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Children of the Night

#4 in the Series

By Lorelei Sieja

Chapter One:

Nick caressed the white knight of polished marble before moving it into position. "Check," he said, glancing away before LaCroix could see the sly smile.

"Mate," LaCroix amended. He laid the king down across the square. He had seen the trap Nicholas was laying for him, but had not been able to alter the course of the game. He leaned back in his chair, his fingers steepled before him.

"I see that married life agrees with you, Nicholas. You have not been this focused for centuries."

Nick forced himself not to squirm under his master's scrutiny. "Do you wish to play again?"

"Another time, perhaps." LaCroix took a sip from the glass his son had poured for him and marveled at the technology that permitted him to be here at all. His corporeal form still resided in the alpha quadrant, yet everything in this holodeck felt very real. The marble was cool to the touch; the leather chair was comfortable. Even the holographic blood tasted better than empty replicated plasma.

Nick rose to set the chess pieces away. This was one of his favorite programs. It was a replica of the bomb shelter in the Northern Territories where he and LaCroix had resided for a quarter of a century. It held many poignant memories, some serious and some touching.

LaCroix watched his golden child move on silent feet to the grand piano. He closed his eyes and waited, wondering what would stir his son tonight. Would he play the ever melancholy Chopin or passionate Tchaikovsky? Would Mozart's simple elegance complete this nearly perfect evening, or perhaps, Nicholas would perform something original?

The quiet chords and slow, even tempo surprised him. It was nothing he had anticipated as he recognized Satie's Gymnopodie. The piece was elementary, even a child could play it, but the interpretation was as complex as his mercurial son. The haunting melody was both pure and bare, the piece almost totally devoid of ornamentation. It was sad yet joyful, expressive and undefinable. LaCroix finally gave up trying and just relaxed, allowing the notes to fill him.

"Are you happy, Nicholas?" he asked when the song ended.

Nick looked at him quizzically. He was about to give an off-hand comment when he stopped himself. It was a simple question. Did it have an answer?

He was married now. B'Elanna knew him intimately and she was not afraid of him. She accepted him as he was - a moody vampire, unsure of his nature, insecure in his existence, and she loved him for it. He was happy with her. But, there was more. He had felt a contentment steal over him even before the marriage ceremony.

There were others on board who also knew about him. The Captain, Commander Chakotay, Tuvok, Tom, Kim, Seven, Neelix and even the Doctor. It was dangerous for them to know about his existence. When they reached the alpha quadrant, their lives could be forfeit, and yet, Nick found a perverse pleasure in the fact they knew that and still accepted him.

He had an important position in the crew. He was needed. That made him happy, but it was more than that, too. Something was different inside him. Nick couldn't explain it because he didn't understand it himself. He cocked a lopsided grin and nodded. "Yes, LaCroix. I am very happy."

The ancient vampire stood then, replacing the empty glass on the end table. "I will not be with you for a few days, my son."

Nick jumped up suddenly. "Why, LaCroix? What's wrong?"

LaCroix chuckled. "Nothing is wrong, Nicholas. The moon fades. I will not have the strength to join you until it waxes again. Four, five days at most."

Nick nodded. He still did not understand how his master was able to be here with him, sixty-seven thousand light years from home, but it was strangely comforting to visit with him like this from time to time. "I shall miss you," he said, surprised to learn that it was the truth.

LaCroix took a hesitant step to bridge the distance between them. "Nicholas," he began. He started to speak, but then he shoved his hands in his pockets, uncharacteristically reluctant to continue.

"What is it?" Nick asked.

"Would you... could we... perhaps, share blood before I go?"

Nick felt a warmth envelop him. He stared at the imposing figure that had the power to make him tremble, to drive him to a blind rage, to make him fear for his very existence, and yet had been his salvation time and time again. Nick loosened the top buttons of his off duty shirt and stepped into his father's embrace.

Chakotay tapped his comm badge and addressed the ship's computer. "Locate Lieutenant Knight."

"Lieutenant Knight is in holodeck B," the impersonal female voice responded.

He sighed. He didn't like to intrude. The crew should be entitled to a little privacy, trapped as they were on this small ship for years on end. Nick seemed to need his time off more than any other. He was a dedicated worker, throwing himself body and soul into his tasks, but he could also be quite volatile. Chakotay grinned, remembering the last time he'd pushed the vampire too far and he rubbed at his forearm as if he could still feel the fangs piercing his flesh, sucking his life blood.

Janeway wanted him though, and she wanted him now. Chakotay was not afraid to stand up to her, but he would pick his battles carefully. This was not one of them.

He stepped through the doors to enter Nick's holographic play. He froze, speechless.

Two vampires entwined. Nick's shirt was unbuttoned and hung wide, baring his shoulders and half his back, the soft silk folds bunching up at his forearms. LaCroix's teeth were buried in Nick's throat. Twin rivers of blood dripped from the small wounds down pale flesh. A look of pure ecstasy was on the ancient vampire's face.

Chakotay started, worried for his friend, until he heard Nick utter a contented sound. He saw then that Nick was not fighting the elder vampire's bite. He was embracing it. He stared, entranced, wondering at the seduction of it all.

As he watched, LaCroix withdrew from Nick's throat and licked at the blood that had escaped. Nick stepped back from the other, his hands still gripping LaCroix's shoulders for support. "Thank you, master," he whispered.

"We are not alone," LaCroix said coldly.

Chakotay saw Nick stiffen; saw tenseness where moments before was fluid grace. LaCroix lifted Nick's shirt and buttoned it once more. Ignoring the mortal who had dared to interfere, he cupped Nick's face in his hand, letting the golden hair slip through his fingers. "Au revoire, Nicholas," he said. Then he disappeared.

Nick did not turn around but remained with his back to Chakotay. "What do you want." His tone was not pleasant.

"I am sorry to intrude," Chakotay said. He hoped he sounded sincere, but he was still breathing heavily from what he had just seen. "Captain Janeway sent me to speak with you."

Nick still had not moved. Chakotay walked to him then, until he could see the young officer's face. Nicholas glowed. There was no other way to describe it. His eyes were red embers; his teeth still full and sharp. His normally pale complexion appeared slightly flushed.

"Are you all right?" he asked, concerned.

Nick grinned, although he avoided looking at Chakotay. He took a step, staggering. Chakotay reached out quickly to steady him. Nick gripped Chakotay's arms, the grin spreading to a deep, contented laugh.

"I am more than... all right," he answered cryptically.

Chakotay felt embarrassment flush through him. Nick had tried to explain that a vampire's bite was a sensual experience, and indeed he had felt something inexplicable when he'd given Nick his blood, but nothing had prepared him for what he had just witnessed. LaCroix was Nick's master, an abusive and overbearing parent, yet it would seem that he was something more. Were they also lovers? And what about Nick's wife?

"Does B'Elanna know about this?" he snapped.

Nick drew in a breath and released his hold on Chakotay. "There is no "this" to know about, Chakotay. He is my master. He is owns me; he can take my blood at any time. What should it matter if I offer it to him freely and enjoy the experience?"

Chakotay was confused. Nick looked sleepy and a little weak. But then, ordinary mortal sex sometimes left him sleepy, yet other times it energized him. "I want you to make me what you are," he said.

Nick shook his head. The fangs retracted and slowly the inhuman glow left his eyes. "No, my friend. We've talked about this before. This is not for you."

"It is my life. It is my choice. I have no people of my own any more. I want to be immortal."

Nick changed the subject. Artful avoidance was often more successful than skillful debate. "What was it Janeway wanted?"

Chakotay sighed. "This isn't over, my friend. And I am sorry for intruding. Should I make appropriate apologies to your father?"

Nick shook his head. Chakotay then tried to explain the Captain's current complaint. It sounded petty even now. Nick was the ship's historian, appointed to write a detailed account of their adventures. Few ships had historians, as the captain's logs were generally sufficient. However, Nick had begun this history on his own and Captain Janeway had been so impressed that she gave him the job and title that went with it and the security clearance to legally access the logs he had been hacking in to.

"She doesn't like what you've written about our last adventure with the Liat. She feels it is too brief, not your usual quality. She wants it expanded."

Nick chuckled. "And she wants it done yesterday, right?"

Chakotay grimaced. Duty would require that he support his captain, but friendship had him agreeing with Nick's borderline insubordination.

"Do us all a favor, Chakotay, and make love to that woman before we all wind up in the brig."

"That will never happen," Chakotay muttered. "She refuses to have a relationship with a member of her crew."

"But you aren't. You're Maquis."

"I'm Starfleet now, Nick. We are one crew, one captain, and one frustrated would-be lover still sixty years from home and the chance of making a date."

Nick nodded. He needed to speak to the captain and not about the history. She needed to come in for some counseling herself. He wondered who had the authority to compel her? "Come," he said, clapping Chakotay on the shoulder. "I feel like I'm down a quart. Join me in the Mess Hall and then I shall try to rewrite history."




Tom leaned carelessly against the console and crossed his arms. "Jenny," he began.

The Delaney twin giggled. "I'm Megan. Jenny was transferred to waste management a month ago."

"Megan. I knew that. So how 'bout tonight? Let's do dinner and a movie. I'll even make the pizza."

She laughed again, leaning over to ensure that he had a clear view to her cleavage. She had her jacket half unzipped and the regulation gunmetal gray undershirt was absent. There was nothing between her and the opened zipper except smooth, creamy bosoms straining for freedom. "You do pizza?" she said doubtfully. "Since when do you ever have extra replicator rations?"

He pulled her into his arms, suddenly needy. His breath caught. He wasn't in love with her. She was flirtatious and shallow. This wasn't about love. This was sex. And he wasn't sure he could wait until after the movie.

"Tom, don't," she teased, rubbing her hips into his arousal even as she tried to push him away.

"Ensign Paris!"

Tom froze at the sharp command; embarrassment shading his face red. He held Megan a moment longer. Janeway would know just how far he had pushed the moment as soon as Megan stepped away from him. That made him angry. Hell, he hadn't held a woman in his bed for a long, long time. He was never cut out for celibacy.

"Yeah, what," he muttered, squaring his shoulders and offering a half-hearted salute.

"Delaney, you're dismissed," Janeway snapped.

Megan shot Tom a quick sympathetic glance, then made her get-away.

"I find your conduct unbecoming an officer," Janeway hissed.

"So bust me again and I won't be an officer."

"Gross insubordination, as well. You've earned three days in the brig. You can spend that time reviewing the Starfleet code and regulations. You will be tested on them before you return to duty!"

Tom stared at her, his mouth open. The code was thousands of pages! The test was required only of those students specifically training for captainship. Tom's father had wanted him to pursue the captains training, but Tom had never wanted the responsibility. It hadn't been difficult to fail at the aptitude test that would have identified leadership abilities. Tom failed most of his written exams.

Janeway tapped her comm badge and called for two security guards to escort him to the brig, adding further insult to injury. Tom glared at her, shrugging out of the guards' grip. "I know the way," he spat.

Captain Janeway stood in the empty room, rubbing the back of her neck. She was so tired of this thankless job.

Nick jumped, startled as the door chime broke his concentration. "Enter," he said.

One of the Delaney twins burst into his office. She was uncharacteristically distraught. He couldn't yet tell the twins apart, as they were both rather shallow, silly girls, yet her rapid pulse and wide eyes were definitely about something more serious than a chipped fingernail. "May I help you?"

"No! I mean, it's Tom. You've got to help him!"

Nick sighed. This was no news. He'd been worrying over Tom since even before he'd fallen in love with Tom's ex-girlfriend.

"Captain Janeway threw him in the brig! For three days! We weren't doing anything, really. Sort of. Just flirting. But she didn't say anything to me, and I mean, like, I kind of encouraged him. I didn't know she was there!"

"It's all right," Nick soothed, trying to calm her thundering pulse. "I'll take care of it."

She flung boneless arms around his neck and kissed him full on the lips. Startled, Nick pulled away from her. "I suggest you report back to duty, Delaney."

She smiled brightly, no sign of her earlier concern. "Thanks, Nick! Say hello to your wife!"

He saved his files and shut down the history he'd been working on. It was time to find out what exactly was going on.

He knew the way to the brig. He'd spent time there, as well as Tom. Now, he walked there alone and unguarded, a respected counselor and not a suspected felon. He hoped he could have this straightened out soon. Tom didn't need this. Nick wondered how many more knocks he could take before he just stayed down.

Tom paced the confines of his cell, his fury boiling and his speech barely intelligible. Nick understood that Tom and Megan had engaged in a little harmless flirtation and the captain over-reacted. He didn't understand Tom's rage. Nothing he said had any effect. Finally, he ordered the guard to drop the forcefield and let him enter. Then he dismissed the guard.

"Okay, Tom. It's just the two of us now. Please, sit down."

Tom tried. He sat, but his feet tapped a nervous tattoo on the floor. He sprang from the chair and resumed his pacing. Nick watched the tense body language, reached out with his vampiric senses and listened as much to what Tom wasn't saying to piece it together. Tom was embarrassed, annoyed, and wound up tight in a way that Megan could have offered some relief. He could offer to drink Tom's blood, too. It was passionate, intimate, and it would help him to know Tom better. But Nick had promised the captain that he would not bite the crew again.

"Tom. I'll speak to the captain. She's not likely to change her mind, but I agree that she is in error here."

"And what about that damn test?"

Nick shrugged. "I'll find the manual on audio and you can listen to it. Do the best you can. It's not like if you failed the test she won't let you fly. You're still the best pilot aboard."

Tom leaned against one wall in the corner and looked at Nick. He seemed years younger, once again reduced to a frightened, needy child. Nick hurt for him. "I won't promise anything, Tom, but maybe I can persuade Megan to visit you later."

Tom shrugged indifferently, but the motion was forced. "What ever. Thanks for dropping by."

Nick summoned the guard with his comm badge. "I'll get you through this, Tom," he promised.

First Nick returned to his office to complete the assignment Janeway had given him. He didn't want her to have any ammunition in this next battle; it was too important that he win. Then he contacted the doctor.

"On this ship, who can outrank the captain," he asked.

The doctor was as bad as the computer, answering questions with the obvious. "An admiral outranks a captain, Lieutenant, and so no one on this ship fulfills that requirement."

"What if a captain gets sick? Or injured? Or taken over by an alien mentality? Who can remove the captain from duty?"

The Emergency Medical Holograph put down the test he had been running and gave Nick his full attention. "Well, if you put it that way, I suppose I have that authority, even though I hold no rank at all. Otherwise, if three of the five top-ranking officers all agree that the captain is incapacitated in some way, then they can have her temporarily removed from duty. It is a very serious step, however, as the officers could be brought up on charges of mutiny if their fears are ungrounded."

Nick nodded, thinking it over.

"May I ask why?"

"The captain is not in full control," Nick began. "She seems edgy, over-reactive, almost vengeful. Trouble's brewing and if we don't deal with it soon, she's going to alienate the crew."

The EMH rubbed the holographic image of his smooth-shaven chin. "I hesitate to agree with you, but I have detected a rise in her metabolic function. I've tried to treat it, but I suspect the problem is emotional more than systemic. Still, one does not remove a captain from duty for a short tempter. Half the captains in Starfleet would be on permanent medical leave."

"Most captains are not on constant duty, Doctor. I think the stress of command is finally getting to her. Hell, it's getting to all of us."

The doctor picked up his test again, although his attention seemed divided. "I will agree. We could all use a year of shoreleave, myself included. What is it that you want me to do?"

Nick smiled. When he'd first been promoted to ship's counselor, he and the doctor had not worked well together. It was reassuring to feel that his opinion counted for something now. "I want her to come in for counseling," Nick said.

The EMH dropped the test, possibly damaging data, but he didn't even notice. "You want her to what? She'll never agree to that, Nick. I have to practically blackmail her just to make her annual physical."

"Of course she won't agree to it, doctor, that's why I'm here. I want you to order her to."

"Now wait a minute!"

"Doctor, do you know she threw Tom in the brig for a little harmless flirtation?"

The EMH grunted. "Her report called it gross insubordination."

"That's just Tom. You know how he is. Cut him a little slack. And more than half the crew is siding with him this time. If she doesn't work out her problems soon, I expect the brig will be full by the end of the week with me in it!."

"I will consider it," the doctor said. When Nick started to argue further, the doctor held up a hand. "That was not an idle brush-off, Lieutenant. I will consider it, and I'll get back to you shortly."

Nick whistled softly as he returned to his new quarters. Tom and he had worked together to remodel it, constructing a loft bedroom so he and B'Elanna could have a little more living space. It still didn't shine with a "woman's touch", for B'Elanna wasn't much in to decorating. She'd hung an object d'art on the wall that a crewmate had given her on the last Day of Honor, and her clothing was strewn on the floor between the bathroom and the closet. His paintings hung on the walls, his piano covered the table top. It wasn't fancy, but it was home.

"Nick! You're back early," B'Elanna exclaimed, flinging herself in to his embrace.

Nick hugged her fiercely. The day had started out so nicely, and ended all wrong. Now, in her love, he could forget his worries for at least a little while.

She seemed to sense the need in him. She broke away and tugged the zipper of her jacket as she drew her tongue across her sharpened teeth. With a sudden movement, the jacket and undershirt were gone. Nick knelt before her, almost in adoration, as he assisted her in removing the rest of her clothes. Their passion exploded then in a wild frenzy as they gave all that they were to one another.

Nick collapsed on her, resting his head against her breast for a few moments. He closed his eyes while she worked her fingers through the tangles in his hair. Slowly, he became aware that although she was completely naked beneath him, he was still mostly clothed. He pushed up on his elbows to gaze at her sheepishly.

"I'm sorry, my love," he whispered.

"What the hell for? Loving me?" B'Elanna grinned. She liked the slightly shocked look he gave whenever she talked tough. Nick was still more accustomed to soft, feminine humans, although she knew he was completely spellbound by her gruff, Klingon nature.

"Never," he spluttered. "I mean, about taking you here, on the floor... we could have at least made it to the bedroom."

"What's wrong with the floor? We'll make it to the bedroom eventually." She bit his ear then, grinning at the golden light of desire that returned to his eyes.

Nick got to his feet and pulled her back in to his arms. "Okay. I'm not sorry. Now, why don't you slip into something I can tear off again, and I'll fix you dinner."

B'Elanna laughed lightly as she left to do his bidding. "So, tell me about it. What went wrong between Tom and the Captain?"

Ship gossip traveled fast, Nick remembered, as he set the table. He replicated chili and cornbread for B'Elanna and poured a glass of Buliga royalty for himself. He told her the unofficial, unadulterated version that he could never put in the history, knowing that B'Elanna would not let it go beyond this room.

"Poor Tommy," she sighed.

Nick looked at her closely, feeling a sudden jerk of jealousy. "How so?"

She shrugged, missing the undercurrent of tension. "I know he's got a mouth on him and he doesn't really know how to get along some times, but it does sound like the captain over reacted."

Nick agreed.

"So, when are we going to do it?"

"What?" Nick was sure she was doing that woman-thing again, those leaps of dialog that leave men lost and confused.

"Smuggle Megan into his cell. If he's going to get busted for fraternizing with the crew, then he might as well go all the way, don't you think?"

Nick laughed. "You have a point, you devious little vixen!"

The covert operation wasn't too difficult to orchestrate. Nick put the guard to sleep with a hypnotic punch and left the forcefield off. Tom was not a dangerous criminal nor was he an escape risk. Then B'Elanna watched the halls as Nick smuggled Megan in to the brig. "You can stay a couple of hours," he warned her. "But not the entire night. And turn the forcefield back on when you leave."

Megan giggled foolishly. "This is kind of erotic, Tom," she said.

Tom flashed his notorious lopsided grin. "Glad to hear it. Thanks, Knight."

Back in his quarters, B'Elanna made love to him again. Then, as the lethargy descended on him and he prepared to enter the deathlike slumber of the undead, she started to talk about children again.

"B'El," he said. "I told you... I can't give you children..." His words were slurring slightly. He tried to concentrate, to speak clearly, but nature and instinct were hard to resist. "No children."

"Nick, the doctor says otherwise. He wants to talk to you about it. Please go see him. Nick!"


"Is that a promise?"


B'Elanna smiled. "I love you, Nick."


Chapter Two:

Nick painted with Crewman Paulus early in his next shift. She didn't really need counseling any more. She was healthy looking, a pinkish glow to her complexion and a few extra pounds padding her slight figure. She was still a timid sort, but she had made some friends among the crew and her relationship with her husband had grown even closer. He suspected that he should be scheduling her art sessions during his free time instead, but he just wasn't that busy.

He went to see Tom then, to ensure that his midnight visitor remained undiscovered. Tom looked much improved from the day before. He stretched out lazily on the cot, listening to the audio recording of the Starfleet regulations manual Nick had sent to him. He didn't appear to be paying attention, but Nick knew that behind the deceptive look of indolence was a sharp mind.

"Doing okay?" Nick asked.

"Great. Bed's a little narrow, but the food's not too bad," Tom replied sarcastically.

Nick shrugged. "Neelix sent this for you." He lowered the forcefield to give Tom a napkin folded around a large piece of chocolate cake.

Tom sprang from the bed and accepted the offering. "Tell Neelix I love him and I'm going to marry him in my next life." He wolfed the cake down with large bites, licking the frosting off his fingers carefully.

"I'll tell him," Nick said, chuckling softly.

He returned to his small office then, filling time by writing a note to his father. He missed him. He wondered what the ancient was doing now. Did he find time on his hands without his favorite around to pick on? He had other progeny, but none of them had ever meant even a fraction to him as he did. Sometimes the possessive love of his master was a heavy yoke, but now it was oddly comforting.

His door chimed. The visitor did not wait for permission to enter. Instead, Captain Janeway burst into his office, hands on her hips and temper flaring.

"What the hell does this mean," she demanded.

Nick swallowed, forcing the sudden fear away. She may be his captain, but he was her counselor. She outranked him and he outdated her by more than a millennium. They met today as equals. He squared his shoulders and drew in a calming breath. "Good morning, Captain," he said smoothly.

She glared at him without speaking.

Nick invited her to sit down, but she refused. "You were too harsh on Tom," he stated.

"You doubt my authority?"

"No. I question your wisdom in this matter. I think you are under stress and taking it out on your crew. And before you deny it, ask yourself why you are yelling at me right now."

Captain Janeway clamped her mouth. She continued to glare at him, but something changed. She couldn't help noticing the way that one lock of dark blonde hair wouldn't stay brushed back, the way his eyes, which so easily mirrored his emotions, were clear and guileless at the moment. She felt a warmth flush over her and hated herself for it.

"The doctor ordered this, but I think you put him up to it," she said.

"Guilty," Nick confessed. "Now, please, sit down. You have an hour to chat with me; you might as well get comfortable."

She sat on the couch then and accepted a mug of coffee. Nick started with small talk to set her at ease. They talked about mundane things, then Nick guided the conversation towards Earth, towards the longing she felt for home and the guilt she suffered for her perceived failures.

"It wasn't your fault that we were stranded," Nick reminded her.

"I know it was the Caretaker that brought us here," she said, "but it was my responsibility. I failed to protect my crew and I have failed to bring them home."

She was being pretty hard on herself, Nick thought. This was more than just a failed Starfleet Mission, though. This was probably a major character trait. She had always demanded perfection from herself and others. It made it hard for her to forgive those who had failed. She kind of reminded him of Natalie Lambert, the mortal coroner with whom he'd fallen in love back in the twentieth century. Since she was not exactly forthcoming with information, Nick thought maybe he'd share something of himself.

"I knew this woman once," he began. "She was very smart. She was a medical examiner, which was mostly considered a "man's" job at the time. I know she felt some pressure to be the best in her field."

"There have been women captains for three hundred years," Janeway snapped tersely.

Nick shrugged, not allowing himself to take offense at her attitude. "She also loved me."

"Did you bite her?"

He blanched at her antagonism. "No, Captain. I loved her, but our attraction was not the result of the blood kiss. She was a friend at a time when I hadn't any. After a few years we both wanted something more. She didn't date mortals and we could never consummate our love. She changed. She wasn't friendly any more. She was critical and demanding. I didn't realize it until my partner died in a plane crash and instead of comforting me, she chewed me out. Things were never really the same between us after that."

"And your point is?" Janeway looked indignant, not seeing the connection.

Nick wondered how to word it delicately. Nat had been a frustrated woman, denied any outlet for her passionate, loving nature. It had nearly killed her. "You are a woman, Captain. Don't forget it. Being feminine and being weak are not the same."

She sniffed, crossing her arms over her chest, but Nick sensed a chink in her armor. She was listening.

Her commbadge beeped. Kim had something to discuss with her. She smiled brightly. "Duty calls. I have to go."

"I'll see you tomorrow," Nick said to her retreating form.

B'Elanna joined him then for another "lunch hour" date and afterwards, as he lay in her arms still drowsy from their lovemaking, she brought up the subject of children again.

Nick snapped at her. "B'El! I said no!"

"You did not. Last night you agreed to see the doctor."

He was ready to deny it, but at her certainty he had a vague recollection of this conversation. "B'El, it isn't fair coercing me when I'm half asleep."

"All's fair in love and war, Nick. I'm not saying we have to DO anything, just talk to him. Please, Nick! What harm is talking to him?"

He gave in. He was a counselor now, after all. If he couldn't talk over his problems, then how could he expect his clients to? "Okay. I'll go, but under protest." Then he kissed her.

"No time for that, Nick, he's waiting for us."




"Nick, I'm glad you chose to come," the doctor began.

The vampire followed him into the small office and sank into the utilitarian chair offered. B'Elanna sat beside him. She reached out to grasp his hand. Her fingers felt unusually cold and a little damp. Nick caught a whiff of her unique scent. She was terrified. He squeezed her hand gently, offering support.

"Nick, when I drew tissue samples from your stomach some time ago, I had no idea that it would be such a traumatic ordeal for you. Since you were already going through it, however, I went ahead and took more than just stomach samples."

Nick shrugged. He didn't remember it much. The vampire in him was very possessive lately. He couldn't even donate blood without unleashing the desire to kill. It was mildly embarrassing, but he shouldn't have to face the EMH very often.

"Nick, as I understand, you were born mortal, 1179 years ago. Although men make millions of sperm every day, you must have stopped this process at the moment of your conversion. You do still retain mortal sperm, which are transported in semen during intercourse."

"Doc, I learned about birds and bees a long time ago," Nick snapped, his irritation overpowering the embarrassment.

"Just listen, please. You have told B'Elanna that you cannot father children, but that is not entirely correct. It is my duty to enlighten you. Your semen is no longer human "normal". It is mostly blood, which is too acidic for the sperm, and they are killed before conception can occur. If you decide you want to father children, you may want to consider invitro fertilization."

Nick swallowed past the constricting in his throat. He could have a child? For centuries he had fought his vampirism, sought a cure, and not just so he could die a mortal's death. Much of it was the desire to have children, to be a father, to experience a life he had been denied.... Could having children really be as simple as the doctor implied?

"Nick, you have a second condition now, though, which further complicates the issue. Your sperm are 1147 years old. You have very few left, and ninety percent in the sample I took were defective. At any point, this could change to 100%. If you and B'Elanna decide you want children, you should do so immediately. The longer you wait, the less likely your chances of success."

Nick hardly heard a word of the warning. A smile spread on his eternally youthful face. He could have a child! Although mortality was beyond his grasp, he could at last experience fatherhood! "Would my child be mortal or a vampire?" he whispered hopefully.

"Your sperm appear to contain only human DNA. However, there are minute traces of the vampire element in B'Elanna's blood stream. Although it does not affect her, it is impossible to predict how it could affect the child."

B'Elanna stared at her new husband. He was glowing, if one could use the term to describe a man. She didn't have to ask his opinion about fatherhood. He wanted this, but was she ready? She had always assumed that she would have a child or two someday. She had been prepared to talk about the possibility of children, but this was so sudden, so immediate.

"Doctor, I think Nick and I need to be alone," she said.

"Of course," the EMH responded, rising from his chair behind the desk. "I will just be outside."

As the door closed behind him, B'Elanna knelt before her husband. Taking his hands in hers, she gazed up at him. His clear blue eyes were luminous pools of emotion. "You want this, don't you?" she whispered.

Nick swallowed, unable to articulate the depth of his feelings. His fangs descended and he pulled his young wife close. Nibbling at her throat, he struck, sinking his fangs deep into her vein to suck from her. B'Elanna returned the bite. She was overwhelmed by his passion, and through it all she saw the hope of his mortality blossom through the creation of a mortal child. This was a gift she could give him. As the spasms of their passion raked through their bodies, B'Elanna made a decision.

"Doctor," she called. "We want to go ahead."



The morning came for Tom's release. Nick met him and escorted him to his room to clean up and shave before facing the captain. There was still the matter of the exam. Tom's indifferent air couldn't quite conceal the rise in his body temperature or the wild pulsing in his veins.

Then they entered her ready room. Janeway sat behind the large desk. She waited expectantly. "Yes?"

"Reporting as ordered, sir," Tom said stiffly.

Nick winced. The "sir" was essentially correct, but Captain Janeway didn't like to be called that and Tom knew it. Nick quickly stepped in to diffuse what threatened to be a volatile situation. "Captain. Tom is prepared to take the exam, Comprehensive Starfleet Code and Regulations, form 1080Z4105-A."

Janeway glanced up sharply. "The 1080-A"

Nick had hoped she would have overlooked that. "A" was audio-only for the blind and illiterate. "Yes, Captain. Did you want to test his knowledge of regulations or his reading ability? If you require a literacy proficiency exam, there are better tests than the 1080-"

"Fine. The audio form will suffice. Report to the conference room. Tuvok will proctor the exam."

Tom opened his mouth but Nick elbowed him sharply. Tom closed it again. "Yes, Captain," he said. Then he turned sharply and left. In the corridor, he sputtered indignantly. "Proctor the exam! What does she think I am, some errant school boy with notes scribbled on my shirt sleeve?"

"Actually, I should think she'd be proud if you were scribbling notes," Nick quipped.

Tom blushed in embarrassment. "You know what I mean," he grumbled.

Nick nodded. "Yes, I do. And I happen to agree with you. But play along for now. You don't need any more brig time."

"What if I don't pass this test?" Tom whispered, his face suddenly open and needy.

"You'll do fine. Just do your best and don't worry about the rest."

Tom shook Nick's hand. "Wish me luck." Then he stepped inside the conference room.

Nick waited, listening through the nearly soundproof walls with his superhuman ability. The ship's computer recited the first question, and Nick heard Tom's answer, prompt and confident. He listened to the next three questions and answers, even hearing the drop in Tom's heart rate as confidence replaced anxiety. Nick smiled, one hurdle cleared. It was a good start. a bad day. Next he had to face the doctor. The hope of children was comforting, but he still fought his instinct to flee from danger to protect himself. His hands were trembling and a fine blood sheen covered his brow by the time he entered sick bay.

The doctor was quiet and understanding. Sickbay was empty except for the two of them; the lights were dimmed for the vampire's comfort. Soothing music played over the computer. Nick followed the doctor into the back surgery and lay down on the biobed.

The doctor wrapped protective padding around his wrists and ankles before strapping on the reinforced restraints. Then, as the vampire howled in rage, the doctor swiftly took the samples he required.

B'Elanna had been in earlier. He had extracted four eggs and artificially matured them in test tubes where they awaited fertilization. This ancient method failed more than it succeeded and was seldom used any more, but for Nick and B'Elanna, it was their only hope. Tomorrow he would place the fertilized eggs in her womb and then they would wait. His sensitive equipment would know within days if any of the eggs survived, but spontaneous abortion was very common. He would wait four weeks before running his scans. Any fetus that survived that long just might make it.

He returned to the biobed then. The vampire was still enraged and therefore it was not safe to release him, for although the doctor was indestructible, sickbay was not as fortunate. The doctor spoke soft, soothing words, wondering if the vampire could hear or understand. He gave Nick a blood transfusion, which calmed him. Exhausted, the vampire drifted into the deep sleep of the undead. Only then did the doctor remove the restraints. The padding was bloodstained from the force with which the vampire had fought for his freedom, but already his wrists had healed. If only there were a way to isolate Nick's healing qualities as a medicine without putting humans at risk of transformation, he mused, but modern science could not work on the solution to a problem they didn't even know existed. Perhaps one day he could speak with that vampire doctor, Natalie Lambert?

Nick felt disoriented when he awoke. B'Elanna was there beside him, kissing him passionately.

"Are you ready to go get some breakfast, my prince?" she asked lightly.

"Is it all over?"

She nodded. "We'll know in a month. Now come along."

Nick jumped off the biobed. He was beginning to feel like himself again. A shower and a full meal later and he was ready to face the world.

Naomi Wildman cornered him as he was just leaving the Mess Hall. "There you are! I've been looking all over for you!"

"I have to go," B'Elanna said. "See you later."

Nick gave her a quick parting kiss, then turned his full attention on the precocious five-year-old. "Good morning, Naomi. What did you want to see me about?"

"Our mural! You said we could start on it today. Seven finished copying the design on the wall, and Ensign Paulus helped me find the right colors."

Nick held out his hand and she placed her small one in his with complete trust. Together they headed towards the main holodeck in the rear. It was part of Nick's plan to help the crew feel the ship was truly their home. Janeway hadn't liked the idea, but she had given her consent. They were going to paint one mural on one wall, a small first step to transform the drab gray into a warm environment.

"Good morning, Nick," Paulus said brightly.

He gave her a smile. "So, where do we begin?"

Naomi had helped with the original design. It was a cartoonish style, depicting Voyager's journey through the delta quadrant. The ship seemed to smile as it dipped and swirled through space with the energy and colorful vitality of a Van Gogh. Nick took a paintbrush and a jar of gray paint. It would be the base for Voyager. Later black line would add definition, and several windows would be painted to resemble eyes. Nick painted the repeating pattern of the ship, Naomi painted several planets, and Paulus meticulously painted space, not as a black void, but in a colorful cobalt blue. As they worked, others came by and helped, until they had quite a crowd. That was the way murals were supposed to be done Nick thought, as they painted, they talked.

"Nick, I've been thinking," Naomi announced.

"I'm glad to hear it," he said.

"I really like to play with you and Seven, and Neelix tells great stories. But, it would be even more fun to have a kid to play with."

Nick nodded absently. He had said as much to Janeway some time ago. If only he could have convinced Kittim to stay with them, but the Liat child had found a home among his own kind and hadn't wanted to leave.

"Mommy said she would like to have another baby, but my daddy isn't around. So I was wondering if you would help Mommy?"

The others muffled their laughter, as they were eager to hear his response to the child.

"Ah, Naomi, it doesn't work like that," Nick stammered.

"Sure it does. Among humans anyway. You have to have a mommy and a daddy to make a baby. And Mommy says you've been like my daddy, the way you care about me. Can't you care about Mommy, too?"

Until a day ago, he would have just simply replied that he could not father children, but now he was not so sure. He set down his paintbrush and knelt to be at her level. "Naomi, I do care about you. You're very special. And I care about your mother, too. But B'Elanna is my wife. I can't be with any other mommy right now, as I've made a promise to be with B'Elanna."

Naomi's lower lip pouted and her forehead puckered thoughtfully. "Are you sure?"

Nick nodded.

"I guess. I could ask some one else, but I don't know who."

"Naomi, I think you should talk to your mother first. You need her permission before you find someone to help make a little brother or sister for you."

"Okay," Naomi agreed.

"Smooth, Nick," Paulus whispered. "Pass the buck."

Nick took up his paintbrush and resumed painting, trying to ignore the teasing of the others at his expense.

"Nick?" Naomi asked then. "Tomorrow I want to learn about babies. Will you teach Seven and me?"

Captain Janeway came to two more counseling sessions and neither had accomplished a thing. Nick worried, feeling that he had somehow failed the crew when six more were penalized for a host of minor offenses. Three pulled extra KP shifts and two forfeited free time, and one was sent to the brig. Nick heard more and more grumbling and not just from the former Maquis.

Finally, he decided to try something different. The holodeck was proving useful in counseling Seven and he had used it with Tom as well. Maybe he'd take Janeway there.

Later Captain Janeway stood outside the holodeck, scanning the still-wet mural critically. It was colorful and it did make her want to smile. Still, she missed the sleek, predatory look of the blue-gray corridors. Voyager was a scout ship, built for speed, to make a quick maneuver and a quicker retreat. It had never been intended as permanent home.

"So, Lieutenant," she said to Nick. "Why are we here?"

"You need more sandbox time," Nick replied simply.

She shook her head. Although Nick spoke Standard, she often felt that he didn't speak the same language. She stepped through the doors with him and entered a programmed world that was achingly familiar.

A wide stretch of sand spread out before her. Nick kicked off his shoes and urged her to do the same. The sand was hot on her feet. The sun had set, a requirement for her vampire counselor, but a full moon illumined the holographic beach on the southern part of Lake Michigan.

Nick led her to the water's edge where a blanket was spread out for them to sit upon. Two pails and small shovels were set in the sand at the edge of the blanket.

"This is silly," she snapped. "I have a ship to run."

"Which you will get back to in an hour, Captain," Nick said firmly.

She sat down then. The air even smelled familiar, she thought wistfully. Warm, wet... a mixture of seaweed and alewives* and grilled hamburgers and sun tan lotion. She wiggled her bare toes, remembering how it felt when hot sand covered them. She took the shovel absently and scooped sand over her feet.

Nick started building an elaborate sandcastle that resembled his home in Brabant, complete with moat and chapel and keep. He kept trying to get her to speak about her family, but Janeway wasn't ready to get that personal. She sidestepped his questions with increasing difficulty.

"Tell me first about your father," she challenged.


"No. Your mortal father. I understand that you had one."

Nick shrugged indifferently, but she caught a sad, wishful look before he buried it. "I can't, Captain. I don't remember him."

"That's a lame excuse," she said. "I hear your memory's pretty good most of the time."

"I know. But I was wounded in 1996, a gunshot wound to the head. It destroyed a part of my brain and if not for the vampire within, I would have died. My wounds healed, but some memories were lost forever."

"I'm sorry," she comforted.

Nick shrugged again. "Needn't be. He's long gone now, Captain."

"My father died a year before hostilities broke out with Cardassia," she whispered. Nick knew that much, but he encouraged her to continue. He knew she had to talk about it.

"I watched him die," she said. "I couldn't save him. I failed him."

"He knew you couldn't save him."

"No. He always expected me to succeed," she said bitterly. "In anything. When I was a little child, he always had some puzzle for me to solve, an equation, or a challenging game. I would struggle all day to please him, and then when he came home, I would proudly show him what I had learned. He never praised me. He would just quietly give me another puzzle. Phoebe never had to do puzzles. He just loved her. And I hated her for it."

Nick knew that was how she felt. It didn't matter if it were true or not. Perhaps Admiral Janeway had encouraged his first born, sensing that she had a quick mind and was destined for greatness. Perhaps the second child had never been a scholar. The truth didn't matter now, only Janeway's perception of it, for that was what guided her actions.

"And what would happen if you didn't solved the puzzle," Nick asked.

"I don't know. I never had to find out."

Nick sensed her withdraw from him then. There was a stubborn set to her jaw and her eyes looked hard, indifferent. He couldn't push her too hard. Perhaps, he could lead her back.

"I used to feel that nothing I ever did was good enough for LaCroix," he mused. "He was a harsh, relentless teacher. He demanded that I learn not just the skills of the vampire, but he wanted me to perfect my social skills as well. I had been a knight, a soldier trained in war, but as his child, I became a prince. He forced me to further my studies of the classical languages, literature, dance and philosophy. He demanded I study gymnastics, rhetoric, logic, music and art. Failures were punished, but successes were acknowledged with no more than a quiet acceptance that he'd known I could succeed all along. At times I hated him."

Janeway listened sympathetically. Her father had been kind, if perhaps too busy for the daughter that idolized him. He had never once struck her. Yet she knew Nick had been abused for centuries. She wanted to forbid LaCroix access to her ship, but she didn't know how she would ever enforce it. "So what did you do?" she asked then.

"I killed him once."

Janeway startled at the fierceness in his voice. His eyes were stormy, their color indistinguishable in the moonlight. "What do you mean?"

"I was furious with him. We fought and I shoved a meat hook through his chest. I think it pierced his heart. He hung there, limp, his ancient blood dripping on the floor and I thought he was dead. I just left him there. I grieved all day. I had always thought I wanted my freedom from him, and yet, when I'd killed him, I missed him."

Nick didn't tell her the rest of the story, how LaCroix had come back, and he'd killed him again, only this time with fire. LaCroix had slipped away somehow to lick his wounds. More than a year later he returned and beat Nick severely, yet Nick had hardly felt it as he rejoiced that he was no longer an orphan.

"LaCroix tried to tell me that blood was thicker than water," Janeway recalled. "He said that if I forced you to chose between him and me, you would always chose him. I didn't want to believe it. But, I sense that he was right."

Nick let silence answer her.

"How can you love him? He's a beast!" She hadn't meant to snap at him, but she really needed to know.

"Just because he doesn't praise me doesn't mean he's not proud of me," Nick said. "And even when he doesn't hug me, I know he loves me. I can tell by the way he looks at me when he doesn't think I'm watching. By the way he comforts me when he thinks I am asleep, how he always protects me from harm. He could never tell me in words what was in his heart, but I had only to look into his eyes to know the truth."

She blinked then. She knew her father had loved her. She knew deep down that he would have been proud of her today if he had survived.

Then Nick lightened the poignant moment by dumping a shovel full of sand down her shirt. She screamed, threatened to demote him, but the vampire simply laughed. He let her bury him in the sand that was quickly cooling with the absence of the sun. She stared up at the familiar stars in the holographic sky over Indiana. "I miss you, Dad," she whispered.


Chapter Three:

Nick folded his hands behind his head and stared at the skylight above the bed. Thin white stripes periodically brightened the black void as they warped through the stars. He loved the night sky, but this was still so alien. He missed the moon.

"Nick?" B'Elanna reached up to caress his face, discretely searching for the tears she suspected she'd find. "What's wrong?"

He felt comforted just knowing that he didn't have to hide from her. She knew he was a strong, fierce warrior, the tears were not a sign of weakness but rather strength of character. She knew him well, and accepted everything about him totally and completely. It was the most erotic gift anyone had ever given him.

"I was just thinking about the night," he mused. "It has been twenty years since I danced beneath Earth's moon. I miss the tender warmth caressing my face, how he fills me with his mystic force."

"His? Earth's moon is a man?" Lightly she licked at his blood tears.

Nick chuckled although the somber mood did not yet lift. "Humans often call him a man because the way the shadows fall on the cratered surface resembles a man's face. Legends of our origins claim that a human woman, Lilith, turned against both God and Devil to mate with the moon and create the children of the night."

"You mean vampires."

"And others."

B'Elanna snuggled closer. Nick wasn't responding to seduction now. Perhaps he just needed to talk. She moved her hand away from his sensitive neck to trace paths through the light dusting of pale hair on his chest. She loved everything about him, but his chest was one her favorite parts. She loved to curl up against his shoulder, to feel cherished in his arms, and then, if she was very still, she would feel the pulse of his heart, a reassurance that he was real, that he did exist, and he was here with her.

"Are we wrong, B'El?"

"Hm? Probably. About what?"

"About trying to have a child. This is no kind of life for a kid, on this ship, lost in space, isolated from the rest of humanity. I have wanted to be a father for over four hundred years, but I can't help feeling that this was perhaps the most selfish decision I have ever made."

"Nick, don't," B'Elanna said. She rolled on top of him to look him in the eyes. "Wanting a baby is a very normal, healthy desire. It is instinct, basic survival. All creatures have a desire to procreate, from the single-celled ameba to the great space creature, Gomtuu."


"No, Nick. We are all children of the night now. You, me, Naomi, the Captain... we all exist in space with no sun and no moon, only an endless sea of stars that will never look familiar. One day we will reach home again, but our child will not long for Earth the way we do. He or she will be happy here, as it is all he knows."

Nick hugged her tight. "I love you, B'El."

"I know."


Three weeks later...

Captain Janeway relaxed in her command chair. She sensed her ship thrumming all around her, its many systems working together quite smoothly for a welcomed change. For months, in fact, they had been graced with smooth sailing.

She had been depressed for a while, but somehow the ship's counselor had helped her. She couldn't even recall what exactly they had discussed, only that after making sandcastles with the antiquated vampire she had felt the melancholy lift and the joy of command return. She patted the smooth gray console of her ship affectionately.

Historically, captains thought of their ships as capricious women, perhaps because they themselves tended to be men out at sea for months on end leaving wives and lovers behind. She knew of some female captains who in turn gave their ships male personalities. They spoke about them like petulant husbands, demanding that they sacrifice everything - time, energy, and youth - to them, and they gave little in return. But Janeway had come to think of Voyager more as a child, a very spoiled child.

Voyager wanted her undivided attention. The ship needed constant care, supervision and guidance and it gave her not one moment's peace. She had put her own life on hold. Until they reached home, Janeway's only identity was "Starship Captain." She could not be "wife, friend, lover".

She blinked, pinching the bridge of her nose as she struggled to regain the decorum required of a bridge officer. Damn emotions! The truth of it was, she was not unhappy. If she could go back five years, to the time before she'd ever met the prisoner Tom Paris, or the half-baked scheme to use him to locate the Maquis rebels, she wouldn't change a thing. Their Delta quadrant adventures had had ups and downs, but all of it had been so vivid, like Technicolor Oz, and her life before was just black-and-white Kansas. Well, Indiana, actually.

Pushing out of her chair, Janeway strolled around the bridge. Her crew was aware of her presence, but no longer disturbed by her hovering over their shoulders. The Maquis part of the crew had taken years to adjust to that.

Tom was at the helm, managing the flight controls. Since the incident a few weeks ago, his behavior had been exemplary. She knew it was only a matter of time before the "old" Tom returned, unfortunately. He had such potential and he wasted it with attitude. He had not yet asked how he had scored on the 1080-A. She had not volunteered the information. Ensign Tom Paris had aced the most difficult exam Janeway had ever had to take. She had scored only a 93 percent and that had been one of the highest marks on record. If any one besides Tuvok had been proctoring the exam, she would have been suspicious, but as it was, there was no other conclusion. Beneath the cocky arrogance and insecurity, Tom Paris was probably the most brilliant person on the ship. She didn't understand him. Sometimes she wasn't even sure that she liked him. But she was determined to help him to achieve his potential. Perhaps, locked in his cluttered intellect, was the ability to create the technology that would get them home?

Kim worked at Ops and Tuvok stood at the tactical console. Nick was on the bridge today as well, catching up on the sensor logs, which he used in writing their history. There hadn't been much of interest to write about lately, which was just as well. The young looking, newly-married vampire hadn't had his mind much on his duties.

She watched him work for a few moments, feeling her pulse quicken. He was very pleasant to look at. His eyes were deep blue and as mutable as time; each expression existed only in the now, and then faded into memory. His dark blonde hair was brushed back for the moment, but often she had seen it hang boyishly over one eye. He moved with elegant grace and an almost princely bearing. He looked up at her suddenly.

"Is there something wrong?" he asked.

Janeway put a steel clamp on her thoughts and gave him a blank look. "No, Nick. Nothing. So how's married life treating you?"

He grinned, his face transformed into an almost angelic expression, which she knew was devilishly deceiving. "Just fine, Captain," he said. "Why, are you considering giving it a try yourself?"

Janeway laughed. "Not on this trip. I'll pass."

Nick shrugged, returning to his task.

She walked closer to the viewscreen. The tiny hairs at the back of her neck tingled. Something was out there... yet all she saw was more black space and tiny zips of light flashing past.

When she turned to finish her little stretch, she caught the look of puzzlement on Tuvok's nearly expressionless Vulcan face. Her heart fluttered for a moment. She could feel with a captain's sixth sense that something was about to happen. "What is it, Tuvok?"

"There appears to be a beacon ahead, which is issuing a distress call." His eyebrows drew together in a frown. "They are hailing us."

She didn't speak for a moment. They were in the middle of nowhere. There were no technologically advanced societies within a two-month journey in any direction. How could knowledge of them have reached this area and who was in distress? She sensed a trap, although duty compelled her to respond.

"Let me hear the message," she said.

"It is in a broken Kazon dialect," the Vulcan continued. "Let me adjust the translators."

That was even more puzzling. The Kazons were the first enemies she had made in the delta quadrant, but they were 13 thousand light years behind them. She waited impatiently.

The message sounded fuzzy and garbled. Kim adjusted the sensors to clear it up. Then a deep voice addressed her by name. "To Captain Janeway of the Starship Voyager! We be journeyed to you from Chupki Na. Respond."

The message repeated then, over and over, until Janeway gestured for him to discontinue. She faced Tuvok, every bit as puzzled as he was. "What do you make of it?"

"I do not believe they are Kazon, Captain."

"No, of course not," she agreed. The Kazon had been the dominant force in their sector and one dialect or another was spoken by just about any advanced society. She looked at Kim, Nick, and then Tom, wondering what any of them made of the strange message.

"I don't recognize the reference to "Chupki Na," Captain," Kim said. "That word isn't in our translators."

Nick shrugged. "I don't remember it, either."

Which was odd. Nick had a nearly perfect memory.

All eyes turned then to the pilot. Tom stared at his controls without moving. He looked ashen and his hands were trembling. "Chupki Na," he began, pronouncing the word a little differently, "is the Mufak word for Yellow Rock. It is the third planet of the B'Tak system. We were there four and a half years ago."

Janeway rubbed her forehead with her fingertips. They didn't need this, not now. Tom had suffered terribly on Yellow Rock when an alien race had kidnapped him and sold him into slavery. She had searched for him for months before she'd been able to rescue him. She glanced at Nick, wondering if Tom had mentioned his ordeal there to the vampire counselor. Nick looked clueless.

She sighed and sank back into her command chair. It was time to make a decision. "Tom, all-stop. Tuvok, beam the beacon aboard and have a look at it. We will respond to this call, but we will go in with our eyes open. I want to know who is contacting us and how they got here ahead of us. Kim, work with Tuvok. Nick, you can dig through the archives and download the Kazon languages back into the translators."


Nick completed his assigned task long before the mystery of the probe had been uncovered. At the end of his shift, he returned to his quarters with a light step to greet his Klingon bride.

B'Elanna was the best thing to happen to him in centuries! She was stormy and passionate, alternatively loving or demanding and she treated him as an equal. She was neither repulsed by the vampire nor afraid of him. Nick felt almost human in her presence.

He had some news to share with her this evening. He hoped she would be pleased, but with her, it was hard to predict. He thought back over the past month and their private little battle. It was so hard to keep anything private on this ship, but as far as he could tell, no one else except the doctor knew.

Last night, after they had made love, Nick had thought he heard the flutter of tiny hearts, too faint and too rapid to be B'Elanna's. Tonight, he would tell her.

He ordered a special meal for her, something he knew she particularly enjoyed. Then he lit dozens of candles in their small apartment to cast it in perfect subdued lighting. Soft music played in the background, a selection of romantic melodies from the past century. All of it was very restful, but it wasn't quite right. He thought about what to add, how to break the news to her, to create the perfect mood. Then he knew. Counting his ration coupons, he slipped into the replication center and searched through the archives for a bentwood rocker. He had it transported directly to their apartment, where he set a small throw pillow on one arm and put a big, red bow at the top. Then he sat and waited and grew more worried by the minute.

Finally, he felt her draw near. She seemed preoccupied and a little tired. Nick wondered if maybe he should wait a few more days. Maybe she would see the romantic dinner and just long for a nap? But, she was probably tired because of the pregnancy. She had a right to know.

The door hissed softly, parting to admit his dark and stormy lover.

B'Elanna noted the candles. She stared at the room, even as a sigh escaped her. Then her eyes rested on Nick, looking oddly wistful, like a child who wonders if he has pleased or offended his parent. She felt her tiredness lift as she considered her husband's needs above her own. "Good evening, Nick," she said, and her smile came easily.

Nick's lips parted in a beautiful smile. "My love," he whispered, and scooped her into his arms. He kissed her tenderly on the forehead. He loved to kiss the boney ridges, which she had always despised, as he confirmed his love for her.

B'Elanna nipped at his throat playfully. Nick pulled back, the spark of desire already igniting golden flecks to the deep blue of his eyes. "Patience, my love," he promised, escorting her to the table.

B'Elanna grinned at the food as he presented it before her. Tacos, refried beans, and a tall Margarita made an interesting romantic dinner. "Nick, this is perfect," she reassured him.

He poured his own beverage then and joined her. He listened as she told him about her day, about the little things that went on in engineering. He told her a bit about the alien probe they had uncovered. She seemed concerned when he mentioned that the message contained some Mufak words.

"Tom never told me about his ordeal on Chupki Na," B'Elanna said. "But I know it affected him greatly. He was changed somehow. Sadder, wiser. Finally able to express himself. Before then, he'd not had a real relationship with anyone on the ship."

Nick nodded. He didn't really want to discuss Tom tonight. He had already suspected that he would need to clear large blocks of time for him. The fear and shame that radiated from the young pilot when he'd heard the probe's message had struck Nick like a tidal wave, and he and Tom weren't even related.

B'Elanna finished her meal and sipped at the tangy fruit drink. "This is supposed to have salt around the edge of the glass, you know," she pointed out.

"It's also supposed to have alcohol," Nick said. "B'Elanna, that's sort of what I want to talk to you about."

"What? You think I drink too much? Give me a break. What with all the rationing and limited shore leaves, no one really drinks anymore."

Nick took her small, slim hand and gently pulled her to her feet. "Come, I'll show you," he whispered. He led her to the rocking chair. She stared at it with puzzled disinterest.

"You want to redecorate, Nick?"

A puff of breath escaped his lips. Why were words failing him now? "Come, sit down," he urged.

When she was comfortably sitting, he knelt before her. Taking her hands in his, much the way she had when they first discussed having children, he gazed up at her. His expression was conflicted. He wanted to feel joy, but fear was encroaching.

"B'Elanna, it worked," he whispered.

"What worked, Nick. You've got to help me here." She was getting impatient.

"The doctor's plan. B'Elanna, love. You're pregnant. We're going to have a family."

She stared at him. Her mouth dropped open, but no words came out. She felt a moment of elation, quickly replaced with dread. She was in over her head. A baby? What ever made her think she could be a mother? "How do you know? Are you sure?"

Nick nodded. "I heard the hearts beating last night. I should have told you then, but you were so tired and I wanted to make it special."

"Maybe we should see the doctor," she hedged, hoping maybe the EMH could prove him wrong.

"Yes, love, we will. But not tonight. B'Elanna, he was very successful. There is more than one heart beat."

B'Elanna brushed that aside. "So the child has a klingon constitution. We have a redundant heart."

Nick clasped her hand tighter. "I promise to help you. I'll be there, for the late night feedings and diaper changes and I'll do my best to be a good father. But you're going to have to take it easier now. I don't think you should go on away missions and put our children in danger."

"Nick. I am not fragile. Klingon women are very healthy. We have little trouble bearing children. And what do you mean, children?"

Nick laid a hand low on her abdomen and grinned up at her hopefully. "B'Elanna, my love. They all survived."

The dread intensified. The doctor had collected sperm and artificially fertilized four of her eggs, then planted them all inside her. Nick had questioned using four eggs, but the doctor had said that it was standard procedure, to ensure that one of them survived.

"Oh, well, I guess I'd better see him immediately, then," she murmured, "so he can terminate the other three."

"No!" Nick regretted shouting at her immediately. He apologized. "You can't do that," he said desperately.

"Nick. I am not going to give birth to a litter. We discussed having a baby. A baby, as in one. If I carry all of them, they might not any of them survive."

When he looked at her, twin rivers of blood stained his face as he wept. "Please, B'Elanna. Don't kill my children!"

She caressed his cheek, brushing at a tear with her thumb. "Why is this so important to you? The legal issue of terminating an unwanted pregnancy was decided centuries ago. I know you're a little behind the times, Nick, but surely you understand this."

Nick had to make her understand. He knew he could not force her to do his will. He could only implore her. "I have killed thousands in my life," he began. He had told her already about his growth as a vampire. At first he had killed indiscriminately, feeding his eternal blood lust as he had been taught. Later, consumed with guilt and remorse, he tried only to feed on the guilty. That had proven wrong, as it made him judge and jury, and he often made mistakes. He tried giving up killing altogether, denying his vampiric nature. Then, whenever the beast did break loose, the devastation was merciless. Now, he only killed in self-defense, or in defense of others. He had killed a Buliga soldier, but even Captain Janeway had accepted that.

"I cannot give back life to the multitudes. I cannot undo the terrible wrongs I have committed. I can only make a new start and try to live rightly. I thought I could never have children, never know the joys and trials of raising an infant. Now, you have given me this chance. Please, do not kill my children!"

"Nick, what if, because I do not terminate the extra fetuses, we lose them all?"

"Then that is our destiny," he answered.

B'Elanna remained silent for a time. What was two babies, or even three? There were enough interfering crewmates to help. She would not suffer for want of a babysitter. And it did seem so important to Nick. And their children would not be lonely, precocious little things like Naomi. They would have each other to play with. B'Elanna had often dreamed of having a twin when she was little. Of having someone just her age, who shared her mixed blood, who understood her feelings without having to be told. When she was very little, she had even created an imaginary twin. Who was she to deny her baby that which she had desired? Maybe, having twins was truly a gift, as Nick believed?

"But Nick, you said they all survived," she said, as if just remembering.

He nodded. "We are going to have five little children."

"Five! Gods no, not five! Nick! He only fertilized four eggs! You can't be right about this! Five!" B'Elanna burst from the rocking chair and began furiously pacing the small confines of their remodeled apartment.

Nick watched her pace. He knew this was her way of dealing with emotion. Klingons tended to react to everything with anger. Love, anxiety, desire, curiosity, grief, hate, jealousy, resignation... the full range of emotions was displayed only in anger. He moved to the rocking chair. While he waited, he imagined holding an infant in his arms. He gazed at it adoringly as he began a slow rocking motion. He felt something tug inside him. Something precious. Fresh tears welled in his eyes and threatened to overflow. B'Elanna could always do that to him.

His master had despised any show of emotion and tried to beat it from Nick, until all he could feel was hate. It had nearly succeeded. Nick cocked half a grin as he caught the similarity between LaCroix and B'Elanna. Both felt safe in their anger, but were threatened by anything else.

B'Elanna stopped her pacing. She saw her husband smile wistfully; his arms seemed to cradle a phantom child. Her heart was torn. She longed to give him his family. But how could she mother five infants? She would fail. And five children would grow to despise her, as she despised her own mother. She just couldn't do it.

"Nick," she said firmly, getting his attention. He looked at her with boyish innocence. It was hard to remember that he was as old as he claimed. She just didn't have the strength to hurt him. Not now. "Nick, I have to have some time to think."

He nodded his understanding, although she saw the crestfallen expression.

"I am going for a walk. Alone."

Nick stood mutely as the doors hissed closed behind her.

Captain Janeway entered the research lab where Tuvok and Kim had been dismantling the secrets of the alien probe all night. Kim looked a little disheveled and bleary-eyed, but Tuvok was as neat as always.

"It does not appear to be Kazon in design," Tuvok began, giving her a litany of what it was not. It was not Thurian, or Talaxian, or Ocampan, or any of the species they had met at the start of their journey, nearly five years ago. However, there were parts that were made of the Thurian yellow ore, a mineral indigenous to Chupki Na, only. Chupki Na was thirteen thousand light years behind them. How had this probe, and the ship that launched it, beat them here? Was there a new technology that they could benefit from? Where was the ship now? She tried to still the hopeful enthusiasm that raced through her thoughts, as she returned her concentration on the officers before her.

"This appears to be a trigger of sorts," Kim explained. "I'm not sure what it will set off. It doesn't appear to be a weapon at all. Perhaps, it is a timer."

"For what?"

"To set off the next buoy. Like a map, to lead us to them."

Janeway nodded. "All right then. Erect a level three security field around the probe, just as a precaution, then you may activate the switch. Tuvok, keep a transporter lock on the probe, in case it becomes necessary to get it off the ship in a hurry."

A blue light shimmered around the buoy. Then Kim flipped the small switch. Nothing happened. Until Janeway's comm badge bleeped.

"Captain Janeway," Tom Paris called. "We're picking up another message. It is the same as the first, dead ahead."

Janeway smiled at her officers. "Get some rest. I'll contact you when we've reached this next bread crumb."

Kim sighed with relief. "Thanks, captain."

Tuvok waited. "Is it necessary to respond to these probes at all, Captain? We had more enemies than friends in that region. How do you know the probe is from anyone we want to see again?"

"I don't, Tuvok," she admitted. "But, no one in that sector had technology as advanced as ours. How did they get here? I have to know."

Tuvok nodded curtly. He could remind her of the human proverb regarding curiosity, but he knew from experience that it would prove pointless. He'd better get that rest. He suspected that it might have to last him for a while.



Chapter Four:

Nick waited for her for hours. Through their link he felt her anger begin to fade and then he became aware of her fear and uncertainty. All new parents experienced similar thoughts of self doubt, but hers was magnified by the father who had abandoned her, the mother who had failed to understand and to nurture her, and by her own failures to adjust to her mixed heritage. Only here, on Voyager, had B'Elanna ever found success. She was chief engineer of a starship! She had earned her captain's respect and the love of a vampire. Her confidence was growing, but it was still as a small, vulnerable child compared to the well-trained soldiers of doubt.

He had left her alone long enough. He wouldn't push her for an answer, but he needed to be with her. Closing his eyes, he felt for her in the vibrations of his inner thoughts. Then he followed the vibrations.

He was led to the back of the ship, several levels down, to the main holodeck. He hesitated outside only a moment, then stepped through the doors.

He heard babies crying. The holodeck was a nursery with five sets of everything. Five wooden cribs with five baby quilts, five stuffed teddy bears, five musical mobiles. B'Elanna sat on a rocker - a twin to the one Nick had given her, cradling an infant. She smiled at it, stroking one cheek with a finger. Nick went the cribs and observed the other four infants.

Two were golden-haired, a boy and a girl, and purely human. With their blue eyes and wide smiles they were miniature replicas of Nick. They gazed contentedly at the mobiles dancing just out of their reach. Two more babies were human and Klingon mixed, with boney brow ridges, and sharp baby teeth. One slept, but one was howling. Nick reached for the crying infant, cuddling it instinctively. He found a holographic bottle and offered it to the child to quiet it. Then he looked at the baby in B'Elanna's arms.

That infant was fully Klingon. There was no sign of Nick in its features at all. Still, B'Elanna looked radiant as she gazed at it. The infant grasped on to her finger and brought it to its mouth, teething on it. B'Elanna didn't seem to mind the pain, although Nick saw the sharp points of baby teeth. Nick didn't understand.

"He's still beautiful," B'Elanna whispered.

"Our children should have something of me in them," Nick mentioned, surprised that she hadn't thought of that herself.

"I know. First I created a purely human child, in the image of you. I found he was easy to love. Then I decided to see what your daughter would be like and she was still so much like you, I couldn't help but love her. I thought for sure that the mixed Klingon children would be grotesque, and that I would despise them, but I still found myself drawn to them. I wanted to hold them, and keep on holding them, and never put them down. So I created this Klingon infant. He is everything I ever hated about myself. But I could not hate this little baby."

Nick saw the rare tears slip down her cheeks unchecked as she cradled the Klingon infant. His baby had finished her bottle. He moved her to a shoulder and patted her back after first protecting himself with a quilt. The baby burped something foul smelling onto the quilt, then drooled as she shoved a fist between her lips. He didn't want to push B'Elanna, but he did want to understand. He waited hopefully.

"Nick," she gasped then, and stared up at him through unshed tears. "I love them all! I don't want to lose a single one of them!"

Nick's mouth dropped open. For a silent breath, he was speechless. Then he whooped loudly. The sudden noise made all five infants cry. B'Elanna stood, moving in to hug Nick awkwardly around the two crying babies they carried. He kissed the top of her head and thanked her, again and again.

They remained in the holodeck for hours, rocking each of the holographic infants until all five were clean, dry, fed, and sleeping. Then quietly, reverently, they called the computer to end and save program. Nick escorted his bride back to their apartment, still too awestruck to speak. In silence they made love, and in silence they slept.

The following morning, they were both anxious.

"Janeway is going to shit bricks," B'Elanna muttered, slipping in to crude vernacular as she did whenever she was too upset to think straight.

"And the doctor is probably going to try to talk "sense" into us," Nick admitted.

"I don't want anyone to know."

Nick stared at her. "Why? Are you having second thoughts?"

"No, Nick. Never. I've made up my mind. But, I think that we deserve some time to enjoy this alone, before we face the battle I know will follow. Just let me be happy?"

Nick smiled widely. "We'll keep it a secret for as long as possible. But, please promise me you'll take care of our family? And I'll try not to be too obvious in my concerns."

"Agreed. Nick, do you know what they are?"

"They're babies," he said, teasing her.

"Boys or girls? How many of each? We can begin picking out names."

He kissed her hand and he got up from their little breakfast table. They ate at least one meal a day privately now, although it was still more convenient to eat in the mess hall. "Boys and girls have a different scent," he explained, "but I am unfamiliar with the Klingon scents. I can't be sure. I think there are three boys and two girls."

She nodded, trusting her husband completely. It didn't matter that the doctor had only implanted four embryos. Nick said there were five infants. It was a gift, a special blessing, and she would not question it. She also felt strangely peaceful having made her decision. Since she and Nick had been granted this joy, then she trusted that all would be well. They would have five healthy babies. She could not waste energy worrying otherwise.

"We can talk about names tonight, my love," Nick promised. "I'd better get to work."

B'Elanna patted her still flat stomach. It was strange to imagine the new lives growing inside, but it was a warm, cozy feeling. She moved to Nick's rocking chair and closed her eyes, rocking back and forth as she massaged her abdomen. "I'm going to do my best, kids," she promised.

Had her mother done her best? Perhaps. B'Elanna wished she could talk to her now, confront her on her failures and beg her for help. She had been truthful when she told Nick that Klingon women had relatively easy pregnancies compared to humans. Still, it was a little scary. She was grossly unprepared for all of this. Well, being late to work wouldn't help. She got up and left, wondering how long she could conceal her pregnancy before she needed a uniform the size of a shuttle.

Nick whistled as he entered his office. When he'd first been promoted to counselor, it had terrified him. He still felt a moment of panic whenever a new client walked in, but so far, he'd managed fine.

Paulus was doing well. She had come out of her self-constructed prison and had blossomed into a lovely person. Now she was even giving voice lessons and singing regularly at Neelix's festivities. She still painted; Nick was still giving her lessons once a week. He didn't really feel like she was still in counseling, since the sessions centered around their art, but Paulus didn't seem to need anything else from him now.

He had to work with Seven regularly. She intimidated him easily, although she was almost as young as Ensign Kim and even more na´ve at times. Nick usually took her and Naomi into the holodeck and gave them some adventure in Earth history. He'd recreated the voyage of the Mayflower, to show them human's courage and indomitable spirit. Naomi had thought they were silly not to just transport where they were going. He'd taken them in the Apollo missions, and to the Oklahoma Land-run, and to the Statue of Liberty, and to the Grand Canyon. Naomi was learning at least as much as Seven. He enjoyed their little adventures together, although creating the holodeck trips was time-consuming. He wondered where to take them next? He still hadn't created a program to teach the "birds and the bees", and Naomi seemed to have forgotten her former interest in the subject. Maybe an idea would come to him. They weren't due in his office until tomorrow. That gave him a little time yet to think.

He had seen one woman for a sleep disorder. They hadn't solved the problem yet, but they were working on it. He still knew of a few more things to suggest before he got worried. The doctor had already ruled out a physical cause for her problems before sending her to Nick. Other than that, his office was fairly quiet. His only other client was Tom.

Tom would be by this morning. He didn't have an appointment, but Nick was fairly certain he would drop by. Tom refused to schedule appointments. To do so would be to admit that he had a problem and needed Nick's help, something he wasn't ready to face. And so he came "unannounced" almost every other morning, around 1100. That limited their sessions, as Tom always left in time for lunch, another of his controlling habits.

Nick knew the young man had to admit to his problems sooner or later, but he felt that gaining Tom's trust was an important first step. He read Tom's Starfleet records again, trying to gain a closer understanding of the complex, conflicted officer.

Tom was born on a starship, while his father was the Captain. His older sisters were Emily and Bonnie. The mother abandoned the family when Tom was three. Any information of his life between the age of five and twelve was missing. Then he was enrolled in the preparatory school in San Francisco, while his father, then an Admiral, taught at Starfleet Academy. His grades were sporadic, alternately brilliant and borderline failing. Later he attended the Academy. He was awarded for heroism when his survival mission nearly ended in disaster. His first posting was unremarkable, until something went terribly wrong at Caldik Prime. Nick knew something of what had happened then. Basically, he was ready to strangle Tom's dad whenever he met him. He closed the files as the eleventh hour approached.

Before long his door chimed and Tom stepped inside. His lopsided grin was in place and his rolling gait was the same, but Nick felt his pain. Tom was hiding from it, yet seemed unaware of how loudly it radiated from him. Nick always tried for the "indifferent" attitude himself, when carrying on conversations with Tom. It seemed to put young mortal more at ease as it was something he related to.

Nick asked what was happening on the bridge and Tom answered carelessly that they were following the probes like bread crumbs. They talked about the athletic competitions that were being scheduled since Neelix seemed to have run out of holidays to celebrate. Tom had been asked to join a volley ball team.

"I haven't decided yet," he said. "They still need another, and I wondered if you wanted to play on our team."

Nick hesitated. Volleyball usually meant lots of sand and sun. The game might only last thirty minutes, so his portable forceshield would protect him, but what if it were bumped by the ball during the game?

"I could schedule our match to be played after dark, with artificial lighting, if that's what's stopping you," Tom mentioned.

He was getting too observant, Nick thought. "That sounds good," he said. "I don't know much about the game, though."

"That's okay. It makes me look better," Tom said, grinning again. "And the match isn't for another two weeks. I can teach it to you by then."

Nick felt silence float around them. Tom needed to talk. He had something to say, but he didn't know how to get started. Nick thought for a few minutes before plunging ahead.

"What was it about the probe that upset you?" Nick asked.

"Chupki Na is a ghost from my past," Tom whispered. "I'm not sure I'm ready to face it. But, I know I have to."

"A trade, then," Nick suggested. "I'll join your team. I'll give you an hour's play, for each hour's discussion about Chupki Na."

Tom stiffened. His face became a hardened mask and Nick caught the unmistakable scent of fear in his blood. "I... can't," he breathed.

They were at an impasse. That Tom wanted Nick's help was clear. He hadn't fled to the safety of the Mess Hall yet. His heart was racing wildly, nervous sweat beaded on his brow and hands. Nick felt totally inadequate, that he hadn't the words or knowledge how to help him.

Long moments passed, yet Tom's pulse did not slow at all. Finally he glared at Nick. "Kim says you know things about us. That you see it in our blood."

Nick hesitated. "Fresh blood does contain the thoughts and emotions of the victim for a short time."

"Then take it from me," Tom challenged.

Nick stared at the young officer. Although he tried to focus on Tom's face, his gaze drifted towards his neck to the pulsing vein there. His fangs itched. Gold flecked his eyes, yet he held back.

"Confession is supposed to be good for the soul," he quipped, falling on adages when intelligence failed him.

"Please?" Tom whispered. "Help me...."

Nick took a step closer, but still held back. "What you ask can be dangerous. I might not stop before it is too late." His own words sounded odd around full fangs.

Tom stared at the teeth of the vampire, so different and so dangerous. It was part of why he respected the counselor. Nick was a survivor. He had survived countless centuries, survived witch hunts and persecution, survived an abusive parent and three world wars, and still managed to find beauty in his existence. Tom wished he could be more like that. Tom had begun to think of him as the older brother he never had.

"Death would be better than living like this," Tom whispered.

Nick tilted his head in a sign of assent. He saw in Tom's defeated slump something of himself; he couldn't refuse him. He went to the replicator and ordered two large bottles of the flat, artificial plasma, which he chugged instantly. He would not drink from a mortal while he was hungry. Then he turned back towards his client.

"Did Kim also tell you the after effect?"

Tom shrugged his shoulders. "A little. It's supposed to make me like you better."

Nick saw the guarded look in Tom's eyes, the attempt to shield deeper emotions. He knew Tom no longer despised him.

"All right. We'll try it." He stepped closer, standing behind Tom. He put one arm around Tom's chest. Tom stiffened at the touch. "Relax," Nick said. His voice was lower, softer, more seductive. His words whispered across Tom's neck.

"Think back to Chupki Na. Remember it all. The temperature, the time of day. How you felt. What happened to you. Be there again..."

Tom relaxed in his arm, leaning back against him. His head rested against Nick's shoulder, tilting away to bare the vein. His fear passed. New emotions filled him as he journeyed back in time. Pain, shame, anger, frustration... Nick inhaled deeply. The scent of the raw emotions was overpowering. He drew back, emitting a growl of victory as he struck. His fangs plunged deeply.

Hot blood spurted into his mouth. Nick shuddered in ecstasy. This was what he was! He held the power of life and death.

Then he turned away from his own passion to concentrate on the images held captive in Tom's blood. That gave him the strength to slow down. He sucked more gently, savoring the gift. As he felt weakness steal over his victim, he pulled back. He licked at the twin wounds until they scabbed over.

Tom did not move. He remained in Nick's arms, leaning against his chest for support. Tears trailed down his cheeks, splattering on Nick's hands. And Nick knew why. He was there, with Tom, at the alien bar on Tunara IV when the smoke bomb overpowered him. He felt the raw pain as the poisoned gas burned his throat and lungs, the nausea as he was thrown into the cargo hold of a small ship.

Nick experienced as Tom had the humiliation of the auction block when he'd been sold into slavery and the rage at being unable to defend himself. The dominant species, the Thurians, were massive creatures, three times the mass of the humanoid Mufak they enslaved. Tom had been mistaken for one of their runaways.

The tears came harder now. Tom shook, trembling uncontrollably. Nick held him to his chest, but ran his fingers through Tom's hair consolingly. He swayed a little from side to side just like he had done to comfort the holographic infant and whispered in Tom's ear. He didn't say anything overly intelligent. He uttered words, soothing words, telling him that it was all right to cry. That he should let it all out, all the emotions he had been bottling up for these past years. Nick felt his own tears fall then, tears of compassion for all Tom had suffered, and tears of pain at the memories he know shared. He wondered that Tom would allow his touch... perhaps it was a result of the blood kiss, and yet, Tom seemed almost unaware of him.

"I couldn't stop them," Tom whispered.

"I know. They were too strong."

"But I felt so impotent. I had thought the day I was sent to Auckland was the most humiliating day of my life, the day they first put me in shackles. When Captain Janeway came offering me a way out, I jumped at the chance. Even though she wanted me to lead her to the Maquis base, to betray the soldiers I had fought with, I would have done it. I would have done anything to get out of that prison. And then, suddenly, I was shackled again, imprisoned again, only this time, I had done nothing wrong. I was hungry all the time. I was overworked and beaten. And I didn't deserve it. Most of the time, when I'm in pain, it's the result of something I did, or didn't do, and I feel somehow justified, but this time..."

Tom sobbed again, unable to continue.

"I felt that way before," Nick mentioned. He didn't know if he should talk about himself. He should probably stick with Tom's problems, and keep the conversation around Tom. But, his suffering at the hands of the Saracens did bear some similarities. Perhaps, if Tom realized how much they had in common, he would be able to speak without the blood kiss.

Tom remained cocooned in his arms, but the tears were falling slower now. He leaned in to Nick's touch, momentarily allowing the personal contact like one starving for affection. "Tell me," he whispered.

Nick told him then. He continued to sway gently as he comforted Tom, and his voice was soft and mesmerizing. He told about the last battle he'd fought in the Holy Land. He told about his own conflicted emotions at battling the Saracens. Then, he told of the nearly fatal wound and being imprisoned. He was shackled, abused, raped, starved, suffering every indignity. When he had finally escaped, all he wanted was death.

"How did you ever get over that?"

"I went for a quick fix," he confessed. "When I was seduced with the promise of eternal life, unlimited power, freedom from pain and death, I embraced it. And spent a thousand years regretting it."

"I don't want to be a vampire," Tom said. "I just want to be a man instead of a failure."

"Tom, it wasn't your fault. Chupki Na was a terrible experience, but it was not your fault."

Tom started to pull away from him. Nick loosened his hold, but supported the young officer. The loss of blood made him weak. Nick helped him to a chair. Then he ordered a sugared, fortified beverage from the replicator and passed it to Tom.

"First I was sent to mine oar," Tom began. "Only, my jacket was gone, and I got sunburned. Then I got sunstroke. The first Thurian sold me to a doctor. I was treated and then sent to a sort of prison camp. There were only women and children there. This one slave girl took care of me and shared my bed.

"I tried to ignore her advances. Janeway is quite definite about the "no-sex with aliens" rule. But this Mufak girl was kind to me. And I was alone. When I learned to speak her language, she told me that if she did not conceive soon, she would be destroyed. I was there only to mate with her. It was humiliating."

Nick sensed something new, as he was closer to Tom now from the blood kiss. It wasn't the anger and shame he knew Tom suffered, but deep regret. "You loved her," he stated.

"Dear God yes, I loved her! I don't think I had ever loved anyone before her, except maybe my sisters, but that was different. I needed her! We lived together for only a few months, but I felt close to her. I knew her feelings, was sensitive to her needs, and she to mine. I told her things about my past, that I had never told anyone. I told her everything, but she still loved me."

"Why didn't you bring her back?" Nick knew Janeway wouldn't have been entirely opposed to the idea. She had adopted an Ocampan and a Talaxian into the crew by then, and later even a Borg.

"She wouldn't come." Tom drew a deep breath. He finished the drink and set the glass on the coffee table. "I begged her to come. But the Mufak were simple, ignorant slaves. After the revolution, she was treated like a queen among her people, because of her relationship to me. She had learned to read. She said that on Chupki Na, she could make a difference. Her people needed her. And she had twin sons. They were four or five years old when I last saw them. Their life was on Chupki Na. And I couldn't stay. Leaving her was the hardest thing I have ever done. And at night, when I am alone in my bed, I know I made a terrible mistake."

Nick let the quiet moment stretch in honor of the memory of Tom's first love. He closed his eyes to see her better. She had been very small, like all Mufak women. She had thick, coarse black hair that fell to mid thigh, and blue eyes - an unusual color among her people. Her slim brown hands were gentle. Her woman's figure was soft and shapely, barely concealed in the simple tunic of the Mufak slaves, and her complexion was warm and glowing, the color of maple syrup. Nick felt a growing arousal and struggled to remind himself that they were Tom's feelings and not his own. He forced the image of the Mufak woman away and replaced it with one of B'Elanna, her abdomen swollen with the new lives she carried. He smiled.

"Tom, what do you think this probe means? Do you think she's changed her mind and come after you?"

"No. The only Mufak word was Chupki Na. The rest of the message was part Kazon, part a strange soup of half a dozen languages. I have no idea what it means."

Nick made a decision then. "It is my rotation to go on the next away mission, but if you would like, I will recommend that Chakotay take you instead. I think it is time for you to face your demons. Perhaps you can bury them then."

Tom stood and nearly fell as a moment of dizziness overcame him. Nick steadied him.

"You'll have to take it easy for a while," Nick said. "Do you want me to get you out of duty for the rest of the afternoon?"

"No, I'll be fine," Tom insisted. "I just need to eat."

Nick knew without checking that their session had extended through lunch. He adjusted the collar on Tom's gray shirt until it concealed the vampire's bite. "I don't think Janeway would approve," he commented dryly.

"Of course not. That's why I did."

They shared a grin. While they both admired and respected their captain most of the time, they had managed to get in her bad graces on several occasions.

Nick went with Tom to the Mess Hall. While he was not at all hungry, he would see that Neelix found something appropriate for Tom. He would need lots of sugar, salt, and water until he got his strength back. An old-fashioned bowl of French Onion soup might be just the thing, and maybe a chunk of chocolate cake... if Naomi hadn't eaten it all.

The afternoon passed too slowly. Nick was caught between his concern for Tom and for B'Elanna. Alternately he would see the slim Mufak slave and his pregnant Klingon wife. The slave was everything that B'Elanna was not. She was delicate, gentle, and submissive, yet she exuded a quiet confidence, a pride that being a slave all her life had not been able to erase. B'Elanna, however, despite her rough, Klingon ways, was insecure, afraid of failing, afraid of her own shortcomings. No wonder Tom had been attracted to her. She would not remind him of the love he'd left behind. Nick found himself oddly attracted to the Mufak woman. Her name sounded like a song in his memory. K'shia.

Nick shook himself. It was not K'shia who stirred his need. The desire he felt now was not his own. It was Tom's memories that lingered still. Nick put them away. He wished he could have met K'shia, but he had avoided Yellow Rock, even after Tom had been found, because of the glaring hot desert sun that baked the planet for much of their thirty-six hour days.

Tom had been involved in a slave uprising during his four-month absence. He had trained the Mufak men to pilot the small ships they'd been building in giant underground hangars. For a hundred years the Mufak had been planning their revolt, stealing technology and duplicating it without the slightest understanding of the science behind it. The Mufak were such an interesting species.

Nick pushed Tom's memories aside. His shift was finally over; he could find his bride and take her to dinner.

B'Elanna was radiant. Nick knew it was too soon in the pregnancy for anyone to notice, but he wondered why everyone couldn't see her joy. He hugged her tightly, swinging her around in his arms.

"Hey, loosen up, love," B'Elanna chided gently. "I can't breathe!"

Nick kissed her neck, her eyes, her hands, then dropped to his knees and kissed her abdomen. "I can't either," he whispered.

"Nick, I'm scared," she admitted.

Nick sat in the rocking chair and pulled her onto his lap. "Me too."

"I'm not sure I'm ready. What if I'm a bad mother? What if our children hate me?"

Nick kissed her again, then held her in his protective embrace. "Let's just take it one step at a time. We'll love them. We will probably make mistakes, but as long as they know how much we love them, then I think they'll forgive us."

"Have you told your father yet?" she asked.

Nick shook his head. LaCroix would not be happy. Nick knew that much. LaCroix hated children, and he had always hated it in the past when Nick tried to live like a mortal. But, LaCroix had been strangely silent lately. Nick didn't know where he was or what he was doing. The psychic link between them was quiet.

"Please, don't wait too long? Tell him before I get the size of a shuttle craft?"

He chuckled. "I will. Now, you need to eat well. Let's go get some dinner.


Chapter Five:

The buoys lead them to a system of seven planets orbiting a single star. Two of the planets could sustain life. They both held a variety of plants, but few animals and no sign of intelligent life. The scans weren't sensitive enough to locate a handful of crash survivors. Then, Tuvok found the ship.

A small cargo transport of unknown design had crashed on the fourth planet. Their initial scans were inconclusive. Janeway assigned Chakotay and Tuvok to head up two teams to investigate.

"Captain," Nick said. "Tom should go on this mission as well."

Janeway shook her head. "I disagree. His experience on Yellow Rock was terrible. I don't want to make him face that again."

"But Captain, he wants to. He needs to. And besides, he is the only one on this ship who speaks Mufak."

Janeway looked surprised. She hadn't thought of that. She'd been counting on Kazon to get them through this, yet the dialect used by the beacons had been very poor. It was unlikely that it was the native language of whatever species they were going to meet. She stared at Nick hard. "Do you honestly feel that his presence will not jeopardize this mission?"

Nick nodded. He hoped he wasn't lying.

She tapped her commbadge and addressed Chakotay. "Commander. Assign Mr. Paris to your team as communications specialist."

"Aye, Captain."

Nick went to the console Captain Janeway had made available to him. He would monitor this away mission closely, worrying that his reputation and Tom's life might be at stake.

Chakotay drew a deep breath of air as his molecules reformed on the alien planet. The oxygen was close in chemical composition to the artificial, filtered product of the ship, but there was something so elemental about real air. Real land. Real water. He felt alive. Turning, he glanced at the other members of his team.

Tuvok broke off, tricorder extended, already identifying the direction of the ship. They had beamed down a half-kilometer away, to come up on it cautiously. He had two security guards with him, both heavily armed. Chakotay usually felt that Tuvok was overzealous, but he couldn't shake the niggling premonition that this time, at least, Tuvok was right.

Tom was unusually silent. Chakotay hadn't wanted him along, but he hadn't chosen to argue the point with Kathryn. Tom seemed distant and preoccupied. Chakotay would have to keep an eye on him.

Kim was eager. His part of the mission was brief. He was to find anything on the ship that resembled the log and bring it back to Voyager for downloading and deciphering.

Chakotay motioned the others to follow Tuvok, bringing up the rear himself. He walked cautiously, silently, in the way of his people. His hunting skills were weakened from disuse, but the hairs of his neck pricked in warning. He pocketed the tricorder and drew his phaser.

They came upon the ship, but passed no aliens or signs of aliens. They saw no footprints, no evidence that there had been any survivors at all. Until they entered the ship.

What remained would never fly again. Although the structural integrity had been compromised in the crash, that was secondary to the cannibalizing of its interior parts. Of that, little remained. Chairs and beds had been ripped out, along with the power source and any thing else that might have been useful.

"This looks like it could be the ship's log," Kim announced. He couldn't loosen the metal clamps that held it secure. Chakotay fired on the base with his phaser, cutting the alien piece of technology free. Kim stared at him agape.

Chakotay shrugged.

"I, uh, I'll take this back up then," Kim said.

No one answered. Kim tapped his comm and within moments he felt the familiar tingle as he returned to the relative safety of the ship.

Tom looked around. Nothing about the ship seemed familiar. It was nothing like the little stealth bombers he'd flown with the Mufak in the revolution. Neither did it resemble the massive, graceless ships of the Thurians. He felt a tenseness leave his shoulders and he breathed deeply.

"There are dents and scores on the hull. This ship was most likely damaged by a meteor storm," Tuvok announced. "It would seem that ultimately caused its failure."

Chakotay nodded. "And these survivors somehow knew we would be in this area and that we would find their beacons and rescue them? Then why aren't they here to greet us?"

"Shelter," Tom answered.

All turned to him curiously.

Tom cocked a half-grin. "First rule of survival. Find shelter, water, then food. The water stains on the deck suggest that this ship leaks like a sieve in a storm."

"Good thinking, Tom," Chakotay said. "Tuvok, continue your study of the ship. See if you can find out where they came from and how they got this far. Tom, let's see if we can find where they went."

Tom set his tricorder and scanned for water. "There's a pond this way, about a kilometer from here."

Chakotay shook his head. "If they're still alive, they won't camp by water."

"Why not?"

"Because water also attracts wildlife. One should seek shelter at a safe distance from the water, carrying some back as needed." He set off then, leading a few degrees to the east from the body of water. Before long he uncovered a trail worn enough that even Tom could follow it. It led towards a rocky hillside. Tom seemed tense as they drew near.

"The Mufak were cave-dwellers," he said.

"So it would appear these people are as well."

The cave was easy to find. The entrance was wide, cleared of any brush, and footprints criss-crossed the dry dirt. Chakotay informed the captain first, then they went inside.

There they found the parts of the ship. Chairs arranged haphazardly, boxes of supplies, discarded containers, beds, blankets, clothing, all strewn about with no sign of order. There was an odor in the air of spoiled food and something else.

"Sloppy people," Tom said. "It's for sure they weren't ever boy scouts."

Chakotay wasn't sure he followed, but then with Tom, no one often did.

"Scouts' motto, "be prepared"," Tom explained. "This camp looks pathetic, desperate. There is little here of any use. Looks like the food's all gone."

"Could be the survivors lacked the skills to make it on this uninhabited planet," Chakotay agreed. "Here, look that these containers. Is the writing Mufak?"

Tom glanced at the dark, bold printing on the empty crates. "Sorry, Chakotay. I only speak it. I can't read it."

Chakotay grunted. This communications specialist wasn't much help.

"Well, I didn't learn to read it either," Chakotay commented. "But I did see it some. This doesn't really look familiar. I'll have something transported up and run it through the archives. Maybe we can figure out who these people are."

He tapped his commbadge, but nothing happened. Tom tried his then, too.

"Must be something in these rocks blocking the signal," Tom said. "I'll go out."

The entrance to the cave was blocked. A large humanoid, partly Kazon in his appearance and wearing tattered clothing eyed them. Behind him Chakotay saw others. He sensed his tactical disadvantage. They were cornered in a cave, in unknown territory, with no known means of escape. If the commbadge wouldn't function, then neither would the transporter. Although he hated diplomats, now was the time for a little diplomacy. He wished Nick had come on this mission with him.

"Greetings," he said, forcing a friendliness he didn't feel. "I am Commander Chakotay of the Federation Starship Voyager."

The stranger snorted and spat at his feet. "Damn late you be. A year should been here ago."

Chakotay looked at Tom questioningly. The younger officer shrugged; it hadn't made any sense to him either.

"Who are you?" Chakotay asked.

The leader worked his jaw and hurled a wad of spit at Chakotay's feet. "I asks, you answers!"

Tom reached for his phaser, but before he could draw, they were surrounded. A dozen men, all dressed in rags, pointed alien weapons at them. Tom carefully removed his phaser and dropped it to the ground.

"Just wait a minute," Chakotay said smoothly. "I'm sure we can talk this out. Tell us what it is you want. Maybe we can help you."

The leader spat again. "I gots what I wants. I gots you. Put be down all weapons and things too."

Chakotay jiggled the universal translator. Perhaps the same rock mineral that prevented the communicator from reaching Voyager was also interfering with the translator.

Tom's fists clenched and he started towards the leader, but Chakotay caught his sleeve and stopped him. "You do not need hostages, mister," he said.

"I be Kizbutt," he grunted.

"We understand that you are marooned here. We came voluntarily, following your beacons only to lend assistance."

Kizbutt stared at him like he'd just turned green. Then he shrugged. "Coulda be. Or not be. I no taking chances. Whole futsi been cursed. Cursed it be."

Chakotay brushed the comm badge again. Futsi? "How did you get here," he asked, stalling.

"Damn female. Hired we to bring her. Money be gone." He glared at Tom then, eyeing him strangely. Kizbutt changed languages, leaving the Kazon dialect, which he spoke very badly and singing instead. Chakotay recognized it as Mufak, although he didn't understand it. The pitch-specific, musical Mufak language had proved too much for the universal translators to deal with. Whatever Kizbutt said to Tom seemed intended to rile him. Chakotay saw the anger flare, the clenched fists. "Don't listen to him, Tom," he warned. He was too late.

Tom flung himself at Kizbutt's neck murderously. He shouted at him also in Mufak. One stranger swung the butt end of his weapon at Tom's ribs, knocking the air out of him. Another weapon struck him on the forehead. Tom crumpled to the ground. Chakotay lunged for him, but the ragtag mercenaries restrained him.

Two others hauled Tom to his feet and held him. Kizbutt drove his fist into Tom's stomach again and again. Tom's knees buckled, the strength went out of his legs. Even as blood formed at the corner of his mouth and dripped down his shirt, he still hurled what could have only been curses at the Kizbutt.

"Stop it," Chakotay shouted, struggling against the arms that held him. "We're no good to you dead. Leave him alone!"

One alien struck Tom hard again on the bleeding lump on his forehead. Tom passed out. Hauling him by the arms, they led the way deep into the cave. They forced Chakotay to follow.

The cave widened, then narrowed again, twisting oddly. At the back was a prison formed of welded parts from the ship. Kizbutt snatched the commbadges from Tom and Chakotay's jackets. He shoved Chakotay inside. Tom's limp body followed. Then a solid metal door clanked shut. A chain wound through the bars and was fastened with a lock. Then he heard the aliens retreat, but he could see nothing in the blackness of the cave. How had this all turned out so wrong? Chakotay sank to his knees and reached for Tom.

He found a pulse. It was strong and regular. He nudged him, trying to wake him. "I'll get you out of this, Tom," he promised. "Some how."



Captain Janeway tried to reach Chakotay again, but he wasn't responding to her hail. Kim's scans revealed that the planet's rocks were comprised of alien metals with magnetic properties. If they were behind or inside the rocks, they would not be reachable. Janeway didn't like it a bit. She ordered extra guards to the surface to assist Tuvok in finding Chakotay and Tom. Then she received a hail, noisy with static.

"Can you clear that up," she snapped at Kim.

The young officer blushed in embarrassment. "Aye, Captain." He hurried to comply. The static cleared somewhat and the viewscreen was dominated by the grizzled countenance of an alien of mixed Kazon descent.

"We be two your crew hostage," he announced smugly.

"Return them at once," she commanded, her tone low and chilling.

The alien was taken back, but quickly recovered. "Return them, maybe perhaps, when ship be good. Fuel, supplies, food, water."

"I will do nothing until my men are freed," she said firmly. "I will not deal with terrorists. Janeway out!" She signaled Kim, who closed the transmission. Then she contacted Tuvok and ordered the away team to return to the ship at once.

Janeway rubbed at her forehead. "What is wrong with the translators, Ensign Kim! And who the hell are these people!"

"Working on it, Captain," Kim responded nervously, his hands fairly flying across his console.

"They are the Itka," Seven said calmly as she stepped of the turbolift onto the bridge.

Janeway whirled around and nailed her with a glare. "Explain!"

Seven was not intimidated. She continued calmly. "The Kazon-Itka, Captain. The Borg came across them a few times, although you did not meet them. They are the vilest of the sects and not deemed worthy of assimilation."

Janeway sighed in frustration. All intelligent civilizations were at risk of annihilation by the Borg, while these vermin escaped unharmed? Sometimes she hated the delta quadrant. "Can you adjust the translators for their dialect, then? I can barely understand them."

"No, Captain. The translators are functioning within normal parameters. Even the Kazon refuse to deal with the Itka. They are scorned among their own kind, like a disease that lives on the fringe of society."

"Great. Just great. Kim, you and Seven work on those logs. I want them deciphered and on my desk in one hour."

Chakotay strained to see in the dark. The blackness was complete. There was no shadow, no shades of gray, only black. He felt around in the dark to learn of his prison. It was small and rectangular, with two walls of metal pieces welded together and two walls of rough-hewn rock. There were no beds, blankets, or other items. Nothing. He reached out to touch Tom again. He didn't like way Tom's breathing sounded, rapid and shallow. He needed a light.

"Hey!" he called. "I need a light! A dead hostage is of no use to anyone!"

No one answered.

There was a scraping sound in the shadows outside his prison. Chakotay listened. It was too heavy to be rodents and there were two sets of them. "Who are you," he demanded.

The sounds stopped. He heard a scuffle, as though they withdrew. They were too small to be the alien men who'd imprisoned them. He lowered his voice and beckoned to them. "Help me," he called softly.

The scuffling sounds resumed, drawing closer and bringing a small light. Chakotay saw tiny feet. When they were almost near enough to touch, they stopped. Two little children grinned at him, a boy and a girl. They were nut brown with black, black hair, dimpled, and with the bluest of eyes. They were only half the size of Naomi Wildman and they were filthy. Chakotay took in the dirty, tattered clothes, the bare legs and feet, the thin arms. These children looked hungry, and yet they laughed together. They looked nothing like the mercenaries who had imprisoned them.

They sang something, then laid the light on the ground. Timidly, cautiously, they poked at the light, pushing it nearer to Chakotay, but remaining just out of reach. It alarmed him how suspicious these little ones had become. Had the mercenaries hurt them?

"Thank you," Chakotay said.

They giggled, then scampered away.

Chakotay missed their company already. Taking the light, he examined Tom. His lip was crusted with dried blood, but no longer bleeding. One eye was bruised, more bruises colored his ribs. Then he lifted each eyelid and checked his pupils. They were dilated and did not react to the light as quickly as they should have.

"Come, Tom, wake up," Chakotay commanded. "You need to sit up and stay awake. You probably have a concussion."

Tom groaned. Chakotay pulled him to a sitting position and helped him to lean against the cave.

"Mind telling my why you attacked them? Did you honestly think that the two of us could have overpowered twelve of them?"

Tom shrugged. "I didn't like what he said," he grumbled.

"Must have been something awful. What was it?"

Tom didn't answer. He put a hand to his forehead gingerly and groaned again. "I can't... think," he said, slurring his words.

"Stay awake, buddy. You have to help me think of a way out of this mess."

"K'shia is here."

"Keshia?" Chakotay repeated the alien word. The way Tom pronounced it, Chakotay knew it was Mufak. "Who or what is that?"

He nudged Tom awake again. "Stay with me," he urged.

"She came back. She's here."

Chakotay swallowed thickly. Tom's injuries didn't look too bad, but head wounds could be serious. He felt a sense of evil all around him. They had to get out of here.

"We are being hailed, Captain," Tuvok said as she entered.

"I guess it's time to speak to them then," she said. "On screen."

This time the wild-eyed leader who identified himself as Kizbutt held a small child in his grip, a large knife pressed to the little girl's throat. Beside him another man held a boy as well. She gasped involuntarily. There was something familiar about the children.

They were very small, perhaps no more than three years old. She breathed easier, as it had been four and a half years ago that Tom had been held captive on Yellow Rock. They were slim and brown like the Mufak, but their eyes were bright blue, a stunning contrast. The boy struggled in his captor's grasp, the knife scraped his flesh and a trickle of blood oozed forth. The girl was terrified. Large tears spilled down her cheeks. Janeway swallowed.

Kizbutt grinned evilly. "Greetings, Captain Janeway," he began. "This be the cargo. These children be to their father now. On Voyager be he. But we do kill them - fix our ship!"

"Done," she said.

"Captain," Tuvok interrupted. She silenced him with a gesture.

"Put down the knife," she said. "We will repair your ship and give you the supplies you requested. Do not harm the children."

"Glad I be we speak now the language same," he crooned. With a broad, greasy grin, he ended the transmission.

"Captain," Tuvok insisted. "Shouldn't we ascertain the veracity of his claims before reaching such an agreement?"

"No. I won't put any child in danger, no matter whom they belong to. Tuvok, put a security detail around their ship. I want my crew protected while they begin work on it. Kim, you and B'Elanna are to stall on the repairs. Look like you're working on it, just, don't accomplish miracles. I need time to figure out how to rescue Chakotay and Tom and now, the two children as well."

Chakotay had tried to keep Tom awake by engaging in conversation, but Tom answered all of his questions with only a word or a grunt. He winced with each breath and his eyes still looked distant and unfocused.

The evil Chakotay had sensed before surrounded him. Chakotay didn't understand it, only acknowledge it. The evil wasn't the Kazon mercenaries, although they were affected by it. And the evil wasn't in Tom. Chakotay folded his legs and rested his palms on his knees. Perhaps he could reach out and touch the evil, face it, to learn to subdue it.

The evil was too strong. Chakotay could not reach the spirit plane. He was blocked, barred from freedom in the spiritual realm as effectively as the prison barred him from returning to Voyager.

Then he heard the mercenaries approach. They were loud and smelly, announcing their presence clearly.

"My friend needs a doctor," Chakotay insisted.

"We you company be bring," Kizbutt answered. Chakotay turned his light to see them. The little boy and girl were struggling against the strong arms that held them. Someone opened the prison door while others leveled their weapons on Chakotay. He stepped back. One mercenary tossed the girl inside. She fell on the cave floor with a cry of pain. When the other would have tossed in the boy, he screamed instead. The boy had bit his hand hard, drawing blood. He dropped him and the boy ran into the dark.

"Go get!" Kizbutt roared. Three armed men hurried to do his bidding. The prison door shut with a slam and was chained again, then the captors retreated.

Chakotay knelt to come down to the girl's level. She shied away from him, but the prison was small and bare. There was no place for her to go. She spoke to him then. He recognized the brave tone of her voice, if not the words.

Tom chuckled. "She's threatening you, Chakotay. She said, "you'd better stay where you are."

"Tell her I mean her no harm," Chakotay said.

Tom's voice sounded strange yet lyrical as he sang to the girl. Sweat dripped down the side of his face and matted his hair to his forehead. Chakotay had to get them out of here soon.

The little girl squealed with delight. She flung herself at Tom and wrapped her small arms around his neck, kissing him. She cried out one word. "Papa!"

Tom pulled her face back to stare at her. "Oh my God," he whispered. Then he drew her in close and buried his face in her hair and wept.



Chapter Six:

"Nick, talk to him!" B'Elanna straightened his jacket and kissed his check affectionately.

"B'El, I can't. He won't be pleased. I just can't..."

"I'll come with you," she offered.

He shook his head vehemently.

"Look. He is your father. He will come to you eventually. You are so worked up about this that you aren't doing anyone any good. Go and talk to him. Then perhaps you can help us find a way to free Tom."

Nick stared at the floor. LaCroix had not returned in over a month. The moon's phases had come full circle. He found he missed his master, and yet, he dreaded this confrontation. He never could keep secrets from LaCroix. Could he protect his wife if the ancient became violent? Nick knew he would die trying, but he was not prepared for the ordeal.

"That's it. I'll talk to him myself," B'Elanna snapped.

"No! I'm going. You must promise me that you will stay here!"

"For now. But don't be gone too long." She kissed him again.

Nick swept her into his arms and as had become his custom, kissed her abdomen. "Take care of the kids," he said, forcing a lightness to his tone.

She batted at him playfully. "Get out of here!"

Nick set her on her feet. Drawing in a deep breath, he headed towards the holodeck. Silently, he imagined a dozen conversations, but none of them worked. Hi, dad! You're going to be a grandpa! Or, where have you been all this time? Or, you'll never guess what happened, B'Elanna's expecting...

Instead, Nick entered the holodeck and stood mutely.

Within moments LaCroix appeared. He stood a few feet away, his arms casually at his side and a mask of non-emotion on his pale countenance. "Good evening, Nicholas," he said. He glanced around the stark blue and silver holodeck critically. "Computer, access LaCroix home, program LL-Lumina."

At once the room transformed. The blue and silver walls became honey-colored with a tiny floral print of white roses, their long green stems adding to the pleasing pattern. The carpet was a deep plush, forest green. A small fire snapped in the cast-iron stove, casting an intricate dance of light and shadows in the room.

LaCroix sat in a crimson wing-backed chair, crossing one leg casually over the other. He looked stronger, more powerful than Nick had ever remembered. The entire program seemed to thrum through him with the latent power of an earthquake about to erupt.

"I - I don't recognize this place," Nick stammered stupidly.

LaCroix tipped his chin in a gesture of assent. "This is my newest acquisition. I am now sole owner and proprietor of this lovely condominium, Lumina Lights."

Nick saw a couch and sank into it. "On the moon? You're on the moon."

LaCroix laughed. "Very good, my son. I see that your prolonged absence has not caused you to forget everything."

That explained the power he felt surging around him. LaCroix drew strength from the moon, and now he was on it. Did this mean that he could have constant access to Voyager, without being restricted by the moon's phases?

"But you hated living there," Nick recalled. Mortals loved it. The moon had been quickly transformed into an elite resort, once they learned that they could not stay there indefinitely. Although the manmade structures had artificial gravity, atmosphere, and all the comforts of "home", they could not live long without the sun. Scientists still debated whether it was actually a physical problem or merely a psychological one, for humans had adapted to life on starships quite nicely, but whatever the cause, the moon now housed thousands of vacation resorts buried beneath the surface of the rock. No permanent structures remained on the surface. Without the protection of an atmosphere, the moon was often bombarded by meteor showers.

LaCroix dismissed Nick's comment with a wave of his hand. "I hated it that they built here. It seemed vulgar somehow, to have their pitiful little structures sprouting up like weeds across the face the moon. However, what's done is done. Now, enough about me. What is on your mind, Nicholas?"

Nick drew a deep breath, but he lost his resolve. Instead, he stalled by telling LaCroix about the Itka, and his crewmates who were trapped below. LaCroix listened without interruption. He poured himself a beverage from the small refrigeration unit, and offered one to Nick as well.

"Nicholas. Do not try my patience," LaCroix said later, when Nick seemed to run out of news.

"We did it, LaCroix," he whispered then. "B'Elanna and I. We are expecting children."

LaCroix chuckled. "You may expect all you want, my son. You know this is an impossibility."

"No, Father. Please, don't be angry. Don't harm her, I beg of you!"

LaCroix set his glass down and eyed his child. Nicholas did look unduly upset. The blood kiss would reveal his torment. If the boy didn't start to make sense, LaCroix would demand it. "I told you before that I have welcomed her into the family. She has my protection." His voice was firm.

Nick got to his feet and paced restlessly, keeping the couch between him and LaCroix. The ancient noticed. It grieved him that Nicholas still resisted his authority more often than not. "I didn't think it would work," Nick said. "She wanted to try, and I confess, I did too. She is six weeks along now."

"I am sorry, Nicholas," LaCroix sighed.

Nick looked at him curiously. It was not the response he had expected. The ancient's sincere reply terrified him. "Sorry? Why?"

LaCroix rose and placed a hand on Nick's shoulder. "Who is the father? I will take care of him for you."

"LaCroix! I am the father," Nick spat.

The holodeck doors parted then and B'Elanna stepped inside. "Hello, LaCroix," she said.

"I told you to stay away!" Nick shouted.

"And I did, for a while. I have a right to visit my father-in-law." Then she boldly approached LaCroix and kissed his cheek.

LaCroix stepped back as though he had been stung. He gripped her arm to hold her, then placed one hand low on her abdomen.

B'Elanna stiffened. She resisted the urge to pull away. She felt something from this ancient vampire, a presence that seemed to bore right through her. She felt the hair on her neck prickle, felt a warmth spread out from where his hand touched her. She even thought she felt the infants within move at his command. Suddenly he released her. He stared at her, his eyes wide in surprise.

"But how can this be?" he whispered almost reverently.

Nick tried to answer, but B'Elanna spoke up. She was by far the more coherent of the two. She explained the doctor's role in the process. LaCroix said nothing. He sank back into his chair, his complexion even more pale than it had been moments ago.

"Oh, Nicholas," he breathed. "How could you?"

B'Elanna knelt at his feet and took his hands in hers. "Please don't be angry," she said. "Can't you be happy for us?"

LaCroix placed a paternal hand on her head. "My child. I will not bring harm on either you or the children. However, they will be in grave danger when you return to the alpha quadrant. I don't know if I can protect you."

"Then we will stay here," Nick blurted.

LaCroix slowly got to his feet. He stood tall and imposing, his power radiating from him so even B'Elanna could feel it. "You will not!"

Nick stepped back involuntarily. His chin took a stubborn set and his fists clenched at his sides. "I must protect them, LaCroix!"

"And so we will work together, Nicholas. We will pool all of our resources and come up with a solution to this dilemma. Together, we are stronger than each alone."

Nick was speechless. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. B'Elanna stood then and hugged her frightful father-in-law tightly. LaCroix put an arm around her shoulder and held out his other arm for his son. Nick hesitated only a moment, then flew to the comfort of his master. LaCroix embraced them both, kissing them on the top of the head. "We are family, Nicholas. Perhaps now you will learn what that means."

Nick clung to him until he felt that his emotions were brought under control. Then he helped his wife to the couch.

"Five children, Nicholas?" LaCroix asked lightly as he went to pour something for B'Elanna. "You always were drawn to excess."

"Yeah, well we thought we'd get it all over with at once," B'Elanna replied. "I sure as hell don't ever want to do this again."

"There have been other instances," LaCroix said slowly. When the young couple gave him their undivided attention, he continued. "On rare occasions there have been mortals who survived an intimate relationship with a vampire. Even rarer, there have been half-vampire progeny."

"LaCroix, you never told me," Nick said accusingly. "When we were in Toronto... you should have told me!"

"No, Nicholas. I could not. I do not believe Natalie would have survived, and you were so troubled then. I did not think you would handle it if she died. I did what I thought was best."

B'Elanna remained silent. Nick had told her a little about his one-time lover, Natalie. She couldn't help the flare of jealousy, but comforted herself with the fact that Nick was here with her now and not still pining over his one-time lover.

"Why didn't I ever hear about this before? What happened to the children?"

"Nicholas, this is very rare. I have met only six dhampires in my entire existence. These half-breed children were allowed to mature only under the watchful eye of the enforcers. When they reached maturity, they had to choose either to be brought across fully, or die. They were never allowed to live as mortals. Their vampire heritage made them a danger to us, for they could sense us and seek us out in the day when we are at our weakest. During the vampire hunts of the fourteenth century it was not uncommon for mortals to openly flirt with suspected vampires in hopes of creating a dhampire to aid them in our total annihilation."

"Will our children be forced to become vampires, too?" B'Elanna asked. She wasn't sure how she felt about vampires, but being forced to do anything ran against her grain.

"I don't know if that is even possible, my child. Dhampires are half vampire, half human. Your children will be vampire, human, and Klingon. I do not know if bringing them across is even a possibility."

"I won't let them die," Nick stated defiantly.

LaCroix ignored the disrespectful tone. "I shall think on this situation, Nicholas. You do realize that Natalie's assistance would be invaluable?"

Nick shrugged. "Maybe."

"I will speak to her, if you like, but I doubt she will offer her services unless you talk to her first."

Nick nodded. He waited for the feeling of agony that usually accompanied all thoughts of her, but it did not come. He smiled at his new bride. "I can do that," he confessed.

"Good. I will send her a message. She was vacationing on Risa with Vachon the last I heard from her. It may take a few weeks to bring her here. I shall keep you informed," LaCroix said.

Nick stood. He unbuttoned his jacket and tossed it to the couch. He walked towards his master then, graceful and proud, yet turned his head to bare his throat. "Thank you, LaCroix," he said simply. He wrapped his arms around the ancient and embraced him.

LaCroix stared at the smooth, pale neck. His fangs descended and his eyes glowed in anticipation. It was customary for a fledgling to offer his blood after any dispute as a symbol of submission and acceptance. LaCroix, though, slipped the silver pin from his collar and bared his throat as well. He would offer his blood as a sign of his pact. They were in this together.

B'Elanna watched the blood exchange silently. She often bit Nick as part of their lovemaking, but she never really drank more than a taste. This was so intimate. They basically held each other's life by the teeth. They were vulnerable, yet the exchange was sensual and satisfying. Maybe there were worse things than becoming a vampire?

B'Elanna's comm beeped. Quietly, she slipped from the holodeck and left father and son alone.



The door to her readyroom opened to admit a windstorm almost before she'd given the command to enter. Nick Knight stood before her, a stone wall of power but his eyes were amber fires of fury. His lips were tightly closed. Janeway saw no distortion to indicate his fangs had descended, yet she suspected that they weren't very far away.

"Yes?" she asked slowly.

"I must go to the planet!"

Janeway sat back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. The motion put distance between them, as if unconsciously asserting her dominance over the young man before her who had seen more than a thousand years. She had sent B'Elanna down to work with Ensign Kim not more than ten minutes ago.

"You sent Tom to the planet in your place," she reminded him.

"And now he needs my help." Nick's voice was deep, mesmerizing. She did catch a glimpse of the sharp, erotic points when he spoke.


Red flecks flamed in his once blue eyes. Janeway heard a deep rumbling sound and wondered if he was actually growling at her. Confrontations with him often seemed to border on the dangerous. It was her opinion that vampires should not be allowed into Starfleet.

Nick closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. It was unnecessary for him, but it was a calming technique he had learned to use. When he looked at her again, his eyes were mostly blue. "I wish to go with the security detail."

"Nick, you're barely in control. This is a volatile situation. I don't want the terrorists dead."

"B'Elanna's down there," he whispered.

"And Tuvok is there with her."

"Please, Captain. I have been an ambassador before. I have been in law enforcement for longer than you've been alive. I really need to be there."

Janeway took in the tortured look in his eyes, the raging emotion that seethed just below the surface. He was not human, but once he had been, a long, long time ago, when women were pretty, useless fixtures, meant to decorate the castle with endless needlework while their men protected and provided for them. B'Elanna, though, would put him in his place. Although she fought her Klingon nature, she was fiercely klingon through and through.

"If I let you go down, I don't want you assisting in any negotiations. You are too personally involved. You will be assigned as security, only."

Nick lifted his chin in silent acceptance.

Janeway voiced the promise then. "Nick, we'll get them back."

The temperature continued to drop. Paris had been shivering for over an hour. Chakotay had tried to keep him awake, but it was a losing battle. Now the girl curled up against Tom's side and she watched Chakotay intently.

He couldn't stand to hear her shiver. He unzipped his jacket. "Here," he said softly. She shrank back when he approached. Chakotay wished he could comfort her somehow, but Tom was the only one who could speak her language. Chakotay spread the jacket over Tom, trying to show her he meant no harm. She curled closer to Tom then, and Chakotay pulled one side over her as well. She smiled. It was dark in the cave, with only the single light casting them mostly in shadows, yet the smile was disarming. Could she really be what she claimed? Was she Tom's child? Or had the word meant something else in her language?

Chakotay rubbed his bare arms briskly to warm himself. The planet had a desert-like environment, beastially hot and dry while the sun baked the dirt, dropping to near freezing temperatures at night. He had many hours to go yet, before he felt warm again.

Suddenly Tom sat up.

"How are you doing," Chakotay asked, moving closer.

"Get out," Tom said. "Get out now."

Chakotay moved the light. Tom didn't look right. His eyes were widely dilated, and sweat continued to pour from his forehead in spite of the chill night. The little girl spoke to him in her sing-song language. Tom smiled at her, drawing Chakotay's jacket around her shoulders tenderly. Then he struggled to his feet. He continued to speak in Mufak, but it did not appear that he talked to the child. His hands gesticulated, as though talking to a phantom. The child clung to his leg fearfully.

"Tom, what is it? What do you want?" Chakotay asked.

Tom looked at him. For a moment, he seemed completely lucid. "We must get out of here now. My son is in danger!"

"I haven't found a way out of this prison," Chakotay said. Tom ignored him. He turned around, rubbing his hands along the rough rock face, searching for something. Chakotay shined the light on the rock and tried to reach Tom's delusional mind.

"What are you looking for Tom?"

"Here! Give me your knife!"

Chakotay glanced around. He always carried a knife tucked inside his boot, which their captors hadn't discovered. He withdrew it now, hesitating to give it to the sick man. Tom snatched it and started to dig at the rock wall. Chakotay grimaced at the nicks Tom had to be putting on the sharp edge.

"There!" Tom pulled something from the rock. It was a small, metal casing. Chakotay recognized it as ammunition for a projectile weapon, but it had not exploded. How had Tom known it was there, buried as it was in rock? And to whom was he talking?

Tom went to the chain and pulled until he could reach the lock. Working quickly, he pulled the metal casing apart, shaking the contents inside. Then he cut a strip from his shirt and stuffed an end into the lock. Chakotay just watched, unsure what Tom was going to do next.

Tom got onto his hands and knees and picked at the loose rock on the floor. He sniffed one, tossed it and sniffed another. The little girl leaned over his shoulder and spoke. Then she joined him, picking at rock on the floor. She held out a pebble for Tom. He praised her and took the pebble. Striking it on a stone he had found produced a spark. The rock was similar to flint, Chakotay realized. They might have discovered that with their tricorders, but there was no way Tom could have known.

Tom struck the rocks over the shirt fabric until a small spiral of smoke formed. Chakotay wrinkled his nose at the scent of melting synthetic fibers. He hoped this would work before the mercenaries returned. Then from a distance towards the mouth of the cave he heard a loud explosion, quickly followed by another and another. Who were the mercenaries firing upon? Voyager wouldn't be using such dangerous, primitive weapons, and no one with any sense would fire them inside a cave! Still, the explosions and the screaming created enough cover. The rag burned, igniting the chemicals. The lock sprung open.

Tom staggered through the door in the direction of the explosions. Chakotay grabbed the girl and followed. The cave was eerily dark, oddly illumined by the explosions. As they drew nearer, they could see the weird battle going on. The little boy crouched behind some crates, pulling the firing pins from hand grenades and throwing them at the mercenaries. The mercenaries were firing back at the child, distracting him, while two men crept up behind him. In one more minute the child would be dead.

Tom threw himself at the boy, knocking him out of the way just as the two mercenaries opened fire. He struck his head on rock and passed out, his body sheltering the boy. Chakotay grabbed more of the explosives and tossed them short at the terrorists, intending to block them rather than kill. Stalagmites, perhaps centuries old, crumbled and rained down on the terrorists. The boy squirmed from under Tom, stuffing explosives inside his tunic. Chakotay grabbed Tom's still form and tossed him over a shoulder.

"I hope you kids know how to get out of here," Chakotay said. "We'd better go now!"

The boy took his sister's hand and ran off, looking back over his shoulder and called to Chakotay. The big Indian had no difficulty keeping up. He stopped twice to toss another grenade behind him, slowing the mercenaries' approach.

He smelled fresh air; they must be close to a second exit of the cave. Dim light streamed down inside. He followed the children out through the small opening. Then, he and the boy tossed all of their remaining grenades, sealing off this exit.

Chakotay straightened, adjusting Tom over his shoulder. The desert spread out before him with waist-high briar bushes. The sun was low on the horizon and a few stars were peaking out above. He wondered where to go next.

The boy took his sister's hand and led the way, gesturing to Chakotay. They seemed to know where they were going, but they were so young for Chakotay to trust them completely. He stayed alert as he followed them through the briars.

The children walked slower. The briars snapped at their bare arms and legs, leaving dozens of bleeding scratches. The girl was crying. The boy comforted her, but tried to hurry her on.

"Get behind me," Chakotay instructed. He took them by the arms and pulled them behind him. He told them to stay close, even though they didn't understand his language. He walked first then, clearing the path. Hundreds of needle-sharp thorns pricked at him, tearing at his bare arms and scratching his legs right through his trousers. He shifted Tom's still form again. "The next time you feel like saving my life, Poocah, don't bother," he grunted. "The payback is hell."

He glanced behind him. There didn't seem to be anyone coming after them, which was odd. Finally, he reached the edge of the briars.

The children were arguing. Even in their musical language that sounded more like song than speech, the disagreement was unmistakable. Combined with their arm gestures, Chakotay could even figure out the issues. The boy wanted to go in one direction, and the girl in the other.

Chakotay looked at the two choices while they debated. One would go at right angles to the cave, perhaps they would swing around and draw near to where the Kazon vessel had crashed. Voyager might look for them there, but so would the mercenaries.

The other direction, which the boy wanted to take, lead straight ahead, up a slight incline. The boy turned to Chakotay then and made a motion like drinking water. The boy knew they would find something to drink. Chakotay decided to follow the boy's path. He could get Tom settled, and protect the children, then he might slip towards the crash site alone.

The girl shrugged. The argument was over and no bad feelings remained. The children dragged behind him now. Chakotay slowed his pace a little, to accommodate in their short legs, but they weren't safe out in the open. The Kazon mercenaries had been like crazy men, intent on killing the boy. He breathed in deeply, elated to be free from the evil that was in the cave.

Up ahead was a small cluster of vegetation. As they drew nearer, Chakotay saw that it was a bowl-shaped valley with tall plants and a small waterhole at the bottom. He walked down inside, glad to be out of the line of sight and away from the wind. Unfortunately, in all the confusion, his jacket had been left behind.

Chakotay laid Tom down, then examined him before it grew too dark. He had a pulse, but it was still rapid and shallow. His fingers were ice-cold. The children stared up at him with twin looks of fear.

Chakotay didn't believe in coating the truth. "He will be fine, if I can get him to our doctor in time," he said. The children smiled, hearing only the reassurance in his tone, and not the "if". They walked to the water's edge, then.

The boy pulled off his tunic. Dipping a corner into the pond, he washed the scratches on the girl's face tenderly.

Chakotay looked at the water, wishing for a tricorder. It was murky, and smelled brackish. The boy had stirred up some of the sediment. Chakotay wondered if it was even safe to drink. He decided that the lack of carcasses around suggested that it may be safe, at least for the local wildlife. Then, as he scouted around the water's edge, looking for tracks, he didn't find any at all... either this section of the planet lacked wildlife entirely, or they instinctively knew to stay away from the brackish pool.

When he looked back the children were drinking the foul-looking water. It sickened him. Still, they had lived here for a while and knew of the water's existence. It must be safe. Chakotay scooped a handful and brought it to his mouth. It tasted strong and gritty. He spit it out, grimacing at the sand.

The skinny boy shimmied up the thin trunk of one of the tall plants. The girl held out his tunic. As the boy neared the top, the trunk bent and leaned precariously. Chakotay knew the plant would not support an adult. The boy plucked fist-sized fruits and dropped them, while the girl caught them in the tunic. They worked with such skill, that Chakotay suspected they had done this many times before. Then the boy shimmied down again.

The twin children showed the fruits to Chakotay. He took some and they divided the rest between them, setting some aside for Paris. The fruits had dried right on the tree, like jumbo-sized raisins. They were chewy and sweet. Chakotay wasn't fond of them, but the children's spirits had returned. They sang cheerfully to one another, as though this was all one big picnic. He marveled at their apparent adaptability.

The temperature dropped even more. Chakotay hesitated whether to build a fire. It might alert the mercenaries to their whereabouts, but then it wouldn't take much intelligence to find them eventually. The children were shivering and Tom was deathly still. Chakotay set about building a fire.

The twigs didn't put out much heat. Chakotay searched for something to shelter them from the cold. The only things available were the large leafy fronds of the raisin-tree. He pulled out his knife from his boot and showed it to the boy.

The girl shrank behind her brother, but he looked on with interest. Chakotay demonstrated how sharp the blade was, slicing several wood curls from a branch. Then, walking to the tree, he described to the boy with words and pantomime what he wanted him to do. The boy took the knife and held it between his teeth, then shimmied up the trunk again. As he reached the top, he wrapped his legs around the trunk and took the knife out of his mouth. He shook one leafy frond.

Chakotay nodded at him. The boy cut it off, letting it fall to the ground. He cut a dozen more, then Chakotay gestured for him to come down. Not until he was on the ground and the sharp knife safely in its sheath, did Chakotay realize he had been holding his breath. With the boy's help, he dragged the fronds towards the campfire.

The girl lay down beside Paris, her head resting on his shoulder. Chakotay covered her with several fronds. The boy lay on Paris' other side, snuggling in close. Chakotay covered Paris and the children completely. The boy sat up, singing something to him with a look of concern.

Chakotay pointed at his eyes with two fingers. "I will keep watch," he said.

The boy lay down again. Before long, the only sounds Chakotay could hear were the fire snapping softly and the children as they shivered even in their sleep. He added another stick to the flame.

Chapter Seven:

Nick shimmered into existence just outside of the alien ship. He raced inside, where B'Elanna was only half-visible as she and Kim worked within the bowels of the alien vessel. Nick sank to his heels and leaned back against the bulkhead, relieved and comforted just to be near her. She was so precious to him, she and the children. He could not let anything harm them.

They worked on, oblivious to his presence. He passed them tools, adjusted the controls, assisting them in their work, and they still hadn't acknowledged him. Nick grinned. Although some small part of him felt ignored, he was proud of B'Elanna's gift and her single-minded concentration.

After several hours, they crawled out from under the panels. Kim looked at Nick in surprise, but B'Elanna just smiled.

"I thought you might be around," she said.

"And still you ignored me?" He loved to tease her.

"Kim, take these parts back to the ship. We'll have to replicate their replacements." She waited until he was out of hearing range, then she slid in to Nick's embrace. "The kids were restless, making me feel a little nauseated until you came near. Then they settled right down."

Nick placed one hand on her still flat abdomen. Although the infants were too small yet for her to actually be able to feel them, Nick did not doubt that she felt them on a more intimate level, a metaphysical one. The children were responding to the emotions of their parents. Nick had been worried, they reacted to his worry, and B'Elanna became nauseated, even though she said that Klingon women did not normally suffer morning sickness. It was strange. But then, maybe it would make B'Elanna want to stay nearer him during this time. It would certainly make his job of protecting her that much easier.

"So how did you get Janeway to let you down here? She really doesn't want us working together, you know."

"I didn't have to hypnotize her, if that's what you're thinking," Nick grumbled. He nipped at her ear, wishing they were alone in their quarters, instead of just a few feet from an armed security force.

"Well, Daddy," she whispered conspiratorially. "Since you're here, you can take Kim's place. Get the relay coupler and give me a hand."

Nick liked the sound of that word; he was eager and impatient to hear his children address him that way. A broad smile came to him and stayed there the rest of the night.

Seven struggled over the logs, attempting to translate as much as possible, yet these people didn't seem to speak any language well. Their ungrammatical usage of Kazon was as bad as their Retu, Vidiian, Margolsan, Thurian, and Jii. There were even passages that were recorded in Mufak, which only Tom would be able to translate, and he was captive on the planet below.

Seven disagreed with her captain on some issues, but allowing that officer on an away mission should be forbidden. Trouble always seemed to pursue him. He was far too valuable a pilot to continually risk losing him.

So far, the sketchy information said that this last mission had begun at Chupki Na, or Yellow Rock, only one year ago. That was the most puzzling. It was certain that something in the translation was in error. Voyager had taken five years to travel this far, but without Kes's ten-thousand light year push, it would have taken three times as long. Kazon technology was inferior to the Federation's. It was impossible that they could make the trip. Then, the logs seemed to indicate that they had been on the planet for six months! Determined to find her error, Seven cleared all the data she had collected and started anew.

The door swished softly and small feet approached. Seven did not look away from her console as she waited for the Wildman sub-unit to speak.

"Whatcha doing?" Naomi asked. She leaned over the console, her straight blonde hair falling over some of the switches.

"I am attempting to translate alien logs, to ascertain the veracity of their claim."

"Uhuh," the girl said. "I thought they were lying too."

Seven had not said anything about her suspicions. She wondered how the child had come to that conclusion. She knew that others considered Naomi too precocious, but Seven found her to be honest and stimulating. Borg could not lie. Their hive minds were linked to one another, whatever one unit learned, millions of other units shared. The concept of falsehood was one she still struggled to understand, and yet the human adults dallied so often in small subterfuge and dissembly that they seemed almost incapable of true honesty. Just last night she had observed Ensign Kim throwing his entire meal in the recycling bin, yet when Neelix asked how he liked it, the officer had forced a smile and said it was even better than the last one. While Neelix took that as praise, Seven had wondered how long it had been since Kim ate last. Yet most of the crew felt that Kim was the epitome of honesty and integrity. Seven knew she would never truly fit in with them.

"I do not know that they are telling untruths," Seven said. "I am trying to discover what they have recorded in their logs."

"I heard that there were children down there! Do you think I could go down and meet them? Would they like to play with me? Have you seen them?"

Seven spared a glance for the Wildman child. She had never known what it was like to be one among many until Captain Janeway had forced her integration into the human crew and separated her from the Borg collective. The pain had been unbearable at first. She had learned to ignore it much of the time, but still there were times when it frightened her. Did Naomi feel that way? That she was one among many? There were no other children on this ship.

"There are two children on the planet," Seven told her, fingering Voyager's logs to bring up an image of them. Naomi gasped at the threatening scene, at the knives held to their throats. Tears filled her eyes and spilled down over her cheeks.

"Don't they like children? What are they doing?"

Seven briefly told her about their attempts to manipulate Captain Janeway. "I do not believe she will allow them to harm the children," she replied.

Naomi sniffed uncertainly. "They look little. They must be younger than me. Maybe we could still play together though. Do you think?"

"I have work to complete, Naomi Wildman, and I do not have the information you seek."

"I hear you. I'll go bother someone else. When you're done, can we play a game?"

"I will plan on it."

Naomi smiled then. "Bye!"

Captain Janeway chugged her coffee and returned to the bridge an hour early. With Commander Chakotay held captive and Lieutenant Commander Tuvok supervising security on the planet, she had left the doctor in command. It was unprecedented and he had no real rank, but she felt that he was capable and his dispassionate programming made him a better choice than Lieutenant Knight. Although Nick had been an ambassador before, she questioned his stability in this situation.

"There has been no communication all night," the doctor informed her. "There was a disturbance in the magnetic fields last night of unknown origin. Our sensors are still distorted by the native ferrite substances."

Janeway glanced over his logs, impersonal and informative in their brevity. "Thank you, doctor. Kim, try hailing them."

Kim contacted their communicator, which had been ripped from the ship and set up just outside the caves where they believed Tom and Chakotay were being held. Before long, the wild-eyed face of Kizbutt stared back at them.

"What!" he spat. A dirty rag was tied around his forehead, stained dark with blood.

Janeway was startled at the change in the scenery. Although their camp had been crude and untidy yesterday, now it looked devastated. "What happened?" she asked.

"Nothing worries," he snapped. "What be you want?"

Janeway stared at him coldly. He was lying. He looked injured and terrified, although behind the grime and rags it was hard to see much. "I want to speak to my officers."


"We are working on the repairs, as you demanded. I will call a halt unless I have some assurances that our people are still alive."

"Then I will kill them all," he screamed.

"No, you will not. When they are dead, you will have no bargaining chip, and you might find yourself marooned on that inhospitable planet forever."

Kizbutt blinked, a moment of true fear broke through the wild, angry face. Then he recovered. "Prisoners be to sleep. Ready contact you speak when they be." He terminated the transmission.

Janeway turned to her young operations officer. "Did that seem as strange to you as it did to me?"

Kim shrugged. He'd been up half the night working on those parts for B'Elanna. He wasn't exactly at his best right now. "Kind of. He's hiding something."

"They were attacked. That was blood on his bandage. But if it was our people, then where are they? And who else, or what else, could have ransacked their camp like that? Contact the away team."

Janeway spoke with Tuvok, but he knew nothing. Torres was progressing slowly with the ship. "I don't think the Kazon-Itka still have their prisoners," she said. "Send out a search team, see if you can find any tracks."

"Aye, Captain."

Chakotay shook Paris gently, trying not to disturb the children curled up next to him. Tom's eyes opened, but he blinked absently, seemingly unaware of their predicament. Chakotay put his finger to his lips to keep him quiet. "We need to talk."

Paris nodded, wincing at the pain that movement caused. He looked at Chakotay in confusion. Had he hit him? Was he in trouble?

"You are injured. You need a doctor, but I fear the children are in real danger. If those men get their hands on the boy, I am afraid of what they will do."

Tom felt a blade of ice stab him. He glanced at the child beside him, overcome with the need to protect him. He didn't really recognize him, but he knew his name. The boy was Tommy. Thomas David Paris. He was his son, and the girl, Eugenia Emily, Gina for short, was his daughter. Tom blinked back sudden tears. They were so small, so dirty and scratched and hungry, and it was somehow his fault. "K'shia," he whispered, longing to apologize to her, to explain, but how did one make excuses for such gross neglect?

"Tom, pay attention," Chakotay ordered, trying to draw him back. "You're delirious. I need you to look at me." He touched Tom's face and tried to reach through the haze and fever. "I am going to go look for help. I need to reach the alien ship. Perhaps I can find something there to use to signal Voyager. Then I will lead a rescue team back here for you. You need to stay awake. Protect the children. Understand?"

Tom blinked. Protect them? Of course, with his life. Chakotay passed him a pile of sticks that he had sharpened on one end, and his knife. Tom stared at the blade curiously. A knife was little protection against the projectile weapons of the Kazon-Itka. His head hurt terribly. If only she would rub at his temples again, gently, perhaps the pain would go away. "K'shia?" he whispered.

Chakotay grunted in frustration. He shouldn't leave Tom, not like this. But it was their best chance of survival. He took the pile of raisin-fruits and laid them in Tom's lap. "Eat something," he commanded. "And stay awake." Then he left them behind.

Tom tasted one of the fruits. It was dry and tangy, much like apricots or hinsa. It was painful to chew, though. And he was so thirsty. Water was nearby. He struggled to sit, but the pain exploded in his head. He could not go any further.

The children awoke in alarm. "Papa! Let us serve you," they sang. Tom smiled at them in spite of his pain. It had been so long since he'd heard their beautiful language.

"Good morning, my children," he replied.

"Good morning, my papa," they chorused. "Here, we saved you fruit! Eat!"

Gina took the drying fronds and began to weave them together. Tommy shimmied up the narrow trunk and picked more of the dried fruits. Tom watched them in amazement. They were real. They were flesh and blood, and so much like their mother. He felt a pain knot around his heart at her memory and blinked back tears. Damn headache. It was so hard to think clearly.

Gina had woven a small container that quickly. She waded down into the waterhole and filled the container, bringing it back for Tom. He drank, although the water tasted foul. "I am honored, Gina," he replied. The Mufak culture had been terribly chauvinistic, scorning women as less than slaves. Tom had always honored his mate, K'shia. After the revolution, she was treated more like a queen simply because Tom had honored her. By his formal praise, he extended the same honor on Gina. She smiled at him happily.

Tommy joined them carrying a pile of the raisin-fruits in his tunic and gave half of them to Gina. Tom put another into his mouth and sucked on it, since chewing was too painful.

"Mama told us all about you," Gina sang excitedly. "And I read about you in the story of the revolution! I am so happy to meet you, Papa!"

"Mama said you were the best pilot in the whole planet," Tommy bragged proudly.

Tom smiled to himself. He was almost the only pilot on the whole planet. It hadn't been hard to be best.

"Those men want to hurt us," Gina said, suddenly frightened. "Were we bad? Did I do something wrong?"

"No," Tom said, drawing her onto his lap. He brushed at her long, black hair tenderly. It was soft, so much like her mother's, but it was a mass of tangles. He kissed the top of her head, feeling something melt inside him and he knew he would die to protect these twin children. "You did nothing wrong. There is something wrong with the men. They are sick. I don't think they know what they are doing any more."

"Mama was sick," she whispered. Large tears spilled down her cheeks. Tom held her close. Although the movement was agonizing, he rocked from side to side, comforting the little girl. "Sh, honey. I'm not sick. Chakotay will get the doctor, and I'll be strong again. I'm not going to let anything hurt you. Never again."

Tommy glared at him, his chin set defiantly. "I take care of my sister," he stated.

"I know, Tommy. And you've done a wonderful job. I'm counting on you to help me, especially until the doctor comes." Tom took one of the sharpened sticks Chakotay had given him and passed it to his small son. He bit back the almost instinctual need to tell the boy to be careful. Tommy had fought off an entire band of Kazon-Itka with hand grenades, and he couldn't even be four years old yet. He could manage a spear.

Tommy accepted the primitive weapon. He planted the dull end on the ground and braced his feet. His shoulders squared and his chest puffed out proudly. "I'll protect both of you," he promised.


Chakotay climbed to the lip of the basin and looked all around. To the left lay the rock caves from which they had escaped. To the right was a vast desert, with no plants visible anywhere as far as the sandy horizon. Behind him were more of the waist-high briars. If he went straight ahead, moving parallel to the caves, then cut back to the left, he should wind up near the crashed alien ship.

Then he saw movement. Several Itka scouts were coming dangerously close to the basin! Chakotay would have to lead them away quickly. Ducking low, he scurried towards them, then created a path wide enough for an idiot to follow, leading them safely away from Tom and the children. His muscles felt stiff from the cold, but the sun was quickly baking the dirt. Before long he suspected the chill would be only a memory. He didn't feel sweaty, but in the dry desert heat, he wouldn't. It would evaporate before it could even form. He licked the back of his hand. It tasted salty. He hoped Tom would think to drink plenty of that brackish water today.


The Itka scouts lost his trail. They circled back, and Chakotay had to go find them again. He had to keep them after him, yet he still had to reach the crash site first. He figured that more Itka would be near the ship, and he wasn't certain how he would get around them to the Voyager crew, but that was a problem he'd face later.

Suddenly, he couldn't find the Itka scouts. They weren't behind him, nor were they returning to the basin, where he'd left Tom. Had they given up the search? It seemed unlikely. Chakotay felt a wave of dizziness threaten to overpower him. He touched his forehead with the back of his hand. It was hot and dry. Too hot. The temperature would climb ever higher, to nearly intolerable levels, but not until nearly noon. This was still early morning. The underbrush blurred and he nearly lost his balance. Chakotay realized then that he was sick. He blamed it on the water. If that was so, then Tom would be even sicker by now, injured as he was. He picked himself up off the ground and hurried towards the ship. There was no time to lose.

Dizziness knocked him down again. He was so tired. If only a short nap would fix it, he'd allow himself to lie down, but out here with no shelter from the alien sun, Chakotay knew that would be dangerous. He stood and stumbled on, determined.

Ominous sounds cracked the air, the sounds of a dozen weapons cocked and ready to fire. He looked around, trying to blink the confusion away. The Itka had him surrounded. He took a step, trying to gain his balance. Kizbutt shot him in the knee.

Chakotay screamed as he fell to the ground. Blood quickly soaked through the leg of his uniform and pooled on the ground. He clenched his teeth, writhing in agony. "Sonofabitch," he cursed.

His universal translator Kizbutt now wore remained silent, unable find an appropriate synonym in the alien tongue.

"Bring him," Kizbutt said.

Chakotay screamed again as they grabbed his arms and dragged him behind the crazed Kazon-Itka leader. The uneven ground caught at his boots, jarring his injured leg. The instinct for self-preservation took over. He struggled in their grasp, shouting, biting, demanding that they end this senseless torture. One mercenary struck him across the side of the head, rendering him unconscious.

Nick admired his wife as she polished off the large breakfast Neelix had prepared. She'd even gone and asked him for more; Neelix was still beaming with joy. A hearty appetite was the greatest compliment to a cook. Nick smiled at her.

"What," she said around a mouthful of steamed kashki.

He shrugged, feigning innocence, while his smile deepened.

"I need the energy. After all, I'm eating for a full house," she whispered.

"The children are tiny, my love. They don't need much, yet."

She grinned, flashing sharp white teeth. "So, maybe I need the practice? And then you can help me exercise it off."

"I like the sound of that." Nick yawned. They had worked the entire night down on the planet. He couldn't wait to get his bride naked and horizontal.

Paulus waved at them as she got up to put her tray away. "B'Elanna," she gasped, doing a double take. "You look different! Married life must really agree with you."

B'Elanna glanced at Nick, chewing on her lower lip in a rare display of nerves. Did it really show? Nick smiled, reassuring her through their mental bond. "She does look lovely, doesn't she," he said smoothly.

Paulus waved again and left them.

"I am afraid that we won't be able to keep this secret much longer," Nick said. "Shall we go?"

Brackish water splashed in his face. Chakotay coughed, rolling to his side to drive the foul fluid from his nostrils, but the sudden movement brought endless pain.

"Up," Kizbutt ordered.

Chakotay glared at him, his vision blurring.

"Up now! Be wounded many. You fix."

Two mercenaries grabbed him by the arms and hauled him up. A crude crutch was shoved at him. Chakotay grabbed it, struggling to keep from falling when they suddenly released him. Fresh blood soaked through the soiled rag some one had tied around his knee. He followed them, praying that Janeway would rescue them before septicemia set it.

One Itka indicated a first aid kit. It was small and most of the supplies had long since been used up. Chakotay looked around at the clearing. Eight wounded men lay on makeshift pallets, bleeding and oozing and groaning in agony.

"I am not a doctor," he said. "These men need help."

"You be help. Or you be dead. No difference be," Kizbutt sneered.

Chakotay peered inside the pathetic first aid kit. A few ointments, tape, and half a roll of sterile bandages were all that remained. "Carry this to the first patient," he commanded to the nearest Itka. The mercenary glanced at Kizbutt, but the leader ignored them all. He lifted the kit and carried it.

Chakotay staggered towards the first patient. He eased himself down to sit on the edge of the narrow pallet. The man looked about Tom's age. Chakotay peeled back the bloodstained sheet and nearly choked. He had a gaping hole the size of a fist in his abdomen. Dirt, sand, and tattered clothing floated in the puss.

"He needs a doctor," Chakotay repeated. "And until he gets here, you can begin with boiling the water. Move!"

The mercenaries looked at him curiously. Then with the exception of Kizbutt, they all hovered to do his bidding. Chakotay washed the patients as tenderly as he could, but they needed pain killers, antibiotics, suturing, surgery, tissue regenerating, and transfusions, to begin with. He set broken bones. He told them again and again that if they didn't get a doctor, the injured would all die. His complaints fell on deaf ears. He shivered in the bright sun, as his own fever climbed. "Hurry, Kathryn," he prayed.


Chapter eight:

All day Tom had sat with his children in the shade of a Raisin tree and listened to their stories. It tore at him, to hear how difficult their young lives had been. K'shia had been like a queen when he'd left. She'd been more respected than any woman had ever been among the Mufak. But their people were poor, simple workers trying to rebuild a culture that had been decimated by alien intervention for centuries. The children had not known any comforts that Tom took for granted. They were often hungry, and cold at night. They had worked hard, even as small children, there had been little time for play.

About a year ago their mother said they were going to go live with their father. She told them stories about Tom, making sure that they would love and honor him long before they ever met. The trip through the stars had been frightful. Tommy tried to look brave, but Tom suspected the boy was terrified of returning to a starship ever again.

Tom told them stories about Voyager then. They were enthralled, and hung attentively on every word. He told them about piloting the ship, about the holodeck and his quarters. He told them about some of his friends, and then he mentioned Naomi Wildman as well. Gina smiled. "Do you think she'll like us?"

"I'm sure of it," Tom promised.

"Well, I guess we can give your ship a try. You're a better pilot than Kizbutt's. You won't fly the ship into a wind tunnel storm of flying rock."

Tom hoped he would never lose the faith they placed in him.

About mid-afternoon the children became very sleepy. They curled up beside him. Tommy lay with his hands clasped behind his neck, struggling to look manly, but Gina cuddled next to her brother unembarrassed. Before long, in his sleep, Tommy's thumb found its way into his mouth. Tom touched their heads, lightly brushing back the black silky hair.

"Tom," a woman's voice called.

He looked up. At the ridge stood a figure all in shadow. She motioned to him. "Follow me. We will talk," she coaxed. "The children will be fine."

"K'shia? You came back!" Tom jumped to his feet, nearly toppling again at the wave of nausea that battered him. The woman rushed to his side. "Lean on me," she said. "Let me get you to your ship."

"The children. Can't leave them," he said. He had to blink again. There were two women for a moment. He couldn't see her well. Sun spots blinded him and a low fog was settling over everything.

"I wanted you with me," Tom said. "Not a day passed where I didn't think of you, and every night I yearned for your touch. I don't think I can go on with out you."

"Yes, you can, my love. You must save our children. I cannot help them any more."

Tom tried to walk, tried not to lean on her too much. She was so small. Her shoulders felt thinner than before. Her hair was still as lovely, her smile ever sweet.

"You will love them when you get to know them," K'shia said.

"Too late. I love them already."

"Sh-sh. Don't talk. I don't have much time left." She scolded him. Tom hugged her tightly. He placed a kiss on her forehead. Somehow, he knew, she was already lost to him. Tears pressed his eyelids, blurring his vision further.

"Tommy is much like you," she said. "He is intelligent, curious, energetic. He is never really naughty, but trouble does seem to have a way of finding him."

Tom grinned through his pain. Was that how she thought of him?

"But Gina is the one who needs you most. She would not have survived on Chupki Na. She is very smart. She learned to read already, a year ago. She can read anything she can get her hands on now. She belongs in your world, not in mine."

"Did you know about the children when we said good-bye," Tom whispered.

Silence answered him while they walked. Then K'shia hugged him closer. "Yes, Tom. I wasn't sure, but I suspected. I knew if I told you that you would sacrifice your career, your life with your ship, to stay with us. But that would not have helped Gina. When I became ill, I knew I had to find you. I hoped that your doctor could heal me, but if not, then I knew you would give them a home. Things have not improved much on Chupki Na since the revolution. Oh, the men have won their freedom, but they continue to treat their women as slaves. You were so different." There was a wistful catch in her voice.

"Tom, try to forgive the terrorists. They are not really bad men. They treated me kindly every day of our journey, even when things did not go as we had hoped. There is an evil in this place. In the caves. It is making them evil. Do not judge them harshly."

Tom stared at her in shock. "They tried to kill our son! How can you forgive them!"

"They are sick men, Tom. But they were kind to me. Do not forget that. Now you sit right here. Help will be here soon."

Tom leaned against a smooth bulkhead and let his feet slide out from under him. "Will I see you again?" he asked.

"No, Tom. Not like this. Remember, I have always loved you, and only you." She kissed him. It was tender and longing, her tears mixed with his. She ran her fingers through his hair one last time. "Farewell, my husband."

She stood. Tom let her pull away from him. He could not hold her back. She picked up a small rock and struck it against the door several times, then she faded away.

The door of the Kazon-Itka craft slid open and Ensign Kim looked out. "Tom! How did you get here! Kim to Voyager - two to beam up directly to sick bay!"

"No," Tom gasped, fighting to remain conscious. "I can't go yet. My kids..." He continued to protest as the transporter locked on to their patterns and brought them aboard.

The doctor stepped close with his medical tricorder extended, already cataloging Tom's injuries and condition. He prepared a hypo, while directing Kim to lay him on a biobed.

"No," Tom repeated.

"Just rest, Mr. Paris. You have a severe concussion. Trust me. I'll have you repaired in no time."

"No!" He had to make them stop. "I am not delusional at the moment, I am fully aware and capable of making choices concerning my physical well-being. I refuse medical treatment until my kids are brought safely on board!"

"Kids?" The doctor looked at Kim.

Kim shrugged. "The Kazon-Itka were holding two small children hostage as well. I don't know who they belong to."

Tom felt blackness creep at the edge of his consciousness. He had to do this! "Harry. Not more than two kilometers west, northwest of the ship is a small watering hole. My children were sleeping there. Go, find them and bring them on board before the Itka get to them."

Kim nodded grimly. "I'll do it, Tom. Now let the doctor help you."

"No. Harry, they've never been on a transporter before. They'll be terrified. Hurry back!"

Kim turned and raced towards the bridge. With the coordinates Tom gave, he should be able to locate the children using the sensitive scanners. Before, without a direction to begin the search, scanning for a handful of humans or Mufak on a planet's surface was about like looking for a grain of sugar in a sandy beach. It could be done, but was challenging and time consuming. He reported to Captain Janeway what Tom had said.

"We must find those children before the Itka," Janeway said, giving this top priority. "Kizbutt threatened to kill them, and I'm not convinced he was bluffing."

"Got them!" Kim jumped excitedly. He found two small lifeforms with almost human bioreadings. It had to be the children. The Kazon-Itka were not human at all.

"Good. Transport down and accompany them here."

"Aye, Captain," Kim agreed, but before he could move, Kazon life signs surrounded the children. They were too late.

"Feed their coordinates to the transporter room and beam them up now," Janeway commanded. "Then go to gather them and bring them to sick bay. Mr. Iphman, do you have them?"

Over the comm link she could hear the familiar hum of the transporter, but Mr. Iphman's words were soon drowned. Twin screams rent the air as the children materialized.

The transporter technician turned the power off to the controls quickly. He forced what he hoped was a friendly smile when he approached the small alien children. "Everything's going to be okay," he said.

The children moved apart from each other. Iphman wasn't sure what to do then. The girl was off the transporter padd already, but the boy remained there, swinging a lethal looking knife at him. The children were speaking, but the translator remained silent. The technician feinted first to one side, then made a quick lunge for the hand holding the knife. Firm fingers wrapped around the slim wrist. Where would such a small child get a dangerous weapon like that, he wondered momentarily. Just before he screamed. The boy bit him hard. Iphman was so surprised that he released his grip for a second. The boy slipped between his legs and the two children were gone. It had all happened so fast. Iphman was too stunned to move, but remained speechless when Kim burst in.

"Where are the children?" he asked.

Iphman glanced at his wrist guiltily. It was the first time he really messed up an assignment, and he still wasn't sure what he'd done wrong. His wrist was bleeding from the boy's bite.

Kim glanced at the small wound and shrugged. "Go to sickbay then," he said. "I'll find them. The poor kids must be scared half to death."

Iphman didn't think anything would scare that boy.

"Captain," Kim reported as he tapped his comm badge. "The children are on board, somewhere."

"Find them," she said. "Quickly." She knew what Tom Paris had been like as a child. It terrified her that the two children might actually be his.



"Tom," the doctor said, completing his assessment. "You have a bacterial infection, possibly from drinking contaminated water. You have a series of bruises, and a concussion, with swelling on the brain. If I don't release the pressure soon, it could cause permanent damage."

"No," Tom insisted. "Why haven't they found the children yet? What is taking them so long?"

Just them Iphman came in, cursing the children under his breath. Behind him came two more crewmen with shallow knife wounds. "They'll have to stun those kids to catch them," one muttered.

"No one is going to stun them," Tom stated firmly. "I have to go to them."

"Mr. Paris, you are going no where!" The doctor's voice was stern. "And I'll have you sedated if you try to move again."

"Then let me talk to the captain!"

The doctor tapped his comm badge. "Captain Janeway," he said. "Mr. Paris would like to speak to you."

"Captain, the Mufak were cave dwellers, so I bet Tommy's going to lead them into an access panel somewhere and you'll never find them without running an internal sensor sweep. Let me go on audio and call to them."

Janeway went to Ops herself since Kim was searching for the children and made the connection. "Go ahead, Tom."

Then Tom began to sing. She recognized the Mufak language, the only spoken language she had ever encountered that the translators could not decipher. Tom's tenor voice was beautiful, tender, it sounded like a love song, and it was being aired all over the ship. She held her breath expectantly.

"Captain," Tuvok called. "The children are in engineering."

She heaved a sigh of relief. Prematurely.

Lieutenant Carey's voice shouted, "Get out of there!"

Then there was shouting, and a cry of pain. Tom's voice sounded fierce when he spoke in Federation Standard, "All of you, stop it at once! Get away from the children. You especially, Tuvok. You'd terrify anyone. Get Kim in there. No one's afraid of that face."

Janeway felt a smile tug at her, in spite of the seriousness of the situation. She settled back into the command chair and waited.

Ensign Kim raced through the corridor for engineering. Two little children stood just in front of the pulsating warp core, the access hatch behind them still open. The girl stood behind her brother, her eyes wide with fear. The little boy had a defensive stance, a large deadly knife clutched in one hand. They were so small that it was hard to take the threat seriously, and yet two more of the crew were dripping blood. The boy obviously knew how to defend himself.

"Harry," Tom said over the comm, his voice slurring slightly. "Hunch down on your knees. Everyone else stay back." Then he sang again. The boy sang back, tentatively. Whatever he asked made Tom laugh. From the bridge, Janeway heard Tom groan then, and heard the doctor's warning that they had better hurry.

The sweet song continued. Slowly the little boy took his sister's hand and moved closer to Kim, never once dropping his guard or letting the knife down. The girl went to Kim and put her arms around his neck, the boy took his hand. Then Tom told him to bring the children to sick bay. The crew parted, giving them a wide berth, staring more at the knife than the children. Kim glanced around. Carey was treating the two injured crewmen. Their wounds were not serious, and already a small robot was working on the bloodstains in the carpet. Then he turned and went to sick bay.

The door to sickbay swished open, and Tommy released Kim's hand to run towards his papa. Gina squirmed down and followed closely behind. They both jumped up on the biobed and hugged Tom tightly. He winced, biting back a cry of pain to touch them tenderly. They each took one of his hands and pressed it to their foreheads in a Mufak gesture.

"It is time," the doctor said.

"Just a minute, doc," Tom stalled. He spoke to the twins again. "These people are my friends. You can trust them. I want you to sit on that bed right beside me, and don't get off of it, until I say so. Understand?"

"Yes, Papa," they said. They kissed him and jumped down at once.

"And you will give the knife to the doctor," Tom added.

Kim stared, amazed, as the two children climbed up on the next bed. The boy held the knife out, handle first, to the doctor. Then they sat on the bed and waited. He wished that there wasn't a language dividing them, and the only Mufak specialist on the ship was about to go into surgery.

"Captain," Tom said.

"No more talk, I'm doing this surgery now," the doctor informed him.

"Yeah, just a minute. Please! Captain, the caves are sick. Not their fault. It's the caves..."

Kim glanced at the doctor. "I don't understand."

The doctor put Tom to sleep at once. "He is delirious. I'm surprised we understood anything he's said."

The injury was not difficult to repair, but it was potentially life threatening, especially when treatment was delayed.

Kim was surprised that the children seemed obedient enough when Tom spoke to them. He was ready to return to the bridge, but the captain stopped him. "Stay there and keep an eye on them," she commanded.

They stared, wide eyed and frightened, as the doctor treated Tom. "Would you like to come to the Mess Hall and have something to eat?" Kim suggested. He knew they wouldn't understand, but hoped that perhaps they would trust him anyway.

They did not want to get down from the bed, though. When he tried to lift them, they cried and struggled to get back. The doctor snapped at him impatiently.

"Do you mind, Mr. Kim?"

In the end, he pulled up a chair and waited.  


Janeway stared at the desert planet that filled her viewscreen. She sighed with some relief; one crisis had been hurdled although Chakotay was still missing.

This ship was not designed for children, she mused. It was bad enough that Naomi Wildman was on board, but it was no kind of life for her. Perhaps they could find some adoptive parents for these two. She'd never met anyone less qualified to be a parent than Tom Paris. He was impulsive, headstrong, arrogant, and often in trouble or danger or both. And of course, the doctor should run a DNA scan to verify if Tom actually was the father, although it would seem so.

She rubbed an ache that was forming over the bridge of her nose. Tom was back, the children were on board, but where was Chakotay? And what had Tom been trying to say? The caves were sick? It wasn't their fault? Whose fault? The caves' fault? Something about it sounded so familiar. It nagged at her memory. She glanced at her chronometer. It was late enough that Lieutenant Knight should be up and about by now. She contacted him.

A sleepy voice answered. "Yes, Captain?"

"I need you to search the archives for a record of a sick cave."

Nick cleared his throat. "Excuse me, Captain?"

She sighed in frustration. While Chakotay was imprisoned, Tom critically injured, and twin children were tearing the ship apart, Nick had been blithely oversleeping with his wife. Life just wasn't fair. She related briefly what Tom had said about the rocks. "I know that I've read about this before. Check back about a century, specifically centering on the missions of Captain Kirk."

"Aye, Captain," he said, sounding much more alert.  

Nick rolled over in their bed and kissed B'Elanna on the throat. "You're late for work," he whispered in her ear.

"Shit," she uttered. "It's all your fault. I just can't seem to get enough sleep anymore."

"Want to share a shower?"

B'Elanna growled at him, but she was unable to keep from smiling. "You are impossible. What I want and what we are going to do are not the same. You better get going now. Don't keep the captain waiting."

Nick got to his feet with easy grace and floated down from the loft bedroom to pass through the sonic shower and dress. B'Elanna yawned, stretching lazily. Maybe ten more minutes in bed would be enough and she could make it through another duty shift. It was a good thing that they would have their family all at once, because she was certain she would never go through this again. She patted her still flat stomach and smiled. "Sorry, kids. It's nothing personal, you know."

Nick went to his office to conduct the search. He could have worked almost anywhere, even in his quarters, but the office of ship's counselor was his domain. He liked to come here to think. First, he tapped into the recent logs. He was disturbed at how seriously Tom had been injured. It didn't make sense to endanger the lives of the hostages. What could the Kazon-Itka hope to gain by that? He was tempted to drop in to sickbay and visit Tom, but he knew he'd better complete Janeway's request first. Besides, Chakotay was still down there. He was still in danger.

Tom had said the rocks were sick, it wasn't their fault. He must mean the Itka. If the rocks were making them sick, then that would explain their bizarre actions. So what could be in the rocks to affect them? Was it also causing the fever and delusions? Not likely... the doctor reported that Tom had consumed contaminated water. The resulting infection would give him a fever, and the head injury would cause delusional behavior.

There were two records, from Captain Kirk and Captain Mqrti. Both reported a widespread mental illness that was environmental in nature, from powerful magnetic fields. In Kirk's record the balance of nature had been restored and the illness faded over time, but in Mqrti's the entire population had destroyed itself. Nick shared the information with Seven. Together they studied the ferrite readings of certain rocks. If the caves were dug in such rock, the magnetic forces could have disastrous effect on the mind. Whether the damage was permanent or repairable, they wouldn't know without further study.

Nick took the report to hand-deliver to the doctor. He had been wanting to check in on Tom anyway. Twin children slept in the bed next to Tom. They looked so small and vulnerable in sleep, he thought. They were also dirty and cold. Tenderly, he brought an extra blanket and covered them. "So, how's Tom?" he asked the EMH.

The doctor was still scanning the information he had brought. His forehead puckered in concentration. "He is resting," he said absently. "I don't believe he was in the caves long enough to suffer any ill effects. However, the Itka apparently lived in the cave for the past six months. The effect on their mental ability will be severe."

Captain Janeway paced in her readyroom, wishing the room were longer. She wanted her officer back. How did one negotiate with insanity? Insanity was by far the most dangerous enemy she had ever faced. The Kazon were perfectly logical, for an immature, barbaric, warlike species. Even the Hrojen, who wanted to gut and skin the crew of the Voyager had followed a predictable behavior pattern. But none of that mattered now. Kizbutt could do anything. He could kill Chakotay and serve him for lunch, and not even remember doing so. A sense of evil stole over her. She had to do something now!

Her badge buzzed, causing her to nearly jump out of her uniform. "Captain, Kizbutt is on the main viewer."

She had never been a religious person. She did not believe in the metaphysical. But Chakotay believed. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to ask his spirits to help him...

The stained bandage covering his boney forehead was worse than before and his tattered uniform bore more tears and stains. Had Chakotay done this? Maybe he, like Tom, had escaped?

"Captain, be medicine now here," he demanded bluntly.

"So I see." She could stall. She had the children.

"Here be list Chakotay so write," he said, shaking a padd at her.

Janeway tried to cover her disappointment. "I need to see him before I agree to anything," she said.

His chin jutted out and for a moment she thought he would deny her request. Then he shrugged. "Be prisoner here," he called over his shoulder.

He stepped back and Janeway saw a very dirty, very weak man stagger into view leaning heavily on a crutch. It was Chakotay. His face had aged, contorted as it was in pain and sickness. His jacket was missing. He wore only the short sleeved gray undershirt, which was not warm enough for the desert nights nor would it protect him from the glaring sun of day. His eyes were glazed over, not quite seeing her. She looked lower to filthy rags stained with blood that covered his right knee. His condition had her outraged. He needed a doctor, immediately.

"Captain," he said, his voice taut with pain. He grimaced, taking another step closer to the viewer. "I suggest the Ransom of Red Chief might guide this negotiation-"

"Enough!" Kizbutt shoved Chakotay, easily knocking him to the ground. Janeway cringed at his cry of pain. "Be medicine now!"

The viewer blanked out for a moment, then returned to a view of the planet.

The bridge crew was silent, horrified by Chakotay's condition. "All right," Janeway began. She sighed heavily, rolling her shoulders to ease the tension. "Who was Red Chief? Anyone know what Chakotay was trying to tell us?

"Perhaps Red Chief was an historic figure from Chakotay's planet," Tuvok suggested.

"Maybe," she said doubtfully. Gesturing to the crewman at Ops, she told him to look for any reference to Red Chief, drumming her fingers impatiently. Tuvok searched the history archives for Native American leaders.

"Nothing, ma'am."

Nick came on the bridge then.

"Who was Red Chief," Janeway snapped at him. "Chakotay suggested the Ransom of Red Chief to guide us, but we cannot find any reference. He wasn't an ambassador, or political figure..."

Janeway's voice trailed off in shock as Nick burst into laughter. "Excuse me," he tried to say, wiping a stray red tear from his face, but he doubled over and laughed some more.

"Chakotay is hurt, Lieutenant. He needs your help. If you have any information, I'm waiting."

"I'm sorry, Captain," he said, sobering at once. "The Ransom of Red Chief is a classic American short story from the twentieth century. Two bungling crooks kidnap a banker's son and hold him for ransom. But the child is incorrigible. In the end, the crooks pay the banker to take his son back. It is an amusing story."

Janeway stared at him. "Chakotay cannot possibly expect me to hand two children back to those insane mercenaries!"

"Of course not, captain," Tuvok answered, "but the terrorists might."

"You mean, bluff?" She considered it briefly. "Contact Kizbutt."

It took a few minutes. Kizbutt ignored the hail at first. Finally, he glared at her over the viewer. "What!"

"We're gathering the medical supplies, Kizbutt. But, we've decided to return the two children to you as well. We are explorers. We don't have the time to take on the children. And besides, I'm not even certain that they are ours."

"They be yous! K'shia said! Boxes you be gifts. You be take them. Must!"

"I'm sorry, Kizbutt. But my mind's made up. We're short on room as it is."

The once fierce Kazon-Itka leader pleaded with her, panic evident in his face and the shake of his hands. "Children be smallish, Please be take. K'shia dies be wanting this. Sailors, not nursemaids us. Must!"

"Release Chakotay, and I will consider it."

"Done!" The Kazon-Itka leader turned his weapon around and handed it to Chakotay.

Janeway held her breath, able to keep a triumphant smile from her face only because of the wretched condition of her first officer. Chakotay cocked the weapon and aimed it at the leader. For a tense moment, Janeway feared he might actually fire. The Itka stood still, staring down the butt of the weapon. Then Chakotay lowered it. "We have wounded down here," he said. "Eight to beam up."

Janeway turned to Tuvok when the transmission ended. "Take a security detail to sick bay."

Chapter nine:

The doctor shook his head angrily at the mess that remained of Chakotay's knee. He clamped a holographic hand around Kizbutt's forearm and held it firmly, threatening to treat his injuries last and not give him any anesthesia. "If you wanted to immobilize him, a shot to the lower leg would work as well, and do far less damage!"

Kizbutt didn't answer.

"Doc, can you argue later?" Chakotay groaned.

"This is for the fever," the doctor said, administering a hypo. He cleaned the wound and disinfected it, but then he immobilized the injured joint and bandaged it up. "You'll need new ligaments and the patella is shattered. It will take several hours to regenerate replacements. Keep your weight off this. I'll contact you when I am ready to do the surgery."

Chakotay 's face relaxed as the pain-reliever took effect. Then he hobbled over to where Tom still slept. "How is he, Doc?"

"Resting. As you should be."

The Indian went next to the children. He pulled the blanket around them more securely. They looked so innocent in sleep. "Don't take your eyes off them for a moment," he warned Ensign Kim.

"That's what Captain Janeway said as well," Kim said. "But they're just kids. I'd be more concerned about the Itka here."

Chakotay chuckled. "Who do you think sent all the Itka here?" He indicated the little boy. "He's pretty handy with a hand grenade."

Kim blanched, then scrutinized Chakotay to see if he was pulling his leg.

"Don't forget, they're Tom's children. Expect Hell on wheels with lightning quick intelligence and no discipline, and you'll be pretty close to correct."

"I don't know," Kim defended. "It appears that Tom told them to stay on that bed until he says otherwise. They finally fell asleep, but they haven't moved in close to eight hours."

Chakotay shrugged, unconvinced. It was time for a bath and a rest. It had been a hell of an away mission. Only, he wanted to speak to Nick first.

The walk to Nick's office was almost too far. Chakotay felt nauseated by the time he reached it. Nick invited him in, concern shading his youthful features. "Chakotay, I'm so sorry," he said.

"You are not responsible for the actions of the Itka," Chakotay replied. "But, if you had brought me across, none of this would have happened. Do it now! Make me your brother!"

Nick turned away. He cared for Chakotay, maybe he even loved him like a brother. But Chakotay would not fit in his family. Chakotay was black and white, right and wrong, governed by his sense of duty and intimate with his spirit guides. As a vampire, too much would change. Nick had walked the spirit plane before, but not alone. He could not reach it without Marion Blackwing's assistance. And the constant lies to keep his identity secret would destroy the Indian. "I cannot do it," Nick said.

"Cannot? Or will not!"

Nick flinched. Chakotay seldom spoke sharply to anyone. It was a sign of the great pain he must still be feeling. "Chakotay, if you become a vampire now, you will never have a relationship with Captain Janeway. You could never kiss her, or hold her, or make love to her, for fear of killing her. You might kill her anyway, for the instinct to kill, to drink warm, fresh blood, is very strong. It takes centuries to be able to control it."

Chakotay leaned against the wall for support. The anger left him, and he seemed only very tired. "I will never have a relationship with her anyway. Her damned sense of duty. But, I will wait a little while yet to consider this further. One day, my friend, you will do it."

"Chakotay, would you let me ease your pain?"

The Indian nodded. He looked into Nick's amber eyes and opened himself to the hypnotic suggestion. Then he collapsed in Nick's arms. The vampire quietly took him to his quarters and laid him in bed. Lowering the lights in the room, he let himself out, wondering what it would be like to have Chakotay for a brother instead of a son.

Janeway checked with B'Elanna on the refitting of the Itka vessel. B'Elanna thought that another twenty-four hours ought to see the ship ready to launch. Then she contacted the doctor for a medical update on all his patients. He confirmed her suspicion of mental instability from magnetic overexposure, which he'd treated. Tom and the children were still sleeping. It seemed that this crisis was finally winding down. Which meant that she could begin working on the next one. Finding a new home for the children. She called Nick Knight in to her ready room.

Nick took the chair she offered and accepted the mug of replicated warmed plasma as well. Janeway paced, sloshing her coffee mug carelessly while she thought out loud. "I know how traumatic this has been for Tom, and I need you to help him work this through," she began.

Nick nodded. He had been doing as much. He hadn't yet had a chance to speak with Tom about the children, but from the reports he'd heard, Tom accepted that they were his. The doctor had run a DNA scan anyway, which confirmed that the children were definitely part human, and there was a 99 percent probability that Tom was their father.

"I don't know how leaving them behind will affect him. He hasn't really known them long enough to feel something for them, and I am sure that they were not planned. We will pass by several populated planets within the next two months, surely we can find suitable adoptive parents on one of them."

"Captain," Nick exclaimed. "What are you saying!"

"That we will find a home for the children," she repeated. At Nick's horrified expression, she laid out her reasons clearly, something she rarely did. "Tom is a single parent. He did not know about the children, nor is he prepared to care for them. This ship is no kind of life for a child. It would be better for everyone to find them a good home."

Nick slammed his mug on the table, no longer able to feed for the sick, angry knot in his gut. "Children are not like stray kittens, to be dropped off at the animal shelter when it is no longer convenient to raise them, Captain! They are Tom's flesh and blood! His future! You cannot do this to him!"

"Nick, think about the children, then. This is no place for them."

"Naomi seems all right," he said.

"This is not the same. Ensign Wildman had the entire pregnancy to prepare for the child's coming. She has a husband back home. And even you have said that Naomi is precocious."

"Tom has every bit as much right to keep his children and father them as Ensign Wildman," Nick insisted.

"Tom is a child himself," she said.

"So he will learn and grow up with them."

Janeway set down her mug and crossed her arms over her chest. They were at an impasse. It didn't really matter, as her mind was made up. "The children will be put off at the earliest opportunity."

"Then you will have to put B'Elanna and me off as well," Nick said firmly.

"Absolutely not. We have faced this issue before. Either we all travel together, or we all stay. I cannot keep this ship running if I'm going to lose key personnel at every shoreleave."

"B'Elanna and I are going to have a family. I will not leave my children behind, Captain."

Janeway froze. He couldn't mean that! She turned and stared at him, then slowly sank into a chair. Her worst fear was coming to fruition. Since the outset of this homeward journey, she'd been afraid of becoming some sort of interstellar love boat, with couplings and procreations indiscriminately. She'd lectured her officers to set a good example of restraint, had warned them about the dangers of overcrowding.

"You're going to have a baby," she stated flatly, rising from her chair again.

"No, Captain. We're going to have five babies."

Janeway could not remember ever having fainted before.

Nick caught her before she hit the floor. He laid her on the couch and propped her feet up on a cushion. "Captain," he called softly, brushing the side of her face.

She started to get up, but Nick held her with a gentle touch. "Rest a moment, Captain. Your secret's safe with me."

She closed her eyes. It was easier than to look at the handsome, youthful face above her. It had been six months since he'd fed from her, yet there were still times when he'd look at her and her pulse would quicken. There were times when all she wanted was to lose herself in his arms, to feel his lips against her neck, to give herself to him. She shook herself, trying once again to deny her own femininity.

"Captain, please don't make him send his children away. I know that you think he will make a lousy father. But what if it had been Harry Kim instead? Would you still think the kids would be better off with strangers? Tom will love them, I know he will. And they belong with their father. Their mother gave her life to bring them here. Please, Captain, reconsider this!"

"All right, Nick. I won't promise that I will change my mind, but I will reconsider it before I speak to Tom."

He nodded. It wasn't what he wanted to hear, but it was a start.

"And I guess this explains why you're suddenly trying to protect a Klingon? When were you two going to go public with this?"

Nick smiled boyishly. "B'Elanna figures that it won't be long before her figure gives it away. But she was going to see the doctor in a few days."

Janeway felt a moment of hope. The doctor didn't even know about this yet? Maybe Nick was mistaken?

"Don't wait too long," was all she said. "On most vessels, the parents are entitled to two months leave. I'm afraid we can't manage that here. Your quarters are going to become too small, and there's nothing I can do about that either-"

"Captain, it's all right. Children are a blessing, not a liability. You'll see." Nick helped her to sit up then. "Go meet Tom's children, Captain. Don't be afraid. You'll feel better about them then."

Janeway was going to argue that she wasn't afraid of children, but Nick had already left. What could he mean? She wasn't afraid of them. Still, the thought of going there now paralyzed her. Maybe, he had been right? "That's ridiculous," she said to herself. She straightened her hair, squared her shoulders, and left at a brisk pace.

Sickbay was mostly empty. The doctor had treated all the Itka and transferred them to one of the holodecks which had been transformed into high-security recovery rooms. Tom slept on, but the twin children sat on a bed next to him and looked at a picture book together. They glanced up at her with large, frightened eyes and smiled shyly.

It stopped her, how innocent they looked and how small. They looked too young to be almost four, and yet the doctor said they were definitely Tom's. They were thin and dirty; their faces were filled with hope.

"Why are they still here," she asked. "Couldn't someone have taken them to the Mess Hall to eat, or given them a bath?"

The doctor shook his head. "It would seem that Tom told them to stay put. They will not leave that bed."

Curious, she thought. Obedient junior Parises. K'shia must have been quite a woman.

"I have only been able to do a passive exam on them. I think it would be best to wait until Tom is awake before I do more. They are malnourished, lacking in iron, potassium and calcium. Since these minerals are lacking in the planet as well, I would assume that is a result of the crash."

Janeway stepped closer to them. The girl took her hand then and pressed it to her forehead as she spoke in the musical language of the Mufak. Janeway was frustrated that with all their modern technology, they still could not communicate with these children. She pulled her hand away from the girl, uncomfortable with the alien gesture and what it might mean.

The girl burst into tears. Janeway looked at the doctor, but he merely shrugged his holographic shoulders. The boy put his arms around his sister consolingly, but large tears filled his eyes as well. Janeway was unnerved. "What is going on? Why is she doing that? Can't anyone speak to them?"

"Lieutenant Knight was able to communicate with them," the doctor commented.

"Knight? How?"

"I am only aware of one way that he could have gained that knowledge."

Janeway clenched her teeth and rubbed at her neck. She had thought he wasn't biting them any more! She glanced at the next biobed where Tom slept. "Can you wake him?"

"No, that would not be wise, Captain."

Janeway tapped her commbadge and contacted Knight. It would seem their dispute was not yet finished.

Nick strode into the sickbay shortly, uneasy at her summons, but when he heard the children's mournful sobs, he pushed his own concerns aside. He went straight to them and asked what was the matter. The boy stood on the bed and pointed at Janeway as he gave a response. He pulled his sister behind him protectively.

"If I understand Mufak customs, you have just condemned her to death," Nick explained.

Janeway shuddered, her mouth dropped open. "How?"

"Although the rebellion brought about an end to slavery officially, the actual freedom for individuals, especially females, is rather limited. Girl children are often abandoned or put to death as they hold little value in society. It probably never occurred to the children or their mother that we might not want the boy. But the girl is far less secure."

Janeway remembered the obstinate Mufak men she'd been forced to deal with after finding Tom. "Translate for me," she commanded. Then, speaking slowly, she tried to explain. "Our children do not serve us like slaves. We all have our own jobs to do. Your father pilots this ship, the doctor keeps us well. Some officers chart the stars and keep us on course. Neelix prepares our food. I lead us all, and keep us on track. Our children learn and grow, so that one day they may join us."

The girl sniffed, gazing at Janeway hopefully. "I can stay?" she asked Nick timidly.

Nick translated her simple question; his eyes bored into the captain in an unspoken challenge.

Janeway hesitated. She realized that she needed to comfort the girl, that she could not sleep tonight if the child was afraid. Maybe Tom wasn't the best choice for a father, but then there was an entire ship of adults to help him. Maybe Nick was right. "Yes," she said then. "You can stay."

The girl threw her arms around Janeway's neck and hugged tightly, almost cutting off her ability to breathe. She sang in the lovely Mufak language. Janeway didn't need the translation to understand the girl.

"You do have a way with children," the doctor commented.

"Stuff it," she snapped. "Get them cleaned up and order them some food. I'll put B'Elanna to work on trying to adjust the translators for the children. I'll be on the bridge."

She left abruptly without further comment. Nick felt a sense of dread. He sensed her anger with him, so intense that she couldn't even speak to him right now. This was not good. He thought back over his confrontation with her but he hadn't said anything he didn't believe. Was she just embarrassed at having fainted? Or was she really upset about his impending family? It didn't matter. Although he dreaded the conflict, this was one war he must fight.



Tom awoke, slightly disoriented. He was back in sickbay... then memories crashed in on him, making his head pound. The planet, the Kazon-Itka, his children! He gasped and struggled to sit.

The doctor held him down effortlessly. "Slowly, Tom. Your injuries are mostly healed, but I expect you'll suffer a headache for a day or two. You're relieved of duty until further notice."

Tom was about to argue that it wasn't necessary, until he glanced over at the small children in the bed next to him. While he watched, they stretched and yawned, sitting up slowly. They gave him twin smiles. He'd take the time off to help them get settled.

He sat up then, more slowly this time. "Are you hungry?" he asked them.

"Yes!" Tommy announced.

"He's always hungry," Gina said disdainfully.

Tom helped them down from the bed, giving each a hug in the process. "It just so happens, Gina, I'm always hungry, too," he said. Tommy grinned, crinkling his nose at his sister. They each took one of Tom's hands and skipped happily through the corridor.

It was very early yet, third shift would still be on duty and first shift shouldn't be as far as Mess Hall yet. Tom entered, looking forward to a quiet little breakfast. His head was still pounding and although he slept through nearly three shifts he still felt tired.

"Good morning, Mr. Paris!" Neelix cheered, smiling broadly at the newest little crewmembers.

The children hid behind their father, clutching his legs in a tight grasp. Neelix's face fell. "I'm so sorry, Tom. I didn't mean to frighten them!"

"It's okay, Neelix. They haven't met many friendly aliens in their short lives." He spoke to them then, telling them that Neelix was a friend, but the children remained firmly ensconced behind him. "Neelix, can you bring us breakfast? Very small servings, a variety of what ever you've prepared."

"Gladly," the Talaxian replied.

Tom went to a table and tried to sit. It meant peeling away their fingers. They trembled so, that he pulled one on his lap and let the other sit close beside him tucked under one arm. Neelix sang slightly off-key while he prepared their tray, then he brought it over. The children turned their faces into Tom's chest at his approach. Neelix forced a happy smile anyway.

"We have some scrambled Bnithy eggs, citrus juice, two kinds of sweet roll, and I even had some of the raisin fruits from the planet below brought up, just so they would see something familiar," Neelix said proudly.

"This is great," Tom said, but the tired tone in his voice betrayed his lack of enthusiasm. "Can I get some coffee?"

"Right away, Mr. Paris."

Neelix returned with two cups, joining them at the table. The children clung to their father, timidly tasting only the raisin fruits. Tom pushed the eggs around with a fork. Lifting the food to his mouth seemed like too much effort. Still, Neelix's feelings, ever close to the surface, were hurt enough. Tom forced himself to eat.

"If you want to win them over, you should learn to make cookies," Tom suggested..

"Cookies? Is that like chocolate cake? That is Naomi's favorite food."

"No, cookies are different. There are many different recipes, but a kid-favorite is chocolate chip. You should be able to find a recipe archived somewhere. And under-bake them to keep them moist and chewy. Most people bake them too long and ruin them."

"Thanks, Mr. Paris! I'll do that!"

The children shuddered at Neelix's enthusiastic outburst. The Talaxian smiled at them and left them to finish their meal in peace. He would get started on the cookies right away. He vowed that before this day ended, he would win over the little Parises.

Captain Janeway entered next. She poured herself some coffee and came to join him. The children seemed less afraid of her, although they still did not leave Tom's side.

"I suppose that four years after the fact is a little late to discipline you for breaking the Starfleet regulations regarding inter-species relations," she said sarcastically.

A blush crept up Tom's neck, but he kept silent. He had not explained any of his actions on Chupki Na. Until now, she had not asked him either.

"B'Elanna is working on a way to program the translators to include the Mufak language," she said.

"No, captain," Tom said, interrupting her.

"Excuse me?" She wondered if Tom realized he was walking a narrow line between trouble and disaster.

"No translators, Captain. If the children are to learn Standard, they will do so more quickly without the crutch of a translator. Otherwise, it could take months before they learn more than a few words."

Janeway nodded slowly. He was right, which surprised her immensely. "You may have three days to help them adjust to life on Voyager," she said. "If the doctor feels you're fit for duty then, you may return. And, I don't want these children left alone, ever. You'll have to set up a system of volunteers to watch them when you work. Understood?"

Tom nodded. He was too tired to speak.

Janeway was exhausted. She'd worked the last three shifts out of five. Chakotay was in surgery now and should be back in the command chair shortly. She could finally get a nap. Tom looked tired as well, she realized. Still, she noticed how he brushed hair back from the children's faces with a tender touch, how he kissed the top of their heads as they ate. It looked so natural, almost like he'd been a father for years and not just hours. Perhaps she had been wrong about him...

"Good day, then," she said and left quickly.

"Papa, I'm cold," Gina whispered.

Tom hugged her for a moment, rubbing his hand on her arms. He glanced over at Tommy and saw him shiver as well. The ship maintained an even temperature at human comfort levels and other species had to adapt. Tuvok wore several layers under his uniform, for Vulcan was a hot desert planet. Chupki Na had been a hot, dry planet, too.

"Come on," he said, rising from the table. He had a few ration coupons left; maybe he could get them something warmer to wear. He showed them how to take their trays back to the recycler, then he led them to the replication center.

The course woven tunics of the Mufak were impractical on the ship. Tom flipped through the images of clothing styles until he found something like he'd worn as a child when he'd lived with his sister Emily. It was the only time of his childhood that he remembered fondly. Blue denim overalls and soft, long sleeved shirts. That emptied his coupons. He glanced at their small bare feet and sighed. Well, if they were anything like their mother, they would not want to wear shoes anyway. He tucked the new clothes under his arm.

"Now I'll show you our home," he said. They needed a bath.

The corridors were filled with crewmen at the shift change. Gina clung to him and trembled. Tom scooped her into his arms, but he wasn't sure he could handle them both right now. He took Tommy's hand in his. "These are all my friends," he told the small boy. And it was odd, but he realized he was telling the truth. Although he had begun this voyage as an outcast, despised by both Maquis and Starfleet, all that had changed. He had changed. He had proved his worth and earned their respect. K'shia had told him that would happen. She had believed in him.

Tommy nodded that he understood, but his grip on Tom's hand remained firm.

One of the Delaney sisters approached. Tom groaned, wishing that they could just transport to his quarters and be done with it.

"So these are the little ones! Aren't they adorable," she said, hovering too close. When she reached out to pinch Gina's cheek, the little girl buried her face in Tom's shoulder.

"They're shy? They aren't a bit like their father," Megan said sarcastically.

"Do you mind?" Tom wasn't polite. He was tired, and he just wanted to be left alone with his family. "They've had a rough time. Give them a chance to adjust."

She sauntered off with a huff. Tom swung his son onto his back. "Hold on," he said, and barreled through the corridors. Tommy and Gina were laughing by the time the door parted to his quarters.

"Is this our home now?"

"The floor is so soft!"

"Why is everything gray? Do you not miss the sun?"

"I like the wind. What do you like, Papa?"

Tom looked around his quarters, trying to see it through the eyes of his children. It was drab gray. He didn't know if the carpeting was soft, since it had been a long time since he'd gone barefoot. And he did miss the sun and wind. He turned the taps on to the tub, thinking that a bath might be less intimidating than the modern sonic shower.

Suddenly, Tom felt his mouth go dry and he felt incredibly inadequate. He had a daughter! He knew nothing about little girls! Would she need her own room? Privacy? What would K'shia have done?

Gina untied her belt and slipped off her tunic, unconcerned at all about undressing in front of her brother and father. Tom heaved a sigh of relief. Perhaps he had a few years yet to worry about that one. The children scrambled over the side of the tub and played in the water.

It was a day of firsts for Tom. The first time he spent an entire day with a couple of kids, the first time he shampooed their hair and scrubbed their backs, even the first time he'd ever ordered them clothing. The overalls were too big, but he adjusted the buckles to shorten them. And he'd forgotten to get them any under things... well, ration coupons would not be distributed for two weeks; they would have to get by until then.

"You have to brush my hair," Gina informed him next.

Tom took his comb and sat on the couch. Gina stood before him, her hands resting on his knees. Awkwardly, he pulled the comb through her long, black hair. It was soft like K'shia's, and curly, but very, very tangled. He didn't want to have to cut it, but the comb was never going to get out the tangles.

The door chimed and Nick entered. He laughed at the picture of domesticity. Tom blushed, covering his unease with a grunt. "Damn comb. How do girls do this every day? I can see why B'Elanna keeps hers so short."

Nick chuckled. Janette's hair had been longer when she'd been brought across. Although there were times she'd tried to wear a shorter style, it perversely returned to its former length within a few days. Sometimes, after an amorous liaison, he had brushed her hair, luxuriating in its silken texture, enjoying the sensuous pleasure it gave his sometime lover and eternal sister.

He took the comb from Tom and demonstrated. "First off, a brush works better for girls. And you don't start at the top. The comb gets caught too soon. You start on the lower tangles first and work your way up. Gently."

Nick finished Gina's hair, then showed Tom how to braid it. "This helps a lot, too."

"So what brings you by," Tom asked. "Or was it just that you couldn't resist the chance to watch me screw up again?"

"Tom, don't," Nick warned softly. "Give yourself time. Most people have the entire gestational period to adjust to parenthood and if they still need more time, then they've got several years with an infant. You've been handed two kids. What are they, about four years old? I don't care how precious they are, it still has to be something of a shock."

Tom blinked quickly. He rubbed at his headache, trying to swipe away the moisture unobserved. He wasn't sure what he was feeling right now. Except pain. And it wasn't just the headache.

"Captain Janeway wants me to work with the children," Nick said casually. "She feels they may need some help making all the new adjustments. I'd like you to be there during our sessions, since my knowledge of Mufak is limited."

"Yeah, fine. When?"

"When ever you like. We don't have to start officially until we've left orbit, a day or two at least. Earlier, if you need."

Tom leaned back on the couch. Gina and Tommy were exploring the room, touching everything and chattering quietly to each other. Nothing was in danger of being broken. Tom hadn't collected much for trinkets and souvenirs on this journey. There wasn't much for them to play with, either. He could call up a game or two on the computer, but they'd never seen a computer before... there was so much they would have to learn.

"What am I going to do?" he whispered. "I really don't know what I am doing."

"You'll just take it one day at a time. You'll do what needs to be done today, and that is all you have to worry about. Then tomorrow will take care of itself. And in about six months you can give B'Elanna and me advice on how to be parents."

Tom didn't react at first. He continued to stare at his children as they moved through his small quarters. Then he jerked and stared at Nick. "What do you mean! Are you and B'Elanna...?"

Nick nodded. "We weren't going to go public yet."

"Your secret's safe with me," Tom said. "I don't feel much like talking to anybody yet. How does B'Elanna feel about this?"

Nick watched Tom closely, wondering what he was feeling. Although the blood kiss often brought him closer to his victim, allowing him to sense their emotions and almost read their mind, Tom was all closed off right now. In fact, Tom did not seem to be reacting to Nick at all. Even Captain Janeway had felt an attraction to Nick for over a week after he'd tasted her blood. It was strange... but not entirely unheard of. Occasionally, the very brilliant or the very insane were unaffected by the vampire kiss. Which was Tom, Nick wondered, smiling to himself.

"I'm not still upset about you and B'Elanna," Tom said, when Nick didn't answer his question. "I couldn't have been in love with B'Elanna, when I still loved another."

"I'm sorry for your loss," Nick said. The words were inadequate. He let a quiet moment pass out of respect for the brave little Mufak woman who'd defied time and space and beat all odds to bring her children to their father before she died.

"B'Elanna's happy," Nick said then. "She was a little unprepared that we had been so successful so quickly, but now that she's gotten used to the idea, she's very happy."

"I'm glad for you two," Tom said. Then the characteristic lopsided grin came to his boyish face. "and I'd be glad to give you some pointers."

"I have to go. The doctor said to remind you that the children are scheduled to have a physical this afternoon, and Naomi Wildman has been begging me to speak to you about letting her come over to play. I told her to wait until tomorrow."

"Thanks. I got it," Tom answered. He looked almost ready for a nap.

Nick shook his head. "Call me if you need anything. And good luck."

Chapter ten:



Nick turned towards sickbay. The doctor had contacted him and asked him to stop by. He wasn't sure what it was about. B'Elanna had postponed her checkup three times, and Nick suspected the doctor wanted to scold him about that. Of course, it could have to do with his counseling sessions with the Captain. He thought he'd been helping her, but being her subordinate made it awkward as well. Then sickbay was before him and he had no more time to wonder.

"Ah, Nick. Thank you for stopping by."

Nick smiled, still curious. "Is there something I can help you with?"

The doctor folded his arms over his chest and leaned back against a biobed. His holographic features looked thoughtful. "I think you can probably help the entire crew, Nick, and the Kazon-Itka as well. I'm just not sure how it will go over with the Captain."

Curiosity mushroomed. "What are you talking about, doctor?"

The EMH turned to pick up a datapadd which he fiddled with. Nick wondered at the almost human gesture. When did a holographic entity evolve far enough to become a life form? He was glad he wasn't an ethicist. This one would have him boggled.

"The idea came to me shortly after you were here to help as translator between the little Parises and Captain Janeway. It was spectacular, actually. Tom was unconscious, and no one else could have comforted them. I know you were never on Yellow Rock, so I can only guess how you came by the knowledge of Mufak. Then, I was thinking how awkward our dealings with the Kazon-Itka have been. Our translators are barely functioning, the way the Itka speak such a hodge-podge of languages and all of them badly. If you could communicate with them, as ambassador, perhaps, we might finally resolve this crisis."

Nick stared at him. Was he suggesting what Nick thought he was suggesting? "But, doctor, I'm sure the captain isn't going to grant me shore leave so I can hunt the Itka."

The doctor took four blood packets from a refrigeration unit then. He held them out to Nick. "I took these from the patients, with their consent. I told them that we would study their blood in order to provide better care."

"But, is this necessary? I mean, we have Chakotay and Tom back. Maybe we should just pack up and leave them," Nick said.

"Maybe we should. But the cave was causing their bizarre behavior. I met Tom's mate, K'shia, back on Yellow Rock. She was the littlest woman, I don't think she was even 150cm. But she was brave, strong, sincere... a remarkable woman, truly. She trusted herself and her precious children to the Itka. For that alone, I think they deserve a second chance."

Nick took the packets and hesitated only a moment longer. He knew Janeway would not approve. But then, he was a vampire, and vampires drank blood. He allowed his fangs to erupt and he pierced the first packet.

It would taste better warmed, but some of the images in the blood would be lost. He closed his other senses to the room around him and focused only on the Itka offering.

This packet was one of the younger, wounded mercenaries. He was lonely and homesick, heart sore that he might never see his family again. The next packet was from the pilot. Nick saw glimpses of their journey through the wormhole, the pilot's sheer terror that he held all their lives in his hands and he was woefully unprepared.

The third packet was another crewmember, more loneliness in his blood, along with visions of his wife and children. He had not expected to be gone this long.

Finally, Nick drank from Kizbutt himself. Kizbutt, the gruff, wild-eyed leader, was a prince among his own people. He was considered to be a great leader. But he called his kind "Kri". Itka was a derogatory name given them by the Kazon. Nick swallowed the last taste, deeply moved by the knowledge. Right now, he would be able to converse in fluent "Kri" with no sign of an accent. He knew those four individuals very well. Gradually that knowledge would fade. He would remember some of it, whatever he used, that would store the knowledge in his long-term memory. He tossed the empty packets in the recycler.

"Thank you, doctor," he said simply. It was time to find the captain.

Kathryn Janeway was in her quarters. Nick hesitated to bother her there, but this wouldn't wait. He stepped to the door to activate the chime announcing his presence.

"What is it," Janeway called, not inviting the intruder to enter.

"Captain, its Nick Knight. I need to speak with you."

He heard her sigh wearily. "Now is not a good time, Lieutenant."

"I'm sorry to bother you, Captain, but I don't think it can wait."

She tapped the panel to open the door. "Then you might as well come in and get it over with," she said curtly.

Nick stopped at her attire. She wore only a nightgown and robe. She was modestly covered from her shoulders to her feet, but it seemed so intimate, almost amoral, to see her like this. Nervousness threatened his resolve.

"Come in," she snapped.

Nick stepped inside, trying not to gape at her home too curiously. "Captain," he began.

"Actually, I wanted to speak to you, as well," she interrupted. "I thought we had an agreement. You said you weren't going to bite the crew any more. I checked with Neelix, and we have plenty of Buliga in our stores. I'd really like to know what is going on, because I have to be able to trust you, Knight. I will not allow you freedom if I feel the crew is in danger!"

Nick clenched his jaw at her harsh criticism. "Captain, it wasn't like that," he said.

"Then please explain it to me!"

Nick tried. He described how Tom looked that day in his office, how desperate Tom was for help yet unable to put his pain to words. He had begged Nick to take his blood. "I wasn't going to, Captain. I reconsidered it. But, I knew that in taking his blood I could understand him and possibly help him. I'm not sorry that I did."

"And I supposed that it must make your job easier now that he's attracted to you, as well?"

"He isn't, Captain," Nick said softly.

She stared at him. "But I thought... why not?"

Nick shrugged, struggling back his embarrassment. "Um, sometimes, the um, brilliant minds, um, are unaffected."

Janeway turned away. Her soft robe swirled around her, a diaphanous cape of pale blue. "I see," she murmured.

Nick almost smiled. "It is uncommon, Captain. Just because someone else is affected by it is not a measure of a lack of intelligence."

Janeway grimaced. She turned back then and stalked towards him. Nick took an involuntary step back, and another, until he was backed up against the wall. She was short, even for a woman, but there was something about her that just exuded command. "So tell me about this seduction again, Nicholas Knight. You had said it would wear off. Tell then, why I still flutter foolishly when you are near? Why your eyes seem bluer than blue, and your voice makes my pulse pound? I am not in love with you! But this is - unacceptable!"

Nick flushed. He felt her attraction to him and instantly reacted to it, feeling he had betrayed his wife. "Captain," he whispered. "Please..."

Janeway stepped back to give them each some space, but her expression remained determined.

"I don't know why you are still so affected," Nick said softly. "I suspect it is because you have not had a relationship in five years. It isn't really me you are responding to, but yourself."

"You've been reading to much Freud," she said.

Actually, he didn't read much Freud at all, he thought. "Why do you keep pushing Chakotay away? He's a good man."

"It's not your business," she said.

"Well, actually. As ship's counselor, I think it is."

"I will not date or romance or flirt with a subordinate. That is strictly forbidden in Starfleet regulations. How would it affect the rest of the crew if I were sleeping with my commanding officer? There'd be feelings of favoritism every time I had to make a command decision, and eventually, it would drive us apart."

"The solution is rather simple, Captain," Nick said.

Janeway glared at him.

"Promote Chakotay. He would have made captain by now, if he had not resigned his commission. And he took a reduction in rank when he joined your crew, a crew which he rescued by a suicide mission that destroyed his own ship."

"Promote him to captain?" Janeway sounded incredulous.

"It's only a promotion in rank. Voyager is still your ship. But then Chakotay would not be your subordinate. It is fine for two captains to date, even marry. It's happened before."

Janeway was silent for a long time. Nick waited patiently. After a millennium, patience was one virtue he had managed to learn.

"So, back to this biting thing. Are you going to do it again?"

"I don't know, Captain," he said truthfully. "Only if someone asks me to, and only if I feel it will help them. Since most of the crew does not know my true nature, I'd say it won't happen often. But, if I can help some one because of my nature, it would be wrong to deny it."

"I have to think about it," she said. "I just don't know how that makes me feel."

Nick drew a deep breath. "Then please think fast, captain. The doctor gave me a supply of the Kazon-Itka to drink, thinking it would better prepare me to work with them."

"The Kazon-Itka are not high on my list of needy charities," she snapped.

"Then let me share what I've learned. 'Itka' is not even the name of their people. It is an acronym, a derogatory label given by the Kazon, which stands for "Bastards of The Universe". They call themselves the "Kri".

"They are all the progeny of an interspecies union between a Kazon and other races. And they are nearly all born sterile. Apparently the Kazon do not mix well with other species. As so often happens in mixed heritages, they are shunned by both cultures. The Kri formed a culture of their own. They have no planet to call home, only a fleet of cargo ships. They travel around their section of space, trading with cultures that despise them, wanting only to survive.

"Because of their sterility, they prize children. Before the mental illness that overtook them on the planet, they had adored the little Paris twins and treated them kindly."

Janeway was stunned. "So we insulted them when we called them 'Itka'?"

"Aye, Captain."

"I must apologize."

Nick wondered if she meant to him or to the Kri.

"Nick, what is it that you want?"

"I would like to meet them on the planet captain, and talk to them. I think that before we leave, we need to see that they are prepared not just to leave the planet, but to survive the return journey."

"Permission granted," she said, covering a yawn. "Now, if you don't mind, I really need to get some sleep."

"Certainly, Captain," Nick said. "Sleep well."



"But why do we need to see your medicine man? I feel fine," Tommy complained petulantly.

"Boss's orders, squirt. Doesn't make much sense to me, either, but that's the way things work around here." Tom was enjoying being able to use the Mufak language again. It was amusing to carry on a private conversation with the children even in a public area. Still, he knew he would need to teach them Standard quickly.

"Will it hurt?" Gina was the practical one.

"I don't think so," Tom answered. "I'll stay with you."

She smiled then. That would make everything fine. Tom was humbled at the respect they seemed to show him. He felt he had done nothing to earn it.

"Reporting as ordered," Tom said to the EMH.

The doctor indicated the same biobed the children had occupied earlier. Tom lifted them on to it. Tommy sat down in a sulk, but Gina clung to Tom's hand while she waited.

The doctor had run all the passive scans that he could before, this was going to be more invasive. First he checked in their ears, nose and throat, then drew blood to test for parasites, infection, and disease. "They appear healthy enough," he surmised, "but then, our knowledge of a human/Mufak is non-existent. I will alert Mr. Neelix about their dietary requirements, so we can treat the malnutrition. They are missing a number of vaccines, but I am hesitant to give them all at once. I'll do one today, and I want to see them again in two weeks."

Tom grunted. He translated an abbreviated version of the doctor's findings. "He must just like you, that he wants to see you so much," he said.

"Are you telling a funny? Do you think he likes me?" Gina wanted to know.

Tom winked at her.

"How do you say "I thank you," in your language?"

Tom taught her, pronouncing the words clearly. Gina smiled at the holographic doctor then and repeated the new, ugly sounding words. "Thank you." She took his hand and pressed it to her forehead.

"You're quite welcome," the doctor answered. He was shocked. No one was grateful for his services, not on this ship. They were a rather self-centered lot, reckless of their health, demanding he repair their injuries and then when they left, instead of being grateful, they begrudged the time they had wasted in his presence. He decided that he liked this little girl.

Captain Janeway entered sickbay then. She looked a little surprised at Tom, so he realized that he wasn't the reason she was there.

"Doctor, the Kri want to know when we will return the rest of their crew. How are they doing?"

"They have recovered, Captain. I can release them whenever you are ready."

"Actually, I was hoping they could stay in the holodeck a while longer. I feel safer knowing that our repair crew on the planet now outnumbers the remaining Kri."

The EMH agreed. "I could run another micro-cellular scan of their mental functions, to ensure the illness has been eradicated."

Tom only half-listened to their conversation. He didn't care if he never saw the Itka - Kri again, although he didn't really remember much of his time on the planet. "Captain, I want to go back down, before we leave orbit," he said when there was a break.

"I don't think that's wise," Janeway said sharply. "It is too unstable down there."

"I need to, Captain. I need to see her again before we go."

Janeway hesitated. "Tom, their mother is dead. She did not survive the journey. Kizbutt said she died about three months ago."

Tom looked grief-stricken, but not surprised. "I know, Captain. But I need to say good-bye."

Janeway was thoughtful. She knew how important that could be to accepting death, to grieving and moving on. "I will let you know," was all she said.

Sickbay doors parted again and Chakotay strode in purposefully. "Captain," he said. "May I speak with you? Privately?"

"Of course. Why didn't you just contact me?"

"Perhaps because you are not wearing your commbadge," Chakotay replied.

She glanced down at her chest, but the familiar multi-function brass emblem was missing. "Where?"

The doctor and Tom looked down, as if the pin would be found on the floor although the clasps were rather unbreakable. Tommy was also missing.

"Tommy?" Tom looked around, finding the small boy around the corner behind the central console. Bits and pieces of brass were spread out before him.

"My commbadge?" Janeway sputtered.

"I am sorry, Captain," Tom apologized. "I'll have it repaired and returned to you as soon as possible."

"I warned you, Mr. Paris," she said, becoming more formal when she was angry. "Don't take your eyes off them. Ever!" Then she whirled around and stormed from the sickbay, hearing Chakotay's chuckling behind her.

"What are you doing, son?" Tom asked.

"I wanted to see how it worked," Tommy explained innocently, unaware of the problem he had caused. "I'll fix it."

Tom doubted that he'd be able to succeed, but he would let the boy try. "Fine. You may ask for help. And here after, please do not take anything apart that does not belong to you, at least not without asking first."

"Yes, Papa."

"Mr. Paris," the EMH asked in concern. "Perhaps it would be best if you took the children out of sickbay?"

Tom grinned... maybe he could teach Tommy a thing or two about reprogramming holographic technology? "See you later, doc," he said.

An hour later the commbadge was repaired. Tommy had figured much of it out by himself. He hadn't the slightest idea why it worked, or how the pieces related to each other, but he had a fantastic memory. He was able to reconstruct it by undoing whatever he had done to dismantle it in the first place.

Tom was patient, allowing the child to figure it out on his own, offering information only when it was asked for. Tom didn't have many early childhood memories of his father, since he'd been largely ignored, but the few that he did have were not pleasant. His father had demanded that he be brilliant, learning new skills instantly and perfectly, with no room to explore or to err. He didn't know a thing about being a father, but he knew he did not want to be like his own.

"We need to give this to the captain," Tom said, when Tommy was finished. "And you should tell her you are sorry."

"But I'm not," Tommy answered with the logic of youth. "It was fun taking it apart."

"But it was not yours. And she was angry."

"Is she mad at you? I am sorry about that, Papa."

Tom smiled. He pulled his son onto his lap and hugged him. "She is a busy captain, Tommy. I don't think she is really angry with you or me right now. But in my culture, we apologize when we've broken a rule."

Tommy grinned. He insisted then that Tom teach him the Standard words to say, as he didn't want to do less than his sister. When he felt confident of the words, Tom led them towards the bridge.

The trip through the ship was half the adventure. The children were already losing some of their fearfulness and wanted to touch everything. Tom walked slowly, allowing them to explore. Finally, the turbolift door parted to reveal the bridge.

Janeway turned, scowling at them at first. Tom remained on the turbolift, not letting the children exit. She folded her arms across her chest and regarded them. "Yes?"

"Tommy has something to give you," Tom said softly.

"Well, you may come onto the bridge, then," she said. "Just this once."

Tom kept Gina's hand in his as they entered. Tommy stepped boldly up to the captain and grinned at her, flashing pearly baby teeth and a dimple. In his outstretched hand was the commbadge. "Please," he said, "I am sorry. Is better now?"

Janeway tried not to smile at the little boy. She took the badge and pinned it back near her collar. The little boy was not finished yet. He gestured to her. Janeway glanced at Tom, but he just shrugged. Then she came closer, bending her knees to get down to Tommy's level. He threw his arms around her neck and kissed her cheek. He sang something softly in her ear. Tom's face reddened. Janeway wasn't sure she wanted that translated or not. "Well?"

Tom stammered. "He says, you are beautiful for a boss lady."

Janeway tugged the child's arms free and tried to look at him sternly, but the corners of her mouth tugged in a friendly smile. "I guess he has some of his father in him, too," she said. "Now, since you're here, you might as well show them where you work. Then they will not come on the bridge again."

"Yes, ma'am."

Tom led them all around the bridge. Janeway noticed that her crew was distracted from their tasks as they smiled at the winsome little children, and it amused her. Ten Borg cubes approaching at trans-warp could not have been more distracting.

Crewman Littlefort slipped from the conn to let Tom sit down. Pulling a twin on each knee and speaking softly, he showed them how he controlled the ship. Janeway wondered if life would ever be the same.

After the bridge tour, Tom's stomach was rumbling. He had avoided the Mess Hall during the lunch-hour rush in order to miss the crowd. Now, it wouldn't take much to get Neelix to fix them a hearty snack. Neelix beamed when they came in. His apron was spattered with flour and shortening and his whiskers had some telltale crumbs of chocolate. Tom inhaled deeply. Maybe it would be okay to have cookies for lunch just this once?

"I'm so glad you dropped by, Mr. Paris," Neelix bubbled.

Tom slid into a chair. Gina crawled back on his lap like she had at breakfast, and Tommy climbed up beside him. They were very quiet for a change, but he didn't think they were quite as frightened as they had been earlier. Already they seemed to be adjusting.

Neelix sat down slowly opposite the children and proudly offered them a plate of cookies. Gina glanced at Tom before taking one, but Tommy grabbed one with each hand. "Hmm, they smell good," Tom said, taking one as well.

Neelix smiled. "I hope they taste good as well. So how was your morning? Are you feeling alright, Tom? You don't look well."

Tom rolled his shoulders and felt a yawn shudder through him. "I'm okay. Nothing that a few hour's sleep wouldn't fix."

"The children look tired, too," Neelix observed.

Tom looked at them suddenly. "But they are okay? They saw the doctor, and he said they were fine." He felt Tommy's forehead anxiously.

Neelix chuckled. "I'm sure they're fine, but the young of many species require a lot of sleep. Naomi used to take a two hour nap every afternoon right after lunch."

A hopeful look came to Tom's face. "You think so? Maybe this nap would be more important than lunch?"

Neelix noted the sleepy children and their worried, exhausted father. He had looked forward to getting to know the children better, but there would be time later. "I'm sure of it. Let me help you with them, please?"

Neelix scooped a sleepy Tommy into his arms. The boy clutched his cookies even though his head dropped against the Talaxian's shoulder. Tom held Gina close as he stood. Suddenly, his room seemed too far away. He could hardly keep his eyes open as they walked through the corridors.

He laid Gina on one end of the couch, and Neelix placed Tommy on the other. Paris glanced around, wondering where they'd find room to put two more beds... then he dropped onto his bed and fell right asleep.

Neelix glanced around the room as well. He picked up wet towels and the dirty tunics the children had worn before, tossing them into the bin. The children were shivering in their sleep, but Tom was sound asleep on top of his bed. Neelix could not tug off a blanket to cover them. He unbuttoned his coat and spread it over them, tucking it, then called the sensors to raise the temperature two degrees. They needed so much. And he knew just how to fix it.



Chapter eleven:

Chakotay accompanied Nick to the surface. Kizbutt greeted them warily at first, but when Nick spoke to him in the language of the Kri, he smiled.

"You have learned our language well," Kizbutt commented.

"I apologize that our translators were unable to decipher it properly," Nick began. Actually, it was rather incredible that the translators had been able to interpret it at all, as it was such a mix of languages with no central grammar. "And we apologize again for incorrectly calling you Itka. It was our own ignorance, Kizbutt. We had not intended to be insulting."

Kizbutt bowed his head in a gesture of acceptance. He turned then to Chakotay. "I too apologize for injuring you."

Nick translated between them, as Chakotay accepted the simple offering.

"K'shia warned us," Kizbutt commented. "She told us the caves had an evil spirit, and we did not listen."

Chakotay had felt it, too. "Tell us, how did you get here ahead of us? Kim said you traveled through a worm hole, yet no one we ever met knew of one's existence."

Kizbutt brought them to his new camp, a makeshift tent pitched some distance from the cave. It was much cleaner than the cave had been. Chakotay was pleased to note that the Kri had been busy. Chairs and beds had been repaired and cleaned, trash had been collected and dealt with. The air smelled fresh. Perhaps they had judged the Kri unfairly.

"It was K'shia," Kizbutt explained. "She became very ill. She knew she was going to die and worried for her daughter. An ancient woman, a seer, told her that she had one chance. If she could get to a set of coordinates, she would pass through space fast enough to catch up to her mate. She paid us well, enough for a year's travel.

"We reached the coordinates, and for three days, nothing happened. We were about ready to abandon the journey, when this hole appeared, sucking us inside. We were hurled about, smashing against rocks and debris that were caught in the hole with us. I thought our life journey was over then. Yet, somehow, suddenly the hole closed and we were here. Our ship was badly damaged. We had to find a planet to set down and make repairs. We dropped off several beacons, praying desperately that you would see one of them, for if you missed us then we would have no hope of returning."

Nick translated for Chakotay's benefit, but all the while he worried how to tell the Kri that they probably would not make it back anyway. Wormholes were unpredictable. It was most likely a one-way ticket.

Chakotay asked Kizbutt more questions about the ancient woman and her message. "Did she tell you the hole would take you back?"

Kizbutt nodded. "That she did."

"Why don't others know about this hole? We were looking for just such a shortcut."

Kizbutt shook his head. "The hole is in a region considered sacred by many species. Perhaps they thought the disappearance of ships through the hole was the act of a superior being."

"Kizbutt, we will take this knowledge back to our ship. Perhaps there is something we can do to help."

Tom sat up quickly, disoriented and scared. How had he fallen asleep like that? Where were the children? He leaped from the bed and staggered once as the pins and prickles racing through his feet got his blood circulating again. Then the door chimed again.

"Mr. Paris?" called a voice from the corridor.

"Enter," Tom said.

A transporter technician pushed an antigrav sled overloaded with rough-hewn wooden crates. "These are for you, shipped up from the planet," he said. "Where do you want them?"

Tom glanced around his small quarters. Where indeed?

His gaze settled on the two small children on the couch. They were just waking up, sleep still softening their features, as they stretched. Gina saw the crates and squealed.

"They're here! Oh, Papa! Mama's things are here!"

Adrenaline coursed through him, leaving Tom trembling in its wake. These were things K'shia had packed, that her hands had touched, that she wanted him to have. She, who had nothing, had made him such gifts in the two children who were already more precious than latinum. What more could she have sent?

"Um, sir? This is only the beginning. Theren are a half dozen more pallets like this. Should I put them in a cargo hold for now?"

"Yes. That'd be fine," Tom stammered.

"Some of the crates smell awfully nice. I'd sure love to be there when you open them. Has to be something great inside."

Tom said nothing. The technician took his empty sled and left. Gina patted the crates, her face beaming. She ran her hand along the alien script.

"This one's for Captain Janeway," she announced.

Tom set it aside. "Then we won't open it."

"This one is yours. I helped Mama pack it!" She grinned, fairly bursting with excitement.

Tom pried off the lid nervously. He brushed aside the dried grasses that had been used for cushioning. Inside were sacks of the Mufak grain and tins of cookies. Tom laughed heartily. K'shia had a wry sense of humor. While a slave in the castle, he had been fed little else but the cooked grain at every meal. It was hearty and filling, not dissimilar to steel-cut oatmeal, but there had been times when he had chosen to go hungry rather than face another bowl of it. Strange, but when he'd left Yellow Rock, oatmeal had become his favorite breakfast. It was like comfort food, reminding him of her. The cookies had been another thing entirely. They had been tasty, rare treats, given to the slaves much the way humans gave their dogs biscuits, for rewards and training purposes.

Tom could almost see the slim Mufak woman packing these things for him. He swallowed the lump that choked him.

"Where's my box," Tommy demanded.

"Wait your turn, Tommy," Gina scolded. "This is for Papa, too."

The next box held bottles of hinsa, the apricot brandy-like beverage the Mufak made. There were yards and yards of fabric in another - not the coarse homespun fabrics the slaves' tunics were made out of, but fine, white satin fit for royalty. Another crate had a beautiful vase and two candlesticks, wrought from the yellow Thurian ore.

"I mined this ore, once," Tom mused.

"I know," Gina said. "Mama told us a lot about you. She said these were really nice, and you should have them."

And they were. The yellow ore had been functional and incredibly malleable. It was shaped into everything from dishes and flatware to furniture to the massive, clunky spacecraft of the Thurians. Most of the ore was a ghastly yellow, but the vase and candlesticks must have had other minerals added and were finely polished to a lovely golden sheen. Tom set them on the low table and whistled. Already his Spartan apartment looked more like a home with K'shia's gentle touch.

Next Tom unpacked four books, all hand-written. The script was soft and flowing, the papers still crisp and smelled of flowers. The covers were dark and undecorated. There were no pictures. Only the plain covers, the flowing script, and the faint perfume. He stared at the Mufak script until his eyes blurred.

Gina touched one book almost lovingly. "These always made mama cry," she whispered.

Tom looked at his small daughter without understanding.

"She wrote them. They are letters to you. She missed you lots. I used to wish that you could have stayed with us, but she said it was better this way."

Tom set the books aside. He would look at them later... much later. He opened the last crate then. It was the children's things. There were two cloth dolls - a worn but much loved girl doll of Gina's and a well made, but obviously ignored boy doll for Tommy. There were wooden blocks and wheeled vehicles to ride on and a large alphabet book.

Gina shoved the book at her brother. "This must be yours; I already know how to read," she said with a touch of superiority.

Tommy threw the book back into the crate and grumbled defiantly.

Tom ruffled the boy's hair and shrugged. "That's all right, son. I can't read either."

Gina stared at him, her hands on her hips. "You mean you don't read in Mufak," she said.

Tom wished now he had taken Janeway's orders more seriously. A year ago she had discovered his deception and given him an ultimatum. Either seek the help he needed to overcome his dyslexia, or she would enter his inability to read into his permanent records. He'd bluffed his way through the Academy, which was part of the reason that his grades had been so sporadic. It was also the main factor in Caldik Prime. He'd been accused of falsifying records, records he could never have written in the first place. His roommate had prepared the records, covering for him. Tom had gone to prison to keep his dirty little secret.

"Tommy, when you look at books, does the print ever wiggle?"

The small boy glanced up at him curiously. "Uh-hum."

"And it's hard to recognize the letters, because they change shape, isn't it?"

Tommy nodded vigorously.

"Me too," Tom confessed. "That makes learning to read more difficult, but not impossible. Maybe we'll learn together."

Tommy smiled then. It was kind of neat to share something with his Papa.

Tom sat on the couch then and pulled the twins on his lap. "Okay, Gina. Why don't you read to us for now?"

Gina beamed. Turning the large colorful pages, she read aloud. The book rhymed with the droll wit often popular among children's books. Tom smiled. Never in his entire life had he imagined anything like this. Children and families were for other men. He was afraid he'd mess up too badly, having no example to follow. Maybe it was a good thing that Nick was going to have children too? He was coming to trust Nick, and it would be so good to have his counsel.

Nick waited outside the holodeck for Naomi. It was time for her lesson, which they had had to postpone several times. Nick was contrite that other matters had taken precedence, and he promised to make it up to the child. He had worked extra hard on this program. He hoped she would visit it frequently.

"Hi, Nick!" she shouted as she stepped off the nearest turbolift.

"Hi yourself. Come on, squirt. You're late."

She grinned as she leaped into his arms. "I'm sorry. Mommy wanted me to finish correcting my algebra assignment first. So, are we going to learn about babies today?"

Nick stepped through the doors into small farm. Naomi crinkled her nose. "What is that smell?"

"That is the smell of farm-fresh air. Mixed with a little manure. Haven't you ever been to a farm before?"


He put her down then and let her explore. She skipped ahead and climbed on a fence to peer inside the small enclosure. Six alpine goats crowded the fence, bleating and begging for food.

"What are they?" she asked. "Will they bite?"

Nick chuckled. "They will not hurt you. Go ahead and climb inside. They are quite playful. And see what you can discover about them for yourself."

Naomi hesitated only a moment. Then she hopped over the fence. One goat nibbled at her shirtfront, another butted her rump. Four others scampered away to climb some boards and spools placed in their pen for their amusement. Naomi raced after them, climbing and chasing, laughing when they crowded around her.

Nick laughed as he watched her play. It had taken over six months to undo the damage caused by an intensive academic curriculum, but at last she was learning how to be a kid.

After she left the goat pen, she discovered the chickens pecking around the yard, a pregnant cat, a hound dog and a pony. She had ridden the pony around the small farm several times when Nick called her to come. It was time.

Naomi knelt beside him in the barn. There, on a nest of hay, lay the mother cat. Breathlessly, Naomi watched as four holographic kittens came into the world.

Nick never tired of watching the miracle of birth. It didn't matter whether it was kittens or babies, or even if it was real or merely holographic technology. He blinked rapidly to dispel the tears that threatened to fall.

"Babies," Naomi whispered reverently. "They're so tiny! Where's their daddy? Can I hold one?"

"They are too little yet," Nick said, picking the easiest question to answer first. "You'll have to wait until they are older. Cats are not like people. The father cat does not remain with the mother to assist in raising the children."

"Do all babies come from their mommies' butts?"

Nick chuckled. "I think our time is up, Naomi."

Captain Janeway found herself outside Tom's quarters. She was curious to see the new family but she didn't really have any reason to drop in. Twice she turned to leave, but something held her back. Finally, summoning her nerve, she stepped close enough to activate the door chimes. Then, hearing the invitation to enter, she stepped inside to another world.

The little boy was pushing a wooden toy on the floor and the girl was reading a book. They looked very much like any two children anywhere. But the biggest difference was Tom. Ensign Paris, the cocky arrogant officer with the lopsided boyish grin, was gone. Thomas Eugene Paris, new father of two, was stretched out on the couch, his little girl curled up against his shoulder, and a look of pure parental pride on his face.

He beamed up at his visitor, but when he saw the captain he sat up quickly, pulling Gina onto his lap. "Um, hello, captain."

Janeway gestured with a hand. "Relax, Tom. This isn't official business. Just thought I'd drop in and see how you were doing."

Gina climbed down from his lap and went to the captain. Tommy got up and joined her. Each took one of Janeway's hands and pressed it to their forehead in the Mufak gesture of respect and admiration. Janeway resisted the urge to pull away.

"Greetings, Captain," they said, their voices sweet and thick with accent. "We have gift for you."

She glanced at Tom curiously. He gestured towards a wooden crate. "Something K'shia packed," he said vaguely.

"Well then, let's take a look," she said. She smiled at the sudden thrill of anticipation. One didn't have to be a kid to love a gift, she thought dryly.

Tom took the crowbar again to pry off the remaining lid. Janeway knelt down beside the box. She brushed at the dried grasses that cradled four large containers. Gently, almost reverently, she lifted the familiar package and brought it to her nose, inhaling deeply. "Margolsan coffee!" she exclaimed. "But how did K'shia find it?"

"The Mufak-Thurian alliance planned to extend their trade routes. I guess they succeeded," Tom answered.

The children asked Tom something, and giggled at his response.

Janeway gave him a questioning look.

"They want to know why the bean that makes water like bitter mud would please you. I said it was a grown-up thing."

Janeway smiled at the children. "I can remember how my mother would make coffee every morning. I would smell it and open my eyes, the room still shadowy with the pink light of dawn just barely over the horizon." She paused, allowing Paris to translate as she went along. "I would pull on my robe and slip downstairs. My sister was still sound asleep. If it was summer, mother and I could sit on the porch swing, but in the winter we took our coffee to the window seat in the library.

"Sometimes we talked. Sometimes we just sat together companionably. But every time I smell coffee, I remember my home."

Gina took Janeway's hand. She gently patted it and spoke softly. Paris struggled with the translation, not looking at either of them. Janeway waited curiously.

"It is hard, to miss your mother so."

For long moments no one spoke. Janeway had no words to comfort this little girl. She hoped to see her mother again, sometime, if only she could get home in time. But K'shia was dead and as near a she could figure, the woman had been gone for only a few months.

Tommy stood up. "Hungry! Eat!" he announced, in clear standard. Tom grabbed the boy in his arms and tickled him. Laughter broke the tension in the room, but Janeway couldn't let it pass just yet.

"He sounds just like you, Tom. Make sure that he takes the time to grieve."

"Yes, ma'am."

She smiled then. "So. What was in the rest of the crates? Do the children need anything?"

Tom handed her a padd. "I got most of it cataloged. It is food supplies, and some things she must have meant for trading. Like this lovely fabric. She couldn't have expected the children to wear this."

Janeway touched the fine white satin. It shimmered and sparkled, like sunlight on pristine snow. "The other fabrics can be used in trade, Tom, but this you will save."

He looked at her curiously.

Janeway felt a foolish urge to weep. She blinked rapidly. "This is for a wedding dress. One day Gina will wear this, a last gift from her mother."

Tom stammered then, as he struggled to fill the awkward moment. "Yellow Rock was much warmer than earth, Captain, and the kids are cold. I'll have to get them jackets or something. And she sent lots of books on Mufak history and culture... Oh, damn!"

"What?" Janeway stared at him, surprised by the sudden exclamation.

"Yellow Rock is in the path of Borg expansion. They will never be able to repel the Borg. If only they could be warned, given enough information, to prepare, they might stand a chance. Captain, we've got to tell the Kri!"

Janeway shook her head. "I don't think the Kri will ever make it back. They barely survived their trip here."

"I could train their pilot, captain. Help him develop his skills, improve his ship's maneuverability. It would give them a chance."

Janeway gazed at the young officer with new pride. The Kri had hurt him, threatened his children, and yet he was willing to help them. "Let's go to dinner, Tom. If Neelix will watch the children in the morning, you may contact the Kri and make the arrangements."



Chapter twelve:

The children were unsure about staying with Neelix. They had discovered a love for chocolate chip cookies, and brightened when Neelix asked if they would like to help him make another batch, yet when Tom stood to leave they both blinked back tears and stared at him so forlornly. Tom hesitated. All parents left their children in the care of others, and yet, they were so young and insecure. He just could not do it.

"Neelix, could you just come to the planet with us?"

The squat little Talaxian spluttered as he thought aloud. "Well, I could, I have, no- that's all taken care of, although, I think, yes! I can come, Tom, if you think that's best."

He reached out for the children then, who ran readily into his arms. Shortly, the foursome beamed down to the planet's surface where they met up with Nick. The children played happily while Tom talked with the Kri through Nick translating - which was far more accurate than the troubled universal translator. He met their pilot and set up a time to work with him. Then, he stammered as he searched for the words he needed to ask.

"Where is she... K'shia?"

Kizbutt indicated the direction. "Beneath a tree, near a waterhole not far from here. Shall I take you?"

Tom shook his head. "I think I know where it is."

Neelix and Nick went part way with him, but at the end, Nick held the Talaxian back. "I think he needs to go alone," he said.

Neelix hunched down on his heels to wait.

Tom slowly approached the same waterhole he'd hidden at before. While delirious, he had seen her. She had come to him, told him things he could not have known. She had helped him to escape from the cave, told him about the children, even helped him to return to his ship. But, was any of it real?

He found a spot beneath one of the Raisin trees where the ground had been disturbed. A handful of picked wildflowers lay across the mound, quite dead now. Tom stretched a hand out over the grave. Tears flowed down his face. "I never stopped thinking of you, K'shia," he whispered.

"I miss mommy," Gina said, her voice trembling.

"So do I, honey. I miss her so much it hurts. And I wonder if the hurt will ever stop. But I'll be here for you. Always."

Tommy snorted derisively. "I take care of Gina," he stated.

"Yes, you do," Tom agreed. "Because we're a family now. We'll take care of each other. Then he reached out for his children. They stepped in to his arms and hugged him as he wept.

Tom straightened. He had lived with K'shia long enough to know much of their customs. The Kri may have placed her in the ground, but he was certain they had not performed the Ceremony Over The Dead. This was one last thing he would do for her. Taking the children's hands, he went back to join Nick and Neelix.

"I need to get some things from the ship. I need to do the burial ceremony for her. I was wondering, will you come? I would... appreciate... your support."

Nick hesitated. He wanted to help Tom through this painful time, but his fear of religious items and customs was not limited to Christian crosses. He swallowed past his own discomfort. "Yes, Tom, of course I'll be there."

It was a subdued group that returned to the ship.

Tom set the time in an hour. Nick went next to find B'Elanna. If any one could help him through his fear, she could. Neelix went straight to the captain. He may not know Mufak custom, but he was certain she would want to be at the funeral as well.

As the appointed time drew near, more and more of the crew beamed to the planet. Some were still in uniform, although many were in somber, off-duty clothes. Some brought flowers. Some seemed uncomfortable and some were more curious than anything else. Tom stared at them in confusion.

Captain Janeway stepped forward. "Please, Tom. When Neelix invited me to come, some others overheard. We aren't familiar with this ceremony, but we would like to be here for you."

He nodded mutely, deeply touched. Then he saw Nick and B'Elanna; he was ready to begin.

Tom stood next to K'shia's simple grave with his children at his side. He lifted a large clay font covered with intricate designs. The crew gathered in a circle around him, close and attentive.

"The font is a symbol of the universe," Tom said, his voice soft yet it carried well through the silence of the crowd. He set the font down on top of the grave and poured a measure of water in, then oil on top.

"Water symbolizes the body, and oil is the spirit. In life the two are joined, inseparable. In death, the spirit of the Mufak remains. The Ceremony Over the Dead releases the spirit from this world that it may join with those who have gone before. Songs of the..." Tom's voice wavered then. He glance down, blinking hard, as his grief nearly overwhelmed him. Nick started forward, wondering how he could help, when Gina took Tom's hand and pressed it to her forehead. She smiled at her papa with utter love and devotion. Tom smiled back.

"Songs of the departed are sung until the flame is extinguished," he finished. Then he struck a flint and stone together, producing a spark over the oil. A flame came to life, leaping up out of the dish as it flickered and danced, a silent symbol of life's journey.

Tom began to sing then. The words were in Mufak, the lyric language of a simple people who had survived centuries of slavery without crushing their intrinsic joy.

Nick quietly translated the song, speaking slowly, softly, without interrupting. The assembled group hung on every word, mesmerized by the simple beauty of the alien ceremony. At one point the twin children joined Tom in song, raising their own childish voices in memory of their mother. Even the captain was seen dabbing at the moisture that pooled in the corners of her eyes.

The song continued through the silent afternoon until at last, the flame was extinguished. The oil had burned away. Only water remained in the stone dish. Gina then placed flowers in the dish, and others followed suit. The dish was soon filled with a wild assortment, their fragrance pungent and sweet. Then wordlessly all returned to the ship.

Kim downloaded the remainder of information on the wormhole through which the Kri had traveled. Over the next few months he would study it with Seven to see what, if anything they could learn from it. Was it anything like the few worm holes the Federation had been able to study back home? Was there a way to predict where the next hole would be, or where it went? He wasn't getting his hopes up, not much any way. But even if it proved to be a dead end, the hours of study would have been worth it.

Tom was working in the holodeck as he trained the Kri pilot. Tom had tried to help Kim improve his skills in that program a few years ago. Kim crashed more often than not, although he had been able to pull through when it mattered. He discovered finally why he hadn't gone into flight controls. He didn't have the right personality. A pilot had to be able to react instantly, without fretting over the awesome responsibility of protecting the lives that were placed in his hands. A pilot had to have nerves of steel, and perhaps, just a bit of a death wish.

Seven was currently working with Tuvok to inform the Kri of the Borg. All the supplies they needed to complete their journey were given with the understanding that they would pass on the information of the Borg to every intelligent species they encountered for as long as they lived. The Kri, now freed from their temporary insanity, were generally agreeable. They were still a rough bunch, at times bawdy or insulting, but they had a wonderful sense of humor that made the crew more than willing to work with them.

Nick was in the holodeck, baby-sitting. Tom had asked him earlier if he could watch the children. Nick didn't mind. He figured he had better get used to it. But ten minutes in his office and he began to wonder if children should be outlawed. Gina had accidentally tipped over his plant and broken the little music box. Tommy backed into a wet canvas, ruining several hours of work and covering his clothing, hands, and the walls with oil paint stains. Nick took the children back to Tom's quarters to bathe and change, only to find that the children had no other clothes. Finally, in desperation he called Neelix.

The Talaxian whistled tunelessly as he helped Nick wash them up. "I'll just clean these overalls and bring them right back," he promised. "And, maybe you'd be better off watching them in the holodeck? We are planning a party for them later this afternoon, right after they wake from their nap. Think you can handle things until then?"

Nick felt a sense of panic wash over him. Gina squealed in the bathtub as her brother splashed her, water slopping over the rim, soaking the carpet. The children seemed so energetic, happy and playful in spite of all they had lived through. It warmed something in his cold, dead heart. "I'll be fine," he said then.

Soon the children were dressed once again in clean overalls with their long-sleeved shirts and bare feet. Nick took Neelix's suggestion and brought them to the holodeck, inviting Naomi to join them. He hesitated as he wondered what program to run. The barnyard animals would all be alien to the Mufak children, and possibly frightening. A modern playroom would be over-stimulating, filled with things they had never before seen and didn't know how to use. In the end, he ran Grand Park, Milwaukee area, circa mid-twentieth century. He set it to run just at dusk. The sun was beyond the horizon and a few evening stars were visible, yet once the mortals' eyes adjusted, they could still see well enough to play.

Naomi was strangely quiet at first. She bent over to speak to the twins, as though doubting they would hear her from "up there". Nick realized then that she had never met anyone smaller than herself before.

Gina, normally the more shy of the twins, was entranced by Naomi. Timidly, she reached out to finger Naomi's thin, straight blonde hair. "Pretty," she exclaimed.

Naomi flushed, pleased at the simple complement even at her young age.

Nick recalled Tom saying that he was considered a prized slave because of his blonde hair and fair coloring. It was rare among Mufak, and therefore the wealthier Thurians paid handsomely for it.

Naomi put an arm around Gina's shoulders, holding her close like a bosom buddy. "There's a swing set across the bridge. Would you like me to push you?"

Tommy pouted a little that his sister didn't seem to need him. Nick led him down the bank of Oak Creek. There, he let the boy splash in the cold, shallow water, chase minnows and tadpoles, and throw rocks. Although he understood Mufak still, he encouraged Tommy to repeat the Standard names for everything. Tommy didn't even seem to be aware that he was learning while he played.

Tom yawned widely. He'd fallen asleep with his children, taking a rare afternoon nap. Now he felt disoriented and sluggish, but at least the headaches seemed a thing of the past. He glanced in his reflection. He looked older somehow. The same blonde hair and blue eyes reflected back at him, but there was something different. His twin children climbed up on the dresser and joined him as they looked at themselves in the smooth surface with broad grins.

They were so unlike most Parises. Tom's sisters and father had all been fair, even his nephews fit the same genetic pattern. Tommy and Gina were very dark, the color of aged brandy. With their black hair and striking blue eyes, they were exotic, handsome children, yet he felt a moment of concern that his father would not be pleased. Tom vowed then that he would never have more children. He would not risk giving the Admiral a golden-haired grandchild to favor. Suddenly, though, pleasing his father no longer seemed important. K'shia had believed in him. Now the children trusted in him. He would not let them down.

"Where are we going now, Papa?"

"I'm hungry!"

"Do you like to swing? It was fun! I like Naomi, can she come over to play?"

Tom chuckled. Once his quarters had been too quiet and lonely. He suspected those days were over forever. "We're going to dinner now. Neelix said he had fixed us something special. So let's go."

"What's special? More cookies?"

"We'll soon find out," he promised.

Tommy raced on ahead, but Gina held his hand. She clutched her ragdoll in her other arm. She shivered once, but Tom wasn't sure if she was really cold or just scared. He couldn't wait to get his next ration coupons; he'd get them each a jacket then.

The Mess Hall was crowded. Dozens of friends cheered when he entered. Balloons decorated each table, with paper streamers and cut flowers, and posters wishing him a "Happy Father's Day." Tom blushed, never really caring to be the center of attention.

Neelix had prepared a "barbecue". He wore an apron and turned meat patties over an open brazier. Whatever it was smelled delicious, Tom acknowledged, although Nick looked a little green. He served the children first, then got a plate for himself. Naomi joined them at their table, along with her mother, Nick and B'Elanna.

"We put together a list of volunteers," Ensign Wildman said after swallowing a mouthful of potato salad. "Nick and I interviewed them, and Seven worked out a schedule with Chakotay. Here it is, if you'd like to review it. I hear that you're back on duty tomorrow."

Tom smiled as he nodded. He wasn't sure what he was feeling now. He loved flying and couldn't wait to get back to work, and yet, he was strangely reluctant to leave his children with anyone.

Paulus came to sit with them then. She looked radiant. If Nick ever doubted his skill as a counselor, one look at her should fill him with pride and confidence. Tom wished that Nick had been around to help his sister.

"Tom, you know Paulus," Nick introduced. "She majored in music education before she joined the Academy. I've spoken with her and the Captain about changing her duty assignment. Starting tomorrow, she's our new school teacher for the primary grades."

"We'll need to talk," Tom said. "I'd like to know your teaching style."

Paulus smiled brightly. "Of course. I confess, I don't have any experience. But, I have a lot of enthusiasm."

Tom seemed pleased with her response. "Great. If you're not a "trained professional" then I'm sure you'll do."

Paulus was surprised, but Nick understood. Tom's education had been sporadic. His first school years had been in a strict, alien military institution. After running away, his sister Emily had "unschooled" him for four years. He had spent the day as he wished, playing, learning to play the piano, and rebuilding an antique aircraft as he taught himself to fly. Later he had attended a prestigious prep school and then the Academy. He had learned all the tricks to hide his illiteracy, covering deep feelings of inadequacy with arrogance.

Paulus offered to take Tom's tray back to the recycler and quickly his table was cleared. Then the others crowded around as they laid piles of presents on the table. Tom stuttered. "But, what's this mean? It's not my birthday."

Neelix beamed proudly. "No, it's your very first Father's Day and Baby Shower. I figured the children might need a lot of things, and Nick assured me it was once an Earth custom to "shower" new parents with gifts. So, here's mine!"

He held out a heavy, square package. Tom hesitated, embarrassed at the attention. Gina climbed up in his lap to get a better look. She helped him tear the paper wrapping away to reveal a large book of Fairy Tales. Tom didn't need to read the title to know the contents, as the exquisite book cover pictured Tom Thumb, Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and all the familiar characters from assorted Federation cultures.

Gina could read in Mufak, but it might be awhile before she could read Standard. Carefully she turned the first few pages and admired the illustrations.

"I guess it is a selfish gift," Neelix bubbled, not sounding the least apologetic. "As I'd like to read it to them when I baby-sit."

"Do I get cookies?" Tommy asked.

The adults chuckled while Neelix assured him that he could have a cookie from time to time. Tommy seemed satisfied.

More gifts followed. Changes of clothes and a pair of jackets, shoes from Captain Janeway, a hairbrush, a few toys, and more were added to the pile. Tom was overwhelmed by their generosity and thoughtfulness. Nearly everyone wanted to talk with him, to tell some amusing story about their own childhood, or the child of a friend... some gave advice and some offered their support.

"Oh, Papa," Gina exclaimed. "Such wonderful gifts! You must be like a king!"

"No, princess," he said, smiling at her obvious devotion. "But it is awfully nice of them, isn't it?"

Tom fought back a yawn as the night wore on. Gina fell asleep in his arms. Nick and B'Elanna politely excused themselves, the night shift left for their duties, yet still some guests remained.

Suddenly the deck shook as a loud explosion reverberated through the corridor. Gina awoke with a scream, throwing her arms around Tom's neck. All the guests jumped to their feet, glancing around nervously for the source of the disaster.

Moments later a dark, dirty little boy walked through a cloud of smoke carrying the charred remains of a small servo robot in both hands. "Papa, it broke," he said simply.

Some laughed; Captain Janeway glowered. Tom shrugged, and Neelix shook his head, wondering if anyone on board was qualified to baby-sit such a child. For once, Tuvok agreed.

Tom leaned back and he moved his hands lightly across the control console. He'd missed the bridge. He wouldn't have traded the three days with his new family for anything, but flying had always been his first true love.

The Kri had departed hours ago. Voyager had remained in orbit around the simple planet cleaning up after themselves. It was a general Starfleet protocol for undeveloped and primitive planets. Should native intelligent life ever evolve, their development should not be influenced or contaminated by discovering alien artifacts. There had been one transmission from the Kri just before they traveled beyond the limits of their communications ability, thanking them again for their assistance and reporting that the ship was functioning above all expectations.

Captain Janeway gave the order to lay in a course.

"Ready, Captain," he replied.

"Engage," she said.

Tom smiled as he fingered the controls. Nothing happened. For one pregnant moment, he stared blankly at what appeared to be a dead console. He whirled around in his chair to look at the Captain in confusion.

Just as she was about to slam the comm, a message came through loud and clear. It was B'Elanna's voice and she was not happy.

"Tom! Get these kids out of my engine room! They've yanked out over two dozen isolinear chips and were playing hide-and-seek with them! It could take hours to get them all back into place!"

Tom bolted from his chair. Captain Janeway put her head in her hands and started muttering something unintelligible. Kim was laughing uncontrollably.

"Excuse me, Captain," Tom stuttered. "Maybe I should go and lend a hand?"

She gestured for him to leave. Tuvok took two precise steps forward and folded his hands behind his back. "Perhaps, Captain, the brig would make more suitable accommodations for the Paris family?"

The End.

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Many thanks to my beta-readers, Laurie of the Isles and Kylie! Laurie, your knowledge of English grammar is spectacular!

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