Pon Farr
by Scribe

Main Characters: Seven, OFCs

WARNING: There is violence and mild non-consensual attempted rape (not explicit). There is an unabridged adult version of this story available in the Adult section.

Summary: For Vulcans, there is nothing more turbulent that the time of mating and for exile Vin Tanner who considers himself neither Vulcan or human, it is a change of deadly proportions. As Vin begins to lose total control to the fury of Pon Farr, he becomes a danger not only to himself but to Alex Styles, who has to make a deadly choice to save his life

Seventh story in the Star Trek: Maverick series Follows Sulaco.


Prologue: The Solitary One

Sometimes, Vin Tanner dreamt of the parents who sired him.

For a split second, while he drifted between the nexus of sleep and wakefulness, long forgotten memories would rise silently from the mists and he would see in flashes of images too brief and vague to be coherent, the faceless Vulcan parents he had known briefly. It was the emotions they engendered that left its impact on him the most, the terrible yearning for them, of hoping this time, they would not fade away like they had so many countless times before. Whenever they vanished like smoke before him, he would feel small again, small and frightened as he had been when he was a child alone in the wreckage.

Oh, that much he took with him into the waking world. He remembered scrambling in the dark, terrified of sounds, of being afraid to go into the cockpit of that battered ship because instinct told him what he would find there, was not for him. When he dreamed he was that child again, he would awake covered in sweat with sheets plastered to his skin. Sometimes the wet on his skin was even produced by tears.

Whenever Vin was questioned about his parents, he would invariably speak of the Tanners, the humans who took him for their own after finding him shivering in the wreckage of the Seleya's Heart, the Vulcan ship that crashed and left him orphaned. It was not his fault of course. When he remembered his mother, his mind conjured the image of the lovely Earth woman with the brown hair and soft eyes not unlike his own. She who had held him in those early days when the memory of the crash was vivid in his mind and the destroyed part of the ship he dare not venture into, haunted him regularly. His father, her husband, had been an equally caring man and reminded him a little of Josiah Sanchez, though Vin never mentioned that to the Counsellor. They took him in when he was orphaned and were on their way home to Earth, when a quirk of fate caused them to become marooned on a world, almost as rustic and remote as the one they rescued him from.

They remained stranded on that world for the next eleven years of Vin's life and everything Vulcan inside of him was burned away by the bonds forged of their mutual entrapment and the love his human parents had unfailingly shown him. What remained of his Vulcan parents was evident every time he looked into the mirror and the vague memories that only seemed to surface in the small hours of the night. When he finally returned to the world, he found his personality of a being who embraced emotions, who savored every moment no matter how illogical it might seem, to be an affront to the basic tenets of Vulcan philosophy. Fortunately, his adoption by the Tanners was legally binding and Vin found himself inheritor to their farm in Texas, so he at least had a home to call his own especially since no one on Vulcan was eager to claim him. The last vestiges of his native origins were severed with that final abandonment.

No one was more grateful for this fact than Vin himself. He had no need of the Vulcan philosophy of logic above emotions. He could think of nothing more odious than reducing the sum of his experiences to cold hard data. He was not going to say the love of his human parents was illogical. He still longed for the fresh pies his mother used to bake and the way she used to croon him to sleep when his nightmares became too much. When his father died, having fallen to his death because of some unnoticed ravine, it had been just the two of them for years. She succumbed to some infection, the cause of which he never knew, but the last thing she said to him was that he was a Tanner.

When he emerged from his self-imposed exile from the Texan ranch, he spent his time ensuring that he would qualify for the Starfleet entrance exam, Vin learned what impact being a Vulcan raised by humans could have on people. Humans for most part found it easier to accept him because he was like them and most of the time, Vin was able to slip past without letting anyone know he was Vulcan, which was part of the reason why he grew his hair over his ears and kept it that way, so the question of his origins would never come up.

Vulcans however, knew he was one of them immediately and their distaste was evident although in reality they were not supposed to show such feelings. Upon entrance into the Academy, he realized they would never accept him because he was everything they left behind when they adopted Surak's teachings. Vin knew they considered him a throwback to a more barbaric age particularly when he took such delight in experiencing emotions in all its full colored and multi-layered intensity. For most part Vin did not care, having decided early on that he could not live by such a rigid code and anticipated living life as a human.

All he cared about was being a Tanner. The name Vin was a left over from his birth parents and having looked it up once, discovered it was most likely a shortened version of Svinak. It meant 'the solitary one'.

Somehow it seemed appropriate.

Chapter One: Risa

Chris Larabee wondered if he was not getting a little old.

With the sun on his back and a drop of nearly two hundred feet below him, he reminded himself the key to rock climbing was not to look down. Even seasoned professionals did not break that taboo when scaling the heights. He supposed it would not be so bad if he was in the holodeck and he could feel the reassurance of its safety protocols ensuring he would not be dashed against the rocks if he lost his footing. However, it was necessary for one to feel a little danger if one wanted to appreciate living. At least that's what he told himself. Mary just called it 'some pathetic attempt to recapture one's youth by doing something really stupid'.

Chris had the feeling Mary did not really like him mountain climbing.

Ah, what would she know, he snorted to himself. She's just a girl.

Staring up the remaining length of the mountain he had to climb, he saw Vin already several feet above him. Chris mumbled under his breath at the younger man's stamina. Vin was climbing up the side of the cliff like a demon, barely noticing the drop and seeing the edge as something easily unattainable, unlike Chris who was wondering if perhaps Mary was not just a little right about his need to recapture his youth. After all, it was only one birthday and because it was less than a week away, he did not have to prove to himself even though he was nearing the 39 mark, he was not old. He was in pretty good shape for a man his age.

Of course, when you hit 39, you were only a short step away from 40.

A small voice whispered maliciously in the back of his mind and caused Chris to search for another handhold in the rock to haul himself a little further along the way. Sweat covered every inch of him. He could even feel it running through his hair and his muscles ached from the abuse. He did not know how many scrapes and bruises he acquired while attempting to scale what was almost a sheer cliff face. When the Maverick had first pulled into Risa, Chris thought of there being nothing worse than having to take shore leave on a planet where there was nothing to do but be over indulged in the trappings of a tropical island resort. However, Buck had dutifully told Chris, having the entire range of tourist activities available on Risa in his private log, there were more strenuous activities available to those who did not go in for pampering and over indulgence.

Surprisingly enough aside from miles and miles of resort perfect beaches, Risa also had an impressive mountain range that was prime hunting ground for intrepid climbers like himself and Vin Tanner. Vin, who was really in need of some exhausting exercise to burn the boundless energy he seemed to have these days, was already making plans for this excursion no sooner than the information had come to him via Buck's logs. The top of the cliff was a jagged line against the blue sky, Chris noted and thankfully, he was making good progress once he coaxed his limbs into moving. Despite himself, he could not help but admire the speed upon which Vin was scaling the height and suspected the only reason his helmsman had not yet reached the top was because he was slowing down a little to let his captain keep up.

Vin's progress and possible lagging made him speed up and as the ache impressed itself more on his mind, Chris started thinking of all the things he could be doing. He could be with Mary who at this moment was sitting on a beach somewhere with Alex, bare limbs exposed thanks to the scrap of material he had so lustily remembered she called a swim suit, glistening with a thin film of moisture as she soaked in the sun. He pictured her hiding beneath her sunglasses, blond hair glistening in the sunlight and wondered what the hell he was doing here, where he could fall to his death with one loss of footing?

Oh yeah, he remembered. Attempting something really stupid to convince himself because he was turning 39, he was not old.

"You doing okay Chris?" He heard Vin's voice from above.

The helmsman had paused to see how his captain was faring. Vin had to remember humans did not quite have the stamina of Vulcans and lately, he seemed to have a great deal more than usual. The mountain called the Monolith, mostly because it looked like one from a distance was one of the most challenging climbs he had attempted in quite some time, but he wondered if he might have selected something that was just too hard for his Captain. Of course, Chris would never admit it if the course was too much for him. His Captain was not only proud but determined to believe no obstacle could be uncrossed.

And he had a birthday coming up.

"I'm fine." Chris grunted as his foot slipped into the groove of rock that was wide enough to support his weight as he pushed himself further along the side of the cliff. The top of the mountainside was not far away now and seeing it gave him a renewed sense of strength, for he no longer paused in between spaces.

"I wouldn't wait for me. I'll be catching up to you soon enough."

"Okay." Vin grinned and started climbing once more. "You ain't doing bad for an old guy you know."

Chris glared at him and responded through narrowed eyes. "How would you like to be seeing space from the inside of a maintenance hatch when you're cleaning the warp conduit coils for the next month, Lieutenant?"

"Gee, you weren't this grouchy when you were younger." Vin remarked in typical smart assed pose.

"Are you trying to make some kind of a point Tanner?" Chris asked as they continued climbing.

"Not really," Vin answered and glanced downward at his captain. "Are you?"

The question made Chris pause and he raised his eyes to see Vin was actually waiting for an answer. "No, why do you ask?"

"I know you have a birthday coming up." The Vulcan stated as he resumed climbing. "You've been sort of touchy about it."

"I've been touchy about a lot of things." Chris deadpanned.

It was true. Since finding out that the possibility existed Sarah and Adam's death may not have been accidental, he had been obsessed to the point of endangering his ship and unwittingly causing the unnecessary deaths of some of his crew. He had not overcome the guilt from his behavior during those weeks, not to mention how he treated his friends and Mary at the time. Now when the worst of that storm had passed, he was reminded he was another year older, but the actions of the past year indicated he was not necessarily wiser.

"My ma used to say that things change." Vin replied as he drove the final spike into the rock, the one allowing him to climb over the edge to the top of the Monolith. "You either get used to it or spend a lot of time feeling lousy."

"She was a smart woman." Chris sighed, knowing that Mrs. Tanner's wisdom pertained to him more than he would like to admit.

He did not speak for a few minutes, allowing the silence to follow him all the way to the top as he took his mind from his personal thoughts and focused his attention on climbing the rest of the way. Naturally he saw Vin clambering over the edge first but by that point, Chris was not far behind him. A few seconds later, he found his hand on the notch in the smooth rock carved out by Vin and hauled himself over the uneven edge. The peak of the monolith was nothing more than a flat piece of land that must have been part of the main mountain range but had been eroded away through millions of years of shifting landmasses and equally formidable forces of nature. However, the onus of making the climb was not just for the challenge but for the magnificent view it rewarded those who dared to scale its heights.

Below him, Chris could see the lush green valleys of Risa's Oonaris Province. It was a landscape of sculpted hills covered in thick grass and breathtaking flora. In the distance, the wispy skyline of the mountains stretched across the horizon until they disappeared into the blue sky. Seeing it made Chris draw in a pleasured breath overriding the exhaustion in his limbs and the rest of the minor injuries incurred during his climb. He let his gaze soak in the sights and realized with a deep sense of appreciation, even if he was getting a little older, there was still things left to marvel at and the surprises that came late in the day were often the ones most valued.

"Thanks Vin." Chris said to the Vulcan as he lowered himself to a resting position on the edge where Vin was presently sitting, admiring the scenic lookout before them.

"My pleasure pard." Vin replied softly, knowing his captain and friend well enough to know the tonic he needed to get through this. Like the rest of his friends, Vin noticed Chris becoming increasingly surly with the approach of his birthday and felt his friend needed something of a pick me up. Chris had been through a great deal of late and Vin wanted the Captain to stop being so hard on himself, in action and in age.

"Kind of puts things in perspective, don't it?" Vin soaked up the panoramic beauty before him. The sight of something older than both of them staring back at them in indifference and resplendent beauty had exactly the effect on Chris Vin had hoped. The Captain let out a deep breath as the glow of the amber sun began to descend from the heavens.

Chris shifted his gaze at Vin long enough to agree with a little smile. "It sure does."

******

"Why must we do this?" Ezra asked Julia Pemberton as they stood in the pet store, looking at the small, fur covered creature inside its cage. The darling little creature, little more than a bundle of white fur, sniffed through the glass as if it could smell Julia's finger, trying to catch its attention.

Julia Pemberton stood up right from the glass display and stared at him critically. It was not like she hadn't already explained this to him a dozen times since they left their hotel in order to visit the shopping district. "I read if we can share in care of a pet together it will make it so much simpler when we finally move in together."

Ezra stared at her. "Where exactly did you read this statement?" He inquired hoping to find the offending publication and erase the data in order to make more storage room for the waste recycling computers.

"Who remembers?" Julia shrugged and then returned her attention to the little moppet trying its hardest to regain her attention once more. "The point is, this is an exercise that will help us when we live together."

"But we have yet to move in with each other."

"Look," she puffed up her chest, an indication she was starting to get mad with him. "If we can look after a kitten, I'm sure we will be making that step in no time. I mean you do want to move in with me, right?" She stared at him, expecting an answer.

"Absolutely." He said with his best poker face.

"Ezra..." Julia repeated herself, not quite believing him when he became so masked. Usually that meant he was hiding something from her. She had seen him play enough poker to know when he was lying. "I thought we had something special. It's a natural progression of our relationship. Are you telling me you have commitment issues?"

Ezra groaned inwardly, wondering how on earth he stumbled into this conversation when discussing a kitten. The few patrons scattered through the small space of the pet store had suddenly forgotten about the animals they were perusing and were now trying not to stare at the couple even though they were listening to every word.

"Adorable isn't it?" A familiar voice broke into the conversation and for Ezra, what was already decaying into a bad situation suddenly became worse with the speed of a ship slamming into warp.

"Mother!" Ezra exclaimed, his worst fears being realized when he saw his flamboyant mother breezing into their presence out of nowhere, somehow entering the store past his notice when he and Julia were engaged in their little 'discussion'.

"Mother?" Julia turned to him in question. "This is your mother?"

"Why I live here on Risa, my dear." Maude smiled, looking nothing like her years and still capable of turning the head of every man who was wise enough to appreciate beauty and vintage. "Didn't my darling boy tell you?" She turned to Ezra and gave him a little stare filled with sweet revenge at being so clandestine about his arrival.

"No," Julia said unhappily, "the darling boy didn't." She capped the statement off with a venomous look in his direction.

"I was going to surprise you," Ezra explained quickly, suddenly feeling like a Christian about to be thrown into an arena with a pride of rather ravenous lions. Then he recanted when he realized he was nowhere that lucky. "And mother, I did leave a message at your hotel I was here."

Maude let out a sigh and smiled, conceding her son that much.

"He did." She met Julia's gaze and then came towards Ezra and embraced him warmly. "How are you Ezra darling?"

Julia fumed inwardly, wishing she had better preparation for this. Meeting Ezra's mother was an even bigger step than buying a kitten, she grimaced. She wished she were wearing something a little more appropriate than a light floral sarong tied in a knot at her waist and her bikini top. Ezra and his mother seemed very close even though she sensed some anxiety in Ezra about their meeting. Still, he should have told her that his mother resided on Risa at least.

"And who is this?" Maude asked once she and Ezra had made their greetings. Maude made no attempt to hide she was sizing Julia up when she cast a steely gaze on the young woman.

"Mother this is Julia." Ezra introduced. "Julia, this is my mother Maude."

"Hello Maude." Julia greeted nervously and shook hands with Ezra's mother. "I'm sorry I'm standing here with my jaw on the floor. Ezra never told me you lived here."

"Well that's Ezra." Maude shrugged as if the omission was something she had become very accustomed to over the years. "When I found out that you were here, I just had to find you. I called the ship and spoke to a charming young lady, I believe her name is Casey? Well she was most helpful and immediately told me which hotel you were at. Now darling, I at least expected you to stay at my charming premises."

"I wanted something romantic," Ezra stammered, trying to explain while reminding himself at the same time to check the regs to see if there was any rule against strangling a Captain's yeoman.

"Why we have romance." Maude insisted. "Now you finish up here and I'll wait outside. We can go to the hotel to get your things. You'll stay with me, I won't hear another word about it." With that she swept out of the place like a hurricane, leaving only destruction in its wake.

Julia turned to Ezra and he could see his love was clearly upset. Ezra opened his mouth to speak when suddenly, the pet storeowner stepped forward, unaware of the tension he was interrupting and asked the couple innocently, "will you be taking the Persian?"

Julia narrowed her eyes at him and waited for a response. Ezra swallowed thickly and sighed in doomed resignation, no matter how well he explained himself to her about why he had been less than forthcoming about his mother.

"Charge it to Commander Standish of the Maverick."

******

Josiah Sanchez was minding his own business, enjoying the sunshine on his face as he continued to read the book on native Risan cultures he purchased for his afternoon sabbatical on the sun. As he sat on the beach chair situated in a luxurious stretch of beach near the resort he was staying, he could hear the voices of people laughing around him, water splashing, and all the sounds associated with the beach, including the soothing sound of waves dragging across the sands, whenever the surf met the shore. He relaxed in the heat, enjoying the peace of hearing nothing but his own thoughts, content with not having to worry about the mental well-being of everyone on the Maverick. It was as blissful as it could get.

"Hello." A tawny vixen with virtually nothing on, (actually they all had virtually nothing on, not that he noticed), padded up to him and greeted with a smile. Her skin was bronzed from the sun even though she was clearly Caucasian and made Josiah think of one of those native women on remote island paradises, that brought so many sailors to pleasurable ruin in the days when exploration was limited to the high seas.

"Hello." He greeted her back somewhat annoyed. She was the sixth in a line of beauties that had been coming on to him all day. Either he had acquired some of Buck's animal magnetism or the ladies in this part of the galaxy were more accommodating than he knew. In either case, he was too old for fly by night encounters anymore.

"You are seeking Jamaron." She smiled, and it was an alluring smile with perfect white teeth against sun bleached brown hair.

"Nope," he shook his head. "Don't know who that is and wasn't actually looking for him."

She giggled, a soft enchanting laugh. "Jamaron is not a man. It is a desire for becoming one with another."

"And you think I'm looking for it?" Josiah's brow shot up in confusion. "Why?"

"Because of the horagon." She pointed to the ugly wooden sculpture Buck requested he purchase for him while he was down here.

At the time of the buying, Josiah had wondered why the First Officer would request such an item. After all, Buck never struck him as anything of an art lover, not to mention Buck's insistence that he display it in the open because it was considered good luck was a way of showing native Risans, visitors respected their culture. Never one to mock the beliefs of anyone, Josiah obeyed even though he thought it peculiar at the time.

"One only displays it openly when they are wishing Jamaron with another." She took great pleasure at how quickly his face flushed red upon realizing what he had been doing.

And if things could not be any more embarrassing, it was at that moment Audrey King, along with her daughter Lilith and Billy Travis, suddenly sighted him and strolled over.

"Josiah," she greeted and stopped short at the sight of the sculpture sitting in the sand near his chair. "Are we interrupting anything?"

"Hi Josiah!" Lilith greeted, puzzled at why her mother's voice had suddenly turned cold as a Siberian winter.

"Hello Josiah." Billy made the same greeting and then stared at the sculpture. "You have a horagon."

Josiah swallowed thickly and reminded himself to kill Buck later on. "Audrey, its not what it looks like."

He did not have to be a Counsellor or even a Betazoid to guess by the look Audrey was giving the young woman with him, she did not quite believe him. Audrey's gaze shifted to him and remarked coolly. "I was going to ask if you would like to come with us for a walk on the beach, but I see you're busy. Good day, Counsellor."

Josiah saw her, and the children draw away and barely heard the apology being offered by his tawny Risan beauty. However, he did wonder whether psychiatrists still had the power to have people lobotomized.

He was certainly willing to make the attempt on Buck Wilmington to find out.

Chapter Two: Blondie

"You know," Mary Travis sighed contently as she felt strong hands coaxing the knots out of her back. "I should be with my son."

Alexandra Styles brushed a strand of damp hair from her back, allowing the masseuse presently working on her own back better access to her neck. The young man in his twenties was oblivious to the conversation between the two women as he and his equally beautiful companion kneaded the supple skin beneath them, relaxing the knots formed thanks to stress and other excesses of work from the muscle. Alex closed her eyes and rested her head against her towel, more than happy to let a professional go to work, while lounging underneath the luxurious sunshine overhead with the sound of the nearby ocean, calling out its siren song with every rush of wave against the shore.

"You were with him yesterday when you went bush walking and canoeing. You were with him the day before when you took him swimming and tomorrow it's going to be the zoological gardens isn't it? I think you're hardly being neglectful for taking a personal day. Besides," she said with a little smile. "What could you be possibly doing that could beat all this attention?"

"You're a bad influence." Mary deadpanned as she noted the hands sliding down her back and let out another pleasured sigh.

"No, I'm not," Alex said defiantly. "I'm just one who knows how to suck the marrow out of life and besides the scenery is just great." She winked salaciously.

To that of course Mary could not disagree. The two young men who were working so devotedly on them were barely into adulthood wearing the customary garb of all Risans when in beachfront venues, that is to say very little. Mary could not help but appreciate the fine lines and the more than perfect muscle tone surrounding her and knew there was more than a little sinful pleasure in all this. "Well the marrow is looking very good." Mary smiled, reaching for the tall, slightly frosted glass sitting comfortably next to her beach towel.

"To think, I could have gone rock climbing with Chris. I am so glad I decided to let the boys go alone." She said in a monotone oozing with sarcasm.

"Oh yes," Alex giggled. "Me too. I was just crushed when Vin said he and Chris ought to go alone." Both women ended the conversation in a fit of giggles until Mary felt a hard slap on the back of her rump.

"OW!" She swore, dropping her drink and looking to see Chris kneeling down before her, staring most disapprovingly at the young man who had been giving her so much attention. The infamous Larabee glare sent him and his companion scurrying along and Mary rolled onto her side, rubbing her sore behind with a frown on her face. "That was not nice Chris."

"What were you doing with that, that kid?" Chris managed to get out. He did not want to show he was annoyed but if anyone's hand were going to be touching Mary that way, it was going to be his.

"Hey!" Alex grumbled. "You didn't have to scare mine away too Captain." She complained when her masseuse appeared to be taking the same high road.

"And why not?" Vin Tanner asked, clutching two colorful concoctions in his hands as he approached a few short feet away, having seen most of what had transpired in the last few seconds to guess what had been going on. "You could get arrested for doing that on a public beach."

"It was a back rub." Alex said with narrowed eyes. "It's almost as fun as rock climbing." She turned to Mary with a wink.

"Almost." Mary grinned, one brow arching in equal mischief.

"That was disgraceful," Chris pouted as he sat next to her. "You're a mother for God's sakes. That kid was young enough..."

"I wouldn't finish that statement if you want to live." Mary warned.

Chris decided it was good advice and discontinued the thought. "So, you have a good day?" He asked instead, leaning down next to her, his elbow digging into the dirt as he made himself comfortable.

"Reasonably." Mary smiled. "We did absolutely nothing."

"And it was hard work." Alex confirmed.

"I don't know how you can sit around all day and just do nothing." Vin declared unable to fathom the wasting of such a glorious day.

"Well for those of us with a metabolism that's not like a runaway train, we find it easy." Alex remarked smugly. "Besides, we have great scenery here too." Her eyes followed a reasonably well-built Risan running past on the beach.

"You ain't got no shame." Vin remarked, dipping his fingers in his drink and splashing it on her face.

"You men are just jealous.' Mary snorted

"Jealous?" Chris scoffed. "What would I have to be jealous about?"

"Well..." Mary shrugged and considered for a moment before giving him a perfectly evil smile. "You are getting kind of old."

"Alright that's it." He gave Vin a look and the helmsman picked up his intention immediately before nodding in agreement. Without saying another word and their course clear, no matter how hazardous to his health, Chris scooped Mary up in his arms and started carrying her towards the shore.

"CHRIS LARABEE, DON'T YOU DARE!"

"Sorry," he said with an equally evil smirk. "I can't hear you too well, you know how these old ears can be..."

Neither was Mary alone in her outrage because she was soon listening to Alex's equally annoyed voice in pursuit of her progress towards the shore.

"VIN! What the hell are you doing?" The science officer demanded as she was hoisted into Vin's arms with almost no trouble at all.

"Sorry Alex," Vin grinned with a teasing smile just before she heard Mary Travis' s outraged shriek when Chris Larabee dropped her into the ocean. "Captain's orders."

******

This was hell.

It was the only way Ezra Standish could adequately describe his present situation. He had gone to hell. At present, he was seated at his mother's private table at the main lounge in the Risan hotel known as One Eyed Jacks, owned lock, stock and barrel by Maude Standish. The place was tastefully converted to display the furnishings of a gambling house from the late 1800's and came complete with ornate designs of the period. Ezra found it extremely likeable and was rather surprised at how well it met with the eye. Begrudgingly, he had to admit his mother had finally found the perfect place to concoct her schemes. However, he wished his first glimpse of the place did not have to be with Julia at his side.

Whatever concerns Julia might have had about not making a good impression on Maude Standish had more or less faded with both women trading humorous stories about him, while he discovered new levels of embarrassment and mortification. Ezra found himself downing another glass of expensive Bordeaux that was served for the occasion while listening to his mother and Julia giggle as each story made him look even more ludicrous than the last. Fortunately, the dinner crowd had yet to come into the lounge so for the moment at least, he had some measure of privacy about the most embarrassing moments of his life.

"I never pictured Ezra as a dog person!" Julia laughed as she heard the story about her lover's attempt to dress some poor French poodle.

"Oh no he wasn't," Maude remarked. "He just didn't think it was proper for that dog to be naked or when he was little, he used to say nekid."

Ezra needed another drink. Hell, he needed another bottle.

"Oh God!" Julia laughed ever harder. "Well that explains why he was so enthusiastic about us getting a cat!"

"A cat?" Maude stared at her son. "Are you seriously telling me after all this time you are committing to a relationship my darling?" Her eyes twinkled with mischief and Ezra could sense something bad was going to happen. He narrowed his eyes in warning at his mother, but she did not seem to notice.

"By the amount of complaints, I received about it, you think I was asking him to marry me or something."

"Oh, Ezra is the marrying kind...." Maude turned to Julia again.

"Mother!" Ezra called out helplessly, aware of this was leading. "I do not think we need to regale Julia with every minute detail of my childhood."

"Oh, I'm really want to hear it 'darling'." Julia gave him a wink that told him in no uncertain terms, he was to sit there and suffer. "Go on Maude."

"I knew he was the marrying kind the minute he decided to run off with that showgirl."

Oh hell, Ezra swore wondering if matricide could be a justifiable crime.

"Showgirl?" Julia stared at him in shock. "You were going to run off with a showgirl?"

"Not exactly," Ezra cleared his throat wondering how he was going to explain this when Maude stepped in and took the liberty.

"Not exactly because she did not want to be called a cradle snatcher, my dear." Maude met the Engineer's gaze. "You see Ezra was only seven."

"Seven!" Julia burst out laughing. "My goodness, you were ambitious!"

"Mother is this really necessary?" Ezra glared at Maude and dared her to continue at her own peril.

Maude let out a sigh deciding that she ought to give her poor son some respite especially when it appeared he did like this young lady very much.

"It's just so good to see you Ezra." She beamed and for once it was a sentiment that came straight from the heart.

"It is good to see you too mother," Ezra answered and genuinely meant it, even though he was not impressed Julia knew more about his past than he would have preferred. He noted the little smile that crossed the lovely engineer's face and knew her silence was because she did not want to intrude upon this tender moment between mother and son.

"And I'm so thrilled to meet you my dear." Maude glanced at Julia. "You know I've been hoping Ezra finally found someone to give that ring to."

Julia blinked. "Ring?"

******

Buck Wilmington was very pleased with himself when he stepped into the shower cubicle inside his quarters on board the Maverick. Since the Captain was down on the surface of Risa taking a well needed rest, Buck had volunteered to remain on board and keep an eye on the ship while he was gone. Chris did not like the idea of both command officers being off the ship at any one time, so Buck knew that if he did not offer to remain, Chris would forego the idea of taking a vacation altogether. Truth be known, a little time vacationing was exactly what Chris needed. With the emotional roller coaster, the man had been enduring the past few weeks, Chris needed a little respite from the pressure of having a thousand-people relying upon him to keep them safe in the wilderness of space.

So far, the sector was generally peaceful and though they were due to ship out of Risa in three days, Buck could feel the tension levels on the ship easing already. He himself had been down quite a bit already so he did not mind taking the bridge. Being First Officer was a job he loved and while he enjoyed rest and relaxation, not to mention the opportunity to find pleasing female company especially those clad in very little, Buck did not mind being master of the Maverick for a day either. Everything was running smoothly, and the tone of the bridge had been relaxed. Still when his shift was over, Buck was only too happy to step into a hot shower.

Vin Tanner who loved hot showers introduced Buck to the concept and very soon the First Officer could not deny that he too, found it extremely refreshing. More so than a sonic shower, even though the latter was meant to be more efficient. As Buck soaped up and cleaned the day's accumulation off his skin, he found himself chuckling with amusement as the steam rose up around him. He knew that as First Officer he ought to be expending his time with more responsibility than playing practical jokes, but it was so easy, he sniggered to himself through the warm shower of water coming down on his face.

Josiah had asked him what he knew about Risan culture and Buck had told him as much as he knew, embellishing a few facts particularly in the case of the horagon. However, Buck was adamant he had done his crime for the very best of intentions. Josiah needed to relax just like everyone else and if he could do so in the company of a nubile minx who wanted nothing but to Jamaron? What's the harm in that? In fact, one would say Buck was being a good friend, ensuring that the Counsellor who listened to so many problems and offered comfort to everyone on the ship, was also deserving of some attention himself.

Besides, Josiah could take a joke.

Buck had started to wash his hair when suddenly he noticed a strange odor filling the inside of the cubicle. It was not unlike peroxide or something was ammonia based. His nose wrinkled with distaste as the scent became stronger and was pressing against the sides of the small cubicle. Buck made a note to speak to engineering and decided the safest thing to do was to get out of the shower before he suffocated from the noxious smelling stench displacing his oxygen supply. Quickly washing his hair, Buck rinsed off and stepped of the cubicle, grabbing a towel from the nearby towel rack. He dried off and pulled a robe over himself before making his way to the com unit in his quarters to report the defective shower. Buck was passing by his mirror when he just happened to glance at his reflection and froze.

He was blond!

His hair was an uneven and badly dyed shade of blond, with intermittent dark patches sticking out in places, appearing a stark contrast against his dark moustache and eyebrows. Buck's jaw dropped to the floor as he let out a horrified gasp.

"What the hell!"

Josiah!

At that instant, the com unit started to beep, and Buck let out a frustrated groan, swearing vengeance in all its ugly forms as he stormed to the viewer and answered whomever it was that dared to bother him at this unfortunate moment. As luck would have it, the face on the screen was JD Dunne's and the ensign's eyes widened as he saw Buck's appearance through the screen.

"Buck, your ha...." he started to say when Buck cut him off.

"Not a word about anything else other than why you called me here." Buck warned menacingly, and JD had enough sense of survival to heed his words.

"Yes Sir." The Ensign nodded, trying not to stare as he remembered why he had been contacted. "We've received a priority transmission from Starfleet Headquarters."

Typical, Buck thought to himself. Just typical! A priority transmission meant something urgent needed discussing and Buck had to be on the bridge immediately to discern what that urgency might be since the captain was off the ship. He would have no time to take care of his little 'problem'. Buck ran his finger through his hair and sighed to himself. "I'll be there shortly."

"Yes Sir." JD nodded and couldn't not resist adding, even though it could mean his court-martial. "Blondie."

With that, he terminated the transmission having no wish to see Buck signing his death warrant.

Buck saw JD's smirk before the screen dissolved and could only form one coherent sentence in his head.

You realize of course, this means war.

******

Chris Larabee appeared on the bridge less than an hour later, having been summoned from Risa when he was informed about the contents of the transmission from Starfleet Headquarters marked priority. As much as he hated to cut short everyone's furlough, especially his own, he knew such transmissions were not sent without good reason and it would almost certainly mean the Maverick would be embarking upon another mission. Chris had just enough time to get back to his quarters, jump into a shower and slip into a fresh uniform before he was on his way to the bridge. As he made his way into the turbo lift, he allowed himself a little smile at the last few hours, particularly Mary's squeal just before he dropped her into the drink. She had been plenty mad for a few minutes before she too got into the spirit of things. They both engaged in playful bout of water splashing before they were joined by Vin and Alex after the science officer was done trying to drown the Vulcan for throwing her in to the sea.

All in all, it had been a good vacation, despite the interruption and for the first time in days, his birthday was the furthest thing from his mind. Chris arrived on his bridge a few minutes later and stopped short when he saw his First Officer. Buck Wilmington turned red as JD Dunne sat at his station, trying not to laugh. He could see the young man fighting for control to keep his need to snigger out of Buck's hearing. Chris walked slowly towards the bridge, a look of decided amusement crossing his face as he met Buck's gaze.

"Lose a bet?" He asked with a completely straight face.

"No." Buck fairly seethed as his answer left him in a low hiss. "Someone programmed my shower cubicle to give me an instant dye job."

Chris did an admirable job of not laughing out loud but instead managed to respond quite coherently. "Someone?"

"Josiah." Buck stated without any hesitation. "Josiah did this to me."

"I see." Chris answered but really, he did not. "And what did you do to him?" Because Josiah would not be taking sweet vengeance like this without a very good reason. Chris knew his Counsellor very well and it was nice to know the man could give as good as he got.

"Nothing!" Buck exclaimed in exasperation. "I was trying to help."

"Having been on the receiving end of your help before Buck," Chris replied with all the calm he could muster as he lowered himself into his command chair without succumbing to the absurdity of Buck's new hair color. "Exactly what did you do?"

"I told him to buy a horagon and display it openly when he was at the beach."

That did it for JD. Whatever control he had, slipped at that moment and the young man burst into loud guffaw and even though it was completely inappropriate to do so, Chris could not berate him for doing so. However, Buck was starting to get mad.

"Ensign," Chris said shortly. "Compose yourself."

"Yes Sir," JD replied, wiping the tears from his eyes.

"Buck?" Chris stared at his first officer again.

"Yes Chris?" Buck asked wondering if he could be any more humiliated.

"I don't want to know."

"But Chris...." Buck started to protest.

"I don't want to know." He said cutting off any further comment on this matter. At that, both first officer and the captain retired to the privacy of the Captain's ready room so that they could freely discuss the contents of the priority message from Starfleet. Chris slid behind his desk while Buck took his usual seat although Chris needed a second to compose himself, so he would not stare at Buck's hair.

"What was the transmission?" He asked when he was finally settled in.

"The Romulans may have broken the treaty regarding Dominion prisoners of war." Buck explained, all business now that they were discussing the issue at hand.

"How so?".

"Well you know when we defeated the Dominion, we were meant to hand all captured prisoners over to the Founders for return to the Gamma Quadrant." Buck explained.

"Which we did." Chris stated firmly. The Maverick was one of the ships employed to undertake the activity following the end of the Dominion War.

"Well we did," Buck answered. "But it appeared the Romulans may be keeping Jem'Hadar warriors and conducting genetic testing on them."

"What?" Chris exclaimed in open shock. "Genetic testing is against all the conventions of modern warfare! The Romulans are one of the strongest supporters of this. They believe it is dishonorable. It's the one thing we all agreed on, Klingon, Romulans and the Federation."

"That's why we're being sent to investigate." Buck replied. "Our sources say there is a research facility on Riga 3."

"Riga 3 is inside Romulan space." Chris pointed out.

"Our orders are to proceed to Deep Space 5 to pick up a special attach' named Dylan Pierce who will brief us on what we are to do next." Buck retorted automatically.

"I hate these guys," Chris sighed easing into his chair. "They're always more trouble than they're worth."

"Well in the case of this one, I guess that's true." Buck replied handing Chris the data pad regarding the history of the man.

Chris looked at Buck with puzzlement before reading the contents of the data pad, in particular the personal history of their soon to be guest.

"Is this right?" He looked up at Buck.

"Afraid so," the first officer confirmed. "He was Alex's ex-fianc�."

Chapter Three: Fianc�

With the advent of new orders, all furloughs were cancelled, and personnel were recalled to the Maverick. The mission ahead was one of crucial importance and the possibility of venturing into Romulan space was not to be taken lightly. Chris had contacted Starfleet headquarters and received further elaboration on the mission to Riga 3. Upon learning what was required, much to his consternation, he immediately ordered a staff meeting with his senior officers. It was the only time Chris felt inclined to tell Starfleet they were insane but had to confess begrudgingly if anyone could carry out the task they required, it had to be one of his own people. As far as Chris was concerned, there was none better.

Two hours after he had returned to the Maverick himself, Chris walked into the conference room and found the senior officers assembled. He had given each sufficient time to refresh themselves after the premature end to their vacation and though other personnel were still being recalled from Risa, it was necessary for the senior staff to arrive first. When Chris entered the room with the large windows on most walls offering a picturesque view of Risa and space, he heard JD gleefully relating the story of Buck's new hair coloring to the rest of the crew. Josiah seemed very smug and Buck, who had since been to the ship's barber to deal regain his natural coloring, was trying to take all the laughter with good humor.

"You should have seen it!" JD tittered until he saw Chris and quickly stifled his laughter.

"Now Mr. Wilmington," Ezra turned to Buck with a smile. "I never thought of you as a bottle blond."

"It wasn't that funny." Buck grumbled.

"Sure it wasn't, Bucklin." Vin grinned and incited more laughter.

"Now come on," Josiah spoke up. "I'm sure you've had enough amusement at our first officer's expense." There were no signs of repentance in the Counsellor's face as he made the statement.

"You're a fine one to talk!" Buck waved a finger at him. "You're the one who did this to me!"

"And you had it coming." Josiah drawled.

"Officers," Chris raised his voice an octave as he reached the head of the table. "I think we can dispense with this discussion until later."

"Yes Sir," Buck immediately silenced himself on the subject but not before he and Josiah exchanged a look of challenge across the table from each other, telling everyone who saw it, this little war had only just begun.

"Sorry, Chris." Josiah remarked with a little smile, wishing he had seen Buck in his new 'do' but was regaled with enough stories from JD to know even if he had not seen his handiwork, it certainly produced the desired effect.

"Okay," Chris took a deep breath and let his gaze sweep over all his officers. "As you might have guessed, our furloughs were cut short because we have received new orders."

"Obviously," Ezra remarked. "However, I take it there must be some urgency involved."

"Yes, there is." Chris nodded. "After receiving the priority one communication from Starfleet, I contacted Headquarters myself and received further data on this situation. It is very serious. Apparently, information has been smuggled to the Federation High Council, not all the Dominion prisoners taken during the recent war were handed back to the Founders. It looks like the Romulans may have held back a few Jem'Hadar warriors for the purpose of genetic research."

"That's a violation of the Khitomer Treaty." Mary pointed out immediately.

"Yes, it is." Chris nodded in confirmation. "However, to add a wrinkle to an already incendiary situation. The Romulans claim they don't know anything about it. In fact, they are somewhat horrified by the notion it might be taking place under their noses."

"So why don't they sort it out themselves?" Josiah inquired.

"Because," Mary let out a sigh, "Romulans being Romulans, are too arrogant to admit they might have let something like this happen right under their notice and would not like to call public attention to it by making the search themselves."

"Exactly." Chris replied. "Which is why they want Starfleet to go in and confirm or deny the allegations. Then submit the information to the Federation Council who will pass it to the Romulan Senate, to expedite the matter quietly through the Tal Shiar. No one else in the Romulan Empire need ever know."

"I see," Ezra mused. "We are protecting Romulan dignity, is that it?"

"Call it an attempt to further Federation Romulan relations."

"Captain," Nathan Jackson made himself heard. "Do we know what the nature of the testing is about?"

"Yes," Chris frowned, bracing himself for the cry of outrage that was coming if he knew his Chief Medical Officer with any accuracy at all. "The testing seems to be specifically centered on the building of a genetically superior warrior. In other words, whoever is responsible is trying to find out if they can build their very own Jem'Hadar warrior, minus the dependency on the White."

Audible gasps flowed through the room and Chris could hardly blame them for their shock. It was generally agreed by the Federation, Klingon and Romulans the idea of having a slave warrior race was one of the most detestable things about the Dominion and the Founders. The Jem'Hadar were grown like some twisted crop to fight and win at all costs. The Founders engineered them with a chemical dependency on Ketracel White, which not only kept them alive but very much subjugated to their masters. To the Jem'Hadar, there was nothing nobler than dying in the service of the Founders who were their gods.

To the rest of the Alpha Quadrant, it was obscene.

"Is that possible?" Julia asked.

"Anything is possible these days." Nathan shrugged. "The Founders haven't devoted much time to it because it was in their best interests to keep the Jem'Hadar under control. However, if you can engineer a warrior whose loyalties are set, who doesn't have a crisis of conscience and is twice as powerful as a Klingon, why not? There has always been researching out there whose aim is to improve the body. We ourselves have been guilty of that. Genetic manipulation is as old as time. We did it with wolves by turning them into an entirely new species. We do it with plants and food crops and as recently as 20 years ago, we were doing it with children."

"Not our finest hour." Alex muttered, remembering the days when fears of imperfect children led some parents to illegal institutions where children were corrected of their flaws on a genetic level. Ordinary children with no real deficiencies were being altered in order to reach some ideal in their parents' minds. The practice while successful in some instances, failed miserably in others, dooming the subjects to all kinds of severe mental instabilities. The Federation banned the practice on all its worlds and the Klingons found it completely dishonorable, while the Romulans felt it to be a tampering of their already superior blood.

"There's more." Chris' gaze shifted to Alex and Vin. "We'll be rendezvousing with Deep Space Five in order to pick up a special attach' who will have further instructions for us regarding our mission. He's with Starfleet Intelligence and has been to Riga 3 himself, though not to the installation where the testing is taking place. His name is Dylan Pierce."

Alex was in the midst of downing a sip of water when the name impacted upon her. She reacted by almost choking on whatever she was in the process of swallowing and managed to speak through her intermittent coughs. "Excuse me, did you say Dylan Pierce?"

"I'm afraid so." Chris nodded, unsurprised by her reaction even though everyone but Buck was staring at her in curiosity.

"Here? He's coming here? Dylan is going to be on this ship?" Her voice was almost panicked.

"Well I know I speak on the behalf of everyone here when I inquire who the gentleman is to you?" Ezra said with a little smirk, entertained by her reaction.

Alex saw the interest in her friends and then noted Vin's expression who seemed neither curious or expectant but rather stormy. If she did not know better, she would say that he was jealous but that was impossible. Vin could not be jealous of her. She did not think he even knew how but it was his manner prompted her into answering. "He was my fianc�e."

"You have a fianc�?" Vin asked. His voice was a thin line of tension.

"Had." Alex stressed that word firmly, uncertain about Vin's behavior but decided it was best if she gave him an answer and an explanation. "I had a fianc�, but it was a long time ago, before'" she faltered as she remembered exactly why she and Dylan were no longer together. "Before the Cardassians."

There was no need for her to elaborate any further than that and Alex had no wish to answer any more questions regarding the subject in such a public forum. "It's my personal business." Alex met Chris's gaze. "It will not affect my work."

"I never expected it would." Chris offered her a little smile. Unfortunately, that was not the only bombshell he had to drop during this meeting.

"Vin, I've had a request from Starfleet Intelligence to involve you in the actual reconnaissance mission."

"Me?" Vin exclaimed, more puzzled than hesitant. "Why?"

"I must ask the question as well," Ezra spoke up. "With no disrespect to Vin, is this not a matter more suitable for someone with some tactical experience not to mention covert intelligence training?" The security chief did not at all like the idea of the helmsman being placed into such a highly dangerous situation. Even though Vin could acquit himself at the best of times, he was certain Vin's extensive survival skills did not extend to infiltrating a Romulan stronghold.

"I know but Starfleet was not looking at it from that point of view." Chris responded, almost embarrassed to come out and say it because he had more or less reacted the same way that Ezra was doing now when he was first told.

"What other point of view is there?" Ezra returned. It was not lost on the security officer the way Buck was fidgeting, unable to meet Vin's eyes and Chris was stumbling with his explanations. "It's not because of the way he looks is it?" Ezra asked, his disgust showing clearly.

Chris's noncommittal grunt was answer enough.

"That's ridiculous." Nathan declared hotly, finding the notion of someone being assigned to a dangerous mission for the simple reason of appearance, quite offensive on a basic level. "You can't just let them send Vin into a situation like this just because he could pass for Romulan! There are still a whole lot of reasons why they might finger him!"

"Wait a minute'." Vin started to speak for himself but was inundated with voices from all ends.

"I agree with Nathan. Sure, Vin's looks could get him past the door but Romulans are almost a different race from Vulcans now. It is the height of ignorance to assume just because there are a few basic similarities, naturally, he's more prepared than the rest of us to be assigned a dangerous covert mission. I mean for starters they're, they're'." She searched for the word and finally found the one that suited. "They're snotty."

"Spoken like a true protocol officer." Julia remarked with a smile.

"You know what I mean." Mary threw her a narrowed glare. "Chris, you can't let them do this."

"I second the motion." Ezra declared.

"Why don't we hear what Vin has to say?" JD Dunne suddenly asked.

"Out of the mouth of babes," Buck said with a proud smile at the younger officer.

The entire table went quiet and Vin looked at JD. "Thank you." The Vulcan turned back to his other colleagues, bristling with annoyance. "What exactly would I have to do Chris?"

"As the others have guessed," Chris met his best friend eye to eye. "You need to go undercover. We could get a Vulcan to do the job but the terrain the Away Team would have to go through in order to reach the installation says you'd be more qualified. Riga 3 is a lot like the world you and your foster parents were marooned. You know yourself you've aced the survival training scores for the fleet. They want you because you can blend in if you have to and also because you can survive the terrain until pick up."

"You can't expect him to go alone." Alex started to protest.

"Of course not." Chris retorted and was somewhat surprised she would think he would let one of his people go into hostile territory alone. "The attach' will be accompanying him and a tactical officer."

"That would be me." Ezra volunteered without even thinking twice.

"Sorry Ezra," Chris shook his head. "I need you on the ship. Our mission into Romulan space is of the highest-level clearance. The rank and file do not know we will be violating the Neutral Zone."

"He cannot go down there on his own Captain!" Ezra protested.

"I've got tactical experience," Alex spoke up. "I'll go."

"Alex, no." Vin turned to her quickly. "I don't want to risk yourself for me."

"And I'm not risking myself for you, Lieutenant." Alex gave him a sharp look. "Next to Ezra, I am the most qualified person to go on this mission. A possible incursion with the Romulans does not require the presence of the Science Officer. I would be volunteering if it were any member of the crew, not just you. Friendship aside, I am a Starfleet officer."

Chris did not entirely believe her either, but she was right, she was the most qualified person on board to go if Ezra was needed on the ship. Vin felt silent and said nothing further about Alex's involvement although Chris could tell from the expression on his face, he was not happy about it. Still, that was a private matter between the two of them and Chris moved tactfully to the next order of business.

"Vin," Chris spoke up and took his attention away from this concerns about Alex for the moment. "You are not obligated to go on this mission. Starfleet is asking you to volunteer. I won't order you to go if you don't want to."

"Hell Chris," Vin shrugged. "I know the risks, I can handle myself." There was so much fearless abandon in his voice Chris could not help but believe it.

"In that case, I want to accompany the Away Team." Nathan suddenly spoke and astonished everyone by the request. Even Chris found himself staring at Nathan in surprise.

"Absolutely not." Buck was saying even before Chris could get the words out. "We're only sending essential personnel on this one."

"Buck's right," Chris added his support to Buck's response although he could see Nathan gearing up for an argument.

"I don't think so." Nathan responded predictably, and Chris decided to at least let the doctor have his say before the captain was forced to turn him down.

"And why is that?"

"Well for starters, Vin is supposed to go in there and gain intelligence about genetic testing yes?"

Chris had a bad feeling he knew where Nathan was going with this. "That's right."

"Then how is he going to know what he's looking at without a doctor accompanying him? He'll have enough trouble trying to pass without trying to decipher what he's looking at. I should go on the landing mission to Riga 3, that way I can tell him what he's looking at when he penetrates the research facility."

"I don't know Nathan..." Buck responded, very dubious about the wisdom in all this. "It's going to be rough and the larger this Away Team becomes, the bigger the odds of running into trouble."

"You need a physician." Nathan insistent emphatically. "Out there in hostile territory, if any of you should get hurt, where are you going to get help?" He asked Vin and Alex in particular.

"I'm hoping on the ship when they beam us up." Alex replied but saw something in Nathan's eyes that gave her reason for concern. "Nathan may have a point. If as you say the terrain is as hostile as we think, it might be a good idea to have Nathan around. Not to mention he's right, if Vin is to infiltrate a research facility, he would be of far more use to the project than I would be on that level."

Chris frowned, not liking the fact his CMO and his science officer had both made some very valid points. As it was, he hated risking Vin to this venture but Alex and Nathan too? This whole thing was starting to give the Captain a very bad feeling.

"Alright," Chris answered tautly. "But this is all pending on the recommendation of Lieutenant Commander Pierce. He is after all the attach' assigned to this mission."

"Yes Sir," Nathan responded, willing to concede the point that much.

However, even though Nathan had relented on this minor point, he still left a number of questions about why he actually wanted to go. Chris knew the man well enough to know while he was concerned about the welfare of the Away Team, there was something more at work here, some deeper concern he was not voicing just yet.

It was the unspoken that made Chris more nervous than anything else that was coming at them over the next few days.

******

When the briefing was over, Vin caught up to Alex who was progressing at a brisk pace away from the conference room and the rest of the bridge staff in the debriefing. Vin did not have to be telepathic to know she had made her rapid departure because she was in no mood to answer any questions about Dylan Pierce. He had seen her evasive before and the pattern was always the same. Vin left the others behind him and immediately hurried down the corridor where he had seen Alex disappear. All it required was for him to move at a slightly faster pace for him to catch up with her as she stepped into the turbo lift. Vin slid into the confined space with her just as the door slid close and Alex's expression was that of a frown, which clearly indicated she had no patience to discuss anything right now, especially with him.

Too bad.

"You left quickly." He accused as Alex instructed the turbo lift to take her to the deck where her quarters were situated.

"I think we discussed everything that needed discussing." Alex said shortly, aware of what he wanted to bring up with her. Unfortunately, Dylan was the one subject she was not touching with a ten-foot pole. She had enough chaos running through her thoughts at the very notion she would be seeing him face to face in a matter of days, to even broach the subject with someone else. Especially Vin.

"I don't think so." Vin returned just as tautly and addressed his next command to the computer intelligence carrying them to their next destination in the turbo lift. "Computer, halt turbo lift."

"Vin, what are you doing?" She demanded with more outrage than she felt. "I'm not talking about this with you."

"Is that why you volunteered to go on the mission?" He demanded, the heat of intense rage bubbling from the core of him with such intensity, that for a moment just the idea of imagining Alex with another man was enough to make him fight the desire to put his fist through the wall. "To make sure he's safe?"

Alex's eyes showed her hurt almost immediately but it was crushed by the ironclad control as she returned with just as much venom.

"How dare you?" She roared and struck him across the face.

The reaction was immediate. Alex felt a fist clenching around her wrist and his weight slamming her into the wall behind them. She felt her back slap hard against the steel and looked up to see he had both her hands pinned beneath his. For a moment, he did nothing but hold her there and Alex was so stunned she could barely react as she watched him lean into her, feeling the muscle of his body pressing against her own. His movements into her were slow and languid as if he were relishing the feel of her against him. His lips were inches from her and Vin buried his face in her hair, taking a deep breath and groaned in what seemed like physical pleasure.

"He can't have you." Vin whispered softly. "I won't let him."

The tone of his voice and the closeness of him rekindled something inside her that snapped her reason into a thousand tiny fragments. Alex reacted instinctively with more terror than she had ever felt in recent years. "Computer, proceed to next deck!" She ordered and snatched her hand away from his grip. Once freed, she wasted no time and hit him again, this time she put every ounce of strength into it she could muster.

Vin staggered backwards as the blow impacted on his consciousness. For a moment, he simply stood there until finally with a shake of his head, met her frightened gaze like a man waking up from a dream. His blue eyes turned on her and immediately registered shock and dismay.

"Oh Jesus Alex," he started to come towards her and froze when he saw her take a step back in fear. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, I don't know what came over me."

"Just stay away from me." Alex whispered, unafraid to admit she was frightened of him. When he had her pinned and helpless, she was suddenly reminded of how she felt when those Cardassian animals had brutalized her. Inwardly, she knew Vin would never intentionally hurt her but for one split second, logic was superseded by instinct and she had succumbed to the full torrent of her fears.

"Alex I'm sorry!" Vin tried desperately to convince her. "I care for you; don't you know that? I care so much that just the thought of someone taking you away from me..."

No, she shook her head. That was not it. What she had seen in his eyes was nothing like that at all. She wasn't sure what it was, but she knew what she had seen in his eyes was not love or affection but need.

Pure, hungry lusty need. For her.

Chapter Four: Awakening

When the debriefing ended, Chris dismissed all members of his senior staff except Nathan Jackson.

Nathan's sudden desire to wish assignment to the Away mission had indicated to Chris that the good doctor was privy to information he was not, and this gave him a very bad feeling indeed. Nathan was the least troublesome member of his senior staff, mostly because he was an amicable personality with a great deal of inner calm because his world was one that existed with clear boundaries of what was right and wrong. However, Chris also knew if he embarked upon a course he had determined to be right, the man could be a holy terror. Such vehemence only presented itself when Nathan was worried about the crew and in this instance, Chris could not afford not to know what it was Nathan had been trying to keep out of the briefing.

He stared at Nathan hard across the table after the others had gone and asked simply. "You want to tell me what that was all about?"

"What Captain?" Nathan remarked innocently even though he knew he was delaying the inevitable. Nathan had usurped the captain during the meeting and forced his presence on the mission, a fact he was certain Chris did not appreciate, especially when he had not given the man the real reason why he wanted to accompany the Away Team.

"Don't play games with me, Nathan. I'm better at it than you are. Now, what is it?"

The infamous Larabee glare bore down on Nathan and even though the healer would defend his position to the death, he could not help being affected by the harsh stare looking at him from across the table. "I'm sorry Captain," Nathan finally conceded, deciding he was being helpful to no one by being so enigmatic. "I know I overstepped my bounds a little, but I had good reason."

Chris's demeanor softened a little and he eased back into his chair, indicating to his Chief Medical Officer, they were back to being friends again, not a superior officer to junior. "All right, I appreciate that. Now how about telling me why?"

Nathan swallowed and wished he had something more concrete to go on but his experience and his instinct on this matter was all the proof he needed. Sometimes for a doctor, that had to be enough to save someone's life. "It's Vin."

Chris immediately sat up. "What do you mean Vin?"

"Ever since we picked up the Away Team up from Fury 361, Vin's metabolism has been running like a locomotive. You've seen how he is. He has more energy than he knows what to do with."

Chris had to agree. Vin had been running on full steam lately. The activities they had been participating together were becoming more strenuous all the time. The climb to the top of the Monolith on Risa had been the latest in a long list of physically demanding endeavors. "I've noticed."

"He said when he was down there on Fury, he melded with one of those aliens." Nathan started to explain, finding it good to be able to talk about his suspicions for once.

"I remember," Chris responded although he found it hard to think about anything regarding that mission. His behavior and the consequences of it had yet to fade from his memory or his nightmares. However, he brushed all that aside because he knew precisely what Nathan was referring to and when it had happened.

"The thing landed right on him, he was fighting it hand to hand."

"I think he melded with it," Nathan stated.

"Jesus," Chris whispered but somehow was not surprised. When they had gone into the alien nest to rescue Alex, Vin was almost savage. Chris recalled how he and Ezra had been shocked when Vin had killed some of the creatures with his bare hands although, at the time, both of them believed it was because Vin was worried about Alex and trying to keep her from being an alien host. However, now that he thought about it, it was not so far-fetched his behavior might have been attributed to some residual effects of his performing a mind meld with the alien.

"It gets worse." Nathan continued, deciding to lay it all on the line for his captain so he understood why it was necessary for him to accompany the Away Team on its mission. "When he came back, I noted his metabolic rate was higher than usual. Vin told me about the meld, so I figured it wouldn't last, eventually, his metabolism would return to normal. The thing is, it hasn't."

"It's getting higher?" Chris asked, aware of how dangerous this could be.

"And showing no signs of slowing down," Nathan said grimly. "At this rate, it will kill him if I don't get some chemical suppressants into him. I was going to bring it up with him when he got back from shore leave but if he's the main player in the next mission, I have to do it now."

That was not the entire picture, Chris thought immediately as he saw the grave expression on his CMO's face. There was something more Nathan was trying to say but did not know how. This disturbed Chris even more than what he had already heard and had no patience to wait for Nathan to bring it up. "There's more, isn't there?"

"Yes," Nathan admitted reluctantly. "I'm pretty sure I can get his metabolic rate under control if it's just a symptom of the meld but there is another problem."

"There's always another problem," Chris growled. "It wouldn't be normal on this ship if it wasn't, so tell me how much worse it could be?"

"The accelerated metabolism could also bring on Pon Farr."

Chris's eyes widened. "Wait a minute," he declared, real anxiety flooding into his voice now. "At his last physical, you said that was almost two years away!"

"I know that but everything about this meld he went through with the alien is increasing his metabolism. If it does happen, no drug, no suppressants, no treatment I know is going to stop it. The Vulcans are very closed mouth about this; I can't even get them to talk to me. They would rather handle the treatment of the subject themselves, at least until they realize its Vin we're talking about."

"Aw hell," Chris swore visibly disturbed by the idea of Vin undergoing this part of his maturing process prematurely. "What are we in for?"

"The usual," Nathan responded. "Unless he mates, he dies."

"How do Vulcans normally handle this?" Chris inquired, realizing he knew very little about that process itself. He supposed he could have asked Mary about the subject since she had been married to a Vulcan and would know exactly what happened during this turbulent period in their physiology. However, he always felt a little uncomfortable about discussing what was clearly a personal matter between herself and her husband.

"I don't know too much about the actual customs itself because this is about as taboo as a subject as you can get with Vulcans. I do know they arrange marriages for their children very early on and there is some kind of pre-mating ritual where the child is melded to their mates. It's meant to strengthen the bond between them until is time for the actual mating. Now whether or not Vin's parents ever got around to it is something we'll never know. He was very young when they died so it's highly likely that there is no mate."

"What about Alex?" Chris asked, hating the fact they were having this discussion. They were talking about Vin's sex life for God's sakes! Not just Vin's but now it appeared Alex's as well. Chris could not imagine this conversation could become any more awkward.

"No good," Nathan was already shaking his head. "She's human. In the state he'll be in with none of the disciplines Vulcans take years to prepare themselves with, he could hurt her."

"You're joking," Chris exclaimed, not knowing whether or not this was funny.

"No, I'm not," Nathan looked at him seriously because this was nothing to joke about. "If he takes her for a mate, he could kill her and won't even know he's done it until after it's over."

"Jesus Nathan!" Chris found himself shouting. "What the hell do we do?"

"I don't know," Nathan shook his head. "I honestly don't. At this moment, I can't even say this is going to happen, but the possibility exists."

"I can't send him on this mission." Chris leaned back into his chair with a loud exhale. "I can't send him down there with Alex and top it off, her ex-fianc�! It will be like throwing a match to gasoline!"

"Can you talk to Starfleet?" Nathan asked. "Maybe if we explain the situation."

"Starfleet won't be the problem. It will be Vin. You know how he is about being Vulcan, he'll fight me tooth and nail on this. Not to mention that while Starfleet did not make his involvement an order, they were pretty clear they wanted me to make it happen. Relations between the Romulans and the Federation are still pretty cool, even after the Dominion War. There are fears that if we don't start making nice with them, they might choose to take the opportunity to attack us while we're in the process of rebuilding the fleet after the war."

"So, no matter how this plays out, he'll still have to go." Nathan guessed what Chris was trying to say.

"More or less."

"I hope I'm wrong Chris," the doctor said sincerely. "I hope this will pass."

"But you don't think, so do you?" The captain guessed accurately, serving with Nathan long enough by now to know the man was no alarmist. He would not have offered to go on a mission as dangerous as the one to Riga 3 unless there was a very good reason to be concerned.

"No, I don't," Nathan answered. "I think if it doesn't happen, we will be very lucky."

Unfortunately, the way their luck had been lately, Chris had little faith in good fortune. He found himself faced with the one situation, he prayed he would never have to face. Through no fault of his own, Chris suddenly realized the moment was drawing close when he would have to choose between his duty to Starfleet and his friendship with Vin Tanner.

******

"You seemed troubled."

Alex could not disagree with Bishop's assessment on her mood because she was.

After the confrontation with Vin, she had to the holo deck where she continued her simulation of building a working model of Bishop's android form. It had been hers and Julia Pemberton's pet project since they brought the remnant of Bishop's form from Fury 361 where it had been languishing for the greater part of four centuries. Bishop was the only relic of 21st-century robotics in existence and in order to give him a voice despite the destruction of his body, the science officer and engineer had integrated him into the holodeck systems, so he could at least have a corporeal form inside the recreational facility.

"I'm fine," Alex said shortly as she continued to study the interior model of the simulation Bishop provided regarding his internal schematics.

The workshop in which they were conducting their research was set in the middle of a sunny beach. There was a sun blazing down on her and the lapping of ocean waves in the nearby distance. Even though nothing before her was real, she enjoyed the visual stimulus and it helped to calm her down after her encounter with Vin with the turbo lift. It was also a chance for Bishop to feel as if he were not just trapped in a holodeck. She knew she was being foolish, assigning all kinds of emotions to the android but she could not help it, something about him convinced Alex Bishop was as real as any sentient could be.

Bishop did not press for a few seconds after she made her curt remark, choosing instead to walk to the shore and wet his feet in the water. Of all the humans on board the Maverick, she reminded him most of Ripley. There was the same haunted expression in her eyes, the mark of someone who had seen too much too soon, and endured nightmares others could not possibly imagine. He supposed that's why he enjoyed talking to her so much. It was almost like talking to Ripley again. Sometimes the Captain came in and talked to him too, except the captain mostly asked questions about his ancestor, Private Dwayne Hicks of the Colonial Marines. Bishop told the Captain as much as he could about the Corporal who bore such an uncanny resemblance to his 24th century counterpart. However, Bishop had not known Hicks for very long and could only tell him what little he knew during their brief acquaintanceship.

"I'm not really troubled," Alex spoke up after a moment, putting down the tool in her hand and stared after him. "I guess if there was a word for it, its spooked."

"I know the term," Bishop said with a little smile. "What spooked you?"

"Vin." She said with a slight frown.

Bishop knew there was something of an odd relationship between the Vulcan and the science officer. What he had accessed through the ship's data banks told him enough about Vulcans in general for Bishop to know Vin Tanner was not your average one. He was more human than he was Vulcan and having studied something of the man's Starfleet records, Bishop understood why. "What exactly did he do?"

"He touched me." She responded after a pause feeling embarrassed to be even bringing this up. "I mean he's touched me before and I've even shared a bed with him, not that anything happened though," she quickly explained. "But when we were in the turbo lift today, it was very different."

"I was under the impression he was not mature enough to sense sexual pleasure," Bishop stated, padding nothing.

Alex flinched, feeling her inhibitions rise up around her when the situation was put so bluntly. "That's what I thought but it didn't look that way. I mean he looked like he was really enjoying it."

"How do you feel about that?"

"What do you mean how I feel about it? What am I supposed to feel?" She asked somewhat annoyed.

"I asked because I was under the impression that you and the lieutenant were...." Bishop started to say when Alex cut him off.

"We're just friends."

"That share a bed."

"We just sleep together. I have nightmares...." Alex answered, dropping her gaze to the sand. "When I sleep with him, they go away. I don't know why."

But she did know. She knew the first time she felt his arms wrap around her in the darkness and felt his heart pounding against her back when they spooned. It was because he made her feel safe. Somehow, when she was with him, she did not remember the nightmare with the Cardassians, she did not remember how they abused her because she could only feel his hands on her skin and all the horror seemed to bleed away in the face of his tender touch.

"I see," Bishop said quietly. Having access to almost every terabyte of information on board the Maverick made Bishop privy to the details of her incarceration and the abuses she suffered at the hands of the Cardassians. Such an intimate step with Vin Tanner could not have come easily and only reflected the true depths of her feelings for him.

"What do you see?" Alex asked defensively but she still wanted to know what he thought. At first, she had been horrified by Vin's actions, the look in his eyes and the feral need that reminded her too closely of another time when she had been subjected to such scrutiny. Unfortunately, the more she thought about it, the more confused she became. Hadn't she tried to make love to him once before? When Gul Lemar had been on board and she was undecided about whether or not she would gut the bastard for what he had done to her, she had turned to Vin and tried to make love to him. He was unable to respond and said nothing even though what she had done was more intrusive then what he had attempted in the turbo lift earlier.

"I think you care about him a lot." Bishop responded. "I think your relationship with him has been safe until now. You had all the comfort of a lover but not the physical demands. Now it looks like that might change, you're naturally afraid."

"I'm not afraid of anything." She bit back but she was lying, and she knew it.

"You are afraid of this," Bishop said bluntly.

"You're an android. "What would you know?"

"I've been programmed to analyze human behavior so any conclusions I reached whether erroneous or not are based on your responses." He said with a good-natured smile.

"And to think, I plan to help you walk among us." She said sarcastically but after a second admitted the truth. "You're right. Until now it has been easy. He fills a space inside of me no one else can. A space that hasn't been filled for a very long time."

"Then what's the problem?" Bishop asked in that infuriatingly calm voice.

"I have a lousy track record with relationships." Alex pointed out. "I don't want to take that step with Vin and then have it go the way the others did. I couldn't stand it. We've got something good and if I mess it up, I couldn't stay on this ship."

"How do you know it will fail?"

"Because it has before and a day from now," Alex sighed. "The living proof of that is going to be on board this ship."

Dylan Pierce.

God, could her life get any more complicated?

******

What was the matter with him?

Vin Tanner was still unable to believe how he behaved when he was in the turbo lift with Alex. One minute they were discussing her ex-fianc� and the next thing he knew, she was against his body and he could smell that amazing scent of hers in his lungs. Her hair felt like silken strands against his skin and there was a moment there when all he wanted to do was to stay there, feeling her soft body against his lean hard one forever. Nothing else mattered, not the fact they were behaving most inappropriately for two senior officers or the fact that when she looked at him, her eyes were filled with fear. Vin had frightened her.

When he regained his senses, he could not understand what led him to behave the way he did. Of course, Alex would be scared out of her mind. After what she had been through with the Cardassians, how could she react any other way when a man came on to her that strongly? Vin did not even know why he had done it. Lately he had been noticing her more acutely than ever. Suddenly, the way she moved in her uniform made him picture what she would look like without it and when she smiled at him, his heart started pounding and he wanted nothing but to hold her. Fortunately, she had not needed him to help her sleep the last weeks because God only knew what he would have done if he found himself pressed up against her when she wore so little.

Was he actually experiencing some sort of sexual awakening? Is that what this was? Vin wished he knew for certain. If this was what he feared, if this was Pon Farr then he would have to find himself a place to hide because the animal he would turn into would terrify Alex and Vin would not see that fear in her eyes for anything.

He was on his way to his quarters when he saw the slender redhead walking up ahead. Whatever thoughts had been in his mind faded away momentarily as he admired the form strolling in front of him. Even before he knew what was happening, he found himself hastening his pace until he was walking right next to the woman staring at her data pad.

"Lieutenant Richmond."

Charlotte Richmond raised her eyes and realized whom it was who had spoken to her. Immediately, she looked around to see if Commander Styles was around. Charlotte had no wish to be in the second officer's doghouse if she inadvertently said something unkind to this Vulcan. Fortunately, for the moment, he was alone.

"Lieutenant Tanner." She said with a painted on a smile with no real warmth.

"You're looking good." He responded with a husky tone to his voice that was completely unfamiliar.

"I beg your pardon?" She exclaimed in surprise. This sort of compliment from Vin Tanner was completely unexpected. The man was usually so shy and barely said a word to anyone who was not a member of the bridge staff.

"I think you heard me the first time Charlotte." He said giving her a long look that started at her toes and by the time he reached her eyes; she wondered how come the corridor had suddenly jumped ten degrees in temperature.

Charlotte swallowed hard, remembering the cruel jibes she made about his sexuality when he had first arrived on the Maverick. She had been mean and could understand why Commander Styles had rebuked her. She wondered if he remembered how nasty she had been and was playing tricks with her. However, the smoldering blue eyes undressing her even as she stood before him, played havoc with her common sense.

"I've just finished my shift." She started to say, watching him closely and admitting now she understood why he was viewed with such desire by more than a large majority of the female crew than he probably knew. "I was going to my quarters for a little dinner. Want to join me?" She asked nervously.

Vin took a step closer to her and let his lips brush past her hair at the barest fraction. She smelled nice. Her scent was floral, that much he knew, and she was very attractive. He stared down at her, at the curve of her lips, the tapering smoothness of her neck disappearing past the high collar of her uniform. A surge of something ran through his veins and suddenly Alex was very far away from his thoughts.

"Sure." He answered after a moment. "I could eat."

Charlotte returned the suggestive remark with one of her own. "I'm sure you could."

Chapter Five: Fury

For the second time that day, Vin Tanner wondered what the hell he was doing.

He had gone to Charlotte Richmond's quarters, gone through the motions of pretending they wanted to share a meal together when their needs were far more basic than a hunger for food. Now he was in her arms, kissing her, touching her the way he would be touching a lover. He could smell the heavy scent of her desire in his lungs and the silk of her skin against his palms as he caressed her exposed flesh. He could hear her moaning somewhere in the back of his mind as he continued to kiss her and though the feeling of her lips against his own was somewhat satisfying, yet it somehow did not feel right. For seconds as she continued to draw him into her passionate embrace, stoking the fires of his own rising needs, Vin tried to understand what about it felt wrong.

Physically, he was responding to her. Everything about this was as it had been described to him by Buck and so many others who felt sorry for him because he never fully understood what physical pleasure was. Now as he experienced it for himself, he found that something was missing. He had no idea how he had come to be in this position and still puzzled over the emotions that carried him to this intimate place within Lieutenant Richmond's quarters. He barely knew the woman and what little contact he had with her prior to this heated tryst, was hardly conducive to the passion they were sharing together. He had always imagined this moment transpiring differently and suddenly, like a man rising from a fog, he understood why.

She was not Alex.

The realization was so acute, it almost had a physical impact upon his person. Without thinking twice, he pushed himself out of her arms, felt her hand tear away from where she had been making circles on his bare back with her palms. When he blinked and the desire for her faded, he found she was staring at him in dismay, urging him to come back to her with soft whispers and promises of delights beyond his ability to imagine. However, the craving for her had well and truly passed. It was barely even a need for her, Vin thought frantically as he searched for his blazer among the jumble of clothes on the floor. It had been a need for a body.

"What's the matter?" Charlotte asked breathlessly as she looked at him with eyes full of urgent need.

"Nothing." He said quickly, turning away from her bare torso because he suddenly felt embarrassed by this whole situation. Even though his innards were still shuddering from the sensation of running his hands against her supple form, exploring her as he had always wanted to touch a woman, the brief feeling of pleasure was fading. Instead, he felt overwhelmed by shame. He couldn't even meet Charlotte's desperate gaze. "This was a mistake." He muttered staggering for the door, clutching his turtleneck in his hands. His blazer flapped open, revealing his smooth chest beneath.

"No, it wasn't," Charlotte caught up with him, her hands snaking past his neck, wanting nothing more than to have him stay. How could she not? When he kissed her, she thought she might die and those sensitive fingers moved over her body like he was feeling it for the first time. She had never been so aroused or had greater need of any man in her life. "It was wonderful. Stay." She coaxed, her mouth raining kisses on his bare neck. "You won't regret it."

"I already do," he pulled away easily when he had five times her strength. Vin pushed the door panel and almost fell past them when they slid open, leaving his would-be lover bewildered and disappointed.

Vin staggered out of her quarters, hardly daring to look behind him as he stepped out into the corridor beyond her room. For a minute, he kept walking straight ahead, unaware of where he was going, only wracked with this terrible feeling of guilt that he had done something unforgivable. What in the hell was happening to him? What had possessed him to do what he had just done? Despite his emotional dilemma, Vin knew there had been a moment when he had wanted nothing else but to satisfy all his curiosities regarding the female gender. He had been swept away by a surge of lust so great, he had no idea what he was doing until he snapped out of his stupor when he was half-naked on top of Charlotte Richmond.

Is this what scared Alex so much when they had been in that turbo lift, that he might have been swept away by his needs for her so uncontrollably, he could actually be as brutal as the men who had raped and tortured her in that Cardassian prison?

"Vin?" He heard a familiar voice call his name in astonishment.

Vin looked up and found the normally unreadable Ezra Standish staring at him with open surprise.

"Ezra." Vin swallowed with no idea how to explain himself.

Ezra's eyes studied him closely for no more than a fraction of a second before the security officer stated firmly. "My quarters are just ahead. I think we should retire there for the duration."

In truth, that was a very good idea. It was actually quite possible Vin Tanner was rather distraught at this point in time. He was confused, and he felt as if he was occupying a slightly lower notch on the ecological chain then the Denebian slime devil.

"Okay."

Ezra's quarters thankfully were not far from where he had encountered the security officer. As always, Vin admired Ezra's ability to keep the place in such immaculate condition. The man's taste in furnishings always made Vin wonder if Ezra's roots were not a little Texan himself. The main theme of the decor was set somewhere in the late 19th century of the American West. Vin was reminded of the ranch where he had spent his years on Earth after being rescued from that world on the Rim.

"Take a seat," Ezra said graciously as he went to the replicator and instructed the computer to provide them with a cup of coffee for himself and hot chocolate, which was Vin's beverage of choice. Vin was slipping off his blazer to put on his grey turtleneck when suddenly, he felt something soft and warm rub past his leg.

"You have a kitten," Vin remarked looking at the big round eyes staring at him through a ball of fur. He never thought Ezra as a cat person.

"Yes," Ezra frowned looking at the creature. "Mr. Tanner, allow me to introduce you to Huxley."

"Huxley?" Vin stared at him. "That's a weird name for a cat."

"Trust me," Ezra stiffened. "It was better than what Julia wanted to name her." He declared as he handed Vin the cup of hot chocolate that immediately announced its pleasing aroma in Vin's nostrils. "She wanted to name it Fluffy."

"I think Huxley's a good choice," Vin said with a completely straight face. "Why did you get a cat? Didn't think you were much of an animal lover."

"I am not," Ezra smoldered as he sat down on the chair across Vin. "But apparently before Julia and I take the all-important step of sharing the same residence, she believes it is necessary we own an animal to improve our ability to mutually cooperate prior to that momentous occasion." He said with more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

"Okay." Vin shook his head, not understanding but not really in the mood to pursue the subject. Instead, he took a sip of his hot chocolate and went quiet for a moment.

"So," Ezra eased back into his chair and finally remarked. "Are you going to leave me in suspense or are you going to require to make a wild guess as to why you were in a state of partial undress in the middle of the corridor."

Vin stiffened and shot him a dark look. "I don't want to talk about it."

"That is, of course, your prerogative," the security chief said smoothly as he reached over and picked up a deck of cards on the table in front of him and began shuffling it. "However, I am under the impression you might need to."

"I don't know what's happening to me." Vin burst out suddenly. He had not even considered taking Ezra up on his offer until he opened his mouth and the words came without any discussion with his feelings on the matter. "I almost hurt Alex today." He whispered and met Ezra's gaze. As always, the southerner let no one in on what he was thinking which only made Vin all the more anxious.

"Hurt her? How?" Ezra asked. There was no indication of alarm or accusation in his voice. He asked his question the way he might question a witness to the event, not the actual participant.

"I was so angry by the idea she might still care for this fianc� of hers that I grabbed her and then I wouldn't let her go." Vin's eyes seemed to look past Ezra as if he was replaying the events in his mind and offering a running commentary. "I held her tight and it felt good feeling her against me. I didn't want anything else but to feel her there, where she was mine."

"How did she take that?" Ezra inquired, even though he already knew the answer. Ezra knew Alexandra Styles well enough to know such an action would not be received well and the lady had quite the temper.

"She was afraid of me!" Vin exclaimed as if it were the most awful thing in the world.

Ezra sensed that for him, it might well be. No one was blind to the relationship between the two even though it was platonic. The seven men who made up the senior staff of the Maverick had a special relationship of their own. Each were mavericks in their own way and it seemed only natural they formed some kind of cohesion on a ship named after themselves. The women in their lives who worked at their side and who loved them, in turn, were of a different caliber themselves. He knew Julia in her way was unique, just as Mary had to be extraordinary to capture Chris Larabee's heart but Alex, Alex was always something different. Of the women, she was the strongest, the most resilient and the loneliest. Alex could be in a room full of people and still be alone.

In that way, she and Vin had a great deal in common.

"She was more likely afraid of something else you might have reminded her off, but I doubt she was afraid of you," Ezra responded, seeing the genuine dismay in Vin's eyes and knowing that he did not like it one damn bit.

"I never want to see that look in her eyes again. I couldn't stand it."

"Perhaps you ought to see Doctor Jackson," Ezra suggested. "Your behavior is not normally so aggressive. It may be a simple case of bad health."

"It gets worse." Vin volunteered nearly mortified.

Ezra somewhat imagined it would, judging by the fact the helmsman was minus his blazer and smelt distinctly of perfume that was not Alex's scent.

"You do not have to tell me Vin," Ezra offered. "If it bothers you that much."

"It does," Vin admitted but he did need to talk to someone. He could not make any sense of his behavior and perhaps, Ezra who had more experience with these things might be able to. In any case, it felt good to talk to someone who would just listen and not worry about how his behavior might affect his duty, their friendship, his state of health or his mental well-being. "But I need to. Ezra, I was with Lieutenant Richmond."

Ezra's brow crooked upward. "When you mean with, are talking about with, in the biblical sense?"

"No, I didn't have sex with her." The Vulcan snapped. "I wanted to though. I got to what Buck calls second base."

"Ah yes," Ezra shook his head in distaste at the term employed by their first officer. "I forgot what a poet the man can be but do go on."

"I was just walking along, trying to figure things out and there she was. Suddenly I just wanted her. I don't even know why. Hell, I don't think I even like her, she was just..."

"There?" Ezra ventured a guess.

"Yeah," Vin nodded. "I went to her and I started talking to her and I barely know what I said but she invited me back to her quarters for dinner." The expression on the Vulcan's face was so mystified that Ezra had a feeling that Vin was still rather astonished by his encounter with Lieutenant Richmond.

"I was all over her and I liked it, Ezra. I mean she let me touch her and I didn't mind doing it. It felt good."

"Well, you have nothing to be ashamed of," Ezra said quickly. "It seems you are finally experiencing what it feels like to fully appreciate a woman."

"That may be, but I don't think every man just sees a woman and decides he wants her," Vin grumbled.

"Then Buck Wilmington must be an aberration." Ezra retorted until he saw Vin frowning and added further. "As disturbing as you might find it, these feelings are new to you and perhaps they caught you a little unaware. For the rest of us, it is easy, we have a great deal of time to become accustomed to the awakening inside of us. It is different for Vulcans and for you who have been displaced from your race, it is doubly hard. You have no reason to be ashamed of anything you might have done. I know the situation between you and Alex is somewhat grey, but you need to talk to her, you need to explain."

"I can't face her," Vin muttered dropping his gaze. "I can't face her after what happened with Charlotte."

"Vin," Ezra took a deep breath and did not want to add to the Vulcan's worries but he would not consider himself a good friend if he did not speak up. "This may be a ship with one thousand people in it but rumor travels faster than wildfire. Trust me when I say to you that it would be better if Alex heard it from you than have news of your tryst with Charlotte Richmond reaching her ears by any other means."

Vin slumped into the chair and groaned loudly. "Hell, can this get any worse?"

"Sure, it can," Ezra looked at the kitten that was presently sharpening her claws on his sofa and narrowed his eyes in dislike. "She can forgive you and make you buy her a cat."

******

Although his talk with Ezra did make Vin feel somewhat better. He was still furious at himself for turning to another woman. He did not even like Charlotte and the more he thought of it, the more he felt his rage bubble. Vin did not know what was happening to him and felt as if he was jumping out of his skin. The need to react was almost overwhelming and his thoughts became a random jumble of conflict as he strode towards his quarters. He thought about Charlotte and how much trouble a few minutes of pleasure was going to cost him. It was not fair! He wanted Alex and Alex was afraid of him!

She was not afraid of him when she invited him into her bed, he thought angrily.

Where was her fear when she wanted him to hold her in his arms and take the nightly terrors away? He started to feel the fury build up inside of him and it was increasing at an almost juggernaut pace the more he thought about her. She had wanted to make love to him once. He remembered her lips against his and how she had run her fingers through his hair as her tongue slipped past his teeth. He could not remember how it felt but just thinking about it sent more shivers of desire through him. He thought about Charlotte and remembered how she had whimpered under his touch. She had begged him to stay. If he wanted to, he could go back there and finish what they had started.

Except she was not Alex and it was Alex he wanted.

He wanted to know if Alex would make the same breathless sighs when he caressed her skin and kneaded her flesh under his palms. Would she beg him to stay as Charlotte had begged him? He wanted to see her beg. He wanted it so much. It took a few seconds for Vin to realize that his escalating emotions had one common theme; he wanted only Alex. He could not have her! He could not go to her and see that look in her eyes that the very idea of touching him when he wanted her so badly, was probably repulsive!

Stop this!

The human part of his brain shouted at him.

Stop this before you get out of hand, pard.

Vin paused in mid-step and took a deep breath, trying to quell the furious emotions running through him and knew if he did not do something soon, he would not only hurt Alex but anyone who happened along his way. What was happening to him? In all his life he had never felt this out of control! Right now, it was taking all his powers of restraint not to seek Alex out so that he could show her there was nothing to be afraid of, just as he showed Charlotte he was very capable of being a man. Maybe if he could just hold her down and show her...

Jesus did you just hear yourself! Hold her down? Like a Cardassian?

Vin fairly screamed in rage and slammed his fist into the nearby wall. By rights, he ought to have broken every bone in his hand but to his surprise, there was no such injury and the place where he had impacted his knuckles had dented in. The talk with Ezra was light years away and Vin was shaking when he tried to compose himself. Taking a deep breath, he remembered some of the lessons Mary had taught him about maintaining his control. Mary, his mind flared with inspiration. He would go see Mary! She would know better than anyone what was happening to him. However, Vin found himself recoiling from that idea as soon as it crossed his mind.

He could not go to Mary. She was a woman and right now, women were having way too much effect on him. If he were to hurt her in any way, he would not only have to live with the shame of what he had done to her but also lose the best friend he ever had in his life. Chris Larabee. Vin knew the captain would never forgive him for the insult to the woman he loved. So now he found himself at another impasse and the obstruction just made him angrier. Vin tried to think of what to do and finally struck upon the only course left to him.

The holodeck was thankfully empty when he stepped into its confines, not that it would have mattered if it were not. He would have thrown anyone who was using it in his present state. Vin stepped in the middle of the empty room and spoke out loud to the computer intelligence to produce the program he needed.

"Computer," Vin spoke in a low voice. "Activate restricted Tanner Combat Program 1."

Vin had created the program shortly after their return from Fiorina 361 and had been using it of late though he told no one of its existence. He was certain they would not understand and in truth, he was not inclined to explain himself.

"Restricted Tanner Combat Program activated."

Suddenly, appearing around him was a Stygian world inside the alien nest where he, Chris and Ezra had been forced to traverse in order to rescue Alex. The computer's recreation of the hellish place was almost perfect, and Vin nearly forgot he was inside a program and not the real thing. He stared at the corpses littering the grimy floor, the cavernous chambers and the dark silhouettes becoming even more menacing with the thin layer of mist floating past them. He removed his blazer and his turtleneck as the temperature became hot and humid, just like it was inside the real thing. Beads of sweat immediately ran down his bare torso.

"Computer," Vin said softly. "Bath'let."

The bath' let materialized on the ground next to him and Vin lowered himself to pick it up. He could hear them approaching, could detect the wet slithery sounds they made as they converged upon him in numbers. Vin let the rage take over, feeling it surge through his veins and allowed it to suffuse him with more raw power than he could ever imagine he was capable of feeling. The awareness of the coming battle made his fingers tingle and his throat dry with anticipation. He closed his eyes and opened his mind, hoping to feel the creatures but knowing he could not because they were not real, they were merely manipulation and light and magnetic containment. However, he did remember how it felt when he had been inside their hive minds and that memory sustained the frenzied blood lust reaching apogee inside of him. He had constructed the program removing the alien's deadly acid blood from its matrix, to make their battles a little more even. He knew it was cheating but the creatures were formidable even if they did not bleed.

The first alien lunged at him and Vin swung the bath'let at its streaking black form, slamming the sharp curve of the blade past the jaw of its elongated head. The alien did not even have time to scream as its jaw detached from the rest of its body. It died before even touching the ground and a flurry of shape behind him had Vin swing again, this time hacking the creature in mid-thorax. Flaying arms and tentacles flew at him from another darkened corner and toppled him to the ground. Vin fought off gnashing teeth and scratching claws, which had every ability to tear his flesh because he had created this program with the safety protocols disabled. Vin rolled on top of the alien and shoved the bath'let down on its thin neck, severing its head from the rest of its body.

He leapt off the carcass and saw another alien coming at him and Vin did not waste any time, he swung the blade hard and fast, striking the alien down as brutally as he did the others and he was nowhere ready to stop. As he saw more and more of them coming at him, Vin Tanner could only smile and let the rage take over. He wanted to kill something. He needed to kill something, and he wanted to do it a lot. Better holographic images rather than something that had a soul to lose.

Even though he was starting to think that his might be already gone.

Chapter Six: Dante's Inferno

Well, it was done.

His news his helm officer was incapable of taking part in the mission to Riga 3 had not impressed Starfleet. Unfortunately, they were aware of what Pon Farr was and the terrible risks they faced by including a member of the ground team who could at any moment, become a powder keg that would not only endanger himself and his fellow officers but the mission as well. A compromise had been reached; Alexandra Styles would go but it would be Ezra Standish would accompany her. Although Chris did not like the idea of losing his security officer while they were in enemy space, he knew Ezra had other officers who were capable of filling his role for the duration of the mission. Chris had also taken out a little added insurance should they actually run into a Romulan war bird.

Now all that was left for him to do was to tell Vin.

The Maverick was a few hours away from Deep Space Five and no doubt the special attach' would be informed of the situation prior to his arrival. This was one of those times when Chris questioned the wisdom of having a close friend under his command, particularly when Chris had to tell him such news. He knew without any foresight or prescience Vin would not take his removal from the mission well, especially in fear of something that might not happen. However, as Captain, Chris could not afford to take the risk of inserting Vin into an Away Team mission where he might end up being more of a danger to them than the Romulans that they were attempting to infiltrate.

When he heard the chime at his door, he knew that it was not Vin Tanner. Chris had not struck up the nerve for that meeting just yet. He knew he was delaying the inevitable, but he was in no particular rush to face his friend's wrath, Captain or not. Instead, when he beseeched his visitor to enter, it was Ezra Standish who walked into the Captain's Ready Room, not the young, spirited Vulcan.

"Captain," Ezra greeted as he entered. "You sent for me."

"Yes," Chris nodded, gesturing for Ezra to sit.

When he did Ezra knew immediately that Chris was not seeing him as Chief Security officer but rather as a friend. Obviously, the man had something he did not wish to impart because his body language was steeling himself for some test of endurance. "Something wrong Chris?"

"You could say that." Chris drawled sipping his coffee slowly. "You'll be taking Vin's place down on Riga 3."

Although this news was not entirely unwelcome because he felt uncomfortable about any member of the crew going into such a hazardous situation without him, Ezra had to wonder what the reason for it was.

"Why?" He asked after a moment.

"This is between you and me for the moment." Chris looked at Ezra, with the Larabee glare indicating he was serious and to ignore his Captain's request was to do so at his own peril. "Nathan believes that Vin might have melded with an alien while he was on Fury 361."

"I see." Ezra took it rather well but then it was unusual for him to be open to outward displays of surprise. "Is this the reason for his somewhat exuberant behavior of late?"

"Nathan seems to think so. He also thinks that it might get worse than it's already been, that it might be bringing on Pon Farr."

Ezra was aware of the term and its significance to Vulcans although the details were shrouded in mystery. "I think he might be right."

"What makes you say that?" Chris met his eyes sharply; taking it from his remark that Ezra had something to add.

Ezra had no wish to break Vin's confidence but in light of what Chris had just told him, he was obligated to tell Chris what he knew about Vin's possible condition. "We had a discussion about how he and Lieutenant Richmond had engaged in an amorous exchange."

"He was with a woman?" Chris exclaimed.

"Yes," Ezra resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Last I looked Lieutenant Richmond was female unless we are extremely mistaken about his sexual orientation."

"Don't be funny," Chris growled, feeling awkward enough about the whole situation. "So, what happened?"

"Well, he was very confused, not to mention agitated. For starters, he had no idea why he chose Lieutenant Richmond for such a tryst, other than she was there."

Chris let out of a deep sigh. "It's starting. As you might have guessed, in light of what's coming at him, I can't authorize him to go on that mission. That's why you have to take his place."

"How did Starfleet take it?" Ezra asked, unable to imagine they would have been happy about the situation.

"They weren't thrilled about it," Chris confirmed. "However, they know about Pon Farr and how bad his condition is going to get when it starts getting worse. We've come to the decision we'll perform a little minor cosmetic surgery on our Away Team to have them blend in. Vin's participation would have been better, but we have to make the best of a bad situation."

"Have you told him?"

"No," Chris shook his head. "Suffice to say, he's going to fight me on this but I'm not changing my mind. I'm going to have Mary talk to him about what's going to happen."

"Forgive me for prying but what exactly is the solution here?" Ezra asked, more concerned about Vin than the dangerous mission ahead. "If I understand correctly, he must mate."

"You're right," Chris said uncomfortably. "He has to mate, or he'll die."

"Should not someone inform Alex?" Ezra stared at Chris. She was the closest thing Vin had to a mate; surely telling her would be a necessary first step.

"Nathan doesn't think he can mate with a human," Chris informed. "It has to be with a female of the species. There's some kind of meld involved, some type of bonding process. If he mates with Alex, he could conceivably kill her without knowing it."

"Oh, charming." Ezra grimaced. "Unfortunately, unattached Vulcan females are in short supply Captain. Can Doctor Jackson find some other remedy?"

"He's working on it," Chris said grimly. "I'm going to have a talk to Mary, see if there's anything she can suggest."

However, Ezra noted that the captain did not look hopeful of a solution other than the obvious. Ezra felt sorry for Vin who wanted nothing to do with Vulcans because he was raised human and now would die because of it. It did not seem at all fair. "Are you intending to let Alex know before she goes on the mission?"

"I haven't decided that either," Chris confessed. He knew Alex would be severely conflicted about leaving the ship if there was the remotest possibility Vin might die because of his condition. However, not telling her would be a disgraceful act of cowardice on his part and something he was certain she would never forgive him for if the worst happened. Chris himself was trying to find some solution out of this desperate circumstance, forced upon him by the idiosyncrasies of Vulcan mating habits. Vin was his best friend and the idea of losing the young man was more than Chris could stand.

"Captain," Ezra said rising to his feet. "There are times when I do not envy you your job."

"Ain't that the truth?" Chris drawled with a discontented sigh.

******

Vin was presently still on duty at the helm of the Maverick and Chris saw no reason to tell him the news until after the man was off duty. In truth, he knew he was avoiding the issue, but this was one of those times when his duty came into conflict with his friendship. He supposed his whole relationship with Vin Tanner could fall under that classification. Vin was younger than he and a junior officer and yet they had struck up a friendship almost immediately upon his assignment to the Rutherford. Vin had arrived on the Rutherford less than a week before the Borg engagement that saw Chris's promotion to Captain. They had barely spoken a few words until that last battle, where Vin had stood by his commanding officer in an incontestable show of loyalty even though everything was going to hell around them. There had been a brief instance when it looked like all was lost, after the Captain was dead where both men exchanged a look of knowing exactly what each would do. From then on, the bond that had been forged in that chaos had endured beyond all expectation.

The last few weeks, Chris had seen the change in Vin, but self-confidence was always something Chris hoped for the shy young Vulcan who always seemed most comfortable when no one noticed him. Vin stood up and made himself counted whenever the situation required it but for social occasions, he retreated into that shell created by a life living almost entirely alone in rustic isolation. It was largely through Chris and Alex's collective efforts Vin emerged from his cocoon and the friendship of the six men who made up the Magnificent Seven, according to an in-joke by the rest of the crew that had done its best for Vin. Chris hated to think all the confidence and inner peace Vin had displayed of late was the alien's influence and worst yet, it was merely the beginnings of an even greater tempest.

Still, Vin had to know what he was facing, and Chris had no intention of allowing him to endure this turbulent transition alone. He refused to believe that the lack of a simple biological function being satisfied would be the death of his trusted friend. If there was a way to keep him from dying, Chris would move heaven and earth to find it and strangely enough, Chris was not afraid to put up his command as collateral for such a gamble. If it meant his captaincy, Chris was more than willing to do what was necessary to see Vin get the help he needed. Fortunately, for the immediate present, nothing as drastic as that was required, however, Chris found to get any further, he would have to consult with the one person who knew what Pon Farr was better than any other human on board the Maverick.

"Mary," Chris announced himself after he had left the bridge to Buck who was at this moment, plotting some secret revenge on Josiah while taking center seat.

"Chris," Mary exclaimed with some measure of surprise at his unexpected arrival. Normally when there was ship's business to discuss, he would summon her to his Ready Room, deciding early on in their relationship that there were some professional boundaries that had to be maintained for it to work. He rarely came to her quarters like this and it made her wonder if there was not anything amiss.

"What are you doing here?" She asked as she stepped aside and allowed him into her quarters. "Is something wrong?"

"We need to talk." He said unable to shake the persona of the Captain dictating his manner at the moment. "It's a personal matter.'

Mary looked at him puzzled, finding his choice of words strange. "Personal?"

"I need to ask you about something personal between you and Syan." He finally managed to say, unable to believe how uncomfortable he felt talking to her about this.

Mary's browed arched and she turned away, unable to fathom his reason for asking but certain he had a good reason. Fortunately, Billy was at school at this time of the morning, so it was possible for her to speak freely. Mary retreated to the sofa and faced him after she sat down, taking a deep breath and waiting for him to sit before she answered.

"What do you need to know?" She asked because she loved him, and they were at a point in their relationship where there were no secrets between them.

Chris let out a deep exhale, hoping she was not too affronted by the question. "I need to know about Pon Farr."

"Pon Farr?" She blurted out. "Why?"

"Vin." He said simply, and it was all the explanation she needed.

"Oh my God," she gasped. "Is it time already?" Her fear and alarm were genuine, and Chris started to feel his own concerns deepen as if they were not bad enough as it was.

"We're not sure," Chris answered. "Nathan seems to think he might have inadvertently brought it prematurely when he melded with one of the creatures on Fury 361. You've seen him the last few past weeks, he's been running on full steam."

"I did wonder about that." Mary acknowledged that much from her own observations.

"And Ezra told me Vin apparently had something of an encounter with Lieutenant Richmond."

"With Charlotte?" Mary exclaimed, aware that Charlotte Richmond was not exactly Alex's favorite person in stellar cartography after having overheard some of her remarks to Vin when he had first arrived on the Maverick. That he would choose her of all people to test the waters of his sexual maturity was more confirmation than anything else Chris had said so far.

"Fortunately, the encounter was not as serious as it could have been." Chris phrased himself delicately. "I had to take him off the mission. I haven't told him anything about what Nathan and I suspect but I informed Starfleet of the problem and they did understand. So, he's off the Away Team but before I go and drop that bombshell on him, I want to know if there is some way to help him, other than the obvious."

"I don't know," Mary though to herself. "It's not exactly the most openly discussed subject and almost never spoken to outsiders. Although they don't openly say it, I do know many Vulcans aren't at all pleased that we know about it."

"Well to tell you the truth, I'd be happy to remain ignorant about it myself. 'Unfortunately, I don't have a choice in the matter. So, tell me what are we in for?"

"It's difficult to say," Mary confessed. "Vin doesn't have any of the preparation that most Vulcans have for this. He has no bonded mate and worse yet, he has not even reached maturity. Syan and I were both prepared for Pon Farr when it finally came, and he had some measure of control because we were married prior to it taking effect. Sexual maturity does not always bring on Pon Farr when there are disciplines to reinforce control. Vin has none of this and so when it comes for him it will be severe. He will become aggressive, exceedingly so." She paused and tried to think of all the symptoms that would arise and knew she probably could not account for all of it.

"If you think he's strong now, he'll be worse. I've heard of Vulcans denting steel when they're in the deeper throes of Pon Farr."

"Terrific." Chris shook his head, trying not to become more anxious with every word she was speaking.

"There will be a point when he will no longer recognize us if the mating does not take place. It's called the Blood Fever. At that stage, he will have to mate or else his metabolism will begin to shut down once it reaches climax. His chemical imbalances will become extreme and unless he expends that pent-up aggression by mating or combat, he'll die."

"Combat?" Chris looked up. "Did you say combat?"

"Yes," Mary nodded. "It's called the khoonakaliffe. " She recalled the legends behind the ritual and explained further. "In the days before Surak, a Vulcan who decided not to bond with its chosen mate would fight his or her rival in a trial by combat."

"What if we would do that?" Chris asked a spark of hope inspired. "If we can get him to fight it out, maybe it will snap him out of it."

"No," she was already shaking her head. "It's no good Chris. It's trial by combat to the death. Whomever he fights, he'll probably kill. It won't work any other way. Sometimes and its rare, the shock of taking a life can snap them out of it but only if the person is someone very close. If not, they'll just be removing the rival, not the actual mate. "

"Then I have no idea what we're going to do." Chris let out a deep sigh. "I hoped you had some idea of helping him."

Mary felt disappointed herself that she could not produce some way of helping Vin through this situation. "Does Alex know?"

"I haven't told her." He answered automatically. "I thought I might want to see what Vin wants to do about that. So much is out of his hands already, I just didn't want this to be either."

Mary nodded in understanding. "Do you want me to talk to him?" Mary offered, knowing how uncomfortable Chris felt about the whole situation. Indeed, Vin would feel the same way too until he realized the full ramification of what was going to happen to him.

"No," Chris shook his head, standing up reluctantly. "I'll tell him. I can do that much for him at least."

******

Chris left Mary's quarters and immediately requested the computer tell him Vin's present whereabouts since it was well and truly past his duty shift already. The computer informed Chris diligently that Vin was to be found on Holodeck 1. Even though he wished he did not have to do this, Chris knew he could not put off telling Vin his decision regarding the mission to Riga 3 any longer. As his best friend, Vin had earned the right to be told the truth no matter how painful it might be for Chris to be the bearer of such news.

Upon reaching the Holodeck, Chris activated the door access and was immediately denied entry by the dulcet tones of the main computer.

"Restricted?" Chris barked at the non-corporeal speaker who had just informed him that Holodeck 1 was presently under restricted access.

"Under whose authorization?" He demanded.

"Lieutenant Vin Tanner."

Why would Vin restrict access on a holodeck program? Despite himself and Vin's need for privacy, Chris felt tendrils of alarm he could not explain. Telling himself to apologize to Vin later, Chris took a deep breath and ordered. "Computer - command override. Authorization Larabee, Christopher Captain."

"Authorization accepted." The voice responded, and the door slid open.

Chris stepped inside the program and froze the minute he found himself at the arch controls allowing him passage to the simulated world. Logically, he knew that this was a creation of light and magnetic containment but the thick humidity in the air, clogging up his lungs with its stifling heat felt terrifying real. Shadowy alien constructs around him in cavernous chambers immediately started his pulse racing, along with the mist drifting around his legs. For a moment, he wanted to turn around because the most terrifying thing in this place was not the alien whose domain this was but rather a young woman named Angel whose last sensation in this world had been his lips on hers. Chris thought he was starting to put all that behind him. However, being here brought it all back again in every painful detail.

After what took an eternity of seconds, Chris forced himself to move, to venture deeper into this hellish re-creation, each step dogged by a personal reminder he was safe on the holodeck on board the Maverick, where a simple command from him could force this nightmare away. He had not walked more than a few steps when he heard the sounds of screeching aliens in the distance. Fighting the urge to call for the arch so he could exit this place, he forced himself forward because he knew Vin was here and repeated to himself once again this was a simulation.

He found Vin in a larger chamber, but he was not sure it was his best friend he was seeing. The aliens seemed to pay little attention to Chris and were attacking Vin in force. Chris watched in horrified fascination as he saw Vin tearing aliens apart with either his bath'let or his bare hands. Carcasses were piled up around him; serrated jaws open agape in death, alongside torn limbs and shriveled bodies. The imagery was beyond nightmarish and Chris was certain that Dante, even in his deepest deliriums about hell's inferno had ever pictured anything like this, because not even the aliens and this place was as terrifying as seeing Vin.

He moved almost as fast as the aliens and where their limbs began and the Vulcan's ended was difficult to tell. It was almost a ritual of death, painted in the elusive colors of dance. The carnage was in its way beautiful and Vin looked nothing like the friend Chris had known, he was almost animalistic in a way so primeval and lustful that for a moment Chris questioned whether or not he would recognize his C aptain.

"Vin." Chris finally spoke.

The helmsman stopped in his tracks, his eyes shifting to his captain. For a moment, Vin did not recognize Chris, he was certain but then the memory flooded back, and Vin blinked twice and swallowed.

"Computer freeze program." He instructed softly, unable to hide his embarrassment at being found in this program.

Chris approached him slowly and suddenly everything Nathan had been warning about Pon Farr seemed more than just a possibility but rather a solidifying reality.

"What is this?" Chris asked, his voice low.

"A combat program," Vin answered after a second, his chest swelling up as if he had decided he was not going to be ashamed of it.

"I guessed," Chris said cautiously, unable to believe this feral looking man with rips in his skin, covered in smatterings of blood was his usually dependable helmsman and friend. Chris had thought this was going to be hard but after seeing this, his decision became remarkably easy.

"Vin, we need to talk."

"What about?" Vin demanded, tense.

"The mission," Chris said taking a good step away from the Vulcan. "You're not going."

"Why?" Vin shot back and took a step forward, hostility in every pore.

Fear was not something Chris felt often but staring into those savage eyes told him that if he did not feel it then he was a fool. "I think you know why. This," he looked around him with a sweeping gesture. "Is part of it."

"It's just a combat program."

"Maybe it is," Chris was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. "But there's more going on with you and I think you know what it is."

"It's not happening to me." Vin barked back and answered Chris's question irrevocably.

"Yes, it is." Chris nodded. "I didn't know it until now."

"How can you know anything!" Vin was on him in a second and Chris felt fingers locking around his throat before he could get away. The power in Vin's grip was beyond Chris's ability to break and it clenched around his throat like a vise.

"VIN!" Chris groaned as he felt himself lifted off the ground until the toes of his boots were scuffing the floor.

"Jesus!" Vin let him go as his plea penetrated through the rage induced fog of the Vulcan's mind. Chris dropped heavily to the floor and began gasping. He looked up long enough to see Vin scrambling away, his eyes wide with horror at what he had done.

"Vin," Chris struggled to breathe, "It's okay, I'm alright." He gasped as he tried to get to his feet.

However, Vin was not listening. He did the only thing a man who had just tried to kill his best friend could do other than to beg forgiveness and that was to run.

Chapter Seven: The Time of Mating

Alex stepped out of the shower when she heard someone pounding frantically on her door. Almost instantly, her heart clenched knowing who would behave like this and hesitated as she tried to decide whether or not to let Vin into her quarters. However, she also remembered the trials she endured and how he had patiently stood by her, offering support and friendship when she needed it most. Despite her recollections of their last encounter, Alex knew she cared too much about Vin Tanner to deny him the same support. She brushed away her reservations and went to answer her door, deciding what would happen, would happen, daring to face it only because it was Vin.

As her door slid open, she stared for a moment in stunned silence as he saw him standing before her, covered in blood and sweat, eyes wide with fear. Seeing this way drove away any other thought beyond his well-being.

"Vin, what in God's name happened?" She demanded almost afraid to touch him.

"Please let me come in Alex."

There was no doubt in her mind about denying him. She stepped aside and watched him enter her room, trembling and felt panicked thoughts running through her mind when she saw the bruises and lacerations on his skin, not to mention the blood soiling his uniform. Alex waited until the door sealed them in and kept the rest of the world outside before she approached him. He was standing in the middle of the room, looking like a lost child. Alex immediately felt her heart go out to him and knew that no matter what had happened in the turbo lift, she could never turn him away when he needed her.

"Vin, what is it?" She went to Vin and touched his cheek, hoping the warmth of her touch would do something to calm his distraught state.

"I don't know what's happening to me!" He stammered, a thousand uncertainties running across his handsome face, almost driven to despair. "I can't control anything! Half the time it feels like I'm being eaten alive from inside out!"

"Vin!" Alex held his face in her hands as he started to rant and made her look at him. "It's okay," she spoke in a soothing voice. "I believe you. Please, tell me what's wrong?"

He blinked slowly and wrapped his hand around her wrists, unable to believe how good it felt just feeling her touch him and to say that things were all right between them again. Even as Vin stood before her, he had to restrain himself because the need for Alex was overwhelming. He wanted to touch her so badly, to do all the things he had done with Charlotte and felt so little but was certain would feel right with Alex. However, he also remembered he had hurt her and Chris as well, the two people in the world who meant more to him than any other. With that in mind, he forced himself to remain focused though it was very hard to do.

"I think I hurt Chris." Vin finally managed to say.

"Hurt Chris?" Alex exclaimed. "How?" She forced herself to remain strong for him because he needed to be. He probably felt bad enough without hearing anything she had to say on the subject, most of all reproach.

"I got angry and I couldn't control myself." His word left in a verbal deluge. "He told me I couldn't go on the mission and the next thing I knew I had him by the neck! Alex, I almost lifted him off the ground."

With his strength, she could well believe it. Vulcans were four times stronger than humans under normal circumstances and what Vin was suffering right now did not appear normal at all, so it was incalculable how much stronger he was at this point. He could have very well harmed Chris without being aware of what he was doing until it was too late. However, she could not bring that observation to him at this moment. He was terrified enough as it was, without adding to his fears with that insight. Right now, Alex did need him calm because he was clearly agitated, and the slightest thing could provoke him into the same behavior that allowed him to harm Chris.

"Let's just see if he's alright." She suggested as she made him sit down while she went to find her combadge.

Vin lowered himself into the sofa obediently, too shaken to do anything else. As he watched Alex move towards her bed where her combadge was presently residing on the uniform sprawled on the sheets, he found himself admiring her slender form barely concealed in the robe she was wearing. Once again, he felt overcome with a surge of desire he could not control and her words to him became distant as if spoken through a thick fog. He remembered how Charlotte had begged him to stay and wondered if he touched Alex in the same manner, would she beg him too? Vin did not even realize it when he stood up and started towards her.

"Captain," Alex tapped her combadge unaware of Vin's approach. "Captain Larabee."

The response came almost immediately.

"Alex?" Chris' voice asked.

His voice sounded hoarse which immediately escalated her anxiety considering what Vin had just told her about harming him. "Captain, are you alright?"

"I'm fine." He answered firmly, wanting no misconceptions on that point because Chris could undoubtedly guess what sort of turmoil Vin was enduring at present. "Is Vin with you?"

Chris's acumen regarding Vin's present location did not surprise her in the least. It was impossible to lose anyone on board the Maverick, what with the internal sensors and combadges operating with its usual efficiency, however, Chris would also know that there were very few people on board Vin would turn to help in times of crisis.

"Yes Sir," she answered with no desire to hide the truth from him. "Are you sure you're okay?" She questioned again, knowing the more reassurance he received over Chris's well-being, the better off he would be.

"He didn't hurt me," Chris answered, catching on to her meaning. "Alex, Nathan needs to see Vin immediately. He's not well. He needs to come to Sick Bay."

His words sounded ominous and there was a tension in them that made her fear Vin's condition was not just erratic behavior but rather something far more serious. Her pulse started to race without Alex even being aware of it and she swallowed thickly hearing Chris acknowledge her promise to bring Vin to Sick Bay. The idea she could lose Vin suddenly rose up like bile in her throat and gripped with her with an intense feeling of fear. It would be like losing a part of herself and Alex did not know whether or not she could cope with the loss.

Ever since he entered her life, Alex could not deny he contributed much to healing the wounds of her traumatic past. Not only was he her friend but the reliable shoulder she could lean on for support during those times when she needed someone to chase away her nightmares. For a woman who was always so strong and self-assured, it surprised her how much she needed his strong arms to hold her tight and tell her everything was going to be okay in that too soft voice of his. She knew her feelings for him were far deeper than she dared admit and for the first time, realized they were reaching some sort of watershed where she would no longer be able to deny it, to Vin or herself.

When Alex turned around, she found Vin standing before her. Before she had time to react, he lowered his head and pressed his mouth against hers in a deep searching kiss. Strong arms slid around her waist, driving his body into hers in perfect synchronicity. Alex was too astonished to react, feeling his hands slide down her back and then over the curves of her bottom, before lifting her up easily in one swift movement. Any protest she attempted to make was stifled by his tongue questing past her teeth, cutting off the words she tried to speak. Alex felt her head swim, unable to resist the onslaught of his incredible mouth kissing her with such yearning intensity, until her own arms crossed over his muscled back, while her fingers ran through his satisfying long hair.

"I want you so much." He whispered when he moved his lips away from hers, his hands trying to slip past the folds of her robe, desperate to feel the flesh he so wanted to possess. "Please Alex, let me touch you." He said huskily as he lowered her onto the mattress, undoing the knot of her robe until the material splayed open, revealing her naked flesh to him.

"Vin." Alex started to whimper when she felt his lips burrow into her neck with such need, it took her breath away. He nibbled at her neck with the expertise of someone who knew exactly what it took to make her shudder. She did not even realise he was on top of her until she felt the cool air against her skin and realised her robe was open, and his hands were caressing her body. Her astonishment melted away to pleasure and for a few seconds, she found herself enjoying his kisses and his touch.

"Alex," he groaned. "I need you so bad. Please let me be inside you..."

"Oh Vin," she whispered, her body arching and pressing more of herself into him. She wanted to let him make love to her, had never wanted it so much in her life but the fact was, he was trying to satisfy a need he did not understand and that was not quite the same as making love. Even though there was a time when the difference would have hardly mattered to her, it was not that way anymore.

It had not been that way since she met him.

"Vin, we can't." She managed to regain some semblance of coherence to say. "This isn't right. I don't want you like this when you don't have the mind to choose. This isn't you."

"Yes, it is," he countered dreamily, finally having her in his grasp and understanding why it had been so wrong with Charlotte and so utterly perfect with Alex. He could feel every fibre of himself wanting to please her, shuddering with pleasure each time she sighed at his touch. "I don't want anyone else, just you."

"No," she started to push him away, aware that if she did not, she would lose her resolve and they would take this heated moment to its end, only to regret it later. "Not like this."

"I want you, Alex," he continued to murmur, his hands now sliding towards her wrists. "Please don't make me stop."

"You don't want this Vin," she said softly, feeling overpowered by sensation when his lips started nuzzling the delicate flesh of her throat. This had to stop, she told herself aching, and this had to stop right now.

"Enough." She pushed him away. "Get off me, Vin."

"NO!" He forced her down again. "I want you now!" He hissed, his hand pinning both of hers to the mattress.

With her arms held down firmly, Alex fought the instinct to do him serious injury, even though she was being revisited by familiar terrors that would have certainly justified such a violent response on her part. However, Alex knew he cared for her and it was not impossible to reach whatever semblance of him left amidst the raging turmoil of his desires. She could reach him. She had to.

"Are you willing to rape to get me?" She asked softly.

He froze as if he was slapped and stopped what he was doing immediately. There was an eternity of time when Alex saw the anguish and horror of what he was doing, impress itself upon his brain. Vin left out a strangled gasp and shrunk away from her, almost as if he was scalded. He removed himself from her with far more efficiency than she could have managed herself. Vin closed his eyes as he scrambled away, feeling revulsion rising from the deepest corners of his insides, calling him filthy names because he had become the thing he promised he would never be with her. Vin dropped to his knees as Alex sat up, pulling her robe around herself. He stared at her and saw that she was not looking at him with anger or disgust but sympathy and immediately felt a thousand knives dig into his heart, all laced with the poison of guilt.

First Chris, now Alex! God, he wished he were dead!

The tears came in loud ragged sobs and Vin did not even realize he was crying until he felt the wet on his face. However, instead of feeling her rejection for his heinous act of near violation, he was received with her open arms wrapping themselves around him. She was kneeling before him, holding him not like a lover but someone who was his friend, who forgave him everything even though he had behaved like an animal. Like someone who loved him and always would.

"I'm so sorry." He wept in shame. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I would never hurt you."

"I know," she crooned in his ear, prepared to keep him in her embrace for as long as he needed her to believe him. "I know."

******

When Vin Tanner arrived in Sickbay a short time later, Chris Larabee and Nathan Jackson were already waiting for him there. Alex had called ahead and informed the Chief Medical officer of their arrival. When the Vulcan entered the medical center of the Maverick, he saw Nathan tending to Chris. The doctor was running a dermal regenerator over Chris's throat, which clearly displayed the dark purplish marks left behind by Vin's powerful grip. As the Vulcan entered the vicinity, he met his best friend's eyes and was immediately forced to avert his gaze out of sheer guilt. He was mortified at what he had done now his raging emotions had settled a bit. Not only had he harmed his Captain and best friend, but he had also almost done something unforgivable to the woman who meant everything to him. Vin wanted nothing but to crawl away and die. Unfortunately, neither Alex nor Chris was about to allow him such a cowardly respite. Alex had promised to be at his side no matter what and Chris had made the same entreaty to do everything humanly possible to help him.

"Vin, you okay?" Chris asked first, more worried about the Vulcan's state of mind than any anger towards Vin for what had been done to him through no fault of his own. There was no doubt in his mind Nathan's suspicion about the Pon Farr was indeed the nightmare Vin was facing. What he had seen in the holodeck and Vin's subsequent reaction was proof of that.

"I'm sorry Chris." Vin stammered still unable to look Chris in the eye. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I don't know what's happening to me. I can't seem to get a handle on anything."

"It's not your fault," Nathan said automatically, finishing up with Chris and setting down the regenerator. He came around the examination table where Chris was perched so he could tell Vin face to face what was happening. "Vin, this is my fault. I should have had you in here before this, but I was hoping I was wrong."

"What are you talking about?" Vin asked confused. This was not Nathan's fault or anyone else's for that matter, this was his!

"Vin do you know what Pon Farr is?"

Vin's eyes widened in shock. Of course, he knew what it was. The minute he understood what sex was, he read up on the subject, what little of it there was anyway. Mary explained some aspects of it and what he knew, told him it was not an experience he wanted to endure. He wrenched himself from Alex immediately and started hyperventilating because being told that news was tantamount to discovering he was going to die.

"That's impossible! I'm too young! It can't be happening to me yet!" He burst out, unable to believe that this was the cause of all his problems. In truth, a part of him suspected it but Vin had prayed that it was anything but that. He knew the insanity that took hold of Vulcans during this phase of their biological development and he no wish to endure the ordeal himself. Yet he knew as well as Nathan did there was nothing to stop it.

"I know," Nathan tried to explain, seeing Vin being reduced to panic. The young man was afraid and for good reason. He knew what Pon Farr was and in his place, Nathan would feel just as much terror. "I think it was triggered prematurely because of your meld with the alien on Fury 361."

"Shit!" Vin swore loudly.

"Vin, calm down." Chris slipped off the examination bed as he saw his best friend starting to become unhinged again. "We can work this out. We'll find some way to deal with this."

"What the hell are you men talking about?" Alex demanded, and Chris realized that it was not surprising she did not know what it was. A very few select people knew what Pon Farr was, himself, Nathan, Josiah, Mary and Ezra. To all other non-Vulcans, it was one of the deepest mysteries of Vulcan culture. They chose not to discuss it in any shape or form.

"The Pon Farr is the time of sexual maturity." Nathan tried to explain but could see he would have to be more succinct because Alex was starting to become more distressed by Vin's terror of the subject.

"I figured that much out," Alex said caustically.

"It's more than that!" Vin shouted. "I'll turn into some kind of savage. I won't know anybody, and I won't be able to control myself at all! This isn't even the worse that it's going to get, is it? Tell her!"

"If he doesn't mate, he'll die," Chris explained.

Alex stared at him in shock. "You're joking."

"No." Nathan shook his head. "I wish it was a joke but if Vin doesn't mate, he will die. During Pon Farr, his body goes through a chemical imbalance that can only be corrected by satisfying the need. It's not just a sexual but also a mental bonding. That's why Vulcan parents choose mates for their children at such an early age."

"Shut up Nathan!" Vin barked, hating to have Alex hear all this. He never felt so humiliated in his whole life. "Ain't this bad enough as it is? Does Alex have to know everything?"

"Well, maybe he's telling me because I might be able to help," Alex said quietly and Vin turned around sharply and looked at her, understanding in an instant what she was offering, even though she was not so gauche to come out and say it.

"You would do that?" Vin asked, wanting to make love to her but unable to stand it if he knew that it was for pity. "Just to save me?"

"No," Alex held his gaze pointedly. "Not just to save you."

"It has to be a Vulcan." Chris cut in before this discussion went any further, hating to do so but there were just some realities that needed facing.

"Why?" Alex turned to him. "I thought if he mates..."

"It's not that simple Alex," Chris glanced at Nathan, preferring him to explain because Nathan could do it better.

"It's because I'm going to turn into some damn animal!" Vin barked unable to face her as he turned his back to all of them. "I could hurt you, maybe even kill you."

Alex was not surprised by that revelation. She had seen how vehement he had been when she had refused him. "So, it has to be a Vulcan." She nodded in understanding, reminding herself of the best way to view this whole situation was with the detachment of a science officer, not the woman who cared greatly for Vin Tanner.

"Yeah. Usually, it's a female he's bonded it when the pre-meld ritual was held during the choosing of mates. Even if that weren't the case, it's the fact Vin knows nothing about the Vulcan disciplines to maintain some measure of restraint, even in Pon Farr."

"So, what can we do?" Alex asked and then noted the blank expressions on both Chris and Nathan's faces, guessing the truth by their lack of response. "Nothing? There's nothing we can do? But he'll die!"

"I rather die than be with someone else," Vin whispered. He turned around and faced her, his blue eyes meeting hers. "If I can't have you, I don't want anyone else. If I have to die, then that's how it will be."

No one knew how to answer, least of all Alex because they knew he meant it.

Chapter Eight: Meld

There were not many occasions Alexandra Styles looked to with as much loathing as this one.

She knew she was exaggerating when she equaled it to her stay in a Cardassian prison. However, she could not help but feel the situation she was walking towards was similar. In truth, the emotional turmoil raging inside of her at the moment was almost as fierce as the physical abuse she received at the hands of her jailors. At least there she had been the victim, the helpless prisoner with no choice but to suffer the indignities put upon her. In this instance, she could not claim anything of the sort. For three years after that nightmarish experience, Alex fled from this day, unable to face what she had turned her back upon in the wake of her terrible suffering. There were a number of things in her life that could be called unfinished and this was probably the most undone.

Of course, it did not help matters much her thoughts were divided as she and Buck Wilmington made their way to the Transporter Room to receive the newest passenger to the Maverick. As much as she was reluctant to face what awaited her there, she was even more worried about Vin Tanner. At the moment, the helmsman had confined himself to his quarters, undergoing every possible treatment a Vulcan could receive to suppress the dreaded Pon Farr raging through his veins. In the last day or so, the condition had worsened, and the random bursts of rage had become a continuous flow of seething anger, demanding expression. Nathan had done what he could with drugs and continued to do so, clinging to the belief he would find a way for a more permanent cure. Although Alex had a great deal of confidence in Nathan's abilities, she did not think there was any chemical way to solve Vin's problem.

She wanted desperately to see him but unfortunately, Nathan advised against it. At first, she had balked at the idea but then she realized she was the source of his torment and stayed away willingly. Vin wanted to mate with her and only with her. Rumor reached her about Vin and Charlotte and while Alex was initially angry, she also understood he could not help it. Mary had explained to her how powerful the Pon Farr was and how helpless Vin would have been to his urges that any woman would do at the time, not just Charlotte. However, it appeared for Vin anyway, Charlotte was not good enough. It had to be her and if it was a simple matter of sex, she would have already solved the problem, but Vin could hurt her in the state he was in, without any of the disciplines Vulcans taught themselves to prepare for this time. Nathan had been explicit in his detail, not only might he hurt her, he could possibly kill her.

However, Alex would have been willing to risk her life on the gamble if it were not for one thing; if she mated with Vin, as far as Vulcan was concerned, they would be married. It would be legally binding according to Federation and Vulcan law and that step was one Alex was simply not prepared for. She was not even sure she loved him! She cared a great deal about him and when he tried to make love to her, his kisses had nearly robbed her of all sense but that could just be simple biology, not a deep feeling fundamental to a step as permanent as marriage.

"You okay?" Buck asked concerned as they rounded the corner of their final stretch towards Transporter Room 2.

"Yeah," she nodded, grateful for his presence. Since they had unwittingly become the pawns of an alien race and engaged in a heated romantic tryst, Buck Wilmington and Alexandra Styles had become confidantes of a sort. Although she still thought he was a womanizing prig, she also considered him one of her best friends because he seemed to be a paradox. "I guess I'm not looking forward to this."

"I don't blame you." Buck sympathized. "Can't be easy to face him after all this time."

"It's not just that," Alex shrugged. "I behaved very badly after what happened with the Cardassians."

Buck gave her a look. "You can't seriously expect to behave anything else after what those bastards did to you."

Even as he said it, Alex could see the disgust burning in his eyes. Buck loved women and to know that one had been treated the way she had, offended him on a very personal level. "Thanks, but I can't keep using that as an excuse. I broke off our engagement without even seeing him, Buck. That's not right no matter how I look at it."

"No, it isn't," he agreed. "But cut yourself some slack, you had good reasons."

"How can you be such a sensitive soul and a bed-hopping twit at the same time?"

"It's a talent darling.".

"I'll say." Alex grinned as they entered the Transporter Room where Lieutenant Rain was presently manning the controls.

"Deep Space Five has just signaled that Lieutenant Commander Pierce is ready to transport."

"You ready for this?" Buck glanced at Alex.

"No, but let's get it over and done with anyway." She said because it was the truth. No matter how much she tried to prepare for this day, it would still not be enough. She supposed the timing of it was somewhat serendipitous. Here she was, possibly about to make the most momentous decision in her life and the last person to whom she had made a similar decision about and then broken, was preparing to enter her life again. Sometimes Alex wondered if her life was Fate's checkerboard.

"Alright," Buck let out a deep breath and looked at Rain. "Engage."

The transporter pad began to whine a second after Rain's fingers flew across the console before her. It preceded the shimmering glitter of energy that appeared before them as the outline of Lieutenant Commander Dylan Pierce began to form. Alex swallowed, feeling her pulse suddenly race and her heart pounding inside her chest. She tried not to think about how she had wronged him, how she had dissolved their two-year engagement with nothing more than a short note from the Klingon homeworld where she had taken refuge, telling him that marriage was not something she could cope with at the moment. How was she to face him, now she was contemplating it with a Vulcan?

Dylan Pierce appeared an instant later, driving away from her thoughts the past as she was thrust headfirst into the present they were now occupying in the same space. He had not changed much, still ruggedly handsome, with emerald eyes, dark hair and the look of a man who let very little bother him. His gaze moved across the transporter pad and met hers almost a second later and even though he showed nothing in his manner, she saw that the hurt was very much alive in his eyes. Seeing it so clearly made Alex swallow hard, trying to push away the lump in her throat.

"Commander Pierce," Buck stepped forward taking the initiative, trying to give Alex a moment to recoup, aware of what an emotional situation this was for her. "I'm First Officer Commander Buck Wilmington, welcome on board."

"Thank you," Dylan answered although his attention was firmly fixed on Alex.

"And you've met Commander Styles," Buck added, even though it was more or less a redundant gesture.

"Yes," Dylan nodded. "We have."

"Hello, Dylan." Alex stepped forward.

"You look good."

"You too." She tried to smile, to show her that his presence was not anything but tumultuous but somehow could not manage it.

"Commander," Buck broke in because someone had to. "Captain Larabee is waiting for you in the Conference Room, shall we?"

"Of course." Dylan tore his gaze away from Alex back to him. "Lead the way."

******

As Buck walked ahead, Alex found herself walking in stride with Dylan. For a few seconds, there was a length of awkwardness between them as each struggled with thoughts of how to approach the unresolved issues between them. Alex knew she had to get it out in the open soon because it would not take long for the gossip regarding her and Vin to reach his ears and then explanations would be doubly hard. There was a time when she cared for him greatly and was more than prepared to spend the rest of her life with him. However, that person had died in a Cardassian prison and the one who returned from that hell felt nothing but a deep fondness for what they had once shared. She knew where her heart lay even though admitting it at present was harder than she imagined.

"Why didn't you answer any of my letters?" Dylan asked once Buck was far enough ahead for them to talk quietly.

"I wasn't ready to." She responded without hesitation. He deserved the truth and she had put off telling it to him long enough. "I can't explain to you what it was like when I got out, but I couldn't face anybody."

"I know. I remember the doctors telling me it was best that I stayed away. If I had known you were going to go to ground on me, I would never have left for the Archimedes."

"Dylan," Alex struggled to explain. "I behaved badly. I shouldn't have shut you out. I know that's not a lot I can say to justify what I did but I couldn't stand seeing you after what happened."

"I'm not stupid Alex," he said abruptly. "Didn't you think I understood that? You think I stayed away because I cared less? There were so many times after I found out what happened that I was almost ready to fly into Cardassian space and kill as many of them as I could. It was even worse because I couldn't even get you to answer any of my com transmissions to tell you that or to even see how you were."

Alex sucked in her breath, feeling the guilt eat away at her. "I can't tell you how sorry I am. I didn't mean to shut you out, I just couldn't look you in the eye. I haven't even been able to see my father since it happened."

"I know," Dylan said shortly. "He calls me sometimes and we wonder at what point we lost you, before you went to the Cardassians or after you came back?"

"Things are different now." Alex started to say. "I'm better. Since being on this ship, I've managed to put some those ghosts aside."

"I still love you."

Alex stared at him with shock. "No Dylan, you don't. You're in love with what we were. The person you fell in love with is gone. She died in a Cardassian prison. There's only me left."

"I could get to know you all over again." He countered, a hint of desperation in his voice. "If this is behind you, maybe we can try again."

"No," Alex stated just abruptly. "I'm afraid we can't."

Dylan's eyes narrowed and suddenly, it looked as if he had stumbled upon some kind of revelation. "Is there someone else?"

"No." She replied and they both knew she was lying.

"Who is he?" Dylan demanded. His voice was still soft, but the insistence was clear.

"There is no one," Alex repeated herself. "Dylan, I wanted to get a few things cleared up between us, considering I am going on the mission to Riga 3 with you."

"You're going'.?" His eyes widened. "No."

"It's not up to you," Alex said shortly, bristling at his blunt refusal. "You need a tactical officer who can be spared off the ship. That's me."

"What about the Vulcan?"

"You were supposed to have been told before you arrived on board," Alex stuttered, realizing he did not know Vin was no longer available to be on the Away Team.

"I've been in transit for the last two days. What about the Vulcan?" Dylan asked again, this time with enough demand to warrant Buck glancing at them over his shoulder.

"Vin's not well. He's in no condition to go on an Away mission."

"Vin?" Dylan looked at her suspiciously. "Is that who you're involved with?"

Alex stiffened, starting to get angry. He was here for less than twenty minutes and he was already prying into her private life. Alex wondered if he had been this stubborn when she had been engaged to the man.

"That is none of your business."

"Obviously not," Dylan replied with just as much vitriol.

"Commanders," Buck Wilmington's voice interrupted them from continuing any further. "I think this conversation can wait until after the briefing with the Captain."

"Yes, Sir," Alex replied somewhat grateful for Buck's intrusion, having enough of this conversation even though she knew it was nowhere the last one they would have on this subject.

******

Nathan advised Mary against visiting Vin, but she could not stay away.

The Vulcan locked himself in his quarters, after being granted extended Sick Leave until a way could be found to cure his condition. Both Mary and Nathan knew that it was not that simple. The Pon Farr could not be denied, simply survived and sometimes even that was not possible. Nathan had refused to let her go alone because, despite the drugs, Vin was barely managing to maintain control of his rampaging desires. There would come a point when the drugs would not be enough to contain him, and God only knew what they would do then. Mary had seen a young male in the full throes of Pon Farr and knew however bad Nathan thought it was going to be, it was actually going to be a lot worse.

For the moment anyway, Vin still had some control of himself and Mary hoped if she were too able to offer him some limited mental reinforcement combined with Nathan's drugs, perhaps he might be able to fight what was going to happen to him.

"If he does anything, you get out of there," Nathan instructed as he escorted her to Vin's door. The healer knew Mary wanted a private audience with Vin, but Chris would have his hide if he did not at least try to offer her some measure of protection if he could not talk her out of it.

"I'll be careful Nathan," Mary reassured him as he stepped aside while she activated the chime on Vin's door.

There was a momentary pause before a strained voice answered. "Go away."

"I told you," Nathan replied. "He has not wanted to see anyone for the last day."

Mary refused to accept that. "Vin," Mary spoke up loud enough for him to hear. "It's Mary. Vin, please let me in."

"Mary, I don't want to see anyone!"

"I'm not going away, Vin." She said defiantly and crossed her arms. Nathan had seen that stance before and knew when the slender blond got this way, it was best to just to concede defeat. Even Chris knew better than to cross swords with Mary when she was so determined.

"Alright!" He said meekly, and Mary exchanged a brief glance with Nathan, informing him she was aware of the dangers and was going nonetheless.

Mary stepped into the room and tried not to show that what she saw that shocked her. The room was in disarray, bedding was matted in heaps on the floor. What meagre ornaments he embellished his room with was strewn across the carpet, table and chairs had been knocked over and the ceramic of crockery had been shattered into tiny fragments. Vin was pressed up against the glass of his window, his body balled into a fetal position as he took up residence on the windowsill. His long hair was matted and there were scratches on his skin. In the dim light, she could see his skin glistening with sweat and he was shaking even as he gazed at her from across the room.

And this was not even the worst of it.

"Vin." Mary swallowed, pushing away her fear. "Vin, are you alright?"

"Do I look alright!" He snapped harshly.

"No of course not," she rebuked herself for such a foolish question. She made her way gingerly across the disarrayed room towards him, unwilling to let her fear get the better of her. "How are you feeling?"

"Like I'm ready to jump out of my skin! I want her so badly I can't stand it!"

"I know," Mary said with understanding and sympathy.

"No, you don't know!" Vin shouted. "You don't. I'm sitting here and all I can think of is how she smells, how she moves. God, I can't sleep without seeing her and I can't stay awake without wanting to bust out of here to be with her!"

This confused Mary somewhat because as far as she knew, Vin had not bonded with Alex. In fact, she was the only woman who had touched his mind as deeply. "Vin, have you melded with Alex before?"

Vin looked up as if the question was giving him focus. He tried to think back and remembered those early months on the Maverick when he had felt minds pressing in on him because his ability to erect shields around his thoughts were non-existent. Mary was attempting to teach him this important aspect of Vulcan telepathy when in a fit of anger, he had stormed out of the lesson. The first person he came across had been Alex. In anger, he had forced a meld upon her and it was the only time other than the humiliating incident in the turbo lift, she had ever been so angry with him.

"Yes." He nodded mutely. "Once."

Mary knew how to keep Vin from gaining an emotional attachment to her when they were engaged in their sessions together, but Alex would have no such protection. It was no wonder he was half insane with the need for her. Unfortunately, the bond now established, especially when reinforced with such emotional attachment, was not easy to break. If he was not allowed to consummate his need with Alex, he would die.

"Vin, you've bonded with her. Do you know what that means?"

"No," he shook his head.

"It means that you've selected her for your mate. The desire you're feeling is the Pon Farr demanding you consummate your bonding with her."

"NO!" He roared and made her jump. "I'd rather die! I'm not going to force her into having sex with me out of pity!"

"Vin you know better than that," Mary sighed trying to explain. "It's not pity. She cares about you. It's because she's human."

"I know that!" He said anguished, burying his face in his knees. "Is Pierce here yet?"

"Who?" Mary did not quite hear him.

"Pierce!" Vin snapped. "Her fianc�."

"Yes," Mary nodded mutely. "He arrived about an hour ago."

Vin's fists clenched as he hugged his knees tighter, knuckles turning white with rage at the thought there might be another in competition for his desire for Alex. Mary could feel the fury emanating from him and immediately closed the distance between them. She reached for his face, catching his head in her hands.

"Calm yourself." She instructed and closed her eyes as she concentrated.

"What'."

"Calm yourself." She ordered again, more strongly this time and Vin fell into silence as he heard her chanting soft words. "My mine to your mind, my thoughts to your thoughts."

For a minute, Mary thought she had fallen into the center of a storm. Powerful winds rushed past her, frantic thoughts, coupled with equally furious emotions, bombarded her from all sides. She could feel the inner turmoil inside of him. It bubbled and frothed. Mary felt as if she were a banshee swept through the maelstrom of hell.

Focus! Focus!

She gritted her teeth and held firm, trying to project her meagre abilities into some kind of cohesive force to help him quell the rage inside of him. The drugs were there too, a dark cloud of grey, dousing the turbulent storm moving like a juggernaut through his mind, they halted the destructive pace some but not enough. The unbridled force of his rampaging thoughts was beyond comprehension and she shuddered at the realization that it was not even at its climax yet. He was still coherent, but the time was fast approaching when he would not be when everyone he loved and cared about would become faceless entities in the quest he had to fulfil at all costs.

Mary projected calm into this hurricane of emotion. She sent as much of her strength into him as she could muster, reinforcing walls crumbling prior to her arrival. In her mind's eye, she pictured the bricks restructuring, slipping back into their place in their mortared tapestry. The force they had to withstand still battered them relentlessly though and even with its erection, Mary could tell eventually they would be overcome. However, her attempt to help him had worked for now.

Mary withdrew and saw Vin staring at her with an expression of profound gratitude. The pain, the driving need had dissipated inside of him at least for the time being. He would last a little longer with the aid of the drugs.

"Thank you." He said softly, tears glistening in his eyes.

"I did what I could." She touched his cheek.

"It's not enough is it?" He understood that much.

Mary shook her head, not about to lie to him. "No," she answered sadly. "Not enough to stop the Blood Fever."

"Then I'll die."

Mary could only nod as tears filled her eyes. "You will die."

Chapter Nine: Temptation

After introductions were made across the table, the meeting consisting of Chris, Ezra, Buck, Alex and Dylan Pierce got underway. The tension levels in the room were already high owing to the atmosphere of awkwardness between Alex and Dylan. The man's presence felt like an affront to everyone at the table because it coincided with the Pon Farr Vin was presently suffering. Although it made no sense to those who felt it, none of them could help feeling as if Dylan was attempting to usurp what was Vin's by his very presence on board the Maverick. Still, as Chris looked across the table at the special envoy sent to him from Starfleet Headquarters, he reminded himself to maintain a professional mindset, no matter what.

"So, what's the problem with your Vulcan?" Dylan asked as soon as the subject at hand was on the table.

The entire room seemed to bristle at the same time at the reference and Chris turned a steely eye at the man who immediately realized he had said something out of turn.

"Lieutenant Tanner is unable to take part in the mission because of a life-threatening illness."

"Came up rather suddenly," Dylan remarked with a hint of sarcasm that was blatant for everyone to notice.

Alex who sat next to Buck glared at Dylan with dislike, unable to believe he could be so cold when she thought of what agonies Vin was suffering within his quarters, trapped there by his own wishes. She could see the anger in Chris's eyes, cold and white hot in its fury, while the rest of him remained the epitome of control. Buck, however, was fighting to keep silent and Ezra as always was unreadable. She knew Dylan well enough to know he usually baited people like this when he suspected more was going on than they were letting on. However, this time he had picked the wrong person to push. Chris Larabee would not stand for it.

"Yes, it did," Chris said smoothly, showing nothing of his true feelings. "In any case, it's not a subject for discussion."

"I beg to differ." Dylan pointed. "We needed him specifically. He has the expertise and the appearance to infiltrate the research facility on Riga 3. We would not have requested him otherwise."

"Why not use a Vulcan operative?" Ezra inquired instead.

"The terrain. Riga 3 is uninhabited except for the research station. The planet is surrounded in thick vegetation, not unlike that on the world, Tanner was known to have survived when he was marooned. The Romulans have given us 24 hours to enter their space and get the information. After that, High Command cannot guarantee Romulan vessels unaware of the mission will not accost us. If we're still there when our time is up, they'll disavow any knowledge of us and claim that we have violated the Neutral Zone."

"Wonderful," Buck grumbled. "I feel so much better we're risking our hides to help them."

"Romulans are a proud race, Commander," Dylan explained. "The High Command does not want to appear weak by asking for our help, nor do they want to admit that illegal research like this could be taking place under their noses."

"It appears we are taking a great deal of risk to help them maintain their dignity." Ezra pointed out.

"We are," Dylan agreed to that much. "However, we are also strengthening our diplomatic relations. After the Dominion War, we are not in a position to make enemies of the Romulans at least until the Federation strengthens Starfleet with more ships."

"I appreciate the situation," Chris said in a measured voice, still stinging from Dylan's reference to Vin as 'their Vulcan' as if Vin was a pet, not a Starfleet officer. The resentment in Dylan's voice towards the helmsman was obvious and Chris guessed that somehow, Dylan learnt about Alex's attachment to Vin. "Unfortunately, you were not advised by Starfleet prior to our rendezvous at Deep Space Five about Vin's condition. It is delicate and sudden. He would not be any good to you during this mission if anything he would be a liability."

Chris had no idea how hard it was to say such things about his friend until the words had left him. However, he had to make Dylan understand because Chris did not like anyone thinking Vin had shirked from his duty.

"What's wrong with him?" Dylan asked, still certain there was more to this than being divulged.

"That's none of your business," Chris said coldly. "That he is unavailable, is. Now, I've assigned Lieutenant Commander Styles and Standish to your Away Team. My CMO tells us that he will be able to perform cosmetic surgery and on you to make you look like Romulans. Unfortunately, that's the best we can do under such short notice."

"Our bio readings can't be faked. That's why we needed Tanner. He can walk through their scanners and pass for Romulan. Don't you think a facility as guarded as this one on Riga 3 would have genetic imprints of their personnel?"

"We have a way around that," Alex spoke up. "Our chief engineer and CMO have built a small device that will fit in our clothes and generate a small energy field which will give out readings consistent to that of Romulan biology."

"It's still risky." Dylan pointed out. "And I don't see why we need a tactical officer when your chief of security will do quite adequately. This ought to be a minimal complement Away Team captain."

Alex glared at him, aware of what his motivations were with this line of conversation. However, before she could speak, Chris responded to Dylan's request.

"Commander, you are entering a hazardous environment with a very good chance if you don't get yourselves killed while attempting to infiltrate the facility, you probably will when you try to leave it. Commander Styles and Standish have the ineffable quality of keeping that from happening, trust me I know."

Dylan frowned, not at all liking the idea that Alex would be going with him on the mission, but Chris did not care. Chris's worries were about Vin at the moment, not a special envoy that had gone out of his way to being rude about matters he knew nothing about and had no right to question. When he did not receive any further comment from Dylan, Chris continued with the rest of the briefing.

"Now we depart Deep Space Five within the hour and will head directly for the Neutral Zone. According to the Romulan High Command, we are permitted to use our cloaking device when we penetrate into Romulan space so that will keep any patrols along the Neutral Zone from sighting us."

"What's our ETA at Riga 3?" Dylan inquired.

"16 hours," Buck answered. "We will be crossing the Neutral Zone in 4 hours."

"Well if you don't mind," Dylan turned to Chris. "I've been jumping off and on ships for the last two days. Is there a place where I could bunk down?"

"Commander Standish will show you," Chris said tautly.

"Thank you, Captain," Dylan said graciously.

"If there's nothing more, we'll end here." The Captain rose to his feet first, protocol indicating that the others would soon follow. It was just as well, he decided. He had taken just about as much as he could in the company of Lieutenant Commander Pierce for the time being.

******

When he arrived at Vin's quarters, Chris flinched at the sight of the two security men posted at the door, mostly because he requested it. Vin's condition made him dangerous to himself and everyone around him. As much as Chris loathed taking the action, he had to protect his best friend from himself. Nathan advised when the urges became too much to suppress Vin would become excessively violent. As it was, Vin was easily the strongest male on board the Maverick. While he was not the only Vulcan on board, he was the only one who did not feel the need to suppress baser urges under the tight rein of logic. When he exerted his strength, he did it well and with perfect control. Vin was four times stronger than any human was but in the grips of the Pon Farr, he exceeded even that and could very well harm someone without actually realizing what he was doing.

The two security officers, one of which was Lieutenant Katovit, was not eager to see him enter the room but were aware of his relationship with Vin and thus made no comment. Chris pressed the chime, waiting for an answer.

"Who is it?" He heard Vin's voice asked tautly.

"It's Chris." He answered back. "Can I come in?"

Chris knew there was hesitation in the pause that followed before he heard a response. "Yeah."

Chris entered the room and was immediately confronted with the same destruction Mary had been. He found Vin in more or less the same position as if the sight of all those stars beyond his window could quell the raging fire inside of him. Chris made no comment as he crossed the floor and sat down on the sofa which had been apparently too large for Vin to flip for the time being.

"How are you doing pard?"

Vin did not seem to pay much attention to him, choosing to keep his cobalt colored eyes fixed on the glass as he basked in his view of space. However, he did answer when Chris spoke. "People keep asking me that," he said quietly, his voice was shaky, but the rages and harshness had subsided for the moment. "And I keep giving them the same answer."

"I know. We're just worried about you Vin."

His hard expression softened as he turned his eyes to Chris. "I can feel it creeping up on me. I'm trying hard not to let it take control, but you don't know what this is like. I feel like I'm going crazy cooped up in this room but if I go outside, if I step out of here, I don't know if I can keep myself from finding her. I got these awful images in my head, Chris. Kind of things no man ought to be thinking about women. I keep wondering what it must have been like for those Cardassians, to be able to have her when they want her, to be able to make her do for them, what I want her to do for me."

Chris stomach hollowed a little and knew that every man had thoughts like that, deep in the secret places that kept the dark side of one's personality hidden from most. How many times had he wondered what it would be like to have a woman in complete power, to enjoy her, to make her enjoy him? However, those images were tempered with the notion she would be pleasured too, not brutalized. He supposed in Vin's present state of mind, where so much was impulse and naked hunger, it was easy for the lines to get blurred. "It's not you Vin," Chris assured him with absolute confidence in this fact. "It's the Pon Farr."

"Chris," Vin's voice changed until it was almost as hard as flint. "If it gets really bad." He paused as he searched the words to tell his friend. "If it gets so that I lose my head, I want you to do what you got to keep me from hurting anyone."

"Vin it won't come to that."

"You don't know how hard I'm fighting it." Vin returned, sucking his breath. "I need her so much. I feel her out there, needing me too. I keep seeing her in my head. I keep smelling her. Everything I am is dying to be with her, but I know I'll hurt her the way I am right now, the way they hurt her. So please, I'm asking you to stop me if it becomes necessary. Kill me if you have to."

"I can't." Chris almost gasped out the word, unable to believe Vin was asking this of him before he realized who else would he ask? Chris was his best friend and the one person Vin could be assured of who would not let him down, no matter how imaginable what it was he was asking.

"You have to!" Vin hissed almost pleading. "I rather die than hurt her."

"I won't let you hurt get that far, Vin." Chris swallowed, every fiber of his being determined not to fail his friend in that statement. "I won't let you harm anyone and I won't give up on you. We'll find a way to beat this thing, somehow."

"If it was anyone else saying it, I wouldn't believe you know." Vin managed a smile as calmed down a little, confident when the time came Chris would do what he asked. "How is she doing?"

"In two minds," Chris answered honestly.

"Probably ain't happy to see Pierce," Vin remarked. In the periods of calm, Vin was able to look at things objectively and knew he was right about that. Alex would not be happy to see Dylan if she was the one who had broken their engagement. Alex tended to keep her personal life separate and private from her friends. There were some things she did not mind confiding to others, but issues close to the heart did not fall into that category, as did anything to do with her stay in that Cardassian prison.

"It doesn't look it," Chris confirmed, hoping that would make Vin feel a little better. He sensed Vin was a little jealous as well as intimidated by the presence of Alex's old love at this time. Chris could hardly blame him. If it were Mary's ex-fianc�, he would feel as equally uncomfortable as Vin did now. He guessed it had to be worse for Vin because Pierce was able to give Alex what he could not; intimacy without harm.

"Does she want to see me?" He asked almost hesitantly, reluctant to show the Captain just how much he missed her and appearing any weaker than he already did.

"I think so, but Nathan doesn't think that's a good idea."

A burst of fury swelled up inside of Vin at the healer for keeping her away from him, but Vin forced it away, knowing it was the Pon Farr that took such exception to that. The saner part of him knew it was a good idea and remembered he had more or less suggested it to Nathan himself when he had been calmer. He had no idea what Alex's presence would do to him and a part of Vin was terrified to find out, even though his gut ached for not being near her. There was this bubble inside of him, inflating, crushing his inside with this gut-wrenching need for her. His mind could think of nothing else and would cajole and whisper in his ear even when he slept to go find her. The overload of stimulus that would arise from finally having her within reach was not something Vin wanted to endure.

"He's right," Vin confessed after a moment, the anger inside of him subsiding for now. "Who's going on the Away mission in my place?" He asked, hating to think that Alex would be on Riga 3 alone with her former lover.

"Ezra," Chris answered automatically, glad they had moved off the subject.

"Don't we need him on the ship?" Vin questioned.

"Yes," Chris admitted. "But he reckons Lieutenant Katovit can fill in for him and I've taken some added insurance in case we get into trouble."

"Another Larabee hat trick?" The younger man asked, cracking his first real smile since Chris had entered the room. The Larabee hat trick was what the senior staff referred to Chris's ability to pull a victory when the odds seemed insurmountable.

"Something like that." Chris grinned.

"I wish I could be there to help you pard," Vin said regretfully. "If I ain't on the mission, I at least ought to be on the bridge."

"I know," the captain agreed. "No one handles this bird the way you do."

"I'm sure someone will." He said sadly, turning to the stars again. The journey through warp was one of the most beautiful things in the universe, Vin thought to himself. The stars whizzing past like comets against the dark satin of space made one feel infinitesimal in the cosmic design and tended to put problems into perspective.

If only it could this time.

******

The Maverick would be at Riga 3 in less than an hour and despite all the warnings she had received not only from Nathan but Ezra as well, Alex found herself making her way to Vin's quarters. She should have been in her quarters, readying herself for the mission ahead but Alex found she could not disembark the Maverick without at least making some attempt to see Vin. Dylan had caused such a furor about her being on the Away Team mission that Chris finally conceded to keep her involvement in the infiltration of the facility to a minimal. Thus, only Dylan and Ezra would be entering the research facility itself, while she remained in the jungle out of harm's way. Alex had not been happy at being shut out and suspected Chris had ulterior motives for planning things this way. Unfortunately, the Captain was not required to account for himself to junior officers, so Alex had no alternative but to accept it.

Alex knew she should not be anywhere near Vin at this time, but she could not leave the ship without seeing him. If anything were to happen to him during the mission, she would never forgive herself for not saying goodbye. Still, the idea of Vin not being here when she returned left Alex cold with fear. If she had her way, she would not even be going but the truth was, she owed Dylan too much to abandon him when he needed her. Even though things would never be as they once were, Alex still felt something for him that was more than guilt at breaking their engagement in years past.

When she arrived at the door, the two security officers immediately bombarded her with reasons why she could not enter. Alex hardly heard them and let herself in, not awaiting permission because she had a feeling Vin would deny it if she announced her presence. She stepped into the dark confines of the room and was revisited with her own tirade some months ago when Gul Lemar had arrived on the Maverick. Only this time the roles were reversed. It was he who was suffering uncontrollable fits of rage. She saw him in the corner of the room, hiding in the shadows almost as if he knew it was her and was afraid to let her see him. Suddenly, Alex wished she had not come here.

"You shouldn't be here." He said looking up at her. She could only see the blue of his eyes in the shadows. The rest of him was dark.

"I had to see if you were okay," she returned softly, pausing a few feet away from the wall he was pressed up against in a crouch.

"I'm not." He responded, his voice hoarse, strained and tortured.

"Vin, how can I help you?" She begged, wishing there was an answer. "I can't stand to see you like this. I...." the words would not come. She wanted to say them, felt them more for him than any other person in her life but still, she could not say it out loud. To say it out loud would be to change everything.

"You can't help me," he had noted the words she could not say and decided to spare her the embarrassment of lying to him about what she had meant really.

"Make love to me."

Vin's eyes flashed in its bluest depth. "I'll hurt you."

"I don't care." Alex declared closing the space between them. She knelt before him and took his face in her hands. Without giving him a chance to protest, Alex lowered her lips to his in a soft lingering kiss.

"Alex," he muttered through the heavenly touch of her lips against his. "This is wrong, I can't control myself."

"Don't," she continued kissing him, ignoring his concerns as her need for him grew. "I don't want you to die."

Vin tried hard to resist but his body was twisting inside from this intense craving for her and now that she was here, wanting him, touching him the way he dreamed, his restraints snapped, and he reacted fiercely. Grabbing her hands, he began returning her kisses passionately, all the while forcing her down. Lowering her to the carpet, Vin moved on top of her, his body taut with intense need.

Vin crushed her with his weight; his body pressing against hers as his mouth covered her lips again. Alex could not breathe, once again revisited by those incredible sensations he had engendered in her during those brief minutes in her quarters. He groaned into her mouth as his tongue met hers, aroused by the fact that she was no longer resisting him. Vin's entire body molded perfectly against her own until Alex could feel every taut muscle against her flesh. She started not to care whether or not this was wrong. How he felt against her could not possibly make any of this wrong.

God, she felt so good!

His desire for her was fevered and he continued to plant kisses on her swollen lips. She was receiving him with as much hungry need as his own and he could feel her heart pounding against his chest. His mouth slid down her neck, nibbling, biting, teasing while her fingers were moving through his hair, guiding him downwards. He pulled the fastenings of her blazer open, exposing the grey tank top beneath. Without giving much thought, he yanked the material away. Alex was breathing hard, he could hear her anticipation. He could smell her need as she delighted in his touch.

"Oh God Vin." She whispered breathlessly, beyond reason and beyond hope. "Don't stop."

He was going to take her, he told himself as his fists captured her hands. Vin slammed her wrists against the floor above her head, pinning her there as he tasted her flesh, feeling himself tip further over the edge as her body arched languidly towards him. He was going to do everything he wanted to do to her. Make love to her hard and fast, over and over again, until she screamed for him to stop until she begged him to. He wanted to hear her beg, wanted to hear her moan as he took her, wanted to do all those things he knew she wanted, even though she was telling him to stop...

Like a splash of cold water, he realized what he was thinking, and he shrank away from her.

God! What had he almost done?

"Vin?" Alex looked at him flustered and confused, somewhat dazed from the abrupt end of their sensuous interlude. "What is it?" She came towards him and started kissing him again, taking his face in her hands as her lips met his.

"No!" Vin shrank back agonized. "Leave me!"

"I don't understand." She stammered, confused. "I thought..."

"JUST LEAVE! GET OUT!"

The sound of his voice was like a slap in the face and she swallowed, trying to blink away the tears that were threatening to spill from her eyes at any second. Distraught, she quickly fastened her blazer again as he turned away from her, feeling this terrible loathing churning his gut with such despair he was almost ready to kill her for causing him such pain.

"Vin, please..." she tried again. This time the tears did come, and Alex hardly knew she had lost her battle with them.

"I SAID GET OUT AND LEAVE ME ALONE!" He roared.

Turning on her heels, Alex fled out of the room, blinded by tears.

Chapter Ten: Frenzy

Alex was quiet when the Away Team prepared for departure in Transporter Room 2.

Those who knew her noted the silence and sadness in her eyes and guessed it was probably Vin who was the cause. However, neither Chris nor Ezra wanted to make mention of it. While she sometimes took people into her confidence, it was more often out of need rather than desire. She was a fiercely private person and Chris supposed after what she had been through with the Cardassians, it was difficult for her to talk about anything personal without her believing it to be some violation of her privacy.

Still, he found he could not help but try, particularly when she was about to embark upon a dangerous mission with the potential to end her life if anything were to go wrong. Ezra glanced at him, appearing as if he knew what Chris was going to do and seemed to approve. Ironically, Dylan Pierce noticed nothing. Chris had to blink twice when he saw the security chief, now dressed in the uniform of a Romulan centurion. Ezra's dark gold hair was now black, and he had decidedly pointed ears. Dylan was dressed in more or less the same way but Ezra who was a consummate actor, seemed perfectly at ease in his disguise, even more so than Dylan who was a trained undercover operative.

"Alex, can I talk you?" Chris said to her.

Alex who was in the process of packing her survival kit left her gear on the floor and followed the Captain who stepped to the corner of the room, no doubt indicating that he wanted a private audience. She guessed it had something to do with Vin although Alex hoped he knew nothing of their encounter hours ago. The humiliation was too much for her.

"Alex are you sure you're up to this?" Chris asked the moment they were alone.

"I'm fine." She said shortly, a brief shimmer in her eyes indicating she was anything but that.

"You seem bothered. Vin?" He ventured a guess, unable to imagine it could be anything else.

Alex dropped her gaze, unable to meet his eyes because there would be too much revelation there regarding how she felt. "There's nothing I can do for him here. I don't know how."

Chris understood her feelings of helplessness because he himself was gripped with the same emotions. Pon Farr was something neither of them could understand and all they seemed to know for certain was it was very likely going to cost Vin his life because there was no simple cure to remedy the situation. Vin's salvation lay steeped in ages-old traditions incompatible with the person he was. For all Chris knew, Vin might have a mate somewhere who was waiting for him but had no idea he was even alive. After all, the Vin Tanner who returned from the Rim almost ten years after the crash that killed his family bore little resemblance to the Vulcan child he had been. His name had changed because Chris doubted he even remembered his Vulcan name.

"Alex, it's not your fault," Chris responded after a moment. "I don't know how to help him either but we're going to do everything we can for him." Chris let out a breath and discarded the persona of captain for a brief instance. "He's my best friend Alex," he admitted uncharacteristically. "I don't want anything to happen either. I'm not giving up hope and neither should you. I promise you, while you're gone, I'll do everything to make sure he's here when you come back."

Alex blinked, trying not to show how Chris's effort had touched her. Though he offered no miracle answer, his determination not to give up on Vin made her feel tremendously better. "Thank you, Chris."

It was not often she used his first name, but the moment seemed to fit. The captain placed a hand on her cheek and responded. "You be careful alright? I don't want to tell Vin that you've been hurt when he finally pulls through."

Alex felt comforted that Chris had said 'when he pulled through' and not 'if'. The captain's confidence reinforced Alex's own wavering hopes regarding Vin's condition and she tried not to think of what had happened between them as something humiliating but his genuine need to stop himself before he harmed her in any way. Immediately following the encounter, Alex was mortified by how she conducted herself. Vin had been powerless in the face of the temptation she provided, and Alex felt as if she failed him by not pulling back before things had escalated as out of control as they had.

"I'll be careful." She said firmly, with every intention of coming out of this mission with her skin intact. "Captain," Alex added before she lost the chance entirely. "I know this is going to be a difficult mission and we have to maintain a silent running between the Away team and the ship, but if anything were to happen to him, please I want to know. I need to be there."

Chris held her gaze for a second, understanding what she was asking of him even though he prayed it would not come to that. Unfortunately, the situation as it stood made that outcome an inevitability. However, despite the importance of this mission on Riga 3, he would not deny her the chance to say goodbye to Vin if they did indeed run out of options. He was willing to risk his command to do it because Lord knew, if he had any forewarning Sarah and Adam were going to be taken from him, nothing would have stopped him from going home and saying goodbye.

"You will be," he swallowed. "I promise."

"Thank you, Captain," Alex said softly, trying to hide the emotion in her voice. "Thank you."

******

"I can't get used to looking at you." Julia Pemberton replied as she saw Ezra in his Romulan disguise. Although she had told herself she would not be coming to see him off at the transporter pad, not wanting to seem unprofessional, in the light of what he was going to do, she could not help it. She stood before him, trying to look brave even though this was a hazardous mission and if he and any of the Away Team were captured, the Romulans had every right to execute them for espionage.

"I assure you, this garb is temporary," Ezra answered with a smile, seeing the worry in her clear emerald eyes and knew she was putting up a brave front for his benefit. "The mission should not take more than a few hours and then I expect to be back on board."

Still, the concern did not waver from her expression and Ezra supposed it was unreasonable to expect it should. She was no fool. She had to be aware of the risks if the mission failed and the outcome of all their futures if they were captured by the Romulans.

"Julia," he said taking her small shoulders in his hands, "I will be back."

"I know." She answered with a slight nod. "I just can't help worrying about you."

"It is what I do."

"I know that too," she said trying not to get too emotional but knew she couldn't keep herself from being anything else when there was a possibility she could lose him. Julia loved him as she had never loved anyone before and his death was unimaginable. "Sometimes I just wished it wasn't."

"It's no easier for me when you are in engineering during a battle you know?" He pointed out. "I cannot tell you the number of times it has terrified me you are so close to the warp core when it is our enemy's primary target during an attack. I have fears the warp core will breach or be flooded with radiation and there is no way I can protect you from the bridge."

"I guess so." She muttered feeling like a child that he had to pacify until his return. With a start, she realized she was doing him no good behaving in this manner, especially when he was about to face whatever dangers awaited him on the planet's surface. She did not want him to leave the ship, with her worries and fears adding extra weight to his burden. Brightening up considerably through a Herculean effort on her part, Julia brought a smile to her lips. "So, you better go down there and do what you have to get back up here. Huxley and I will be waiting."

"Did you have to bring up that temperamental feline?" Ezra groaned remembering the scratch marks on the leg of his antique Tudor chair. He had almost been tempted to introduce the kitten to the airlock when he realized he would never get away with telling Julia it had accidentally wandered in there and got jettisoned into space, even if he said it was an honest mistake.

"Oh, Huxley loves her daddy." Julia teased, loving the expression of utter annoyance on Ezra's face at the remark and knew that Huxley had just earned her keep for that accomplishment alone.

"I am not her daddy." Ezra returned in a voice capable of turning deutronium brittle with cold.

"Ezra," Julia continued to tease, trying to make them both laugh so they did not have to be reminded that just a few minutes from now, he would be transporting to a Romulan stronghold. "If you're going to behave like this, I have to wonder how you will be with our children."

"Children?" Ezra started to stutter. "We are not even occupying the same abode!"

"Ezra, don't you want children?"

"I did not even want a cat!" He exclaimed and then noticed her smirk before realizing that he had been played and well. "Have you sufficiently amused yourself, my dear?" He asked sarcastically, inwardly pleased she was not as frightened for him as she was.

"Enough until you get back. And you make sure you come back." She said authoritatively like she was giving him an order even though technically, he outranked her.

"I promise you I will return to you," he took her hand and held it to his lips, not caring who saw and how inappropriate it appeared for two senior officers to be showing each other such open displays of affection. "And Huxley."

"If you're done." Dylan Pierce's voice shattered the tenderness of the moment with his impatience.

Ezra could see the man was bothered by the show of emotion being shared between him and Julia. He supposed he would feel just as envious in the man's position, considering Alex was standing only a few feet away in discussion with Chris, regarding Vin no doubt. It was obvious that he still harbored feelings for Alex and though Ezra had no personal liking for the man, he could appreciate the open wound Dylan was sporting at seeing the love of his life reject him for someone else.

"We are done, Mr. Pierce." Ezra glimpsed at Julia and conveyed the rest of their farewell silently without the need for words. She nodded slightly. the worried expression crossing her face again, even though it was not as overt as the last time.

"Captain," Dylan turned to Chris. "We should be going."

Chris faced the commander with a glint in his eyes telling the junior officer that on his ship, he decided when the Away Team was ready to go to the surface. "I am well aware of that Commander."

He knew that Dylan was anxious to get started not because of any need to get the mission over and done with but rather because he was angry at the obvious affection being displayed by Julia and Ezra. Chris had no intention of allowing this man to rob the other members of his friends to make their farewells to each other, especially because he had personal issues of his own. At Dylan's words, Alex slipped past the captain and stepped onto the transporter pad, not wishing to give Dylan more opportunity to complain when it would only serve to provoke the Captain. Julia did the same, pulling away from Ezra and took the transportation station.

"Ezra you have the transponder," Chris spoke to the security chief, trying to avoid making any other comment to Dylan. "The minute anything goes wrong, you activate it and we'll have you back on the ship in no time."

"That is gratifying to know," Ezra remarked glancing at his boot where the device had been neatly secreted from view. "Although you might want to keep scanning for neutrino signals. We may be cloaked at the moment but that does not mean the Romulans do not have a way to detect us. Their experience with cloaking technology far outweighs our own."

"I'll keep that in mind." Chris nodded, knowing advice from Ezra was not to be ignored. The man was extremely good at what he did and had a sixth sense for trouble, which was probably how he managed to play those killer card games of his.

With that, Ezra joined Dylan and Alex on the transporter pad. The trio did not appear nervous although Dylan was trying hard not to look at Alex, while the science officer's mind was probably fixated on Vin.

"Julia," he glanced at the petite Chief Engineer. "Do you have the coordinates for their landing site?"

"Keyed in and waiting your order," Julia answered, glancing at Ezra as she said that. However, in less than an instant, her eyes were fixed on the control station before her again.

"Good," Chris nodded shortly and faced his Away team again. "We'll be waiting here for you." He stated firmly. "I won't leave anyone behind. If you get into trouble, just use your transponder and I'll have you out of there. The mission is important but not that important to risk three lives." His eyes shifted to Dylan before he added, "no matter who they are."

Dylan shrugged uncomfortably at the statement but nonetheless took the sentiment in the spirit it was given. "Thank you, Captain, that's good to know."

"Likewise, Sir." Ezra agreed.

"Julia engage," Chris ordered and then added as the low whine of the transported filled the room with its resonance. "Good luck."

******

After the Away Team departed the ship, Chris made his way to Vin's quarters, guessing the Vulcan was probably even more miserable now Alex was off the ship. He could imagine the guilt Vin must be feeling at being forced to remain on the Maverick when the woman he loved was undertaking a dangerous mission in hostile territory, especially when he should have been a part of the Away Team. Chris refused to let himself be mired about the probabilities of failure for those were always high when it came to missions in Romulan space. The Romulans were arrogant and superior, mostly because they were an efficiently ruthless race. If the Away Team for one moment forgot that, the Maverick would never get any one of them back alive.

When he arrived at Vin's quarters, he saw Nathan practically running out of the room. Following close behind was a bowl of food, which promptly shattered when it met the hard obstruction of the corridor wall. Beef Stroganoff when in all directions as the receptacle it had been held in crumbled on impact. The two security officers reached for their weapons, but Nathan quickly gestured it was all right, even though the healer did appear somewhat shaken.

"It's alright," Nathan said, appeasing the two security officers who looked at him with concern. "Just leave him be."

"Nathan, what's going on?" Chris asked, announcing his presence to the doctor. "Did Vin just throw that at you?" He glanced briefly at the streaks of food sliding down the wall to the gooey mess at the base of it.

Nathan regarded Chris with a decidedly anxious look on his face and nodded. "Yeah, he did, he admitted reluctantly. "The drugs are no longer working Chris."

Chris sucked in his breath at the news. In truth, he should not have been surprised but he had been hoping there would be some miracle solution on the horizon, they just had to wait it out. Even as he stood before Nathan in the corridor, he could hear the sounds of destruction behind the door. Vin was on an almighty path of destruction inside its confines and the crashing noises of breakage that everyone was trying to ignore without much success.

"What can we do?" He asked almost desperately.

"There's nothing more I can do," Nathan answered, wishing it were anything but so. "I've given him all the drugs I can give him. His system is so loaded right now it would kill a human. He's barely noticing it. His metabolism is running like a locomotive."

Chris could tell that Nathan was bringing himself and his captain to a place he did not want to go but Chris had to know. "How long?" He asked, sparing Nathan the trouble of trying to find some way to tell him.

"A day, two at the most," Nathan said abruptly and even the security guards behind Chris stared at the healer in shock. "His body will keep running the way it has until his heart gives out. The imbalance itself will affect the brain first and then progress to the rest of his body, respiration, kidney functions, they'll all shut down."

"Jesus Christ." Chris' voice escaped in a harsh whisper. "We have to do something'"

"I'm doing everything I can, Chris!" Nathan responded feeling just as helpless. "The fact is, he needs a mate. He needs to physically and mentally bond with a mate."

"I want to see him." Chris turned to Vin's door.

"Captain that is inadvisable." Lieutenant Yoshi immediately spoke up. "He is extremely volatile at this moment."

"Chris, I hate to admit but he's right." Nathan declared. "Vin's almost savage."

"He's my friend and I am not going to let him go through this alone!" Chris barked.

The sharpness of his voice ended any protest verbally, but Lieutenant Yoshi was not about to let his captain go into a dangerous situation without any protection. Removing his phaser, he handed it to Chris. "It's set for stun, Sir."

Chris wanted to refuse it but then realized the young lieutenant was only doing the job Chris expected him to do to the best of his ability. Besides, if Chris were to get hurt, Ezra would probably have the lieutenant's hide for allowing him to go into Vin's room in the first place.

"Thank you." He answered taking the weapon before he continued his journey to the door.

This time, Chris did not announce himself when he entered. He doubted Vin would have been able to hear him with all the racket the Vulcan was making. The damage Chris had seen earlier was nothing in comparison to the complete destruction he now faced. Furniture had been broken, the obvious cause being a fist through most of it. The soft cushioning material of the upholstery littered the floor, everything that meant anything to Vin was shattered, smashed, some even pulverized. There were visible dents in the wall, knuckles leaving their indentations after being delivered with unbelievable fury. Vin was on his haunches when Chris entered, and the captain stopped short at the sight of his friend.

Vin was covered in sweat, his hair hanging down his ears in wet strips, his eyes were almost black and unreadable while his face was fixed in a scowl of menace. He was poised like an animal about to attack and his muscles were slick and shiny from the readiness to pounce. Chris suddenly felt very glad he had the phaser when the doors slid close behind him. He walked in deep enough to be seen but paused a few feet away from the helmsman. Instinct told him it would not be wise to make a further approach.

"Vin," Chris spoke up finally.

He did not answer but continued to stare.

Chris suddenly felt like the zebra that had inadvertently stumbled into the lion's den.

"Vin, can you hear me?" Chris asked again, hoping to reach the part of his friend now coexisting with all that rage and animal instinct.

"I hear you."

"Vin, you're giving us a bit of a scare." Chris pointed out. "You need to try and calm down."

"I'm just fine," Vin replied, his voice brittle. "Be better if you let me out of here."

"I'm sorry I can't. You're not well." Chris answered automatically.

"I want her," Vin said in a low voice full of threat and sounded like broken glass. Chris did not have to ask who he meant.

"She's not on the ship any more Vin," Chris responded, not about to let Vin anywhere near Alex in the condition he was presently in. "She's on the mission."

"With him." Vin sneered, his eyes narrowing. His muscles flexed, rage rippled through them before culminating in the slight spark that looked like flints being struck in his eyes.

"Vin," Chris did not want to answer that question because he had a feeling he would not like the reaction he would receive. "Try and fight it, Vin."

"She's mine." The helmsman hissed starting to rock slightly, preparing to lunge "She's my mate! I won't let him have her!"

"She's not yours Vin," Chris returned even though he rebuked himself a second later. "She belongs to no one except maybe herself."

"SHE'S MINE! I'LL KILL HIM BEFORE I LET HIM HAVE HER. NOW YOU LET ME THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!"

Chris had barely a second after that scream when the helmsman sprung at him like a savage animal. Chris reacted swiftly and pulled the trigger hoping to God Yoshi was right about it being set to stun. The energy beam struck the Vulcan dead center, cutting short his advance towards Chris. Vin went sprawling backward, falling on top of an already damaged chair and completed its destruction when it collapsed under his weight. Chris remained frozen for a few seconds, unable to believe he was forced to shoot. Once he was certain Vin was not getting up, Chris pushed himself to his feet and went to check on him. The Vulcan's pulse such as it was, indicated that he was alive. Overhead, the sound of klaxon screamed through the air as the entire ship was alerted to an authorized weapon's discharge.

"Captain, are you alright?" Yoshi asked anxious, bursting into the room, his Andorian companion next to him and Nathan Jackson close behind.

"I'm fine," Chris responded shortly, handing the young man his phaser back again.

"Did he'." Nathan asked.

Chris did not answer the doctor, turning instead to his security officers. "I want a Level 1 force field on this door. Two guards posted at all times. He does not come out for any reason and no one sees him except Nathan and myself understand? In particular any female personnel."

For the first time since this had all began, Chris actually believed that Alex was safer on Riga 3 than she was on the Maverick.

Chapter Eleven: Revelations

The first thoughts that crossed Alex's mind upon materializing at the landing coordinates on Riga 3 was how anyone could grow up in a place like this.

Almost as soon after they had arrived, Alex was forced to discard her jacket in favor of just her tank top covering her top because the humidity took up almost a hundred per cent of the atmospheric content and made extra layers of clothing unbearable. The heat was invasive and fast acting. Minutes after she and the rest of the Away Team had arrived; she could feel sweat forming on her skin, the kind covered her limbs with a perennial layer of moisture. The air itself was just as soggy and moist, making her lungs feel like damper each time she took a breath. The woods in which they arrived was no less forgiving, with tall thin trunks and a thick canopy ahead that blocked out the sun. Heavy rains kept the ground wet and muddy, filtering through the breaks in the uneven canopy. There was just enough sunlight to ensure the ground was covered in vegetation, providing a perfect hunting ground for local predators.

Alex slapped another insect from her face, not giving it to find a comfortable place upon to rest and feed. Dylan and Ezra were suffering even worse bouts with the climate, mostly because the Romulan uniforms of thick, restrictive material seemed to attract heat even more than what she was wearing. Still, both men bore the discomfort stoically. Alex cast her gaze across the surrounding environment of trees, vines, uneven and muddy ground, tall grasses and wondered how Vin could have survived in a place like this all by himself, for so many years. The equatorial forest before her was daunting even for a stay of a few hours, she could not imagine trying to make a home in this green mire. She wiped the sweat from her brow and felt another pang of longing as she tried not to worry about him.

They had been forced to transport to coordinates almost ten kilometers away from the actual base itself, to keep from alerting any proximity sensors to the presence of a transporter beam. No doubt the jungle perimeter surrounding the facility would also be laden with similarly formidable detection devices and Alex was glad she was not the one who would have to circumvent them to enter the place. They began crossing the distance almost as soon as they arrived, and the heat seemed even more taxing as they travelled through the thick jungle. As the sun set in the horizon, the temperature did not drop more than a few degrees and remained fixed like most equatorial regions.

A full day on Riga 3 lasted no more than sixteen hours and they had that much time to gather the information needed and head out of Romulan space. The trip to the outer perimeter of the Romulan research base took almost five. Inwardly, Alex knew if Vin been here, that time would have been halved. The Vulcan had an uncanny sense when it came to knowing the best path to take in order to get somewhere. It did not matter whether or not he was in a holodeck simulation of an Old West program, in an unforgiving hell like this one or behind the control station of a starship, he just saw paths where there were none. For the hundredth time since landing on Riga, Alex told herself to stop thinking about him.

"Don't move." Ezra Standish spoke as he aimed his tricorder at the indistinguishable patch of green before him.

The group halted in their tracks, painfully aware of how much could be hidden in all this greenery. It was night and visibility was poor with the large fronds and fallen logs, covered in lichens and moss adding to the anonymity of any hidden security devices. Alex stared at her own tricorder, trying to see what the security officer had detected that he refused to allow them to move an inch.

"Ezra, I'm reading nothing."

"Standish, are you sure you're not chasing ghosts?" Dylan asked eager to push on now that the break in the jungle was only a few hundred yards away.

"I'm not using the tricorder to find the security devices, I'm using it to scan for unusual elements," Ezra responded, his gaze still fixed on the terrain ahead.

"I'm only detecting a small metal radiation." Alex countered immediately. "But that could be just the content of the soil. It could be rich in minerals." However, she remained fixed to the spot. Ezra's expression had way too much intensity for her to ignore it.

"It could be." Ezra sheathed his tricorder and took a step forward. His eyes searched the green, moving across the foliage with eyes that missed nothing even in the darkness. After what seemed an eternity that threatened to shatter Dylan's patience into a thousand fragments, Ezra paused and dropped to one knee and reached out. He captured in between his fingers, a thin line of metal so fine it was almost impossible to see until the light of the pale moon bounced off it smooth attention. If one had not been aware they ought to be paying attention, it was possible to walk straight through it.

"What is it?" Alex asked as he touched it experimentally.

"I would say the Romulans have chosen not to expend unnecessary technology in maintaining a defensive perimeter. This little trip wire though crude is far more effective than anything large and cumbersome." The security chief remarked and gestured his companions to withdraw further behind him. Once he was certain they had achieved minimum safe distance, he tugged at the line with more insistence and was rewarded with an explosion of sound as a bolt of energy exploded out of nowhere.

"Ezra, watch out!"

Ezra dropped to the ground low enough to avoid being hit by the blast that vaporized a tree on his left flank. As it burned with thick tongues of orange flame, Ezra stood up once more and looked over his shoulder to ensure his deactivation of the booby trap did not inadvertently harm any member of the Away Team.

"Primitive but effective," he commented as he turned back to them.

"I wonder what other surprises they got waiting for us." Dylan mused, looking at the jungle ahead with concern.

"I would suggest we tread extremely lightly," Ezra answered. "I seriously doubt what we just saw was the only trick in their repertoire."

Alex had to agree. She glanced upwards at the sky and saw the sun starting to peak at the edge of the horizon. They did not have much time. The infiltration into the base would be best conducted under the cover of night, what there was of it at this point. She would remain in the woods, keep watch and waiting for the two men to conduct their business. If they should not return by the appointed hour, she would have to signal the ship and then it would be to the purview of the diplomats to untangle the mess that would ensue. However, the reality of the situation Alex was all too aware, it was most likely if caught neither Dylan or Ezra would live long enough to have their fates decided upon in that manner. Chances were more likely the Romulans would kill them here for the crime of espionage.

"You need to get going," she looked at them. "Now, before it gets any lighter."

"The lady is correct." Ezra agreed.

"She always is," Dylan remarked offering Alex a wan smile tinged with affection and grief. "You stay here. If we don't come back. You activate your transponder and get yourself back to the Maverick."

"If you get caught, they'll kill you." Alex pointed out.

"I know that." He returned her gaze sharply. "But it will be a damn side better than what they would do to you."

Ezra could have decked Dylan for saying that, but the remark had its desired effect. Alex's face turned ashen at the possibility of finding herself a prisoner of the Romulans, the way she was a prisoner of the Cardassians. Ezra knew perfectly well even though Dylan did not, Alex would be more than willing to kill herself first rather than be taken alive. Even the possibility of enduring the hell she had suffered before was too much of a gamble she would not take.

"I believe Commander Styles knows that," Ezra said with more than a little tension in his voice. He wondered if Dylan was that thoughtless or did he know so little of the woman he claimed to still love to be able to throw that in her face.

"I just wanted her to know the risks," Dylan muttered, realizing too late why the security officer was glaring at him and why Alex had to turn away. He cursed himself under his breath, but the words were spoken and too late to be taken back.

"I do." Alex turned to face him a second later, completely composed. "I know precisely what I risk, and I can assure you, I would rather die than let myself be taken alive. You have no need to concern yourself, just get to where you're going in one piece."

"Alex...." Dylan started to say.

"It's alright Dylan." Alex raised her hand in a small gesture to tell him she had heard quite enough for the time being. "You two better get going. There was a little bit of a clearing back there," she glanced at the near non-existent path behind them. "I'll wait for you there."

"Come along Pierce," Ezra said shortly as he started forward. "I believe you have said enough."

While Ezra did not manhandle Dylan in any way, his tone certainly indicated it was wise if the Lieutenant Commander chose to follow him in favor of spouting off any more words of encouragement to Alex.

Dylan lingered, wanting to say something but could not find the words and after what had already been spoken, decided the security officer was right; he had said enough. Turning away, the last thing he heard from Alex was a muted good luck, but it had very little effect upon him. Dylan was starting to think his luck had dissolved the moment he let them talk him into leaving her after she had been found by the Cardassians.

******

They had walked some distance away from Alex with Dylan still stinging over his careless words and Alex's reaction to it. Ezra could tell the man was angry at himself and though he did not like Dylan much personally, he did feel empathy for the pain the covert operative must be enduring with everything that had happened to not only Alex's life but his, in recent years.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Ezra asked, not really expecting an answer but felt compelled to try because after coming so close to losing Julia once, he could imagine what Dylan was going through being still in love with Alex when she had continued with her life and left him behind.

"I've lost her." The man surprised him by saying. His voice was soft, almost a whisper. "I've lost her, haven't I?"

Ezra did not wish to give him more pain but there did not seem a way to be able to mask the truth from him and Ezra did not want to lie, not about something so close to the man's heart. "Yes, I am afraid you have."

Dylan nodded slowly because this was no surprise to him, but the truth was hard to hear nonetheless. "When she went on that damn mission, I knew something was going to happen." He spoke softly, and Ezra had a feeling the revelation he was making was not something that had ever been told by him to anyone. "I just had this feeling that it was going to go sour. I had my own mission to worry about but all through I kept thinking about her, hoping that I was wrong. In my business the feeling is everything, you know?"

Dylan met his gaze, not really seeing him Ezra suspected, just a friendly ear to listen to everything he had been holding back for so long. "I know to what you are referring."

"When I got back and heard the news her ship had been destroyed and there was the possibility that survivors made it off, I prayed to God she was one of the dead. Can you believe that?" His eyes started to cloud with emotion. "I actually wished she were dead because I knew how the Cardassians treated female prisoners. I had bad dreams for the six months she was gone. They all listed the MIA's of that mission as dead and I really hoped it was the truth but there was always something nagging in the back of my mind that maybe it wasn't so."

"I cannot imagine how you must have felt," Ezra answered and genuinely meant it.

"That was nothing compared to finding out that she was alive," Dylan admitted. "Everything I prayed that wouldn't have happened to her, did. Her father was absolutely devastated. He wanted her out of the service. Half the reason she doesn't talk to him is because of that. I wanted to see her, but they told me I should stay away. She was almost catatonic when they found her."

Ezra had seen her reaction when Gul Lemar was on board and the man had taken such pride in revealing just what Alex was subjected to while under his care that there was not a man among the senior staff who did not wish him dead. "I have heard some of the details. So, you never saw her after she returned from Cardassian space?"

"No," Dylan shook his head sadly. "I stayed away because they told me she couldn't stand seeing me and I didn't want her to be hurt any more than she was. I took an extended mission to allow her the time to heal. When I returned, I learnt that she had gone to Corvix and you have better luck fighting the entire Borg collective than trying to get past ol' Kellien."

"Yes, I have met the lady," Ezra answered remembering the warrior woman who considered Alex the daughter she never had.

"Kellien wouldn't let me see her and then the next thing I knew, I got this letter saying that it was over. She couldn't go through the wedding. I never expected that, but I suppose I should have." He said softly, his voice drifting away to thoughts Ezra was not privy.

"Dylan," Ezra tried to say something comforting since they were about to take part in a hazardous mission and allowing the man to remain in his state of melancholy was only going to get both of them killed. "You had to realize when you came on board the Maverick, you would not find the woman you loved."

"I knew." The operative nodded, exhaling loudly. "I'd hoped maybe it wouldn't be that way, but I don't blame the Vulcan for falling in love with her. It's so easy even if she is someone I barely know anymore."

Ezra suddenly raised his hand in a gesture of silence as the tree line suddenly diminished around them and in the darkened distance ahead, they could see the outline of the base in the night. There were the telltale signs of habitation by the lights scattered across the large complex and the Romulans patrolling its grounds leisurely. Both men went dead silent as they watched with equal intensity, the terrain they would have to infiltrate.

"You ready for this?" Dylan asked, his attitude towards the security chief a great deal friendlier than before.

"No," Ezra retorted. "However, as Alex is so fond of saying, let's get on with it anyway."

******

His head hurt.

When the darkness finally filtered from his brain and senses flooded a consciousness previously dormant, Vin Tanner awoke. He was like a lion waking up in a cage, realizing he had been drugged and trapped, taken far away from home and about to undergo some new humiliation in a world far removed from his own, about to vent the full fury of his rage. He sat upright and found himself exactly where he had landed after Chris had shot him with the phaser, on the broken remnant of a chair. Hardly noticing how uncomfortable lying on it had been Vin stood upright almost immediately. His limbs ached from the phaser blast, but the pain was receding fast.

They were keeping her away from him.

This thought screamed through his head with more clarity than any other. More than the effects of the stun blast on his system, the fact his room looked like a tornado had been through it or the fact that his knuckles were indigo in places from slamming his fist into the wall. They were hiding her from him, he decided firmly. They knew she was his and yet they were keeping him from her. They had no right, he told himself indignantly. She was his mate. He would have no other but her. He could not imagine why they would keep her away when he so obviously needed her, and she had wanted him. Vin closed his eyes and pictured how she felt, a kaleidoscope of warm memories crowded in on his senses when he remembered how she had groaned his name in pleasure and how she begged him to touch her.

Vin shuddered just thinking about how she felt, and his blood felt like fire under his skin. Chris, his best friend, his mind reasoned viciously, was at the heart of this separation. Chris was keeping Alex away from him. Chris was the one who had kept him trapped inside this room like an animal, Chris was the one who had shot him, and Chris was the one who had the power to bring Alex here but did not. Chris was the betrayer! They all were! Nathan too with his potions that did nothing to stop this ever-deepening hunger that twisted his inside into so many knots that he could barely stand it. She was his mate! Did they not understand that?

Vin had touched her mind. He knew he had the power to take away her sorrows, to fill her life with pleasure and companionship. Was he not the only one who made her feel safe? She had said so! How many times had she come into his arms, wanting him to touch her? He couldn't before but now he could more than touch her, he could do everything she burned for him to do. Vin could smell the musk of her arousal in his lungs during their last encounter, how pliable she had become to his touch. He felt his body becoming charged with the memories of her, feel his blood coursing through his veins each time she gasped out loud and begged him to love her. She needed to be touched and he wanted to oblige her, he wanted her long and hard, slow yet brutal. She liked it that way, though he knew she would never admit it. He'd show her pleasure and pain and Vin knew Alex would enjoy it very much.

He would not let Chris keep them apart!

Chris was out there, preventing his mate from coming to him.

Well, that was fine, Vin thought as he stopped pacing the floor and stared at the door where two security officers were no doubt waiting for him.

If they would not bring her to him then Vin would simply have to go get Alex.

Chapter Twelve: Escape

At first sight, there was nothing that could be considered out of the ordinary when one approached the installation meant to harbor such illegal activities. It looked like any research facility with the usual amount of security dispatched in order to prevent valuable secrets from being stolen away by those who would exploit. There was that clean, antiseptic smell to it that screamed all things pure and scientific, not to mention the silence of those within whose minds were fixated upon the work with such dedication that speech seemed to be a frivolous waste of time.

The sun's ascent into the sky was less than an hour away and both Ezra and Dylan agreed that they wanted to be gone from this place by then. They had approached the perimeter of the base without arousing any suspicions since they appeared like any other team on patrol. With this guise, they were able to slip past the grounds of the structure. Unlike the jungle that was within sight of them, the lawns surrounding the facility were not at all unruly or overgrown but tended to with Romulan efficiency with manicured grass and trees planted in just the right spot to provide shade for its inhabitants.

Ezra and Dylan entered the main doors and nodded at the two guards stationed there. The duo in charge appeared bored and did not pay much attention to the two Starfleet officers as they entered a wide corridor that took the away from the entrance. There was hardly anyone about and Ezra wondered how much of this had to do with the time of day or the fact this installation was so secret not many people were privy to its existence. Even though there was no reason for it, Ezra felt an eerie chill run through his spine as they progressed deeper inside the installation. With the gut instinct he relied upon so explicitly all his life, Ezra could feel something ominous in these walls even though he was reluctant to express it to Dylan.

Suddenly a set of doors slid open from further down the corridor and a Jem'Hadar warrior emerged from the room. He was devoid of his armor, wearing only a green jumpsuit. He paused in the middle of the corridor, his head, covered in the bony protrusions indicative of the species, turned from side to side as he decided the best way to run. Unfortunately, his choice had him coming straight for them. A voice behind him called out sharply.

"STOP HIM!"

Ezra and Dylan looked at each other as they saw the Jem'Hadar running towards them, his eyes wide open, with more than a desperate expression of fear on his face. His eyes almost seemed to be pleading at them to let him pass and Ezra did not know what was more jarring, the fact he expected them to be merciful or that a Jem'Hadar warrior, a creature bred for war and victory at all costs was actually terrified.

"We have to." Dylan hissed softly. "Our cover will be blown!"

Ezra swore under his breath, hating himself for having to carry out his order. Behind the Jem'Hadar escapee, two Romulans had appeared from the room the prisoner had just fled. Any chance Ezra had of letting the Dominion soldier escape died with their arrival. To save the life of the Away Team, he simply had to act. Without meeting the Jem Hadar's gaze, Ezra withdrew the disrupter he had in his holster and fired a single shot. The beam of energy struck him dead center and stopped short any further advance. As the unconsciousness claimed him, Ezra caught sight of his face and his memory was seared by the visage of despair by the warrior who knew his brief dash for freedom was done.

He dropped heavily to the smooth floor, face first and Ezra stood there for a brief second, hating himself for having to do this. Ezra went to the prisoner and dropped to his knee, reaching for the Jem Hadar's neck and searching for a pulse. The disrupter was set for stun, but Ezra needed to confirm this for himself. The pulse that throbbed under his fingertips soon indicated the Jem'Hadar was still alive although Ezra had a feeling that the warrior would not be grateful for this fact when he finally awoke.

"He's alive," Ezra told Dylan.

However, Dylan was not looking at him but rather at the Romulan who had called out to them to incapacitate the prisoner.

"Well done Centurion." Her voice addressed them and forced Ezra to his feet quickly. She paused and looked at the fallen prisoner for a second before raising her eyes to meet theirs. "He managed to break his restraints."

She was in Ezra's opinion, the most stunning beauty he had ever seen. Although she was almost certainly Romulan, with the upswept brows and the indigo colored eyes, she did not wear her hair in bangs like most Romulans but rather loose around her shoulders, it cascaded from her sultry face in dark waves of jet. Her uniform indicated she was a Romulan Sub-Commander, which meant she was very highly placed here, if not in charge altogether.

"Thank you, Sir," Dylan answered smoothly.

She studied them both for a moment, an action that only served to make Ezra nervous for some reason. Did she notice something different about them?

"Are you new here?" She asked.

"Yes," Dylan responded. "We arrived only yesterday."

"I see." She nodded after a second of consideration. "There are so many faces here. If you would bring him along, I have work to finish."

"Yes, Commander," Dylan answered and glanced at Ezra to help him with the prisoner. The woman turned on her heels and started walking back the way she came, completely expecting them to follow her. Ezra and Dylan exchanged glances once more, realizing they had no choice but to comply, reached down and pulled the unconscious prisoner to his feet before they started following her to the door she had emerged.

It took all of Ezra's considerable efforts as a consummate actor to hide his reaction upon entering the Sub-Commander's research area and could well understand what had caused the Jem'Hadar warrior to flee with so much terror in his eyes. Dylan did not react but seemed stunned into silence as they stepped into what appeared to be a chamber of horrors. What Ezra saw within the confines of that room was seared into his memory, rivalling the horrors he had seen during that ill-fated mission to Fury 361. It sickened him to know that this was not, however, the creation of an organism driven by the need to reproduce but rather a powerful intellect who had no sense of compassion to accompany her desire for scientific truth.

Encased inside glass cylinders were Jem'Hadar warriors.

They were all dead. At least Ezra hoped they were. All were on the floor of the cylinders, forced into a sitting position in their collapse. They were all naked, their skin clinging to their bones, their cheeks sunken into their skulls. They were so emaciated that it made Ezra feel a growl in his stomach just from the imagination of the intense hunger they must have felt. There were no tubes attached to their faces, so it was clear they had not received any supplies of Ketracel White, the substance their creators ensured they would need to survive. Some of the cylinders were smeared with blood where its captives had pounded futilely against the glass in an effort to escape. The cause of death for all of the prisoners was obvious however; they had been deprived of their Ketracel White. In death, their degradation did not end for Ezra saw dissected bodies laid out for all to see, to pick and probe, in order to chart the progress of their systematic deterioration.

"Put him there." The Sub-Commander gestured to a stainless steel flat table in the center of the room. Trolleys containing trays of vicious looking instruments with sharp and serrated edges surrounded it.

Ezra was particularly mindful of the leg and wrist straps that were attached to the table. Dylan gave him a look telling him to do as she ordered and once again, Ezra felt himself hating the fact he was forced to do this. Taking a deep breath, he helped Dylan hoist the unconscious man to the table, conscious of the Sub Commander watching every move he was making. Ezra had a bad feeling about her; it was an instinct that guarded him for most of his life and one he knew had never led him astray. She was playing with them, he was almost certain, but he knew no way of warning Dylan without tipping their hand.

Ezra tried not to think about what he was doing when he placed the Jem Hadar's wrist into the metal straps and prayed inwardly that his death would be a quick one. As it was, the security chief of the Maverick was finding it extremely difficult to go along with this entire situation because it was seriously undermining his duty as a Starfleet Officer to protect the innocent. Letting this man die for the sake of a mission could not be for the greater good, no matter how much he tried to convince himself.

"Sub Commander," Ezra said after a moment of reflection. "What do you plan to do with him?"

Dylan shot Ezra a furious look. "That's not your place to ask Centurion."

"That's all right," the Sub Commander replied with a smile and regarded Ezra, her eyes narrowing as she stared at him. "I plan on immediate dissection of course."

Ezra felt his heart tighten in his chest. "Why?"

"We need to determine the effects of white withdrawal on the system." She answered him, watching his reaction closely. "Before we can engineer a specimen who displays the same effects of the White on his system, we need to know how it effects the original."

"By the looks of it, you've had plenty of experience with dissection already." Ezra swallowed thickly, avoiding meeting Dylan's eyes. No doubt the agent was plenty mad at him, but Ezra had come to a decision and knew that if worse came to worse, Chris Larabee would back his actions. The captain would not tolerate this anymore then he could.

"Why don't you help me?" She stepped forward and picked up an instrument.

Ezra merely stared at her. "Help you?"

"Yes," she handed him the scalpel, waiting to see if he would take it.

Ezra took a deep breath and decided he had no choice. She had him in a corner and she knew it. Taking a deep breath, he pulled out his disrupter and fired. Her expression was that of surprise when the beam struck her and send her sprawling.

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" Dylan demanded.

"I would think that it's fairly obvious." Ezra retorted as he started to undo the straps around the Jem Hadar's hands.

"We're supposed to monitor the situation and report back to Starfleet!" Dylan glared at Ezra.

"I will not leave him here to be butchered like the rest of these poor souls!" Ezra returned sharply as he looked at the cylinders around him. "Now you said we needed proof, well here it is! I believe an eye witness account, not to mention an actual prisoner of this facility would be ample evidence to Starfleet and the Romulan high command, don't you?"

Dylan could not fault his logic even though he knew Ezra had come up with that answer at the spur of the moment. He could not blame Ezra for acting the way he did, but Dylan could not condone his actions because he was endangering the mission no matter how much he tried to rationalize his actions. Unfortunately, whether or not Dylan disagreed with Ezra was hardly relevant considering the die was cast and they had only one alternative left to them.

"Help me!" Ezra barked as he freed the unconscious Jem'Hadar warrior.

"This is a bad idea," Dylan growled in response as he took hold of the Dominion soldier and lifted him off the metal table. "The minute they find her, they'll be tearing the place apart for us."

Ezra knew that, but he was adamant that he was right. "Then we better be out of here before they find us." The security officer responded, hoping he would not have to regret his brave words if they were captured. Glancing at the unconscious woman on the floor briefly, Ezra knew he had no wish to be in her company or for that matter in her power.

Somehow, he knew instinctively the consequences of that would be a fate worse than death.

******

Vin Tanner stared at the door to his quarters and knew that it was now or never.

Alex was waiting for him. He could feel her under his skin, calling to him from wherever Chris had hidden her away from him. The need for her was all consuming now. His skin felt raw and sensitive, aching to touch her and for her touch all at the same time. Even his clothes started to feel uncomfortable against his skin and it became a conscious effort to keep from ripping their irritation from his body. After he had woken up from Chris's attack, Vin noted no one else had come to visit him. His friends had disappeared, not just Chris and Nathan but Mary and all the others. He wondered if they were involved in the conspiracy to keep Alex from him and knew that must be so because nothing would stop his mate from coming to him when he needed her so desperately.

He waited for her as long as he could and knew with growing certainty she was not coming because they were keeping her away from him. It was inconceivable she would not come if she could. Vin remembered how she kissed him, how her lips had tasted his own and how she moaned his name when he touched her. He knew from their brief exchange that she wanted him, that she needed to mate with him just as desperately as he needed her. Was she feeling the same ache he was suffering at this moment, was she trying to reach him as he wanted her to come to him? It infuriated Vin to no end to think his friend, his best friend Chris Larabee might be the reason why they had not already consummated their union.

Perhaps Chris wanted Alex for himself.

The thought suffused the Vulcan with utter rage. Chris had no right to Alex! No one did! Not Dylan, not even Buck who had the audacity to copulate with her once. She was his! He would allow no one else to have her!

Such thoughts moved through his mind at lighting speed, impulses moving back and forth across his synapses with such speed, he barely had time to process everyone. Somewhere deep inside of him, Vin was conscious of something terribly wrong with him but that part of him was powerless to stop the rage reaching the point of no return. He stood by the doorway, aware he had to get past it to reach Alex. There was something inside him drawing him to her and the first hurdle he would have to breach in order to reach her would be the security officers outside his door. Chris would not be foolish enough to leave him unguarded, not if the captain wanted to keep him from Alex.

Vin stood in the center of the room and started shouting. "Help me! Help me! I can't breathe!" He added the embellishment of a hoarse raspy tone to his plea; aware that the security officers were already of the belief he was ill, and his performance would bring them into the room faster than any other method he did not have time to devise.

As anticipated, the doors slid open a second later and Lieutenant Yoshi entered the room even though Vin had always assumed the security officers would not be fools. One of them, in this case, Yoshi, would enter his quarters, while Ensign Holden would fall back just to ensure this was not some elaborate ruse on his part. The phasers of both were drawn even though Vin's performance of lying on the floor seemed to make Yoshi waver somewhat. The security officer seemed uncertain of what to do at the moment, knowing he ought to be cautious but not enough to risk the life of the Captain's best friend in case this act of choking was the real thing.

Vin had no such conflict and allowed Yoshi to continue forward. The security officer's phaser was still drawn but his attention was starting to become distracted by Vin's choking and writhing on the floor. Vin waited for the opening he knew was inevitable now as the man closed the distance between them and knelt down to help Vin. The moment his knee touched the floor, Vin grabbed the hand holding the phaser and snapped the man's wrist like kindling. The loud crunch of bone followed an ear-piercing scream as Vin maintained his hold on Yoshi and leapt to his feet faster than Holden could take aim.

Aware that the security officer would have no trouble shooting him, Vin flung Yoshi at Holden, taking the brunt of the stun bolt Holden had fired at him. The Japanese lieutenant felt unconscious immediately, his body hurtling forward at full speed and slammed Holden in the wall behind him. Vin sprang forward, collecting Yoshi's phaser and reached Holden as the ensign attempt to dislodge Yoshi off his body and tap his com badge to alert the bridge of trouble. Vin lashed out hard, his fist connecting with Holden's jaw, shattering bone with that single punch. Holden had just enough time to cry out in pain before he slumped across Yoshi's body just as unconscious.

Vin retrieved Holden's phaser and tucked it in the waistband of his pants, snatching both combadges from their uniforms. Glancing around to make sure no one saw what he had done, Vin picked both men up with each hand, their weight barely registering on him as he carried them into his quarters and flung them inside. They tumbled in without a sound and remained still as Vin went to the door panel and sealed the door behind him.

"Computer. Initiate lockout - access granted on voice command only." Vin said coolly.

With that, he turned on his heels and made his way to the transporter room, to Alex.

******

Julia Pemberton was trying to keep herself busy.

It was a practice she had become accustomed to since entering a relationship with a security officer. In particular, one who was at this moment in hostile territory, undergoing a dangerous mission he might not come back from if things were to go one fraction away from being exactly as planned. Deciding she would avail herself nothing by worrying continuously about Ezra until his return, Julia chose instead to run a maintenance check in Transporter Room 2. When she transported the Away Team to the surface of Riga 3 earlier, she discovered a slight variance in one of the energy coils. The effects though minor were not something that ought to be left over a period of time. Thinking accurately, it would take her mind off Ezra, Julia returned to Transporter Room 2 in order to carry out a routine maintenance check as well as repairing the problem.

She was starting to pull the panel off the console when suddenly she heard footsteps behind her. Julia straightened up and turned around when a fist struck her jaw and send her flying across the transporter room. The pain was immense, and her landing was just as bad. Julia's head was a kaleidoscope of pain and disorientation when she impacted hard against the floor, feeling bones snap beneath her. She screamed upon hearing the terrible sound of breaking bone in her hip and was gripped in a red haze of pain. She knew she was bleeding because she could taste its metallic texture in her mouth. After a few seconds of spinning, Julia tried to sit up when she felt fingers digging into her hair and pulling her to sitting position.

Another scream escaped her as she felt the excruciating agony of jagged bone grinding against each other in her hip. Without even seeing the injury, she knew that the pelvic bone upon which she had landed was broken.

"Where is she?" Vin demanded. His voice was low and hoarse, closer to an animal than it was human.

Julia could barely focus as she looked at him through eyes blurred with pain. "What?" She stammered, through her bleeding lips.

"WHERE IS SHE?" He repeated himself, twisting her head in his hand so hard she was forced to look into his face.

Julia felt her breath catch in her throat as she saw the savage gleam in his cobalt colored eyes, not to mention the animal expression of on his face. He was insane. Without thinking, she reached for her com badge and tried to signal for help, but he was too fast for her. His fist clenched around her hand and squeezed so hard, she let out another cry of pain.

"Vin, please!" She begged as the pain receptors in her brain started to overload. "You're not well!"

"Tell me!" He ignored her and squeezed harder until Julia started to sob from the pain.

"I won't!" Julia cried, not about to let him anywhere near Alex in the condition he was in. "I don't know where she is!"

"You're lying." He let go of her head and instead pressed his fingers to her cheekbone. Julia tried to pry them from, but his grip was like vise-like and powerfully strong. For a moment, she had no idea what he was trying to do until she saw him close his eyes and felt something creeping into her thoughts.

"NO!" Julia started to fight; pain and terror washed aside as she felt Vin intruding upon her mind.

"Let me have it!" He snarled. He closed his eyes and could see what he wanted. The terror in her mind led him straight to the information and the more she was screaming for him to stop, the easier it was to access what he needed. Vin sliced through her thoughts with little difficulty, the Pon Farr making it so much easier to break through the barriers of her mind to find what he needed.

The exact frequency of the Away Team's transponder signal.

Even though it was not activated, Vin could track it if he knew the frequency and if Alex was in possession of the device as every member of the Away Team would undoubtedly be in such a hostile environment, he would find her. The information flooded into his mind easily because Julia was in so much pain and terribly frightened. Once he had it, he released his hold of the Chief Engineer. Julia let out a strangled gasp with tears running down her cheeks at the invasion of her mind she had been forced to endure.

"Vin," she looked up at him, still unable to feel hatred for him despite the ravaged stage of her being. She knew the gentle and shy young man he was, the friend who helped her improve her helm skills, the one who had shared her enthusiasm for restoring the old ships they came across sometimes and who liked sharing Baked Alaskas with. He was not this vicious creature before her now. Julia believed that even though her body was broken, and her mind was pounding in agony at his intrusion.

"Don't do this." She spoke through the blood in her mouth as she watched him stride towards the transporter pad to feed in the coordinates he needed to reach Alex.

Vin was not listening to her.

Julia searched frantically for her com badge and saw it lying a few feet away. She tried to move towards it and felt a renewed bout of searing pain as she made the attempt. All she could do in its aftermath was to give up and lie there helplessly. The last thing she heard before the world went black was the hum of the transporter and Vin Tanner disappearing in a shimmer of gold.

Chapter Thirteen: Biology

The Jem Hadar warrior was starting to rouse in their grip when they reached the main exit of the facility and had no choice but to fire upon the two guards there in order to make good their escape. Ezra had no idea how the Dominion warrior was going to react but hoped to be some distance away from the facility before they launched into a prolonged debate on the matter. Dylan Pierce was not at all impressed at the turn the mission had taken. He began complaining prodigiously once they left the grounds and made for the jungle once more. Ezra supposed he could not blame the operative for his annoyance considering the choice to take an eye witness was not his own but rather one Ezra made on the spur of the moment.

It was not usual for the security chief to disobey mission parameters, but he refused to leave the Jem Hadar to the ministrations of that sadistic Romulan Sub-Commander. He had seen the markings on her uniform and knew that she was Tal Shiar, the counter-intelligence organization so feared within the Romulan government. The Tal Shiar had plenty of reason to take out their vengeance against the Jem Hadar. Shortly before the Dominion War, the Tal Shiar had attempted to make a pre-emptive strike against the Dominion by joining forces with the Obsidian Order, its equivalent on Cardassia. The results had been the obliteration of both by Dominion forces more than prepared for the attack.

By the time they re-entered the jungle, the Jem Hadar's revival was coming along swiftly. His legs were starting to move of their own accord and they were no longer forced to drag him along. Even a stun blast from a Romulan disrupter was no easy thing to recover from and by the looks of him, the Jem Hadar had been through enough of an ordeal as it was already. However, both men knew it when he had returned to full consciousness. As they were dragging him along, they suddenly felt his arms wrench free of them as he shoved them away from him.

"Take it easy!" Dylan spoke up as the Jem Hadar started to retreat. The man was disorientated and wary, a dangerous combination.

"What new trick is this?" He said in a raspy voice as he glared at them.

"I assure you, this is no trick," Ezra interjected while Dylan kept watch they were not being pursued. "We were in the process of rescuing you."

"You were the ones who shot me!" He bellowed enraged but was too weak to do much more than that. "You Romulan slime!"

"We're not Romulan. We're Starfleet! We came here on a reconnaissance mission because we learnt there was a possibility the Romulan government had not returned all its prisoners as per our treaty stipulation with the Founders."

"You do not look like humans." The Jem Hadar pointed out.

"You do not look like much a Jem Hadar warrior, but we have no time to nitpick at this moment," Ezra quipped. "We have a starship in orbit of this world. If you come with us, we will return you to Dominion space after you confirm if there are any more of you left in that base."

The expression on the man's face changed into bitterness and Ezra could tell just by the shadow in his eyes they were too late for any others. "You are the only one?"

He raised his eyes to Ezra and nodded. "I was the last. The female killed all the others."

"The Sub Commander." Ezra glanced at Dylan, not at all surprised.

"Lorral. The Sub Commander Lorral." The hatred in his eyes was plain.

"Do you have a name?" Ezra dared to ask.

"I was Warrior Anix," he said in a small voice. "But after this dishonor, I am not worthy of that name."

"Anix," Dylan said trying his hardest to be kind but there were some things he had to know for all their sakes. "How long have you been without the White?"

Anix raised his eyes to Dylan. "She wanted to keep us alive, so I have been supplied sufficiently. I can be without it for at least four more days."

"In that case, let us return to the Maverick," Ezra said to Dylan. "I am certain Nathan will be able to do something for Mr. Anix."

No sooner than he had spoken, a bolt of energy flew past his ear and vaporized the tree behind him. The flames exploded around the trunk and quickly ignited the rest of its branches and leaves, making it look like a struck match. Anix dropped to his feet, while Dylan pulled out his own weapon and fired at the direction the blast had come from. Ezra saw half a dozen Romulan soldiers spreading out, preparing to surround them. If that happened, they would be cut off.

"Move!" Ezra shouted, grabbing the weakened Anix by the arm and pulling him forward.

Dylan continued to fire, allowing Ezra and the Jem Hadar the margin of time needed for them to slip past the fire fight. Once he was certain they were safe, he turned to run, hoping he would be able to make the same escape. He saw Ezra and Anix pausing in their retreat to see after him and noted Ezra's expression evolving into horror. The southerner opened his mouth to warn him, but Dylan never had the chance to hear it.

"Watch out!" Ezra shouted but it was too late.

In horror, he watched the beam of energy strike Dylan in the back. The Starfleet operative opened his mouth to scream for a disrupter shot was a painful way to die but that scream never escaped him. The angry red energy swirled around his body and vaporized him where he stood. Within seconds, all that was left of Commander Dylan Pierce was his disintegrating shadow in the midst of the firefight setting light to the jungle with a voracious appetite.

"Your friend is gone." The Jem Hadar tugged at his sleeve. "You have no time to mourn him if you want to survive."

Ezra knew the man was right and swore under his breath. He just wished he did not have to be the one to tell Alex.

******

"How is she?" Chris Larabee asked Nathan Jackson when he entered Sickbay.

The doctor was standing over an unconscious Julia Pemberton when he saw the Captain's arrival and immediately instructed his nurse to continue the dermal regeneration he had been instigating over her bruised face. Mercifully, Nathan opted to sedate Julia because the Chief Engineer had been in a great deal of pain after her brutal encounter with Vin Tanner. Nathan supposed Julia was lucky. If it was not for the fact Vin was not bonded mentally with Alexandra Styles, her injuries could have been a great deal more severe not to mention, emotionally devastating.

"She's alive. So are the others."

Chris looked over Nathan's shoulder and caught a brief glimpse of Julia. What he saw was enough to make his stomach turn in horror. The dermal regeneration would remove much of the outward bruising on her skin but at the moment; the side of her face was purple and swollen out of shape, with finger indentations against her cheek. If there was any consolation to be had in all this, it was the fact Ezra Standish was not here to see her in this state. Chris was aware of how Ezra would behave when he was on the warpath and knew he had no wish to see it directed at Vin.

"Jesus," Chris swore softly as he faced Nathan again. "How bad is she hurt?"

"He could have killed her." Nathan padded nothing. "As it was, he dislocated her jaw, broke her hip and her wrist. There's severe trauma to her spleen which resulted in heavy internal bleeding and I think he melded with her."

Chris suspected as much when he saw the marks on her cheek.

"He would have needed to find out the frequency the transponder was on to locate the Away Team," Chris answered softly; unable to imagine how they could have let Vin slip past them. No, that was wrong, Chris recanted inwardly, he was unable to imagine how he had let Vin slip past them. Chris should have locked him up in the brig for his own good but because Vin was his friend, he had not followed his instincts.

Chris had underestimated Vin considerably and now his crew would pay for it.

"Have you been able to find him?" Nathan asked.

"No," Chris shook his head. "We knew the moment he left the ship, but he left his combadge behind and with a planet full of Romulans with near identical bio readings as Vulcans, we're not having any luck finding him."

"We know where he'll go."

"Yeah, we do." Chris nodded. "We've tried to get in contact with the Away Team but they're on silent running. They're not due to check in for another hour."

"Can't we go down there?" Nathan insisted. "I mean we have to warn her."

"Don't you think I know that!" Chris hissed, wondering if the doctor knew how difficult this was for him. Chris was fighting the urge to beam down to the Riga 3 to find Vin and drag him back to the ship, but he was needed on the bridge. Shortly after Vin's departure from the Maverick, JD intercepted a transmission from the research facility indicating they were aware of a Starfleet presence in the area. In less than three hours, the Maverick would be intercepted by two Romulan warbirds. "I can't authorize anyone to go down there. We're in Romulan space in extremely hostile conditions. As much as I want to tear the planet apart to find Vin, I can't because there are a thousand people on this ship whose lives I can't risk for just one man!"

"I'm sorry Chris," Nathan rebuked himself inwardly for not thinking before he spoke. Vin and Chris were best friends. Of course, the captain would have thought about all these factors, but he was still the captain and if he acted any differently than he was doing now, he would endanger the lives of everyone on board, not just Vin.

"It's alright," Chris shrugged, knowing that Nathan's words were motivated by his concern for Vin and everyone involved. "I'm going crazy too."

"You hide it well." The doctor joked and forced a little smile from Chris.

"Thanks. All we can do is wait until Alex checks in and assess the situation. If it's possible, we're beaming her out of there before he reaches her."

"If not?" Nathan stared at him.

"If not, I hope she uses that transponder," Chris answered because he did not even want to imagine what would happen to her if she did not.

******

When she heard the disrupter fire in the distance and saw the smoke billowing into the early morning sky, Alex knew that the mission had gone sour. She debated whether or not to alert the ship just yet but decided that she would wait until Ezra and Dylan returned before acting. In the meantime, she reached into her boot and made certain her transponder was tucked away safely awaiting use. Alex had no intention of running out on either man, but she could not blind herself to the reality of the situation if their presence here had been compromised. Suddenly, Dylan's words about what would happen to her if she were captured alive began to seem more ominous than ever and she cursed him wherever he was for planting such thoughts into her head.

He was so different from the man she remembered, and Alex wondered how she could have ever loved him. What she felt for Vin was far more intense and passionate than anything she felt for Dylan Pierce throughout the two years of their engagement. Even now, as she waited at the rendezvous point for the infiltration team, her thoughts were centered on how Vin was faring on board the Maverick, rather than the fact the mission had gone awry. She supposed the truth was, it was not so much Dylan that changed but rather she had. Alex was not the woman she had been before the Cardassians. There were still some traces of her former personality but the most of it was gone, destroyed by brutality, evolved by experience and healed by Vin.

No matter how much she fought to admit the truth of her feelings, that fact was undeniable. His presence in her life had helped the healing process. In the beginning, it was trying to be there for someone who seemed just as set apart as she was from everyone else. He knew just like she did, what it was to be in a crowded room and still feel completely alone. The difference between them was Alex had not always been that way and her experience helped him to let others into his life. Although Chris Larabee was his best friend, he had been afraid of everyone else. Alex liked to think she was part of the reason why he started to emerge from his self-imposed exile. He was still a little shy. He always would be she suspected, but at least now he knew there could be people in his life if he chose to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Please, she prayed silently to herself, let him be there when I get back.

"Alex!" She heard Ezra Standish call out.

Following close behind the security officer and his Jem Hadar companion was a phalanx of disrupter blasts setting the vegetation ablaze whenever they did not hit their intended target. Alex pulled out her own weapon and started firing into the Romulan contingent in pursuit, holding some of them back as Ezra and a Jem Hadar warrior tried to reach her. Her eyes searched for Dylan and her blood ran cold when she realized that he was not with Ezra.

"Where's Dylan?"

Ezra looked at her with a slight shake of his head. "I am sorry Alex, he did not make it."

"Didn't make it? Dylan's dead?"

Ezra nodded his answer.

Alex turned away; swallowing the lump in her throat as Ezra started firing at the Romulans in the bush, attempting to take them alive. They could not transport with so much artillery coming their way. They would be vaporized before the transporter could lock onto them with any efficiency. Ezra gave Alex a moment, trying not to notice the glistening moisture in her eyes as she mourned silently and stoically for her former lover and would be husband.

"Alex?" Ezra asked after a moment. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine."

"We need to leave!" The Jem Hadar reminded them, cutting through the personal conversation to remind them of the situation at hand.

"We're not going anywhere unless we can keep them from making us shooting ducks!" Alex exclaimed, forcing away her grief for now.

Suddenly another entered the firefight and though it was a weapon, both Alex and Ezra recognized it immediately. Both were trained tactical officers with more than a passing knowledge of weaponry and disrupters had a very specific harmonic resonance. As they listened to the sound repeat itself, they became more convinced of what they were hearing. Ezra peered above the tall grass trying to catch sight of their pursuers when he saw one Romulan sail through the air only to receive a very abrupt landing against a tree. Bone shattered in that all too familiar crunch and he let out a cry as his spine snapped against the thick trunk. Another Romulan was similarly dispatched as if something very mad and very strong had slipped into the Romulan lines and was creating havoc.

"What the hell?" Alex asked confused. "Was that a phaser I heard?"

"That was a phaser," Ezra nodded. "I am certain of it."

"What is going on?" Anix inquired just as puzzled. The Jem Hadar had also been trained to discern the differing discharges of Alpha Quadrant weaponry to come to the same conclusion. "Did your ship send reinforcements?"

The shooting had all but stopped but the sounds of bones breaking and Romulans crying out in pain rode the swell of silence that followed. Alex and Ezra looked at each other in puzzlement; uncertain how to correlate all the conflicting data they were being bombarded with. They maintained their position for the time being, waiting until there were no more sounds of life emanating from the Romulan camp before Ezra turned to Alex and gestured her to maintain her position while he went to investigate.

"Stay here." He instructed as he left their hiding place and stood up to get a better view of the terrain before him.

Parts of the surrounding vegetation was still burning furiously. Thick waves of black smoke was rising into the sky and would no doubt bring more Romulans to investigate when their comrades did not return. Ezra could see the broken body of one Romulan lying flat across a fallen log. The centurion was not moving and judging by the angle of his head, his neck was broken. Ezra wondered if it was not wiser to leave this instant, instead of remaining to find out what had caused this carnage of broken bodies and shattered bones.

"You see anything?" Alex called out from where she was.

"Yes," Ezra answered back as he moved closer towards the Romulan camp. "Every indication that something a great deal more annoyed than us have chosen to take offence at the Romulans."

"Maybe we should just bug out and call it even." Alex suggested, her voice becoming more distant as he moved further away from her.

"Your logic is impeccable. I think you may be right." He agreed upon seeing another dead body. This was the one that had broken its back when flung against a large tree.

A rustle of leaves to his side immediately caused Ezra to swing towards it with his weapon drawn, he was about to pull the trigger when the tall grass parted, and Vin Tanner appeared, his hands covered in blood.

"Vin?" Ezra exclaimed in shock, his gun dropping to his side. "What are you doing here?'

Vin did not answer and lunged. Ezra did not even have time to take aim and fire as the Vulcan forced him to the ground. Vin ripped the disrupter from his hands and flung it into the underbrush, his face almost unrecognizable in its savagery. His hand clenched around Ezra's throat, pinning him to the muddy ground as he raised his fist to strike. Ezra felt his air passages immediately constricted under Vin's powerful grip. He tried futilely to speak but his words came out in gasps, nor did he have any luck prying Vin's fingers from around his neck. With a sinking feeling, Ezra realized quickly it was possible the Vulcan had no idea who Ezra was and even if he did, was too far away from himself to even care. Vin was about to render him unconscious when suddenly he froze at the sound of Alex's voice.

"Ezra!" She called out; unaware he was in trouble, only she could no longer see him.

Ezra watched Vin's face change from brute savagery to feral need and he forgot all about Ezra as he leapt off the security officer. It took a few seconds for Ezra to regain his breath but when he did, he saw Vin scanning the area like a hunter who had just caught the scent of his prey. Even in his presently, debilitated state, Ezra knew what Vin wanted. He had no idea how the Vulcan had found them or had even left the ship for that matter but the look in Vin's eyes made it painfully obvious what had brought him here.

"Alex! Get out of here!"

Alex heard the panic in Ezra's voice and immediately handed a spare phaser to the Jem Hadar warrior next to her and told him to hold position before she went after the security chief. Ezra was in trouble, she thought erroneously as she ran through the jungle, trying to reach him before he went the way of Dylan Pierce. Alex forced away thoughts of Dylan as she hurried to help Ezra. She would have time to mourn him later. Right now, Ezra needed her help. Baser instincts told her she ought to have heeded his advice, but Ezra would never leave without her and she was not about to do the same to him.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, she was thrown to the ground in a full body tackle. Alex let out a short cry of indignation as she landed on hard soil, with the weight of someone's body pressing down on her. During her disorientation, she became conscious of being straddled. Even though her mind was in somewhat of a haze, she could feel the familiarity of his scent and snapped her eyes open to find herself staring in absolute shock at Vin.

"Vin!"

"Alex." He smiled but there was nothing pleasant about it. His eyes were full of burning hunger as his hands roamed over her face, sliding over the suppleness of her skin and then gliding downwards to cup her breasts and knead them gently. "So beautiful." He whispered as he lowered his lips to hers and captured her mouth in a demanding kiss.

Alex felt her head swim as his lips devoured hers, taking from her all it could in a surge of fiery desire. She could feel his hands tugging at her shirt, preparing to tear it off her body when he could not gain access to her flesh. While his touch was pleasant, this was hardly the time or place for such behavior, not to mention the fact he was probably deep in the throes of Pon Farr and could hurt her without even being aware of it.

"Vin," Alex started to push him away. "Stop it."

"No," he muttered, nuzzling the tender flesh of her neck. "You're mine."

"Vin, get off me!" She repeated herself, making a stronger effort to dislodge him.

Vin raised his head and stared at her, eyes blazing with fury.

"YOU'RE MINE!" He hissed, grabbing both her hands and pinning them above her head.

"Vin stop it!" She shouted, becoming more panicked because he was no longer listening to her. His one hand had enough power to keep both her wrists pinned against the dirt.

"I love you Alex," he whispered softly in her ear. "I love you so much."

He was lying on top of her, effectively keeping her trapped against the ground. Alex was still in a state of disbelief, but clarity sliced through her when she felt him fumbling through the narrow gap separating their bodies, his fingers were questing towards the waistband of her pants. Alex tried not to feel her terror spiral out of control because this was Vin, he would never consciously hurt her, she told herself. However, as she looked at his eyes, dark and unseeing, his lips nuzzling into her skin, tasting her, touching her, no matter how many times she had told him to stop, she realized she was beyond reaching him. Her mind flashed back to his quarters where he had told her to get out because he could not control himself. Did he mean this? Alex did have much time to ponder the question because the moment she felt his hand delve deeper into her pants, his fingers brushing lightly against her mound, she knew the Blood Fever had him completely and utterly.

"GET OFF ME!" She snarled and twisted hard, giving herself enough momentum to slam her knee into his ribs and send him sprawling. Alex flipped upright, wasting no time and delivered another kick connecting with his jaw, bringing him down again. As he recovered, she searched frantically for her weapon, knocked out of her hand when he had tackled her earlier. Looking away briefly, she heard his footsteps against the rotting leaves on the ground and turned sharply in time to see him throw himself at her. The power of him knocked them both over and Alex rolled onto her stomach and started crawling away.

A fist locked around her ankle and pulled her back with incredible force. Alex slipped off her hands and hit her head hard against the dirt.

"DON'T YOU RUN AWAY FROM ME!" He roared and for a moment, Alex was too terrified to move, her mind thinking irrationally she was back in that Cardassian prison, about to be mounted by Gul Lemar. The fear was so intense, she was shaking when she felt Vin pull her to him, his hands on her hips. His palms rounded the bone, taking a firm hold of her while she was on her hands and knees.

The memory of what would come next after that snapped her reason like kindling.

"NO! GET AWAY FROM ME!" Alex screamed hysterically, flinging around, her nails bared as she slashed Vin across the face with savage fury. "NOT AGAIN!" She swung her fist around and slammed her knuckles into his jaw. Vin reeled form the unexpected blow, but Alex was too far gone to stop and swung again. "NOT EVER AGAIN!"

He grabbed her hand as she tried to hit him again and shoved her back hard. The rage in his eyes was beyond expression. Vin was staring at her, but he had no idea who she was. Alex scrambled away, preparing to run when suddenly a bolt of energy struck him square in the chest. The blast sent him flying backwards and when he landed he was completely unconscious.

Alex let out a gasp of immense relief and looked up to see Ezra clutching his throat with one hand while holding a disrupter with the other.

"Are you alright?" He asked coming towards her.

Alex threw herself into his arms and actually wept. "God yes! Oh Ezra, he was going to..."

"I know," he stopped her from having to say it. "Alex, it is not Vin's fault, it's the Pon Farr."

"I know," she composed herself and pulled away from him. Turning around, she went to Vin's side. The Vulcan was unconscious and bleeding where her nails had scratched him across the face. When he was like this, he bore no resemblance to the monster that had just tried to rape her a few minutes ago. Her fingers stroked his brow with tears in her eyes because she knew without doubt or hesitation, she loved him, and Vin behaved as he had because he could not stop himself.

"I love you." She whispered, tears ran down her cheeks, splattering against his skin. "I love you Vin and I won't let you die."

There had to be a way out of this. She could not let this happen! She could not let him die. Kneeling next to him, she remembered that shy young man whom Charlotte Richmond had wounded that first day on the Maverick, who had reached into her heart and reminded her she was still capable of caring. She could not lose him. Dylan had slipped away from her without Alex being able to lift a finger to stop it. Alex could not bear letting Vin go the same way. The damn Pon Farr. It was all about biology. It had nothing to do with what he wanted and everything to do with what his body needed. Somehow, there had to be a way that did not involve him violating her like some filthy animal! His rage and violence had to go somewhere! It was as if all that energy needed to be expended one way or another, in not through mating then through violence.

Suddenly, the answer was so clear.

"Alex, we must leave." Ezra came towards her.

"Yes," she nodded slowly as the answer flooded her consciousness with its glimmer of hope. "We have to leave. We have to take Vin back. I know how to stop this."

Ezra stopped short and stared at her. "Excuse me?"

"I know how to stop this," she said as she wiped her tears away and stood up. "I have to die."

Chapter Fourteen: Kaliffee

"Are you out of your mind?" Chris Larabee balked as he stared at Alexandra Styles in the hallway across the door from Holodeck 1.

"With all due respect Captain," Alex returned his gaze with just as much intensity. "Do you have a better idea?"

Chris opened his mouth to answer but found he did not have a better solution than the one she proposed, even though he had serious qualms about whether or not its feasibility was allowable, not to mention sane. However, for the first time since the issue of Pon Farr reared its ugly head among them, Chris had a way out. Unfortunately, it was one he was not happy to take. The Away Team had been transported back to the Maverick for less than twenty minutes and already one of its members was proposing a course of action that would see her in as much danger as she had been on Riga 3. As much as Chris wanted to help Vin Tanner, he remembered the promise he made to the Vulcan before the Pon Farr robbed him of all his sense. He vowed to ensure Vin did not harm Alex in any way. Unfortunately, what Alex was proposing would not only see her placed in harm's way but much more if the situation were left to speed out of control.

"No, but if that's the option we have, then it ought to be me," Chris stated defiantly, desperately seeking for reasons why she should not be the one to undertake this dangerous gamble for Vin's survival.

Alex was already shaking her head.

"Captain," she paused and then considered her next words carefully because she could see the conflict in his eyes and knew this was no easy decision for him. Vin was his best friend and the affection he held for the Vulcan was no less passionate then her own, though different in its manner. "Chris," she started again, "we both know that it can't be you. I am the one he wants to mate with. What I am proposing is a risk in itself, we can't buck the odds further by trying to play it safe. I'm not blind to how dangerous he is at the moment, trust me after what I went through with him on Riga 3, I know exactly what I'm facing but I have to be the one to do it."

"Why can't we use a simulation throughout? You don't have to be in there at all!"

"It won't work if you use a simulation!" Alex declared exasperated, wondering how many debates she would have to endure before he realized there simply was no other way. "He's running almost entirely on instinct. He'll know if it's a simulation by smell alone. It has to be me."

"Alex," Chris hesitated still, not entirely convinced even though the arguments for, were compelling and irrefutable. "He's into the blood fever completely now. He doesn't know you or what you mean to him. If he were to hurt you," Chris did not want to say kill even though they both knew it was what he meant, "he would kill himself when he came to."

Alex nodded, understanding that all too well. "The alternative is to let him die by doing nothing. We can restrain him but eventually, the chemical imbalance will shut his systems down and he'll slip into a coma. All we will be doing is to watch him die slowly, without ever knowing whether or not this could have saved him."

Chris closed his eyes and turned away, struggling with the choice he knew to be the only one he could make. Vin's life over the one thing the Vulcan asked of him, how the hell was he supposed to make a decision between the two like that? Yet Chris knew he had to because he was the Captain and because Vin was his friend. Sometimes to help, one simply had no choice but to break a promise. Taking a moment to himself as he came to the inevitable decision, he faced Alex and saw her fear that he might turn her down. With a flash of insight, he realized she would do this thing even if he refused her.

Just like he would do, if it were Chris is Alex's place.

"Are you sure about this?" Chris asked softly in a tone that indicated he was not asking as her captain but rather as her friend.

"No," she gave him an honest answer because he deserved one. "I'm terrified of facing him in there. I saw what he was like on the planet and there was an instant when all I wanted to do was run away but the only thing that scares me more than doing that, is watching him die." Her voice started to crack but Alex being Alex, composed herself immediately and met his eyes again. "I'll do whatever it takes to keep him alive, Chris. I have to."

Chris had no doubt of that but as much as he wanted Vin to come out of this alive, he knew that conclusion would mean nothing if Alex died in the process of making it happen. "I know that," he nodded, his hand touching her cheek as he spoke. "But you make sure that doesn't mean you let him kill you either. Vin would never want that, and he'd never forgive himself for it."

"I won't let that happen." She said firmly but wished she could be more confident about that statement. In truth, she was frightened to death of facing Vin, but she had no choice. This was the only way she knew how to save his life and if it meant having to face her fears, then so be it for she was not going to let him die because of her lack of courage. "I'm going to make it and so is he."

Chris wished he were as confident as Alex because he certainly did not feel that way. If he obeyed his instincts, he would be going in there instead of her but there were realities he had to face. In less than two hours, Romulan warbirds would reach them. The mission had been successful despite the loss of Dylan Pierce. The Federation and the Romulan government had the proof they needed regarding the experimentation that was taking place on Riga 3, thanks to the Jem Hadar prisoner Ezra and Alex brought back to the ship. Now it was up to Chris to deliver the Dominion citizen out of Romulan airspace back to Federation territory. As much as he loathed admitting it, his place at this time was on the bridge of his ship, bringing the thousand lives depending on him for their survival, safely out of danger.

"I'm holding you to that."

"Thank you, Captain," Alex answered, grateful for his reluctant blessing. "I promise I'll be careful."

"You'll do more than that," Chris retorted sharply. "If it looks for one minute that you can't handle it, I want you out of there Commander, do you hear me?"

Alex could tell the tension in his voice was generated out of worry for her and nodded obediently. "I'll keep that in mind."

Chris swallowed and said softly. "Save him if you can Alex," the hope in his voice was apparent but also the reality. "But save yourself if you can't."

******

Ezra Standish was glad he had not been present when Julia had first been brought into Nathan's Sickbay. If he had seen the extent of the injuries described so prolifically by the doctor, Ezra would not have been certain he would have the disposition to be so forgiving about Vin's part in it. He had been informed about the injuries sustained by the crewmen who was unfortunate enough to be in Vin's path when the Vulcan had made his bid for escape. Fortunately, the dermal regenerator had removed much of the external bruising on Julia's body even though Nathan was not about to release her from his care for at least a few days. Considering the nature of her injuries, Ezra seemed to agree.

"I thought I was the one who was supposed to be injured in this scenario," Ezra said to Julia as he held her hand. She lay on her bed; still somewhat hazy from the sedatives she had been given to take the edge of the pain she was feeling.

"You know me," she gave him a little smile, "always landing myself in trouble."

"That is without doubt," he replied, planting a soft kiss on her knuckles. "I am sorry I was not here to stop this." He glanced at Vin over his shoulder. The Vulcan was not far away from her bed, heavily sedated and held to his own bed by restraints while kept under the watchful eye from the other side of a security force field.

"Don't be silly," she muttered dreamily. "It's not your fault. It's not Vin's either."

Ezra was glad she bore no malice towards the Vulcan because he did not. Vin was one of his best friends and though he felt a little sting of anger at Julia being hurt, he knew that Vin had no control over what he had done. Julia had just been unfortunate enough to be in Vin's path as he was gripped helplessly in the thrall of the Pon Farr. It could have been anyone he attacked, Julia being where she was at the time was merely bad luck.

"I am aware of that." Ezra nodded, assuring her he was not angered by Vin's actions even though he was perfectly justified if he was. "I am afraid, we seem to be at an impasse in Vin's condition. What he almost did to Alex..."

"Is she alright?" Julia asked concerned, raising her head slightly off her pillow before Ezra placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, instructing her not to move.

"She was badly shaken by the incident, added to that the death of her former fianc�," Ezra let out a deep sigh. "I do not envy her position at this time."

"You think her plan won't work?" Julia asked, fully appraised of what Alex intended to do to cure Vin of the Pon Farr once and for all. Like Ezra and Nathan when they had first heard it, Julia was horrified by the idea but could see the logic in Alex's deliberations and the truth was, this was a solution when there had been none before.

"I do not know and as Security Chief, I am reluctant to let her find out the hard way. She should not have to do this in the state Vin is in. At the best of times, he's almost four times stronger than any human is but with the Pon Farr, he would probably be even more formidable. He went through a dozen Romulans without even breaking into a sweat."

"I wish there were something else we can do." She looked over his shoulder at the young man who was her friend and felt her heart shrivel up in worry. "I hate gambling like this."

Ezra started to smile. "Yes, I would prefer the odds to be a little better than they are."

Suddenly, Nathan's com badge trilled softly in the quiet of Sick Bay and the doctor emerged from inside his office where he had withdrawn to give Ezra and Julia some privacy. However, he knew they were waiting with the same anticipation as he was about Chris' decision regarding Alex's plan. He strode to the force field and met the gaze of Ezra and Julia as he touched his combadge.

"Doctor Jackson." He spoke hesitantly.

"Nathan," Chris Larabee's voice filtered through with grim reluctance. "Prep him and have him transported to Holodeck 1."

"Chris, this is crazy." Nathan protested immediately.

"I know that but unless you have an idea of how else to save his life, this is how it got to be." Chris' voice was taut with annoyance and bitterness. Clearly, the captain disliked being forced to make this decision any more than anyone else liked him reaching it.

"No, I don't." Nathan conceded defeat. "Alright, I'll get him ready. I just hope you know what you're doing."

There was a slight pause as they waited for Chris to answer before the captain finally spoke. "I do too," his voice was uncertain and somber. "I do too."

******

Alex finished the last of her preparations inside Holodeck 1 and took refuge behind a simulated tree as she waited for Vin to be transported into its confines with her. She took a deep breath and steadied herself, knowing if she allowed herself to feel fear, she would be destroying all that she was trying to achieve before she had even begun. This was Vin's only way of surviving the Pon Farr and though the risks were great, she knew she could not walk away when there was a chance to save him. She loved him too much to let him die. Strange, how easy it was to say once she finally got over the hurdle of admitting it.

Alexandra Styles loved Vin Tanner.

She had probably fallen head over heels the moment she met him, and it had taken this long to realize it because the demons in her past refused to let her see it until now. Why did she always have to learn the important lessons the hard way? Alex supposed it was in her nature to have difficulty accepting anything that was not hard-won, and Vin was worth winning, she had no doubt of that. What they had was already special. His surviving the Pon Farr to become fully mature would not change that. She did not care what came after this, just as long as they could face it together.

"Alex," Chris' voice spoke through her com badge. "Are you ready?"

"As I'll ever be." She answered taking a deep breath and knew this was never going to be easy, or something she was eager to do no matter how essential it was. Alex knew it would only take her say so for Chris to put an end to this whole idea, no matter how fatal the consequences were to Vin. Unfortunately, she could not and in making that decision, she had to see this through.

"Alright," the captain said reluctantly, doubt oozing from every word he spoke. "We're beaming him in."

Alex immediately turned to the clearing directly in front of her, taking refuge behind the line of trees to watch his arrival. The area surrounding her resembled the section of jungle they were spirited away from previously. Vin would awaken thinking he was still on Riga 3 and Alex wanted to maintain that illusion as much as possible. For this to work, he could not for a minute suspect he was on board the Maverick but more importantly, he could not know he was on the holodeck. In telling herself this, Alex also realized she could not remain where she was either. He needed to be able to see her the moment he awoke so he would connect his brief sojourn as a momentary lapse during their battle. Thanks to the frenzied state his mind was in because of the Pon Farr, he would have difficulty distinguishing anything beyond his own frantic needs.

She was snapped out of her ruminations when she heard the shimmering hum of the transporter in the center of the clearing. Alex swallowed thickly, bracing herself for what would follow. Vin's form appeared a second later. She approached him cautiously, aware he was probably stirring out of his slumber as Nathan would have almost certainly have to had administered something to revive him, after the combination of a disrupter stun blast and the heavy sedation to keep him under once he had returned to the ship. It took a few seconds before the humming ceased and Vin lay on the soft, moist ground before her. Alex studied him carefully; watching the peace of his sleep become disrupted by the coming of lucidity.

The Vulcan opened his deep blue eyes slowly, his brain registering his new surroundings far quicker than his appearance of weakness at the moment. His instincts were predatory in this state, so he knew how to provide an illusion of vulnerability while his hunter's mind assessed his situation. Hopefully, the blood fever had robbed him of reason and logic, replacing it with blind need and instinct. She watched him regain consciousness, observed how his limbs flexed and tested themselves silently as he prepared to attack. Alex took a cautious step back, in case he tried to surprise her.

He did.

Vin rolled abruptly on to his fours and stood up slowly, his eyes focusing on Alex and recognizing immediately she was what he sought. He made no attempt to speak to her, contenting himself with aiming that high-powered stare in her direction as he decided what she was; potential mate or enemy. To Alex, it made little difference what he decided because the choice was not his and as dangerous as it was to provoke him, Alex knew she had to make him come after her. This would not work otherwise. She tried to dispel her fear, knowing that he would pick it up instantly. It was not easy to do when it was very possible he could kill her with barely a second thought until it was all over.

"You want me?" She goaded with a little smile of confidence. It belied how she really felt.

Vin did not answer but he grunted under his breath and it sounded like a growl of affirmation.

"You want to mate with me, Vin?" She continued to tease him, her body poise to run at a moment's notice. "You have to do better than you've been doing."

Even though he did not speak, Alex was certain he understood. His eyes became dark and calculated. Perhaps he did not comprehend the words, but he certainly understood the derision.

"You want me?" She took a step closer to him. "Then you're going to have to fight for me. Come on Vin! Show me what you got!"

Before the words even left her lips, he was barreling towards her. Alex leapt out of the way easily and realized for all his skill at hand to hand combat and he was extremely good, Alex knew from personal experience, the Pon Farr made him rely on brute strength and savagery. She let him slip past her and threw a flying kick into the center of his back that sent him reeling forward. As he landed on his hands and knees in the mud, she heard an indignant snarl of outrage escape him and she knew that if she did not maintain the upper hand, losing her virtue at his hands was going to be the least of her worries. He would tear her apart in sheer rage.

Alex went to kick him again but this time, he recovered quickly and snapped his fist around her ankle. Twisting it viciously, his powerful grip spun her around in mid-air and brought Alex down hard on the ground. She landed on her back and saw him coming at her when she threw her leg up and connected with his groin. Vin let out another angry howl as Alex flipped upright once more and threw a flying kick that slammed into the side of his face. Her strategy was to enrage him enough, so he would lose whatever control he had and come after her with berserker fury. Of course, she also had to keep her distance. He was almost ten times stronger than she was in his present condition and if he manage to hit her, Alex was going to know it. She made no attempt to use her fists, preferring to use well placed kicks that would allow contact but ensure she could make a hasty withdrawal if necessary.

Vin dropped to the ground again and she could tell by the way he was breathing hard, that he was a tidal wave about to come crashing down on her. Alex saw him turn her way sharply and knew instantly she would have to give serious thought to running. Despite her determination to hold firm, Vin's manic glare as he got to his feet, sent shivers of fear through Alex. She swallowed visibly and saw a slow smile form on his face as he realized she was afraid and the triumph he exuded at that victory was enough to provoke her own rage. Acting before thinking, she ran forward to kick him again when he lashed out at lightning speed and grabbed her leg. Instead of twisting, he flung her aside easily, sending her flying like a rag doll before slamming hard against the earth. Her shoulder flared in white-hot agony when Alex landed on it and felt bone slipping out of place in a slick, wet popping sound that almost made her gag.

Reeling from the pain, she did not even see him come up behind her and drag her to her feet by her hair. Alex let out a cry as his fingers pulled at the thick strands of jet and made her face him. He lowered his lips to hers and devoured her mouth with a kiss that was not at all passion or desire but one of power. Wrenching her mouth away from his, she sunk her nails into his face and pull back. Vin screamed in pain and swung a backhanded blow across her cheek. The force of it almost made her black out and Alex felt blood filling her mouth. Her head throbbed painfully, and she opened her eyes just in time to see him coming at her again. Kicking out her foot in a powerful sidekick, she halted his advance briefly, but she was hurt, and he knew it. His next attack was going to wear her down.

Alex had trouble seeing and knew that he was powerful enough to have given her concussion, not to mention a dislocated jaw and shoulder. Her vision was blurring from the pain and when he lunged at her again, she was barely able to side step the attack. He swung again while she was trying to regain her balance and this time; his fist slammed into her stomach and pushed all the air out of her lungs. Alex dropped to her knees, gasping; unable to do much else when he came at her and threw her on the ground. Straddling her, he ripped the top she was wearing, exposing her bare flesh to him. His face became enveloped in an expression of feral need. Alex saw him lowering himself down on her when suddenly; he was yanked firmly away from her.

He snarled furiously and turned around to see Dylan Pierce standing behind him. Vin lunged at his rival who made some attempt to fight him off but could not prevail against the frenzied assault Vin produced in his rage. The operative fought him off bravely, but it did not take long before the Vulcan had the upper hand and he was beating Dylan down in an unparalleled fit of rage. Fist hammered down on human flesh until it became bloodied and broken, until Dylan no longer moved, and the stench of blood filled the air. Vin was covered in it but hardly batted an eye when he caved in Dylan's skull.

When the Vulcan was finished with the operative, he turned around and saw his mate on the ground. She rose to her feet, renewed by the space of time he had taken to kill Dylan and attacked with just as much rage. Vin was struck several times in the sternum. If he had been in his right mind, he would have avoided those blows easily, but he was well into the deepest fires of the Blood Fever and he could see nothing beyond killing her. The mating impulse had withered away now; all that remained was this overwhelming need for blood. He caught her leg and dragged her to him, pummeling her face with blows that reduce her bronzed skin to near pulp. She cried out each time he hit her, but her scream did not register even as he shattered her already dislocated jaw and broke her nose. Her eyes began to puff, and he was certain she could not see him either.

He was covered in her blood and it felt good. The rage took him completely and he knew nothing else as his fists continued to pound against the flesh below him, until all his hands became drenched in blood and there was no more bone left that was not broken or damaged in some way. He continued to strike until the fight drained out of him with a painfully satisfying sensation that swept through him. The fire inside his mind began to burn itself out and for the first time in too long; Vin Tanner began to descend from the darkness he had been drowning for the past two days. It felt good to leave all that rage behind, to finally have some semblance of calm returning to him as who he was began to emerge again.

What he found when he came into the light, however, was another thing entirely.

For a moment, it did not register what he had done. His mind cleared like a fog lifting and when he finally became aware of his surroundings, he was confronted by a vision of blood. His heart stopped inside his chest as he saw her lying before him, broken and bloody. He could not see her face, for what his fists had done to her made that impossible, but Vin knew without any doubt in his horrified mind it was Alex. He knew it from the pit of his stomach and by the numbness that was slowly rising up from his soul like the stench of foul water.

"Alex." The word escaped him softly, like hope dying in his soul.

She did not move.

Trembling, he reached for her and recoiled at the sensation of her blood on his fingers. It left streaks against her skin when he searched for a pulse and found none. Vin started to shake as his fingers bounced lightly over her broken nose, her split lips and her dead eyes. Her oh so dead eyes. His emotions were a dam about to burst as he stared at her and knew with absolute certainty he had killed her. His mind could not cope with that truth and for a moment, he refused to believe he could have harmed so brutally, the one person who meant everything to him. Yet he could not deny the evidence of his eyes even when his heart was crumbling with the paralyzing idea he was responsible for this carnage.

"Alex," he called out, hoping she would answer, hoping she would defy what his eyes told him. He could not have done this! He loved her! She was his friend! The one woman who understood him completely and did not care what he was. Even though she had never said it, Vin knew she loved him. How could he have done this?

"Please wake up." He pleaded in a soft voice. "Please."

She did not.

"Alex." He begged again when the tears started to come. He took her up gently in his arms as if he were afraid to wake her and began sobbing as he cradled her. He felt her blood soaking into his clothes, felt the heat bleeding out of her body and knew that he could beg all he liked but it was too late. He had killed her!

"Don't say I did this. Please wake up!" He cried out in anguish. "Please don't say I did this to you!"

Vin broke down completely as he sobbed in despair, holding her dead body in his arms, knowing that he had done the thing he had most feared when he understood what he had been suffering was the Pon Farr. He should have killed himself first! Killing himself would be preferable then waking up to this nightmare.

"Alex I'm sorry," he managed to say through his tears. "I'm so sorry. I never meant to hurt you. I love you Alex," he whispered into her dark hair, even though she was beyond hearing. "I love you."

A hand touched him on the shoulder.

He stopped crying and turned around. Looking up, he thought for a moment his grief was making him hallucinate, that he had finally gone mad and this time, without the aid of the Pon Farr. If there was one thing that could tip him over the edge like this, it was what he had done to Alex. When he saw her kneeling behind him, her face swollen, her arm hanging at a strange angle and blood running a red line from the corner of her lip, he was almost glad for it.

"Vin." She said softly. "It's alright. I'm fine."

"Alex?" His eyes starting to understand she was real, not the lifeless corpse he was cradling in his arms.

"Computer," she held his blue eyes in her own. "Discontinue program."

The jungle landscape around them evaporated to reveal the black tiles of the holodeck. The body he had been holding in his arms vanished just as quickly, leaving nothing but air in its place. As Vin's ragged nerves struggled to process everything happening around him, Alex leaned forward and embraced him hard, hoping the sensation would convince him of her survival more profoundly than anything else he was seeing.

"I don't understand." He stammered even though his arms wrapped gently around her body. He was confused but could not deny her scent was real, like the warmth in her skin was every indication of life and the heart beating close to his chest, still very much his for the taking. "I didn't hurt you?" He asked, not daring to hope that it could be true. His thoughts and emotions were still in turmoil.

"You didn't hurt anything that wouldn't heal," she said with a smile as she pulled away enough, so he could look in her eyes. "I knew it was the only way to snap you out of it. I remembered Nathan saying the Pon Farr had to run its course, either by mating or combat. This seemed like a good way to do that."

"I could have killed you!" He hissed angrily, not certain whether or not he would have allowed her to take that chance had he been in any position to stop her. "I killed that holodeck simulation, Alex! I could have done the same to you!"

"You didn't kill anyone," Alex took his face in her hands and made Vin look her in the eye. "I would never have done that to you. Don't you know I love you?"

Vin stared back at her, somewhat shocked at hearing it spoken for the first time. He knew she felt that way about him even though it was knowledge in a form he could never explain but hearing the words filled with a great sense of joy.

"You love me?" He asked gingerly.

"I have always loved you." Alex smiled. "I would never have let you harm me because I wouldn't put you through that kind of hell. I arranged to have a simulation of Dylan give me a few seconds to get out of your way when I couldn't keep up with you anymore. Once I hid, I let a holodeck replica take my place. It was the only way Vin; I couldn't let you die. I couldn't stand to be without you."

"If I had hurt you..." He started to say, trying to compose himself but it was too hard. He was so filled with emotion at knowing he had not hurt her and that she loved him, all he could do in response was to pull her to him again in another long embrace.

Alex did not answer, allowing herself to melt into his arms, never realizing how wonderful it felt to have him back again. There was no need to say anything because words beyond this point seemed unnecessary, so they sat there on the floor of the holodeck, holding each other and knowing without ever saying it, neither would ever let go again.

Chapter Fifteen: Completion

It was almost a week before Vin saw Alex again.

He spent the next three days in Sick Bay, being subjected to every possible test Nathan Jackson could think of in order to ensure the Pon Farr had indeed run its course and was not toying with them with a temporary remission. However, the test soon proved conclusively though it was two years early, the Pon Farr had indeed come and gone and Vin would not be subject to the same turbulence for another seven years. Vin was in no hurry to return to duty and Chris granted him a week of furlough to allow the Vulcan time to recover from his ordeal, both mentally and physically. He spent most of that time in his quarters, reluctant to see anyone because he was ashamed of how he behaved not only to Alex but also to Julia whom he harmed when attempting to escape the Maverick.

Chris was his most frequent visitor and the captain explained how he had monitored Alex inside the holodeck during their entire fight and was more than tempted to pull her out of the simulation when he saw her taking some rather crippling blows. Chris assured Vin in no uncertain terms would he have allowed his best friend to harm the woman he loved in his uncertain condition. When Chris Larabee said it, Vin knew it to be the truth. Still, the incident like all the others like it, with Alex, Julia, the security officers and even Chris, left the Vulcan profoundly ashamed of himself even though his friends told him that he had no reason to feel that way. The Pon Farr was not his fault and yet Vin could not deny it had changed him, no matter how much of an ordeal the process had been.

He lay in his bed staring into window, reflecting on the changes in his life and the new sensations that seemed to bombard his senses now the Pon Farr was finished with him. He felt no different than he had before this had all began, with the only notable exception being how he now felt in female company. At the very most, he seemed to notice them more. If he were forced to put a description to it, Vin would simply declare that he noticed how distinctly female they were. It was more than that though. Suddenly how they smelled, how they smiled at him, tossed their hair, spoke and looked, seemed to engender a physical response when before, he had more or less walked blithely by without having any idea there was anything to see at all.

And none of this revealed itself as prolifically as when he was in close proximity to Alex. When they were alone together during those brief exchanges he was desperately in need of her, Vin remembered how intensely he reacted. He had kissed her before but until the Pon Farr, it never had the power to rob him of all coherent thought. Vin had shared her bed on numerous occasions, had lay spooned against her throughout the night and felt nothing more than comfort at being able to share such intimacy with her, never thinking there should be more. He had not been mature enough to question that and Vin was certain it was part of the reason why Alex felt so at ease with him.

Now it was different. Every waking moment was spent thinking about how she felt beneath him, replaying their heated exchanges in his mind, feeling his body yearn in a less frenzied but no less urgent desire to touch her again. In the confines of his room, he pictured how she would taste, how she had moaned his name when he had touched her in all the right places and released a groan of pleasure at the sheer intensity of the memory.

A wave of embarrassment swept over him that he should be thinking of Alex in this manner. Then he remembered what Buck Wilmington had said, that there was not a man alive who did not think about women in this way at some point, no matter how much they may deny it. God how he wanted her. When he was in the midst of the Pon Farr, instinct had guided him.

Now it was pure need.

******

How much time did a man need?

This was a question Alex asked herself repeatedly over the week following Vin's desire for some time alone. She felt a little incensed he chose to isolate himself, especially after she told him she loved him. Alex had expected to help him through this period of adjustment, not be shunted aside and it would be so much simpler if she even knew why but his silence had taken even that away from her. Chris claimed he was ashamed. In fact, the Captain was the only person whose company Vin could tolerate and though that was understandable because Chris was his best friend, Alex could not help feeling a little annoyed after everything that happened between them.

Alex was still trying to understand, tossing and turning in her bed, unable to sleep and debating the situation from a thousand different angles when finally, something inside her snapped and she made the decision she was going to have it out with him once and for all. After everything they had been through in the last few weeks, Alex was not going to be content with anything less than a face to face confrontation. She did not care how late it was; they were going to talk about things even if she had to force him to listen. He had done nothing to be ashamed of. The Pon Farr had not given him any choice in the matter and considering he was even lucky to be alive, Alex saw no reason why he should feel badly. Besides, how many times had he been the only one who could make her see sense when it felt like the entire world was crumbling around her ears?

Too many for Alex to abandon him when he needed her in the same fashion.

Climbing out of her bed, she slipped on her robe and padded out of her quarters. According to the chronometer she glanced at on her way out of her room, Alex knew it was in the small hours of the night. The Maverick operated at some semblance of night and day despite the lack of a sun or moon and at this hour, most of the crew were in their quarters asleep like she ought to have been. There were a few essential departments still functioning no matter what the time, engineering, the bridge crew and stellar cartographers who found charting stellar bodies much more effective when the noise levels in the ship were significantly reduced.

Vin's quarters were on the same deck as hers. Most of the senior staff had their quarters in roughly the same location and she only had to travel down two corridors before she was standing at his door. There was no reason to knock because she knew his access code, just as he knew the one allowing him entry into her quarters. The doors slid soundlessly open after Alex activated the panel. She stepped inside; prepared to deliver the speech she had rehearsed all the way to his quarters when she stopped short instead.

Anything she wanted to say was forgotten at the sight of him in his bed, sweat glistening over his perfect body. For an instant, Alex almost turned around and left but then she really started to see him. She recalled how touching him had felt, how she had begged him to make love to her and knew that it was long past time they explored this particular aspect of their relationship.

Intimacy had never been possible before but now it was here, waiting for her to make a choice. And she did.

Moving forward silently, she let the robe slip silently off her shoulders to pool at the floor. With just as much stealth, Alex pulled off her nightgown and reached his bed, completely naked. Only when she was about to climb into bed with him, did he realize she was there. He stopped what he was doing immediately, his face reddening in horror and embarrassment at being caught in such a humiliating manner.

It was only humiliating if she did not want him as much as he obviously wanted her, Alex thought silently.

"Alex!" He gasped, wishing the bed would open up and swallow him whole until he realized she was naked and not staring at him with derision but with the same want he had felt while he was fantasizing about her.

"It's alright," she whispered huskily as she held a finger to his lips and kept him from speaking any further.

Vin swallowed hard and watched in fascination as she sidled up to him in bed and kissed him tenderly. The heat of her body next to his felt almost as wonderful as her lips against his and in his state, he reacted immediately, his lips parting for her as her tongue snaked passed his teeth. Their mouths fused together in a heated battle for dominance Vin did not mind losing. Suddenly, she pulled away and slid down his neck, marking his skin with kisses all the way down to the collarbone. Vin threw his head back at the sensation, closing his eyes as the pleasure washed over him.

He stared mesmerized as she moved down his chest, pausing long enough to suckle on a nipple and forcing another ecstatic groan from his lips. His fingers snaked through her hair, as he became incoherent by the overload of his senses.

"Alex," he moaned softly. "That's so good."

Vin did not care if he died tomorrow because he had finally known what it was like to feel what this was.

As they made love, it was everything Vin had imagined it would be, from the very first moment he realized this feeling he had for her was not the same feelings of friendship he shared with the other members of the Maverick. After she kissed him, a gesture done to save him from embarrassment, he had wished for this. Now the moment had come and as they basked in each other, exploring each other's flesh, finally satisfying the passion that had been slowly burning them alive since they met, Vin knew this thing wouldn't burn itself out as the Pon Farr had done. They had been lovers in every sense of the word, before tasting each other's flesh and tonight would only cement that reality into forever.

Before they both reached apogee however, Vin pressed his fingers under her cheek, setting into motion the final act of completion between them. Vin wanted them to slip over the edge together and as he concentrated, fighting the impulses of his body as he linked his mind to hers, he could feel how close she was. He could feel her desire for him and her love, it filtered through his mind like a force of nature until their melding became one not only of body but of soul. With that final barrier between them lowered and he was inside her in more ways than one, Vin could no longer hold back. Letting himself go as she had instructed, Vin felt his entire world shatter in an explosion of blinding ecstasy.

Alex felt his tumble head long into the full vent of his orgasm. She felt herself being filled by his warm seed as he came hard inside her. A guttural sound of pleasure and satisfaction escaped Vin as he came crashing down and Alex realized she was not just seeing it on his face but experiencing it with him. Alex could feel everything he did at the moment of his surrender, how he was burning alive with pleasure. She could feel his need to continue pumping into her body, determined to savor every ounce of that soul-crushing eruption of sensuous delight coupled with fire and slick, warm heat.

"Oh, Jesus Christ!" He gasped as he drained himself into her and felt her mind splinter when she succumbed to her own release and gripped him just as surely as he had taken her with him. Vin had never thought the meld between them could mean so much when utilized in this way and knew the physical coupling had been elevated into something extraordinary because of the bond he had now established between them.

"Vin," she muttered dreamily as she started to descend, thoroughly enjoying how it felt when he collapsed on top of her, exhausted and sated at the same time. "That was incredible."

To that, he could not disagree, and Vin lay against of her, completely contented by this feeling of knowing he would never be alone again after this. The meld would ensure he carried her with him in some way. They were bonded now. In every sense of the word, she had become his mate. Perhaps it had not happened as it should have during the Pon Farr, but Vin was Vulcan and like all Vulcans, he did not mate frivolously, no matter what his upbringing might have been. Whatever happened tomorrow, one fact remained irrefutable, their souls were linked now.

"Marry me." He whispered softly as he lay against her, nuzzling against the silky texture of her skin in the afterglow of their incredible lovemaking.

And to her utmost surprise, the possibility that so frightened her days ago, seemed the farthest thing from her mind as she considered the question.

"Yes," she responded with a smile her fingers splayed across his back. "I think I will."

Epilogue: Matrimonial Bliss

There were times when Chris really hated being a starship Captain and then there were other times when it was the privilege he always dreamed it would be.

Fortunately, this was one of those occasions where it was more the latter than it was the former. After the tumultuous two weeks, where they had thought Vin Tanner would not survive the Pon Farr and their incursion into Romulan space, Chris found himself presiding at the one event whose sudden arrival was one he welcomed completely. In retrospect, he supposed it was inevitable things should transpire this way. After all, as much as Vin Tanner appeared and behaved outwardly human, he was nevertheless a Vulcan and there were some things about him that no amount of distance or upbringing could change. The Pon Farr had been one of these absolutes, the other was the fact that Vulcans took their mating seriously and the only possible conclusion following his selection of a mate was the ceremony to make it legally binding.

In truth, as far as Vulcan law was concerned, the ceremony itself was just a formality. The moment Vin and Alex consummated their relationship in a physical sense, they were married. Under normal circumstances, Chris would have had serious reservations about encouraging Vin to enter a matrimonial state so soon after his sexual awakening, but Mary explained that once bonded to Alex, Vin was emotionally tethered to her permanently. It was a bond that would last all their lives or until one half of the connection was severed through death. With that assurance and what he knew of Vulcan marriages, Chris decided Vin was an adult who knew his own mind and the only thing Chris ought to be doing for his best friend was to support his choice.

The rest of the senior staff viewed the coming nuptials in more or less the same way, feeling grateful Vin was still among them while at the same time showing their solidarity by getting into the spirit of the coming event. Buck Wilmington, known far and wide for his wild bachelor parties that heightened the bar for tasteless debauchery, gave Vin a lively send-off, complete with Orion slave girls and Romulan ale in scandalous amounts. As he recalled the revelry of the evening, Chris felt profoundly grateful that modern medicine had found a way to kill the devastating effects of a hangover. If not, he doubted he would be in any state to stand upright, let alone marry anyone.

Alex and Vin had opted to keep the actual ceremony limited to a select few guests although there was no stopping Inez from throwing them a reception in Four Corners, which was an open invitation to all members of the crew. Vin seemed a little embarrassed by all the attention while Alex took it as she took most things, with calm deliberation. Considering she was human and that this proposal had come upon her abruptly, she was rather at ease with the whole situation. Chris suspected it had much to do with the fact she knew her mind and her heart when it came to Vin and everything else beyond that was incidental. As for Vin, Chris had never seen him happier and that kind of joy made him the envy of every man on the ship, Chris included.

In the meantime, the mission to Riga 3, despite the loss of Dylan Pierce, was still considered a success. The Jem Hadar's testimony had given the Romulan High Council the proof it needed to purge the Tal Shiar for its part in conducting unlawful experimentation on the citizens of a foreign power, following the Treaty of Cardassia. Starfleet Headquarters informed Chris that Romulan officials arrived on Riga 3 to find the facility abandoned by its chief researcher, Sub-Commander Lorral who had taken a shuttle out of Romulan territory shortly before their arrival. She was reported to have set course for Breen space.

It appeared that Lorral had been acting on her own despite her Tal Shiar membership and though most of the higher echelon members of that organization denied knowing anything about Riga 3, the Romulan Praetor was not about to let such ignorance stand in the way of their punishment. The Jem Hadar warrior was promptly returned to Deep Space Nine where Colonel Kira authorized his immediate repatriation to Dominion space. Thanks to the innovations of DS9's chief surgeon, Julian Bashir, the warrior was able to stave off the effects of withdrawal until his return, since the station lacked samples of Ketracel White to feed his addiction.

Soft music interrupted his thoughts and Chris looked up to see Alex and Josiah entering the Holodeck through the archway. The setting was a representation of Vin's ranch home in Texas, with the sunburnt aroma of dry grass in the air and the hot sun blazed down on them. It was an idyllic venue of blue skies, open spaces and rugged landscape very much in keeping with the personality of the bride and groom, Chris thought to himself. The entire senior staff was present with some notable inclusions, being Casey Wells, Audrey King, Lieutenant Katovit, the holographic android Bishop, Transporter Chief Rain, Assistant Chief Engineer Chanu and his date Claire Moseley and of course Inez Recillos.

All who needed to be were in full dress uniform, although the bride herself was dressed simply in a cream satin gown with scalloped neckline and long sleeves that hung just beneath the curve of her shoulders. Her hair was worn up, held in place with delicate white flowers. The groom, however, seemed uncomfortable in formal clothing, trying to restrain himself from pulling at the uncomfortable collar while Ezra, his best man, was a perfect contrast of dapper calm. It was the usual reaction of the young Vulcan every time he was forced into his 'dress blues' as he called it but succumbed to the tradition on this day because it was an important occasion and certainly warranted the suffering.

Chris sought Mary out in the faces before him and gave the maid of honor a little smile when he finally found her. Mary looked just as breathtaking in and at times, like this he appreciated how lucky he was to have her in his life. She was wearing one of those figure-hugging dresses he always liked so much, and gloriously golden hair was worn loose, capturing the light from the simulated sun from above. Chris wondered if she had any idea how lovely she looked and made a note to tell her when they had a private moment alone.

Almost as if she knew what was in his mind, the protocol officer returned his smile with one of her own as she held Billy's hand in hers. The boy looked fascinated by the proceedings and noted the warmth exchange between his mother and the Captain. Chris shifted his gaze to Billy and winked at the child, bringing forth a smile almost as pleasing as his mother's. Mary ruffled Billy's hair and blew Chris a silent kiss before she returned her gaze to the proceedings. Alex continued her journey up the aisle at Josiah's arm and the Counsellor looked completely at ease next to his radiant companion. As they made their way through the guests, Josiah leaned over and whispered something in Alex's ear that brought a smile to her face as she cast a furtive glance in Buck Wilmington's direction.

Obviously, Buck and Josiah practical joke feud was not entirely ended.

Chris was uncertain what was being said but guessed it almost had entirely to do with where Alex's garter would land when she finally threw it. Buck stated most firmly that he was not giving up his bachelorhood for anything and thus unwittingly threw down the gauntlet as far as the subject was concerned. Chris shunted the thought aside, certain they would be seeing the fruit of Alex and Josiah's discussion later on, at Buck's expense. Instead, he cast his eyes to Vin who was trying hard to suppress a happy grin at the arrival of his future wife.

Taking a chance to speak to Vin before the ceremony got underway, Chris leaned over and whispered softly. "You're ready for this?"

"Yeah," Vin nodded with a smile. After everything he had been through the last two weeks, this was one decision Vin had absolute confidence in making. However, he appreciated Chris's reasons for asking. He knew that a lengthy engagement was probably a wise thing to do but he felt no need to wait. His feelings for Alex would not change in a month or a year and as she glided down the aisle, her eyes fixed on him with real pleasure, he knew it would make little difference to Alex as well.

"I reckon I am." He replied letting out a deep breath.

Chris gave Vin a long look and realized he did know what he was doing and that was all the confirmation Chris needed to proceed with his conscience clear. The Captain patted his shoulder and nodded with a smile of acknowledgement, "I reckon you are too."

"I should hope so," Ezra interjected, unable to resist interrupting the moment with his sardonic humor. "Considering your bride is ten feet away from the altar." The security chief quipped. "Although if you like, I am certain I can think of something if you choose to make a run for it."

Vin shook his head and turned to Ezra. "I suggest you watch your own ass, Ezra," Vin retorted, capable of giving as good as he got. "After all you just had to buy Julia a cat. How far do you think you are from where I'm standing right now?"

Ezra's eyes widened at the dawning possibility and glanced quickly over his shoulder at Julia. The Chief Engineer was sitting next to Nathan and JD, beaming happily at Alex and seeming just a little too affected by the event for Ezra's comfort. "That is not funny." He said clearly worried.

"The hell it isn't," Chris laughed, not about to let Ezra get away with it. "Pretty damn funny but then you don't have any commitment issues do you, Ezra or should I get Casey to start picking out another wedding gift?" The captain's eyes gleamed with evil amusement.

"I suppose when I get to your age, I shall have some minion spare me the trouble of that chore as well." Ezra returned smugly.

"Hey guys," Alex broke in as she approached, having heard most of the conversation. "Do you think you could put this remarkable show of maturity aside until after my wedding?"

"Your wedding?" Vin stared at her.

"My wedding," she repeated as she took her position next to him. "It's going to be perfect and romantic and if any of you men ruin it with your juvenile behavior, I will kick the crap out of all of you." She said sweetly, winking at Vin with mischief.

Chris stifled a laugh as Alex smiled in his direction while Ezra leaned over to Vin and remarked with complete sympathy. "Welcome to wedded bliss."

THE END

Next story: Planet Fall

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