by torch, fall 1996

Disclaimer: Paramount owns every character whose name you recognize in here. Those whose names you don't recognize are mine, mine, mine! although I might lend them out on request (Darin, for instance, is just perfect for one of those 'security, check out that strange cave over there with piles of bones lying in front of it' missions). Paramount also owns the starship, the Delta quadrant, and other places where my imagination often roams. The fun and games definitely belong to me. Title by W. S., as usual. Do not archive this story without permission.

The perfect ceremony

Harry yawned.

He put the padd down and rubbed his eyes, and decided he just might be sleepy enough to go to bed. Standing up, he looked around the room and sighed at its neatness. He'd been tidying things again and there was no one around to mess them up.

Still, that would change as soon as the away team got back. Harry smiled to himself as he kicked his boots off and went to the bathroom to wash his face and clean his teeth. Then everything would be back in the state of mild disorder that had characterized his quarters lately.

Once he was done rinsing his mouth he looked sternly at himself in the mirror. "You will go to bed," he said. "You will go to sleep. You will not toss and turn all night."

But it was difficult, Harry reflected. When you had just grown used to sleeping next to someone, the two of you curled up so closely together in the middle of the bed that it would be hard for an onlooker to tell which arms and legs belonged to which person, trying to sleep on your own produced an amazingly strong feeling of disorientation.

Harry knew that. He'd known it before this. During the early days, or rather nights, of Voyager's long journey he'd woken up often enough reaching out for Libby and wondering for a long second where she was, before realizing she was much too far away for him to touch. It had been a painful time.

Now it was someone else he was missing, after a far shorter time than he had had with Libby. Harry sighed as he got out of his uniform and crawled under the covers. The away team had only been gone for two days. This was just ridiculous. But he wanted Tom to be there, wanted to settle into sleep with his face pressed against Tom's neck, breathing in the scent that meant love to him.

Closing his eyes, Harry tried to relax. At least sleep would make the time pass more quickly. Since they had resumed their relationship not long ago, he and Tom had spent practically every off-duty moment together. Suddenly, being alone was making Harry restless, although before the whole bewildering, horrible, glorious tangle between him and Tom got started he would have considered this perfectly normal. That thought made him smile.

But it didn't do anything about his restlessness, and he couldn't go talk to his best friend about it, either. B'Elanna was on this mission, too. Of course. Harry was on the verge of thinking some rather critical thoughts about Captain Janeway's selection of crew members for the away team when the absurdity of it all struck him and he started to laugh. The captain certainly hadn't been considering Ensign Kim's private life, but why should she?

That did not change the fact that he was bored and lonely, though. He opened his eyes again and stared at the ceiling. Probably he should have taken the chance to try out a few holodeck programs while he was on his own; it had been a while since he'd been to the holodeck. Been to the holodeck alone, he amended. And Tom had given Harry free access to all his programs just a few days ago.

Harry suspected Tom of having edited the programs before he'd made a present out of them, though. What he'd had the time to look at so far did not seem entirely in character. Tom's Arabian Nights program, for instance, was suitable for small children. When Harry had quizzed him about it, Tom had given him a smile of such blinding innocence Harry had been forced to tickle him, and the tickle fight had led in its turn to a number of other interesting things, and the holoprograms had been forgotten.

Right now he was completely uninterested in anything the holodeck had to offer. He would have been considerably more interested in a few things Tom had to offer, but he was going to have to settle for sleep. Harry turned over and let his mind drift. The night before the away team beamed down for their stay on Elce, they had been lying together in this bed and he had kissed Tom's neck, starting at the hairline and moving down, letting his lips trace the twin lines of muscle, map the outline of the bumpy first vertebrae that somehow felt so frail. He loved the nape of Tom's neck, such a beautiful vulnerable place. And then the shoulders, and the dip between the shoulder blades.

He was never going to fall asleep this way. Frowning, Harry felt the rest of that memory tug at him. It was more disturbing than arousing, and it was something he'd meant to think about while Tom was gone, only he couldn't quite seem to manage it. He had to do it sooner or later. His mind had run in circles around the subject long enough.

~~ Harry imagined for a moment that his kisses would leave marks, trail a garland down Tom's back in slow lazy curves, shading from dark to bright and flaring up where he paused to place a careful, gentle bite. He had one arm wrapped around Tom, brushing at his chest in the same seemingly random pattern, occasionally trailing across a nipple and then away again before Tom could do more than draw his breath in.

There was a purpose to his caresses, but he was taking his time, caught up as always in the sheer delight of pleasing his lover. The way Tom responded to his touch never failed to amaze and awe him. Lower now, the small of the back, this perfect dip, and then those perfect curves. Harry drew the tip of his tongue across Tom's left ass cheek, heading inwards.

Tom suddenly went rigid under his touch. "Stop." The low, strained voice was barely recognizable. "Harry. Stop." And he did, he stopped at once and felt the fine tremors that was running through Tom now. Harry moved up again, wrapped his arms around Tom tightly, his chest against Tom's back and his erect cock pressing against Tom's ass, and Tom wrenched himself out of Harry's embrace and rolled away.

A few moments passed as Harry watched Tom lie there and breathe. "I'm sorry," he said finally. Tom wasn't moving. He thought about reaching out, but he didn't want to take the risk that Tom would recoil from his touch again. "Tom."

Tom finally lifted his head and the look in his eyes drove the air from Harry's lungs more effectively than any blow. He didn't know what to say, but little things were coming back to him, details, small movements and shifts that had seemed insignificant. All he could do was keep his eyes fixed on Tom, a mute plea. And after a few moments Tom reached out one shaking hand and gripped Harry's, and then slowly came into his arms again.

"I'm sorry," Tom said almost inaudibly, echoing Harry's words. "I just — I'm sorry, but—" Harry stroked his cheek, brushed a finger across his lips. Tom put his head down on Harry's shoulder and pressed his face into Harry's neck. "Don't leave me. Oh God, don't leave me."

Distress was rising in Harry and making it hard for him to speak; he felt charged with it and with the awful knowledge that had just hit him. "I'm not leaving," he said softly. "I love you. I made a promise, remember?" He curled a hand around Tom's head protectively and tried to stay calm. Tom was upset enough for both of them, still trembling and breathing irregularly.

"You don't know," Tom said, barely moving his lips away from Harry's neck. "I never wanted you to know. It's just so—" Another shudder ripped through him. "It's just that, I can't help remembering sometimes and I can't, I can't—" The small distressed cry tore at Harry's heart.

"I love you," he repeated helplessly. "You can tell me." His arms tightened around Tom. "Whatever it was, it's over now. You're with me now." And I'm never going to let anyone hurt you again, oh, Tom, I promise. He could feel Tom slowly calm down just a little, but there was still tension in him. Harry's heart was racing to the same frantic beat.

"I'm sorry," Tom said again.

"No," Harry said. "Stop saying that. I did something stupid and I upset you. I'm the one who should apologize." He moved into a more comfortable position, with Tom resting against his shoulder, held but not confined by his arms. It seemed important to make it clear to Tom that he lay here entirely of his own free will.

"I never wanted you to know." Tom's hand found Harry's and they linked their fingers together, hard. "Stupid of me. I should have known, but there are some things I just can't—" After a moment's silence Tom drew a deep harsh breath and went on, his voice gritty with pain, "I can't, Harry."

He leaned his cheek against the top of Tom's head and found that he was almost shaking, too. He wanted to comfort Tom, and he wanted to do something extremely painful to whoever had hurt him. But Tom was here and that unknown person was presumably in the Alpha Quadrant, so it was an easy choice. "It's all right," he said. "I'd never ask you to do anything you didn't want to."

And those words struck a chord of memory in him. Harry realized all at once why Tom had always been so gentle with him, had always asked, had always made sure and more than sure of Harry's pleasure. He suddenly wanted to cry.

"But," Tom said achingly, "I want you to have anything you want. I told you I wasn't — wasn't good enough for you. I'm second-rate, Harry, I'm damaged goods, I'm—"

"You're the one I love," Harry said, tightening his fingers around Tom's. He reached out with his other hand and pulled the covers over them. "Stop saying that. You're not any of those things. You're wonderful and beautiful and bright and clever and I want to be with you more than anything else in the world." Tucking the covers around Tom, he settled down again and breathed deeply.

"Harry, you're crazy," Tom said but his voice was just a little easier.

"That's quite possible," Harry agreed. He didn't know what to do with the unspoken fact that lay between them now, heavy and frightening; he needed time to think about it, to suppress his rage. Pressing a kiss against the top of Tom's head, he suggested, "Maybe we should sleep."

The body in his arms tensed again. Tom lifted his head and looked at Harry with wide, scared eyes. "But I thought..." Then he looked down. "Yeah. I guess you wouldn't want me, now."

Harry drew a slow breath. He had to be strong enough for this; it was a lot worse for Tom. He cupped a hand around Tom's face and pulled him close for a kiss. "I do," he whispered. "I'll always want you." There was sheer need in the way Tom kissed him and Harry submitted to it. He gave himself up to Tom's touch and tried to concentrate on how good it felt, tried hard not to let the grief and anger take over. It felt wrong to him to lie here and accept Tom's caresses. He wanted to be the one to comfort Tom, to give him sweetness. But he could tell that this was important.

They moved slowly together, touching each other with care, and Harry held himself back and made certain that it was Tom's initiative that led the encounter. For the first time, he could feel something hesitant and unsure in the way Tom touched him, as though uncertain of the reception his lovemaking would get. Harry fought the feeling inside that made him want to tell Tom to stop, and just curl up in a tight embrace, and cry, and hope that Tom could cry too.

It was Tom who had been hurt, Harry reminded himself, and he would give Tom whatever he needed right now, whatever proof was necessary to show Tom that Harry loved him. The realization that Tom had expected rejection burned in Harry's throat. How could he think that! Harry returned Tom's kiss fiercely, pressed his body against his lover's.

And the thing was that Tom could always make him feel good. Tom knew him so well by now, knew where to touch him and how, and despite the confusion and grief in his mind Harry felt his breath come faster as Tom nibbled on his ear and ran a hand up and down the backs of his thighs. He drew his own fingers over Tom's throat and felt the wild heartbeat.

Tom kissed the corner of Harry's mouth, the hollow of his throat, licked slowly at his chest. This was Tom at his most gentle, so careful and so aware of every touch. He cast a net of soft caresses around Harry and then gathered him in close; and Harry, knowing what was happening, could not resist and did not want to resist. He allowed himself to be caught slowly, roused into a burning passion, sensing that to have thrown himself at Tom and yelled 'I'm yours already, idiot' would not have helped much.

And it was this gentleness he loved most in Tom. The care that bestowed kiss after wet kiss on Harry's nipples until he thought he would scream. Whenever Harry remembered to breathe he took care to touch Tom right back, cautious not to make a wrong move. He licked at the tips of Tom's fingers, and kissed him until they were both out of breath. Tangled up tight in each other's arms, they thrust together, heat and friction.

It was good; but moving together like this always gave Harry different ideas. And perhaps they were good ones right now. Because he wanted to give something to Tom quite as badly as Tom wanted to give something to him. He arched his back spontaneously as teeth grazed his shoulder, and felt Tom's cock pressing against him, hot and hard.

"Tom," he said, then more urgently, "Tom." He licked at his lover's lips to get his attention. "I want you to fuck me." Harry looked into Tom's eyes and read amazement, and painful desire. "Right now," he added in case he hadn't made himself clear. And he waited for Tom's hesitant nod of agreement before kissing him one more time, with all the considerable passion he felt. Then he rolled over and pushed the pillows down under his stomach, and heard Tom drop and overturn things before finding the lubricant.

Light kisses on his back, and words of love whispered so quietly they could barely be heard, and Tom's fingers taking great care in preparing him. Harry shivered. All done in love, but what would it be like if, if— He bit back a sob, and then moaned in response to Tom's caresses. The fingers withdrew and moments later he felt the head of Tom's cock pressing against his opening, and Tom was pushing into him, slowly, so very slowly.

Harry shifted, and lifted his hips and pushed back, and the way this felt nearly drove him out of his mind, still, always. It wasn't something he thought he ever would grow used to, the amazing sensation of being filled, of sharing himself so intimately with another. Tom inside him was all hard sweetness, painfully wonderful, and Harry moved again, wanting more.

Tom stroked Harry's back and ran a hand down his arm, and Harry immediately caught that hand in his own and tugged Tom closer until he could feel the warm weight of his lover resting against his back. Oh, he could easily understand why Tom did not want to hold him down, but Harry wanted it, the closeness, the contact. He pulled Tom's hand to his mouth and sucked at a finger, and now Tom was moving in him with slow determination, and Harry couldn't hold back a soft 'mmm' as the pleasure began to build in him.

"So beautiful," Tom whispered into the back of his neck, hot breath sending an additional shiver down Harry's spine. "I don't understand the way you trust me." Harry arched up against Tom, not protesting the steady pace but purring under it like a cat under the hand that strokes it. "And the way you feel. So good, it's like the closest I'll ever get to heaven, and I..." Tom broke off and Harry felt him shake, a faint tremor.

He kissed Tom's fingers and moved with him, not letting him out of this rhythm, not letting him go. "I love you," he gasped. And Tom rocked against him, driven by those words, trembling with need yet reining himself in.

"But I don't understand!" It was a hopeless wail, Tom's voice hoarse with desire and desperation. "If it will ever be enough, if anything I can give you is good enough..." Harry was on the verge of losing it now but he fought for control, willing it to last. Right now Tom was at his most vulnerable, most open. Anything he said now meant a lot, and Harry hoped that anything he heard now meant a lot too.

"You're all I want," he got out, panting as his whole body shook with the force of Tom's thrusts. "Oh yes, oh God yes, Tom."

Tom's face was buried against Harry's shoulder and Harry could barely hear him as he said, "But I can't even give you all of me. Harry, I love you so much it hurts, I wish I could — could—" Then Tom held him even tighter, beyond words now, and Harry could feel the love and passion pouring into him, a tide that was going to take him away, inexorably.

"I love you," he sobbed. Harry didn't know when he'd started crying, but he was gasping for breath and the tears burned his face. It felt so wonderful, the way their bodies came together, but someone had hurt Tom and the pain of that sliced through Harry now. "I love you." He pushed at that love, made it drown out the pain, and Tom was making little distressed sounds, absolutely frantic sounds and Harry wished he could see what Tom looked like right then.

And then Tom cried out, "Harry," and drove himself in deep, and laid Harry wide open to the pleasure, and Harry didn't think at all any more. ~~

So much said, so much unsaid. Remembering it now, Harry still found it hard to suppress tears. And now he knew for a fact that he wouldn't be able to sleep. Giving up, he flung the covers back, got up and pulled his uniform back on. Then he took a slow turn around the room. Of all the times for Tom to be sent on an away mission, he thought wryly.

He could still see the look that had been in Tom's eyes the next morning, the slight shadow, the hint of a question. Uncertainty. Harry sighed to himself. There had been moments even before this when he had wondered if Tom really, truly believed that Harry loved him. Then he had told himself he was being irrational. Now...

Now Harry wanted very much for Tom to be here, just so that he could make it clear again, and again, and again, and as many times as it took. And his quarters were really too small to pace in like this. He stopped to pull his boots back on, and headed out. Not the holodeck this time, but a walk around the ship might help.

Harry walked, and walked, and walked. Then he took the turbolift to another deck and walked some more. His mind was working slowly, still reluctant to deal outright with the things he knew now. It was easier to try to comfort Tom, than to contemplate what had actually happened to him. Tom had been hurt—

Get real. Harry mentally smacked himself. Tom had been raped. It was the only conclusion he could draw, even though Tom had not said it in so many words. Then again, Harry could not imagine what it would be like to tell someone that. It would not, he felt completely certain, be easy.

Now that he was alone he could at least acknowledge the pain that this revelation had brought him, the pain he didn't want to show Tom. It hurt because he was angry and powerless; someone had hurt Tom and Harry wanted to protect him, and wanted quite badly to hurt this someone in return. And it wasn't possible. That was painful; there was nowhere for his anger to go, and it was eating at him, choking him.

What hurt even more was the realization that Tom wouldn't have been surprised if Harry had pulled away from him, been repulsed, left him. He wanted to grind his teeth with frustration that Tom didn't seem to understand that he wasn't to blame, didn't seem to understand just how much Harry loved him; and at the same time he felt horribly guilty for that frustration. Tom had been through so much. He didn't deserve Harry's anger at all.

Many brisk steps and turbo lift rides later, Harry found himself outside the mess hall. It was 0130 hours, and he walked inside, feeling sure it would be empty. Yes, no one here. He took a turn around the tables, thinking they looked so small, this whole place was tiny. Harry lifted his head and looked out the window. The planet of Elce shimmered there, greenish-blue and almost Earth-like. Tom was down there somewhere.

Harry missed him, missed him terribly. And he also realized that he had no idea what to say to Tom next time he saw him.

A clatter from the galley made him jump, but when he turned around all he saw was Kes standing behind the counter, with a small test tube in one hand and a cracker with a piece of cheese on in the other. "Shouldn't you be in bed?" she asked.

"Probably," Harry admitted. "Shouldn't you?"

"I don't sleep much." The words 'a waste of time' hovered somewhere in the back of Harry's mind, unspoken. Kes put the tube down and rummaged around for a moment, then came out to join him carrying a plate of crackers and cheese, and a pot of coffee. "Join me?"

Harry smiled and sat down across from her at the table she chose. He liked Kes, liked her a lot. So far he hadn't been able to tell her of the fits of jealousy she had provoked in him back when he had suspected her of having an affair with Tom. Harry had a feeling that she might either be offended, which would be horrible, or laugh at him, which would be even worse.

"I don't seem to be able to adapt since we changed over to planet-side time," he excused himself smoothly. It was partly true, at least.

"Oh, and I thought you just slept badly on your own," Kes said. "I know I do." She smiled, and her eyes twinkled. "When Neelix is away I even miss the sound of his snoring. Of course, now I'm up and about because he snores and I couldn't sleep."

Harry smiled. He picked up a cracker and cut himself a piece of cheese; walking for hours all over the ship had left him hungry. "I do miss Tom," he admitted. "It feels a bit stupid; he's been gone two days and he's coming back tomorrow." Biting off a piece experimentally, he found that the cheese was quite good, or did at least not inspire him with a desire to rush it to sick bay. "I just really badly want him to be here, I guess."

She nodded understandingly. "I know." Then Kes dropped her eyes for a moment. "Harry, can I tell you something? I don't want you to take it the wrong way." At his quick nod, she went on, "I was a little worried that a relationship between you and Tom might not work. I'm so glad that it does."

The cracker in Harry's hand disintegrated. Crumbs and cheese rained down on the table. "Damn. Sorry, Kes." He had to clear his throat. "Why did you think that it wouldn't work?"

Instead of trying to brush up the crumbs, or comment on his clumsiness, she replied, "I was afraid that Tom wouldn't know how to deal with happiness once he had what he wanted. And," she went on a little more hesitantly, "I was worried that you might not see how much he really needs you." Then and only then did she take his hand, the one that wasn't all over cheese, and press it gently. "Harry, is something wrong?"

Harry sighed. He met her eyes ruefully. "Yes. But it's something that's been wrong for a long time, since before this relationship even started."

"I'm so sorry." Kes looked seriously at him. "But I'm sure you'll find a way to put it right."

* * *

Janeway tilted her head back and looked up at the sky, smiling as she felt the sunlight warm her face. It was going to be another scorching day. The city of Sarz lay near the equator of Elce, and the days and nights were hot. She liked it. And others liked it too; turning her head she could see Chakotay stretch contentedly as he turned to say something to B'Elanna Torres. Tom Paris had, of course, managed to burn his nose and it was red and peeling, but he was bearing up fairly well under this hardship.

Before she could run her eyes over the rest of the Voyager party, their guide cleared her throat, and Captain Janeway turned towards Tregua instead. The woman was part of the reigning council here in Sarz, and had shown them around for the past two days. Tall and dark and dramatic, she looked very serious, but humor lurked in her brown eyes and Janeway was growing to feel quite friendly towards her.

In fact, the Lienzi generally were very friendly. At the banquets on the previous nights they had gone out of their way to please and entertain their guests. It had been very enjoyable, if a bit slow. There had been moments when Janeway had been tempted to ask if things could not be speeded up just a trifle, if the negotiations to buy more tellerium could not be conducted just as well without all the tours, and without them being guests in the palace. But Chakotay, ever patient with ceremony, seemed to know instinctively when he should give her a reproving look; and if he missed one moment, Tuvok would be there.

She sighed. It was good; they were doing their job. And what were two or three days spent here, in a larger perspective? Only it kept happening, a few days here and a few days there. Time slipping slowly through her fingers, through all their fingers. And though some had found happiness during their travels, others had not.

"We are going out of the city today, captain," Tregua said. Janeway came to immediate attention, and felt Chakotay do the same. They had been told several times that they must come to the temple sooner or later, and they knew from what the Lienzi had told them that the temple was outside the city walls. If this was the time for their visit, it had to mean that the council was nearing a decision of some kind. "Follow me, please."

Sarz was a beautiful city, built on a generous scale. Low buildings painted every shade from pale terracotta to dark umber lined the broad streets, and the colors were soothing to look at even in the glare of the noonday sun. There were trees planted seemingly at random along the streets, too, and tubs of brilliant flowers set out on the steps of nearly every house. A soothing place, where things moved slowly. People looked more closely as they saw the away team's uniforms, but there were no crowds and no curious questions.

Personally Janeway found the Lienzi a bit too placid for her taste, but their politeness was a pleasant change from some other planets Voyager had visited, that much was certain. Turning to Tregua, she asked, "Where are you taking us today?"

Tregua smiled. "To the temple. You have paid your respects to everyone in the city. It is time you paid your respects to the goddess."

The captain nodded briskly, as though she'd just been about to suggest that herself. She noticed Chakotay perk up at the chance of observing the Lienzi's religious ceremonies. "Lead on," she said.

Most things happened at the pace of a walk here in Sarz. Although the Lienzi had developed advanced technology, they did not seem to use it much. Janeway curbed her impatience for the thousandth time, and walked after Tregua, making herself admire the streets and the buildings and the fountain right there under the trees. It really was a beautiful city.

Behind her she heard Tom Paris and B'Elanna teasing each other cheerfully, as they had been doing all through this mission. "Don't mope! You'll be back with him soon enough. The two of you are just revoltingly soppy, do you know that?"

"At least Harry is a person. The first thing you'll do when we get back will be to rush down and hug the warp core. I know you, Torres."

"The warp core and I have a perfectly normal, healthy relationship." That comment made even Chakotay snort with laughter, and only Tuvok remained impassive. Tregua turned her head to look at them all, her face mildly bewildered, but far from disapproving.

"Here are the city walls," she said. "We don't need walls any more, but we build them just the same." And they were beautiful; high, but not too high, with blind Gothic arches at regular intervals and decorative towers that strove towards the heavens. Janeway smiled with delight at seeing the gate they were to leave by. It wasn't a real gate, properly speaking, just two enormous pillars flanking the street as it changed into a road and ran out among the gently rolling hills.

"Extraordinary," Chakotay said in a soft voice. "It must have taken a long time to build."

"Yes," Tregua acknowledged, "it did. But we flourish in the peace of the goddess, and in peacetime much can be accomplished." They already knew that war lay far in the past on Elce, left behind as a religion developed that shaped the entire culture of this continent. The Lienzi occasionally joked that the goddess wanted peace and quiet, and so it was the duty of her people to get along with each other, and not make too much noise.

As they passed out between the pillars, Tregua exchanged a smile and a nod with a man who ran a stall selling cool drinks. Then she led them onto the road to the temple. They were far from alone; many others walked in the same direction, or were coming back again. But there was no traffic, only people on their own two feet. Janeway assumed it was part of the religious experience. She also wondered how far it was.

They walked on for half an hour. The sun was rising in the sky and it was getting even hotter. Tuvok looked, Janeway thought, quite content. B'Elanna grumbled at Chakotay when he tried to say something about the symbolism of walking through the desert; Tom was muttering something to the effect that he should have bought one of those cool drinks while he had the chance. Turning her head, Janeway saw that his forehead and cheeks were turning pink, too, and the back of his neck.

"You really should wear a hat, Mr. Paris," she said.

Tom smiled at her. "Not quite part of the Starfleet uniform, is it, captain?" He used one hand to shade his face for a moment. "I'll be fine." And his smile looked genuine enough, although the sunburn appeared rather painful. The captain nodded.

Tregua turned to her with a look that was ever so faintly apologetic. "Everyone comes to the temple on foot," she said. "And it's important that you come here, and pay your respects in the way that is proper for strangers. After that," she smiled, "we will decide." From the look on Tregua's face, Janeway deduced that the decision would almost certainly be in Voyager's favor. It was just a matter of behaving correctly. Very well; she would be correct. As correct as she knew how to be while sweat made her uniform cling to her back. Hopefully the goddess would not mind.

The road sloped gently upwards along the curve of a hill. It was a dry landscape, where only the trees and bushes with the deepest roots grew entirely green. Still, the captain saw tiny white flowers along the roadside, and birds flew above, calling sweetly to each other. Blinking the sweat out of her eyes, she conceded that it was beautiful.

"Captain," Chakotay said to her, "perhaps in the future away teams should be equipped with sunshades." His eyes were twinkling. Although his skin gleamed as well, he didn't look at all uncomfortable.

"I'll tell Starfleet Command when we get back," she said dryly. "And yes, commander, the next time we go down to a planet, I will take care to check the temperature." He laughed, and after a moment, she laughed too.

And then they reached the top of the hill, and fell silent.

From this point the road went straight down onto an open plain, and there was the temple. It was not just a single edifice, as Janeway had expected. One large building crowned by a low dome was surrounded by several others, lower and more sprawling, radiating out behind it like the spokes of a broken wheel. To one side was a grove of high trees, and through it ran the first stream of water they had seen since coming down to the surface of the planet.

Unlike the buildings they had seen in Sarz, the temple was white, or as nearly as made no difference. It shone in the sun, and the sparkle nearly blinded her. "Incredible," Janeway said after a moment.

Tregua smiled at her, a look of genuine pride in her eyes. "You're welcome to enter the temple, voyagers."

"Thank you," Janeway said sincerely, and they started walking down the hill. As they got closer to the temple, the stream of people walking the same way started to divide into three. Some went towards the grove; some went around the side, to the lower buildings; and less than a third walked up to the entrance to the temple itself.

"Everyone comes here," Tregua said, seeing the interested way they were studying everything around them, "to give the goddess what is hers, sooner or later. Some come more than once. And some choose to stay here." She smiled. "That's not expected of you."

They halted in front of the broad, shallow steps that led up to the temple doors. Everyone paused to admire the simple facade and the clean curve of the dome above it. B'Elanna had a look on her face that told Janeway she was calculating weight distribution. But she looked appreciative, which was the important thing.

"You know we are strangers here, Tregua," Chakotay said. "We don't want to offend you by mistake. Is there any way we should prepare ourselves for going into the temple?"

Tregua shook her head. "Oh, no. You are here as guests, not to wear the robe and the flower. Just do as I do; there is no mystery about it." And with those words their guide started up the steps and they had no choice but to follow. Not that the captain minded at all. She longed passionately for the cool interior of the temple; it seemed to call to her.

First they entered a sort of antechamber, low-ceilinged, through which Tregua led them so briskly that Janeway hardly got a good look at it, except to see that there were plenty of people there. Next they passed through a pair of huge wooden doors decorated with beaten metal, and then they were inside the temple proper. Sunlight hazed down from high windows placed just beneath the dome; it was like breathing gold dust. It was an enormous hall, the walls lost in dimness, pale and undecorated. When Janeway looked down she saw that the floor was of stone worn smooth but showing gorgeous inlaid patterns that brought a distant memory to her mind — what was it? Oh yes, the Book of Kells. Nearly as elaborate, nearly as stylized, certainly every bit as beautiful.

There seemed to be no central focus to the room, and this bewildered her. A temple without an altar? Well, why not, again. Looking around, she saw that many were just standing as she was, admiring, silent.

Not quite as she was, though, she realized after a moment. Many of them had changed from the elaborately draped outfits the Lienzi normally wore into a short sleeveless robe, or just a short loincloth for some of the men, and wore the tiny white flower that had grown along the road displayed in their hair. It had to mean something. Considering how little those robes hid, Janeway felt grateful that Tregua had declared that this wasn't necessary for them.

"There are many here to give the goddess her due," Tregua said, sounding pleased.

"What does that mean, exactly?" Chakotay asked, coming up to stand next to them. "I'd be pleased if you explained your customs, if that's not forbidden."

"Not at all," Tregua smiled. She nodded towards a young woman who stood there looking as though she were waiting patiently for something. "Everyone must come here once in their lives, as I said, and some are dedicated to it. We give to the goddess what she values most, which is our pleasure."

"I see," Chakotay said, and Janeway was about to say that she did not, when a man walked past the young woman, then stopped, and went back, and reached out a hand to her. She took it without hesitation and they walked away towards the other end of the temple hall and vanished through one of several doors there. Janeway blinked. Tregua moved away to speak to someone who appeared to be a temple attendant, and Chakotay turned towards her, a gleam in his eyes. "Fascinating. It appears to be a form of ritualized lovemaking, possibly symbolizing the union of the goddess and her people."

"Something like the cult of temple prostitution?" Janeway dredged up from memories of long-ago anthropology classes. She couldn't find the idea particularly appealing. Chakotay shook his head and seemed about to elaborate, when they were interrupted.

"Come with me," Tregua said, stepping closer again. "You will be permitted to enter the inner room as well." Janeway followed her obediently, and the rest of the team walked behind in uncharacteristic silence, for which she was grateful: when in doubt of how to react to someone's religion, keep quiet. As they got closer to the doorways, she kept looking around at those who were waiting, and saw a man simply walk up to another, grip his arm and tug him along, cutting in ahead of them. When she glanced over his shoulder she realized that the next room was full of people, too—

She must have made a small sound, as Chakotay turned towards her. "I didn't realize they did this so publicly," he said in a quiet voice, meant only for her ears. "But we have to—" Then he lifted his head and looked behind her with an expression of mingled disapproval and concern.

Janeway turned around quickly. She was just in time to see Tom Paris turn an interesting shade of green, go down on his knees, and throw up on the beautiful, inlaid temple floor.

* * *

Harry was on the bridge when Captain Janeway called in and asked for most of the away team to be beamed up, hours before anyone had expected it. Three to beam up and they had been five, and it took Harry about two seconds to check the transporter signatures and see that Tom and Chakotay were missing. The captain had sounded very calm, so his mind didn't manage to come up with more than one or two lurid scenarios before she and the rest of the team were on the bridge. B'Elanna caught Harry's eye and gave him a small reassuring smile.

"Our negotiations with the Lienzi have been slightly postponed," the captain announced with aplomb. "All senior officers in my ready room." As she walked towards the ready room herself, Harry saw her touch her comm badge. "Janeway to Neelix."

Neelix was the one who had told them about this planet. Once again he was the closest to an expert on the area that they had, and Harry felt his throat constrict as he wondered just why they needed one. What had gone wrong now? Because despite the utter calm the captain was projecting, things had obviously not gone as planned.

Walking away from Ops, Harry found B'Elanna waiting for him. "It's nothing too terrible," she said in a low voice. "But he doesn't tan very well." Before Harry could ask her what she meant Tuvok came past them, looking disapproving, and B'Elanna headed for the ready room at a brisk pace.

Harry followed her reluctantly, wondering what a case of sunburn could have to do with anything. Maybe he was just hypersensitive to anything involving Tom, anticipating trouble where there wasn't any; then again, Tom and trouble went so well together. That was the problem.

As Harry, B'Elanna and Tuvok sat down, Neelix and Kes came to join them. Kes looked serious, Neelix cheerful. Janeway looked at the two of them and then at Harry. "Neelix, I want your input on this," she said. "You told us nearly everything we know about the Lienzi, which admittedly isn't much. It appears that we have managed unintentionally to commit an offense in their temple." Neelix' eyebrows flew up. "The Lienzi have assured me that if the proper rituals are observed, this will be forgotten and negotiations can be resumed. I'm inclined to believe them; is there any reason for us to think that they may not mean what they say?"

Neelix cleared his throat self-consciously. "Very little is known about the Lienzi outside of Elce. I am one of the few to know that they even have tellerium to sell; many casual observers have failed to notice that despite the way they structure their society, they have a high level of technical competence. Er. Yes." He trailed off as Janeway raised an eyebrow at him in a gesture that meant, as Harry knew well, 'get to the point and get there now.' "The Lienzi take their religion very seriously. If we have offended against it we must either make it up to them, or get out fast."

"We can't get out fast," B'Elanna said tightly, unable to stay off the subject that was closest to her heart right now. "I'm not sure we can get out at all. We need their help, captain. With the warp engine offline, I don't think we'll make it to the next planetary system."

"Not before the food runs out," Neelix chipped in. "We need the supplies the Lienzi have offered to sell us, too."

"And our energy reserves are pretty low, so we couldn't live off the replicators if they refuse to help us," B'Elanna finished. "But the Lienzi seemed to think that it was an easy thing to fix."

"The Lienzi appear to consider that once Lieutenant Paris' error is atoned for, it will be forgotten, and they can supply us with what they need, both tellerium and food," Tuvok said. "I see no reason to doubt them."

"Neither do I," the captain said. "Nevertheless, I want a transporter lock on Commander Chakotay and Lieutenant Paris at all times." She glanced at Harry, who immediately nodded. He had no problems whatsoever with that order. "I have no reason to mistrust the Lienzi, but we don't know very much about them." She leaned against the back of her chair. "If everything goes as Tregua seemed to think it would, this additional delay will not cost us more than a day or two."

"Captain," Neelix said, "pardon my blunt curiosity, but what exactly did Lieutenant Paris do?" Harry shot Neelix a grateful look; he'd been wanting to ask himself, but he didn't want it to look as though he was obsessed with Tom.

"Mr. Paris suffered an attack of heat-sickness," the captain said, taking the minimalist approach.

"In the main temple hall," B'Elanna added with a slight trace of mischief. It was clear that despite her very real desire to get the tellerium, she had found the whole incident more funny than anything else. Harry relaxed.

"The Lienzi must have been very upset," Kes remarked softly, "if this place is as holy to them as you say. What kind of atonement are they asking for?"

"Some type of purification or cleansing ceremony," Tuvok said.

"Captain, I hope you made sure that it didn't involve anything unpleasant," Neelix said, pressing his fingertips together and looking serious.

"The Lienzi told me that it is a ceremony they all go through at some point or another, and that Lieutenant Paris would not be hurt," the captain said calmly. "Besides, Commander Chakotay is keeping an eye on the proceedings." Harry sighed quietly to himself. Tom would just love that — not only making a fool of himself in a temple but having Chakotay around to make sure he didn't do it again. "We should hear from them during the course of the day. Still, I would like us to be prepared for everything. B'Elanna, I want you to run a shipwide diagnostic and investigate all possible alternatives to get us away from Elce if we are unable to power up the warp drive. Get Ensign Kim to help you. Tuvok, maintain security alert."

"Yes, captain." As they were all dismissed and rose to go, Harry was the one to hurry B'Elanna along this time. He couldn't wait for them to get down to engineering so she could tell him the whole story; she seemed amused and at the same time slightly angry, and he had no idea what had brought this mood about.

In the turbo lift on the way down all she did was mutter darkly about impulse power and emergency systems and the possibilities of surviving for weeks on the remaining leola roots; Harry studied the effect of this monologue on the two other crewmen present and found it rather amusing. But he was starting to worry about Tom. Not that he thought Tom was badly ill or anything, he knew the captain wouldn't have left him then. He just didn't like all the mysterious hints about religious ceremonies on top of the other concerns about Tom he had already been having.

Then again Tom was quite capable of taking care of himself under most circumstances. He got himself into trouble, but he also got himself out again. Most of the time.

Harry got out at engineering and followed in B'Elanna's footsteps as she headed for the console beside the warp core and all but pounced on it. For a few minutes they worked together in concentrated silence, starting the diagnostic routines. Then Harry looked sideways at B'Elanna. "Are you going to tell me now?"

"Tom was sick on the floor in the high temple," she replied blithely.

"That much I gathered," Harry said, as dryly as he could manage. "What I meant was, are you going to tell me why you're looking so smug about it? I thought you really wanted the tellerium."

"No one wants to be stuck here," B'Elanna said, "least of all me. I just didn't like what was going on in that place." She tucked her hair back behind her ears with sharp, annoyed gestures. "They have a ritual, they call it putting on the robe and the flower or something? What it means is, you get to go stand in the temple wearing a skimpy little outfit, until someone comes along and asks you to have sex with them, and you're not allowed to say no."

Harry stared at her in disbelief. "You're making this up." She shook her head. "Who has to do this?"

"Everyone," she said with a tight shrug. "They all do it sooner or later. There were young boys in there, and little old ladies who looked like someone's grandmother. They say they offer up their pleasure to the goddess."

"That's disgusting," Harry said, then looked around half expecting someone to pop up out of thin air and tell him off for not respecting the moral values of an alien culture. "I mean..."

"Yes, it is," she agreed. "I mean, I can see how people could consider sex as a ritual and the pleasure of two lovers as something holy. But to be obliged to do it with anyone who comes along just because the goddess says so? That would make the goddess a pimp, just interested in the profits."

Harry shot her a quick look. "You're talking as though there is a goddess."

B'Elanna shrugged again. "What do I know? It could be a Q with a sick sense of humor, which seems to be all of them. Making a whole culture prostitute itself just for the fun of it." She stabbed at the console. "To tell you the truth, Harry, I was trying hard not to grin when Tom started demonstrating what he'd had for breakfast. Just what that temple needed." Then she gave him a softer look. "He seemed okay after that, though. Just a bit dazed. The heat seemed to get to him but apart from being the color of an overloading emergency system, he's fine."

"Okay." Harry nodded, deciding to accept her assessment. Despite her flippant tone he knew B'Elanna really was very fond of Tom; she'd never have joked about it had she believed anything to be truly wrong with him. "I guess he'll have a story for us when he gets back."

B'Elanna rolled her eyes. "When did he not have a story?" Then she concentrated again as the first results began to scroll up, and tapped her fingers against the edge of the screen. "And to get back to ship's business, our energy reserves are still low, our warp drive is still offline, and I still can't do anything about it."

"Anything else?" Harry asked mildly.

She gave him a feral smile. "Yes. I'm hungry, too." Harry started to laugh. "And we're short of food."

"Have a leola root." B'Elanna growled at him, and then they got down to work again, trying to find energy where there was none, trying to make something out of nothing. Harry still felt uneasy. He'd been trying to think of something to say to Tom when Tom got back, and come up with absolutely nothing, when Janeway's request to be beamed up had thrown his timing off. Now he had no idea when Tom would appear and even less idea of what to say.

Harry was the one who needed to talk about things, he knew that. And there were times when he almost had to drag words out of Tom one by one to get at what his lover was thinking. But it was usually worth it. Now, though, he didn't know if he had any right to push. He wanted Tom's confidence, wanted Tom to tell him spontaneously.

On another level, he found to his own shock that he didn't want to know a damn thing about it. It was painful and it was in the past, and he could do nothing about it, and speaking of it would make the wound open up again. And the thought of anyone violating Tom sickened him, physically. A beep alerted Harry to the fact that he had just punched the wrong button.

"Starfleet, you're not being any help." B'Elanna pushed him aside and her fingers danced over the controls as she undid the damage. "I told you, he's all right. You once said to me that this relationship wouldn't get in the way of your doing a good job."

Harry forced his attention back to the here and now. "I'm sorry," he said sincerely, feeling a moment's fear. He had to be able to handle his job — not just handle it, but do it well. Nothing could be allowed to get in the way of that. Oh hell, what was he going to say to Tom when Tom returned?

She put a hand on his shoulder. "Oh, no. Harry, you've got that look on your face again. Is something really wrong?" For a moment she looked uncannily like Kes had last night. Harry felt a flicker of laughter, and then a shiver at the kindness of friends.

And the answer to this question grew no easier. He frowned and wished she didn't know him so well; she could read any attempt at lying easily. He'd shared so much of himself with B'Elanna in the past and he trusted her completely, but he couldn't trust her with Tom's secrets. Harry burned to share it with someone, not to keep it locked up in his mind any longer, but he knew it wasn't right.

"I can't tell you," he said finally. "I'm sorry, B'Elanna. And I'll try to concentrate."

After looking into his face for a moment longer, she nodded, and the next moment she was glowering at him again just the way she always did. "No more breakups," she said forcefully. "No more crying all over me. Anyone can see the two of you belong together, so stick with it, please."

"Yes, ma'am." Harry concentrated on the power grid diagram. "Now that I'm not in your quarters all the time, are you making any progress with all the other ensigns on the ship?"

"Ensigns are so young," she said. "Then again, most lieutenants are married. I think you snagged the last cute one." Harry laughed, and they went on with their work.

* * *

"Paris, your timing is infallible. Of all the times to get heatsick." That voice, exasperated and annoyed, made him open his eyes to find that the world was still pretty much as he had last seen it, only now it featured Chakotay standing in the middle of the small room, staring at him.

"What are you doing here?" Tom asked slowly.

"I volunteered to stay with you," Chakotay said. "So did B'Elanna, but the captain felt she might be less than tactful, and we've already put our foot in it enough." The first officer sat down across from Tom on the other bench in the room, and leaned back against the whitewashed wall and stretched his legs out. It was a very small room, which made him look even bigger. A line of sunlight fell like a sash across his chest. "Are you feeling better?"

Tom framed and discarded a number of replies, before finally saying, "Yes." He felt like hell, but he was determined he wasn't going to be sick again, and that was what Chakotay meant, so it wasn't really a lie. "The Lienzi did send a medic to see me."

"I know." Chakotay sighed. "If we'd thought there was anything really wrong with you, we'd have beamed you out of there that very second. But heat-sickness usually passes with rest and shade and water, and we didn't want to upset the Lienzi even more."

It wasn't the heat, Tom thought. Far from it. His mind shivered in circles around what was going on in the temple all around them, teased delicately at the memory of one man dragging another into a room — to offer pleasure to the goddess. Sure. Any excuse will do. Don't argue, do as you're told. Pressing his lips together, Tom swore he wasn't going to be sick again. Not here, not now, not, please God, on Chakotay's feet.

"Do you know what's going to happen?" he asked instead. "I was a bit dizzy back when they were talking to me."

Chakotay shrugged. "Some kind of cleansing ceremony, I expect," he said calmly. "The captain was asked to take the others back to Voyager. But I think we can still work this out, if you go along with what they want."

Tom nodded dully. Inside, his mind was screaming. Didn't you see what they were doing out there! Are you going to sit there and pretend that you approve? To hell with relative cultural values, to hell with the tellerium, I want to go home. Then he took a deep breath and tried to sit up straight. "Yes," he said. "They did seem to understand that I certainly didn't do it on purpose."

Raising an eyebrow, Chakotay said, "So do I understand that you didn't. Just relax, Paris. It's a bit of a detour, but the Lienzi are still friendly. You defiled something that is sacred to them, but it was a mistake, and it will be recompensed for. They assured the captain that no harm would come to you."

And the captain would never have left him down here if she hadn't believed that assurance; Tom knew that, as certainly as he knew anything. But the pit of his stomach still felt as though something was dying in there. A lot of things he had done his best to forget were coming back very suddenly and very vividly.

He wanted to go back to Voyager, back to Harry, but he was never going to be able to look Harry in the eye again. Tom drew a slow breath. Not the way he felt now. He slumped down on the bench, knowing for certain that everything he had tried his best to keep Harry from finding out was right at the forefront of his mind now, there was no way he'd be able to hide it.

It had started already. The night before he went down to Elce, when Harry had innocently done exactly the wrong thing, and Tom had known that he should have seen this coming if he hadn't been so blinded by love, deaf with sudden and undeserved happiness. Refusing to acknowledge the certain future.

His body had betrayed him, and his mind had taken a sudden dive into horror, and he'd known as he lay there shaking that there was no way in hell he could ever cover that up and pretend it didn't happen.

And Harry had... Tom swallowed. Harry had held him and kissed him and comforted him, and he didn't deserve it. He wasn't good enough to even touch Harry, but he hadn't been able to stop himself then, not with Harry offering what he so desperately wanted. And when they made love they were incorruptible, perfect, shining like stars. Now the thorny memories stabbed him, bittersweet, more bitter than sweet. Maybe it had been the last time.

I can't lie to him any longer. Just withholding the truth hadn't quite qualified as lying in Tom's mind up until now. But now that the truth rose out of him and lay closer to the surface than anything else, not to speak of it would certainly be a lie. "Paris, are you still there?"

Tom looked up again, forcing his eyes to focus on the man across the room. "Yeah. Still a bit tired, I guess."

I know you hated me then, Chakotay, when I got caught. But did you hate me enough to wish for what happened? Then he shook his head, knowing the answer to that one already. Oh no, Chakotay would never do that. And something like that would never ever happen to Chakotay. He'd be respected in five minutes, by sheer force of will if nothing else, even in a place like the New Zealand penal colony. He'd never barter away his integrity, his ideals.

I didn't even have any fucking ideals, okay? He wasn't aware that his teeth were worrying at his lower lip again, drawing blood, until Chakotay touched his arm and he jerked back and hit his head on the wall. "Are you sure? You don't look too good to me."

"Then you must have damn high standards," Tom snarled, rubbing the back of his head with one hand. "Startle me some more, why don't you? I'd just love to get a concussion on top of this sunstroke or whatever it is."

From the look on Chakotay's face he could see that the man wasn't buying it for a second. Damn him. Tom leaned back against the wall more carefully, taking some comfort in its coolness. He was braced now, he wouldn't lose it again, he wouldn't say anything to make Chakotay think his mind was going. Annoyed, he swiped at the single hot drop of blood that slid from his lip down his chin.

"There is nothing for you to worry about," Chakotay said, and Tom relaxed imperceptibly on hearing that the commander had misunderstood the reasons for Tom's brooding. "If this ceremony is something every Lienzi goes through, I think we can feel reasonably certain it's not fatal."

Oh, great. Chakotay was sitting there thinking he was scared of what these people were going to do to him. Thomas Eugene Spineless Coward Paris. But it was better for Chakotay to be thinking that than to guess at the truth, and so Tom just nodded, and twisted one corner of his mouth up to pretend appreciation of the feeble joke. "Yes, sir."

"Don't overdo it, Paris." At the look on Chakotay's face, Tom did laugh, and then Chakotay reluctantly smiled as well.

And the door opened and a solemn Lienzi man stepped inside and nodded at Tom. "Come with me, please."

Tom swallowed, and started to stand up. All right, so he was a little nervous about this, to tell the truth. Not so much that whatever little arrangement they had devised for people who spewed their guts all over the sacred floor would be too terrible — he'd scrub the place out with a toothbrush if he had to. He was more worried that he'd break down and tell them what he thought of them and their customs. The liking he'd felt for the Lienzi had vanished without a trace.

Chakotay gave him a questioning look, and he nodded, trying for a reassuring smile. He couldn't have missed by too much, as Chakotay accepted it and stayed where he was. The man, who wore a long, dark and very priestly-looking robe, turned to go, and Tom followed.

He hadn't seen much of the long dim corridors on the way there, he'd been feeling too dizzy, his mind spinning. Now he was finding out that he hadn't missed much. This was nothing like the grand, imposing beauty of the main temple hall. There was dust and grit in the corners, the kind that always seemed to go along with plaster walls and heat, no matter where you were in the universe. The ceiling was low and there were no windows, only the occasional thin slit set deep in the walls, letting in a beam of sunshine that hung in the grayness like a forcefield.

It looked, Tom thought, the way people who knew nothing about prisons would say a prison looked.

His guide stopped at a door and knocked softly, then opened it and stepped inside, gesturing for Tom to follow. He went along and to his surprise found himself in a much larger room than he had expected, an office of some kind, it looked like, clean and well-aired. The walls were white here too, the furniture was all dark wood, and a few red cushions here and there stood out vividly. Not like splashes of blood, he wasn't going to make that comparison. There was no need to get morbid.

Another four people were waiting in the room, two men and two women. One of them was their guide from the council, Tregua. Tom tried a small smile on her and got a nod back. That eased him somewhat. The other woman, who was also tall and dark and could be Tregua's sister, took half a step forward and looked assessingly at him. "You're the voyager who was in the temple?" At his nod, she went on, "There will be two ceremonies for this. One for the holy place itself, to cleanse it, and you need to perform that one. Normally..."

"Normally that would be all," the gray-haired man next to her took over smoothly. "The proper way to compensate for an involuntary misdeed. But the problem is that you are not one of us, voyager, and you have no right to perform that ritual in the temple."

"And so," the woman said, "you need to become one of us, and that will be the first ceremony."

Tom nodded, confused. "I see," he said, although he didn't. "And how is that done?"

The man smiled. There was something comfortingly fatherly about him. "By observing our customs," he said. "But there is not time for all of them. Only one, voyager, the rite that makes us who we are, our covenant with the goddess."

The words echoed hollowly inside Tom's head as he realized where this was going. He wanted to grab at something to keep from screaming, to keep from falling. Maybe he was wrong, he couldn't always trust the intuitive leaps his mind made, but his instincts told him that trouble was coming for him now.

"Tonight," the woman said as though promising him a wonderful experience, "you will sleep in the temple. And tomorrow, you will wear the robe and the flower."

* * *

Captain Janeway sat still in her chair for about five seconds, then she got to her feet and almost started to pace the bridge. A silent glance from Tuvok stopped her and she decided to retire to her ready room instead, where she could pace all she liked in the more limited space at her disposal without the side effects of possibly lowering crew morale.

There were many things she needed to do, and now she had the time in which to do them. Her mind listed them automatically for her, the new and hopefully improved security routines she should go over with Tuvok, the biochemistry experiments the doctor wanted her input on, the list of public holoprograms that Tom Paris had come with not long ago that she should look over and approve — at least, she hoped she would approve it.

Then again, she couldn't imagine that Tom had come up with anything really wicked this time. It was doubtful whether anything could entirely reform him, of course, but it seemed Harry Kim was going to do a good job of keeping him civilized. Kathryn Janeway smiled softly to herself. Having a pair of lovers on the bridge had turned out to be far easier than she had anticipated, although she admitted it had not been long enough yet for her to really assess the situation. On duty, they were wonderfully correct. Off duty, well, she'd said before that that wasn't really any of her business, but her smile widened just a little.

Sitting down and stretching out a hand for the padd Tom Paris had given her, she was distracted by a memory of Tom as she had last seen him, his skin pale where it wasn't red, his eyes dark and looking inwards. She hoped that he and Chakotay were doing all right down on Elce. Of course she knew that if they weren't, they would have told her long ago.

It was unfortunate that Tom had happened to be sick right then of all possible moments, but nothing could be done to change that, and it seemed that they would manage to clear up this minor diplomatic incident reasonably well. She knew her decision to let Chakotay stay instead of B'Elanna had been the right one. B'Elanna had been a little too obviously disapproving of the Lienzi's customs.

Unconsciously, she pressed her lips a little more tightly together. Janeway wasn't too delighted with that particular practice either, but it was absolutely and completely none of her business. The Lienzi seemed happy enough. She could trust Tom to go through with whatever ceremony they found suitable for him, and she could trust Chakotay to keep an eye on Tom in case Tom wasn't recovering as well as he ought to.

And it was time for her to get some work done. Only her thoughts kept returning to those two men down on the planet, inside that temple. What she felt for Tom was an odd mixture of worry, affection and respect; her feelings for Chakotay were even more complex, layer after layer that she could not, would not, did not want to sort through.

They had to get this settled, and surely it could not be so very complicated. Negotiating with the Lienzi had been a delicate affair and she was, in a way, grateful for this brief respite, a time to rest her head, and not have to think about what she said all the time. Then she laughed at that thought. A starship captain always had to think about what she said and did. But be that as it might, the fact remained that Voyager needed tellerium and food supplies, and this was the place where they had to get them.

Thinking about their limited opportunities sobered her as few other things could have done. It was good to be out of Kazon space finally. At least, she hoped they were out of it. Any Kazons she saw coming were going to regret it. A bad hair day would be the least of their problems when she was done with them. Oh, she could feel the fine edge of her temper, that temper she had to remember to rein in every day of her working life.

But the distance they had traveled was beginning to tell in more ways than one. Voyager's reputation still preceded it, occasionally with unpleasant results. Neelix' knowledge of the planetary systems they were passing was more erratic now; this was not a part of the quadrant that he knew like the back of his hand. Perhaps, despite leaving the Kazon behind, they were getting to the difficult phase of their journey now?

It was a disturbing thought, yet in some way she felt pleased with herself for being disturbed by it. For taking it seriously. There had been moments when she had worried that she was enjoying herself too much. That the issue of Voyager's return to the alpha quadrant had ceased to be the foremost thing in her mind. Now, oh now... ah, perhaps she was just tired. No time for that, though. She ought to get back to business. Tuvok, the doctor, the holoprograms?

Janeway had just settled on going to review the programs, deciding to do it on the holodeck and see for herself what there was instead of relying on Tom Paris' descriptions, when she was interrupted. "Torres to Janeway."

"Go ahead," she said, trying to clear the huskiness out of her voice. She'd half risen already and now she completed the motion, leaning against the edge of her desk with the padd in one hand and the storage cube in the other.

"I'm sorry, captain, but there is no way we can make it to the next planetary system on impulse power without running out of food on the way."

The captain frowned. She had half expected this, but it annoyed her to hear that they had no emergency plan. "Are you sure you've investigated every possibility?"

"Yes, captain. Ensign Kim and I have run five simulations so far, but it's not working. We need either supplies, or the warp drive back online."

"I see. But can't we reroute power from less essential systems—"

"We could, but it wouldn't do any good," B'Elanna interrupted her. "Impulse power is still too slow. The power should be rerouted to the replicators if anything, but it's still not going to work."

Janeway considered telling the first engineer that she didn't like being interrupted; then she decided it would only stay in B'Elanna's mind until the next time she got worked up about something, and besides, B'Elanna was very likely right. If she and Harry had given it their full attention, and they said it couldn't be done, Janeway felt inclined to trust them; between Harry's methodical approach and B'Elanna's creative flashes, they would hardly have missed anything.

"Very well," she said. "Thank you."

"I wish I had better news." B'Elanna sounded frustrated. "Torres out." So it would have to be the Lienzi, then. Janeway could only be grateful that they were relatively easy to deal with, if slow in their customs. There would be no deaths here. She remembered the death of the old man who had believed her to be his daughter, and felt something sting her eyes, something she blinked back. No time for that now. It was long past. She had cried for him once, as she allowed herself one moment of genuine and intense grief over everything that moved her. Then it was necessary to move on.

The Lienzi had what Voyager needed, and everything indicated that they would be willing to sell it, minor setbacks notwithstanding. She could take another day's delay, although she wondered to herself just how long this ceremony they had talked about could reasonably take.

The captain straightened up again and weighed the padd in her hand. Yes, definitely the holodeck. Studying Tom's creations should be enough of an entertainment, a distraction, whatever it was she was in need of. And she had promised to do it. Tuvok's security routines would just have to wait a little longer. Her friend was a patient man; he could cope with it.

When she came out onto the bridge everything looked quiet. Ensign Bateheart was at the conn, doing nothing; Tuvok stood at his station and met her eyes calmly. She gave them all a small approving smile and got into the turbo lift, padd in hand. As the lift took her to the holodeck Janeway ran her eyes over the short list Tom Paris had presented her with. Two nature programs; one was apparently a beach. Mountaineering; track running. How healthy. A sauna, now that sounded better; was it the hedonistic side of Paris showing up at last towards the end of the list?

Very probably, the captain reflected to herself, his best programs apart from Sandrine's were reserved for private use. She'd have to ask Harry about that. Then she chided herself for the thought. Starship captains did not ask ensigns questions just to find out whether they would blush or not. That definitely counted as abuse of power. Janeway chuckled as she stepped out of the turbo lift, then stopped abruptly as she found herself almost bumping into an unsuspecting crewman who didn't seem to know what to do when faced with a laughing captain.

He settled for saying "Sorry" and moving out of her way, and when she got a better look at his face she saw that it was Darin, which sobered her rapidly. There had been no more trouble out of him since the time he had not been caught attacking Tom Paris outside Sandrine's, but Janeway was waiting for it, and so was Tuvok. She wondered if Darin was aware of that. He certainly looked as though he was trying to vanish through the floor right now, but that could be due to ordinary embarrassment.

On an impulse, instead of walking away at once she paused and asked, "Is everything as it should be, crewman?"

That made him look at her face. Slowly and reluctantly, but still. There was a trace of sulkiness around his mouth. "Yes, captain. Everything is fine." She wondered if he knew what a favor Tom Paris had done him in allowing her to write off the incident as an ordinary fight. She wondered if he even knew that everyone involved, including Paris, had suffered the same punishment.

Darin had not been one of those who had been caught, nor had he come forward afterwards. She knew he'd been involved, but she had no proof, and since Tom had effectively closed the issue, no reason to look into it. All the same, she was watching him. As she dismissed him and he stepped into the turbo lift, she could have sworn she saw a smirk on his face.

That was enough to move him a little higher up on her mental 'things to remember' list, but at the top was still the holoprograms, and she set out to test them, determined not to get distracted. The mountaineering and track running programs were just what they were supposed to be, good exercise programs, and she approved them instantly, though she suspected that many of the crew had their own favorite programs for exercise.

The sauna was a sauna, nothing more, and she turned it off quickly as the heat made her hair wilt out of its carefully maintained twist and hang limply around her face and neck. One of the nature programs was a wood, which was very pretty but left her unmoved. Only one left to try out.

"Computer, run program Paris 415." The room around her vanished and was replaced with a high blue sky; wind ruffled her hair, and she could smell salt. It wasn't the nature program she had expected; the 'beach' phrase had misled her. Although it was a beach. The beach at San Francisco, and in front of her the Pacific Ocean rolled, and rolled, and rolled.

It was perfect. Everything, from the birds running along the waterline to the children in the distance flying a kite. Giving in to temptation, Janeway started to walk along the beach, heading south. She wasn't surprised to find that the children and other wanderers moved as she moved, making it impossible for her to meet them. Tom had kept his promise not to include any characters. Mostly kept it. A dog came bounding up to her, barked joyously and sniffed at her hand, then ran off again to play in the incoming waves.

She blinked, feeling something wet on her cheek. Those waves were rolling farther up the beach than she had thought they would. There had been a driftwood fire here last night, and now only a pile of ashes remained. Perhaps this program would not be suitable for the general public. So much loving detail, so much realism, so very nearly the real place.

Then again, not everyone turned misty-eyed at the thought of San Francisco. Janeway hesitated, then reminded herself that she did not have to decide this very second. Perhaps she could walk a little more first, just to get a better feel for the program. Just down to where the dunes sloped up, pale green and brown, and the beach grew secluded and empty. Just down to see whether there were any hanggliders hovering in the wind.

There are if Tom Paris remembered to program any, she told herself sharply. And she'd seen the program now, her business here was concluded, and how about the new security routines?

Far out to sea, so distant that she could barely make it out, a boat. Two brown pelicans flew over her head. Was that haze over the sea a rising fog, would it come rolling in later, and wrap the city in a cool wet embrace?

"Paris to Janeway."

She was so startled for a moment that she nearly jumped, but then her usual self-possession returned. "Go ahead."

"Captain, get me out of here."

The tension she heard in his voice would have distracted her from ten times the homesickness she felt at that moment. "Are you in trouble? Should we beam out both you and Commander Chakotay at once?" But if that was so he should have called to the bridge, not her personally, she thought.

"No." There was a pause and she couldn't tell if that was an attempt at a laugh or just the comm link crackling. "Just me. Now. Please." His voice sounded as though he was fearing it would get away from him any second. "I need to talk — I have to—"

Making an instant decision, she said, "All right. Hang on, Mr. Paris." She cut the channel, then touched the comm badge again. "Janeway to transporter room two. Please beam Mr. Paris directly to the holodeck."

Unorthodox, to be sure, and she wondered at herself. But she'd been unable to hold out against the desperation in his voice. He wouldn't have wanted to leave Chakotay behind if there had been trouble, but to judge by his manner there was trouble.

She didn't have time for more than that before he appeared not far from her. Tom Paris looked around, startled, then jumped and swore as a wave broke over his bare feet. Thoroughly off balance, he lost control and ended up sitting on the damp sand, staring miserably up at her.

* * *

This place of all places. He'd always loved it, of course, otherwise he would never have spent so much time programming it. But he hadn't run this program in a long time, and he had decided to make it public rather than let it lie around unused. And finding himself here so suddenly at this time of all times almost undid him, this place that had meant so much to him. A fresh start, that hackneyed phrase; this city, and this beach where he had walked so often, breathed lost innocence to him now. Memories of a time when he'd been a different person. When, Tom wondered suddenly, painfully, when had it all started, the gradual erosion, the cheapening of his soul?

He was older now, and the experience he had gained since that time had cracked the enamel of his self and let dirt settle into the cracks. He was flawed, and he knew it, and this perfect place showed him the changes. The way he'd taken such care with this program — as though he thought he could ever go back. But it was beautiful, so close to the real thing. The sea water, for instance, was very realistic when it pulled at his legs. It gave him the shock he needed to jerk himself out of the panic that threatened.

When the Lienzi had told him what he was supposed to do he had just stared at them like an idiot, unable to take it in. His mind had simply refused at first to accept what they had been saying. They had taken that for ordinary ignorance and confusion on his part, and proceeded to explain in simple words what was involved. He would sleep in a small room in the temple that night, alone. He would go out the next morning and pick a flower, then change into the robe they gave him, he would stand in the temple with the others until someone chose him, offer pleasure to the goddess, go through a ritual bath of some kind and after that—

But Tom had lost track by then. His mind had been careening this way and that, madly, trying to get around this, to find a way out for him, to pretend it wasn't happening. This couldn't be what they wanted from him.

The woman he thought was a priestess had led him away again once he'd nodded enough times, and he had thought at first that she was taking him back to the room where Chakotay waited. That thought had been terrifying in itself. It had been hard enough to face Chakotay before, but after he'd had this little bombshell dropped on him there was just no way in hell that he could pretend everything was all right.

So Tom had been mostly relieved when the woman took him in the opposite direction, to another, similar room where there was one bench, and a bed, and a small window high up on the wall that let in another thin beam of sunlight. She asked him if he understood what would happen tomorrow, and he had nodded slowly, and she had left.

Then and only then, when he was alone and no one could see him, had he started to shake. He was still shaking. Now he looked up at Janeway and felt a fool, and more desperate even than before, as holographic waves rolled over him and left him spluttering. This was foolish, this was a mistake, but the fear in him wouldn't rest and it was driving him to speak. "Captain—"

"Please get up, Mr. Paris." She came forward as a wave receded, stretched out a hand and pulled him to his feet. Tom allowed himself to be led along the beach until they came to the big driftwood log half covered in sand. Janeway sat down on it and nodded at him; he settled down in the sand and used the log as a backrest. "Is there a problem with the Lienzi?"

"Yeah," Tom said hoarsely. "Sort of. I... Captain. Did anyone tell you any details about that cleansing ceremony before you left?" The instant he'd asked he was ashamed of himself. Of course they hadn't.

"No, only to say that no harm would come to you." She sat up straight as a possible interpretation of his words hit her. "Mr. Paris, if there has been any suggestion of that kind, we must get Commander Chakotay out of there as well—"

Tom shook his head. "They weren't planning to beat me, or burn me alive or anything," the smile he attempted didn't want to come out right. "But they explained that I — that I was supposed to—"

Damn, he was losing it again. He could hear those voices echoing in his mind again, speaking words that he had hoped to forget forever, telling him that... that I had to do as I was told if I ever wanted to get out of there. Be a good boy now, Tommy, we know just how good you can be. Tom tried to cover up the sudden pause with a cough. Could she read the truth in his face?

"Go on, Mr. Paris." The captain's voice steadied him finally, and he drew a deep breath. This was going to sound so stupid.

"That I had to participate in — you know. That pleasing-the-goddess ritual?" Tom couldn't look at her. He could feel himself blushing, his cheeks and the tips of his ears felt hot. "Captain, I'm sorry, but — but—"

Her hand was warm on his shoulder. "Mr. Paris, there is no need for you to apologize. Believe me, I had no idea that this was what the Lienzi intended, or I would never have consented to let you stay." There was a brief pause. "They didn't threaten you or anything, did they?"

"Oh, no. They were very pleasant about it," Tom said tiredly. "Seemed to think it was the most natural thing in the world, and I guess it may be to them, but I, I—" He broke off and leaned his head against his knees, trying to get his breathing back to normal, get his heart to slow down. The sand shifted under him as he moved. Images suddenly crowded his mind and he felt bile rise in his throat again, and swallowed hard, trying to drive the nausea away.

"Are you all right?" the captain asked and he tried to lift his head to look at her reassuringly but he couldn't seem to do it. "Mr. Paris?" And then after a short pause, "Tom?"

When he looked up he was looking straight out over the sea, which went on and on until it merged far away with a horizon that could only be guessed at. The way the sunlight reflected off the waves was particularly good; he'd been proud of that. Very, very close to how it would really look on a day like this. And he could remember the person he had been when he'd walked on this beach. He could remember, but there was a glass wall inside that cut him off from the happiness he'd felt. A time of freedom, away from home, before everything started to go wrong.

There was no way he could answer her honestly, so he didn't. "Captain. We really need that tellerium, don't we." Turning his head, he saw her nod slowly and reluctantly. "And is there any other place we can get it from?"

"Unfortunately not," she said crisply. "B'Elanna has been working on a way to get us away from here to the next planetary system, but we need either food supplies or warp speed if we're going to make it that far. We will just have to think of a different way of dealing with the Lienzi."

Tom grimaced. He was screwing up. Again. And it was stupid, really. He was the last person who should be fazed by this. His heart was still beating too fast, he could feel it hammering away, telling the true story of his fear, but not loud enough for the captain to hear. Giving in to his weakness, he asked, "Do you think we can?"

"We should be able to think of something. You are the one who's had the most recent contact with them. Did you notice anything that might be useful to us?"

He shook his head. He hadn't noticed a thing, he had been too busy trying to control himself, trying to stem the rising tide of his panic. There wasn't any handy alternative popping into his mind, just the conviction, already lodged there, that there was only one way for him to fix this.

It all seemed very simple and logical. They were stuck here and they wouldn't be able to leave unless they got tellerium, unless they got supplies. And Tom had just offended against local culture and was in the process of running away instead of making up for it, so very likely the Lienzi weren't going to be in their most friendly mood when the captain tried to talk to them again.

He'd been a fool. He couldn't allow his personal fears to interfere. Staring long and hard at the sea, he came to a decision. "Captain, I panicked. I'm sorry. Send me back."

There was almost a tangible quality to her silence, and it went on for seconds he could have counted, but didn't, until she gripped his shoulder and turned him around to face her. "You can't be serious. Lieutenant. Tom. Do you really believe that I would allow you to, to prostitute yourself for tellerium?!"

Her words were almost too much. Tom clenched his hand hard, drove his nails into his palm in that old familiar gesture. Control. Get a grip. What's it worth to you, Tommy? The anger in the captain's face would have comforted him, except that if she knew the truth she would never, ever have been morally outraged on his behalf. It was too late for that. He lifted his head to look her full in the face and tell her the truth that he had never wanted her or anyone else to hear. "I've done worse things for lesser gains, captain. I can handle it."

"Oh?" She was still angry. "Was that why you became upset enough to call me and ask to be beamed out of there? And even if you can handle it, as you say, I am ultimately responsible for you and this kind of — trade — isn't something I can condone."

"Captain." Tom felt his own temper starting to catch on, too. "You just told me that Voyager is completely dependent on these people's good will. Well, let me tell you, their good will is entirely dependent on whether we manage to make up for that slip I made in the temple. I've already said I'm sorry for asking to be beamed back here! Just let me go or we'll be stuck here for the rest of our lives!" Another thought struck him. "And if we are, I bet we'd all have to join the Lienzi and then everyone would have to go through with it anyway."

She swept that little comment aside with a toss of her head. "Lieutenant, you can't just tell me a thing like this and then expect me to—"

"You're right, I never should have told you! I'm sorry! I didn't come back here to talk to you, captain. I came back to talk to Harry." Her eyes widened and she nodded, the edge of her anger blunted. "But just listen to me, captain. We need the help of the Lienzi." Suddenly he saw an opening and went for it. "You'd do it, wouldn't you, if it was asked of you?"

She was silent for a long time at that, and then looked at him. "Probably," she admitted.

"So let me do it," Tom said. "I'm used to it." There, it was out in the open and with any luck she'd never have noticed—

"What do you mean?" the captain asked, her voice low now, down in that husky register that meant she was trying to control her emotions, and failing. Slowly, Tom turned away from her and leaned back against the log again. He wasn't sure whether he'd won his case or not. There were a lot of things he wasn't sure about.

"Do you remember a talk we had once in Sandrine's," Tom broke off with a short laugh, "well, here?" He looked at the sea again. Holodeck. Takes you anywhere you want to go, as long as you don't mind ending up in exactly the same place again. "I was telling you, no, I wasn't telling you about being a model prisoner. About how I got bearable work duties, favorable reports. I told you I worked hard for them, but that was a hell of a lie."

It felt so real, though. The hard wood against his back, the sand underneath. Sunshine on his already-burned face. It felt completely real, but he knew that it would vanish at the sound of his voice and leave four bare walls, a closed room. And there were moments when he felt that his whole life on Voyager was just one long holodeck adventure. Sooner or later it would end, and he'd be right back where he'd started. Trapped where he couldn't get out.

"I remember," Janeway said. All the anger had drained out of her voice now, Tom was relieved to hear. "I wondered what you meant."

"I took the easy way out, captain." He closed his eyes. "If you give people what they want, they might give you what you want. I cut the only kind of deals I could."

There it was again, her hand on his shoulder. It always used to make him feel that he belonged. But not right now, he was too far back in the past now, back in the place where she'd found him. The place where he hadn't even belonged to himself. "Tom." It seemed to be hard for her to talk now. "I'm sorry. It must have been a rough time for you."

"Don't waste any pity on me, captain. I knew what I was getting into, I knew what I was doing, we were all consenting adults," his voice cracked on that flippant phrase, "and I never said no."

"Never?" Her voice was barely audible.

"Well, not after — not after a while. You might say I consented for health reasons." Deciding that it was better to give in than to be beaten again. That had been the moment when something died inside him, something he'd never had a name for, but knew the loss of. The moment he turned himself into a commodity and tried to tell himself that he was taking charge of his life the only way he could think of, no, he was never going to forget that. Or the time that came after it.

"Tom." Tom realized what the sounds he was hearing meant and looked up, even more distressed. She was crying. No, she was blinking the tears away, and he sent up a small prayer of gratitude to whatever deity might be interested in it. He couldn't have borne it if the captain had cried over him. "I never had any idea— Don't talk that way about it, about yourself. You must see that—"

"Don't try to be nice to me." He drew a deep breath, knowing it had to be a front. There was no way she could respect him now. Or ever again. "I had one thing to sell, I sold it. Don't tell me I wasn't a whore. I know." Tom paused and slammed his fist down on the log, breathing hard. "Hell. This is just hell."

"No, Tom." She cleared her throat and straightened up and looked at him. "Lieutenant. Hell is what you went through in that penal colony. And if you think that I would allow you to do anything like that ever again, you are very much mistaken, Mr. Paris."

"So we're going to be stuck on Elce for the rest of our lives?" Tom was getting frantic. He was terrified of going back down. Somewhere along the line, he had lost the detachment he'd cultivated in prison, the state of mind that had made it possible for him to ignore what was happening to him a lot of the time. But he had to do it. His stomach turned over at the thought. "Captain—"

"Lieutenant. What do you think Harry Kim is going to say?"

Oh, she wasn't pulling her punches. Then again if she had been, she wouldn't be Kathryn Janeway. Tom swallowed hard. "Harry doesn't know," he whispered almost to himself. "I wanted to... I wanted for all of that never to touch him." The short laugh burned his throat. "I never should have touched him." He was distantly aware that he shouldn't be speaking like this to the captain, in front of the captain. "But it's too late now. Do you believe everything comes back to us sooner or later, everything we do, every mistake we make? And that just sometimes, we can get a chance to try to do something for the right reasons. It was so useless then, I had no value even to myself. I had no self, I bartered it away for nothing. This time I'd like it to be for something."

Tom could hear the anger in her voice still although she had it under control now. It was all the fiercer for that. "Do you think I could live with myself, having to put it in the logs that I allowed one of my officers to trade his body for goods?"

He turned to face her. "Do you think I could live with myself if we ended up stuck on this godforsaken planet and I could have gotten us away from here by going through with this ritual?"

They sat looking at each other for a long moment, with only the sound of the ocean trying to provide a murmuring counterpoint to their tense silence. Tom kept his eyes on the captain's, let his anger drain away and allowed her to see him as he was, frightened and determined. He didn't look away. And eventually, just when he thought it couldn't possibly happen, she dropped her gaze, and sighed.

"Tom," she said softly. "What would that do to you? I don't just mean the ceremony itself. I mean my letting you do it. I'd be agreeing with you. I would, in essence, say that yes, you were a whore and I am taking advantage of that. Leave aside for the moment the fact that it goes against my personal principles, as well as Starfleet principles. Do you really want me to confirm that for you?"

He shook his head slowly. "No. No, that's not it, captain. What I want you to do is to let me do something for this ship and everyone on it, to let me take something that is horrible and make something useful out of it."

The captain was still watching him with no sign of weakening when a new voice intruded on them. "Chakotay to Paris."

"Go ahead," Tom said, thinking he knew what was coming. Somebody had to have been checking up on him, after all, and his absence would not have gone unnoticed for all that long. It had been stupid of him to run, but somehow he felt a little better now, right after having dragged all his darkest secrets out into the open. After the raw emotion of this talk, there wasn't much that could touch him.

"Paris, where are you?" Chakotay sounded half annoyed, half worried. "The Lienzi are getting a little tense here. They think you've bolted."

"I'll be back," Tom said, keeping his eyes on Janeway to see what she had to say to that statement. She leaned forward and pinned him in place with her eyes.

"Not necessarily."

"Captain? Is something wrong?" Chakotay did not seem too disconcerted. "If something really is wrong, I'll take Paris' part. I've already offered to do that, in case we couldn't find him, but the Lienzi are a bit reluctant to let me do it. It's important to them that people take personal responsibility for their actions, although I've tried to explain that as one of Paris' commanding officers I can be said to be responsible for him."

Tom watched as the captain's eyebrows wandered across half her forehead. He felt much the same way himself. It was far from what he had expected to hear. The captain sounded half disconcerted, half irritated as she said, "Commander, have you been given information about what this ceremony entails?"

"Yes, of course I have. And as I tried to say before in the temple, captain, it's fascinating to see a culture based on the concept that the giving and sharing of pleasure is the highest good. No wonder they're so peaceful." There was a short pause and Tom looked at the captain. "It occurred to me that I might be a better choice than Lieutenant Paris, since I am not in a permanent relationship that might be upset by this ritual. But the Lienzi seem to think it would be best if Paris returned, and I agree."

"I will," Tom said honestly. He put one hand daringly on Janeway's. "Isn't that right, captain? I'll just go talk to Harry about it first."

She looked at him, and then at his comm badge as though she might somehow manage to glare at Chakotay through it. "Commander, has the thought never occurred to you that there is something demeaning about the ritual in question?"

"Demeaning?" Chakotay sounded at once insulted and as though he had never heard the word before. Quite an accomplishment. "No, captain, that had not occurred to me. If it had, I would never have offered to participate. Lieutenant Paris is being offered a chance of joining this culture, becoming one with this people, through their most important and sacred ceremony. I don't see that there is anything demeaning about that. Were I Lieutenant Paris, I would see it as an honor rather than a punishment."

"I'm sure you're right, commander," Tom said slowly. "Tell the Lienzi that I'll be there soon. I just have to talk to Harry."

"Yes, of course. Chakotay out." Tom looked at the captain and saw a flash of anger in her face at the fact that the commander had not waited for a word from her, but it was followed by her most thoughtful expression.

He straightened up, stood up and stretched, and looked out across the ocean again. The ocean that wasn't here, but drew the same reactions from him as the real one always had. "I'm going down there, captain," he said. Then he took a deep breath. "Not because I'm trading myself for tellerium. Not because I'm the only one who could do it. But because I'm the right person to do it and because it's an honor. Chakotay's right, he's not blinded by what's gone before, he doesn't have my preconceptions. I can't judge these people by my past."

Janeway got to her feet too, and brushed the sand off her uniform absentmindedly. She came to his side and put a hand on his arm. "You're shaking, lieutenant."

"I never said it would be easy." Tom smiled wryly at her. He had recaptured a little of his precarious balance now, he thought he could hide the worst of his fear long enough to get her to agree, now, while she was still off-balance from what Chakotay had said. "Will you let me go?"

"I thought you and the commander had already decided everything without me. Yes, lieutenant, I will let you go." She looked up at him with her 'command face' and added, "But if it gets to be too much for you, we'll get you out of there again, you know that, Mr. Paris."

"Yes, I know." Then he took a deep breath, trying to summon up his courage. "Now, if you'll excuse me, captain, there is something I need to do."

Her hand squeezed his arm lightly before she released him. "Of course. Computer, end program." The dunes, the beach, the sea were gone and Tom couldn't help a slight shiver as the walls rose up around them again. "Before you go, lieutenant..."


"The holoprograms are excellent. I'm approving them for general use." The captain nodded briskly at him. "Dismissed."

Tom walked outside and wondered what, just what he was letting himself in for now. He'd talked the captain into allowing him to do something she considered to be immoral, and that he was terrified of. No, actually he hadn't been the one who had persuaded her. Chakotay had done that. In just a few words he'd changed the perspective for both of them, offered a completely new way of looking at this. But Tom was far from certain that he could work himself around to a frame of mind that would allow Chakotay to be right. And now he had to find Harry and tell him... tell him what?

Telling Harry about the ritual would be hard enough, Tom knew. Telling Harry about his past, now, that was what Tom didn't even want to think about. How could he ever explain to Harry exactly what he'd been and what he'd done? Tom scowled at the wall. He didn't want to speak of it ever again. Harry would be disgusted.

At the same time there was something in him that did want Harry to know. Something that wanted to be known as deeply and fully as possible, that wanted no secrets kept between the two of them. Yes, he wanted Harry to know everything about him and love him anyway, and that was just impossible. Tom sighed deeply. He wasn't sure he could do this. Chakotay was right; he was a coward.

When he started to move again he found that he was going to his own quarters. Letting himself in, looking around. Going to his desk and opening the locked drawer. Tom nodded slowly to himself as he picked out a data storage cube and clenched his hand around it. It was a coward's way out perhaps, but this way he wouldn't have to see Harry's face.

Straightening up, he stood for a moment staring at nothing and tried to clear his head. He had made a decision and he was going to stick with it. There was no longer any doubt that he was going to go through with the ritual. It was the right thing to do. And it seemed like a particularly cutting joke that he had to perform this ritual to atone for it having made him sick in the first place. He'd offended against these people's culture by seeing his past in it, so now they were going to make him relive it as well.

What are you willing to do to get out of here, Tommy?

But it wasn't just himself now. It was the whole ship. And he, it was strange, but he really did feel he had a responsibility to them, to do the best he could for them even if they never found out that he had done it. Oh, in this particular case he had much rather that they never, ever found out.

Tom cleared his throat. "Computer, locate Ensign Kim."

"Ensign Kim is in his quarters." That was something to be grateful for. The less he saw of everyone else on the ship right now, the better, he felt. Tom walked there slowly, all the time feeling the weight of that little data cube in his hand. Was it right, to give it to Harry? He felt certain by now that Harry had to know. But maybe it was cheating to do it like this. Only he had no time to tell Harry the whole truth himself. No time, and no courage for it, either.

Instead of just walking inside he rang the door chime and waited for Harry's answering "Come in." When the door opened for him Tom saw Harry turn around with a padd in his hand, an expression of mingled surprise and delight on his face. "Tom!" Harry dropped the padd and all but rushed over to him, catching him in a tight hug. "Are you all right?"

Tom let himself be held, feeling the strength and the warmth that was so natural to Harry, so much a part of him. He brushed a kiss across Harry's temple. "I can't stay," he said softly. "They need me to sleep down in the temple tonight. I just had to tell you about it first."

"Tell me about what?" Harry leaned back enough that they could look at each other easily. A small twisting flash of painful love ran through Tom and he found it hard to meet Harry's eyes. "Oh, B'Elanna wasn't kidding about the sunburn. Do you want some aloe gel on that?"

One corner of Tom's mouth turned up. "I'll stop by sickbay and get it fixed. Don't worry about it. Harry, listen, this is important. You know we need the Lienzi's goodwill to buy tellerium and get the warp drive back online."

Harry nodded. "B'Elanna and I spent hours trying to work out a way to get out of here without warp speed or food supplies, but it's not working. We lost too much energy back in that plasma storm."

"That's what I thought." With difficulty, Tom let his arms drop, let go of Harry. "And for the Lienzi to be willing to help us, I need to go through with this ceremony. I just wanted you to understand that, why I have to do it." Harry just looked at him. "I don't know if B'Elanna told you, but they have a ritual that they call putting on the robe and flower, that..." Tom left the sentence unfinished when he saw the instant comprehension in Harry's eyes.

"Oh, god." He couldn't quite interpret that expression on Harry's face, though; upset, appalled, horrified, what? "Yeah, she told me about that. Really, Tom! You can't—"

"Yes, I can. Hell, Harry, I can do whatever I have to do to get us out of here!" Tom stared miserably at the floor. "The captain's agreed and everything. I had to tell you, okay? Just — just don't hate me too much." He held out the data cube, pushed it into Harry's hand. "Here. The authorization code is Virgil 7."

"What?" Harry looked bewildered. "Tom, wait a minute. We have to talk about this."

Tom shook his head. "No. No, I can't. I'll lose my courage. Harry, I'm sorry, I promise you I'm sorry." He hesitated for a second and then stepped closer and cupped one hand around Harry's jaw and tilted his head up, and kissed him gently. "I really do love you."

And then he all but ran out the door, feeling weak and contemptible. He decided to make his words about the sunburn true, and detoured past sickbay, grateful to find it empty: Kes wasn't there, the doctor wasn't activated. A dermal regenerator did a better job of fixing his face than the aloe gel would have done, although the gel would have felt better. Tom paused for a few moments, taking stock of how he felt. Then he snagged a few pills from the dispenser in case he was going to be sick again, and took off for the transporter room.

* * *

Harry closed his hand reflexively around whatever it was that Tom had given him, and stood staring as his lover vanished out the door. He thought about going after Tom and asking what the hell was going on; Tom had looked as though he did not want any more questions asked, which was a really good reason for doing it.

But then Tom was going to go down to the surface of Elce again, he was on a mission, and never mind that it sounded like just about the stupidest thing Harry had heard in a long time. They had agreed not to let their private life interfere with whatever was best for the ship. That had been one of the easiest conversations they'd ever had, nothing like this one, not that it had been a conversation really.

Tom was going down to the temple that B'Elanna had told him about. Tom was going to— Harry swallowed. He didn't like this at all. He didn't want anyone else to touch Tom. Especially not now. At other times he might have felt simple jealousy, but now it was something more complex than that. Harry ached for the vulnerability he'd seen in Tom, the pain that he couldn't bear to imagine exposed to anyone else, someone who wouldn't care for Tom, love him, be tender with him. To take Tom the way he was now and tell him that he had to have sex with the first person who came along seemed like exquisitely thought-out torture.

What had the captain been thinking, to let him go? Harry wondered if he could ask her about it, but then he couldn't very well tell her the real reason he didn't want Tom to go through with this. She would probably just attribute it to his relationship with Tom. Uncertain of what to do, he took one step towards the door, then another one backwards again. He looked down at the thing he held in his hand, seeing it for the first time. A data cube, now why had Tom wanted him to have that?

Maybe he'd better take a look at it before he did anything at all, Harry thought. There had to be something in here that Tom thought would explain things. He couldn't imagine what it would be; he didn't think Tom had had the time to record a message. At least Harry hoped not. Because if he'd had the time to record a message, he could damn well have come straight to Harry and said what he had to say, instead.

Harry sighed as he slotted the cube in and sat down to get a look at the contents. It was a good thing Tom had given him the access codes, this little thing had autodestruct sequences all over it. Hell, these were better protection routines than engineering had. Maybe he should ask Tom to take a look at that, help step up security a bit. No, never mind that right now. Whatever was on here was something Tom desperately did not want anyone else to see, that much was certain.

When he finally got to the data, it turned out to be a real jumble of files as though someone had stripped down a lot of material in a hurry. There was a visual sequence right there, and another one, but they were old, Harry saw when he checked the dates. Everything on here was old. It had all been downloaded not too long before Voyager had left the alpha quadrant.

And not legitimately downloaded, either. Some of the files were fragmented where the security overrides had kicked in. This had all been stolen from somewhere. Harry bit his lip and realized that he was sitting here analyzing the way the files looked to put off actually finding out what was in them. He decided to try one of the visuals first.

It was pretty bad, a grainy picture that appeared to be from a security camera set high up in the corner of a room. There was no sound. Someone was standing in front of a desk at the other end of the room, putting things on it. Another someone came up behind the desk, placed the things in a box, then suddenly swept out with one arm and the figure in front of the desk staggered slightly, then turned around to go. Harry didn't know if it was the poor quality of the clip that had kept him from recognition, or if it was denial. He looked at Tom's face, at the split lip and the blood running down his chin, and then Tom disappeared from view and the clip ended.

Next one. It was more damaged than the first one and flickered in and out for a while, Harry couldn't quite make anything out; then it settled down into showing him another room. Bare and white, it looked like an examination room. Tom was standing in the middle of the room, naked, his head bent as though he was exhausted. There were bruises down his ribs, a ring of marks around his throat, ugly red scratches and gouges on the one of his arms that Harry could see clearly. Bruises and cuts on his legs, too.

Someone else entered the picture, a man carrying what looked like a medscanner. Tom looked up and Harry couldn't hold back a cry. One of his eyes was swollen shut, there was a huge bruise across his cheekbone, and blood was still trickling from his lower lip. And the look on his face... Harry couldn't find any words for it. He looked as though he would like to kill the whole world. He looked as though he would start crying if someone touched him.

The man with the medical scanner said something and Tom turned towards him. Oh god. The clip flickered again and ended, but not before Harry had seen the rest of the bruises, the marks, the way he moved. He found he was gripping the edge of the desk so hard his knuckles were white. Harry closed his eyes for a moment. This kind of thing wasn't supposed to happen in Federation prisons. It wasn't supposed to happen anywhere.

How could Tom think that this explained his decision to go back down to the temple? Harry didn't understand; he was more than ever convinced that Tom ought to be back here on Voyager. It was bad enough that Harry had stupidly made Tom remember this.

Were there any more visuals? He wasn't sure he could take looking at another one. Yes, one last one there, but Harry decided to look at the rest of the files first. He called up one and found that it, too, started with scrambled codes and fragmented data. Wait, this looked familiar. It had been downloaded from a scanner, but he couldn't figure out the sequences. Medscanner, probably. Harry frowned. He was never going to make out what this meant. Unless he asked someone to help him.

The doctor, or Kes. No way was he going to ask the doctor about it. Kes, hell, he couldn't really ask Kes, could he? Not when he didn't know himself what this would show. Harry hesitated, then kept scrolling down among the files. Here were a few clearer ones. The first was a record of Tom's admittance to the penal colony, including a list of his possessions and the results of a full physical exam. Everything looked fine. Then there was the record of his release to captain Janeway. Another physical exam. Nothing wrong... Harry frowned and scrolled back. Nothing wrong.

The last file he found was a sizable text log, which had been created not long after Voyager had arrived in the Delta quadrant and had been updated periodically ever since. Latest entry, a little over two months ago. Harry looked at it for a long moment before calling it up.

This isn't a diary, it's what I remember. I'll kill myself before I go back there again. Harry drew his breath in painfully. "Computer, close file." Then he sat staring at the screen for a moment. Tom was expecting him to read this. Jesus. If Tom had managed to write it, then Harry could read it. But not, not quite yet. He looked for the third visual clip and played that instead.

Someone must have hit the security camera to try to disable it because it was tilted and only showed part of the floor. A pair of feet walked across it and vanished at the lower right-hand corner, then nothing happened for a while. Harry was about to request the computer to fast-forward the sequence, when an arm suddenly appeared; whoever the arm belonged to must be lying on the floor. Not that Harry didn't know who that person was. He'd know that hand, that particular arm anywhere. Only he had never seen it with a row of half-healed cuts down the inside.

The arm moved, as Tom tried to brace his palm against the floor and get up; then something happened out of the picture and he was tossed forward, head and both arms in view now. He was trying to twist around and Harry got a quick glimpse of his face, just at the moment Tom opened his mouth and although there was no sound, Harry could hear him screaming. Then the sequence ended.

Harry leaned back in the chair, shaking. Oh god, this was worse than he had imagined, but then he had tried so hard not to imagine anything. He looked at the list of medscanner data again. Lots and lots of little files. Should he ask someone about them or shouldn't he? Tom must have known Harry couldn't read that data. It was either try to get at that, or read the things he could read, the text file. Harry swallowed hard.

He called up the text file again. It started the first night I got there. Shit, I was such an idiot. I knew they were going to beat me up, I was expecting it, I knew everyone would hate me. I just wanted them to do it and be done with it. I didn't realize it was just the beginning. I didn't realize what I should be defending myself against until they'd already started. Harry scrolled down slowly. ...figured if I was lucky I'd end up unconscious and then at least I wouldn't have to know what was happening. But he hadn't. Harry read on. He made it halfway through a detailed description of that first rape before he shoved himself away from the desk violently, ran to the bathroom, and threw up.

Oh, Tom.

Harry leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. He couldn't go on reading. He didn't really have to read any more, did he? But he already knew the answer to that. He had to at least try, if he really wanted to understand. All the things Tom could never say were in here. Harry rinsed his mouth with water and walked very slowly back to the desk.

So I said could they just stop hitting me. And G said I put up quite a fight for an admiral's brat and I said no more, I won't fight any more. I was so tired, I was so damn tired. And it still hurt but I wasn't black and blue all over afterwards. Just inside. When G and P told me I was being a good boy. Just a sweet piece of ass. That bothered me then. Before I got used to it. Harry scrolled down slowly. When A'c offered me a transfer to the day shift if I'd just suck him off regularly I realized that I had finally figured out how this place worked. And I did it, God damn me to hell, I did it. I just couldn't take it any more. Not when they told me they could keep me inside forever if I misbehaved. If I didn't do what they wanted.

He wasn't aware that he was crying until his nose started running, too. It was all in here, everything. All the details of what Tom had done in that penal colony. Of what had been done to him. Harry swiped at his face with a tissue and went on reading. So I was a good boy. I made the rounds. They stopped fucking me raw then, I'd been upgraded from a disposable item to a pretty useful commodity altogether. The first time one of them used lubricant I was so grateful I could have cried. But I didn't, I reminded him that the appraisals were due in the next day. Sold my ass for satisfactory behavior. Yeah, I know what that is. I tried to satisfy everyone. If there is a God I bet he was laughing himself sick over that one.

It went on and on, an obsessive listing of every moment, every small trade and bargain, every time he'd been used, abused, hurt, ridiculed, damaged on some fundamental level. Harry had to remind himself to breathe now and then. There was such deep and abiding loathing here, resentment, disgust. Oh, at everyone in that penal colony, of course. But most of all, Harry realized, Tom loathed himself for this.

I never thought I'd be a person again. I thought I'd forgotten what it was like. Hell, I got on this ship and just about started sleeping around out of sheer reflex, offering a piece of myself to anyone who might want it. Then I tried to get a grip. Anyway, I might give up on sex. It just doesn't feel right any more, I wonder if it's ever going to feel right again. I keep wondering when I'm in bed with somebody if it's good enough, if I'm good enough for them, if they can tell. If it shows. Harry couldn't take any more. He shut the file down and buried his head in his arms and cried so hard it hurt, cried until his eyes burned and his head ached.

He was starting to understand a lot of things now. And most of all he understood that he had to find Tom. Tom, who was down on Elce selling his body again. Harry swallowed and found another tissue to blow his nose on. He had to find Tom, and love him, and love him and love him and hope that it would be enough. Enough to make up for all the time Tom had spent hating himself.

By now Harry could guess what he would find if he got someone to decode the medscanner data for him — could guess close enough that he definitely wasn't going to ask anyone to do it. A small voice whispered to him that it was part of what Tom was expecting him to see, but he knew he'd be sick again if he tried. And he knew he wasn't going to give anyone else a chance to figure this out. Not even Kes.

But the real question was what he was going to do now.

* * *

Kathryn Janeway walked in through the door to sickbay and found Kes at the computer console, absorbed in some obscure medical text. The doctor was nowhere to be seen. Kes looked up and smiled. "Captain. What can I do for you?"

Instead of activating the doctor, the captain found herself sitting down on the edge of the nearest biobed. "Kes," she asked, "have you thought about replicating yourself some new clothes?"

Kes looked amused. "No, I haven't. Is that an order, captain?" She smoothed down her short tunic and seemed to notice it for the first time. "I do have a lot of replicator rations saved. Perhaps I should get something different to wear. But is that really why you came to sickbay?"

"No, it isn't. The doctor said he wanted my input on a series of biochemistry experiments. It just occurred to me when I saw you that..."

"That you'd seen this before," Kes tugged at the hem of the tunic again. "I'm sorry, but those experiments didn't go at all the way they were supposed to. That's why the doctor turned himself off. He was a bit annoyed about it. You could turn him on again, of course, but."

"But he wouldn't be too pleased," Janeway filled in dryly. "I can imagine. He was the one who wanted me to see it, not the other way around. I can wait. I have a few other matters to attend to." Despite that knowledge, she remained where she was, sitting on the bed. She kept getting distracted by thoughts of Tom Paris. What he'd told her before kept floating to the top of her mind no matter how hard she tried to concentrate on what she had to do.

She had never wanted to be a counselor, and now she knew why. How did they handle this, being told people's deepest and most terrible secrets? Janeway knew people might consider her hard and unfeeling for the thought, but the truth was, she had neither time nor training for this. Although she was honored that Tom had chosen her to confide in, she wasn't sure she could take any more of what he had to tell her. Not just because it made her grieve for him, but because it got in the way of her doing her own job properly.

Only a few days ago she had almost found herself envying Tom Paris and Harry Kim their all too evident happiness. Once they'd finally resolved their problems and got back together again, they had appeared to exist in what had looked like an almost annoying state of bliss. Not that she grudged them that. No, it had been good to see them happy, good to see that something beautiful had come out of this crazy trip to the other end of the galaxy.

Although Janeway had found herself wondering just how Harry had solved the problem of being in love with someone in the Delta Quadrant, and having made a promise to someone in the Alpha Quadrant. Knowing Harry Kim, it hadn't been an easy issue for him to deal with, yet he seemed to have reached a decision that satisfied him. Janeway wondered what it was. Harry's conscience would never let him take the easy way out and just say that the Alpha Quadrant was too far away for it to matter.

It mattered. She sighed. Harry Kim just might understand. But she wasn't going to talk to him about it, wasn't going to put that burden on him. A captain doesn't let an ensign hear the details of her private life; she doesn't even have a private life as far as that ensign is concerned. Enough that she knew far more about him and his lover than he would, in all probability, like her to know.

"Is everything all right?" Kes asked softly, and Janeway looked up to find the Ocampa watching her with calm, steady eyes. It would be easy to say yes, and let the matter drop.

But instead she said, "Kes, people tell you things, don't they?" Kes nodded slowly, but with something of a question in her face. "Personal things, I mean — confidences. I know you're very easy to talk to."

Kes shifted on her chair, turning around until she was completely facing the captain and giving her her full attention. "Is there something you want to talk about, captain?"

Janeway hesitated for a moment. It was tempting. And Kes was a far better and more logical choice than poor Harry Kim, who was going to be much too agitated by now to talk about anything. She could only imagine how Tom's visit would have made him react.

But no, she wasn't going to open her heart to Kes, either. "I just wondered how you handle it," Janeway said. "It must be difficult to be the recipient of perhaps quite upsetting confidences, hearing the way people who have been hurt talk about their experiences."

"Yes," Kes said, "it can be. But so often, all people really need is to know that someone has heard what they had to say, that someone has felt their pain with them for a little while. It helps a lot more than one might think."

"How do you keep from being taken over by it?" Janeway got to her feet and walked to the end of the bed, then turned around and started walking back again. "I was told something very disturbing not long ago, and now it goes around and around in my mind. I feel very much for this person," her voice caught slightly, "but right now it's keeping me from my duties."

"And then you feel guilty for thinking that you'd do a better job if you weren't burdened with this?" Kes asked so smoothly that Janeway found herself nodding before she had time to think about it. "It must be very different for you, captain. When people come to me with their problems, I feel it's the least I can do to listen, to suffer with them for a while. It's such a privilege for me to be here on Voyager, I'm glad I can offer them that in return."

"I'm glad you can do it too," Janeway said with heartfelt gratitude. "I'm just starting to think that you're not getting nearly enough credit for it."

Kes smiled. "It isn't that hard, most of the time. Not everything I get told is as upsetting as whatever it is you've heard now, captain." She hesitated for a moment, then went on, "And you have to be responsible for all of us. That means you don't have the leisure to get involved in every detail of every crewmember's life. It's nothing to feel guilty about."

"But when people bring a problem to my attention, I have to solve it."

To Janeway's surprise, Kes smiled again, got up off her chair and came to stand next to her. "Captain, solving a problem can mean a lot of different things. If the replicators started to act funny, would you take every one apart yourself, or would you ask engineering to help? If you had to take the ship through another plasma storm, would you do it yourself, or would you get Tom Paris to do it? You're the captain. That means you have to know us well enough to assess our abilities and let us do what we're good at."

The captain looked at Kes for a long moment. "You're lecturing me," she said, and felt her mouth curve in an unexpected smile. "It seems as though I needed that. You're saying that I've forgotten how to delegate."

Kes smiled back at her. "Not forgotten. But it must be hard to realize that even the most intensely personal of problems have to be seen in the same light as a malfunctioning replicator sometimes. You can't be expected to fix everything, personally. I don't think anyone does expect that, not even the person who told you about this."

"No." Very likely not, Janeway thought. It didn't seem as though Tom expected anyone to be able to do anything about his problems, ever. And it was that sheer despair of his that had infected her, too. She wondered again if she had made the right decision, letting him go. All because of Chakotay, damn him. She trusted Chakotay. Trusted in his judgment, his integrity. But he didn't know the details of Tom's life as she did.

"Give it some thought," Kes said. "Consider whether you did everything you could, and whether there isn't someone else who could handle the problem."

That was where it turned difficult. The lack of a ship's counselor grew more noticeable every day, Janeway felt. Despite Chakotay's offer to help out, despite the fact that Kes was to all intents and purposes filling that role for many of the Voyager crew. It still went against Janeway's instincts to assign someone a role that that person wasn't fully qualified for, and to send people to pour their hearts out to him or her.

Then she took that thought one step further and looked at it in a different light. Aboard Voyager, things probably never would be perfectly formal by Starfleet standards again, not unless — until! — they got back home. She had to learn how to improvise, how to work with what she had. Most of the time she thought she had learned that, but she had her blind spots just as anyone else. No, Kes did not have formal training. Kes would never have the time for formal training. But she had the necessary kindness, the spontaneous understanding. And she was already doing the job. Without being told to do it, without any encouragement. So was Chakotay, in his different way.

Janeway sat down abruptly on the end of the biobed. "Kes." She reached out and touched Kes' arm. "I don't tell you often enough what an asset you are to Voyager. Everyone aboard this ship owes you a lot, both for the things you do, and for the way you do them. I want you to know that I appreciate it." She smiled wryly. "And now I am going to ask you to do more. I want to make your position as informal counselor a little more formal. We can't say that you are a counselor, but..."

Kes smiled. "Captain, it doesn't matter what you call me. I'd do the job anyway, I don't mind at all." Perching lightly next to Janeway, she went on, "Will you ask the person whose problems are bothering you to talk to me instead, captain?"

"I think so," Janeway said. "I can't guarantee that it will happen, of course. But I'd feel more comfortable knowing that I have, at least, your permission to suggest it."

"Of course!" Kes looked as though it had been ridiculous to think anything else. "I'd be happy to help, captain. I can't promise that I can help everyone. But often it's enough for people that there is someone who will listen to them."

The captain nodded. "I know. And however much I might want to be accessible, I have come to realize that that someone can't be me." She sighed. "Perhaps it will be most practical for you to talk to Commander Chakotay about this, since he has acted as ship's counselor before and, in fact, fills the same kind of informal role that you do aboard Voyager."

"Yes, I will." Kes looked ready to go and do it at that very moment. Then she settled back down again, as though remembering something. "But he is still down on the surface of the planet, isn't he?"

"Yes." Something made the captain add, "I don't quite know when he and Lieutenant Paris will be back. Possibly some time tomorrow."

"It must have been terribly embarrassing for Tom," Kes said seriously. "I should have given him a spray or lotion before the away team left. He doesn't have the kind of complexion that can take strong sunlight for too long."

The more Janeway thought about it, the more certain she felt that heat and sunshine had had very little to do with Tom's reaction in the temple. But that wasn't her story to tell. Instead she said, "Perhaps I should take Commander Chakotay's suggestion about the sunshades seriously."

"Sunshades?" Kes looked amused, and about to add something, when the door to sickbay opened and Harry Kim walked inside. He looked as neat as always, not a hair out of place, but his eyes were swollen and red.

"Captain." Both Janeway and Kes got to their feet, and the captain took a few steps closer. "I want to ask your permission to contact the Lienzi."

For a moment, she didn't quite get it. "You think Voyager should contact the Lienzi? Why?"

But Harry Kim shook his head. "No, not Voyager. I have personal reasons for wanting to talk to them." He wasn't looking at her but at a point just above her shoulder. His voice sounded dull and lifeless. He must have been crying for a long time.

"I'm not sure I can authorize that, Mr. Kim," she said. "We are at a delicate stage of our negotiations with the Lienzi, and I don't want to risk upsetting them any further." Janeway wondered what, exactly, it was he wanted. It had to be something to do with Tom, of course. She wondered how the Lienzi would deal with an irate boyfriend interfering. Only Harry Kim did not look angry, exactly.

"No, captain." His eyes were coming alive slowly, until finally they met hers. "I won't tell them my personal opinion of this. Tom has made a decision, and I won't try to make him change his mind. But I want to be there for him afterwards. I think the Lienzi might understand that. And I was hoping that..." His eyes left her again and he left the sentence unfinished.

"That I might authorize it?" Janeway finished for him. She was about to give him a determined no, the kind of no a captain often has to give an ensign who is being a little too forward with his opinions and suggestions.

But then she paused again, as she had done before when talking to Kes. How to best use the resources at her disposal... Harry Kim was of no use here on Voyager at the moment, now that he and B'Elanna had done everything they could in engineering. He would, in fact, be far better employed in looking after Tom Paris. Harry Kim was the right person to do that, and it would mean that Chakotay could return earlier and have time for the discussion with Kes before ordinary ship's business took over and cluttered up their schedules.

"Yes, captain. I would really appreciate it if you could — perhaps give me a leave of absence—"

"No, ensign, I won't do that." She went on talking before the protest she saw in his face could make it into words. "I believe it would be best if we talked to the Lienzi together. I'll send you down tomorrow as a replacement for Commander Chakotay."

"Thank you. Thank you, captain." Janeway had to turn away for a moment from the expression of mingled relief and tension on Harry Kim's face. Instead she smiled at Kes, who had retired to her computer console again.

"Kes, I'm glad we had this talk. I will remind Commander Chakotay to seek you out when he gets back. And thank you for your words of advice."

Kes looked up and smiled. "It was my pleasure, captain." She slid off her chair again and walked up to Harry Kim, and unexpectedly rose on tiptoe to whisper something in his ear and give him a quick hug. Whatever it was she said, it seemed to lighten the look in his eyes a little.

Janeway nodded to herself before walking out of sickbay with Harry. Yes, definitely the right person doing the right job.

* * *

He lay on his back and stared up at the ceiling, which wasn't limned with sunlight any longer. It was pale blue moonlight now, cool and uncomforting. The mattress he lay on was thin and lumpy, and the roughly-woven blanket scratched his skin. Tom shifted sideways to find a better position, then back again. He watched the fine cracks in the plaster, the way they ran this way and that, meeting and diverging again. He tried to just let his mind drift, gently, into a state that would allow sleep.

The Lienzi had been very nice to him when he had returned. They had assured him that they had never really thought he had meant to disappear completely. And the interesting thing, Tom thought, was that they meant it. They couldn't understand that he had any reason for not wanting to go through with the ritual. Chakotay had explained to them that as the 'voyagers' had other customs, Tom had had to talk to his lover first. And then the Lienzi had apologized and said that if they'd known, they would have offered him use of their comm link.

After that, they had fed him the correct food, which turned out to be a rather unappetizing gruel and some absolutely wonderful, freshly baked bread, and left him in this room again. Now it was night. And tomorrow, tomorrow...

Tom rolled out of bed and stood up dizzily. He walked over to the small window, although all he could see out of it was the night sky, if he tilted his head back. Stars, and darkness. Voyager was up there somewhere, his bright particular star. And somewhere aboard Voyager, Harry was looking at the truth about Tom's past. He shivered. The night air was surprisingly cool.

When he had written that log he had never imagined anyone else looking at it. No, it was more than that — he would have done anything to prevent anyone else looking at it. At the same time, he'd felt compelled to write. To get it all down, get it out, to change it from memory to fact somehow. Thinking about the best way to put something into words was a way of dealing with the memories without being overwhelmed by them.

It had helped with the nightmares, at least. And as time passed he found himself resorting to that log more rarely. The memories had faded enough that he could handle them, and he was so far away from the Alpha Quadrant. He'd never imagined that anything like this would happen.

He'd never imagined that anything like Harry would happen, either.

Tom drew a long shuddering breath and leaned his forehead against the wall. God, it wasn't getting any easier. He tried to picture Harry in his room, at his desk, going through the log and looking at the visual clips. Tom had had to cause quite a mess in the central computer at Auckland to get at those records, and up until the moment Voyager went through the wormhole, he had half been expecting a call from the authorities, expecting to find that they'd discovered traces of his presence.

He still wasn't sure why he had felt compelled to get the clips and the scanner readings. Back then he hadn't been thinking entirely clearly. It had had something to do with just getting the evidence, the simple facts. This really did happen. However much they may pretend that it doesn't, it happened. It was the same feeling, really, that had driven him to write down every moment of his memories.

Now Harry was reading all of that. Harry was finding out, finally, why he should never have made all those promises, never have said — Tom bit his lip — that he would never leave. Harry hadn't known then who it was he was making that promise to.

"I'm sorry," Tom whispered to the empty air. "I wish I could have been perfect for you. I wish I could be just what you deserve."

But the truth was that he was so badly flawed, so crippled by his past that it had driven him to sheer panic even in his lover's arms, and it had led him to this place and this ceremony that wasn't going to make anything better. Hell, he only hoped he wasn't going to be a total wreck afterwards. For Voyager, he was doing this for Voyager. For everyone. He had to remember that and hang onto the thought that it meant something. Something more, for once, than just making things bearable for himself.

There were moments when he wondered what would have happened if he had never given in. If he would have been found dead one morning, no questions asked... no, a hell of a lot of questions asked, an admiral's son dead in prison, well, we always knew he'd come to a bad end. Discreet funeral and no unsuitable questions asked, that was it.

Or was it possible that if he had never given in, they would eventually have stopped? Tom shuddered and pressed his palms flat against the cool wall. That they would have grown tired of beating him into surrender and gone to look for easier prey. He closed his eyes. That by giving in he had prolonged it all, made a whore out of himself for nothing.

I never should have I should have kept saying no I never should have better if they had killed me I never should have damn me to hell I never should have... The old, familiar litany started to make his head spin again. Leaning against the wall, he almost didn't hear the sound of the door opening, but at the first quiet footfall Tom spun around and flung his hand out instinctively.

Then he saw who it was, and sagged back against the wall. He knew what the first question was going to be, he just knew it. "Paris, are you all right?"

It took him a couple of tries to get his voice working. "I'm a bit edgy. Sorry." Tom tried to straighten up and act normally, but damn it, he couldn't deal with people sneaking into his cell in the middle of the night right now. Cell? Room. Whatever. Chakotay had halted just inside the door and now he stood quite still, looking calm and peaceful and prepared to stand where he was for hours.

"I just thought I'd look in on you for a moment. The Lienzi didn't actually forbid me to." There was a faint glint of a smile. "You look tense."

"I am tense. Give the man a cigar. Or should that be a peace pipe?" He saw Chakotay's face close up and grow darker, but then the man relaxed as though making a deliberate effort, and smiled again. Damn him.

"Thought you might be. Paris, I want to talk to you. I don't think you understand how much it means to the Lienzi that you do this." Chakotay walked over and sat down calmly on the bench, and Tom suppressed a groan. The commander was here to stay.

He settled himself gracelessly on the bed opposite and tried hard not to pull his legs up and hug his knees. Chakotay was too good at reading body language. Tom wanted him to leave but he didn't know how to manage that. "So maybe I don't. I know how much it means to Voyager."

"Listen to me. These people have a sacred bond with their goddess. They have promised to offer her what is best in themselves."

"Sex?" Tom said scornfully before he could help himself. "Kind of a shallow culture they have here."

It was dark enough that he couldn't tell if Chakotay really was glaring at him or if his eyes were just supplying that look from memory. "What people see says a lot about how they think, Paris. No, not sex, at least not the way you were just referring to it. They offer her pleasure born from love."

"Love? You screw the first person who comes along and that's supposed to be love?" That wasn't love, it was being cheap. Tom knew what love was; it was finding yourself in someone's arms and realizing for the first time in your life that you were home. He knew what love was. It wasn't anything he deserved.

"Yes. The kind of love the goddess feels for the people. Loving everyone." Tom became aware that Chakotay was actually making an effort not to get angry. He seemed to have taken a real liking to the Lienzi and their customs. "By doing this they remind themselves that they are all her people, and that everyone carries the goddess inside. It's sacred, Paris, and I want you to at least try to approach it with the proper respect."

Tom thought that he, personally, would be satisfied if he could approach it without throwing up again. That would be nice. He finally gave in to the small cold shivers and pulled one leg up, hugged himself unobtrusively. He'd have given a lot for someone who would just hold him right then, but what he was getting was Chakotay on comparative religion. It was like something out of A Briefing With Neelix.

"I don't know where you get the idea that I'm not respectful," he said finally, "I mean, just because I—"

"Paris, you're never respectful." For a moment Tom was on the verge of getting angry; it would be a lot more comfortable than the scared, sick feeling that had settled into him now. But then he heard the underlying tone in Chakotay's voice. He started laughing. And yes, that was definitely another glimmer of a smile there across the room.

"Thanks for that one, commander. Listen, I can't promise that I'll suddenly understand the Lienzi. But I'll do my best." And he would also appreciate it if Chakotay didn't keep implying that he was an idiot blundering around being clueless about alien cultures all the time. "I won't say anything rude about their precious goddess, okay?"

"If that's the best you can offer, it will have to do," Chakotay said dryly. "But once you're part of the Lienzi's culture, you may feel differently. I certainly hope so." Chakotay got to his feet and crossed the room. "I'll leave now." He dropped a hand on Tom's shoulder, a gesture he seemed to have picked up from the captain. "I — you're shaking."

"It's cold," Tom said, leaning back out of Chakotay's grip. "If you don't mind, commander, I'd like to get some sleep." Then he regretted the harsh tone, the perpetual aggression that kept surfacing whenever he was around this man. "Thanks for coming to see me, anyway."

"I told the Lienzi I was responsible for you," Chakotay said. Tom stiffened, and then Chakotay went on, "I do feel I have a responsibility towards you. To make sure you're all right." It hung in the air, not a question but with all the force of one.

"I'll cope, commander." Tom tried a short laugh. "This is the kind of mission that students at Starfleet Academy get all hot and bothered fantasizing about."

"This is not a fantasy," Chakotay said. He dropped down on one knee. "You won't have droves of beautiful women fighting over you, Paris. You're going to have to take whoever comes along. Can you deal with that? With not having any say in the matter?"

Tom drew his breath in, a single harsh gasp. "Shut the fuck up. Commander." Then he leaned his head against his updrawn knees and tried to get a grip. He heard Chakotay get to his feet and wondered dimly if he was going to get an angry lecture now, or if Chakotay would wait and subject him to some interesting disciplinary procedure once they got back to Voyager. Then the bed dipped under an additional weight, and he felt Chakotay's arm around his shoulders. Tom tried to lean away.

"Paris. I know that you, you're in a relationship that's important to you. I told the Lienzi I'd do this instead of you if it was necessary. The offer still holds." Oh God, he didn't even sound angry. Tom's mind reeled. "I don't have any private affairs that would be upset because of it."

Tom hardly even heard the slightly bitter tone in Chakotay's voice. He could say yes, he realized. He didn't have to say that he was terrified and couldn't cope, he could just say that he wanted to back out because of Harry. Tom drew a deep breath. He could lie. No, he couldn't. He hesitated, caught between two equally powerful impulses.

Finally he said, "No, thanks, Chakotay. This is." He managed some kind of smile. "I'm the right one to do it. Don't worry about it. Harry will understand." As soon as Harry saw those clips, read those words, he'd understand. Tom felt sure of that. He loved Harry's moral uprightness, his sometimes almost childish indignation, his absolute determination to do the right thing.

"All right." Chakotay shifted again, stood up slowly. "I think you've made the right decision." He was walking towards the door now, but stopped and turned around; Tom had lifted his head to look. "I'll see you again afterwards." Then he was gone.

Tom heard himself make a little sound, half a laugh, half a dry sob. He fell back on the bed, rolled himself into the scratchy blanket again, curled up in a ball. He was cold, he was so cold, he was shaking.

It was going to be a long night.

* * *

Harry walked out of the room and upgraded the privacy codes before moving on. He'd already locked the coded data cube in a drawer in his desk. It didn't feel like enough. He felt he'd been given a living beating heart in his hands and if he wasn't careful, it would die.

It had been impossible to sleep. Not just difficult, but actually impossible; whenever he'd tried to close his eyes, Harry had seen images from those visuals, and if he persevered he started seeing the things that hadn't been in the visuals, reliving someone else's memories. Tom's memories.

So he had stayed up all night, moving around his quarters, sitting on the bed, trying to read. Now and then Harry had thought about waking B'Elanna, just to talk. But he'd known that he wouldn't be able to talk about nothing in particular; there was just one thing on his mind. Tom had entrusted him with this, but he would never forgive Harry if Harry told someone else. Harry would never forgive himself.

Now, staring at his own door, he felt surprisingly clearheaded after all. Harry thought it was because he was so focused on what he was going to do. The feeling that he had to be with Tom was stronger than anything else right now. Never mind that he had less of an idea now than before of what he would say. Maybe the words wouldn't be all that important.

"Harry." The determined voice startled him out of his thoughts. "It's just a door, Harry, would you like me to tell you how it works?"

He turned his head to smile at B'Elanna. She was looking absolutely beautiful this morning; there was a sparkle in her eyes and something light and cheerful about the way she moved. It made him glad that he hadn't woken her in the middle of the night to cry all over her; it looked as though her dreams had been good ones. "Good morning, B'Elanna. Nice to see you too."

She put a hand on his arm and squeezed it lightly. "Are you going to the bridge?"

Harry shook his head. "No. I'm due in transporter room three in," he checked his watch, "five minutes." Seeing her inquiring look, he went on, "I'm going down to Elce to replace Commander Chakotay; the captain wants him back."

"She does?" B'Elanna sounded slightly sarcastic. "I'll walk you there." She more or less pushed him to get him going. "Make sure we get Tom back in one piece, and don't let him tease the priests too much."

Harry nodded. "Sure." He hoped B'Elanna would change the subject, because he didn't think he was up to much cheerful banter about it. In the normal way of things it only took a minute or two for her thoughts to revert to engineering. Hopefully that was what the pensive look in her eyes right now meant.

"Do you know what it is they're making him do down there, anyway?" she asked, proving him wrong. "Nothing as simple as cleaning up after himself, or it wouldn't take so long. I don't see why they make such a fuss about what ignorant foreigners do anyway. If they hadn't marched us across half the planet in that kind of heat it wouldn't have happened. We only asked for tellerium and vegetables, not for an introduction to their goddess."

Harry was thinking that as beautiful as B'Elanna was when she was angry, he'd give a lot to distract her. "You're not mad at Tom, are you?" he asked worriedly.

"No," she said. "If anything, I am mad at myself for not noticing he was feeling bad and telling Tregua she had to do something about it. I just don't see why this has to take forever. Whatever it is they want him to do can't take that long."

She went on in the same vein, alternately grumbling and joking about it, all the way to the transporter room. Harry actually felt relieved when they got there and B'Elanna, on seeing the captain, grew quiet. Then he felt guilty. B'Elanna was such a wonderful friend to him and here he was, almost annoyed at her for something that wasn't her fault at all. Regretfully he took her hand and squeezed it; she gave him a surprised but pleased look.

The captain smiled at them and came over at a brisk pace. "Ready, ensign?" Harry nodded, and she gestured at him to step up. "You go down first, and the commander will brief you before returning to Voyager. I know I don't have to remind you to be courteous to the Lienzi at all times."

"Yes, captain. No, captain." She was reminding him, of course, but very nicely. It only made sense, as she would know that he had been given B'Elanna's version of the Lienzi's customs and might be affected by it, and she might think, Harry reminded himself, that he wasn't completely predisposed in favor of people who were in effect forcing his lover to have sex with someone else.

He wasn't. But he'd keep a tight rein on himself, Harry vowed silently, and managed to smile at B'Elanna as the captain gave the command to energize.

Even when you were prepared for it there was always the slightest of confusion the first moment you were beamed somewhere. It had to do, Harry thought, with not knowing what to focus your eyes on right at first. He'd learned how to be relaxed about it, though.

He stood in an open, sunny courtyard, paved with square slabs of stone and with white walls on three sides; on the fourth was a colonnade leading to another courtyard with a small knot garden and a fountain. The guide B'Elanna had told him about wasn't there, but three other Lienzi greeted him with smiling nods. And Commander Chakotay came up to him at once and put a hand on his shoulder.

"Welcome to Elce, Ensign Kim. The captain's not giving me much time," Chakotay smiled, "so this will have to be fast. If you'll excuse us?" The smile this time was directed at the Lienzi.

"Of course. I'll wait here," one of them said. Harry followed Chakotay over to the other courtyard. It smelled wonderful in here, he discovered as he took a deep breath. Clumps of small, gray-green herbs were crushed underfoot as they walked. It had to be deliberate; they formed gray paths through the tiny green garden. To judge by B'Elanna's description of the walk to the temple, this had to be one of the greenest places on Elce.

"Are you comfortable with being left here, ensign?" Chakotay asked when they were out of earshot. "You do know what's involved — what is going to happen."

Better than you, Harry thought, and despite the wonderful sunshine, he felt a chill run down his spine. He really was scared for Tom. There was no way of telling what this would do to Tom and how it might further twist his already pretty warped self-image. Harry tried not to shiver.

"Yes, I know, commander," he said. "Tom — I mean, Lieutenant Paris told me."

Chakotay gave him a quick, compassionate look. "I'm sure it was Tom who told you and not Lieutenant Paris." Then he stopped and turned to face Harry. "But I hope you're aware that you won't see Paris again until afterwards. You can't change what is going to happen, and any jealousy you feel..." Chakotay shrugged. "The Lienzi have made a lot of allowances for us. I want you to think about what you say, Mr. Kim."

Harry opened his mouth to snap that he could control his temper, and then caught the look on Chakotay's face. With an effort, he closed his mouth again and looked down. Then he said very quietly, "Yes, commander. I will." He started walking again. "Is there anything in particular that I should be aware of?"

After a moment Chakotay was walking next to him with the same measured steps. "A few things. Don't be offended if they offer you something else to wear, it's an honor. When you eat, set aside part of your food for the goddess. Other than that, just be polite. Respect their customs. And..." Chakotay paused. "You probably know this better than I do, Ensign Kim, but this wasn't an easy decision for Tom Paris. Don't be too rough on him once it's over."

Stopping again, Harry couldn't help giving Chakotay an angry look. "I don't think you should be advising me on my private life. Sir." But there had been a genuinely compassionate tone to Chakotay's voice. It was out of concern for Tom that he had said it, Harry realized, not from any wish to be insulting. In fact, Harry thought wryly, Chakotay would never bother to insult him. The fleeting humor of that thought eased his anger. "I'm not here to be jealous," he said. "The captain would never have sent me if she did not trust me to be professional."

"I'm sure she wouldn't have," Chakotay agreed. "But ensign, although I do trust you to be professional in your dealings with the Lienzi, I believe that professional is the last thing you should be with Tom Paris."

Harry grudgingly smiled. After all, it was probably the truth. He just nodded, it seemed the simplest thing to do, to simply agree with Chakotay and not have to explain why. "Yes, sir."

They were turning around now, and Chakotay led him back towards the first courtyard. It really was hot here. Harry started to feel the first beads of sweat forming on his forehead. He wasn't going to protest too much if the Lienzi took him indoors.

"I'm sure you'll do fine," Chakotay said slowly. He touched his comm badge. "Chakotay to Voyager. I'm ready."

"Thank you," Harry said quietly and watched as Chakotay disappeared. Then he braced himself and walked over to the Lienzi man who was waiting for him. "I'm Ensign Harry Kim, Commander Chakotay's replacement."

"You're welcome to be here," the man replied. "I'm Ciglio. Please, come with me." Harry was relieved to find that they were going in, through a small side door that he hadn't even noticed before. Inside it was a lot cooler, as they walked through a succession of long low rooms, sparsely furnished. "Are you a friend of Tom Paris'?"

Harry hesitated for a long moment before saying, "Yes. Yes, I am." Ciglio had noticed the pause and gave him a questioning look, and after a brief internal debate Harry went on in response, "Actually, he's — I'm—" He nearly laughed in spite of everything. He'd never actually said it before. "We're lovers."

Ciglio looked startled. "Oh!" He gave Harry a closer look. "I see. We didn't expect that."

"Expect what?" Harry blurted out. Then he wondered if he really wanted to know. Maybe these people had a prejudice against same-sex couples that no one had bothered to tell him about. Or maybe Ciglio simply didn't think Harry and Tom looked like two halves of a pair. Not very many people did, Harry thought, considering a few looks they'd gotten aboard Voyager.

No one had said anything, of course. The relationship was still so new, few people even knew about it. Still, it was obvious that some of those who had found out had been really surprised. Not that Harry cared, and he didn't think Tom cared, either. Though you never knew with Tom. He was sometimes a little too good at pretending that he didn't mind for it to be possible to see when he actually did.

"That you would be the one who came down," Ciglio went on. "Seeing as your customs are apparently so different. Are you here for the enande, then?"

"The what?" Harry was startled. It was rare that a word was not translated instantly. That had to mean that there was no Standard equivalent.

The man looked thoughtful. "You love him? It is a relationship meant to last?"

So much passed through Harry's mind at that simple question that he was barely able to sort it out; everything he knew of Tom was suddenly there, memory and desire at once. And there was only one answer possible. "Yes."

"Then it will be the enande for you." He smiled. "I'll take you to a room where you can wait for him. I expect you'd be more comfortable in private."

"Yes," Harry said, not completely certain what it was he was agreeing to. "I think that's a good idea." He didn't know quite how it had happened, but his earlier cold fury against the Lienzi had vanished to be replaced by something more like bewilderment. Ciglio set a rapid pace through the halls and Harry followed, still deep in thought.

Eventually they slowed down and went through a low doorway, shielded by a woven curtain in deep blue and red, into a room that hummed with the heat of the sun. Sunlight filled it, smoothing itself like a caress across the worn marble floor, the low couches with their piles of cushions and trailing blankets, the off-white walls. A few dust motes danced in front of the high windows.

There was another doorway to the left, and Ciglio gestured towards it. "The baths are that way, but you should stay here. He'll come when it's time for the enande." Walking over to one of the couches, he went on, "There are clothes here if you want them."

"Thank you," Harry said, mindful of what Chakotay had said before. He wasn't sure he'd be comfortable in anything but his uniform, and if it was an honor to have the offer made, he wasn't sure what he had done to deserve it. When he came over to look he found that the clothes were of several different models, from a long chaste-looking robe to a short kilt-like garment.

That was what Ciglio picked up and held out towards him. "Take this," he suggested. "It will be better for you, in the heat."

Harry was about to say no, but then he thought, it won't do me any harm, and it will please the Lienzi. If Tom can go through with their beastly ceremony, I can wear a skirt, or whatever the hell it is. He took it out of Ciglio's hand and nodded. Then he had to ask, "How long will it be before...?"

Even though Harry didn't finish the question, Ciglio understood what he meant. "It has already started," he said. "Just wait." And then he smiled and nodded, and left the room the same way they'd arrived.

Harry was left to himself in the sunny room. He drew a deep breath. It really was hot in here. He bent down to take his boots off. Where was Tom now, what was happening to him? Was he frightened? Sudden hot tears rose to Harry's eyes again. He walked barefoot over to the windows and stood in the sunlight, letting it color the inside of his eyelids with brightness.

"Please be all right," he whispered. "Please."

* * *

At least they had let him keep his comm badge. Tom had explained that he wouldn't be able to understand what anyone said without it, nor would they understand him. The Lienzi had accepted that and now the comm badge was fastened on one shoulder of this skimpy, sleeveless tunic, robe, whatever they wanted to call it. Heaven only knew what had happened to his uniform.

He had been woken up in the morning by a friendly, smiling person who'd brought him breakfast he didn't feel up to eating. No one had made any comments about him needing to keep his strength up. The Lienzi were all somehow cheerfully serious. They seemed to regard this ceremony as something profoundly sacred and completely matter of fact at the same time.

After breakfast they had sent him out to pick a flower. Apparently it was something everyone had to do for themselves. Tom had asked if there was any particularly poisonous plant life he should stay away from, and been told that all dangerous flowers had been cleared off in the vicinity of the temple. That had made him feel stupid, and ignorant.

He'd gone towards the grove as soon as he had walked out of the temple. It was where everyone else was heading, and the greenest place around, if you were looking for flowers. On the way, feeling the early morning sunshine beating down on his head, he had felt another moment of absolute and blinding terror and considered leaving, again. Should he call the captain and say he couldn't do it after all? Weak, he told himself, you're a weak, miserable, spineless coward. That's right. You've done worse things, this won't be so bad. At least stick to your decision, damn it.

The grove was a beautiful place; the grass there was freshly green and the trees grew high, but despite the contrast with the rest of the landscape, did not look out of place. There were lots of people wandering here. Some of them were looking for flowers as well, others just seemed to enjoy being there. Tom had studied them shyly, wondering how they could be so serene, so at ease with this.

The flower he'd finally chosen had been the same small white one he'd seen when they had been walking to the temple — had it really only been yesterday morning? It felt like years ago. It looked like a tiny white star in his hand.

When he had returned, the Lienzi had approved his choice. Then he had been given a bath. That was when it had started. Taking his clothes off, going into the water. The bath room was huge, it was like one of those ancient Roman baths, lots of people and hot water and steam and laughter. And bath attendants. He wasn't allowed to wash himself. They had done that, as others were being washed all around him, and Tom had started to feel things slipping away from him.

Had started to feel his identity slipping away from him as though he had taken it off with the uniform. He wasn't a lieutenant on Voyager any more. Just one more naked body in here. The kind but impersonal hands that washed him didn't care what his name was. It had unnerved him.

Then when they had brought him out of the water, dried him roughly, dressed him in the right kind of robe, put the flower in his hair. Oh, that had felt strange. Like an ornament. No — a sign. It was marking him out, making it clear what he was doing here. It would explain to everyone out there in the temple that he was theirs for the asking.

Tom hadn't been able to suppress a shudder. But he'd been in the hands of the bath assistants then, and they saw so many people pass through here every day, they had no time or patience with his particular little quirks. They had just given him a push towards the right door and sent him on his way.

It was the hardest thing he had ever done. He had to think consciously about every step to get his feet to take him there, and to step through the doorway. There were others around him, but he hardly noticed them. Tom felt all his muscles tense up as he walked out into the large temple hall.

As beautiful as yesterday, but he didn't have the ability to appreciate that. Instead he wondered what he was supposed to do now. Just stand there? The others were just finding themselves a good spot on the floor; some of them stood up, others sat down as though anticipating a long wait, or just wanting to make themselves comfortable.

Tom couldn't entirely suppress the shudder that ran through him. He started to cross the floor slowly. It was cool in here, wasn't it? That was why he was shivering. Maybe he could find a spot in the sunshine that trickled in from the high windows. And then all he had to do was wait.

With the sun in his eyes, he could hardly see a thing. It was better that way. He remembered that. Back in prison he had sometimes been able to close his eyes and just take himself away, almost completely detached from what was happening to him. Sometimes. Other times it hadn't worked at all and he had lived through every second, the memories seared into him, ineradicable.

In a way it was easier to remember the beginning. There was more pain there, more stupidity, but there was at least the recollection of his own voice saying — screaming — no, over and over. After the first time, he had known what to expect, he had tried to fight, he had tried to hide, he had tried to talk his way out of it and nearly lost teeth in the attempt.

But it had been useless. He was the one everyone hated, after all. The traitor, the failure. No one had liked him well enough to make even a half-hearted effort to protect him. In there, he had only been allowed to stay alive because he was more fun that way.

Tom remembered the medic telling him it was stupid to come and ask to have the cuts and bruises treated. Not only was the cost of the treatment taken out of the budget for his meals, giving him less food, there was another side effect as well. "It'll make you look good again, too," the man had said cynically. "You want to show them your pretty face, that's not my problem, but..."

No, he hadn't wanted to do that. He just hadn't been able to bear the thought of any of it marking him permanently, writing itself all over his body the way it was doing with his soul.

Slowly he made himself return to the present and look around the temple hall. The place was filling up now as more and more pilgrims arrived. Tom didn't know whether to look at them or not, those who wore ordinary clothes, who were here to choose. Was it worth it, trying to catch someone's eye? It might make it all go faster. But at the thought, his stomach turned over and he had to close his eyes again and make himself breathe slowly.

No, he couldn't do that. Stand here, yes. But not try to, to — breathe, damn it — sell himself. They wouldn't get any provocative looks or tempting poses out of him. Well, no one was acting quite like that. Not here. And he never had before, either. What he had been, Tom thought, was businesslike. He remembered that way of looking at people, trying to assess what they might want from him, what he might get from them in return.

It had settled so deeply into him that he'd even looked that way at the captain the first time he'd seen her. Only his sweet luck that she hadn't know what a look like that meant. Ah, no, how would she know a thing like that? Not Kathryn Janeway. But she knew the truth about him now.

Part of the truth, Tom amended. Some things couldn't really be explained or shared. You could try, but the only way to gain that kind of experience was to live through it. And in this particular case, he wouldn't wish it on anyone. There were three parts of his life like that, that had changed him so deeply and intensely that he had been aware of it while it had happened, had felt himself almost literally change shape with the force of it. The time right after Caldik Prime. The time in prison. And the short time with Harry.

Tom sighed and felt his breath catch. One good thing at least, one truly good thing in his life. Far too good for him. He still didn't understand it, he couldn't see what Harry might have found in him that was worth loving. Of course he had done his best to impress Harry ever since the moment they'd first met. But he'd been grateful as long as he managed to stay one step ahead, to come up with a wisecrack or two and keep Harry from noticing how he really felt.

And now the truth was out. All of it. Harry knew all the filthy details finally, and he was never going to let himself be fooled again. He couldn't love Tom now. It wasn't possible.

He shifted from foot to foot. The sunlight had moved across the hall, and now he was in shadow again, and his feet felt cold. Tom thought about moving. He wondered how long he had been standing there. There was a steady stream of people passing through the temple, and many of the others who'd worn the robe and flower had vanished now.

Sometimes someone would give him a fleeting glance, then look away again. Tom wondered if he was doing something wrong.

If there was something special he was supposed to do out here for someone to choose him, the priests should have told him. Would have told him, Tom thought, because if this didn't work they would never get their cleansing ceremony that they so badly wanted. Maybe the pilgrims just didn't like his looks. He didn't exactly resemble a Lienzi, after all. They might not like blond hair.

Tom closed his eyes again, he couldn't stand looking at it, at the others. He wasn't feeling sick exactly, but he was starting to feel a little lightheaded.

The sun had moved again when next he looked up. With a small shock he realized that it had to be afternoon now. And people kept looking at him and looking away again as though he failed to measure up to some standard of theirs. Oh god, what would happen if no one chose him? Would he have to stand here again tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow?

Tom wanted to shrink in on himself and disappear. He became aware that he was starting to shake again, and tried to stop it. Moving again into another patch of sunlight he concentrated on his breathing. He didn't know what was worse, that he was standing here offering his body to passers-by, or that no one seemed to want it. No one, oh God, no one would even go close to him.

It had all been pointless, then. No use making this offer if no one wanted him. He had no value here. He was of less worth than he had been in prison, even. Tom bit his lip. He'd tried, he really had. For Voyager. But it wasn't going to work because everyone could see he was cheap and useless and horrible and, oh God, absolutely no good at all.

He sank down to the floor, too tired and resigned to stand there any longer. Eventually he felt the last sunlight fade as the sun sank too low. He was just staring at the floor, hearing the murmur of the people around him thin out gradually. Time was passing, and he wondered at what time they closed the great doors into the temple. Was it at sunset?

No one wanted him. Didn't they understand that this was all he had to offer, that he was trying to trade his body to get everyone he cared about away from here? He had thought he could do it. Now he wasn't sure. Tom thought about getting up, walking away, but he somehow couldn't picture what he was going to do once he had left.

He felt so empty. And then he heard footsteps quite close, and the sound of someone crouching down next to him. "Look up." The sound of that voice startled him and he opened his eyes. A woman was sitting next to him. She was dark, as everyone here, and her hair was midnight black with traces of gray and white at the temples. There were fine lines around her wide brown eyes. She studied him for a long time and Tom thought about dropping his eyes, looking away, giving up. Then he lifted his chin. After a long moment, she seemed to relax, and smiled. Reaching out with one hand, she cupped his cheek. "Yes, I knew if I looked long enough I would find it. I can see the goddess in you. Come with me."

Hearing those words, Tom felt something shift inside him. A new wave of fear swept through him, one that seemed to do something crucial to his body. When she rose he did as well, to find that she only came up to his shoulder. All the lines in her face seemed to be from smiling. She took his hand and led him towards the far door. Tom went along, as though walking towards a precipice. He knew he would fall, he knew it. Fall and shatter.

It had never been so far to walk anywhere. He could have run around the whole planet in the time it took to cross the temple hall and reach the doorway. The woman's hand was warm in his and he found he was clinging to it. Was the goddess in him? Was she the fear in him, maybe, the near-panic, the sick sense of dread?

Through the doorway and into this other great hall, the ceiling lower here and everything much more intimate. Tom looked quickly around the room and then dropped his eyes. But the images wouldn't leave his mind and besides, he could hear them. Sighs and moans, cries and whispers. Oh God, I have never felt like this in my entire life. There was nothing to fight and nothing to bargain for. All he had was himself, and someone had just claimed him.

She led him through the room. Tom kept his eyes down, seeing nothing much beyond the floor and the woman's feet. She was barefoot, and wearing a long dress, dark red it was, hanging loose on her body. Her hair fell down free to the middle of her back. When she suddenly stopped, he nearly stumbled, and she took hold of him and pushed him backwards and down onto a soft surface, falling with him to land half on top of him. Tom made a small involuntary sound.

"Did I hurt you?" Her fingertips brushed across his cheek. Tom shook his head and managed to look at her. There was nothing pretty about her features. He was falling right into her eyes. "You must take your clothes off, and mine, it is part of the custom. You might not know, being a stranger." She smiled just a little.

Tom nodded. Moving out from under her, he half sat up and wriggled gracelessly out of the robe he'd been given. Then he turned to the woman. Her dress was all in one piece, and he slowly began to push the shirt up, baring her legs and stroking them at the same time. She was watching him, her eyes half closed, a small approving smile on her face. When he reached her hips she shifted to help him, and then sat up as well so that he could pull the dress over her head and off her arms. She wore nothing underneath. Tom sat still and waited, until she ran a hand down his side and pulled him close again.

Her skin was very soft. He brushed his lips carefully against her throat, watching for the shivers, the fine tremors that would tell him what she liked. Yes, there, and there. Tom sucked slowly at the skin beneath the ear and then flicked his tongue against the fine folds of her ear. She made a sound of approval. He closed his eyes and tried not to think.

But she wasn't having any of that. A hand laced into the short hair at the back of his head and pulled him up, towards her. Towards her lips. Not that as well, none of them ever wanted that, look, I don't—

She kissed him slowly, gently, just brushing his lips with her own at first. Then she coaxed him carefully into opening his mouth, accepting her before he knew what had happened. Tom could feel his hands moving of their own accord, his arms curving around her and drawing her closer. The sensation of her full breasts pressing against his chest almost startled him. He kissed her cheek, the line of her jaw. "I'm frightened," he whispered in her ear, not even knowing any more where his comm badge was.

"Var inte det." Her voice was deep and smooth, and she ran her fingers through his hair and then caressed his neck, his shoulder. Tom wondered what she wanted, what he should do. He felt pretty sure that he could touch her and bring her pleasure, that he could do what he was here to do. But the way she kept touching him just undid him. It wasn't the touch of a stranger. She touched him as though she cared. It was terrifying.

And now she was kissing him again, and Tom started to feel heat wash over his body, a slow fire kindling inside him. He stroked her side and curved his hand around her breast, letting his thumb move in concentric circles until it brushed her nipple. All at once she arched into him and the little sound he heard made him feel more confident. Tom kissed her throat, licked at her shoulder. She smelled good.

He was so close to her body that he could hardly tell what she looked like; maybe it was the light in here, or lack of it, he seemed to see things in brief flashes; her warm brown skin, his hands pale against it, flickering candles somewhere, and the walls in the background spinning around and around in a stately dance. Tom had all but forgotten that there were others in the room. He could hear them talk softly, sigh and moan, but it wasn't important. It just added to the haze in his mind.

He'd known that he would be frightened. And his heart was beating faster. Bending his head, he kissed her breasts and ran his tongue gently around one nipple, feeling it harden; then the other one, and her sound of pleasure was almost a low growl. It made him shiver.

There were no rough hands on him now, no force. Just this woman whose name he did not know, who was all around him, whose skin was on his like air, like water. She defined the world. He licked at her belly and tasted salt, and earth. The way she arched her back told him what she wanted. And he would give it to her, he would give her what he could.

Tom kissed the soft inside of her thigh. As she spread her legs he caught her scent, rich and sweet with promise. This better not be a cultural taboo, he thought as he leaned in to taste her. Sweetly sour, like fruit, and she was so deliciously wet. Tom trailed his tongue along the soft folds, finding out her responses, the right places to tease. She was much like a human female, he discovered as the tip of his tongue found a small erect nub and the touch made her cry out.

Perfect. The fear that he would not be able to please her receded and Tom concentrated on what he was doing, slowly pushing a finger into her, then another, as he swirled his tongue around her clitoris. Oh, he could just lose himself in this. He thrust gently with his fingers and flicked his tongue faster and faster, then on an impulse sucked at her, drawing the sensitive flesh into his mouth.

To his surprise she trembled quietly for a moment and then she was coming, fast, just like that. Tom pulled back slightly and slowed down, waited until the wave had nearly broken and then caught her again, teasing, testing, and he felt her start to shiver again. So he just went on, relishing the wet heat of her, the intensity of her response as she went from peak to peak with a series of soft cries.

His head was starting to spin as though what he was tasting was a strange drug. Tom could feel that he was shaking, too, he could sense his previous dread somewhere just out of reach. This was doing something to him. Her touch, the sounds she was making that somehow weren't vulnerable at all. For a moment he thought he could taste her orgasms, and they went from lemon to gold.

There was a heat to her that drew him. And he couldn't stop, as though her passion was his, the strange craving he felt for more and more. When she shifted away from him Tom tried to follow, but then she wrapped a hand into his hair and pulled at him. Pulling him up, and fear and shyness rolled through him all at once. He had to... had to... he could barely remember any more.

When he looked into her eyes they went on forever, and she drew him into a tight embrace and kissed him deeply. Tom stroked her side, her back, the beautiful curve of her breast that fit so perfectly into his hand. He couldn't remember how old he had thought her to be when he'd first seen her. Her body was firm against his and she was so amazingly strong; now she moved and shifted them both, drawing him in between her legs, reaching down to cup a hand around his erection. Tom all but convulsed at her touch. God, her hand was on fire. He was on fire. And she was drawing him closer.

"I can't do this," he said in a panic. "I can't give you this! Not my pleasure."

"Det är det du är här för," she whispered. "Ge det till mig. Till henne." When she moved again Tom shifted as well, unable to stop himself. The heat of her, he was sliding into her, falling into her, drowning in her. She surrounded him. Her tongue pushing into his mouth, his cock pushing into the heated depths of her. It was all one, she was in him, he was in her, whose nails were scratching whose back, what voice cried out now? Everything was heat and wetness.

He tried to remember his name. He tried to remember holding back, not yielding. She moved, he moved, everything moved. It was impossible not to feel her body, hot against his, fierce with strength and desire. So clearly defined, and yet he couldn't tell where he ended and she began. That scent in the air was lust and earth and blood and forever.

And the room dissolved around them, fading slowly as the walls merged with the backdrop of the night, a black velvet curtain with little sequined stars. She was over him now, and it was so achingly slow and he burned, wanting. Needing.

"Yes," he managed to say, "yes." They turned like the universe unfolding, fast as a paper flower dropped in water, all of him craving her touch, and she tightened around him, squeezed the breath from his lungs.

"Kom till mig," she whispered in his ear, in his mind. "Ge mig allt." And he arched into her again and again, gripped her hard, the only solid thing in the world. Never enough. There was a final gift he had to give her and he closed his eyes now, more afraid than ever before.

Then she made a small sound, a tender moan that grew louder, and as the first fine tremors racked her, at this infinitely slow, wild and wicked pace, it was suddenly so easy to let go.

And it hit him like the sky falling on his head. The pleasure ripped through him, taking sight and speech. He could feel his spine arch, his whole body shake, as he came and came for what seemed like forever. When he finally could not bear it any longer, his mind whited out.

Somewhere inside the silence, he was crying out her name.

When he had a body again, they were lying pressed together, still joined, her legs wrapped around his hips, his face against her throat. He slowly became aware of little things like the drop of sweat trickling down his temple and three of her fingers lying against his shoulder. It was all so precise and well-defined. The world came into focus again and grew startlingly clear.

As their hearts slowed down, they moved apart and lay for a moment loosely wrapped in each other's arms. Her smell was that of any woman now, rich with satisfaction, and he couldn't understand why he even thought about it. Around them in the long low room others moaned with rising desire or cried out in fulfillment, beginning and end at once.

She moved slightly away and sat up, looking down at him thoughtfully. It was easier to see her beauty now; it radiated out of her like heat. She brushed his cheek gently with one hand and bent down to kiss him. A sweet kiss, a soft, kind kiss.

"Beautiful child," she said affectionately, and then curved her hand around the back of his head and pulled him up as well. He was almost surprised to feel his body obey him. Everything was so clear, so extraordinarily vivid. It felt as though he could have counted every hair on his body by the way the air moved against them.

When she got to her feet he followed her, followed the silent order in her eyes. She walked though the room, away from the main hall, and led him down a few steps and through an arched doorway. It led back into the high vaulted hall of the baths again. Seeing that, he stopped, but she turned to him with a faint smile, then pushed him towards one of the bath attendants.

He went along, and when he turned his head a moment later, the woman was gone.

Easing himself into a tub of hot water at the bath attendant's request, he felt more relaxed than in a very long time. Muscles he had hardly been aware of weren't hurting any more, and he noticed the relief more than he had ever noticed the pain. His skin felt acutely sensitive, and when the bath attendant started washing him the sensations were startlingly strong. The wash cloth slid over his back, his unscarred arms.

Once he was clean, he was allowed to get out of the tub on his own and encouraged to step into the large common pool at the center of the hall. The water here was cooler, and he walked out until it reached almost to his shoulders. Then he slowly let himself fall backwards, sinking under the surface, surrounded again.

Long breathless moments later he came up and blinked the water out of his eyes. He could feel every drop that ran from his hair down his face and neck. When he tilted his head back to look up at the vaulted ceiling the world spun a lazy turn and it was easy to imagine himself momentarily as the one still point in the universe.

Eventually he returned to the edge of the pool where the impatient bath attendant was waiting with a towel. He was dried off briskly. The towel was rough, but the sensation of the cloth scratching against his skin was not unpleasant. The attendant was thorough, but impersonal.

Just as he was waiting for something else to happen, a man in the robes of a priest walked up to them. He smiled, kindly. "Come with me. It's time for the enande."

Nothing easier, of course, and they waked along one side of the large pool until they reached another of those arched doorways that appeared to lead up, by a series of steps, into a short corridor. The priest put a hand on his shoulder and gestured for him to go that way. He nodded, and went. He knew what was waiting for him.

* * *

It was still hot in the room, a deep and abiding warmth that seemed to radiate from the very walls now, and Harry was grateful that he had changed out of his uniform. That was about the only thing he was grateful for, though. Oh, the Lienzi priests had brought him food and drink, and he'd smiled and thanked them when what he really wanted to do was seize them by the throat and shake them until they brought Tom to him.

It had been a very long day. Harry had paced the room from wall to wall, door to window, despite the heat. He hadn't been able for one moment to stop wondering about Tom, about what was happening to Tom. And all kinds of possibilities had rolled through his mind, leaving him deeply uneasy. The images from the visual clips that had been burned into his mind had replayed themselves again and again.

The Lienzi had seemed mildly concerned about something when they had checked in on him late in the afternoon. Harry had carefully, politely asked them if everything was going as it should, and they had nodded but there had been something of hesitation in their faces. Pressing ever so slightly he had asked if Tom was well, and they had immediately reassured him. Harry had felt that he had to believe them, they did look genuinely convincing then.

But the whole day had passed now, and the sun had set; the room was lit with a myriad of tiny candles cluttered over every flat surface, incense burned in copper bowls and scented oil lamps stood on the window sill, shadows danced on the walls and the stars were coming out in the darkness outside the high windows, and where the hell was Tom?

Harry swallowed hard. So many hours. How long could this take, anyway? Wasn't there some kind of, well, time limit? Or was Tom out there somewhere at the mercy of someone else's desire? He resisted the temptation to pound on the wall, to break something, to find the Lienzi and get them to tell him what was really going on.

There had been plenty of time for him while he waited to think about the revelations of the past few days. And it was all so strange. He didn't know what to think. Harry was beginning to wonder if it was even possible for him to understand. He'd led such a sheltered life, such a perfect life even, he thought resentfully. Maybe there was no way for him to truly comprehend the full extent of the hell that Tom had been through. Maybe the distance between them could not be bridged, the chasm that separated Harry's innocence from Tom's painful experiences.

It made him strangely angry. At the same time he was amazed by Tom's strength. Tom had managed to build a new life for himself, to reconstruct his identity aboard Voyager and, Harry hoped, make himself into someone he could at least partly respect. Although there were moments when Harry wondered. But then, even more amazingly, Tom had voluntarily chosen to resume his previous identity, the self he had hated, for the common good.

Harry shook his head. Brave and stupid. Goddamnit, Tom Paris, why do you have to be like that? And Harry himself had contributed to the decision by innocently saying that there was no way Voyager could leave the planet without trading with the Lienzi.

Well, there was no way. He sighed. That was the problem, wasn't it? It was thinking logically about the problem that had led them to this situation. Harry wished the ship had never been damaged in that storm. He wished the captain had never chosen Tom for the away team. He wished all kinds of silly and pointless things.

Then he heard a soft sound and immediately turned towards the door. No one was there, the corridor outside was dark and empty. What— Harry remembered the other doorway, and looked that way instead.

Tom came walking out of the shadows, up the shallow stairs. He was naked; the soft sound Harry had heard was his bare feet against the stone floor. As Tom came closer and stepped into the warm candle light, Harry saw that his hair was wet. His skin glowed. Ciglio had said that the doorway led to the baths, Harry recalled in a desperate attempt to hold onto rational thought. Tom looked, he looked...

The look on his face was nearly impossible to describe. He looked at once utterly relaxed, and acutely sensitive to every sensation. Tom moved slowly, as though the world was caressing him as he walked. The expression in his eyes was at once dreamy and vulnerable as he came towards Harry, stopping at arm's length.

Again, Harry swallowed hard. He knew he ought to talk to Tom, ask if he was all right, find out what had happened to him during this endlessly long day. All the normal things he ought to do for Tom as his lover, for Tom as a fellow crewmember. But something was stopping him, closing up his throat, making it hard for him to breathe even.

Oh God, he had to concentrate. Harry gasped for breath and drew in a lungful of incense smoke. It curled through him, hit him hard. There was only one certainty in his mind. To see Tom like this, standing there with a strange darkness in his eyes while the air slid across his skin like the kiss of a lover... to see him like this was to want him.

Carefully, aware that his throat was dry and his hands feverishly hot, Harry moved towards Tom. He reached out and brushed his fingertips very lightly against the side of Tom's neck and saw Tom shiver slowly, tiny ripples going through him like rings on water. Looking at Tom's face Harry saw that his eyelids were half closed, his lips slightly parted. And that look, oh, that look.

With one fingertip he traced Tom's hairline from just behind his ear to the nape of his neck, and then continued downwards, trailing the spine. There were a few drops of water here and there on Tom's back, glittering like tiny fragments of crystal. Harry was fascinated by the way Tom's skin seemed alive under his touch. He leaned in and licked one of those irresistible drops off Tom's shoulder blade.

Tom made a small sound, not quite a gasp. God, he was so hot. Like touching fire. Harry brought his other hand up too and ran all his fingers down Tom's back, the very lightest touch he could manage, sometimes brushing only the fine hairs and not the skin. He could see Tom's muscles shift in response to every minute shift in sensation.

You're out of your mind, he told himself. You know what he's just gone through, now you're going to jump his bones? There was no way he could keep his hands off Tom. There was just no way. Harry drew his hands up Tom's back again, caressed the smooth shoulders and trailed his fingers down over Tom's chest. He was standing so close now he could feel the heat rising out of Tom's body. Harry leaned down and traced a circle with the tip of his tongue between Tom's shoulder blades.

A faint whisper, no word he could make out, but he knew that husky tone of voice very well, and it stoked the slow flame of desire in him into a white heat. Without knowing how it had happened Harry found that he was holding Tom tightly against him, and oh, the absolutely delicious sensation of skin against skin, Tom still slightly damp and so hot to touch. Tom's head fell back against Harry's shoulder. He was breathing hard, his chest rising and falling rapidly under Harry's hands.

Harry turned his head and kissed the smooth column of Tom's throat. He could feel the pulse-beats there, quick and strong, against his lips. When he smoothed his palms flat against Tom's chest, he felt another shiver run through the body in his arms as he brushed across the already stiff nipples.

It was hard to name the emotion that held him in such a perfectly possessive grip. Not just blind desire; something far more specific than that, and directed only and always at this man, this one whom he loved more than anything. I want him I don't care what he's been doing I want him or who with I want him he is mine and oh God how I want him. Now.

He kissed the back of Tom's neck, gently at first, then open-mouthed, sucking at the tender skin. Tom smelled of clean water and herbs, fresh and appealing, but under that his real scent was beginning to rise like a gathering heat haze under a blazing sun. Harry breathed in deep of it. Yes, that was it, that was exactly it. The smell of Tom mingled with that of the incense and wound through him, piercing silver and musk, deep and compelling.

He licked at Tom's shoulder and tasted it as well, sweet water, salt sweat. It was so good. It was better than anything, and Harry's fingers sought out Tom's nipples again and played around them lightly. Tom pressed back against him, his head rolling on Harry's shoulder. His chest heaving as Harry abandoned gentleness to give his nipples a firm twist and then scrape across them with his nails.

Harry kissed Tom's shoulders, his back, bit at his neck. Tom was breathing in harsh gasps now, and he moved under Harry's hands like water under a raging storm.

Fighting for control, Harry took a step away from his lover, resisting for a moment the sweet heat of him and the small sound of distress he made at being abandoned. He walked around Tom, looking at him. All that fair skin was so deliciously flushed, Tom's lips were trembling, his nipples were hard and so was his cock. The crown gleamed wetly, and on an impulse Harry dropped to his knees and licked at it, tasting his lover. Tom let out a startled cry.

Harry ran his tongue around the head, flicked across the sensitive point on the underside and heard Tom moan. Reluctantly, he let go. This would have to wait, he thought as he rose to his feet, placing one soft kiss after another along Tom's belly and chest and throat. It would have to wait, but not for very long. He cupped his hand around Tom's neck, running his fingers into Tom's hair, and kissed him.

Tom returned the kiss feverishly. He sucked at Harry's tongue, bit at his lips. Harry felt Tom's hands settle in the small of his back, pressing them together. Then Tom drew his nails up Harry's spine. Harry broke the kiss to hiss through his teeth at the sudden sensation, and Tom's hands slid around to his waist and undid the kilt. It fell on the floor, unheeded, as they kissed again and ground into each other.

Running one hand down Tom's back to cup a downy ass cheek, Harry tugged his lover along to the couch by the window. He pushed Tom down to fall across it, grateful that the thing was as big as a bed — bigger than most beds aboard Voyager, in fact. For a moment Harry stood there just looking at Tom, at the wild and wanting look in his eyes and the way his skin looked in candlelight. He was so beautiful it almost made Harry's heart stop beating. And then just looking wasn't possible any more and he dropped down next to Tom, supporting himself on one elbow, stroking Tom's legs.

Harry leaned in and slowly started to lick at Tom's nipples, changing from one to the other in response to Tom's breathless moans. When Tom was starting to sound altogether too frantic, he stopped, and let his tongue trace a spiral pattern up across Tom's shoulders. He drew his fingers along thigh, hip and side to finally play with the golden curls of chest hair.

At every touch, Tom shifted minutely, as though trying to caress Harry's roaming hands with his body. When Harry stroked his cheek, he turned his head to suck briefly at a fingertip, trapping it between his teeth before letting go again. That small action made something hot and cold twitch and start to unfold deep in Harry's belly, sending out long tendrils all through his body. Now he was the one to shiver, and sigh.

He bent his head to nuzzle at Tom's armpit, then continued with light kisses downwards, marking each rib with a flick of his tongue. Tom, ticklish, quivered but did not draw away. Harry teased a slow zigzagging line with the tip of his tongue from the edge of Tom's ribs to the hollow of his hipbone. He shifted his position to a more convenient one as he dropped kisses all along the juncture where thigh met body.

Here he could breathe deep of Tom's desire. Taste it, too. He cupped a hand around Tom's balls carefully, rolling them in his palm and then stroking the sensitive skin with his fingertips. When Tom breathed out on a long, low, dreamy sound, Harry firmly ran his tongue along the shaft of Tom's cock until he reached the head and sucked it into his mouth.

He circled it with his tongue lovingly, tasting the pre-ejaculate again. Then he let go. Tom arched upwards, missing the heat, the wetness, but Harry was moving downwards again. He started to lick at Tom's balls instead. It was even more fascinating to feel them move against his tongue than against his fingers. When he sucked them into his mouth one by one, Tom began to moan again, a low ragged sound of pure lust.

Harry was in the grip of something beyond desire. He was painfully hard, he wanted Tom so badly that he thought it was going to kill him, and yet he went on, drawing it out, slowing down. Using one hand to push Tom's balls up, he began to lick at the sensitive area underneath. Tom drew his legs up and tilted his pelvis to give Harry better access.

Without a moment's hesitation Harry slid under Tom's leg and rolled him over gently. He nudged Tom's thighs apart and settled in to continue where he had left off, teasing the soft skin of the perineum. When he stroked the curve of Tom's ass with one hand, Tom moved against him almost desperately.

Harry knew in some part of his mind that he was barely capable of accessing any longer that there was a reason why he shouldn't do this, but it felt like exactly the right thing to do, and how could he resist the way Tom sounded, the way Tom moved? His mouth moved up, exploring unknown territory.

The first slow stroke of Harry's tongue made a deep shudder run through Tom, but he didn't try to turn away. He just lay there, breathing, shivering, as though held captive by the sheer sensation, weighed down by the heat, tangled up in the scent that wreathed around them. Harry could feel the vibrations running through Tom's body; he echoed them with his tongue, building up a counter-rhythm that could hold Tom perfectly suspended between fear and desire.

Not until he felt perfectly certain that Tom would not break away did Harry raise himself up enough to stretch out one arm and dip his fingers in the bowl of the oil lamp standing in the window, scooping up as much of the warm scented oil as he could manage. It wasn't too hot, at least he didn't think so. He'd lost his ability to judge such things; the room was pulsing with warmth, and Tom...

Tom was burning up. He was a man made out of molten glass, fluid and dangerous and radiating heat. Harry let the oil drip down slowly between Tom's buttocks, watching in rapt fascination the way it slid over Tom's skin before letting his fingers follow the slick trail, stroking and caressing. For a moment his mind entertained the fantasy of oiling Tom's entire body, the two of them sliding together in slippery ecstasy.

But not here and now. He could hear the pace of Tom's rapid breaths, edged with fear, but mostly lust. When Harry tried gently to push a finger into Tom he discovered that perfect gentleness would not do, yet he was reluctant to force the tight muscle. Tom solved the problem by pushing up against him with a small sound that could have been a strangled yes or just a groan.

Feeling him tense and then relax, Harry carefully slid his finger deeper, pushing in a steady rhythm. He knew he'd found the right spot when Tom froze, and groaned. The blood was pounding in Harry's ears, and whenever Tom made one of those absolutely wild and abandoned sounds, he had to bite his lip to hold himself back. Slowly. This had to be done slowly. When he thought the time was right he added another finger, that was tricky, and then eventually a third, which was easier. Tom whimpered.

Harry started to kiss his way up Tom's spine, finger-fucking him all the while. When at long last he reached Tom's neck he nibbled on it, and licked Tom's ear. Harry wasn't sure what he was waiting for, some kind of sign maybe, but one look at Tom's face told him that Tom was too far gone by now for any kind of rational communication.

He looked so beautiful, flushed, heated and out of control. Harry felt something inside him twist almost painfully; he didn't know if it was love or fear, passion or terror, he only knew that he was going to give everything he had and everything he was to this man. It wasn't a matter of choice. It was just going to happen.

Harry curled his free hand around Tom's shoulder and drew him to his side, spooning their bodies together. He pulled his fingers out, which caused another of those irresistible moans, and shifted into a better position. Slowly, oh so slowly, guiding himself with his oily hand, he started to push into Tom's body. He would slide in a short way, withdraw even less, push forward again, distracted all the while by those sounds Tom made and the way he gasped and moved in response to everything Harry did.

It seemed to take forever until that tight heat finally encased him completely and he was pressed against Tom with one arm wrapped around his waist. Harry was almost ready to cry with the unbelievable perfection of it. Tom said something. Harry couldn't make out the words this time either, but that tone of voice meant please.

He hardly dared to move, though. He knew he had to be gentle, but the passion that surged through him was wild and wanted nothing better than for Harry to grab Tom's hips and fuck him senseless. He stayed where he was, struggling for breath, for control.

And then Tom moved.

Crooking one leg back around Harry's for leverage, he pushed his hips forward and then firmly back again, and Harry groaned and closed his fingers hard around Tom's arm. He couldn't keep still now. As he started to thrust in answer to Tom's movements, Tom cried out and then didn't fall silent again but went on moaning, sobbing, gasping for breath.

Harry was going out of his mind. It was incredible. His heart was pounding so hard, his whole body was thrumming with energy, he could power a starship with this. And oh God, he was inside Tom and it was so hot and so tight and above all it was what Tom wanted, Tom was crying out wordlessly for it and that was what broke Harry down completely, because he didn't think he'd ever be able to say no to Tom. Particularly not when Tom was writhing in his arms and begging to be fucked.

Harry knew how that felt; he knew just how insane Tom could drive him, and he knew what he wanted then. So he closed his slick, oily hand around Tom's cock and slid it down the length of the hard shaft, and thrust deep into Tom's ass at the same time. Tom screamed. A wild, full-throated scream that just went on and on as Harry thrust into him again and again.

Tom had reached out to brace himself against the wall, pushing back against Harry frantically. All at once, the time for being slow and gentle was past, and the pace they set between them matched the frenzied beating of Harry's heart. Closer. They had to get closer. Harry sank his teeth into Tom's shoulder until he tasted blood. A single word was working its way out through Tom's throat. "Harry. Harry."

Oh God, so close, he was so close now. He was losing control. Harry growled between clenched teeth and drove into Tom, hard. The world had receded into dark nothing and only the warm flickering points of light remained, candle flames, stars. Tom trembled and fell silent for one moment, went absolutely still and then he cried out again and came, bucking wildly. The muscles of his ass clenched tight around Harry's cock, and Harry closed his eyes and surrendered to the orgasm that was punching the breath from his lungs.

It went on forever and a heartbeat, a long drowning instant of ecstatic nothingness where he floated weightless in the love he felt. When he finally dragged in air again and remembered who he was, his face was pressed into Tom's neck and their bodies felt welded together, part of each other everywhere they touched. Inside and out.

Harry drew another slow, shuddering breath. Tom was lying so still, so completely relaxed, it felt strange. But he wasn't going to complain. Although he couldn't say how he knew of it, he could feel the peace in Tom, and in himself. They could just lie like this for a little while. He closed his eyes and thought about love. About how he felt.

* * *

Tom sighed, and stretched leisurely as consciousness returned. His whole body throbbed with the lingering aftermath of acute pleasure, and he was being held in a wonderfully tight embrace. The only small disappointment was that Harry was no longer inside him. He lifted his head and found Harry's mouth with his own. They shared a slow kiss, nibbling at each other's lips. Tom wondered if he had ever taken the time to appreciate Harry's mouth properly. It was beautiful, and it was such a constant temptation. Harry could be so serious when he was on duty, he could look like an ensign with nothing on his mind but shield harmonics, he could cloak his expressive dark eyes in a Starfleet regulation blankness, but whenever Tom saw that mouth, he wanted to kiss it. Had always wanted to, ever since the first time he met Harry.

Oh yeah, love at first sight. Really embarrassing, that.

No wonder he had tried so hard to fight it, to ignore it, to pretend it was something else, to redirect it even. He was going to have to apologize to Kes one of these days. And then he'd just grown used to it and resigned himself to this feeling that had worn itself into his heart, marking him forever.

He touched his fingertips to Harry's cheek and let them drift slowly over his lover's face, finding out again all the details, the physical reality. The line of the eyebrow, so. The soft, fragile eyelid and the trembling movement of the eye underneath. Tom ran his fingers through Harry's hair; it was a beautiful mess, spiky and tangled and smelling faintly of shampoo and hair gel. He shifted upwards and let his lips move along the hairline. Harry sighed, a small gust of breath against Tom's throat.

It was very hot in here. The windows were wide open, but there was no cool night air streaming in. Yet the heat wasn't uncomfortable. It was a warm embrace that held them here, creating a space for them alone. The two of them together, the way that for so long he had never even dreamed that they would be.

Tom kissed the center of Harry's forehead, then the spot where his third eye should be, the bridge and then the tip of his nose. He pulled back teasingly as Harry tilted his head up to catch Tom's mouth with his own. Hmm, it was a bit like a game. Place your bets, for how long do you think Tom Paris can refrain from kissing Harry Kim? About, oh, three seconds.

God, that mouth. And everything else about him. There was something so fundamentally right about Harry, something solid and unshakable and clear. Even his touch felt perfectly right, Tom thought as Harry stroked his shoulder and the back of his neck. He smiled into the kiss, unable to think about anything except how much he loved Harry.

Then he made himself draw back slowly so he could look at Harry again. Every time he met Harry's eyes with his own he could feel himself drowning, and wanting to hold off that wonderful feeling a little longer, he looked instead at Harry's throat, at his strong shoulders and his smooth chest. Tom put his hand right over Harry's heart just to feel it beating.

He bent down and kissed the hollow above Harry's collarbone, and then outlined the bone itself with his tongue. Moving lower, he brushed his lips against the skin, enjoying the texture of it and then tasting it as well. He wanted to touch Harry all over, lick him from his hairline to the soles of his feet. And he laughed and sighed at once at the impatience that made his tongue roam sideways to find Harry's left nipple and flick against it lightly, once, twice, three times, and wasn't that a drawn-in breath, a slow shift, subtle encouragement.

Tom circled the erect nub with his tongue and then sucked it into his mouth, grazing it with his teeth the way he knew would make Harry, yes, like that, moan. His fingers brushed across the other nipple and then pinched it firmly. He went on like that, enjoying the way Harry's breath was coming faster and faster, until Harry's hand grabbed the back of his neck and dragged his head up, and he was trapped in a long kiss that he didn't have the slightest desire to resist.

Tucking a hand under Harry's shoulder he rolled, taking Harry with him, until he was on his back with Harry half on top of him and they were still kissing. There wasn't the fiery keen urgency of the first time, this was something deeper and slower and in its way even more irresistible. Tom pressed his palms flat against Harry's back, keeping them close together.

The candles burned all around them, enclosing them in a circle of light. Harry nibbled at Tom's neck, sucked the lobe of his ear. As he moved, Tom felt Harry's erection pressing into his hip. He wriggled in underneath Harry so they could grind against each other. Then he turned his head and whispered in Harry's ear. "Harry."

Harry's tongue flicked this way and that all down Tom's throat, sending chills down his spine. "Mm?"

Tom sighed in pleasure, and then smiled, and bit Harry's neck to make sure he had his attention. After all, this was important. "I want you to fuck me again." The next instant Harry was kissing him almost roughly, and he felt thought and language begin to slip away as the wildness rose to claim them.

* * *

Sunlight poured in through the window, and it was when its gentle warmth developed a bite against his skin that Harry finally, reluctantly woke up. He refused to open his eyes at first. The sun was shining on his back, his arm was lying across Tom's chest, and their legs were tangled together. A stray hair tickled his nose, and that made him move finally, shifting his head and blinking at the bright light.

Tom was still asleep. He looked perfectly serene, lying there in immaculate sculptural peace except, of course, for his swollen lips and those bite marks on his neck. Harry winced. Christ. Not only had he let Tom go through with some bizarre ritual yesterday, that he still knew nothing about, but he'd pounced on him the moment he got back. Not just pounced on him, but made love to him. Fucked him. Pretty roughly, to be honest. Which was definitely the last thing he ought to have done.

Harry could feel his cheeks start to burn in a way that had nothing to do with the sunshine. Things had gotten slightly out of hand during the night, starting with the second time they'd made love. Oh God, did I really... and at a time when he had known better than ever before why he had to be gentle with Tom, too. What had he been thinking! Well, he hadn't been thinking at all, otherwise he would never have.

There was a rustle of cloth and the sound of brisk footsteps on the floor. Harry nearly jumped out of his skin, trying to find a sheet or a blanket or something, anything, to cover Tom and himself with. It was Ciglio, who eyed them both with a bright smile, completely unembarrassed. "Dags för frukost. Det finns vatten här också. Kom till oss sedan när ni är klara."

Harry wondered where his comm badge was, and what color his face was. Right then Tom stirred, and said sleepily, "Tack. Vi ska inte ta så lång tid på oss." Ciglio, who'd put a tray down on the table, smiled understandingly at them, nodded and left again.

Tom turned his head and looked at Harry, and smiled. He still looked serene; his eyes were clear and oh so blue. That smile just took Harry's breath away, and then Tom moved closer and brushed a light kiss over Harry's lips. Harry sighed. After a moment he thought to ask, "What was that you said?"

Tom looked surprised. "Well, it can't take us that long to eat and get dressed."

"Tom." Harry sat up slowly. "I didn't understand a word. You were speaking a strange language."

"I was?" Tom stretched with his arms above his head, then sat up too, wincing ever so slightly. Seeing that, Harry turned his head sharply and Tom grinned at him. "I seem to be a bit sore for some reason."

Harry reached out and pulled Tom against him in an awkward, sideways hug. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to..."

"For someone who didn't mean to, you did a damn good job," Tom said and there was laughter, of all things, in his voice. He drew back slightly and looked Harry in the eyes. "Did I look as though I minded?" Harry shook his head. "Did I sound as though I minded?" Harry shook his head again, feeling the ghost of a blush start to spread across his face as he remembered. "Well, then." Tom dismissed the matter. "Breakfast?"

This time Harry nodded instead, but he still couldn't shake the feeling of unease that had settled into him. He got up off the bed and walked over to the table, picking up a piece of fresh bread and then pausing just before biting into it. "You really were speaking a different language." He started to look around for his comm badge.

Tom looked surprised. "I was?" Rising as well, he went over to the other couch where the piles of clothing Harry had rejected were still lying, picked up a long robe and looked at it. "I wonder where my uniform is. I didn't realize that." Tom poured some water into a ewer and washed briskly. "They do have bathrooms," he said, "it's just here in the temple that everything's so old-fashioned."

Harry watched, eating the bread, as Tom dried himself and put on the robe and tried, without much success, to tidy his hair. His unease deepened at the way Tom wore those clothes as though completely used to them, twisting a belt the way all the Lienzi seemed to do into an intricate knot. "Maybe we should hurry," he sighed and washed down the last of the bread with a pale green liquid. "I'm surprised Voyager hasn't tried to contact us."

"Well, I've lost my comm badge," Tom said unconcernedly. He came up to Harry, picked up a fruit from the tray and ran a hand over Harry's shoulder. "You should consider getting dressed. Not that I don't love you like this, but."

Harry nodded. He leaned in for a swift kiss, feeling oddly in need of reassurance. Then he started to search for his uniform and found it at the bottom of the pile of clothes Tom had gone through. The comm badge was pinned to the kilt he'd worn yesterday, and that had ended up kicked in underneath a thick pile of cushions. Harry suspected that if anyone had tried to contact them overnight, they wouldn't have heard it, for various reasons.

Washed, dressed, and with the badge back in place, he started to feel a bit more confident, though he knew his hair must be a real mess, just like Tom's. And they both needed to shave. Still, Harry looked at Tom, who nodded as professionalism settled onto them both. "Time to get going," Harry said and they left the room.

Three of the Lienzi, Ciglio among them, were waiting in the courtyard. They smiled welcomingly, and Harry started to get a sense of just how much Tom's going through with the ritual had meant to them. They had been politely kind yesterday, showing courtesy to strangers, but now there was genuine friendship in the way they acted, and something more than that in the way they acted towards Tom.

"You have done very well," Ciglio said. "We are enriched by your joining us."

"I am honored to be one of you," Tom said and Harry stared at him, surprised by the smoothness of the courtesy and not a little discomforted by the warmth in Tom's voice. And the phrase 'one of us' began to take on rather an ominous ring in his ears.

"I thought I heard Tom — Lieutenant Paris speak your language before," he said slowly, questioningly.

"You did," Ciglio said, smiling. "He is of the Lienzi now. Only the cleansing ceremony remains, and we will negotiate with your captain again, so things are done properly, and you will get your tellerium."

"And the cleansing ceremony will be held now," another of the Lienzi said. She turned to Harry. "Will you be comfortable waiting here?" He nodded. "If you wish to contact your ship, you may borrow our comm link."

Harry shook his head. "No, thank you. That won't be necessary." He did intend to call the captain, but it would be enough to just speak to her, and he would rather be alone right now. As the others began to walk away, Tom turned his head and winked at Harry. That made him feel a bit better.

But he was still worried as he crossed over through the rows of columns into the green little garden. Harry had assumed that the rituals were wholly symbolic. Not only did the Lienzi appear to take them very literally, they seemed to work like that, too. How else had Tom learned their language?

It made Harry start to wonder how much else was included in that 'becoming one of us.' He headed for the shady corner and sat down on a stone bench. So they would get their tellerium, but at what price, exactly? Harry touched his comm badge. "Kim to Janeway."

"Go ahead." He had rarely been so glad to hear someone's voice. The captain's brisk words made everything seem more normal again. Weird might be part of the job, but Harry was glad to know that at least he wasn't alone in dealing with it.

"Captain, Lieutenant Paris is going through the cleansing ceremony now. You can expect the Lienzi to reopen negotiations soon. It seems pretty clear that they are going to let us have the tellerium."

"Good." She sounded genuinely pleased both at the news and in relief at finally having something decided. "And is everything all right with you and Mr. Paris?"

"I... I think so." Harry hesitated for a moment but then went on, "Yes."

"I'm coming down," she said firmly. "I have to finish the negotiations anyway. Janeway out." Harry blinked, and sat scuffling his feet for a while and waited. It didn't take long for the captain to appear, not far from him, shading her eyes against the bright sun.

Harry got to his feet. "Captain." Janeway turned towards him and smiled, walking over into the shade as well. She sat down and nodded at him to do the same. Harry sank down again, but he couldn't relax.

"You sounded bothered, ensign," she said without preamble. "Is there something wrong?"

"I don't know," Harry said. "I — the thing is that — the ceremony that was supposed to make Lieutenant Paris one of the Lienzi?" Her eyes were warm, understanding. "Well, it has. He — he speaks their language now, he wears their clothes. I'm worried that when they asked for him to do this they meant that he should become one of them — permanently."

The captain sat up straighter. "Do you have any evidence of this?"

Harry shook his head. "No. I just wonder about it, captain." He looked down at his hands. "Things could be interpreted that way." He didn't want the captain to think that he was jumping to conclusions.

"I see. But I'm sure it's nothing to worry about." Janeway looked very decided. "We're not leaving Elce without the lieutenant." Harry nodded; he knew that when the captain spoke in that tone of voice, there was no doubt of what would happen.

Still, he wondered and he worried as they sat there waiting for the Lienzi to return. Something strange had been happening down here, and Harry felt a bit out of his depth. The night that had passed had been incredible. He had never felt so close to anyone. At the same time, his inability to think past it bothered him. He still didn't know anything about the ceremony, anything about what had really been happening to Tom.

And when he'd heard Tom speak this strange language so effortlessly, it had seemed like a wedge driven between them, something they didn't share. Were the Lienzi really going to try to take Tom away from him? Tom seemed so at ease with them and their customs; Harry had no idea how this had happened and what the ritual had really entailed. Maybe Tom wanted to stay. Maybe last night had been a way to say goodbye; that could be what the strange word meant.

Harry felt cold to the bone. He rose abruptly and walked out into the sunshine, willing it to melt the ice inside him. Don't leave me, he thought silently. Oh God, please don't leave me.

* * *

Everything was all right now. It had gone very smoothly, both the ritual and his contact with the Lienzi. It wasn't until it was over and they were walking back to meet Harry again that Tom realized for the first time that Harry was right; that here he was, without comm badge, understanding every word these people said and speaking their language effortlessly, without thinking about it. For a moment it struck him as strange. Then Ciglio asked him a question and it slipped to the back of his mind again.

It felt comforting to have healed the small rift he'd caused between Voyager and the Lienzi. The customs of the Lienzi had been honored, and Voyager would be able to leave Elce and journey on, and on and on and on. His mind showed him stars and candle flames, flames and stars, and the smooth black velvet of night and space. And then Harry, with him. Bound to him by the enande.

Yes, everything was all right. As he and Ciglio came out into the courtyard again, Tom saw that Captain Janeway was sitting with Harry, and the small contented smile on his face widened. He was grateful to the captain for letting him go down here. And it was good that she was here to resume the negotiations straight away. Maybe, Tom reflected, it wasn't good of her so much as impatient.

Harry and the captain got to their feet and came over to meet Tom and Ciglio. The captain inclined her head gravely, then gave them both her tight, businesslike smile. "Welcome, captain," Ciglio said. "Tregua is here, and we can soon call the others together and you can all meet. As Tom Paris is one of us now, he is welcome to attend as well."

"In a moment," the captain said and turned to Tom. "Is everything all right with you, lieutenant?" He nodded, and smiled at her. She seemed reassured and turned back to Ciglio. "I would prefer it if Lieutenant Paris and Ensign Kim returned to our ship. I trust that won't be a problem, unless you require Mr. Paris' presence?"

"Oh, no." Ciglio shook his head. Then he turned to Tom. "I hope you get back to your home," he said softly. "But never forget that you have two homes now."

It felt like the most natural thing in the world to step into Ciglio's arms and embrace him like a brother. Tom nodded solemnly. "I'm very grateful for what you've let me share," he said. Then he walked up to Harry and smiled, trying to relieve that strange expression on Harry's face.

"Please come this way, captain," Ciglio said and led the way. The captain, after a swift backwards glance and nod at Harry and Tom, followed him. Tom looked around to see that they were alone, and then wrapped his arms around Harry in a spontaneous hug.

"I suppose we'd better get back," he said. "I need to replicate a new uniform." The robe was very comfortable, but he couldn't really see the captain allowing him on the bridge dressed like this.

Harry touched his comm badge. "Kim to Voyager. Two to beam up."

Tom looked around the courtyard, at the white temple walls, the clear sky overhead, the warm sunshine. It was beautiful here. And then it all vanished and was replaced by transporter room two, and ensign Lee was looking rather curiously at the way he was dressed. They stepped off the platform and he flashed a smile at her. "I went native."

"Very flattering, lieutenant," she deadpanned. "Nice legs." Tom laughed and followed Harry outside. Yes, he definitely needed a uniform. What had been correct among the other Lienzi wasn't right here on Voyager. Harry led the way to Tom's quarters and they went inside.

Tom took the robe off and folded it neatly, giving it its own shelf among his other clothes. He started to rummage around in the mess that was his closet, eventually succeeding in finding his spare uniform. That was a relief. Despite what he'd said to Harry before, he certainly didn't have enough rations to replicate a new uniform, and he wasn't sure if the captain would have considered the one he'd mislaid among the Lienzi to have been lost in the line of duty.

An unusual duty certainly, that ceremony. Tom found himself shivering slightly, and hurried to get dressed again. Harry was standing by the desk, looking down at the floor with a grave expression on his face.

"Are you hungry as well?" Tom asked. "I think I forgot to eat yesterday. I thought maybe we could go to the mess hall?"

"Yes," Harry said slowly. Then he looked up. "Tom, I know you don't like it when I say this, but we have to talk." Harry's eyes were very serious. "All these things that have happened just feel really strange. And you're," Harry obviously had trouble getting the words out, "you're acting strange, too." He looked unhappily at Tom. "But sure, we can eat first."

Tom nodded. "Maybe we should stay here and replicate something, if you want to have a private conversation."

"I'm not sure we can afford that," Harry said and smiled in an attempt to be more lighthearted. Tom had to agree, and they went to the mess hall after all.

As soon as they set foot inside, B'Elanna rose from her seat like a rocket from a launcher and came up to them, grabbing Tom in one of her bone-crunching hugs. He hugged her back and gasped for breath. "I was starting to wonder if we'd ever get you back," she said. "Have you cleaned the floor now?"

"You only mock what you don't understand," Tom said severely. "You'll get your tellerium pretty soon, I think." He winked at her. "Don't say I never do anything for you, B'Elanna." He turned his attention to the food, not really listening as B'Elanna and Harry started to talk about various things that had to be done down in engineering to make everything all right.

Neelix had served up some excruciatingly dreary-looking dishes, and Tom hoped the captain would remember that they could usefully trade with the Lienzi for food as well. Yes, he was hungry, but looking at the dishes standing along the buffet, he started to wonder if he was that hungry.

Without much enthusiasm, he picked out a few items and piled them on a plate, and turned back to find that B'Elanna had returned to her seat and Harry was waiting for him. "Let's go sit down," Harry said, heading for the emptiest corner. Tom followed him, and nodded along the way to the other crew members who were having a late lunch. Kes looked up and gave him a warm smile; she was deep in conversation with Chakotay, of all people.

"You can share this," Tom said, setting his plate down and taking a seat across from Harry. "It doesn't look too good, but it's all there is."

"I'm not really hungry," Harry said. He was starting to look really uncomfortable now, and that look on his face sent another shiver through Tom. The food didn't look very appetizing at all. He pushed the plate aside. Maybe it was that the climate aboard Voyager was a lot cooler than down on Elce, or maybe he'd caught a chill.

No, it was more than that. "I don't think I am either, after all," Tom said.

Harry stared seriously at him for a long moment. "Tom, are you okay?"

He thought about it and tried to describe what was happening. "I feel funny. As though that place was a drug and now it's wearing off." The doped contentment he'd been feeling was slipping away and in its place came memory and anxiety. He really had done it. He'd done what he feared most. The woman, there had been a woman.

Tom closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. A woman, a room full of people making love, and then the night with Harry, the — what? There had been a word to describe it. He knew what it meant, anyway. He wondered if anyone had told Harry.

"I worried so about you," Harry said in a low voice. "After I'd gone through the stuff you gave me. God, Tom, and you went down there..."

Tom swallowed hard. He'd given Harry the data cube. He'd given away his secrets. Suddenly, he wasn't feeling too good at all. "I'm not sure I can talk about that here," he said.

"Sorry." Harry looked truly repentant. "Of course it's not the right place." Tom had kept his eyes on the abandoned plate, but then he raised them quickly to Harry's face. Harry knew. Harry knew, and still he'd come down to Elce to be with Tom. Had gone through with the enande, but then, Harry didn't know what the enande was.

"I thought you'd be disgusted," he said awkwardly. "I never wanted to tell you. I should have known that you would, that it would come out sooner or later." Tom sighed. "So now you know what I — what I'm really like."

Harry looked away, and Tom felt cold; if Harry couldn't even look him in the face, then what had last night been all about? "I know," Harry said quietly. "I think you're the bravest person I've ever met."

That shocked Tom so much he couldn't speak for a long moment. Then he said, "Harry, you've got the wrong man. Shit, you saw, you know what I did. I," he took a deep breath, "I sold myself. I was..."

"You were a victim of horrible abuse," Harry said. "And even though you went through that, you chose to do what you feared would be the same thing again for the people on Voyager. Don't tell me that didn't take a lot of courage." He put a hand on Tom's arm. "I'm just worried about what it did to you. You never told me what, what happened." Now Harry was blushing. "I didn't give you any time to. I'm sorry I grabbed you like that, last night."

"I'm not," Tom said immediately. Then he tried to sort through all the feelings that were running through him and decide which one to give words to first. The serenity he'd experienced down on Elce was very far away now. And another possible interpretation for Harry's words occurred to him. "But if you, if you feel it was a mistake, Harry, I wouldn't blame you for leaving. I mean, if you feel you don't, that I'm not what you thought..." He was getting tangled up. "I'm not good enough for you," he said bluntly, hopelessly. "You have to see that by now, Harry."

"Will you stop it?" Harry said. "I thought I made it pretty clear how I felt last night. I just didn't mean to, but..."

"Hey, it's okay," Tom said wryly. "I came along without a stitch on and threw myself at you, I don't blame you for going along with it. You're not the first guy to fuck someone first and regret it later."

Harry stared at him, then slammed his hand down on the table, hard enough that the plate fell to the floor with a resounding clatter. "Tom, shut up!" he yelled. "I love you, goddamnit!"

For about ten seconds, perfect silence reigned in the mess hall. Then Harry got to his feet, grabbed Tom by the arm and dragged him out of his chair. Tom felt his neck and ears grow hot as the eyes of everyone in the room followed them to the door. The number of people in there seemed to have doubled since he'd come in. He heaved a relieved sigh as they got out into the corridor and Harry kept pulling him along towards the turbo lift.

"Harry," he said quietly, once they were inside. "I just want to say that I love you too. And if you really don't want to leave me..."

"I thought you were going to stay down there," Harry said abruptly. "With the Lienzi. You were speaking their language, you were acting like one of them, you really frightened me, Tom."

He stared, almost unable to understand what Harry was saying. "You thought I was going to leave you? After the enande?"

"I still don't know what that word means," Harry said. "All I know is, I want you to stay with me. If you feel you can." The lift stopped and they stepped outside, walking down the hall to Harry's quarters. Inside everything was neat and tidy except for a few crumpled tissues on the desk. Tom stopped and looked at Harry, not quite knowing what to do with himself.

"I was really scared," he said in a low voice. "It felt like back then, in prison," he didn't want to go into detail, "like I'd gone back to being worth no more than I could get for myself, a good report, some tellerium crystals. But then something happened during the ritual itself."

Tom tried to trace down the errant memory. He knew what had happened, mostly. There had been this woman, darkly beautiful even though she was old... young... old? She had chosen him, but after that everything was slightly hazy. "What was it that happened?" Harry asked softly.

"I don't know. I felt changed, I felt new. Like I was coming to you washed clean of everything." Tom made a face. "I didn't feel cheap then. Stupid of me to think it would all just vanish, but right then..." He shrugged. "Right then everything was somehow all right."

He dropped his eyes and stood there trying to concentrate, only to look up quickly again as Harry came to stand close to him, their bodies not quite touching. "Tom," he said slowly. "I don't think everything will ever be 'all right' just like that, but I wish, I wish you could hold on to that feeling. I—" He seemed to be struggling with the words. "There's no way for me to really understand the things you've been through. But, I'm sorry if this sounds harsh, but you have to find a way of dealing with them, and stop them from defining your life. The way you talk about yourself kills me, Tom. You're not cheap."

"Oh, no?" As the comfortable calm vanished, he was filled with bitterness that edged close to despair. "Harry, for god's sake, I sold my ass, and any other part of my body anyone might want. I was the whore of the Auckland penal colony. I'd say that's the definition of cheap right there. Don't pretend you still respect me."

The next moment his teeth rattled as Harry grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. "Stop it," Harry said. "Just stop it. Damn it, what do you want me to do, get raped as well to make us equal? You say you're not good enough, well, I feel like I'm not good enough, my love's not enough for you, it doesn't matter what I say, you still don't believe me! You just don't want to be happy, do you?"

Tom tore himself away from Harry and stood staring at him for a long moment. Then he turned abruptly around and stalked out of the room.

* * *

Kathryn Janeway lifted her eyes from the padd she had been studying at the sound of the door chime. "Come in." Tom Paris stepped inside, looking unusually serious, not to say downright sullen. He walked into the room and stopped by her desk, standing more or less at attention. "Where is Ensign Kim?"

"I believe Ensign Kim is on his way," Tom Paris said dully. "You did request his presence, captain."

She tried to keep the surprise from showing in her face as she got a second, closer look at him. There was such a profound change in him from the way he had smiled at her this morning that she started to wonder what had happened. Had he and Harry Kim quarreled? Passing two crew members in the corridor she had caught a vague reference to something that had happened in the mess hall, but she hadn't expected it to be those two causing each other trouble.

Another disturbing thought occurred to her. What if Harry Kim had been partly right, and Tom wanted to go back to the Lienzi? They had made it clear that he was free to go, but maybe he hadn't wanted to. Well, if he wanted to return, this interview would give him the chance to say so. Janeway threw a sharp glance at Tom, but all she could tell was that he looked unhappy. The door chime sounded again and this time it was Harry Kim who came in in response to her call. He took up a position as far away from Tom Paris as it was possible to get while still technically being in front of the captain's desk.

She suppressed a sigh and seriously contemplated asking the two of them what the hell they thought they were up to. A smooth relationship between them was necessary for the sake of Voyager's safety. The last time they had broken up, it had taken two days to repair the ship. She wasn't having any more of that kind of nonsense. Then Janeway resigned herself to the fact that she couldn't speak to her officers like that, and got on with the business at hand.

"Sit down, please." Settling into the chairs at least brought them a little closer, but they were very carefully not looking at each other. "As you may already have heard, the Lienzi have agreed to give us what we wanted. Literally," she added and turned to look straight at Tom. "They gave us tellerium crystals and food, saying they owed it to us now that Mr. Paris is one of them."

Tom's eyes widened. Harry sat up straighter. "Captain, is that, can we really accept that? I mean, tellerium is pretty rare."

"We have to," Tom said. "If it's offered as a gift, to offer to pay for it would be insulting." He spoke with spontaneous authority, and Janeway again began to give some thought to Harry Kim's statement that something odd had happened to Tom Paris down on Elce.

"So I understand," she said. "We have accepted the gift. The Lienzi also wanted me to convey an offer to you, lieutenant." The captain paused for a moment, and glanced at Harry Kim. There was raw anguish in his eyes, as though he knew what she was going to say. "They say that if you want to stay here, you are more than welcome; they consider that you now belong on Elce as much as any of them." She cleared her throat. "Voyager will be here another twenty hours, B'Elanna tells me, so you have time to think about it."

Tom met her eyes. "Thank you for telling me, captain. I would like your permission to contact the Lienzi to inform them of my decision."

Janeway nodded. "Of course." She didn't even dare look at Harry Kim any more. "While I have no right to try to influence your decision one way or the other, I'd like to say that I regard you as an excellent officer, and Voyager would certainly be affected by the loss of your abilities." I can't believe I am sinking to the level of emotional blackmail, she thought and forged on, "I would also like to commend you on the results of this mission. You won us everything we could have asked for and more, lieutenant."

But had it been worth what he had given for it, she wondered. Tom had looked desperate as he decided to go down to Elce, and he didn't look at all good right now. The happy smile of this morning was starting to seem stranger and stranger. What had the Lienzi done to him? And would he really want to go back to them? Of course, if they could put a smile like that on his face... The captain couldn't figure it out, but she really did not want to lose Tom Paris to this people. And she was certain Harry Kim felt the same way.

"Thank you, captain," Tom said briefly. He didn't even look pleased. "I'm glad that everything worked out."

Oh, to hell with it, Janeway thought. The only way to find out was to ask. "Lieutenant, are you all right? I know you had doubts about taking on this mission, which I perfectly understand. How did the Lienzi treat you? I am grateful that we have obtained what we needed, but I think I would like to know at what price."

Tom's lips pressed together and she thought for a moment that he would refuse to answer. Then he said, "Captain, may I speak privately with you?"

"Of course," she said automatically. Turning towards Harry Kim, she saw that he was struggling to maintain his composure, and sympathy made her try to be as quick as possible. "Ensign, you appear to have done an excellent job as well. The Lienzi spoke highly of you." He nodded as he got to his feet. "Dismissed," she said softly and watched him walk out of the room a little faster than was really correct.

Then she looked back at Tom Paris to find him suddenly slumped in his chair, head bent, staring at his hands. As if feeling the weight of her regard he straightened up again. "Thank you, captain," he said. "About this mission..." She refrained from breaking into the silence to urge him on, thinking it would be better if he could do this at his own pace. "It bothered me a lot. But when I finally went through with the ritual, I thought it had helped. It made me feel different."

He looked straight at her, and his eyes burned. Janeway nodded slowly. "Exactly how did you feel different?" she asked, wondering about his experiences as one of the Lienzi. But that wasn't what he meant.

"It made me feel good," he said huskily. "As though everything had been washed away. I was clean again, it never happened to me, I wasn't that worthless, ever. It made me feel that I was free to give myself, that I had value to myself, that someone else could value me. Could love me, even."

"Others do value you," Janeway said. She met his eyes. "I do, the crew here does. And Harry Kim certainly does. He loves you, you know he does." She wasn't sure if it was wise to bring up Harry Kim, something had obviously been disturbed between the two of them, but Tom needed all the reassurance he could get right now. "I'm glad the Lienzi ceremony could help you understand—"

"But captain," Tom interrupted her, "that's just it. It made me feel better then, but it doesn't really change anything. All that, it still happened. What I was then, not all the ceremonies in the world can hide that or, or make it seem any better than it was."

Janeway sighed. She wished she could call in Kes or Chakotay straight away. Tom's insecurities were too much for her to handle, but she knew that she would lose all the trust and faith he felt towards her if she handled this the wrong way. And she didn't want to hurt him if she could possibly avoid it.

"Nothing can change the past," she said slowly. "But..." She recalled something someone had said to her; it might have been Chakotay, but she wasn't certain. "The purpose of any ritual can't be to change the past but only to put it in perspective, to be able to let go, to evaluate what has been and go on from there. Like a routine debriefing," she said and then wondered if that had been a stupid comparison. "You have to learn from your mistakes, but," she put more emphasis on the next words, "you also have to learn to see whether they were mistakes or unavoidable accidents. We don't always have perfect control over our lives."

"God, I know that," Tom said, sounding choked. Janeway looked at his pale face, at his over-bright eyes, and wondered if he was finally going to cry. "I know that."

"No one can afford to be controlled by the past," she went on. "We have to learn from what happens to us. Experience is what makes us what we are, but seeing our experiences clearly can help us change into what we want to be." Then Janeway wondered if she'd been too cheery, too energetically encouraging. She didn't want to sound as though she was making light of what Tom had gone through, or giving him a simple pep talk.

Rising from her chair, she walked around the desk to lean against the front and put a hand on Tom's shoulder. "I know this must be very painful for you," she said softly. "But you have to deal with it. Trying to ignore things won't make them go away; that only works for so long."

Those words flicked a nerve inside her; she knew what she was talking about, and had to admit that she wasn't very good at taking her own advice. But her troubles weren't nearly as bad as Tom's, nor in such urgent need of a solution.

"Yeah, you're right about that, captain," he said with an attempt at a smile. "I thought I'd left all this behind in the Alpha Quadrant. That I wouldn't have to acknowledge it, as long as I never got close to anyone."

Janeway nodded ."I think I understand," she said. "But lieutenant, you have acknowledged it now, and I believe you can find a way to come to terms with your past. Just don't," she paused for a brief moment as the words sprang unbidden to her mind, "don't let it come between you and the love you have found here."

"I'll try." Tom's voice was barely more than a whisper. She squeezed his shoulder, trying to convey as much comfort and reassurance as she could.

"I have a suggestion, Mr. Paris," she said. "I'm honored that you have chosen to confide in me, but I don't have the time to give you that your problems really need. It would be better if you could turn to someone who wouldn't be distracted by other duties. Kes has agreed to do voluntary counseling for everyone aboard Voyager, together with Commander Chakotay. If you think you would feel comfortable talking to her...?"

The captain hoped that he would. She felt there was no point in suggesting Chakotay, remembering Tom's previous reaction to the idea, but Kes and he were close. The only question was whether Tom would be prepared to allow yet another person to find out his most deeply guarded secret, to see the scars inside that he was so ashamed of.

After a long moment, he nodded. "Yes, I think so." He finally lifted his head and looked at her. "I'll try, captain." Hesitating, Tom added, "And thank you again, captain. You've been very patient with me."

She raised an eyebrow. "Are you trying to suggest that that's out of character?" The surprised look on his face blossomed into a smile, and she smiled back. "You know you can always come to me if you need to, lieutenant." Tom Paris nodded again, getting to his feet in response to the tone of her voice. "Good. Dismissed," she said gently.

* * *

Tom walked towards the mess hall, but started to slow down as he got closer. The scene in there earlier in the day was starting to come back to him. He had a strong feeling that if he walked inside, he'd be stared at at least and very likely talked about and asked questions and any number of embarrassing things. This wasn't a moment when he was prepared to handle the searching inquiries of Voyager gossip.

For a moment he stood indecisively in the corridor, then made up his mind and touched his comm badge. "Paris to Kes."

Kes sounded pleased. "What is it, Tom?"

"Do you have a moment? I'd like to talk to you." For some reason he wanted to talk to Kes before he tried to talk to Harry. Tom had grudgingly come to enough insight about himself to realize that if his conversation with Harry went well, he was likely to ignore the fact that he still needed someone to talk to, and if it went badly he wouldn't even want to try.

"Of course. Where are you?"

"Right outside the mess hall." He kept a wary eye on the door, wondering if someone was going to come out and pounce on him. The last person he wanted to see right now was Megan Delaney.

"I'm in the airponics bay. Do you want to come here?"

"I'll be there in a minute. Paris out." He sighed with relief and headed for the turbo lift. You couldn't get much more private than inside the airponics bay.

When he got there, Kes was standing on a stool, investigating the health of something purple and spiky. Tom wasn't sure he wanted to know whether this was something that was likely to turn up in his food later or not. He walked in and smiled up at her. "Just a moment," she said and twisted one of the purple spikes in a knowledgeable way. Then she jumped down and returned the smile. "It's nice to have you back again, Tom. Is everything all right with you?"

He wondered if everyone who saw him was going to be asking him that question, forever. But then he probably wouldn't mind so much if he could just say 'sure' and get on with his life. "Actually, no," he said. "That's what I wanted to see you about." Tom cleared his throat. "The captain told me that you have become, well, that you're some kind of semi-official counselor on Voyager now."

"More semi than official, I think." Kes' smile was infectious. "But the captain's agreed to refer people to me if she feels it's a good idea." Then Kes put a hand on his arm. "Do you want to talk to me?"

"Yeah." Tom tried a grin. "Well, want to... I think I probably should. Not right at this moment, but I thought we could maybe agree on a few dates and times, if it's all right with you. I think," he sighed, "that this could take a bit of time."

* * *

Harry sat on the edge of the bed, fretting. He clenched his hands around the edge of the mattress and tried to keep from getting to his feet and pacing around the room again. It wouldn't help. Things were a mess again. And it was all his fault. God, what had possessed him?

It seemed he couldn't do a thing right around Tom any more. Harry closed his eyes, reliving the scene in the mess hall. There was probably an old Greek word for the forces that drove a man to make a public declaration of love right before the relationship suffered a major breakdown.

And now Tom might decide to stay here after all, with the people who had managed to make him feel better and who had offered him a home, a place he could belong. Harry knew Tom wanted that, needed that: simple acceptance. He had hoped that his love would be enough.

But was it? Some of what he had said had been heartfelt. It hurt him to try to tell Tom over and over how much he cared and to find that it didn't really make an impression on Tom's mind. Maybe it wasn't enough. Maybe it would never be enough. Harry felt his lips quiver and his eyes burn; he fell back across the bed and rolled over to bury his face in a pillow.

Crying, he didn't hear the sound of the door opening. It wasn't until Tom's voice said "Harry?" that he realized he wasn't alone any more. Harry sat up, then got to his feet with stumbling haste and flung himself at Tom, catching him around the waist and holding him close.

"I'm sorry," he said into Tom's shoulder because he didn't think he could manage to look Tom in the face right now. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean those things I said." Determined not to say it, he said it anyway. "Don't leave me. Tom. Please don't leave me."

Tom hugged him back just as frantically, and tipped his head back. Harry blinked. "Oh God, I'm not, I'm not leaving. I," Tom took a deep breath and then apparently changed his mind. Instead of saying anything, he leaned into a kiss.

"I'm sorry," Harry repeated when he could speak again. "I shouldn't have said that."

"I think you should," Tom said. "The captain said pretty much the same thing. And, well, I talked to Kes and I'm going to try to, um, work this out somehow. You know. To talk about it and everything."

Harry stared at Tom for a moment. He couldn't decide whether to grin like an idiot or burst into tears again. Finally the grin won out, for which he was grateful. "Then you're not leaving. I mean, you're not staying. With the Lienzi."

Tom shook his head. He tugged Harry along until they could both sit down on the edge of the bed. "No. I called them before I got here and told them thanks but no thanks." There was a funny little smile on Tom's face. "The captain forgot to say that you were included in the offer, too."

"What?" Harry's jaw dropped. "They offered me to stay? But why didn't she say that?" It wasn't like the captain to neglect to mention a thing like that. She must have been worried that she would lose Tom, yet she'd told him about what the Lienzi had suggested; there was no reason why she should not have told Harry as well. Of course she might have believed that Tom would be less likely to stay without Harry, but was impossible to suspect her of that kind of underhanded behavior.

"She probably didn't understand," Tom said. "She doesn't know what the enande is, what it means. Anyway, I said no. I," he looked down at his hands, "I belong here. And I want to be with you, if you'll still have me."

"You keep saying things like that," Harry said. He didn't want to lose his temper again, he didn't want to start crying again. "Tom, please, listen to me. I've never lied to you. I wouldn't do that." He waited until he saw Tom nod. "I love you. You have to understand. That's not just something I say to make you happy. I love you. Can't you trust me enough to believe that?"

Tom looked up with a stricken expression on his face. His lips trembled and he had to try a couple of times before getting the words out. "It's just hard for me," he said. "You were right when you said I don't know how to be happy. I love you so much that it scares me to death, Harry. And I keep feeling that I don't deserve you."

"That's the part that's driving me crazy," Harry said. "That I'm somehow not getting through to you." He lifted one hand and brushed his fingers across Tom's cheek. "You have to believe me."

Tom smiled shakily. "I'll try." He tried to move in closer, but it was hard when you were sitting side by side. Harry solved the problem by leaning back and pulling Tom down with him. Lying side by side they could hold each other as close as they wanted. "And I think this ceremony actually helped. The effect didn't last but it did show me that things could be different."

Harry nodded. "But I'm sorry about last night," he said. "I really mean that. Don't get me wrong now. It was amazing, but I shouldn't have — well. Things got out of hand."

"Yeah." Tom's smile was a bit more genuine now. "Did they ever. Look, Harry, the thing is that we weren't really, or at least I wasn't... those ceremonies do things to your head. And the enande is a ritual, too, I guess they never told you. I didn't mind, I still don't mind. But."

"But?" Harry asked worriedly. Tom was probably right. The incense had seemed to go straight to his head. As long as the same thing had happened to Tom, it might be all right.

"But I think it would be a good idea to see if I can do it again while I'm in my right mind," Tom said. Harry's eyes widened, and Tom grinned. "Not all of it, I don't think I'm up to that. I'll settle for once, but Harry, I do want you to fuck me again."

Harry couldn't help it, hearing Tom say those words had an instant effect on him and he knew Tom could feel it. Yes, Tom ran a hand down Harry's chest and stomach, and wrapped it around Harry's erection through his uniform. Harry felt himself push against that hand reflexively, and blushed.

"Maybe we should wait," he said. "I mean, you're probably still pretty sore."

Tom nodded. "Oh, I am. But that's not the point. I don't want to put it off. I need to do it now. Unless you really, really don't want to." He squeezed Harry's cock again, and Harry moaned.

"I don't think that's a problem," he managed to say. Harry turned his head and kissed Tom, slowly at first and then more passionately. "I just want to be sure that you're sure."

"Well, I just want to be sure that—"

They looked at each other and laughed, and then started to kiss again with renewed fervor, clinging to each other. It felt different. This wasn't the blind obsession of last night, it was a conscious choice, and it meant so much. Harry could feel himself melting into Tom's embrace and at the same time he was very aware of how hard he was, every touch increasing his desire.

Tom was still rubbing him through the cloth of the uniform, and Harry stroked Tom's back and started to lick at his neck, cursing the shirt collar. He pushed one leg in between Tom's and rubbed his thigh against Tom's crotch, and they kissed, and kissed, and kissed.

The uniforms were hell to get out of when you were lying down, but they had had some practice. And they were more comfortable with each other now, so the small awkwardnesses didn't matter. Sitting up to tug the uniform off Tom's legs, Harry paused for a moment, thinking this was probably the last moment when he would be clearheaded enough to ask Tom again if it really was all right.

And then he saw the way Tom was looking at him, eyes dark with desire again, that sweetly eager smile, and he knew he didn't have to ask. This was his chance to do it all over again, to be as gentle as he had wanted to be. Harry stretched out where he was and started to kiss his way up the inside of Tom's thighs. Now and then he stopped to graze the sensitive skin with his teeth just to feel Tom jerk in response.

When he got higher he let his kisses roam to one side, avoiding Tom's cock. Tom made a disappointed sound, and Harry looked up and grinned at him. "What's your hurry?" He bent his head and went back to trailing kisses, but when he deliberately passed over Tom's nipples as well, he felt a hand wind into his hair and tug him to a halt.

"I'm pretty sure this qualifies as torture under Federation laws," Tom panted. "What I want you to do is this." In a moment they had changed position and Tom was leaning over Harry's chest, teasing his nipples and tickling his ribs. Harry sighed. He ran a fingertip across Tom's lips, and Tom sucked it into his mouth and then nibbled gently on it.

They played with each other for as long as they could manage, keeping everything slow. Every lingering caress provoked a response, a sigh, a smile, an indrawn breath. And when they tried to take it easy and just lie there and kiss for a while, they got all tangled up and pressed rhythmically together, picking up a heated pace, moaning into each other's mouths.

Tom finally broke away and rolled aside, returning to present Harry with a tube of lubricant. Harry took it, and looked closely at Tom again; Tom nodded, and the look in his eyes and the flush on his face convinced Harry that he really meant it. Squeezing a generous amount of cool grease on his fingers, he started to smooth it onto Tom, into him. Tom's mouth latched onto Harry's neck, biting and sucking. Harry could feel how Tom relaxed slowly, pushing back against Harry's fingers, and then forward, rocking his erection against Harry's.

"You okay?" Harry whispered in Tom's ear. He didn't think he could wait much longer; he wanted this quite as badly as last night. More, maybe. It was different now; he could still think. And what he was thinking was that he loved Tom. Maybe not so different after all. The heat and strength of Tom against him still drove him crazy.

Tom was gasping for breath. "Apart from being about to come, sure." As Harry released him, he started to turn over, but Harry stopped him.

"I want to see you." Tom looked at him, scared and aroused and unbearably beautiful, and nodded. It was a slow shift as they moved against each other, a pillow here for support, legs like this and then even more slowly the joining together, again, finally. Tom closed his eyes and drew Harry towards him, into him, wrapping his legs around Harry's waist.

Oh dear God. Slowly, yes, that was the thing he had to remember. To do it slowly. Harry braced himself and let Tom set the pace, moving in response to the way Tom shifted his hips. He ran one hand over Tom's chest, toying with his nipples, then pinched the left one more firmly. Tom moaned, his eyes flew open and his whole body shook,and before Harry knew what had happened, they both went completely wild. He was slamming into Tom, and Tom's nails dug into his back, urging him on.

Harry thought he saw candle flames flickering at the edge of his vision. He could feel the heat again, and Tom was crying out, his head thrown back. Too fast. This was way too fast and he just couldn't hold back. Harry slid his hand down between their bodies and closed it around Tom's cock, and Tom gave a startled little gasp and then he just went rigid and came, sobbing for breath. The look on Tom's face right then was the last thing Harry saw before he closed his eyes and lost himself.

Tom was still shaking underneath him when he remembered to start breathing again. Concerned, Harry lifted his head from Tom's shoulder to find his lover crying. Crying. Tom never cried. Harry made a distressed sound and Tom looked at him and smiled through his tears, a smile of such simple and blinding brilliance that Harry was overwhelmed.

"I love you," he said.

* * *

Sweet seasoned showers

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