The Gifting

By Jade East (
© April 2008
Pairings: J/C
Rating: K+
Series: Star Trek: Voyager

Warning of sorts: This story has lots of romance. And of course, part of that romance is J/C in nature, but I have introduced original characters who have their own love story. I have been told by one of my betas that the J/C isn't as prominent as she would like and that I should give a warning. Consider yourselves warned. I hope you will give the story a chance.

Voyager and the characters belong to Paramount. I am just borrowing them for fun.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Jemima, 50 of 47, and Heartwings for your betas. Any remaining mistakes remaining are mine alone.

While the soothing lullaby of the night birds in the cinka tree outside her window made her eyes grow heavy with sleep, Vylisa Rosnet pushed aside her tiredness so she could reread her last journal entry. Something within urged her to be sure the diary was just right.

My mother always told me that I should be patient about the timing of my gifting. She often said that no amount of wishing or imagining could rush its arrival. However, no matter what I do, I can't help wanting and hoping it will come to me soon.

As I watched my parents again today and saw the wonder of the gift in their lives, I thought I'd burst for the wanting of it. I'm old enough, that much I know. I have passed my twentieth solar rotation. Being the oldest child, I don't have the first hand experience that would come from watching the gifting in one of my sisters. Nevertheless, I'm rarely envious of my friends who have older sisters. I'll be the first of my siblings to receive, as my mother and her mother before her had been. It's a special honor and one I'm happy to be a party to.

Mother loves to recount to the family the story of her gifting. It was wondrous and mysterious. Just after the empathetic gift came to her, she found an old man who was seriously injured at the side of the road. Although she was frightened and nervous about helping him, she told me that she couldn't turn her back on someone so obviously in need.

As she nursed his wounds, she found out that his cuts and bruises were nothing compared to his broken heart. He had lived with his family in a remote area of the mountains. His wife's gift had made them happy for a very long time. Even the fact they had only one child during their time together didn't dull their joy.

Their daughter had been gifted quite young and soon after found her life mate. They lived close by and had many children to warm their parents' hearts and those of the grandparents.

Tragedy struck during a storm. Their daughter and her mate and all but one of the children drowned when they were caught on a mountain lake during the bad turn of the weather. The sole survivor was a little boy. No one is sure how he managed to get to shore or be discovered before the elements could finish the job the storm started.

The old man and his mate raised the boy as their own child. The boy grew strong and tall, making them proud and easing the pain of their loss. When the boy, as a young man, found a lovely gifted mate, there was great joy in the old couple's home.

Finally the years claimed the old man's mate. Because of the grief he carried after the feast celebrating her life, he didn't exercise his usual alertness when he walked home instead of driving. Robbers waylaid him and beat him, leaving him for dead.

My mother's gift helped to heal his physical wounds and especially those of his soul. When she took the old man to a healer, she found the one who was to be my father as well, the one who would take her surname as his own. My father was that healer.

I can only try to do as my mother says and be patient and ready to do what I must when the gifting does come.

Closing her journal, Vylisa sighed. Patience had never been her strength. However, she understood the wise Gifter knew best when it came to the timing of the gifting.

Vylisa yawned again as she put the small diary back into its hiding place. She knew that it might be quicker to use a computer interface tablet, but like her grandmother and her mother before her, she favored the ancient paper and pen for her diary.

Setting aside the writing implement, Vylisa chided herself. She must get her rest. In the morning she would assist Chancellor Nasus Llireh at the greeting ceremony. Vylisa's apprenticeship at the embassy's cultural center was nearly finished, but this assignment would be the test of everything she'd learned in the past four years of training and study.

At breakfast, Vylisa's family asked her about the group of visitors rumored to be arriving midmorning. These people weren't the usual passersby. Vylisa explained the starship Voyager and its crew were coming to trade and to enjoy some rest while on Netcket. They claimed to have traveled a distance. When she told her parents how far they asserted even her brilliant father couldn't comprehend it. The visitors maintained they were from a part of the galaxy so far away that without a miracle they wouldn't reach it until they traveled thirty more years. Her family enjoyed a lively discussion as to the likelihood of the visitors' story being true.

As soon as she finished her meal, Vylisa hurried along the tree-lined street to the visitor's center. She didn't want to be late for such an important assignment. She patted her hair to make sure that the thick braid had not come loose from around her head. Her coppery-gold hair wasn't comfortable in the formal style of a maiden, but she needed to look her best. Her mother had given her advice as to what to wear as well, helping her decide upon a turquoise tunic and long black skirt. Everything must be perfect.

Once inside the cultural center, she slipped into her cubicle. Intense nervousness dried her mouth and moistened her palms. Vylisa wiped her hands on her skirt as she searched through the small cupboard next to her desk for a bottle of water. When she found the drink, she popped it open and downed half its contents. The liquid eased her parched tongue.

*I'm not sure I can do this. Help me, great Gifter.* As Vylisa lifted the brief prayer, her anxiety calmed.

Checking the time, she hurried from her cubicle toward the greeting area. The transporter pad was raised half a meter higher than the rest of the floor. Vylisa wondered what it would be like to transport to one of the docks in the space station above the planet or even to one of the many visiting ships that orbited Netcket. She sighed and then smiled. *As soon as I'm gifted, I'll have permission to do so.*

Vylisa spied the chancellor speaking to one of the attendants. She couldn't help but grin. For the very first time, she would stand at Llireh's right hand and give the traditional words of greeting. The younger students would stand in the back as she had so many times within that last four years, serving and speaking only when given permission.

"May the Gifter grant you a peaceful day, Chancellor Llireh." Vylisa bowed over her clasped hands, fighting all the time to keep her face solemn. It wouldn't do to grin like a child at any point in the ceremony.

"Ah, Ambassador Rosnet, you are prompt." She returned the gesture of greeting. Her eyes twinkled as if she knew how Vylisa held in her emotions. "This day promises to be an exciting one. Our guests will arrive shortly."

Llireh consulted her notes before she said, "I've been meeting privately with Ambassador Neelix from the Starship Voyager. The formal introductions and negotiations are important to both our people and theirs. We will welcome Captain Kathryn Janeway and Commander Chakotay as well as Mr. Neelix."

She handed Vylisa a list. "This is the information that you will need while you are working with the captain and commander, plus some of the cultural norms for their species. The ambassador and I will finish the trade agreement while you work out the details of their crew's time on Netcket. You have enough time to read it over before they arrive."

Vylisa's heart raced madly in her chest. The chancellor had called her ambassador, leaving off the title "apprentice" she'd always used before. It was as if her superior wanted to remind but also encourage Vylisa as to the enormity of her present, and hopefully, last task as a trainee.

More determined than ever to succeed and to serve the visitors, she began to read the brief but thorough file in her hand. As Vylisa scanned the history of the voyagers, she couldn't help but feel a touch of sorrow. These people had been lost for almost seven years in a different part of the galaxy. It must be difficult to be separated from family and friends for such a long time with little hope of getting home in their life time.

As she finished reading, she lifted a silent prayer for these travelers. Suddenly, Vylisa felt chilled as if one of the cold mists of winter encompassed her, but unlike those freezing vapors, this sensation started on the inside and moved outward to her fingers and toes.

The feeling frightened her. Was she falling ill? Would she have to explain to the chancellor that she couldn't fulfill this assignment after all? Quickly, Vylisa took a mental inventory of her body. Aside from the unusual chill, she felt fine. In fact, more than that, she felt invigorated.

Before she could figure out what was happening, the chancellor signaled her to join her in front of the visitors' circle near the transport platform. Within seconds, sparkling beams appeared, and three people materialized in front of them.

Vylisa watched the small, auburn-haired woman as she and the others made their way down from the platform to the visitors' circle. The petite captain caught her eye and smiled briefly.

Suddenly the chill she'd experienced earlier gave way to a flood of warmth so sweet and tranquil that she wanted to close her eyes and let it flow through her. She fought to keep her focus on the greeting she would need to give in a few seconds. As she forced her mind to concentrate on the captain and her companions, time seemed to slow and a myriad of foreign emotions assaulted her. Grasping for just one was like trying to catch the fluffy cinka seeds as the wind carried them away.

Just as Vylisa began to despair for her sanity, the cacophony of feelings quieted. She could examine each emotion and understood where they originated. The realization sang out to her as the strongest sensation -- one of love, a self-sacrificing, self-denying, wholehearted love -- hung close and heavy. The gifting, it had come to her. No other explanation made sense.

*Praise the Gifter.* Her heart rejoiced as Vylisa took in the knowledge that threatened to overwhelm her. *I need help. Please aid your servant.* She prayed fervently. It became obvious to her that she was to assist the visitors in more than an official capacity.

In a smooth transition, time sped back to normal, and the many bombarding emotions became even more manageable. Within seconds the visitors were standing in the circle, and Vylisa bowed over her hands, reciting the formal greeting. "Welcome to Netcket, may the Gifter grant you a peaceful and restful stay. We are honored by your presence. I am Vylisa Rosnet, senior apprentice to Chancellor Nasus Llireh." She nodded toward her superior as she introduced her. "I will be your guide and servant during your visit here."

The three from Voyager folded their hands and dipped their heads. The captain spoke, "Thank you for your welcome. Mr. Neelix has told me how helpful the chancellor has been. I'm Kathryn Janeway, Captain of the Federation Starship Voyager. I'd like to introduce my first officer, Commander Chakotay and our Ambassador Neelix"

"I am happy to meet you. Mr. Neelix informed Chancellor Llireh of your custom of shaking hands in greeting. If I may be so bold?" Vylisa offered her right hand to Captain Janeway.

Kathryn smiled as she shook the younger woman's hand. Next Chakotay moved forward to accept the earth greeting from Vylisa. After the introductions and a short tour of the embassy, Chancellor Llireh and Neelix left to continue the trade negotiations.

As she guided them to the room that was prepared for their discussion, Vylisa sensed both of the officers relax. She didn't look back at the couple but sensed that the first officer anticipated with eagerness having some less formal time alone with his captain. This Janeway, on the other hand, wouldn't allow herself to entertain feelings about him. Concerns for her ship and the business at hand were foremost in her mind.

The reception room was simply appointed but at the same time comfortable and inviting. Soft blue couches lined the two walls on either side of the corner fireplace. Refreshments of all sorts sat in the stasis cupboard. Both hot and cold beverage containers and plates of delicious pastries and fresh fruit occupied the center of the conference table.

"Please be seated, Captain, Commander," Vylisa motioned toward the table. "Mr. Neelix gave us your preferences for drinks, including the formula for your coffee so that we could reproduce it for you. I'm rather interested to try it myself, if you don't mind."

"I have no objections to you sharing the coffee, but you might not like it black as I do. Commander Chakotay usually likes his sweetened." Kathryn sat at the table and Chakotay took the seat to her left.

Vylisa addressed Chakotay as she sat across from them. "We also have tea. Please help yourselves as we have a wide variety of our choicest foods for you. Our discussions will take some time," she said with a smile.

As everyone filled their cups and plates, Vylisa tuned into the emotions flowing around her. She exercised greater control of what she could experience each time she tried. An entire array of sentiments floated upon her inner awareness. Some of them were ordinary ones such as the enjoyment of the food and drink or appreciation of the décor of the room. Others were strong, like the loyalty and devotion the two voyagers had for each other. However, the sharpest and most passionate ones -- the love and the need to keep it hidden -- were easier to observe in the commander than in the captain. She seemed to have more strength to hide her feelings than one would expect in an alien female.

She wondered about their relationship. Nothing in the information she received spoke of more than a working affiliation, but something deeper simmered below the surface.

Vylisa wondered if this was normal for the humans or unique to these two. Sighing inwardly, she wished she could ask her mother's advice. No, she would have to find out more about these people first if she was to help them. Maybe the longing she sensed between them was forbidden in their culture.

"I've looked over the list of attractions and accommodations on your planet that was provided. My crew put in their requests. I brought that information with me." Captain Janeway handed Vylisa a CI (computer interface) tablet before pouring herself another cup of the dark brew -- her pleasure in the drink warmed Vylisa as much as the coffee itself. "This is wonderful. Your replicators do a great job."

Vylisa slipped the device into a slot on the table as she took another sip and grimaced. "I'm glad to hear it because I don't think I like it very much."

Kathryn and Chakotay laughed and shared a smile that was full of feeling, likely a shared memory with meaning for them both.

Glad that her gift was empathic and not telepathic, Vylisa found the list the captain mentioned from the files. Separating others' feelings from her own was difficult enough without knowing the exact thoughts that accompanied them.

Tapping a few buttons on the table near her, Vylisa brought up the information from the CI tablet to inlaid screens on the surface. "We will be able to discuss and change items as needed this way."

As the time passed, Vylisa noticed the captain lose interest the subject. It was obvious that this woman didn't often engage in the details of crew vacation assignments. "Captain Janeway, would you like to take a break? We have been working for a quite a while now."

"I was wondering if you and the commander could continue with this so that I could go back to the ship for a while," Kathryn Janeway responded.

Vylisa hid the shock she felt. Rarely did a woman on Netcket leave a job once she started it, especially one of such diplomatic importance. She sensed that the captain's eagerness to go back to the ship had more to do with the strain of keeping her feelings for the commander at bay than boredom or a need for her to be back on Voyager.

Pausing first to contemplate the matter, Vylisa decided to risk honesty. "I must tell you that it is highly irregular for a woman of your high leadership stature to leave an important task such as this to a man unless he is her mate."

Vylisa paused as she both saw and felt the surprise and embarrassment her words had wrought. "I am so sorry. As your servant, I was wrong to speak my mind. I will be happy to work with Commander Chakotay to complete the roster."

"No, I'm glad you spoke up." Kathryn waved her hand in dismissal. "I'll just take a short break to contact the ship." She stood and walked to the door, turning to smile before she left the room.

Slumping back against her chair, Vylisa wished she could hide. Her job was to help her visitors, not embarrass or manage them. What would the chancellor think when she found out what happened?

"Ambassador Rosnet." Chakotay's gentle voice brought her out of her self-incriminations. "Please don't feel bad about what just happened. Kathryn, Captain Janeway, isn't usually so involved with crew R and R assignments as I am. She doesn't relax much either."

"R and R?" Vylisa asked.

"Rest and Relaxation -- term we use for what we have been planning today," Chakotay explained.

She didn't know how to proceed. It might be easier to finish the assigned task without the captain, but Vylisa knew she had a more important job to do. Opening the door in her mind to observe the commander's feelings showed her that he was concerned about his captain's well-being. "You are concerned that your Kathryn works too hard?"

"It's that obvious, huh?" He chuckled as he shook his head. "She has always worked too hard. A captain has to be a little more work-intense, but Kathryn finds it difficult to let go because she feels responsible for our being here in the Delta Quadrant."

The more Vylisa learned about these visitors the more she was intrigued and astonished. "Alpha Quadrant women allow their men to do less work than they do?"

Chakotay grinned as he answered, "I forgot that your society is matriarchal in nature. It must be hard to understand that it isn't always that way in other cultures. Women on Earth strove for equality with men for centuries. We have, for the most part, achieved that goal."

Vylisa opened her mouth to ask another question when Captain Janeway returned, relief and satisfaction bubbling to the top of her emotions.

"You found everything going well, Captain?" Vylisa asked and she poured Kathryn another cup of coffee.

"Yes," Kathryn answered. "And thank you." She sipped the coffee appreciatively.

Before Vylisa could answer, the door opened to admit Chancellor Llireh and Neelix.

"It is nearly time for the midday meal, so Mr. Neelix and I thought we would come to invite you to the main dining room. Our chefs have worked hard to create food to impress Neelix, knowing what a gourmet cook he is. However, in the process, they have produced enough for a village. Please join us, all of you?" Chancellor Llireh's voice was warm and welcoming as she gestured back toward the door.

Good humor and affection for the small, spotted ambassador floated into Vylisa's consciousness from both of her charges. The part about Neelix's cooking skills had both of them fighting bubbling mirth from spilling forth. She hid her own smile as she chuckled to herself while allowing everyone to precede her out of the room.

When they arrived in the dining hall, the five of them were seated at a table near the large windows overlooking the plaza in front of the embassy. A lush garden surrounded the fountain in the middle of the square. Diplomats and ordinary citizens milled about enjoying the bright, warm weather.

The servers arrived immediately, carrying trays laden with a tantalizing array of food. By the time, their plates were filled and everyone began to eat, Vylisa could sense that the chefs had been successful in their culinary efforts.

"This is delicious," Captain Janeway enthused.

Both the commander and Neelix echoed the captain's sentiments. In fact, the Talaxian was so eager to interview the kitchen staff to add their recipes to his collection that he asked to meet the cooks.

As server led the small man out of the room, an odd sound came from the plaza. A crowd of eight or nine people stood directly in front of their window, chanting and beating thick sticks together.

Chancellor Llireh's face reddened. "Not again." She signaled one of the first year apprentices to her side. "Call the officers to see if they have the proper permits."

The young girl bowed and quickly left the room.

"I'm sorry you had to witness this," Llireh sighed. "These are part of a small isolationist group on Netcket who think that we shouldn't allow visitors to our planet."

"Do they protest peacefully?" Janeway's concern was evident to Vylisa.

"They're merely a noisy nuisance, and nearly always have the permits needed. I'm rather upset that I wasn't made aware of their plans for today. I'm not sure how they were able to get the proper approval without my office being advised."

The chancellor rose to meet the returning apprentice.

"They applied first thing this morning." She glanced quickly out the window. "Yniij Nodnol and her son-in-law Mot are listed as the co-applicants."

The noise outside grew louder as the group raised their voices and moved even closer to the window.

"Please," Llireh commanded. "Let us return to the conference rooms since we have finished our meal." She turned to Ryma. "Have the officer check the noise level. I think it is above the standard permit level."

Back in the room, Captain Janeway began to pace. Vylisa felt her worry about her crew's safety grow.

Llireh nodded to Vylisa, giving her the signal to handle the situation. Pushing aside her own nervousness, she said gently, "Captain, please sit down and I will tell you about this group. I'm sure we can lay your concerns to rest."

For a few seconds, the captain fought an inner battle, but she finally sat down.

Commander Chakotay had already poured Captain Janeway a cup of coffee, and he handed it to her as she took her place. She smiled her thanks and patted his arm before she drank deeply from the dark, bitter brew.

Vylisa paused to wonder if the commander was one of the rare, gifted males. He seemed to know just the right thing to do and when to do it. Could they secretly be mates? Her father was like that with her mother. It was more likely that his love for Janeway made him in tune with her needs.

Leaning over the table, Vylisa began. "Yniij Nodnol has been a widow for a long time. Her mate died within the first year of their bonding. She was expecting when the accident happened that took his life. The baby girl, Ennah was born early, only days after her father was buried.

"The child became her mother's only reason for living. Spoiled and undisciplined, the child grew to think only of her own wishes. Shortly before her bonding ceremony, she visited the orbital station.

"Ennah disappeared for two months. When she came back, she was pregnant and not in her right mind. From what Mot, her promised mate could find out, she left with an alien visitor for a time. Some said she left willingly while others that she was kidnapped.

"Despite her mental condition, both Mot and Yniij wanted the bonding ceremony to proceed. Ennah seemed to be better for a while after the ritual, but the pregnancy was difficult for her. She gave birth early and didn't survive; however, the baby lived.

"Mot refused to raise the child, so his own parents took her in. The little girl is probably better off with her paternal grandparents anyway. Although all of the genetic testing has proven that she is Mot's child, he insists that she is an alien half-breed. He seemed more willing to believe Ennah been involved with an alien than to admit that they hadn't waited for their bonding ceremony for intimacy.

Vylisa paused to take a drink of water. The strong waves of compassion for the child came from both the visitors sitting across from her. After setting the glass down, she continued, "Mot and Yniij were adamant that the authorities seek out the visitor responsible, but no one knew who he was or if he had, in fact, actually forced her to her accompany him. When they didn't get satisfaction in that way, they organized this isolationist group. They have few followers, no more than a few hundred on the entire planet. However, they do cause embarrassment from time to time, like today."

Chancellor Llireh spoke for the first time. "They have always been peaceful and non-threatening. You don't have to worry about any problems with them, other than some noise in a few public places like this."

The room became quiet as the captain pondered the story. Vylisa could feel most of Janeway's worries fade as she considered the chancellor's reassurances.

Lifting her coffee cup to her lips, Kathryn replied, "I would like to try to keep our schedule private. Is that possible?"

"We will certainly work to keep it from becoming public knowledge," Llireh agreed. "Our people aren't fond of the disruptions the isolationists cause, so they will be naturally reluctant to share anything pertaining to your visit anyway. I will see to it that your schedule is kept from the public as much as possible."

The chancellor stood. "As soon as you and the commander decide your itinerary, I would like to know. Several of our dignitaries have expressed a wish to entertain you while you are here. It will help me to organize the schedule if I know where you will be during your stay."

"I will be happy to send you the agenda when we are finished." She smiled kindly. "We will likely be among the last group to spend time on your planet. That should give you time for everything."

Llireh's face paled. She sputtered undiplomatically, "I hope you are joking."

Both the captain and commander looked up in confusion. Janeway responded, "No, I'm serious. I seldom take my leave before the rest of the crew."

Glancing quickly at Llireh for permission, Vylisa explained, "Captain, I thought that you understood that as the leader of the visitors from your ship, you are required to stay on the planet. Our people would feel insulted if you weren't interested enough in our home and culture to experience as much as possible in the time your ship is in orbit."

Vylisa felt the overwhelming need to drink coffee, and she poured herself a cup. As she slipped the hot liquid for the second time in the day, the bitterness was suddenly appealing and oddly comforting as she savored the first swallows.

She wasn't surprised when she saw Kathryn mirroring her actions. Vylisa experienced a deeper connection with her charges than before. A flood of confusing emotions washed over her again. How could she help them understand the importance of them staying? *Oh loving Gifter, I am at a loss.*

"Let me understand this." Chakotay's soothing voice broke the silence. "You have rules about the captains of alien vessels that require them to stay planet-side while their crew is on leave?"

"Yes, in the case of a woman captain," Llireh interjected. "And the isolationists would use your absence as a weapon against our trade with off-world visitors. I'm sorry, Captain Janeway, that we didn't make this clear before."

Janeway sighed, resignation primary in her feelings. "I would like to have a place where I could maintain contact with my ship."

This time Vylisa answered, "We can arrange that here at the embassy, however, it will be important for the two of you to make an outing each day, for appearances sake."

"We can do that."

"Excellent!" Llireh enthused. "I will go find Mr. Neelix while you finish the details with Vylisa." She bowed out of the room.

The rest of the day was spent working out the details, especially now that the command team was staying on Netcket for the entire shore leave. However, Captain Janeway found the list of accommodations either too far away from the temporary command post or already reserved at least part of the time.

Feelings of frustration and weariness settled upon Vylisa from both Kathryn and Chakotay. She closed off her awareness of their emotions while she pondered a solution. Finally an idea formed in her mind. She would, however, have talk to the chancellor and contact her mother.

"If you will excuse me, I think I have a solution, but I'll have to make some inquiries first." She glanced at the captain who nodded. "I won't be too long. Help yourselves to the refreshments."

Vylisa left room and hurried to her cubicle, checking first that she would have privacy. She contacted her home. "How has your day gone?" she asked as soon as her mother's image came on the screen.

"What a pleasant surprise!" The warmth of her mother's affection blessed her. Her new gifting enhanced the already close bond between them. "Your father and I have been busy today. Our latest patients checked out, so we had our usual farewell party."

Her mother paused and looked closely at Vylisa for the first time. "Something has happened." She gasped, "Oh my dear daughter, you've received your gifting!" Her eyes filled with joyous tears.

Blinking back her own tears, Vylisa nodded. "Please talk to the Gifter on my behalf. I feel inadequate."

"I remember the feeling, dear heart. Your father and I will speak to the Gifter for you."

"I want to ask you another favor." Her mother's smile encouraged her to go on. "The visitors I'm working with need a comfortable place to stay while they are here. None of the available accommodations are suitable. I would like them to stay with us. I knew our spare rooms would be empty again."

"That's a wonderful idea. I will see to it that everything is ready from them as soon as we are finished here. Is there anything special I should have ready for them?" she asked.

"If they accept the invitation, I will send the formula for the captain's favorite beverage. It is called coffee. She loves the bitter stuff and I am acquiring a taste for it myself." Vylisa chuckled. Making arrangements to get back to her mother with all the details as soon as she was able, they signed off.

Next Vylisa found that the chancellor was still in her office and available to see her.

"Come Vylisa," Llireh answered her knock. "What brings you here? Where are our guests?"

"Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay are still in the conference room. We have nearly all of the scheduling finished. There was one problem, but I think I have worked that out."

As Vylisa explained, Llireh began to smile. It was apparent that the chancellor was pleased with the plans Vylisa had made for the visitors' stay.

"I know one thing that our guests will want to do before they settle in," Vylisa paused for a moment. The chancellor didn't know of her gifting. How did one bring such a special subject up without seeming to boast? "They will need their things from the ship. I believe I should accompany them, so that no gossip will arise from their going back. As an ambassador and their guide, I am fully entitled to a tour of Voyager."

The chancellor opened her mouth to object when the complete meaning of Vylisa's statement hit her. She held back a grin as she clasped her hands in front of her and bowed over them. "May I congratulate you on your gifting? I wasn't aware that it had come to you."

"Thank you, Chancellor Llireh," she repeated the gesture in return. "I just received it today."

"Ah, you will need the witnessing and a certificate to go off the planet then. Would you allow me the honor?" Llireh held her hands out in front of her palms up.

Tears again threatened, as she recognized the great tribute her superior wanted to give her. Vylisa had never expected to be certified by such a powerful witness. The words wouldn't come, so instead she kneeled in front of Llireh and placed her forehead on the older woman's palms. A peace, sweet and warm, encompassed her. The Gifter was blessing her through this wise woman. Somehow she knew that everything would work out.

It wasn't until Llireh spoke that Vylisa realized that the witnessing ceremony was over. "I will have the certificate within the hour."

"Thank you, Chancellor Llireh," she croaked out as she stood; her throat still thick with emotion.

"There is one thing I must insist upon."

Vylisa tensed at the firmness in her superior's voice.

"Do not use the ship's transporters. Use ours instead. Since Voyager is in space dock, there should be no problems getting on board. I will arrange for an embassy escort to go with you while you are up there. We must have a record of everything related to this visit. I have a strong feeling that it will be important to future trade." Llireh explained.

"Yes, Ma'am," Vylisa nodded over her clasped hands in respect. "I will do as you say. As soon as I find out if my arrangements are acceptable to the captain, you will hear back from me."

Vylisa was pleasantly surprised when Janeway agreed to stay at her home after the captain heard the details. Being healers, her parents, Naroenes and Torret Rosnet kept several comfortable rooms for patients to use. Often they were in need of intensive sessions with both her mother and father to heal deep emotional wounds as well as physical ones.

Even though there were hospitals and private nursing facilities on the planet, her parents took another view of helping their patients. They felt that the homey atmosphere optimized the healing process. As the patients learned to trust and relate in a family environment along with the more traditional Netcket medical treatments, the healings happened almost effortlessly.

"I'm surprised that your parents have rooms available," Janeway commented.

"My parents always take a time of renewal after patients leave," Vylisa explained. "My mother, especially, needs this time of rest."

"Then we shouldn't come," Chakotay protested. "It doesn't sound like good timing to me."

Vylisa smiled. "You don't understand. My mother is energized by social interaction. Using her gift during the healing process is draining, but having company like you will help to build her reserves once more."

Doubt and concern floated to her from both of her charges. Inwardly she chuckled. "After we retrieve your belongings from your ship, you can ask my mother how she feels about your visit. She will convince you, I'm sure."

A first-year apprentice buzzed for admittance to the conference room. "Do come in, Lyzzi. May I help you?"

The young woman bowed before she handed Vylisa a packet. "The chancellor sent this, and she told me to tell you that the escort will be waiting for you at the private embassy transporter pad."

"Thank you, Lyzzi." Vylisa bowed. "Please let Chancellor Llireh know that I am grateful for her assistance."

"Captain, Commander, it's time to go to Voyager to retrieve your things." Vylisa had explained the reasoning behind their round about way of transporting to the ship, so that they followed her to the private pad without a word.

Vylisa focused on the excitement of her first off-world transport as the three of them walked the corridors. That fact alone might have explained why she didn't see the escort until she stopped at the transport console.

*Beautiful.* The word came unbidden to her mind as she looked up into the young man's face. Always before Vylisa had thought of her father as the highest example of male beauty with his copper hair and dark brown eyes, but now all she could do was stare at the striking blue ones that smiled down at her.

"May the Gifter grant you a peaceful evening, Ambassador Rosnet," he greeted her with the traditional bow. "I'm Third Level Enca Alocty. I will serve as your escort to the space dock and the visitors' ship." He stood straight and tall in his blue and silver uniform.

Vylisa bowed as she swallowed twice before she found her voice and introduced the visitors. As the pleasantries were exchanged, she couldn't help but notice the long black braid that hung down his back to just past his waist. Then she furtively checked his left arm. No jingling bracelet of promise dangled from his wrist. Her heart sped up as if she had been running. *He is single. How is that possible?* She wondered if he was as old as he seemed. It wasn't likely that he could be the five rotations older than she was as his rank and stature suggested.

She wanted to reach out in her mind to feel his reaction to her, but at that moment she remembered that her charges still needed her. Time would come soon enough for her pursue an affinity with a male. "You will want to see my certificate?"

"I wouldn't assume to demand to see it, Ambassador. It will be scanned after our arrival on the space port." He blushed slightly and stared at the floor for a second. Enca straightened his shoulders before he spoke again. "We are expected at Port Three, Sector Six. Voyager is docked in Slip One of that sector. If you please, we should go now."

"Of course, let us leave." Vylisa gestured for the captain and commander to go ahead of her onto the pad. Her mind reeled at the thought of her first transport and first time off-planet even if it were only to the space port. She could barely control the excited trembling that rushed though her. At the moment she heard a faint whisper from just behind her.

"I hope your first transport is as wonderful an experience as mine was."

Vylisa tried to ignore the remark, to keep her dignity as an ambassador in charge of honored visitors, but as she ascended the platform and turned to face forward, Enca caught her eye and winked before he spun around to look to the front.

The transporter beam grabbed her immediately after Vylisa saw the operator touched the controls. For an instant, the view before her vanished and the next, another completely different scene was in front of her. In that moment of time, it seemed like each one of her cells tingled with an unknown energy before the beam let go of its grip.

As the joy of the moment flowed over her, the urge to laugh and dance was almost overwhelming. So much so that Vylisa had to grit her teeth together and clench her fists.

"Are you alright, Ambassador?" Commander Chakotay touched her arm lightly.

"Yes, I'm fine." Vylisa took a breath and relaxed by force of her will. "I have never been transported before. On Netcket we only use them for going on and off the planet." Her cheeks reddened as she continued, "The experience was exhilarating."

As the four moved off the platform toward some huge double doors label "Space Port Three, Sector Six Entrance", a red uniformed guard met them at the bottom step. "Chancellor Llireh informed my superior that an Ambassador Rosnet and three others would beam up."

"I am Rosnet," Vylisa responded, bowing over her hands.

The older woman stiffened in surprise and stared at Vylisa, her eyes narrowing as if to challenge her right to be there. "I am First Station Guard Neen Pella. You are later than expected. Have your certificate and their identification ready. Please follow me to the check point." She marched off without looking back, disapproval radiating from her whole being.

Suddenly the thrill of being on the space station began to dim. Vylisa was confused by the other woman's censure. *Holy Gifter, what just happened? I don't know what to do.*

While Janeway and Chakotay began to follow the guard through the doors, Vylisa didn't move. She fought against the emotional impact of such negative feelings from another. This was one of the things she hadn't known about the gifting; she would have to learn how to find a way to keep from being paralyzed by emotions that might come her way.

Just as Vylisa was summoning the strength she needed to shut off this latest onslaught of emotions, Enca gently took her elbow and bent close to whisper in her ear. "First Station Guard Pella is a bitter woman. Please allow me to absorb some of the impact of her hostility."

As soon as he spoke the words, the intensity of the feelings lessened. Vylisa stared at Enca, completely dumbfounded. Never before had a stranger offered to assist her in this way. The ability to assist another when they being overwhelmed by extreme emotions was something even the ungifted learned to do at an early age. How often had she been thankful for the aid from her friends and family? This felt different. Could the cause be the excitement of her gifting or the novelty of her first visit to the space port?

His smile played shyly across his face. "I hope I wasn't being impertinent. I've had to deal with her before, and you looked so stricken."

Vylisa tried to form her thoughts into words, but all she could do was concentrate on Enca's hand on her elbow and how she was drawn to his warmth and gentleness. Just when she was tempted to lean closer to him, she heard the guard bark from the doorway, "We have a schedule to keep."

Pulling her arm away, she hurried through the door to the check point. The captain and commander were already having their ID scanned as she arrived.

Before Vylisa could reach for her certificate, the guard snapped out, "I resent having my time wasted by your silly flirtations. Show me your credentials, or I will have to ask you to go back to the planet."

Speechless, Vylisa presented her certificate for scanning, but Enca put himself between her and the guard.

"Station Guard Pella, you owe Ambassador Rosnet an apology. She happens to be here at the personal request of Chancellor Llireh. I believe that if she heard of your treatment of her envoy, you would find yourself in deep trouble with her and your superiors."

The guard paled and drew back as if she had been stuck. After a struggle, she plastered a neutral look on her face and masked her emotions. "I intended no disrespect. I apologize, Ambassador Rosnet."

Vylisa waited for the usual accompanying gesture of apology, but none came. Unable to think of words to answer the obviously insincere expression of regret, she merely nodded as her certificate was finally scanned. At least, the vicious feelings she had felt before were tempered by the guard's own emotional barrier.

Vylisa waited until Pella led them to the main walkway to the ship before she slowed her pace to walk beside Enca. "I apologize for my lack of gratitude back there." She didn't look his way and kept her voice low as not to be heard by the rest. "As you must know, I'm newly gifted, and I still have a great deal to learn about its control. Thank you for your help both times."

"Vylisa," his whisper was so low, she wasn't sure she heard him. "Pardon me, I mean Ambassador Rosnet," Enca corrected himself, speaking a bit louder this time. "Anything I can do to aid you is an honor and a pleasure. I am at your service."

"I don't understand about the guard. You say you have dealt with her previously?"

"Yes I have," he said sadly as he stared at the station guard's back. "Ironically, she is one of the isolationists, working on the space station. She seems to be fine as long as her duties do not include working with off-world visitors."

"Will she cause more trouble to the voyagers?" Vylisa's stomach clenched in fear for her charges.

"All I've observed is the rude behavior. I've wondered if I should actually report her to her superiors," he mused thoughtfully.

"Let's not do anything to antagonize her any further." Vylisa should her head. "We won't be here long."

"As you wish, Ambassador." Enca winked again.

As much as Vylisa wanted to continue the conversation with Enca, she had to say something to discourage him. "My assignment is of great importance. I cannot afford distractions," she said, her voice intense.

His expression sobered and his eyes turned serious. "I understand, and I, too, have a job to do."

Something in his tone made Vylisa think of the future and life promises, but she couldn't dwell on either at the moment. Calling once more upon the Gifter's help, she pulled the wall of shelter around her emotions. The time for other things would have to wait.

Hurrying forward, she caught up with the captain and commander. As she fell into step with them, she looked around her, aware of the vastness of the station for the first time. Above and below the causeway upon which they walked towered a large open space with room enough for even the biggest of cargo ships. Above her the ceiling reached over 300 meters with the same below. She wasn't able to gauge how long the port was from end to end.

"This reminds me of Utopia Planetia." Janeway and Chakotay spoke at once and chuckled at the shared thought.

For a moment, Vylisa let the emotions of her two charges slip past her mind's barrier and analyzed them as the group made their way closer to the ship.

In the unguarded moment of the sharing of a memory, Kathryn indulged in warm affection for her XO with longing pulling at her heart until she had to push the feelings out of her mind.

Vylisa became aware of something else about her gifting. She noticed that distinguishing the emotions of each of those around her was now as easy for her as telling one voice from another. She also had far more control over experiencing the feelings than she first thought. However, when it came to Captain Janeway or Commander Chakotay, her understanding of their moods and her sensitivity to their inner reactions, Vylisa needed to keep a tight rein to keep from being overwhelmed.

All of Vylisa's life, she had wanted, no, craved her gifting. The delight she watched in her parents' life was the example of everything good and desirable in a bonding. Confusion gnawed at her heart. These two humans loved each other, she was certain. She had to find out why they were living such surface level lives when they could have the wonder of a fulfilling bonded existence.

*Loving Gifter, how should I proceed? Is there a way to guide these people that will help them break through the barriers they both hide behind?* Vylisa pleaded silently.

Glancing up, she saw a huge ship 100 meters ahead of them at the end of the walkway. Vylisa had seen a picture of Voyager, but she couldn't help being awestruck by the size and elegant sleekness of the vessel. "It's beautiful, Captain Janeway."

"Thank you," the captain replied simply, smiling with obvious pride. "I agree."

Soon they were close enough to see a gangplank leading to an open shuttle bay. Two immense uniformed men stood on either side of the first step up from the walkway. The guards wore the same colors as Enca and saluted him as he hurried forward.

Pella frowned but didn't acknowledge the other guards as she attempted to pass between them on the gangplank. The men closed ranks, not allowing her to go aboard.

"I'm sorry, Guard Pella," Enca said quietly. "Your assistance is no longer required. You may go back to your other duties."

The woman paled then reddened as she gawked at him in disbelief. "How dare you tell me to leave? I am under orders from the chancellor." Her voice rose in anger.

"I have a copy of those orders from Chancellor Llireh." He pulled out a CI tablet and pointed to the screen. "You were to meet us at the transporter site, scan in the identifying documents, and escort us to the ship, but not to board it. You have fulfilled your orders. You are dismissed."

"I will board this ship," Pella demanded. "This woman shouldn't to be allowed there on her own."

Vylisa wanted to say something, but the vehemence coming from the station guard made her stay silent and allow Enca to handle things.

The two voyagers were also upset at the disruption caused by the female guard. However they held their peace as well.

"Station Guard Pella," Enca lowered his voice in warning, his face inches from hers. "Ambassador Rosnet's business is none of yours. Leave now or my men will help you."

The other guards stepped toward her. Pella eyed them for a second before she tugged on the bottom of her jacket and turned on her heels. As she moved away, she passed Vylisa and with a low voice, hissed threateningly, "I will not forget this, alien loving tramp."

Vylisa stumbled back a step as Pella stormed back in the direction they had come. She trembled as the malice pounded her. It was almost unthinkable. The station guard had used her gifting to hurl loathing at her like a weapon.

The shock must have registered on her face because Enca suddenly at her side, his voice full of concern. "Are you all right?"

His concern and that of the others helped to dissipate the emotion sting from Pella. "I'm fine." She straightened and tried to smile convincingly. "I'm ready to go aboard."

The captain and commander made short work of packing for their stay on Netcket. Enca brought one of his guards along to help document the visit to the ship. He mumbled something about better more than less.

Vylisa wasn't happy with the fact that they couldn't make a thorough tour of the ship, but they did make a quick trip to the bridge and to sickbay.

Janeway wanted to make sure for herself that things were going well with the repairs. She was less than enthused with making the trip to the medical quarters, but Starfleet regulations required an examination before and after an extended stay on a planet.

The other escort stood outside sickbay as Vylisa and Enca followed Janeway and Chakotay through the door. Having lived her entire life around healers, Vylisa especially wanted to see the ship's doctor. She experienced shock at the sterile and harsh surroundings as she entered. Where were the warm colors, the soft lights, and the soothing music? Something else was missing but she couldn't figure it out.

"Ah, Captain," a thin balding man greeted them. "Commander Tuvok told me that you had changed your plans for shore leave. You know the drill. Have a seat on the bio-beds, both of you, and I will have you out of here in no time."

"Doctor, I would like to introduce you to Ambassador Rosnet and Escort Alocty." Captain Janeway spoke with resigned patience.

"Pardon me." The Doctor bowed over his clasped hands. "May you have a pleasant visit aboard Voyager."

The modified Netcket welcome didn't surprise Vylisa, but the lack of emotional energy did. She returned the greeting by rote, but something must have shown on her face because the captain turned to her.

"The Doctor is an EMH -- emergency medical hologram. We lost our human doctor when we first were brought to this quadrant. We're fortunate that his program has been so adaptive," she explained.

The EMH preened with obvious pride, but Vylisa could sense none of it. She offered, "I'm sure that my parents would be fascinated to meet the Doctor if that would be possible."

"I will check with my director," Enca interrupted. "The Doctor is no doubt a valuable part of this crew."

Vylisa wanted to resent Enca's interference, but quickly she realized the implications for the voyagers if they lost the hologram. These people would be lost without this physician, even if he wasn't flesh and blood.

The shore leave examinations were short but thorough. Soon they were on their way back to the transporter pad. One of Enca's men took the lead while the other followed a few steps behind the rest.

Vylisa tried to enjoy the surroundings, but the closer they came to the transporter room the more uneasy she became. Abruptly black feelings of hatred and distain washed over her. Gasping at the smothering emotions, she choked out, "She's . . . Neen Pella is close by."

With alarm etched on his face as he saw her struggle, Enca told everyone to stop and called out an order to the front guard. "Make sure Guard Pella is not at the transport station."

He took Vylisa's arm and guided her to a bench along the walkway. Nodding to the captain and commander, he said, "Sit here for a moment." Enca conferred with the remaining guard in low, intense tones.

Although she was unable to hear what Enca was saying, she couldn't help but feel his worry for her. She didn't want to have her own turmoil magnified, so she fortified the barriers in her mind. Slowly her heart rate and her emotions calmed.

"Are you all right?" The captain asked softly, her hand resting gently on Vylisa's shoulder.

Vylisa took in a deep breath and exhaled before she responded, "I'm fine now. I sensed Pella near by. She has a great deal of hatred in her. Enca told me she is an isolationist. Perhaps that is why she acted the way she did toward me."

"What makes you think she was nearby?" the commander asked.

"I'm sure that Chancellor Llireh's report included the fact that the women on Netcket are empathic."

"I do remember that, but the report said that it is limited in use and scope."

"That is normally true." Vylisa sighed again. "But in this case, Pella has chosen to use her ability to harass me."

A surge of anxiety and suspicion poured from both Janeway and Chakotay. Vylisa would've liked to reassure them by linking with them empathetically but knew doing so might cause them more distress. "Please Captain, don't worry. I'm not going to betray you or the commander. The Gifter has given our society a strict code of ethics about the use of our gift. Pella must have deep wounds to act in a way that violates our code. I'm sure that Enca and his guards will take care of the problem."

Captain Janeway looked deeply into Vylisa's eyes. The young woman didn't flinch but allowed the inspection. Finally Kathryn nodded and turned to Chakotay. "We'll continue with our plans."

As she sensed an understanding pass between her charges, Vylisa relaxed against the back of the bench and glanced around the busy station. Within a few minutes she spied Enca hurrying back in their direction, his face creased with a frown.

"Ambassador," he began, "they couldn't find Pella, but with her extensive knowledge of the station, she could be hiding anywhere. Shall I summon more of my men to join the search?"

"I think we should just go back to the planet as soon as possible, and Chancellor Llireh should be briefed about what's happened." Vylisa stood and started to walk toward the transporter room.

No one spoke until they reached the check point. After the attendant scanned the identification once more, they transported to Netcket. As the group materialized back in embassy, Vylisa wasn't entirely surprised to see the chancellor and Mr. Neelix waiting for them.

Chancellor Llireh rushed to Vylisa's side. "Are you well?" The soothing warmth of caring bathed the places the hatred had bruised.

"I'm fine, Chancellor." Her smile was genuine. "We are all fine. I hope that Pella can be located. May the Gifter grant her peace of mind and soul."

"I want to hear what happened up there. After which you all will be free to leave. I've arranged a mobile-unit to take everyone to your home. I think that it would be best. For now, the fewer who know where you are staying the better."

Vylisa felt relieved as the mobile-unit pulled into the alley behind her house. For the time being, she and her guests would be able to relax in the comfort and seclusion of her family home. After her experiences of the day so far, she wondered if she had been wise in desiring the gifting. *How am I able to do this? Holy Gifter, are you sure that I'm ready? Please grant me your favor and your help?* she begged silently.

Nwad, the Rosnet's ancient housekeeper, threw open the back gate. "Welcome home, Maiden Vylisa, hurry and bring your friends in. Dinner is getting cold." The old woman's wrinkled smile belied her grouchy tone. She bowed over her hands to Captain Janeway and Chakotay.

"Right away, Nwad, but first," Vylisa gestured toward the others. "This is Captain Janeway, Commander Chakotay, and Escort Alocty. They will be our guests during their stay on our world. Nwad is our housekeeper."

After the introductions, Vylisa reached for one of the captain's bags and said, "Nwad will give us just enough time to take these to your rooms."

Enca stood next to the vehicle as the rest of the party moved into the back garden. A cobbled path wound leisurely between lush plants, flowers, and closely trimmed patches of thick grass, leading to a wide screened-in porch in the back of the big, rambling stone house.

The housekeeper stared at Enca for a few seconds. "I don't want to wait all day. Hurry, young man," she ordered before she hurried up the walk toward the house.

"Please come," Vylisa beckoned to him from just inside the gate. "If I know Nwad, she will have already added another plate to the table. Besides, she doesn't replicate our meals. How long has it been since you have eaten old-fashioned, home-cooked food?"

Enca chuckled. "Not since my last solar celebration." He gestured in surrender before dismissing the driver.

As usual, Nwad created a company meal that was both delicious and comforting. Vylisa smiled as she listened to the conversation that flowed around the table. Her father's interest in the workings of the EMH and the sickbay and her mother's inquiries about the lives of the crew from Voyager contributed to the lively exchange. Her younger sisters were full of their own questions.

Relaxing against the back of her chair at the end of the meal, Vylisa sipped coffee. She knew that Nwad didn't like using the replicators, but there wasn't an equivalent beverage on Netcket. She hoped the housekeeper saved the formula because she was certain she would want more, even after the visitors were gone.

"I like your family, Vylisa," Enca whispered from his place to her left. When she looked up in surprise, he said in a sheepish tone, "I hoped that here I would be permitted to use your personal name."

"I don't mind, Enca." The emphasis she put on his personal name made him smile.

"I wish I could stay longer, but I have reports finish and assignments to make." He stood and excused himself from the room.

"I'll show Enca to the front door." Vylisa told her mother, who would have normally led him out of the room. She wasn't sure why she had taken the liberty of escorting him, but she knew she wanted to do it.

Enca and Vylisa didn't speak until they reached the door. Suddenly she was tongue-tied and nervous. Reminding herself she needed to wait to perform the Gifter's task which precluded involvement with a male, she glanced up and opened her mouth to repeat that fact to him.

However, before she could speak, he gently touched her lips with his fingertips. "You don't have to explain, I understand completely, little one." Then bowing over his hands, he said, "May the Gifter bless your sleep with visions of gifted splendor and victory."

Even after the door closed behind Enca, Vylisa stood with her fingers over her lips. The simple touch had been unlike anything she had ever experienced. A deep soul-wrenching yearning pulled at her. She garnered her inner strength to fight the attraction. She had to succeed in the Gifter's commission when the time came. At least now, she knew how to erect protection from stray emotions. Like closing up a jacket against the winter cold, she pulled the barrier around her and walked toward the dining room.

Intent on returning to her guests, Vylisa didn't see her mother until she spoke. "Dear one, is everything all right?"

"Yes, Ahma," she used her favorite childhood endearment for her mother. "I just didn't realize that the gifting and the Gifter's assignment would be so difficult. It is tempting to try to make something happen."

Naroenes Rosnet wrapped her arm around her daughter's waist. "Remember to listen for the Gifter's wisdom. It isn't always easy to discern, but it will come when you need it."

"Thank you, I'll try to remember." Vylisa returned her mother's embrace before asking, "Did you need something from me?"

"I just wanted to apologize for the room arrangements I made." Naroenes pulled on a lock of her short hair, a sure sign that something bothered her mother.

"I don't understand."

"When you contacted me the first time about Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay staying here, I assumed they would want separate rooms, but I can see that I need to rearrange things." She shook her head, frustration and embarrassment apparent on her face. "I'll ask Nwad for her help."

"No," Vylisa stopped her with a touch. "The rooms are fine. They aren't bond mates."

"But both have short hair, he defers to her and knows her every need. They must be mates." Naroenes was confused.

"Their customs are different from ours. The captain is the leader of the ship, and after being second-in-command to her on the ship for nearly seven years, of course, the commander would understand her wishes." Vylisa wasn't sure she should reveal the Gifter's task to her mother.

"How sad," Naroenes murmured. She didn't speak for a moment, then she exclaimed, "This is what the Gifter wants to use you to accomplish. What an honor and monumental task!"

Tears stung the back of Vylisa's throat. "What if I fail? What if I don't see what he wants me to do? What if I make things worse?" she asked barely above a whisper.

"My sweet daughter, I know that you will do your best, and you will know what to do when the time is right." She cupped Vylisa's face. "That is all the Gifter asks of you or anyone else. Everything that is required will come to you at the proper time, but force is never to be a part of the Gifter's plan. If all is done, and the visitors decide not to become bonded mates, that is how it will be. That will be their failure, not yours."

Vylisa hugged her mother again and thanked her for her encouragement. They both went back to where the guests were being guided to the back porch for dessert and tea.

The porch felt wide and airy even in the gathering dusk. The early evening was still comfortably warm so the windows weren't closed. Nwad served the rich, dark rinnota cake with fresh cream.

"Mmm, this tastes a lot like chocolate with a hint of cinnamon," Captain Janeway exclaimed as she dipped her spoon into the dish for another bite.

"I'm glad you enjoy it, Captain Janeway," Naroenes answered. "Rinnota cake is a family favorite."

"Please call me Kathryn," she said after swallowing another bite of dessert, "since we are going to be here for a while, unless that would be over stepping my bounds."

Vylisa parents grinned at each other before her father spoke. "Kathryn, Naroenes and I would love use your personal name, especially around the house. We fully understand the need for formality in state functions, but we really aren't strict here at home."

"I agree," her mother said warmly. "However, I don't expect you to remember all our children's name immediately."

Everyone laughed at Naroenes' comment, including her two youngest daughters, who had followed the adults to the porch, so as not to miss out on interesting conversation and the delicious dessert.

After another half hour of visiting, Naroenes insisted that the younger girls needed to finish their school work. When the older of the two complained that the history report she had to write was too difficult, Torret excused himself to help her.

"Come, my dear, I'll quiz you on your spelling and listen to your reading since your Ahpa is busy with your sister." She took her youngest daughter's hand and moved to the door. "Please stay here as long as you would like, and let Nwad know if you want anything."

After her family left, Vylisa, Kathryn, and Chakotay sat without speaking for a while. The sounds of the night filled the porch. Vylisa could feel contentment wash over her guests. Her home had that effect on people.

"You have a great family, Vylisa," Chakotay spoke, his feelings wistful.

"Thank you." She decided to ask what was on her mind. "Do you have family on Earth, Chakotay?"

Deep sorrow and regret came to her before his words did. "I have a distant cousin there. My ancestors originally left Earth for another planetary system, searching for a new start in life. My home world was a wonderful place, but I wasn't happy with it. I wanted to join Starfleet, to see the universe."

He smiled self-consciously. "I won't bore you with details. A race called Cardassians killed most of my family and most of my tribe to take over our world."

"I'm so sorry." Her heart broke for the man. She could sense that there was more to his story, but he didn't want to tell it. "I can't imagine how hard that was for you. I would be lost without my family."

Chakotay pushed aside the negative feelings and said, "I have a new family. Voyager is my home, and the crew my family. I still miss my blood relatives and my old friends, but now I have peace."

Vylisa knew what he told her was true. His heart was nearly healed, and most of the time, the sadness wasn't acute. The one thing he needed to complete the wholeness, he felt he couldn't have.

"Captain, what about you?" Vylisa asked.

"Please, call me Kathryn."

Vylisa nodded. "Kathryn, do you have family?"

"My mother and sister are still living. My father died in an accident when I was a junior science officer. I hear from them periodically when the device called the Pathfinder allows transmission." Kathryn missed her family, but her grief was focused on her father's death.

Vylisa wondered about the fact, when Kathryn said, "I have to agree with Chakotay. Our crew is like family now. We have lived together for a long time now, much longer than any crew I know of. We've grieved the loss of some members and we've rejoiced as we gained some."

"How many married couples are there aboard ship, and what about children?"

"We have one child, Naomi, who was born on Voyager, her mother being one of the crew, but her father is back in the Alpha Quadrant. We have three children we picked up along the way. There are only three couples that I know of. One of them, my engineer and senior pilot are expecting a baby."

As Kathryn continued to discuss the crew, Vylisa noticed that, at first, Chakotay held back his emotions as if they were too painful, too unobtainable for him to experience, but before long he gave up his control and allowed his longing and love for his captain wash over his heart. Vylisa no longer had any doubt as to his devotion, but it was painful to go through, even second hand. How she prayed that the Gifter would use her to help the pair!

Vylisa turned her awareness back to the captain where, for the first time, she sensed something deep and hidden, possibly even from Kathryn herself -- a shadow, faint and almost imperceptible. Guilt. Guilt shoved so far back that it rarely saw the light of conscious acknowledgement, but tied tightly to every part of every decision she made and every emotion she felt.

What kind of guilt would color a person's whole existence? Vylisa hoped she have time to unlock the secret before the voyagers left Netcket.

Kathryn finished a story she'd been relating about her "captain's assistant's" latest science project when Chakotay stood and said, "If you both will excuse me, Torret told me about a book on your belief in the Gifter. He promised to run it through out translator so that I could read some of it tonight. It should be finished by now." After wishing them each good night, the commander went back into the house.

The two women sat in silence for several minutes while the gentle sounds of the night settled in around them. Vylisa loved this time of day and season. Sitting in her favorite glider listening to the insects chirp and trill to their mates magnified the feeling of home. She could tell that Kathryn was relaxing, but she would only let herself enjoy so much in order to keep the guilt at bay.

"Kathryn," Vylisa began softly, "Is it lonely being the captain of a ship so far from your home?"

Kathryn paused for a heartbeat before she replied in an even tone, "At first it was, but I've long since decided that loneliness was an unproductive emotion. I'm focusing on the goal of getting my crew home. Nothing will keep me from that goal."

Vylisa flinched inwardly at the sharp coldness that accompanied Kathryn's declaration. Aware that somehow the guilt she had glimpsed briefly was behind so much of the captain's seeming lack of emotion, Vylisa despaired that she would ever be able to help her charges, even if she had a full solar season to get to the bottom of things.

"Would you like more coffee?" Vylisa reached for the carafe Nwad left on the side table.

"I probably shouldn't, but it is delicious." Kathryn held her cup steady while Vylisa refilled it.

"I've heard that coffee can keep a person from sleeping." She poured the rest of the hot liquid in her own cup. "Does it keep you awake?"

Kathryn's mouth formed a half smile. "I don't know anymore. I drink coffee all of the time and still sleep as well as I can expect to, given my job."

"Don't you ever wish for more than your job?" Vylisa didn't want to pry, but the words were out before she could stop them.

For a moment, unguarded longing rushed forward in Kathryn's mind, but years of practice proceeded to suppress the emotion almost before it could be felt. "I can't afford wishes anymore. I have to get my people home. I owe them."

Before Vylisa could think of a response, Kathryn drained her coffee and stood. "I think I will go to my room now. Good night, Vylisa."

"May the Gift grant that you sweet sleep," Vylisa said.

After the captain left the room, Vylisa felt embarrassment stain her cheeks. "Merciful Gifter, I hope I didn't go too far with my questions," she whispered into night. All she could do now was trust that she would have a chance to make amends for a possible unintentional and inexperienced blunder.

"You are out here alone, little firebird?" Her father's voice caused her to jump.

Vylisa smiled at the nickname her father had given her since she was the only one of his five daughters who inherited his fiery hair color. "Yes, Ahpa, the captain and commander have gone to their rooms."

Torret sat next to Vylisa on the glider. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder. "Your mother told me the wonderful news. May the Gifter grant you peace in this new stage of your life."

Sighing, Vylisa leaned into her father's embrace. "Thank you, Ahpa. I never knew how hard it would be. The gifting is a blessing, but the responsibility that goes with it is immense."

"That it is," he said in a quiet tone. "I remember watching your mother struggle. I understood what she was going through, just as I comprehend what is happening to you."

Vylisa stared up at her father in shock. "Does that mean . . .?" She couldn't force the words out.

"Yes, firebird." His brown eyes were warm with love. "I'm gifted as well."

Unable to wrest her gaze from her father's, she struggled to grasp the notion of being the daughter of a gifted male. However, countless incidents during her childhood now made sense. How many times had he come to her aid or that of her sisters without their asking? Vylisa had always felt blessed that she was so close to her Ahpa. It had seemed like he could read her emotions. He could, indeed.

"You couldn't tell anyone except Ahma, could you?" she asked, suddenly aware of the kind of solitude in which he must've lived.

He nodded and grinned down at her, contentment radiating from him. "I'm allowed to talk to you about it now that you have received. Many more rules govern males who have received that gifting than females. The secrecy surrounding male gifting makes it difficult to learn to manage. I finally found another gifted man to help me. The worst part was waiting for your mother. I was given a vision of her years before we met. I had to continually beg the Gifter for patience. You women have it so much easier. At least, you can seek out your mates. We men have to wait for you to find us."

Vylisa chuckled at her father's ironic teasing. "I don't feel like any of this is easy, Ahpa."

"No, my little girl," he replied kissing her forehead, "I don't expect you do. Whatever lies ahead of you, the Gifter will be beside you."

Torret stood and pulled his daughter to her feet. "The first day of the gifting is tiring. I think you need some rest."

Vylisa's father had been right. She fell into a deep, exhausted sleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. When the bells of her timepiece sounded, she awoke refreshed and ready for her new day.

Braiding her hair, Vylisa wondered if she would ever get used to the formal maiden's style. She wrapped the long plait around her head and fastened it in place. After she checked the mirror, she smiled. *I certainly look official. I wonder if I will ever feel that way.*

After eating the delicious breakfast Nwad prepared for them, Vylisa and the visitors were taken to the embassy through a private entrance. Chancellor Llireh and two more escorts met them inside.

Once the formal greetings were over, Llireh motioned the three into a conference room where Enca waited as she said, "We must discuss your plans for the day."

Vylisa tried to ignore the desire that pulled at her to stare into Enca's sky-blue eyes. She was disconcerted by the effect that he had on her. Pulling her protective wall around her, she addressed the chancellor, "Has something happened? Should we be concerned?"

"No," Llireh cut her off. "Escort Alocty thought that it would be prudent to take proactive safety measures. What's more, the isolationists plan another demonstration in front of the council building."

"That's where we are scheduled to meet with your council leaders today, isn't it?" Janeway's wariness made Vylisa nervous too.

"If I may?" Enca asked and received permission to speak. "Our records show that this demonstration has been planned for several days, and the permits filed for a week before your arrival. There is no reason to think this has anything to do with your visit other than pure coincidence."

Vylisa felt Janeway relaxed a little when the captain smiled and said, "That is good news. We don't want to cause a problem for you."

"It is an honor, not a problem, to have you visit us," Llireh reassured them before she continued, "The first of your crew beamed down a short while ago with no trouble at all. As an added provision, my apprentices are acting as their guides." The chancellor proceeded to explain them the protocol of meeting the council.

Soon the group followed the escorts across the plaza toward the council building. The pathway was lined with protestors who were kept back by a short, temporary fence on each side. As Vylisa, the chancellor, and the visitors hurried along, the isolations began to shout and clack their sticks together.

"Netcket belongs to Netcket! Aliens go home! Go home! Go home! Go home!" they chanted, their voices getting louder with each repetition and clunk of the wood.

Two of the protestors rushed and reached over the partition. One latched on to Kathryn's coat, but she was able to twist out of his grip. The other caught Vylisa's sleeve, tearing the material while screaming, "This is the one traitor. She's a tramp who consorts with aliens."

"Arrest those men." Enca yelled to one of the other guards as he rushed to Vylisa's side and wrapped his arm around her waist, urging her forward.

"Are you hurt?" he asked breathlessly once they were inside -- reluctantly he released her.

"No, just a little shaken," Vylisa replied. Quickly she looked around for the captain and the commander. She relaxed when she saw them standing close by. Both of them were tense and concerned about her. "Really, I'm fine. I should have stayed back from the barrier."

She heard Enca's low growl. "You did nothing wrong."

Vylisa moved away from him and joined the others. "How are you, Kathryn?" She reached out to touch the captain's feelings.

"I'm fine," Kathryn replied, wryly. "I'm glad our uniforms are sturdy."

Chakotay stood behind his captain, concern for her radiating from him. "What will happen to those protestors?" Vylisa felt his desire for recompense for the insult to Kathryn and herself.

The chancellor took control of the situation. "Let us continue to the council chamber. Escort Alocty will make sure the protestors are gone by the time we are finished meeting with the council."

Vylisa wanted to thank Enca before she went into the chamber, so she slipped away from the group. She found him talking to another escort. Waiting until he dismissed the other man, she joined him.

"I wanted to thank you for your help," she said. "I'm not sure what those men would have done if you hadn't been there."

"It was my privilege, Ambassador." Enca bowed formally over his hands, but when he lifted his head, the look he gave her was anything but formal. His eyes conveyed intimate warmth as he whispered, "I was so afraid he hurt you. I'm sorry he was able get close enough to tear your clothing. Forgive my negligence."

Without thinking, Vylisa laid her hand on his arm and let her gratitude flow into the touch. She tried to convey her feelings because the words didn't seem sufficient. Unexpectedly, a host of emotions washed back to her -- caring, desire, and hopefulness. The heady sensations swirled around her, rooting her to floor.

"Ambassador Rosnet, are you coming?" Llireh called from the other end of the hall.

Vylisa jumped and jerked her hand away, her face staining red. She wondered how long she would have stayed there gripping Enca's arm if the chancellor hadn't summoned her. Without a backward glance, she hurried down the hall.

The men who attacked Vylisa and Kathryn were detained overnight, and the following morning, the local magistrate fined them for disorderly demonstration. Enca pressed for a stronger punishment, but since Vylisa hadn't been injured, fining the men was the most that could be done.

With the hearing over, the next few days passed uneventfully. Vylisa enjoyed the stories of the voyagers' lives before and after the unexpected trip to the quadrant of space they called Delta. The more she found out about Kathryn Janeway, the more Vylisa understood her sense of honor and loyalty. Still she hadn't discovered the source of the deeply hidden guilt that tainted all of her decisions.

Chakotay also carried guilt, but unlike Kathryn, he'd used it as a motivation for his joining the Maquis and later as a reason to work with the Starfleet captain. Vylisa had no trouble now discerning the love and devotion he felt toward Janeway. Somehow, serving her and their crew was enough for him even though he longed for more.

Vylisa sighed as she left her cubicle, glancing at the clock over the door. Even after filing her weekly reports, her duties with Kathryn and Chakotay wouldn't begin for some time. They were sequestered in the temporary command post, meeting with their senior staff via video conference.

Feeling adrift, she made her way to the small kitchen reserved for embassy personnel. Vylisa hoped that the replicator there had been programmed with the coffee formula. She breezed into the room, expecting it to be empty. Instead she found someone pulling a cup from the replicator.

"You look like you're thirsty," Enca smiled casually as he turned toward her, handing her the full cup.

Vylisa inhaled deeply as the scent of fresh coffee teased her nose. "Thank you, I was just going to check to see if this replicator was programmed for coffee." She hesitated before she sipped the dark liquid. "But I shouldn't take yours."

Enca shrugged. "It's not a problem to get more." He turned back to the machine and ordered another cup. "Shall we find a place to sit and enjoy our coffee?"

They decided to use the staff lounge just a few steps away. At that time in the morning no one was about, so they had their pick of chairs. Vylisa chose a low couch next to the window that looked out on a tiny atrium. Enca sat on the other end, turning to face her.

"I sometimes wonder why I'm so blessed as to work here." Vylisa relaxed into comfort of the soft sofa. She took a swallow of coffee. "The Gifter has been gracious to me."

"I was thinking the same thing." Enca looked down at his cup, avoiding her gaze. "If I hadn't been assigned to the embassy when I finished my training, I would never have met you."

How was it that he seemed to echo her heart? Vylisa shored up her protective walls, fighting to keep her feelings inside and his out. She had to finish the task the Gifter laid out for her before she could seek her own happiness. She searched for a suitable response but decided to avoid the topic altogether.

"Are there any demonstration scheduled that coincide with our guests' itinerary?"

Enca stiffened and responded quickly, "There's another one planned for tomorrow evening in front of the opera house. Even though the records show that this, too, has been planned since before the captain and commander arrived, I think it would be better if the isolationists weren't allowed to protest again. I want to ask the chancellor to cancel demonstration permits until the visitors leave."

"I considered canceling the protests but rejected the idea," Vylisa argued, shaking her head. "The isolationists would use that as a weapon against our visitors and the government. Better if we changed our guests' itinerary."

Frustration warmed Enca's face. Vylisa could tell he was fighting to control himself. "I think you are wrong, Vylisa. Can't you see how foolish it would be to put Kathryn and Chakotay in another potentially dangerous situation? We must cancel the demonstrations until further notice. And in case it has slipped your mind, you were attacked as well which means you could be at risk, too." Irritation tinged his last words.

"This is an issue that I will discuss with the chancellor," she said, her tone suddenly cool yet firm. Finishing her coffee in one long swallow, Vylisa stood quickly. "If you will excuse me, Escort Alocty, I have work to attend to."

"Of course, Ambassador Rosnet." His voice dripped with sarcastic formality. "I wouldn't think of keeping you from doing your job."

As she stormed out of the lounge, Vylisa gritted her teeth. How dare he continue to question her? Foolish! He thought she was foolish. Of course, she wanted to keep everyone safe, but there was more at stake. Why couldn't he see that canceling the isolationists' permits would give them another tool with which to fight to keep any visitors from the planet?

Perhaps a disagreement was inevitable between them. She'd been spending too much time thinking about Enca romantically instead of as a security escort. Vylisa berated herself for not keeping her emotions in check. From this time forward, she would consider of Enca as merely a colleague, nothing more.

When Vylisa reached her cubicle, she slumped into her chair. Suddenly everything that she'd learned as an apprentice to the chancellor mocked her actions. She'd known that she should keep her mind on the job before her. Instead she had allowed the draw she felt for Enca to lure her into a place where she argued with him. The chancellor was the one with whom she should be discussing this.

At that moment, she made a decision. She would go to the chancellor and make her case for a change of schedule for the captain and the commander.

In leaving in a huff like she did, she'd acted like a child. As a gifted woman, she was obligated to control her feelings for the good of others. It didn't matter if her thoughts about the demonstrations were right or wrong. An ambassador must keep a tight rein on emotions, but she had allowed her pride and anger to rule.

Vylisa's heart and mind were -though not truly at peace -- at least calmer now. Pulling her emotional walls tightly around her, Vylisa marched toward the chancellor's office, pushing any thoughts or feelings about Enca from her mind.

She forced her feet to hurry along the corridor and through the outer office doors.

The receptionist looked up and smiled. "The chancellor is expecting you. Go right in."

Slightly confused at the welcome, Vylisa opened the door and walked inside.

"Ah, Ambassador Rosnet," Llireh greeted her. "Please close the door and be seated. Escort Alocty and I were discussing our options. I would like to hear your opinion."

It was then that Vylisa spied Enca sitting in one of the chairs in front of the chancellor's desk. Indignant shock robbed her of speech for a few seconds. She covered her surprise by taking the other chair.

Taking a fortifying breath, Vylisa found her voice. "I think we should change the itinerary for the next few days, thereby avoiding the scheduled demonstration at the opera house. To disallow protests at this stage would only play into the isolationist's paranoia about visitors to our planet. Our people have always been able to freely express their views even when they weren't popular or sensible. We can't suspend those freedoms at a time like this."

Llireh's expression didn't change as she stood and came around her desk to lean against the front edge. "Escort Alocty has an opposing point-of-view on the subject."

"Yes, Ma'am, he explained it to me earlier." Vylisa kept her voice even and her emotions guarded. "You have given me the chance to speak, and I'll accept whatever you deem is the correct course."

"I happen to agree with your assessment, Ambassador Rosnet," Llireh exclaimed, bowing her head toward Vylisa. "It is time for a different approach. I have the perfect place for you to take our guests for several days. Once they are finished with their ship's business today, we will explain the change of plans."

The chancellor looked down at the two young people, extending the moment of suspense. Turning on her heels, she went back to her chair and opened a drawer. She pulled out a ring of crystal key rods. "I have a cottage on the south coast. It has a private beach cove, perfect for our guests. Only the three of us and the security officer aboard Voyager will know exactly where you are."

Llireh paused for moment before she added, "I will make arrangements for the housekeeper and custodian to be sure the cottage is ready when the four of you get there."

Offering the rods to Vylisa, she said, "The blue one is for the front gate, the green one for the front door and security station, and the red one for the boat. Give my regards to Captain Janeway and the commander. May the Gifter bless your time away."

As Vylisa took the key rods from the older woman, she understood the full impact of what the chancellor had just told her. "Excuse me, Chancellor Llireh. Did you say 'four'?"

"Of course, Vylisa," Llireh said emphatically, "Escort Alocty is the best choice to help keep our guests safe. Now why don't you find out if they are finished their business?"

Llireh turned back to her desk, dismissing them by her actions. The two stunned young people rose and walked to the door.

"Oh, before you go," the chancellor called out. "Escort Alocty, use my private air-transport. One of my mobile-units will be ready for your use once you arrive, programmed with the directions to the cottage. I hope that will keep the isolationists from finding out where you will be."

"Yes, ma'am, I'll help see to it," he responded as he pushed the doors open and held them for Vylisa.

The sun cast long shadows as they turned up the drive to the cottage. Vylisa was surprised to see a large two-story house. When the chancellor said cottage, she got a vision of a tiny building, maybe with four rooms. It couldn't exactly be called huge, but it was large and welcoming.

As she ascended the wide steps to the front porch, she smiled to see several gliders ready for conversation and relaxing. Vylisa started to unlock the door when it swung open to reveal a smiling old man and woman.

"Welcome to Ocean Haven. May the Gifter grant you a restful time while you are here." The old woman's expression seemed as sincere as her greeting, as she waved them inside. "I am Tola, the custodian. This handsome young man is Kersna. He is the housekeeper and my mate of fifty solar rotations. We have followed Chancellor Llireh's instructions. After you have chosen your rooms and freshened up, you have about an hour before Kersna will serve you dinner."

Vylisa took the time to make introductions. "It isn't necessary for you to serve us. Just show me where things are and we will be fine."

"Well, you see," Tola began with a stubborn set to her mouth, "we have our orders and we will fulfill them. Now let me show you the bedrooms."

After they climbed the stairs, Vylisa stood to one side on the landing, waiting for the others to choose a room. Since she noticed that each bedroom was flanked with ocean view windows, she knew she would be satisfied with whichever was left.

Vylisa opened her mind to the emotions around her. Pleasant feelings swirled onto her awareness. The captain and commander, having already decided upon their rooms, were enjoying a friendly conversation just inside Kathryn's door. Something about the view of the sun-kissed waves helped to clear away the anxiety that had plagued the voyagers since this morning's change of plans.

Adjusting the strap of her travel bag more firmly on her shoulder, Vylisa moved toward the room just to her right, but she started when she found Enca at the window. "I'm sorry. I didn't see you come in here. I'll take the one next door." She twirled around, her face red. *Why didn't I sense him?*

"Don't go. I was just watching the ocean while deciding how to say this," he pleaded as she felt a strong sense of beseeching from him. "I'd like to talk about what happened this morning."

Despite her own feelings of regret, Vylisa refused to listen. Without turning back, she declared sternly, "I'm not ready to discuss it. I'm exhausted and would like to rest before dinner." She pulled the door shut as walked through it.

Vylisa hurried into the only vacant room and shut the door behind her. Closing her mind to any outside emotions, she dropped heavily on the bed. Why was she having so much trouble talking to Enca about their disagreement? Instead of wanting to lift her heart to the Gifter for help as was her custom, she was tempted to revisit the wounds to her pride and authority. As she did, the pain of the confrontation with Enca washed over her. From deep inside, a feeling of superiority took hold of her. "I'm an ambassador and he's merely an embassy escort," she said out loud.

Suddenly as if she had been doused with ice water, she gasped at the vanity and audacity of her statement. "What has happened to me?" Vylisa covered her face with her hands as tears of contrition fell. "Oh Gifter, I can't believe I would think that, let alone say it aloud."

She sat on the bed for several moments, crying as she poured her heart out to the Gifter. After her head began to throb from the weeping and tiredness of the trip, Vylisa went to the tiny attached bathroom and washed her face.

"I must apologize to Enca," she whispered. Vylisa took a deep breath that ended in a yawn. She decided that a short nap would help her emotional control. Slipping off her shoes, she slid under the light blanket fully dressed and quickly drifted off to sleep.

A persistent tapping drew her from slumber. At first, Vylisa thought that she'd overslept and Nwad was trying to wake her. She opened her eyes to see that sun was turning the opposite wall pink and orange.

*Ocean Haven!* Wondering how long she had been asleep, she swung her feet to the floor just as the knocking started again.

"Who is it?" Vylisa called out, her voice still thick from sleep.

"It is Tola, Ambassador Rosnet," came the muffled reply.

"Come in."

Entering the room, Tola bowed quickly over her hands. "The chancellor would like to speak to you." She gestured to the small desk in the corner. "Just touch the blue pad and the screen will rise; then tap the flashing light. I'll give you privacy." Turning on her heels, she left and shut the door.

Vylisa sat at the desk and did as Tola instructed. As she touched the flashing light on the screen, Chancellor Llireh's image filled it.

"Ah, Vylisa." Llireh smiled kindly. "Did you rest well?"

"How. . .?" Vylisa looked confused.

"Escort Alocty told me that you napping. I wouldn't have disturbed you, but Tola told me that dinner was nearly ready. And I wanted to see if the accommodations are satisfactory before I leave for the opera."

"This is a wonderful place," Vylisa enthused. "It's much larger than I expected. The view is spectacular. I was also surprised to find that Tola and Kersna here to serve us. It wasn't necessary, Madam Chancellor."

"They live at the cottage," Llireh told her patiently. "Ocean Haven has been their home most of their bonded lives. They were supposed to retire, but neither wanted to. I allow them to stay at Ocean Haven full time, using the cottage as my home away from home. They don't have to work as hard and still feel useful. So indulge them. Be spoiled. You might need the rest." Her tone changed and her face sobered.

"What is it that you haven't told me?" Concern tinged Vylisa's question.

"I don't have time to explain fully." Llireh looked to the side and leaned closer to the viewer, whispering. "Enca has the information. Talk to him." She straightened and said, raising her voice once more. "My escort has arrived. It is time for the opera. We should enjoy it."

After a pleasant farewell, the screen went blank.

Vylisa felt her apprehension build. Something was wrong. The foolishness of her previous burst of pride taunted her. How could she keep everyone safe if she thought only of her own interests? Now she not only had to apologize to Enca, but she had to find out what the chancellor was so secretive about as well.

She lifted another prayer to the Gifter as she rose after putting on her shoes. Vylisa checked to see if her hair was tidy, but found several of the pins had come loose and the braid was falling out of place. Knowing that there wasn't enough time to rearrange the formal style, she tore all the pins out and pulled her tresses from the intricate style. Her hair fell in shining waves as she brushed the remaining snarls out.

Quickly rummaging through her bag, she found a plain clip. Vylisa clasped her hair at the nape of her neck. She studied the effect, almost cringing at the childish style. *I don't have time for vanity or conceit,* she thought. *I need to be reminded of who I am anyway."

Vylisa opened her door and moved into the hallway. She could hear the muted sounds of conversation coming from the ground floor. Her stomach rumbled as the aroma of home-cooking greeted her at the top of the stairs. Plastering a smile on her face, she descended the steps.

As she neared the spacious living room, she saw Enca seated and talking amiably with Kathryn and Chakotay. He glanced up but didn't smile at her before turning back to answer a question from the captain. The regret over her previous actions and concern about what Llireh had told Enca made her stomach roll. Vylisa kept her emotional barrier close around her. She would deal with those things sometime after they ate.

"Did you rest well, Vylisa?" Kathryn asked.

"Yes, I did," she sighed. "I didn't know how tired I was."

"The nap must have agreed with you," Chakotay complimented her. "You look refreshed. I like your hair down like that."

Vylisa laughed. "Thank you."

"Enca told us that the chancellor spoke to you." Kathryn's curiosity was obvious.

"She wanted to know about our trip and if we like the accommodations." Vylisa chuckled. "I told her that we were delighted."

Before Kathryn could ask another question, Tola entered the room. "The meal is ready. Would you please come with me?"

"Since the weather is so lovely, we thought you would like to eat on the back deck." Tola pointed to a long table filled with all kinds of delicious looking food. "Help yourself before you head out. Kersna will serve you drinks once you are settled."

No one declined the invitation. After filling their plates, they made their way to the main patio. The setting sun painted bright orange and purple across the water's ripples. The small group ate in silence as they enjoyed the spectacular display of color.

Vylisa wondered as she thrilled to the beauty before her if the voyagers were enjoying the view as much as she. Unable to stem her curiosity any longer, she opened her mind to their feelings. Their deep awe and pleasure washed over her, deepening her own delight.

Pushing aside her now-empty plate, she leaned back against her chair and smiled. Her parents would love this place. She envied her folks' closeness; the connection of two empathic minds. The very possibility of being able to share feelings on such a deep level created a longing as powerful as the tides in the ocean stretched out in front of them.

Cold reality pushed away the dream. Vylisa upbraided herself. *Enough selfish wishes.* She had work to do and the Gifter had a task for her to perform as well. Sighing, she pulled her thoughts and feelings close again.

"What's wrong, Vylisa?" Enca asked in a low tone, concern evident on his face.

Her face reddened as she remembered what she needed to do. Vylisa opened her mouth to speak when Kersna appeared.

"Is there anything I can get for any of you?" Kersna asked.

Chakotay spoke up first, smiling. "The meal was excellent. I ate more than I should." He patted his stomach. "I need to take a walk on the beach."

Before Vylisa could question whether a walk would be safe, Kersna answered the commander, "The cove is small and completely enclosed on the north and south by rock cliffs. The chancellor had force-fields installed along the ridgelines and sensor buoys set about a half kilometer into the surf for the protection of her many important guests. Ocean Haven truly is a haven for those who stay here."

"Great!" Chakotay stood and extended his hand to Kathryn. "Would you like to join me?"

Kathryn accepted his help to her feet. "Sounds good to me. Vylisa and Enca, are you coming?"

"Not right now, maybe later, but thank you," Vylisa declined, hoping that Enca would stay as well. "I'll just stay here for a while and enjoy the view."

"Since Kersna says it's safe, you don't need an escort," Enca explained. "I wouldn't go far into the water though. It's best to wait until daylight and you're able to see what the shore line is like. Sensors and force-fields aren't any help with that."

Kathryn and Chakotay chatted cheerfully as they made their way to the steps leading the sand. Once they reached the ground, they hurried up and over the grass-covered berm to the beach. It seemed that being at Ocean Haven was helping them both to relax.

Vylisa stood and walked to the railing, continuing to watch her new friends as they toed off their shoes before they walked side-by-side down the deserted beach.

She suppressed another sigh as she turned from the view to face Enca. His expression was intense. Vylisa knew what she had to say. "You asked what was wrong," she began.

Enca nodded, waiting for her to continue.

"I have been wrong and I want to apologize. I let my temper and my pride control me. I still have much to learn. Just because I'm now called ambassador doesn't mean that my ideas are better to yours. The Gifter has shown me how prideful I was. Please forgive me."

She held her hands, flat and opened in front of her, symbolic of having no excuse for her behavior. Her heart pounded but her mind was at peace as she watched him.

Enca swallowed twice before he spoke. "Vylisa, I'm the one who acted disrespectfully to you as both my superior and as a person. I should be the one apologizing." His gaze slid to her outstretched hands.

Vylisa understood that his reluctance wasn't because he couldn't forgive her. He, too, battled with shame for his actions. Finally he lifted his head and slid his palms quickly over her open ones before he placed both of his hands over his heart. In doing so, he declared his acceptance of her apology.

"Thank you," Vylisa whispered passed the lump in her throat.

Without a word, Enca held his hands out to her, mirroring her previous entreaty. Vylisa choked back her emotions, as she gestured her forgiveness, ending with her hands over her heart.

They stood silently staring into each others eyes. Without forethought, she reached out to him in her mind, and she experienced the strength of his emotions -- regret, forgiveness, and most of all, affection. The sensations tugged at her so strongly that she was tempted to move closer, but abruptly she dropped her gaze and broke the connection. She still had her mission. *Gracious Gifter, help me.*

Moving from the railing, she felt his disappointment as she withdrew. Vylisa sat down again in the chair she had vacated, reaching for her half-finished beverage. As she sipped her drink, she remembered that they still needed to discuss the chancellor's call.

After Enca sat back in the chair beside her, she said, "Chancellor Llireh told me to ask you about the latest development. She didn't have time to fill me in before she left for the opera."

"I didn't mean to overstep my authority by taking the call. You needed the rest and I only wanted to let you sleep as long as possible." Contrition was evident in Enca's words.

Vylisa put her hands over her heart once more before patting his arm. "I'm not upset about you taking the message. Thank you for the consideration." She smiled at him before she continued, "I just want to know what she said."

Relief apparent on his face, Enca nodded. "One of the apprentices the chancellor sent to deliver a message to your folks found some graffiti on the fence behind your home."

Vylisa sat up straight as she stammered, "Is my family okay?"

It was Enca's turn to give Vylisa a reassuring touch. "They are fine. The apprentice had the fence cleaned as soon as possible. Your family didn't even see the graffiti, but the authorities assure us that they will keep your home under surveillance for as long as needed."

She relaxed against the back of the chair as she asked, "What did the vandals write?"

"I asked that question too, but Chancellor Llireh didn't know word-for-word. The apprentice told her that it was more of the isolationist's rhetoric. It was something like 'Aliens go home. Netcket is for Netcket.' She doesn't seem too concerned at the moment, but she wants us to be diligent."

"What about our visitors? Shouldn't they be told?" Vylisa worried about how the guests would respond to another encounter.

"Commander Tuvok was contacted. He agreed that we should be cautious but didn't advise any more precautions than we have already taken. Voyager's officers and crew have about ten days more before the repairs are made and their leaves are finished." Enca rubbed his face, his day's growth of whiskers making a raspy sound against his hand. "None of the other crew members have been harassed during their visit. I'm sure that we're doing what we can to keep everyone safe."

Vylisa pondered what Enca said for a moment. After lifting up a quick prayer, she decided that she would trust Enca and the chancellor. She stood and returned to the railing and strained to get a glimpse of her charges as they traversed the short beach. The sun had just slipped below the western horizon, making it more difficult to see. "Maybe we should join them with some lights."

"Let me ask Tola for a couple," Enca said as he went inside.

Vylisa waited at the top of the steps for his return.

The days of the respite went by quickly. The four fell into a far more casual relationship than they would have had they stayed in the city. Vylisa found that the captain loved to explore the tide pools she discovered the first night.

Kathryn peppered Tola with questions about the vast variety of sea animals that lived in the shallow waters. The custodian was an eager teacher, explaining the habits of the creatures. The captain sported a brightly sunburned nose by the end of the first full day.

Although he wasn't quite as enthusiastic as Kathryn, Chakotay seemed to enjoy Tola's lessons as well. The two voyagers also spent some time swimming and combing the beach for shells.

Often during their time at the cottage, Vylisa watched Chakotay tending daily to Kathryn's needs and wants with uncanny skill. Most of the time, the captain wasn't even aware of his solicitude. Once again, Vylisa marveled that they weren't actually mates and wondered how the Gifter might use her to bring them to their bonding.

Enca and Vylisa enjoyed getting to know each other without the formality of the embassy surrounding them. She learned that he would soon celebrate his twenty-fifth solar celebration with his family of two brothers and four sisters. Being the exact middle child of the seven, he was the only unbonded brother. His two unbonded youngest sisters were the same age as her two middle ones.

She hadn't needed to use her gift to discern his love for his family. Each time he talked about them, his eyes brightened with affection, especially when he mentioned his parents. Even though she was curious, Vylisa refused to yield to the temptation to scrutinize his feelings. No one ever explained how difficult it was to keep to the duty the Gifter laid out.

In her room the last evening at the cottage, Vylisa closed the lid of her suitcase. She sighed as she arched her back, stretching out the kinks. Tomorrow they would return to the capital city. The isolationists had caused no further trouble while they were gone. Chancellor Llireh and Commander Tuvok agreed that it was safe for Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay continue with their original schedule.

Besides an uneasy feeling about the wisdom of returning, she couldn't help wishing that she was free to pursue a connection with Enca. Vylisa wondered if she would ask her mother about her parents' courtship. Maybe there was a secret to getting through this attraction until the assigned task was accomplished.

Forcing the melancholia from her mind, Vylisa asked the Gifter for help yet another time. Her charges had seemed to relax and enjoy their time at Ocean Haven, but neither of them showed a sign of being closer to admitting their love for one another.

*Why did you give me such a complicated task? You haven't shown me a way to help bring them together?* Her prayer seemed to fall short, as if it went unheard. Taking a deep breath, Vylisa refused to be discouraged. She still had a week before Voyager left the orbit of Netcket.

She glanced at the clock. Dinner would be ready soon. Vylisa smoothed nonexistent wrinkles from her simple blue dress as she stood in front of the mirror. After that first day, she'd decided to keep the plain hair style. It was much easier to keep neat after swimming or walking the beach. Going back the formal mode didn't appeal to her, but it was part of the job she had to accept.

Hurrying out of the room, Vylisa listened for the others. No sound of voices drifted up the stairs. She smiled to herself. Kathryn said something about visiting the tide pools once more, this time with her holo-imager. Earlier that day, Tola pointed out a sea scorpion in the pool farthest from cottage. Likely the captain would be late for dinner once again.

Vylisa slipped quietly through the door onto the deck and found Chakotay relaxing on a chaise.

"Enjoying yourself?" she teased as she took the chair opposite him and leaned back.

"I don't think I could have planned a better time off." His grin flashed both dimples as he put his hands behind his head. "I didn't miss contact with the ship, and Kathryn needed this break even if she would never admit it."

"I expected Enca to be here waiting for dinner." In the short time they had been at Ocean Haven the embassy escort had shown his love for Kersna's cooking.

"Tola called him away a few minutes ago." Chakotay shrugged. "One of his people needed to speak with him, said couldn't wait until tomorrow."

A shiver of worry slipped down Vylisa's back. She pushed the concern out of her mind. Enca would share with her if there was trouble of any kind relating to the voyagers. She could wait.

"Vylisa, could I ask a personal question?" Chakotay's expression turned serious.

"Of course."

"How long have you known Enca?"

Vylisa was surprised at the direction of the conversation. "The same amount of time you have, why?"

Pausing to pull on one ear, Chakotay said, "I just have the impression that he feels strongly about you. He watches you very closely, but maybe that's just because of his work."

Vylisa blushed and didn't meet the commander's eye. "I'm sure Enca is very good at his job."

"Yes, he seems to be." Chakotay nodded thoughtfully. "In most of the cultures that I've encountered the male is the one who initiates courtship. I assume that here the females do that."

When Vylisa's flush deepened, Chakotay apologized, "Forgive me if I've touched on a forbidden topic."

"It isn't forbidden exactly," she explained. "I've just never talked to someone outside of my family about courtship. After women on Netcket receive their gifting, they are given a task by the Gifter. Upon their fulfillment of that duty, they may seek a mate."

Vylisa didn't have to open her mind much to feel the bitterness filling Chakotay as he repeated the word, "Duty? Sometimes I hate that word."

Before she could stop herself, she asked softly, "Is that what is keeping you and Kathryn apart?"

Chakotay laughed, but the mirth didn't reach his eyes. "I'm more transparent than I thought." He labored to keep his voice calm. "Duty. . . protocols, same difference. Starfleet frowns upon officers in our positions becoming involved. They think there would be too many problems. So I do my duty and she does hers."

"Surely those protocols weren't meant for your situation," she advocated. "No one would expect you to be alone for the rest of your lives just because a rule written for a place thousands of light years away."

Chakotay lowered his voice even more. "I understand that and likely everyone else on board understands it, except Kathryn. She can't let go of the idea that she must get us home. So she will continue to hide behind Starfleet's hedge of rules."

"And you're satisfied with that?" Her question was filled with compassion.

"Satisfied with what?" Enca's voice made them both jump as he quietly entered the deck from inside.

Chakotay cleared his throat before he replied, "We were discussing duty. And to answer your question, Vylisa, I have no other choice." He pushed off the chair. "I think I'll go fetch Kathryn. We wouldn't want her to miss the dinner Kersna told me about earlier. Excuse me."

Enca and Vylisa nodded and watched Chakotay make his way to the beach before either one spoke.

Vylisa needed to control the emotions that had been stirred up when Enca entered the patio. She closed her barrier tightly around her as she asked, "Is there a problem back home? Chakotay told me that there was an urgent call from your office."

"One of my people thinks there is." From the frown on Enca's handsome face, she was sure that he thought so too. "He needed my permission to investigate."

"What is it?" She wrapped her arms around her waist as the worry from earlier came back stronger, stealing the warmth from her body.

"I'm sure that it's nothing." Enca avoided her eyes, as he sought to protect her from his concerns.

Vylisa touched his arm, forcing him to look at her. He looked shocked at how cold her hand was, especially considering the warmth of the evening. Enca grasped her hand and began to warm it in both of his. "Are you coming down with something? Your hand is like ice."

"No, I'm not ill, just worried," Vylisa told him honestly as she pulled her hand away and rubbed hers together. She couldn't allow herself to enjoy his touch. "Please tell me what's wrong. My imaginings are always worse than reality."

Enca exhaled in frustration. "Very well." He moved away to lean on the railing, staring out at the sea. "We may have a spy at the embassy. Someone has not only been leaking the captain's schedule, but they've manipulating the computer, so that it would appear that the demonstrations had been planned and had the right permits weeks in advance."

"Who would do that?" Vylisa was incredulous.

"If someone has indeed been spying, they have to be very good at what they do." Enca rubbed the back of his neck as if to erase tension there. "So far we have no idea who is doing it. However, I think it's safe to say they are part of the isolationist group." Enca began to pace. "I should be in my office, working on this."

"Let's wait and see what your staff finds out," Vylisa said reassuringly. "There's nothing that can be done tonight. We'll confer with Kathryn, Chakotay, and the chancellor when we get back. Let's let our guests relax for a little longer."

Vylisa reached out her hand to Enca again, stopping his pacing. "You're upset about not finding this problem sooner, but you couldn't have known. You helped me once when Pella caused me emotional trauma. Will you allow me to help you absorb some of your distress?" she whispered.

Many feelings played over his face. He seemed embarrassed by her offer, but she refused to reach into his mind empathically. She needed to allow him privacy. Dropping her hand, she said, "Forgive me. I sure you can handle this yourself." Vylisa turned to go back inside.

"Wait, Vylisa," Enca responded quickly. "You talked about pride earlier this week. You aren't the only one who battles it." With a slight smile, he said, "I'd be honored to receive your help."

Vylisa placed her hand lightly on his arm once more. As she opened her mind, the connection was instantaneous and nearly overwhelming. Always before when she helped one of her friends or her little sisters, she'd felt only the rush of emotion as they channeled through and were absorbed. This time the feelings were stronger, more precise, however slowly she was able to soak up part of the impact of the negativity he was experiencing. Finally without delving any further into his mind than the sensations he was willing to share, she severed the contact. Before she could move her hand, Enca slipped his hand over hers.

This time Enca's sigh was one of relief. "It has been a long time since I allowed someone to aid me. Thank you. I feel much more relaxed and ready to enjoy the rest of our evening."

Vylisa looked from their joined hands to his face. The deep blue of his thickly-lashed eyes held her gaze. She wasn't sure how long they stood motionless, but when finally Enca's glance shifted to her mouth and she felt the muscle in his arm tense as he leaned toward her, she jerked back.

Seeing Kersna through the glass of the patio door, she moved to open it for him.

"One day you won't need to run." The whispered comment was so soft that if Enca hadn't been standing close, Vylisa would have missed it. "I'm a patient man."

Vylisa lifted the strap of her suitcase to her shoulder. After checking the room one last time, she carried her things down the stairs to the front hall.

"Are you ready to leave? Kathryn greeted her from the bottom of the stairs.

"I have all my things, but I wouldn't be upset if we could have stayed longer." Vylisa smiled as she set her case beside the door.

"I agree, but don't tell anyone else," Kathryn said in an exaggerated whisper. "I wouldn't want to lose my reputation as an overworked and under-relaxed captain."

"Where's that recording device when I need it?" Chakotay teased, pretending to pat-search his pockets as he joined them.

Kathryn playfully slapped his arm and leaned against him before turning to Vylisa again. "Ignore him. That usually works best."

Enca arrived with his bag, noticing the laughter, he asked, "What did I miss?"

Chakotay clasped his hand over his heart in mock pain. "My captain is advising the ambassador to ignore me. It cuts to the quick."

Kathryn linked her arm through Chakotay's. Grinning up at him, she spoke to Vylisa, "I revise that statement. It's not good to let them know you're ignoring them."

At the burst of laughter that resulted from her statement, Kathryn patted his arm and said, "Come Commander, our chariot awaits."

That afternoon when they arrived at the embassy, Vylisa was astonished by the activity in front of the building. A crowd had gathered to watch a cleaning crew scrub paint from the large, carved mural that covered the wall near the door. Though she couldn't make out the message, she thought the graffiti might be related to Voyager's presence. As her group moved toward the entrance, several guards stepped forward and ordered the crowd to stand back, so that Vylisa and the others could get through the doors.

Chancellor Llireh met them just inside. Despite the dark look of anger and frustration on her face, she greeted them with calm resolve, bowing over her hands. "Welcome back. May the Gifter grant us all a speedy resolution to our current situation. Please come straight to my conference room. Commander Tuvok and Ambassador Neelix are waiting for us there."

Leading the way, the chancellor glanced over her shoulder. "Escort Alocty, your assistant will join us momentarily. He has important news for us as well."

The group strode rapidly through the main lobby and along the hallway. Vylisa was surprised to see that the escort presence had doubled. The atmosphere in the embassy crackled with tension. As she went by, she glanced into the room that housed her cubicle and those belonging to the other apprentices. Instead of working at their desks, the other young women huddled around one of the small tables, talking quietly, their faces pale with worry.

The guards who stood at attention outside the conference room quickly pulled open the doors so that the group didn't have to slow down to enter. Tuvok and Neelix rose from their seats at the U-shaped table. As Llireh gestured for everyone to be seated, the door opened once more and a blue-uniformed escort hurried in. He walked immediately to Enca's side, saluted before handing him a CI tablet.

Enca glanced at the tablet and nodded toward a vacant chair. The guard sat down.

Chancellor Llireh stood at the head of the table. She took a deep breath and said, "We had an incident last night. Vandals left graffiti on the forward mural some time between the third and fourth watch. The message read, 'Aliens are not welcome. Netcket is for Netcket. Be warned -- death is nearer than before."

Vylisa was unable to hold back a shocked gasp. Kathryn's and Chakotay's registered the same alarm.

"Chancellor, when did things go from peaceful demonstrations to death threats?" Kathryn questioned.

"There was one earlier piece of graffiti, painted on the Rosnets' back fence. The person who found it didn't inform me of its violent nature." Llireh wiped the perspiration from her brow. "I apologize, Captain. The apprentice came forward this morning after the latest message was found. I don't think she understood the severity at the time."

"Why weren't we told about the first graffiti?" Chakotay ground out, his agitation apparent.

"I take full responsibility for that, Commander." Tuvok's calm tone seemed out of place in the tense atmosphere of the room. "After I was informed, I saw no need to disturb your leave."

"Uh, Captain, Commander," Neelix nervously interjected. "I agreed with Mr. Tuvok. Because of what we were told, there didn't seem to be any indication of extra danger."

"Excuse me, gentlemen," Llireh interrupted. "The time of blame has past. Escort Alocty has information for us. I'm sure we will need it, so that we can make an informed decision."

Enca stood and scanned the CI tablet in his hand once more before he spoke. "If you will turn your attention to the screens in the table in front of you, you will find a summary of my assistant's report translated for you there. He has proof that our computer system has been compromised. At first, we thought that there might be a spy in our midst, but that isn't the case. Someone has accessed the files that pertain to our visitors' scheduling and the demonstration permit process."

Enca shook his head as if he couldn't fathom the facts of the report. "The access to the system has been traced to a point two solar seasons back when a Tsrukahlian guest beamed to the embassy. He used the Netcket transporters. Someone tapped into our computer using the transporter buffers. My people have been working all night to figure out how to stop this invasion and who might be responsible for it."

Several people spoke at once, but Enca lifted his hand. "Please, I'll try to answer all your questions, just give me time to confer with my aide. I have some questions of my own."

As Enca moved to the other side of the room with his assistant, Vylisa turned to Captain Janeway who was on her left. "I apologize, Kath---, Captain," she whispered. "I knew about the earlier graffiti, but I was told it was the same harmless rhetoric as the demonstrators. And since we were coming back here the next day, we decided to wait to tell you."

Vylisa felt almost physically sick with discouragement. Would she ever possess the wisdom needed to be a successful ambassador? She almost succumbed to the temptation to pull inward and give up, but she knew she wasn't a coward. Although, the thought of learning a new trade began to sound compelling.

"I do understand," Kathryn interrupted Vylisa's thoughts. "Sometimes we make the best decisions we can based on the facts as we understand them."

Something in Kathryn's tone caused Vylisa to listen to the captain's feelings. Guilt, consternation, and regret whirled about, but the understanding Vylisa found there soothed her.

Vylisa opened her mouth to respond when Tuvok caught his captain's attention.

"Captain, I believe it would be in our best interest to assist Escort Alocty and his staff in the investigation."

"I agree with Tuvok," Chakotay added. "We should also check our computers to make sure we don't have a similar problem on Voyager since we have used our own transporters since arriving."

After Enca finished consulting with his aid, the discussion of the best way to handle the situation began. An agreement was reached that Tuvok would work closely with the embassy technicians to find and correct the problem. Enca talked about sending his assistant to Voyager to help examine the ship's system for a similar one.

Chancellor Llireh nodded with grim satisfaction. "This is a good start. Now, as I see it, we have two more things to resolve. The first one is to catch the person or persons who did this. Secondly, we must keep our guests safe. For that, I would like to receive everyone's input." She looked directly at Kathryn. "Captain Janeway, do you have something to say or any questions for us?"

Kathryn stood and rolled her shoulders as if to shrug off the tension. "First I want our Netcket friends to know that I'm not going cast blame. You have been above board and always shown your regard for our safety during our visit. I'm concerned about my crew's wellbeing too, but I'm wondering if you all have thought about your own protection."

Nodding at the surprised look on the chancellor's face, the captain continued, "These threats could be aimed at those of us from Voyager, but they might include Ambassador Rosnet or Escort Alocty or even you, Chancellor."

She moved to stand behind Chakotay, absentmindedly resting one hand lightly on his shoulder. "As we told you, we are ready to help in any way we can to stop these threats."

Watching the captain, now in working mode after spending several days with her in a relaxed one gave Vylisa a start. Kathryn's emotions were controlled and even with her hand on the commander's shoulder any personal feelings for him were completely suppressed. Chakotay, on the other hand, seemed inclined to grasp some of the pleasure caused by her touch before he pushed that awareness aside.

"One thing I would like to suggest, if Chancellor Llireh and the rest of you don't object, is that everyone from Voyager stay where they are for now. If on the ship, they should stay there. Those of us who are on Netcket should stay here, at least until we can ascertain the safety of the transport system. With Mr. Tuvok working closely with Escort Alocty and his staff, I'm sure that we will solve this quickly."

The captain nodded over her hands. "Thank you allowing me to say my piece, Chancellor."

"The Gifter has indeed blessed us with you as new friends." The chancellor smiled briefly. "I hadn't thought that my people could be in danger. Captain, your people are welcome to stay as long as is needed. I'm sure that we can extend the current lodging arrangements for your crew. Since Ambassador Neelix and Commander Tuvok weren't planning to stay and have no place to sleep, I would like to invite them to stay in my home. My mate will be delighted to meet you both."

After Chakotay leaned close and whispered softly, "Tuvok won't be as thrilled as Neelix is at the new lodging assignment," Vylisa steeled herself to keep from smiling at the genuine delight radiating from Voyager's ambassador and the stifled chagrin from the Vulcan.

Forcing her mind back to the present dilemma, Vylisa realized that the tension that had permeated the room had been quelled. In its place was a pervasive sense of composed resolve. She knew that she wasn't the only one who felt confident that together they could solve the mystery.

Chancellor Llireh spoke directly to the captain. "You are welcome to use my secure communicator to contact your ship, and since this room has been checked for any spying devices, you may use this room as a new command center until we find out who is responsible. I think that it would be best if we kept what we have found a secret. If those involved think that we don't know what they have done, we might be able to find them easier."

As everyone rose to leave, Llireh said, "Ambassador Rosnet and Escort Alocty, I would like to speak to you both in my office."

Vylisa followed the chancellor out of the conference room. She couldn't help but be curious. Weariness from the trip home and concern about the safety of those around her bore down on her shoulder like a physical weight.

Once they arrived at the chancellor's office, Llireh sent her receptionist home early. She explained as she closed the inner office door that she didn't want anyone overhearing their conversation.

"Please sit down." Llireh gestured to the chairs. "After Captain Janeway's comment that all of this could be a possible threat to one of us, I realized that we must work to keep everyone safe." She leaned against the front edge of her desk. "I would like to have guards at your home, Vylisa. They can pose as patients."

Smiling, she commented, "I'm sure that Enca can find a few who are in need of at least basic de-stressing. That way your family will be watched over covertly."

"That's a good idea," Vylisa agreed. She tried to shake the sense of impending calamity, hoping the guards would be able to keep her family safe.

"Madam Chancellor," Enca interjected. "I agree that having some of my men at the Rosnets' home is a good idea. However, I think I should be there as well."

"It won't work," Llireh objected. "Since nearly everyone at the embassy witnessed your arrival with no evidence of illness, you couldn't even pretend to be in need of a healer."

Enca opened his mouth to protest before he closed it and he shook his head, staring down at his hands.

Vylisa wished that she could think of a way for Enca to be one of the secret guards at her home. She told herself she always felt much safer when he was with her, refusing to even think about the others reasons for wanting his company.

"I'm sure that we'll be fine," Vylisa said, trying to convince herself that she believed it.

"No," Enca exclaimed, his tone determined. "I know I need to be there."

"There is only one way I can think of to accomplish that," Llireh answered. "You, Enca will have to pretend to be promised to Vylisa. We have time to post your intent on the list. The announcement will be broadcast this evening. No one will be suspicious of a promised couple staying in the same house, especially since you just came back after four days absence. A great deal can happen between two people in that time."

Vylisa heard Enca's startled intake of breath as she also gasped in shock. She glanced quickly in his direction, unsure of his reaction. For the briefest of moments, she glimpsed an expression she didn't understand before he erased it from his face. She stood and hurried to the window, staring out into the small garden.

Behind her, Enca spoke, "I'm willing to pose as Vylisa's promised one."

Turning from the view, Vylisa said, "I can't lie to my family. Besides, my mother would feel that something was wrong. Being promised is too sacred for me to pretend, even to protect myself."

Even as she spoke, she began to worry about her family's safety. How could she ensure that they or the captain or commander wouldn't be harmed? Why did she feel the need to have Enca close by? Her task wasn't accomplished, so she wasn't free to be promised to anyone.

"Please sit down again, my dear." Compassion warmed the chancellor's invitation. "I do understand your stand, Vylisa, but I feel strongly that Enca should stay at your home. There must be a way. Let's ask the Gifter for help."

As the three of them closed their eyes, a peaceful stillness filled the room. Vylisa lifted a prayer, but her mind was divided between two desires. She wanted to keep her family and her charges safe, but she finally admitted to herself she wanted to bond with Enca. The fact that she hadn't accomplished the mission the Gifter set forth shamed her.

Vylisa heaved a sigh, knowing the only solution to the problem might rob her of a future she'd just begun to imagine. Her family and those the Gifter had brought into her life were more important than any plans she might have wished for. Forcing all of her emotions deep into her mind, she made her decision and waited for the others to finish praying.

"Vylisa?" As Llireh opened her eyes, the chancellor searched her aid's face. "Have you received guidance?"

For a moment, Vylisa hesitated before she answered, "Yes, Madam Chancellor, I believe I have."

Vylisa twisted her hands together as the others waited in the silence that hung heavy in the room. Lifting one last wordless plea to the Gifter, she cleared her fear-clogged throat. "May I have a word with Escort Alocty, alone?"

The corners of the chancellor's mouth lifted slightly, but she said nothing before nodding and walking out of the room.

When Vylisa heard the door close, she turned toward Enca. "This is awkward for both of us. I do understand and appreciate what you're willing to do for my family." She held up her hand when he started to speak. "Let me finish. You may feel differently once you hear what I have to say."

Vylisa swallowed the lump in her throat. "As I said before, I can't do as the chancellor suggests, but I do have a possible solution. Enca, I want to ask you to be my bond mate. However, before you agree my plan, I have to tell you the truth. I haven't fulfilled my mission from the Gifter. I'm not sure that I will ever be able to either. My mate could be disgraced if anyone found out about my failure. Think carefully before you ans- - -."

"Yes, I will be your bond mate," Enca interrupted. He reached for her hands but she pulled away.

"How can you be so quick to say yes?" Her heart hammered at the thought that he would be her promised one. Longing so filled her that she was ready to open her emotional gate to reach out and explore his feelings.

"Listen to me, Vylisa," he said, his tone tender. "I understand that you are willing to sacrifice the fulfilling of your task to protect your family and your charges. I want to help you."

His words stopped her. Enca was willing to give up his freedom to help her. She felt foolish. He might be attracted to her, but she felt sure he only agreed to be her promised one out of duty. She wouldn't let him be trapped. She would give him a way out.

"We will be promised, but as soon as we find the culprits, I'll release you from your promise if you wish. It would wrong to enter into a loveless bond. Now, if you still agree, I will go get Chancellor Llireh."

The color drained from Enca's face, but he nodded. "I agree."

Not wanting to examine what had just happened, Vylisa went to the door. Llireh stood just outside, a pensive expression on her face.

"We have come to an agreement," Vylisa said as she stood aside to allow the older woman to reenter the room.

After she closed the door, Vylisa spoke. "There will be no pretending, I've asked Enca to be my bond mate. He accepted. We will publish our promise on the latest list."

Chancellor Llireh nodded as she glanced at Enca's wrist. "If you are certain about this, we need your image for publishing, but first you need a bracelet."

"I didn't think of that," Vylisa said, chagrined. "How can we find the one at this late hour?"

"I have a friend who is a jeweler and her shop is close by. I'll contact her. She will send over a selection for you to choose from. What color stones shall I tell her to bring?"

"Blue, please," Vylisa answered without hesitation. She wanted his bracelet to have stones the color of his eyes. The conviction of her feelings mounted with each step she took. Only the shame of her unfulfilled task and the uncertainty of Enca's affections marred her joy. Maybe she would find a way to win his heart so that hers wouldn't be broken. As her chest tightened with the mere thought of having to release him, she wondered if she possessed the strength to keep that promise.

Vylisa sat still for several minutes, unconscious of things going on around her after Llireh announced that the jeweler would be there shortly and left to guide the merchant back to the office.

Her face warmed when Vylisa came to her senses and found Enca watching her. "I'm sorry, but this is a lot to take in."

"Yes, I understand." He leaned close, opening his mouth to speak when the chancellor returned with another woman pulling a large case behind her.

Llireh left the room after making introductions. Her friend, Kmi Neesa, specialized in promise jewelry. The heavy, rolling case likely held an assortment of bracelets. As much as she wanted to stay and see the bangles, she knew the importance of privacy at a time like this.

Neesa opened the case and worked a lever that turned it into a display table. "I bought most of my blue stone work and including a few special pieces I've just finished." She took the cover off the first tray.

Almost immediately Vylisa saw the one she wanted. The traditional shape and woven tri-color braid were exquisite, but it was the color of stones grabbed her attention. The large, polished lapicites mirrored the exact shade of Enca's blue eyes. Tiny copper-gold stones intertwined with the metals and dangled with the larger gems. She couldn't have designed a more perfect promise bracelet.

"That one," she whispered reverently.

The jeweler lifted piece from the tray and handed it to Vylisa. The gems twinkled as the sunlight from the window hit them. "A wonderful choice, it is a custom, one-of-a-kind bracelet."

"This is the one," Vylisa repeated simply, as she examined it closely, marveling at its beauty.

Neesa nodded and began to refold her case. Except for the faint clicking noises made by the case's mechanism, silence enfolded them. With the final snap, the jeweler bowed. "May the Gifter bless your bonding."

Looking up, Vylisa responded, "I need to pay you, Madam Neesa."

"We can settle the matter later. The chancellor told me you wanted to publish your promise in time for this evening's list."

"Thank you for your assistance."

The jeweler nodded again and left the room.

Staring at the sparkling bracelet in her hands, Vylisa couldn't help but wish that they were going through the ritual for the right reasons. Her heart belonged to him but she wasn't sure about his. She glanced up at Enca, tears of uncertainty stinging the back of her throat. "Would you accept this as a token of our promise?"

"I'm honored to accept." He held out his left hand, watching as she clasped the bracelet around his wrist.

Vylisa took his hand in hers and brought it to her lips. "May the Gifter grant us the blessing of a long life together." She felt awkward reciting the traditional petition and going through traditional gestures, but she meant every word and every motion. Releasing Enca's hand, she waited for his response.

His gentle touch as he lifted her hand caused the deeply buried yearning to rush through her body. As he bowed his head over her hand and brought it first to his forehead, next to his lips, and then to his chest over his heart, Vylisa allowed herself to react as if they were in love. She eased her fingers from his grasp and lifted his chin to kiss him. Before Vylisa had time to dip her head, the door to the office swung open.

"Madam Neesa told me you found the right bracelet." The chancellor said, oblivious to what she had just interrupted. "Let's get your image. The listing deadline is near."

By the time that the image and accompanying listing was sent for publishing, Vylisa wanted to crawl into hiding. All the well-wishes of her co-workers and the shock that radiated from both Kathryn and Chakotay wrenched at her conscience. She hadn't found the time to inform her parents either, so they would probably hear the news from friends or neighbors.

"Use this, Vylisa," Enca whispered as he handed her a small communicator. "You still have time to tell your parents."

Relief washed away some of the guilt. Her parents would be surprised, but at least they would hear the news from her.

"You'll have privacy there." Enca pointed to a small alcove to the side of the lobby. "I'll keep people away until you are finished."

"Thank you," Vylisa choked out. Her gratitude toward him welled up in her heart as she prayed silently. *Gracious Gifter, could he, please, still be mine once this ordeal is over?*

Turning her back toward the rest of the room, Vylisa touched the keypad and waited for one of her parents to answer while fortifying the walls in her mind.

"You're back,' Naroenes exclaimed. "I'll inform Nwad. Will the captain and commander be joining us again?"

"Yes, they will." Vylisa hesitated. How much should she explain to her parents?

"Is something wrong, dear?" her mother asked.

"No, Ahma, I'm fine." She forced a smile. "Is Ahpa close by?"

"Yes, we're in the office working on some last minute admissions." She smiled softly. "But don't worry; we still have plenty of room for our guests."

"I have something to tell you both."

"Of course," Naroenes responded and switched to full video while motioning for her mate to join her in front of the screen.

"Welcome back, Firebird." Torret grinned as he spoke. "Did you enjoy yourself?"

"Yes, thank you, Ahpa." Vylisa took a fortifying breath before she spoke. "Enca Alocty and I are promised to each other. It will be published this evening. I wanted you to know before you heard about it from elsewhere."

Shocked and confused, neither of her parents spoke for several seconds.

"B-b-but…" her mother finally sputtered, "it is too soon. What about your task?"

"Please trust me," Vylisa pleaded. "We couldn't wait."

"Vylisa, are you saying that you. . ?" Disappointment tinged her father's voice.

It only took an instant for Vylisa to understand what he was asking. "Oh no! No, Ahpa, I'm not . . . We haven't . . ." Her face warmed with embarrassment.

She watched relief wash over both of her parents' faces. "I know that this is all very unusual, but I have to ask if you could please ask Nwad to prepare a room for Enca as well."

"We will be happy to have him stay with us." As her mother's smile wavered, her father wrapped his arm around Naroenes' shoulder.

"Firebird, I do hope that you will explain your sudden decision." He continued before Vylisa could speak, "However, we do trust you and will pray for you in the mean time."

Vylisa breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you, I will see you both soon." Ending the call, she turned back to find that Enca was still guarding her privacy.

Moving to his side, Vylisa touched his arm. "Thank you for thinking about this." She handed him the communicator without looking up.

"Is everything all right?" He put his hand on her back.

She leaned into the warmth of his touch. "They were shocked. At first they thought that I. . . that you. . . that we were. . ." She couldn't finish. The embarrassment she felt prodded her to move away from him.

Enca glanced around quickly and finding no one close by, he reached out and pulled her into his arms. "I'm sorry that the circumstances aren't perfect," he said against her temple.

Afraid of her own response to his words and to his embrace, Vylisa kept her body stiff and her mind closed. "We must trust the Gifter to make it right." Her statement sounded false to her own ears. "I think we should find the captain and commander. Dinner will be ready soon at home and we must not be late." She moved out of his arms and walked back toward the conference room.

That was when the thought hit her. What about his parents? Shouldn't she inform them? Or would he not want her to talk to them since theirs wasn't a normal promise commitment. Vylisa turned back and said, "I should talk to your parents too, shouldn't I?"

"Traditionally . . ," he faltered, as if he didn't know how to express himself.

"We should be as traditional as possible given the circumstances," she interrupted gently. "I'm sorry that I didn't think of it sooner."

"No, you don't understand," Enca said as he shook his head. "My parents won't be upset if they don't hear from us before they see the listing."

"Maybe not, but they should know first hand," Vylisa disagreed. She grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the nearest empty office. "We need a communicator with a full-sized viewer for this."

"I'm astonished at how excited and accepting your parents were of our sudden announcement." Vylisa looked stunned as she walked out of the room in which they had made the call.

Enca's response of loud, hearty laughter stopped her mid stride. Vylisa swung around in time to see him bent at the waist fighting for composure. Placing her hands on her hips, she demanded, "What's so funny?"

Straightening to his full height, Enca took a deep breath. "I didn't mean to be rude, but sudden though our promise announcement was, at least my parents were informed."

"I don't understand."

Enca moved closer to where Vylisa stood in the doorway with her back to the hallway. His eyes still sparkled with mirth, but his voice was serious. "My family isn't the most traditional one on Netcket. First of all, my father was the one who proposed to my mother." He nodded as in agreement with her stunned expression. "And my oldest brother and his mate eloped. They met on an exposition to the ice caps. She didn't want to wait until the exploration was finished -- they would've had to wait nearly a solar season -- so they found an old monk in a remote village who performed their bonding ritual.

"One of my sisters invited my parents to the ceremony three days before it was to take place. She didn't want my folks to have to be responsible for the huge cost of all the formalities, but she couldn't leave them out by eloping. So they're very happy with a sudden yet traditional proposal announcement."

For a moment, Vylisa stood speechless until she saw her earlier worry in the light of his family's history. She grinned. "I'm relieved that I didn't cause you embarrassment or disapproval. They were gracious to me. I think I will like your family very much."

"I think they already like you." His smile warmed Vylisa to her toes.

"Ambassador Rosnet," one of the apprentices called from the opposite end of the hall. "Your transportation is ready, and the guests are waiting. Please follow me."

"I think that we should hurry. I know that I don't want to be on Nwad's bad side," Enca quipped as he took her arm.

By the end of dinner, Vylisa was so exhausted that she was ready to cry. At the table, her family including Nwad and the escorts turned patients asked a myriad of questions, admired Enca's bracelet, and talked about the ceremony. Enca sat by her side and fielded most of the questions and told them all that they hadn't made any definite plans.

Although she knew that the food must taste as delicious as usual, Vylisa couldn't seem to take more than a few bites. She ordered a cup of coffee and waited for the reputed reviving effects of the hot drink. Downing the liquid in a hurry, she nibbled on a roll as she waited.

A little while later, Vylisa felt the caffeine jolt her system, and she joined the conversation. That was when she noticed that Kathryn and Chakotay were quieter than usual. Opening her mind, she focused on only their emotions. The captain's feelings of worry and frustration, Vylisa understood, but the commander seemed to be envious of Enca and Vylisa.

Vylisa was reminded of the conversation she had with Chakotay about duty and what was keeping her from seeking relationship, however now she'd somehow overcome that barrier. His longing for Kathryn was painful to behold. Closing off her mind's gate again, she allowed the frustration and guilt of her unmet task to buffet her. *Gifter, I'm a failure. Enca deserves better.*

Soon the caffeine wore off, but Vylisa tried to fight her exhaustion. She stifled a couple yawns before Enca noticed her discomfort.

Leaning close, he whispered, "Are you all right?"

"I'm tired," she answered flatly. At that moment, all she wanted to do was to crawl into her bed and forget the whole situation.

Enca spoke in low tones to her mother who sat at his other side. Naroenes glanced in her direction before she nodded.

"Please excuse us," Enca announced as he stood, his hand on the back of Vylisa's chair. "It's been a long day for all of us. I'll walk Vylisa to her room and then retire to my own. May the Gifter grant us all a peaceful and restoring rest." He bowed over his clasped hands.

After helping Vylisa to her feet, Enca supported her out of the room. She leaned on him, forgetting to say to good night the others. Once they reached the family wing of the house, she could hardly lift her feet.

"It's not far now," he murmured reassuringly as he tightened his hold around her waist.

When they reached her door at last, Enca opened it for her. He gave her a slight push into the room. "Rest well, Vylisa."

Vylisa turned and grasped his arm to prevent him from leaving. "Thank you, Enca," she told him. "I'm not usually such a weakling."

"I'm sure it is nothing that a good night's sleep won't cure." The blue of his eyes had darkened at her touch. "I'll leave now."

Even though she had to lean against the door jam to stay upright, she didn't want him to go. Tightening her hold on his arm and lifting her other hand to the back of his neck, she pulled his mouth to hers. For a spilt second, Enca stiffened with surprise, but a moment later he put his hands on her waist. The kiss was more wonderful than she could have imagined, but as she linked her hands and moved closer, she heard giggles.

Vylisa dropped her arms and looked toward the sound. She got a quick glimpse of her two youngest sisters slipping into their room.

"Younger sisters are such a blessing," Enca teased as he grinned down at her, his hands still at her waist.

Vylisa wearily returned his smile. "I'm not sure that I would call them that at the moment."

"Good night, little one." Enca gave her a quick kiss on the forehead and walked back toward the main room.

She knew that she needed rest, but Vylisa continued to watch Enca as moved down the hallway. A smile stole over her face as he stopped in front of her sisters' room and winked. It was obvious they were still eavesdropping and hadn't closed the door because more girlish laughter spilled into the hallway. Vylisa thanked the Gifter that her promised one could be so patient with her silly little sisters.

As Enca finally reached the far side of the main room, he turned and gave her a quick wave before he disappeared down the guest wing's hallway.

The next morning, Vylisa felt refreshed and more optimistic than the night before. She refused to think about her strange and uncertain betrothal when her family and new friends were possibly in danger. Enca's presence in her home helped to calm the apprehension that threatened her peace of mind.

After Nwad's delicious breakfast, the four rode back to the embassy. Enca left for his office while Vylisa, Kathryn, and Chakotay met with Tuvok and the chancellor in the conference-room-turned-command-center.

After formal greetings, Voyager's security officer spoke. "We have news, Captain," Tuvok's countenance gave no indication whether the news was good or bad.

"Go ahead, Mr. Tuvok."

"Mr. Kim ran a full diagnostic on Voyager's computer. He found no tampering or compromising of our systems," he told them, satisfaction evident on his face.

"That's good news," Captain Janeway exclaimed. She turned to the chancellor. "What about the embassy computer?"

"We had people working secretly through the night, without success although they are close to narrowing down the source of the intrusion." Llireh shook her head. "I hope that you will agree to allow your staff to join ours in the work."

"Of course," Kathryn agreed quickly.

"I think we should continue to keep our problem quiet while we search for the solution. I'll release a statement this morning. Something on the order of, 'Our Voyager guests will participate in an exchange of computer technology at the embassy.' That will explain the presence of your officers working on our computers. I am sure that Mr. Tuvok will agree that there is nothing that you need worry about as it pertains to your Prime Directive."

The Chancellor chuckled at the surprised looks on the commanding officers' faces. "Ambassador Neelix and Mr. Tuvok were extremely informative at dinner last evening."

Vylisa watched as the others made up plans for the rest of the day. She felt adrift since she had only basic computer knowledge and therefore, couldn't be of help. After a few minutes of listening to the discussion, she opened her mouth to excuse herself when the chancellor turned to her.

"Once Ensign Kim arrives, Enca will send his assistant to fill the others in on what he has done so far. You and I must keep up a semblance of normal activity while they work." Glancing back at Kathryn, Llireh said, "Captain, I want to remind you of the state dinner tonight. Since you have been away for several days, I don't see how we can postpone it. Whoever is responsible for the threats and tapping into our computer knows about the festivities. I'm happy that we had scheduled it for the embassy ballroom. Security will be easier to see to. Let's hope that we can find the person or persons soon and that we can fix the problems they created."

Soon Vylisa and the chancellor left the others in the conference.

"I will allow to you catch up on your work while I see to some of mine that has been neglected since yesterday." Llireh smiled as she bowed over her hands and walked toward her office suite.

Vylisa found plenty of work to occupy her time throughout the day. She didn't see her charges or Enca until late in the afternoon.

"I think that the lovely ambassador has lost track of the time." Enca's gently teasing voice, coming from the opening in her cubicle, startled Vylisa.

She glanced quickly at the time and stood, quickly tidying her desk. "I had no idea it was this late. I need to find the captain and commander."

"They are waiting for us in the mobile unit. We have plenty of time to get ready for the dinner." He smiled and took her arm. "I must go by my home for my formal uniform."

"How is the computer work coming?" Vylisa asked cryptically as they passed several occupied desks.

"We are making progress," Enca said evenly. "Commander Tuvok and Ensign Kim have many interesting innovations for us to consider."

"How long do you think it will be until you're finished?"

"We should have things wrapped up in a day or two." Enca slipped his arm around her waist, pulling her close to whisper in her ear. "I think you should consider being in the escort corp."

Surprised, Vylisa looked up.

Again Enca spoke quietly into her ear. "You're good at double speaking."

"I've had to learn how to say things delicately in the diplomatic service." Vylisa whispered back.

Enca nodded as one of the apprentices lifted her head and smiled at them. "We have an audience nearly every where we go these days." Raising his voice he said, "Let's not keep our guests waiting."

As exhausted as Vylisa felt while getting ready for bed, she couldn't help allow the memories of the evening to flow over her. The dinner had been delicious, a mixture of Netcket and Alpha Quadrant cuisine with the help of Neelix. All of the dignitaries vied for a chance to visit with those from Voyager. The chancellor told her in the course of the evening that she wished they could have arranged for a dinner such as this earlier since their honored guests were winning many new friends.

Vylisa pulled her nightgown over her head as she admitted to herself the truth of why she enjoyed the evening so much. The reason had a name, Enca. Her heart had pounded so loudly at the sight of him in his dress uniform that she was certain that everyone in the house could hear it.

The satiny-gray uniform accented by the blue stripe along the top of his broad shoulders, down the full length of the sleeves and the side of the trouser legs brought out the brilliance of the color of his eyes. The three slashes of silver braid across his forearms proclaimed his rank and matched the fringe trimming his cuffs and the edge of his coat. Again the word *beautiful* floated through her mind and on its heels, *he's mine* filled her with joy.

Try as she might, Vylisa was unable to put her thoughts and feelings into words. She wanted to tell him how wonderful he looked, but when she opened her mouth, he interrupted her with, "You look lovely tonight, little one," and escorted her to the waiting mobile unit.

Her pale blue gown was simple and of classic Netcket design. Gathered at the shoulders with a high round neckline, it flowed to her ankles with only a single gold cord cinching the waist. Her sandals matched the color of the belting.

Both Kathryn and Chakotay wore Starfleet dress uniforms. Vylisa marveled at how the same style could be so flattering to both of them. She did, however, wonder if the captain always wore a uniform to formal occasions or if she ever enjoyed wearing a gown.

All during the evening, Vylisa kept her mind attuned to her charges because she still had the hope that they might surrender to the feelings she knew they both felt for each other. Although Chakotay allowed himself to admire his captain, Kathryn seldom gave herself the same privilege.

Vylisa refused to let discouragement dwell in her thoughts. She lifted her prayers to the Gifter, begging for help with her charges and reminding the Gifter how short their time left on the planet was. *Maybe things are going to fail because I am promised to Enca.*

Slipping into her bed, Vylisa sighed. Along with the discouraging thoughts about her charges, she couldn't push away the fear that she would lose Enca as well. Although he had been attentive to her all night, she couldn't shake the feeling that he was doing so out of duty, not affection or love. Toward the end of the evening, she reached out with her mind to listen to his emotions. She found them to be warm and cordial but only in a general way.

Vylisa fluffed her pillow and closed her eyes. She hoped that she would be able to sleep but she feared her troubled mind wouldn't allow it.

She whispered into and darkness, "Loving Gifter, forgive me if I have run ahead of your plans. I love Enca more than I thought possible. How will I find the strength to release him?" Determined to rest, she tried force the sad thoughts out of her mind. Eventually she fell into a fitful sleep.

Waking early in the morning after a troubled night and unable to sleep any longer, Vylisa went to the dining room and replicated a cup of the captain's favorite drink. She sat, sipping the coffee while looking over the day's schedule on the CI tablet in front of her. The plans included spending most of the time in the planet's archive of antiquities.

Vylisa was glad that today wasn't a work day. Her lack of sleep and anxious thoughts would have combined to keep her from doing her job well. Later they would visit the archive of antiquities, but for now she could relax.

"May the Gifter bless your day, Maiden Vylisa," Nwad greeted her from the kitchen door. "You are up early after being so late at the banquet."

"May the Gifter bless your day as well, Nwad," Vylisa returned the greeting without answering the older woman's remark.

After a few moments, Nwad nodded and asked, "Would you are like to eat now or wait for the others?"

"I'll wait." She stood, holding her now-empty cup and her tablet and walked to the replicator. "I think I'll have another cup of coffee on the porch. I don't often get the chance to leisurely enjoy the early morning."

Stretching out on the reclining chaise, Vylisa sipped from her cup and allowed her mind to wander. The song of the birds soothed her troubled heart as the hot liquid warmed her body.

"Did you sleep well, Enca?" Vylisa felt rather than heard his approach.

"I did," he replied as he bent down to kiss her quickly. "How did you sleep?" He lowered his body into the chair beside her.

Vylisa's heart seemed ready to burst for the delight that filled it. Maybe he did feel more for her than obligation or duty. They were alone and he'd kissed her.

"Here is your tea and breakfast, Escort Alocty."

Nwad's announcement and arrival startled Vylisa and crushed her hopeful thoughts. Enca must have known the housekeeper would be following him. He played his part well.

Enca jumped up to help the old woman with the heavy tray she carried. Even though Nwad was flustered by the attention, Vylisa could see that she was pleased by his assistance.

"I must go to the embassy this morning," Enca explained as he lifted a plate of rolls and offered one to Vylisa "My assistant and Mr. Tuvok have worked through the night again. Apparently Vulcans are able to go for long periods without sleep, but I intend to relieve them both so that they can get some rest."

She shook her head, declining the proffered food.

Catching her eye, Enca searched her face. "You didn't answer me when I asked how you slept."

Vylisa broke eye contact and stared into her cup before she took a swallow to erase her mouth's dryness. "Not well, I'm afraid," she told him truthfully.

His concern, deep and full of alarm, washed over her before she closed her mind to his feelings as they threatened to overwhelm her. What could it mean? She wouldn't allow herself to speculate; instead she reached for his hand. "I'm fine. The Gifter knows I tend to fret and that doesn't help me sleep."

"But you have been so exhausted lately. . ." His words trailed off, his concern still written on his face.

"Please don't worry." Vylisa squeezed his hand before she let go and took a piece of fruit from his tray. As she ate the tangy tidbit, she decided to steer the conversation in a different direction.

Checking to see if the door between the house and the porch was closed so they wouldn't be overheard, she asked, "Has there been any new discoveries with regards to the computer break in?"

"They were able to track the tapping." He rubbed his chin, frustration obvious in his expression. "The records had been altered to look as if the trespassing was older than it was. After they made that discovery, they traced it Ambassador Neelix's first transport to Netcket. We now know the station used and Neen Pella was the guard assigned there."

"Pella?" Vylisa exclaimed. "Has she been located?"

Enca frowned and shook his head. "It's as if she has vanished, although the search for her continues. Maybe once we solve the computer puzzle, we will be able to find her."

As soon as he finished his breakfast, Enca left, promising to join the group at the archive as soon as he could.

Later that morning, they arrived at the museum. Vylisa felt uneasy without Enca beside her. Despite the four attentive escorts assigned to their party, she longed for her promised one's presence. How silly she was! Forcing the worry from her mind, she smiled at her Voyager friends.

"I hope you will enjoy our antiquities archive," she said as she entered the lobby. Just beyond, she saw the large arched opening to the caves that housed the museum.

Another escort met them as he came out. He assured them that the museum was secure. Their small group had the whole place to themselves with only the few pre-screened guides waiting to answer questions.

Kathryn paused as she saw the entrance to the caves. "I thought we were going to a museum."

"We are," Chakotay spoke up before Vylisa could explain. "I've been reading about it. This vast cave system has the perfect climate for storing the many items of Netcket history and the minerals in the system form a natural shield against transporter theft. That kind of robbery was a problem in the early days of the technology. The museum was moved here almost a century ago."

Vylisa couldn't help but chuckle. "You could be an archive guide, if you ever tire of your duties as Voyager's first officer."

"Thanks, but I'll stay where I am," he answered with a dimpled grin.

At first, Kathryn seemed bored as they moved through the displays of prehistoric items. Vylisa could tell that she wanted to be helping those working on the computers. Chakotay tried to keep his captain engaged in conversation as if he too understood Kathryn's preoccupation.

Once they reached the exhibit featuring the early scientific history that Kathryn's interest was finally piqued. She asked the guide a myriad of questions and the delighted older man answered in great detail.

Vylisa and Chakotay set on some benches leaving the other two in deep conversation.

"I'm glad she found something to take her mind off the computer problems," Chakotay admitted. "Kathryn usually isn't happy unless she's a part of the solution, and on Voyager she's helped to solve many a problem."

Vylisa watched Kathryn waved her arms in the air as if to explain something. The guide grinned as he moved his hands to show her how to correct her minor angle error. The captain laughed, patted the man's shoulder, and bid him good bye.

When she spied where they waited for her, Kathryn joined them. "Mr. Setsik is a fountain of information and old tales. I would love to come back to see this part of the museum again. He told me that the next section of the archive might have more of interest to me."

Kathryn's bearing was relaxed for the first time that day. She gave them her half smile and asked, "Are you rested enough, or should I go on by myself?"

Chakotay grinned as he rose quickly to his feet. He stood at mock attention. "At your service, Captain. I'm ready if you are."

As she followed a few steps behind, Vylisa opened her mind to the thoughts of the other two. A gentle touch of companionship flowed between them. Kathryn's feelings, though still more guarded than Chakotay's, held a wistful longing for more than she would ever allow to happen.

Chakotay's admiration for the woman beside him was almost painful for Vylisa to observe. Now that she loved Enca, her empathy seemed to be heightened. *To think that I was so eager for this ability when there can be so much sadness involved.*

They walked through low-ceilinged tunnel to the next large area, something caught Vylisa's eye. She looked up to see a tiny light flash as Kathryn and Chakotay passed. Almost without thought, she rushed forward and intent on pushing them out of the closed-in space.

The ground began to rumble and sounds like booms of thunder assaulted her ears before the rocks of the cave began to fall around them. Vylisa felt a rock ram into her side while another hit her head. She fought to bring air into her lungs as well as the dizziness caused by the blow to her head while she moved to where Kathryn had been thrown by the blast.

The air was thick with dust nearly blocking the glow of the few emergency lights, as small pieces of rock still rained down on them occasionally from above. Vylisa pulled her shirt neck up over her nose and mouth, in an attempt to filter the air she breathed. Assessing her own injuries as her parents had taught her, she knew she had a couple cracked or broken ribs and a possible concussion. Calling on the Gifter, she summoned her mental strength to block the pain until help arrived. Her charges needed her.

Kathryn groaned and pushed herself up as Vylisa examined her. Blood oozed from a gash on the captain's arm and a cut on her temple. Vylisa used her mind to absorb some of her pain as she tore the hem of her shirt for a compress to stop the bleeding on Kathryn's arm.

"Chakotay, where is he?" Kathryn's voice cracked with fear.

"Let me tie this first," Vylisa soothed. "You can't help him if you lose much blood."

A few second later, Vylisa finished her task and Kathryn stood, holding a cloth to her temple. She grabbed Vylisa's hand as she fought dizziness. "He was right beside me."

Both women saw Chakotay at the same time. He was nearly covered with debris from the blast. Fine dust and small stones covered his face and upper body while large chunks of rock hid his legs from view.

Kathryn dropped to her knees next to him and felt for a pulse. Her brief look of relief would have been enough to tell Vylisa that he was alive although Vylisa already knew, having probed his mind to find out for herself.

"His pulse is weak," Kathryn reached up to slap her commbadge. "Janeway to Voyager."

"Go ahead, Captain," was the static filled response.

Vylisa felt Kathryn tightening her resolve to be strong. "There's been an explosion and Chakotay has been badly hurt. We're trapped."

"Understood, we'll contact the embassy after we beam you to the ship."

"Transporters won't work in these caves. Contact Tuvok right away." Kathryn closed her eyes against the pain in her head. "Get us out of here."

"Aye Capta. . ." The young officer's answer was cut off in a burst of renewed static.

Kathryn tried several times to reestablish contact with the ship but failed. She slumped back against a rock near Chakotay's head and picked up one of his hands and gently caressed it. "Please Chakotay, hold on. I can't do this without you." Her choked whisper showed her stress.

The desperation that Kathryn felt pulled at Vylisa. Finally the captain allowed her feelings for her first officer to surface and to run freely through her awareness, and it might be too late.

*What if it is too late for us all?* Vylisa thought, her heart torn between her charges and her own wish that Enca was with her. After she lifted another silent entreaty to the Gifter, she was able to put aside her selfish needs to focus on what she needed to do.

Kneeing next to Chakotay's side opposite Kathryn, Vylisa worked to lift as many of the fallen rocks from his legs as possible. With Kathryn's help, they removed all but one boulder.

Although his legs lay at odd angles, Chakotay had no visible open wounds aside from a small cut on his forehead. While they removed the stones, even that gash had stopped bleeding. Vylisa instructed Kathryn to lie down next to the unconscious first officer to help keep him warm while she searched the rest of the cave room for a medical kit or even some sort of covering for him.

Vylisa had never experienced such discouragement as she finished her short tour of the room. She found nothing that would help her treat Chakotay. Her own injuries caused her great pain anytime she bent to move a stone or lift a broken piece of a display.

"Kathryn," Vylisa spoke quietly as she returned to Kathryn and Chakotay.

She watched as Kathryn struggled to focus. "What is it?"

"There is only one thing I know to do, but I'm not sure if we can do it." Vylisa searched through mind for all the memories of her parents working their art of healing. One stood out as the best to draw from to help Chakotay.

"We have to do something to help him, Vylisa, please," Kathryn begged. "I can hardly feel his pulse and his breathing is even shallower than before."

"As you know, my parents are healers although they aren't physicians." Vylisa coughed to clear the dust from her throat. The pain in her side made her gasp as she knelt beside the injured commander. "I suffered a compound fracture of my arm once, and while my parents waited for the medical unit to arrive, they fused their minds with mine to keep me from going into shock. Even though I'm not trained in the technique, I think that you and I can stabilize Chakotay until help comes."

"What can I do to help you?" Kathryn voice filled with fear and confusion. "I'm not empathic."

"True but you do love him," Vylisa explained simply as she gently lifted Chakotay's hand.

When Kathryn nodded, as if consciously admitting her feelings for him for the first time, Vylisa asked, "Are you able to sit up?"

Voyager's captain slowly pushed herself into a seated position. It was then that Vylisa realized that she would have to help Kathryn with her pain before they could help Chakotay.

"Keep a hold on Chakotay's hand while you take my free hand." Vylisa shivered as Kathryn clasped hers with an icy grip. "First, let me take your pain. Watch it leave through your finger tips to me. I will lock it away so you will only be vaguely aware of it."

Vylisa felt the fear and doubt, and she pulled those emotions away from Kathryn. Narrowing her focus so that she didn't experience but only channeled them, the awareness of Kathryn's pain flowed freely to that remote part of Vylisa's mind reserved for it.

"That's so much better," Kathryn sighed.

"Now, Kathryn, listen carefully to me," Vylisa commanded in a soothing tone. "Let yourself feel your love for Chakotay. Open every door to every part of your emotions, to every place you've forced that love to hide. This is not a time for denial. Chakotay needs that love to live."

"Okay," Kathryn answered, in trust she resigned herself to do as Vylisa said.

As Kathryn's raw and uninhibited emotions began to rupture forth from their previous confinement, Vylisa's eyes stung for the beauty and strength of those feelings. Knowing she didn't have the time or the permission to view what she was channeling, Vylisa garnered her strength and focused everything on Chakotay.

Even in his unconscious state, his mind was full of feelings for Kathryn. One by one Vylisa pulled away the pain, fear, and confusion and replaced them with Kathryn's love. Nothing prepared her for the beauty of his response. Joy and enraptured delight rushed back toward Kathryn in seemingly endless waves.

Vylisa pulled her conscious awareness further from the emotions as they moved back and forth between the two humans. Now she could observe and monitor the flow of feeling without taking part as if she watched traffic rush by from the vantage point of the sidewalk.

She wanted to see if Chakotay's condition had improved, so Vylisa forced her eyes to see her surroundings again. The first thing she saw was the faint smile and hint of color on his dust-covered face. His breathing seemed deeper and more controlled. If she could only hold out until help arrived.

When Vylisa glanced at Kathryn, she was shocked to see the joy that had transformed the captain's face. Unblinking, the captain focused on Chakotay, holding onto his hand as if it were her lifeline.

Closing her eyes as her own pain increased, Vylisa shut out the things around her and moved back to monitoring Kathryn and Chakotay. She wished again for the rescuers as concentration as the channeling became more difficult to maintain.

*Please merciful Gifter, help us.* Her faith began to weaken as her body reached it limit of endurance. *I can't do this much longer.*

Tears coursed down her cheeks as failure seem inevitable. Faintness and pain worked their way out of confinement. Vylisa recognized and almost welcomed the symptoms of shock as they wrapped around her when sudden strength infused into her being, both emotional and physical. The cold weakness faded and the throbbing in her head and side subsided.

*Praise the Gifter!* Vylisa shouted in her mind as she was able to continue her channeling with the renewed strength.

Time no longer existed as she ministered to Chakotay and Kathryn. Vylisa did wonder how long they had been trapped, but she no longer worried about it. Help was on its way.

Vylisa slowly became aware of a vibration and a crumbling sound. Opening her eyes, she turned toward the mass of rubble from the first explosion. Streams of light shone from between the rocks as other stones fell into the room. She could hear voices calling to her, but it took her several tries to respond.

"We're here," Vylisa croaked out.

Kathryn seemed unaware of the rescuers until they crawled through the opening they had shored up. Before long, the tunnel was secured so that Chakotay could be lifted to a stretcher and carried out. The captain refused to let go of her XO's hand until a medic insisted that she be examined. With the connection broken and her awareness of pain heightened, Kathryn welcomed the auto injection he gave her.

At a gentle touch to the shoulder, Vylisa turned her attention from her charges.

"You need to let a medic examine you, too," Enca's gentle voice insisted. He helped her recline on the stretcher that been put on the ground next to her.

"I will, but only because I can't bend enough to get through that opening," she maintained.

When they arrived at the emergency vehicles, Vylisa sat up and looked around. She realized that others, likely the guides, had been injured in the blast. The person responsible had to be caught. She watched as Tuvok walked toward her with a few embassy escorts. Maybe she could help by telling them what she knew.

The orderlies pushed the last gurney into the last emergency vehicle. Enca stood as close as he could without touching Vylisa. While she bravely explained to the security officer what had happened before and after the explosion, he shored her up with his emotions of calm and determination.

When Vylisa finished telling Tuvok her account of the events in the museum, she glanced up at Enca. "Could you help me get to the hospital?" Vylisa chuckled and then grimaced at the pain the simple laugh caused. "I seem to have missed the last unit."

"Of course," Enca agreed at once. "If you will excuse us, Mr. Tuvok, Vylisa needs medical care."

Tuvok nodded his head as Enca cautiously laid his hand between Vylisa's shoulder blades and led her to his waiting mobile-unit.

"I should've insisted that you go to the hospital first. Are you sure I shouldn't call another emergency unit?" he asked as he watched her gingerly get into the front seat.

"I'm in and it will take less time if you just take me there." She leaned back against the seat. Now that her friends were safe, Vylisa began to actually feel other bruises and scrapes she hadn't been aware of before. The very act of breathing now made her broken ribs scream in protest.

However, when she looked over at Enca, his eyes reflected her pain. He gently touched her hand, the same strength and well-being that assisted her in the cave flowed over her again. He had somehow helped her and she knew in that moment that he did love her, nothing would change that. Sighing, she closed her eyes and dozed.

When they arrived at the small hospital, Enca pulled close to the entrance and hurried to find a wheelchair and helped her into it. The guard at the door didn't even blink when they left the unit parked in a restricted zone. He called out as they passed, "I'll watch it for you. Take care of our ambassador."

Inside the atmosphere was one of near chaos. The staff hurried back and forth from the tiny emergency room. Enca tried to get someone's attention since no one was at the front desk.

Finally he turned to Vylisa. "I'll find someone. I'll just move you out of the way so this crowd doesn't bump you." As he turned to go, Enca reached out his hand and tenderly caressed her cheek.

"I'll be all right, Enca, just hurry." She relaxed in the chair and prepared to wait as she watched him head down the hallway. The farther away he went the more the pain assaulted her. *I hope he finds someone soon although I could call my parents. I'm sure I'd be would be fine at home.*

Closing her eyes against the throbbing of her injuries, Vylisa felt a soft touch to her neck before she heard a faint hiss. She opened her eyes and tried to turn her head to see what had happened, but she couldn't move. She was paralyzed.

"You can't call for help now." A low growl sounded from behind, close to Vylisa's ear. "We'll go where we can have a nice, undisturbed chat."

Pella! Pella had found her. Vylisa could do nothing as the former station guard turned the chair around. She tried but failed to cry out for help. In fact, she found it difficult to even swallow. What was going to happen now?

*Gifter, help me.* At least, her mind still worked. She had refused to let fear control her back in the caves. She wouldn't allow it now. Vylisa closed her eyes again and tried to pull her emotional barriers around her mind, but it wasn't as easy as usual this time. Although she could think clearly, command of her inner defenses was sluggish and slow amidst the agony of her injuries.

As Vylisa worked to fortify herself against the anxiety that feverishly battered her mind, she realized that the chair wasn't moving any longer. Opening her eyes, she found they were in a darkened room with Pella staring down at her.

"Interesting experience, isn't it, Maiden Ambassador?" Pella sneered, a humorless smile on her face. "And don't think that you have a hope of someone else hearing your emotions. I know how to block out all intrusion. Soon you won't even notice that your limbs and vocal cords don't work. Soon you will experience real pain, the pain of fear and loss, of knowing that your mind will never be the same. That man, Enca Alocty will never want you after I'm through with you. Just like Mot didn't want me after he lost Ennah."

Finally Vylisa understood that Pella had done all of this for Mot, to try to win him. It was so tragic that so much trouble came from ill-directed desire for another, she thought as she watched as the other woman pulled a chair in front of her own.

"Shall we begin?" Pella's eyes gleamed with unnatural brightness as she took both Vylisa's limp hands in her own.

Emotions, strong and virulently dark, battered the protective barriers Vylisa had tried to erect moments before. Piece by piece the walls crumbled as feelings as powerful as gale-force winds struck them. Slowly her own sense-of-personhood and the peace-of-mind that had helped her through the past few weeks began to be washed away by hatred and rage, her strength slipped away like sand through her fingers.

Fear like she'd never known ripped at the fabric of her being. The pain of her wounds increased with each barrage of malevolence that struck her weakening awareness. In her mind, she screamed out her desperation, still clinging to the hope that someone might be close enough to feel her cry.

Buffeted and bruised by the pounding of frenzied wrath, Vylisa felt herself begin to surrender to the attack. Weakened and alone, she had no reserves, nothing with which to fight such a strong enemy. Just as she was ready to give in and welcome the frigid blackness that beckoned, she felt a tiny shaft of warm light and heard a whispered word. "Love."

*Holy Gifter,* her heart whispered back. It was then that she remembered her mother's words. "Everything that is required will come to you at the proper time. . ."

In her mind, a bit of calm like the eye of a hurricane surrounded the wounded fragment of what was left of her personhood. Vylisa yielded her weakness and impotence to the Gifter. She felt something flow into her heart and mind. Love, pure and unadulterated, pushed against the hate. Love squelched the fire of the hate, subdued the flood of the rage, stilled the onslaught of the dreadful fear, and erased the pain of the loneliness.

Soon the tiny isle of serenity became a continent; the storm that had raged against her became only the smallest of breezes. Vylisa opened her eyes to see Pella slumped to her knees, her hands covering her face, weeping. Vylisa's own throat felt thick gratitude. How would she ever be able to thank the Gifter enough?

A loud bang sounded as the door crashed open and a bright light startled both of the women. Vylisa tried to find the source of the noise, but the drug-induced paralysis prevented her. Suddenly she felt her chair move and roll gently into the hall. She heard Enca behind her giving orders to take Pella into custody.

Enca! He'd found her. His love wrapped her tightly as if he couldn't help himself. Vylisa let the relief he felt rain over her and answered with her own love and gratitude. In front of her, he dropped to his knees and carefully took her hands. She was safe now, with her beloved. All of the pain of the day and all of the hate and rage, would soon be a distant faded memory.

"Forgive me for leaving you," Enca pleaded his voice thick with emotion. "I'll make sure that you're safe now. Your parents are on their way here. You're going to be fine."

"Please sir, we should get the ambassador into a treatment room." Vylisa heard another voice as if from a distance.

A great heavy sleepiness washed over Vylisa as she was wheeled into a room and lifted gently onto a bed. She fought to stay awake but the soft cloud of fatigue beckoned her. After sending one more emotional caress toward Enca, she relaxed into unconsciousness.

The first thing Vylisa noticed as she pulled herself out of dreamless slumber was the lack of pain. She took in a deep cleansing breath and felt only the reviving of her senses. In the next second, warm loving feelings surrounded her from all sides.

"So you're finally going to wake up, Firebird?" Her father's voice quavered.

"Ahpa," Vylisa whispered as she opened her eyes and turned toward the sound.

"Yes, we're all here." Her father lifted her hand and kissed it before gesturing for her mother to come forward.

"Oh Vylisa, we were so frightened." Even though tears filled her eyes, her mother smiled broadly.

"Don't cry, Ahma," Vylisa soothed. "I'm sorry you worried, but the Gifter was merciful." She looked around the unfamiliar room and saw bright sunlight streaming in the window. "How long have I been unconscious?"

"Almost a full day," her mother told her in a hoarse whisper. Clearing her throat, she continued in a more normal tone, "The drug that you were given took some time to work out of your system, so the doctors thought it best to let you sleep it off."

Swiftly she remembered friends. "Kathryn and Chakotay, how are they?"

"They are fine," Enca answered from the other side of her room. He reached out to her mind with his love before he continued, "They have been waiting for you to wake up, so that they could visit you."

"Let them come in, please." Vylisa pushed up into a sitting position, ecstatic that she had full control of her body once more.

Her parents left to get some rest before she came home since they had been at the hospital the entire time she was unconscious.

Kathryn and Chakotay's visit brought a welcome surprise. They entered her room, hand-in-hand; their countenances beaming with joy.

"I'm so glad that you're okay," Kathryn exclaimed as she moved next to Vylisa's bed. She grasped the younger woman's hand. "I…, we can't thank you enough for what you did."

"It isn't necessary, Kathryn."

"I think it is, and you aren't going to argue with the captain of a starship, are you?" Kathryn's mock glare made everyone smile.

"No I suppose I'm not." Vylisa lifted her other hand in surrender. Changing the subject she asked, "How are you two feeling? I have been out for a while."

"We're both fine, though our Doctor tells me to stay off my feet as much as possible for a few days. My legs were pretty messed up, but he knows how to use the osteo-regenerator. I suppose I won't be running any foot races for a while." Chakotay grinned as Kathryn slipped her arm through his.

Vylisa's heart warmed to watch the easy show of affection between the two.

Kathryn smiled when she caught Vylisa's scrutiny. "I had no idea when you told me about the mind fusion that it would not only save Chakotay's life but open a new phase of mine."

She shared with Vylisa that when she first asked him to join the crew as her XO, she fought the attraction she felt. Kathryn refused to be disloyal to her fiancé.

"Once I received the message from my fiancé back home, telling me of his marriage, I contemplated pursuing a relationship with Chakotay but decided against. The protocols and regulations against such a liaison weren't the deciding factors. I felt guilty for stranding my people in the delta quadrant and for considering my own happiness when so many of the crew mourned the loss of loved ones back home. I locked my feelings for him away.

"After the Doctor treated our injuries from the bombing and sent us to rest, I discussed my feelings openly with Chakotay for the first time. I finally realized that hiding my love from him didn't help the crew grieve less for their losses nor did it help them heal from that grief." She sighed and leaned her cheek against Chakotay's arm.

Chakotay added his point of view. "I have only vague memories of our minds being empathically connected, but I finally knew that she really did love me and she knew I felt the same. After a bit of discussion, we talked to Commander Tuvok. Our ever-logical security officer told us that our people already thought we were in a relationship, and no one begrudged us that happiness. 'So, I fail to see how publicly acknowledging your affiliation would cause a problem.'"

"Although the repairs to Voyager are complete, we received permission to stay a while longer. We're going to have a party on board the ship and have invited your family and most of the embassy staff. Of course, we want you to be there as well."

After the command team from Voyager left, Vylisa was allowed to get dressed. While Vylisa waited in a chair for the physicians to release her from the hospital, Enca asked if she felt able to receive two more visitors. He told her two of the isolationists, Yniij Nodnol and her son-in-law Mot wanted to apologize for the actions of one of the members.

Vylisa experienced a twinge of apprehension, but Enca assured her that they were no danger to her. She pushed aside the fear and agreed to see the pair.

When the old woman and her son-in-law walked into the room, everything about them bespoke of humility and contriteness. Their heads hung and they kept their eyes on the floor.

Vylisa felt their regret and knew it was genuine. "May the Gifter lift your burden, Madam Nodnol and Mr. Nodnol."

When they lifted their heads to respond, they gasped in unison, staring at Vylisa with shock-filled eyes. Mot's mother-in-law would have fallen if he hadn't grabbed her arm and helped her to a chair.

Turning to Enca, Vylisa asked him to get water for Yniij.

After taking a few sips of the water, Yniij finally found her voice. "Maiden Ambassador, you are the image of my late daughter, Ennah. Your hair and eyes especially," she explained, breathlessly. "I think I understand why Neen was so adamant about being involved demonstrating against the group you had charge over."

"I've known Neen Pella since she was a child. She was Ennah's best friend, or so we always thought. I ignored the little things; like how she always wanted everything that Ennah possessed. I know now she wanted Mot as well." Tears filled Yniij's eyes. "When my daughter disappeared, Neen told us she saw her leave with an alien. I didn't even think to doubt her."

"You had no way of knowing, Mother Yniij," Mot reassured her, "I lived next door and have loved Ennah as long as I remember. I, too, noticed small incidences where Neen tried to undermine that affection, but I ignored her. Neen was gifted almost a full season before Ennah which was when she tried in earnest to win me. I reminded her that she needed to concentrate on the task the Gifter gave her. She told me that her task had already been accomplished on the station.

"Once Ennah received her gifting, Neen no longer pestered me," Mot said as his face reddened. "When Ennah proposed, I didn't even ask if she had completed her task. I loved her deeply and wanted her so much, that I convinced her that we didn't need to wait for our bonding ceremony. If only I hadn't been so selfish. As it turned out, she didn't agree until she talked to her 'best' friend, Neen."

Mot's voice thickened as he continued, "It was soon after we were. . . together that she told me she was going to visit Neen on the station. Ennah told me that she had a surprise for me at dinner that night."

"I know this is my fault," Yniij interjected. "I spoiled her and even though I could feel Neen's jealousy, I ignored it."

"No Mother Yniij, I'm to blame as well," he said as patted her hand. "After Ennah's disappearance, I was frantic. I wanted to blame someone, anyone but myself. Neen gave me that person, an evil alien. And when Ennah was found pregnant, I refused to take my responsibility. Instead, I insisted that we find the brute that had spoiled my love. The one thing I don't regret is going through with the bonding ceremony. That time with her is precious to me."

"You didn't believe the doctor's report that her baby was yours as well?" Vylisa spoke for the first time.

Then as if things clarified for him, he gasped, "Her child really is ours. I'm a father. . ." Mot sat, stunned speechless.

Yniij Nodnol rose stiffly and placed a hand on Mot's shoulder. "I believe it is time for you and I to leave the ambassador and to visit the little one. Thank the Gifter that your parents took her in."

After a few words of farewell the further subdued Nodnols left. Vylisa reached for Enca's hand. Her heart wrenched from the painful story she'd just heard.

"How very tragic!" Vylisa blinked back the tears that filled her eyes.

Enca pulled her up and into his lap and nuzzled her cheek. "I will forever thank the Gifter I didn't lose you."

"Me, too," she sighed as she relaxed into his embrace. "I love you."

"I love you too," Enca responded before he kissed her.

As soon as Vylisa arrived home, her mother and the housekeeper insisted that she rest. Reclining on porch chaise in a nest of unnecessary pillows and blankets provided by Nwad, and replete from a dinner of all her favorite foods, Vylisa enjoyed the calming sounds and fragrances of the early evening. She allowed her mind to rehearse the events of the day.

"Such joy-filled thoughts," Enca teased as he entered the porch with a tray which he put down on a table. He sat in the chair next to her and poured her a cup of coffee. "I hope they are thus because you're thinking about me."

"Always," Vylisa replied. Since she knew her mother arranged for her to be alone with Enca, she decided to ask the question she had pushed aside because of the lack of privacy. "It took me some time to figure out what happened in the cave. I nearly gave up and such strength surrounded me. I didn't understand it was you until you entered the cave. I have to ask. How long have you been gifted?"

Enca's soft chuckle made Vylisa smile as she prodded, "Out with it. As your promised bond mate, you can have no secrets from me."

"I received the gifting just after my twentieth solar celebration." He heaved a sigh. "It was a lonely time. I knew enough to understand that I wasn't allowed to share with anyone except another gifted male, my future promised one, and our future family. I finally found an old gifted monk in the northeast mountains. I lived with him for a few months before I began my training as an escort. I used the disciplines he taught me to keep my abilities secret. The training helped me in my work at the embassy as well."

"Did you know . . . what did you feel . . . ?" Vylisa couldn't find the words to ask the question.

"Do you mean did I know you were the one immediately?" He lifted Vylisa's hand and wove their fingers together. "I felt this." And with that wave after wave of feelings washed over her; glad surprise, thankful awe, followed by deep love.

"I thought you were beautiful and was amazed that you weren't taken," Vylisa offered simply, not meeting his gaze. "But I had my task. I refused to reach out to your mind. It's a good thing too because if I had felt then what you just shared, I would never have been able to think about anything else."

"Vylisa, my beloved." The tone of his voice made her look into his eyes. His blue-eyed gaze held hers. "I'm pretty good at masking or mirroring my emotions. Just like you, I'm able to filter out those I don't want others to know. Though I admit there were times when it took all of my inner strength. For instance, at the embassy dinner you were so beautiful, and then you were so disappointed when you opened to my feelings and found only the general ones that I almost broke down. I never meant to hurt or deceive you, but I, too, had a task from the Gifter."

Vylisa paused for a moment while trying to process all that he had just told her. "Are you telling me that you kept me from hearing your feelings at the embassy dinner?"

"I've developed the ability to, for want of a better term, mirror the general positive emotions around me," Enca explained. "Women expect to be able to listen to men's feelings. I learned the hard way that they get suspicious if you aren't showing any."

"So that's how you surprised me that first day in the cottage. I was listening to the feelings in each room, but you must have been blocking yours." So many things finally made sense.

"We had that argument. I was so upset that the only way I could deal with all the conflicting feelings was to completely shut them off." He looked chagrined.

Vylisa lifted their still-joined hand and kissed his fingers. "I still can't believe how arrogant I acted toward you. Thank you for your forgiveness."

"And I'm grateful for yours," he said, his voice low and tender as Enca glanced around the room. "Are you feeling well enough to sit with me on that sofa? There is too much distance between us right now."

"My thoughts exactly," Vylisa replied with a grin. Pushing her way out of the pile of pillows, she stood and following him to the sofa. She leaned into his arms after they sat down.

In the evening's quietude, Vylisa pondered everything he'd just told her. She knew that now they could share anything, but she still felt shy about asking personal questions.

"I feel your curiosity and your reluctance," he whispered into her ear. "What's your question?"

"I never thought about gifted men having tasks, but it does make sense. What was yours? I'm sure that you have figured out by now what mine was." She blushed, remembering how close she had come to failing the Gifter.

"You really don't know?" Enca fought a smile. When she shook her head, he answered, "It was to help you complete yours."

Vylisa allowed the joy and gratitude to flow toward Enca. The answering sensations of love and contentment lit a blaze of desire, stronger than she had ever known. For a moment, she feared that she would give in to it, but as she tried to pull away in her mind, she also felt his withdrawal."

Turning, Vylisa reached up with one hand and cupped his face. "I think we need to decide upon the day for our bonding ceremony. I can't pretend to be strong or patient for very long."

The morning seemed to be brighter and more beautiful than any Vylisa had ever experienced. She laughed out loud as she pulled her journal out of its hiding place. Today the bonding ceremony would unite her forever with her beloved.

The night before one of her sisters asked if she was nervous. Her answer had been, "Not in the least." Even now in the early morning light, she experienced no anxious moments, only pure and unadulterated joyful anticipation.

It seems almost ridiculous to try to record what has taken place since I last wrote. Documenting my gifting, meeting the voyagers, receiving my task, and meeting my only one would take the rest of the day and into the night, so I will focus only on recent events and leave the rest for another time.

This past week has been amazing. My injuries are completely healed as are Kathryn's and Chakotay's. I am thankful to live in an age when medicine is so advanced. Voyager's repairs are complete. Kathryn told me that the crew is refreshed and ready for their duties once more.

They stayed longer at the space station than originally planned. Partly to make sure Chakotay was fully restored to health. However their main purpose was to plan a wedding. Yes, the party they planned was a wedding. Thank the Gifter, they decided to have a bonding ceremony, although they don't call it that.

After a bit of discussion, they'd asked if they could stay even longer in space dock, so that the chancellor could officiate. I have to say that Voyager weddings are elaborate. Bridesmaids, flower girl, best man, ushers, flowers, rings, and a reception with a large cake.

I am so glad that Enca and I will stand before our family and friends and vow our love to each other and that we will never part. Yes, there will be a big party afterwards but nothing as formal as the one on Voyager.

One thing that I did like was the beautiful white gown Kathryn wore. Simple in lines with no ruffles or lace, the dress that skimmed her petite body fell all the way to her toes. A cornet of flowers, I believe she called them Peace roses, graced her head and the bouquet she carried.

I didn't resist the temptation to listen to their feelings as they pledged their promises. However, after a few moments, I pulled that door closed; the emotions too powerful and too intimate for any outsider to witness. I have asked forgiveness of the Gifter for invading their privacy.

Enca told me later that he understood why I yielded to the temptation since he had once fallen for the same lure. How blessed I am to have such a man to share my name and my life! In a few short hours he will be Enca Alocty no longer. "Enca Rosnet," I love how that sounds and looks as I write it.

Yniij Nodnol and her son-in-law Mot have started to visit his daughter. Yniij's note to me said that the reunion went better than they'd hoped. Mot's family welcomed them both. I was excited to read the last line where she told me that the isolationist group was officially and completely disbanded.

Neen Pella has been sentenced to a facility for the criminally insane. The authorities hold no hope that she will ever be able to recover, but my parents have volunteered to work with her. I'm so thankful for their forgiving example.

The former guard confessed that she kept Mot's mate a prisoner on the space station and practiced her mind control/torture on Ennah before she allowed her to return to Netcket. She planned that Mot would reject his pregnant promised one if he thought the baby was an alien offspring.

When Mot went ahead with the ceremony despite the fiction Pella told him, Neen decided to present the idea of starting the isolationist group to Yniij, thinking it would keep her close to Mot so as to win him away from his bond mate.

Something about the compassion my parents are showing Neen Pella make me wonder about the horrible wound her psyche must have suffered. I pray to the Gifter for her healing and that I will one day be truly able to forgive her. Enca assures me that it is possible, and one day the painful memories will no longer touch me.

I see that my journaling time is almost over. I still need to help my family with the last minute preparations. I can't wait to see my beloved in his birth season color. I adore this particular Netcket bonding tradition. Since he was born under the color blue and I under green, I can't imagine better choices for either of us.

Ahpa once told me that he'd hoped his first daughter would be born with red hair under green as he had been. I chuckle to think of being born under pink or red.

I do admit that I'm not sure I will like short hair, either for Enca or myself, but unlike Kathryn's and Chakotay's use of rings as an outward symbol of their vows, I want to be sure everyone knows we belong to each other. Both sets of parents will see to it that the lengths of braid that are cut off during the ceremony are crafted into matching bracelets. Ahma assures me that there will be plenty leftover to be used in making a wall hanging for above our marriage bed.

Enough of that, I must write just a little more. Today will be the last full day of my Voyager friends' visit to Netcket. Thankfully, they stayed this extra time. I feel honored they did and that they cut their "honeymoon" short to attend our ceremony.

Chancellor Llireh's gift to them was a night at her coastal cottage. She told they were welcome to stay longer, but Kathryn declined, saying that although she no longer felt the need to press so hard toward reaching the alpha quadrant as before, it was still one of her goals.

Enca and I will spend our first bonded week in the chancellor's cottage. My superior has been so kind to me. She told me that upon my return, I'm to have my own private office. Enca has been promoted to Forth Level Escort and reports directly to Chancellor Llireh.

As I wipe tears of gratitude and of sadness from my face, I know that I will never forget the task the Gifter gave me. To be involved in helping Kathryn and Chakotay to fully understand the love each held for the other, I was given a rich and precious gift. Their love will help them as they reach their goals in life. I think they will find a way back home with the Gifter's help.

Oh, I can feel that Enca is awake. How wonderful to know his love this way! I need to go now. Thank the Gifter for this blessed day.