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The man beside him did not breathe. His skin was the shade of early morning snow, fallen back over high cheekbones in close imitation of a serenity that had never been there in life. Blond strands had dried plastered to his forehead, the smear of blood only another shadow amidst the tangles.

He reached out to brush a cold hand, sculpted from bone-white marble, and whispered, "Tom—!"

The whisper struggled up his throat, pushing to become a scream

Like he’d screamed when a ragged blade found its mark just under the lowest rib, and pain jolted the tall frame — "Tom!" — because it was impossible, unthinkable.

All was quiet now. The rasp of voices on the inside of his skull had stopped, and when he looked up not a shadow danced across the dulled steel transoms. The light that fell through the frayed curtains of the shelter was unclean and blurred. He blinked his eyes and wrapped his fingers around the cold hand and thought he would never move again.

He couldn’t leave.

He had to watch over Tom.

 

The scream still gathered breath under his breastbone when Harry Kim shuddered awake. The fingers of his left hand crawled blindly through the folds in the sheet and found only the forever dry and cool fabric of Starfleet Standard Issue bedcloth. Harry made himself sit up.

All he could drag forth to inspect in the light of reason was the quiet ending of the dream. Too quiet to be anything but a cover image that camouflaged truths erupting in nocturnal flights of fury. A fury he couldn’t remember, although an excess of adrenaline shocks lingered queasily in his stomach.

Ambient lighting swelled into a soothing midnight yellow. The bed beside him was empty. Like it had been the last night and every other night before. He levered up, flung his T-shirt over his head and across the cabin. His hands were trembling. From every direction, the solid cleanliness of his quarters questioned the dead weight of cold, sick fear inside him — but there was no answer he could give.

Harry slipped from his cabin as if his presence there had been illicit in the first place. As if he’d taken over somebody else’s life.

________________

Ship’s night had swept the mess hall near empty. In one of the corners, engineering crew were busy arranging sandwiches into a precarious pile on a tray. Which meant that B’Elanna was working overtime and had flown into another flare of temper.

Harry moved for the replicator and entered his order without thought. Over his shoulder, he caught a golden blur as the two crewmen passed from the room. He carried his drink to a table and sat with a generous view of space.

Everything around him confirmed the reliable, settled reality of Voyager, everything was exactly how it ought to be. Except for Harry Kim who stared at his own hands, wrapped around the mug, as if they were alien objects.

He forced his head up to anchor his gaze in the vast reaches of space, distant behind transparisteel, filling his vision with stars Voyager’s navigational charts could not identify. But the stars had lost their soothing childhood magic and promise. The drink was hot and had no discernible taste. Sipping on it, Harry wondered, with a recently acquired distraction, if it was just his imagination that turned the recycled air too dry. It seemed to rasp in his lungs, until every breath became an ache in his chest.

"Mr. Kim," a formal voice articulated from somewhere at his back, "would you mind if I joined you?

"Of course not," he answered mechanically, surprised at the flawlessly normal sound of his own voice. Typical, he thought. Ensign Kim, always compliant and polite to a fault. At least he could let Ensign Kim do the talking.

Tuvok lowered himself into the center of his view with quiet prudence, suggesting that he’d read an unspoken leave me alone on Harry’s face. "Mr. Kim," he said again. "It is not the first time that you pay a late visit to the mess hall."

"Surely that doesn’t make me a security risk." Harry felt the feeble smile dry on his face, the pathetic attempt at humor entirely wasted on the Vulcan.

Tuvok lifted an eyebrow at him. "Security risks are not my present concern." He paused. "I have studied your report carefully."

Always straight to the point, Tuvok; no compassionate beating around the bush, no allusions giving him a chance to deny before anything irretractable had been said. Harry stiffened, the muscles in his shoulders and back drawing tighter.

"That report wasn’t particularly easy to write," he said haltingly. "It’s not as if I’d forgotten anything, but when I sat down to explain what had happened, it all became very dim. Like something not entirely real."

"An effect of the clamp, doubtlessly," Tuvok said.

Harry looked down, into a half-drained mug that cooled between his fingers. Sure, blame it all on the clamp, Harry. No need to be a martyr, when everyone else has gone back to business as usual.

Across the table, Tuvok steepled his fingers. "You have been through an extremely trying experience, and with very limited control over the situation. It is unreasonable to assume a responsibility you never had."

Harry looked up at the Vulcan, framed by stars as cool and undeniable as his logic. "Control," he echoed, his tone pressed as if that word had been stuck in his throat for a while. "I lost control, that’s what happened."

I lost control.

Innocent words repeating themselves over and over with the maddening echoes of a steel drum. But of all Voyager’s crew, perhaps Tuvok alone could see the monstrosity captured in those simple words.

"Indeed," Tuvok intoned.

The change of expression was barely perceptible, perhaps only a figment of human projection, always and irrationally eager to credit the Vulcan with emotion. Harry waited, thinking how many times he’d floundered before Tuvok’s impeccable countenance. Tonight, it deserved the name of comfort.

"You may be aware," Tuvok said unexpectedly, "that I recently found myself in a similar position. I was forced to confront my own violent potential. My ability to kill another sentient being and derive a certain satisfaction from the act."

"Yes." His heart was racing.

Tuvok nodded. "Under the influence of the neural implant you call the clamp, your aggressive potential was artificially stimulated. Under ordinary circumstances—"

"But we don’t live in ordinary circumstances, do we?" Harry broke in. "Not just in the Delta quadrant..."

He caught himself and sent his gaze over Tuvok’s shoulder to wander among those unnamed stars. Better to handle this on a rational level. Here was an intellectual problem to be solved, its bottom line the old paradox of space travel. To expect the unexpectable. To be prepared not just for strange worlds, but for the stranger in himself. The stranger space travel brought out in everyone. Sterile Academy wisdom he’d absorbed, idiotically thinking himself prepared...

"I want to accept it was me," he said in the thin voice of rationality. "I don’t think there’s any way around that, unless I start splitting off parts of myself every time something incalculable happens. What would I be left with?"

Tuvok let it pass without objections. "Every sentient species has its innate violent instincts," he said neutrally. "The same is true of humans."

"I was warned," Harry returned bluntly, "but I refused to listen. One moment I was trying to protect Tom... Lieutenant Paris, and the next — the next instant I could have killed him."

"You did not do the deed."

"In my dreams, I do. Every night."

It was out before he could leash the words, the confession wrung to the surface like a cold sweat. And the words brought a strange detachment. Here was a rational being discussing the incomprehensible with the sobriety befitting a Starfleet officer. He could have laughed.

Tuvok studied him with interest. "In his report, Lieutenant Paris emphasized that he does not blame you for submitting to the influence of the clamp."

"I know he doesn’t. And I suppose it doesn’t give him nightmares either."

"Perhaps." Tuvok tilted his head. "Lieutenant Paris may simply measure his own actions against a different set of principles. Compared to his ordinary attitude, the difference made by the clamp may seem less significant."

The reasonable part of him participating in the conversation almost smiled. Tom didn’t exactly live by a firm set of principles, and discipline came to his volatile temper only as some inevitable exertion. "I’m not like that," Harry said, and checked himself immediate-ly. "What I mean is — I was taught to admire self-control, and people who’ve learned how to keep a grip on themselves."

"As a Vulcan, I can only applaud such a philosophy," Tuvok answered, yet a glint of curiosity continued to haunt the dark eyes. "Control over our confused emotional responses allows for freedom of the intellect, and more." He paused. "Greater self-awareness also heightens other faculties of the psyche. It is a double-edged effect. Some argue that the result is greater sensitivity, others have cautioned not to take discipline to an extreme, since repression can render the primitive drives more destructive."

"And what do you believe?" Harry asked, unthinking.

"It is a double-edged effect," Tuvok repeated. "And it may be that discipline is not the only answer. If it becomes an ultimate goal, not a tool, it will most certainly result in delusions."

Know yourself...

A very reasonable advice — but from the other side of rationality, survival instincts recoiled and howled at him.

Harry lowered his head, glancing sideways, his face had to be an open book to the Vulcan perception. "I never really wondered," he said tightly. "I never thought control meant that much to me, it was just... part of my upbringing."

"Self-awareness and self-mastery do not always converge," Tuvok answered obscure-ly. "Although the former is essential to the latter." He rose abruptly, but the sometimes prevalent stiffness had disappeared. "Regrettably, there is no counselor aboard Voyager who’d be better qualified to answer your questions than I am. You are still agitated and upset. Perhaps you will find it in you to discuss your troubles with someone you trust. A friend." He inclined his head. "Good night, Mr. Kim."

"Good night," Harry echoed, not quite catching up with all Tuvok had seemed to imply. That he should talk to someone. To Tom, even. If he knew what to say —

Don’t you know, don’t you know just too damn well—? Harry silenced the voice of caution that forever invented new excuses and circumscriptions.

It was bad enough that he’d met a killer when he stared into the tainted mirror of the penal colony. Not a stoic samurai, not Beowulf or any of his childhood heroes, only a naked soul ready to kill in a frenzy. He’d turned away from the mirror, put the stranger to sleep instead of taking a closer look — but not fast enough.

Not fast enough to ignore that the uglier truth lived where he’d least expected it. Offendingly simple, that truth. Every rage burned from the same fire. He’d fought to protect Tom just as viciously as he’d beaten him later — a dying man, too weak already to fight back.

His fingers linked, protection against an instant surge of desperation and cold nausea. Control, how he needed that now. And yet, what if blind control also merged the passions it refused to see — wasn’t that what Tuvok had implied? Know yourself—?

But that dark mirror showed only formless instincts, reeling towards insanity once the props of reason failed. Until protectiveness became obsession and fear turned into anger, until there was nothing left but one insensible passion that answered to many names. Rage, frenzy. And, perhaps, love.

________________

He hadn’t meant to fall asleep. He never slept during the day. But from some hidden level of mind, exhaustion had claimed its share. Wrenched him back to the enclosure of dreams that stalked him.

Harry sat up on the couch, his clothes clammy and plastered to his skin. The image of Tom’s sunken features was clear before his inner vision, cut out with the merciless precision of an epitaph, taunting him with a semblance of peace. But there were snatches of different sights and sensations, horrifying fragments his waking mind chose to ignore —

— fingers sliding, digging in deeper... sweat-sheened skin and bodies twisting in a dead-lock, writhing in heat... the terrible heat raging through his body, trembling in his hands, on his mouth... licking, biting, kissing... hands rising up his throat — there...
pay him back
pay him back for making me want
making me want so hard
quiet
quiet, Paris.

His hands were shaking with cold anger as Harry changed into fresh clothes, fumbling because he had to get away fast. Away from thoughts chasing in circles, spinning inward on a collapsing spiral. Beyond the locked door of his quarters his own life was waiting to be reclaimed. If he could find out how.

 

Sandrine’s was crowded — understandably, since their latest adventure had shortened everyone’s much-needed shore leave. Harry wandered in hesitantly, putting himself to a test. Unable to face confrontation and yet unable to stay away. And Tom’s presence focused his mind absolutely.

At the center of the room, the pool table shone its calm, rich green. The white ball flashed across it and almost jumped off the table.

"Ahh sskret!" Neelix muttered, clasping the cue stick to his chest as if to hold himself upright with it.

From his position in the corner, Harry heard Tom’s chuckle and encouraging words. He was a good teacher, he’d eventually get Neelix to overcome all the fidgeting and sputtering and master the game. Just like he’d taught Harry. Sometimes impatience seemed to burn all the way through Tom, as if he had a thousand urgent things to do at once and no clue where to start, but games brought out the patience in him. Games and flying. He clapped Neelix’s shoulder, then bent over the table to appraise the balls that clustered near one corner like space debris on the margins of a singularity.

Tom’s expression changed, the humor lost itself to concentration softening the set of his mouth. A blond strand fell into his forehead, but he didn’t push it back, his mind was in his fingers positioning the cue stick on the table. A slight change of angle, the difference a millimeter made. The actual motion came with the usual lightning pace and sent two balls shooting towards opposite pockets. Tom straightened and smiled at Neelix. Confident, completely relaxed as ever.

Abruptly, Harry made himself stop watching and chose a course for the bar. It wasn’t safe, being here. Not when the sight of Tom rekindled sensations that wound him up tighter and tighter until he wanted to cross the room and... shake him.

Damn you, Tom, how can you be so cool?

Of course, it would be much like Tom to turn his back on disaster with a shrug and a quip that committed yesterday to Starfleet chronicles, so what. Then again, who could tell? The notorious flippancy was Tom’s defense perimeter for a handful of secrets all the better guarded. Harry leaned against the bar and told himself that his own facade of composure was probably just as flawless. Nobody except Tuvok had noticed. And, for a fact, he’d stayed out of Tom’s path whenever possible in the last few days.

Sandrine leaned across the bartop, demanding attention with her bottle blond coiffure and an equally awesome bust. "And what can I do for you, Ensign?" she purred with the usual, lavishly French inflection.

"A beer," he answered absently. "Thanks."

"Cheers," someone said from the side when Harry raised his glass. Lieutenant Casaval from Engineering. "To a poor substitute for a holiday."

He extended a polite smile. "With luck, we’ll find another shore-leave suited world sometime soon."

"Not here, we won’t." Casaval sighed and tugged at the ribbon that held her thick brown hair tied at the nape.

Just then, a small jolt passed through the deck and the bottles behind the bar clinked faintly.

"Oops," Casaval said. "Here they come already."

"Here come what?"

"Asteroids, space junk. Torres says we’re to expect a major bombardment if we stay on course. Haven’t you heard?"

"I had a free shift today."

"It’s a desolate sector, nothing that even deserves to be called a planet for parsecs. Just the sorry remnants of whatever worlds got blown to shreds here."

"But some of those asteroids might have valuable mineral deposits," Harry guessed.

"That’s right." Casaval smiled at him and drained her glass. "You can bring a light to our Chief Engineer’s eyes, just mentioning the possibility." She straightened. "I gotta get back there. See you later."

"Sure."

Then, there was no one left to talk to, to take up the empty place by his side and confirm that things were perfectly normal. Harry finished his drink fast and left, absconding to one of the adjacent booths where holodeck programs could be created and modified. With a deep breath, he settled himself and redirected his mind to concentrate on work, duty, pragmatic problems.

He called up the day’s log first, but preliminary scans of the sector revealed only the random distribution of shapeless asteroids, most of them small enough to vaporize at fractional contact with Voyager’s shields. Nothing yet to kindle B’Elanna’s ambitions.

"Computer, list parameters of holodeck program Harry Kim Three," he requested.

The monitor brightened with a skeletal configuration of data, then blinked a modest question at him. Before Harry could enter any of the specifications, the door sighed open at his back and cool light from the corridor streaked across the console.

"What’re you playing with?"

He didn’t flinch or stiffen, small reactions like that were always easiest to control — and anyway he’d recognized Tom’s presence that treacherous split second too early. Before he could reasonably identify the intruder. But he knew it was Tom, maybe because he’d avoided him and things avoided always caught up with you eventually. Icy anticipation coiled in his stomach.

"Holodeck program," he answered without a spark of intelligence.

When he turned, Tom stood with his arms folded. "Yeah, I can see that much. Something wild?"

"Not by your standards."

"How would you know?" Tom grinned brightly, his eyes darting to the monitor and back to Harry. "What is it? Something deep and philosophical—?"

"Tom..."

"Yeah, Harry?"

He smiled, shakily and disarmed, because something about Tom always disarmed him, no matter how trite the conversation. "Haven’t made up my mind yet. I’d considered restructuring part of the Beowulf scenario—"

"Oh please, last time you played around with that, you ended up in the belly of the monster!"

"Not quite."

"But too damn close." Tom took a step forward and shook his head at the monitor. "To have a hologram come and rescue you again won’t look too good in your service record, Harry. Make sure you grab the hero’s part this time."

Harry felt himself relax, as if he’d finally made contact with ordinary life again. "Well, actually, I was going to impersonate the villain for a change," he said — and realized belatedly how much he’d just given away.

But Tom only flashed him a brief grin, and the look that went with it was lost to the booth’s dimness. "I saw you in the bar," he offered. "I was hoping you’d get Neelix off my back for a minute. Or even a second."

"You two looked pretty absorbed. I didn’t think you’d even notice me."

Tom cocked his head. "I’m never that absorbed in any game. Part of the trick. Now, you wanna go on mutating Beowulf, or can I buy you a drink?"

Without thought, Harry pushed from his seat, too ready to slip back into comfortable habits. Until consideration set in and drove back the reply. "I don’t know," he said.

Another abrupt change claimed Tom’s face, and the vague illumination brought out a shadow in his eyes. "Something wrong?" he asked. "Something still bothering you? You’ve given me the quarantine treatment for — well, long enough."

"I need time to think," Harry answered brusquely. The truth, infused with a multitude of implications, but Tom’s damnable instincts drove past all the possible decoy lines and cut straight to the chase.

"About us?" he asked, keeping his tone barely within the margins of a question.

The dim room shrunk and the recycled air dried rasping in Harry’s lungs. His underfed wit begged out at once. "In a way," he heard himself reply.

"You worry too much, Harry." Tom unfolded his arms, visibly dropping defenses to settle both hands on Harry’s shoulders.

Things were bad enough when Tom got cynical, Tom getting serious amounted to a prognosis of certain defeat. Tension returned with redoubled force.

Don’t touch me —
don’t let go make it go away —

All Harry could do was endure the searching gaze while he felt his own expression unravel in confusion that didn’t know its cause. "I guess I’m... beginning to see things I didn’t realize before," he said, his voice low and breathless.

"Yeah, me too," Tom returned.

The hands that insinuated insistent warmth through the fabric of his uniform pulled Harry that minimal bit closer. Enough to bring out unquestionable meaning in what he’d just said. Harry wanted to close his eyes, but made himself look up instead.

The proverbial electric charge of romantic legend resurrected and caught him cold, frizzled up his arms to connect at the back of his neck.

All because Tom Paris studied him with an awkward smile and a question in his eyes. And the warmth in him was growing fast, a reflection of Tom’s closeness surging past all safety limits. Calling forth the memory of a hand gripping his wrist, ragged breath grazing his face —

The memory of wanting —

He was going to say something, anything to break the silence that sat in his throat like a dry paper knot, but Tom’s hands firmed on his shoulders, his head lowered and his mouth touched Harry’s the moment he drew breath to answer. It lasted only a second and ended before his confusion broke.

The tentative kiss sent a promise of fire along his nerves. Brief and gentle, and at the same time crushing, definite. It took his breath just like that.

Harry’s mind stumbled past sensation, desperate for clarity, but there was no hold anywhere apart from the pressure of Tom’s hands on his shoulders. Holding him against the core of his nightmares.

Harry felt his hand move up to close around Tom’s arm in a harsh grip. Ready to break every seal of secrecy and fear —

But Tom smiled. To lessen the tension, to reassure perhaps. Harry felt anger steal up his spine and around his shoulders, warming him with demands for release to gather perfidiously over his heart. He shook his head sharply, shook off the hands that held him at just the right distance and stormed from the booth.

The corridor’s brightness assailed him with the ugliest variant of sobriety. Like a flustered teenager, he fled. But another part of him claimed that both he and Tom had just had a narrow escape.

 

Back in his quarters, Harry flung himself into a chair, bounced up again, paced over to the bathroom. He smoothed a hand over his mussed hair, pushed at the black fall tingling his forehead and told himself to analyze.

Tom liked playing games. And easy solutions. Maybe that explained the weight of frustration, the simmering anger. An easy approach to resolve something complex and deny all the questions —

Hypocrite, sobriety scoffed. Don’t say you didn’t want it.

Oh sure, he’d wanted it, even if the flash of recognition was much too sharp and bright for pleasure. But it wasn’t enough. His hands gathered into fists. It just wasn’t enough, because...

Because there had to be something deeper. Like the depth of the penal colony, all the shadows stirring in his soul during those rare, threatened moments of closeness. A trap, inviting oblivion, begging for him to fall. He recalled lying next to Tom, holding his hand, holding on to his life with his own. He remembered the bruises his own hands had left on Tom’s pale throat. And there were no easy solutions that would wipe out the memory.

Harry studied his own, plain face in the mirror and wondered what Tom had seen.

Your heart on your sleeve, your soul always in your eyes, he recalled his mother’s fond and slightly exasperated words. Everyone read him only too well, but he could see nothing, only the confused echoes of sentiments that ignored their own nature. Only a fevered brightness in the eyes of his mirrored self.

Make me stop wanting, he begged, invoking the remnants of reason. Make it stop.

________________

A bright yellow line spiked across his board, yanking his attention back to the present. But even as Harry called up an enhanced profile, the signal faltered.

"I’m reading something, Captain," he reported. "A sensor beam, judging by the energy signature."

Janeway turned from her position by the viewscreen. "Specify."

"I can’t. It was a brief pulse, as if... something just switched on, with a burst of energy."

"Origins?"

He studied the scant data and looked up. The viewscreen showed an unclear, lightless blob against the spread of star-silvered space: an asteroid cluster at maximum magnification. He blocked the surprise from his tone. "Extrapolated origin... in the core of the asteroid field."

The captain’s eyebrows climbed. "The energy source must be immense."

"Yes, Captain."

A subliminal stir travelled around the bridge, and Harry knew what they were thinking, against probability and reason. Every unidentified energy source in the Delta quadrant brought that tantalizing ghost of hope. He saw Tom straighten, his head half-turning before the motion was caught midway. Before last night, they would have traded eloquent glances —

"Run a detailed analysis on all readings you have and inform Engineering," Janeway said. "Transfer estimated coordinates. Mr. Paris, adjust our course. Let’s take a closer look at this."

Harry’s fingers followed reflexive patterns across the board, but the familiar sense of excitement failed to materialize. As if the Delta quadrant had finally caught up with him. And he felt... nothing.

________________

Harry took the shortest route to his quarters after shift. At present speed, Voyager wouldn’t enter the asteroid field for another ten hours, and the ominous signal had not returned.

Drained, he flopped down on a chair by his desk. Fatigue had worn away the tension and made room for thought at last. He activated the desk terminal. The screen responded in chrome blue, but the page was empty except for the date. Yesterday had left no trace in the file. He sat back. Starting with their journey to the Badlands, every day had been recorded for memory, shorthand notes alternating with long pages of text. Now he wondered why he was still writing the journal. And who he was writing it for.

Hesitantly, his fingertips settled on the glassy keyboard. He’d deactivated the voice recording in favor of written privacy. And the story waiting to be put together was in truth already there. Scattered on the margins of his entries, reaching as far back as the day they’d left Deep Space Nine. The day he’d met Tom. But to go back and gather those scraps, to arrange them into narrative would at once turn the story into fiction. Because it was fragmented and made no sense and he might as well jump into the middle of it. Which was, as always, ringed by confusion.

Forget about the past, Harry told himself. Start with yesterday and forget the rest.

The empty page taunted him with his own silence.

Tom, he wrote. And cursed himself.

Last night’s self-righteous anger returned to him like a caricature. So easy to blame Tom, to demand less — or more — to suppose and condemn. But whatever Tom had thought or felt wasn’t the source of the trouble. It was his own reaction to something as straightforward as a kiss.

Perhaps there was an easy solution, and all he had to do was accept it.

He tried to picture the two of them from somewhere outside himself — standing close in the dim booth, touching — but only the more immediate memory came. Touch itself. Heat on his skin. Caress. And question.

Harry could put many names to his panicked response, recite a string of reasons why he’d backed off. Some of which no longer seemed so true. Like the promise given... not to Libby, but himself, the promise compounded from stubbornness and romantic ideals and general insecurity.

He closed his eyes and remembered one strange morning when he’d woken up next to Libby, finding himself home, stranded at the core of the paradox. He hadn’t recognized the life they’d built together, or the man she loved — in another timeline, another reality.

And that was how it felt now, when he thought of her and Earth and the music that had started up in his soul when he first saw Voyager. By then, Tom Paris was walking in stride next to him. The man who, in that other reality, was ready to bet his life on one chance in a million, just because the Harry Kim he’d never met asked him to. Who stood back to die in a shuttle ripped apart by the core breach, to send Harry where he belonged.

If you’re right, you’ll find me on Voyager —

A small, fierce ache overtook the memory of those words and the sound of Tom’s voice speaking them. The promise they implied lashed back at him.

I wanted to kill you — don’t you remember?

It all came down to that. The life-and-death edge, the touchstone, failure. Desire to make something whole, which seemed the best definition of love. Or was it atonement, an impulse to disclaim the fire that had threatened to consume him, to tame it, soothe it —

Love, and pretend that love would not allow for the worst?

The screen dimmed automatically, swallowing the one written word into a deep velvet blue.

Repression, he remembered Tuvok’s advice. Repression can make the primitive drives more destructive...

What if his problem came down to ignorance, denial of the truth? He could plod along those circuitous paths forever and never get to the bottom of this. Until he made himself face what he wanted.

There were various reasons why he’d run last night. Because he’d always considered himself one of the few irredeemably heterosexual specimens of humanity and had no experience with male tenderness whatsoever. Because his rather lofty idea of friendship did not include casual sex. But then he grimaced at his own inference. Perhaps Tom had acted on impulse alone, intending no more than a gesture.

The memory came far too easy now, with a hot sting in the nerves. Tom’s face and the warmth of his mouth and the feel of his hands pulling him close in unspoken demand to confess...

I want to — want you...

The single blunt truth in the tangle of arguments he’d tied.

It could be so easy. Maybe the nightmares fed on his refusal to accept desire for what it was. No danger, except to his petty assumptions about right and wrong. Harry pushed a hand into his hair, ran it across his forehead. His skin would not betray a blush easily, but he could feel it on the inside, insistent heat crawling into his face.

Great. He was either a prude or a baby, or something of both, to blush at the recollection of a kiss that had been much too short. The perfect end to the parody of a day on the bridge that stretched with wary moments of trying to avoid Tom’s eyes. And Tom had not once looked at him.

He knew the feeling. Electric tension that made him stiff and clumsy, anticipation of a glance, a gesture, and he’d probably waited all day for a move Tom couldn’t make. Harry switched off the console with a brisk motion.

Now, he told himself. Have it out, get it over with, and then it’s going to stop, there’ll be no more dreams. Just tell him.

This is the Delta quadrant, and if the change gets no worse than wanting another man, what is there to be afraid of?

For the first time in days, he felt centered. In control. Something close to euphoria took his mind at the notion.

The door chimed, and the sound passed through him as if he’d been wired to the ship’s systems. Harry cleared his throat. "Come in."

One step took Tom inside the cabin, but he stopped there, his jawline taut with discomfort. "Harry, I’m here to say I’m sorry." His eyes lifted for a look as blunt as his announcement. "I don’t know what got into me last night. Seems like for some reason I just have to blow every good thing I’ve got."

Harry’s stomach tightened. "Come on," he said mechanically, and then, "You know that’s not true." He stepped closer, but Tom’s posture drew an invisible line that kept them safely apart.

Tom smiled thinly. "Oh yeah? Show me just one instance."

"Last night doesn’t fall in the same category," Harry offered. He felt cold inside, felt the rift open again to divide reason from need. His mouth twitched as he struggled for composure, but Tom didn’t seem to notice.

Some of the stiffness left his features. "You’ve been a friend from day one," Tom said, "though hell knows I’ve done nothing to deserve that. I want us to stay that way."

The words caught him with a chilling clarity. And the confession he’d prepared crawled back to enlist with the rest of the embarrassments. Love, desire... safe names to cover the need Tom had thrust back in his face.

"Sure," Harry said in a dry, hard voice. Not good enough. No matter the ice clawing around his stomach, he had to end this.

"Look," he tried again, forcing a lighter tone, "it means just as much to me. How many close friends have I got here?"

Tom lifted a hand as if to count them off on his fingers, but a small grin came with the gesture. "You think it’s going to be all right?"

Harry put all his efforts into the lie. "Of course it’s all right." He exhaled cautiously. "Want to go for a drink?"

Tom grimaced. "Actually, I’d promised Neelix another lesson — although, of course, if you wanna join us—?"

"I don’t think so." Harry stepped back. "Maybe tomorrow then."

"Yeah, tomorrow." A shadow of steel still showed in Tom’s eyes as he turned.

The soft hiss of doors closing ended the pathetic charade. Harry squeezed his eyes shut, but there was no relief, only the rift within himself, widening, cutting him off — and as soon as he let himself fall asleep, the dreams would be back.

________________

Long before the morning call, Harry snapped awake and knew at once that something was not right. Voyager still plowed through the asteroid-littered sector on impulse speed, and yet... Perhaps insomnia had left his nerves raw and made him feel things that weren’t there, but Harry thought he could sense a subtle strain on the ship’s hull, a grind in the sound of her engines. Grateful to keep his mind busy with an immediate, tangible problem, he grabbed his uniform.

Tom arrived on the bridge a scant minute after him. Everybody else was already there, ruffled and a little pale after bolting from sleep. Except Tuvok, of course.

Captain Janeway was arranging her hair one-handed while she divided her attention between the viewscreen and a PADD. The viewscreen showed a cluster of irregularly shaped asteroids, some of them the size of smaller moons, ringed by rocky debris. A faraway sun slanted pale light across the drifting forms. But the sight was clouded by energy interference like a charge of white static.

"What is this?" Janeway asked. "Some kind of tractor beam?"

"Kind of," Torres echoed from the engineering station, "but it operates on parameters that I’ve never seen."

"Got us tied down nonetheless," Tom commented, moving into position as soon as the beta-shift replacement had stepped aside.

Janeway threw him a sharp glance and addressed B’Elanna again. "Exact analysis will have to wait until later. How about our maneuverability?"

"We’re holding position on aft thrusters. A brief warp pulse should be enough to disrupt the energy web they’ve trapped us in."

"But—?" Janeway prompted, picking up the minimal hesitancy in B’Elanna’s tone.

"Voyager wouldn’t suffer any damage if we went into warp speed that close to the asteroid field. The asteroids themselves might."

Harry sent his hands flying the console before the expectable request came. "No life-form readings, Captain," he answered Janeway’s question. "But these data are unreliable. With the tractor beam’s interference, we’re looking at an error margin of thirty-nine percent."

"Too high," Janeway said softly. "If there’s a chance there are people operating the tractor beam, we can’t risk destroying them by breaking free. Perhaps hauling us in is simply their... standard procedure."

"It’s equally possible that we’ve triggered an automatic device," Torres reminded her.

"Yes, but we don’t know that, do we?" Janeway swung her glance around the bridge. "Tuvok, Chakotay — my ready room. Lieutenant Torres, you’ll alert us immediately if there’s any change. Lieutenant Paris, hold our present position."

Later, they were all gathered around the conference table. Harry could still feel Voyager’s engines strain the tractor’s leash and kept his eyes on the smooth, cream-colored plasticoating of the table. Tom sat across from him, passing surreptitious glances his way.

Time, Harry implored silently. Give me time to forget.

After another night of brief, repeatedly ruptured sleep, fatigue sat heavily in his body and made it hard to concentrate.

"...the central cluster of asteroids is perfectly shielded," B’Elanna was just saying. "There’s nothing for the transporter to lock on. It’s as if our sensor beams were simply reflected back."

"No emergency beam-outs," Janeway stated succinctly.

"And limited communication with the away team," B’Elanna agreed with a touch of impatience. "I don’t like it."

The Captain nodded. "But it seems that we have no other choice, do we?" Hands braced on the conference table, she rose, holding the gaze of everyone present. "Mr. Paris, Mr. Kim, you will take a shuttle into the asteroid cluster for a closerange sensor sweep. Try to locate the source of the tractor beam and establish contact with whoever operates it. If there’s anybody out there."

Tom pushed his chair back eagerly and rose. "Aye, Captain."

With fractional delay, Harry echoed the reply, but while the rest of the senior officers filed from the room, Janeway gestured to him. "Mr. Kim—"

He caught the apprehensive glance Tom slid over his shoulder. "Captain?"

By the closing doors, Tuvok stood quiet like a shadow and, irrationally, Harry felt cornered.

Janeway stepped closer to study him for a long, silent moment. "Mr. Kim," she finally said. "You seem preoccupied. Do you have a problem with this particular assignment?"

"No, Captain." With an effort, Harry kept himself from glancing over at Tuvok and wondered what the Vulcan had told her. That he was unfit for handling such a touchy job, that she shouldn’t leave him alone with Tom—?

Janeway’s expression softened, and with sudden detachment Harry knew she was adding up the signs of sleeplessness on his face. "Harry," she tried again, in a gentle, off-the-record tone. "If there is a problem, perhaps you should consult the doctor."

"There is no problem," he answered stiffly. All I need is a little more time...

Her chin lifted fractionally. "Very well. Report to shuttle bay five. Dismissed."

Tuvok followed him into the corridor, matching Harry’s stride as they walked towards the turbolift.

"Shuttle bay," Harry said mechanically. The lift’s doors wooshed shut. He felt the Vulcan’s gaze frame him, probing for answers.

"The Captain is concerned about your emotional balance," Tuvok offered neutrally.

"I don’t think I’ve given anybody reason to complain about my performance."

"Your performance is not the issue here," Tuvok replied. "However, your personal problems will interfere with your performance sooner or later."

This time, he came close to shouting Leave me alone! Harry drew his shoulders back against the lingering ache of cramped muscles. "I won’t let them," he said tightly. "I’m perfectly able to handle this."

The stoic gaze left his face to fix an invisible spot above his shoulder. "I do not share your optimism, Mr. Kim," Tuvok returned coolly. "Unfortunately, I am in no position to countermand the Captain’s orders."

"You’re wrong."

The Vulcan turned back to him for a clipped nod. "That is always a possibility. And in this particular case, it would not displease me at all to be proved wrong." The lift stopped, and Tuvok left him without another word.

Alone, Harry leaned against the wall, listening to his own tortured breaths. He fought a sudden, unwarranted sense of claustrophobia. The Captain’s concern, Tuvok’s logic, Tom’s gestures of friendship — he had no use for any of it. Something in him demanded only to be left alone. Or to be locked up somewhere safe.

________________

The shuttle’s interior was dim as Tom sailed them through the uncharted maze of the asteroid field. Chunks of light-absorbing, charcoal rock spun past and after a while, Harry felt every sense of direction waver. Sensors picked up materials that drew small whoops of delight from B’Elanna when he transmitted the data to Voyager. But the deeper they penetrated into the asteroid field, the more communications were frazzled by angry eruptions of background noise. The readings that haunted Harry’s sensor board began to fluctuate erratically. When he looked up, the view of space was completely blocked by drifting debris of every size that seemed to press in on the shuttle. The small craft swooped and wove on a hazardous course.

Over the past few minutes, Tom had fallen silent. While his eyes never left the view, his fingers darted across the controls in a random dance. Indicator lights cast their flickers across his tense profile in turquoise and pale gold.

As soon as Harry let his gaze roam, he lost himself to the sight and could form no consistent thought except that Tom was damnably beautiful and had never looked so fragile before, or maybe he’d never noticed. A large asteroid hurtled towards them on a straight collision course, breaking his distraction.

"Tom!" he snapped.

A quick grin bent Tom’s mouth as he threw the shuttle into a steep climb, and acceleration plastered both of them into their seats for a breathless second. They arrowed past the asteroid, close enough to count the craters and deep cracks on the scarred surface.

"Good one," Tom congratulated himself. "Any trace of life yet, Harry?"

"Negative." He frowned at the phantom signals ghosting across the display. "But interference is increasing with every second, and I don’t—"

The shuttle lurched, jolting Harry into the console.

"Damn, damn, damn," Tom muttered, while he worked the controls frantically.

Harry closed his eyes. "Don’t tell me," he said. "It’s a tractor beam, right?"

"Hauling us straight in. Wanna bet there’s somebody very much alive pulling the other end of the rope?"

Too busy trying to raise Voyager, Harry said nothing. An unfamiliar energy signature had swallowed every other signal on the sensor display. He punched in a command for data transmission on an emergency frequency, but there was no confirmation. In another second, sensor analysis turned suspicion into fact; the shuttle’s drive was no match for the energy output of the tractor beam. When Harry glanced up the next time, they were zoning towards a bulky asteroid at full speed.

"At least we’ll be a lot wiser in a minute," Tom said, arms crossed defiantly. "First contact, here we go again."

The shuttle released them into solid blackness. Harry felt polished rock under his boots, smelled unfamiliar gases and reminded himself of the tricorder’s promise for breathable atmosphere. Gravity just a cut above Terran standard added to the nervous disorientation assailing all his senses. He took another step forward and tried to estimate the size of the chamber by the hollow echoes every sound generated.

"If these guys see outside our visible spectrum, we might have a problem," Tom said right behind him, making Harry jump, because he hadn’t guessed him so near. "Relax, Harry." A hand found his shoulder. "Got your torch?"

He shook the hand off irritably and thumbed a switch. A ribbon of white light lanced across the cavern to outline several arched doorways on the far side. The sight of something so ordinary offered a certain comfort.

"Take your pick," Harry said on a deep breath. "No — wait."

"Yeah, I’m reading it too," Tom muttered.

Their tricorders announced the presence of carbon-based life-forms in the vicinity. And closing.

From an invisible source, pale illumination filled the cavern with a steel-grey twilight. On his right, Harry noticed a sweeping row of dormant consoles, but one of the doors opened before he could take a closer look.

They’d been trained to expect anything, to check impulsive, human responses to the hideous, the disturbing or outright alien. Nothing of which precluded surprises. And the greatest surprise was always caused by beauty.

Tom gave a near-soundless whistle. Framed by warmer lighting that slanted in from a corridor in their backs, a group of tall females stood in the doorway. Beautiful, Harry thought, in the way of something long forgotten, surviving against all definable odds. Their skin was olive with a dead shade of grey, dark eyes set wide apart in their strongly boned faces. Thin braids of dark hair hugged their elongated skulls and fell over their backs. Dressed in a clinging synthetic material that shimmered in variants of brown and grey, they looked like the people of an ancient Terran legend — human beings created by a renegade god, Harry remembered diffusely, bones shaped from rock and flesh from clay. At their throats and wrists, they wore glittering black beads.

Additional doors opened on their left and right, releasing two groups of males, bald-headed and clad in the same shimmering fabric. None of them seemed to be armed. The foremost woman tapped a metal staff against the rocky floor. As she approached, Harry saw thin lines of age on her long face. She spoke, but the universal translator needed a second to catch up.

"You are not OgAzumai," the woman said. The translator indicated a honorific, but provided no frame of reference for the name.

"I guess not," Tom said, after a brief sidelong glance at Harry. "In fact, we’re from a different quadrant altogether."

They rattled off their standard introductions and protestations of the Federation’s peaceful intents. The woman listened with an expression Harry took to be amiable interest.

"We are OgOuzum¡," she said after they’d finished. "Since you are not OgAzumai, this is what you must be. Welcome."

Rejected, Harry’s translator suggested, interpreting the new term with some delay. Abandoned. Outlawed. The glance Tom sent his way was troubled.

At the leader’s gesture, the rest of the group moved closer, arranging themselves into a semi-circle. Although Harry found several young faces among the women, there were none among their male escort. A quick glance at the tricorder confirmed that the males’ average age was distinctly higher.

The woman touched her thumb to her lips, then raised the hand, palm turned outward. Four digits, Harry registered automatically. The rest of the group echoed the gesture. "You arrive in time for the Selection," the leader said. A smile had developed on her mouth and welcomed them. "It is a good sign. Come with us, so that you can be prepared."

"Actually," Tom started, "we can’t stay. We’re here to ask you to disengage that tractor beam—"

"The device you use to guide crafts through the asteroid field," Harry supplied. "Our ship was caught in it."

The woman accepted their added explanations without visible reaction. "The transport which brought you here will be allowed to depart," she promised in a tone that, by Terran standards, qualified as dismissal. "Our gratitude goes with them. Now come with us. We will talk more when you are rested."

Harry and Tom traded brief glances. No reason to reject the hospitality they’d been of-fered and risk offending the OgOuzum¡. They voiced agreement with the cautious courtesy first-contact training had drummed into them.

The leader assigned them an escort of two young women who led them down a dim, curving passage. Randomly distributed light panels, a network of intersecting corridors and the shadow-mouths of natural caverns all collaborated to create the impression of an extensive labyrinth. After they’d taken several turns, Harry made sure his tricorder memorized the complicated route.

The corridor’s walls were uneven and with their progress, temperatures dropped perceptibly. In places, moisture glittered on the walls and roof of the passage. Harry suppressed a shiver stealing up his arms. Chill, stagnant air, the narrow corridor and a taunting sense of captivity all beckoned to unsettling memories. He recalled a visit to another asteroid which turned out to be a vast burial place, and recollection joined the sight of shrouded bodies to the sounds and smells from the penal colony.

Hunching his shoulders, Harry brushed the past from his mind. A different place, he reminded himself, different people who’d offered nothing but friendly respect, and a situation that required total openness instead of prejudice.

A step ahead of him, Tom had already engaged one of the women in conversation. Harry turned to his companion and drew a question from the top of his list. "There don’t seem to be any younger men among you," he said. "Or do they just live somewhere else?"

The girl walking next to him shook her head. "It is the time of seclusion for the younger sons. They are preparing for the Selection."

"The Selection," he echoed, his eyes on Tom who was presently shining a brilliant smile at the young woman by his side. What Harry caught of their conversation suggested an embellished version of their approach through the asteroid field.

"To pay our debt," the girl explained serenely.

"Your debt?" Harry asked, forcing attention back to her. "Is that why you call yourselves the... Abandoned?"

"I have no knowledge of this," the girl answered. "You will be instructed after the due period of rest."

The corridor swept around a jutting boulder of black rock and narrowed further. Harry drew a long, self-conscious breath against unreasonable apprehension. In thoughtless reflex, he looked at Tom, as if reassurance still lay that way.

Unaffected by their surroundings, Tom had inched closer to his escort, rewarding her explanations with a soft laugh, unspoken suggestions in his tone and gaze. Amused curiosity widened the girl’s dark eyes, but Harry spared no attention for the expectable and filed her away as one more conquest on Tom’s impressive list. So many times he’d watched Tom pour it on, spilling his charms with overwhelming confidence. Countless occasions seemed to pass through his mind, flashing him faces of the women Tom had courted, and jealousy churned in his gut to stir resentment from buried anger. Harry closed his eyes.

"Are you feeling well?" his escort asked.

He stretched his mouth into the semblance of a smile. "Sure, it’s just... I don’t like being underground very much."

Her vague, responding smile informed him that, of course, the concept meant nothing to her. Before Harry could explain, the corridor opened onto a vast polygonal chamber lined with doors. At its center, a group of women in pale tunics stood straight-backed like sentinels, watching over the quiet and a ring of rocks arranged in the likeness of a fireplace. The air was cool and stagnant. In passing, Harry noticed that stones created the palpitating glow, throbbing a feverish red as if they’d been heated by phaser blasts.

Without pause, their guides walked them across the hall and stopped in front of a door decorated with abstract ornaments.

"Since you are strangers, you may choose separate rooms or share," one of the girls announced.

"We share," Tom said firmly. "Thanks."

With barely a sound, the door slid aside and they stepped into a spacious room with a vaulted roof. Rugs and cushions covered the mattress on the far side. From one of the corners, a dim red glow indicated a smaller version of the hearth in the hall. Illumination flickered up to a diffuse yellow in time with the door’s closing hum. The sound crawled on Harry’s skin and he spun instinctively, his wariness justified by the tricorder’s bright blue signal, flashing after he’d swept it across the door’s surface.

"They’ve locked us in," he said tonelessly. "I’m showing a high electrical charge here."

Tom shrugged. "Maybe that’s just their... custom. If we’re prisoners, why didn’t they take our phasers?"

"Right." Reluctantly, Harry stepped back from the door to study the complex ornaments that covered most of it. "But what are we supposed to do in here?"

"You heard her," Tom answered several paces behind him. "Get rested, relax..." After a brief pause, he added, "Eat."

"We’re not on vacation," Harry snapped. "How do we make sure they’ve disengaged the tractor beam like they promised?"

"Harry..."

He passed a glance over his shoulder at the coaxing tone. Tom held up a tray. "Get over here. The tricorder says it’s safe, and I had no breakfast this morning."

A perfunctory glance showed him that the tray was loaded with slices of something that resembled oversized mushrooms. "I’m not hungry," Harry said, turning away to scan the rest of the room. When he looked at Tom again, his face exhibited amused exasperation. Harry let his breath escape in a sigh. "What?"

"Just trying to remember the last time I’ve seen you eat."

"You weren’t there."

"I couldn’t’ve been."

Harry felt his face warm under the probing gaze. "I’m just not hungry, okay?"

He bent closer to the hearth in the corner. At its center, a lump of rock shone fiercely red, but the heat it gave off was marginal. The stone’s radiance seemed a natural property, much as it defied the dictates of probability. A small sculpture completed the arrangement. Carved from black stone, its hands spread towards the red glow — in a gesture of denial or supplication. Perhaps the entire array formed something like a shrine.

"Better than Neelix’s cuisine," Tom commented, slouching on the bed while he ate. "Found something?"

"I don’t know." When Harry closed his eyes, he could still see the statuette’s outlines against a backdrop of pulsating red. With only a brief glance at Tom, he grabbed one of the cushions and dropped it on the floor.

"I wonder about this Selection." He sat and repeated the girl’s scant explanations for Tom. "Perhaps it’s some kind of ritual, and only the younger men are supposed to participate."

"Whatever it is, at least it doesn’t involve fasting." Tom grinned. "Add some music and a bar, and I’d recommend this place for shore leave."

"How about you?" Harry asked testily. "Find out anything useful when you were talking to that girl?"

"We were just... chatting."

With a brief nod, Harry focused on the tricorder’s scintillating display. But he could still see them together, he could see Tom smile at Megan Delaney — or whoever else he’d chosen to attract — with a quick glance that ascertained Harry was watching. Watching and wishing, wanting — something he’d never cared to inspect. And now those squandered moments returned for vengeance, with a strange bitterness and a dry feeling in his throat as he fought unreasoning anger.

Wrong thoughts, entirely pointless. His own disability to think through the morass of heedless sentiments and concentrate on the situation instead brought back memories of the clamp. Random impulses chasing fire across his brain until reason disintegrated, until all he felt was the rage swelling in every nerve —

Pushing to his feet, Harry wrenched away from the phantom sensations and readjusted his tricorder.

"What’re you doing?" Tom asked in a very different tone, the flippancy shed abruptly and entirely.

"Those signs on the door," Harry muttered. "Maybe they’re some kind of script."

Before Tom could voice the predictable skepticism, all lights faded, reducing themselves to the hearth’s unreliable glow. A chill snaked down Harry’s back.

"What’s going on?" he heard himself say in a strained voice that reflected the sense of claustrophobia all too clearly.

"I guess it just means ‘time for bed’," Tom suggested. "We’re supposed to rest, remember?"

"Makes sense," Harry conceded and clamped down hard on his absurd over-reaction.

"But you’re not tired." Tom reclined against a sumptuous gathering of cushions on the mattress.

"No."

"You look like you’ve been starving yourself, and you’ve got circles under your eyes like you haven’t slept in a whole week, but you’re neither hungry nor tired, right?"

"Exactly." Harry pushed clammy fingers into his hair. "Look, just do me a favor and lay off. Sleep, if you want to."

Turning, he caught the startled flash in Tom’s blue eyes that continued to study him. Harry forced himself to hold that gaze until it lowered, swept aside. With a defeated shrug, Tom rose and began to pull the rugs away, exposing a pale sheet. "I’m not gonna sleep for a second if you pace the room all night, you know," he said casually, pulling off his boots. "I’ll be watching you instead."

For some reason, his playful threat lessened the tension and Harry let out a nervous laugh. He remembered sleeping next to Tom in the penal colony, desperate for the minimal comfort of shared body-warmth and transitory oblivion.

"You’re a pest," he said.

"So what’s new?" A smile lingered on Tom’s mouth together with a ready quip — but whatever it was, he bit it back and eased down, hands laced behind his head.

Like Tom, Harry took off his boots and lowered himself on the other side of the mattress. Exhaustion reeled through his body as soon as he let himself relax. In the thickening silence, all he heard was his own heart and breath, but sleep overtook conscious thought in a matter of moments.

________________

He struggled blindly, driven by a rush of adrenaline that tightened his grip and flooded him with triumph — mindless like a fever, hot and cold and powerful. Irresistible. Closing in for the kill, for deliverance.

Only one of us...
...only one gets out of here — if you’re in control — kill him, save him, hold him harder —
no one takes what’s mine.
He crushed his mouth against cold lips.
And screamed.

Harry woke to the sound of faltering breaths as if someone was drowning. Shadows hovered under the ceiling, dancing like flames, and he bolted from the touch that trapped him in an endless circle of rage.

He was sitting up on a strange, soft bed, heat throbbing in his groin. He looked around and saw Tom staring at him, felt Tom’s hand on his shoulder.

"Get away from me!" he rasped before sensible thought had a chance to emerge. He wished he could stop himself from shaking.

...my hands around his throat and his blood on my hands — make it stop...

"Harry," Tom whispered urgently. "Harry, what the hell’s wrong?"

Panic clenched tightly in every muscle, and from somewhere, the distant mind of Harry Kim watched, bewildered, struggling to connect.

...anything to make it stop...

He was out of the bed, the crumpled sheet wrapped around himself to hide his condition, cold sweat ran down his chest and belly, but the bone-deep chill of his dream had evaporated. He was burning now, memory charged his nerves with wanton heat. He was breathing hard.

"Relax," Tom kept repeating. "It’s okay."

The false reassurance brought only a winded laugh, rasping up his throat like a sob, and Tom... Tom looked at him, confused and hurt. Because he knew exactly that nothing was okay and wouldn’t be until —

Harry wiped a hand over his face. No matter how much longer he resisted, something was getting ready to explode and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

Control, he pleaded, without hope.

"It’s over," Tom said into the silence. "Come on, snap out of it. You must be getting cold."

A merciless clarity filled his mind. Nothing I can do...

"Get over here and lie down," Tom insisted.

"Okay," he made himself say. "Just... don’t touch me."

Ask no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.

When he eased down cautiously, Harry could feel his erection stab his belly and gritted his teeth. He wouldn’t fall asleep again, he’d just lie there until something happened.

Tom released his breath slowly as if he’d held it all the while. "Geez, Harry, you’ve given me a fright."

"Sorry," he said in a robotic voice.

"Nothing to be sorry for... but you’ll have to talk about it sometime." Tom leaned on his elbow, watching him intensely. His tousled hair glowed with an edge of bronze in the sullen light, and his eyes were dark. Harry thought he could die for just the sight of him.

"I can’t," he said hoarsely.

Immediate protest chased across Tom’s mobile features but found no words. He shook his head.

"Harry," he started, "don’t expect me to just stand by and watch. I care about you. Let me do something to help." Stronger than concern, a deep disquiet lingered in his eyes.

Harry shook his head mutely. Keeping himself still, as if one false move could unhinge reality and send it spinning.

"It’s the clamp that gives you those nightmares, isn’t it?" Tom pressed him. "I get dreams too sometimes." His hand lifted, but when Harry stiffened, he aborted the motion with an angry sigh. After a second’s hesitation, Tom stretched out on his back. "Okay, I promised. No touching." His tone was flat and dry when he added, "You’re still upset, ‘cause I tried to kiss you."

Tried to? Harry closed his eyes and stared hard into a red-brown twilight. "Forget it," he whispered. It’s not your fault. But he wasn’t sure anymore. Curled up on his side, he wrapped himself in a pretense of sleep, against the sirens keening their discordant demands in his blood.

Soon, he thought, and, Forgive me.

________________

The woman who stood in the opened door wore a pale jumpsuit accenting her bony frame. She looked at them for a long time before she said, "Come. It is time for your instruction."

Refusing to meet Tom’s eyes, Harry followed her out into the hall and the winding corridor, marginally aware that the other doors had not been unlocked. His mind should be in overdrive, noting whatever details might come in useful to solve accumulating riddles, but he felt only a leaden silence inside him that quelled every thought.

After no more than a few minutes, their new guide stopped in front of a portal that swung inward as soon as she touched the controls. Brilliant illumination surprised them with momentary blindness.

Blinking rapidly to adjust to the light, Harry found himself in a circular hall of impressive proportions, empty except for a strange device suspended under the domed roof. In a recess on the far side glittered a holographic star chart.

Tom had taken a few steps into the chamber and studied the design on the floor. From the center of the hall, radials spread outward; alternately black and white, widening to form a circle that reached almost from wall to wall. But the circle’s exact center was empty. With an indicated shrug, Tom looked up.

"This is where we will hold the Selection," the woman said, lowering herself cross-legged on the stone floor.

"Are you in charge of... the proceedings?" Harry asked.

"I am the guardian. Ebra." She gestured towards the fragile holo, compounded from light and illusion. "The Constellation is approaching, and there is little time left to prepare you."

Wandering across the hall, Harry joined Tom by the recess and recognized a simulation of seven planets orbiting a yellow primary. Four of them were aligned like beads on a string, and the fifth was slowly crawling into position.

"When the cycle is complete, the OgAzumai ship arrives to take the hostages," Ebra said in their backs.

Tom shook his head. "These planets no longer exist!"

Harry shot him a cautioning glance, but before he could think of an interpretation to compromise the grim truth, Ebra answered. "They were destroyed in another age. All that remains is our world and the debt we must pay."

"I don’t like the sound of this," Tom said under his breath.

When they turned back, Ebra had lifted her arms. "Tomparis, Harrykim," she pronounced their names with a strange, melodious inflection. "Sit with me. Tell me of the crime that brought you here."

"Not again!" Tom muttered and rolled his eyes skyward. "Listen — Ebra," he started, "I think you’ve got the wrong idea about us. We were sent here to investigate, to find out about the tractor beam—"

Only half-listening, Harry walked back to the woman, drawn by the calm sadness in her eyes. "Is this what the hostages do?" he asked, crouching before her. "Pay for a... crime in the past?"

She nodded. "Our mothers and fathers let their world fall to destruction. The OgAzumai abandoned them, but once in every cycle they return and take hostages to remind us of our guilt."

"All the young men?"

"All must prepare for the Selection, but only five are chosen," Ebra said.

"And what happens to those hostages?" Tom asked, suspicion sharp in his tone.

"They die, so that we can live."

"Sounds like your Selection is another word for random execution," Tom snapped. "C’mon, Harry, we’re outta here."

He shook his head, amazed that Ebra showed no disturbance at Tom’s outburst. "Wait," he said. "How do they die? How can you let them pay for a crime they never committed?"

Her wide-set eyes searched him thoroughly. "Some of the younger sons like to believe they are given a chance to fight," Ebra said. "And some understand the responsibility. They have a purpose." She reached out to clasp Harry’s hands firmly. "No one is without guilt."

Her grip was warm and strong, and the grief in her eyes beckoned to the weight on his soul.

"C’mon, let’s go," Tom repeated angrily.

Ebra’s fingers slipped from his hands as Harry pushed to his feet. Too late, he noticed that a phaser glittered between Tom’s fingers. The portal opened, and the corridor was no longer deserted. A troop of the bald-headed men waited outside.

"Stand back!" Tom snapped. "Just let us pass and nobody gets hurt."

He took one step closer, but the group continued to watch with unwavering coolness or incomprehension. Ebra moved to her feet quietly. And Tom raised his phaser.

"Tom!" Harry yelled, plunging towards him. "Don’t shoot—"

Before he could knock the phaser from Tom’s hand, a pale blue beam sizzled past and coiled around his wrist. With an angry shout, Tom doubled over, phaser clattering on stone. Ebra slipped the palm-sized weapon into her tunic. "Escort them back to their room," she told the men. "They will be secluded to contemplate the burning stones. And their crimes."

Harry placed his phaser into her outstretched hand without a word.

Nobody touched them. Nothing on the men’s faces spoke of anger as they formed a tight circle around them.

"Tom," Harry whispered, edging closer to his side. "Are you okay?"

"Fine," Tom grated, still clutching at his wrist. "Only feels like something’s put my hand in deep freeze."

Harry forced up a smile for reassurance, but the look Tom gave him was one of betrayal.

"Contemplate our crimes!" he snorted when the door’s shielding had activated with a blithe hum in their backs. "Damn that I wasn’t fast enough!"

"Fast enough to take out all of them with one shot?" Harry asked irritably, infected by Tom’s smoldering temper. "Face it, you acted like a trigger-happy jerk down there!"

"The phaser was set on stun."

"Yeah, and how were they to know?" He shook his head. "How could you do that, Tom? They’ve treated us with so much civility all along."

"So we’ll humbly agree to being executed?" Tom flopped down on the bed, rubbed his wrist and bounced up again in an instant. "How do you suppose we’ll get out of this one? C’mon, let’s have it — what’s the civilized way?"

Harry paced to the other side of the room. A glance at the chrono informed him that they’d spent only twelve hours inside the asteroid. Middle of ship’s night, he calculated automatically. Pointless to count on Voyager to send a rescue team, he told himself.

"Well?" Tom asked testily.

"I’m trying to think." Harry sank into a crouch before the hearth and gazed at the indifferent pulsations of a fire that extended no warmth. Ebra hadn’t explained the actual Selection process — and what if Tom’s actions constituted a crime that would automatically enlist him with the hostages? Fear struck cold and hard, and Harry knotted his fingers as if to capture scattered thoughts. "We’ve got to stop this," he summoned himself. "Talk them out of it somehow..."

"Don’t make me laugh, Harry," Tom said impatiently. "You can’t talk people out of their religion. Remember what she said? Everyone’s guilty. They believe that kinda crap."

"But nobody’s forcing them to deliver their hostages."

"Wanna bet the guys they’re expecting’ve got guns?"

Harry bowed his head. Chin resting on his clasped hands, he struggled to cleave a rational path through fear and simmering irritation at Tom’s obstinacy. "The entire thing’s based on deliberate decisions," he insisted.

"Oh, great! You think all we have to do is tell the lady thanks, but we’d rather go home?"

"There has to be a way," Harry whispered. Imagination ran wild and presented him with countless variants of disaster, all converging in the persistent image of his dreams. Tom’s face, pale and bruised...

...and I will be responsible.

The thought sent a new chill through him, strumming across his senses with icy fingers. He straightened slowly. "If I could persuade Ebra—"

"No," Tom cut in sharply. "Don’t even think about it."

"Think about what? You haven’t even heard me out."

Tom folded his arms, blocking objections with a disparaging stare. "I can take a guess," he said. "I saw the look on your face when she got into all that garbage about guilt and paying for somebody else’s sins."

Harry inhaled deeply and bit down on a sharp reply. "Why won’t you just think about it for a second?" he tried again. "If one of us volunteered—"

"Forget it" Tom’s eyes flashed a frosty blue. "Forget about playing the martyr for me, ‘cause I sure wouldn’t do it for you."

It took only the sting of sarcasm to snap the thinning strands of discipline that still held him together. Quick strides took Harry across the room, and he grabbed Tom’s shoulders to push him against the wall. "Stop it!" he shouted, shaking him. "Stop doing this—"

"Stop what?" Tom’s hands closed around his arms to hold him off or haul him closer. "What’s the matter with you, Harry?"

...I wouldn’t do it for you..

"You," he brought out, "you’re treating me like—" His hands were gripping too hard, but he couldn’t make himself let go, he could feel desperation unravel on his face and tighten his chest.

Confusion broke through the bright anger in Tom’s eyes. "What have I done to you?" he asked in a lowered voice.

Trapped in memory and decisions that would always turn out wrong, Harry stared back at him. He could almost feel the clamp again and the grinding sensations just below the level of pain, wearing down thought and sensibility — oh god make it stop make it stop —

He tried to pull away, but Tom had wrapped both arms around his waist.

"It’s all very simple, Harry," Tom said, strangely sober. "I don’t wanna be safe without you."

"You don’t understand." Nothing in him recognized the raspy voice that articulated those words. His fingers twisted into the fabric of Tom’s uniform.

"No." Tom forced him closer until Harry could feel a ragged breath on his face. "I sure as hell don’t get it. Come on, beat me up — kiss me — just do something, and stop driving me mad."

Reality skewed and sent him skidding back into the fever that raided his dreams. When their mouths met, something twisted in Harry’s gut and drove him against Tom. He held on hard, returning the kiss with blind urgency while he pressed into the taller man. Warm lips opened to the invasion of his tongue, inviting him to explore and claim, and he thought only that nothing of this could be real...

...and I can’t save you. Not from me, from this —

They broke apart fighting for breath.

"Tom," he said huskily. "Stop making me want you."

Challenge brought an intimation of steel to Tom’s eyes. "Now why should I do that? Even if I could."

The hands that stroked down his back with insistent pressure seemed to draw fire from his nerves. Harry squeezed his eyes shut and felt Tom with every part of his body, tense muscles and bright warmth like a promise to forget.

"How about, uh, a bed for this?" Tom suggested, his voice no longer steady. As if he’d never expected this.

I didn’t, Harry thought, I fought this so hard — but he nodded, stunned by the shocking intensity of his own responses.

Their joined impact on the bed knocked the breath from him in a sharp gasp. Between the disarray of rugs and cushions and rumpled sheets, their embraces were an inconclusive struggle for conquest, surrender, liberation.

Sensations stormed Harry’s mind with the full force of amazement. Now that he’d locked his arms around Tom, he remembered him weakened and vulnerable, fading into the ravenous twilight of the penal colony. Too distant already to dare and touch. Recollection collided with reality — reality made up by bone and tendon and hard muscle, by the weight of Tom’s body pressing into him. Arms wound about his chest with unquestionable strength, with unspoken challenge.

Twisting free of the possessive grip, Harry reversed their positions and pushed Tom into the mattress. The pale cheeks were flushed, and a half-smile curved his mouth as Tom heaved a quick breath. "Don’t stop now," he whispered.

"No," he brought out, admitting defeat. Their legs tangled and their groins rubbed together and his heart was pounding in his throat. "I want you... Tom, I can’t—"

"Then don’t try," Tom murmured with only a shadow of the old confidence, "I’ve been waiting for this a long time."

I haven’t, Harry thought, it’s been only a week and it’s driving me crazy.

His hair fell into his face as he leaned over, voice dropping to a dry whisper — "Tom" — then he gave in and kissed him hard.

Nothing had ever felt like the savage burning that spread rapidly under his skin. He was aware only of the body lying captive beneath him, of Tom’s fingers sliding through his hair in a confused caress, of the need to get closer.

Out of control.

Scared of the stranger Tom brought out in him, Harry almost wished he could blame it on the clamp and held on desperately.

Hold him, show him —

He’s mine, Tom’s voice said from the dizzy well of recollection, clear with anger.

"Harry..."

He buried his face at Tom’s shoulder, the deep ache in his chest blending strangely with the pleasure. He was falling, and there seemed to be no end to it.

Uneven breaths warmed his cheek, and with closed eyes he turned his head. Lips settled against his own, coaxing gently until he opened up to a kiss that filled him and lasted long enough to forget about the dream and the paradox and the need to resist. A wild pulse thrummed where his fingers rested against Tom’s throat. He ran his hand down Tom’s chest wishing he could touch skin. Wishing for time they didn’t have.

They rocked together, sharing breath with brief, hungry kisses.

"You’re trembling," Tom whispered against his mouth.

"Must be something you’re doing to me," he managed.

"And you don’t like that?"

Harry shook his head, bewildered at the drifting look in Tom’s eyes — as if he didn’t know, as if he didn’t realize he could have Harry just like he could have anybody... He pressed his hips into Tom’s and kissed a startled moan from his lips. "I probably like it too much."

Strong hands tightened their grip on his waist to urge him close. "Then what’s wrong?"

"I want to save you." Harry bit his lip, glancing sideways while he waited for Tom to call him crazy.

Instead, Tom kissed the breath from his lungs, and the friction between their locked bodies sent him sliding back deeper into pleasure. Sensations were reeling along his nerves and with the mounting pressure he could feel desperation build, surging through the frantic rhythm that drove him on.

There was a noise from the door, jolting them apart.

"Damn!" Tom muttered.

Harry rolled away from him to lie on his back and catch his breath, fingernails digging into his palms for control, for acceptance.

When the door opened, they were on their feet and struggling to ease their breathing.

Ebra had returned in the company of two younger women, and if the captives’ disheveled state surprised them, surprise never disrupted their long habits of composure and serenity.

Too aware of the lingering tightness in his groin, Harry slid a glance at Tom. His cheeks were burning, and his jaw clenched. Don’t play the martyr for me, he read in the sharp glance Tom returned.

Too late, was all he could think, the knowledge hammering through his body. They’d given away the chance to add up experience, reasoning and the sporadic flashes of ingenuity to a practicable solution. Or at least invent a diversion to buy them time.

Around the hall, doors had been flung open to release young men on a march to des-tiny. Tall, lean, and solemn, shepherded into orderly columns that filed towards the corridor. The silence of ceremony pressed in around them, precise motions like the cog and wheel interlocking to ensure the flawless operation of a machine. Everyone played their parts, and Harry caught himself thinking what a relief it must be to abandon conscience for the sake of ritual.

They followed Ebra through the surreptitious maze of light and shadow dividing corridors that seemed to circle in on themselves. Absently, Harry noticed that the women wore thin veils over their braids; white, the color of grief, flashing from the uniform black-brown-grey.

At least fifty young men were walking before and behind them. Harry’s mind raced through a summary calculation of the odds which by no means figured as intimidating. But something in him insisted on higher logic beyond the limits of arithmetic balance. It will be one of us — only one of us gets out of here...

He looked at Tom and read all the signs of rebellion locked down in tight motions and drawn muscles, holding back the fight. Disrespectful as ever of Starfleet tutelage that preferred analytic reticence over confrontation, all the more when one’s opponent was an unknown entity. On his own, surely Tom would insist on a brawl to demonstrate pride and resistance, no matter the outcome.

His gaze swung around to meet Harry’s, with one question forming and growing until it comprised a lifetime. Harry lowered his eyes.

He could still feel the pressure of Tom’s hands and mouth, urging him towards a precipice he’d rather balance alone. Diffuse tension climbed inside him, gathering momentum from sleeplessness and overstrung nerves. Preparing for an incalculable moment ahead. It was out of his hands now. All, except to make sure that Tom was safe.

But the danger to Tom was no longer from him. Beyond that, he could not think. The circular hall had been plunged into demure twilight from which the holo-sculpture shone like a rising star over a miniature horizon.

Ebra detached from the group, positioning herself slightly off the circle’s center, a glowstone poised before her chest on outstretched palms.

Expectation thickened around them, and Harry felt adrenaline pumping through his body, quickened by Tom standing close and ready to explode into action. But there would be no fight.

He moved his hand slowly, until his fingertips brushed skin and were captured in a fierce grip. Harry shook his head, refusing to turn.

No fight.

He withdrew his hand.

The women had moved into the hall, melting into the outer circle’s shadows. With part of his mind, Harry wondered how many of them were watching out for their brothers or lovers and if their belief in necessity had quenched every doubt.

A soft whir drew his eyes to the roof where the device he’d noticed during their first visit had activated. Slender appendages unfolded from its metallic body, gleaming drowsily at the tips as they spun slowly.

"The cycle is complete," Ebra said, hands closing around the stone, crushing it until she seemed to be holding the embers of a decayed fire. "Five of you will stand in the light, five will be chosen to see the sun rise over another world and renew our life."

Over their heads, the humming device swung into faster rotation. Glints of fierce light chased through the hall on an erratic course, picking out silhouettes and pieces of wall.

"Roulette," Tom said, his voice soft with anger and comprehension. "What a way to play!"

Harry held his breath. Random selection. The light circling under the roof would point its laser-fingers at the chosen five, and the chances to second-guess a random generator were as close to zero as they got. His hands clenched into fists, demanding a fair chance.

Until Ebra’s voice focused his mind, carving a pathway through the clouds of reviving fury. "You have been given time to prepare yourselves," she said. "Those of you who acknowledge guilt, come forward. Stand on white."

No scientific assumption supported the belief that a white line promised higher risk, but before every thought, Harry moved to step onto the mark, escaping the hand that shot out to yank him back by a split second.

"Harry!" Tom hissed, joining him to stand on black.

I wouldn’t do it for you.
Quiet, Paris. You already have.
My turn.

He felt strangely secure, acknowledging guilt like a precious possession.

Fading sparks fell from Ebra’s open hands as the circle filled and the light picked up speed, dashing across the faces of over fifty young men, exhibiting the entire range from stoic acquiescence to bridled rebellion.

Harry felt his heart saunter out of rhythm, stumbling with the strobic flares that spun dizzily — black, white, random division of innocence and sin — no pattern and no cause.

He wondered if the words repeating themselves over and over in his mind amounted to anything like a prayer, and if they did, perhaps he had a right to be heard. Perhaps chaos could be as merciful as any god.

Not Tom not him not him —

He stepped forward into the light, again pleading guilty... and a savage brilliance struck his face.

He’d been chosen as if higher justice had infiltrated chaos and contingency at last. It wasn’t quite sane to think that way, Harry told himself, but perhaps the wash of relief excused his lapse from reason.

The gathering breathed out as the whirling lights stopped. Five columns of shimmering brightness isolated the hostages.

"No!" Panic shot across Tom’s face, and his hand closed around Harry’s arm before he could take himself out of reach.

"Let me go," he whispered. "I’m getting out of here. It’s gonna be all right."

Maybe later he would be able to make himself believe that. Doubt seized Tom’s face, and the minimal hesitation was enough for the group to close around Harry and whisk them apart.

A crowd had pushed into the hall with the ritual’s termination, moving in unison. The holo-sculpture had disappeared to reveal a door in the recess. Harry passed through it into a wide, cold darkness, afraid, for a second, to fall. The dream finally caught up with him, and he was glad to be alone among strangers jostling him on into a vast cavern. Caught between euphoric relief and primal instincts recoiling sharply, his pulse fluttered.

At his back, illumination woke slowly and splashed the cavern with patches of twilight, to outline five cages ahead. Steely bars marked the limits of belief in deliberate decisions. Perhaps some hostages had had last-minute changes of heart.

Harry kept on walking automatically, before the impulse to fight could overtake resolution.

He remembered wanting to be locked up. To be safe.

The sound of a door clanging shut and a lock snapping decisively rocked through him, and he hugged himself as he stood in the middle of the cage.

Trapped and set free.

"Harry!" Tom’s voice made him spin, to grasp the hand extended through the bars. The crowd washed around the cages, an amalgam of voices filled the cavern, releasing protest and complaint. Maybe that was part of the ritual, too, a necessary vent for emotions that could threaten the community’s stability.

Tom’s hand was cold with tension. "Damn you, Harry!" he hissed, gripping hard. "You’re going to be sorry for this when I get my hands on you!"

"Remember what you said? If you find a way out, don’t come back for me."

"That’s not funny."

"Trust me," Harry said, stroking his thumb across the cold hand, his voice catching. Absurdly, his eyes stung from holding back tears.

Tom shook his head. "At least tell me why," he demanded, his voice rough, "why you have to insist on playing the hero."

"I’m not a hero, Tom." He almost smiled.

"That’s right, you’re a stubborn bastard and a fool." Pain burned through the icy rage in Tom’s eyes, and Harry felt those damnable tears press harder.

"I love you," he said with all the desperation that had birthed the feeling. "Put my name on the list."

Another commotion took the crowd, and he released Tom’s hand, pulling away fast. A whispered question drowned in the general noise as Tom’s arms dropped stiffly to his sides.

Turning, Harry closed his eyes and wondered how long he’d have to wait. Behind him, the noise dwindled to the shuffling of feet as the crowd was ushered from the cavern, and he heard Ebra’s voice articulating calm directions. He felt the loneliness grow around him.

With silence came darkness. Twilight faded into soothing black, a discreet offer to protect the captives’ secrets. Harry felt the wetness on his face, but the emotional surge that had prompted tears was already subsiding. He lowered himself, leaned his back against cold metal. Held a deep breath inside until his mind cleared.

In the conclusive darkness he could finally think. Now that the narrow confinement of the cage replaced the captivity imposed on mind and reason, he could snap himself back to attention. The voice of rationality immediately suggested that he’d made a fool of himself, but he had no time to spare for pointless regrets. He felt the rift in himself closing over as he wrapped his fingers around the bars and let their cool solidity moor him.

The hostages would not be eliminated on the spot, they’d be taken somewhere public to meet the requirements of ritual. Which would give him all the time he needed. In reflex, one hand moved to touch the combadge still firmly attached to his uniform. As soon as they’d left the asteroid field, he could get in touch with Voyager. And trust in the Captain’s talents for barter and gentle blackmail.

She would find Tom without any problems, and if he was lucky, she would also bend the Prime Directive enough to bail him out.

Good, he thought queasily. I don’t really want to die.

________________

He hadn’t checked the chrono since before the Selection, but the creeping cold and the stiffness in his back told Harry that hours had passed when the distinct sound of throttling engines brought him back to the present. An instant later, runlights cut through the darkness with brilliant white beams.

Squinting his eyes, Harry pulled himself to his feet, hand automatically reaching for the torch he no longer had. The landed craft remained a vague shadow, but the slanting beams outlined three silhouettes. Light caught on Starfleet gold.

"B’Elanna?" he said, almost certain that he’d slipped into sleep or comfortable hallucination.

Except that Voyager’s Chief Engineer wore a not-so-comforting scowl that invoked her Klingon descent.

Torres stopped in front of the cage and cocked her head. "Well, Starfleet," she said, eyes flashing sarcastic humor. "If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you’re applying for a job in the local zoo."

"I didn’t know they had a vacancy."

She snorted. "Don’t try to be funny. Where’s Paris?"

"Not in any of these cages," Chakotay’s voice said from the dimness on the right.

"He’s still in there, with—" Harry started, but B’Elanna waved him to silence and pointed over her shoulder.

"Explain later. We’ve heard half the story already."

From the direction of the parked craft approached a tall woman who could have been Ebra’s sister, except for the warmer tone of her skin and the striking cobalt garment she wore.

B’Elanna circled the cage and pointed her phaser at the lock. "Chakotay?" she called. "Get Paris and take the lost boys back home." A millisecond burst of energy carved through the lock and the door popped open. "I’ll see you later," she told Harry. "Do me a favor, will you? Get inside the shuttle and stay there."

He stepped out of the cage and crossed the short distance like a sleepwalker, distantly aware of the cold ache in his cramped shoulders.

Hours of darkness and silence, each complementing the other, had formed a cocoon around his mind. He couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t real, despite the familiar smells and the standby buzz surrounding him when he entered the shuttle. Harry rubbed both hands over his face and sat down to wait — as if something would tap him gently on the shoulder and remind him to wake up for duty, for a reality that was whole, securely structured and devoted to a mission of survival.

Within minutes, Chakotay returned to the shuttle. Only the sight of him and Tom provided the missing proof that reality had indeed regrouped after an unexpected twist. Mostly because Tom was still pale and tense with anger. Harry let out a long breath.

"What happened?" he asked softly.

"What d’you think?" Tom snapped. "They locked me up to contemplate the crime I did commit when I started a little punch-up."

Chakotay slanted them a glance charged with amusement as he slipped into the pilot’s seat. "B’Elanna will rejoin us later," he said. "Tiban might need her help."

"Tiban?" Harry echoed, forcing interest to take his mind off the burning look Tom gave him.

"The woman who came with us. Their ship arrived shortly after you’d left. She’s the OgAzumai representative." Chakotay’s hands glided across the controls, and the shuttle lifted with a subliminal shudder. "How did you get them to disengage the tractor beam?"

Tom snorted. "We asked. Nicely."

A smile twitched in the corner of Chakotay’s mouth. "Somehow I find that difficult to believe."

Accelerating, the shuttle sailed from the cavern and out into asteroid-cluttered space. Between tumbling rocks, Harry caught a steely glint of stars. He kept his gaze trained on the sight, imploring the coolness of hard vacuum to infuse his mind.

Chakotay leaned back in his seat and threw him a curious glance. "So, you were selected to become a priest," he said, finishing on a quizzical note.

"A priest?" Tom blurted with a startled laugh. "Harry? What makes you think that?"

"They didn’t tell you?"

"They said the OgAzumai were taking five hostages in every cycle," Harry supplied.

"To be executed," Tom added.

The shuttle swooped past a cloud of debris, then slipped through a narrow aperture between two jagged asteroids.

"That was close, Chakotay," Tom said acerbically. "I really wish you’d let me fly this thing."

Instead of answering him, Chakotay adjusted their course and shook his head. "You expected to be executed?"

"Yeah, Harry here tried to be a hero and save my hide," Tom returned at once, the sardonic tone simmering with anger. "He absolutely wanted to be one of the hostages."

Chakotay’s shoulders lifted and sank with a deep breath for patience. "A valid plan, given the situation," he said. "I suppose you were hoping to escape, once you’d been taken aboard the OgAzumai ship?"

"Who says we had a plan?"

"I’d much prefer if you’d let Mr. Kim to speak for himself," Chakotay snapped, guiding the shuttle through a shallow dive.

"What’s all this about... becoming a priest?" Harry asked, rubbing nervously at his chin as he watched the view clear slowly.

"Tiban told us that the people of the asteroids are holy people," Chakotay answered. "They chose to stay behind when the majority of their race left the system to colonize new worlds. And because they live such an austere life, they have attained a higher level of spirituality."

Harry shook his head, mentally fumbling through the overlap of incompatible realities. "What about the cages? Didn’t that make them wonder?"

"They consider it a demonstration of humility."

"Doesn’t make any sense to me," Tom commented and leaned back with folded arms, the living image of disdain.

The shuttle arrowed past a potato-shaped asteroid and plowed clear space. Outlined by stray light from a remote sun, Voyager floated before them.

Pointing the shuttle on a straight course, Chakotay turned around. "The OgAzumai did notice several inconsistencies within their own legends," he said, "but there’s a taboo to speak to the asteroid people. Both cultures appear to have been out of touch for many generations, and they no longer share the same language. The ‘hostages’ live in separate convents, honored and revered, but never approached." Chakotay paused. "The Captain persuaded Tiban to try and communicate with them," he finished, abbreviating negotiations that couldn’t have been uncomplicated.

"She’ll be surprised," Harry said softly.

For the first time since they’d left the asteroid, he met Tom’s eyes, probing him with angry questions. Harry felt another blush crawl up the inside of his face, triggered by acute memories of holding Tom — but the gap between them seemed to commit the entire episode to a twilight region of fantasy.

Uncomfortably aware of Chakotay watching them both, he gazed down at his clasped hands. "Seems like there has been a major misunderstanding."

"Not guilty," Tom said in a lowered voice.

Chakotay lifted a quizzical eyebrow. "I’m sure the Captain will be curious to hear your report." He reached for the intercom. "Shuttle to Voyager. We’re ready to dock."

________________

Curiosity, an over-quoted Starfleet proverb ruled, provides the inspiration for space travel. And though curiosity be as various as any shape-shifter in a playful mood, its incarnations all thrive on the one horizon drawn by fear. The very edge every spacefaring species inhabits.

Holed up in fractured realities, two cultures had by accident rediscovered that edge. And it was up to them to invent a new horizon from the remnants of obsolete fears.

The glitter in Captain Janeway’s eyes indicated that she was celebrating a private triumph of curiosity over the blind imperative of security.

"Well, gentlemen," she said, nodding at Tom and Harry, "that is an interesting story. Just think what would happen if we chose to settle down here — and if, after only a hundred years, our descendants were to discover a way back. I’m sure they wouldn’t recognize a thing from our stories about the Alpha quadrant." Her tone dispelled all the morbid implications with the promise of a smile.

"Or their stories about us," Tom said distantly.

"Possibly. But we’ll get back before we can be turned into legend, for better or worse." Janeway straightened. "You are relieved of duty for the next two shifts," she informed them. "You both look as if you could do with a little rest."

Reflexive protest started up on Tom’s face, and Harry said, "Captain, we really—"

"That is an order, Mr. Kim," she clarified. "But before you leave, tell me how you could assume that you would be among the selected hostages. I’ve never heard of any practicable method to outguess a random generator."

"I didn’t," Harry returned uncomfortably. "I just... hoped it would choose me."

"Because you thought you deserved it," Tom cut in. "Because you’d talked yourself into—"

The Captain stopped him with a raised hand, eyes filling with mild surprise as she studied them. "Are you saying you didn’t have a plan?"

Harry squared his shoulders. "Nothing to deserve the name. Captain."

"In other words, we messed up," Tom added. "Royally."

"That appraisal would seem a little too harsh." Janeway wandered around her desk, one hand lifting absently to smooth her hair.

By now, she would have noticed how judiciously they were avoiding to look at each other, Harry thought. And the next question would strike out straight for the heart of trouble.

"Tom," she said, her tone the gentlest version of steel. "Harry. I get the distinct impression that this... messing up is of a more personal nature." A smile threatened in her eyes, but got no further than that. "I suggest you use the next two days to settle the problem. Whatever it is, don’t take it back to the bridge. Understood?"

"Yes, ma’am," Tom articulated defeat.

"Dismissed."

One after the other, they stalked from the Captain’s ready room. There was no way they could avoid the privacy of the turbolift, short of focusing the bridge crew’s combined curiosity on themselves.

Hands clasped behind his back, Harry braced himself for the predictable outburst of temper brewing in Tom’s eyes.

"I’m sorry," he said, as soon as the lift’s closing doors had trapped them, without hope for preventive measures to succeed.

"Sorry?" Tom threw the word back at him with a glacial polish of sarcasm. "I spent four hours and thirty-six minutes picturing you slaughtered by those crazy cave-dwellers, and you say you’re sorry!"

"I am. And they were not cave-dwellers."

For a moment, Harry fully expected Tom to take a swing at him, and something in him rather cheerfully welcomed the notion, but Tom’s quick move faltered midway.

"I want answers, Harry. And I’ll get them." With that, he planted both hands against the cabin’s wall on either side of Harry’s shoulders. Creating the perfect prison.

Harry’s mind had taken the liberty to deplete itself quietly over the past few minutes. In its place, nervous fatigue and desolation struggled for coexistence.

"What if I don’t have any?" he said, the words organizing themselves from somewhere.

"We’ll see." Tom bent his head and kissed him on the mouth, rough with anger and resolve.

"Tom!" He damned the response that made his breath go faster in the space of a second.

Tom glared at him. "If you’re asking me to forget about it, then the answer is no. I heard you say that you love me, and I have no intentions to leave it at that."

The lift stopped, admitting additional brightness from the corridor. Tom turned again before the doors closed, his expression shuttered in denial. "We’ve got two days, Harry," he said. "You know where I’ll be."

________________

The chronometer’s display shone its crystal truth from darkness and informed Harry that he’d once again beaten the clock. Awake two hours ahead of the call to duty — except that no duty required his attention today.

If he’d dreamed at all, he couldn’t remember. He’d have to get used again to sleeping more than three or four hours at a stretch, he supposed.

He showered extensively, needing time to review an accelerated version of the past forty-eight hours and gather the first germs of insight.

Last night, after writing the report, he’d fallen asleep between one muddled thought and the next, as soon as the lights winked out. But whatever had started to ferment at the back of his mind would be hauled to the light of reason. Today. Harry gave himself a perfunctory look in the mirror, shook his head and went to find Tuvok.

"You were right," he said without preliminary.

Tuvok raised his head from the surveillance monitor he’d been checking. "Certainly you do not expect me to ‘gloat’, Mr Kim."

"No," Harry returned. "I just wanted to let you know. And that I appreciate your advice. I was very abrupt when you tried to talk to me."

"An apology is not necessary." Long, dark fingers swept across the console to deactivate the monitor, then the Vulcan straightened. "I am not yet on duty," he said. "If I may be of assistance..."

The unfinished sentence was left to hang in mid-air with an offer Harry hadn’t expect-ed. He looked around the cubicle, cramped with monitors and diagnostic equipment. Voyager’s internal surveillance systems were operated and controlled from here. The ship’s center of self-knowledge, he thought with an odd stirring of humor.

"I guess I’ve run into a logical paradox," he said at length. "Maybe you can help me see the solution."

Tuvok nodded, the slightest hint of curiosity at the back of his gaze.

"How is it that we create an abyss by not looking — but looking into it won’t make it disappear again?" Harry asked.

The Vulcan’s brows knitted briefly. "There is no solution to the paradox," he said. "Once understood, it is what some of us have to live with."

Harry shrugged, extending an awkward smile. "What do the others do about it?"

"They believe that closing their eyes to it will allow the abyss to vanish — to speak within your metaphor."

"But it won’t."

"To my knowledge, it most certainly will not."

Confirmed so succinctly, the truth had shrunk to comprehensible scope, like the razor-edged shadows the sun would cast at ninety degrees. Half-turning, Harry watched erratic spikes of energy register on one of the displays. "You know," he said slowly, "I expected the random generator to pick me out. Although I knew that was technically impossible."

"As I understand it," Tuvok offered after another brief pause, "the entire Selection procedure was devised to symbolize that guilt is always something one assumes. Only the offense itself can be verified."

"And the guilt we assume prior to committing an offense will prevent it. Hopefully." Simple truths. He’d better acknowledge their finite comfort and accept it, for lack of choice.

"The principle of conscience," Tuvok said. "And, as every socially generated principle, susceptible to error."

"Which means we all have to put up with the shadow of doubt, the incalculable rest." Harry heard the note of resignation in his own voice, reflecting the limits of what could be rationally resolved. He turned to meet Tuvok’s level gaze. "How do you live with it?" His hand rose as if to recapture the words. "If that’s a too personal question—"

"Not at all." Tuvok straightened to the lecture. "When one’s own judgment fails, one must trust in others. Even if they do not share or subscribe to the same insights."

"Trust," Harry said. Not an entirely Vulcan concept.

"It is the only logical option. At times, self-perception may become questionable, which makes it inevitable to rely on the perception of others."

On someone who knows you better than you know yourself. Harry felt a reluctant grin tug at his mouth. If that person should turn out to be Tom Paris, I’m in trouble.

"I guess so," he said.

A small frown crept across Tuvok’s forehead, then he simply turned back to the console he’d been working on.

 

Holodeck Two was unoccupied, and so were the programming booths down the corridor. When Harry lowered himself into a chair and called up the bare bones of the program he’d started to design, the monitor flashed him a caricature of his own meandering mind. A mind only three days younger than the observer’s, and already slipping towards the maws of obscurity.

Instead of the emotional landslide still very much alive in his nervous system, he found denial coupled with imperious intellect, winding in and out the over-complex parameters. In short, an elaborate version of escapism.

Harry began to erase his own rationalizations of terror and longing. If he’d programmed a simulation of the penal colony, at least he could have congratulated himself on a reckless consistency of thought, however limited. But he hadn’t. He’d modified Beowulf beyond recognition, and there was nothing now but to shove the whole thing towards the icon labeled ‘trash’.

And then he sat contemplating the screen that bore electrical witness to the inherent bounds of imagination. Mind had no simile to offer for hypothetical terrors that nonetheless stumbled through his brain, creating electrical discharges of their own. No logical conclusion, and no equation to capture the very material pressure of wanting something entirely impossible.

Or wanting it to be impossible, to be safe.

Harry slapped a random key and the screen blazed white with surprise before putting itself to rest.

He could tell himself that he wanted Tom, that it scared him with the wantonness of change and possibility, that his own denial, more than anything, had engendered unlikely monstrosities. That he’d simply fallen in love deeper and harder and in a way that allowed no safe predictions. And finally, that he didn’t much like the resentful possessiveness looking back at him from the mirror — although he was getting used to seeing it there.

I want to accept it was me.
Yeah, well.
Stubborn bastard and fool — how’s that for a start?

He could spend all day plodding the same mental territory without making a difference. He could reason himself to death, and he’d still be as frenetic and pressured and haunted as he’d been the whole week through. Considerably more than a week now.

Harry was about to deactivate the console when a rap on the door froze him in mid-motion. The door opened, his pulse jittered, and there it was again: proof that irrationality would always get the better of him.

Neelix entered the booth with a friendly grimace of apology. "Here you are, Harry," he said. "I’ve been looking for you."

Harry’s pulse settled again. "Neelix. What can I do for you?"

"Actually," the Talaxian answered, "I was looking for Tom, but he’s not on the bridge, and between being snapped at by Ms. Torres and being herded back to the lift by Mr. Vulcan, I gathered that he’s off duty."

"What’s wrong with B’Elanna?"

"Oh, she’s just excited about all those wonderful materials they’re beaming across from the asteroids. I fully understand her feelings." A wistful smile spread across the irregularly freckled face, then Neelix caught himself. "Never mind that. I wonder if you could do me a favor."

"Sure."

"You’ve always had such a... calming influence on Tom," Neelix elaborated. "The poor boy has been a bundle of nerves lately, and it was beginning to tell on the pool lessons he was giving me. Last night he didn’t even show up."

A calming influence.

Harry kept his expression tightly in check. "Yes?"

"I believe I could become quite an expert at pool if we continued the lessons. It’s not beyond reason to assume that I will someday be able to beat him, if you take my meaning."

"You want me to ask him—"

"Not directly!" Neelix waved both hands in merry exasperation. "Maybe you could just invite him for a drink to Sandrine’s, and the rest will come about quite naturally. Tom would never turn down such an invitation." He winked at Harry. "I knew you’d understand."

________________

"Sooner than I thought," Tom said when the door opened, no promise of concession in his tone, but then Harry hadn’t expected anything of the kind.

"I’m supposed to tell you that Neelix is waiting for his next pool lesson," he said, stepping inside Tom’s quarters.

"That’s the most idiotic excuse you could’ve made up."

Harry smiled thinly. "It’s not an excuse. Excuses come later."

Tom glanced skyward. "Oh god, I hope not."

"Neelix wants a chance to beat you."

"Good, I want a chance to beat you, too."

"Be my guest." Harry raised both hands and let them drop to his sides again when Tom didn’t move.

"Maybe later," he charged. "You’d have to get me really mad first... though I’m sure you’ll come up with something."

The note of masked pain in Tom’s anger caught at him. Harry drew a quick breath. "Tom," he started.

It took no more to snap Tom’s brittle temper. "What’s so bad about falling in love with me that you’d sooner commit suicide than give it a try?" he exploded, anger driving him across the short distance, hands clutching Harry’s arms. "What’s so bad about me?"

"Nothing," Harry said almost in reflex, caught completely off-guard while he’d thought himself thoroughly guarded and fortified with reasonable arguments like a Klingon battlecruiser. "I almost killed you, don’t you remember?"

It wasn’t anything like an answer to the question, and his voice wavered as much as it had when he’d said those words the first time.

"And I wanted to hurt you," Harry finished.

"Wanna know something? It worked. Congratulations." The tone was as sharp as ever, but at the same time irritation was losing ground on Tom’s face to make way for something more comprehensive and unsettling.

"I was—" Harry considered the words already sitting at the tip of his tongue and shook his head. "It’s not going to make much sense, Tom."

"What ever does, these days?"

"And it’s going to sound pathetic."

"I’ll let you know when I hear it."

One of Tom’s hands had wandered up his arm, but there the hard grip surrendered to gentleness and the necessity to understand.

Harry looked straight into his eyes, troubled by all the words pressing up from some part of his mind that had never wound its way into the journal or any other track record he was keeping of himself. And only when Tom gave him a small, questioning smile, he realized that some strange occurrence within his sporadic thought processes had produced the same on his own face.

"I was serious when I said I wanted to save you," he started. "I guess it’s been there ever since we met, ever since you told me to stay away from you. From the moment since I could tell you were hurting—" His arms had gone around Tom somewhere between one word and the next, without his permission or awareness. Now he noticed, and that Tom’s hands closed firmly around his shoulders. "I thought I could give you something you needed. Although... I didn’t take very long to find out that was exactly what everybody else thought," he finished on a sarcastic note. The smile was still there, but wavering around the edges.

"Everybody else?"

"Ninety-eight percent of the female crew, at a rough guess," Harry said. A first stir of relief touched him with real amusement, but he also felt something vast coming with that relief. And no doubt the full impact would reduce him to considerably less than coherent. "I never took the male crew into account," he added.

Tom stared at him, his face overwhelmed by exasperation, protest and curiosity. "I hope your statistical evidence also suggests that I didn’t give so much for whatever those free-floating percents were up to."

"Not really."

"Harry," Tom said in a very unfamiliar, gentle tone.

Something was coming apart all around them, but then Tom braced himself and said, "Okay, confession time." A muscle fluttered in his jaw but the rest of his face provided a fair imitation of rationality. "You know, those days in prison made me realize a few things. Remember when I was trying to be noble, when I told you to leave me and let me crap out on my own, like a real hero? Well, here’s the truth. I didn’t mean it."

Harry remembered a very strange and small voice whisper, Harry. Don’t leave me.

"You asked me to stay later on," he said.

"I did?" Tom shrugged. "Then let me tell you something you haven’t heard yet. I was trying to be noble before. Heavens know why or what got into me, but I did keep my hands off you. And then I was lying there on my back, slowly turning into rotting meat, and during my few bright moments I wished to hell I hadn’t. I wished I’d gotten you drunk some night and dragged you off to my quarters or brought you flowers or whatever would do the trick. And I promised myself I’d give it a try if we made it back to Voyager."

"You never told me."

"You never told me anything either."

"I guess not." Harry noticed the rough edge in his voice with some alarm.

"Hold me," Tom said quietly, making it sound like defeat.

There was a brief moment of clumsiness when they wrapped their arms around each other, but the moment passed and Harry closed his eyes so completely that darkness itself seemed to encompass him. And from the darkness, an unsteady breath brushed against his face.

With the next breath he drew, his hands were ready to roam, to explore the path of wanting and hold whatever was given him to hold on to. He felt a mouth move against his jaw, then towards his lips, and he followed along the path of nerve catching alight with new direction.

Mouths met and clung, this time merging their breaths to flow with something that was just beginning to take shape.

The kiss was long and slow, and one of the voices in Harry’s mind not yet subsiding to alluvial emotion suggested that this one kiss was burning itself into his memory at the expense of a thousand other memories, and he definitely agreed that it should.

He felt Tom’s chest heave against him with a sharp intake of breath and asked, "So what do we do now?"

"Now we get into that bed over there and do what we wanted to do on that asteroid."

"That won’t solve anything."

"At least it’s gonna take some of the pressure out of you."

"Tom—"

"Would it help if I said please?"

Harry closed his eyes at the very quiet tone Tom was using and shook his head. "You’ll do no such thing."

Tom’s bed was an exact copy of his own, and when Harry sat down on it, when his gaze wandered across the flawless cover and cushions, he remembered nights of waking up alone and twisting his fingers into the sheet, imploring stable divisions between real and unreal.

"I guess I don’t have your full attention yet," Tom said, tugging at his uniform top. "Let me take that off."

The hands that undressed him efficiently turned every touch into caress and question, shattering through defenses always so firmly in place that he’d forgotten about their existence. Harry leaned into a hesitant kiss, searching for a focus amidst sensations assailing him at random. He pulled Tom’s turtleneck over his head, ran his fingers through short, blond hair.

So easy. So impossibly easy.

The gentle touch of Tom’s lips against his palm sent a swift tremor through him, rousing recollections that blended dream and reality. Harry wound his arms around Tom to hold on hard, but there was still the sense of shattering, the trepidation stealing up his chest as if the moment itself were made of glass and nothing could keep him from breaking it.

Tom eased back on the bed, pulling Harry along and across him, one arm flung about his waist to trap him right there with explicit pressure.

Though there was still a fight going on inside him, it had slipped below the level of nerve contesting reason — one desire fighting the other, and neither quite tangible — now that Tom was stretched out under him and he longed only to close his eyes.

"What’re you afraid of?" Tom whispered.

"Aren’t you — sometimes?"

The blue eyes changed, like a still ocean reflecting the onset of night. "Sometimes. But even within chaotic systems there’s a pattern of limited predictability, as Tuvok likes to say."

"What if he’s wrong?"

A hand wrapped around Harry’s neck, urging his head down and his lips into another kiss.

When their mouths parted again, Tom pulled his t-shirt over his head, both hands gliding across Harry’s chest. Small shivers sprang forth wherever those hands touched his bare skin. Harry bent over to trail kisses down his throat and whispered, "Turn off the light."

They were still half-dressed and the epicenter of his mind wasn’t located anywhere near the places responsible for embarrassment or doubt — but darkness served a different purpose. A test of endurance, a hope for something to come to light from that immense, breeding shadow replicating itself in his dreams.

Tom’s fingers were searching across his face, tracing every curve and line, reading his expression. He smiled reflexively, mouth brushing the fingertips conversing with him in the dark.

"I want you so much," he said softly.

Tom stroked both hands down his back. "Hell, Harry, I could tell you a long story about that, but I’ll save it for later."

"I’ll remind you."

His hands had made a path across Tom’s chest, and he followed with his mouth, tasting him, breathing his scent. With his skin, he learned the new reality of another male body and the difference of desire coming alive with the learning — challenge and hunger and the strange security of feeling every caress reflected in his own flesh.

Tom pressed into his fondling hands, they were kissing blindly, wrapped around each other. He kissed Tom’s rapid gasps off his mouth, pushed back to settle between Tom’s open legs and close a circuit that flashed erratic energy pulses through him at high speed. Fighting for breath as if he’d held it during the last few eternities since he’d entered the room, Harry picked up the rhythm this darkness beat out for him.

The strange heat of his dreams returned to stir his skin and clench in his stomach, and he thrust his hips forward while their fingers linked and grasped harder with every move, every moment contracting to explode into wanton sensation —

"Good lord," Tom gasped against his mouth. "Harry..."

"What?" he bit out.

"Never thought you’d be like this."

Harry pushed into him with the blind force of need. "What’d you expect?" he asked, no longer surprised at the rasping sound of his voice. "A total innocent? I’m not the same anymore."

"I guess not."

Tom offered no resistance when Harry reached down to undo their pants, yank as much fabric out of the way as he could manage without letting go. And they were both straining, impatient, their bodies locked in a climbing rhythm that fed the fever — but through it curled the cold traces of doubt. Harry heard himself moan, felt his fingers dig into Tom’s wrists with too much force...

He stopped, trembling with the effort to leash the dark heat inside him.

"Hey," Tom whispered, "you’ve got to tell me."

Harry gripped his shoulders for a hold. "Tell you what?"

Tom stiffened slightly as if bracing for impact. "The worst of it," he said. "Tell me what’s the worst you think’s gonna happen."

Harry shut his eyes tightly as he forced more air into his lungs. "I can see my hands around your throat," he finally said, his voice strangely hollow, "no matter how often I tell myself it never happened."

"Okay," Tom returned in the flat tone of acceptance. "Come on, do it. Put your hands right there."

His fingers wrapped around Harry’s, firm with decision.

"Don’t," Harry said brusquely, pulling his hands free.

Every muscle in the body under him was taut with anticipation. Tom’s voice lowered. "It’s important to me, Harry. We need to trust each other."

Harry held his breath as he slid a hand up Tom’s throat and felt fingers dig into his wrist with testimony of unquestionable strength. "I love you," he whispered, leaning over to silence every possible answer.

When Tom gasped against his mouth his senses lit up brightly against encroaching twilight, and for a split second of stillness he felt the full force of agony and desire that had trapped the sleeping mind — then he framed Tom’s face in both hands and kissed him deeply. A melting tremor was starting up under his breastbone, as if something inside him might come apart at the next touch.

He broke the kiss only to rasp out Tom’s name, diffusely aware that Tom’s hand shook a little as it drifted through his hair. There was no turning back now.

Something deeper, it whispered from the gaps between comprehensible thoughts.

Something as deep as the terror of the penal colony and the voracious demands slithering through his brain.

Something that left every thought of security far behind and knew only the blinding need —

— and finally, there was the giddy fear of falling towards the unknown — until Tom surrendered a deep moan of total surprise, and delight shuddered through him like an echo of the tremors that had seized the man in his arms.

Harry tightened his grip one last time, mind scattering as love and hunger clashed to become the same, and he gave himself over to the darkness that enfolded all his senses.

________________

the End
________________