning look. Irana returned her gaze with a rather embarrassed smile, and nodded. The old woman reached out with a withered and claw-like hand and patted Travis on the knee.

“I don’t blame her one bit… you’re a sweet one!” she told him in a thin and wavering voice, with a rather uncomfortably flirtatious smile. Travis’ smile in return was a bit forced. This situation was getting entirely too strange for his comfort.

When the car finally reached the house, another welcoming party waited for them at the front door. Two rows of household guards in full dress uniform with sabers at their belts lined up on either side of the walkway which led from the front drive to the entrance of the house. Travis craned his neck to get a glimpse of the gardens, which were just as beautiful and elaborate as he remembered. The Regent and her ancient companion moved to get up. Travis rose to his feet and offered his help to the old woman, then stepped aside to allow her to enter the house on Irana’s arm. Galen and Marella followed afterwards, and moved to the opposite side to allow the remainder of the group to disembark. Travis remained standing where he was, transfixed by the sight which faced him across the walkway. A young woman carrying an infant in her arms had stepped up to embrace Galen. He wrapped his arms around her, and then lifted the baby and gathered it to his chest with a doting look. A second young woman in uniform hovered in the background with a smile on her face. The first girl was Arabella. He’d only met her once, but he was absolutely certain of it. The girl in uniform had to be her friend Lana… and the baby… well… he’d never seen a Betazoid with hair and a complexion like that… and the child looked too much like his own baby pictures for there to be any doubt in his mind whatsoever of her origin… at least he thought it was a “her”.

The captain and his wife followed Commanders Trip and T’Pol into the house, but Travis was oblivious to it all. With his eyes fixed on the baby, he crossed the walkway and approached Galen as he stood holding the child. Arabella’s panicked expression barely registered in his peripheral vision as he stood face to face with his daughter’s grandfather.

“Hello, sir,” he said with a polite but determined smile. Galen returned his smile with a friendly one of his own.

“Hello, son,” he replied. His eyes turned to the worried looking young woman at his side. Travis saw Arabella reach behind her, apparently searching for reassurance. Lana grasped her hand, and then stepped up to wrap an arm around her securely. Arabella leaned into her in a decidedly couple-like manner. The situation suddenly became clearer to the young man.

“Arabella… you remember Lieutenant Mayweather, I’m sure…” Galen prompted.

Travis met her eyes. Arabella swallowed, and then smiled a rather sick-looking smile. “Hello, Travis…,” she whispered. He smiled at her ruefully, and extended his hand. She gave him an odd look as she grasped it. He gave it a firm shake.

“It’s really nice to see you again, Arabella,” he said stoutly, gazing at her squarely in the eye as if she were an old friend… a quite platonic old friend. He transferred his attention to Lana, and gave her precisely the same look, and the same brisk handshake.

“Hello, Lana… you both look well,” he told her.

Both young women gave him very puzzled looks. He smiled at them reassuringly. “I suppose congratulations are in order,” he told them. He eyed the dusky brown-eyed infant in Galen’s arms, and reached out a hand toward her. She grasped his finger in a tiny fist and shoved the tip of it into her mouth. Arabella laughed. Travis smiled at the round little face that was so like his own. He found his eyes growing moist, despite himself.

“We named her Maya, after her father,” offered Lana softly. Travis looked up from his fascinated study of the baby’s face to give both young women a sad smile.

“And that’s all you were planning to allow me to give her, isn’t it?” he asked in soft reproof. “Just my name… and not even all of it, at that.”

Both Arabella and Lana suddenly looked acutely uncomfortable. Galen smiled at Travis proudly. Travis somehow got the impression that he’d passed a test of some sort.

Galen pulled Travis’ finger out of Maya’s grip, and then transferred her efficiently into the Human’s arms. Travis looked momentarily startled, and then smiled again as Maya settled down happily, stuck her thumb into her mouth, and fell asleep… all in about five seconds flat. Galen wrapped one arm around Travis’ shoulders and the other one around his daughter and her partner, herding all of them ahead of him and into the house.

“Let’s go visit in the library until the council meeting is over,” he told them, fussing over them all like a mother hen over her chicks. “Then we can all have lunch with the new Matriarch.”


 

Jonathan Archer sat beside Elena in the observation area set up for reporters and visitors behind a viewing window in the wall of the huge, ornately appointed meeting room in the Sixth House. The Ruling Council had met here after the Romulan attack over a year ago. This was the room where he and Amelia had negotiated Betazed’s treaty with Earth, only now he was on the opposite side of the window, helpless to change the outcome of the day’s proceedings. He felt distinctly outnumbered. The observation area contained no men at all beside himself. He’d also noticed a strange behavior pattern on the part of the room’s occupants. Each of the women in the room had approached Elena first, introducing themselves and offering social pleasantries. Not one of them had spoken directly to him until Elena had introduced him as her husband. Even then, their smiles had been perfunctory until Elena had explained to them the apparently previously incomprehensible fact that it was he who was the captain of the Earth ship Enterprise. They’d eyed him then as if he were some unusual species of insect. It was all he could do to keep from laughing at their expressions.

The proceedings in the main room continued in absolute silence. Archer, being decidedly non-telepathic, was beginning to get rather bored. As Elena conversed quietly with a dark-haired Betazoid matron, who was evidently giving her a blow-by-blow description of the meeting in progress in a voice which was, of course, not loud enough for him to hear her, Archer heard an amused and familiarly accented female voice at his shoulder.

“Feeling a little left out of the loop? I know the feeling!”

Archer looked up into a pair of lovely brown eyes surrounded by a head of riotously curly auburn hair. He did a double take. Brown eyes!

“You’re human!” he blurted.

The woman smiled at him, cocking a brow. “Ambassador Anis Faa at your service, Captain,” she said ironically, in a heavy Scottish burr.

Archer smiled at her in relief and extended his hand. “I’m really happy to see you, Ambassador. I’d heard that the government complex was destroyed during a session of the Ruling Council at which you were scheduled to testify. We thought you were dead.”

Anis gripped his hand in hers. Her grip was substantial. He stood. She topped him by a head, and looked like she outweighed him by at least fifty pounds. The woman was an Amazon!

“The so-called Monarch had a crush on me, Captain. He decided to protect me when he allowed the entire Ruling Council to be killed without warning,” replied Anis ruefully. She smiled wryly, sighing almost regretfully. “Fortunately, his reign was short-lived, and he’s now in custody. He’s a beautiful but treacherous little man.”

Archer gave her an amused look. Ordinarily, he’d have considered the reference to a man as “beautiful” to be an indication that the woman had been on Betazed entirely too long. In this particular instance, though, he had to admit that the term was entirely appropriate. With his long black curls and fine, delicate features, Elren was, indeed, quite beautiful… and as treacherous as all hell.

Applause broke out in the main chamber. Archer’s attention returned to the council meeting. The Regent… the Matriarch now, he guessed… stood before the assembled heads of the Great Houses with a solemn and resigned look on her face while the others enthusiastically applauded. She wore a circlet of ornately engraved silver metal about her head. The meeting ended as it had begun… in complete silence. Archer turned to Elena, who smiled brightly at him.

“Wasn’t that exciting, Jon?” she whispered enthusiastically. “A constitutional monarchy with an elected ruler! I don’t think any country on Earth has ever had a governmental structure like this one.”

He regarded her eager expression with puzzlement. Lawyers got excited over the strangest things.


 

T’Pol watched Trip and Lianna from the security of dry land, walking alongside them as they walked hand-in-hand down the streambed. The engineer and his young admirer had both removed their shoes and rolled their pant legs above the knee, and were now following the course of the brook that wound through the gardens of the Sixth House, balancing precariously on the slippery stones that formed a path for the rivulet of water which danced its way through the trees. T’Pol, the designated shoe-bearer, carried a pair of shoes in each hand, leaving the adventurers’ hands free to catch small amphibians, pocket shiny stones, and do the innumerable other things which were so important to a five year old on an outdoor expedition.

“Lianna… look!” said Trip in a stage whisper. He stopped and stepped to the bank, crouching behind a dense thicket of reed-like plants. He beckoned to Lianna to join him. T’Pol obligingly froze in her tracks. A small furry animal approached the bend in the stream ahead. Its pelt was a rich brown color, and its prominent ears stood erect. It hopped to the edge of the water and bent its head to drink. Although there were rodents that distantly resembled it on Vulcan, T’Pol’s first thought was that, except for its smooth brown tail which looked nothing like a ball of terrestrial cotton, the animal bore a remarkable resemblance to a photograph she’d once seen of a rabbit.

“It’s Peter Rabbit!” Trip murmured to the little girl with a grin. Suddenly, the animal lifted its head. Lianna raised her hand to the Human’s lips in earnest warning, and then fixed her eyes on the fuzzy rodent. They both held their breaths and remained motionless until the jittery little thing decided that there wasn’t anything to worry about after all, and lowered its head to the stream again. Then the questions began. Since Trip was linked to the little girl through his telepathic bondmate, T’Pol got a front row seat for the interrogation.

Who’s Peter Rabbit, Trip-T’hy’la?

Trip smiled at her indulgently. A very naughty little bunny in a story my mother used to tell me when I was a kid, he sent. The brown pseudo-bunny finished his water break and began to hop slowly down the stream bank, nibbling on vegetation.

What’s a ‘bunny’? sent the little girl curiously.

An animal from Earth that looks very much like that… he nodded toward the small brown fuzzball ambling its way toward the next patch of reeds.

But that’s a hopper! protested Lianna, with typically literal-minded five year old logic.

Trip sighed and rolled his eyes. Okay… so he’s Peter Hopper! he replied tolerantly.

The animal disappeared within the ground cover, and Trip stood up. Lianna reached for his hand and gave him a beseeching look.

Will you tell me the story, Trip-T’hy’la? she asked. Trip chuckled and nodded, and they walked off together to sit under the nearest tree.

The little girl settled herself in his lap, and from where T’Pol stood she heard Trip begin with, “Once upon a time, there were four little bunnies… um… I mean hoppers… and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter…”

The sight of the two of them beneath the tree caused an unexpected pang of regret to surface. Had she never agreed to her posting on Enterprise, she would now be five years married to Koss. The marriage bond commonly triggered the Ponfarr in males, and so it was highly likely that, had she remained on Vulcan, she would now be the mother of a child roughly Lianna’s age. She found the idea oddly compelling.

A Vulcan child would at this age, of course, be expected to behave in a much more controlled manner than Lianna behaved. T’Pol tried to envision what an entirely Vulcan child born of a union between Koss and herself would have been like, and failed utterly. Any mental picture of a child which she identified as “hers” invariably involved a head full of blonde curls, intensely blue eyes, and a bright smile.

Her eyes focused on her bondmate’s earnest face as he told his tale to the spellbound little girl. He would be such an excellent parent, she thought, … a much better parent than I am capable of being, she realized. If she had remained on Vulcan, perhaps Trip would have found a Human woman by now… someone like Elena Archer... a strong woman to bear his children and raise them while she kept a home ready for him to return to after the war was over. Regret was replaced by grief as a picture of Elizabeth’s tiny face came unbidden to her mind. The thought that Elizabeth would very likely be their only child… at least in this reality… reared its head, and she deliberately suppressed it. The prospect of forcing Trip to remain childless in order to further her career was unacceptable. She’d have to bring up the issue herself, because he would not. It would never occur to him to ask her to give up her commission in order to bear his children.

When the war is over, she promised herself. It was satisfying to finally make the decision. When the war is over, I will bear Trip’s child... if he desires it. She exhaled fully, pleased to have the issue settled, at least in her own mind, and stepped away from the stream to join them beneath the tree. It was obvious to her that if she was planning to parent a half-human child, it might be useful to learn of Peter Rabbit’s adventures in Mr. MacGregor’s garden.


 

At 1400 hours local time, the new Matriarch’s celebratory luncheon was in full swing in the gardens of the Sixth House. The weather was warm and balmy, and open pavilions had been set up for shade with tables beneath them piled high with finger foods of all sorts. After offering their congratulations to the new Matriarch, Jonathan and Elena Archer were headed to the nearest heavily laden table when Elena caught sight of a crowd of women surrounding one of the stone benches at the periphery of the garden. In the center of the crowd sat Lieutenant Mayweather. He was flanked by a lovely young woman on either side, and was holding something in his lap which captured his entire attention as he blithely ignored what looked like at least a dozen eager admirers. She craned her neck and got a brief glimpse of what lay on his knees.

“Is that a baby?” she asked Jon eagerly. Ever since she’d become pregnant, an infant of any sort was a source of endless fascination. He squinted in the direction she’d indicated, and then shrugged, whereupon she grasped him by the hand and made a beeline for the child, dragging Jon behind her. Practically every female at the gathering seemed to be having the same idea, for the crowd around the young helmsman was growing by the second. When they arrived, Travis was holding the baby up to be admired, and the onlookers were oohing, aahing, and generally making fools of themselves. The two young women who’d joined the lieutenant on the bench were both smiling proudly parental smiles. Elena did a double take, and exchanged a surprised glance with Jon. The family resemblance was unmistakable.

“I take it the Lieutenant has been here before?” she murmured to Jon in an amused voice.

The captain of the Enterprise nodded matter-of-factly, and then exhaled heavily. “About fifteen months ago,” he replied ruefully. “Looks like we’re overdue for an inservice about fraternization with the locals,” he told her in a resigned tone of voice.


 

The shuttlepod seemed strangely empty with only four occupants after the overcrowding of the past couple of days. Jonathan Archer sat in the rear of the shuttle facing Trip and T’Pol, while Elena had seated herself next to Lieutenant Mayweather, who was currently regaling her with the newly discovered wonderfulness that was Maya. He already had a likeness of the child displayed on the control panel, and Archer had been present when he’d extracted a promise from the baby’s other parents… and her grandfather… to send him weekly subspace messages at his expense.

Archer’s attention returned to his First Officer and his Chief Engineer. They were subdued. The parting from Lianna had been a tearful one. T’Pol seemed to be handling the separation a bit better this time around, though. Archer’s eyes narrowed as he studied her expression. It was more… Vulcan… was the best way to describe it. The change was recent. Even yesterday during the battle she’d seemed fidgety and agitated… or at least it seemed so to him after all of her years of solid calm in the midst of crisis. He supposed it could be because she was now in Trip’s presence. It seemed to Archer that being with the engineer now somehow improved her performance in stressful situations. After what Phlox had told him about her relationship with Trip, that fact didn’t surprise him. Trip had wiped the tears from his face once he’d boarded the shuttle, and was now looking at Archer with a puzzled expression.

“Somethin’ wrong, Cap’n?” he asked.

Archer abruptly realized that he’d been staring at T’Pol for several minutes without explanation. He smiled apologetically at both of them.

“Sorry… just thinking,” he reassured them.

Trip eyed the two occupants of the cockpit warily, then turned back to Archer and leaned forward slightly. “Phlox told me that he talked to you about our marriage, Jon,” he whispered to his friend with an intent expression. T’Pol opened her mouth to say something to Trip, and then her eyes widened as Trip’s gaze focused on her for a moment. His eyes pleaded with her. Archer remained silent, fascinated by the obvious mental communication that was going on between the two of them. T’Pol appeared almost angry for a moment before her expression smoothed over once again. She inhaled deeply, closing her eyes, and then exhaled fully. When she opened her eyes again, they were fixed on Archer’s face. She said nothing.

Trip cleared his throat.

“Would you mind tellin’ us what you plan to do about it?” he asked softly.

Archer’s jaw clenched almost involuntarily at the question. He struggled mightily with his hurt and anger before answering. His eyes met Trip’s squarely. He found himself unable to even look at T’Pol.

“I can’t believe you even feel you have to ask me that question, Trip! When you came to me last year and told me about the two of you, I have to admit that I really didn’t understand,” he told his friend in angry resignation. “I know you said that the two of you were together… but I had no idea…” He looked away with clenched teeth. Then he met T’Pol’s eyes. “I thought there was more trust between us, T’Pol,” he said accusingly. She inhaled sharply, and then dropped her eyes. Trip reached out and grasped her hand, and then turned to Archer with an apologetic expression.

“We’re sorry, Jon,” he said simply. “We thought not tellin’ you would prevent you from gettin’ hit by fallout if our secret ever came out. As our superior officer, you’d have to report us or be subject to discipline yourself.”

“Don’t quote regulations at me, Trip!” Archer hissed. “You know very well that as long as the two of you do your jobs and keep a low profile, I will never have anything to report!” he insisted. “Since when have I been a stickler for the rules?”

Trip sighed. “It wasn’t you we didn’t trust, Jon! After Masaro and the Terra Primers… and Elizabeth,” he whispered, his voice trailing off. His eyes met T’Pol’s. She squeezed his hand. Archer’s chest tightened. He clearly remembered their grief at Elizabeth’s death. He suddenly felt ashamed of his anger.

“Trip…” he said softly. His eyes turned to the wide-eyed gaze of his First Officer. “T’Pol…” He cleared his throat. “Don’t worry about me,” he continued. “Just do your jobs, and be… discreet,” he whispered. He smiled. “And no more lies. That’s an order!” he said half-jokingly.

Trip smiled back hesitantly and extended his hand to his friend. “You’ve got a deal, Jon. Just the truth from now on,” he promised. Archer grasped Trip’s hand firmly, and then his eyes turned to T’Pol. She studied his face for a long moment.

“I regret being forced by circumstances to deceive you, Captain,” she told him evenly. “I, too, plan to tell you the unvarnished truth from this moment on.” She raised a brow. “I find it necessary to warn you, however, that I have, in the past, modified my comments to you while in the presence of the crew in an attempt to spare your feelings. It has been my experience that human males have fragile self-esteem, and do not deal well with the absolute truth. You may not be satisfied with the change in my method of communication.”

Archer suppressed a smile, and gave her a look of mock seriousness. “Never mind, then, T’Pol,” he reassured her with a sideways glance at Trip, who was valiantly trying not to laugh. “I give you my permission to ‘modify your comments’ whenever you feel the need to protect my fragile ego.”

T’Pol regarded him askance. “You find the idea amusing?” she asked him. Her tone did not bode well for his future self-esteem.

He raised both hands in protest as Trip finally lost his battle and erupted in uncontrollable laughter. Archer grinned broadly. “I never said that!” he said. His eyes watered… but he didn’t laugh. He knew better. It didn’t help.

“Let’s begin with your command style, then, shall we?” began T’Pol briskly. “I find it offensively informal and lacking in structure…”

Archer rolled his eyes. Trip was still laughing.


 

The End (of Season Five)


Comments:

Moichino

Wow - I just read the entire Virtual Season 5.  What a master piece!!!  Thank you so much.

December 2010

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