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Giovanni _This shit's gotta stop

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Giovanni _This shit's gotta stop Powered By Docstoc
					Dominic shook his head. This shit's gotta stop.... We're gonna lose 'im.... Maybe I
oughta go talk t' 'is folks n' see if 'e's been like this b'fore....

He headed inside, shivering. He went room to room, looking for any of Kegan's family.
He met with success in the kitchen, finding Mick at the table with a cup of coffee and a
PADD.

"Hey... y' Kegan's brother, right?"

"Aye... I'm Mick. Ya must be th' XO." He stood and held out his hand. "Nice ta meet
ya."

Giovanni: *giving him a firm handshake* "Yeah... I just wish th' circumstances were
better ones....I'm concerned about y' brother."

Mick sat back down with a sigh. "We all are...." He took a drink of his coffee and shook
his head. "Th' last time he was like this it took all we had ta keep him from suicide. This
time is worse."

Giovanni: (Oh joy....) So what got 'im outta th' funk last time?

"Th' church. He's always been th' spiritual one."

Giovanni: *rubbing his face as he got himself a cup of coffee* Oh... we're fucked th'n....
*He sighed heavily.* "Gotta be some way t' get those two t' talk."

Mick raised an eyebrow. "Fucked? Care ta explain?"

Dominic huffed a sigh. "Let's just say takin' 'im t' church is off th' menu o' choices." He
dumped sugar into his coffee, stirred and took a careful sip.

Mick: Awww hell. Ma will not like this.... *He paused* I'm sore tempted ta
let Mags kick the Trill's arse....

"Oh yeah, that'd be real good... let 'im see 'is family beatin' on th' object o' his affections."
The XO shook his head. "If 'e's givin' up on God, then th' only way t' solve it's through
them... him n' her. Nobody else. Trick is gettin' 'em t' talk."

"Lock 'em up?" Mick suggested with a rueful snicker. "Sean's always been....sensitive."

Giovanni: (Hey... there's an idea....) Nothin' wrong with that.... *He sat down across from
him.* But y' know, y' just gave me an idea. Talkin' t' him, th' whole problem seems t' be
stemmin' from a certain Trill bein' too fuckin' stubborn n' insecure t' talk things out like
an adult. He won't push it n' make 'er talk. S' what if we don't give 'em a choice?
Mick's grin widened. "So we lock the lad and lass up... make 'em talk.... I like it." He got
up to top off his coffee. "Ya know, I like th' way ya think, Commander."

Dominic grinned in return. "When y' grow up with two younger brothers who're just as
stubborn as ya, ya learn t' be creative solvin' problems.... So all we gotta do is lay a trap
for 'em. *He thought for a moment.* They got alla these empty labs on the back o' th'
house. Some of 'em they converted over f' the holidays, but a couple of 'em couldn't be....
We could get 'em int' one o' those, lock 'em in n' tell 'em they're in 'til they settle it 'r they
die... their choice."

Mick: *Snickering*" I hope ta hell it's talk.... Da might not like th' dead way." *He
paused* Tell Sean one o' th' wee ones wandered off... he's a sucker f'r kids.

"That'll work. Devante'll be easy. Jus' have Te send 'er in t' get somethin'. We'll leave th'
lights off, get 'em in there... soon's both're in...." The first officer clapped his hands
together. "Boom! Lock th' doors on 'em. Hell, we could even make 'em think it's
accidental. Not say a thing... rig th' door locks. Th' labs're soundproof. We'll keep an eye
on 'em on th' vid system. When they've kissed n' made up 'r killed each other, we'll let 'em
out." He paused as a new thought came to mind. "Hmmm. Maybe even a lil drama...
make 'em think th' enviro system back there's gone bad. 'S funny how thinkin' y' gonna
die'll change y' perspective...."

Mick eyed his companion. "Ya sure yer not more Irish??"

"I am a professional prankster I'll have y' know. Got busted down two ranks f' prankin' an
Admiral." He grinned rakishly.

Mick burst out laughing. "I bow ta th' greater evil."

Giovanni: *snickering* Give me some time t' set things up. Hell, I'll even give ya th'
honor o' settin' y' brother up. I'll let ya know when I'm ready.

Mick: *Blue-green eyes gleaming* I'll be ready.... *He grinned* "Too bad yer married...
we could look over me PADD and go out on th' town."

"Nothin' says we can't. Just means ya won't hafta find me a date," Dominic replied with a
chuckle. "I'm gonna go get started on it. Then I gotta get back out t' the barn s' I c'n have
my project finished b'fore Christmas Eve...."


**
Zari sat wrapped in a blanket by the fire in the main den. Thankfully, she was alone.
After her middle of the night argument with Takkim, she was in no mood to talk to
anyone. She was still annoyed at the hybrid's lecture.

Like she knows thing one about being rejected and scorned like I have....her type always
gets noticed. And now she's planning to be bonded for life to the smart-ass, which means
I'll have TWO of them interfering in my private thoughts. Hell, she'll probably give him
pointers on how to dig deeper! The very thought made her ill.

Maybe I should ask for a transfer. But where would I ask to go? Besides, aside from
them and Tiffany and her stupid little groupies, the rest of the crew isn't so bad. Do I
really want to trade that for a whole crew of complete strangers? She sighed and closed
her eyes, trying to will away the heavy tired feeling. She longed to go back to bed but
knew that that was not an option.

Telia entered the house at that moment, a large basket of eggs slung over one arm.
"Zarianne hun, could y' run t' th' labs f'r me an' hunt down a big basket? Ah need it t' put
Christmas cookies in later on."

Zari's eyes popped open, startled by Telia's sudden appearance. She nodded and
unwound her blanket, tiredly pushing herself to her feet. Her balance wavered for a
moment before she steadied herself. "Which lab, Captain? I remember you telling me
there were at least four, each with its own storage room."

"Th' small research lab, last door on th' left." She smiled and shifted the basket. "Thanks,
hun!" She hurried off to the kitchen.

Smothering a yawn, Zari headed out into the main hallway and then took the left hallway
that curved around towards the back of the ranch house. It was slightly colder back here,
no doubt because this portion of the house was unused. She shivered despite her thick
sweater and picked up her pace, coming to the last door on the left as Telia had indicated.
The door opened when she palmed the panel and she stepped inside, moving for the
storage room. She wasn't surprised to find the storage room almost crammed to the brim
with everything possible, including three stacks of various sized baskets. Moving to
unstack one pile, she chose the largest basket, which looked big enough for a baby to
sleep in. It would surely be big enough for cookies.

She was startled to hear hurried footsteps enter the room behind her and turned in
surprise to see Sean. She felt her face pale an instant before the room went completely
dark and couldn't suppress a cry of fearful shock.

Sean, without thinking, reached out to steady her. "Easy, lo...lass. I'll open th' door." He
tried the door and scowled. "Door won' open."

"What do you mean it won't open?? Computer, lights!" But the room stayed pitch black.
"Computer, open the door, damnit!"
Sean tried the manual release, wishing these doors were like the rest of the house, which
had old-fashioned doors with knobs. "It's well an' surely jammed shut!"

"You can't be serious!" Panic struggled with anger for the upper hand and the latter
briefly won out. "What are you doing in here anyway?! Why did you follow me?!"

"Follow? I came in t' g't a set o' play baskets f'r th' wee ones!" He sounded tired and
indignant.

"Funny how you come in here in such a hurry then," she snapped. Annoyed at the fact
that she couldn't see Sean to tell if he was telling the truth or not, she called for lights
again. This time, they sluggishly responded, coming up to about half level. Upon
realizing how close he actually was, she backed out of his reach. She couldn't help but
notice the circles under his eyes but refused to allow herself to feel pity for him. He had
brought it on himself for sleeping with that dabo girl back on Olympia.

"Dammit woman! I was hurryin' t' g't playthings f'r little ones!" He hated that she hated
him so much that she recoiled from him.

She glared at him and moved towards the main console, hoping against hope that she
could activate some sort of internal comm system connected to the rest of the house, but
the console refused to even power up. Groaning in disgust, she turned away from it and
moved to slump down the wall and sit on the floor. "Now what are we supposed to do?"
she grumbled.

"Wait 'til we're missed...which won't be long, I imagine." He found a worn chair and
slumped into it.

"And until then, I'm stuck in here with you....that's just great." Zari folded her arms and
stared at the wall across from her, refusing to look at him.

Sean was too tired to be polite. "I'm sorry my livin' is offensive t' y'! I'll try t' die as soon
as possible."

"Don't even try and make this about me, Sean Kegan! You're the one who had to go and
screw that damned dabo girl after claiming to care so much about me!" Despite her
anger, Zari felt tears begin to sting her eyes.

"I was bloody drunk!!" he roared, Irish anger unleashed. "I thought she was you!!"

She had, of course, known about the drinking--but the latter confession left her
speechless. All she could do was stare at him in shock, unable to pull her wide, confused
gaze from his angry one. And underneath her shock and confusion, a new shiver of fear
had built. She was trapped in here, alone with a man who could easily break her in two.
What would happen now that she had incited his fury?
"Y're so ready t' see th' worst in me bu' slow t' see th' good! I've done ev'ry thin' bu' carve
in into m' flesh! I love y', dammit! Why do y' see all bu' tha'?!" He was hurt, angry and
past giving a tinker's damn about being a gentleman.

True fear was now rising inside. He had risen from the chair and was beginning to pace
like a caged animal--and Zari knew that, at any moment, he might turn on her. If she
could answer him, it might keep him at bay. "I...." Words failed her, leaving her to
remain staring at him with wide, fearful eyes.

Sean looked at her, saw the fear and sank back into his chair. "Saints preserve me, now
she's terrified o' me!" He shook his head. "Y' win, lass...I'll transfer, leave y' alone."

"I...." Now she couldn't speak past the lump in her throat. Idiot....maybe you should have
listened to him. -Listened to what? He slept with a dabo girl!- When he'd rather sleep
with you! -That would never work and you know it!- "I'm sorry," she finally squeaked
out before the lump dissolved into tears and she buried her face in her hands. "I'm s-
sorry, Sean...."

"Ma says why be sorry when y' c'n be learnin' from y'r mistake." He rubbed his face. "I
thought I'd a chance with y', but I see I've none."

"Why?" Her voice was ragged with pain and she had trouble forcing out the next words.
"What c-can s-someone like you p-possibly want with...m-me?" Why would you want me
when you can have your pick of women?

Feeling a bit like a music chip stuck on one tune, he spoke softly. "I've said it b'fore...I
love y'. F'r good 'r ill, I love y', Zarianne."

How am I supposed to believe you? How am I supposed to trust you after seeing you
with that dabo girl, drunk or not? How am I supposed to believe that someone like you
would ever want someone like me?! But to voice her thoughts would only fuel his anger
and so she closed her eyes against the new wave of tears, against the self-hatred that rose
up to taunt her once more, and wishing she could just disappear.

He looked at her and realized nothing he said mattered. "How c'n I reach a heart tha's
gone stone deaf?" He got up, rummaged around and found an old, but still working laser
scalpel. "Here...kill me now, 'tis better than dying a bit each day."

She refused to take it, shaking her head violently. "I w-won't do that t-to you." When he
sighed, she stared up at him through her tears. "I'm s-sorry, Sean....if that's n-not good
enough, then I don't know what else to s-say." He fixed her with what seemed to be a
look of annoyance and her own pain burst free. "You've never been where I've
been....everyone likes y-you and you have a f-family that cares. You c-can't know what
it's l-like being on the out-side looking in....or what's it like t-to be--be...." Realizing
she'd nearly betrayed her darkest secret, she paled and pressed her fist against her mouth
to stifle her own words.

"Dammit, woman! How c'n I understand when y've no' told me anything?"

The return of his anger made her cringe. "D-do you think it's easy to t-talk about--years
of b-being l-laughed at, ridiculed, s-set up? M-maybe it is when you kn-know that you
have c-caring people who will l-listen...I n-never h-have!" She couldn't see him through
her blurred vision, but was silently begging him to understand despite her fear.

"Angel...hurts only stay when they're ne'er faced an' talked 'bout."

"It hurts m-more t-to b-be mocked f-for feeling the way I do," she choked. "And I'm s-so
tired of h-hurting." Zari closed her eyes and bowed her head against the painful
memories, barely aware of his arms carefully closing around her, guiding her to lean on
him.

"I've always been willin' t' listen, bu' y've done nothin' bu' shove me away."

"I'm s-sorry," she sobbed, clutching at his arms and suddenly afraid that he would cast
her aside. "Please....p-please f-forgive me, Sean. I....I d-don't know how t-to let any-one
in....spent my whole l-life t-trying...finding out the h-hard way, over a-and over, it was n-
never meant."

He made her look at him. "Y've been s' busy lockin' doors, y've lost th' key. Find it an'
lemme in...please?"

She managed a nod before bowing her head again in shame. "I'm s-sorry," she whispered
shakily, slumping back against him, her weariness beginning to weigh on her.

"Angel, stop bein' sorry an' tell me I've a door t' walk through."

"You d-do....but I'm s-still sorry f-for what I d-did to h-hurt you."

He smoothed her hair. "Then please, set aside all this drama an' let us have a chance t' be
happy."

Zari exhaled a shaky sigh and nodded against his chest. Even as she made herself relax
in his arms, she knew that this was only the first hurdle. Many more still lay ahead.

"We c'n make it work, angel...if we try."

She tried to fight her exhaustion but her eyes slid closed against their will. Her body
unconsciously accepted Sean's embrace as he drew her closer in a cradling hold and
prepared to wait out their discovery.
Sean held her closer as his own weariness took hold and he drifted to sleep, head resting
on a stack of baskets.


**


The murmur of voices pulled at Zari's consciousness some time later. She didn't want to
open her eyes; she was so tired. But the voices were distracting her from her rest.

The doors swooshed open and the lights came up to full. Sean stirred and blinked against
the sudden brightness.

"Ah see ya'll have patched things up." Telia's drawl was filled with amusement.

Zari blinked blearily, suddenly realizing that she had heard Telia's voice--and she wasn't
the only one. Lingering in the doorway were two of Sean's brothers and the sight of them
made her face flame scarlet.

Mick and Colin smiled. "Up, brother, supper's on an' Ma's fit t' be tied." Mick was
openly chuckling.

Mortified, Zari scrambled off of Sean's lap. Her shaking legs made her stumble, but
Telia caught her before she landed in a heap on the floor.

"Easy hun, no reason t' be freaked." Telia grinned.

Sean got up and, on legs numb from sitting on the floor, moved to tug Zari close to him
protectively. Zari automatically hid her face in his chest, a futile attempt to hide from
Colin and Mick's eyes. "Can't we just go back to my room? I'm still so tired." The
words were a faint whisper for his ears alone.

Sean led her out. "C'mon, love." He said nothing else as he guided her to her room. Once
he had shut the door behind them, she sighed gratefully.

"I...will you stay with me tonight? Please?" Her face flamed scarlet, but she knew she
had to see this through no matter her fears.

He tilted her head up. "Aye angel...bu' we'll do nothin' tha' upsets y', okay?"

"But I do want to try...." Her blush deepened. "If you want to, I mean."

"I want anythin' tha' makes y' happy. We'll try, bu' we stop if y' become afraid, all right?"

She nodded. "I'd like to take a bath first before...." Her face felt so hot she wondered if
she would be able to rid herself of the blush before morning.
"I'll bring up some supper while y' wash up then."

Zari nodded and slipped into the fresher, running a warm bath and sinking into the
gardenia-scented water with a sigh. Inside, she was still warring with her impulsive
words. She wanted desperately to be loved, but couldn't help fearing that this would end
in failure like all her other attempts. She also didn't know how he would react once he
found out about her complete lack of experience.

Sean brought in a light supper for her, making very sure she was out and dressed in her
gown and robe.

"Here love, some soup an' wee crackers."

Her anxiety left her with absolutely no appetite. But she knew that telling him this would
only upset him, so she settled into the bedside loveseat and took the mug he offered her.
She easily recognized the scent of chicken and was grateful it wasn't a heavy soup, in
case her stomach decided to disagree with eating later on.

He smiled and dropped a couple of clover shaped crackers in her soup. "Ma said they'd
make y' smile."

Zari managed a weak smile for him before turning to her soup, sipping it carefully
because it was so hot. Thankfully, her stomach didn't rebel, but it was still tied in knots.
Her mind was in turmoil. What do I say? What do I do?

Sean sat close and let her lean against him. "Credit f'r y'r thoughts, angel." He spoke
softly, gently.

"I feel like I should know how to act around you, but I don't--so it makes me feel stupid,"
she sighed after a long minute of silence.

"We're not born knowin' things, love, we have t' learn as we go."

"I guess," she mumbled. "But then why does it look like everyone else knows exactly
what they're doing?"

He chuckled and hugged her. "Because they've gotten good at pretendin'."

She managed another little smile and set aside the empty soup mug, moving to lean
further into his arms. She knew she was pushing it, but wondered if the only way to get
past the fear was to overdo it.

He held her and kissed her temple. "Angel, even if all we do is cuddle and sleep, it'll be
fine with me."
But I want more. Too anxious to voice the words, she tried to convey it with her eyes
when she looked up into his.

He saw it and touched her cheek. "Slow is th' way t' go, angel...okay?"

"I...." To her horror, she felt tears sting her eyes again. "But I want to know. Please,
Sean." She instinctively turned her face towards his hand, brushing her lips against his
wrist. "Even if it's just a little bit."

He wiped the tears away and kissed her lightly. "We'll let things come as they will." He
knew rushing her could backfire and he did not want that.

She nodded, hating the reluctance that made her agree with him, hating the little voice
that told her this might be her last chance at gaining her dream and that it would be better
if she just did what he said for the time being. Because unlike you, he knows what he's
doing.

Then his lips touched hers and every coherent thought was swept out of her mind. He
pulled back almost immediately, but she followed him without being aware of the action,
almost falling into him. But while he reached out to steady her, he didn't pull back right
away this time.

"Easy, lass. I'll no' let ya fall, I promise."

His words were a bare whisper. She almost didn't hear it. But she pulled back herself
after another tentative kiss. Her face flamed, wondering if he disliked her clumsiness, but
she struggled to say nothing about it. If he intended to be critical of her, then that was the
way it would have to be. She sighed shakily and lifted her gaze to his again. "Will you
still....stay here tonight?" She swallowed back a lump in her throat. "I don't want to be
alone....I'm tired of being alone." It hurts to be alone. That final thought, she could not
voice aloud again.

Sean got her into bed and, once she was settled, curled up around her. "I'll be here all
night, love."

Part of her had not expected him to agree so quickly. Zari lay stiffly in his arms, hyper
aware of the warmth of his body so close against hers, of his breathing joining hers to
break the silence in the room, of the fact that she was not alone. Again, she felt out of
her element, but wanting to avoid the pain of loneliness won out over her anxiety of the
unknown. Unconsciously, she started to relax.

He rubbed her back gently and stayed relaxed and still. He knew she just needed him
close. The gentle caress along her back began to work away her remaining tension.
Soon, all she was aware of was that his warmth had taken away the chill in the bed.
Against her will, her eyes began to slide closed.
He smiled gently and covered her up, politely staying on top of the bedding and just
tugging a spare blanket over himself. He drifted off with a heart full of hope and mind
filled with dreams.


**


Zari awoke some time later to feel the bed shaking. Confused, she blinked her eyes open.
It was still mostly dark, though after a minute, she could distinguish vague shapes in the
room. Everything was quiet and still. So then what had awoken her?

She then recognized the feel of another body against hers. Before her own body cringed
in fright, she remembered what had happened earlier. In the instant that she recalled just
who was in her bed, she also realized that Sean was the source of the shaking. He was
obviously shivering. When she tried to pull the covers up more, she discovered that he
was actually on top of them with only one blanket between him and the chill in the air.

"Sean....c'm under c'vers," she mumbled without thinking that he might still be asleep.
"Don't want you t' catch cold."

He woke the second she moved and sleepily did as she asked, teeth chattering as he got
himself under the thick bedding gratefully.

"G'sleep, lass," he mumbled as he melted into the warm bed.

Instinctively, she moved against him, curling her body back against his in a spooning
position, her sleep-muddled brain telling her she had to help warm him, that the covers
would not work fast enough.

He snuggled against her warmth and drifted back into a light sleep only slightly deeper
than normal. He felt good...no, he felt at home like this and he smiled in his sleep.


When she awoke again, it was obviously daylight, but the paleness of the light told her it
was another gray day. It was still chilly outside the covers and she sighed and made
herself burrow slightly deeper. When movement bumped her into another body, she
froze in startled shock. It took her a long minute to remember that Sean's shivering had
awoken her last night and that she'd insisted on him coming under the covers. One arm
was still wrapped around her, holding her tight against him. And he had to be awake now
that she was moving.

He yawned and spoke softly. "Good mornin', angel...." He at least hoped it was a good
morning because he couldn't take too much more stress.
Her face flamed at the endearment, but she did her best to ignore it. "Good morning," she
murmured. She wondered at how she would find the nerve to turn and face him, knowing
he would need to look into her eyes to know that she was not offended by the embrace he
had on her. Slowly, she managed to shift onto her back and meet his eyes. The
tenderness there only intensified her blush, but his gaze was hypnotic and she couldn't
look away.

Sean smiled sleepily at her. "I'll go an' allow y' privacy if y' like."

"N'....you c'n stay," she mumbled, reaching up a hand to rub her eyes. "'m just not all
awake yet...."

He snuggled her close again and let his eyes close. "This is nice, angel...feels good t'
wake up this way." His voice was soft and so filled with love that it seemed unreal.

"It does...." Her own voice was almost a whisper. She was left idly wondering if this
was real, if she would wake up somewhere else and find out that she had dreamed it all
up. The thought brought a lump to her throat and she buried her face in his chest without
thinking of what he might think of the action.

He rubbed her back lazily and yawned. "I'm in a mood f'r pancakes...an' eggs with bacon
an' 'taters." His belly growled in agreement.

To her surprise, she felt a twinge in her own stomach. Normally, stress killed her
appetite, so the fact that she was hungry was unusual. She ignored it until an audible
grumble brought the blush back to her face and a low laugh from Sean.

"I see y'r tum is hungry too...maybe it wants pancakes like mine does!"

His teasing tone only made her blush worse. The heat in her face remained even as he
gave her a final hug and then drew them both out of the covers. She hurried to the fresher
in order to beat the chill in the room, nodding at his explanation that he was returning to
his own room to get himself dressed for the day.

A turn in the sonic, brushing her hair and finding clothes took hardly any time at all. It
was the time spent staring in the mirror that delayed her.

What does he possibly see in me--in this face--that endears me to him? I have nothing to
offer him. Closing her eyes against the pain, she rubbed them hard to push back the sting
in them, splashed more water on her face and then left her room to head downstairs.

Sean got to his room but before he showered and dressed, he dropped to his knees.
"Thank y' God f'r givin' me a second chance t' have my very own angel here on Earth. I'll
be stoppin' at th' church f'r Christmas Mass an' I'll leave plenty in th' poor box b'fore I
leave. An' I swear t' y' tha' I'll love 'er f'r th' rest o' m' life. Amen."
He got up and showered, dressing in soft faded jeans and a black t-shirt that made him
look even more muscular. He was soon dancing down the hall to the kitchen where Telia
was sipping iced coffee while she and his mother cooked breakfast for the horde of
guests.

Zari did her best not to look at the few people she passed, and thankfully no one talked to
her. When she reached the kitchen area, she had to wait while several people streamed in
and out, fetching their share of breakfast. She managed a weak smile for Jessica Nelson,
who was the only person who bothered to greet her in passing. She could hear Sean's
voice inside the kitchen area and his mother's in reply, though she couldn't understand a
word of the rapid-fire Gaelic.

She finally stepped into the room, automatically blushing darkly at the scrutinizing look
Telia gave her. Caught up in their conversation and with their backs to the doorway,
neither Sean nor his mother noticed her entrance.

Telia thwacked Sean on the back and he turned and smiled when he saw Zari.

"Angel!" he said happily as he moved to pull out a chair for her. "Sit, love, an' I'll get
some tea f'r y'!"

Kelly shook her head and went back to cooking, expertly stirring up a pot of pin head
oats for her brood and anyone else who appreciated the fine taste of proper oatmeal.

Zari settled into the chair, feeling disturbed at the reaction from Sean's mother. She had
the sinking feeling that the woman disapproved of her, but knew there was nothing she
could say in the way of apology even if they had been alone. She knew they had been
talking about her, though she hadn't understood a word of it. She took the offered tea
when Sean set it down before her, noticing that it was icoberry-mint and that he'd already
sweetened it for her, murmuring a thank you. He caressed her hair lightly before moving
to top off his coffee cup and take the chair next to hers.

"Have y' ever had real oatmeal?" he asked with a soft smile. "Ma makes th' best."

"Not real, no. Had replicated once. Didn't care for the taste." She heard a faint "hmph"
from behind her that no doubt came from Kelly. "But I could try a little real oatmeal,
since most foods taste better when they are not replicated."

Sean smiled and kissed her cheek. "Ma adds fruit an' honey t' hers, makes it sweet." He
looked to his mother, eyes pleading with her to be open minded.

Kelly sighed and nodded to her son. She could deny him nothing and he well knew it.
"Aye, lass, I make it fit f'r all from two years t' two hundred. Y'll enjoy it especially with
a buttered scone."
"That sounds good," Zari said softly. She wondered if she would ever be able to shake
the anxiety, but knew that any of his family liking her was a slim possibility. She could
only wonder what was going through Kelly's mind, but had the feeling it wasn't favorable
towards her.

Little Colleen came toddling in, rubbing her eyes and yawning. She happily crawled into
Zari's lap and settled in. "'Mornin', Auntie," she said with a soft little yawn.

Zari was surprised when the child came right to her and proceeded to climb into her lap.
She looked at Sean for an explanation.

Sean smoothed the fine blonde hair as Elizabeth entered the kitchen, got her smallest
child her own tiny cup of milk and a little bowl of oatmeal with milk and butter added to
it.

"Colleen has th' sight, she sees things we don'."

Zari wondered if she should move the child off her lap so she could eat, but the little girl
immediately hopped down and took the chair next to Zari's. She accepted the dish of
oatmeal Sean handed her. "'Sight'? I'm sorry, I don't understand."

"She c'n see th' future at times...an' swears she sees the wee folk." He got oatmeal for
himself, then raided the pancakes and bacon. "She's special, Colleen is, an' we love 'er
dearly."

Zari ate her share silently, first of the oatmeal, then pancakes and bacon with milk and
icoberry juice. The oatmeal was still not to her taste but it was definitely better freshly
made than replicated. She was startled to find that the juice was also fresh, not
replicated, and wondered where they'd acquired it. After putting away her dishes when
she was done eating, she settled back in her chair. She only started in surprise for a
moment when the child promptly climbed into her lap again.

Colleen was nibbling a plain pancake and she seemed content to just snuggle with her.
Zari relaxed a little bit and hesitantly placed an arm around the child, just as another of
Sean's sisters entered the kitchen. Zari froze, recognizing Maggie, who had tried to pick
a fight with her upon her arrival to the ranch. Behind her was her husband--and his eyes
narrowed at the sight of Colleen sitting in her lap.

"What d'ya think yer doin' wi' my niece?" Seamus demanded harshly.

"She--she wanted to sit with me--" Zari stammered.

"Put 'er down this instant."

Elizabeth turned and glared up at them sternly, but it was Colleen who spoke first. She
looked at, chin quivering. "Bad unca Seamus! I love Auntie!" She then clung tighter to
Zari and began to cry.

That was all it took for Kelly, Sean, Telia and Elizabeth to turn on the two with angry
eyes.

"Seamus, Maggie! How dare y'!" snapped Kelly.

"Ya'll oughta be ashamed makin' a baby cry an' makin' out like Zari would hurt a baby!
She happens t' be darned good with babies!!" came from a scowling Telia.

"Seamus, y' huge lump o' peat, y' know she gets sick when she gets upset!!" Elizabeth
looked angry and worried.

Sean got nose to nose with his hulking brother-in-law. "Tha's me angel y'r bad mouthin',
Seamus, an' Colleen is bu' a frail wee thing--an' y' dare make one cry an' th' other
scared?!"

"I dare, boy, cuz tha' Trill almost killed ya!" Seamus growled. "Bad enough she upset ya
ta th' point o' suicide again, and ya want th' likes o' 'er handlin' our Colleen?? 'Darned
good wi' babies' or no, I dinna think tha's a good idea."

Maggie said nothing, only stood with crossed arms and a glare at her youngest brother, a
silent show of support for her husband's point.

Kelly stepped in and pushed them apart. "Seems t' me th' only one hurtin' Colleen is th'
two o' ye, Maggie an' Seamus!" As if on cue, Colleen began seizing and Elizabeth
screamed.

"NO!!"

Zari didn't even think, just reacted, bolting out of her chair and moving to lay Colleen
quickly but carefully on the padding that ran the length of the counter area. "Someone
get me a medkit!" she hollered over her shoulder. She had completely forgotten her upset
of a moment ago, focusing on pulling apart the child's blouse so that her airway wasn't
restricted and gently holding her down so that she didn't thrash about and injure herself.

Telia slapped a tricorder and hypo into her free hand. She dropped the hypo next to her,
flipping open the tricorder and punching in the necessary commands one-handed. She
was thankful that the readout showed no sign of epilepsy, which meant this incident was
stress-induced. Even as she dropped the tricorder and picked up the hypo, it was ending.
The convulsions were less and faded to shudders with the quick shot of a very mild
sedative that would put a stop to the misfiring nerves.

Elizabeth sobbed, "She saved m' baby...praise God, she saved our Colleen!!"
Zari watched the child's face, picking up the tricorder again and scanning to confirm that
the drug was taking effect as it should. After what seemed like a very long minute, her
eyes slowly opened.

Colleen opened her bright blue eyes and began to cry weakly, scared and disoriented.
Zari stroked back her sweat-dampened hair. "Shh, asria." Moving automatically, she set
the tricorder aside and carefully lifted the small form into her arms, rising to her feet with
Telia's hand on her elbow to steady her. She then moved for the doorway, not even
noticing Sean on her heels. Her eyes narrowed when she reached Maggie and Seamus
and her glare focused on the man. "Get the hell out of my way right now." When he
stepped to one side, she elbowed past him and carried Colleen upstairs.

After Zari had left, Kelly lit into the two with all thrusters, turning them both into
cowering five year olds. Seamus remained stubborn, despite fearing his mother-in-law's
temper. "Did ya expect me ta no' think tha' was a risk, Mam?? After wha she did ta
Sean...and he's far less fragile than the bairn...."

"She's proved 'erself an I'll no' have this ever again!" She chased them from the kitchen
with a well-aimed wooden spoon.

Upstairs in her room, Zari had stripped Colleen before she'd gotten halfway across the
room, tossing the little clothes behind her haphazardly. Once inside the fresher, she
keyed on the water and closed the drain one-handed, then knelt next to the tub, setting the
little girl down inside it on its cool surface. She tested the water temperature, finding it
warm but not too hot and reached blindly for a washcloth until one appeared in her hand.
She looked up to find Sean sitting on the tub's edge and managed a smile for him before
turning her attention back to her patient.

Colleen shivered and blinked in confusion. "My pancake..."

"Don't worry, asria. If you're hungry later, we can get you another one." Zari reached up
to key on some hotter water for a minute, having noticed the shivers. Once it ran for
about thirty seconds, she turned all the water off and stirred the water with her hand to
distribute the heat throughout.

Elizabeth peered in. "Grams will make y' more, lass, I promise. Thank y', Zarianne, f'r
savin' m' baby."

Zari nodded in acknowledgement but never looked up from Colleen. After bathing the
child's face, she ran the cloth over her lilitu-scented soap bar and was gently scrubbing
her down. Once clean and in a warm towel, Colleen clung to Zari. "Hungry...."

Zari carried her to the small loveseat while Sean went downstairs to fetch something to
eat. He returned with a small bowl of apple slices and a chunk of warm buttered bread.
Colleen ate slowly but managed to finish it all and drink some water. Immediately after,
she fell asleep. Elizabeth's husband Jack came in to fetch Colleen, thanking Zari and
carrying his child back to his room. Zari sighed and set the bowl aside, rubbing her head.
What a morning....

Sean hugged her close. "Y' saved our wee Colleen. They'll accept y' now."

"I hope so," she murmured, accepting his embrace and sighing tiredly. "So what else did
you want to do today?"

Sean kissed her softly. "Sleigh ride, maybe?"

She felt a blush burn her face and wished she could rub it away. "That sounds like fun.
Whereabouts would we go?"

"Just over the nearby lands...enjoy th' pretty snow?"

"Okay." She watched him leave to get the sleigh ready and spent her time bundling up
the spare quilt from her bed to use as a lap cover before following him downstairs. He
had hot cocoa, a thick faux fur for her shoulders and a loving smile waiting with the
sleigh. She managed a soft smile in return, letting him wrap the fur around her shoulders
and she put the cocoa container at their feet. Along with her quilt, there was an overly
large lap blanket that could also be hooked to cover the riders up to their necks as added
protection from the cold, which they ended up doing before the sleigh took off at a slow
but steady pace, heading towards the snow-covered horizon.

Sean cuddled her close and smiled. "I love y', lass...more'n ever."

Zari felt her face flame. "I...." She found herself unable to return the words, even though
she knew she already felt them inside. Everything seemed so rushed and the experience
of being loved was entirely alien to her.

He kissed her icy cheek. "Say it when y'r ready, love."

Unexpected tears welled in her eyes. "Thank you....f-for understanding."

He smiled. "Now no ice cubes, just smiles." He wiped her eyes and kissed her nose.

She managed a weak smile in return and leaned her head on his shoulder tiredly, eyes
moving out across the land. She was surprised to see what looked like a patch of woods
up ahead, her eyes used to the acres of flat ranch land around the house.

He pointed to it. "Amerindian lands; we'll skirt past it."

"Oh, so we can't go into the woods themselves?" She was disappointed. If these woods
were anything like the Cziri Forests in winter, it would be a beautiful sight.
"Captain warned me it was off limits t' anyone bu' th' Amerindians. Sad thing, that. They
look lovely."

Zari nodded in agreement. "Are there any other wooded areas that don't belong to them?"

Sean nodded to a swath of trees leading to a frozen lake. "Aye, over there--tha's part o' th'
ranch. Those trees 're pecan an' apple, bear plenty o' fruit an' nuts, so th' Captain says."

Zari's eyes followed the direction he indicated and nodded, and wasn't surprised when he
directed the horse towards it. Once inside the woods, he paused the sleigh alongside the
frozen lake. She thought about asking him why they were stopping, but was too wrapped
up in the view. Except for their breathing and the horse's, all was quiet and still. Her
eyes were wide with wonder as she let her gaze travel slowly over the land laid out before
them.

Sean smiled. "Ever been ice skatin', love? I've skates f'r us both if y'r willin'." Sean was a
physical man--sports, hiking, fishing, skating, he loved it all. "It's fun an' good f'r th' body
an' soul." He smiled at her hopefully, eager to share one of his passions with her.

"I do like to skate....but I've never done it on real ice. I mean, outside ice. I have a
holodeck program with an Olympic-size rink and I have used indoor rinks at the
Academy and other places a few times." Zari looked askance at the frozen lake. "If you
think it's safe, I'm willing to try."

He smiled. "Captain says th' ice is fine an' thick, perfect f'r skatin'."

"Okay...." She was still hesitant, but knew she could trust Telia's word. She carefully
climbed out of the sleigh, sinking into snow knee deep. It took some shuffling but
eventually she made her way to the shoreline, where she was able to dust off a rock in
order to sit and put on her skates. Sean joined her and sealed his skates on and, with a
grin, got onto the ice. He was already skating around happily while she got her skates
sealed on. Zari followed him within minutes, a little wobbly and staring directly down at
the ice under her feet with a nervous look painted on her face. Even when she started to
move in a slow circle, she was still looking mostly down.

Sean caught her and, with a laugh, pulled her out and took her into a figure eight. Zari
squealed in surprise at how fast he moved, but managed to hang on. Her squeal turned
into a shriek when he spun her around in a circle. He laughed and slowed down, letting
her go so he could do fancy moves, showing off a little for her.

Zari stopped, watching as he started to skate a little quicker, making a few small jumps
and some moves that she recognized from watching professional skating shows and 2-D
holos of famous Olympic skaters of past centuries. When he beckoned to her from the
center of the ice, she didn't hesitate, moving to join him.
He took her hands and began a skating version of a waltz, guiding her with grace one
would never expect from such a tall and muscular man. She began to forget about her
anxiety, and the chill biting at her exposed face. Her skating was not as graceful as his,
but she managed to move with him with some ease. He never let go of her hands and, at
one point, even lifted her easily above his head, while spinning in a slow circle.

He let her down and kissed her, blue eyes twinkling. "I love bein' alone with y' like this.
Reminds me o' fairy tales."

She felt the heat rise in her face and bowed her head, but he tilted her chin up so that she
had to look into his eyes. A faint shiver went through her when his gloved thumb
caressed the spots where they curved along the top of her neck.

He rubbed his nose over hers playfully and took her out onto the ice for another slow
dance. He moved with skill and looked into her eyes with such devotion, such love.

"M' beautiful Snow Angel...nothin' is better th'n lookin' into y'r eyes."

She blushed deeply and shivered again, though this time it was from the cold. It had
begun to snow again--fat, fuzzy flakes drifting out of a gray sky. The jingle of the sleigh
bells got their attention and she looked over to see the horse stamping one hoof and
looking their way with what seemed like impatience on his face.

"W-we better go," she said reluctantly. She realized the horse was probably cold after
standing there while they skated. And despite her layers of clothes, she could feel the
chill seeping in. "It f-feels c-colder."

Sean got her sitting down and removed her skates and then his own before getting them
back into the sleigh. He smiled as she sipped some hot cocoa while he tucked the
blankets back around them and they started moving again. "We'll see 'bout findin'
somethin' hot f'r lunch. Warm us right up." Of course the ranch house was cold too, but
Telia had rooms set aside for others so that they could sit and be warm. She just only
came into them if she was wearing a cooling unit.

Zari was grateful to be back under the thick layers of blankets and the cocoa from the
stasis thermos helped take the edge off her chill. But she was more grateful when he
immediately pulled her close against him, because he was much warmer than the blankets
that covered them. Or so it seemed. She leaned her head on his shoulder with a faint
sigh, watching the snowflakes grow fatter and slightly thicker in their fall as they turned
back in the direction of the ranch house.

The horse went right for the stable, stopping once inside and looking back at them as if to
say, All right, get out so I can get this off and go eat my hay!

"Can we go back tomorrow?" Zari asked as she carefully climbed out of the sleigh and
watched Sean unhitch it. "We could take a flitter to the edge of the woods and walk in to
the lake...then we can stay out as long as we want." She gently patted the horse's neck
and led him back to his stall.

"Anything y' like, love, as long as th' weather holds." He curried the horse and left him
eating happily.

Zari took the hand he offered and they hurried towards the house, making it to the kitchen
door just as the snowfall grew even thicker. They blew into the house and Sean shoved
the door shut just in time. Zari shivered as she unwound her scarf, nodding an
embarrassed greeting to Telia, who had just stepped in upon hearing the door open.

She had Janie on her hip, who was happily gnawing on a thick cookie

"Hey, ya'll...coffee's on an' so's tea an' cocoa." She deftly snatched the cookie and
switched it for a thick beef bone. "No more sugar, baby." Janie scowled, then began
gnawing the bone and decided it was good.

Zari had pried her boots off and hung up her coat and immediately moved for the cocoa
carafe. She filled a mug and pressed it against her cold cheek with a sigh of relief before
taking a sip and then moved into the main den, where a handful of people were gathered.
She hated the fact that most everyone seemed to fall silent and stare at her, which forced
her to pick a lone chair off in the farthest corner.

Sean was having none of that. He got her up and moved her onto a sofa with him and
kept her close. Zari kept her eyes down, refusing to look at anyone except Sean. It was
difficult to allow herself the closeness they had somehow found a little of out on the
pond, but she pushed herself to it, not wanting to upset him by withdrawing.

Colleen entered the room, came over and immediately climbed into her lap. She was still
tired from her episode and wanted to snuggle. Zari looked at the little lines of tiredness
etched into the child's brow with concern. "Are you hurting again, Colleen?"

She shook her head. "Sleepy, Auntie Zari...like y'r lap." She yawned and nestled closer.

Zari smiled faintly. "All right. But why don't you lay next to me for a few?" She settled
the child next to her with a pillow to cradle her head and a thick fleece blanket to cover
her. "I need to eat something, but I won't take long."

Colleen nodded and dozed off, looking like a little doll laying there. Zari covered her up
and followed Sean back into the kitchen long enough to help him with tomato soup and
grilled cheese sandwiches. She also decided to make half a sandwich for Colleen in case
she could convince the child to eat it.

Sean smiled. "She'll eat it up...Colleen loves grilled cheese."
They returned to the den to eat. Zari did manage to get Colleen to wake up long enough
to eat, though she spent the rest of the time dozing. When Sean took their dishes back to
the kitchen and seemed to be gone longer than a few minutes, Zari decided to lay down
with Colleen. Before she realized how tired she was, she had fallen asleep right next to
the girl.

People came and went; no one bothered them. Sean sat close by and watched over them,
sipping tea and chatting with the various people passing through. Hermione, another of
Sean's nieces, joined him, sitting beside him with a bookpadd. She only looked up when
her grandparents entered the room and waved them over.

Kelly smiled and sank into a chair to knit. "Did y' finish y'r book, Hermione?"

"One of 'em, Grandma. I've got four on this padd right now," Hermione finished with a
giggle.

Kelly smiled. "Readin' is important, no matter how many y've got goin'."

"'S fun, too." Hermione scooted over to lean back against her grandfather's knees where
he sat on the opposite end of the couch Zari and Colleen were asleep on. She was the
first to notice that Zari had begun to stir.

Sean smiled and patted Zari's hand as she opened her eyes. "Enjoy y'r nap, angel?"

Zari was embarrassed to find that she'd apparently been asleep for hours. She stammered
an apology, first to Sean, then to his parents and tried to sit up quickly without disturbing
Colleen. But Kelly waved a hand. "Naps 're good f'r th soul, lass."

She nodded and turned her attention to the yarn and needles in Kelly's hands. "What are
you making?"

Kelly smiled as Sean got out his own yarn bag and began working. "A sweater f'r our wee
Colleen...poor lass always gets a chill." She held up the pale pink object with soft streaks
of darker pink that made it look like a confection of some kind.

Zari didn't notice the older woman hold up her work in progress; she was too surprised at
Sean arranging what appeared to be a creation of his own on his lap. She stared at him in
confusion, unable to even ask the whys or hows. She'd known many men who were
tailors or clothing designers, but never one who admitted to a hobby that was usually
thought to be reserved for females.

Sean blushed and looked a bit like she might have slapped him. "I'll put it away...."

"No! No, you're fine, Sean." She felt her face burn as both of his parents seem to give
her cross looks. "I just...I didn't think you were--that you would be interested in....such a
craft." She knew she was stumbling on her words but she was fighting not to make him
think that she found it unmanly or stupid, just surprising.

He blushed harder. "When...when I was a lad, Ma taught me an' it helps calm me and
relax me." He shyly held up the object. " 'Tis a sweater f'r y'...."

"Oh." The color did not surprise her--a soft shade of sea green. It appeared almost done,
as one sleeve was finished and the other appeared to be in progress. She idly hoped it
would fit her--she didn't want him to be disappointed that his hard work was for naught.

He looked at her hopefully. "Do y' like it, angel?" He looked so nervous; he had let her
and everyone else see his secret and worried he had made a mistake.

"It's lovely, Sean. I just hope it fits me." She reached out a tentative hand to touch the
soft knit.

He lowered his voice to a whisper, "I checked y'r replicator records f'r y'r size."

"Oh." This time, her blush was as bright as his but she tried to ignore it by admiring the
sweater some more before he settled back to work on it.

He smiled. "It'll keep y' warm since I know y' chill easy."

She offered him a soft smile in return. "Out of uniform, I seem to be. I guess I'm used to
the three layers it provides. Though I do like colder temperatures better than warmer.
Easier to warm up than cool off is why."

He looked relieved that she was happy with him and not mad that he had poked around
and got her size.

Kelly smiled at her youngest son. "Sean has a way with it, made many a set o' baby
things over th' years."

"Oh?" She watched him blush and duck his head to his needles. "What did you make for
Tiara and Serenity....or plan to make, when you get the time?"

"I made them little soft wraps f'r after a bath." He looked back up at her and smiled.

"Well, at least your own children will be well-dressed." Then realizing what she'd said,
she felt her face turn red. "I mean, if you're wanting any. I know many people who
choose not to, for various reasons." She did her best not to look away from him,
determined to find some way to overcome her constant fear of saying the wrong thing.

He leaned in and whispered, "I want a lot of wee ones...if they are with y', lass." He then
kissed her cheek.
She stared at him in stunned shock, barely awake that her cheeks were once more red
with embarrassment. But the tenderness in his eyes told her it was a serious statement.

I'm not worthy to bear your children. But she knew if she said that out loud, it would
start an argument. She was too tired to argue when she knew he would be firm in his
mindset. Swallowing down the lump in her throat, she was almost thankful when he
turned her attention to his work, showing her how the stitches were made. Then she
could put his words to the back of her mind.


**


The next morning, Sean awoke early and lay there watching Zari sleep. He smiled
sleepily as he looked at her face, amazed that such a lovely creature would give him a
shot at loving her, at entering her life. Oh love...y've given me hope, a chance at love an'
happiness.

Still exhausted from all that had happened, Zari did not stir, not even when he gently ran
a fingertip along her cheek.

Will it work? 'R will y' send me away? Please God...lemme be with her.

Zari shifted in her sleep, rolling completely to face him. She sighed faintly at the
brushing of fingertips along her neck spots, but still did not awaken. He smiled, tucked
the covers up around her and settled back to look at her with eyes filled with adoration
and a love that most women would die to have. She finally stirred two hours later. By
then, he had drifted back into sleep of his own, which gave her the opportunity to look at
him.

A handsome face that disguised a surprising soul....one so gentle and caring that it was
hard to consider real. Most men this good-looking were callous, cold. They knew they
had good looks and flaunted them, and were rarely caring in public. What made Sean so
different? What made him find anything worthwhile in her?

The door creaked open and first one of the cats wandered in, then Colleen toddled in and
got onto the bed with them and the cat, nestling between them with a yawn. Not hearing
the door, Zari started in surprise when the cat hopped up to join them. She was even
more surprised by Colleen's appearance. "Asria, why are you up so early?" she
whispered, hoping she didn't awaken Sean.

She just yawned and dozed back off. Sean nestled them both close with a soft sigh.
Giving up, Zari allowed her eyes to close again. She was awakened for real about an
hour later when the cat decided he wanted out.
"All right, all right," she sighed. Untwining herself from the covers, she got up and
opened the door enough to let the cat slip through, then closed it again. She didn't notice
Seamus on the landing, glowering at her.

Seeing that Colleen and Sean both still be appeared to be asleep, she slipped into the
fresher to take her shower. It took longer because she had to run both sonic and water to
clean and detangle her hair. But she was grateful when she could turn the water on--
sonic waves were a great cleaner but they did little to warm a person.

Sean woke to Colleen giggling in her sleep and he smiled gently. He heard Zari in the
shower and moved to the door. "Angel? I'm takin' Colleen t' Elizabeth, then I'm f'r a
shower in my room. Meet y' f'r breakfast?"

"Okay!" she called back before ducking her head under the water again. He was gone
when she stepped out five minutes later, still shivering even though she had dried her hair
with the sonic waves and was bundled in a thick towel. Dressing hurriedly and fixing her
hair, she made it down the stairs and into the kitchen area before realizing that she was
alone in the room--except for Maggie.

She wanted to find a way to retreat. But she forced herself to step further into the
kitchen, ignoring the other woman as she moved to pour herself some cocoa.

Maggie had been chewed out by her mother until she felt like she was five again. She
grunted in greeting and added more butter to the bubbling pot of porridge. Zari settled in
the furthest seat possible from Maggie and silently sipped her cocoa. It was obvious she
wasn't sorry for yesterday, which didn't surprise Zari any. Thankfully, Sean arrived
within the next minute and she gave him a smile of greeting, glad to see him.

He kissed her and got himself some coffee. "Maggie makes jewelry; maybe she could
show y' some." He wanted his family to love her too and her to love them.

"Maybe," she murmured. She had little optimism that the other woman was going to be
anything more than forcibly polite, much less develop any form of rapport with her.
Shrugging it away, she got up to fetch some already made muffins and bacon from the
stasis warmer.

The porridge apparently finished, Maggie was busy dishing out half a dozen helpings into
bowls. As she did, the bracelet on her left wrist caught Zari's eye. The beads were
Terran emerald, jade and Vulcan emerald, each a unique shade of green. It was beautiful
and Zari wondered if it was one of her own creations. Before she could ask, five of
Maggie's seven children, accompanied by another five or six of their cousins, flowed into
the room. Many of them headed for the porridge bowls but one of the girls detoured to
Sean, her red-brown curls bouncing as she jumped to try and get her arms around him.

Sean caught Niamh and set her beside him and away from his project. "Easy lass, y'll
tangle my yarn."
Maggie sat down and looked to Zari when the kitchen cleared of the rest of the children.
"Sorry I was an arse."

Zari noticed that the girl and Sean had their heads together, so she felt comfortable
enough to respond to Maggie. "I can understand...you're protective of him," she
murmured, unable to look Maggie in the eyes.

"We've nearly lost 'im twice, we worry 'bout Sean." She sighed. "Bu' we've been
unkind...Ma made us see tha'."

Zari nodded, her eyes flitting to Sean as he smiled at his niece while she chattered at him
about something in Gaelic. She knew he'd alluded to past pain, but she wondered if he
ever wanted her knowing about any of it, for she knew more than most that such things
were very difficult to confess to others.

Maggie smiled as she glanced at Sean. "He's a love with th' children. Sean's a born Da."
Something about her tone said there was a story behind the statement.

"That's one thing we have in common. I like children too." She looked down at the
remainder of her breakfast. "I've always wanted my own, but...." She blushed and
shrugged. Unwilling to say what was on her mind to a woman who'd hated her a mere
twenty-four hours ago, she left the rest unsaid.

Maggie patted her with a big calloused hand. "Marry Sean an' y'll have plenty."

Zari's blush grew hotter and she shrugged again. There was no way for her to say that
she didn't know if or when she'd ever be comfortable enough around Sean to even reach
such a thing as marriage. Though she couldn't help her mind drifting to the idea of her
children being fathered by him....a little girl like Niamh, but with his blue eyes and lighter
spots.

Maggie noticed her looking at the bracelet. "Y' like it, do y'? Made it from left over
parts."

Grateful for the change in subject, she nodded as she picked up her last piece of bacon
and nibbled at it. "The colors are beautiful."

Maggie took it off, adjusted it and handed it to her. "Here...take it."

Zari stared at her, wide-eyed. "But...it's yours," she said in a stunned voice. "I mean, it's
obvious you put so much effort into it to make something nice for yourself--"

Maggie shrugged. "Can always make another...take it, lass."
"All right....thank you." Zari could feel her whole face was on fire as she took the
bracelet and carefully slid it onto her wrist. "I've never had anything this--this beautiful."
She rubbed a fingertip over one of the jade pieces in awe. A small hand joined hers and
she looked up in surprise at Niamh. The girl gave her a bright smile, then skipped out of
the kitchen.

Maggie smiled. "She's another special one...sweet an' kind."

Zari managed a faint smile. "My niece is like her. Except she's very excitable." She
turned her gaze to Sean, unable to suppress the blush at the admiration she saw there.
"I'm full if you are."

Sean smiled. "I'm hardly ever full, angel...right, Mags?"

Maggie chuckled. "Big folk eat more than regular folk."

"Then I suppose we'll have to pack a box of lunch for you." Zari's tone was gently
teasing. "Because I was hoping to stay out most of the day if it stays nice."

"Maybe a whole basket?" He looked hopeful.

Zari couldn't help but laugh. "Maybe I should let you pack it so you don't end up eating
my skates if you run out of food."

"Smart lass!" he said with a grin, happily turning to the cupboards out while Maggie
laughed.

Zari blushed again but moved to go get her coat and their skates, putting her bracelet
carefully on her bedside table. She had no intention of possibly losing or damaging it
while they were out skating.

Sean packed them a feast and loaded it and her into the flitter. "I'm glad y've made friends
with Mags...she felt bad 'bout what she did."

Zari settled into the flitter's seat, watching him start it up. "I just hope I'm forgiven by the
others," she said softly, reaching out her hands to warm them when the heated air begin
to flow from the front vents.

"They'll be fine, angel...trust me." He took off and headed them to the lake. He kept the
cruising speed slow, so they could admire the snow-covered scenery. Finally, he parked
the flitter at the edge of the woods, shutting it down and pocketing the key after they had
fetched their skates and a stasis thermos of cocoa.

"I can go back to the flitter to get the basket when we get hungry," she pointed out.
"I'll g't it later love; let's skate." He helped her into her skates, then got his own on and
got them onto the ice.

Now having more confidence on "real" ice, Zari was not as nervous about letting Sean
pull her around. She only screamed when he would let her go into a spin with no support,
which had him laughing most of the time. Until she threw a snowball in his direction
and, by sheer luck, hit him in the chin, which made half the snow end up in his mouth.

He coughed and spit it out, then laughingly tossed one at her. She was already moving,
so was able to avoid it. But she scrambled for the shoreline again, trying to make another
one first.

He raced up behind her and dropped snow down the neck of her coat and took off again.
Her scream of shock surely could have been heard back at the ranch. When she
recovered, she glared at him, swept up as much snow as she could carry and tried to take
off after him. Unfortunately, much of the snow filtered through her fingers so she only
had a small handful to hold onto while she chased him. "Sean Kegan, you get back
here!" she cried in frustration, trying not to laugh.

He raced around her, laughing joyfully. "Catch me, love!"

She flung the snow in her hands at him but it landed far short. Frustrated, she scooped up
more and skated after him. They went around the pond five times before she decided to
cut across to get him. Her snowball missed but she was skating fast enough that she
crashed into him and, since they were right next to the shoreline, landed them into the
large snowdrift piled up there with her on top of him.

He looked up at her and kissed her softly. "My angel."

She shivered when his lips touched hers, but didn't pull away, letting him lead her into a
deep, lingering kiss.

Sean broke the kiss and smiled. "M' front is warm, but me backside is freezin'."

Zari felt her face flame. "Oh Sean, I'm so sorry!" she gasped. She scrambled to get off
him, missing his grunt when she slipped and her hand slammed down on his thigh,
perilously close to his groin. "Sorry....sorry...." She shoved herself backwards on the ice,
letting it slide her far enough away to let him up.

He helped her up after getting to his feet. "No harm, angel!" He kissed her and smiled
tenderly.

She blushed and hid her face in the front of his coat. "Still, I'm sorry." Seeing that the
back of his coat was covered, she tried to brush him off. He smiled and stepped back,
shaking off like a big dog. She smiled back, her tension mostly forgotten. "I'm a little
hungry--want me to go get the basket?" When he nodded, she skated to the rock to
change into her boots and took the passkey to the flitter with her. At the flitter, she
changed her gloves for dry ones and picked up the basket, not noticing the dark gray
smudge of clouds on the far horizon.

He had warmed a rock with his ever-present phaser and made them a nice place to sit and
eat. "Warm enough, angel?"

Zari nodded. "I'm okay." She peeked into the basket and was surprised by how much
he'd fit into it--at least eight sandwiches, a few smaller stasis thermoses, a small jar of
pickles, another of icoberries and a rectangular container at the bottom with various
sweets inside. "Whatever do you do when you're on duty, Sean?" Her tone was gently
teasing as she passed him a sandwich and the pickle jar.

Sean looked mournful. "Listen t' m' belly growl."

She couldn't help the laugh that bubbled free. "Maybe you should come by sickbay and
get some nutrient shots. That might help you out some--" She unwrapped a sandwich for
herself and was startled by its strong smell. "What's in this?"

He grinned and handed her a different one. "Sorry lass, I like horseradish."

She wrinkled her nose and passed it to him. "I hope it tastes better than it smells." The
sandwiches he'd made for her turned out to be ham with avocado or various cheeses put
together, also with avocado. She found that both were equally good.

He ate hungrily, sharing the pickles with her and feeding her bites of the sweets he had
brought. "I love bein' alone like this, angel."

She blushed at his tender tone. "I do too, Sean. It's...easier like this." A shiver went
through her and she realized that their rock had cooled. She automatically scooted closer
to him. "Where no one stares at me or judges me because I can't...just...." She blushed
deeper. "Throw myself at you."

He hugged her close. "We'll be fine, love. Y'll see." He kept her close as they lingered
over their lunch.

She was too full to eat anything more after two brownies and four pieces of fudge, but he
finished off the fudge and sampled the icoberries before packing away the remainders.
To wake herself up, she made the walk back to the flitter to put away the basket. Once
she returned to the pond, she was ready for more skating.

This time, she skated with him and he carefully guided her through several slightly
difficult moves, some of which she'd never tried before. Time got away from them and
soon the storm was upon them, dark, angry and fast. Zari didn't notice it until she
realized that snow was falling around them and then she looked up. The clouds seemed
much darker than the day before. Or was it later in the day this time?
"We better go...." She was first to move for the shoreline but a biting wind suddenly
swept onto the lake and right into their faces, almost knocking her over.

He caught her, guiding her off the ice with difficulty and tried to get them to the flitter,
only to be blown off course, leaving them wandering far past the flitter.

Zari was barely aware of them scrambling to discard the skates and shove their boots
back on. The snow was so blinding and the wind so cold that all she could remember
was to hang onto Sean and keep moving. If they kept moving, they'd stay warm. The
forest seemed endless. Where was the edge? Where was the flitter? It couldn't be that
far away.

Sean tried shouting, but the wind ripped his words away and almost took his breath as
well. When they finally reached a break in the trees, she was shocked to find the
landscape--what she could make out of it--entirely different. Where are we?! She tried
to scream this to Sean, but it was obvious that over the howling wind, he couldn't hear
her.

In their snow-blinded wanderings, they were straying far off Kindon lands...where no
wasichu was allowed without express permission from Spirit Owl. The land was wild,
filled with hills, mounds and animals.

Neither of them could see this, except for occasional glimpses. All they knew was that
they were now lost. But they kept moving, as there was nowhere to take safe shelter
from the storm. It was becoming difficult to breathe, between the pounding wind and the
bone-numbing chill. But Zari knew they couldn't stop, not out in the open. To stop
would spell their death.

Adrenaline suppressed her fear just enough to keep her going--until another violent gust
of wind tore her out of Sean's grasp. She screamed in terror and tried to reach for him--
but he was gone.

Sean screamed for her as she was wrenched from his grasp but his lungs were almost
sucked free of air as the winds howled like a pack of hungry wolves. Shoved mercilessly
by the wind, blinded by snow and rising tears, Zari soon lost even which direction she
was trying to move. When another burst of howling wind hit her in the face, it robbed
her of her breath completely and she crumpled to the ground, sinking into a quiet
darkness.

Sean struggled against the wind and he never saw the tree in front of him; all he felt was
a sharp pain, then he fell back like a stunned bull.


**
The shrieking howl of the wind was still there--and yet, it seemed far away. When she
forced her eyes open, they met unfamiliar surroundings--earth-like colors were a blur
around her. The surface--the ground?--was hard underneath her. She tried to get up--but
found that impossible. Another look made her realized she was bound completely after
having been wrapped neck to toe in something rough. Struggling did no good--she
couldn't even roll onto her side.

Panic made the fact that she was in shelter and the rough material, along with the blazing
fire a meter away, was keeping her warm. She tried to struggle harder, but her strength
failed her. She darted a look around, hoping there was someone who could help her. But
she was alone--wherever she was....

Sean!! She darted another frantic look around, hoping against hope that she'd somehow
missed seeing him. But he was not there. Whoever had found her had not found Sean.
Tears flooded her eyes and she fell back with a sob of anguish. She couldn't bear the
thought of him dead.

The fire inside the roughly built hut was warm, despite the winds howling. The wasichu
was not bound, simply weak and unable to rouse herself. Then from the darkness outside
the range of the flames came a voice, a voice as old as time.

"You are not like the other wasichu...she would be angry...fighting."

The voice made Zari bolt upright in terror. It also seemed to loosen her bonds somewhat.
She struggled to try and loosen them further but did not throw aside the rough blanket she
now knew it to be, for it kept her warm. She looked around again for the source of the
voice, but saw no one. It made her wonder if she was dead after all--if the voice
belonged to one of the Holies. Especially when she had no idea what the voice referred
to. "I--I don't understand," she whispered.

The old woman leaned forward, skin wrinkled and copper coloured, hair white and eyes
dark as night. "The one who hears whispers even on the wind...the one with skin like the
sky."

She got a glimpse of the face belonging to the voice--an elderly dark-skinned woman
with sharp eyes. Skin like the sky....the voice had to be referring to the Captain. Was she
here? There was no sign of her, just like there was no sign of Sean. "Where's Sean?"
Her voice wavered when she spoke his name. "Y-you have to find him--d-don't leave
him out there--" She closed her eyes against more tears.

"I do not control the winds...and they do not speak his name." She made a gesture and a
younger woman, clearly pregnant, brought Zari water and what looked like an oatcake
sweetened with honey.
"Then why did you save me??" Zari demanded, her voice cracking. "He has a huge
family, friends, people who love him. I don't have anyone...." Except him--and now he's
gone...why did You take him from me?! she screamed silently.

Spirit Owl just looked at her, waiting for the herbed water to calm the excitable girl. "The
spirits asked me to send my son out to find the broken one." She said it as if it explained
it all.

Zari tried to shake her head to refuse the water, but the other girl gently pushed the cup
into her hand, so she gave up and sipped at it while tears silently slid down her face. She
couldn't speak--all she could do was try not to let the pain inside overwhelm her.

Sean was in another hut; he was bound for the safety of others and he was fighting mad.
While he roared and bellowed at Shadow Wolf, Spirit Owl just smiled knowing her son
would be unimpressed.

Having drained the cup, Zari set it aside. A shudder wracked her and she couldn't tell if it
was cold or trying to hold the tears back, but she pulled the blanket tighter about her.
"I'm grateful you brought me to shelter...b-but what do you want with me?" she
whispered miserably.

"I want nothing...it is you seeking answers."

"Fine, then tell me why your son couldn't find b-both of us!" Zari was struggling to keep
her voice steady. "He has people who will want him b-back....I don't! I don't have any-
thing n-now...."

"You have more than you know...but you allow the darkness to make you weak."

"What do you know??" Zari's voice was laced with bitterness. "Or why don't you ask the
'spirits' you talk to about how I've been treated all my life by almost everyone around me,
starting with my mother??" She swiped at her face, though it did no good to stop her
tears.

"Trials are there to make one strong, not weak." She tossed herbs on the fire and the
smoke formed images.

The smoke that suddenly burst up from the fire made her cough. When she recovered,
she was surprised to see hazy images in the smoke that remained. It was as if the images
were pulled from her own memories....her mother's angry face, her child self alone in a
corner while other children laughed and played, the scornful eyes of Keith Morris. "You
wouldn't understand," she mumbled, turning away.

"Words you use often, words among many others that you use to keep your spirit crushed
and alone."
The older woman's cryptic words only confirmed her belief. "And trying to make people
understand has really helped me or found me friends." Her voice was still a mumble, but
the anger was clear. "Trying to explain how I feel gets me mocked or ignored. My own
mother couldn't be bothered, let alone teachers or peers or even the crewmembers I have
now."

"You have to seek the strength within...or you will fail those that will need you most."

I don't have any strength--and no one needs me. With Sean dead, there's no one to care
how I feel anymore. The thought of Sean brought a fresh bout of tears to the surface.
"Go away, please. Let me m-mourn in p-peace." It hurt to say those words, but she had
to face reality.

The smoke rolled and shifted, showing children, several of them, all with faint spots. But
Zari had stopped looking, even if she could see through her tears. She bowed her head
against the weight of her grief, struggling against the urge to bolt outside and get lost for
real in the savage storm.

"If death is what you seek, then go...but you will not find peace there."

"Go away!" she cried, turning her back on the other woman. "P-please...just g-go a-way
and l-leave m-me a-lone!" Her voice was a moan of pain.

The shelter went dark and the smoke formed solid figures, voices filling the room.
Children laughing, calling for their Ma...and then the sound of Sean's voice talking to the
small herd of offspring.

Zari wanted to scream at the hateful old woman for bringing this mockery upon her.
Sean was dead. There would never be any children to call him father--and none for her,
either. With him dead, her fragile hope for the attempt at finding love was shattered.
With it lay shattered the rest of her dreams--that she might know the love she longed so
badly for, the chance to have her own children, the knowledge that she would not die
alone whenever her time came. When she felt what she thought was a hand on her arm,
she moaned, pulling away from it. "Stop it! He's g-gone....you l-left him out th-there to
d-die and n-now I h-have n-nothing!" She choked on a sob, cutting off anything else she
could find the strength to say.

Sean had been bound and forced to calm down before being suddenly in a different
shelter with a weeping Zari.

"Angel?"

Holies, now the old woman was even conjuring up a shade of Sean to taunt her. "Stop it,
damn you!" she cried through her tears. "Why did you b-bother sav-ing m-me?! Why l-
leave Sean out th-there to d-die?! Why?!" The last word was almost a scream.
Sean pulled her to him and rocked her. "Angel, angel!! I'm real!!" He kissed away her
tears and rubbed her back soothingly.

At first, she struggled, not wanting to give in to the delusion. But at the feel of his lips on
her cheeks, her swollen eyes flew open and she stared at him in shock for a long minute.
Her mouth opened, but no sound came out. Finally, she lifted a shaking hand to touch his
face.

He caught her hand and kissed it. "We're their guests f'r a bit, seems their spirits let 'em
know we were in trouble."

Still, she continued to stare, even while more tears escaped. A sobbing wail burst from
her throat and she buried her face in his chest. "I th-thought y-you were d-dead...."

He held her tightly. "I'm here angel, safe an' sound."

She wanted to ask so many questions--where he'd been, why the old woman had talked
like he was dead. But she was crying too hard to speak. She was faintly aware of him
shifting her about and, when she looked up again, they were slightly nearer to the fire and
she was seated in his lap. She sniffled and rubbed at her eyes, clinging to him with the
other hand. She didn't want to let him go. "Th-they scared m-me....I th-thought you were
d-dead....and I was a-lone."

"Shhh...it's all right now. I've food an' water an' we're warm an' dry." He pulled a hankie
from his pocket and offered it to her. She took it and swiped at her nose and eyes.

"I th-thought I'd l-lost you. That I would b-be alone f-forever." Her voice was a quaking
whisper. "Th-that I'd n-never b-be able to h-have what I kn-know you c-can give m-me."
She touched his face again, her fingers still trembling.

He kissed her fingers gently. "I told y', lass...f'rever." He stirred up the fire and reached
out to pull a heavy fur robe around them.

The kiss on her fingertips made her tremble and, before she could think about what she
was doing, she leaned forward to touch her lips to his. He returned the kiss tenderly,
holding her tightly. He wanted her, but she wasn't ready, might never be ready.

She didn't pull away for a long minute. When she did, she noticed the hint of uncertainty
in his expression. She swallowed back the remainder of her tears and touched his cheek
gently. "I want to," she whispered.

He was still unsure--the last thing his frail ego needed was her crying during or after; that
would do serious damage to his ego and make him fearful of ever touching her again.

She caught the hand that was resting on her arm, drawing it to her lips. Closing her eyes,
she kissed each of his fingers, hearing his breath catch in his throat at the gesture. When
she looked up again, she could see the uncertainty changing to hope. She could only
desperately pray he wouldn't reject her. "Please, Sean....make me yours."

He moved to kiss her; this time the kiss was deeper, tinged with the passion that was a
natural part of his nature. Her hands gripped his arms for support, but she kissed him
back, clumsily despite her eagerness. When it seemed that she would pass out from lack
of air, he broke the kiss, turning his attention to her neck spots.

He ravished her neck, heart soaring with joy. She wanted him! He had a chance to be a
husband, a father, a chance to be whole.

Her heart was pounding, even as the shudders of pleasure began to slowly overwhelm
her. She'd been kissed a few times in her life, but never anything further. The feel of his
lips tracing her spots on one side, while his fingertips worked the other, was already
making her gasp and moan. What would happen once he went beyond that?

The heavy robe became a blanket as he shifted and laid them out on it. He was going
slowly, taking time to caress, tease and show love and respect for the woman he loved.
She settled back once he lay her down, finding herself reclining against what seemed to
be another fur that could pass for pillowing. His blue eyes glowed down at her and she
trembled with desire as he gently ran his hands slowly down the front of her, cupping
them around her breasts and caressing lightly. A moan escaped, for even through her
layers of clothing, she could feel his touch. She couldn't even imagine the intensity of
what it would feel like once those layers were no longer in his way.

Undressing her became an event, each piece of clothing being taken off slowly and with
soft kisses and tender caresses. Her trembling intensified as slowly, so slowly, she was
exposed to his hungry gaze. His eyes met hers as he worked loose the hook on her bra,
letting it fall open. She gasped as the chill air touched her already sensitive breasts,
nipping at their peaks.

He kissed her again, fingers tenderly caressing the rigid tips, his own body reacting to her
nudity. Her gasp became a cry of pleasure at his touch. The sensitivity became an ache
that made her whimper, wanting more.

Sean kissed down her body, worshipping her breasts before spreading kisses over her
belly. He wanted her ready, ready enough that there would be little pain. Zari held back a
moan as he leaned down to drop kisses over her thighs and the brush of his sleeves over
her skin made her realize he was still fully dressed, where she was down to panties alone.
She pushed herself to sit up, catching onto his hands for support. Once she was steady,
she scooted closer and reached for the hem of his sweater.

He smiled and let her help him undress down to his shamrock-covered boxers. A soft
laugh escaped her upon seeing his choice of boxers but it died away almost immediately
at the obvious bulge that was evidence of his desire. Her eyes lifted to his again and she
let him lay her back once more. Once there, she took his hands in hers and set them on
her hips so that he could remove her last layer.

He tugged her delicates off with care, knowing how women were about such things. He
nuzzled her thighs, loving how her legs parted for him as if his kisses were magic. She
couldn't help automatically opening her thighs for his touch, knowing how much she
needed it. She whimpered when his fingertips brushed over her curls and her eyes met
his. He seemed to be watching her as his fingers moved, one hand caressing and then
spreading her lower lips open.

He caressed her sex, then lowered his head to let his tongue trace and tease. His fingers
teasing her intimately was one thing. The feel of his mouth there was entirely another.
She half sat up, a cry of shocked pleasure bursting from her throat. But the intensity was
too much and she fell back, whimpering his name and bucking her hips frantically as he
began to drive her to a height of pleasure she'd never before known. He relentlessly kept
up the pace, wanting her to feel good, to be relaxed and receptive to more than this. Her
cries increased as the pleasure seemed to build even higher--and then he stopped. She
forced her eyes open with a gasp, staring up at him pleadingly, drowning in the loving
lust that was evident in his eyes. "Sean...please," she whimpered, shifting her hips as his
hands caressed her thighs. "I want....I want you...."

He moved to remove his boxers before shifting to rub himself against her. "I love y',
angel," he whispered softly.

She was stopped from returning the words by the feel, then the sight of his full nudity.
Her eyes widened and, for a moment, a tiny hint of fear returned. He was so big--would
her body be able to take him in? But she didn't let that thought stop her from reaching
out slowly. Her fingertips brushed the tip of his erection, but at his gasp, she pulled her
hand back, wondering if he was too sensitive to tolerate her touch.

He moaned when she stopped. "Angel...please?"

"I don't want to hurt you....i-if you're too sensitive, Sean." Her words were soft, hesitant.
"I want it to feel good...like you've made me feel...."

He kissed her. "It felt good, lass...real good."

Zari blushed, shivering as his hand wandered down her back and cupped her bottom.
"All right," she whispered. She turned onto her side, watching as he moved to lay facing
her, then slowly reached her hand down between them.

Sean moaned as she stroked him, body eager for her each and every touch. "Oh, love...."
he moaned out softly.

Zari hesitantly ran her fingertips down the hard, hot length of him, then back up. She
lingered over the tip for a minute and then his hand came down on hers, guiding her
fingers to curl around him. He let her explore and tease until he could take no more. He
shifted her onto her back, poised to enter her and join them at last. She gasped when he
suddenly pulled her hand away and was on top of her. She felt him rubbing himself
against her and moaned his name, squirming against him. "Oh, Sean...please...."

He kissed her as he pressed into her, making the first thrust quick to get the pain over
with. The sudden pain was not unexpected, but it was sharp and she let out a cry against
his lips. He stilled and she squirmed beneath him, whimpering at the burning sting that
had overtaken her senses as her body was forced to stretch to accommodate the invasion
set upon it. He paused to let her adjust, then began to move gently. His first few strokes
hurt and she gasped in pain, but it was not long before the sting gave way to a sensation
that made her squirming intensify, though this time with pleasure.

He kept his movements slow, gentle and his kisses were lovingly passionate. "Angel...."
he whispered over and over as the world fell away and left just the two of them.

The endearment became an echo that resonated through her. Nothing seemed to exist but
this strange shelter they'd been brought to and the two of them. She had forgotten about
her fear inflicted upon her by the old woman, of her worry that her lack of experience
would hinder them, of the many demons that had always plagued her thoughts. There
was only Sean--the tenderness in his voice, the love in his eyes, the feel of his hands
caressing wherever he wished, the slow thrusting of his hips and the feel of him deep
inside her that made her cry out his name.

Their joining was spiritual and, in the back of his mind, he knew that he would marry her
before leave ended. He would not leave Earth without her as his wife. As they plummeted
over the edge together, he kissed her, their cries of release mingling into one soft sound
of joy.

For her, their mutual climax was so intense that her loud cries became breathless gasps.
Shudder after shudder wracked her body and for what seemed like a long time, she
writhed beneath him as they faded to little tremors. She whimpered when he slowly
withdrew, as her body seemed to want to hold onto his. She was aware of the chill in the
air for but a moment, until something warm was pulled around them. When even the
tremors were gone, a heavy exhaustion began to sink in and she was unable to fight its
pull. Wrapped in the warmth of the fur over them and Sean's arms cradling her close, her
mind could only hold onto one thing--she had been changed forever.

"I love you...." Her voice was a barely audible sigh as sleep claimed her, unaware of his
reaction to her words.

He snuggled her close sleepily. "Love y', angel...f'rever." He felt sleep's velvet pull too
and smiled gently as he nestled under the heavy fur and began to doze off.


**
Lalaine looked outside at the whirling snow for the hundredth time and let out a sigh.
She didn't know why she was expecting Zari and Lieutenant Kegan to suddenly appear
but she kept hoping they would. Thankfully, Gabriele had let Jorik put her to bed, though
she was still fussy because she'd expected the bedtime reading Zari had promised her on
her way out the door.

Many of the adults were also in bed or had gone to their own rooms, deciding that there
was nothing they could do, though Lalaine could tell by the looks on many of their faces
that they simply didn't care. That currently left herself, Kegan's parents and many of his
siblings, and a very agitated Telia Giovanni, who was pacing the den.

Telia suddenly snarled, "Screw it! Ah'm gonna go lookin'! Ah'm th' only one th' cold won'
hurt!"

"Captain, are you sure that's a wise idea?" Lalaine looked to the doorway in surprise at
the sound of her stepfather's voice. "You may be able to withstand the temperature, but
visibility is next to zero out there. You may well lose your sense of direction and we
don't need you getting lost as well. It might be best to wait until the wind has stopped, at
least."

She gestured angrily. "We gotta do somethin'! Damn fools left without wearin' badges!"

If Telia expected him to show anger in return, Lalaine knew that wasn't happening. Dan
had always had an unflappable calm. "Is it possible they went into the city and were
trapped there when the storm hit? I would suggest comming the authorities in Amarillo
and asking. While they may not be there, it would eliminate one place to search and that
searching can be done from the safety of this house."

The look she gave him was one she gave erring ensigns. "Checked all th' local
cities...nothin'."

"Depending on what time you made those first calls, would it hurt to check again?"

She glared and went to the comm, putting out another message to ask for updates.
"Satisfied? Now Ah go...gotta find them two!"

Dan sighed with a shake of his head as Telia stormed from the room without even waiting
for a response. "I'd hate to be an enemy more tangible than a bad snowstorm," he
muttered to himself before sitting down next to his stepdaughter. He glanced over at
Sean's parents, who had not said a word.

Dominic got her set up and manned the comm while she braved the storm. Meanwhile,
the Kegans prayed, the soft sound of their rosaries clicking as they worked them between
their fingers, the only sound in the room.
**


The chill in the air was biting cold, though there was warmth over, against and in front of
her. But it didn't stop the chill from nipping at her exposed cheeks. She mumbled a
sound of protest and turned her face into the source of warmth against her. But it still
wasn't enough. She shivered and finally opened her eyes halfway. The sight of the softly
crackling fire and the hide walls, along with the sound of the howling wind beyond it,
was a sharp reminder of what had happened recently.

The source of warmth against her stirred and she shifted onto her back, turning towards it
to seek its comfort, welcoming the new warmth that found her lips.

Sean slowly broke the kiss. "Mmm....mornin', angel." He snuggled her closer and
wrapped the warm fur tighter around them.

She shuddered as his warmth slowly chased away the chill trying to work its way through
her. "'s so dark," she murmured. "n' cold." She winced as she tried to stretch, realizing
why she was so sore and feeling heat fill her cheeks at that realization.

"These huts only have fire f'r heat, love, bu' we'll be fine." He shifted and spotted a kettle
and a basket of dried tea leaves. "Like some tea?"

"Mm-k." She reluctantly let him go, rubbing at her eyes in order to see better and
watched him scramble for his clothes before he turned to fiddle with the kettle and the
contents of the basket.

Sean got the kettle filled with snow from outside the door and got it on a pile of merrily
glowing embers before warming her clothes and handing them to her. The scream of the
wind outside was enough to make Zari shiver again even before she was forced to drop
the furs and try to get dressed before the slight warmth of her clothes could fade. She
blushed as his eyes caressed her nudity for the few seconds between furs being discarded
and clothes replacing them.

"Lovely sight t' start a man's day." Blue eyes twinkled as he rummaged and found dried
meat, dried tubers and dried wild onions. He dug and found rendered animal fat and a
heavy cast iron skillet. After pouring a bit of the warming water in a bowl, he got the
dried food rehydrating while he set the skillet up.

Her blush deepened as she rewrapped herself in the fur and watched him work. "How do
you know how to do all that? I mean, with ingredients you've never seen before." She
indicated the tubers and onions.
"Love, I'm a camper an' these people haven' harmed us an' wouldn'. We have buffalo
meat, green onions an' dried 'taters. All we need f'r a nice breakfast."

"Sorry," she murmured, feeling ashamed. "I wasn't thinking they would hurt us. I just
meant..." She stopped and shook her head. "Never mind. If you know what has been
stored here is safe, then I will trust your judgment."

He smiled as he found carved cups made from horn and put tea leaves in them. "It's all
right, love, just relax."

She privately wondered how she was supposed to relax when they were, for all intents
and purposes, cut off from civilization for who knew how long. She was eternally glad
he was with her, but how long would these strangers permit them to stay? She took the
cup he handed her and sipped the tea without thinking, wincing at the taste that seemed
bitter to her. But it was hot and so she ignored that the taste didn't agree with her, letting
it warm her from the inside.

He had begun cooking, the smells soon filling the hut and making it seem cozier. He
almost danced when he found some eggs and flour.

"We'll have panbread an' eggs!"

She could only wonder what he meant by panbread, but didn't question him. Before long,
her stomach began to complain and she wondered how long ago they had shared their
lunch by the lake. The bread seemed to take awhile and she had finished a second cup of
tea before it was done. He topped chunks of the bread with some of the egg for her to
start with, then turned to dealing with the batch of meat and vegetables. Soon, he was
ladling the hot stew over more bread, then settled in with her to eat. "Nothin' like food
done over a fire," he grinned before digging into his share.

She managed a soft smile and sampled the stew, surprised to find how good it was. As
hungry as she found herself, she finished quickly and even decided on a second helping
of bread and egg before calling it done. There was remaining stew but it was already
covered up and set aside, presumably for later. Sean was doing a quick clean up of the
dishes he'd cooked with, and she found herself watching his hands, blushing darkly at
remembering the feel of them on her skin. But she was unable to pull her gaze away.


A far distance away, Telia had reached the forest belonging to the ranch. She found their
skates by the lakeshore and messaged the information back to the house. She literally hit
the flitter, slamming into it and landing backwards on her ass.

The flitter showed no signs of having been used or occupied in the past twelve hours.
Zari's spare gloves, still slightly damp, lay on her seat. The picnic basket and its leftovers
sat on the passenger seat's flooring. A spare blanket, folded, was tucked between the
seats.
The cuss words blistered the air when she found their badges in the basket. And as she
looked around, she realized that, if they were caught in the storm, they could have
wandered onto the rez.


Back at the house, Lalaine was working on a cup of coffee to try to stay awake long
enough for Telia's return when flitter lights appeared through the blowing snow and dark.
She jumped up, hoping that meant Zari and Kegan were returning, but it was a growling
Andorian who stomped her way back into the house ten minutes later, slamming a picnic
basket down on the closest countertop with one hand and flinging her scarf off with the
other.

Looking to see no kids were around, she allowed herself to continue cussing. "Damn
love-sick idiots left their damned badges!!!" She slapped them onto the counter hard
enough to crack them.

Lalaine winced at the cracking sound and noticed that both were now slightly bent. Well,
better that she take it out on inanimate objects... "No sign of them otherwise?" she asked
as Sean's father stepped into the kitchen, his eyes going straight to Telia for answers.

"No...which means they mighta wandered onto rez lands."

All Lalaine knew about the nearby reservation was two things--one, it was off limits to
visitors and two, the tribe who owned the land were Comanche. She knew it had been
centuries since the days when they were feared by other humans, but the first fact was the
one that concerned her more. What would they do if two strangers, one of them alien,
showed up on their lands? She could see by the look in Doug's eyes that he was thinking
the same thing.

Telia got some iced coffee and drank deeply "Better damn well be glad Spirit Owl is still
runnin' shit there."

Lalaine was about to ask who Spirit Owl was, but Doug beat her to it. "Who is he an'
what will he do t' the children if they end up on their land?"

"She, an' she'll spook 'em jus' 'cause she's older than dirt." She sighed. "Damn idiots...."


**


They had dozed off after eating, still exhausted from their ordeal in trying to find safety
and its aftermath. When Zari awoke again, she found Sean wide awake, sitting and
watching her. It was still dark outside of the fire, which was now built up and blazing.
She shrugged off the furs, feeling too warm. "How long was I asleep?"
He checked the bubbling pot of stew. "A few hours. I found more meat an' things, even
found spices." He kissed her and smiled.

"You're hungry again already?" she teased, even as she blushed at the kiss. "I'm still
pretty full from what you made us earlier."

He laughed. "This is f'r later, made more bread too." He poured her some tea. "Kinda like
this...just us an' a nice fire."

She smiled softly. "It is nice." She took a sip of tea, then set her cup aside. "I just wish I
knew why...." She had to swallow the lump that formed in her throat. "Why, at first, she
made me think you were--dead."

He sighed. "They've their own reasons, I suppose. But still, they've taken us in an' have
given us shelter an' food."

"But it's just not right." She didn't want to argue with him, but remembering the fear and
emotional pain of earlier made the words spill out of her. "They obviously rescued us
both--but why separate us and talk nonsense that makes me think otherwise? Makes me
think they'd left you out in that--" she gestured towards the door of the shelter and the
noisy wind past it. "--to d-die??" Her voice broke on the last word before she could stop
it and she was grateful when he moved to wrap her in his arms. "All th-they had t-to d-do
was t-tell me you w-were all right," she squeaked out. "B-but they d-didn't....and I c-
couldn't b-bear to think of y-you d-dead."

"Maybe it was a test, love...somethin' mystical." He rocked her and rubbed her back with
a gentle hand.

Zari shook her head slightly, unwilling to believe that the strangers cared about them
anymore than understanding they were in need of shelter from the storm. His warmth
and gentle rocking helped to calm her and she finally sighed and lay her head on his
shoulder. "What do we do now, Sean?"

"We wait out th' storm, then find a way back...an' face th' Captain. We took our badges
off." He knew she would chew them up one side and down the other for being so
careless.

Zari cringed at what Telia would have to say on that matter, but did her best to put it out
of her mind. She found herself distracted by the gentle caress of his hand on her back
and it was giving her shivers--but not of the cold kind. "About last night...." She felt her
face grow hot and she stopped.

"We loved like a couple should; God'll forgive it bein' outside o' marriage." He kissed her
and smiled gently.
Holies forbid, he thought she was worried about that! She shook her head. "Not that,
Sean. What I meant was..." The tenderness in his eyes rendered her speechless and she
fought for some way to ask him without stumbling on her words.

"Take a deep breath, love. Never be afraid t' say somethin' t' me, please?" He hated that
he seemed to make her unsure of herself.

"I'm not afraid to ask you...." She felt her blush grow even hotter and inwardly cursed
her total lack of experience. "I just...don't know how."

"It's easy, angel, jus' ask." He kissed her and waited patiently.

Too embarrassed to look him in the eyes and say it, she tried to look away. But he
cupped her face in his hands, turning her eyes back to his. She swallowed back her
anxiety. "I....will....can we...." She wondered if it was possible to blush any worse than
she knew she was right now. "...do what we did last night?" The words were a halting
whisper.

He chuckled, his own cheeks a little pink. "So y' enjoyed last night?"

She nodded. "I...I never thought it would be so...." She shook her head, unable to find
the right words. "I just wish--I knew what I was doing, so...so I could give you some
back." This time, she did look away out of embarrassment.

"Angel, we have years t' explore...bu' f'r now...." He set the stew to a cooler section of the
fire and kissed her again, his lips warm and soft. She murmured a sigh and leaned into
him, her arms sliding up around his neck to hold onto him. The kiss continued on and on,
and they only broke apart several minutes later in order to catch their breath.

He undressed her slowly, kissing spots and nibbling lightly as he exposed her fair, soft
skin. She clung to him, a low moan escaping as he slowly, so slowly, slid away the final
layers, leaving her completely naked before him. Her blush returned and she belatedly
tried to cross an arm over her breasts.

He caught her arm and shook his head. "Don' hide from me, angel, please? We're
bound...joined f'rever, no secrets, just truth an' love."

She whispered an apology, letting him draw her arm back down to her side. A shudder
went through her when he turned her so that her back was to him, and she trembled in
anticipation. He pulled her back against his chest and felt the warmth of his skin on hers
from shoulder to waist. When his hands cupped her breasts, she gasped and closed her
eyes.

Big hands explored her again as his rock hard manhood pressed against her back. He
wished they could have had time to wash up, but he could travel lower another time. For
now, he nibbled her neck gently and whispered, "My angel...."
"Sean....ohhh...." The moan escaped when he slid one hand down between her thighs and
she writhed against his teasing fingers. Combined with him nipping at her spots, he was
quickly bringing her up to that point she'd experienced the night before.

He loved making her moan, the sound like music to his ears and a balm for his soul.
Shifting, he pressed himself into her slightly swollen sex with a soft moan as her
tightness wrapped around him. She gasped at the feel of him entering her, surprised to
feel a faint twinge of pain. But she ignored it, her mind and body absorbing only the
sensations that brought pleasure--his lips on her shoulder, his arm around her waist to
hold her close, his other hand caressing her thigh, and the intensity brought about by this
new and different angle of joining their bodies.

He moved with slow deliberate movements, fingers teasing her as he made slow and
deeply passionate love to the woman whom he had almost taken his life over. Her head
spun and she could only cling to the arm about her waist to keep her balance. She
couldn't think beyond the fire he'd ignited beneath her skin. Her cries were echoed by his
low groans. Every thrust, every caress of his fingers, pushed her closer to the brink.

For Sean, this was heaven on earth--the two of them as one, hearts and souls combined
into one warm, loving being. For Zari, it was an experience unlike anything she'd ever
known. Not even her most erotic dreams could compare to this sensual reality. When his
fingers sought and found her most sensitive spot, one touch was enough to throw her
right over the edge into an intense climax.

Sean called her name out as her intense orgasm pulled him over the edge with her. Their
mutual cries faded into soft moans, and eventually sighs. She was faintly aware of him
separating their bodies, of laying her down on the furs and laying beside her. The pull of
sleep was tugging at her once more and she gave in to it with another sigh as the top fur
settled over them, cocooning them in its natural warmth.

Sean managed to pull another fur he had found over them before sleep took him too,
pulling him under just as he snuggled up with Zari.


**


Lalaine rubbed at her eyes and silently cursed her lack of sleep. Most everyone in the
house had not slept very well through the night. Most were concerned for Sean, fewer
were concerned for Zari and the tension was growing worse.

The older adults had made food for brunch that no one but the children seemed to touch.
Calls were filtering back from Amarillo and other cities in the area--no one had seen any
sign of the missing pair. By now, Telia was convinced they had ended up on the
Comanche reservation but the weather--and Dominic--were keeping her from taking a
flitter and going to find out.

"Should just send the authorities to question someone on the reservation," Eric muttered.
When a few people turned to stare--or glare--at him, he glared back. "What? That's what
they get paid to do. Let them wait in the cold at the border."

"Babe, you're not helping," Lalaine put in before Telia could say one word. She could
tell that the captain was not happy with that suggestion but she didn't care to have her
husband hurled across the room either.

"I don't see why we're delaying because of this weather, that's all. Since the commander
would prefer the captain to not go out, then why not send someone who can go out?"

"Since when do you care, exactly?" Jessamyn Ramsey put in from her seat near the fire.
"You don't even like Zari."

"She happens to be my wife's good friend," Eric snapped.

"So? Zari's told us plenty about how you used to treat her when you all served together.
Isn't that right, Jessie?" Ramsey turned to Nelson for confirmation.

Nothing was more touchy than a pregnant woman...but a pregnant Andorian hybrid who
just happened to be a Captain...well, that was an entirely different and more deadly
animal. Telia turned slowly, antennae rigid and pointing forward.

"Look, y' GEED!" She was so angry she was mixing Andorian words in. "If AH can'
navigate th' weather...wha' makes ya think a HUMAN c'n?"

Eric threw up his hands in exasperation. "Fine, it was a thought, at least. That's more
than a lot of others around here are doing." He shot a cold look at Ramsey and Nelson.

"Don't make yourself out like you would even miss her," Ramsey snapped. Then, seeing
the look on Telia's face, she blushed. "Sorry, ma'am."

It was Ruby who spoke up "Everyone shut th'...fudge up! Two people are missing an' y'
mooks are all over my mom like she's gonna pull them out her butt! Now shut up an' act
civil!"

Coming from the mouth of a child that had been abused all her life and had more
maturity than most of the adults around her, it made them all look foolish.

Ramsey blushed to the roots of her hair. Eric glared at Ruby but said nothing, throwing
up his hands again and silently shaking his head.
The uneasy silence returned, seeming to lay heavily on everyone in the room like a soggy
blanket. The wind outside had begun to pick up again and the blowing snow seemed to
mock everyone. How much longer could they stand to wait?


**


Zari shivered as she peeked out of the front flap of the shelter. Yet more snow was
falling and she wondered if they would ever be able to return to the ranch before spring.

She hoped so. For one thing, everyone would be worried about Sean, including his
family, even if very few people would care about her whereabouts. For another, while it
was nice to be alone with Sean, she missed the comforts that the tribe obviously lived
without. That was their way, but she knew it wasn't for her. She had had to argue with
Sean for ten minutes about melting enough snow to wash with--and it was sponge bathing
at that. He had finally allowed it but the second she was done, he was wrapping her in an
unused fur and rubbing her dry. While it wasn't the same as a real bath she could soak in,
it did feel good.

She sighed and let the flap close. "What do they do all winter with this kind of weather?"

He shrugged. "Not sure, angel...Ireland doesn' have any Amerindians."

She moved to sit next to him, leaning her head against his arm. "I hope everyone's not
too worried about you--that somehow, they know you're okay. And I am too," she added
belatedly.

He hugged her. "Ma'd know if somethin' was wrong...she always knows."

She nodded and, without thinking, moved to sit in his lap. The warm comfort of being
held close was something she would never tire of. "I miss the comforts of modern tech,
but...it's nice to be like this," she said quietly.

"Reminds me o' times spent campin'. Open fire, no tech sounds...bu' it's better with my
angel here." He smiled contentedly.

Zari managed a faint smile. "I'm just glad you gave me....another chance." Her smile
faded. "I still feel ashamed for how I behaved before."

He sighed. "Love...regrets are hard on th' soul."

She sensed he was becoming angry with her and sighed softly, but kept silent. She knew
that he wanted to just forget the bad blood from a mere five days ago, but having seen
how much he really did care for and love her, she couldn't help the regret that was
welling to the surface.
"Love, I'm not mad 'r nothin'...I just hate seein' y' eat y'rself up over things."

"Sorry," she whispered. "I guess I'm used to doing it. I try not to, but...." She shrugged
and sighed again. "Even my mother would spend hours complaining about my faults. It's
probably why I'm like this." The words were almost matter-of-fact, but the hurt in her
voice was clear.

He kissed her nose and smiled. "Angel...y' gotta hear voices tha' say good things, like
mine."

"I will now." I hope. She leaned her cheek into his hand, shivering as his fingertips
caressed the spots behind her ear. It took her a long minute to feel the tension that had
suddenly come over Sean, but when she turned to look where he was looking, she
realized that the old woman was now standing just inside the doorway. A shudder of fear
crept up her back. Why hadn't they heard her come in? How long had she been there
watching them? How many times had she spied on them before? That last thought made
a blush burn her cheeks.

Sean nodded to the old woman. "Ma'am, we're thankful f'r y'r hospitality."

"Yes, it's a-appreciated," Zari managed to add. But she never took her eyes off the old
woman, not trusting her for a moment.

"Hardship makes for strong bounding between two people," the shaman said softly.

Zari felt her blush intensify and automatically bowed her head, knowing the words had to
be aimed at her.

She watched them for a while then left, leaving Shadow Wolf to come in and escort them
out during a lull and on the shaggy horses they favoured, he led them to the edge of the
ranch. Zari was confused when they were escorted from the shelter by an unfamiliar man
and told that he would guide them back to "their land". She wondered why Sean
glowered at him but decided it would be better not to ask.

The ride seemed to take minutes, then the man was guiding the horses back the way he'd
come. Zari thought she could see the ranch house in the far distance, but wasn't sure.
"Guess we walk from here."

Sean peered through the trees. "Might be...well, we better move." He helped her along
and raised a brow when they were soon met by one of his brothers and a flitter.

Zari was fully prepared to hike back the whole way, simply praying another storm didn't
descend upon them, so the arriving flitter was a surprise. She clung to Sean's hand as his
brother--whichever one it was--hopped out to greet them.
Colin hugged them both and got them into the warm flitter. "Colleen said y'd be here an'
she's never wrong!"

She was even more surprised by the hug, but still said nothing, trying to absorb it all.
When they arrived back at the ranch, it seemed like almost everyone was outside waiting
for them. Half of Sean's family mobbed him the second he stepped out of the flitter,
effectively separating him from Zari, who felt a momentary pang of loneliness. But she
told herself sternly to stop thinking that way and was grateful to see Isabella making her
way through the snow. At least here was one person to greet her.

As Isabella hugged her, so did everyone else. Telia waited, hugged them when the others
were done, then chewed them out for taking off their badges.

Zari cringed under Telia's loud lecture, but all she could do was apologize and promise
she would not do such a thing again. She hated the fact that it was being done in front of
the others, but she forced herself not to show how much it bothered her.

Sean accepted it without a word. "Y'r right, Captain, we'll never do it again. It was
inexcusable."

Zari was grateful when they were finally permitted to go inside. Not only did she want to
escape everyone staring at her, she was cold. Not wanting to be around anyone else, she
immediately headed upstairs to her suite, not surprised when Sean followed her.

"Get a shower, love. I'll meet y' in the kitchen; I need coffee!" He grinned good-
naturedly.

She had to swallow a giggle at how he knew why she was running upstairs, but just
moved faster. However, she didn't intend to come downstairs anytime soon. Once
upstairs, she stripped out of her clothes, dropping them behind her in her hurry to get to
the fresher, then turned on the water as hot as she knew she could stand it.

It was pure bliss to be able to scrub herself from head to toe, including her hair, and then
just stand under the boiling stream of water and let it pour over her skin. She didn't
intend to move for as long as she could help it.

Sean showered, but his belly sent him down for food, coffee and more hugs from his
family. Zari was almost reluctant to get out as the hour mark came, but her fingers were
starting to get pruny and she sighed as she turned off the hot water. The mirror was
completely fogged over so she dried her hair by touch alone and hurried into the bedroom
to pick up her clothes and find new ones before the chill got to her.

Sean looked up and poured her some tea with tons of honey. "Hungry, love?"

Zari tried to ignore the others in the room and focus only on Sean. "A little."
Kelly stepped forward to hug her. "Welcome home, lass." She smiled warmly.

"Thank you," she murmured, settling in the chair that Sean pulled out for her. She
wondered just how much Sean had told his family about what had gone on during their
time alone on the reservation.

Kelly served them both and sat to watch them, unwilling to be parted from her precious
little boy. Despite her discomfort, Zari found herself to be hungry and went through two
sandwiches and a bowl of icoberries before deciding she was full. Sean seemed to eat
less, but then he'd been downstairs a lot longer.

Sean was on his third cup of coffee, but was still sleepy from finally being warm. Zari
tried in vain not to yawn but the combination of the hot shower, being full and being
inside away from the incessant sound of the wind blowing were all serving to make her
sleepy.

He looked at her. "Nap time, angel?"

"Mhm," she murmured. "Don't want to have to get up til tomorrow..."

He took her hand. "Let's go nap until then, love."

She nodded, smothering a yawn behind her hand and let him lead her up the stairs. She
was surprised when he led her to his suite, which happened to be next door to hers. It
was set up much like hers, except the bed was larger. She sank into a sitting position on
its edge in order to kick her shoes off, already eager to climb under the soft covers.

He stripped down to his undershirt and boxers, then got under the covers, yawning
heavily as he waited for her. Her bed was just too short for his 6'5" frame and he liked
being able to stretch out. His bright hair was tousled and his eyes partially closed as he
lay on his back, arm outstretched, waiting for her to curl up on his chest and be held close
by the waiting arm.

She shivered as she peeled off her warm sweater and, remembering that all her clothes
were next door, hesitated before shedding everything but panties. She decided it didn't
matter as long as she stayed under the covers and was quick to crawl into them and move
to lay beside Sean, needing his warmth. She sighed and leaned her head on his shoulder.

Sean pulled her close and yawned sleepily. "'Night, angel...I love y'." He was nearly
asleep himself, eyes closed and body going limp. Zari soon followed as her shivers faded
with the warmth that their bodies generated.


**
The feel of the bed shifting beneath her stirred Zari awake. Once she realized it was Sean
climbing back in, she automatically curled against him, pulling the covers up so that only
her face was exposed to the slight chill in the air. She realized upon hearing the barely
audible hum that he'd turned their heating unit up a notch.

"Wha time'sit?" she murmured against his neck.

"Dunno...don' care...sleepy." Big people, once worn out, took a long while to recharge
and he was still exhausted.

"Mmm." She buried her nose against his skin and let sleep carry her away once more.
When she awoke the second time, she sensed it was daytime, given the gray light coming
through the window and the faint, far-away murmur of voices. She rubbed her eyes and
turned to see that Sean appeared to be still asleep. Loath to disturb him, she shifted to lay
her head on his chest, the soft thump of his heartbeat soothing in her ear.

He smiled in his sleep and pulled her closer, the lines gone from his face as he slept
deeply and with a joyful heart. She lay curled up with him until she figured about an
hour had passed and there was no chance she would be able to fall back to sleep. She
carefully slid from his grasp and when he grumbled in his sleep, she pressed a soft kiss to
his cheek. "I'll be right back," she whispered.

Pulling on his robe for cover, she peeked out the door to make sure that no one was
around and quickly hurried next door to her own room. Gathering some clothes for
herself took only a few minutes and she was safe back inside his suite. Setting her
clothes on the small couch that rested across from the bed, she stopped to check on him
again, this time gently brushing her kiss over his lips.

He stirred and mumbled, "Come back t' bed, angel...wanna snuggle."

She sat next to him, gently brushing back his sleep-rumpled hair. "It's almost 1000.
Were you wanting to sleep all day?" she teased gently. When he grumbled an assent, she
laughed softly. "I don't know if the others will let us do that. So I was thinking about at
least getting a shower...." She leaned down to his ear and added in a whisper, "and then
we'll be plenty warm as long as we stay inside."

Rising to her feet, she moved for the fresher, letting his robe "accidentally" fall right
outside the doorway before she stepped inside. If he didn't fall back to sleep, no doubt
he'd see the hint.

The hot water felt blissful against her slightly chilled skin. She sighed and moved under
it so that it could pound on the back of her neck and work out the slight kink there.

He yawned and sat up and, with a smile, crawled from bed and followed her into the
fresher. The chilly draft of air against her face and front made her turn to see Sean
standing there with the shower door open and a little smile on his face. She smiled back
and deliberately looked him up and down. "You look a little overdressed...." One hand
reached out, brushing damp fingers over the thin undershirt he'd worn to bed.

"Here I was thinkin' y'd undress me..."

"Well, I suppose I could," she murmured, stepping out of the direct line of spray. "As
long as you don't mind that your clothes will get splashed." She hesitantly fingered the
bottom edge of his undershirt, suddenly feeling a blush that had nothing to do with the
hot water rising in her face and wondering if she would have any idea how to finish what
she'd started.

He grinned. "Wet never killed a shirt...'r a pair o' shorts."

She tried to distract herself from the increase in blushing by pulling up the shirt and
discarding it once it was off. That left the more difficult part and it seemed to take an
eternal minute to find the courage to pull the boxers down so that he could kick them
behind him and out of the way.

He stepped in with her, closing the door behind him and kissed her neck.
"Mmmm...warm, wet angel."

Needing to be warm again, she backed under the spray, pulling him with her. As he
turned his attention to nuzzling and teasing her neck spots, she leaned against him,
fighting the sudden weak-kneed feeling that was creeping up on her. His growing
erection was nudging her hip and she shivered at the feeling.

"Mmmm, y've woke me an' him up...."

She felt her face flame at his amused whisper and hid her face in his chest. Images of
foreplay that she'd read and heard about flashed behind her closed eyes, though she didn't
think she'd have the courage to try any of them yet. She looked up to meet his eyes when
he drew a line of light kisses from her ear to her temple. "Sean, can you...." she
swallowed the lump of anxiety in her throat. "I want to learn," she whispered, inwardly
cursing her shyness and lack of knowledge.

He kissed her and cupped her buttocks in his hands. "Does m' angel need some lovin'?"

"Please..." Her plea was a gasp as his hands began to knead her bottom gently. Her
fingers dug into his arms for support as the weak-kneed feeling seemed to take over.

His kiss was searing as he lifted her and guided her legs around his waist. "Love y',
angel...love y' s' much."

"I love you t--ohhhh!" The feel of him entering her from this angle--with only his arms
keeping her upright--was nearly more than she could bear. His weight pressed her
against the chill of the wall behind her, while his warmth was in front of and inside her.
She moaned softly, her hands on his shoulders tightening as he shifted to hold her more
securely.

He was at a beautiful angle and he made her moan as his manhood pressed against her
cervix, the heavy ring rubbing enticingly over the tip of him. Her moans escalated to soft
cries as he rocked lightly back and forth, not yet enough for an actual thrust, but more
than enough to tease her within and without.

He took her with deep thrusts and passion filled kisses. He held her tightly as they peaked
several minutes later, backing up and sliding down the other wall to sit on the shower
floor.

The climax had shaken her from head to toe and she sat trembling in his arms, an
occasional whimper escaping as aftershocks made her inner muscles convulse around
him. It seemed almost too hot now, but as they cooled off from the lovemaking, the hot
water pouring down was once more comfortable.

"I love you, laschaen," she whispered, using the endearment without thinking about it.

He smiled and kissed her temple. "Zarianne...have y' thought about marriage?" He was a
Catholic and if you got this intimate, marriage just had to occur.

His question stunned her into silence. Not only because of where they sat, but with all
that had happened and how little time had passed. "Y-you mean you w-want....?" The
lump forming in her throat cut off the rest of her words.

"I love y', Zarianne...wanna make babies with y', grow old with y'."

His words brought the tears to the surface. She couldn't see his face anymore due to her
blurred vision. "I...." She couldn't speak--all she could do was dumbly nod once and
then lean her head on his shoulder to cry.

Sean wasn't sure if she was happy or...something else. "Love? I...'re y' happy?"

Zari struggled to catch her breath, realizing that she had possibly worried him into
thinking her tears meant refusal. "I....I n-never thought...." Her voice shook as she
struggled to finish. "I never thought any-one would...w-want me enough to b-be with me
f-forever....that you do....m-means s-so m-much." The last words came out in a high-
pitched rush that led to a sob.

He hugged her. "Is tha' a yes? Please say it's a yes."

"Y-yes," she sniffled. "I d-don't want to b-be a-lone any-more." Another sob broke her
voice.
He hugged her closer and whispered, "We better make y' smile b'fore th' shower thinks y'
want its job." His voice was lovingly teasing.

The statement was so ridiculous that she couldn't keep a choked giggle from escaping.
"S-sorry." She rubbed a hand across her eyes with a sigh. "I just....I'm too emotional, I
guess."

He kissed her nose. "Well then, we'll have t' work on more giggles an' less tears, huh?"

"I'll try my best." Zari blinked and rubbed at her eyes again before meeting his eyes. It
felt so surreal--to be in the arms of a man who not only loved her, but wanted to marry
her. To see the tenderness in the eyes that gazed back at her, to feel his hands moving
gently over her back in a caress. If this is a dream, I hope I remain in it forever.

He got her up so they could wash and dress. As he tugged on his boots, he paused.
"Zarianne...lemme be th' one t' tell y'r ma."

Zari froze at his words. Once she had grown accepting of the idea that she was actually
awake and living this dream, her concern had been wondering what his family would
think. She hadn't even thought about her mother--and his mention of it made dread rise
inside her. "Let's just not even bother, Sean. I don't want you to have to talk to her.
Tarien can inform her after it's done and that will be that "

He scowled. "Love...no more hidin'. Y've a man now an' I'll no' have her bein' a hag
anymore."

"Sean, she's not going to behave just because you lecture her," she sighed. "The
frustration just isn't worth it--believe me, I know this. Ask Counselor Vapp what she's
like." When his scowl didn't change, she sighed again and sat down on the small sofa. "I
just...I'd rather just ignore her. Not even acknowledge her or the opinion she will have of
not getting her way."

He sighed. "Lass, better t' be upfront, bu' she's y'r ma, so I'll mind m' tongue."

"I just don't want you to be upset by her," she mumbled as he sat down next to her.

"Lass...I...I can' leave it lie. She's gonna know, by me." He got up, taking her hand. "Let's
go tell th' rest first."

She swallowed back her anxiety and followed him down the stairs. As the weather was
tolerable again, most people were outside or doing other activities out of the house, so
only Sean's parents were in the den, sharing a blanket and cups of tea by the fire. Both
looked up when they entered and they both smiled at the same moment.

"We knew it was comin'," Kelly said softly.
Zari had to wonder how they could tell before Sean had even said anything but chose not
to voice the question. She supposed when parents loved their children, they could more
easily read them. The thought made her sigh, but she was unable to hide the sadness
from the older adults' sharp gazes.

Kelly patted the sofa. "Come sit, lass...have some tea."

Zari moved to sit by Kelly, and Sean settled on her other side. She took comfort from the
feel of his arm around her and accepted a cup of honey-laced tea.

"Lass, we got off rough, bu' we're glad Sean has found his love...an' I've always room f'r
another daughter."

"Thank you," she whispered, swallowing back the new lump that was forming in her
throat. "I...I wish I could go back and change what I did, but I've been--alone so long that
I couldn't believe."

"What's done is done, all tha' matters is th' future." Kelly patted her hand and smiled.

The future....dare I hope this will be forever? Or am I just deluding myself? Here on the
ranch, it was peaceful, but would their relationship withstand the rigors of duty and crisis
situations? Holies knew Starfleet life was not always easy on the individual, let alone the
relationship. She could only nod and sip her tea, letting it soothe the disquiet within.

Sean left Zari to go call her mother, after persuading her to give him the code.

Old banshee better mind 'er tongue, he thought as he keyed it in.

Elazi was surprised to see a call from Earth, but figuring it was Tarien checking in, she
answered it without looking at the location code. "So you have arrived safely in New
York?" she asked before looking at the screen. When she did and saw the unfamiliar
human onscreen instead of Tarien, she shook her head in self-mocking and offered Sean a
smile of apology. "My apologies, I thought you were my son. I was expecting him to
call. May I help you?"

"I'm Sean Kegan, ma'am...y'r daughter's fiancé."

"You what??" Elazi's tone was one of stunned disbelief as she stared at the man on the
other end of the comm before her eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Where is Zarianne? I
want to speak to her immediately."

"Y'll be speakin' t' me f'r now. She's with my Ma an' Da relaxin' an' enjoyin' their
company."

"I want to speak to her now. I don't know you and I'm not about to trust your word alone
that you are who you even say you are," Elazi snapped. Her mind was racing even while
she glared at the comm screen, intending to trace the call if he persisted in playing games
and call the authorities wherever he was to confirm that Zarianne was safe should she be
where he claimed she was.

He called Zari to him and kept her close, an arm around her waist possessively. Nothing
was more dangerous than a Kegan male protecting his family.

Elazi felt slight relief when the man called her daughter into the room. But the fear
written on her face didn't reassure her, nor did the possessive arm the man had around
her. Her eyes narrowed again. "Zaria....where are you and who is this man? Is what he
says true?"

Zari swallowed back her anxiety, forcing herself to speak. Even across a commline, it
was difficult to deal with her mother. "I--I'm on shoreleave...on Terra. And if he has told
you what I think he has...it is."

"And how long has this been going on?" Elazi demanded. Damn that interfering
Betazoid. Thanks to her, it had been four years and very little information on her
daughter's whereabouts or well-being, with only scant updates through Tarien. And
Tarien had mentioned nothing about a lover, much less an engagement.

"We've been seein' one another a while now...an' jus' decided this mornin' t' marry." He
owed this old bat nothing but the basic information.

Zari had to force herself not to look at Sean in surprise at the obvious lie, but she did look
away from the screen, which Elazi didn't miss.

"Interesting that my son never informed me of this. And he would have, I assure you."
Her words were directed at Sean. "Unlike Zaria, Tarien does not hide things from me."

"Y'r callin' me a liar then?"

"I'm saying I don't know you and I have no proof that what you claim is true. That would
make any parent suspicious, young man."

"All tha' matters, ma'am, is I love Zarianne an' plan on makin' 'er m' wife."

"I want to speak to Zaria alone." Elazi's tone made it clear that it was not a request.

He looked to Zari. "One call, love an' I'll be in here...okay?"

Zari nodded reluctantly and watched him leave the room. She was tempted to flee after
him, not willing to face her mother.

Elazi waited until she was certain the man was out of earshot. At least, she hoped he
was. Then she turned her stare on her daughter. "The truth, Zaria."
"I-it is the truth, Mother."

"Now why do I find that hard to believe? Tarien would have told me about something
like this--and you know very well he would have."

"Because I didn't have time to tell him, all right??" she protested hurriedly. She couldn't
let her mother know that Sean had lied about the timeframe of their relationship. Bad
enough the whole crew knew. "Our last mission--we barely made it out. They're
decommissioning the Dauntless and giving Captain Giovanni an entirely new ship. There
hasn't been time for me to call Tarien at all...."

"That in itself is beside the point, Zaria. We both know you have never been able to deal
properly in social situations, much less with men like that one. When a man is gifted by
the Holies with a fair face and body and plenty of charm, they know it and will use it to
their advantage. Which is why I don't believe what he says."

"Sean isn't like the sons of your shallow friends, Mother," Zari snapped, feeling old anger
rising up inside. "He judges people on who they are, not how they make him look
better...."

"The fact that you failed to interact properly in a manner that would attract their attention
is your fault, not theirs," Elazi retorted. "A man wants a woman who will be his equal in
all ways, and that includes socially--which you are not capable of, and I don't know if
you will ever be."

The door exploded open and a very angry Sean was suddenly there, holding Zari close
and glaring at her mother angrily. "I'll no' have y' bein' mean t' m' angel! Mind y'r barbed
tongue, y' spotted banshee!"

Elazi was shocked by the way Sean stormed into the room and proceeded to yell at her.
Rather than flee in terror, Zari seemed to cling to him. But it only reinforced her belief
that this human was entirely unsuitable for her daughter. Not only was he unmannerly,
he was obviously violent. Her eyes narrowed again, even as she tried to push back the
momentary alarm that had filled her. "Take your hands off her," she hissed. "I'll not
stand for someone like you touching her."

"Like me? I love Zarianne...respect 'er, see 'er as she is. I'll no' allow y' t' abuse 'er. It ends
right here an' now! Ma!"

Kelly hurried in and went to Zari, seeing the upset in the girl's face. "I've got 'er,
son...come, lass. I'll make y' breakfast an' tell y' some baby stories 'bout Sean."

"Are you going to allow this??" The fury in Elazi's voice was loud enough to catch
Kelly's attention, just as she wanted, and when she turned to face the comm, Elazi
continued. "My daughter is vulnerable, Starfleet training aside, and your son obviously
has...anger issues." At least that much was true--this diminutive woman was obviously
Kegan's mother. She saw the blue eyes narrow but was not intimidated, glaring right
back.

From within the circle of Kelly's arms, Zari cringed, even as she wanted to scream at her
mother for implying that Sean would be violent towards her.

Kelly looked at her coldly. "My son would ne'er lay a hand on any woman in anger; he
was raised by a real Ma. Now excuse me, I've me new daughter t' calm down." She led
Zari out, keeping the younger woman close.

Left alone with Sean, Elazi glowered furiously at him. "If you think you've 'won', young
man, you are sadly mistaken. I have many connections throughout the galaxy and I will
not stand for my daughter being forced to stay with you. She is deserving of far better...."

"Forced? Zarianne is with me b'cause she loves me...an' aye, she deserves all th' best. Too
bad she has a banshee f'r a Ma. Abuse m' angel again an' I'll be filin' charges." He slapped
the comm off.

Kelly had led Zari to the kitchen and brought out still-hot muffins and bacon from the
stasis holder, but upset as she was, Zari could only pick at the food and fight not to give
in to tears.

Kelly sat with her and hugged her. "Cry, lass...'tis okay."

With that permission, she started to sob. It seemed that the pain in her chest would never
lift, even as she realized that more than one person was now there. Sean, obviously. She
recognized his touch. The other was a heavy hand, but unfamiliar until she recognized
his father's voice.

It didn't take long before the whole clan began filling the kitchen, all offering soothing
words and kind hugs. They were a close knit bunch and now that she was one of theirs,
she would never lack for protection, love or company.

The generous outpouring of comfort briefly made her tears fall harder, as she was so
unused to people caring about her or having consideration for her feelings. When Sean
wrapped her in his arms, she buried her face against his chest, struggling for calm.

"Easy, angel. it'll be all right now. Y're a Kegan now...safe an' well loved." His voice
was deep, soft and filled with love.

His tender words soon made the tension start to fade and she lay limp in his embrace,
though she clung to him with what strength she had left, her hand fisted in his sweater
sleeve.

"She'll ne'er be a bother again...I'll see to it."
She nodded against his chest and let out a sigh and an embarrassed sniffle. "Now I'm a
little hungry...but the food's probably gone cold," she mumbled.

Kelly expertly slid a fresh plate to her and then a cup of tea. "There, lass, blow y'r nose
an' eat somethin'."

She did so, taking a minute to also use warm water and blot her eyes. She then turned her
attention to the hot-again muffins and bacon, along with a slice of ham that she shared
with Sean. She ate slowly, mindful that her stomach was still in knots from all the
tension, but was soon contented and full.

Mick strolled back in, a smug smile on his face as he got more coffee. "Well, lass...y'r
safe when y'r on Earth."

Zari nodded, then leaned against Sean with a tired sigh. "I'm sorry, Sean. That you had
to listen to what she said, I mean."

"Y've nothin' t' be sorry for, love. She's an evil biddy that'll ne'er be allowed near y'
again."

Never...that sounded nice. Hopefully it would be possible. Until then, she would take
comfort in the love that he offered.


**


After the confrontation with her mother, Zari had been glad to spend the day sitting
quietly with Sean by the fire with padds to read and an early bedtime after the captain and
first officer had made a barbecue dinner for everyone--four different kinds of Terran meat
and two different kinds of sauce, with plenty of side dishes for those who disliked meat
or were vegetarians. Despite the lazy day, Zari was surprised to find that she was very
hungry and enjoyed the mild but sweet-spice ribs. Sean, however, dug into the meat with
the far stronger hot sauce, leaving Zari to wrinkle her nose at him and everyone else to
laugh when she refused to kiss him until he was done eating.

Sean laughed as he rinsed his tastebuds with sweet lemonade and a bite of fruit. "Better,
love?" he asked as he kissed her.

She blushed but leaned into his arms for the brief moment of the kiss, then they turned
their attention back to eating. Once full, they went upstairs after thanking Telia and
Dominic for their cooking skills.

Zari couldn't help slumping onto the bed with a faint groan. "I think I had too much...."
He kicked off his shoes and stripped down to t-shirt and shorts before crawling into bed.
"I'm full an' ready t' sleep like an' old bear."

"As long as you don't snore like one," she teased, poking him in the ribs.

He grunted and chuckled. "I don' snore as y' well know...bu' I'll no' promise there'll be no
wind."

"You do that and I'll roll you onto the floor," she muttered.

He laughed and pulled her in for a kiss. "I'll try t' contain 'em, love."

"Mmm, you better," she murmured against his mouth. She pulled away long enough to
shed her clothes, then hurriedly crawled under the covers before she could get too cold.
Once she was warm, she drifted to sleep.


The next morning seemed to come too early, as the sun was actually trying to show its
face through patchy clouds. Zari pulled her share of the blanket over her head with a
groan. Sean was already up and soaking in a hot bath, having awakened with the urge to
just soak and doze in piping hot water.

Zari had almost drifted back to sleep until she realized Sean wasn't in the bed anymore.
Curious, she rubbed her eyes, climbed from bed and looked around for his robe. Not
seeing it, she shivered and hurried towards the fresher, intending to get into a hot shower
as quick as possible.

He was stretched out, head back against the tub's edge, sound asleep in the steaming
water. His hair was wet and he looked like a huge sea creature soaking in an ocean hot
spot. Zari paused at the sight of him, wondering if the tub was big enough for her to join
him or if that would make all the water spill out. Deciding to play it safe, she perched on
the tub's edge, ignoring the shivers at feeling the chill of the porcelain through her thin
panties and leaned over to kiss him lightly.

He stirred and opened one bright blue eye. "Mermaid...." He pulled her into the water
with one arm.

Zari squealed in surprise when he pulled her on top of him, the hot water briefly stinging
her skin and some spilling over the sides. "I think you're still asleep, Sean. I can't be a
mermaid, because I have no tail." She ran her hands gently over his wet chest.

He chuckled sleepily and patted her butt. "Aye...y' do and a fine one it is."

"I'm going to have to give you an anatomy lesson if you think that's a tail, Sean." She
kissed him again and reached for a washcloth.
He laughed and helped her out of her wet undies, tossing them aside to land on the floor
with a wet plop. "My tail...a fine round tail."

She couldn't help but laugh at his pretending not to understand, and was soon in a tug of
war over the washcloth that made her laugh all the more. "Sean! I can't get us washed if
you steal the only washcloth!"

He waggled his eyebrows at her comically. "I've hands...they'll make fine washcloths."

She blushed but continued to protest. "I still can't wash you without this." She tried
again to tug the washcloth free of his grip.

He puckered up his lips. "Kisses...then maybe I'll let go."

She rolled her eyes at him but leaned forward to give him a quick peck on the lips, then
gave him a second peck. "There are your kisses." She reached down to try prying his fist
open.

He pulled her back and kissed her soundly; only then did he let go of the washcloth. She
shook her head at him but was smiling as she soaped the washcloth and then began to
scrub his chest in slow circles. He washed her with his hands, grinning cheekily as he
teased her at the same time. She bit her lip, bound and determined not to let herself be
too bothered by his gently teasing hands. He just teased more, eyes twinkling merrily. It
took great concentration to be able to finish washing his legs and she regretted turning
her back to him to wash his feet, as that gave him free rein to the spots that ran down her
legs.

"Would you stop that?" she gasped out after a long minute of finding herself scrubbing
the same spot on his left ankle.

He looked mock hurt, pouting, thrusting his lower lip out. "Awww...bu' I was havin' fun."

She swallowed her giggles, doing her best to sound calm as she quickly washed his feet,
despite the shivers racing through her. "If it's that sort of fun you're wanting, Sean, then
we should dry off and return to the bed, where we'll have room to move...."

He warmed the water and pulled her to him. "Why? We'll jus' end up in here again."

She barely noticed when he gently tugged the washcloth from her fingers, soaped it and
began to scrub her back. "Well if we stay in here all day, we're going to come out
looking awful pruny. Plus, someone will come looking for us...and they might send one
of the kids...."

He nuzzled her neck. "We'll have time, love."
No one disturbed them, though they contented themselves with teasing one another to
fulfillment with only their hands. Zari would have thought that they might have
remained in the tub all day if both their stomachs hadn't started growling. But to prolong
the quiet togetherness, she told him she would bring something to eat upstairs.

He was curled up on the bed watching out the window as the sun glittered on the fallen
snow. He smiled and turned his head when she came in.

"I smell bacon...."

"You do?" She pretended to look confused as she guided the anti-grav tray next to the
small couch. "I don't recall getting any from the bacon platter." Which of course was a
fib--she had, along with a bowl of oatmeal for him, another of fruit, some muffins and a
bowl of eggs with cheese on top. Tea and juice completed the meal.

"Are we allowed to go into the city during the day?" she wondered aloud as she absently
peeled an orange and set her share of the slices on her plate.

He kissed her in thanks and did a prayer before digging in "Looks clear enough...I'll
wager y'r in th' mood t' shop." He knew women loved to shop. "I need yarn anyway,
runnin' low."

Zari shrugged. "Not just shop, though that would be part of it. I did have all my
Christmas gifts prepared before we came here...but now I have one more person to get a
gift for." She gave him a shy smile.

He blushed and smiled. "Y'r my gift...all I need f'r Christmas."

Her blush was brighter than his, but she didn't argue the sentiment. She still planned on
getting him something, though she didn't have a clue what.

Breakfast went quickly and they went downstairs, Zari nudging the tray ahead of them to
put it away and the dishes to the kitchen to be recycled. "I hope the weather stays good
today...." She didn't see Telia stepping into the kitchen to refill her raktajino.

Telia was grumpy after being very puky for over an hour that morning. She gave them a
hard look. "Badges...'r Ah'll serve y' sauteed f'r lunch with coleslaw an' baked beans!"

Zari jumped at the harsh note in Telia's voice. "Yes, ma'am," she mumbled, quickly
turning her attention to stacking the dishes in the recycler.

Morgan, Dominic's mother, smiled as she stepped in. "Telia, dear...go rest." Telia nodded
grouchily and went back to her suite.

"She had some morning sickness, so she's in a mood." Morgan smiled apologetically.
"It's okay," Zari murmured. "She's right...we shouldn't have taken our badges off." She
crossed the kitchen to fetch her boots.

Sean nodded. "She's a right t' chide us...we f'rgot regulations."

Morgan sighed. "Fleet and its rules." She got her tea and wandered back out.

Once they were properly bundled in boots, coats, and gloves, Sean fetched one of the
flitters, keying in the autopilot sequence that would take them to Amarillo. Zari settled
back with a soft sigh to watch the snow-covered scenery they passed by. "I've always
liked winter," she said without thinking.

"Winter is a lovely time...but I love spring th' most. The feel o' life comin' back after a
long winter's sleep...th' smell o' flowers, th' sight o' wee animals bein' born." He smiled
wistfully.

She didn't know what caused the sudden blush to rise in her face, but she tried to ignore
it. "I guess I like winter because snow is beautiful...and makes everything beautiful too.
And it makes everything seem....softer somehow." She sighed softly. "Guess that doesn't
make any sense, does it?"

"Yeah, it makes sense, love. Winter's a time t' rest...be with family."

Zari nodded, glad he understood part of what she meant. "That's all lost out in space, of
course. But I like to be planetside in winter when I can, though usually I've been alone."
She turned to look at him. "But at least now I can spend some of it with you."

He smiled as he turned the flitter to head into the city proper. "I'll spend all y'r winter
with y', angel."

She blushed, turning back to look at the city that began to surround them. The classic
modern lines mixed with the old-fashioned construction and materials. She spotted what
looked like two museums, as well as the usual shops and Starfleet and business buildings.
The snow gave the city a cozy look.

The flitter was parked in a covered garage that was attached to a good-sized shopping
center. Zari climbed out of her side and, without thinking, took Sean's hand in hers and
led him into the nearby turbolift.

He smiled and kissed her hand. "Y'r hand fits in mine perfectly."

She looked down, realizing what she'd done, and felt her face flame. But she didn't let go
and shivered as he moved his hand to lace their fingers together.

"I've plenty o' credits...s' let th' shoppin' begin." He chuckled and winked.
Zari's blush grew hotter. "I wouldn't expect you to give me your creds, Sean. I have
plenty of my own. Besides, I can't get you a Christmas gift with your creds...that
wouldn't be right." They stepped out of the lift on the mall's main level, the sounds and
smells surrounding them.

Sean just grinned. "I'll spend 'em on y'."

Zari rubbed at her cheek with her free hand, trying to will away the blush, to no avail.
"Only if you want to," she finally said. At his look, she added, "Don't think you have to,
that's all." She dropped her gaze. "That you love me is...is more than I could have hoped
for. If you'd choose to gift me with something, that would be wonderful. But if love is
all you had to give me, it would suit me."

He tilted her head up and kissed her softly. "I've love, respect, devotion an' little things
like goodies...s' enjoy it."

She blinked back the tears pricking her eyes and managed a whispered thank you.

"Where to, angel?" he asked as they walked along.

"Why don't you pick the first shop? Then we can take turns." Her eyes scanned the
variety of shops, both on the level they were walking on and the one above them.

His grin returned. "Sweet shop."

Zari rolled her eyes at him when he started to guide her in the direction of the food court.
"We just had breakfast, Lieutenant."

He pouted, looking like a little boy sulking. "Bu' angel...."

"I didn't say we couldn't buy for later...but you cannot possibly be hungry already," she
teased, squeezing his fingers gently. They had reached the edge of the food court and he
began to lead her to what appeared to be a bakery-type shop.

Sean's smile was almost naughty. "I smell cookies." He tugged her inside eagerly,
looking at all the cookies, cakes, candies and chocolates.

Despite still being full from breakfast, Zari couldn't deny that the display in front of them
looked delicious. "Maybe we could take a cake back to the ranch later for the captain--
sort of a peace offering. And I'd like to get some cookies for later...for me, that is."

Sean smiled. "We c'n have 'em hold it an' pick up our treats b'fore we leave." He looked
hopeful.
"That will work." Together, they picked out a small chocolate fudge cake for Telia, then
selected various sweets for themselves, which filled up one good sized box for each of
them. Zari went with a variety of cookies and some cinnamon buns with pecans.

Over the next several hours, he had them hit all the shops, ending up almost buying out
the yarn section of the tiny crafts store on the second level. He also had something sent to
the ranch when she wasn't looking.

While he was choosing his yarn, she slipped out of the crafts store and headed across the
way to a shop that bore the name Lands' End. Once there, she lingered over the display
furthest back before finally selecting from it and hurrying back to the craft shop with a
rather large bag.

Sean was sending his yarn to the house too. "Where'd y' go, love?"

"Just to get...something." She knew he'd seen the bag she was carrying but wasn't about
to let him look inside it. "Do you think you have enough yarn?" she asked, trying to
change the subject. "Where are you going to put it all when we get back onboard ship?"

He blushed. "I've learned t' tuck it here an' there...ready t' look at th' other shops? I'd like
t' buy toys f'r all th' wee ones back at th' house. Nothin' like kids with extra gifts t' open
on Christmas mornin'. An' I spotted a shop tha' carries beads made from local stones,
Mags would love some I'm sure." He looked so relaxed, so excited. This was the Sean
everyone knew and loved, the kind, gentle man with a happy smile on his face and a
spring in his step.

They had to go back downstairs to find the bead shop, which turned out to be an
extension of the crafts shop they'd just been in. Sean purchased a variety bag of beads
and some lengths of leather cord before they went back up to the second level and the
rather large toy store.

He grinned. "Ready t' be a Trill Santa Claus?" He kissed her and held her close with an
arm around her waist.

She raised an eyebrow at him. "Just how much are you intending we buy? Remember
that everyone has to carry the stuff home after this shoreleave is over."

He smiled wistfully as he looked at all the toys. "They'll be room...y'll see."

She shook her head with a little smile and let him lead her into the center aisle, where all
the newest toys were on display. Sean carefully picked out two per child, each suited to
the recipient. Colleen's gifts were chosen first--a soft doll and a warm fuzzy bear she
could also use as a pillow. It was clear he had a soft spot for his tiny niece.

Zari had no one to buy for since Gabriele and RJ's gifts had been long chosen and
wrapped, but to humor Sean, she wandered into the vintage section, choosing a good
sized box containing 20 various plastic animals from the 21st century "Littlest Pet Shop"
brand for her niece. For RJ, she found a box of Terran dinosaurs.

Sean smiled at her choices. "RJ'll love those, bless 'im. He's a special one like Colleen."

She returned his smile. "He is. And you keep shopping--these are going on my creds."
She hurried off to the counter to pay before he could argue with her. He smiled and went
about looking at baby toys, a wishful look on his handsome face.

Zari hurried up to the counter, ringing up both items and asking that they be gift-
wrapped. She chose a gold star and tree paper for Gabi's gift and a purple and silver
stripe for RJ's. While the gift wrappers were at work, Zari slipped out into the main area
of the mall and headed for the public comm terminal area she'd seen near the turbolifts
and stairwells.

"I just hope he doesn't realize I'm gone," she mumbled, slipping into one of the booths
and quickly punching in the comm code for the ranch house.

Morgan answered with a smile. "Hello Zarianne, can I help you?"

"I need--I mean, I'd like to talk to the Captain. If--if she's available, that is."

"Sure, she's right here...."

Telia came into view a moment later. "Y' okay, Zari?"

"I'm fine. So is Sean. I just--" Zari swallowed back her nervousness and plunged ahead.
"I wanted to ask your permission for us to spend the night in the city. Just tonight and I
promise we'll be back to the ranch by tomorrow afternoon. I just....I would like the
chance to try to--spend time with him. Just us..." She ignored the blush filling her face.
"If--that's all right with you."

Telia chuckled. "Y'r adults...do whatcha want."

"Thank you, Captain....I appreciate it." Her face reddened further but she was smiling.
She thanked Telia again before quickly signing off and browsing the directory of hotels
in the city. Quickly making her choice, she opened the commlink again and made a
reservation, thankful that they had an opening in one of their best suites. She thanked the
concierge, who seemed amused, before signing off and hurrying back to the toy shop.

Sean spotted her and held up a pair of identical stuffed baby sized bears. "Look!! F'r th'
captain's twins when they come!" The bears were a pale blue colour and very soft.

He hadn't seemed to notice that she had been gone. She breathed an inward sigh of relief
and nodded at his choice of baby gift. "Why don't I buy those and you can make them
homemade blankets?"
He smiled. "Okay, love...if y' like."

"I would. Now, are we done in here? I'm actually hungry and it's probably the dinner
hour by now." She squeezed his hand lightly and smiled up at him.

"Aye, time t' eat an' look over our loot." He winked. "I love t' shop."

"I see that." She led the way to the counter in order to buy the bears and oversee the
delivery for everything Sean had ordered as well as her gifts for Gabi and RJ, all of which
were now wrapped and tagged. "Though how we'll 'look it over', I don't know since
we're sending all of it back to the house." She reluctantly included the Lands' End bag
she'd been carrying. "And no, you don't get to see what's in that bag either," she scolded
when he tried to peek into it.

"Awww, bu' love!"

"NO," she said firmly, causing a ripple of laughter from the toy store workers and Sean's
pout to turn to a mock sulk. She took back her cred chip and led him for the door,
fighting not to laugh at the gleam in his eyes. "Now stop pouting, Lieutenant, or no
dessert for you."

He gave a dramatic sigh. "Yes, love...." He loved that she was teasing with him; it proved
she was at ease with him at last.

Zari ushered him back to the sweet shop, where she picked up her sack of cookies and
they both ensured that their sweets would be delivered to the ranch. The cake for Telia
was marked for her hands only. Zari also chose a box of various truffles and one of
chocolate covered strawberries, the former of which she added to her bag. The latter she
had sent to the hotel when Sean wasn't listening. It wasn't until they got into the flitter
that she gave him directions to the hotel, saying only that the seafood restaurant was what
she had in mind for their dinner.

"I love seafood...shrimp...halibut...crab..." He nearly drooled.

"You'd eat anything," she said, poking him in the ribs. When he shook his head, she
rolled her eyes. "Right...name something you would never eat, even if you would be paid
a million creds and you were starving to death."

He made a face. "Onion soup...nasty stuff."

She had to laugh at his vehemence. "For me, it would have to be gagh." She shuddered
and embraced herself.

"Gagh's okay in horseradish."
She stared at him in disbelief for a long minute before making a face and shaking her
head frantically. "I don't even want to go there." His answering laughter filled the
flitter's cabin and he was still laughing softly, even as they landed at the hotel and entered
the building.

He looked around. "Where's th' seafood place, angel?" But she was already leading him
into the turbolift, then down the corridor on the third floor where the discreet signs were
pointing them towards it. At Zari's request, they were seated at a window table so they
could look at the city lights.

He smiled as he gazed out the window. "Lovely view, angel." He looked back to her.
"But nothin' is as lovely as what I'm lookin' at now." He took her hand in his and kissed it
gently.

She turned her blushing smile down to the menu padd, leaving her hand in his while they
decided on their dinner, deciding on lobster with a baked potato and a corn cob, Caesar
salad and a glass of icoberry cider.

Sean got stuffed flounder with mashed potatoes, double green beans and a glass of
mineral water with lemon. He smiled and touched his glass to hers. "T' us."

"Yes," she murmured, shivering as he lightly squeezed her fingers. He didn't let go of her
hand until the food came. They ate slowly, occasionally sharing bites of each other's
meal and watching the new bout of snow gently drift down over the city.

"Looks like more snow people t' build tmorrow." He smiled wistfully. "It's fun t' help th'
wee ones build a snow village."

Zari hid her smile, knowing that they would not be back until later the next day according
to her plan. "Hopefully they won't be too sad to leave it all behind after New Year's."

"There's always th' holo-deck." He looked up eagerly as their desserts came. "Chocolate
cake...." He nearly drooled.

"True, though the holodeck is not the same as the real thing in some cases. Snow is one
of them, for me at least." They had both ordered the chocolate cake and that disappeared
faster than their dinners had. Since it was still early, there was time to visit one of the
nearby museums. "And I'll let you choose which one, Sean. Since I got to pick our
dinner place."

He thought for a moment. "Th' art museum...a wee bit of culture would do me good I
think."

By sheer luck, he had chosen the museum that was open the latest, so once they were
there, they had plenty of time to wander about the various exhibits. Zari spent a lot of
time admiring the older works, as she did not care for most modern-style art, while Sean
looked at everything.

Two hours later, the museum finally was closing. Sean hugged her to him as they
stepped out. "Time f'r home, lass."

"Hmm, not tonight." When he gave her a puzzled look, she smiled. "I reserved a suite at
the hotel where we had dinner. We have the Captain's permission to stay here in the city
for the night."

Sean gave her an amused look. "Really now...a tryst, is it?"

Zari blushed hotly. "I....not like that....I mean, that wasn't the idea....I just...." she
stammered, trying and failing to explain herself and glaring at him when he started to
laugh.

"I love teasin' y', lass...y'r expressions are priceless." He keyed in the commands to guide
their flitter back to the hotel.

"Sean Kegan...." she sputtered indignantly. But faced with his grin, she could only give
in to a laugh of her own and shake her head with a sigh. "Is this how it's going to be--I
try to do something nice for you and you pick on me?" She shot him a look of pretend
annoyance.

"Not all th' time, love...just once in a while is all." He gave her a cheeky grin and a wink.

She gave a fake toss of her head and pretended to ignore him for the rest of the ride,
though she was hard pressed to swallow the giggle that wanted to escape. When the
flitter landed back at the hotel, she was the first one out, waiting impatiently as he turned
it off and secured it.

He caught her in his arms and kissed her. "Impatient t' have y'r way with me, are y'?"

Already, he had that low seductive tone to his voice that made her shiver and blush.
"Maybe...." Her voice was a whisper.

He chuckled. "Just maybe, angel? And here I thought y' were hot f'r my body."

"I w-want you for all of you....not just for--for your body." But she did lean in for the
second kiss he gave her before he led her into the lobby and to the desk to pick up their
room card. Sean kissed her repeatedly in the lift and, on a whim, carried her to their
room, looking pleased by the smiles they got from people they passed.

"Put me down!" Zari squealed, embarrassed by the stares and knowing smiles from the
few other guests and the two hotel staffers they walked past. But he didn't put her down
until after he'd carried her into their suite. Then he set her down by letting her slide
slowly out of his arms to stand before him.

Sean didn't see the room; all he saw was the woman he held so close. She was his sun, his
moon, his reason for being.

Zari leaned her cheek against his chest, letting the steady thump of his heart fill her ears.
"The fresher has a tub built for two," she murmured.

Sean whispered softly, "Then we should see if it's a good fit."

She nodded and led him into the bedroom, noticing that the box of chocolate dipped
strawberries sat on the table by the bed. Smiling secretly, she keyed open the door that
led into the fresher. The oval-shaped tub appeared to be at least a meter deep and was
obviously a whirlpool tub, as the jet holes were visible inside. To her eyes, it looked big
enough for four, let alone two. "Looks like there will be room to swim almost."

Sean grinned. "I'll be swimmin' after a mermaid...one with spots."

"Now, Lieutenant, do I need to remind you of basic humanoid anatomy?" she scolded
playfully as she keyed on hot water to begin filling the tub and closed the drain. She
leaned on the counter to pull off her boots and socks, setting them aside underneath it.
"Mermaids have no legs or feet." She lifted a foot briefly and wiggled her toes before
moving into his arms again and they began to undress one another slowly.

"Aye...but y've a truly delightful tail."

Zari shook her head at his total avoidance of what she was saying. She shivered
reflexively as her skin was bared to the faint chill in the air. "Most humanoids, including
humans and Trill, have tailbones, but there is no tail." When he gave her an innocent
look, she huffed and presented her back to him long enough to add some bubble bath to
the rising water. Glancing over her shoulder when she stepped into the water, she added,
"If I had a tail, I think you would know it by now....since most species' tails are flexible
and can be considered separate appendages." She was fighting not to giggle, forcing
herself to remain serious.

He moved to caress her butt. "See...a nice, soft, round tail."

She squealed at the sudden caress and slipped on the last step, going into the water with a
large splash. The water was only up to her neck, though she had to wipe water from her
face before standing back up and watching him enter the tub. Once he was level with her
again, she spoke. "A bottom and a tail are two different things. You should know better."
She tapped his chest with a fingertip.

He tugged her down into the water. "My tail...my spotted tail," he added with a grin.
Zari sighed in exasperation. "We'll have to work on that," she muttered before leaning in
to the kiss he was offering her.

He pulled her into his lap. "Angel...my sweet angel."

"Ni laschaen," she whispered against his lips. Her hands rested on his shoulders for
balance, though he was holding her steadily enough that even the vibration of the water
against them wouldn't budge her.

Sean settled her in his lap and let the water beat against them. "I love y',
Zarianne...f'rever."

"I love you, too," Zari said quietly. She leaned against him with a soft sigh as they sat for
several long minutes, allowing the whirlpool jets to pound out any tension from their
busy day.

Sean kissed her neck. "Y'r a distraction, a lovely delightful distraction."

"And just what am I distracting you from at this very moment?" she questioned, reaching
under the water to run her fingers along his muscled arm.

He smiled gently. "Thinkin'...m' brain becomes mush when y'r near."

She couldn't stifle her giggle. "Well, that's not my fault that you can't think. I'm not one
of those fabled witches who can cast spells or anything." She lifted her hand from the
water and wiggled her fingers at him with a laugh.

"Y' bewitch me, make me wanna jus' be in y'r arms, kissin' and makin' love."

"Me?" Zari put on her best innocent look. "But I knew nothing of those things...until a
very wicked human got his big hands on me...." She whispered the last words into his
ear, then blew softly into it.

He shivered and a certain part of his anatomy became very alert. "Lass...now y'r teasin'."

"But it's true," she murmured, pressing a light kiss against his ear, then another on his
jaw. "I've had a couple kisses before you...nothing more. You were the one to teach me
everything else...."

He nibbled her neck and then whispered against her delicate little ear, "And I wanna keep
on teachin' y' all about love and lovin'. Teach y' t' strut with th' walk of a well loved
woman."

A shudder went through her when his hands came up to cup her breasts, his thumbs
making slow circles around the already aching tips. "H-how will I be walking then?" she
managed to ask.
He kissed her and shifted her to face him, her legs around his waist. "Y' know how th'
Captain walks...how Ma walks, Maggie, Elizabeth, Vivian...any woman with a man who
loves 'er. They strut knowin' they're well loved and desired."

"I n-never noticed...." Her voice trailed off when one of his hands dipped beneath the
water, a low moan escaping when he guided her to lower herself onto him.

He kept their lovemaking gentle, slow. He wanted her to feel loved, desired and above
all, cherished.

If he could have read her thoughts, he would have known that she was feeling exactly
those things and more. Her climax came all too quickly, as their movement made the
water swirl between their bodies, acting as what seemed like an extra set of hands
caressing her sensitive flesh. Her sharp cry echoed through the room.

He held her close as he added more hot water to their cooling tub. "I love y',
Zarianne...more each an' every day."

"I love you, too, laschaen." The newly hot water swirled around them and she lay her
head on his shoulder, closing her eyes and breathing in the scent of him and the faint
fragrance in the water. "It feels so good to be like this...."

"If we were married...it could always be like this." He had to keep trying; he so wanted to
marry her as soon as she would allow.

Zari knew what he wanted and that she wanted it too, but it seemed like such a big step
and she feared not being ready for it. But how could she say that without offending or
upsetting him?

He rubbed her back. "Talk t' me, love, please?"

"I will....if you promise not to get upset." Zari swallowed back the lump that had grown
in her throat. "I may not say it right."

He kissed her forehead and smiled. "Love, I'll never get upset with y'."

"I do....want to be with you. But....I feel stupid because I don't know what I'm doing. No
one ever wanted me before you and so I don't know...how to act. I'm afraid of everything
ending up all wrong....and then....then if we can't make it work...." She let out a shaking
breath, doing her best not to allow herself to cry.

He tilted her face up so that she had to look into his eyes. "Do y' love me, Zarianne? Just
answer yes 'r no."

"I do....you know I do...." She wanted to say more but he lay a finger lightly on her lips.
"Do y' wanna be at m' side f'rever?"

"Yes." The word came out as a squeak and, once more, she blinked back the urge to cry.

"I want all tha' too. S' marry me, please?"

Unable to suppress them any longer, the tears finally broke through as she nodded. When
his hands cupped her face, she let out a moaned sob and leaned her brow against his.
"Th-thank you f-for....f-finding m-me worth l-loving...."

"No, thank y' f'r acceptin' me an' m' whole family. Y'r special, lovin', beautiful an'
perfect."

They sat silent for several minutes while Zari struggled to push back her tears. His gentle
caresses helped soothe her and finally, she sighed and returned to resting her head on his
shoulder.

"Marry me b'fore we go t' th' ship; we'll have it at th' ranch."

She lifted her head from his shoulder, surprise on her face. "But....that won't be enough
time. I would need to get a gown....and I don't think there is a room big enough at the
ranch to hold everyone...."

"We'll make it work, love...y'll see." He was glowing with joy.

"I wish we could stay here for a long time....just us." She slowly slid backwards off his
lap and moved to sit beside him so that one of the jets could pound at her back. "I don't
really like crowds or crowded situations."

"Y'll g't used t' it, love." He grabbed the sparkling cider from the bucket that had been left
by the tub and poured them each a glass.

"I never have....that's part of why I like having my own company. It's quieter that way."
She sipped her cider, then set the glass on the tub's edge. "Though I don't mind sharing
with one person...."

He smiled and kissed her nose. "More than one, I hope...wee ones with luck."

She blushed brightly. "Eventually, yes. But I want plenty of time for us alone."

He got them out of the tub and into warm robes. He cuddled her as he called room service
for more cider.

"We could wait, I suppose--when would y' like t' do it?"
"Wait to get married....or have children?" At his crestfallen look, she hastened to explain
that she was teasing him about the former. "I don't know....I just want us to have time to
ourselves for awhile. To get to know each other better." When the door chime rang and
Sean went to fetch the cider he'd ordered, she reached over to the bedside table to open up
the box of strawberries she had ordered from the sweet shop.

Sean settled back on the bed, placing the cider bottle on the table on his side. "I was
talkin' 'bout gettin' married since y' seem t' wanna a wait a bit." He fed her a berry and
smiled.

"I'm....not sure. If it was possible, it would be okay to do now. I just don't know how we
could in such a short time....to have a real wedding, I mean. I know a lot of people just
stand in front of an official and pledge, but I want to do more than that. Bonding is a
special thing--it shouldn't be rushed." She shrugged, realizing she was making little
sense. "And I don't want anyone to think we are trying to take over the shoreleave
either."

"Then we'll wait an' let y' have time t' plan."

"Will your family still be able to come?" she searched his face. "I know that's important
to you."

"Mick'll make sure they make it, he's got means t' arrange it." Mick was actually very
wealthy, but never flaunted it.

He seemed so certain that all she could do was nod and settle against him, using a free
hand to drag up a blanket to cover up her feet, which were getting chilled. They ate about
half the berries and emptied the bottle of cider. Outside the window, the snowfall was
getting heavier, thick flakes almost blotting out the city lights.

He looked outside too and, deep inside, he longed for the day he could stay planetside,
living in Ireland in his little cottage with Zari and their children.

"Cred for your thoughts?" she said softly, reaching up to touch his cheek.

He kissed her hand and smiled wistfully "Dreamin' o' bein' planetside...just us an' our wee
ones in th' cottage."

"Cottage?" He explained and she smiled faintly. "It sounds lovely. Though would there
be room for us and our children?" she teased. "How would we find time alone?"

"I could expand it...use all authentic materials, keep it lookin' like th' ancient home tha' it
is. Been in th' family centuries."

"True," she murmured thoughtfully. She could feel herself getting drowsy but tried to
fight it. They only had this one night....
He smiled and called down the lights, leaving the blinds open so that they could fall
asleep watching the snow. "Sleep well, angel," he whispered softly, voice overflowing
with love and tenderness.

She shed the robe and managed to crawl under the thick covers without getting tangled in
them. When he joined her, she murmured a sigh and pressed herself against the warmth
of his body. "Love you, laschaen...." The words came out in a slurred mumble.

He smiled and snuggled her closer, murmuring her name as sleep took him. He dreamed
of their home filled with children, love and laughter.


**


Zari's eyes slowly drifted open and a squint through the window proved that it was still
dark, snowflakes swirling past the transparent aluminum. The bedside chrono read 0631.
She yawned and stretched her toes, rolling over slightly to lay her cheek on Sean's chest.
She still felt sleepy but, at the same time, well-rested. His breathing was even and she
could tell he was still asleep. A faint smile touched her lips as she let her hand drift down
to lightly caress his thigh from knee to hip.

Sean stirred slightly and mumbled softly, "Tickles, y' silly cat."

Zari had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing out loud. A smile lingered on her face
and she decided to see how far she could go. She went from using her fingertips to her
whole hand, running her palm along his inner thigh on the way up to his hip. This caused
her knuckles to "accidentally" graze his manhood, both on the way up and on the way
back down to his knee.

Her touches made his manhood stir and made him shift in his sleep. When he
unconsciously turned his head towards hers, she brushed her lips against his and moved
her hand up to gently curl around that sensitive part of him.

He stirred with a soft moan. "Angel...." he whispered as he reached for her. His eyes
hadn't opened, so she wasn't sure if he was dreaming or actually near awake. She
murmured his name in return, giving him another soft kiss and letting her fingers glide
along his manhood in an awkward stroking.

He moaned again and those bright blue eyes opened slowly and he kissed her deeply.
"'Mornin', love...."

When he'd turned to kiss her, he'd rolled onto his side, which had to make her let go of
him. But she settled for wrapping her arms around his broad shoulders and kissing him
back. "Morning to you too, laschaen," she said before smothering a yawn in his shoulder.
He chuckled softly. "Still sleepy, angel?" He cuddled her close, breathing in her warm
scent.

"It is early....and only sort of." Zari yawned again and nuzzled at his neck. "You're nice
'n warm," she added, running her hands over his back.

He nuzzled her neck and smiled. "Warmer than usual...since someone turned m' engines
on."

"Me?" she said around a rather large yawn. "I don't know what you're talking about...."

He pulled back and gave her a look. "Then who was tha' playin' with me naughty bits?"

She tried to shake her head in continued pretend denial. "Maybe the covers were
brushing them when you moved around....wasn't me."

"Oh...aye an' they wrapped around me too, then, did they?"

"You were obviously dreaming." She poked him in the chest with a fingertip, putting on a
haughty act. "Especially since you were scolding a phantom cat about being 'tickled'."

He looked all wounded. "S' no one was explorin'...it was just me dreamin', was it?"

"Mhm," she whispered, sneaking a hand down to curl around his manhood once more.

He shifted and made a pleased sound. "There's tha' hand I was dreamin' of."

"And just whose hand was this in your dream, Lieutenant?" Zari asked, putting an
insulted tone to her voice. But she still began to rub her thumb gently over the tip of him.

He shifted again and moaned. "Lemme see...seems she had a pretty name...."

"Oh? And what did she look like?" Zari used her other hand to caress his chest.

He caught her hand and kissed it. "She has these lovely spots...an' sweet lips...hair in
curls...an' she is an angel."

"Good answer," she murmured as his other arm snaked around her waist. She squealed in
surprise when he suddenly pulled her to lie atop him.

He kissed her. "Gonna keep wakin' me up?"

"Only if you want to be woken up," she retorted, clinging to him as he shifted beneath her
to kick most of the covers away.
He arched a little. "Seems m' naughty bits 're eager t' be awake."

She couldn't help the gasp that escaped when she felt his now obvious erection bump her
inner thigh. "Th-that can happen...when you have dreams like that, I imagine...."

He looked up at her. "Y' started this, love...please?"

"I never said no," she murmured, suddenly feeling confused. Did he think she was
refusing his advances?

He kissed her and whispered, "Good...because I need y', love, really need y'."

"You have me," she whispered back, pressing her lips against his jaw.

He kissed her and ran his hands down her back, waited for her to take over, to keep up
what she had started. A blush filled her cheeks when she realized why he had not
continued but she felt frozen in place by not knowing what to do. "I...how do I...." she
swallowed her anxiety down. "I don't want to fall and hurt you when I'm trying to...."
Her blush grew hotter.

He smiled. "I won't let y' fall, angel...promise."

Feeling clumsy, she moved to bring her hips to his. He helped support her balance as she
trembled above him for an instant before guiding him inside her. The new, different
sensation made her eyes go wide in stunned shock as they met his.

He moaned as she joined them and realized he looked forward to her taking over and
controlling their coupling.

Now that she had him inside her, she knew the only thing to do was move. But on her
first attempt, she lifted herself too high and he slipped out. She moaned in frustration.
"H-how do I k-keep you there and move?" she demanded in a shaky voice after straddling
him once more.

"Y'll catch on, love." He was hoping she would anyway; he rather liked having her over
him like this.

She tried to mentally shake away the frustration, trying again and again to find some sort
of rhythm to her hips. The problem, ironically, was the pleasure she would feel once she
did. It would distract her after only a few minutes and she would lose her concentration.
"I can't think," she wailed after losing the rhythm a fourth time.

Sean's gentle laugh only made her more frustrated. "Well, how do YOU concentrate
when you're on top?" she demanded.
He took over and rolled her onto her back. "I'll show y', love." He began his slow rolling
thrusts.

She wanted to protest--despite her frustration at not knowing how to do what she wanted,
it had still felt good. But the feel of him moving inside her stripped away nearly all other
thought. She cried out his name and arched against him, wanting to become lost in the
pleasure and forget all else.

He kissed her as they made love, relishing her legs wrapped around him, loving her
moans and soft little cries. She whimpered a protest when he stopped after another
minute, but it was only to move her legs so that her ankles hooked over his shoulders.
She soon found out why, when every thrust in that position seemed to reach deeper.

Instinct played a big role in sex. The deeper a man went, the more likely he was to
impregnate his partner. It wasn't a planned thing; the body just knew what to do. He
unconsciously had her in a prime position for both conception and pleasure.

Had she not known better, she would have sworn that he was touching her soul. Maybe
he was, if only with the tenderness in the bright blue eyes that were gazing down at her.
She tried to keep the eye contact, but the overwhelming pleasure soon made her vision
swim as she was finally pushed over the brink into orgasm, her cry of his name sharp and
loud. He soon followed, clutching her to him and whispering her name over and over.

She uttered a moaning sigh when he withdrew a few minutes later and automatically
curled up close to him after he slumped down into the bed beside her. Her trembling
hands touched his face. "Thank you...for loving me," she whispered.

"Same could be said back at y', angel." Sean lazily called for room service and then
stretched. "I'm starvin'!"

Zari had to smile. "It's early still....the buffet downstairs probably opens before long."
She stretched her legs, then sighed. "Though I suppose getting food up here is better....I
don't feel like getting up right now."

He tugged her from bed and in for a quick shower. A wash and a few giggles later and
they were just belting their robes when the food arrived.

Sean grinned. "Smells good!" He tipped the waiter and began uncovering all the food he
had ordered. Beneath the covers were a large omelet that could be split in half, crisp
bacon, and a basket of croissants with butter, honey and jam. Zari found that she was
hungrier than normal and settled at the small table near the window with far more food
than she usually ate in the mornings.

Sean happily tucked in, leaving nothing behind but memories as he devoured his share of
the huge breakfast. He leaned back and sipped his coffee. "Now that was a breakfast."
His plate was clean and the tray looked like it had been attacked by hungry bears.
"True," Zari added. She pushed herself up with a faint groan, setting her empty plate on
the tray and then crawling back onto the bed. The chrono read 0745. She was thankful
they still had several hours before they had to leave. When Sean climbed up next to her
and drew the top blanket around them, she sighed contentedly and lay her head on his
chest.

"You never did answer my question, you know...."

Sean yawned and snuggled her closer. "What question, love?"

"How am I supposed to concentrate when I'm on top," she murmured. "All you showed
me was that you know how...but I already knew that." She laced her fingers through his.

He chuckled. "I really dunno, lass. It just...happens."

"So I may never be able to do it," she grumbled in disappointment. "I really wanted
to...but I couldn't concentrate."

"Y'll learn, love...we've a life time t' experiment."

A lifetime....she smiled softly and closed her eyes, falling into a doze. They both dozed
for a few hours before the default 1000 alarm went off, chiming at progressively louder
intervals.

"Shut up," Zari groaned at the alarm, rubbing at her eyes and sitting up. But it kept on
chiming.

Sean shut it off and yawned. "Time t' head back, angel."

"I know," she mumbled around another yawn. She shuffled to the fresher, hearing him
fall into step behind her, and entered the shower first. After splashing some of the hot
spray on her face, she felt more awake. Turning, she wrapped her arms about his neck.
"Maybe some day we should come back here....just us."

He kissed her. "Aye...this same room even." He smiled as they washed up and got ready
to leave. He was sitting on the bed putting on his boots when she came into the room to
fetch her own clothes. "Y' know...this was th' best night of m' life."

"Mine, too," she said softly. She shook out her clothes and dressed quickly. He helped
her on with her own boots and then into her coat before throwing his on. Gathering up
the box of strawberries, they left the hotel after checking out. Settled in the flitter, she
watched him program the return route to the ranch into the console. They moved with
the speed of traffic within the city, but once outside it, the flitter slowed to a mild cruising
speed.
"I wonder what they will say when we get back," Zari said after a few minutes of
watching the scenery.

"Hello?" he quipped cheerfully.

She made a face at him and lightly smacked his coat-covered arm. "You know what I
mean, Sean Kegan."

"They'll say hi an' welcome us back...except f'r Mick who'll tease us." He rolled his eyes.

"I'm sure Haas will run his mouth too," Zari snorted in disgust. "So will Eric. Though at
least I could pray Haas is occupied. We won't have any such luck with Eric. He'll seek
me out to bother me."

Sean scowled. "I'll keep 'im from pesterin' y', angel." He was fiercely protective of those
he loved and could and would get violent toward those who threatened them.

"Good luck," she said with a sigh, leaning her cheek against his chest. Part of her was
sad that they would no longer have the quiet togetherness once they were back with the
crew. Despite her loneliness, she had always been a private person who enjoyed quiet.

Sean made a grunting noise. "I've no need of luck...I've me fists."

"I won't have you starting fights on my account, not unless it's an enemy threatening my
life." Zari leaned her head back enough to meet his eyes. "I don't want you to get into
trouble...not for me."

He kissed her temple. "I'll defend y', angel...nothin'll stop that."

She sighed, not wanting to start a dispute and simply praying that there were be no major
fights. They rode in silence until they reached the ranch which, to Zari's eyes, seemed
almost abandoned. "It's 1310--where is everyone?" she wondered aloud after checking
the flitter's chrono.

"Might all be inside, it is pretty cold after all." He landed them gently and then got out to
assist her out of the flitter.

Once inside, they still encountered no one in the kitchen. It seemed TOO quiet. "Is there
even anyone in here?" Her voice seemed to echo in the huge kitchen, as did the thump-
thump of them each setting their boots on the rack by the door.

Sean hung up their coats and shrugged. "They're about, I'm sure."

Though when they ventured into the main den, they found only Sean's parents along with
Douglas and his wife Anjali. Both women were asleep, Anjali leaning on Douglas'
shoulder and Kelly lying down beneath a thick fleece blanket with her head in Doug's
lap.

"Where is everyone?" Zari asked, making sure to keep her voice low so as not to disturb
the sleeping women.

Doug spoke softly, "Out back makin' a snow village."

"That explains why we didn't see them when we pulled up." Zari tried to stifle a yawn
that was escaping. Seeing the other two dozing made her realize she was still tired.

Sean smiled. "Go nap...I'm f'r playin' in th' snow!" He kissed her cheek and headed
outside like a big kid.

Zari watched him go with a faint smile and slowly climbed the stairs. Once inside Sean's
suite, she stripped out of her clothes then hurriedly climbed into the bed before the chill
of the air could get to her. It took a few minutes to stop her shivering and get
comfortable again but when she did, she drifted into sleep almost right away.

Sean was outside for hours, helping make the snow village and he only came in when
Telia announced it was time to make supper and his empty belly drove him inside to help.

"Unca Sean, where is she?" Niamh asked as they walked inside to put away their coats
and boots.

He put on an apron so he could help cook. "Nappin' upstairs, sweetie. Go see if she's
awake, would y'?"

Niamh nodded and trotted up the stairs to look in the room she knew had been assigned
to the Trill. But the bed was empty. Just in case, she looked in the fresher. No one there
either. Puzzled, she went back downstairs. "Unca Sean, she's not in 'er room."

He chuckled as he worked on slicing meat. "Try my room, she must o' gone in there."

Niamh clambered up the stairs again and found that her uncle had been right--Zari was
burrowed beneath the blankets in his bed. She returned downstairs to report that Zari was
still asleep. "I dunno if I should wake her up....maybe you should," she added with a
giggle.

He gave her a look and held up his bloody hands. "Niamh lass...I'm a wee bit busy. Go
wake y'r Auntie Zarianne f'r me."

"Okay," she giggled and ran upstairs for the third time. Creeping into Sean's suite, she
gently reached out to touch Zari's blanket covered shoulder. "Auntie?"
"Mmmph." Zari slowly opened one eye. "Hi," she murmured around a yawn. "'m sorry
but I forgot your name."

"Niamh. Unca Sean said to get you f'r supper."

"M'kay. I'll be there in a minute." When the girl left, Zari slipped from the bed,
wrapping herself in Sean's robe. She was glad to see that Niamh was going downstairs; it
gave her the opportunity to slip into her own suite and grab fresh clothes.

"She's awake," Niamh sang, returning to the kitchen. She didn't get to say anything else
because Telia recruited her to start taking the bread baskets into the common room where
many were gathered awaiting dinner.

Kelly spotted her as she came toward the kitchen and smiled. "Sleep well, lass?"

"I didn't think I would sleep very long," Zari said, rubbing at her cheeks to try and hide
her blush. She offered Sean a shy smile, watching him finish slicing steaks from of a
much larger hunk of meat. One of his teenaged nephews filled a platter with the raw
meat and took it to the other end of the kitchen, where two lieutenants from the
engineering crew were working over the grill.

Sean kissed her cheek then went to cutting up chickens. "Nap feel good, love?"

"A little." She watched him and his mother finish carving up the rest of the meat before
it, too, was delivered to those at the grill. "Can I do something to help?"

He nodded to a pile of greens. "Tear that up f'r salad?"

With something to do, the time went quickly, though when it was all said and done, she
found that she was not that hungry and simply ate a plate of salad with some of the fresh
bread that had been baked that day. After clean up, they returned to Sean's suite and she
noticed that the many packages they'd ordered at the mall were now stacked on one side
of the room.

Sean rubbed his hands together gleefully. "I love wrappin'!" He began hauling out paper,
bags, tissue paper, scissors and tape.

Zari had to laugh and started passing down packages from the top of the stack. When she
found the Lands End bag sitting behind a larger box, she quickly shoved it behind their
small sofa.

Sean had secretly purchased two gifts; one was being looked after by his mother and the
other he had slipped under the bed. The one under the bed was a nightgown...covered in
shamrocks just like his favorite pair of pajamas. The one his Ma was looking after was a
kitten--a white kitten dotted with soot coloured spots.
The wrapping progressed mostly in silence, except for asking one another to pass items
and occasionally discussing what paper or gift bag to use. When they had a small pile
completed, Zari would take them downstairs to be added to the main pile in the formal
den, then return to start over again.

He had hers in a bag and sealed and it ended up downstairs with one of her trips without
her even realizing it. Her other one would be given to her when they all got to open one
gift before bed.

The last pile ended up being rather large, so he volunteered to take it down. While he
was gone, she pulled the bag out from behind the sofa, transferring two of the thick
cashmere sweaters into a large golden bag and the other two into a large box, which she
then wrapped with a silver paper that bore a green foil snowflake pattern on it. She then
carried them downstairs, managing to slip them into the pile while Sean's back was
turned.

"You took so long to come back, I had to see what the delay was for," she teased gently
when he turned around and spotted her.

He chuckled and kissed her. "Now we all get t' open one gift before bed."

She nodded and watched as Nelson and Ramsey moved to the pile, going through the
gifts and passing them out to various people. Most of the gifts were small items--so Zari
was surprised when Doug presented her with a medium sized box. It was tagged from
Sean and she smiled.

Carefully, she unbound the elaborate ribbon from the top and lifted the lid. Meanwhile,
Niamh was poking at the box's sides to guess its contents and jumped back when it
moved. She grabbed Zari's hand before Zari could reach for the top layer of tissue paper.
"Somethin's no' right, Auntie."

"What do you mean?"

"It's moving!" Niamh pointed at the tissue paper, wide-eyed. It was rustling and shifting
even though no one was touching it.

A questioning little meow came from the box and then more frantic clawing. Most of the
kids gasped in various degrees of glee at the sound and Niamh beat Zari to throwing aside
the top layer of paper to reveal the small white feline face. Confronted with a dozen
humanoid faces of varying colors staring at back, she looked from one to the next in
confusion before huddling down into the box again.

"Oh, small one," Zari said softly, reaching in to pick up the kitten. "I know there's a lot
of people here but don't worry." She drew the kitten onto her shoulder, leaning her cheek
against its softness as it cried in confusion. "Shh, kitten."
It huddled against her until Kelly shushed everyone and then it peeked out and let out a
soft little purring meow.

Sean smiled. "Do y' like 'er, Zarianne?"

"Like her? I love her....I...." Zari felt tears well up in her eyes and hid her face against
the kitten's soft fur. "How could I not? She's precious...."

He sighed with relief. "She needs a name."

"A name? I don't know....I wasn't expecting this...." Zari pulled the kitten back enough
to look into her bright green eyes. "I'll have to think about it, probably."

Telia moved to pet the kitten. "Ah think Ah have a basket she c'n sleep in if y' want."

"That would be good, thank you, Captain." She could feel the small body shaking and
pulled it close to her shoulder again. "I think I'll take her upstairs now too. I think there's
too many people here for her."

Telia nodded. "Ah'll send Sean up wit' th' basket an' a soft towel."

Zari nodded back. "Thank you, Captain." She headed up the stairs, crooning in the
kitten's ear. The trembling lessened once they were on the second floor and then in
Sean's suite.

She closed the door and moved to the small sofa. "There we go, little one. Nice and
quiet up here." She set the kitten in her lap and stroked her soft ears. "We'll have to get
you used to the crew gradually."

Sean came in later with a deep basket and a thick towel. "Here, a bed f'r y'r wee friend."

She smiled at him. "Thank you, laschaen." The kitten had jumped at Sean's entrance and
was now huddling on the other side of Zari's knee. "Oh come now, surely you know
Sean, little one. He brought you to me." She unhooked the small claws and handed the
kitten over.

He took the spotted furball and, with some crooning and well-placed scratches, had it
purring happily. He smiled. "I've a way with cats."

Meanwhile, she had lined the basket with the towel and set it on the other end of the sofa.
"Here you are, little one. I will go replicate you a box and some dishes." She quickly
headed downstairs, leaving Sean with the kitten.

Sean got into his night clothes and, with a yawn, got into bed. The kitten got into bed
with him and passed out under his chin. By the time she got back, both were sleeping
soundly.
Zari set up the small litter box and rug on one side of the sofa and the food and water
dishes by the door before entering the bedroom and finding both man and kitten asleep.
She had to smile and carefully lifted the kitten from Sean, carrying it back into the front
room to set her in her basket. She then joined Sean in bed, curling up against his side and
drifting to sleep herself.

The kitten decided bed was where the people were and scrambled back into bed with
them and was sleeping on Zari's head like a hat when the morning came and the house
rang with kids bolting to the kitchen to eat before opening gifts.

Zari muttered a groan at the sudden noise in the hallway outside and moved to roll over
but a weight on her hair prevented that. "Ow!" Reaching up, her fingers made contact
with a soft, purring form. "Little one, what are you doing up there?"

It moved and peered down from its perch, looking at her upside down. "Merow?" it
replied sleepily.

Zari muttered a Trill curse under her breath and managed to carefully lift the kitten from
her forehead and slid from under the covers, shivering at the cold air's bite on her
exposed arms. She hurried about showing the kitten where her litter box and food and
water were then left her eating, stopping only to key the room heater up one notch before
climbing back into bed with Sean.

Sean shifted and pulled her close. "Y' took off y'r hat."

Zari snorted a giggle. "Don't need a kitten hat. You're warm 'nough." She snuggled
close to him. "Wanna stay here with you, not go downstairs."

He tickled her lightly. "I smell coffee and bacon...."

"Nooo...." She buried her face against his neck. "Don't want to see anyone else.
Besides, nice and warm with you in here."

He chuckled. "Love...Ma's already tappin' her foot an' ready t' send kids in after us."

"I'll go lock the door then," she mumbled into his chest.

"Love...Christmas day is special. C'mon on now, up and let's go eat."

Reluctant to leave the warm cocoon of the bed, Zari grumbled for a minute before letting
him coax her from it and follow him into the fresher. The chill was still in the air so she
was grateful for the shower's hot flow. "Mm...okay, we can stay in here all day instead?"
She ran her hands over Sean's bare chest, then gave his water-slicked skin a few light
kisses.
He shook his head. "No...we've food waiting and gifts." He was a big kid at times; all a
part of his charm.

She gave him a mock offended look. "So....food and the rest of the gifts are more
important, hmm?" She pressed another kiss to his skin, then another. "I think I've just
been insulted."

Sean chuckled. "I've nieces and nephews waitin' on me...they'll barge in and kidnap us if
they've a mind."

"Then you owe me," Zari murmured in his ear before reaching for the cloth and soap.

He just smiled.

Downstairs, breakfast was in full swing and Kelly handed them plates. "Help y'rselves.
Mind th' biscuits, they're still hot."

Both of them accepted and offered Christmas wishes as they filled their plates. Zari took
a small cheese omelet, a stack of crispy bacon and then crowded three of the fresh
biscuits onto the edge of her plate. She had to go back for her icoberry juice but the cold
milk was already out on the table.

Colleen was nestled in Elizabeth's lap daintly eating pancakes. She looked up with those
bright blue eyes and smiled. "Merry Christmas, Auntie Zari."

"Merry Christmas to you too, asria." Zari smiled and settled into her chair with her juice.
Eating went slowly for almost everyone as the holiday greetings went around the tables
and back again. The kids, forced to remain seated while everyone else finished eating,
grew fidgety and impatient.

Finally they were unleashed to crowd around while presents were passed out. Sean
watched as all the kids let tiny Colleen go first. Her first choice of gift to open turned out
to be the pillow-sized bear Sean had found in Amarillo. She beamed and climbed into his
lap with it.

He held her as the gift-opening went around the room. It came to be Zari's turn and she
was handed his gift. Carefully, she peeled the paper off and opened the box. When the
shamrock-patterned nightgown was revealed, she had to laugh, even though her face
turned hot from blushing at everyone else's snickers.

Kelly cackled. "T' match his pjs!" She knew her son well.

Sean turned crimson as the crew's laughter grew, only to descend into full-scale hysterics
at his first gift, labeled from some of his friends on security--a pair of slippers and a
blanket with a mini-shamrock pattern printed on them.
He started laughing and gave Zari a grin. "We'll match."

Zari eyed the rest of the boxes in front of Sean. "Makes me wonder if you're going to go
home with shamrock-printed sheets and old-fashioned wallpaper for your quarters," she
said around a laugh.

Sean rolled his eyes and watched as others opened gifts. He smiled as Telia opened the
hand painted crib Dominic and the kids had done for the coming twins.

Zari watched, surprised to see Telia start to cry, but knew it had to be because of the
hormones.

Soon, all gifts had been passed out and opened. The adults sat around talking while the
kids played. Zari's kitten was brought downstairs and she joined the other cats in chasing
bits of ribbon around the room and pouncing in and out of boxes.

"I still don't know what to name her," Zari said as the kitten came up to her, dragging a
long scrap of ribbon behind her.

She scampered around Zari, chasing the ribbon happily and then climbing up to race over
Zari with it in tow. Zari had to laugh and caught the end of the ribbon, tugging at it
lightly. "You're a silly kitten, you know that?"

Sean smiled as the kitten played. "Her name'll come t' y', love, y'll see."


The attitude for the afternoon was one of laziness. A few people snacked on leftover
breakfast food or replicated a cup of soup but most were saving their appetites for that
evening. Christmas dinner was set to be a cornucopia of foods, with at least five main
dishes: ham, turkey, prime rib, a Trill zatane roast and a non-meat roast for the Vulcans
and other vegetarians.

Sean made a rich bread pudding to add to the desserts and smiled as he found Colleen
and the cats napping in a chair before supper. He looked to Zari. "Nothin' sweeter than
sleepin' kids."

She nodded agreement and went to check on the icoberry punch she'd mixed up a bowl
of. At the last minute before Dominic called dinner to be ready, she added the icoberry
cider to give the punch its extra taste.

Dinner was a noisy but fun affair; as everyone ate, they chatted and joked and enjoyed
each other's company. Sean kept Zari close, enjoying how close she was getting to his
family.

Most everyone ate until they could barely move, though the eventual promise of dessert
stirred most people to help with the clean up. The sun had set but the outdoor floodlights
were activated and many decided to bundle up and brave the cold for some walking in
order to work off dinner.

Sean settled himself and Zari in front of the fire with mulled cider and soft music to
cuddle and watch the flames. The kitten decided to curl up on Sean's thigh and doze.
Zari felt a little sleepy herself but remained awake to talk quietly with Sean about cat
names. They debated over several, but found none that seemed to fit the kitten.

Sean watched as the kitten hopped down to chase after the flickering light of the fire.
"Looks like she's a wee furry dancer," he murmured softly.

Zari kept a close eye on the kitten, making sure she didn't decide to try to hunt the source
of the firelight. But after several minutes, she returned to Sean's lap, frustrated with the
game. She gave him a complaining meow as she tucked herself into a loaf shape on his
knee.

He chuckled. "We gotta get her a name, love."

"I know," she sighed. "It's just not coming to me. Maybe in the morning, it will." She
reached over to rub the kitten's ears. The kitten rolled onto her back and grabbed at Zari's
wrist with her paws.

Sean smiled. "Ready f'r bed, angel?"

"Mhm." Zari gently lifted the kitten from his lap. "Besides, I believe you owe me from
this morning," she added, casting him an innocent look over her shoulder before leading
the way up the stairs.

Sean chuckled. "Really now? Owe y' what, love?"

Zari waited until they were behind closed doors to answer. "You know very well what,
laschaen." She deposited the kitten gently in her basket, watching her stretch, curl up and
start to wash her face with a paw. Turning, she looped her arms around Sean's neck.
"What you deprived me of this morning," she murmured.

He looked as if he were thinking hard. "Hmmm...what did I not do again?"

Pulling back, she set her hands on her hips and did her best to glare at him.

Sean stifled a grin and sat on the bed to take off his shoes. "I'm a wee bit absent
minded...."

"And I suppose you're going to tell me next that you've forgotten my name?" she retorted,
not moving from where she stood. She didn't know where to laugh or smack him--maybe
even both.
He put a hand to his head dramatically. "I'm fadin' fast, love...mind's goin'!"

She couldn't help it--a giggle escaped, despite her best efforts to bite her tongue. Closing
the distance between them, she pressed her forehead to his so that he had to meet her
stare. "And just what is it going to take to make you remember, hmm?"

He thought a second then smiled. "Kisses?"

"If you think that's all it will take," she murmured before pressing her lips gently against
his.

He let the kiss linger and then quipped, "Need more, I think."

"More kisses--" She began again, getting drawn into a slightly deeper kiss, before pulling
back to catch her breath. "Or something else?" She climbed into his lap and let her
fingertips make little circles on the back of his neck.

He smiled and pulled her closer. "Hmmm, seems my mind is comin' back. Somethin'
about some lovin' under th' sheets?"

"Something like that." She lifted her arms from around his neck so he could pull her
sweater off and shivered as the cooler air nipped at her exposed skin. She concentrated
herself on removing his sweater and then gently running her hands across the smooth
warm skin that she'd uncovered.

He nibbled her neck gently. "Mmmm...warm spots, tasty."

She gasped at the nibbling, her attempt to try and unbutton his pants lost for the moment.
He, on the other hand, seemed to have little trouble doing the same for her, though he had
to lift her up off his lap a bit to slide her slacks off her legs and cast them aside.

He caressed her skin as he kissed her gently, taking in her scent, the softness of her skin
and the fact that she loved him, really loved him.

She could feel herself melting under his loving touch. Sometimes she still wondered how
she'd managed this--to find someone who truly did love her unconditionally. Heat stung
her eyes but she pushed it back. She would not allow herself to cry when all she wanted
to do was focus on how he was making her feel.

He soon had her under the warm bedding, cuddling her close as they kissed and caressed
each other tenderly.

Getting his pants out of the way now that they were under the covers was a bit of a hassle
but she finally managed the task with some tugging and, once they were off, using her
feet to shove them to the very foot of the bed. That left their underwear as the only
barriers left and she led his hand to the front hook of her bra, wanting to be shed of them
as well.

He soon had them both nude and pressed skin to skin. He loved this, loved knowing she
would always want this and want him. She moaned at the warmth of his hands on her
skin, seeking and finding every place that he now knew aroused her. In return, her hand
slid over his hip and gently closed around his erection, fingertips brushing lightly over its
hot skin.

Sean groaned softly and let her explore. He knew each time she did, she got more at ease
with sex and with being bold when they were in bed. Her breathing unconsciously
mimicked his as her hands lightly teased and stroked. But she stopped when she felt him
start to tremble violently, as her own need had grown to the point of desperation. She
whimpered his name and pressed one of his hands between her thighs.

He shifted to join them, kissing her as they became one.

From the sofa, the kitten looked up, blinked and decided people were weird.

Zari cried out when he pressed himself inside her, and it took her a long minute to realize
she was the one on top. But this time, her need was greater than her hesitation and she
tried clumsily moving her hips, a rhythm that soon smoothed out when he began to help
her.

He liked that she was taking over, happy to see her beauty from this new angle. She had
no idea of the picture she presented to him from this angle as she whimpered and writhed
atop him--or that he was loving every second of it.

She was making him insane and he was so glad when she spiraled toward her peak. He
was struggling to not get ahead of her and his head went back as she pulled him along
with her.

The edge was so close-- but it was proving a struggle. Even moving faster didn't help her
reach it. "Sean!" she cried in frustration. "I--I c-can't...."

He reached between them and teased her, knowing she was so close it wouldn't take
much. She barely felt the first caress as it, combined with her frantic hip movements,
finally helped her reach the fulfillment she sought. Her wail of ecstasy shattered the
silence.

The kitten jumped and hissed, looking around. She looked up and scowled before settling
back down. Her ears twitched in irritation at the continued noise the humanoids were
making--crying noises of various degrees that were loud to begin with, and then drifted
into near-silence.

That was enough. She crawled up there and sat on the bed scowling at them.
Zari lay facing away from where the kitten sat, sprawled atop Sean, whimpering
occasionally at the shudders that coursed through her and at the tender caress of his hand
on her bottom.

"I love you," she whispered faintly.

He kissed her temple. "I love y' too, angel." He got muffled as the kitten got in his face to
stare into hers.

Zari finally lifted her head, coming eye-to-eye with an irate looking kitten. Startled, she
let out a little cry of surprise, which caused the kitten to retreat to the windowsill with a
hiss.

Sean laughed. "I think she's mad that we woke 'er up."

Zari's laughter joined his. "You're probably right. C'mon now, little one. I'm sorry."
She reached out a hand from the covers, but got another hiss in return.

Sean chuckled. "She'll get over it." He shifted and cuddled Zari closer. Zari winced
slightly as a muscle in her back let her know it didn't appreciate the vigorous activity of a
few minutes ago. She sighed and settled back where she had been laying, her cheek
against his chest, the soft thump of his heart in her ear.

He held her and drowsily watched as the kitten came over and settled against Zari's head
with a satisfied little merp.

"Looks like her ladyship has f'rgiven y', angel. Right proper lady she is too." He laughed
when the kitten looked up at being called lady. "Maybe Lady is th' right name f'r her," he
added with a chuckle.

"I'll think 'bout it," she mumbled, letting her eyes slide closed. "Love you...."

He nestled down with her and the kitten and smiled. "Love y' too, angel."


**


three years later


The complaining wail dragged Zari out of the arms of sleep. She opened her eyes just
enough to ensure that she could get out of bed without falling over, then rubbed at them
as she ducked into the adjoining room.
"I'm coming," she called out softly to the source of the wail. Smothering a yawn against
her arm, she lifted the fussing baby from the anti-grav cradle. Still, he cried until she was
settled into the large overstuffed chair. "Yes I know, sweet boy. Lam're isn't fast
enough, is she?" The wailing got slightly louder before being silenced abruptly once the
baby had what he wanted.

Zari had to laugh at the way the baby latched on to the breast like he was starving. "Now
Dougie, you act like I'm going to take it away from you," she teased softly, running her
fingertips gently over the wisps of blond hair on his small head. The baby's only
response was a wide-eyed stare.

As always, she spent the first few minutes of the morning marveling over her baby boy.
While he could tire her out easily, it was wonderful to have him, to hold him, to watch
him do everything from smile to play to sleep--even to cry. It reminded her of how close
she had come to never having him.

The first year aboard the new Dauntless had been rife with fast-paced happenings. The
official commissioning had been the first of the year. She and Sean were married three
months later. Three other couples got married in a triple ceremony the month after that.
The day after the triple wedding, Zari had discovered she was pregnant. The news
delighted Sean the most, but most of the crew was just as happy to prepare to welcome a
new member to their numbers.

However, it had not been meant to be. During Zari's third month, the Dauntless was
assigned to rescue the surviving crew of a ship that had crashed on an L-class planet in a
remote system. Zari had gone down with the first away team to assess which, if any,
people would need to undergo serious procedures once onboard ship. The crew had been
taking refuge from the icy weather in a network of caves on a mountain ridge. They had
assumed the reason for the sickness they were all suffering was because of the difference
in the atmosphere; what they were unaware of was there was a toxic gas emanating from
the cave's inner reaches. Zari and Matt Chan had delved further into the caves to ensure
that they were not leaving anyone behind and the amount of gas they inhaled caused them
both to collapse. They were beamed out just in time, but Chan suffered slight internal
bleeding and Zari was worse off, for her reaction to the gas caused her to miscarry and
lose far more blood than Chan had. She blamed herself and cried herself to sleep for
weeks afterward. Sean, in turn, blamed himself, assuming that if he'd been there, he'd
have known better than to allow her to do anything that would have been a risk. The self-
blaming and the arguments that it spawned very nearly ruined their marriage. It had
taken the Vapps, his parents, and Telia yelling at them to make them sit down and talk it
out.

Sean staggered in and sat with her, yawning as he cradled them close. "Y' know, son,
breakfast doesn' have t' be s' early."
He was a doting father and thanked God daily for his wife and their healthy, hungry son.
Losing their first child had been hard on them both and he had nearly fallen into a
dangerously deep depression over it.

Zari yawned into his shoulder, then leaned into his embrace. "You should know by now
that he doesn't know the meaning of sleep in," she murmured. The baby's eyes drifted to
his father's face, but he didn't stop suckling for a minute.

Sean yawned again. "I've noticed. Bring our lad t' bed an' we c'n doze while he eats."

Zari let herself be helped up and then carried Dougie into their bedroom. She had to
gently detach him from her breast in order to lay down and get comfortable, which he
was none too happy about. Sean handed him back and she placed Dougie beside her,
letting him latch on to the other breast this time.

"What ever will you do when Lam're goes back to duty in two months, sweet boy?" she
murmured, stroking his head. Sean had climbed in beside her and was lightly rubbing the
baby's back. "You'll be very upset when you find out that you don't get to eat right the
second you want to."

"He'll manage, he's a Kegan." Sean smiled and covered them all up and then curled up
around them.

"Oh, really?" Zari said archly. "Like a certain security officer I know, the one who
grumbles and sulks to himself when he can't sneak a midday snack into the security
office?" She bit back the giggle that wanted to escape at the offended look she received
in return.

He pouted. "I work hard now! A man gets hungry."

"And I don't?" she retorted cheerfully, sighing faintly with relief when Dougie finally
decided he had eaten enough. She burped him, then set him on Sean's chest. "At least
Dougie's excuse is that he's a growing boy. What's yours?" This time, she did giggle.

He waggled his brows before getting up to carry Dougie back to bed. "I'm a busy man, y'
well know."

Zari couldn't help the blush that suddenly rose up in her face and it was still there when
Sean returned. His knowing smile only made her face hotter.

He snuggled her as they settled back in to sleep. "I love it when y' blush." He yawned and
closed his eyes.

"Can't imagine why," she mumbled around a yawn. "Not attractive to have a face the
color of a dying star." She nestled her head on his chest, reveling in the warmth of his
skin against hers.
He just chuckled sleepily as he dozed back off. He dreamed of his little cottage, expanded
and filled with kids. He missed Ireland so much that it hurt sometimes.

Zari's dream was much the same but she paid little attention to their surroundings, only to
Sean. The warmth of his arms cradled her close through the rest of the early morning
until the alarm roused them for the day. But the happiness remained. She finally had
what she'd always longed for--and prayed it would stay that way forever.


[fin]

				
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