Back to main page


Authors: Gaia
Categories: Tony/Maya
Characters: Maya, Tony Verdeschi
Episodes: Set after The Metamorph
Show Year: Y2
Rating: NC-17
Date: 2001
After the events in The Metamorph, Maya adjusts to her new life on Alpha.
Average Rating: 5.0/5 (based on 14 reviews)

Author's note: This story has an EXTREMELY high slush content. In fact, it's 99% treacle. I have also made no attempt whatsoever to follow the timeline or events of Year 2 itself. My thanks to Kayt for her encouragement and for convincing me to post this.

Chapter One

An hour had passed since the survivors of Psychon arrived back on Alpha.

Maya sat on one of the hospital beds in Medical Centre, mute and very pale - completely numbed by the devastation that had just ravaged her life. She was clad in a pair of pale blue Med Centre pyjamas. Her gown had been badly ripped and scorched in the fire that killed her father and would need extensive repair. She concentrated on breathing, trying, in vain, to stop the room from spinning.

In and out, in and out.

Silently, she watched Helena Russell's deft movements as the doctor wrapped gauze around a burn on her forearm.

Concern darkened Helena's blue eyes as she observed her patient. Maya was badly shocked - physically and emotionally. Soot still smudged the skin of her cheek and her eyes were huge in her lovely, haunted face.

"Maya, try to get some sleep." She helped Maya into bed and administered a sedative. "I'll be right next door talking to John if you need anything." Helena patted Maya's hand gently, her heart wrenching as the younger woman tried to smile before turning her face to the wall.

John sat perched on Helena's desk reading a preliminary report on damage to Alpha's outer buildings. He looked up from as she entered her office. She was about to speak when the door leading into the hallway beeped.

"That'll be Tony." said John. "I asked him to meet me here."

Alpha's First Officer strode into the room, looking mildly harassed. He'd been supervising repairs to the Life Support System damaged during Mentor's various attacks.

"What's our status, Tony?"

The Italian leaned back against the wall, too restless to sit down, his arms folded, dark eyes serious. "Well, it could have been worse. I had to reroute some of the systems through main computer until the terminal in Life Support can be repaired. It's on-line for the time being, but I think we should avoid armed conflict for the next few days." Tony smiled sardonically, and Helena realised for the first time how close the Base had come to total destruction during Mentor's bombardment. "How are you two holding up? If it was hellish here it must have been worse down on the planet."

Helena sighed. "We're both fine, largely thanks to Maya. I want to keep her here under observation for a few days. She has some burns that need watching but I'm more concerned about her emotional state. She's still in shock but that won't last forever. The next few months are not going to be easy for her."

She felt Tony's gaze follow hers as she glanced at the door separating them from the newest Alphan.

"I know she's humanoid, but that's it. Their technology is a lot more advanced than ours. If she can help to repair some of the damage Mentor did it'll go some way to people feeling better about her being here."

Tony's ambivalence toward this new arrival was evidenced by the coolness in his voice and his scientifically detached attitude. Security on Alpha was his responsibility and although he wasn't a man to prejudge anyone, he'd lost too many good friends over the years to risk more unnecessarily.

Helena smiled, aware of the direction Tony's thoughts were taking. Had she not already been impressed by Maya's courage she too would have had similar suspicions. "I'm sure Maya will want to help in any way she can," Helena avowed positively. "I just wish she'd come to us under happier circumstances."

When Tony failed to look completely convinced, John added. "You're closer to her age, Tony. She's going to need someone to show her the ropes during the next few months..." He never finished his sentence, for in the next instant a muffled crash from the next room sent Helena running for the door. John and Tony followed quickly.

Maya was half out of bed, reaching for the metal water jug she'd just knocked over. Relieved that her patient hadn't injured herself further, Helena clucked with concern and helped Maya back into bed.

A little groggy from the sedative Helena had given her, Maya whispered, "I'm sorry... I was thirsty..." She sank back onto the bed, her eyes closing with exhaustion. All she wanted was the oblivion of sleep. She didn't care whether she ever woke up.

Helena placed a hand on Maya's forehead, and then stooped to pick up the jug. "You're running a temperature. Tony, would you...?"

She turned, proffering the empty jug, but was immediately transfixed by the arrested expression on Tony's face.

He stood a few feet behind her, immobile, a curious stillness in the air around him. A look of mingled recognition and wonderment was just beginning to disappear from his eyes as he gazed at the young woman on the bed. With a visible effort, he turned his head and took the water jug from Helena. He moved to fill the container from the sink at the opposite end of Medical Centre with the air of sleepwalker.

Helena exchanged a quick, surprised smile with John, who'd also been witness to Tony's strong reaction to the new arrival. Until this moment she'd never believed in love at first sight. But she had to fight to keep a smile from breaking across her face again as she slanted a look at Tony's back.

Helena heard Tony approaching with the water and took Maya's wrist, feeling for her pulse.

"Maya." As the girl's eyes slowly opened Helena poured her a glass of cool liquid and handed it to her, judging her condition with a keen eye. Maya sat up and drained half the water before falling back against her pillow once again.

"I'd like you to meet someone. Then I'll let you go back to sleep." She turned and pulled a now curiously resistant Tony forward. "Maya, this is Tony Verdeschi, Alpha's First Officer. He'll be showing you around the Base when you're feeling better."

Tony fell a bit deeper as she opened clear blue eyes; they were shadowed by pain, but hauntingly beautiful.

"That's very kind of you," she whispered. Her voice resonated through his brain like quicksilver.

"Not at all." He paused, conscious of a sudden dryness in his own throat. "Alpha's your home now."

Outside in the corridor after Maya had drifted off to sleep again, Tony mimicked his own words sarcastically; ""Alpha's your home now". What an inane thing to say - I probably made her feel worse." He was more than a little shaken by the force of the emotion that had hit him on first seeing her.

"Nonsense." John had watched the preceding scene in silence up til now. "She needs to know she's welcome - and that she's not alone."

The next day Tony went to the Base library as soon as he came off duty and collected several minidiscs illustrating Earth's history. Helena had decided to keep Maya in Medical Centre for several days and asked him to stop by. He was doing so with a degree of trepidation. He'd spent half the night tossing and turning, trying to rationalise the visceral reaction he'd felt on first seeing Maya. And still felt whenever he thought about her.

Which was every five minutes.

Okay, so she was beautiful. He wasn't a stranger to beautiful women. Yeah, but this is the most beautiful woman you've ever seen. And he could instantly picture the clear sapphire blue of her eyes.

He frowned slightly, aware that his thoughts were drifting away from the scientific, security-conscious path he wanted them to take.

So concentrate. Right. Medical Centre. Once there he would be business-like but friendly. He would conduct a discreet Security interview to fully allay his qualms about her potential threat, as well as a general orientation.

This resolve lasted until he actually walked through the Med Centre doors.

Maya was sitting up in bed, clad in blue pyjamas as before; Helena sat on the empty bed opposite. Both women looked up when the doors whirred open.

Dr Russell raised a hand, "Hi Tony."

He smiled an unknowingly distracted greeting at Helena, his gaze going as though magnetised, to Maya. This time Maya was wide-awake and when her gaze met his the electric shock jolting through him was so strong he had difficulty hiding his reaction.

Maya vaguely remembered Tony Verdeschi from the day before. She'd been in no state to take much of anything in. But she'd read through a copy of the crew roster today with Helena and knew that he was Chief of Security, as well as First Officer. So he was probably here to decide whether she should be allowed to stay, whether she could be trusted. Maybe they would just throw her out an airlock. On some worlds this would be considered summary justice.

The terror that crossed her face was fleeting, but Tony caught it, and it rocked him. She's afraid of me.

Slightly unnerved, he turned his gaze back to Dr Russell. "Er, Helena. I've brought the discs you asked for."

The doctor noted Maya's shrinking reaction to Tony's arrival and smiled reassuringly at her patient as she got up to go to Tony. "Thanks. Maya, you remember Tony Verdeschi? You met him briefly yesterday."

Damping back another surge of anxiety, Maya held out her hand, carefully mimicking the formal style of greeting Dr Edward Spencer had used when she met him earlier in the day. "How do you do?"

Charmed, Tony smiled as he took her hand, "I'm very well. Thank you." He raised an eyebrow at Helena, "I sense Ed at work here."

Helena laughed. "He's a stickler for procedure. Introductions are no exception."

Despite their light-hearted tone Maya's face remained grave. "You are here to interrogate me?"

Tony sobered. "No. I'm here to answer any questions you may have. And to explain Alpha to you - using a computer simulation at first; when Helena lets you out I'll take you around the base."

"Am I considered a danger?" Was Alpha's First Officer to escort her out of kindness or was he her guard?

"That depends. Are you dangerous?" He directed a level gaze at her and was surprised to see something like relief in her eyes.

"No, I'm not. I would never do anything to hurt your people."

"And we're not going to hurt you." He had a feeling this was something she needed to hear.

Tony's suspicions were confirmed when she visibly relaxed.

Helena was horrified. "Of course not! Maya, you're not responsible for what happened."

No, but that didn't stop her from feeling guilty...or apprehensive.

For a few seconds that morning, in the twilight between sleeping and waking, her world had been as normal. Then she opened her eyes and knew at once that the familiarity of her bedroom, that home, was gone forever and the black wave washed over her again. She couldn't remember her dreams, which was probably a blessing.

These alien people had been compassion itself. But it wasn't a compassion Maya felt she deserved. Perversely she almost wished they would throw her in detention.

Atonement of some sort would make her feel better.

On the day that she was deemed well enough to leave hospital, Helena accompanied Maya to the main cafeteria for lunch. During her week long stay in the Medical Centre Maya had chosen foods similar to the synthetic proteins and nutrients that she'd been used to eating on Psychon, seeking the comfort of the familiar. This was the first time she'd elected to try the fresh foods the Alphans ate. The variety of choice was bewildering. It was fairly late in the afternoon, so the main crowd had gone, but there were still people eating in small groups at the fifty or so tables.

Helena suggested she try a little bit of everything. So she chose some green flowery looking chunks, orange sticks, dark green spheres, pale green leaves, and beige squares in a red sauce.

Helena obligingly translated when they got to their table. "You've got broccoli, carrots, peas, salad and ravioli in tomato sauce."

The food was hot and smelled wonderful. She tried the ravioli first. Her face lit up and Helena laughed.

"Success? Good. We need to fatten you up a bit."

They ate in companionable silence for several minutes, Helena watching approvingly as Maya finished all her vegetables.

"When we've finished I'll take you to Stores. You'll need clothes, toiletries, shoes. Then I'll show you to your quarters. You're in C block - quite near to Sandra and I'm close by too. Tony will meet us at Stores at three o'clock."

Maya brightened visibly at this news. Tony Verdeschi had visited her a number of times during the last week, bringing her music, books and showing her how to access the Base video library and intranet and filling her in on some of the Alphan history. He was easy to talk to and a familiar face in a world of strangers. Although the cafeteria was no-where near full, she was conscious of being the focus of many eyes.

"He's been very kind to me."

Helena smiled to herself, recalling Tony's reaction to meeting Maya for the first time.

"Tony told me that he has been First Officer for two years. But you've been in space for four years?"

"Yes." Helena could see what Maya was trying to ask. "Paul Morrow was Alpha's First Officer when we blew out. He died two years ago with Victor Bergman, our Science Officer."

"So Tony became First Officer when Paul Morrow died."

"After some persuading, yes." Helena smiled. "He was doing pure research, in a science advisory role, and had to be more or less forced to move to Command Centre. Tony was badly injured during Breakaway. He fractured his skull and both legs and spent two months in a coma. I didn't think he'd live. His recovery took a long time and by the end he was driving me insane with his demands to go back to work. He wasn't best pleased at the idea of being First Officer when he considered he'd already wasted valuable research time being unconscious." Helena chuckled at the memory. "My mission in life now is to keep him out of my hospital."

"So many of your people have died." Including those killed by my father. The animation drained from Maya's face.

Helena leaned across the table and clasped Maya's hand in hers, "Stop it. Many more of us would have died if it wasn't for you."

Maya's mouth curved in a not too successful attempt at a smile. Sensing that more conversation would simply cause her to retreat further into herself, Helena stood up. "Come on, let's go get you some clothes."

Half an hour later they emerged from Stores, their arms so full of uniform tops and skirts, underwear, towels, soap, toiletries, they could barely see where they were going. Tony met them outside as they staggered through the door.

"Good timing, Tony." Helena dumped half her burden on him, indicating to an uncertain Maya that she should do the same.

Seeing Maya hesitate, Tony smiled and said, "On my planet it's man's biological imperative to carry woman's shopping. We become demoralised and redundant creatures otherwise."

So he was duly dumped on again.

They walked together to C-Block where Maya had been allocated quarters. Her rooms consisted of a lounge with small kitchen niche and bedroom with bathroom en-suite - standard crew accommodation. But to Maya it seemed like a palace. She followed her new friends from room to room, a lump growing in her throat. The living areas were simply yet comfortably furnished. The kitchenette was stocked with all the crockery and utensils she'd need. The cupboards and refrigerator had been filled with food. Someone had left brownies on the kitchen counter. Alphans had dropped off books, plants and other small luxuries during the week Maya had been in hospital. Some women had donated clothes and shoes. The drawers of her bureau and the wardrobe contained pretty, feminine shirts, dresses, jumpers and skirts. Maya could feel her tenuous grip on her emotions wavering, "This is all for me?"

Helena smiled and took her hand. "All for you."

Tony and Helena stayed for an hour, showing Maya how the various appliances worked, keeping her company.

After they'd gone Maya sat on the end of her bed, buried her face in her hands, and let the tears come.

For the first few weeks Maya was very shy and withdrawn, conscious that she was alien, rather overwhelmed by the complexities of Terran culture and the enormous amount of information there was to absorb. She was unfailingly polite and displayed an earnest determination to learn as much as she could, as quickly as she could. But Tony was acutely aware of her quiet agony.

They were in his lab one afternoon during Maya's second week on Alpha. He'd left his computer on, with a string of complex formulae filling the screen, assorted doodles on paper scattered untidily across his desk. She sat down in his chair while he looked for a particular disc he wanted to show her. They were studying Terran music that day and he thought he'd left a compilation cd of baroque composers amongst the clutter. While he searched Maya looked at the characters on the screen, at first casually, then with a keen interest.

"I didn't realise you are familiar with warp theory on Alpha. Why do you still use sub-warp engines on your Eagles when you have this technology?"

He looked up sharply, the disc forgotten. "We don't. It's just an idea I'm working on in my spare time. You've seen something like this before?"

Surprised, she raised her eyebrows and turned back to the screen, "Yes. It's one of the base theorems essential to faster than light propulsion systems." As she scrolled down the screen, she realised she was looking at a work in progress. And from what she could see, he was heading in the right direction. "Psychon didn't have FTL drives, but I've met travellers who did."

Tony watched her scan the formulae, read it with the same speed and comprehension that most people read a page in a thriller. It had taken him a year to get the Science Board to even concede his theory was remotely plausible, despite Victor's enthusiastic endorsement. Most of them still thought he was completely off the wall. And now this beautiful, tragic, enchanting stranger had just scanned it, instantly comprehended and accepted its validity without a qualm.

"Why are you only working on this part time? Your people will find a new home much faster with warp engines."

Silence. Then he laughed, a sound of pure exhilaration. Something deep inside her stirred, and an unconscious echoing smile curved her lips. Without knowing it she took a first, small important step back towards the light.

He perched on the edge of the desk and leaned toward her, delighted, "Do you know how long I've waited to meet someone who understands this?" Tony jerked his dark head toward the computer screen, but his gaze never left her lovely face. He couldn't begin to disguise his pleasure at finding someone he could bounce his wildest ideas off of.

Maya shook her head.

"Too long." Tony stood up and held out his hand. Slightly wary, she placed her fingers in his and allowed him to draw her to her feet. "No more studying. You deserve a treat."

"A treat?"

"Yes. Ice cream, to be specific. The restaurant in D-block does a mean chocolate sundae. There's only so much Terran culture you should be forced to endure for one day."

Slightly anxious, she slanted a hesitant glance at him, "I know you must have more important things to do. If I've given the impression that I don't..." she trailed off awkwardly. The last thing she wanted to do was seem ungrateful, but she still felt as though she was watching her own life from afar, existing in someone else's nightmare.

"Hey," he said gently, "Your only job is to try to feel at home, to get used to us. Don't worry about anything else."

She felt relief at his reassurance, but a flush rose in her cheeks regardless, "You've been very kind. I didn't want you to think I don't appreciate all you're doing for me."

"Maya, I know how hard this is for you. We've all been through it."

Maya ducked her head and blinked back tears; her throat tightening as his quiet sympathy threatened her precariously maintained composure.

"I'm here to make this as easy for you as possible. If you don't want to talk, or if you want to be alone, just let me know. You won't hurt my feelings, I promise." There was a smile in his voice.

Maya took a shaky breath, and lifted her gaze to his again. Despite the light-hearted tone of his last remark, his dark eyes were serious. Not trusting her voice, she nodded and walked with him from the lab.

There was no one in the restaurant at that time of day. The chef was busy preparing the evening meal and waved Tony in the direction of the fridge.

"I made a fresh batch yesterday. Help yourselves." He looked at Maya, not trying to hide his curiosity about the newest Alphan. She shook his proffered hand and smiled shyly as Tony performed the introductions. In the last week she'd met and talked to more people than she had in the last 15 years. All the Alphans had been polite at the very least and most were welcoming, but it was still a strain. Tony was proving very adept at smoothing the way for her and she was increasingly grateful for his companionship. Everyone took their cue from his manner, and as he was unfailingly relaxed and friendly, so were they.

Her life had been lonely on Psychon with only her father for company. But within a week of coming to Alpha she had friends. Helena, Tony, Alan and Sandra were a constant presence, seemingly co-operating to ensure she wasn't alone if she didn't want to be. Here were people who cared about her and that healed the spirit. She'd been little more than a child when her brother and the rest of her people left Psychon, and she had absolutely no experience of social situations. So she watched the Alphans carefully and tried to react as they did.

A bright green cockatoo flew over their heads, screeching raucously in the very natural looking artificial sunlight of the Biodome. Maya watched its path, her eyes bright with interest. It settled high in the green fronds of a palm tree and began to preen its feathers. She breathed deeply, loving the rich clean damp smell of soil and plant life. The complex was enormous, comprised of four interlinked domes, each easily a kilometre in diameter and several hundred metres in height. She, Tony and Alan Carter had entered the first Dome five minutes ago, after travelling for 15 minutes by Travel Tube from the main base. Birds sang in the trees, and she could hear running water bubbling somewhere in the distance. It was a domed paradise, a riot of colour and texture and smells.

"This place is wonderful. I haven't seen growing things, plants - or animals since I was a small child. How did you build it? It doesn't look like the rest of the base."

"You're right. It's beyond our capability. We don't have the resources to build anything close to this - and two years ago even day-to-day survival was problematic. Then we encountered a being called Arra. The moon went through a black hole and when we came out the Biodome was here. There are species of plant we're still trying to classify."

Tony stopped by a massive blue plant with wide fibrous leaves. "This is our cotton field." At Maya's blank look he smiled and continued, "The fibres of this plant can mimic just about any material - cotton, wool, silk, depending on how it's treated. It seems to be virtually indestructible. It also grows like a weed, so we're constantly harvesting." He indicated his blue crewneck jersey, "Two years ago all we had to wear were our uniforms - and pretty tired uniforms at that - and any off-duty clothes we'd brought from Earth. Now we've got a very enthusiastic cottage industry in clothing manufacture. We can get all essentials from Stores but we also have a barter economy for luxuries - we can all spend and deposit points. -I teach fencing, and now that we can grow proper hops, my beer is a lot more popular than it was."

Alan laughed, "Mate, it couldn't have got any less popular."

Tony directed a level look at him before turning back to Maya, "He's my best customer."

"In your dreams!"

"Alpha was a designated genome repository - a storehouse for seeds and genetic material. We've managed to grow amazing quantities of food in a relatively small space - the growing periods are much shorter than they were on Earth. We've now got chocolate, coffee, flour, spices, grains, fruits - foods that we never dreamed we'd ever have again."

Maya smiled. "Helena has given me chocolate. It is very good." This was a slight understatement.

"The coffee bean harvest was excuse for a base-wide binge. We'd been drinking a chemical facsimile for over a year."

Alan snorted. "Swamp water."

"Yeah, and we were all still bouncing off the walls nearly a week later." Tony grinned at Maya, "The most hyperactive Moonbase crew in existence."

They climbed to an observation platform suspended below the curved ceiling of the Biodome. The view was panoramic and spectacular, a bird's eye view of the gift that had transformed the Alphans lives and given them back a bit of the Earth. They leaned against the balustrade and watched the birds and the distant figures of fellow Alphans wandering along the paths that crisscrossed the expanse of the Dome.

"Earth must be very beautiful," she whispered.

Alan and Tony looked at each other.

"It is." Tony replied. "Despite the best efforts of our species to destroy it."

Four weeks had passed since Psychon exploded.

Tony and Helena were in John's office to discuss Maya's readiness to start as Science Officer - and her general emotional state. They agreed she was adapting remarkably well. Too well, in Helena's opinion.

"I don't think she's come to terms with what's happened to her, to Psychon, to her father. She hasn't gone through the grieving process properly - I think she's sublimated a lot of her anger and pain. It's got to come out before she can really begin to heal. I've seen this too often, unfortunately." It had taken over a year before some Alphans finally dealt with the pain of losing their families.

John frowned, "So you think it's too soon?"

Helena shrugged, "It's different with each person." She turned to Tony. "You've spent time with her - do you think she's ready?"

"I think she is. Maya desperately wants to be useful - she's asked me more than once how she can help in repairing the damage Mentor did. She's also come up with practical ideas for augmenting the systems we already have."

That was enough for John, "Okay. Have her report to Command Centre at 0900 hrs tomorrow."

Maya awoke several hours before she needed to the next morning, and lay in bed trying to calm her increasingly ragged nerves. What if she got to Command Centre and her recently learned English deserted her? What if she responded with blank incomprehension to the simplest request? Tony and Sandra had shown her how the computer worked, and how to access information from the Science Officer's console, but what if her fingers refused to obey her brain? They would send her back to her quarters, shaking their heads at her stupidity and wondering why they'd permitted her to come to Alpha at all.

She showered, ate a bit of bread and fruit for breakfast, and carefully dressed in her uniform for the first time, smoothing the beige material of her skirt with icy fingers. Distractedly, she inspected the picture on her new ID badge. Her own face looked back at her with a calmness she certainly wasn't feeling now. A mechanical female voice suddenly emanated from the commpost, causing her to start, reminding her that Helena would pick her up in 5 minutes. A glance in the mirror in the bathroom confirmed that she looked as pale and terrified as she felt.

Her heart was in her throat when she opened the door to Helena.

The doctor took in her state of terror at a glance. "Maya, you'll be fine. We don't bite you know!"

When this entirely failed to convince, Helena looped her arm through Maya's and firmly let her toward the travel tube.

They got to Command Centre all too soon. The double doors purred open and Helena more or less pulled Maya into the room. All conversation stopped for split second, as the occupants registered the new arrivals. John and Tony stood up as the women walked in.

John took her hand, "Maya. Welcome." He indicated the Science Station with a gesture of his arm. "Tony and Sandra have shown you where you'll be sitting, I believe?"

Maya looked at Tony, who smiled at her. Some of the tension seeped from her as her mouth curved in response. "Yes. Thank you, Commander."

She sat at her station and was relieved to find that she remembered what the various buttons were for. Tony had previously demonstrated to her how the various reports provided by the Science Officer were generated, and there were several bound examples stacked neatly on her desk, as well as a printed explanation of what they were and why they were required. Maya ran her fingers lightly over her keyboard, and noticed for the first time the large cup of steaming frothy liquid positioned near the front of her desk. She picked it up and the rich aroma emanating from it immediately fired her senses.


She turned to follow the direction of the voice. Tony had resumed his place at the station to her left, and was leaning back in his chair, arms folded across his chest.

He raised his dark eyebrows and smiled wickedly at her. "We humans find it impossible to do a days work without coffee, of which cappuccino is undoubtedly the superior variant."

"Sez you." Alan Carter leaned forward from his position to Maya's right and addressed Tony across the 15-metre space that separated them. "I prefer plain, unponcey Aussie brew myself." He straightened and turned to Maya, "The best coffee I ever had was brewed in a tin cup over an open fire in the Outback. Like tar it was. A real man's drink. Not like the nancified bevvies these Europeans fancy." He laughed and held up his hands in mock fear as Tony glared at him. "Not that I'm calling you a nancy-boy, Tony...not exactly." He muttered this last under his breath and slanted a mischievous glance at his friend.

Tony failed to rise to this provocation, much to Alan's disappointment. "It's made from a Terran bean and contains caffeine, a mild stimulant. It's very much an acquired taste in its pure form. Cappuccino is a bit less of a shock to the system than Australian tar."

He and Alan both watched with unconcealed interest as Maya carefully raised the cup to her lips and took a sip. The rich, slightly sweet, dark taste exploded on her taste buds and her whole face lit up.

Both men laughed and an echoing smile curved Maya's lips. "It's delicious. Thank you, Tony."

"You're very welcome."

There was a buzz of energy in Command Centre even when the crew were working silently. More often though, conversation and banter echoed in the room, with brainstorming sessions occurring frequently. Maya was increasingly impressed by the way the senior officers worked together as a cohesive unit, each seeming to know a great deal about areas that were outside their own particular remit.

As the day wore on John made it clear that he was particularly pleased by her scientific brilliance and genius at maths and the knowledge that she could be of genuine use to the Alphans eased her mind greatly. She performed well and none of the early morning terrors she'd imagined came to pass, but by the end of the eight-hour shift she was pale.

Tony invited her for a drink and quick supper in his quarters, sensing that otherwise she would go straight to bed without eating.

Maya palpably relaxed as soon as she sat down on the sofa in his lounge. "I'm so tired," she murmured, closing her eyes and leaning her head against the high sofa back.

"I'm not surprised. You've been 'on' for eight hours -that's a long time when you're not used to it. Especially when your every move is being scrutinised."

Maya opened her eyes. He smiled at her, and handed her a tall glass filled with a pale yellow liquid. "I wasn't sure if I was imagining it." She took a sip. It was tart, cold and absolutely delicious.

He answered her unspoken question. "Lemonade. Lemon juice, sugar, water and ice." Taking a seat on the sofa, he took a sip of his own drink and said wryly, "No, you weren't imagining it. I think the closest analogy is insect under microscope."

The image was spot on, and exactly caught the way she'd felt. For the first time since coming to Alpha, she laughed.

It was a wonderful, contagious sound, and in that moment, as her beautiful face lit from within with irresistible amusement, Tony lost his heart completely.

Chapter Two

Two months after her coming to Moonbase Helena took Maya to her first social gathering, a drinks party in the base library.

The instant they walked through the door Maya was very aware of many pairs of eyes on her. Helena stayed by her side and introduced her to several people. Then Ben Vincent called the doctor away for a few minutes and one of the men who'd been openly staring at her moved quickly to her side.

"Hey. I've been waiting to meet you. Ilya Gregory."

"I am Maya."

She took his proffered hand, feeling herself beginning to flush under his scrutiny.

He was about 30, with blond hair and an overdeveloped, bulky musculature. His pale blue eyes moved the length of her body and she had the awful sensation that he could see through her clothes.

"You're lovely."

Now she did blush. Acutely uncomfortable, she lowered her gaze and silently begged Helena to come back.

"Shy, too. I like that." He stepped too close and ran his eyes suggestively down her body. "Why don't you come back to my quarters for a drink - we can get to know each other better." There could be no mistaking his meaning - she might be inexperienced, but she wasn't stupid.

Repulsed, Maya abruptly took a step back. "Thank you, no. I have to go now." A shudder rippled down her spine as she weaved her way away from him through the crowd. Please don't follow me. She didn't want to offend; she was still finding her way in Alphan society, but something about him made her skin crawl.

She didn't see Gregory start after her. Or Alan Carter stepping into her pursuer's path.

"Leave it, Ilya. She's off limits."

Flustered by Gregory's overtly sexual flirtation, and rather overwhelmed by the crowd, half of Alpha seemed to be packed into the room, Maya fled to a far corner of the library, ducking behind one of the stacks where it was comparatively quiet and peaceful.

Tony arrived at the gathering about 20 minutes later. He automatically, unconsciously scanned the room for Maya when he walked in. There was no sign of her. He had a suspicion she might have found the rather exuberant gathering a bit too much.

Alan caught his eye and beckoned him over. "You've just missed Ilya in action."



Anger flashed in Tony's dark eyes. "Did she leave?"

"I'm not sure, mate. I was too busy stopping him following her when she bolted."

Tony clasped his friend's shoulder briefly in thanks, gathered two glasses and some food on a plate and went looking for her. His search ended in a far corner of the library, in the stacks well away from the party. She was sitting on the floor with her back to the wall, a selection of books piled around her, one open on her lap.

He had the distinct impression she was trying to barricade herself in.


Startled, she looked up, her expressive face registering alarm, and then relief. Her smile sent a bolt of warmth to his heart.

"I'm hiding."

He chuckled, "Good idea. Can I join you?"

"Of course..." Her spirits revived immediately as he sat down beside her.

Tony stretched his long legs out beside hers, and offered her a plate, "Mini pizzas. Specialty of my homeland."

Maya selected a small tart, the savoury smell making her mouth water. She took a bite, conscious of his gaze on her, the expectant gleam in his eyes. A symphony of tastes exploded wonderfully on her tongue, at once rich, tangy, sweet and hot.

Tony watched her eyes light up and smiled.

It was fun feeding Maya.

She was willing to try most things and had expressed only enthusiasm for the (mostly Italian) food he'd introduced her to. So far they'd tried tagliatelle with arabiatta sauce, penne pomodoro, spinach lasagne, mock linguine and tiramisu. The tiramisu had gone down particularly well.

When Helena returned half an hour later they'd rejoined the party. Maya was happily chatting to Sandra, standing in a small group with Tony, Alan and Bill Fraser. She touched Maya's elbow, "I'm sorry to have left you for so long. Everything okay?"

At Maya's smiling affirmation, Helena accepted a glass of wine and a pizza tartlet from Tony. "I see the Italian food propagandist has been at work."

"I'm never off duty, Doctor."

Helena raised an eyebrow and turned to Maya, "What percentage of your diet is Italian now?"

"Approximately 80%." Maya maintained an admirably straight face. "At least when he's around."

"Only 80%?" Tony's expression of surprised consternation fooled no one.

Maya laughed and took another tartlet from his plate "Okay. 81%." At that moment Ilya Gregory walked into her field of vision, and the anxiety that crossed her face made Tony instinctively follow the direction of her gaze.

She covered quickly but was on edge until Gregory left the gathering half an hour later.

Two weeks later. It was 10pm on a Wednesday. Tony and Alan were coming out of the weekly martial arts training session that many Alphans attended. It was a popular past time, a workout that blended various disciplines. The techniques learned had proven useful over the years when facing hostile and uncertain receptions on alien worlds.

Ilya Gregory and two or three other body builders were pumping iron in a far corner of the multi-purpose gymnasium room.

Tony and Alan passed by the weights area on their way to the men's changing room and caught the tail end of a conversation the body builders were having.

Ilya's voice stood out.

"I'll bet she's a right little goer - stuck with her crazy father all those years - she's got to be gagging for it...unnnh!"

Alan registered the sound of Ilya's bulky body slamming against the wall and the pained expulsion of his breath a fraction of a second before the intense fury of Tony's voice.

"What did you just say?"

Ilya emitted only a strangled gargle, effectively immobilised by Tony's vice-like grip on his throat.

Tony brought his face close to Gregory's. "If I hear of you bothering her, talking about her - if you even mention her name again I'll kick your damn teeth in." He slammed Ilya's head none too gently against the wall for emphasis. "Am I going to have to kick your teeth in?"

Ilya, rapidly turning red in the face, gave a definite negative shake. Tony took a step back and Gregory slid down the wall, gagging and coughing. His cronies avoided eye contact and turned back to their weights.

Tony watched Ilya for a second with narrowed eyes, and then turned back to Alan.

Carter, who'd watched the proceedings in silence, clapped a hand on Tony's shoulder, "C'mon, I'll buy you a beer." He flashed a smile at the still prone Gregory, "See ya, Ilya!"

Twenty minutes later, showered and changed, they sat at the bar in the lounge overlooking the gymnasium, each with a pint of Tony's latest brew in front of them.

Alan took a long draught of the icy beer, "Ahhh. God, that's good. When I think about the drek you produced before the Biodome..."

Tony smiled, "Thanks be to Arra."

Carter took another drink and then looked at his friend consideringly for a few seconds.


"You really would have kicked his teeth in, damn the consequences."


Alan laughed. "You're gone, mate."

Tony smiled ruefully. "Well and truly gone."

Maya sat cross-legged in a small thicket, bio-sampler in one hand, pink flower from an unidentified plant in the other. She sampled the stamen carefully, noted the reading and placed the specimen in a sterile container. Her cuttings bag was gratifyingly full. One of the many birds that lived in the Dome burst into song in a tree over her head and within seconds another of its kind in a distant tree sang in counterpoint. An unconscious sigh of contentment escaped her. This had been a perfect day. Her hands were filthy, she'd been sitting in or crawling around in dirt for several hours; the knees of her trousers were caked in mud and her formerly white shirt now sported muddy handprints. And she didn't care.

She could hear the murmur of voices; Alan and Sandra were talking somewhere in the distance. Tony was nearby; she could hear an occasional whack as he took samples from the trucks of the several varieties of hardwood trees in the copse.

Maya smiled to herself. This was another successful Verdeschi expedition.

After the first week and the success of their sundae break, he'd made sure she experienced the lighter side of Earth culture. He was very good at easing her into social situations, helping her to overcome her natural shyness. When she was with Tony her self-consciousness disappeared and life became fun. But mostly, it was enough that he was there. With him she discovered the wonders of cappuccino, basketball, fencing, movies and lasagne. He'd introduced her to games and art, music and literature. Thanks to him she was now a fiction junkie.

And a plant hound.

They'd been in the Biodome since midday. For the first hour they had wandered, enjoying the plants and the very realistic blue-sky overhead. Then they set about the "serious" business of the day, exploring the fourth dome, where only a fraction of the plants had been catalogued.

The others, like many of the Alphans, were seasoned amateur botanists and their enthusiasm quickly infected Maya. In the last year some of the discoveries had been spectacular; a plant that absorbed toxins and produced pure oxygen at 5000 times the rate of Terran plants, and a small deciduous tree whose trunk radiated heat when watered (otherwise it could and did survive for years without water). These plants enabled the Biodome to exist without draining Alpha's precious resources.

Very little vegetation had survived on Psychon, and the surface had been completely unliveable for most of her lifetime. So to Maya, this was Paradise. She adored the rich, loamy smell of the earth and the fresh sweet scents that wafted in the air after each "rain", when the automatic irrigation system simulated natural rainfall. She loved the complex musical songs of the wild things living in the Dome.

She looked up as Tony approached through the trees. He was just as muddy as she, and seemed equally unconcerned. "Are you hungry? Alan and Sahn are breaking out the picnic."


Tony smiled. "Any food eaten outdoors qualifies as a picnic - or as close as we can get to outdoors."

"A picnic sounds wonderful."

He offered her his hand and pulled her to her feet. Alan and Sandra had set the food out in a clearing 100 metres away.

A blanket had been unrolled and now sported an assortment of containers holding hummus, sandwiches, chopped raw carrots, cauliflower and red peppers, chocolate cake, ice water and beer.

Alan and Sandra knelt by the blanket, setting out plastic plates and cups.

Sandra looked up and smiled brightly as they approached through the trees. "Come eat. You must be starving."

Alan and Sandra were just as grubby as she and Tony, but with conspicuously cleaner hands.

Sahn noticed Maya inspecting her fingers dubiously, laughed and handed her a plastic pouch, "Here. Handi-wipes. Otherwise you'll eat more dirt than food."

"Thank you." Maya removed one of the moistened towelettes and handed the pack to Tony. "Did you prepare the food yourself?"

"Alan brought the vegetables. I made the sandwiches. Tony provided the beer and water. The cake and hummus comes compliments of Catering." She smiled mischievously, "Men are generally very good at chopping and bartending."

"And by implication not much else, right?" Tony scowled at her as he opened the thermos flasks containing the beer and water. "No more pasta for you."

"You have your uses."

"Lifting heavy objects." Maya volunteered, casting an impish glance at Tony.

"Opening lids. Wreaking havoc... Aaaah!" Sahn gasped and dropped her plate as icy water dribbled down her neck.

Tony prudently removed himself to a safe distance and grinned unrepentantly when she glared at him. "Just living down to my reputation."

"Good one, mate. Must keep these uppity females under control." Alan grinned at Tony and then shuddered dramatically when the uppity brunette levelled a threatening look in his direction.

They declared peace for the duration of the picnic. Maya particularly liked the hummus, vegetables and chocolate cake. She approached the beer a bit more gingerly.

"It's an acquired taste." Tony cautioned.

"Take a bite of something you like first. Then have a swig." Alan suggested.

"Won't that just contaminate the taste she does like?" Sahn added sceptically.

After that build-up Maya took a very tentative sip and couldn't suppress the peculiar expression that crossed her face, to the profound amusement of her companions. "It's ...unusual."

"I'll take that as a compliment." Tony said wryly.

"That, believe it or not is a 5000% improvement on what he used to produce." Alan gasped, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. "It actually approximates what beer is supposed to taste like."

"But not quite Amber Nectar."

Alan looked shocked. "Mate! There can only be one Amber Nectar."

They bickered and laughed and dawdled over their meal for over an hour then gathered the detritus of the picnic together.

Alan and Sandra headed back to the base. Maya expressed an interest in wandering in the Dome for a bit longer and Tony willingly stayed with her.

"I'll show you my favourite spot."

They walked along the central pathway to the third dome, and then cut through a meadow planted with soft fruits. This corner of the dome boasted rows of bramble hedges heavy with ripening blackberries, raspberries, and orderly rows of strawberries. The air was full of the irresistible smell of sun warmed leaves and fruit.

A small grove of weeping willow trees encircled a shallow pond toward the rear of the berry orchard. Tony led her toward the largest of the trees and she followed him through the long feathery strands.

Moss formed a carpet under the tree and when she stooped to walk under the branches, the fronds formed a green grotto, peaceful and secluded, with only birdsong and the sound of a stream trickling into the pond to disturb the peace.

Maya's eyes shone, "How beautiful."

"It's a good place to come and think. No one else seems to have discovered it yet."

They sat under the tree in the dappled light and listened to the water running nearby. A robin landed in a branch high over their heads and immediately launched into a prolonged birdie aria. Maya raised her face to listen, entranced.

"Hold out your hand." Tony demonstrated, holding his arm out in front of him. "Many of them are quite tame. "

Maya followed his example. Within a minute she had a tiny, bright-eyed bird sitting on her palm. It was very dainty, with a dark grey body and reddish breast. She hardly dared breathe in case it took fright and flew away. And then it began to sing again.

She beamed at Tony, her entire face lit up with delight. For five minutes the robin sat on her hand and sang its repertoire. Then, with a final chirp, it flew away to join its friends in the treetops.

Maya found she couldn't stop smiling. "What a beautiful creature! What is it called?"

"It's a robin. All of the birds are female; cloned from genetic material held in Alpha's genome bank."

"A robin," she sighed. Closing her eyes, she pictured the tiny creature in her mind's eye. When she opened them again a golden halo of energy was already enveloping her body.

Tony watched with widening eyes, as Maya's body shimmered and dissolved in a whirl of brilliant light, before shrinking and reintegrating as a duplicate of the tiny bird. He knew she had this ability, but this was the first time he'd ever witnessed a transformation.

She hopped around on the cushiony moss, cocking her head as she inspected the floor of the grotto from a bird's perspective. Then she flexed her wings and launched herself into the air, fluttering inexpertly around the boundaries of her dappled green cage.

Tony held out his hand and she lit on his palm, skidding a bit and nearly falling over before regaining her balance, feathers ruffled. She weighed next to nothing.

"You need to work on your landings." His voice was soft with awe.

Seemingly in response to this criticism, she began to sing, puffing out her red breast with the effort. Another bird somewhere in the canopy answered her call. She stopped, listened with her head cocked to one side, then sang again in earnest.

The other bird warbled once more in counterpoint. When it stopped Maya sat quietly for a minute on Tony's palm, feathers fluffed as though cold. He carefully stroked the feathers of her crest, feeling the downy softness, and whispered, "You are truly amazing."

In response, she chirped once, and then flew from his hand, landing on the floor of the grotto. The magical light enveloped her once again, and Maya's normal form emerged out of the radiance.

There was a hint of uncertainty in her eyes when she opened them and focused on him.

For a few seconds he just looked at her, then quietly said, "That is the most wonderful thing I've ever seen."

Relief shone in her face as she returned to sit beside him. "It's just something I can do." She smiled. "But it is fun."

Tony shook his head. "Basketball is fun. That's magic."

Chapter Three

Four months later...

It was six thirty. He had about half an hour to whip his quarters into some semblance of order. Tony raked his fingers distractedly through his dark hair, scanning the lounge area for debris he'd missed. A smile curved one corner of his mouth as he stooped to pick up the foils and face masks he'd flung carelessly on to the sofa that morning. He'd given Maya a fencing lesson before breakfast. She was an apt but very distracting student. If they'd been duelling for real he'd be dead by now. The shapely beauty of her long limbs in fencer's white did nothing for his concentration.

He shook his head ruefully. He was spending a disproportionate amount of time lately mooning over Maya. There was no kinder word for it.

A last critical glance round the room confirmed that the main living area was in reasonable shape. He shrugged out of his uniform top, pulling it over his head in one smooth movement as he strode to the bedroom.

After shedding his trousers, Tony tossed his discarded clothes onto the floor of the closet and swiftly selected his favourite rugby shirt and a pair of well-worn chinos. Maya, John and Helena were due in a few minutes for a quick meal of hamburgers, hot dogs and fries before they headed out to watch the first two offerings of Alpha's annual "Worst Films of the 20th Century" Festival. Junk food went well with junk movies. He just had time for a quick shower and shave before Catering arrived with the food.

As the hot spray of the shower washed away some of the tensions of the day, Tony found he was looking forward with some anticipation to the night ahead. Alpha's film library contained literally hundreds of thousands of movies, plays, concerts and television programmes. Every six months the cheesiest B-movies, comedies and horror flics were culled and presented to an appreciative and critical audience. The film nights were always well attended and most Alphans, Tony was no exception, enjoyed them hugely. Instead of crowding together into one large theatre, festival goers converged on the many small, comfortable lounges spread throughout the base. Small groups enjoyed the films from the comfort of armchairs and sofas while the large screens in each lounge simul-cast the movies.

This would be Maya's first Festival and for that reason he was looking forward to tonight even more than usual. He stepped out of the shower unit, dried off and grimaced at his reflection in the mirror. He shaved very carefully. At his present level of co-ordination if he broke the skin he'd probably bleed to death. It was extremely disconcerting to discover he could regress with startling speed into an adolescent awkwardness he thought he'd long outgrown. He was thirty-four years old, for God's sake, and not accustomed to feeling ill at ease in his own skin.

But all it took was a look from a certain pair of beautiful blue eyes and, whammo, he was sixteen again. Objectively, he knew he acted normally enough when Maya was around; he hadn't noticed people casting peculiar looks his way - yet. But his hyper awareness of her left him less in command of his words and movements than was entirely comfortable.

Tony sighed and inspected his chin for signs of bloodshed. So far, so good.

For now, in Maya's eyes he was someone to have fun with, a friend she could trust. They had a laughing, playful relationship and they enjoyed being together. That was enough for the moment.

Tony returned to the bedroom to dress, recalling his initial delight on discovering that she shared his mischievous, rather ironic sense of humour. At once witty and nave, impish yet at times enchantingly shy, she was an endlessly fascinating mix of brilliance and natural charm.

And so easy to wind up.

Over the last few months she'd become increasingly expert at getting her own back. Lacking as she did the years of experience he had in torturing his sisters, he was impressed by her natural ability.

As the door buzzer sounded to indicate Catering's arrival, Tony activated the door release to let them in. Five minutes later the food was ready. He checked his watch. Almost seven. He flopped onto the sofa and tried to force himself to relax.

At just after seven John, Helena and Maya arrived. They were all casually dressed. Helena wore an attractive hot pink sweat suit, while John sported jeans and a sweater. But they could have been nude for all Tony noticed. His awareness focused totally and immediately on Maya, captured, as always, by her fresh beauty. She wore chinos, a crisp white long sleeved cotton oxford shirt and brown deck shoes.

Her long auburn mane was contained in a simple French braid from which several tendrils had escaped to wisp becomingly over her temples. Tony's heart rate increased significantly as she greeted him with a smile. A ridiculously pleasurable warmth burst into vibrant life within him, but he managed to welcome his guests with a semblance of his usual laid back hospitality.

Maya surreptitiously studied the room as the others chatted. Something was different, and she couldn't quite put her finger on what.

Tony's living area seemed much the same as always -comfortable, masculine, casual - a relaxing room. Her attention returned to the others, her gaze moving, as though drawn by a magnet, to Tony.

Although she'd seen him in casual dress many times before, tonight her senses were riveted by the lean length of his legs; the way his blue sport jersey moulded the breadth of his shoulders. His short, dark hair, thick and shining with vital health, had been combed back carelessly from his good looking face and was still damp from the shower he must have recently taken.

But he hadn't changed in the hours since she'd last seen him.

The perceptual shift was within her.

And she did feel distinctly odd; a tightness gripping her chest, making her aware of every breath she took. And aware of him.

He was still the same Tony - her best friend. Wickedly funny, confident, intelligent, wise in the ways of the world, competitive, compassionate, impatient with idiocy, endlessly patient with her...

... and totally male.

This revelation burst upon her senses with stunning, overwhelming clarity. She had to force herself not to stare. He was absolutely gorgeous. How could she not have noticed before now how devastating he was?

Maya focused rather dazedly on Helena, who was commenting on the films they were about to see. She heard the words but failed to take in anything the doctor said. Her entire consciousness centred on the dramatic shift that had just rocked her. She could feel her brain shutting down while emotion and animal awareness took over. She wanted to run her fingers through the soft thickness of his dark hair, to press herself shamelessly against his lean frame, to melt into his embrace as his strong arms clasped her to him passionately, to respond in kind as his warm mouth moved hotly, thrillingly over her willing lips....

"Sorry?" Maya came back to reality with a start, jumping slightly as Helena repeated her question.

"I said, do you want a hot-dog or hamburger? Soya really, but I can dream."

"Oh. A hot dog, please." Thank God she hadn't actually been staring at Tony during her little fugue. She avoided his gaze, knowing she'd become totally flustered if they made eye contact before she had a chance to get a grip on herself.

Conscious of her unusual aloofness, Tony was having a few uneasy thoughts of his own as they gathered around the food. Maya had barely spoken to him since her arrival. Had he done something to offend her? He didn't think so, but a slight sense of paranoia was eroding his previously good mood.

Tony speared a hamburger and tossed it onto his plate. He reached for the ketchup just as Maya did and their fingers touched. Jolted by the pleasurable tingle that ran up his arm at the contact, he raised his gaze to meet Maya's startled blue eyes, unaware that she'd just experienced the same frisson of awareness.

"Ketchup, signorina? Allow me." He deposited a dollop of red paste onto her hot-dog with all the dignity of a professional waiter, and Maya laughed, relaxing perceptibly. Tony chose not to question this lessening of the distance he'd sensed between them - he just prayed this was the first and last time he felt it.

The awkwardness she'd felt disappeared with Tony's teasing, but Maya was still aware of a not unpleasant inner tension. She shot Tony an unknowingly flirtatious glance through the thick veil of her lashes, missing the sudden catch in his breath and the arrested, keenly questioning quality of his gaze as she turned to take her seat.

Helena and John occupied one sofa in the living area; Tony sat down next to Maya on the other settee. The length of his thigh brushed hers and they were both acutely aware of the contact. Maya took a tentative bite of her hot-dog and smiled when Tony raised a questioning eyebrow.

"Lovely ketchup."

They all chuckled and Helena popped a French fry into her mouth. "There's nothing quite like junk food.... definitely the way to a girl's heart."

But Maya was oblivious to the impish look Helena cast Tony's way, having just dumped most of the contents of her bun down the front of her formerly pristine white shirt.

"Oh, no. I'll have to change." She glanced at her watch. The first movie started in less then ten minutes. She'd never make it back for the opening credits if she went back to her quarters.

Tony was thinking along the same lines, unwilling to lose even a few minutes of her company. "Why don't you borrow something of mine?"

The idea of wearing one of Tony's shirts held a great deal of appeal. Cloth that had touched his bare skin - the thought did wonderful things to the pit of her stomach.


"Come on, " he held out a hand and pulled her to her feet, enjoying the contact of his fingers with hers. "I'll take you on a tour of the Verdeschi wardrobe, such as it is."

"Don't let him talk you into wearing one of those disreputable basketball jerseys!" Helena volunteered this mischievous advice as the younger couple headed for the bedroom.

"Helena, please! Give me some credit." Tony threw her an indignant look as the bedroom door swung shut behind them. John and Helena exchanged a knowing smile before returning to their meal.

Maya had never been in Tony's bedroom before and she looked about her with more than casual interest while Tony rummaged in his chest of drawers. It was a distinctly masculine room, but welcoming, with a definite imprint of his personality. A basketball and fencing gear were piled haphazardly in one corner. Rows of books lined the shelves against one wall. Maya walked over to examine them and smiled to discern several titles on brew making amongst the colourful bindings. He had an eclectic collection - science fiction, mysteries, the classics, biographies, scientific journals and a number of titles on Renaissance art and architecture graced the shelves. There were also several tomes written by Tony himself for the Cambridge Press - particle physics was his specialist field.

A varied selection of prints, photographs and paintings covered the walls. She was especially drawn to a landscape, the subject a large sprawling stone house surrounded by towering trees and gentle hills. The duvet was a dark forest green and this combined with the neutral furnishings and off-white walls to make a warm, welcoming room.

"How about this?" She turned at the sound of Tony's voice to find him proffering a rugby shirt similar in design to the one he was wearing. "I shrank it in the wash. It should fit better than anything else I can offer."

"Thank you, Tony." She accepted the moss green jersey and hugged it to her chest. He smiled affectionately at her and left the room to join John and Helena. Maya stood for a moment with her nose buried in the cotton garment, breathing in the clean, crisp scent of recent laundering. Her head swam slightly with a very pleasant sensory overload as she slowly unbuttoned her ketchup-besmirched shirt. Dropping it onto the bed, she pulled Tony's jersey over her head. Despite it's shrunken state, it was still rather large on her, the sleeves hanging past her fingertips. She rolled them up slowly, taking delight in the way the fleecy lining caressed her bare skin. She knew the intense pleasure she was taking from wearing his clothes was a bit juvenile, but she couldn't suppress a happy smile as she scooped her shirt up and walked to the bathroom to wash off the worst of the ketchup.

The air was still a bit steamy from the shower. His toothbrush, his robe, his shower, where not too long ago he'd stood unclothed beneath the hot spray...

A flush rose in her high cheekbones and she turned determinedly away from the shower, forcing herself to concentrate on lifting the stain, aware that she would stay in here forever, lost in wishful daydreams, given half a chance.

When Maya emerged from the bedroom to rejoin the others, she knew she was falling hopelessly in love with Tony Verdeschi.

Ten minutes later they were all settled comfortably on two sofas in the lounge nearest Tony's quarters. The room filled quickly and soon there was a light-hearted group of twenty, all laughing, joking and fighting over the popcorn being dispensed from a corner table. John, Helena, Tony and Maya chose seats at the back of the room. The vid screen was large and high enough that they didn't have to worry about people in front obstructing their view.

"Are you sure you have enough popcorn, over there?" Helena's voice held a certain ironic quality as she peered pointedly at the enormous bowl of popcorn Tony had appropriated for himself and Maya.

"Yes, thanks Helena." Maya laughed delightedly as Tony smiled smugly and offered her his cache. She snuggled down further into the sofa cushions, feeling ridiculously happy. Even while chatting with Helena and John to her right and Sahn on the couch in front of them, she was vitally aware of Tony's presence beside her. His hard, jean clad thigh pressed thrillingly against hers, necessarily so as the couch was only built for two.

She popped a fluffy kernel into her mouth, glancing at Tony, who was leaning forward, elbows on knees, apparently engrossed in a rehash of the last basketball game with Alan, who sat with Sahn. Little did she realise that even as he argued the finer points of the game with Alan, he was just as acutely conscious of her. He sat back as the lights dimmed and smiled down into Maya's eyes.


"Yes, thank you." She had no idea what "comfy" meant. But it sounded nice.

As the opening credits appeared for the first movie they both slouched more comfortably into the depths of the sofa.

The first offering was a comedy of sorts - a science fiction thriller called "Godzilla Meets Mechagodzilla". It was hilariously awful. Tony and Alan's wickedly funny ad-libbed commentary compounded the ludicrous dubbing and amateur special effects. She laughed until her stomach ached. Finally, she was reduced to clapping her hands over her ears and turning away from him, deafness her only defence. It was too late for most people within earshot. Their helpless laughter was infectious and within minutes most of the room was out of control.

Several victims were still giggling weakly when the film ended. Most people got up to stretch their legs, but Maya stayed where she was, too comfortable to move. Tony stayed with her, entranced by the reality of her slender form close by his side.

"Jesus, you two are a bloody menace!" John was still wiping mirthful tears from his eyes.

"I cannot even move." Sahn's disembodied voice echoed sepulchrally from the depths of the couch Alan had just vacated. "Maya, how on earth can you sit next to the wretch?"

Tony "ha-ha'd" good naturedly, his heart beating only a little faster as Maya smothered a chuckle and cast him a sparkling sideways look from under her long, dark lashes.

"I just tried to ignore him. As usual."

"Traitor!" He leaned close to whisper this in her ear and then loudly pronounced to the room at large, "And to think I gave this woman the shirt off my back." Deviltry shone in his dark eyes as Maya levelled a reproachful glare at him.

She struggled mightily, and unsuccessfully, to prevent a smile from curving her lips. She was only too conscious of the ready colour rising in her cheeks. He really was staggeringly handsome. Why did she have to blush so easily?

Tony offered her the depleted popcorn tub. "Just to show I forgive you." He smiled sweetly, his eyes shining with a mischief that belied the innocence of his expression.

"Thanks. I think." She took a handful of popcorn, resisting an impulse to throw it at him. As the lights dimmed for the second movie she cast him a look that said "I'll get you."

He couldn't wait.

The opening credits for "Bambi" rolled and for the first ten minutes Maya really enjoyed the film. It was a charming, whimsical tale that didn't belong in the "worst films" category, but it was in enough demand that the organisers willingly screened it. It was only when Bambi's mother, was dying, shouting "Run, Bambi! Run!" that the screen image faded, replaced by a hellish vision of her own.

Instead of the forest glade, she saw Mentor in the grove of Psyche, gouts of flame erupting around him. Her dear, mad father was on the screen, in the last minutes of his life, dying before her eyes, dying despite her efforts to save him. Dying even as he shouted, "Run, Maya! Run!". She hadn't run, and he'd died anyway. Her father had perished along with Psychon, knowing his daughter had betrayed him. She would never see him again. It hit her now as it never had before. Her father and home really were gone forever.

The wave of desolation washed over her like an icy tide. The lounge and everyone in it faded into oblivion, her only reality the despair consuming her soul. The guilt, grief and horror she'd repressed so successfully since coming to Alpha forced itself suddenly and brutally to the forefront of her consciousness. Again and again and again her mind forced her to relive the agony...

Innately observant, and particularly responsive to Maya's moods, Tony sensed her unnatural stillness and turned to her in the dim light. She was staring blankly at the screen, a heartbreaking sadness clouding her beautiful face. Her hands were clenched into tight fists in her lap. Tony's heart wrenched as silent tears spilled from her overly bright eyes.

He leaned close and took one of her hands in his. She raised a stricken gaze, the plea in her eyes unconscious, unspoken. He carefully brushed the wetness from her cheeks, her skin like damp silk under his fingertips, then pulled her gently into his arms.

Tony held her quietly for several minutes before exchanging a silent, speaking look with Helena over the top of Maya's head.

When she began to tremble in his arms, Tony eased Maya to her feet. They were out of the lounge before anyone other than Helena and John noticed their departure.

Outside in the hallway, he cupped her face in his hands, his gaze tender, "Mia cara. You're going to be okay." Her lovely face crumpled and he hugged her close, his own eyes closed, as sobs began to rack her slender frame. No way could she walk to her quarters, so Tony scooped her into his arms and carried her. He took her straight through to her bedroom, depositing her carefully on the bed.

Maya clutched at his hand as he sat down beside her. He laced his fingers with hers and squeezed her hand gently as she fought for the breath to speak, "I'm sorry..." She tried in vain to wipe away the relentless tears.

"No." Tony pressed a kiss to her palm. "You have nothing to apologise for, Maya. Nothing." He tenderly smoothed a damp tendril from her cheek. "It's time you let it out. Just let it go, sweetheart."

His sympathy opened the floodgates and she cried until Tony thought his own heart would break. He held her, rocking her slowly, stroking her hair, all the while murmuring words of comfort. With every racing beat of her heart, the gasping hitch of each wrenching sob, he felt a little more helpless.

When she quieted somewhat he lowered her gently back onto the pillows. Maya's lashes parted and she focused hazily on his face.

"Don't go?"

"I won't go." Tony kicked off his shoes and lowered himself onto the bed beside her. He lay on his back and pulled her into the curve of his arm. Clasped once again in the warmth of his embrace, Maya sighed tremulously. The hypnotically gentle movement of his hands on her back was immensely soothing.

When she finally spoke again, exhausted despair coloured her words. "He was all I had."

Tony sighed, "You may not believe it now, but it does get easier."

Maya closed her eyes and fought back a further flood of tears. That was part of the trouble.

It had gotten easier.

Psychon had been dying since long before she was born, and the future was grim, no matter how she or Mentor tried to deny it. Their resources had been dangerously low; hence Mentor's increasingly insane attempts to restore the planet. Her father had left her more and more to her own devices in the last few years, retreating to his own quarters, endlessly tinkering with Psyche.

She'd been so lonely, unable to think of a future beyond the next sunrise.

Yet within a week of coming to Alpha her life had been transformed by the kindness of friends, the only friends she'd ever known. What had seemed a grey and futile existence was now a life full of colour, laughter, purpose and hope.

"I've been ...," she struggled for the word, "happy on Alpha."

"Cara, Mentor would have wanted you to be happy."

She shook her head, her eyes bleak. "Happier than I ever was on Psychon?"

Stunned, Tony read the truth in her eyes. Maya had never gone into great detail about her life on Psychon, but he'd attributed that to the rawness of her bereavement. Now he wondered anew exactly what her life had been like if Alpha was that much of an improvement. He gently lifted a tendril of hair from her cheek, "Maya, all your father wanted was for you to have better life, a chance at a future. If being here with us gives you that chance, then I'm sure he's happy for you."

"Do you really think so?"

"I'm sure of it."

She sighed and lay quietly in his embrace, eventually falling asleep, lulled by the beat of his heart under her cheek.

He lay awake for a long time, listening to the gentle rhythm of her breathing.

It was 7.00am when Tony awoke. He knew instantly where he was and who slept in his arms. She lay on her side, her body curved against his, an arm flung, palm down, across his chest, one long, slender leg entwined with his, the soft swell of her breasts pressed to his side. He gazed admiringly into her delicate, flushed face. He didn't often get the chance to study her this closely without being observed himself. She was incredibly beautiful, but that was only part of the overwhelming attraction that bound him to her, body and soul. She was a kindred spirit and he loved her more every day, every hour. Knowing that he had been there for her when she needed him most filled him with quiet pride.

As though sensing his wakefulness, Maya's eyes opened slowly. It took her a second to focus on him and then she smiled sleepily.


He smiled at her. "Good morning."

"What time is it?"

"Early. Just after seven." He ran a finger over her cheek, tracing the curve of brown pigment that accentuated her delicate bone structure. "How did you sleep?

"Fine. I didn't, er.... squash you, did I?" She flushed slightly, realising she had gravitated to him in the night, and was practically on top of him. What exactly was the etiquette involved when waking up with a man for the first time? It had to be glaringly obvious to him that she'd never slept with a man before, in any sense of the word.

Tony chuckled and pressed a teasing kiss to the tip of her nose. "Silly. I'm virtually unsquashable." His dark eyes grew serious, "How are you feeling?"

"Better." She lowered her gaze and ever so casually withdrew her wayward arm and leg.

"My shoulder is always available. You were too brave for too long, Maya." He propped himself up on one elbow and smiled down at her.

Maya blinked, a trifle misty eyed. "You might have to lend it again, if you don't stop being so nice."

Tony laughed, his tones warmly affectionate. "Okay. No more nice." He paused, unwilling to get up if it meant saying good-bye. "Why don't you meet me at the pool? After I've beaten you soundly doing laps you won't think I'm so wonderful."

Sitting up, Tony swung his long legs off the bed and scooped up his shoes. Maya smiled her agreement to this proposal and a hint of her usual mischievous gleam danced in her eyes.

"I said nice, not wonderful."

Tony was already half way to the door, but stopped in his tracks and raised a dark eyebrow, "Then I guess I'll have to work my way up to wonderful." He flashed her a smile that warmed her from head to toe before he left the room.

Maya rolled over into the warm indentation where he'd slept. She buried her face in his pillow as she luxuriated in the illusion that he was all around her. Very early in the morning she had awakened briefly, conscious first of the steady rise and fall of Tony's chest under her cheek and the sensation of his arms encircling her. Never before in her life had she felt so cherished, so comforted. She didn't like to imagine what last night would have been like without him.

Fifteen minutes later she was in the women's changing room at the base pool. She'd washed, brushed her teeth and rebraided her hair in record time. While she stripped to her suit Maya chatted with Nora Reynolds, a lab tech who was the only other occupant of the room at that hour.

"Did you go to the Festival?" Nora enquired. "I'm a sucker for Bambi."

"I saw the first movie." Maya folded her sweats and deposited them in a locker. "I'll have to see Bambi some other time."

"Well, the late night means we'll have the pool to ourselves, anyway."

"Nearly," Maya smiled. "I'm meeting Tony."

"Oh goody!" Nora chuckled lasciviously. "He's got the best bod on Alpha. Too bad he doesn't show it off more."

"Nora!" Maya laughed helplessly. She could feel the heat rising in her cheeks. "You're awful!"

"Oh, ho! You wouldn't blush like that if you hadn't noticed too! So you've got a swim date with our gorgeous First Officer. Lucky, lucky girl."

Equally mortified and amused by Nora's teasing, Maya picked up her towel and walked with the other woman out to the pool area. It was an inviting sight. Turquoise waves lapped the sides of the Olympic sized pool - waves caused by the motion of a single swimmer. Tony was already in the water. Both women stopped to admire him for a moment, appreciating the steady, powerful rhythm of his strong brown arms and legs as he sliced cleanly through the water. As he completed a lap Tony looked up and saw them. Nora raised one hand in a friendly salute and jumped feet first into the shallow end.

"Hi, Tony! Can't stop to chat. I've got twenty laps to do before breakfast. See you guys underwater." With this she pushed off doing an energetic crawl.

Tony swam over to the side of the pool, admiring the lithe perfection of Maya's figure as he did so. Her navy tank was modest yet emphasised the graceful curves of her long, shapely legs, slim hips, small waist and high, full bosom. She carried herself without self-consciousness, completely oblivious to her compelling beauty. Maya smiled at Tony and turned to put her towel on a chair by the poolside, affording him a very appreciative view of her rounded bottom and slender thighs.

He hauled himself effortlessly out of the water and walked, dripping, towards Maya, impatiently pushing his wet hair off his forehead. Now it was her turn to watch in silent admiration. Nora was right. He was absolutely magnificent. Tall and well built, he had a swimmer's physique. There wasn't an ounce of superfluous flesh on him. Powerful shoulders and arms, an invitingly hairy chest, hard, flat stomach and long, lean sinewy legs, made a whole that was devastatingly male. He was bad enough with his clothes on, but now....

He wore black surfer's trunks, shorts that came to mid calf and concealed more than they revealed. Infinitely preferable to the embarrassingly skimpy suits some men wore. Still, she found herself having to make an effort to keep her eyes above his waist. All suits cling when wet and Tony's revealed a rather impressive, very fascinating masculine bulge. Somehow, she managed to keep her gaze on his face as he walked to her side.

"Have you been here long?"

"Only five minutes. Fifty laps to go. " An impish twinkle shone in his dark eyes. "Wanna race?"

"Ha. Only if I mute into a dolphin first." She smiled demurely. "I'll just paddle along like I usually do." With this, she poked her tongue out at him and took a running dive into the pool, surfacing twenty feet away doing a furious crawl. She dimly heard Tony's amused yelp at this blatant disregard for the rules of fair play, but concentrated instead on swimming as though her life depended on it. As it was, she won by a nose and hung onto the side of the pool, waiting for the three seconds it took Tony to catch up to her.

"Never underestimate my willingness to cheat." She flicked water teasingly into his face.

Tony shook his head in mock disgust and grinned at her, delighted with her playful mood.

He moved closer still and Maya's pulse began to race erratically. She edged cautiously away but was soon brought up short as she literally backed herself into a corner. She watched him warily. He was more than capable of ducking her and it was difficult to read the glint in his eyes. But she knew it was dangerous.

Tony grasped Maya's slender waist and slowly pulled her toward him. "Don't you think I deserve some recompense for your foul play?"

"I suppose." She murmured reluctantly. A dimple appeared in her creamy cheek. Really, he was indecently good looking. "I could give you a dollar. Helena gave it to me but I might let you have it." She peered at him from under her lashes, keen to see his reaction to this irresistible offer.

"You're too kind."

Maya's lips curved despite her efforts to remain straight faced. This was fun. She strove to school her expression into one of sincere earnestness. It wasn't entirely successful. His eyelashes were distractingly long, tiny beads of water accentuating this unfairly attractive feature. She managed somehow to keep her eyes from fixing on the devastatingly interesting expanse of male flesh only inches from her. The breadth of his smooth, brown shoulders and the whorls of dark hair on his chest were calling to her fingers like Everest to an explorer.

"Or I could give you your rugby shirt back. I'm sure it will dry out eventually."

Tony flicked a wet finger at her, splashing a few cooling drops of water in her face.

"You're full of interesting ideas. No, I had something more....personal in mind."

"Oh?" Her whisper was slightly breathless. The length of Tony's body brushed hers, radiating heat in the cool water. She couldn't quite identify the emotion in his brown eyes, but it resulted in a surge of warmth flooding her nervous system, a warmth that quickly flamed into heat as he gently drew her to him, his mouth curving, half teasing, half serious.

"Yeah, much more personal," She felt his warm breath mingling with hers, his well shaped mouth a fraction of an inch from her lips. " can buy me breakfast..."

Then her world narrowed to the wonderful sensation of Tony's mouth on hers. His kiss was exquisitely tender, a loving, sensuous caress that gently roused her already awakening instincts into full, vibrant life.

Maya's senses swam with delight. This was where she was meant to be; feeling his wet skin against hers, her body against his. It was completely new and utterly right. Her hands moved of their own accord to twine around Tony's neck. Until this moment she'd never really believed that pure pleasure could blossom into life at the simple, sensual touch of mouth upon mouth. As Maya's lips parted responsively under his, Tony deepened the kiss, tilting her chin gently with one hand to slant his mouth more fully across hers.

When he slowly drew back, Maya's lashes lifted to reveal azure eyes made dreamy with pleasure. It took every iota of his self-control not to kiss her again, this time with a passion that would thoroughly awaken the dawning sensuality he saw in her gaze. Unfortunately, this was neither the time nor the place.

Tony pressed a butterfly soft kiss to the corner of her tempting mouth and then rubbed his wet nose affectionately against hers. His entire body sang with awareness of her lissom slenderness against him.

"Want to try again?"

Maya looked quizzical, still slightly awed by her intense reaction to what her mind was telling her was just a kiss.

"Try what?" She was more than willing to resume their most recent activity.

As sudden, breathless interest blossomed in her face, Tony suppressed an overwhelming urge to accommodate her and instead chuckled evilly, "Nope. You've been corrupted enough for one day. I'll race you, though. That's what I meant by "try again". For such a sweet young thing you are developing a dirty mind!"

After a second of stunned immobility, Maya smiled sweetly into his mischievously sparkling eyes and drew closer still, her hands still resting on his broad shoulders. He was just opening his mouth to dig himself an even deeper hole when she pushed down with all her might and he disappeared beneath the waves with a satisfying glug.

Maya set out for the opposite side of the pool with prudent haste, somewhat hampered by helpless laughter and the certainty that as soon as Tony surfaced and coughed up whatever water he'd swallowed, he'd be right behind her, hell bent on revenge.

Sure enough, she wasn't half way across the pool when a strong hand grabbed her ankle and pulled her under. Luckily, she grabbed a breath before Tony grabbed her, and was therefore able to open her eyes underwater to glare at him with some semblance of composure. The water was definitely his element - he was absolute masculine perfection. A pulsing, throbbing heat blossomed deep within Maya's centre as he released her ankle, his hand trailing silkily up her leg to her knee. With a strong kick he swam up to her level, clasped her hand in his and drew them both to the surface.

"Now, was that nice?"

Maya grinned unrepentantly. "I enjoyed it."

Tony rolled over onto his back, his expression aggrieved. "You've ruined my routine. I usually do sixty laps before breakfast." He gazed at the ceiling and signed, a martyred, long suffering sound.

Maya watched this performance while submerged to the tip of her nose, her blue eyes dancing with amusement.

"It's your own fault." She swam around him and out of his line of vision. "Who invited who? Don't blame me if you get flabby." She splashed him then, the carefully judged sweep of her arm ensuring the water caught him full face. Tony righted himself, danger glinting in his dark eyes.

Ignoring her obvious peril, Maya laughed delightedly and splashed him again, kicking away with a belated shriek as he lunged for her, his arm just brushing her side.

"Oh, ho. Ticklish!"

She stuck her nose in the air. "I am not." Her tone was haughty. Prudently, she continued to back away from him. She held an arm threateningly over the water. "Back off, Verdeschi, or I won't be held responsible for my actions."

They eyed each other warily for several minutes, heart rates up, each waiting for a sign of weakness in the other. Waiting for the right moment to attack. Finally, Nora calling from the other end of the pool distracted Maya's attention for a fatal second and Tony took merciless advantage, sending what felt like the tsunami of splashes crashing over Maya's head. The battle was on.

Nora mediated for the first 10 minutes of the energetic and hilarious water fight that ensued, yelling dubious strategic advice from the side of the pool, switching allegiances whenever she felt like it. After several double-crosses the two combatants declared a silent truce, exchanging a single empathic look before turning on Nora. They soaked her to the skin only moments after she'd dried herself off. The pool rang with breathless laughter by the time Nora begged for mercy.

When a final peace was declared Maya barely had the energy to climb out of the pool before collapsing limply on the deck. The tile floor was surprisingly comfortable. She felt confident she could lie here quite happily for several hours. Then Tony dropped down beside her and the brush of his arm against hers woke up certain parts of her in a tantalising manner.

"Nora says 'bye'. She had to go to work."

"Hmmm..." She turned her head, resting it on her folded arms and smiled at him sleepily. "That's nice." Her extravagantly long eyelashes cast faint shadows on her cheeks as her eyes drifted shut.

Tony propped himself up on one elbow as he gazed admiringly at her. Water had darkened her hair to a deep auburn. A few unruly tendrils clung becomingly to her neck and temples, the contrast lending her fair skin a porcelain glow. Her wet suit moulded her slender curves like a second skin. He would have been more than happy to lie here for hours just drinking her in, but time was a bit limited this morning....

"Hey, sleepy. " Tony tickled her nose with the tip of her wet braid. "I've got to be on duty at nine. If we leave now you can buy me breakfast."

After a few moans of complaint Maya allowed herself to be helped to her feet and smiled back over her shoulder at Tony as she walked to the changing room.

Fifteen minutes later they were seated in the closest of Alpha's three restaurants, partaking of the promised breakfast. Tony had to force himself to eat instead of staring admiringly at his companion. Maya had released her hair from the braid after swimming and towel dried it. Now loose and slightly damp, it curled down her back in a wildly becoming fashion, a perfect frame for her delicately flushed face.

They made relaxed, effortless conversation, neither feeling the need to talk continuously - their silences were completely comfortable. Both were oblivious to admiring glances from a few fellow diners.

Dave Reilly looked up from his cereal, his eyes once again drawn to Maya. She sat with her back to him, laughing quietly at something Verdeschi had just said. They'd obviously just come from the pool, their hair was still wet and they had the fresh, yet relaxed look swimmers often had right after leaving the water.

Because all Alphans took their weekends in shifts, there was a 50/50 chance that Maya had the day off. The very first time he met her she'd expressed an interest in his game of choice - billiards. She and Helena had come into the rec room while he was playing a game with Alan Carter. By the time the Doctor and Maya left, Dave was completely smitten.

So far Verdeschi seemed to have the advantage. He also had the bonus of working beside Maya in Command Centre every day. Dave knew he had to make his move soon - Tony and Maya seemed to grow closer every day. He didn't like to think what they were doing together so early.

"Morning, Maya. Tony."

Startled out of their private little world, they looked up to see Dave Reilly standing by their table.

"Hey, Dave. You're up early for a Saturday, aren't you?" Tony greeted Dave casually while Maya smiled a welcome.

"There's a snooker tournament on this afternoon. I'm one of the finalists. Ah.... Maya, you said a while back you might be interested in learning. I'm going to the games room at 11.00 to practice. If you like I could show you the basics."

"I would like that. Thank you, Dave."

They arranged for her to him there at 11.00.

Dave tipped his ever-present Stetson to Maya, and flashed Tony a triumphant grin before strolling off, thumbs hooked in his belt loops.

Tony had started to rise from his seat before he realised it. He could actually feel his hands around Dave's neck. He forced himself to sit and listen to the blood roaring in his ears.

I'm jealous, he thought, incredulous. He'd always prided himself on his cool where the green-eyed monster was concerned. Maybe he just hadn't cared enough to feel jealous before Maya. Well, now he cared... and more than anything he wanted to feel the satisfying crunch of his fist against Reilly's smirking face.

Maya wasn't helping. Oblivious to any motive on Reilly's part other than simple friendliness, she was quietly pleased at the prospect of her lesson. Who was he to tell her Reilly was more than a little in love with her? He could just imagine the conversation,

"But Tony, what makes you think he feels that way about me?"

"Because I'm desperately in love with you myself - and it takes one to know one."

Cue for Maya to run screaming from the room.

A quick glance at his watch imparted the unwelcome news that he was due in Command Centre in less than twenty minutes. He still had to go back to his quarters to change. It wasn't like he could offer an amusing alternative - John was off today too, so Tony was in command of Moonbase Alpha for the next ten hours.

He gazed across the table at the focus of all his dreams and desires. She was carefully picking raisins out of her muesli, placing them in a neat, rejected pile on the plate holding the remnants of her toast. Finally, seemingly satisfied that every single raisin had been eliminated, she poured soy milk over her cereal.


She looked up, her spoon half way to her mouth. "Will you go to the Festival with me again tonight?"

"Of course!" She smiled, her expression a trifle wistful. "And I promise not to burst into tears until after the movie ends." She lowered her gaze to her cereal bowl and raised the spoon to her mouth as sadness briefly clouded her lovely face.

Tony reached across the table and grasped her fingers in his. "Cara, if you don't feel up to it you will tell me?" His voice was gentle, concern evident in his dark eyes.


Tony said good-bye reluctantly outside Maya's quarters ten minutes later.

"Oh, Tony. Wait." A slender hand on his arm bade him turn questioningly. "Your jersey..."

He smiled, thinking that, as adorable as she looked in her navy sweats, the idea of her wearing his old rugby jersey appealed a lot more.

"You keep it. I've shrunk it at least three times in the wash, so I have no hope of ever getting into it again. Besides, it looks much better on you."

Her eyes shone with pleasure at his gift. "Thank you." Feeling greatly daring, she stepped closer, stood on tiptoe and pressed a whisper soft kiss to Tony's mouth.


Then, with a bewitching, half-shy glance over her shoulder, she was gone. The door to her quarters had closed before Tony shook off the wondering stillness that had held him in thrall from the second her hands lightly touched his chest, seeking balance as her velvety mouth brushed his. Her shy vulnerability made that impulsive, tentative kiss all the more special to him.

Tony relived that moment often during the seemingly endless day that followed.

Chapter Four

Maya floated into her bedroom. She felt distinctly unsettled - grief stricken one moment, euphorically happy the next. She knew who was responsible for the latter mood.


She scooped up the green rugby shirt. Hers now. She buried her nose in the crisp cotton. Soap, warm skin and a hint of woodsy cologne added up to a scent that was uniquely his. Her knees weakened as she relived their poolside kiss. The emotions he aroused were frightening and exhilarating at the same time.

She loved him.

Body and soul.

And she wanted, needed him to love her the same way. Surely that wasn't too much to ask? Ha.

With an inelegant snort, Maya threw herself full length across her bed, still clutching the rugby shirt. Closing her eyes, she dreamily pressed her cheek against the duvet where he'd lain the night before. I spent the night in his arms. Granted, she'd been sobbing hysterically for much of that time, but even through her distress she'd been conscious of how right it felt.

She glanced at her bedside clock. Eight o'clock would never come. Maybe she could casually drop by Command Centre this afternoon. Or would that be too obvious? With a certain reluctance Maya rolled off the bed to inspect the contents of her wardrobe. What was suitable for snooker?

The lesson had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now she was more inclined to laze about indulging in dreamy fantasies revolving around a certain handsome First Officer. The pretty, fashionable clothes the Alphans had given her did not inspire at the moment. Like a magnet, the green jersey drew her eye; it lay crumpled and forlorn looking on her bed. Well, why not? It was hers now and it was very comfortable. The private thrill she felt while wearing it would be her secret. Soft, fleecy cotton against her skin, that and the delicious memory of Tony's kiss, would help to pass the hours until she saw him again.

And what did cara mean? He'd called her that several times last night, and once today. It might mean "idiot" for all she knew, but the way he said it brought a glow to her heart. She'd find an Italian dictionary.

By seven forty that evening Maya had worked herself into a state approaching panic. Most of her wardrobe was strewn across her bed. Nothing looked or felt right - except the rugby shirt and there was no way she'd wear that tonight. What if he guessed her motive for wearing it?

He was so much more sophisticated than she. How did you go about making a tall, dark, achingly handsome man fall in love with you? She knew she amused him, although she had a sneaking suspicion this was due more to her hopeless naïveté than her ready wit. But he had kissed her - and not one of the brotherly sort she was used to from him. This had definitely been of the man-woman persuasion. Definitely. Hadn't it? Would she be able to tell the difference? She'd been totally enraptured by the contact. But had he? Tony was an intoxicating blend of charm and wit.

He was also a wicked flirt.

She'd looked up "cara" in the library that afternoon. An unconscious smile curved her mouth, her face glowing with a reflection of the warmth that translation evoked.

He'd called her darling.

It was hard to know what to make of him at times. Had he felt as she did, even a little? How were you supposed to find these things out?

The buzzer to her quarters sounded. Maya froze. He wasn't due for another twenty minutes. The wreckage that had been her bedroom loomed before her. And she was still wearing the jersey! Trying not to panic, she scooted out to the main living area, closing the bedroom door carefully behind her. With some trepidation she released the door mechanism and then sagged with relief as Helena came into view.

"Thank God. I thought you were Tony."

"Thanks a lot! I feel really welcome now!"

Maya looked beseechingly at the older woman. "You've got to help me find something to wear, Helena. You're good at clothes."

Leading the way to the bedroom, a bemused Helena following obediently in her wake, Maya gestured with an all -encompassing swing of her arm. "See?"

"Hmmm. Yes, you do need help. Small anxiety attack, I take it?" The doctor sorted through a pile of rejected dresses and picked up a pretty forest green cotton shift. Classically simple, it boasted a square neckline, was sleeveless with a straight, short skirt.

"This is for the Festival?"


"Okay. Try this."

She sat on the bed and watched affectionately while the younger woman struggled out of her top (Tony's she noticed) and jeans. For weeks now she'd been observing Maya with a great deal of interest, wondering how long it would take before she succumbed to the famous (or was it infamous) Verdeschi charm. The moment had obviously come. A certain quasi-maternal concern coloured her thoughts as she contemplated this blossoming love match.

"This looks alright?" Maya sounded extremely doubtful and she eyed herself suspiciously in the mirror.

The dress gently skimmed her lithe figure, the short skirt flattering her long, graceful legs. Her throat and collarbone were bare, the square cut bodice revealing just the tiniest hint of creamy décolletage. A deep, rich shade of hunter green, the dress complemented Maya's eyes and set off her Titian curls, lending her ivory skin an almost translucent glow.

Helena smiled. "Yes, you look 'alright'." She paused and continued, "What's more, Tony will definitely think you look 'alright'".

Hectic colour tinted Maya's delicately sculpted cheekbones. With a studied nonchalance, she replied, "Oh, really?"

Helena laughed. "Yes, really. You do have shoes to go with that, I assume? I seem to recall you wearing a pair that should go nicely. Black, low heel."

Maya rummaged obediently in her closet, emerging within seconds with the shoes. She slipped them on, bit her lip and glanced hesitantly at Helena, "Can I ask you something?"

Here we go, thought Helena. She'd been right to sense something was up. Who else could Maya ask about matters of the heart? Deep down Helena was sure she'd been an agony aunt in a previous existence.

"Anything, Maya. You know that."

The younger woman took a deep breath. "When did you know for sure that you were in love with John? And how did you know he felt the same way? How do you know..." She trailed off.

"We were friends first. It didn't happen overnight, no bolt out of the blue. We both knew, but then we'd both been married before..." She glanced sympathetically at Maya. "That doesn't help you much, does it?"

Maya studied her fingernails. "I want to be with him all the time. I dream of him..." Maya raised her eyes to look directly at Helena, her gaze steady despite the soft blush rising in her cheeks, "He's the only man I want to make love with."

"And he's treating you like his kid sister." Helena rolled her eyes.

"He was."

Helena's raised eyebrows coincided with Maya's shy, happy smile.


"He kissed me."

"He's kissed you before."

"This was different. I've never felt anything like it. It was wonderful..." Maya's eyes took on a dreamy cast and she unconsciously pressed a finger to her lips.

"Maya, I know for a fact that Tony has never thought of you as a 'kid sister'. Quite the opposite." Helena leaned forward and looked intently into Maya's widening eyes. "He's been very careful not to rush or frighten you." The doctor smiled at her friend. "He's been waiting for you. Maybe it's time you let him know you're not the delicate flower he's been protecting from his baser instincts for the last six months."

"Really? Baser instincts?" Maya couldn't conceal her thrilled delight.


They exchanged a look and then dissolved into laughter. "Don't seduce the poor boy right away, will you?"

Maya blushed scarlet at Helena's outrageous suggestion. She'd never get the nerve, but the idea was most appealing....

Helena rose and they walked into the main living area. Maya asked. "Are you going to the Festival tonight?"

"No. One night's enough for me. I believe it's horror flics tonight. You know how I get at the sight of blood!" With this Alpha's Chief Surgeon hugged her friend and keyed open the door.

Maya's voice stopped her on the threshold. "Helena? Thanks."

"Have fun. Remember, no more kid sister. Although he seems to be coming to that conclusion on his own."

Well! Helena had originally stopped by to see how Maya was faring after last night. Tony had related some of what happened the evening before. He was proving to be good for Maya on a number of levels. She would spend a lot less time brooding over her father if she had Tony to occupy her thoughts.

The subject of their discussion was having doubts about his own sartorial choices. After some atypical dithering he'd chosen khaki chinos and a black crew neck cotton jumper. Now he felt overdressed.

He nodded a friendly greeting to two female operatives as he strode through the crew quarters. Preoccupied with his own thoughts, he failed to notice their appreciative stares. Helena did though, coming out of Maya's rooms just as one of the women nudged the other in lustful admiration. The doctor smiled.

"Hi, Tony. She's ready."

"Is she up to it? After last night I wouldn't blame her if she didn't feel like another night at the movies." He made no attempt to hide his concern.

"She's fine. Largely thanks to you, I think."

Tony lowered his head, and his voice was a trifle husky when he spoke, "It means a lot to hear you say that, Helena. You don't know how much."

"Oh, I have a pretty good idea."

He looked up sharply, a sudden disquiet darkening his eyes. The doctor smiled fondly at him.

"Tony, I've known from the day you two met." Helena gave him a gentle shove toward the door. "Don't keep her waiting."

Tony stared after Helena with a vaguely worried expression as he rang the door chime. Was he that obvious? But then the door opened and stunned admiration chased everything but Maya from his mind.

Helena chuckled as the door shut behind him. Young love. They both made her feel ancient, and Tony was only ten years her junior.

"You look terrific." She could wear rags and still look gorgeous to his extremely biased eyes.

Maya wore her hair loose, cascading in burnished waves down her back. Pink tinted her cheeks at his compliment. Helena's words still echoed in her mind. He's been waiting for you.

"Thank you. But Helena has to take most of the credit. She dressed me." The dimple that had captivated him from the first moment he saw her smile appeared tantalisingly.

She accepted his gallantly proffered arm for the walk to the lounge.

"Does she do this often?" His tone was concerned, solicitous.

"Not really. Only when she catches me wearing something really unsuitable." Maya turned a grave face up to his, aware from the smile teasing the corners of his mouth that he wasn't buying any of this.

"Tried to wear your pj's to work, eh?"

"And she promised not to tell!" Maya leaned closer and whispered confidentially, "I nearly wore bright orange the other day."

"What's wrong with that? Aside from being a hideous colour, I mean." Tony smiled as she raised her pretty nose in the air at his ignorance.

"It's a fashion rule for redheads, apparently. We aren't supposed to wear colours that clash with our colouring. I hadn't thought of myself as being orange before that, but..."

"No, you're not overly orange. Anything else?"

"Never wear pink. It makes us look like tomatoes."

Tony laughed uproariously, and finally asked, "Where are you getting this garbage? Not from Helena?"

Maya chuckled, "Of course not. I've been reading back issues of Cosmopolitan magazine. Very educational."

"If it's anything like it was when my sister read it, education is not the word!"

Maya smiled. "So you don't think I should attempt to turn myself into a Cosmo girl?" There was a mischievous note in her voice.

Tony looked mildly horrified. "I'm going to be in trouble no matter how I answer that!"

Maybe he wasn't ready to hear about some of the more descriptive articles.

They appropriated the sofa they'd occupied the night before, settling themselves just before the lights dimmed for the first feature.

Tony eyed the popcorn corner. "Buttered or unbuttered?"

"Oh, none for me thanks. I'm not very hungry."

He sat back down just as the lights dimmed and offered her the tub. Maya smiled and shook her head, snuggling down against the cushions as the opening credits rolled. Goliath vs Dracula was a 1950's B movie with dragons and beefy men in loin clothes. It was exceptionally stupid and very funny.

Maya found the film enjoyable but not nearly as diverting as watching for opportunities to steal his popcorn. A few kernels here, a few kernels there; she was discreet and very, very sly. Tony affected not to notice for the first hour, then waited until she was wrist deep before ostentatiously offering her the bowl.

"Why don't you take it for a while?"

Maya turned an angelic face to his, "But I told you I'm not hungry."

Tony shook his dark head despairingly and turned his attention back to the screen, a smile quirking the corner of his mouth.

She waited ten minutes before making her big move. At the opportune moment she gasped quietly, clutched at Tony's arm, and pointed to a spot on the floor near his end of the sofa.

"What was that?"

He slanted her a suspicious glance but gamely rose to the occasion. "I don't see anything."

Maya shuddered dramatically and pressed a hand to her throat. "It looked like a huge spider."

She didn't waver under his level gaze and sceptically raised eyebrow, so he obligingly went to verify this claim. Insect slaying was a man's job, after all. He gallantly ignored the fact that Alpha was an insect-free zone. During the five seconds he was out of his seat, Maya managed to empty the popcorn bowl into the crevice by the arm on her side of the couch. She tried to look guilt-free as he resumed his place.

"I couldn't see anything.... but it must be a largish specimen."

"Oh?" Maya assumed an air of bright interest, her composure wavering only slightly as he leaned close, his dangerous, sleepy smile radically altering her pulse rate.

"Yeah, it seems to have finished off the popcorn."

"Oh dear!" Her softly sympathetic tone dissolved into laughter, briefly muffled by the swift kiss he placed upon her smiling lips.


While the first film was too ridiculous to scare, the second was another matter altogether. Poltergeist hadn't been running fifteen minutes before her first startled intake of breath.

She was trying to decide whether it was safe to open her eyes when Tony murmured in her ear, "This is definite nightmare material. Are you sure you want to risk it?" His tone was light-hearted but she knew he was willing to leave for her sake. Which only strengthened her determination not to wimp out.

At her resolute nod, Tony drew her back into his arms and clasped his hands lightly around her waist. Maya tilted her face up to smile at him.

"Better?" He asked.

She nodded. Much better. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to relax into the warmth of his embrace. She'd definitely become a horror aficionado if Tony's protective instincts always produced this satisfactory a result. She was safe from monsters - rampaging hormones were another matter. Despite the terrifying story on screen, she was acutely aware of the heated reality of his lean, powerful, masculine frame so close to her, the gentle clasp of his hands at her waist...

Tony didn't even try to follow the action on the screen. His awareness was wholly concentrated on the pleasure of holding Maya in his arms. He loved the unselfconscious weight of her against him, the delicate, fresh fragrance of her hair, the way she clutched his hand during a particularly terrifying scene. He never let it go. He was happy just to be where he was, sitting in the dark with his love in his arms, his fingers entwined with hers.

Maya seemed to be totally engrossed in the plot, obviously rooting for the survival of the cute little moppet, Carol Ann. Despite the blissful closeness of their situation, the temptation proved too much for him towards the end of the film.

"Poor Carol Ann." He whispered dolefully, his breath stirring an auburn tendril over Maya's ear. She lifted her face to look up at him, eyes wide.

"What?! She doesn't...?"

Tony nodded solemnly. He made a slicing motion across his throat with his free hand.

Maya clutched his captive hand to her apprehensively, "When?"

"Soon." He intoned, his voice doleful.

Maya watched in breathless suspense, waiting for little Carol Ann's undoubtedly gruesome end. After fifteen nerve wracking minutes it became apparent that nothing was going to befall the child and she peered suspiciously up at Tony.

One look at his face told her all she needed to know.

"Beast!" She smacked indignantly at the arm encircling her waist.

"Sorry!" He gasped with suppressed hilarity. "I couldn't resist. You should have seen your face!"

"If I have nightmares tonight, it'll be entirely your fault, Verdeschi." Her voice was threatening, but her lips curved despite themselves. His amusement was extremely infectious. Soon they were attracting the attention of fellow movie goers as their desperately suppressed laughter became more helpless. Finally, they had to stumble from the lounge before they disgraced themselves completely.

Outside in the corridor they managed to contain themselves somewhat. But then their eyes met and they collapsed again, clutching each other to avoid falling down altogether. After several minutes Tony managed to gasp,

"I think we need a drink."

Maya weakly nodded her assent and they more or less staggered to Alpha's only bar. The five minute travel tube journey sobered them only somewhat.

The lounge overlooked the gymnasium and was an intimate room, dimly lit, with many cosy corners. With seating for fifty, there were about ten people already in the room - more would arrive as the movie finished.

Maya leaned against the bar, head resolutely averted from Tony. She bit her lip severely as she struggled to control herself. Tony's voice had a peculiar strangled quality as he greeted the volunteer bartender (who worked as one of Tony's security team when not dispensing drinks).

"Er, Maya.....?" She knew he was trying to ask her what she wanted to drink. All she could do was shake her head, unable even to look at him. Determined not to disgrace herself more than she already had, Maya retreated to a booth at the rear of the bar.

She sighed happily and slouched comfortably into the leather seat. Tony seemed to be taking an inordinate amount of time getting their drinks. A slight frown marred her brow as uproarious male laughter rang from the bar area. Now the barman and Tony were looking in her direction, grinning. She straightened in her seat as he walked toward her, holding a glass in each hand.

"You told him, didn't you?" Indignation coloured her voice.

"Sorry, it was too good not to share. Am I forgiven?"

"No." She lifted her chin haughtily. "In fact, I don't think I like you anymore."

"Ah... you won't be wanting your drink then."

"What is it?" With grudging interest.

"A Caesar." He waved it tantalisingly under her nose.

"What's a Caesar?"

"Something I guarantee you'll like better than my beer."

Maya graciously accepted the glass and took a cautious sip. She smiled sweetly. "It's much better."

"So am I in favour again?"

"Maybe. But you're going to have to be nice to me for more than five minutes at a time. Can you do that?"

He laughed. "Define nice."

"No taking advantage of my trusting nature and then telling the first person you see all about it."

"I think I can manage not to do that for at least the next ten minutes."


"Now I just have to think of something to do that you will like." He smiled wickedly.

Maya laughed a trifle breathlessly, her pulse beginning to race. "You're trying to make me blush."

"And it's working." With a delicate, provocative touch, he traced one finger over her exquisitely tinted cheekbone, marvelling at the velvety softness of her fair skin. Following slowly along her jaw line, his tantalisingly gentle caress stopped at her mouth. Tony gazed into Maya's thickly fringed blue eyes and continued in a quiet voice, "So. If I kiss you now, and you like it, I'll definitely be back in favour..." A hushed silence descended between them as he studied her spellbound face. She really was irresistible.

Had she tried, Maya wouldn't have been capable of answering him. Held in thrall by the sudden heat in his gaze, she was having trouble remembering to breathe, let alone retort. His finger under her chin tilted her face to his, and as languid, melting warmth surged lazily through her veins, Tony's mouth claimed hers in a kiss that was loving, sexy and almost too pleasurable.

All background noises faded magically away; they might have been alone in the room. Maya's eyes drifted shut, her lips parted under Tony's and she moved closer into his embrace, her hands moving of their own accord to twine around his neck.

Tony cupped her head, slowly intensifying the loving, arousing caress that was his mouth on hers. He buried his fingers in the molten softness of her hair, smothering a groan of pleasure as he lost himself to her. From the unbearable perfection of her soft lips, to the delicately scented heat of her silken skin and hair, she was all he'd ever wanted - like the first drop of cool, desperately needed water offered to a man lost in the desert. He committed the taste and feel of her to memory with a lazy, breathtaking sensuality.

Conscious only of her overwhelming desire to be closer still, Maya kissed him back. With her first tentative response, Tony pulled her closer and she abandoned herself completely to sensation. Reality drifted away as her whole world became the delicious contact that was sending frissons of arousal shivering along every nerve ending in her body.

Tony was the first to come reluctantly to his senses. Albeit intimate and dimly lit, this was hardly the ideal place to introduce Maya to the delights of lovemaking. He gradually eased away from her responsive lips and pressed slow, warm kisses over her cheek and jaw line. She was achingly lovely, her face dreamy, her mouth soft and tempting. The thick fan of Maya's long, sooty lashes lifted slowly to unveil the rich splendour of her azure eyes.

Maya felt intense disappointment as Tony drew back slightly. She didn't want to stop. Abruptly, she realised she was still clinging to him. Flushing, she made a movement to withdraw, but he stopped her, gently replacing her arms around his neck before sliding his hands around her waist again.

A slow smile curved his mouth. "Well?"

"I haven't decided. It's not been ten minutes yet."

"Ah, but I think you secretly like it when I'm horrible to you."

"You're not being particularly horrible now," she admitted.

"That's because you're particularly kissable." His voice was softly affectionate, warmed by an undercurrent of more intense emotion.

"I am?" Suddenly bashful, she dropped her eyes, unable to meet his gaze. Tony raised her chin with a gentle hand.

"Extremely." Tenderness shone in his dark eyes as a shy happiness bloomed on her face.

Feeling more than a little daring, Maya smiled, buried her face against Tony's neck and asked in a slightly muffled voice, "Then can we do it again?"

Oh God. She couldn't believe she'd just said that.

"I'm your very willing victim."

Maya could hear the smile in his voice and her own lips curved despite her fevered cheeks. Indignation dispelled any remaining embarrassment at her forwardness and she gave him an affronted push. Fixing him with a reproachful glare, she was about to voice her displeasure with him when he silenced her in a most satisfactory manner, telling her with one thorough, thrilling, leisurely kiss what she wouldn't have really believed after an hour of earnest talk. The world beyond them again ceased to exist as they lost themselves to each other. When they finally parted Tony pressed a kiss to her palm.

She raised her gaze to his and for a second her eyes shone with something so resembling adoration that Tony's heart nearly stopped. Her lashes veiled her expression in the next instant; he couldn't be sure he wasn't projecting what he desperately wanted to see. Even so, his pulse pounded madly as he tried to get a grip on his emotions. God knew, he loved her. Adored her. Wanted her unbearably. But he was also acutely conscious of her innocence.

They settled back onto the banquet seat of their booth, hands clasped, content to sit quietly, enjoying the others nearness.

The bar was filling up now and their private little corner was becoming less so. It was almost 1.00am and Maya was beginning to droop a little with fatigue. The last 24 hours had been emotionally and physically exhausting. Neither was in the mood to make social conversation with friends and a single look between them was all the communication required before they were on their feet, heading for the door. They walked hand in hand, the silence between them companionable, both pleasantly tired. Neither had had much sleep the night before and it was finally catching up with them.

Maya was practically out on her feet by time they reached her door. She stifled a yawn,

"Are you getting up to swim tomorrow?"

Tony chuckled. "No chance. I could sleep for days. If I wake up in time for the basketball game at one I'll be doing well."

"Oh. I promised Helena I'd be her cheering section for the tennis match, so I'll see you there?"

"Count on it." He pressed a gentle goodnight kiss to her rosy mouth and brushed his knuckles caressingly over her cheek. "Sleep well."

As Tony walked back to his quarters he pondered the unveiled look he'd glimpsed in Maya's eyes. For the first time he had some real hope that she was coming to feel for him as he did for her. He realised they'd taken a big step. Until today the greatest physical contact they'd shared had been an occasional hug or kiss on the cheek. All very platonic. But now he and Maya had shared a decidedly non platonic contact and he knew she'd enjoyed it.

His last conscious thought after getting into bed was that finally he could begin to court Maya seriously.

Maya awoke at 10.30am and snuggled into the warmth of her duvet, too comfortable to move. Yesterday had been wonderful. For the first time Tony had treated her like a desirable woman and not an amusing kid sister. She touched her mouth as she relived the sensation of his kiss. A shiver of remembered pleasure quivered along her spine and she flushed slightly as she recalled her own uninhibited response.

She couldn't wait to see him again.

Helena's tennis match was at 11.30. Tony said his basketball game started at one. She hadn't been to a game before, but knowing that he would be participating had increased the attraction of the sport considerably.

The gymnasium complex was large, with tennis, squash, basketball and volleyball courts as well as the pool and several multi-purpose rooms. The viewing stands ran the length of all the courts. Sports fans had a choice of watching the games from the comfort of the enclosed lounge/bar with large panoramic windows overlooking the courts. Or you could sit "live" in the small grandstands supplied for each sports area. The basketball games, male, female and mixed were always well attended. Maya found the idea of watching the games from behind glass rather boring - you missed much of the joking and repartee between the players, the noise of the other spectators and physical proximity to the action. Let's face it, she didn't want to watch Tony from behind glass if there was the slightest chance he might look up and notice her in the grandstand. She could watch him shamelessly from the safety of the crowd.

Thus inspired by the anticipated delights of the day ahead, Maya bounced out of bed and into the shower.

"You look chipper this morning." Helena was ready and waiting when her young friend arrived half an hour later and they started out for the gym.

"I feel chipper." Maya responded smilingly. While Helena was attractively attired in tennis whites, Maya wore her favourite blue jeans and a crisp, white long sleeved cotton shirt. The denim trousers were prefaded and looked lived in and comfortable - they emphasised the slender curves of her figure without being tight. White canvas sneakers completed her outfit. Her hair tumbled down her back in casual disarray, held back from her face by a black clip.

They entered the lounge overlooking the gym and ordered salads from the catering attendant before walking to a table overlooking the tennis courts.

Maya smiled her thanks to the catering assistant who brought their food. Helena sighed, "I really want a chilli dog, but I know I'll humiliate myself out there if I eat anything heavy."

"Reward yourself when you win your match." Maya picked up her fork and speared a piece of lettuce. "It'll taste better then anyway." She leaned into the window and peered down into the bleachers to one end of the tennis courts. They were slowly filling with spectators.

"I suppose I'll have to go down soon if I want a seat." There were few people down there now but the lounge seemed to be filling rapidly.

Helena chuckled. "No you won't. Tennis never attracts that big a crowd. Especially not piddly semi-final games like mine." She glanced around at the sports fans gathering in their vicinity. "Everyone's here for the basketball game. You are going aren't you?" At Maya's nonchalant nod Helena laughed knowingly. "My game should be over by one. Save me a seat, will you? I'll shower and meet you there."

She paused and smiled at Maya, "So how did it go last night? Did Big Brother make an appearance?"

"No." Maya's eyes took on a dreamy, faraway cast. She stared unseeing out the window, her wistful expression telling Helena all she needed to know about the success of the previous evening. When she returned to reality with a start several minutes later, Maya cast an apologetic look at Helena and expressed surprise at the number of people who'd appeared in the lounge during her daydream.

"Most sports fans like the speed and strategy of basketball. I like to watch eighteen extremely healthy male specimens run and sweat for ninety minutes. Purely clinical interest, of course!"

They were rising to leave, Helena for the locker room, Maya for the stands, when Tony, Alan and Bill came into the lounge. Old sweats and high tops were the uniform of the day. A friendly chorus of shouts and catcalls greeted the trio as they walked to the serving bar.

"Hey, you jokers had better win! I've got a double shift riding on this game!"

"No worries, Ed!" Alan yelled, "You shoulda bet a triple - then -you'd get a long weekend out of us!"

Tony laughed and raised his hands as though absolving himself of any responsibility.

"Forget it, Verdeschi! We want at least thirty points from you." A threateningly humorous voice shouted from across the room. Tony raised an eyebrow at the beefy engineer from whom this had emanated.

"That'll cost you at least one beer, Ed."

Ed made a rude noise and was about to retort when the main vid screen in the room blared into life and the Base Rec Officer appeared on screen. The room quietened as the woman prepared to make an announcement. It was most likely something big if the Rec Department was going to the trouble to broadcast. News of most entertainments spread by word of mouth or were posted on the computer recreation schedule.

The attractive dark haired woman cleared her throat and began her announcement.

"As we've had a relatively crisis free few months, the Recreation Department has decided to re-introduce the formal dinner dances. The first dance is tentatively scheduled for eight weeks from today. Any volunteers for decoration and refreshments should contact Rec for details."

Her image faded from the screen to general applause and an excited buzz of conversation. The regular formals had been a highlight of Alpha's marooned social life until they were cancelled due to pressure of work and lack of resources eight months ago. They had been sorely missed and were welcomed back with no little excitement.

The noise level increased again as more players and fans arrived. Tony turned away from his boisterous supporters, shaking his head good humouredly as he followed Alan and Bill towards the back of the lounge. He stopped abruptly when he saw Helena and Maya threading their way through the tables to the exit. They exchanged friendly greetings and a warm, unspoken communication passed between Tony and Maya.

"When's your match, Helena?"

She glanced at her watch. "Ten minutes. God help me!" The doctor smiled at Maya. "You'd better go and get yourself a seat, moral support." Helena grimaced ruefully at Tony. "Maya has specific instructions to beam reassuringly at me every time I blow a shot."

Tony jammed his hands into his sweatshirt pockets. "Well, I don't play for an hour and a half. I'll come down with Maya as co-beamer."

Helena sighed. "Thanks. I need all the help I can get. See you down there." She waved and headed for the locker room.

"Have you eaten?" Warm brown gaze met blue. Then at her nod, "Wait a sec while I get some fries?"

He grinned and pulled at face at her over his shoulder when Maya sighed and murmured, "I suppose."

Suddenly, she was looking forward to this tennis match a lot more than she had been ten minutes ago. Tony returned within minutes with a dish of French fries, liberally doused with ketchup. They made their way downstairs to the tennis court and found seats half way up the riser.

"Helena seems rather nervous." Tony observed, offering Maya his dish. She smiled and took a fry.

"She is." Maya bit the end off her chip. "She's making me anxious just watching her!"

Helena was pacing the end of her court, twirling her racket and muttering to herself. Her opponent looked almost comatose by comparison.

"Maybe we should "beam" her next time she looks our way," Tony said. "Pre-game moral support."

"Okay." Maya laughed and then clutched his arm. "Look, she's!" They both grinned like idiots, furiously projecting goodwill and confidence. Helena looked startled for a moment, and then realised what they were doing and laughed, relaxing perceptibly. She shook her head despairingly, as though doubting their soundness of mind.

"Well, she can't say we didn't try." Tony said dryly.

Helena played well, defeating her opponent 6-3, 6-4, 6-1. They had just started the fourth set when Tony checked his watch and realised with some displeasure that he would soon have to leave to get ready for his own game. He was having much too good a time sitting here with Maya to go happily. He took her hand in his. She looked up from her relaxed position at his side, her long, slender legs stretched out next to his on the empty bleacher in front of them.

"I have to go warm up." He felt distinctly put upon, having to leave her to play a sport he normally loved. He twined his fingers with hers, enjoying the slender warmth of her hand in his. "Meet me for supper after the game?"

"I'd love to." Maya's mouth curved and the dimple he found so bewitching appeared fleetingly at the corner of her rosy mouth. "If I want to save a seat for Helena I should go now anyway."

Delighted surprise lit his handsome features. "You're going to the game?" She'd never attended one before that he'd noticed.

"With Helena. She advised me to leave early if I wanted seats in the stands. Besides, you need your moral supporters too. Although I think we'll be two amongst hundreds in this case!"

Tony smiled and leaned close, "But you'll be the only 'beamer'." They laughed quietly together, their heads close. It seemed entirely natural that their lips should meet; the kiss was tender, poignant, and inexpressibly sweet but it left them both acutely aware of the smouldering heat that flared into life whenever they touched.

Then reluctantly, they stood and walked the length of the riser. Tony leaped down and turned to help Maya, lightly holding her waist as she jumped gracefully to the ground. Their bodies touched as he caught her and they stood frozen in the embrace, each transfixed by the others nearness. Tony gazed into Maya's upturned face, hyper conscious of the tempting softness of her mouth, the beauty of her sky hued eyes, the subtle fragrance of her Titian curls, of the slender suppleness of her waist under his hands. The urge to lose himself in her was overpowering.

"I should go," he murmured, making absolutely no effort to do so. And looking into his eyes, Maya realised for the first time that she affected him just as strongly as he did her.

She raised her face to his, looped her arms around his neck and smiled, "But I thought you were my willing victim?" On her tiptoes, she pressed a gentle kiss to his mouth, then disengaged herself before he had time to react, waving bye--bye over her shoulder. Tony caught just a glimpse of her smile as she disappeared around the corner.

He had to work hard to keep a foolish grin from his face as he entered the locker room.

Maya found two seats in the centre tier - she was lucky, really. The stands were almost full. Looking up, she saw that the lounge was equally crowded. Helena came in just as the players began filing in through the locker room door. Maya raised an arm to signal as the doctor scanned the rows of spectators. Helena was slightly breathless when she finally reached Maya, having clambered over a score of fellow fans.

"Whew, what a mob! This is going to be a great game."

"You weren't so bad yourself! Congratulations."

Helena chuckled. "Thanks. I spent most of my energy trying not to laugh at you two. I've never had a more enthusiastic cheering section! I think you quite demoralised the opposition."

Maya devoted her full attention to the gym floor as Tony entered the court. The other members of his team, including Alan, Bill Fraser and Ben Vincent, were already on their bench, either stretching or just sitting discussing strategy. She decided then and there that this would not be her first and last basketball game. Both teams were in good shape, physically, but Maya thought Tony the best looking man on the court by far.

He wore an old grey Academy singlet and a pair of dilapidated maroon sweat pants that had been hacked off at the knees. The thin singlet left his strong brown arms and shoulders bare and offered a tantalising glimpse of the dark hair covering his broad chest.

Helena leaned over and murmured, "Wave. Maybe he'll see us."

"No, way. I'll look like an idiot. He'll never see us in this crowd."

But even as the words passed Maya's lips, Tony's dark head lifted and his keen eyes briefly scanned the crowd. He spotted Maya and Helena right away and flashed them a brilliant grin. A pleasurable heat ignited in the pit of Maya's stomach as their gazes met across the length of the gymnasium. She lowered her eyes and inspected her fingernails studiously as the inevitable, treacherous blush rose in her cheeks. But a force far greater than any transient shyness drew her eyes to Tony again. His attention hadn't wavered.

How was it possible for such warmth to travel instantaneously from his eyes to her heart? A delicious tremor shook her as the referee blew the opening whistle and Tony gave her one of his slow, heart stopping smiles before turning away to huddle with his team-mates.

It was a fast and furious game, more like a bloodless slaughter than an evenly matched contest. Tony seemed to catch fire, his lean figure moving with the fluid grace of a natural athlete; dodging, weaving and traversing the length of the court again and again as he scored numerous points. When he wasn't dunking the ball himself, he was effortlessly passing the ball to his team-mates, blocking for them as they took aim at the basket. The atmosphere was electric throughout and both Maya and Helena were soon caught up in the excitement, clapping and pounding their feet enthusiastically as Tony's team clobbered the other side.

There was only one anxious moment, when Tony and another player collided with brutal force a few minutes into the last period. Both ran full tilt for the ball, impacting with a bone breaking crunch and landing heavily on the floor in a tangle of arms and legs. They lay still for several seconds and their concerned team-mates gathered round as the ref blew time out. Maya and Helena were on their feet with the rest of the spectators, anxiously trying to see whether either was seriously hurt. Relief weakened Maya's knees when Tony hauled himself to his feet and gave a helping hand to the other guy. She sat down abruptly beside Helena again, feeling rather limp.

"Well, they knocked each other breathless, but no obvious damage. I bet they have some bruises tomorrow."

"But they hit so hard. Do the players often get hurt?" Maya eyed Tony worriedly. The ref had benched him for ten minutes and Tony seemed to be disputing this call; the ref was shaking his head exasperatedly.

"Oh, I've treated some nasty sprains and torn ligaments -as well as several broken arms and legs. The worst Tony's ever managed was a sprained wrist last year. From sports, anyway."

"He is very good, isn't he?" Maya's gaze lingered lovingly on him. Even benched, Tony radiated energy. He was obviously dying to rejoin the game.

Elbows on knees, Tony's dark gaze never left the action on the court, living each shot with his team. Sweat soaked his singlet; it clung to his muscular chest, leaving little of his lean but powerful frame to the imagination. His arms, shoulders and face gleamed with the result of exertion. Maya couldn't tear her fascinated gaze from him. He was absolutely gorgeous.

A smile quirked Maya's lips as the ref waved Tony back into the game. He was off the bench in a flash and a roar of approval from the crowd reverberated loudly in the cavernous gym. With every point Tony scored a thrill of pride squeezed her heart. The final score was 120-74. Tony had scored forty points. As the final whistle blew the stands emptied and jubilant sports fans from both sides swarmed onto the court, clustering around the players to boisterously voice their approval.

Still on an adrenaline high, Tony modestly accepted the congratulations of his friends and teammates. He knew he'd played well and suspected Maya's presence among the spectators had spurred his performance. He grabbed a towel from the bench and mopped his face and neck, running a hand impatiently through his hair to keep it off his forehead. Even as he bantered with the admiring crowd surrounding him, he scanned the sea of faces. Where was she? The stands were almost deserted now. Had Maya left? No. There she was, standing by the door with Helena. Tony started to work his way through the crowd in their direction, but found his way blocked. Change of tactics...

"Maya, you can't leave without saying hi to Tony! Your moral support seems to have worked beautifully."

Maya looked pleadingly at the doctor. She did want to see Tony but her first attempt to penetrate the mass of humanity surrounding the players had been a tad off-putting. Too many shouting, pushing bodies. Maya wasn't used to crowds and even this one, made up of people she knew, was more than a little intimidating. So she hung on the edge of the crowd by the door, feeling shy and a bit idiotic.

"No, you go, Helena. I'll wait here."

"You're sure?" At Maya's nod, Helena gave her a cheerful wave and plunged into the crowd. Maya watched her go a bit wistfully, then stood on her tiptoes, craning her neck for a glimpse of Tony. A tap on her shoulder startled her and she whirled around with a slight gasp.

"Tony! Where did you come from?" She smiled with delight, her beautiful azure blue eyes seeming to light from within.

"I ducked out through the locker room."

He looked absolutely wonderful. His hair and skin were still damp with perspiration - he radiated rugged good health and a potent masculinity. The pit of Maya's stomach curled pleasantly as an arousing mixture of clean sweat and Tony's own uniquely exciting scent pervaded her senses. Sincere admiration rang in her low, clear voice,

"You were terrific out there." She gestured towards the body filled court. A hint of colour rose in Tony's lean cheeks.

"Thanks." Her words pleased him beyond measure and a rush of pride tightened his throat momentarily. He felt like a gawky adolescent talking to his first crush. "Why don't you join me for a celebratory drink in the lounge before dinner? You can protect me from my adoring public." Mischief danced in his eyes and they laughed companionably, both exactly where they wanted to be - together.

Maya surveyed the dispersing crowd, "I'll get Helena and we'll save you a seat."

Tony glanced at his watch. "Okay, give me fifteen minutes to clean up." They exchanged an affectionate smile and Tony ducked back into the corridor as several people spotted him and shouted his name.

He knew he'd played a good game, but this was getting ridiculous. If Maya thought he'd done well, that was good enough for him. He smiled ruefully as he entered the locker room and acknowledged the boisterous high spirits of his team-mates. He'd always scorned the efforts to which some men went to attract women. Not for him the showing off of weight lifting or arm wrestling - men who flaunted their strength in front of women were little more than chest thumping apes in his book. But now he'd caught himself doing much the same thing, albeit unconsciously. He preferred team sports like basketball and soccer, or games of skill and dexterity - he was an expert fencer. So he was a bit chagrined to realise he'd shown off on court today. Team sports didn't need prima donnas, especially in a small community like Alpha.

He walked into the sport lounge freshly showered and shaved, clad in jeans and an Academy sweatshirt. Maya waved to him from the corner table she and Helena had secured. He made his way quickly to them, despite being stopped several times by well-wishers. There was just a hint of strain on his handsome face when he sat down beside Maya on the leather banquet.

"Good game, Tony." Helena said. "The professional teams of Earth could've used you."

Tony rolled his eyes, his mouth quirking as he accepted the glass Maya pushed towards him.

"We got you a beer." They exchanged a smile. Maya pulled the clip out of her hair and brushed a soft, auburn tendril from her forehead. She'd fastened the clip a bit too tightly and a headache threatened. She placed it on the table, sipped her drink and watched Tony. He looked tired, but heart-stoppingly gorgeous. His hair was damp from the shower and looked almost black in the subdued light. She had to fight to keep her fingers from seeking out the unruly cowlick that persisted in falling across his forehead even as he impatiently raked it back.

"When do you play next?"

"Not for several months." He took a drink of his beer. "That was the last scheduled game for a while. We'll just play pick up games for the next few weeks. They're more fun than organised games, anyhow." He chuckled. "No refs to stop us from beating the hell out of each other."

Maya picked up the menu, "Look, Helena - chilli dogs. It says 'only to be eaten by those who've been very, very good at lunch.'"

Helena stuck her tongue out and then chuckled at Tony's quizzical expression. "I promised myself a chilli dog if I won my match - as a reward for being virtuous at lunch."

"That sounds like a plan. Maya?" He raised an enquiring eyebrow. At her smiling nod, he made a move to stand but Maya's slender hand on his arm stopped him.

"No you don't. I'll get them. You two have done all the work so far today. My turn." She scooted off the booth seat and had turned to head for the food bar when Tony's crooked finger in her belt loop brought her up short.

"I want extra chilli sauce on mine. Hold the onions." He struggled to keep a straight face as Helena added her two cents worth,

"Yeah. Extra chilli sauce and another Coke."

"That's two extra Cokes. And make it snappy. We're hungry." Tony smiled innocently into Maya's narrowing eyes - only the impish sparkle in his own gaze gave him away. He released Maya's denim belt loop and then joined Helena in uproarious laughter as Maya spun on her heel, her slim back rigid with outrage.

"Uh, oh." Tony chuckled. "We'd better hire a taster."

Helena glanced across the crowded room to where Maya stood talking to Alibe in the food line. "You could be right." When she turned back to Tony he was still watching Maya. "How were the horror flics? Sounds like she had a good time."

"I did too." He sobered suddenly. He'd not forgotten Helena's remarks in the corridor last night. The doctor obviously had some idea of the depth of his feelings for Maya. It was a relief to be with someone who knew how he felt.

"Good. She needs to have fun."

Tony looked intently into the doctor's sympathetic eyes. His voice was quiet. "She means everything to me, Helena."

She reached across the table and gripped his hand firmly in hers. "I know."

Tony looked toward Maya. She had finally reached the counter and was animatedly discussing the menu with the smiling catering assistant. With her hair loose, glossy Titian curls tumbling over her shoulders, Maya reminded Tony of the renaissance portraits of his native Florence. "Do you think she'll ever...?"

He didn't finish the question, unable to give voice to his greatest dream. Helena gave his fingers a fond squeeze.

"Ever doesn't come into it. I think she's more than a little in love with you now."

Sudden fire blazed in Tony's dark eyes as he lifted his head abruptly to stare at Helena. She gave him a gentle smile; "Maya is extremely shy about discussing her feelings, even with me. But we had a rather revealing talk yesterday... " she paused tantalisingly, "and she didn't take her eyes off you once during the game. I thought she was going to faint when you and Frank collided on the court today."

They watched as Maya turned and headed back to them with a laden tray.

Helena's blue eyes twinkled. "She's thrilled that you're no longer treating her like your kid sister. So don't blow it!" She broke off quickly as Maya sailed up to the table and deposited her tray with a flourish.

She was obviously very pleased with herself and said condescendingly. "I overcame my natural impulse to punish you both and brought a bit of everything - not that you deserve it, but I'm hungry too." She slipped in beside Tony and began distributing the food, pointedly ignoring the amused reactions of her companions. "There's a chilli dog each, French fries, onion rings and something called fritters, which I'm assured are very good. Oh, and three Cokes." She smiled sweetly at Tony as he eyed his chilli dog dubiously. "Believe me, I thought about it, but I have a hopelessly forgiving nature."

"And I'm naturally suspicious." Tony retorted. "Blame it on a distant Sicilian ancestor."

"Don't be so hard on yourself, Tony! I wouldn't call you 'silly' exactly." Her blue eyes sparkled with suppressed laughter.

He poked her lightly in the ribs, laughing as she jumped in ticklish reaction, "Brat."

Maya scooted out of his reach. Tony, the wretch, knew how desperately ticklish she was.

"Now children." Helena intoned severely. "This is not how responsible command level staff behave in restaurants."

Maya darted a wary sidelong glance at Tony and slowly slid back into her seat beside him.

"Pax?" Tony raised his glass and arched a dark eyebrow in humorous entreaty.

"Pax." They gently touched glasses and peace reigned again.

"This was a good idea, Maya." Helena gestured with her chilli dog. "About a million calories, but worth it."

"Thank you." Maya smiled demurely, deliberately avoiding Tony's eye. "I'm glad someone appreciates my efforts."

Tony leaned close and turned her face to his with a finger under her chin, "Maya, I spend every moment of every day appreciating you." A gentle teasing note underscored his deep voice, but there was a seriousness in his eyes that made her pulse race.

Helena stifled a smile as she watched a flustered rosiness wash Maya's high cheekbones. They settled down to eat their meals in comparative silence, but Maya cast cautious, wondering glances at Tony when she thought he wasn't looking.

Helena glanced at her watch after finishing her chilli dog, "Well, I've got to make a move. I'm meeting John at the movies. No gore tonight, much more my speed!" She picked up her plate, "See you two later?"

After Helena had gone the other two sat dawdling over the remains of their meal, content just to be together. The conversations of the other diners in their vicinity seemed to revolve solely around the upcoming dance, with intrigues already afoot as to who would go with whom. Tony realised he had better secure his beloved for the evening before some other eager swain beat him to it.

They left the restaurant and walked back to the crew quarters. A particularly striking play of light from a passing comet reflected spectacularly off the lunar surface, drawing them to the recessed picture windows lining the corridor.

The pale moonlight cast a silvery glow over Maya's ivory skin, lending her an ethereal, otherworldly quality. He had the fanciful notion that she might melt away at any moment into a twilight world and be lost to him forever... "Maya..."

She looked at him enquiringly.

"You've heard that they're reinstating the dances?"

She nodded.

"They can be a lot of fun, if you go with the right person." He smiled ruefully, "That's why I thought I'd better make a formal appeal before someone else does." He chuckled at her quizzical expression, "I'm trying to ask you to go with me."

Her face lit up and she smiled, "I'd love to... but what makes you think someone else will ask me?" She was genuinely puzzled.

There was a hint of tender exasperation in his voice when he replied. "Because every woman on the base will have at least three men begging to escort her to the dance... and because beautiful redheads are at a decided premium."

Maya blushed gorgeously as his meaning sank in, "But, I'm not..."

"Beautiful?" He traced a gentle finger down over her heated cheek, and smiled into her eyes. "Yes, you are."

"No, I'm not!" She looked and sounded absolutely horrified.

Amused and enchanted by her reaction, his response was a firm, "Oh, yes, you are." She was about to refute this again when he placed a hand over her mouth and quirked an eyebrow at her, "You wanna fight!?"

"Mbbphh." She smiled against his palm, thrilled beyond belief at his words, but extremely doubtful that the adjective should be applied to her. Voluptuous, glamorous blondes who could wear lipstick without looking like they'd been playing in their mother's makeup boxes were beautiful. And she wasn't a voluptuous blonde.

She covered his hand with hers and laughingly pulled his fingers away from her mouth, "I could bite you, you know."

"Don't try to change the subject."

Trying very hard to change the subject, she crossed her arms and scuffed her foot on the floor like an embarrassed seven year old, then asked brightly, "What's playing at the Festival tonight?"

Tony chuckled, "All right." He could take a hint.

But he wasn't about to let her off that easily.

He gently twined a strand of her hair around his index finger, "Can you keep a secret?" At her cautious nod, he released the captured tendril, tucked it behind her ear and quietly said, "Red's been my favourite colour for months now."

Maya's smile faded, replaced by a wondering stillness as she saw her future in his eyes. More was said in the hushed eternity between her soft intake of breath and the moment their lips met than could have been expressed by a thousand poets.

Then she was in his arms and the magic of his kiss, his touch, swept her away into a world where love was all that mattered.

When they eventually parted, Tony cupped her face in his hands. The intensity of emotion in his eyes was almost frightening, entirely wonderful. Maya's heart began to pound hard.

"Maya, I ..." Whatever he'd been about to say was interrupted abruptly, brutally, by the urgent, blaring wail of several alarm claxons. They recognised the different sounds at the same time and exchanged a horrified look. Tony confirmed it. "Life Support and Main Computer."

Both systems had just failed.

They took off at a dead run for Command Centre.

Chapter Five

Since the catastrophic system failure all Command level staff had been working 24-hour days. Tony was practically living in Life Support - going back to his quarters only to shower and try to catch an hour or two of sleep every 36 hours.

This 30-minute meeting of key personnel in John's office was the first time he'd seen Maya in two weeks. They'd all been up for at least 24 hours and were running on adrenaline and coffee. But his own tiredness was quickly supplanted by a growing feeling of concern as she gave her report.

Maya was pale, the delicate glow that usually illuminated her features banished by exhaustion and stress. Her hair was neatly captured in a French braid but the tendrils that invariably escaped to frame her face now merely emphasised her air of fragility.

"I've rerouted most essential programmes to run through the auxiliary computer. As soon as the various sections are ready we can start testing the new set-up. Sections 1a through to 5000c are ready but full diagnostics will have to be run before relying on them completely." She smiled wryly, "We've had to use some rather unusual materials to patch together the emergency network."

"Sticky tape." John sighed.

"You're not far off." Tony rubbed a hand tiredly across his eyes, "Anything that could possibly be used has been salvaged."

Hundreds of Arra's oxygen and heat producing plants had been distributed around the Base in order to failsafe the life support system. Many Alphans had taken to sleeping in the safety of the Biodome, with the full approval of the Commander.

Helena had been surveying the others silently while they made their reports. A faint frown belied the calm levelness of her voice, "I don't like the way any of you look."

She ignored Alan's half-hearted snort of laughter. "I'm serious. I want all of you to have a proper meal and get some sleep after this meeting. At least twelve hours off duty. None of this two hours on the run nonsense. Alpha will be in even deeper water than it is now if one or all of you collapse."

No-one argued this point. Each of them was trembling on the brink of complete exhaustion.

"I don't want to hear of anyone seeing any of you before..." she glanced at her watch, "0900 hours. Understood?"

They filed silently out of the room, too weary to make idle conversation. Tony turned to Maya, who was walking by his side, "Reheated pasta at my place?"

A hint of her usual vivacity gleamed as she smiled her agreement. "That sounds wonderful. I don't think I could chew anything more substantial." She sighed, as though even this would be too much effort.

Tony chuckled and took her hand in his, swinging her arm affectionately. "I can make you some Jello if you like. Mashed potatoes? Soup? Then you won't have to chew at all."

"I think I might be able to manage pasta."

When they reached his quarters Tony immediately put a casserole dish into the microwave.

Maya took plates down from the cupboard, moving with easy, unthinking familiarity. She felt as though she was moving underwater, everything seemed to have slowed down -exhaustion lending her senses a dreamy quality.

Tony looked up from the bottle of wine he was uncorking, a slight frown creasing his brow. She was practically out on her feet. "Maya, why don't you go sit down. I can do that."

"Nuh, uh. Why should you do all the work? You're just as tired as I am."

"But not nearly as argumentative." Tony poured the wine into two glasses and waited for the inevitable reaction, a smile curving his mouth.

"I am not!" Mild indignation revived a spark of her vitality.

It was all either of them could do to remain on their feet for the two minutes it took to heat the casserole.

They sat down together on the sofa, propping their feet on the coffee table in front of them. They each had a plate of ravioli and a glass of red wine. The pleasure each took in the other's company, along with the homey comfort of their surroundings, meant a sudden, complete release from the tension and anxiety that had kept them going for weeks. They both felt exhausted but completely happy.

Maya speared a morsel of pasta and closed her eyes in blissful enjoyment as the gorgeous flavours of pesto, tomato and garlic exploded in her mouth. It was the first hot meal she'd had in days. She sighed. "I'm so glad you have a compulsion to make five times as much food as you can actually eat."

Tony's mouth curved, "It's an Italian thing."

"Well, it's a very nice thing."

"I'm glad you approve."

Maya smiled, suppressed a yawn and relaxed totally for the first time in weeks, feeling bonelessly comfortable and cared for. She managed to finish most of her supper before succumbing to tiredness. In the end it became harder and harder to concentrate on lifting her fork to her lips. As her eyes drifted shut, her long eyelashes cast dark shadows on her ivory skin. Hovering between awareness and slumber, she gravitated ever closer to Tony. She was asleep before her head touched his shoulder. He carefully removed the fork from her limp fingers, and deposited both their plates on the coffee table.

She didn't wake even as he gently lifted her into his arms and carried her to the bedroom. He laid her down carefully and then removed her shoes before pulling the duvet up around her shoulders. For a long moment he simply looked at her, unable to imagine a more beautiful sight than the one before him now, Maya asleep in his bed. He traced his fingers over the delicate skin of her cheek, following the line of brown pigment down the curve of her cheekbone and leaned close to brush a kiss across her temple. Then he joined her under the covers.

Tony's throat tightened, the tender ache going directly to his heart as Maya snuggled up to him, seeking his warmth. He held her close, pressed his cheek to the silken crown of her head, and whispered a quiet, "I love you."

Maya woke briefly several hours later and knew without opening her eyes where she was and in whose arms she lay. Cocooned in warmth and comfort and feeling utterly safe, she smiled, nestled closer into Tony's embrace and drifted back to sleep.

Tony sighed as he strode along the deserted corridor leading to Command Centre. He'd planned to spend the evening in his quarters reading, allowing the soothing strains of Vivaldi or Handel to ease the tension of what had been a very long day. Hell, it had been a long month.

He hadn't seen much of anyone except Ed Bishop during that time, spending every waking hour trying to nurse Life Support back to health, in the far corner of Alpha's Technical Wing. He'd only seen Maya a handful of times during the last month, (with the exception of that one soul reviving idyll) and then for a few minutes. She was ironing out the remaining bugs in Main Computer. It always seemed when he was awake, she was trying to get a few hours sleep or vice versa.

The crisis was over and life had finally returned to normal. The state of emergency had officially been lifted two hours ago. So why was he wandering Alpha's halls like a lost soul? He desperately needed to relax but a restless yearning kept him going despite himself. The source of that yearning was no mystery. It was a longing that had been growing all month - a longing for someone who was as necessary to him as the air he breathed.

Sandra's sleek dark head lifted enquiringly as the Command Centre doors breezed open and Tony entered. "You are living dangerously. Helena is on the warpath." She raised an eyebrow teasingly. "There is such a thing as too much dedication - even in a First Officer."

Tony pulled a face and then smiled as he dropped into his seat. "Just visiting, honest." He glanced around him, conscious of the curiously soothing atmosphere Command Centre always had after the main day shift abandoned it. In the absence of the usual murmur of voices and bustle of activity, the quiet hum of Main Computer was almost soporific. Almost.

After a tiring fourteen hours on duty this was the last place he should be. Helena had been particularly strict when she made the announcement a few hours ago, insisting that all senior personnel get their recommended allotment of R & R - whether they liked it or not.

The doctor had just started a series of tests on Alpha's mental and physical stress levels. On average Helena and her team were processing several victims a day. He'd had his turn yesterday. It was Maya's turn today. Tony turned his gaze to the empty Science station to his right. All month he'd felt her absence like a subtle, empty ache around his heart.

So here he sat, like a fool, when all he had to do to ease the ache was get up and find her. But that was increasingly becoming a form of sweet torture, too.

He sighed again and punched up the rec schedule on his monitor. What he needed (aside from the obvious), was an especially gruelling pick up game. Tired as he was, he knew he'd have to exhaust himself completely if he wanted to get any rest tonight. If he left for the gym now...

"Just what do you think you're doing, Tony?" Helena's disapproving tones rang out behind him, startling him out of his rather gloomy self absorption. "I seem to recall ordering you to work less, play more!"

As he swivelled round Helena's stern face hove into view.

"Not guilty, Doctor. I'm just visiting Sahn."

Sandra laughed. "In body, maybe. You have been staring into space for at least ten minutes."

He did look tired, Helena thought. All command level staff had been working punishing hours for the last five weeks. The problems with Life Support and the disastrous Main Computer malfunction had meant a month of 24 hour marathons. Now that the various crises had more or less passed they all needed a serious break - John, Tony and Maya in particular.

"I've just told John and Maya and now you - you're all to take the next week off. Doctor's orders. No work. Alan will take care of day-to-day ops. I don't want to find any of you anywhere near Command Centre."

Somewhat to his own surprise, Tony felt no great urge to resist this directive. He needed some time to come to terms with the emotional turmoil that dogged his days and nights. When Helena showed little surprise of her own at his lack of resistance, he queried her reaction. She smiled rather grimly.

"I didn't get much of a fight from the other two, either. Which convinces me even more that you are all in need of a holiday. Starting now."

After making the fatal mistake of admitting he had nothing definite planned for the evening, Tony found himself propelled by the sheer force of Helena's determination and five minutes later they entered the small vid lounge near Medical Centre. John and Maya were already seated in two of the comfortable burgundy chairs, seemingly engrossed in the pastoral images flashing across the large monitor.

"Not green therapy, Helena!" Tony groaned. Despite the Biodome, Dr Russell was still a firm believer in the beneficial effects of fluffy bunnies and trickling streams.

"Stop complaining. Sit down and relax. I've already heard all the arguments from these two. And you can see how successful they were." Helena's tone was distinctly smug.

Well, his search was over, anyway. Maya's welcoming smile sent an electric jolt of awareness charging through every cell in Tony's body. Maybe an hour spent watching babbling brooks wouldn't be so bad after all.

"Where'd she find you?" John leaned forward from his position to Maya's right. His expression was comically commiserative.

"Command Centre."

Maya's delighted chuckle brought an answering quirk to the corner of Tony's mouth. "Oh, no." she intoned, "The mortal sin!"

Her amusement was infectious and within seconds all three were giggling helplessly. When they eventually regained control they looked guiltily en masse towards Helena, who smiled in a superior manner.

"Hysteria is another symptom of exhaustion. I think I got you lot just in time. Now be quiet and watch the screen." She turned toward Medical Centre. "I'll be right next door, so don't even think about sneaking out of here."

As Tony sank back into the enveloping plushness of his chair he relaxed for the first time that day. He turned his head slightly to look at Maya, who was gamely attempting to interest herself in the flora and fauna on the screen. Even in the dim light she was radiant; he felt like a light starved plant seeking the sun.

Tinglingly aware of Tony's gaze upon her, Maya smiled at him, grateful for the concealing darkness as her cheeks warmed with the inevitable flush of pleasure his nearness aroused.

"How were your tests?" he murmured, "Got any blood left? I thought Helena took unnecessary delight in her pursuit of science yesterday."

Maya pulled back the loose sleeve of her white cotton shirt, revealing a small bandage at the crook of her elbow. "Six needles." Her soft voice darkened with remembered indignities. "I think we're being unfairly singled out."

"Damn right!" John gave up any pretence of attending to the film. "Helena as much admitted to me that she couldn't find anything wrong with us. Said we were disgustingly healthy specimens and she intends to make sure we stay that way. Hence the enforced R & R." John glanced impishly towards the door Helena had disappeared through. "I for one am going to spend the next week in bed. With Doctor Russell's approval, of course!" He waggled his eyebrows rakishly and headed for Medical Centre to discuss the details of this plan with Helena.

"She didn't really find you in Command Centre?" Maya, like John, was only too happy to abandon her green therapy. Tony was much more interesting. She tucked her hands into her sleeves and slouched more comfortably down in her chair as they exchanged a conspiratorial smile.

Tony nodded ruefully. "I was in the area. I'd only stopped in to check the gym schedule when Helena pounced." He didn't feel it necessary to add that he'd lost all interest in basketball since entering this room. The prospect of an evening with Maya beat pick up ball any day. "Have you eaten? Or has Helena had you on blood donor rations."

Maya placed a hand over her stomach. "Nope. Apple juice, crackers and a sandwich have been it today."

"Poor baby. How does lasagne, cheesecake and an old movie sound?"


"Good. Now all we have to do is get past Helena." He held out his hand and together they tiptoed to the open door. Medical Centre was the only obstacle between them and freedom. Tony stuck his head cautiously around the door frame.

"Well?" Laughter sparkled in Maya's eyes as he ducked back into the lounge.

"I think John's still in there. The door's open. If we hug the wall and wait for the right moment, we might make it." He clasped Maya's shoulders and gazed into her eyes with mock seriousness. "Are you willing to make a run for it?"

She nodded and they solemnly shook to seal the bargain. Stealthily they crept into the hallway, hands clasped once again. They flattened themselves against the wall and inched their way towards Medical Centre. Maya bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud, her heart pounding as though their lives really did depend on getting past that door. She got into more trouble with this man...

Then Tony turned to her and placed a finger to his lips as they neared the open Medical Centre door. Maya could make out John's voice, growing more distinct as they approached,

"Trust me, Helena. I don't need green therapy to relax. You wouldn't want me to sink into a coma, would you?"

A distinctly Helena-like snort was heard before she said, "Speaking of comas. Those two are ominously quiet...."

With these alarming words, and the sound of approaching footsteps, Tony stopped abruptly and Maya ploughed into him. She lost her balance and clutched desperately at his jersey, almost ripping it from his back as she struggled to right herself. A silent and hilarious balancing act ensued before equilibrium was restored. They were both shaking with suppressed laughter, ready to run for their lives, when John said,

"Don't bother. I'm sure they're keeping each other entertained."

They peered around the door jamb just as John pulled Helena into his arms. He waved them by and continued with a dry, "In fact, I guarantee it."

Maya glimpsed the beginnings of a very passionate clinch as she and Tony ran past. They made it safely around the corner before dissolving into laughter. When they'd sobered somewhat, Tony smiled wryly and said, "Maybe I do need a holiday."

Maya cast him an affectionate glance. "You don't seem any more unbalanced than usual, Tony." She was admirably deadpan. Only the glint of mischief in her eyes belied the warm concern in her voice.

"Thank you so much. I'm not sure you deserve lasagne."

"You wouldn't deprive me of desperately needed nutrition, would you? I might faint dead away." She smiled at him coquettishly and slipped her arm through his as they walked. Her wayward pulse speeded up immeasurably when Tony's mouth curved into the beginnings of one of his slow, devastating smiles.

"Yeah, and then I suppose you'd sic Helena on me." He sighed and then chuckled as she stuck her tongue out at him. "I don't know what brings out these childish tendencies in you..."

He laughed unrepentantly while she sputtered her outrage at this injustice. But they'd reached his quarters and he'd keyed open the lock on his door before she had a chance to retaliate. So she decided to wait until he'd fed her before getting her revenge.

In the small but well equipped food preparation area Tony removed a casserole containing the lasagne from the fridge and placed it in the microwave to heat.

Maya perched on a stool at the counter and watched him with unconcealed interest, chin propped in cupped hands. "Can I help?"

"You can help me chop up the salad, if you like. There's lettuce, tomatoes, basil and vinaigrette in the cooler."

For the next ten minutes they worked companionably, Maya chopping tomatoes while Tony shredded lettuce. He was very conscious of how good, how right it felt to be performing homely, domestic chores with her. She belonged here. The lasagne was ready by the time they finished the salad.

"How hungry are you? Starving or semi-starving?" Tony raised an eyebrow enquiringly, knife poised over the casserole.

"Seriously starving."

He chuckled and dished an enormous slice onto her plate. They carried their suppers into the living area and settled on the couch in front of the vid screen. After they were arranged comfortably, side-by-side, legs outstretched on the coffee table in front of them, they touched glasses in a light hearted toast.

"To a successful escape."

"And to the chef." Maya smiled, before sipping the chilled white wine Tony had produced to accompany the meal.

"Anything in particular you want to see?"

"Something with Cary Grant in it."

Tony grinned at her, "Ah, you mean you wish to spend the evening with a companion who's the epitome of dashing, debonair wit?

"No, I was thinking more along the lines of tall, dark and silly." She laughed at his comically hurt expression before taking a bite of her lasagne.

"How about Arsenic and Old Lace?"

At Maya's enthusiastic nod, Tony picked up the remote from the table in front of them and programmed the video library to supply the required film. He cast an impish glance at his dinner guest as he pushed buttons, "You sure you don't want to see Poltergeist again?"

Maya raised a lasagne laden fork threateningly in front of his eyes. "Do you want to wear this?"

He laughed unrepentantly and winced as Maya kicked him in the ankle with one sneakered foot. "I take it that means no? Arsenic and Old Lace it is then. Although it might not be the best choice for my continued good health, given your violent streak."

"Watch it." There was cool warning in her voice. Only the traitorous dimple gave her away.

Tony shook his dark head despairingly. "And you used to be such a nice girl."

"I've obviously been spending too much time with a very bad influence."

Their lasagne was cooling rapidly, but neither cared. Tony sobered somewhat as he looked into her mischievously sparkling eyes. His smile became a bit rueful.

"Not enough time lately. I've missed you."

A hint of rose bloomed on Maya's high cheekbones in response to the warmth in his dark eyes and his gentle tone.

"I missed you too." And she had. More than he could ever imagine. Just knowing he felt the same sent a rush of warm delight through her.

This sensation increased a hundred fold as Tony traced a finger along the graceful curve of her jaw before drawing her closer. With the first touch of his mouth to hers, Maya melted into his arms, and as her lips parted responsively under his, the intensity of the kiss increased dramatically. For several long, delicious moments they lost themselves to love - long enough for a taste of what could be, long enough to yearn for more.

Only the knowledge that this could rapidly escalate into an intimacy he wasn't sure she was ready for made Tony pull back to press a last gentle kiss to the corner of her rosy mouth. Maya's eyes were soft with sleepy pleasure and he had to forcibly restrain himself from resuming where they'd left off as she returned the caress, brushing her mouth against his once more. He smiled into her azure hued eyes and traced a finger admiringly along the delicate line of her velvety smooth cheek.

"So, will you help me to avoid the Wrath of Helena this week?"

That tantalising dimple re-appeared in Maya's cheek. "What exactly did you have in mind?" Her tone was mildly bemused and more than a bit suspicious.

"Good, clean, wholesome fun. Dinner, dancing, swimming, games - whatever you want to do. It has to be conspicuously non-work oriented, though, or Dr Russell will hear about it."

Maya tried not to seem too delighted at his request. An entire week together....

"I think I could handle that. If it will keep you out of trouble."

"I promise not to monopolise you too much."

"Don't worry. I'll let you know when you become obnoxious."

She took a bite of her now tepid lasagne and cast Tony a look of such limpid innocence that he bit back a smile and handed her the remote control with a dry, "Here, you do the honours. I suspect I might need to conserve my strength."

Maya rolled her eyes good-naturedly and pressed the button to bring Cary and friends to life. They settled more comfortably into the deep cushions of the couch, thigh-to--thigh, each resonating on a basic level to the nearness of the other.

An hour later Maya was happily engrossed in the movie. She'd gravitated even closer to Tony and was now most comfortably ensconced in the welcoming curve of his arm, her head cushioned on his broad shoulder. Tony played gently with the soft tendrils escaping from her French braid; the tender, affectionate caress lulling her into a state of dreamy contentment. She never wanted the film to end if it gave her an excuse to stay in his arms.

Arsenic and Old Lace was one of his favourite movies, and while he delighted in the fact that Maya shared his enjoyment, he was completely enchanted by the trusting, natural ease with which she'd come into his arms. Tony's mouth curved with an inner amusement that had nothing to do with Cary's antics on screen. He'd realised with pleasure over the last few months that Maya was a snuggler. It was a trait he was more than happy to encourage.

Despite his inevitable desire for her, Tony felt more relaxed than he had in weeks - since the last time he'd held her in his arms. He studied her beautiful face, ethereally pale in the reflected light of the vid screen, admiring the delicate perfection of her features. Maya sensed his scrutiny and tilted her head back against his shoulder to meet his gaze.

"You do realise that poor Aunt Mary meets with a gruesome end?"

"No I hadn't realised that. But I do know that you are a big fat liar." She'd heard this particular colloquialism for the first time only a few days ago and was pleased to be able to use it so appropriately.

Tony's expression of wounded innocence would have done Cary himself proud.

She compressed her lips into a firm line, returned her gaze determinedly to the screen and folded her arms across her chest.

She could feel silent laughter shaking Tony's lean frame and her own mouth curved with irrepressible humour. It was extremely ungentlemanly of him to allude to previous instances of gullibility on her part. She was about to make indignant remarks to this effect when an urgent buzzing from the companel distracted them both. The radiant dial on her watch said it was 11.30. It had to be important for anyone to buzz at this hour.

When Tony picked up his commlock and John's solemn face appeared on the screen, her suspicions were confirmed.

"John. What's wrong?" Tony was also aware that this was no social call.

"Medical emergency, Tony. Helena's had five cases of virulent fever in Medical Centre in the last hour." He paused for a second and then continued, "They're all quartered in D Block."

Tony and Maya exchanged sober looks. They were smack in the middle of D Block.

"Quarantine." Tony's voice was calm, his words a statement rather than a question.

"Quarantine." John confirmed. "At least two days. Maybe more, depending on how soon Helena and her team can isolate this thing. "

"Is she ordering confinement to quarters or just to D Block?"

"To quarters. D Block's being sealed off as we speak. Extra food supplies will be left outside each door, but no-one's to go out except for the time it takes to bring in the supplies." John smiled ruefully. "I hope you didn't have too much planned for your holiday week."

Tony cast an ironic glance at his companion before addressing John again,

"Nothing specific. What can I do to help? Is there anything I can handle from here?"

"Not at the moment, Tony. Everything's more or less under control. Helena's setting up a temporary hospital in D Block and I'm about to broadcast to the rest of Alpha. We need to do a head count, for one thing. Helena wants to know exactly where everyone is."

"Well, you can count two bodies here." Tony handed Maya his commlock.

"Hi, Commander."

Koenig groaned. "Didn't I warn you about spending so much time with him?"

Maya laughed. "And I should have listened to you." Then on a more serious note, "Are you sure there's nothing we can do?"

"No, sit tight and I'll keep you informed. Don't worry too much. I'm sure Helena will get this bug under control before long. Koenig out."

Tony and Maya exchanged a long, silent look. Both were delighted at the prospect of spending several complete days together, but not too sure how the other felt.

Maya struggled unsuccessfully for something witty and sophisticated to say. Fortunately, her feeling of awkwardness eased immediately as Tony stood and held out his hand,

"I think we need cheesecake."

She smiled her agreement as he pulled her to her feet and they walked to the kitchen area. Tony went down on one knee to inspect the contents of the fridge. "Well, we won't starve. There's pasta, fruit, vegetables and lots of soya protein." He retrieved the cheesecake and placed it on the counter while Maya busied herself with the plates and cutlery.

Even though the situation was obviously beyond her control, Maya couldn't help feeling she was being imposed on him. Earlier, Tony had said he'd missed her. Well, he'd certainly get his fill during the next few days, like it or not. She struggled silently with this insecurity, feeling a bit torn, because at the same time, she was thrilled to be marooned with him. Something in the uneasy quality of her silence communicated itself to Tony and he stopped in the process of slicing the cake to level a serious gaze at her,


She looked up from the fork she'd been fidgeting with. "I'm glad you're here."

She could feel a traitorous heat rising in her cheeks, but smiled as he leaned across the counter between them to press a gentle kiss to her lips.

"You don't have much choice, do you?"

He leaned back against the fridge, crossed his arms and directed an affectionate glare at her. "Didn't I just beg you to spend as much time with me this week as you can stand?"

Maya couldn't suppress a smile even as her pulse fluttered wildly in response to the warmth in his voice and eyes. "That was different."

"Maybe...but now you can't get away."

Maya picked up her cheesecake and flashed him a half-shy look over her shoulder as they walked back to the lounge. "I don't want to get away."

She didn't see his reaction to her words. Had she done so she would have been much more confident of her place in his heart. Before he regained control of his emotions it was written across his handsome face for anyone to see -surprise, delight, and a yearning that was vulnerable in its intensity.

They had just settled themselves on the sofa once again when the Moonbase logo appeared on the big screen, followed immediately by John's solemn features.

"As of 2330 hours D Block has been quarantined. If you're in your quarters, stay put until further notice. We will contact all D Block personnel individually. Medical Centre have reported seven cases of an unknown fever in the last two hours. All those affected are quartered in D Block. Until we contain this bug that is a no go area. All other personnel should stick to their quarters as much as possible to prevent further contagion. If you feel unwell notify Dr Russell immediately. The initial symptoms are dizziness, headache, blurred vision and then high fever. Do not panic. It's treatable and it seems to be under control so far. We will keep you advised of further developments. Koenig out."

As John's image faded from the screen, Tony frowned thoughtfully. "That's two more since we spoke to John."

Maya distractedly picked at her cake with her fork. "Many of us have been working around the clock lately. Maybe some people have less resistance than usual..."

The same worry struck them both and they turned to each other simultaneously, unspoken concern in their eyes. They smiled sheepishly,

"I'll go first, " Tony offered, "I'm fine. How about you?" He didn't try to hide the disquiet he felt.

"The only thing wrong with me is severe blood loss from this afternoon." Maya grimaced and pulled back her sleeve to inspect her wounds. "And an arm that's turning black and blue." There were already large purple marks marring the smooth ivory of her skin.

He traced a gentle finger over the livid contusion. "Do you want something for that... painkillers?" He trailed off, wanting to offer some solace, not sure what was needed.

"A bath, maybe?"

He seized upon her suggestion. "You sit here. Eat your cake. I'll run your bath." She would also need other things, he realised as he rose to carry out this task. A toothbrush, pyjamas, robe, day clothes... and the sleeping arrangements.... She would take the bed, of course. Hopefully the sofa would not be too cripplingly uncomfortable.

In the bathroom, Tony turned on the hot water to fill the tub for Maya's bath, then got a new toothbrush and fresh towels out of the cupboard. She'd want a robe and pj's too. He strode into the bedroom and rummaged through his chest of drawers. An unused pair of silk pyjamas from his mother, bless her. They'd swamp Maya's slender frame, but they'd have to do. He added a rugby shirt, several t-shirts and some sweat suit bottoms to the pile. He enjoyed the image he had in his mind of her wearing his clothes, soaking in his bath, sleeping in his bed... He turned his mind determinedly from the dangerous direction it was wont to take, and gave his bedroom a quick survey. Relatively neat, for once. He hadn't been home enough lately to do any real damage. He picked up his fencing gear from its resting place on the floor and tossed it into the closet.

"You're not cleaning up on my account, are you?" Maya's voice sounded behind him. He turned to find her leaning against the door jam.

"Be thankful it's not in its usual state. My natural instinct is to throw everything on the floor."

Maya affected surprise. "You mean that's not natural?" She laughed as he pulled a face at her, but then added stubbornly, "I don't want you to make any special effort just because I'm here."

He could tell by the firm set of her pretty mouth that she meant what she said.

"It's no effort, believe me." He picked up the pj's and robe from his dresser. "The pyjamas were a present from my mother. You'll swim in them..."

Maya took the proffered night things, and put a slender finger to his lips, "I'm sure they'll be perfect. Thank you." She pressed a soft kiss to his lean cheek.

"You are more than welcome." He kissed her back, then led her to the bathroom. "Help yourself to whatever you need. You've even got your own toothbrush." He waggled this appliance playfully, then noticed that she was beginning to favour her bruised arm, came close and touched the affected limb. "Can I see?"

At her nod, he rolled up the loose sleeve of her cotton shirt and carefully removed the bandage covering the crook of her arm. There were several puncture marks from the injections but the chief trauma was the bruising that had spread from elbow to wrist.

"They really walloped you, didn't they? Are you sure you don't want a painkiller?"

Half an hour ago it hadn't been that painful, but now it was starting to throb rather sickeningly. "I think I will have one now."

Tony opened the medicine cabinet and extracted a bottle, shaking out two pills. He filled a glass at the sink and watched as Maya swallowed the tablets. The tub was almost full. He turned off the tap and turned to Maya as he left the room, "Call me if you need anything. I do a great back scrub." He winked teasingly and Maya nodded and smiled before he closed the door.

The tub looked extremely inviting. Maya unbuttoned her shirt and shrugged out of it, wincing as her arm complained loudly. She laid her shirt on the chair near the bath. Socks, jeans and underwear soon followed suit. She tested the water with a toe. Perfect. Maya lowered herself into the steaming water with a sigh of pleasure and waited for the heat to soak some of her aches away.

She relaxed in the water for several minutes, eyes closed, head resting against the rim of the tub. But after a while her natural curiosity asserted itself and she opened her eyes to survey the small room. She'd been in here before, but never with enough time to study the little details. It was definitely a man's bathroom. Although spotlessly clean, there were no decorative/feminine touches. Plain towels, a razor, brush and shaving cream at the sink. She would love to watch him shave in the mornings. Maybe even help him shave. Maya picked up the soap from the dish by the side of the bath, held it to her nose and inhaled. Pleasure heated her insides just as the water soothed her exterior. It smelled of him - just one part of the clean, masculine scent that was uniquely his. Soap, warm skin and something indefinably wonderful, intrinsically male - a combination that made her pulse race madly whenever she was close to him.

It was a special, sensual delight to use his soap, knowing it had last touched his skin. All over. Maya shivered and smiled at the direction her thoughts were taking. Maybe she'd be better off taking a cold shower. Time to get out, anyway. Her fingers were starting to shrivel.

Wrapped in one of Tony's bath sheets, Maya padded to the vanity area to inspect the pile of clothing he'd left for her. The pyjamas were dark blue and looked very luxurious. She slipped the top over her head. Tony was right. It was a tad large on her, to say the least. But the slip of silk against her bare skin felt wonderful. The hem of the top reached past her knees and the sleeves extended well past her fingertips. Maya rolled up the sleeves slowly, contemplating her reflection critically in the mirror at the same time.

Her face was flushed from the heat of the bath and moisture had caused the inevitable tendrils escaping from her French braid to curl wildly, clinging to her neck in a not unbecoming fashion. She recalled the night last month when he told her she was beautiful. Although she was fairly sure he hadn't been entirely serious, the memory of those words had carried her through more than a few tired and lonely hours in the past few weeks. When she looked in the mirror all she saw was the same old self. Would he find her attractive as she was now?

The painkillers and soothing bath had banished much of the throbbing from her arm, for the moment. It really was a bit of a mess, albeit artistically rather interesting; she was a palette of purple, black, blue and every shade in between.

Oh, well.

After cleaning her teeth (taking a childish delight from using Tony's toothpaste), Maya donned the pj bottom and robe, rolling the legs of the drawers up three times and the sleeves of the robe twice. She was a bit doubtful as to whether the bottoms would stay up - the waist was way too large.

In the bedroom she found the bed turned down, but no sign of Tony. A murmur of voices led her back into the lounge. He was just finishing a vid call as Maya entered the room. He'd changed into knee length grey sweat suit cut-offs and a matching Academy singlet. She tried not to fixate on the masculine beauty of his strong brown arms, long legs and broad chest. A pillow and blanket were neatly folded beside him on the sofa. He smiled and put his commlock on the coffee table as Maya sat down.

"Better?" At her nod he propped his feet on the table and relaxed back into the soft cushions of the couch. "Good. Helena's had three new cases."

"All in D Block."

"Yeah. But she's optimistic that they'll isolate the virus soon. I don't envy her - she looks exhausted already."

"And all we can do is wait."

Tony sighed. "For the moment, yes." Then, in a determined change of subject, "Your room's all ready whenever you want it. If you need more blankets...."

"My room?" Maya interrupted him suddenly, the suspicion that had blossomed on seeing the pillow and blanket beside him now confirmed. "Tony, you're not sleeping on the couch?!"

He couldn't help but smile at her frankly horrified expression. "Maya!" he mimicked affectionately, "I certainly am."

"No! I'll sleep on the couch."

"Maya, you have a badly bruised arm. And even if you didn't there's no way..." He trailed off as she folded her arms and levelled a determined glare at him. She looked absolutely adorable in his robe and pyjamas, and as sexy as.... Hell. He could feel himself wavering dangerously. The prospect of spending several nights trying to squeeze his 6ft frame onto a onto a 5ft sofa was not appealing.

And the alternative most certainly was.

Maya sensed an opening and seized it. "You didn't sleep on the couch two weeks ago."

No, but he'd been so exhausted the implications of sharing a bed had been the last thing on his mind. Still, he knew Maya's stubborn refusal to put him out would only strengthen the more he argued. So he gave in disgracefully and grinned at her.

"You are so bossy."

She arched a delicate eyebrow. "No sofa?"

"No sofa."

She smiled triumphantly and picked up her abandoned cheesecake. "You can have the rest of this." She was prepared to be magnanimous now that she'd got her way. "I just brushed my teeth."

Tony accepted the graciously proffered plate. "So it's all right if mine fall out."

The love of his life smiled serenely.

Maya curled up with Vanity Fair and for fifteen minutes a companionable silence descended. Tony watched her with a completely male appreciation while obediently finishing her cheesecake. She was unreasonably sexy in her oversized pj's. From her slender throat to her bare toes, not an inch of provocative flesh was showing. Which only strengthened his urge to remove the offending garments. Auburn tendrils curled softly around her face, still damp from the bath. She looked soft, fresh and natural - and so heartstoppingly beautiful he couldn't keep his eyes off her. He quarantined with the one woman he loved to distraction - and he was going to spend the next several nights attempting to share her bed like a platonic chum.

Piece of cake.

Maybe he had hitherto unsuspected masochistic tendencies. Maybe he'd better wait until Maya was safely asleep before joining her. She did look tired in a gorgeous, take-me-to- bed sort of way. As though reading his train of thought, she stifled a yawn, lifting the back of her hand to her mouth.

"Don't let me keep you up, Maya. I want to do a bit of reading before I turn in." His guilelessly sincere expression was transparently phoney but Maya was too exhausted to even to begin to try to play "what's wrong with this picture".

"Okay. Good night." She stood up, grabbing at the waistband of her pj bottoms as they threatened to head suddenly for the floor. She paused at the bedroom door and cast him a smile over her shoulder, "I'll try not to hog all the covers."

Tony's mouth curved in response to her impish quip, "Don't worry, I'll claim my share." He sighed as she disappeared into the bedroom, partially closing the door behind her. He was tired himself but would give her an hour or so before going in. Maya asleep in his bed was slightly less dangerous than Maya awake.

Maya left the door open an inch or so and then shrugged out of her robe, folding it and placing it on the chair where she'd left the rest of her clothing. Though she'd been in Tony's bedroom before, had slept in his bed, she'd never felt as intimately connected to it - and him - as she did now. She was wearing his nightclothes, had soaked in his bath and was about to share his bed - again. It was a disturbing, but marvellous feeling.

The bedroom was as masculine as the bathroom, but filled with books, photos, paintings and sports equipment, it was alive with his personality. Tony's bedroom had a relaxed, comfortable, lived in atmosphere. Granted, it was far less comfortable when Tony was actually in it, but that was entirely due to her physical awareness of him - a roller coaster of emotion and desire that ranged from the merely exciting to the downright alarming. Right now she was experiencing a delicious combination of the two. The first time they shared a bed she'd been too distraught to appreciate the sensual subtleties of their situation. But she vividly remembered the wonderful sensation of waking up in Tony's arms the next morning. She'd be unlikely to forget the day she realised she'd fallen in love with Alpha's First Officer. And two weeks ago she'd been completely exhausted, but this was different. She was tired, but not so much that she could get into his bed without a frisson of excitement.

Maya padded around to the left-hand side of the bed and climbed beneath the covers. She keyed the main light off at the companel in the headboard and turned on the small bedside reading lamp. Judging by the book laying face down on the side table, Tony slept on the right-hand side of the bed. She slept on the left. It was fate. She chuckled at her adolescent train of thought.

The cotton sheets were cool and smooth against her bare legs. The pyjama bottoms had had to go - they would have driven her mad within 15 minutes of lying down. The pj top covered her to below her knees - respectable enough, if you didn't consider the lack of underwear worn underneath. He didn't have to know, but if he did happen to discover....

Maya's cheeks heated at the thought. Despite her determination to stay awake until Tony came to bed, within ten minutes she felt her eyes getting heavy. She loved being in his bed. As she drifted into slumber, her erotic thoughts turned to dreams and the delicious feeling that he was all around her.

When Tony quietly pushed open the bedroom door an hour later she was sound asleep, face turned towards the empty space to her right, one hand resting on the pillow cradling her cheek. A tender ache grew in his throat as he gazed down at his love. The emotion he hid so well when she was awake was clearly visible in his eyes now.

She didn't stir as he climbed into bed. Light from the bedside lamp cast a golden warmth over her face. She looked incredibly peaceful - and very comfortable. He bit back a chuckle. Maya hadn't been kidding about her blanket stealing tendencies.

Moving slowly so as not to wake her, Tony grasped a handful of covers and reclaimed his share of the duvet. Maya made a soft sound of complaint deep in her throat and followed the covers, unwilling to relinquish any of the lovely warmth. Her eyelashes fluttered as she hovered between sleep and wakefulness for a few seconds, murmuring a questioning, "Hmmm...?" as she encountered a new, much more satisfying heat source.

Tony smiled and traced a gentle finger over the soft curve of her mouth, "Shhh... go back to sleep." She sighed and snuggled up to him, fast asleep again within seconds. He left the lamp on for a few minutes, taking advantage of this chance to watch his beloved unobserved. Lured by the lustrous fire of her hair, he let the fine strands slip through his fingers, the sensation like liquid silk. When he did turn off the light, he lay awake for a long time, holding her, listening to the soft exhalation of her breath, unwilling to succumb to sleep.

Tony woke quite early the next morning. Even before he opened his eyes he was aware of Maya's warmth against him. He lay on his back. She was curled against his side, tucked into the encircling curve of his arm, her cheek cushioned on his shoulder, one slender arm flung palm down across his chest. With every breath she took the fullness of her breasts caressed him. He twined his fingers gently through the silken curls tumbling over her shoulders and smiled with the simple, extraordinary pleasure of waking to find her in his arms.

"Good morning," he murmured.

Her mouth curved in a half smile and she sighed quietly in her sleep, her long eyelashes casting extravagant shadows on the perfect, delicately flushed skin of her cheeks.

He managed to get up, shower, and shave without disturbing Maya. He popped his head into the bedroom to check on her every once in a while - in part to reassure himself that she was really there.

When he heard the shower running he started on breakfast - -fruit, toast and cappuccino (with the obligatory chocolate dusted on top). He was one of a few owners of a "private" espresso machine on the base, having brought it with him from Earth. The appliance was one of his mother's more successful birthday gifts.

When Maya emerged 15 minutes later she was dressed in one of his rugby shirts and a pair of grey sweat pants (which she'd pinned to fit her waist). She'd towel dried her hair, but it was still quite damp and beginning to curl riotously.

He stood transfixed for several seconds before managing a quiet, "Hi."

"Hi." For a moment she felt absurdly shy, and a faint flush stained her cheeks. This was a fantasy come to life. It was the game she played nearly every morning before she opened her eyes, pretending he was lying in bed next to her, or just out of sight in the shower, or in the kitchen brewing coffee. But today it was vividly real.

But then he gestured to the place he'd set for her at the kitchen bench and the self-consciousness diminished. "Coffee?"

Maya took her seat, "Have you ever known me not to want cappuccino?"

He carried the two cups over to the counter and sat down opposite her, "Come to think of it, no." His slow, teasing smile threatened to melt her into hopeless confusion.

Taking refuge behind her cup, she took a sip of the cappuccino, savouring the rich, mocha taste. He wore a white t-shirt and blue track pants, his hair still damp from the shower. He radiated vitality and rugged masculinity and she had trouble dragging her eyes from the breadth of his chest and shoulders. Jerking her gaze back to his face, she felt the colour rise in her cheeks as she met his dark eyes, helplessly in thrall to the force of her attraction to him.

"Is there anything in particular you want to do today?" He handed her the plate piled with toast.

Maya accepted a piece, "Nothing in particular...with the emphasis on nothing." She took a bite of her toast and raised an eyebrow at him, her eyes sparkling with impish enjoyment.

He laughed, "Nothing it is. But if you've turned into a couch potato by the time the quarantine ends, don't blame me."

"I don't mean do nothing. Just nothing worthwhile."

"Well, Helena did order us to play."

They both loved sharing the first meal of their first day together, knowing they could do whatever they wanted for the next few days.

They made vegetable risotto and ciabatta for lunch. The vegetable soup Maya attempted was less successful. The flavour was good, but most of it ended up on Maya and the ceiling when she forgot to secure the lid of the blender. When Tony eventually stopped laughing he claimed it was the best soup he'd ever licked from the walls.

The ciabatta was even less edible than the soup. By the time they got to the dough kneading stage a fine layer of flour covered them and every exposed surface in the kitchen. The end product of all their effort was a greyish, greasy, sullen looking lump. They stood back for a second, contemplating their creation uneasily.

"Is it supposed to look like that?" Maya poked the mass gingerly with one finger, half expecting it to start moving on its own.

"Mama's wasn't quite so...gruesome." Tony admitted. "It'll improve once it's cooked."

"Only cremation will improve that."

He looked affronted. "I'll have you know this is an ancient and cherished family recipe - handed down through the generations."

Maya struggled to keep a straight face as she raised her eyes to meet his gaze. "Maybe it would have been better for us all if they skipped yours."

"That's extremely unkind. Especially as you appear to be wearing most of the vital ingredient." He brushed a smudge of flour from her cheek with a gentleness that belied the mischief in his eyes.

"I'm not the only one." Tony's hair now sported patches of distinguished white. "Have you looked in the mirror lately? You've got a horrible dandruff problem!" She ruffled the thick softness of his dark hair and then laughed and tried to duck out of his reach as he made a grab for her.

A thrill of pleasure warmed her blood as he pulled her into his embrace. She'd have to provoke him more often if this was her reward. Maya's pulse quickened as Tony lowered his head to hers, his mouth curving in a slow, dangerous smile.

"If this turns out to be the best ciabatta ever made I'm going to eat your share."

Maya dimpled. "And when it doesn't you'll definitely eat my share."

They were both smiling as their lips met.

After lunch they lazed about drinking coffee, talking about everything and nothing, enjoying just being together. Then they danced, practicing flashy ballroom moves for the Ball, and reducing themselves to tears of laughter in the process.

Later that night they settled down on the sofa to watch "A Room With a View", specifically so that Maya could see the town where Tony was born. Despite having eaten supper only a few hours before, they were well supplied with popcorn and Diet Cokes.

When they were both comfortable, refreshments within arms reach, Tony picked up the remote to summon the film. "Are we finally ready? Sure you don't want some ciabatta to go with that?"

Maya pulled a face at him. "I'm not the one who insisted we needed popcorn. And don't think you can palm that sorry carbon sample off on me."

Tony clucked disapprovingly. "Your attitude saddens me, Maya. I seem to recall your active participation this afternoon. As co-baker of "that sorry carbon sample" you should accept equal responsibility for it." He popped a kernel into his mouth and raised his eyebrows teasingly as he awaited her response to this pomposity.

"I was an innocent bystander. You're supposed to be the expert with generations of knowledge behind you. Do they make ciabatta in this film? Maybe you should take notes." Maya's lips curved into a smug smile.

"So you take credit for all our successful efforts and I get the blame for the disasters, is that it?"

Maya laughed. "Yes! I thought you realised that. Let's try something chocolate next. Brownies." She leaned coquettishly against his shoulder, a mischievous light in her azure eyes.

The corners of Tony's mouth quirked, "Whatever my lady wishes." He paused and looked down into her lovely, vivid face, "I suppose you intend to use me as your human armchair?" He tried to keep the hopeful note out of his voice.

"Okay." Maya moved into the welcoming circle of his arm, smiling at his exaggerated sigh. As his hands loosely encircled her waist, she relaxed against the broad expanse of his chest with an imperious; "You can start the movie now."

Her flirtatious mood was having a dramatic effect on Tony's heart rate. Every instinct screamed at him to leave her with no doubt as to how desperately he wanted her. Instead, he smiled ruefully and rubbed his cheek lovingly against her silken curls, savouring the softness of her hair against his skin.

Despite a keen interest in the plot and setting of the film, by the time the final credits rolled, Maya was half asleep. A quiet, sensual happiness at being held close by the man she loved conspired with the tiredness of a long day, lulling her into a state half between dreaming and waking...

Tony knew she was asleep when the rhythm of her breathing changed slightly and her fingers went limp in his. A tender smile curved his lips and he traced a caressing path down the exquisite line of her cheek. Maya sighed quietly and turned slightly in his arms, snuggling closer. Tony slowly eased them lengthways on the sofa until he was half reclining, his back to the juncture of the sofa back and arm. Maya lay half alongside him, half on top of him, her head cushioned on his shoulder, a slender hand palm down on his chest, the rounded fullness of her breasts caressing him with her every breath.

A stray tendril of glossy auburn shone richly against the blue of his rugby shirt. Tony wound the silken strand around his index finger, admiring the fiery splendour of her hair as it caught the light. He traced a gentle finger over the delicate, feline arch of her brow and smiled to himself as she frowned and swatted his hand away. He captured her hand again, linking his fingers with hers and pulled her closer into his arms, trailing his free hand slowly down her back. He buried his nose in her hair, breathing in the delicate scent of her, loving the sensation of her slender feminine curves moulded to his larger frame.

He was always hyper conscious of her physically; she was the most alluring woman he'd ever known, the slightest brush of her hand against his, the barest hint of a smile in her beautiful eyes was enough fire his senses. That was normal. But they'd been together constantly for over 24 hours and his nervous system was about to spontaneously combust.

But as fantastic as it was to hold her, there was only so much pleasurable torture he could take. It was time for bed. Tony closed his eyes against the erotic image. At this rate he was going to need an extremely cold shower before joining her.

"Maya," he murmured, loathe to wake her. She was so beautiful - so peaceful - and so much less dangerous sound asleep.

"Mmmm?" Her eyelashes fluttered slightly and she clutched a handful of his jersey but didn't awaken.

"Why do I get the feeling I've progressed from human armchair to human mattress?" He smiled ruefully, aware that he was talking to himself.

He carried her into the bedroom, cradling her against his chest. A warm ache tightened his throat as she twined her arms around his neck, burying her face against his throat.

Maya awoke as Tony lowered her onto the bed. He was tucking the duvet around her when she slowly opened her eyes.

"What time is it?" Her voice was a sleepy whisper.

"Almost one." The mattress curved beneath his weight as he sat down on the edge of the bed. He smoothed a stray tendril from her forehead with a gentle hand, his eyes dark with an emotion she couldn't quite read.

"Aren't you coming to bed?"

"In a while," Tony repressed the wave of desire her words evoked and playfully kissed the tip of her nose. "Do you want me to tell you a bedtime story?"

Maya pulled a face at him, awake enough to know when she was being made fun of.

He smiled and leaned close to brush his mouth over the rosy fullness of her lips. It started out as a brief, affectionate caress but intensified dramatically when Maya kissed him back, her lips parting under his, her mouth soft, clinging. Completely bewitched by her response, Tony lost his head, stopped playing and kissed her properly. Their breathing had hastened considerably when he finally pulled back slightly and managed a ragged,

"Maybe we should move on to the bedtime story." His voice was husky, tinged with rueful humour. Even to his own ears he sounded unconvincing. That had been a less than chaste good night kiss.

But she wasn't about to be placated like a six year old. Not this time. "I'm not a child, Tony."

His wry half smile faded, his dark gaze smouldering with a barely banked fire that sent a fresh surge of liquid heat through her veins. He leaned close and kissed her again -thoroughly, slowly - completely addicted to the sweet taste of her, the incredible, velvety sensation of her mouth under his. Then he drew back, traced the back of his hand down the curve of her cheek, and said quietly, "I know."

But she was an innocent, albeit a temptingly provocative one. And he couldn't forget that.

"Try to go to sleep. I won't be long."

A few minutes turned into ten, then twenty. Maya struggled to stay awake, but drifted inevitably into slumber, consoled by the fact that she'd made some slight progress, reliving in her dreams the incredibly sensual, demanding delight of his kiss...

They slept late the next morning, neither waking until after 10.00am, entwined in each other's arms. The intimacy, the closeness felt entirely natural, as though they were already lovers of longstanding. After a lazy breakfast scrounged from the previous night's dinner, guilt at their sloth impelled them into exercise. So they fenced. It was technically a lesson but Maya flouted the rules so outrageously that Tony abandoned all protocol and attempts at instruction and ended up following her bad example in bounding all over the furniture. They finally declared a draw, despite Maya declaring herself grand champion according to an obscure point system she refused to explain to him.

Exercised out, they both sprawled full length upon respective sofas, and talked for what felt like minutes. But three hours had passed when they next looked at a clock.

The subjects varied from the serious, to the sublime to the ridiculous, each endlessly fascinated by the other. Music, literature, confessions, ie. their weird habits, quantum theory, if they could build any kind of home, what would it be like, what would their perfect world be like, food - in particular the pros and cons of chocolate coated vegetables.

It was mid afternoon when Maya wandered into the bedroom to look for a book. She'd been gone a while and when Tony eventually came looking for her she was standing, entranced, in front of a water-colour landscape on his wall, drawn by the classic simplicity of line and colour.

There was an old and impressive villa on a hill in the background, beautifully sun washed green meadows and trees in the foreground. A golden light permeated the idyllic scene.

"One of my mother's better efforts."

She turned. "It's beautiful."

He smiled into her eyes and a delicious warmth spread through her at his nearness, a liquid heat that trembled on the brink of flame.

"It's been sitting in storage for awhile. For a long time I couldn't bear to look at it." He gazed admiringly at her profile as she turned back to the painting, even more drawn to it now that she knew it was his work.

"Is this where you grew up?"`

"Yes, the villa's been in the family for generations. Hopefully, it still is." He smiled reminiscently. "It was a great place to be a kid. My parents let us run wild during the summers." He gestured to a photograph of the villa from another angle, and pointed to one window in the eaves of the stone building, "My room."

She sighed, her eyes wistful. "It sounds wonderful." She raised her gaze to his, "Do you miss it terribly?"

"It's hard not knowing...about family...friends...whether the house is even standing now."

She slipped her hand into his as they stood before the picture, both quietly contemplative. She'd lost a father, the only home she'd ever known, desolate though it had been - but Tony had lost a loving family and the joy of belonging to that fairy tale house. He really did understand how it felt like to lose everything.

Maya selected Vanity Fair again from the dozens of books in the tall bookcase in the bedroom. Tony retrieved his book from his bedside table and walked to the entertainment console. Within seconds the lively strains of Vivaldi echoed softly in the background.

Tony retreated with his book to the comfortable expanse of the sofa and smiled as he heard Maya muttering darkly to herself in the kitchen. She hadn't quite got to grips with the vagaries of the cappuccino frother.

"Let me know if you think it's about to explode."

"Ha. Ha." She intoned dryly. "I'll let you know." Then there was silence, broken only by a worrisome metallic clanking noise that he'd never before associated with coffee making.

He was about to wander ever so casually out to the kitchen, when she exclaimed triumphantly and the reassuring sound of hot air in milk filled the apartment. She emerged five minutes later, beautifully flushed, carrying two perfect cappuccinos.

Maya smiled mischievously as she handed him his cup, "You were worried, weren't you?"

"I don't know what you're talking about." He took a sip of his drink; it tasted as good as it looked, smooth as silk with a hint of chocolate. "I have every confidence in your culinary abilities."

"Liar." She sat down next to him and propped her feet beside his on the coffee table.

They settled in with their books and coffee, and the only sound for an hour was the clink of porcelain against glass, the turning of pages and an occasional chuckle as one or the other reacted to something they read.

Tony looked up from his book at one point and watched her unashamedly; it was relatively safe - she was completely absorbed in the adventures of Becky Sharpe and friends. During the last half hour she'd shifted her position on the couch and was now curled up facing him, her cheek cushioned on the sofa back, her long legs tucked under her. A half smile curved her mouth and as she read, she absentmindedly twirled a strand of hair around her index finger.

As always when he was with her, Tony was actively, consciously happy. This wasn't some general, vague feeling of well being - but a vital, living awareness of the pleasure he felt in her company.

They'd been peacefully lazing about for several hours - each blissfully content in the other's company - when the soft chamber music playing in the background abruptly cut off and the vid screen blazed into life.

They both looked up at the same moment. As the Recreation Officer's face appeared on screen their eyes met in a mutual expression of comic dismay. The Rec Department was notoriously unable to comprehend that any Alphan was capable of amusing him or herself without assistance. It was obviously time to entertain the shut-ins.

"Uh, oh." Tony's low murmur echoed with amused dread.

Maya raised her book as though to shield herself from the image on the screen. The consternation in her face brought a corresponding smile to Tony's lips. "Maybe if we sit really quietly they'll forget we're here," she whispered. During her first weeks on Alpha she'd been haunted by the well meaning but persistent Rec Officer until Tony shooed her away.

"Anything's worth a try." He knew he didn't sound too hopeful.

So they watched the screen in mute silence. The attractive, dark haired Rec Officer shuffled her papers and then lifted her face to the camera with a bright, determined smile. Tony imagined he could hear a collective groan from the quarantined areas (and as 1/3 of Alphans lived in D-Block, they were a large captive audience).

"We're informed by Medical Centre that the quarantine will probably last another day. So in order to speed the time for those of you who are unfortunate enough to live in D-Block, the Recreation Department has devised a fun quiz."

Now there was an outraged groan from his companion as Maya uttered a smothered protest. Slightly muffled, but distinct. Tony bit his lip, unable to suppress a chuckle as she tried to suffocate herself with a pillow. Maya had obviously been more deeply scarred by her week of one-on-one attention from the Reccing Crew than he'd realised.

"All you'll need to play is an input keypad each. Simply type in as comprehensive an answer as you can and we'll collate the results." The Rec Officer paused, her smile widening alarmingly. "We're going to determine our Love IQ's. Who is your perfect partner?"

Maya's eyes widened even further with horror. Oh, no. She pressed the cushion forcefully over her face in a futile attempt to render herself unconscious. After thirty airless seconds she gave up and lowered the pillow. The first thing she saw was her perfect partner - laughing at her. The wretch. She half-heartedly kicked at him before succumbing to hilarity herself.

"The general results will be anonymous, of course. But anyone wanting to know their personal match can contact me and I'll happily let them know who corresponds most...intimately." She smiled coyly. "Please punch in your name and we will begin. We have separate tests for each gender."

Tony and Maya looked at their respective handsets and then at each other. They were both acutely uncomfortable with the idea, little realising it was for exactly the same reason.

"They can't force us." Tony knew this was wishful thinking even as the defiant words passed his lips.

"After all, we're not bored." Maya picked up her book and once again held it in front of her face at a perfect angle to obscure the vid screen.

Tony couldn't keep his fascinated gaze from the screen. The first question was already being read out - with a simultaneous text appearing on the main viewer and small vid screens.

There followed a detailed series of attributes, which could be ranked in order of preference. The list reverted to the hand held units from then on.

A slip of paper was handed to the Rec Officer from someone off screen and she looked up from the quiz paper, an annoyed half-frown marring her perky expression.

"Several of you aren't playing. Really, what's the point of our going to all this trouble if you aren't going to co-operate?" She leaned forward, closer to the camera. "You know who you are. Do you want me to read your names out on the air?

"Bloody hell."

Maya couldn't help but laugh at the absolute disgust in Tony's voice. "She's got us."

He sighed. "I know." Even as he reached to the coffee table for his handset he shook his head. "Anything for a peaceful life."

They dutifully logged on and a satisfied smile quickly replaced the Rec Officer's scowl. "Well done. Now simply follow the questions that come up on your handset screen. We'll return in an hour or so with the final results." She twinkled merrily at her captive audience. "Strictly anonymous, of course!" The screen went mercifully blank.

Unable to stomach what was sure to be a harrowing experience without some fortification, Tony turned to Maya, who was studying the questions with a bemused expression on her face. "I don't think I can face this without caffeine. Do you want a top up?"

Maya, who'd been quickly skimming through the questions, came across question number 73: DOES PENIS SIZE MATTER TO YOU? at that moment and seized on the offer with the desperation of the doomed. "Yes, please. Make mine triple strength."

Tony laughed, "Is it that bad?"

She sighed, "Maybe your version is better." Drawing her slender legs up under her, she arranged herself carefully so that only she could see her screen, scrolled back to the beginning of the quiz and began tapping in her answers. Once she began a sense of enjoyment grew sneakily, and before she knew it she was actually having fun. The first twenty questions at least weren't too excruciatingly embarrassing. Since anonymity was guaranteed, there was no reason why her answers shouldn't be truthful. Maya realised that anyone reading her answers would know within minutes to whom she referred but a sense of recklessness impelled her onwards.

The test was surprisingly comprehensive, covering her own preferences in literature, music, politics, lifestyle, home decoration, family life, as well as the more obvious questions about the preferred attributes of her perfect man.

Tony returned with the cappuccino and after handing her a cup, settled himself in a similarly defensive position at the other end of the couch. They eyed each other warily for a minute before dissolving into laughter.

"I won't look if you won't." Tony promised. His amusement faded somewhat as he in turn read through the questions. "Good God."

A chuckle from the opposing end of the couch confirmed his suspicion that the feminine version wasn't much better. "On second thought, maybe I don't want to look."

The Rec Officer appeared on screen minutes after they finished keying in their answers with a twinkle in her eye, saying she hoped everyone enjoyed the game.

"There were two really intriguing results. Perfect love match. In the interests of anonymity we can't divulge any names.... but all participants are more than welcome to contact me for details of their own results."

After this tantalising pronouncement Maya could feel the heat rising in her face, but she struggled to appear disinterested. Her fingers itched to press the button to print out her results.

The temptation was overwhelming, but just how anonymous would the results be?

Tony sensed this ambivalence. He raised an eyebrow teasingly, "Go on, you know you want to."

She fought a smile and raised her chin haughtily, "It's purely scientific curiosity."

"Of course it is." He chuckled in a maddeningly superior male fashion, bracing himself for a well-deserved kick. But she merely slanted him a filthy look and defiantly punched in the code for her results.

The printer built into the companel obligingly spit out the compiled matches. When the paper kept coming after the one or two pages she'd obviously expected, Tony had to bite his lip severely to contain his silent laughter. Maya's face was an absolute picture. Thirty pages later it finally stopped. They'd been told to expect 1-2 pages on average per match.

She settled herself into a suitably defensive position in the corner of the sofa, eyeing him warily. He smiled angelically at her, his dark eyes dancing with decidedly non-angelic amusement.

"Why don't you print out your results, Tony. It'll give you something to do other than torment me."

"But I enjoy tormenting you." Even so, he obediently punched in his code and went to wait by the printer. An equally impressive number of pages duly presented themselves.

Maya smiled coolly and maintained a dignified silence.

Despite this enjoyable bickering, each was intensely interested in their results. The computer printed out a percentage compatibility rating based on personality, likes and dislikes. Any rating over 60% was printed out. A rating of 90% or higher was considered a love match, on one side anyway. A perfect score was, according to the Rec Officer, extremely rare.

Maya hardly dared to hope as she rifled through the wad of paper. She saw several 80% ratings, there was a 90% result... and there it was. She had a 100% match. Tony. It didn't mention names but she recognised him immediately. Thrilled to the depths of her soul, she barely breathed as she read the two-page report.

The one thing the report didn't say was whether her answers matched his criteria. He didn't necessarily have a 100% match in his pile. She might not even feature in his obscenely large stack of potential mates. But the Rec Officer had said there was one perfect mutual match.

The results mercifully glossed over the more overtly sexual aspects of the quiz - merely stating that there was a 100% probability this would be a passionately fulfilling relationship. Maya slanted him a surreptitious glance over the top of her printout. As though waiting for the moment, he looked up at the same time and she hurriedly jerked the paper up to obscure her blushes.

The results were a lot more detailed in other areas. Physical description, likes, dislikes, attitudes to life, sense of humour, books, movies, music. These all went into fascinating detail. It was brew making and fencing that gave him away, although she could have picked him out from millions even without these clues.

She was absolutely dying to see his results, but too chicken to suggest it. If only she could come out with an insouciant, sophisticated, "I have one 100% match and you seem to be it. What do you say to that?" Okay: one, two, three... say it! Ha. She cracked herself up sometimes.

But he was obviously a mind reader. Having quickly read through his own results (paying a great deal of attention to one or two pages in particular, or so she thought), Tony gently nudged one of her sock-clad feet with his own.

When she warily lowered her papers, he asked, "Want to trade?", smiling at the conflicting emotions that danced across her delicate, expressive features.

A simple "yes". That's all she had to say. But try as she might, she couldn't get her voice to say the word. They were entering dangerous, uncharted waters here.

He silently offered her his papers. When Maya's eyes widened with panic, he smiled and said gently, "It's only a game, sweetie."

No, it wasn't. It meant everything. What if he recognised himself as her 100% match and laughed? She'd die. She really would die.

Realising he was pushing her too hard, Tony started to withdraw the papers. But Maya took a deep, bracing breath and thrust her results at him before she could change her mind. They retreated to opposite corners again to read.

Maya forced herself to read his results in the order he'd handed them to her. Mustn't appear too obvious. He had a high percentage of 80-90% responses. Half the women on Alpha seemed to be in love with him, she realised with a sinking heart. Finally, she reached the last entry. Almost afraid to read it, she scanned it quickly. The 100% jumped off the page at her. It matched! No, it didn't. Her throat tightened as she read details that she knew didn't apply to her. Stunningly beautiful, alluring, graceful, sensual...

He loved someone else.

Unbearable coldness swept through her veins. Was this how it felt when your heart broke? Horrified to feel tears threatening, but unable to suppress the wave of despair, Maya bit her lip and tried desperately to get a hold of herself. She wasn't successful. The paper slipped to the floor, her fingers no longer able to grasp the sheet.

"Maya?" She could hear concern and the beginnings of alarm in Tony's voice, but couldn't look at him. Couldn't bear his sympathy, his pity. Suddenly desperate to get away, she muttered something about running a bath and bolted for the bathroom.

Baffled and worried, Tony picked up the sheet she'd just dropped as though white hot. He recognised it immediately as his 100% match. He'd just been rocked to his foundations, overwhelmed, elated, on realising that she matched as his perfect partner. And even more elated to realise he'd come out as hers. It might be a game, but the computer had unerringly honed in on her as the love of his life. It wasn't inconceivable that it had been just as accurate with her choice. This annoying, embarrassing quiz had just given him a glimpse of heaven.

But she obviously didn't feel the same. Had the computer misinterpreted her answers? Surely that was the

It wasn't the only explanation.

With comprehension came a renewed surge of hope. Maya was enchantingly, sometimes maddeningly blind to her own appeal. Was it possible...? He looked at the page again, trying to read it through her eyes. He'd answered the questions honestly. He thought Maya was the most exquisite, desirable woman he'd ever known. But she'd demonstrated on more than one occasion that she didn't see herself that way and he realised now that she hadn't recognised herself from his description.

And she'd just confirmed how much she cared. Tony closed his eyes in silent exultation. Picking up both their results, he walked to the firmly shut bathroom door.



Tony pressed his fingers lightly to the door, as through touching her through the barrier. "Are you okay?"

More silence. Then, "I'm taking a bath." Her voice was slightly muffled, as if she were resisting tears. She sounded surprisingly close. Tony realised she was probably sitting on the floor with her back to the door.

Trying to stall while he thought of something positive and appropriate to say, he opted for a lame, "There's no water running."

The next thing he heard was the sound of water gushing from the taps.

His mouth quirked in a rueful half smile before he sighed and sat down in a similar posture to the one he imagined she was in, leaning his head back against the metal door. Why was this so damned difficult? He was torn between concern that she was upset - and helpless delight at the same emotion.

Maya wrapped her arms around her knees and succumbed to the heartbreak she'd been fighting, tears streaming down her face in silent accompaniment to the torrent of water pouring from the tap. She wanted to die. These last few days with him had been so perfect, she'd allowed herself to dream. It just made the devastation she felt now that much more unbearable. But she'd read the truth in black and white. He had a perfect love. And that love was a woman who was "stunningly beautiful, sensual and alluring." The words were burned into her memory. And here she sat. Awkward, shy, naive, unsophisticated, unbeautiful. Crying in the toilet like an idiot. She wiped her eyes with a tissue and valiantly tried to pull herself together. It was only a game, after all. A game that had picked him unerringly as her one true love. Maybe she could convince him she really had felt a sudden urgent need for a bath. Maybe he didn't realise anything was wrong. But this vain hope was dashed in the next instant. Tony's voice was low, tender and very near. He was sitting just outside the door.

"Maya, do you remember the evening I asked you to go to the Ball with me?"

Of course she remembered. For one magical moment she thought he'd been about to tell her he loved her. Maya's heart thumped suddenly as she recalled what else he'd said.

Tony continued despite the lack of response from the other side of the door, "I told you my reason for asking you that night, and my opinion hasn't changed."

She had no difficulty recalling his words. They'd kept her going on more than one occasion during the lonely weeks of the recent crisis.

"Because every woman on the base will have at least three men begging to escort her to the dance... and because beautiful redheads are at a decided premium."

"But, I'm not..."

"Beautiful? Yes, you are."

"No, I'm not!"

"Oh yes, you are."

But she'd convinced herself later that he was just being kind - and wickedly flirtatious - but definitely not serious. Or was he? The realisation that maybe he had meant it sent a jolt of delight through her. Her heart cautiously allowed that maybe part of what her brain was telling her was true. If he really thought she was beautiful, couldn't he also think she was alluring, graceful and sensual? She hadn't read much of his 100% match after realising it couldn't possibly be her. Now she desperately wanted to read it again.

Tony could practically hear the lightning intensity of her thoughts. Realising that his presence outside the door could not be helping her equilibrium, he got to his feet. Slipping both sheets of paper under the door, he said. "There are bath salts in the cabinet if you want them." Then he forced himself to walk back to the living room.

Maya stared for a long time at the papers on the floor beside her. Afraid to touch them. The tub was almost full. She got up to turn off the taps. There was no sense in wasting the water. Her clothes made a small heap on the chair by the bath. As she stepped into the steaming water her gaze was inexorably drawn to the papers. She closed her eyes for a second and then reached across and snatched them up, holding them carefully above the water as she lowered herself into the bath.

When she finished reading she could barely breathe. She wanted to scream with happiness - burst into tears again and -dance about the small room. Was this how he really saw her? It was only a game after all, and not meant to be taken too seriously. Maya forced herself to calm down, breathing deeply and slowly as she clambered out of the tub and wrapped herself in a large towel. A hectic blush stained her cheeks even as she smiled helplessly at herself in the mirror. He had to think she was a total idiot. She was behaving like a lovesick thirteen year old. But if what she'd just read was true, then she didn't care. For with the hideous embarrassment came a joyous feeling that maybe it was true. Could he really love her as much as she loved him?

Maya emerged from the bathroom twenty minutes later, still becomingly flushed from the heat of the bath, her hair curling in silky tendrils around her face. She stopped dead, just inside the door to the lounge, when she saw him. Her smile was shy and more than a bit embarrassed. His first thought was that she'd never been more heartstoppingly beautiful than she was at that moment - or more wary. She was like a half-wild thing, poised on a knife's edge between accepting a proffered morsel and bolting for freedom.

Be very careful. Tony knew his handling of the next few minutes would determine whether she ran from him or not. They were so close...

He smiled in what he hoped was a casual, reassuring manner as he walked to her, wincing inside as she tensed visibly. But she stood her ground, trembling almost imperceptibly when he took both her hands in his. Her luxuriant lashes cast dark shadows on her ivory skin, her gaze determinedly downcast.

"I made you a cappuccino. I thought we could both use one." He smiled ruefully when she raised cautious blue eyes to his. And I love you more than you'll ever know. He could feel some of the tension leave her as she realised he wasn't going to push her into a heavy discussion about who felt what for whom.

"Yes, I think we probably could." Her dimple flashed as she acknowledged the more ludicrous aspects of the recent drama - she also felt a wave of tremendous relief. She knew she was being incredibly cowardly, but this feeling that her greatest dream was just within her reach was as terrifying as it was exhilarating. It was ridiculous to feel so shy of him. She didn't know how to act and gratefully followed his lead.

They'd just sat down on the sofa and picked up their coffee cups when the vid screen flashed back into life and the Rec Officer appeared. She announced that due to a computer error they thought it best to advise that some of the results might have come back a bit skewed - and not take the test too seriously!

Maya's first feeling was dismay - and then a hint of relief. This let her off the hook a bit. But it also called into question the veracity of his result - she knew hers was accurate. But what if the computer had misconstrued his answers?

Tony resisted the urge to sigh out loud. Trust the Reccing Crew to ruin the only good idea they'd ever come up with. His overwhelming instinct was to voice this opinion to Maya, but he was determined not to frighten her off. She'd talk about it when she was ready. Despite this, he intended to let her know very soon that as far as he was concerned, his result was 100% accurate, computer error or not.

Two hours later Helena announced that the quarantine had ended.

Three days later. It was late, after 11pm. Tony was in his lab, deeply absorbed in the complex formulae on his computer screen.

He wasn't aware of another presence in the room until a pair of feminine hands covered his eyes, and the sensation of voluptuous female curves pressed to his back. It wasn't Maya. He would know her longed for touch anywhere. The heavy, musky perfume of his assailant, and it did feel distinctly like he was under attack, was as unlike his love's fresh, delicate scent as night and day.

He swivelled on the stool, and wasn't surprised to meet Ellen Morgan's pleased feline gaze. She didn't move away, looping her arms around his neck instead.

"Ellen." His voice was level, polite, but no more.

"Tony." She said mockingly, leaning closer. He could feel her moist breath on his mouth. "I thought you might want some company..."

Hell. There could be no mistaking her meaning. He clasped her wrists in a gentle but firm grip and began to remove her arms from around his neck. "No. I'm flattered, Ellen. But no."

She narrowed her eyes. "I don't think I can take no for an answer." Then she launched herself at him with a ferocity and passion that took him by surprise, her mouth hot, wet and voracious. After a moment of startled immobility he clasped her upper arms and attempted to detach her, but she clung to him like a particularly determined limpet.

Maya unfortunately chose that moment to walk into the lab. For a few seconds her brain couldn't - wouldn't - take in what she was seeing. Bemusement turned very quickly to horror. She stood paralysed in the doorway for what felt like an eternity, but was in effect only a few seconds. Whirling on her heel, she ran out the way she'd come.

The other two looked up - Tony in the process of pushing Ellen away, just as Maya turned to flee. Shit. He cursed under his breath and glared at Ellen, who smiled triumphantly. He took off at a dead run after Maya. The stricken look on her face was permanently burned onto his retinas.

Maya's only thought was flight. But distance didn't dispel the vivid, painful image - it followed her even as she ran. An involuntary sob rose in her throat. Blindly ducking into a dimly lit laboratory, she leaned against the wall just inside the door and tried to compose herself. She closed her eyes tight, as though this would erase the memory. She didn't think they'd seen her, that would be unbearable - his knowing, Ellen's knowing how much their embrace had upset much it hurt. She blinked back tears and tried to calm her ragged breath. Any hope that they hadn't seen her was dashed as quick footsteps sounded in the corridor and hesitated outside the open door. Maya held her breath and prayed for invisibility...

Tony thought he'd lost her - she was astonishingly fleet of foot - but some sixth sense made him turn into the robotics lab. It was dark in the room, the light from the hall illuminating only an elongated rectangle of floor just inside the door. He felt her rather than sensed her in a physical sense, heard her soft, quickened breathing a split second before his eyes adjusted to the dark.


Her cheeks burning, Maya avoided his gaze, turning her face from him. Rigid with mortification, she whispered, "I didn't mean to interrupt." Please don't let me cry in front of him.

"It wasn't how it looked." He fought back panic. She wouldn't even look at him. Damn Ellen. If this destroyed the trust that had grown between them...

"It's nothing to do with me." Long lashes masked her eyes and she backed away from him abruptly when he moved closer. Tony's sense of desperation increased a thousand-fold. Her emotional withdrawal alarmed him even more than her physical retreat. Instinct told him to pull her into his arms and kiss the truth into her.

His heart pounding with the urgency of his need to convince, Tony gently pulled her into the light from the hall and lifted her chin with his hand, "It has everything to do with you."

Oh, how she wanted to believe him. But she'd seen with her own eyes the passion of the kiss. How could she even begin to compete with Ellen's overt, knowing sexuality?

He tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear, loving the silken fire against his skin, the warm velvet of her cheek under his finger. His admission was more than a bit embarrassed, "She jumped me."

"Jumped you?" She raised startled blue eyes to his and read the truth in his dark gaze. The relief that surged through her weakened her knees.

"Much as it hurts my male ego to admit." His heart lifted as the smile that had begun to curve her mouth finally reached her eyes. This time when he drew her close she didn't back away.


"Yes, oh."

"But I thought, sort of thing was supposed to be good for the male ego." Her voice reflected her bemusement. Ellen was very glamorous, sexy and supremely confident. Surely these were qualities all men found attractive?

"Depends on who's doing the jumping. Ellen scares the hell out of me." His first choice - his only choice - was a slender redhead with eyes the colour of a clear sky.

Maya suddenly found the idea of him manfully fighting off Ellen's unwanted advances very appealing. She smiled at him with such mischief in her lovely face that he pulled her closer, helpless in the face of her unselfconscious flirtation. She leaned into his embrace and playfully slipped her arms around his waist.

"Poor Tony. I'll protect you." The deviltry sparkling in her eyes belied her warmly sympathetic tones.

"Your concern is overwhelming." He said dryly. His mouth curved in a slow smile. "But thanks for the offer. I just might take you up on it."

"If you like, I'll tell her she scares the hell out of you." Her blood heated with pleasure as he traced a gentle finger over the full curve of her bottom lip.

"That's incredibly kind of you, but I wouldn't."

"Oh, it's no trouble." Maya gasped and then laughed delightedly as he dipped her suddenly, holding her suspended over his arm. Even upside down, his dark, good-looking face and wicked white smile did violent things to her heart rate. Ignoring her somewhat precarious position, Maya said in a condescending tone, "I know you wouldn't, Tony. That's why I'm offering to do it for you."

He effortlessly righted her, then kissed the tip of her nose. "Cara, she'd eat you alive."

This sobered her somewhat, the hateful image flashing through her mind in stark Technicolor, still too recent. "That does seem to be her speciality." Her tone was cool.

Ellen's amorous attack had been the last thing on his mind from the moment he took Maya in his arms. Already it seemed less than real - like comparing a cheap white wine with the finest vintage champagne.

His gaze darkened with an emotion Maya couldn't quite identify - but it instantly affected her ability to breathe. She sighed - a slight, almost inaudible sound of anticipation, as he lowered his head to hers. His kiss was slow, loving and told her exactly how he rated Ellen's unsubtle efforts.

Several long, blissful, minutes later Tony drew back slightly, his lips still a mere whisper from hers. He brushed her mouth again - gently, his caress tantalisingly brief, then pressed a disappointingly chaste kiss to her forehead.

He studied her beautiful, vivid face and as always, found it curiously touching that someone as enchanting as Maya could be so blind to her own appeal. He said simply, "She doesn't hold a candle to you."

Not sure if he was teasing, Maya slanted him a cautious glance before lowering her gaze. But he'd seen the shy delight in her eyes and a bolt of warmth went straight to his heart as the beginnings of a smile curved her pretty mouth.

Maya could feel the ready colour tinting her cheeks, completely unable to mask her pleasure at his gallantry. She fought an overwhelming urge to blurt, "Really?"

Tony smiled as he watched her struggle with the compliment; her face reflected embarrassment, happiness and lingering disbelief. Half his enjoyment of this tender provocation came from slowly wearing down her inability to recognise just how lovable she was. He'd learned to wait for the right moment. When he didn't her reaction invariably consisted of a laughing, maddening disinclination to take him seriously.

Maybe he'd finally hit on the right formula; kiss her senseless then overwhelm her with romance while her defences were weakened. And she did react so beautifully to being kissed...

He took her hand, enjoying the sensation of her slender fingers entwined with his.

"Come with me to the lab? I want to show you something."

The walk back to the lab was a lot more pleasant than the fraught initial journey.

Chapter Six

A week later Tony and Bill Fraser were out on a recon in Eagle 2, checking out a suspected leak in one of the nuclear waste areas on the far side of the moon. They'd done their tests and were just heading back when a vortex appeared in front of them and they were sucked into nothingness. Everything went blank and when they regained consciousness they were no longer on the Eagle.

Tony opened his eyes slowly, blinking rapidly as he attempted to focus in the bright light shining directly on his face. He was strapped into a chair - restraints around his wrists, shoulders, waist and ankles. But they were unnecessary, some sort of paralytic had been used, he could move his head and that was about it. Bill was in an identical chair next to him, still unconscious. The room was alien, sterile. Just like the being - if that's what it was - standing in front of him. It seemed to be half man/half machine. Black leather-like body suit, with machine parts -- a cyborg. The face was sinister and shocking - with human eyes and bits of smooth skin, the rest like monstrous circuitry.

That's why it was doubly shocking when the thing spoke to him in colloquial English.

"Ah. Awake at last. "

Wary to say the least, Tony watched it and remained silent. The mere fact of his bindings did not bode well for the amiability of this encounter.

The thing leaned close enough that Tony could smell its foul breath. "We've been waiting for specimens like you, human."

"Who are you?" Determined not to let the alien rattle him, Tony kept his voice level, calm.

"We are the Borg. I am Primus of Borg." It thankfully withdrew a fraction, enough for Tony to draw in a relatively unpolluted breath. "We have been watching you, First Officer Anthony Verdeschi."

"What do you want?"

"We are the Borg. It is our destiny to rule all. To eliminate and assimilate infestations of inferior carbon based life forms."

Tony's blood froze. "You appear to be at least partly 'carbon based'." In a grotesque, unnatural way.

"We may absorb those of your people who are deemed suitable. And our biological parts do sometimes need replacing."

Several more Borg entered the room. Tony took a good look around him and realised to his horror that what he'd taken to be erratically shaped computer banks along the walls were actually Borg - seemingly built into the walls. But this Primus seemed different from the others. Only he (and Tony presumed it was a he) seemed able to speak - or show emotion - the others were like automatons. He didn't know which terrified him more, the inhuman, expressionless countenances of the Borg, or the insane enjoyment that Primus seemed to enjoy whilst describing the fate he had in store for the Alphans.

"I was once as you are human. Now I am immortal. Invincible." It smiled, showing glinting, silver stubs where its teeth had been. "Merciless."

"You're not like the others."

It seemed pleased that he'd noticed.

"They are more machine than human. I am more human than machine - my will survived the transfer - a supreme, superior consciousness."

And clearly insane. This frightened Tony more than the obvious technical superiority of the Borg. The Alphans were in mortal danger. He was getting some feeling back in his extremities, but moved very slowly so as not to alert the Borg. He tested his restraints. Although still weak, he was regaining strength by the minute.

God knew where they were - they could be light years from Alpha.

Bill was starting to come round.

"The other awakes. Welcome William Fraser, Pilot."

Fraser looked around wildly, his breathing indicating his panicked state.

"You are just in time. I was about to tell Mr Verdeschi of my plans for your people." Primus waved his hand through a beam of light emanating from the wall and a large screen appeared on the wall.

The interior of the Eagle appeared. Tony assumed the film had been recorded earlier as he and Bill were pictured strapped into their seats.

Primus lowered his face until his nose was a millimetre from Tony's. "You two are about to go home. And won't your friends and loved ones be in for a nasty shock. But so much fun!" It laughed as the expressions of his captives revealed their realisation that their doppelgangers were to pilot the Eagle back to Alpha. And then do what...?

"We've been watching your people for some time. You have no secrets from us. You Fraser, are married to Annette. Will it cause you great pain to see her die?" Bill moaned and fought wildly against his restraints.

"And you..." It turned to Tony. "She is very beautiful. Such exquisite eyes. Now you will watch those eyes go blank as the life drains from her broken body." It laughed, as though mildly amused.

An absolute coldness crept slowly through Tony's veins. With dread fascination, he looked at the image on the screen again. If he didn't know better he'd have thought that was himself in the Eagle. The replication was perfect.

Bill sobbed quietly next to him.

"In addition to our surveillance over the last month, we scanned your brains while you were unconscious. The replicants have your memories, mannerisms - they are perfect in every way."

Tony fought back a tide of anguish and rage and tried to reason with the monster. "Why are you doing this? We're no threat to you."

"No. My brethren will absorb you, squash you like ants beneath their feet - almost without noticing. This is for me. Because it amuses me."

Primus indicated the screen, "This is not real time. They have already touched down on your Moonbase. Everything you are about to see has already happened. The time delay in relaying the information back is sixty minutes. So all you can do is sit back and enjoy." It smiled almost kindly, its features contorting in a rictus, an abomination of that most human of expressions, "We'll start with you, Mr Verdeschi...

Tony felt the blood drain from his face. Maya...God no. No...

The film started as the clones left the Eagle. The perspective was as through the eyes of Tony/Borg. Tony barely breathed as it stalked through the corridors of the crew quarters - heading for Maya. He prayed that someone it passed in the corridors would recognise its essential inhumanity - question it. But the few people it passed smiled, said hello, normal exchanges. It reached her door and keyed in the lock code - Tony knew it, and so did his Borg doppelganger.

He barely breathed as it entered her quarters. The lights were off. Please don't let her be there.

It hesitated at the door to her bedroom, and then entered quietly. The door was slightly ajar. Tony was unable to restrain a quiet, heartbroken moan. She'd kicked off most of the bedclothes and lay curled up in the middle of the bed. She wore peach silk pyjamas. The camera dwelt lingeringly on her. The thing seemed to be scrutinising every curve of her face, every line of her body.

It moved in closer. In the dim half-light of the bedroom, her skin glowed softly, like perfect, warm alabaster. Long, thick lashes cast dark shadows on her delicate, sculpted cheekbones. As though sensing another's presence, Maya stirred and her eyes opened, at first soft and dreamy with sleep, but within seconds she focused on the man standing by her bed.


Then there was a sudden, unexpected disruption in playback. Tony held his breath, waiting for the demonic picture to return, but nothing happened.

Primus seemed taken aback. "A problem with the retinal lens. Do not worry, Mr Verdeschi, your beloved will not be lacking attention."

The screen cut to Bill/Borg's viewpoint. He was in his quarters - Annette had just awakened and greeted him sleepily.

Then all hell broke loose. Alarm claxons wailed. Bill/Borg went to investigate the cause - giving Annette a temporary reprieve.

Primus laughed, "Mr Verdeschi, I think we are about to regain visuals."

There were security guards and med techs ducking in and out of Maya's quarters. One of them staggered through the door, grey faced - and vomited in a corner. Tony immediately recognised the blood soaked object in the guard's hand. It was one of his fencing sabres. Maya had taken it home with her after their last session.

John and Helena came out. John had aged twenty years. -Helena was crying silently.

Primus turned to smile at Tony, who was ashen - forced to watch his life end with Maya's.

Bill/Borg walked up to Koenig, "Commander, what's happened?" He made a move to go into Maya's quarters, but John stopped him,

"No, you don't want to go in there."

Bill/Borg expressed shocked concern.

Then John said, "During the flight...did Tony mention any sort of problems he and Maya might be having?"

"No, nothing. You don't mean..."

"There's been a suspicious death."

Helena laughed semi-hysterically, "Suspicious!"

"We've got one dead, one missing. Until I can get the full story, I'm not making any assumptions." John hugged Helena to him, "Maybe when we get the autopsy results..."

They turned to watch silently as two Med techs came out with a stretcher and a body bag.

"Helena?" Bill/Borg made a good show of shock.

"Decapitation." She gulped, "And not a neat one." The doctor visibly struggled to get a hold of herself, her eyes turbulent with grief and disbelief. Unable to contain her anger any more she burst out, "I won't believe it! Those two adore each other..." She couldn't yet bring herself to use the past tense.

Tony knew Primus was gloating over his silent agony. But he wouldn't give the Borg satisfaction of seeing him break down. He knew the hate and despair building inside him won't be containable for long - without Maya there was no point in living anyway.

Bill/Borg finally entered Maya's quarters. There was a first glance nothing indicating anything wrong. Then he entered the charnel house that was the bedroom. Blood coated every wall in the room - concentrated near the bed.

John said, "Every security team is out searching." He indicated a missing ceiling tile leading into the ventilation system. "She got out through here."


Helena sighed, "We've got people scouring the base for her, but she's disappeared. If Maya's in the vent shafts it's going to be hard to find her. And she needs help, whatever happened."

The sudden exaltation, the reprieve from hell, hit Tony like a sledgehammer. She's alive. Somehow, she'd recognised the threat and reacted with the necessary violence to stop the thing that was stalking her.

The scene abruptly changed to the interior of the morgue, where Tony/Borg had been laid out prior to autopsy. The camera had cut back in. Even headless, the thing was still alive. And not about to stop looking for Maya. It cloaked itself and made its way to Bill and Annette's quarters, where it waited. Annette was blissfully unaware that this thing was in the apartment with her. She was running her bath - awaiting Bill's return, when Maya removed ceiling panel, and after Annette's visible shock and alarm at her appearance, tried to alert her to the fact that Bill was not what he seems.

"Annette, you've got to get out of here. That's not Bill."

"Maya! Are you mad? Of course that's Bill!" Annette's voice rose as she remembered the trouble at Maya's quarters, and backed away from the other woman. Perhaps she had gone crazy. "What have you done?"

"Annette, please. There's not much time. It'll kill us both if we don't leave now."

Their urgent exchange was at first a whispered but, despite Maya's urgings for Annette to be quiet, increasingly audible exchange. And it had already attracted Tony/Borg's attention. It uncloaked and slammed through bathroom door just in time to see Annette's feet disappearing as Maya hauled her forcibly through the vent. It roared with rage - an impossible, terrifying sound, considering the headless state of the thing, and grabbed her feet. Annette shrieked with terror and abruptly ceased resisting Maya's efforts to haul her into the vent shaft. When Annette was finally in the shaft, Maya pushed her out of the way and straddling the aperture, blasted the thing square in the chest with the laser she held.

This was the first image of Maya Tony had seen since the encounter with Tony/Borg in her bedroom. She was still wearing the peach satin pyjamas of before, but they were ripped and blood soaked, almost unrecognisable as the same garments. Her face, hair, throat and hands were splattered with gore. It was hard to tell how much, if any of the blood was hers. She was ashen under the blood and probably dangerously shocked, but in control, with a deadly resolve apparent in her every move.

The Borg went down, but impossibly, got up again and hauled itself into the shaft. Maya retreated in front of it, trying to get a clear shot, finally, she modulated the pitch of her laser again, hit it repeatedly in the chest and it finally stayed down, only the twitching, charred legs remaining. The picture was immediately taken over by Bill/Borg which had just come into the bathroom and climbed into the shaft after them. It was bent double but moving fast, and Annette was stumbling with terror.

"Move!" Annette finally got the hint and ran. The Borg wasn't as agile as the smaller, faster women and they soon had a considerable lead.

Annette suddenly paled even further, her breathing a harsh sob, "If that's not Bill, then where is he? They're dead!" She stopped running and started to wail.

Maya shook her. "They're not dead. Stop it!" Her voice was low, but fierce. Only one thing kept her going in the face of this relentless juggernaut. Tony was alive. He had to be.

Then Bill/Borg caught up to them. Maya pushed Annette to the floor and fired her laser directly at Bill/Borg's midsection. It went down and stayed down. Maya sank to her knees beside the hysterically sobbing Annette and used the other woman's commlock to call for help.

When Bill/Borg's transmission ended as well, Primus went berserk. This in turn seemed to infect the others of his kind and they ran amok, smashing equipment and attacking primary systems. Soon the ship was on fire, the artificial gravity starting to fail. Tony and Bill strained desperately against their bindings. Just when it seemed they were doomed to perish with the Borg, the restraints released.

"Let's get the hell out of here."

More by luck than design, they found the launch bay and a shuttle. They concentrated on getting it airborne, worrying about the details of flying it once they were clear of the Borg ship. To their profound relief, they found they recognised the star system. They were within easy reach of Alpha.

They walked into Medical Centre just as Maya and Annette were being given first aid. Helena seemed unable to believe that Maya was unhurt - shocked, but not seriously physically injured aside from some rather nasty bruises and several cuts. Incredibly, little of the gore covering her from head to foot was her own.

It took the physical sight of her to convince Tony she really was alive. Maya was bloody, grimy and pale with shock - almost unrecognisable as the woman he loved.

She'd never looked more beautiful to him.


She had time to emit just a single low cry before they were in each other's arms. Tony kissed her fiercely, desperately, then cupped her face in his hands, "Are you alright?" His eyes were almost black with the intensity of the emotion gripping him.

She touched a hand to his cheek, "It's not my blood."

Until he'd walked through the Medical Centre door a combination of shock and her own subconscious refusal to think about it had kept the question she didn't want to ask to the back of her mind.

"And it's not your blood," Maya blinked back tears of overwhelming relief and pressed her face to the base of his throat, breathing in the essence of him as they held each other. She'd never felt anything as wonderful as his arms around her, the warmth and strength of his lean body against hers.

For about fifteen minutes during the horror, her sanity had hung precariously in the balance. While the thing with Tony's face tried to rip her heart out. The coldness, the blankness of its eyes soon told her this wasn't a nightmare from which she would soon awaken - and that it wasn't him. From somewhere deep inside had come a power, a strength that allowed her to strike back with lethal force. But once the thing lay in pieces on the floor, her resolve had faltered and the certainty that it wasn't Tony faded. For a while she'd lived with the terror that she'd killed him - that she'd gone mad and killed the man she loved. And for a short while she'd wanted to die too. But then something had righted inside her. Her task had been to kill it and warn the others.

And that she had done.

"How did you know?" Tony smoothed his hands slowly over her back, taking comfort even as he gave it. "The duplication was perfect." And yet within two minutes of the Borg entering her bedroom, she'd realised the threat and reacted with appropriate ferocity.

"I just knew it wasn't you." She shivered at the memory and tightened her arms around him, reassured by the pounding of his heart, the pulse beating strongly in his throat.

Tony closed his eyes and pressed his cheek to the crown of her head. He'd come so close to losing her. But with the residual terror and intense relief came a fierce pride at her courage and determined ruthlessness when backed into a corner. A slight smile curved his lips, "Remind me never to get you mad."

Maya raised her face to his, and he was delighted to see the impish glint returning to her lovely eyes. "Don't I always give you plenty of warning?"

"Ah, so you really mean it when you tell me I'm pushing my luck." They were both smiling when Tony lowered his head to hers. With the first touch of their lips the magic flared between them and they were instantly lost to everything but the other's touch. The kiss was a basic expression of their love and the joy of being alive.

Neither of them could let go completely. They stood quietly entwined while Helena and her staff bustled around them. Tony was covered in almost as much gore as Maya within seconds of taking her into his arms, but didn't even notice - and if he had noticed, he wouldn't have cared. She was alive. All he knew or cared about was the slender warmth of her against him, the fierce surge of love he felt when she sighed and palpably relaxed in his arms. He pressed his cheek to the crown of her head again and closed his eyes. Each took more comfort from being in the others arms than any amount of trauma counselling would have provided.

John arrived and it was generally agreed that the debriefing could wait until they'd all gotten some rest.

Finally Helena had to order Maya into the shower, handing her a set of surgical scrubs as she pushed her through the door.

"Use the bio filter. I'm going to want to analyse whatever that gunk is later." She slanted an amused glance at Tony. "What hasn't been transferred to you, that is." She handed him his own scrubs.

Tony glanced down at his bloodstained tunic. "It doesn't seem to have clotting properties." The blood, if that's what it was, was still liquid. He shuddered to think how close Maya would have had to be to the monster in order to be literally soaked from head to foot.

When Maya emerged from the shower room ten minutes later, clean but still extremely pale, Helena tried to insist that she spend the night in Medical.

"But I'm not injured." And she really didn't relish spending the night alone in the clinical stainless steel atmosphere of the hospital.

Tony held out his hand and she walked back into the warm haven of his embrace. She'd faced the prospect of imminent death with courage and steely determination, but now that it was over, now that they were both safe, she just wanted to hold him and be held. She'd begun to shiver under the hot spray of the shower, as though a chill had pervaded her soul - a bone deep coldness that only Tony could allay.

"Not physically. You've suffered considerable shock and mental trauma though." Helena looked to Tony and Bill. "You two aren't looking so hot either."

Tony gently twined his fingers through the wet tendrils at the delicate nape of Maya's neck. She was trembling, leaning more heavily into his embrace, her adrenaline boosted strength draining away. He was experiencing much the same effect, the exhaustion as swift as it was complete. "We all need a good nights sleep, Helena."

Helena frowned, "It's going to take maintenance a while to clean up your quarters, Maya."

"That's why she's coming home with me." He didn't think he could stand letting her out of his sight. If Helena insisted, he'd spend the night in Medical too, but he wasn't about to leave Maya alone.

Helena sighed, "That might be a good idea. Maya?" At the younger woman's nod and expression of relief, the doctor turned off her medical monitor. "I don't want to see any of you near work for at least 48 hours. Report back here day after tomorrow and I might, repeat might, okay you for duty."

Maya was extremely quiet on the walk to his quarters. Tony took her hand, "You okay?"

She tried a smile but it was decidedly shaky. "No."

He sighed. "I don't think I am either."

When they reached his quarters he insisted she sit down. "Do you want a drink? It might help you sleep." But he could see even as he said the words that the drink wouldn't be necessary. She was fading before his eyes. He accepted her negative shake of the head without argument and held out his hand, "C'mon, I'll get your pj's."

He led her into the bedroom and removed the blue pyjamas she'd come to think of as hers from the bureau. Maya sank down onto the bed, feeling as though every ounce of vitality had been drained from her body. Tony sat down beside her and slipped an arm around her shoulders, hugging her close. He leaned his forehead against hers.

Maya's lips curved in response and she closed her eyes, feeling totally safe. They sat together quietly for several minutes before Tony pressed a kiss to her temple and said gently, "Your toothbrush is still in the bathroom."

It was almost more than she could do to brush her teeth, wash her face and change into her pyjamas. When she came out Tony had changed into a singlet and cut-offs and was taking a jersey, t-shirt and track pant bottoms from the bureau. "Your usual. I didn't think you'd want to go back to your quarters until the cleaners have been in."

Maya shuddered, recalling the charnel house atmosphere. "No, I don't. Thanks."

He deposited them in the chair before heading for the bathroom himself.

Maya climbed into bed. It felt like coming home. The clean smell of the sheets, the crisp, yet soft feel of the cotton against her skin, was heavenly. She felt safe. Her eyes grew heavy as soon as her head touched the pillow. She really didn't want to be alone tonight - and she needed the solid reality of him beside her to reassure her that it had all been a bad dream.

Tony climbed in beside her a few minutes later. She was so tired all she could do was smile sleepily as he pressed his lips to hers. "Sleep well, cara."

Her response was a barely audible sigh, "Night...."

Maya was asleep before he turned out the light. The room plunged into darkness. Tony tucked the covers protectively around her, and then gently gathered her close before joining her in oblivion.

Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, Maya's mind wouldn't let her rest completely. As soon as she entered dream state the whole nightmare replayed itself in vivid, terrifying detail...

She awoke suddenly from a deep sleep with the overwhelming feeling that something malevolent was in the room with her. Despite the warmth of the bedroom, gooseflesh erupted on her arms and every nerve ending screamed that she was in danger. Then she opened her eyes and saw him.

"Tony?" Confusion now. The light was dim, but she could see well in the dark and her view was reasonably clear.

He was standing no more than a metre from her, silent, expressionless. The positive, loving emotion she normally felt in his presence, the surge of delight she always experienced on first seeing him, was ominously missing - she was aware only of a coldness, and growing dread. Something was terribly wrong. He smiled in the dim light and she immediately, instinctively knew it wasn't him. This thing was alien - and evil.

Even had she not known, this behaviour was totally out of character for him. If he'd had reason to enter her quarters, her bedroom, he'd have announced himself immediately. Creeping around in the dark was not his style.

"Maya. I need you."

All the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. Maya edged away from him, scooting cautiously toward the headboard. She slowly pulled herself to her feet, never taking her eyes off the thing. It took all her willpower to move towards it when her every instinct told her to get away. Her bare feet sank into the mattress as she forced her legs to carry her forward.

She made herself smile, and held out her hands. It responded in kind and while it was reaching for her, Maya launched herself at it, landing a solid kick to it's jaw. Her momentum impelled them both to the floor.

Any hope she had that it had been disabled died as it tried to grab her ankle, lunging for her suddenly. But she was faster and more agile and she was across the bed and on the other side of the room before it could do more than grab more than a handful of her pyjama leg - she heard the rip of the satin even as she sprinted to the bathroom and slammed the door behind her.

Her breathing harsh and rapid, Maya scanned the small room for a potential weapon. Nothing. The thing slammed against the metal door, buckling the thick steel. The next thing she knew, a fist had punched through, leaving a jagged hole.

"Maya, come out. I just want to talk to you." The sound of Tony's voice, the tender tone, terrified her almost as much as the horrifying ease with which it peeled the jagged metal like tissue paper, enlarging the hole. Then, obviously losing patience with the slowness of this procedure, it ripped the door from its hinges.

It was still smiling, but its head lolled at an obscene angle. She'd broken its neck.

Maya felt the blood drain from her face. She laughed once, as though responding to a mildly amusing joke. The urge to succumb to hysteria, the blessed oblivion of insanity was very strong. It's not Tony. It's not Tony. She backed away from it, not realising she was saying the words out loud.

Then she caught sight of something that dragged her back from the abyss.

Tony's sabre.

It was lying half hidden under her bed, only the light from the bathroom glinting off the silver revealed its position. It was a fencing foil and not meant for serious combat, but it was better than a loofah, which was her only option in the bathroom.

It advanced toward her, "That was a mistake. Why are you running from me, Maya?"

It attempted to smile, but managed only an obscene leer. "I only want to kiss you." It reacted angrily to her movement of disgusted recoil. "Bitch! I'll rip out your heart with my bare hands."

It was frighteningly close. Maya compressed her mouth defiantly, "Don't count on it." Then she moved with the hyper swiftness that had so often saved her from danger, dodging out of its grasp, past it though the door, before it even had a chance to react. She grabbed the sabre and put even more distance between them, gaining a little time.

"Where is he?"

It laughed, an obscene rendition of the rich, amused sound that delighted her so when it emanated from the real thing.

"I am he. How can you not recognise me?" It tried to sound hurt, but she could hear amusement in its tone.

"You don't even come close."

It reacted angrily to the contempt in her voice, rushing at her with a roar of rage. It lunged for her, but she dodged it easily. This seemed to enrage it even more and it emitted a stream of menacing obscenity that terrified and sickened her, but gave her the resolve to act with lethal force.

No way would Tony ever speak to her like that.

Maya neatly sidestepped it and wielded the sabre with a strength belied by her slender femininity. The head flew through the air like a football and landed with a sickening plop on her bed. A geyser of blood and unspeakable gore exploded from the gaping wound at its neck - finally, the headless torso swayed and collapsed onto the floor -seemingly lifeless.

Gulping back nausea, but somehow impelled to look, Maya turned her gaze to the unspeakable object on the bed. The eyes were still open - the dark, beautiful eyes of the man she loved.

Stop thinking that.

It was alien - a thing - a monster. Trembling violently, she dropped the sabre and sank to her knees, her breathing harsh and shallow. It wasn't Tony. She had to believe that. So where was he? She forced the question to the back of her mind - and made herself think. He'd been with Bill Fraser, so that was the logical place to go. If Bill had been replaced too then Annette was in grave danger. And she didn't have time to explain to John and Security why there was a headless body in her bedroom, or why she was covered in gore from head to toe. Maya looked up. The vent system seemed a good option. It covered the entire living quarters and was her best option for getting to the Fraser's quarters unobserved.

Maya closed her eyes and concentrated on the image of a small sparrow. The swirl of golden light enveloped her. Then she flew into the vent, relieved to observe that she would be able move quite swiftly through the shaft. Her first job was to get a laser...

Then the dream shifted and suddenly she was in the Medical Lab just as Tony and Bill came through the door. She ran into his arms - he kissed her - a desperate quality to his embrace, then cupped her face, his eyes dark with concern and love, "Are you all right?"

Something wet and sticky dripped onto her hand. Then she noticed the jagged, gory wound to his neck.

After that all she heard was the sound of her own scream....

"Maya!" She struggled, and cried out again, trying desperately to evade its foul embrace. But it wouldn't let her go... "Cara, you're dreaming, you're safe..." Something in the tone of the voice... she dimly recognised it as Tony, penetrated the horror of her dream, drawing her back to reason, and full consciousness. She opened her eyes.

The bedside light was on. She was kneeling in the centre of the bed. Tony clasped her by the arms, his grasp firm, as though he'd been trying to restrain her. It took her a few seconds to take in where she was. All she could hear was her own panicked breath and the sound of her heart pounding. When she realised the last, horrific embrace had been a dream, she released a long, shuddering breath and tears of relief welled in her eyes.

Tony felt tears tighten his own throat as he drew her into his arms, her quiet distress nearly as upsetting as the absolute blind terror in her eyes a few minutes ago. "Shhh, you're okay." He pressed a gentle kiss to the creamy skin of her bare shoulder and carefully adjusted the collar of her pyjama top. In other circumstances he would have found the glide of the blue silk over her slender curves, the tantalising drape of the oversize neckline intensely arousing. But at the moment all he cared about was erasing any lingering terror from her eyes. After a few minutes the soothing caress of his hands on her back, his tender, murmured words of comfort had the desired effect. With a shaky sigh, Maya relaxed into his arms.

He had a pretty good idea what the nightmare had been about. He knew he would suffer his own version of the same dream in weeks to come. He tenderly stroked the wetness from her cheeks with his thumbs, "Better?"

She nodded, but her face remained grave. Her eyes were incredibly blue.

"Have I told you how proud I am of you?"

Maya attempted a smile and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, "What, for scaring you half to death and then blubbing?"

"No, for proving you were actually paying attention during some of those fencing lessons."

Her smile was real this time. "Chopping Off Heads, an Introduction. No, what really saved me was following your bad example in never putting anything away properly."

He kissed the tip of her nose, his eyes dark with a thanksgiving that belied his light-hearted tone, "Sometimes it pays to be a slob." Tony reached for the duvet, which was lying in crumpled disarray at the foot of the bed and tucked the folds around her. "Drink?"

"Yes, please." She sighed, closing her eyes against the final image of the nightmare. It was seared onto her mind like an atomic flash burn. The actual experience had been disturbing - terrifying, but she could handle that. She'd been in dangerous, even horrifying situations before and come through with minimal psychological distress. What haunted her was the soul destroying uncertainty she'd lived with for several hours - the fear that she'd killed the one person who meant more to her than her own life. Her rational mind at the time had insisted this could not be true - but her subconscious had nagged at her. Only the reality of his arms around her convinced her that he really was alive.

Tony returned a few minutes later with two mugs of hot chocolate. Maya smiled her thanks as he handed her the cup. After they'd settled themselves comfortably Tony asked gently, "Do you want to tell me about it?"

Maya smiled ironically, "The nightmare, or what really happened? There's not much difference." Except for the ending. Her smile faded. Maya took a fortifying sip of her drink and then told him the story from the time she woke up with it by her bed, until they saw each other in Medical Centre. She left out a lot of the more horrifying details. He was worried enough without having to hear how his doppelganger had used their closeness to hurt her. She didn't want him to hear how it leered at her with its head lolling at an obscene angle, of the hideous words it uttered in a loving, tender tone of voice.

She'd finished her chocolate by the time her story ended. Tony had set both mugs on the bedside table and drawn her into the circle of his arm. Maya curled into his side and rested her cheek against the broad, strong cushion of his shoulder. He then told her what had happened to him and Fraser. How Primus used their memories to duplicate them perfectly. How he made them watch while the duplicates went to destroy those Alphans who meant most to them. How he told them the film they were watching was hours old - that there was nothing they could do to save the doppelgangers' targets. How he had to watch while the Tony/Borg entered her quarters - how the retinal lens failed. How he watched while security swarmed around her blood-soaked quarters. How he thought she'd died an agonising, painful death. He choked at this point and couldn't speak for several minutes.

Maya slipped her hand into his. Tony looked down at their linked fingers, the slender beauty of her hand, pale against his darker skin.

"I really thought I'd lost you...that I'd led the Borg straight to you."

Maya felt acute horror that he'd been put through that torture... and an ambivalent, half reluctant pleasure that he cared that much for her - that the Borg had chosen her to torture him. So although she felt dreadful that the pain he'd suffered was still evident in his voice, that he thought she'd died - she couldn't help a deep delight that the idea of her death had affected him so, and was still affecting him.

Maya fell asleep again for a few hours, but awakened at about 5.00am. She studied Tony in the dim light. He was still deeply asleep, lying on his back, his handsome features relaxed in slumber. She, as usual, was practically on top of him. Maya propped herself on one elbow and gazed down into his face. Unable to resist touching him, she traced a gentle finger down his straight nose, over the chiselled line of his cheek, the shadowy rasp of his beard. She moved her hand tentatively, admiringly across the muscled width of his smooth shoulders, then ran her fingers over the furred breadth of his chest, loving the sensation of hard muscle under the surprising softness of the hair on his chest. But her attention was inexorably drawn back to the finely cut curves of his mouth and suddenly just touching wasn't enough.

She brushed her mouth lightly over his, her kiss one of gentle curiosity. A soft exhalation of pleasure whispered past her lips, his breath a warm caress against her mouth. He stirred slightly under her touch, but didn't awaken. Instead, he murmured her name and kissed her back. The contact quickly grew heated, sensual. Tony cradled the back of her head with one hand, parted her lips with his and kissed her with an overt passion, a sexuality that he'd clearly restrained in previous embraces. She was at first stunned by his intimate possession of her mouth, then intensely excited by the erotic thrust of his tongue, swept up by desire - completely intoxicated by him.

She tentatively met his tongue with her own, then shuddered with delight as he reacted to her caress by rolling her under him, pinning her to the mattress with the weight of his body. She'd never felt anything as wonderful as the masculine angles of his body moulding to her softer feminine curves. For the first time, she felt his aroused maleness against her and thrilled to this proof of his desire for her. Every bone in her body melted, rushing in a molten river to pool pleasurably in her belly and between her thighs. She clutched his shoulders and pressed herself closer. The thin barrier of their night clothes suddenly seemed unbearable. She wanted to feel his bare skin against hers.

When his hand found its way under her pyjama top, she greeted the exquisite sensation of his warm, loving fingers sliding from her waist up her ribcage with a soft moan of desire. He cupped the rounded fullness of one breast, and her nipple tightened responsively, her whole body reacting to the unbearable pleasure of his touch. Liquid heat seemed to explode in her brain, flowing through her veins with a throbbing, insistence that they be closer still.

Tony gradually emerged from the depths of a devastatingly good dream; it had a glorious tactile quality that even his most erotic fantasies of Maya lacked. He came awake reluctantly, sure that the rapturous sensation would fade as he opened his eyes. The lush fullness of the feminine breast under his hand, the delicate nipple deliciously hard against his palm, the slender length of her pressed provocatively to him, the wet heat of her luscious mouth...

When the dream didn't fade into disappointing reality he came awake very abruptly. He tore his mouth away from Maya's with a gasp, his breathing harsh, his eyes dark with desire, shock and remorse. He lifted his hand from her breast as though red hot, knowing even as he did so that the memory of her lush, petal soft fullness would remain with him until his dying day. She opened her eyes, her pupils dilated almost to black, her breath as ragged as his. Tony rolled onto his back, his forearm across his eyes, as though by blocking the sight of her he could erase the reality of what he'd just done.

"God, Maya, I'm sorry." His deep voice was hoarse, almost unrecognisable. He closed his eyes, his throat tightening with tears of remorse. She'd trusted him, come to him for comfort, looked to him to help her feel safe after being violated by that thing with his face. And this was how he responded.

Maya closed her eyes and took a deep, tremulous breath. She felt as though a part of her had been ripped away when he left her - and in a way it had - he was inside her soul.

For a minute she couldn't comprehend the regret, the obvious agony in his voice.

Then the realisation hit her.

He thought he'd made love to her in his sleep. She would have found it funny were not his distress so apparent.

She leaned over him, tracing a gentle finger over his brow. He removed his arm and looked at her, his dark eyes tormented. When he tried to speak, she silenced him with a finger to his lips. "You didn't start it. I kissed you first."

Comprehension dawned in his eyes. "You kissed me?"

She blushed, nodded and subsided in confusion onto her back again beside him. They both lay mutely looking at the ceiling for some minutes. Tony attempted to get his sleep fogged mind around the fact that she had initiated the contact that very nearly ended in their making love. He took a deep breath and tried, not quite successfully, to keep the goofy smile he felt growing inside from spreading across his face. "You kissed me?"

He was quite unable to keep the delight from his voice and an answering smile curved Maya's lips. "Sorry."

He propped himself on an elbow and looked down into her beautiful face, relieved to see her smile. "Are you? Sorry, I mean."

She sobered and turned her face away for a second, then took a deep breath and returned her gaze bravely to him. "No....are you?"

Tony leaned over her and traced his finger slowly across the full curve of her lower lip. "Definitely not." Unable to resist the soft light in her eyes, he kissed her, brushing his mouth over hers, the caress brief, almost chaste. "Cara, there's nothing I'd rather do than make love to you."

"But?" There was a definite but in his voice.

Tony hesitated, trying to find the right words.

"I'm not a child, Tony." Maybe if she said it often enough he would stop treating her like a piece of porcelain he was afraid of breaking.

"God, I know that. But you're an innocent, Maya. And I won't take advantage of that." Not until I'm sure you're ready.

Maya's temper smouldered and ignited. She was a grown woman, not a sixteen year old girl. Hot colour rose in her cheeks. "You don't know that! I could have had a dozen lovers before coming to Alpha."

He couldn't stop the smile from showing in his eyes and knew he'd made a huge mistake even before her sapphire-blue eyes narrowed in fury. She rolled off the bed, rage evident in every line of her body. "Maya..."

"Don't." Her voice was intense, full of warning.

Tony couldn't help his fascinated appreciation of her fiery beauty, filtered though it was through growing dismay. But God, she was magnificent when she was angry.

Too bad it was at him.

"I am not a child and I don't need to be protected from you or any other man!"

"Maya that's not what I meant." Tony knew this was feeble even as he said it. Because her words held an element of truth.

"Then what did you mean? That I'm too naive and ignorant to know what I want? Too inexperienced to..." She meant to say, "to ever be treated like a woman," but the words choked her. Maya whirled on her heel with an inarticulate cry and ran from the bedroom.

"Maya!" He was after her like a shot. He caught her just as she was about to run through the front door of his quarters. She struggled silently to free herself from the prison of his arms, her face mutinous - her eyes stormy. He took her chin in one hand and forced her to look at him.

"Do you have any idea how much you mean to me? How much I want you?" Tony resisted the urge to shake her, instead took a calming breath and spoke in a more even tone, "But the very last thing I ever want to do is hurt you. If we make love before you're ready..."

Instantly gentled by his fierce, loving words, Maya placed a hand wonderingly against his cheek. "I am ready." She looked into his dark, beautiful, anguished eyes, took a deep breath, and whispered shyly, "But only for you."

Stunned, elated, driven past endurance by her words, Tony bit back a groan and kissed her with all the passion she'd yearned for. They were both breathing raggedly when they finally drew apart a few centimetres. Trying to cool the situation down, to cool himself down a bit, Tony tucked a tendril of auburn hair behind her ear and noted with some bemusement that his hands were trembling. His heart was pounding so hard, the roar filled his ears. A rueful smile curved his lips as he admitted, "I don't think I'm ready."

Maya blushed. She could feel the physical proof that his words were patently untrue, at least on one level. She took intense delight in the knowledge that she'd cracked his normally steely control. It was becoming increasingly obvious to her that he'd been exerting that control for some time in a chivalrous attempt to protect her. Well now she knew how to get to him. It would only be a matter of time before she wore him down.

Tony noted the confusion that fleetingly crossed her features. The woman he adored was practically begging him to make love to her. And he was telling her "I'm not ready."

"Obviously, I don't mean physically," he said dryly. Although his emotions were still running high he was more than able to appreciate the absurdity of the situation.

Startled, Maya raised her gaze to his and the spark of mischief that immediately shone in her eyes belied her grave tone, as she agreed, "No, not physically."

He chuckled, relieved and delighted by her reaction. The last thing he wanted to do was frighten her with the very obvious proof of his desire for her. But he got the distinct impression that wasn't going to be a problem.

"Cara, I find the prospect more than a little terrifying." He brushed his knuckles very gently over her cheek, "Your first time should be perfect in every way."

She smiled at him shyly, then twined her arms around his neck, closed her eyes and pressed her face to the strong column of his throat. "It will be," she whispered. With you. Her bones liquefied again at the thought. There would be a first time. He wants me. The rush of happiness made her feel light-headed.

Tony sighed and buried his hands in the heavy silken mass of her hair, pulling her closer, savouring the slender warmth of her against him. They held each other quietly for several minutes. He loved the way she clung to him, her slender body curving into his as though made for him. Tony traced a slow pattern on her back and a surge of fresh heat raced through his veins as she shivered and seemed to melt closer into his embrace. She was so beautifully responsive, which did nothing to cool his arousal. "Why do I get the feeling you're going to spend every waking hour trying to seduce me?"

There was a brief silence before she said, "Not every hour." He could hear the smile in her voice.

"Well, that's a tremendous relief." Just the thought of it made him giddy. This sudden forward momentum in their relationship had him more than a bit off balance - wonderful though it was. He couldn't quite get his head around her seemingly abrupt conviction that he was the one she wanted. Perhaps it was foolish, but he didn't intend to give in to her. Well, not all the way. Yet...

"If we go back to bed, will you behave?"

"No." Maya retorted, and then laughed delightedly when he scooped her up in his arms and carried her back to the bedroom. She pressed her lips to his throat and smiled to herself as she felt his involuntary shiver of response. "You're so masterful."

"Thank you." His tone was dry. He deposited her carefully on the bed and then walked around to his side. Instead of immediately climbing in beside her, Tony folded his arms and raised an eyebrow at her.

"I'll be good, I promise." Her blue eyes shone with a light that totally belied her words.

He didn't believe her for a minute, but joined her under the covers. Maya turned to face him and they gazed at each other quietly, their faces close. Tony traced his finger slowly down the delicate bridge of her nose. "Do you think you can sleep again?"


He stroked a wisp of hair from her forehead, "We can stay up if you want."

Maya sighed, "No. I am tired. Maybe the nightmare won't come back." She smiled and touched her hand to his lean cheek. "I'll try not to deafen you if it does."

"You can deafen me as often as you like. I'm glad you're here."

"Me too." She whispered.

Their bodies were already close, but now he drew her into his embrace until they touched from chest to thigh. He tenderly tucked her head against the base of his throat and wrapped his arm around her protectively.

Maya sighed happily and snuggled closer, loving the way she felt when he held her. Despite her conviction that she wouldn't be able to sleep with the stimulation of his lean, hard body against her, she was dead to the world within 10 minutes. She dreamt of him. Her dreams were sweet.

It took Tony a long time to fall asleep.

The next day while Helena was doing the autopsies, she triggered some kind of holographic replay on the Tony/Borg. It showed film of Maya in her quarters before the attack. Helena immediately called John, Tony and Maya to Medical. She replayed the tape it had displayed before and new footage of the Tony/Borg actually landing on the moon and heading to Maya's quarters. It appeared the main brain was not in the head. Although Maya disabled it when she decapitated it, the recording function was in the torso. So they got the whole picture from the monster's viewpoint, from the moment it left the Eagle to its recovery after a downtime of about 10 minutes after decapitation, to the instant it finally died under Maya's laser fire. Maya had glossed over or omitted some of the more unpleasant aspects of the ordeal, and they were all stunned and absolutely horrified by the obscene violence of the attack.

Tony paled visibly as the intensely disturbing images flashed in all too real holographic replay across the Medical Centre wall. He was as distressed as if it had been him saying those unspeakable things to her. It had accessed his feelings and knowledge to brutalise Maya. How in God's name could she bear even to be in the same room with him, let alone share his bed?

White as a sheet and shaken beyond words, Tony got up and left the room. He walked slowly, as though sleepwalking, -all expression wiped from his eyes. He didn't remember getting to his quarters.

When Maya tried to follow him, John stopped her with a gentle hand on her arm. "Give him some time."

He was sitting on his sofa, in the dark, when she walked into his quarters two hours later. Maya sat down beside him, curling her legs under her.

"Why didn't you tell me?" He couldn't look at her, sure he'd see the memory of that thing in her eyes. His dark eyes were stark, his expression grim.

"Telling you wouldn't have made it go away, Tony. I knew it wasn't you."

He didn't reply, but closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the sofa cushion.

Maya slipped her hand into his and rested her head on his shoulder. He accepted her efforts to console, but made no attempt to touch her in return. They sat silently for a long time.

Maya didn't know what to say to make him feel better. Was she helping or just making him feel worse? She gazed down at their linked hands and said quietly, "Do you want me to go?"

"No." He squeezed her fingers tightly, as though her words had provoked an involuntary reaction. In gentler tones, he repeated, "No. I don't want you to go." He sighed and tried to pull himself together. "I'm sorry, Maya."

"Don't be silly. It wasn't your fault." She felt like shaking him.

"It used my memories, my feelings to brutalise you."

Exasperation flashed in her blue eyes, "I didn't realise you had such an overwhelming urge to terrorise and kill me."

This got a reaction. His eyes darkened with anger. Before he could speak, Maya said, "Do you know what gave me the determination to kill it?"

His jaw clenched, he shook his head silently.

"I knew there was no way you would ever say those things to me. That convinced me beyond any doubt that it wasn't you. If it hadn't...." she paused as the horrific memory flashed through her mind," if it hadn't been so obscene, so wrong, I'd probably be dead now."

He looked into her clear, beautiful eyes and saw the truth. His heart pounding, he pulled her into his arms and they held each other tight.

Chapter Seven

Maya had been on Alpha eight months. Christmas was a favourite time of year for the marooned society. They pulled out all the stops - decorations, parties, concerts, Christmas movies. It was celebrated as a non-sectarian holiday, but those who wished to could go to carol services in the Chapel. The Alphans had become ingenious over the years at making and recycling gifts. The arts and crafts sessions were incredibly popular with those with even the slightest creative flair.

Helena and Maya had been attending a craft workshop several times a week for three months. They learned decorative paint techniques, tapestry, pottery - their ultimate project was to be a group mural in the gym. Maya was determined to make something special for Tony. Helena was her Yuletide advisor. After much thought she decided to make him a large tapestry pillow.

She chose a forest green pillow and spent several weeks searching for a pattern she thought he would like. Finally she fixed on the painting of his family's villa he had hanging on his lounge wall. She used rich earth tones to replicate the sun washed colours of Tuscany.

By Christmas week paper mistletoe was festooned all over the Base. Anyone who got within a 5-metre radius was considered fair game. Most people had been enthusiastically "Mistletoed" at least a dozen times during the week leading up to Christmas. There was an atmosphere of kissing banditry. Maya now scanned for hanging plant matter whenever she entered a room. Fortunately, this was all extremely fun and light hearted. None of her kisses had been at all unpleasant and some (no points for guessing whose) had been fantastic.

A communal Christmas dinner was planned - everyone was to meet in the main restaurant for mock turkey and seasonal vegetables

Tony arrived at Maya's quarters at 11.00am on Christmas morning with a precariously balanced armful of presents and two large cappuccinos in carry cups. "Help!"

Laughing, Maya relieved him of the coffee and kept out of his way as he staggered to the sofa. He dumped his parcels and then collapsed into the cushions. She sat down beside him and handed him one of the cups. "I thought this was supposed to be a restful holiday."

"Not when you've been up since dawn wrapping presents." He smiled and kissed her. "Merry Christmas."

She returned the caress. Curling up next to him, she peeled the lid off her drink, inhaling the wonderful aroma, "You've added something. "


"It's delicious." Maya took a sip of her drink and smiled shyly at him, "Do you want to open your present now?"

"Only if you open yours."

She got up quickly and went to her desk at the far side of the room, piled with half a dozen gaily-wrapped packages. After picking up a large, square, soft looking parcel, she returned to her place beside him again. She watched, slightly anxious, as he carefully tore the wrapping away.

He smiled teasingly at her before easing open the flap that would unveil her gift. Maya tensed with barely concealed anticipation. She reminded him of an excited five year old waiting to see Santa Claus. He found it incredibly endearing. His handsome features at first reflected appreciation as he took in the beautiful, muted colours and then, as he righted the tapestry, delighted recognition and a bit of touched awe.

"Maya..." His voice was hushed, stunned.

She glowed with pleasure, thrilled to death at his reaction. There was no need to ask if he liked his gift.

A gentle finger under her chin lifted her face up to his, "I'll treasure it." His kiss was exquisitely tender and Maya responded to his touch like a flower seeking the warmth of the sun. Her lips parted under his and he pulled her close, desire pulsing through his veins as she wound her hands around his neck and kissed him back. The caress went on far longer than either had intended, so completely intoxicated were they with the taste and touch of the other. The intense physical attraction and deep love they both felt was increasingly finding a natural expression whenever they touched. What started out as a simple, affectionate caress invariably blossomed into something far richer, with the power to leave them both shaken by the force of the heat generated by their simplest touch.

When they eventually drew apart, Tony smiled and tucked a stray curl behind her ear before reaching down to the pile of gifts at his feet, extracting a large, rather unwieldy parcel.

Maya removed the beautiful gold wrapping carefully, not wanting to damage the paper. Her hope that he'd painted something for her seemed about to come true as a matte black frame emerged. She gasped as she recognised the flower, then looked at it in mute silence, a huge lump forming in her throat. Blinking back tears, she swallowed and tried to compose herself.

Tony's jaw tautened with dismay. He'd known he was taking a risk using a Psychon flower as his subject. The memories it evoked were obviously still painful. He reached for her hand, "Maya..."

But her smile when she raised her gaze to his immediately dispelled his worries. That and the soft, brilliant light in her eyes. "The stellaen is...was my favourite flower. How did you know?"

He brightened instantly, relief and pleasure at her obvious delight spreading a warm glow through his veins. "I didn't. It was the only reasonable looking flower I could find in Psychon's bio-scan."

"There were only a half dozen species able to survive on the surface. I thought they'd become extinct years ago." Her smile faded as she lowered her gaze to the painting again, "But this one will never die..." Tony slipped his arm around her and pressed a kiss to the silken crown of her head, adoring the way she leaned into him.

They stayed in the embrace for a long while, her head on his shoulder, his encircling arm holding her close. Handel's Messiah played softly in the background and the rich, mellow tones of the mezzo soloist soared into, "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth."

"I saw this performed once by the London Chamber Choir at St Paul's on Christmas Eve. It was my first Christmas away from my family."

"How old were you?"


She smiled, "I can't quite picture you at seventeen. What were you like?"


She gave him a look.

"I'm serious! I grew three inches between my 18th and 19th birthdays."

"Show me." She wanted to see some photographic proof.

Tony snorted, "I don't think so."

There was a glint in her eye as she tilted her head back to look at him again, "Why not?"

"Because I know you." He laughed as she poked her tongue out at him. "Any evidence you got your hands on would be copied and plastered all over the Base within 24 hours."

"I wouldn't be that cruel." She protested, trying not to laugh.

"Yes, you would! And you wouldn't be able to resist showing Helena and Sahn - you three together are a distinctly Unholy Trinity."

Maya didn't bother denying this, and instead asked gently, "Did you have some horrible adolescent deformity?"

He wasn't at all taken in by her concerned facade; he could feel her shaking with suppressed laughter. In an offended, defensive tone, he retorted, "No, but thanks for asking. I was just a tad underweight for my height."

Maya pondered this, a thoughtful expression in her azure blue eyes. "Like a stick insect?" She was unable to stifle a chuckle at the thought, ignoring her peril as a slow, extremely dangerous smile curved his lips.

"Yes, exactly like a stick insect. How clever you are."

"I really want to see a photo now."

He shook his head sadly as he captured a soft auburn ringlet that had escaped from her braid. As he wound the silken strand round his index finger, he said musingly, "I must be developing a masochistic streak. I quite enjoy this abuse."

"What abuse? I'm extremely kind to you."

"Yeah, right." Very dryly.

"I am! Look at the interest I'm taking in how much you've improved."

He raised his eyebrows and grinned mischievously, "So. I've improved, have I?"

He got her with that one. She felt the colour rising in her cheeks even as she grudgingly admitted, "Maybe." Definitely.

"I'm relieved."

"Well, I haven't heard any reports of giant stick insects loose on the Base." Laughing, she made a feeble attempt to slide out from the curve of his arm before he retaliated. She wasn't successful. But as her punishment entailed being clasped to the muscular breadth of his chest and kissed soundly, she didn't mind at all.

They eventually gathered up their gifts and headed off for John's quarters to meet with the others before sitting down for Christmas dinner. At the meal they all wore silly hats and behaved like mischievous children. Maya laughed so hard she choked on her wine and spent the next half hour with a severe case of the hiccoughs.

This egged her companions to even greater misbehaviour. Loud, unexpected noises; "Boo!" was shouted unexpectedly. All in the name of philanthropic endeavour, of course. It was explained to her that hiccoughs sometimes became a lifelong affliction if not cured quickly.

Maya was glaring at Alan, who'd just burst his first (and last, if he wanted to live) balloon, when Tony leaned close and murmured in her ear, "I read somewhere that tickling can cure hiccoughs."

She smiled sweetly at him, "Oh, you really don't want to do that."

"Why not?"

"Because then I'd be forced to hurt you. And that's, hic, apparently not very Christmas-like behaviour."

While the rest of the wretches at the table laughed uproariously, Tony smiled, that dangerous, irresistible smile that never failed to melt her bones and pulled her gently but firmly into his arms. Then he kissed her, slowly and thoroughly, to accompanying whoops of approval from their dinner companions. When he released her, she was pink cheeked, extremely embarrassed and completely hiccough-free.

Maya glared at him, pressing her hands to her hot face, "I want the pillow back."

"But I love my pillow. Besides, I cured you, didn't I?" He assumed the injured expression she'd learned to distrust very early in their acquaintance.

She didn't dignify that with an answer.

New Year's Eve.

Alan's party was a popular destination - he promised a truly Australian experience - beer, boomerangs and barbecue. Helena, Sahn and Maya planned to make it a girl's night out. They declined all offers of male escort. The boys were told they'd have to take their chances with everyone else. The trio intended to party hop until they found an atmosphere to suit them.

It was just after 11.00pm when they finally arrived at Alan's party. Tony had resisted an overwhelming impulse to follow Maya from venue to venue, instead forcing himself to stay at Alan's. The Unholy Trinity would arrive in their own good time. And when they did it was quite an entrance, squeezing through the door all at once before falling in a tangle of arms and legs, laughing helplessly.

Alan grinned and greeted his latest guests as they picked themselves up off the floor. "I don't know if I should let you in. This is a dignified Aussie affair, you know."

Helena tossed her hair disdainfully, "Be grateful we're here, Carter. We're in great demand."

Restored to her feet, Maya made her way somewhat unsteadily through the crowd of 30 or so to an empty corner sofa and collapsed into it. She leaned her head back against the cushion and closed her eyes. This revelry lark was harder work than she'd anticipated.

Tony excused himself from the group of friends he'd been talking with and went to the bar. After pouring a large Diet Coke with lots of ice, he weaved his way through the throng to Maya.

"You look like you need this."

Maya smiled, her eyes still closed. "Is it alcoholic?" She'd missed him this evening. It had not escaped Helena and Sahn's notice that she automatically scanned the room for him whenever they arrived at a new party. But he was worth the wait. She opened her eyes as he sat down, her entire body reacting to his nearness. He was devastatingly handsome; casually dressed in a blue crew neck jumper, button down white shirt and chinos. He managed to look clean cut, elegant and rugged at the same time.

"No, just loaded with caffeine and chemicals."

"Thanks." She laughed and accepted the tall glass, immediately draining half of it.

"A bit dehydrated, are we?"

Maya made a face at him, "We've been to six parties since 7pm." She looked towards Helena and Sandra, who were talking with Alan and Ben Vincent. "But those two are still going strong."

"Yes, and they've had decades of practice." Despite allegedly partying non-stop since early evening, she was absolutely stunning. Maya's hair was loose, tumbling down her back in a cascade of molten curls. She wore a black dress with a gently scooped neck and short, floaty skirt. Opaque black tights and low-heeled velvet court shoes completed the outfit. She wore no jewellery - she didn't need it.

Maya sighed, "I don't think I'm meant to be a party mammal."

Tony bit back a chuckle, took her hand in his and smiled, "Your secret's safe with me."

She leaned her head back against the cushion, tucked her legs under her and turned to face him, "Have you been here all evening?"

"Since nine. I spent a few hours in the lab after my shift ended."


"There's still some way to go." His wry tone told her this was a bit of an understatement.

"You'll figure it out." She had total confidence in his ability to accomplish whatever he set his mind to.

"I'm glad you think so."

Maya smiled, leaned close and patted his cheek reassuringly, "You're a boy genius, remember?"

His slow smile did things to her heart rate. "Is that an underhand way of calling me a nerdy egghead?"

"I don't know. Is "nerdy egghead" good?"


Comprehension dawned in her blue eyes. "Ahh. That's why you won't show me photographs of you at eighteen. You were a nerdy egghead!"

Tony's eyes glinted dangerously as he pulled her close, "I was as suavely cool as I am now. Just a lot thinner."

Maya slipped her hands around his neck, unknowingly imprisoning him with her touch as effectively, as immediately as he'd caught her. The creamy dimple he adored flashed in her cheek. "Well, that's a tremendous relief." She was still smiling when he lowered his mouth to hers.

They'd both forgotten there was anyone else in the room when Alan's dry voice said from behind them, "Mistletoe's over by the door, you two."

Tony looked up and glowered at the grinning Australian, "Get lost, Carter." But Maya had already laughingly slipped from his embrace. He captured her hand and linked his fingers with hers, unwilling to let her go far.

Alan assumed an injured expression as he settled himself on the couch across from them. "Good will to all men, Tony."

"That doesn't apply to you." He chuckled as Maya poked him reprovingly in the ribs.

"It's a lovely party, Alan. Especially considering what you've had to put up with all evening." She indicated the man by her side with a quick lift of her chin before smiling sweetly at Alan.

"Ah, you obviously have some idea what a pain in the arse he can be." Alan's rugged features were solemn. He leaned forward, elbows on knees, his expression earnest.

"Oh yes." Her tone was bright, cheerfully accepting. She smiled winsomely as Tony directed a level stare at her. His attempt to look seriously affronted failed.

"So long as you know."

At five minutes to the hour Alan herded everyone into the centre of the room and distributed hats and noisemakers for the countdown. Maya obediently put on her hat, adjusting the elastic under her chin. It was a lurid purple with large gilt stars all over it. Tony's was bright orange.

He smiled down at Maya and gently squeezed her slender fingers in his. He hadn't let go of her hand since they got up from the couch. Her pretty mouth curved in response, and they stood quietly together for several minutes, not speaking - not needing to speak.

Helena handed each of them a glass of champagne. "That colour really suits you, Tony."

He pulled an amiable face at her and took a sip of his drink. The vid screen on the wall came to life and the Rec Officer appeared, old footage of the giant Times Square ball playing behind her. She too wore a silly hat but she was the type who would probably wear it all year round quite happily. "One minute to go, folks. We'll start the countdown at 11.59. Get your bubbly and noisemakers ready!" Then she mercifully shut up and the automated countdown began.

The minute ticked by to 11.59.50 whereupon everyone began chanting the countdown. "10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, HAPPY NEW YEAR!!" As the New Year officially began the crowd whooped, twirled their noisemakers and kissed anything that moved.

Tony drew Maya into his arms and lifted her face to his with a gentle finger under her chin. He smiled slowly, and murmured a quiet, "Happy New Year." Then he kissed her and the noise of the crowd around them faded away; for all Maya was aware, they were alone in the room. Her existence narrowed to focus completely, intensely on the sensation of his mouth on hers, the masculine strength of his arms holding her, the desire his simplest touch aroused.

She felt a sense of loss when, too soon, the kiss ended. Their faces were still close, Tony's dark head bent down to hers. He clasped his hands behind her back and gazed into her eyes, his handsome, masculine features softened by a tenderness he didn't try to hide. A responsive, echoing light blossomed in Maya's face. Tony slowly brushed his knuckles down the smooth curve of her cheek, his mouth curving into a half smile. They stood quietly, wrapped in each other's arms, wrapped up in each other, while the revels went on around them.

When they eventually parted and rejoined the world, Maya blushed slightly at smiling glances from friends in their immediate vicinity, happiness lending her eyes a luminous softness. He had a unique ability to make her feel beautiful.

She was quickly seized and kissed soundly by Alan, then John, then Ben. Tony received similar attentions from the females in the room. Mistletoe and this too, now. Christmas was obviously a very affectionate time of year, Maya thought as she laughingly accepted a kiss from yet another happy reveller.

By the time the New Year was five minutes old she'd been kissed by ten different men. But there was only one who could melt her bones with the merest brush of his mouth against her skin. As though impelled, her eyes sought him across the crowded room. Even in the process of being accosted by several enthusiastic females, he sensed her gaze, his eyes conveying a warmth that brought a helpless, half-shy answering smile to her lips. He made her feel like she was the only woman in the world.

And she loved him so much, it hurt.

Chapter Eight

They were dancing, their bodies close.

The room was softly illuminated by the glow of a hundred candles. He wore a tuxedo, she a long dress with a skirt that swirled around her ankles. They gazed at each other silently for a long time, then the smile that had curved the corner of his mouth faded. His eyes darkened with an emotion that made her heart pound even before he spoke, "Maya, I've loved you from the moment I met you." He took her hands in his and said quietly, simply, "Will you marry me?"

Dizzy with joy, she whispered a breathless, "Oh, yes..." He was lowering his head to kiss her, when the distant beeping that had been nagging at the edge of her consciousness finally grew more insistent. She tried to ignore it, losing herself in Tony's arms, fighting the intrusion. She closed her eyes tight, wishing the noise away, knowing even as she thought it that opening them again would bring bitter disappointment.

With a sigh, her lashes lifted and she looked about her. It was New Year's Day. She was in bed, alone, hugging her pillow fiercely.

She slammed her palm down on the beeping bedside alarm clock and cast it a look that would have struck it dead had it been in a position to expire.

Forty-five minutes later Maya was in the Travel Tube on her way to the remote Nuclear Area on the far side of the base. Alan accompanied her. Their task was to check out an intermittent fault that had been showing on the computer readout from that area. It had been showing heat on the sensors but so far no one had found anything wrong. She smiled unconsciously as her thoughts strayed inexorably from the numbers on the screen of her laptop to memories of the night before.

They were almost at their destination when Maya heard a muffled boom, quickly followed by another, much closer explosion. She looked up, startled, from her dreamy reverie. The roar increased ominously and she and Alan had only time to exchange a single horrified glance before their world disappeared in a violent white flash. They were both knocked instantly unconscious by the force of the blast, which caved the tunnel in around them, demolishing the travel tube and burying them under the hostile lunar surface.

When the dust settled the travel tube was unrecognisable. There was silence, save for the creaking groans of stressed metal.

At first the duty staff in Command Centre weren't sure if anyone was in the tube. The sensors weren't registering any life forms in that area. Then Sahn suddenly looked up from her screen, her dark eyes wide with dawning horror and whispered, "Alan and Maya."

They hadn't checked in.

Tony was in Life Support when his commlock bleeped. John's grim face appeared on the small screen. "Tony, we need you in Command Centre. It's urgent."

"I'm on my way." He left at a run, striding through the Command Centre doors minutes later. Several grave, shocked faces turned to him as he entered the room. When a few people avoided his eye an awful foreboding swept over him. John confirmed it.

"There's been a massive explosion near Nuclear. The area is completely cut off. The travel tube's been destroyed...." He clasped Tony's shoulder, knowing the news he was about to deliver had the potential to destroy the younger man. "Alan and Maya were on it."


Not her.

For a second he thought he'd screamed out loud. He could feel the blood draining from his face. He walked to his station, sat down and stared blankly at the main screen. Then he visibly pulled himself together. His eyes were bleak when he turned to John, "I want to lead the rescue."

After the initial anguished shock grim determination kept Tony going. It wouldn't help Maya or Alan if he fell apart. As First Officer and Chief of Security he was the natural person to lead the rescue party and John made no effort to dissuade him.

He tried to push his private grief to the back of his mind, concentrating on the job ahead. They were alive, trapped but alive. This was the internal mantra that kept him going.

Helena at first tried to forestall his going on the mission. "Tony, you're as white as a sheet. I don't think..."

"I'm going, Helena." He closed his eyes, his jaw clenched as he fought a violent tide of grief and rising fury. Nothing would stop him from going to her. Nothing. He took a deep, ragged breath and opened his eyes. His crooked smile convinced no one. "I'm fine."

John silently gestured to Helena to let him be. There was no one more qualified to lead the mission. And no one with more to lose.

Their only option was to tunnel as far as they could and then dig in the extremely unstable area near the cave in. Word spread quickly and there was no lack of people coming forward. Tony made sure to stress the dangers involved. The final team comprised Tony, Helena and Dave Reilly - as a geologist he was experienced with rock formation and had previous experience of this sort of disaster. Only Tony and Dave would go all the way in. Tony wasn't about to risk any more people than necessary. He knew he and Reilly had the same motive for going in. Alan was an old and valued friend and they'd be going after him even if Maya wasn't involved -but they were willing to risk everything to get her out. Each was very much aware of the others motivation but put aside their rivalry to work together.

After nearly three hours of digging (using low frequency sonic disintegrators to avoid too much disturbance of the unstable rock around them), they got close enough to the destroyed Tube to begin moving the rubble. It had been crushed almost flat in places. They set up a remote sensor/voice link to try to boost remaining communications with the to the interior of the tube. After an hour of tunnelling they still had no life form signal - possibly due to radiation interference - or the unthinkable.

Finally, after another half hour of signalling with nothing but ominous static, they picked up a faint response. Alan's voice calling out that they were alive is the sweetest sound Tony had ever heard.

But his anxiety level skyrocketed again when Alan shouted that Maya was unconscious and trapped under heavy rubble. He'd been keeping a close eye on her but could not dig her out completely.

Tony was first into the small cramped air pocket.

The light from his helmet torch lit on Alan's bloody, begrimed face. The Australian squinted into the sudden brightness. "Christ, am I glad to see you." He gestured to Maya. "Her breathing's okay but she's out cold - I've been trying for hours and can't wake her."

"Are you injured?"

"Busted arm - but otherwise I'm okay."

"Can you crawl out?"

Alan snorted. "Try to stop me."

Tony pulled Alan out. Reilly, who was at the entrance behind Tony, helped him the rest of the way.

Now he could concentrate on Maya. He crawled through rock and twisted metal to the corner where she lay, his heart pounding agonisingly. The light from his torch was the only illumination in the cramped space. She was laying face down, half covered in fallen debris. Her head, shoulders and part of her torso were clear but she was buried in rubble from the waist down and a heavy, twisted metal beam pinned her legs. She was ashen, her features rendered almost unrecognisable by blood and dirt.

"Maya?" He touched a gentle hand to her cheek. She was cold. Please God. "Maya, can you hear me?" Nothing. She was still unconscious, which was ominous. She'd been out cold for three hours. Her pulse was fast, but relatively strong, so he tried to suppress his dread and concentrated on digging her out. "Hang on." He couldn't risk using the powerful digging tools that had got them this far without hurting her more. His hands were bloody and torn within minutes but he ignored the pain. He knew speed was essential but tried to be as gentle as possible.

"Tony." Dave's voice near the entrance hole was quiet but intense. "The roof is about to go."

"I know." Tony grimly acknowledged the warning and continued digging. There was no way he would leave her just to save himself. The roof creaked and groaned in a terrifying manner. He ignored it.

Finally, there was just one metal beam covering her legs, and with a final burst of adrenaline-boosted strength he got her free. He scooped up her limp form and got the hell out. Just in time.

The roof, which had been giving way for the last minute of Tony's desperate excavation, finally collapsed and several tonnes of rock crushed the tube scant seconds after he carried Maya from the wreckage. He placed her on the stretcher he and Dave had dragged in behind them and while Alan crawled out ahead of them, together they pulled her out, inch by agonising inch. When they finally reached the main travel tube tunnel, Tony ran with her in his arms the remaining hundred metres to the waiting medical team. Dave helped Alan while Helena ran ahead to meet her medical team.

Helena and her aides began implementing trauma procedures even as Tony lowered Maya onto the gurney. She was quickly hooked up to oxygen, heart and respiratory monitors and a drip was started. The journey back to Medical Centre seemed endless to him. He held her hand and cursed the slowness of the travel tubes. Helena tried to rouse her, with no success.

"She's deeply unconscious." Picking up her commlock, Helena buzzed Ben Vincent who was waiting at Medical. "Ben, get the cranial trauma unit out." She paused and scanned Maya's vital signs again, "And have a crash cart standing by."

With the doctor's last words a deep chill entered Tony's soul. He twined his fingers with Maya's slender, cold ones, willing her to live. She was deathly pale, the delicate radiance that normally illuminated her lovely face completely extinguished. Blood continued to flow at an alarming rate from the deep, jagged cut at her temple despite the dressing Helena had applied. The shrapnel that had inflicted the damage narrowly missed killing her outright.

Helena confirmed that the wound was nasty, but not enough to have knocked her out for so long.

"It's most likely a fracture or severe concussive injury. Probably sustained at the moment of explosion. She won't have known what hit her."

They finally reached Medical and he stood out of the way, quietly terrified, as the trauma team went into action. Helena recognised his need to stay and let him remain after the other non-medical personnel had been asked to clear the room. He felt intensely frustrated that he could only stand and watch while Helena and her team ran their tests.

He'd never felt more helpless.

Then, after half an hour of frantic activity, there was sudden, shocking silence; a complete absence of sound save for the beeping of monitors. Tony looked to Helena, his dark eyes anguished, unconsciously pleading. The doctor walked to him and put a comforting hand to his arm. "We've done all we can. She's got to come the rest of the way herself."

He sat with Maya for nearly eight hours, holding her hand and talking to her quietly. Pleading sometimes, commanding her to wake up at others. He told her stories of his boyhood, spinning fantasies of the home they were sure to find soon... but only if she woke up. He quietly told her he loved her that he couldn't live without her. Nothing. Her pallor and absolute stillness terrified him.

After several hours Helena brought him some food, which he refused. "At least have some water, Tony. You won't help her if you make yourself ill."

He accepted the glass and drained it, surprised by the thirst he'd been unaware of until that moment.

Helena watched him with narrowed eyes. The shadow of his beard was uncommonly dark against the pallor of his skin -his normally healthy olive skin tone banished by exhaustion and worry. His eyes were haunted. He looked desperately tired; only stubborn determination and the deep love he felt for the young woman on the bed keeping him going.

Knowing the response she would get, Helena still tried a gentle, "Why don't you get a few hours rest, Tony? I'll let you know if there's any change."


"But we don't know how long..."

"No!" His voice was rough, shockingly loud in the quiet room. Tony passed a hand wearily over his eyes and said in quieter tones, "I won't leave her, Helena. I can't."

Helena nodded her silent understanding and gave his shoulder a quick squeeze before leaving the room.

Only the beep of the machines and the barely perceptible rise and fall of Maya's chest with each breath persuaded him that she hadn't slipped away

He was enervated and almost as pale as she when her fingers finally moved slightly in his.

His voice when he called Helena contained almost unbearable hope.

Maya regained consciousness slowly, at first only aware of an intermittent murmur of voices around her - one deeper and closer than the others - and the agonising pain in her head. She tried to hold onto the dream - -she'd been happy, feeling safe and totally loved, clasped in Tony's arms, a golden light enveloping them both. She was extremely reluctant to leave that happy place, but something was urging her forward - back to the real world. As she retreated from death back into life her memory of the dream faded, replaced by increasing awareness - and pain. The torment was sickeningly violent, as though her brain had melted and the still molten remains were slowly solidifying into jagged shards inside her skull. She dreaded opening her eyes; light would only make the torture worse.

But with consciousness came the sensation of lean, masculine fingers clasping her hand, and an awareness of a palpable atmosphere of concern and worry.

Although opening her eyes meant agony, seeing the joy and relief that instantly illuminated his blurred, beloved face infused the pain with bittersweet.

"Maya," his voice was quiet, with the husky timbre of barely repressed tears. "Thank God."

She opened her mouth to speak and was surprised at the tremendous effort it took. "Alan...?" She barely recognised the hoarse croak as her own voice.

Tony leaned close and smoothed a tendril of hair from her forehead. His touch was incredibly gentle. "He's fine. A broken arm. He's floating around here somewhere - Helena's pumped him full of drugs."

The aforesaid Doctor appeared to Tony's right and placed a cool hand on Maya's forehead. "And as soon as I'm sure a concussion is the worst you've suffered, I'll do the same for you. Now that you're conscious we can have the final scan results back in ten minutes."

Helena turned to Tony, "Time to say good-bye, brave one. You can visit again later." Then she got a good look at the torn and bloodied hands he'd carefully concealed up until then and tutted concernedly, "But not before getting those properly attended to." She glared at him, her face stern. He'd done a good job hiding the true extent of his injuries, knowing full well he wouldn't have been allowed to sit with Maya if Helena or her crew had realised he was hurt himself.

Maya's eyes had drifted shut but they flew open again at the Doctor's words. She gasped when she saw how badly he'd damaged himself. He'd wrapped several lengths of bandage around the worst of his injuries but blood had saturated the white of the dressings. "Tony...?" He'd been comforting her, holding her hand, when he had to be in agony himself. She tried to sit up, but Helena was more than a match for her and she was soon prone again.

Tony surveyed the offending parts as though they belonged to someone else. "A few scratches." A reluctant smile ghosted Maya's lips as he brushed his mouth over hers, his kiss infinitely gentle. "Don't worry about me." Then he was led away by the firm hand of Ben Vincent to have his wounds tended.

When the scan results came in Helena at last seemed satisfied that a painkiller would have no ill effects. The relief when it took hold was overwhelming. Only when Maya was sure she could speak without her head splitting open did she ask,

"What happened?"

Helena sat on the edge of the bed and folded her arms, her face serious. "An explosion. We're not sure what caused it yet. Probably a build up of gases leaking into the travel tube. John's out there now with a forensic team." The doctor paused and took Maya's wrist, absentmindedly feeling for her pulse even as she told the story.

"You were completely cut off. We weren't even sure there was anyone in the tube, at first. But once we realised you and Alan were missing the rescue effort went into overdrive."

Maya interrupted her, "Digging?" She realised immediately how dangerous that would have been for the rescue team. Without asking, she knew Tony had played an instrumental role in the operation. The thought warmed her even as a contradictory chill sent a shiver up her spine.

"Tony and Dave Reilly did the really treacherous excavation. I went after them with the medical gear and helped to carry the rubble out. It took them nearly three hours to get to you. Alan was mobile and Dave helped him down the tunnel. You were trapped under heavy debris and Tony went in to get you. It was extremely dangerous. The roof of the tunnel started making horrible noises from the moment Tony went in and we could literally see it beginning to crumble." Helena shuddered at the memory, but then smiled rather mistily,

"He wouldn't leave you. Two seconds after he got you clear of the tube the roof collapsed and crushed it flat."

Maya paled even further, which until then Helena had thought impossible. "He could have been killed. You could all have been killed."

"But we weren't. He wasn't." Helena smiled at her friend, "Try to get some sleep now."

As the painkillers really kicked in Maya fell into a deep, exhausted sleep. When she awoke five hours later she felt a lot better. Her head still ached slightly and she was cautious about moving suddenly, but she felt reasonably sure her skull wasn't in immediate danger of exploding. Earlier she'd been too shocked to really take in how the others were doing, but now all she could think about was the bleeding, lacerated state of Tony's hands. He'd injured himself while saving her life. The thought warmed and chilled her simultaneously. Helena said Alan had broken his arm but was otherwise unhurt. What about the rest of the rescue team? Maya recalled Dave Reilly's name being mentioned. Suddenly impatient for details of what had happened to the others, she sat up cautiously in bed, pushed the covers aside and swung her legs over the side.

Helena, with a doctor's sixth sense for patients who're doing something they shouldn't, appeared in the doorway just as Maya's feet hit the floor.

"How are you feeling?"

Maya froze guiltily, "A lot better."

"Good." Helena smiled. "Unless you're headed for the bathroom, I would recommend getting back into bed."

Maya sighed and pulled a face before obeying.

Helena laughed, "Now I know you're feeling better. Which is just as well - two of your visitors are threatening to take up permanent residence out there." She didn't add that Tony and Dave seemed determined to out wait each other. Had Tony been in perfect physical condition this competitiveness would have been rather amusing - but he'd injured his hands more severely than first realised and needed rest as much as Maya. She'd been unconscious or asleep for much of the ordeal, while he'd been under extreme emotional and physical stress for nearly 18 hours.

"I'll send Dave in first. He's been told he has ten minutes - no longer."

Helena went through to her office where the two had been staked out on her couch for much of the evening. Alan had been persuaded to get some much needed rest and other concerned friends had listened to reason and gone home. There would be time to visit tomorrow. Only the two holdouts remained. They were half-heartedly trying to interest themselves in the medical journals littering the table in front of them. She had their full attention the minute she entered the room.

"She's awake. Dave, you can go in first. Remember, no more than ten minutes. If she starts to look tired..."

The Irish Cowboy was on his feet even as Helena said his name. He meekly nodded his acceptance of Helena's terms, and then flashed Tony a triumphant smile.

Tony valiantly resisted an overwhelming urge to follow Dave and wipe the smirk from his face, settling instead for a simple, "How is she?"

"Doing incredibly well, considering. There's no sign of the skull fracture or concussion I'd suspected. I can't understand it, given how long she was unconscious...." Helena shrugged and raised her hands, admitting she couldn't explain Maya's recovery. She still didn't understand many aspects of Maya's physiology. "I managed to tell her some of what happened before the painkillers knocked her out. She knows how close it was." Helena put down Maya's chart, settled back in her chair, and directed a level gaze at Tony. "And she knows you risked your life to save hers."

A hint of ruddy colour tinted his cheekbones. "I wouldn't say that."

Helena snorted. "I was there, remember? I think you and I both know how far you were prepared to go." She looked pointedly at the heavy white bandages covering both his hands and picked up another chart. "Ben did a good job patching you up. Fifty-six stitches. Lacerations too numerous to count. Three notable because they cut to the bone. You're lucky Ben's speciality is microsurgery - you shouldn't have any noticeable scars. But I see he had to apply artificial skin to your palms and fingertips." When Helena looked up from Dr Vincent's report her blue eyes were over bright. "You weren't going to leave without her, were you?"

"No." Tony was able to answer with a calmness that belied the desperation, the terror he'd felt in the claustrophobic darkness of that potential grave.

It was quite simple. He would rather die with Maya than live without her.

Tony knew she really was going to be okay as soon as he walked into the main hospital room. She was sitting up in bed, clad in pale blue silky Med Centre pyjamas, her hair loose, tumbling down her back in a burnished cascade. The soft radiance, the light that reflected the soul he'd fallen in love with, had returned to her eyes.

Maya smiled, her face lighting up as he advanced across the room toward her. She immediately focused on the bandages covering his hands. A frown marred her smooth brow as he sat down on the edge of the bed. She touched his right wrist. "You really hurt yourself." A vivid memory of the bloody lacerations she'd seen earlier flashed through her mind.

Tony smiled and sat down on the edge of her bed. "Cuts and scrapes." Then he leaned across, kissing her gently.

Maya refused to be distracted. "I'll only get the truth from Helena, you know." She clasped her arms around her knees, her expression grave.

Tony sighed, "Okay." He looked at his bandage-encased hands as if they belonged to someone else. His right hand was completely encased, his left was battered but most of his fingers had emerged comparatively unscathed. All he'd lost was the skin off his palm. "They're a bit of a mess... luckily Ben didn't have to chop anything off."

He chuckled when Maya shuddered, but sobered as he looked into her eyes, "You're worth it."

Later, he couldn't have said who moved first, but two seconds later she was in his arms. Tony closed his eyes and held her close, "More than worth it."

"You could have been killed." Maya shivered, reassured by his vital warmth, loving the way he held her, feeling safe.

"I wasn't." He buried his hands in the heavy, luxuriant mass of her hair, the strands feeling like cool, watered silk against his tortured fingers. "You weren't." Just thinking about it chilled him. There wouldn't have been much to live for if she'd died. God, never to hold her again like this...

"You saved my life." Maya's voice was hushed as she lifted her face to his. Then she smiled. "Thank you."

Tony's eyes darkened as he met her clear blue gaze and the barest suggestion of a smile curved his lips, "You can return the favour sometime." He smoothed a bandaged hand over her temple, carefully skirting round the dressing covering the vicious cut near her hairline, "How's the head?"

"Better. Helena wants me to stay here for a few days, though."

"You were unconscious a long time." A horrifyingly long time. He couldn't bear to think how close she'd come to never waking up.

"But I feel alright now...except for a headache." Maya touched her fingers to her forehead. "Helena doesn't seem to want to believe it though." She didn't sound entirely sure herself.

"If you don't rest Helena won't let you out in time for the Ball. I'll be at Ellen's mercy. You wouldn't do that to me would you?" He raised his dark eyebrows in mock alarm.

Maya smiled, "I'll try not to let you down." Nothing would stop her from going to the dance with him. Besides, it was almost eight weeks away. What with the recent computer crisis the ball had been postponed twice already. She took one of his bandaged wrists carefully between her smaller hands, "You have to get better too, you know. "

"I will if you will." He touched his fingers to her cheek, "But you won't get better if you don't sleep, and I've already exceeded Doctor Russell's ten minute time limit." And although markedly better than when she first regained consciousness, she was still paler than normal, with an air of vulnerability that made him uneasy.

She anticipated his imminent withdrawal and tightened her fingers around his wrist. Although tiring rapidly, she didn't want him to leave. His touch was infinitely comforting. "Don't go?"

He swung his legs up on the bed, propped himself on one elbow and carefully tucked the blanket around Maya as she lay back against the pillows.

She was so beautiful, yet frighteningly fragile. And getting paler by the second. Tony traced a finger slowly, caressingly across her forehead, "Shall I ask Helena for a painkiller?"

Maya shook her head. He was all she needed. The gentle expression in his dark eyes, the warmth of his body against hers, the glow of happiness she felt just being with him, did more to alleviate her pain than any drug.

"Just tired....your hands?" It was becoming an effort just getting the words out, but she couldn't forget that he'd injured himself helping her.

"Still numb. Ben was very generous with the local." He forestalled the anxiety he saw growing in her eyes. "I'm no martyr, cara. When it starts to hurt, I'll take something."

Lured by the fiery softness of her hair, he let a silken tendril slip through his fingers, then murmured, "Close your eyes." As her lashes drifted shut he whispered his fingertips across her temple, tracing a slow, soft, lulling pattern on her delicate skin. Maya sighed almost imperceptibly and relaxed completely under his loving, exquisitely soothing touch. Within seconds she felt absolutely boneless.

"That feels so nice..." she whispered. The pain in Maya's head began to drift away like a half remembered dream. She felt warm, comfortable, absolutely safe... loved. She couldn't have opened her eyes if she'd tried.

"Shhh." Tony smiled and kissed her, brushing his mouth over hers once, twice, before resuming the hypnotic caress. He took as much comfort as he gave, needing the basic reassurance of touch, needing to feel the living warmth of her velvety skin. Needing to erase the memory of her coldness and pallor when he first reached her in the travel tube.

She was sound asleep within three minutes.

He pressed a kiss to her temple once he was sure she was asleep. He knew he should go back to his quarters, but he couldn't bring himself to leave her. Not yet.

Helena was obviously taking pity on him - he'd exceeded his ten minutes six times over. A wave of exhaustion washed over him. His adrenaline-boosted endurance was dwindling rapidly now that he was sure she really was going to be okay. Maybe he'd lie down for a few minutes. The bed was narrow, with barely enough room for them both. He lowered himself beside her carefully, slowly, loathe to disturb her. As though sensing his thoughts, Maya sighed, turned onto her side and moved effortlessly into his arms.

When Helena came to check on Maya an hour later they were both fast asleep. Maya under the covers, Tony on top of them. The doctor smiled as she walked across the room, picking up another coverlet from a nearby bed before tucking it round them.

Two days later she was released from the hospital and week after that was part of an away team on a surface exploration, searching for titanium. The planet was barely solid in places, magma pools erupting without warning, poisonous gases blossoming from fissures in the rock. Needless to say, they were all wearing their suits. Tony stressed before they exited the Eagle that they were to stay together and be extremely careful.

Maya did a 360-degree turn, holding her sensor array in front of her.

"Anything?" Tony's voice echoed over her headset.

"No life signs. Some interesting minerals, but no titanium so far."

"Okay, everyone stick together. This surface is quite unstable. We'll do the grid sweep and then compare notes back on the ship." They'd been walking the pre-set pattern for thirty minutes, when Maya picked up an unusual reading. She followed it instinctively, not realising she'd left the rest of the group until she was some distance away. When she looked up from the sensor she realised she was in a narrow gully with steep rock rising on either side. Sulphurous, colourful gases swirled around her feet, obscuring her view of the ground. She gulped quietly and cursed her foolish lack of attention to her surroundings. Taking a cautious step backward, she began to carefully retrace her steps back the way she'd come. The ground under her feet was hotter than when she'd originally trod it, crumbling, in some places melting in a horrifying manner.

Her breath quickened as she carefully lifted each foot, testing the solidity of the ground before putting her weight down. She could hear the ground collapsing some distance behind her and resisted an overwhelming impulse to run. That would be fatal.

They'd been collecting samples and data for about an hour when Tony noticed Maya was missing. He knew she couldn't have gone far in the ten minutes since he'd seen her last.

He switched to the open band on the communicator. "Maya? Confirm your position, please."

Silence, but he could hear her breathing. She sounded distinctly frightened. Alarmed now, "Maya. Report in." Even as he spoke, he programmed his wrist computer to pinpoint her position and was heading in that direction at a run before she spoke.

"I...I'm okay...just heading back." This wasn't particularly convincing.

Tony felt his anxiety level rising. "Alan, Helena stay where you are. If she's in trouble I don't want to risk anyone else."

She was standing at the entrance to the gorge, trapped on an island of solid ground, the surface immediately behind her now molten, that in front of her crumbling fast. She was just out of his reach - about four metres from him. It might as well have been 4000.

Her toes were on the edge of a hot, lethal precipice. He met her gaze. Her eyes were frightened, brave, and defiant in the face of imminent death. He didn't think about his own safety - his terror was entirely for her. "Don't move."

She drew in a shaky breath. "I'm not going to."

"You're going to have to jump to me."

Her eyes widened. Even without her heavy space suit, the distance was impossible without a running start. But she could feel her precarious perch beginning to dissolve under her. She'd been trying to rack her brain for something to transform into. It had to be a creature that could fly or jump - and one that would fit within the confines of her spacesuit. The suit wasn't touching her skin, so wouldn't transform with her.

It was try or die. Her breath coming shallow and quick, she met his intense dark gaze, said a silent "I love you", transformed - and leapt. The next thing she knew she was in his arms, and they were both being impelled to the ground by the inertial force of her flight.

She resumed her own form and he helped her to her feet, his handsome features pale beneath the visor of his helmet. His immediate reaction was relief that she was okay followed by an incandescent anger that she'd placed herself in danger unnecessarily.

"Are you alright?" At her shaky nod, he hugged her to him briefly, fiercely, then clasped her arm and more or less dragged her back in the direction from whence they'd come, "What the hell did you think you were doing!?"

Maya had to half run to keep up with him, "I was following a reading..." He stopped abruptly and she crashed into him.

He wasn't shouting, but the intensity in his voice let her know precisely how angry he was, "I don't give orders just to hear myself speak. The survival of the entire team depends on everyone following directions. Do you understand?" He started moving again, still towing her like a recalcitrant five year old.

Maya could feel her cheeks burning. He'd never spoken to her like this before. And she didn't like it. Her emotions were already running high after the terror of her recent experience and now her temper flared, "That's not fair! I would never deliberately disobey orders. I lost track of where I was."

"Well your lapse nearly cost you your life - and jeopardised this mission."

"I'm sorry." And she was. It had been a potentially serious error - if not in judgement - then inattention. She'd been too absorbed in what she was doing. But with the sense of shame there grew a burning resentment. Yes, she'd gone off the grid, but it could have happened to any one of them on the grid.

"Don't let it happen again." He turned his head to look at her, desperate to reassure himself that she was really all right, but no less furious with her. He realised his feelings for her had a direct bearing on the intensity of his anger. If another of the crew had endangered themselves he wouldn't be reacting this way. And if her lovely face was anything to go by, he was handling it extremely badly; Maya's expression had at first reflected embarrassment, guilt, regret, but was now rapidly settling into stubborn animosity.

There was no further exchange of words until they arrived back at the main clearing where the others were waiting.

"All okay?" Alan asked. He and Helena, not having heard the drama, still sensed something was up.

"Fine." Tony said shortly. "Maya, you'd better go back to the Eagle."


"Now." His tone brooked no argument.

Hot with resentment, she turned on her heel and stalked off, eyes downcast to avoid the curious gazes of Helena and Alan. After depressurising the cabin she took off her suit and sat down at the Science consol, only then realising that she had tears on her cheeks. She dashed them away angrily - they could be back any moment and she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of seeing how upset she was. She closed her eyes and tried to calm her breathing.

Forty minutes later she heard the others in the airlock. One by one they depressurised and entered the main cabin. Helena came first, then Alan, then Tony. The other two busied themselves getting ready for take-off.

Having had some time to cool down, Tony regretted having been so hard on Maya. Not for having reprimanded her, merely the way in which he'd done it. She sat at her station, her back to him, seemingly intent on analysing the data she'd recorded on the surface. He walked up to her, tentatively placed a hand on her shoulder, and in considerably gentler tones asked, "Are you okay?"

She stiffened under his touch. He removed his hand; suddenly afraid she would shrug it off, not wanting to know the hurt of that rejection.

"I'm fine, thank you." Her voice was expressionless and very polite.


But she wasn't having any of it, "If you'll excuse me, I have a lot of information to process before we get back to Alpha." There was a pause, then his footsteps receded. Maya fiercely blinked away the treacherous tears that insisted on brimming, tears of rage and hurt. She was also angry with herself, for messing up, for allowing him to upset her this much.

On the trip back she was extremely civil to him but maintained a stony silence except when addressed directly and he realised she was not going to relent anytime soon.

Helena and Alan were at first surprised, then quietly amused at this first evidence of a spat between the two lovebirds. Alan piloted the Eagle - Tony sat in the co-pilot's seat. Helena popped into the cockpit every so often, but Maya remained resolutely at her post. On one of her visits Helena said casually, "I take it there was a slight disagreement?"

Tony smiled wryly. "You could say that."

"Considering how unhappy she is and how miserable you look, I wouldn't like to hazard a guess as to the winner."

He sighed. "I won the battle but have definitely lost the war." God, had he lost the war.

It was an extremely long six hours back to the base.

Maya had left the ship and seemingly vanished off the face of the Moonbase by the time he and Alan had finished their post-flight checks. He tried her quarters, the gym, various lounges, Helena and Sahn's places, but she did not want to be found.

After several futile hours, exhausted from the flight and feeling absolutely miserable, he gave up and went to bed. Unable to concentrate on the book that sat by his bedside, he conceded defeat and turned out the light. But as soon as he closed his eyes the events of the day replayed themselves in merciless Technicolor across his eyelids. He tossed and turned all night - replaying the argument again and again in his mind, torturing himself as he recalled his cutting tone, her injured protest...

He dozed eventually and dreamed of her falling into a molten hell, her hands reaching for his, their fingers touching, his frantically grabbing, her smaller hands slipping out of his grasp. Her terrified scream as she fell....

Gasping, he sat up in bed, drenched in sweat, tears coursing down his face. Tony groped for the bedside light and swung his legs over the side of the bed, trying to get his breath back. Christ. If he hadn't been able to lift her, that nightmare would now be his reality. First the Borg, then the cave-in, now this. It was obvious in hindsight why he'd over-reacted, jumped on her so severely. He was terrified of losing her.

Okay, she'd acted carelessly, but they all did from time to time and no harm had come to her. As she said, she hadn't deliberately disobeyed orders. He sighed and walked to the shower, turning it as cold as he could stand. He let the icy water pour over him, pushing his hair off his forehead as he raised his face to the spray.

His life would be a misery until she smiled at him again. A rueful half smile quirked his mouth. She was as stubborn as hell - more than a match for him. And yet she didn't have the stereotypical redhead's temper. His love was normally easy going, a gentle soul, an intoxicating, witty, quixotic enchantress who never failed to captivate him. Yes they argued, sometimes passionately (the night after the Borg often came vividly to mind). But this was the first time they'd really quarrelled.

And he really didn't want to do it again.

He owed her an apology. But he had to find her first.

In the end it was an absolutely miserable 24 hours before he saw her again.

Maya was off duty all the next day, while Tony started a 12--hour shift. He went looking for her as soon as he left Command Centre what felt like an eternity later, but she was still proving elusive. He was about to try her commlock and apologise abjectly when he walked into the library - and there she was.

Maya was sitting in one of the deep armchairs in the reading area. Her feet were tucked under her and she seemed to be engrossed in a large glossy book on tapestry techniques. He stood in the doorway for a few minutes, just watching her. Her hair was loose, tumbling in a riot of Titian curls down her back. She wore jeans and, he took absurd hope from this, his old rugby jersey.

He picked up a book from a pile near the front desk without even looking at the title. There was an empty armchair next to hers. He sat down just as she looked up. He saw surprise, alarm and embarrassment in her eyes before she turned her head away. A blush rose in Maya's cheeks and she clenched her hands in her lap.

God, this was hard. Much harder than he'd anticipated. And he'd anticipated it being excruciating.

He didn't know what the hell to say.

Before either of them could speak three Alphans sitting nearby erupted into loud, boisterous, ridiculous argument. Soon everyone in the immediate vicinity joined in - taking it extremely seriously. Which was better: Next Generation or Voyager? As the debate grew louder and louder their eyes met. The fleeting contact communicated their shared amusement at the absurdity of the debate raging around them and was all that was needed to dispel the unbearable tension between them. Her smile was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

Unwilling to make his apologies in front of an audience (no matter how preoccupied with other things), Tony took her hand and led her into the stacks. His eyes were grave as he gazed into her upturned face. Her expression was friendly but still somewhat wary.

"Maya, I'm sorry. I came down on you like a tonne of bricks. But you scared the hell out of me. And when I'm scared I go into overbearing mode."

Maya coloured slightly, lowered her gaze and studied their linked hands, "As opposed to reckless and stubborn?"

"I'm extremely fond of reckless and stubborn." He raised her face with a gentle finger under her chin, "Will you do something for me?" At her cautious nod, he smiled and said, "Promise if you're going to do something like that again you'll do it when I'm not around? My nerves can't take it."

Maya smiled. "I'll do my best."



Chapter Nine

Ten days later the Moon entered an inhabited star system.

The Tra'an made contact as soon as the moon entered sensor range. They were a humanoid race, their world an M-class planet. Tra'an technology was considerably more advanced than Earth's, but their culture was similar. The moon would be in range for four months. Once the Alphans' situation was explained the Tra'an offered resources and respite. John decided, after discreet verification of peaceful intentions, that shore leave was just what the Alphans needed and accepted gratefully.

The Alphans would go down in groups of 50 for four weeks at a time. It was suggested by their hosts that the moonbase crew would most enjoy visiting a subtropical area on the Southern Continent. The Tra'an would accept no payment. However, they enthusiastically accepted downloads of Terran literature, film and music and cuttings from plants in the Dome.

The Tra'an homeworld was in a isolated part of the galaxy and the inhabitants were not familiar with Earth, but they were in contact with travellers who ranged much wider. The Tra'an promised to do their utmost to try to contact voyagers who might know of Earth.

The Alphans were invited to stay in the city of Ariel. Tony, Maya, Ben and Sandra were booked to stay at a small family run inn.

A Tra'an flyer, used much as the inhabitants of Earth used their cars, met the main shuttle from Alpha and transported the holidaymakers and their luggage to their inn on the outskirts of the city. From the air they got an impression of greenness interspersed with occasional discreet dwellings, the glimmer of water steadily growing on the horizon.

Maya peered through the window at their rapidly approaching destination. The others were of course delighted to have been offered this holiday, but they had all been on vacation before. She had not. So delighted was a bit of an understatement when it came to describing her mood. She suspected her precariously maintained air of calm was not entirely convincing. It was only with great difficulty that she prevented herself from exclaiming over everything she saw.

Tony leaned across and pointed to a large house in the near distance, "That must be it." The beautiful wood, stone and glass building was the only structure on a horseshoe shaped cove.

The innkeeper El, a slender, elegant man of about fifty, welcomed them on the sweeping lawn leading up to the inn. He immediately put them at their ease, his warmth and genuine pleasure at meeting them apparent as he greeted them each in turn. Their host took them on a brief tour of the grounds and public rooms of the inn before returning them to the lobby, where a tray of flamboyantly hued exotic drinks awaited them.

Maya was not within earshot at the time, when El said to Tony, "I have put you in the Blue Room in the West Wing. It has a wonderful view of the lagoon." He nodded toward Maya, who was talking with Ben Vincent some distance away. "Your young lady is in the Green Room next door."

Slightly taken aback, Tony had yet to formulate a reply to this, when El leaned toward him and whispered, "Ah, I see from your face that she is not yet officially your young lady. But you are here for a month. And the Inn is a very romantic place." The innkeepers grey eyes twinkled, instantly softening his otherwise rather austere appearance.

Tony smiled and murmured, "I'll bear that in mind."

After the welcoming drinks and a light snack they were taken to their rooms to unpack and rest before the evening meal.

Maya smiled at El, bright-eyed, as he opened her door for her. The room was enormous. The bed, big enough to sleep six people, was raised on a dais, with an unabashedly romantic canopy. A large sofa and several large armchairs formed a semi-circle around a stone fireplace. The ensuite bathroom had a deep sunken spa bath facing a floor to ceiling window with a view of the lagoon. Twin french doors opened onto a balcony overlooking the beach. She could see the surf pounding against the shore from her bed.

Tony poked his head around the door half an hour after they were first shown to their rooms, "You decent?"

Her answer was an indistinct, "Maybe." She was face down in the middle of the massive bed.

Maya smiled into her pillow when she felt the mattress depress under his weight.

"Oi, shove over."

She obligingly scooted over and turned her head to look at him. They smiled at each other. Rather, he smiled. Maya beamed.

"I take it Madame likes her room?"

"I love my room!" Unable to lie still, she leapt off the bed and bounded to the bathroom, "There's a pool in here!"

Tony sat back against the headboard and watched this explosion of enthusiasm with amusement.

She was at the built-in refrigerator next, "And look! Food." Not just any food, but chocolates, wine and sinful pastries, fruit and other less identifiable, but just as delicious looking edibles. Maya grabbed a handful of chocolates, before leaping back onto the bed.

Tony lifted her face to his with a finger under her chin. "You are extremely cute. The least jaded hotel guest I've ever known."

Maya laughed, "This is the only hotel I've ever known."

He kissed her gently, "Well, you've got a month to get used to it."

Maya sighed happily at this prospect and settled down next to him, enjoying the sight of her legs stretched out by his on the counterpane. She leaned against his shoulder companionably, "Want some of my chocolate?"

"I would love some of your chocolate."

She carefully unwrapped one of the confections, and inspected it silently for a few seconds. Tony joined her in this mute examination, his grave expression belied by the amusement shining in his dark eyes. "Clean?"

Maya lifted her gaze to his. "It looks okay." She raised it to his lips, an impish glint in her eyes. He obediently opened his mouth, trying, not entirely successfully, to sublimate an intensely erotic frisson as she fed it to him.

But when it came to her own she hedged and only bit into half the chocolate.

Which was just as well.

A peculiar look crossed her face. She gamely chewed twice, swallowed with difficulty, then gagged in an extremely unladylike manner and collapsed sideways onto the bed, clutching her throat.

Tony grinned, took the remaining chocolate from her and popped it into his mouth. "Mmmm. Delicious. Amazing the places you find raisins nowadays."

Maya emitted a sound that was half laugh, half groan, and swatted feebly at his leg. "Ugh. Don't say that word."

"Big, fat and juicy. I think I'll ask El if we can have a special meal tonight." He lay down beside her, propping himself up on one elbow, "How about raisins and brains?"

Maya rolled onto her back and looked up at him with narrowed eyes, "I don't know why I ever thought I liked you."

"Yes, raisins and brains. With tapioca on the side, " he said thoughtfully.

"You're horrible." But she was laughing despite herself.

"I know." Tony smiled. "I suppose I'd better let you get settled in. See you at seven?"


Maya finished exploring her room, and spent half an hour looking through suggested fashions available from the replicator. It was a technically advanced appliance that could produce nearly anything she desired at the touch of a button. There were thousands of clothing styles available. In the end she chose a pretty sleeveless shift dress in a royal blue, with matching sandals. They'd come down with literally their uniforms and not much else, save for a few toiletries, as the Tra'an had insisted that all the Alphans take the opportunity to completely renew their wardrobes.

Maya ran a bath and stepped into a luxurious sea of scented bubbles. The tub was deep and big enough for five people. Bliss. Maya sank up to her nose and closed her eyes, letting the warmth sink into her bones. Raisins and brains. A giggle escaped her as Tony's droll tones echoed in her mind. He was silly. I wonder if he's in the bath now, too? A different kind of warmth surged through her veins. What if he walked though the bathroom door right now, wearing nothing but a towel around his hips...

Dream on, girl.

She smiled to herself and clambered out of the tub, wrapping herself in a luxuriously soft bath sheet. She padded barefoot to the dressing table and mirror in the bedroom. Everything she could possibly want or need had been provided. Brushes and combs, hair clips, colourful, glimmering pots of cosmetics, lotions and perfume were neatly arranged on a silver tray. She played with the makeup for half an hour, completely fascinated and absorbed, just as she had been when first introduced to the cosmetics the Alphan women used. The final result, when she surveyed herself in the mirror, was colourful. Maya chuckled and walked to the bathroom to wash her face. There was obviously some subtle technique in the application of these beautifying products that she hadn't yet quite got the hang of.

Looking like herself once more, she sat down again at the dressing table and brushed her hair, lapsing into daydream as the soothing motion of the brush massaged her scalp.

It was almost 7pm when she put on the new underwear she'd fabricated. The bra and high cut panties were in a dark green silk-like material that felt wonderful next to her skin after the regulation issue cotton she was used to. Slipping the blue dress over her head, she smoothed it over her hips and regarded herself in the full-length mirror.

She thought it looked quite nice. The colour was pretty. But she was well aware that her primary motivation in fabricating the dress was Tony's approval. The thrill she felt when he looked at her admiringly was rapidly becoming an addiction.

Five minutes later when he knocked on her door, Maya got her reward.

Tony took her hand and raised it to his lips. "Bellissima."

She smiled and blushed, feeling absurdly shy. And beautiful.

He offered her his arm and they walked together to the dining room. Maya cast him an admiring glance as they went downstairs. He wore a charcoal suit in the Tra'an style, which resembled Terran fashion but without lapels. It accentuated the breadth of his shoulders and lean athletic build. A crisp white shirt contrasted cleanly with the dark grey of the suit and his dark hair. She was biased, but she thought he was absolutely gorgeous. But how to tell him without dissolving into a blushing, embarrassed puddle on the floor?

El greeted them as they walked into the dining area, and introduced his wife to all the Alphans before they went in to dinner. There were tables for two, four or more scattered throughout the room, as well as three smaller tables for two out on the balcony. Tony and Maya sat on the balcony with Sandra and Ben and a Tra'an couple who were staying at the Inn.

A soft breeze wafted in from off the lagoon, bringing the fragrance of night blooming flowers. Candles glowed on each linen draped table, adding lustre to the cutlery, china and purple crystal goblets.

"Isn't it wonderful!" Sandra enthused. She smiled a thank you to the waiter who poured wine into their glasses, then leaned across to Maya. "Have you tried your bath yet?"

Maya laughed, "I'm still shrivelled. Only the promise of food lured me out."

"And the menu seems to be blessedly raisin-free." Tony added dryly.

His beloved stuck her tongue out at him. "No brains either."

"Are you referring to me, or the menu?"

Maya smiled coolly, "I should think that's obvious."

"Well, now my feelings are hurt."

Ben laughed. "What makes you so sure she means you?"

"Previous experience."

Maya turned a blandly innocent face to Tony, "But if you can remember something from previous experience then your brains can't all be gone." She patted his hand consolingly. "Maybe one or two synapses are still firing."

"But only one or two."


"That's too bad. Ben and I were going to offer to take you two dancing at a place down the beach after dinner. But I have feeling I'll be too stupid to remember where it is by then."


Tony could practically hear her brain switching tracks as she digested this information.

She smiled winsomely at him. "Suddenly I can sense you getting smarter by the second."

He laughed. "I thought you might."

They met for breakfast the next morning. A buffet had been set out on the veranda overlooking the lagoon. A selection of freshly squeezed juice, exotic fruit, pastries, hot breads with an assortment of vegetables and a variety of hot and cold drinks awaited them. El had also arranged for a selection of Terran foods. Coffee, croissants with jam, and curiously, garlic bread, sat alongside the more exotic Tra'an fare. The deck overlooked the pink, sandy beach of the clear turquoise lagoon.

Tony wore a white t-shirt, black surfer's trunks and sandals. Maya wore a white cover-up that covered her to the knee, over a sky blue one-piece swimsuit, with similar sandals. Her hair was plaited into a loose braid.

They sat at a small table near the edge of the veranda. They'd each chosen different things, and shared so that they could both try a bit of everything.

They lingered over their coffee for an hour, and watched, fascinated, while local flyers using anti-gravity devices soared and dipped through the air over the lagoon, sometimes diving low to skim the tops of waves.

Then they walked the fifty metres down the lawn to the beach.

After a few minutes the sea air, the languorous heat of the tropical sun, and the softness of the sand under her bare toes overwhelmed her senses.

She raised her face to the sun, closing her eyes as the warmth kissed her skin. "Isn't it glorious..." she sighed.

The sun illuminated golden highlights in her hair, setting fire to the soft tumble of burnished silk. Her long, dark lashes cast delicate shadows on her cheeks. The full, deep rose of her mouth, now curving in a blissful smile, echoed the glow of colour in her beautiful face.

"Absolutely glorious," Tony said quietly.

Something in the tone of his voice made her heart lurch. When he pulled her close, his gaze smouldering with a knee weakening heat, her pulse was already leaping out of control. He twined a loose tendril of her hair slowly around his finger, and then tucked it carefully behind her ear, before tracing a whisper soft line down the curve of her cheek marking.

"Sunshine becomes you," he murmured.

Already mesmerised by his touch, a shy smile lit Maya's face as he lowered his head to hers.

At the first touch of his lips to hers she melted into his embrace with a warmth that instantly ignited his long simmering need.

When they parted several minutes later, her lashes lifted to reveal blue eyes shining with pleasure...and mischief. She smiled at him, the flirtatious gleam in her eyes making his heart pound even harder. Irresistibly drawn, Tony's mouth curved helplessly in reply and he leaned closer, intent on claiming the luscious softness of her mouth again.

But Maya had other ideas. She kissed him swiftly, then tore her cover-up over her head, threw it in his face and laughed, "Race you!" before sprinting off down the beach.

He watched her run for a moment before starting after her, admiring the lithe femininity of her slender, long legged form, sheer exuberance evident in every graceful movement. He caught up with her just as she dashed into the surf. The water was bath warm, a perfectly clear turquoise. Maya shrieked and laughed as he caught her around the waist, swinging her off her feet.

He scooped her easily into his arms and waded deeper into the water.

Maya tightened her hands around his neck, "Don't you dare..."

"What?" He looked down into her suspicious eyes. "I'm offended that you think I would drop you."

He was waist deep in the water now.

"You're not going to drop me." The evil glint in his dark eyes told her otherwise. "Why don't I believe you?"

"I haven't the faintest idea." And then he sank to his knees, submerging them both under the waves.

Maya came to the surface first, pushing her wet hair from her eyes, laughing.

He got a tsunami splash in his face the instant he resurfaced.


Tony slipped his arms around her slender waist, drawing her close. "I know. But you forgive me anyway." Her skin was incredibly soft, like wet rose petals. She felt too good in his arms. The sensation of her against him in her wet, skin-tight swimsuit was doing extreme, wonderful things to his blood pressure.

"I don't think so." Despite her severe tone, delighted amusement shone in her eyes.

"But you always forgive me."

"Not this time."

This was a lie.

His smile was slow and dangerously sexy. A shiver of awareness crept up her spine when he slid his hands gently up her arms, the caress augmented by the sheen of water on their skin. The air suddenly seemed heavy, moist, too thick to breathe. She was very conscious of the heat of his body, the fascinating whorls of hair on his muscular chest, the breadth of his shoulders. The light of desire in his dark eyes. Another purr of pleasure whispered through her senses as Tony pressed a whisper soft kiss to the corner of her mouth.

"You are absolutely delicious."

Maya's heart leapt with an almost painful delight. "Flattery isn't going to work," she whispered, swaying unconsciously closer. This was another lie.

"It's not flattery. You are delicious." He brushed his mouth teasingly over hers and felt her smile against his lips.

"You're lucky I didn't eat that garlic bread at breakfast."

He chuckled, his breath warming her lips, "I'm Italian. I like garlic."

Then he kissed her properly.

That afternoon, at El's suggestion, they swam out to the small island in the middle of the lagoon. A picnic lunch had been laid out on a blanket under the shade of a large tree on the beach. It was secluded, private and very beautiful. Tired after swimming and eating, they lay on the blanket and talked about nothing and everything. Maya rested her cheek on her folded arms, utterly happy - never wanting this time with him to end. Her eyes drifted shut without her realising. Tony watched her for a long time, admiring her exquisite bone structure, the bloom of colour in her cheeks, the rosy softness of her mouth, the luxuriant sweep of her dark lashes. Her hair was tied back in a French braid and was still damp, but soft tendrils were drying around her ears and temples.

He eventually dozed off himself, lulled by the rhythmic pounding of the surf, and the warmth of the sun. They both slept for an hour.

Maya awakened first and in turn, lost herself to watching him; the clean cut line of his jaw, the masculine breadth of his shoulders, the sinewy length of his long legs. He'd fallen asleep on his back, with one arm flung across his eyes. He was absolutely perfect, and she wanted him with an intensity that threatened to melt her bones.

Tony awoke to the lazy, gentle caress of her finger tracing the arch of his brow. He struggled to keep his breathing even as she slowly explored the planes and angles of his face. Every touch, each brush of her skin against his left him teetering on the edge of heaven. Part of him wanted to prolong the enchantment, the unbearable eroticism of her touch; the remaining 99% demanded he call a halt to this play and make passionate, thorough love to her.

When she brushed her mouth softly, tentatively over his, Tony's control broke.

Maya found herself suddenly lying on her back, Tony's body covering hers. The passionate intensity in his eyes sent a violent thrill of excitement coursing through her. A tiny voice at the back of her mind wondered just how long he'd been awake, but then his mouth was on hers and all rational thought fled.

That is, it fled until something cold and very wet pressed itself to the sole of Maya's foot. Then, instead of surrendering to passion, she shrieked very loudly in Tony's ear. He reacted with commendable swiftness, adrenaline pumping as he instinctively shielded her while simultaneously looking for something to use as a defensive weapon.

Then Maya's hand on his arm directed his attention to the bottom of the blanket, where the inquisitive, wet-nosed gooseberry sat. It was obviously an aquatic mammal, not unlike an Earth seal, but fluffier. Its sleek, wet, fawn-coloured fur was already drying under the sun to the consistency of a Persian kitten's coat. It even had big Bambi eyes. Tony half expected to see a Disney copyright stamped on it somewhere.

"Isn't it pretty..." Maya whispered, afraid to move in case she scared it off. It blinked and cocked its head endearingly.

"It's stunning," he said dryly. "And I'm extremely glad I'm not susceptible to heart failure. Or deafness."

Maya laughed, "Sorry. Its nose was very cold. Did I scare you?" She leaned closer and smoothed the dark hair at this temple. "Actually your hair has turned white."

"Carina, it's been turning white since the day I met you."

"Ah, that's sweet."

"It wasn't meant as a compliment!"

"I know." Her voice and expression were gentle as she poked him quite hard on the arm.

"Violent, too." He muttered, trying without much success, to stifle a smile.

"Only when it's merited."

The cry wasn't strong, just an echo of a whisper.

Tony opened his eyes and picked up his watch from the bedside table. It was 3.00am. He'd only been asleep for an hour.

Then he heard it again, faint, but no mistaking the source.

He took the shortest route to her room, vaulting over the balustrade separating their balconies. Like him, Maya slept with her balcony door open to catch the night breeze.

His eyes quickly adjusted to the dim light in the room.

The bed was empty. She was curled up in a corner near the bathroom door. Still asleep.

But it wasn't a sound sleep. Her breathing was tortured and quick. Tony crouched down and touched his hand to her cheek, "Maya?"

She flinched away from him, but didn't wake. Loathe to rouse her suddenly, he slipped one arm under her thighs, one behind her shoulders, and carefully picked her up. Cradling her against his chest, he carried her back to bed. He'd just tucked the covers around her when she sat bolt upright.

Her eyes were open, her expression terrified, anguished. There was no recognition in her gaze.

"Cara?" Nothing. Unnerved, he gently urged her back down, "You're okay." He spoke more to reassure himself than her. She sank back against the pillows and her lashes drifted shut.

Tony exhaled slowly, then sat down on the bed beside her.

He watched over her until he felt reasonably sure she wouldn't have the nightmare again, at least that night.

When he eventually went back to his room, he lay awake in the dark for several hours.

Maya woke early the next morning. It was just 9am. They'd been up late the night before, dancing, socialising with their hosts and fellow guests until 2.00 o'clock in the morning. She should still have been asleep, but as soon as she opened her eyes she felt wide-awake. She showered and changed into a dark green one-piece swimsuit with co-ordinating green shorts and white t-shirt over top. Her hair was still damp, so she drew it back into a simple ponytail, slipped on her sandals, and went to see if Tony was up.

She met El in the hall. Their host had been up late as well, and they seemed to be the only two up. "Have you breakfasted, my dear?"

Maya smiled, "No. I thought I'd see if he's moving first." She nodded towards Tony's door.

El chuckled, "And if he's not?"

"Then I'll have to decide whether I need breakfast more than he needs sleep."

She eased Tony's door open quietly, and knew from the dim light in the room that he was still asleep. She went down to the buffet area and got a selection of fruit, pastries, juice and coffee on a tray and took it back upstairs.

She quietly opened the bedroom door and peeked inside. He lay flat on his back in the centre of the bed, long legs sprawled, only the light duvet covering him. His chest was bare and she had to drag her eyes away from his divinely masculine physique. Her fingers itched to smooth the unruly cowlick of dark hair that had fallen across his forehead, to trace the line of his eyelashes against his cheek. Reluctantly she forced herself away, knowing she would gawk at him for hours given the opportunity. A pair of large, overstuffed armchairs had been placed on the private deck outside his bedroom, perfectly positioned to watch the seabirds dive-bombing the turquoise waters.

Maya set the tray down on a small table between the chairs and curled up in one of them. She picked up a chocolate pastry, inspected it for raisins, and then satisfied that it was uncontaminated, took a bite. Two brightly plumed birds sat side-by-side on a tree branch near the balcony. They emitted soft coos every few seconds, and butted their heads together lovingly. Maya was just forming the thought, How sweet, when they erupted into a squawking flurry of ruffled feathers and shrieked recriminations. She laughed, thoroughly entertained by their antics.

It promised to be another perfect day. The sky was clear and a soft breeze wafted the delicate scent of the exotic blooms growing in a vine up the side of a nearby trellis.

She breathed in the perfume and raised her face to the sun, the warmth bringing a glow to her cheeks. The last two days had been wonderful. And the month loomed ahead like a marvellous blank canvas. Maya smiled, her eyes softening as her thoughts turned to the man sleeping beyond the half open balcony door. They'd spent nearly every moment together since arriving on Tra'an and still she couldn't get enough of him. The days were sublime, but she wanted the nights too. She wanted to crawl into bed next to him now...

A fragment of a half remembered dream teased the edge of her mind and she frowned slightly. Had she dreamed of him last night? She often did, delicious, erotic fantasies that surged to the surface of her consciousness with disconcerting vividness during the light of day. But this fleeting memory had a darker tone. A nightmare then. Had he come to her room? She could almost feel the stroke of his hand over her cheek, a whispered endearment as he urged her back to sleep, soothed a bad dream away...

No. Maya shook off the slightly disturbing memory of the night terror. The day was too perfect to spoil with dark thoughts. Forcing the unease to the back of her mind, she took a sip of her drink, savouring the blend of chocolate and coffee.

Tony woke up gradually, aware before anything else of a feeling of well-being. The bed was very comfortable; he'd slept deeply after eventually dozing off. The aroma of coffee and freshly baked bread emanated from somewhere nearby, as well as the low, melodic sound of a woman singing. He didn't recognise the melody, but her voice was beautiful - a clear, perfectly pitched alto. He opened his eyes, rolled onto his side, tracking the sound to the half open glass door leading onto his deck.

And smiled.

She'd flung her legs over the arm of the chair; all he could see of her were slender, high-arched feet, one sandal dangling precariously and in imminent danger of falling off.

He listened, entranced, as she sang. Maya obviously didn't realise how well the sea air carried sound, or that he was awake. There was a happy lilt to her voice and he suddenly wished, with an almost painful intensity, for the day she would sing so unselfconsciously in front of him.

When she trailed off to a low hum, Tony forced himself out of bed. He reached for his discarded sweat cut-offs, his mouth quirking as he pulled them on. Fortunately he hadn't kicked off the duvet during the night. He knew Maya wouldn't have ventured past the bedroom threshold if she'd been presented with the reality of him "au natural". He took a very quick shower, shaved and brushed his teeth with record speed, then donned a pair of khaki shorts, a dark blue t-shirt and went out onto the deck.

Maya sensed his presence in the doorway almost immediately, looking up from the pastry she was shredding. Her smile lit up an already brilliant morning. "Hi."

"Good morning." He leaned down to kiss her. "I should sleep in more often if this is the service I get."

"Don't speak too soon, I've eaten most of it." Maya handed him a cup of coffee, "But I saved you a chocolate croissant, " an impish gleam shone in her eyes, "and everything with raisins."

"Ah, the rejects."

"But you like raisins," her tone indicated her continuing amazement at this aberration. A slow smile curved his mouth, but he didn't reply. Instead he closed his eyes, propped his mug on his chest and leaned his head back against the chair, letting the sun warm his face.

He'd acquired a tan over the last few days, his olive skin darkening in a way that made him even more devastatingly handsome than usual. Maya found herself increasingly mesmerised by the force of her physical attraction to him. Like now, she thought ruefully, tearing her gaze away from the bronzed, sinewy length of his long legs.

Maya raised her mug to her lips, her contentment complete now that he was awake. She couldn't recall ever being so actively, consciously happy. Part of it was the luxury and beauty of their surroundings, but mostly it was Tony. It was bliss spending so much time with him, free from responsibility - free to be young, carefree and very much in love.

"How did you sleep?" His tone was casual. He didn't open his eyes.

A bit surprised, she said. "Fine. I was really tired. It must be the sea air."

This seemed to be all the answer he wanted. "There's a concert in the park later this afternoon. El suggested we take a picnic, if you're interested." He opened his eyes and turned his head to look at her.

"That sounds lovely." She selflessly offered him the last uncontaminated croissant. "It's a good one."

"Ah, sacrifice on my behalf. Thank you."

There was a smudge of chocolate at the corner of her mouth. Irresistible. He leaned across and kissed the spot, loving the creamy warmth of her soft skin. Maya turned her face ever so slightly, just enough to bring her mouth into full contact with his.

Tony decided that from now on, this would be his preferred method of eating chocolate.

They spent the next day and many more after that exploring, wandering through the sun dappled, cobbled streets of the city, sometimes on their own, occasionally with Sandra and Ben or El. They'd just eaten lunch and were heading off to an outdoor theatre El had recommended during their first week, when Tony stopped abruptly and stood quite still, listening intently. Music was playing softly, emanating from an open window nearby. "It's a Bach violin concerto." He laughed, delighted at this first evidence of the Alphan's gift.

In fact they soon found that most of the Tra'an population had access to the Earth databases, and they often heard music, or the snatched words of a familiar actor's voice wafting in the air as they walked through the city. They developed a lazy routine during which they window shopped, wandered into quaint shops, ate Tra'an confections, sat in outdoor cafés in the sunshine, and walked through the city's beautiful parks.

They were strolling through a restored historic district on a sultry afternoon when a shimmer of colour caught Maya's eye.

In a shop window was a dark green velvet cloak with a softly iridescent peacock shaded border of purple, blue, green and every shade in between. It was the most beautiful thing Maya had ever seen.

She walked to the shop front, riveted. For a minute she simply looked at it, absorbing every detail.

Tony made a move to lead her into the shop, but she held back. "No. Where would I wear it?"

But she couldn't help one last wistful look over her shoulder as they walked on.

When they passed by the shop again two days later, Maya's gaze was irresistibly drawn to the window. The cloak was gone.

It was late. They were walking through the extensive gardens near the Inn, having just dined with other Alphans staying in the area in one of Ariel's many restaurants. The night was very still and hot. The moons were obscured, the air heavy with humidity, mountains of dark clouds forming on the horizon.

Tony raised his face to the sky as the first fat, heavy drops began to fall. They were still a kilometre from the inn. "I think we're about to get very wet."

The skies opened up suddenly, great sheets of warm, pelting rain soaking them to the skin almost instantly.

Maya laughed, and shouted. "Run!"

He seized her hand and they dashed to a gazebo several hundred metres away. They staggered inside, breathless, laughing. A soft light automatically came on, gently illuminating the room.

Maya turned to him, and Tony was immediately, electrifyingly aware that the rain had made her short white dress virtually transparent.

The wet, filmy material clung to every curve of her slender body. Only the delicate white material of her bra and panties covered her. Maya's hair, which she'd left loose, was soaked, darkened auburn tendrils clinging to her slender neck. He stood transfixed, paralysed by the fierce need firing his blood.

Maya raised her lovely, vivid face to his, laughter brightening her blue eyes. Her smile faded and a wild pulse began to beat in her throat as she became aware of his air of arrested stillness.

Tony threaded his fingers through her hair, cupping the back of her head in his palm, his eyes dark with desire. Inhaling a shallow breath of anticipation, Maya swayed into his embrace, her lips parting as she waited for his kiss. An infinity seemed to pass before he claimed her mouth with a passionate hunger, an intensity that sent a pleasurable shockwave from her fingertips to her toes.

The heat that simmered constantly between them exploded the instant their bodies touched.

They sank to the floor together, and within seconds her dress was off, as was his shirt. Their world narrowed to the taste and touch of the other.

They were both on the brink of completely losing control when Tony groaned and tore his mouth from hers. He rolled onto his back beside her, his chest heaving, eyes closed... Once again, he cursed his unerring talent for picking completely unsuitable places and times to make love to her. The psychologists would probably have a field day.

Leaning over Maya again, he traced his fingers down her cheek, brushing his mouth once more over the inviting softness of her lips. She opened eyes made smoky by desire and they gazed silently at each other for a moment before he staggered to his feet and forced himself outside. It was still pouring, but that was no deterrent. Tony ran his fingers through his hair, and then raised his face to the cooling rain.

When Maya emerged from the gazebo two minutes later, he was lying on his back on the grass, his eyes closed. She dropped to her knees beside him, "Are you trying to drown yourself?"

A wry smile curved his lips, but he didn't open his eyes. "Yes."

"Because of me?"

"Yes, because of you."

"Oh." Maya smiled. Good. She lay down beside him in a similar posture, her fingertips just brushing his. The rain felt wonderful, soft and warm on her face and body. She'd never felt more alive.

Tony opened his eyes and turned his head to look at her. His already elevated heart rate doubled again. She hadn't put her dress back on. He didn't know whether to laugh or groan. So he settled for a combination of the two, "You are driving me out of my mind!" He half expected steam to begin rising from his overheated body.

"Well, if you're not going to co-operate..." Maya injected a hurt note into her voice.

She was enjoying herself enormously.

Tony rolled over with a startling swiftness, bracing himself above her with a hand on either side of her shoulders, "You have no idea what it's doing to me, trying not to 'co-operate'. There should be a law against whatever it is you're almost wearing."

Maya's eyes widened slightly with surprise, excitement and a hint of alarm, "It's a swimsuit!" she protested, blushing despite herself. "There were lots of women wearing these on the beach." Lots of sexy, supremely confident women. It was a very pretty, but extremely revealing bikini. She'd been much too self-conscious to bare that much flesh in public, preferring to stick to her modest one piece suits. So she'd opted to wear it as an undergarment.

But if this was the effect it had on him...

A very female smile curved her lips. "I'll wear it from now on, shall I?"

"Not if you have an ounce of mercy."

"But Sandra and all the Tra'an women at the Inn have been wearing these the entire time we've been here. It's the latest fashion."

"Have they?" He was genuinely surprised. "I hadn't noticed." They could have been completely nude; when Maya was with him he was oblivious to anyone but her.

"You must have noticed! That woman we met at breakfast this morning was wearing one and she must've walked past you about 100 times on the beach." The voluptuous Tra'an native had made no effort to conceal her interest in Tony. Maya felt like an extremely gawky and insignificant twelve year old in comparison.

Tony vaguely remembered the same figure sashaying back and forth. But his awareness had been totally given over to the beautiful, long-legged redhead by his side. So, this woman had walked by him "about 100 times", had she? He delighted in Maya's rather indignant expression, loving the idea that she might be jealous of another woman's interest in him. He smiled down into her eyes. "Ah, yes. The one who kept blocking my sun. I thought she was just a particularly persistent cloud."

"A very glamorous cloud." An extremely well developed cloud.

"But with one fatal flaw."

Maya looked at him cautiously, saying nothing.

Tony traced his index finger down the delicately shadowed curve of her cheek. "She's not you."

He was helpless against the powerful emotional punch of her shy, luminous smile. When he lowered his mouth to hers again the kiss was luxurious, slow and infinitely heated.

Every bone in Maya's body melted. A soft, involuntary sigh of pleasure escaped her as Tony moulded her body to his. She loved being in his arms. His lean, masculine frame fit her softer curves as though made for her.

Finally they retrieved her dress from the gazebo. Tony lowered the still damp garment over her head and Maya obligingly held her arms up, slipping her hands into the sleeves. She tried not to smile when he carefully did up all the buttons, right to the neck.

He acknowledged her amusement with a wry smile, "Humour me. My nerves can only take so much."

"So much?" The innocent enquiry was belied by the mischief in her eyes.

He took the collar of her dress in both hands and pulled her close, his eyes narrowing dangerously. "You know precisely what I mean."

"Do I?" She smiled impishly. "Oh. Maybe I do."

His answer was a swift, hard kiss that sent her heart pounding afresh.

The rain wasn't letting up, so they ran, hand in hand, back to the inn. They were both soaked to the skin when they finally reached the grounds. Rather than go through the lobby in their bedraggled state, they went around to the back near their rooms.

Maya peered up at her balcony. "Well, I could fly..."

He took her hand, "We can both fly."

He held up a slim wand like device. "El gave it to me. It's the anti-gravity device we've seen the Tra'an using on the beach."

Tony pressed a button and the ground retreated beneath them.

Or to be more accurate, the ground lurched away from them with sudden, alarming swiftness.

Maya gasped and clutched Tony's hand in a death grip.

"Oops..." He grinned ruefully. "Maybe I haven't quite got the hang of this yet."

This was putting it mildly. They hovered a foot off the ground, wobbling precariously. One minute they were upright, the next horizontal. Maya abruptly abandoned her grip on his hand and clutched handfuls of his shirt in an attempt to gain purchase. Finally, she got her arms around his neck and held on for dear life.

Her expression of wide-eyed alarm during these manoeuvres was too much for Tony. A helpless snort escaped him.

Maya glared. "Stop it!"

This just set him off even more. "God, your face..." He gasped, "Are you trying to tell me you're not enjoying this?"

They were completely inverted now. Maya's wet hair streamed toward the ground like an auburn waterfall. Tony was crying with laughter, tears mixing with the pouring rain and trailing up his forehead and into his hairline.

Biting his lip severely in an effort to control himself, Tony studied the wand-like device closely for a moment (difficult while upside down and with with Maya strangling him), then touched a button. They levelled out, maintaining an effortless upright posture.

Maya cautiously loosened her chokehold. "You're trying to kill me, aren't you?"

"Cara mia, I'm hurt that you would think that."

"You tipped me upside down in the pouring rain while water filled my nose."

"I will admit to having a momentary problem with the technology."

Maya smiled and shook her head despairingly, "I thought you men were supposed to be good at technology."

"This man didn't get a chance to practice with woman clamped to his side."

"Is it safe now?" They'd maintained altitude and pitch for a good two minutes.

"I think so. Want to try again?"


They clasped hands again, and rose smoothly into the air.

A delighted smile lit Maya's face. She'd flown numerous times during transformations, but never as herself.

They slowly drifted higher, and soon their feet nearly touched the tops of the trees. Music wafted up from the opened doors of the public rooms at the other end of the inn. The air was heavy with the perfume of wet flowers.

Tony directed them to the balcony of her room. Then her feet were once more on the ground.

He stroked a finger down the curve of her cheek, "Safe and sound. Good night, Maya."

"Good night." she whispered, her eyes shining with a softness that made it very difficult for him to leave.

Maya impatiently kicked her bedclothes away. It was too hot. She was tired, but her over-active mind hadn't yet caught on to the fact that it should be sleeping.

The heady perfume of the flowering vine growing outside her open balcony door scented the night air and the double moons of Tra'an sent a luminous glow streaming into the bedroom. A soft breeze lifted the drapes then gently set them down again. The moving air cooled her heated skin, the sensation not unlike a caress. And caresses had been on her mind lately. A smile quirked her lips. Rolling onto her back, arms out flung, Maya stared at the ceiling, watching the ghostly shadows made by the billowing movement of the curtains. Despite the deluge of rain earlier in the evening, the air was heavy, expectant. As if on cue, a low rumble echoed off in the distance.


Maya sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed, reaching for her wrap. She'd never seen a proper electrical storm. It hadn't rained on Psychon for many years. On the balcony she leaned against the balustrade, chin propped in her hands as she watched the approaching storm. It was still at least 10 kilometres away. Flashes of light zigzagged through the clouds. The wind was churning the waves of the lagoon into a choppy surf.

And suddenly the lure of the beach was irresistible.

Tony was also awake, reading by the light of his bedside lamp. He'd given up trying to sleep over an hour ago. After several years of acclimatisation to the controlled environment of Alpha, he'd lost his ability to sleep in sultry summer conditions. For thirty minutes now the grumbling clouds had kept up a curiously soothing, if increasingly noisy refrain. But as the thunder became more boisterous, the clashing elements lured him outside as well. It was nature's own sound and light show, with the promise of cooler air. He put his book face down on the bedside table, pulled on a pair of shorts and walked out onto his balcony just as Maya reached the edge of the water.

Tony leaned against the balcony railing, his gaze intent. She looked like a creature of the storm, ethereally beautiful. Her hair was loose, the breeze lifting it into a wild nimbus of curls. The wind whipped the filmy hem of her pale blue nightgown and robe around her bare feet and ankles and made the soft material cling arrestingly to the feminine curves of her body. He swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry, as she raised both arms above her head in a graceful, feline stretch that seemed to be part incantation to the gathering tempest.

When the towering storm clouds cleared for a few seconds, Maya gazed up at the twin moons and at the small pinpoint of light that was Alpha beyond, seemingly as transfixed by the sight as Tony was by her. For a long time she stood, face raised to the heavens, while nature unleashed all its power in the skies over her head.

When thunder boomed explosively, much closer this time, and a fork of lighting lanced down into the lagoon about a kilometre offshore, she turned and started back to the inn.

Two minutes later she soared up to the balustrade as a falcon, saw him, and landed on his balcony. It was an instinctive response, requiring no thought. Wherever he was, she needed to be.

Maya materialised in front of him, the golden energy that was her essence briefly giving the illusion of a miniature sun. Then she stood before him, a flush tinting her cheekbones, a glint of wildness in her eyes. Their gazes locked, and the world came to a standstill as animal awareness arced between them.

She took a step nearer, slid her hands slowly around his neck, and whispered, "You forgot to kiss me goodnight."

Tony, for once in his life, was incapable of speech. Breathing was also a problem, in that he seemed to have forgotten how to do it.

He'd deliberately not kissed her goodnight. Just touching her cheek when they said goodbye had re-ignited the ever present, simmering desire he'd barely resisted giving in to earlier.

And now her sensually charged mood electrified him. Her eyes were huge and dark, just a hint of blue encircling the black into which he instantly, willingly lost himself. He drew her closer, his hand on her waist trembling perceptibly and brushed his mouth gently over hers. He drew back slightly and looked into her eyes, a pulse of desire rocketing through his body as he registered the heat in her gaze. The warm exhalation of her breath mingled with his. Then he kissed her, fiercely, desperately, and uttered a smothered groan when the need firing his blood was immediately matched by her impassioned response.

Several minutes and a deluge of hormones later, they came up for air.

Tony buried his face in her hair and with a strangled laugh asked, "Do thunderstorms always affect you this way?"

"I don't know. This is the first I've ever seen." He could hear the smile in her voice.

"Then I'd better keep a close eye on the weather reports."

She punched him. Quite hard.

"If I live."

Maya leaned back in his arms and frowned into his mischievously sparkling eyes, "At the moment I can't see much future for you beyond the next five minutes."

Instead of replying, he simply kissed her again. When her lashes eventually drifted open, she smiled and murmured, "That's not fair. I can't be mad at you when you do that."

"So there's hope for me yet."

In reply, she sighed and wrapped her arms tighter around his waist, loving the sensation of his warm skin under her fingers. Maya could feel the thunder of his heart, its cadence matching the wild beat of her own. A deafening thunderclap roared directly overhead. "I don't suppose we can stay outside when it hits."

"Probably not a good idea." He smiled. "Helena won't be impressed if we return to Alpha as charcoal briquettes."

Maya closed her eyes and pressed her face to the strong curve of his throat, breathing him in. "You have no sense of adventure."

"Sadly true on this occasion. You stay out here and I'll stand by with a resuscitator."

A jagged fork of lightning streaked through the sky, followed immediately by a huge crack of thunder. Maya started violently.

Tony raised an eyebrow and smiled wickedly. "Going so soon?"

She attempted a nonchalant, I-meant-to-do-that expression, but stood her ground.

They stood, entwined, and watched the approaching storm.

When the first drops of heavy rain started to fall, and the lightning began to light the sky overhead like a strobe, they dragged the chairs inside and shut the glass doors. Maya immediately pushed her chair close to the door and curled up in it, riveted by the tumult outside.

Tony watched her with amused affection. She was completely mesmerised. "Is this scientific curiosity, or the thrill-seeker coming to the surface?"

Maya smiled, but her gaze didn't waver from the spectacular display outside. A huge crack of thunder at that moment meant she had to raise her voice to be heard. "Definitely the thrill-seeker!"


"Yes please."

Thirty seconds later they both had lemonades. Tony handed Maya her drink and took his seat beside her. "Salute."

"Salute." They clinked glasses.

"To not sleeping."

"Sleeping is boring," she agreed mischievously.

"Your Italian accent is coming along nicely."

"Grazie...I wish I could say the same about your Psychon accent."

"It is rather poor. A side effect of your laughing hysterically every time I attempt it."

"Not every time, surely."

He cast his mind back to the last aborted lesson, "Szae el aetra'an sidh dhleadh."

Maya bit her lip severely to keep it from trembling.

"I rest my case."

"I wasn't laughing!"

"Smirking has much the same demoralising effect."

"It was an uncontrollable facial spasm."

"Brought about by my attempt to pronounce your native tongue."

"Well...maybe we could come up with some system where I'm not actually in the same room as you when you try to speak it." Then she laughed, a delighted, highly infectious expression of pure amusement.

Tony smiled and took a sip of his lemonade. The storm was right overhead now. And it could last all night as far as he was concerned; everything in life that he wanted was in this room. "Look, you. If you're going to invade my room and keep me up the least you can do is not mock me too openly."

"Then not so openly is okay." She turned sideways in her chair and was struck again by the reality of his wonderfully bare torso, nude save for the pair of cut-off shorts he wore for sleeping. Except he doesn't wear them for sleeping. Just when I'm around. He's never worn the pyjamas his mother gave him...

The natural progression of this chain of thought and subsequent visualisation brought a renewed flush of colour to her face. Having rendered herself momentarily incapable of speech, she turned her attention back to the storm.

Then Tony lifted her hand from its place on the armrest of her chair, twining her fingers with his.

Hands clasped, they smiled at each other, neither wanting the storm to end.

They'd said goodnight over an hour ago. The evening had been wonderful; spent laughing and telling ghost stories with the other guests around a large bonfire on the beach. It was now nearly 1.30am but Maya wasn't feeling sleepy, so had curled up in her comfortable armchair with a book. It was warm in her bedroom. She wore a dark green nightgown made of a soft filmy material with a fitted bodice, spaghetti straps and a long, diaphanous skirt. A soft tap at the window to her balcony caught her attention. She looked up, her pulse leaping, her mouth already curving into a smile. Picking up the matching wrap draped across the foot of her bed, she slipped it on and then opened the door.

He was still fully dressed, half-leaning, half sitting against the balustrade.

Tony's heart skipped a beat when she emerged into the moonlight. She looked like a creature of faerie, with her hair loose and tumbling like molten silk down her back. Her nightdress was of a dark green, translucent material that enriched the fiery hue of her hair and tantalisingly hinted at the luscious female curves beneath. Dazzled, he swallowed the sudden dryness in his throat, "I saw your light. I couldn't sleep." He smiled, "Fly with me? I promise not to drop you."

"That's not quite the same as threatening to drop me, is it?"

"You're beginning to know me too well."

He held out his hand and when his fingers were firmly laced with hers, lifted them both.

Maya gasped and clutched his hand tight as she felt her feet leave the ground, then relaxed, enjoying the rush of exhilaration as they floated effortlessly toward the treetops. She laughed. It was a young, carefree, joyous sound.

Her obvious elation and the delight shining in her eyes acted on his senses like a narcotic. He slipped one arm around her slender waist, drew her close and whirled her into a languorous, drifting fantasy.

They danced on air.

Tony gazed down into her beautiful, vivid face. She was radiant. His mouth curved into a slow, tender smile. "You were made for this."

"You mean I'm not stomping on your toes like I usually do."

He chuckled, "Have I ever complained? No, I mean the air is obviously your element. I get the feeling if I let you go you'll just fly away."

"Yes, straight into the ground at high speed." Her droll tone and the sparkle of mischief in her eyes proved irresistible. His laughter was infectious and her alto tones immediately sounded in counterpoint to his.

They twirled slowly, gracefully above the tree line, Maya's bare toes occasionally brushing a soft frond. The rustle of the wind in the trees and the occasional sleepy chirp of a bird was all the music they needed.

They were so lost in each other, they didn't notice El far below them, quietly standing by a rose bush, watering can in his hand, face upturned, captivated by the picture they made. The musical echo of their laughter had teased just at the edge of his range of hearing. It took him a few minutes to realise the sound came from above. A smile of pure delight lit his ascetic features when he recognised the flyers.

Tony and Maya flew every night after that - a slow dance above the treetops. From their very first sortie, Maya loved this quiet time alone with him above all the other pleasures of the day. Just floating for hours amongst the stars, she occasionally fell asleep in his embrace, lulled by the rhythm of his heart beating under her cheek, by the gentle play of his fingers in her hair. On the nights she slept in his arms, her dreams were sweet.

But three weeks into the holiday she had another nightmare. This time it was powerful enough to wake her up.


She sat bolt upright, her chest heaving, fighting for breath. Fighting off the horrific vision floating in front of her. The burning form of her father, engulfed in white-hot flame, yet impossibly, still alive. Shrieking her name again and again as the inferno devoured him.

Please let me wake up...

Then, comfort, a hand cradling her head, a much loved voice. When she opened her eyes Tony was by her side. At first, she didn't believe he was really there. She often longed for him when she woke from a bad dream. But then his arms were around her, and his warmth and strength enveloped her in solid, comforting reality.

Tony smoothed damp tendrils from her cheeks, his touch hot against the ice of her skin, his eyes dark with worry.

"Shhh...Maya, you're okay." She was trembling violently, struggling to focus, to emerge fully from the nightmare. Her skin was cold, clammy, and pale; her face streaked with tears.

He held her close, murmuring soothing, loving words in Italian, pressing gentle kisses to her mouth, her cheek, and her hair. Eventually, he felt her relax into his embrace, the tension leaving her body as she let go of the terror.


Maya released a shaky sigh and nodded.

He slowly eased her back down onto the bed, then lay down beside her and drew her into his arms. She wore a peach cotton tank top and matching shorts. Her skin was like impossibly soft ivory silk. Despite his worry for her, he felt a rush of desire as her slender form curved into his. She was so incredibly lovely.

But so vulnerable. He could still feel her heart racing madly.

"How often?" This was the third nightmare in a month that he'd witnessed. He hated to think what she'd been suffering through on her own. Hated to think of her being afraid, alone in the dark.

Maya didn't pretend not to understand. "Nearly every night at first. But it's been better recently."

"Twice in two weeks is twice too often, cara."

"But I haven't..." she paused, then said slowly, "You came to my room. I thought it was part of the dream..."

"I heard you call out." Tony brushed his thumb over the curve of her cheek, the caress infinitely gentle. He gazed into her eyes, his own dark, and concerned. "These aren't just nightmares, Maya."

"No. Helena calls them night terrors - flashbacks." She sighed tiredly, "She says they'll go away completely in time."

He frowned. "And in the meantime you have to go through hell?"

"I didn't even wake up the other night, Tony. That's an improvement."

"It's not enough." And he hated the fact that there was nothing he could do about it. "It's not nearly enough."

Maya closed her eyes and pressed her cheek to the juncture of his throat and shoulder, loving the protective warmth of his embrace. Loving the feel of his chest rising with each breath. Loving the way his lean, masculine physique fit her softer curves so perfectly. Feeling absolutely safe. And more. With each passing moment she grew ever more conscious of his masculinity, his strength, and desire warmed her blood. The horror of the nightmare was retreating rapidly. "It helps, that you're here." And my dreams are wonderful when I sleep in your arms.

"Does it?" He smiled faintly, and trailed his fingers through the tousled silk of her hair.

"Yes...sometimes it takes me a long time to wake up." She often spent several very frightened, disoriented minutes lost in the dark, half asleep, not sure where she was. Tony had a gift for waking her up and soothing away the terror very quickly. "It's better when you're here." she whispered.

Closing his eyes, he hugged her closer.

Maya drifted into sleep, lulled by the caress of his fingers in her hair. Somehow, she didn't mind the thought of more nightmares, if he could be here to hold her when she awoke.

On their last day Tony arranged with El to borrow a boat and took Maya on a leisurely cruise around the islands of the lagoon. They picnicked, swam, talked for hours, flirted outrageously and wished equally strongly for the day never to end. They arrived back just as dusk was setting to find a candlelit table for two set up on the water's edge.

After a long, romantic, wonderful meal they danced on the beach, light from the double moons illuminating the dark night, slow music emanating from a remote player.

It was almost midnight but it was still warm, the tropical air caressing the skin. Tony pressed his cheek to the silken top of Maya's head and stroked the baby soft tendrils at the delicate nape of her neck.

Pleasure shivered along nerve endings already sensitised by his nearness. Maya trembled slightly in his embrace.

"Are you cold?"

She smiled and raised her face to his, "No." It was a balmy, almost tropical night. Even in her sleeveless summer dress, she was perfectly warm. More than warm.

"Are you sure?"

Maya laughed, "Tony, it's at least 30 degrees out here!"

"Yes, but think of all the exotic bugs you've been exposed to. You don't want to catch something on our last day here."

She looked at him suspiciously, "You didn't seem too worried when you threw me off the boat this afternoon."

"I've regretted it bitterly ever since." His slow, crooked smile and the light of mischief in his eyes belied this claim.

Maya was helpless to prevent a smile from curving her mouth in response. "What are you up to?"

"Why must I always be up to something? Can't I simply be concerned for your well-being?"


He selflessly ignored her poor attitude and looped his arms around her waist, drawing her close, "I think you should put on your wrap." His breath disturbed a soft tendril of hair over her ear, and another shiver of awareness whispered through her.

"I don't have a wrap."

"Sure you do. Didn't I see you put it down over there as we came out?" He nodded to the table nearby. There was something hanging over the back of one of the chairs, but it definitely wasn't hers.

He reached across to pick it up and had draped it over her bare shoulders before she had time to protest.

"But that's not..." her voice trailed off to a soft gasp as the light of the twin moons revealed the rich, beautiful green and peacock colours of the cloak and she felt its luxuriant weight and softness against her skin. Comprehension dawned as she raised her gaze to Tony and saw the truth in the slow smile crossing his handsome face.

Her eyes shone as she whispered, "You went back..."

The sheer romance of it took her breath.

"I went back."

For a long moment she couldn't speak. Maya stroked her hand over the silky, plush nap of the velvet, her face glowing with the pleasure of his gift. Then she raised herself on tiptoe to kiss him, the caress half-shy, and whispered, "Thank you."

The simple words couldn't begin to convey what it meant to her that he'd bought it for her.

"You're very welcome..." he smiled, his lips barely touching hers, their breaths intermingling. Tony slipped one arm around her slender waist and drew her closer. Maya sighed with pleasure and twined her hands around his neck, her lips parting under his. Instantly intoxicated by her, he shuddered almost imperceptibly as desire ignited every atom of his being.

She had become markedly less shy of initiating physical contact during the idyll of the last four weeks, but it was still rare enough that he took special delight in it. She often slipped her hand into his now during their walks.

Neither of them slept that night.

Chapter Ten

They flew back to Alpha at 10.00am the next day. Maya watched the blue and turquoise world recede through the window, unable to hide the conflicting emotions she was feeling.

Tony reached across and took her hand. "We'll go back some day."

Sandra announced several days after they got back that she was having a supper party. She invited Ben Vincent, Maya, Tony and Dave Reilly. It was to be an informal sit-down affair.

Maya and Dave were away on a routine reconnaissance flight but were expected back just in time to change and sit down to cocktails.

Sandra, Tony and Ben were already well into the hors d'oeuvres and cocktails by the time the others straggled in. A problem with the boosters on the Eagle meant they'd arrived back two hours later than intended.

Dave Reilly loitered in the hallway until he heard Maya's hurried footsteps. He rounded the corner to "accidentally" meet her, misjudged his timing and ploughed straight into her. They were both laughing when Sahn, hearing a slight commotion in the hallway, opened the door to let them in.

"What are you two doing?" Her mouth quirked as she stood aside to let them pass.

Tony's attention was immediately fixed on the new arrivals. Dave's presence he registered merely as Maya's unwelcome, hopefully temporary escort.

As to what could have occurred between them to bring that vivid glow to her lovely face... Tony felt his blood pressure rise, along with a possessive, primal urge to flatten Dave.

But then Maya's gaze met his and her smile drove everything else from his mind. She'd changed into a dark green ankle length skirt that swirled alluringly around her long legs. A sleeveless white cotton shirt left her arms and throat bare and a wide leather belt accented her small waist. Her hair had been released from the French braid she'd worn during the day to tumble down her back in a cascade of molten waves, held softly back from her face with a silver clip.

Maya, meanwhile, was having trouble keeping her fascinated gaze from lingering too noticeably on Tony. He was wearing a long sleeved black mock turtleneck and chinos. He'd dressed for comfort as he always did, but the effect was absolutely devastating. The black cotton emphasised the breadth of his shoulders and his superb physique, while setting off gleaming highlights in his dark hair.

Sahn waved everyone to the table she'd borrowed from catering and proceeded to direct the seating arrangements. She took pity on Tony and sat him next to Maya, but immediately blotted her copy book by placing Dave on her other side.

They started off with French onion soup, crusty bread and red wine. The party was soon in full swing, with quips and laughter filling the air.

Dave flirted outrageously with Maya throughout the soup course, and judging from the way he made her laugh, she did not find this disagreeable.

"You're looking particularly lovely tonight, Maya. I would swear there's more than a touch of Celtic blood in your veins."

Tony snorted rudely under his breath. The Irish Cowboy did have a point - she looked like a creature of faerie - equal parts mist and magic. He acknowledged Sahn's half commiserating look across the table with a wry, self-mocking smile. He was as jealous as hell.

Maya obviously wasn't taking Reilly's love play seriously. So why was he feeling so murderous? Right up to the moment Dave started reading Maya's palm, he'd observed the proceedings with half-amused equanimity. But the moment Reilly touched her, Tony's blood boiled. His reaction was elementally male and completely possessive. One crunch of his fist into Reilly's face would be enough to make his position clearly understood: "Get off, she's mine."

From a scientific perspective, this was all rather interesting; he'd never been the jealous type. Until Maya.

Tony leaned close and lifted a silken tendril clinging to Maya's slender neck. She turned her head to look at him, amusement sparkling in the clear blue depths of her eyes. Heedless to his victim's inattention, Dave continued to rabbit on about leprechauns and faeries.

"Ever heard of the Blarney Stone?" Maya leaned closer to catch his murmured query, and her delicate scent stirred his senses like a gentle caress.

She nodded and smiled, "I seem to recall Dave mentioning the legend once or twice. Do you think maybe he's been over-exposed?" Her whisper held more than a hint of mischief.

"Dave is the Blarney Stone," came his dry response.

Maya's infectious laugh finally alerted Dave to the fact that his audience's attention had strayed.

"Don't you be listening to whatever lies he's tellin'." Dave topped up her half empty wine glass from one of several bottles scattered around the table. "He's jealous because you've spent all day in my devastating company, and have obviously lost your heart completely."

Maya smiled as her cheeks heated at the wonderful notion of Tony being even remotely jealous. She took refuge behind her wine glass, raising it to her lips even as her gaze returned to Tony, pulled irresistibly by her need to see his reaction to this cheeky. provocation.

Ignoring Reilly for the moment, Tony leaned close. "Have you?" His voice was quiet, the question meant for her ears only. But the emotion that momentarily darkened his eyes belied his light-hearted words.

"No," she whispered. Her wine glass hung suspended in mid-air, held by suddenly nerveless fingers. The laughter faded from her face as their gazes met and held. Only to you.

He carefully tucked a stray auburn curl behind her ear. "Then I'm not jealous."

Her responding smile was half-shy but her eyes shone in the brief moment before she lowered her gaze with a such a heartstopping combination of warmth, yearning and innocent promise that he was the one incapable of speech for sometime after.

Dave, oblivious to the intense emotional undercurrent, leaned across and said, "He's definitely jealous." Maya smiled at the Irish Cowboy and shook her head silently, trying to calm the wild beating of her heart.

The main course was an assortment of Chinese and Thai vegetable dishes, with tofu replacing the traditional chicken and meats. Sahn had laid out chopsticks she'd brought with her from Earth and others she'd replicated.

Never having used this particular utensil before, and seeing how adept the others were at using them, Maya was determined to master the skill. She did not lack for willing instructors. With Tony one side and Dave on the other, she experienced a unique stereo effect. The two had the rest of the table in stitches as they offered conflicting and often hilarious tips on how best to use the utensils.

On her first few tries every vegetable Maya attempted to pick up slipped out of her grasp. Aware that all eyes were on her, she finally managed to pick up a carrot and carefully lifted it to her lips. A split second before she got it into her mouth it accelerated at a velocity close to the speed of light, shot out at a right angle and landed squarely in the middle of Tony's chest.

While the rest of the table hooted with laughter, Tony looked down at the offending vegetable, and keeping a remarkably straight face, picked it up and held it up for study before popping it into his mouth. He turned to his hostess, "Most delicious, Sahn."

Maya glowered at him. Tony raised his eyebrows in mock surprise, "Sorry! Did you want it back? I assumed you meant me to have it." He deftly picked up another morsel from his own plate and held it in front of her firmly closed lips, mischief dancing in his dark eyes.

Knowing she wouldn't be able to resist him for long, Maya grudgingly accepted the offering. When he immediately returned with another titbit for her delectation, she pointed her chopsticks threateningly at him, "Don't push your luck, Verdeschi."

Unabashed, he chuckled and ate the offending morsel himself.

Pleased that Tony seemed to have irked the faerie princess, and unaware that the other two delighted in this semi-combative banter, Dave then made a fatal mistake. "Maya, why don't you use your knife and fork? You can't be expected to get the hang of chopsticks right away."

Tony widened his eyes at Sahn across the table and shuddered. He didn't even have to look at Maya to know Dave was treading on dangerous ground. There was a streak of stubborn determination in Maya that insisted she would get the hang of things right away - or else. It was a trait they shared in common. He'd recognised this facet of her personality early in their friendship and respected her need to learn the hard way.

There was a sudden, expectant hush around the table as Maya turned to face Reilly. She smiled and said in a very mild voice, "I think I'll keep on trying."

Aware from the amused reactions of Sahn and Ben that Tony was misbehaving out of her line of sight, Maya kicked him none too gently under the table. With another sweet smile at the unsuspecting Reilly, she returned to her meal and resolutely picked up her chopsticks.

Blithely unconcerned with his beloved's displeasure, Tony refilled Maya's and Sahn's wine glasses before passing the bottle across the table to Ben. "Sandra, maybe you can answer a question for me."

Sahn looked expectant. This should be good. The electric charge flowing between Tony and Maya was palpable.

Maya slanted Tony a suspicious glance. Her doubts were more than confirmed by his next words.

"Is there a traditional Thai medicine that can alleviate bruising? My right ankle has just sustained a massive contusion."

Sandra chuckled and noted Maya's suddenly heightened colour. "Sorry. I am just the cook. Helena's the one you need to speak to...unless," she paused and looked enquiringly to Maya, "Do you know any Psychon remedies that might be of help?"

Maya turned to Tony, her expression sympathetic. "That depends. How much are you suffering? Are you in excruciating pain?"


"Oh dear." She tutted concernedly, "Then I'm really sorry I can't help you."

"I feel better already, just knowing you care." His slow, irresistible smile and dry tone elicited a wave of warmth along with a responsive curving of her lips.

"I'm glad."

"You seem to be getting the hang of those." Tony indicated the chopsticks she held in her slender hand. "Nothing's landed on me for at least two minutes."

Maya stuck her tongue out at him.

"Ah, leave the poor girl alone, why don't you." Reilly interjected, unaware that they could have gone on quite happily for days in the same playful vein.

The "poor girl" smiled triumphantly at her heartless tormentor, turned her back on him and, to punish him, spent the next twenty minutes discussing the mysteries of Celtic folklore with the gallant Mr Reilly.

Thus, relative peace reigned until the dessert course.

Sahn produced a wine she'd brought with her from Earth to accompany the fruit that finished off the meal. "I've been saving this for a special occasion - and this seems as good an excuse as any."

The bottle was duly passed around the table. Maya noted that while Tony filled her glass and those of the people around him, he'd left his own empty. And had been doing so for some time. "You're not having any?"

"Alan and I lift off first thing in the morning. I don't want to hit the wrong asteroid." He selected a pear from the fruit tray and deftly bisected it with a paring knife. Spearing a morsel with the blade, he offered it to her, a half smile quirking his mouth, "So you're talking to me again, are you? I was worried."

Maya graciously accepted the peace offering, plucking the pear from his knife, "You should be. Dave is appalled by your lack of concern for my feelings. He's worried that your unmerciful teasing will discourage me from learning about Terran culture...Irish heritage in particular."

They stared at each other, expressionless... and then burst into laughter at exactly the same moment.

To accompany after dinner coffee Sahn produced a plateful of Bendicks Bittermints she'd been saving. Maya had never tasted anything quite as wonderful as the dark, intense flavour of the chocolate immediately followed by the icy smoothness of the mint.

Tony couldn't repress a smile as he watched her lovely face on first tasting the confection.

"An addict is born."

Maya studied the label from her chocolate with more interest, "These are wonderful."

Sahn chuckled, "They are also the last of a carefully rationed cache. But thanks to the replicator I can eat fifty a day now!" After taking a bite of the mint, she slanted a curious glance at Tony, "Have you taken your espresso machine off the dinner party circuit now that we have replicators? I missed hearing it hissing away in the kitchen tonight."

He hesitated a second before replying. "I don't have it anymore."

There were a few raised eyebrows around the table at this admission, and a soft intake of breath to his right.

Maya had just realised its probable fate.

"Tony, you didn't..." she whispered in horrified tones. Her eyes reflected the shock in her voice.

He smiled and shrugged.

By now, of course, they had the attention of the entire table. "It's on Tra'an. I traded it for something I liked better," he explained to Sahn. "And I can replicate the parts again easily enough."

The party broke up around 1am. Tony walked Maya to her door.

She asked him in for coffee, but he refused. Maya raised an eyebrow and said teasingly, "If it's not cappuccino it's not good enough, is that it?"

He slipped his arms around her slender waist, "Anything you make would be good enough, but if I have any more caffeine I'll be climbing the walls."

"Your coffee machine..."

"I'd much rather see you wrapped in velvet."

"But it was a present from your mother." Maya was torn between guilt and pleasure that he'd sacrificed something he loved to buy her the cloak.

"Hey, I can get cappuccino anytime I want now. And my mother would've been the first to approve of the trade."

Maya smiled, "Okay." He and Alan lifted off on their potentially dangerous exploratory trip in a few short hours. Despite the replicators, they still needed tiranium. "Be careful?" She touched her fingers gently to the strong line of his jaw, needing to touch him, loving the rasp of his beard against her skin.

"You know I'm always incredibly cautious... unlike someone I could mention." He smiled at the flash of indignant disbelief in her eyes, and then sobered, touched by her concern, "I'll be careful."

He kissed her goodnight with a leisurely, sensuous thoroughness that set them both alight with desire.

Her eyes were smoky with pleasure when they eventually parted. He couldn't resist a final gentle caress, brushing his mouth once more against the velvety softness of hers.

"Sleep well, bella."

Tony and Alan were approaching Alpha on their return flight when they reported a systems failure.

Command Centre managed to get a visual on the big screen just in time to see the ship explode.

There was a moment of stunned, horrified silence in Command Centre, as those on duty struggled to comprehend the enormity of what they'd just witnessed. Sandra, who'd been standing at her console, sank down slowly into her chair, one hand over her mouth, tears already beginning to well in her eyes. A whispered expletive emerged from a physicist sitting at Tony's station.

Helena closed her eyes, groped for John's hand and squeezed it hard. They both took enough strength from the contact to go to those who needed them most.

The doctor went straight to Maya.

Every vestige of colour had bled from Maya's face. Her eyes were completely blank. The coffee cup she'd been about to drink from when the Eagle exploded was still raised half way to her mouth. Helena gently tried to take it from her, but Maya's fingers were frozen around it in an almost rigor-like grip.

"Maya, look at me." No response. The Psychon's unseeing gaze remained fixed on the big screen. Helena placed her fingers against the pulse point in Maya's throat. The beat was erratic and very slow. Her skin was cold.

Helena immediately pulled out her commlock, "Ben, send two trauma teams to Command Centre. And prepare for a shock case." Maya wasn't the only Command Centre crew member requiring attention.

Ben affirmed and Helena turned to John, "We need to get her to Medical now." Even as she said the words, the coffee cup, one of the newly replicated porcelain pieces, shattered in Maya's hand and she started to slump forward over her desk. Helena caught her before she burned herself on the hot spilled coffee. Blood gushed from a laceration on Maya's palm. Helena applied pressure with her bare fingers before gratefully accepting an improvised handkerchief compress from a grim faced John.

Maya took a deep, shuddering breath and tried to push them away, "I'm all right..."

Helena's response was firm. "No, you're not."

She and John helped Maya to her feet, and one on either side of her, walked her slowly from the room. Ben had a team waiting with two gurneys when the door opened. One trauma team went straight into Command Centre. John helped Maya on to the other gurney and Helena covered her with several thermal blankets.

As the EMT started to wheel the trolley to Medical, John turned to go back to Command Centre. "I'll keep you posted."

Helena nodded, her face grim, and followed the gurney.

Maya experienced the whole journey as though watching from a great distance. A horrendous, whirling roaring in her ears deafened her; she heard Helena's and the others words as muffled, nonsensical gibberish. She was aware only of a dreadful, bone chilling cold, and a niggling, literally unthinkable horror that fluttered at the edge of her tired...

Maya's eyes drifted shut and she lapsed into oblivion as her mind effectively shut down.

When they reached Medical Centre Helena immediately put her on a glucose drip. "She's very shocky. Her temperature, pulse and blood pressure have all dropped drastically."

John sat down in his chair and pressed his palms to his eyes. Two good friends had gone forever. Two men Alpha couldn't afford to lose. He was well aware of how much Tony meant to Maya. She'd just lost her world for the second time, and it was too much to take.

The Commander sighed. He would need to organise an immediate forensic examination, send up an Eagle to see what debris could be retrieved.

He'd barely settled into his seat when Sandra turned to him, her eyes wild. "Commander! We're being hailed. It's Tony! Alan and Tony are alive."

Then she burst into tears.

Tony's image appeared two seconds later on the big screen.

"John. We're okay. It was a meteor strike. Catastrophic fire in the engines." He ran his hand distractedly through his dark hair. "We didn't even have time to get worried. We were saved by a pilot diverted to us by the Tra'an. Luckily our visitor has fast reflexes and an extremely advanced technology. He was on approach to Alpha and managed to transport us off the Eagle before it exploded. We're on final approach now."

"Thank God." Koenig's relief was heartfelt. He signalled to Sahn, who immediately contacted Medical to confirm the good news to Helena.

Dr Russell put her commlock back down on her desk, buried her face in her hands, and indulged in a few relieved tears.

When Maya began to stir a few minutes later, Helena was close by her bedside.

"Maya, he's alive. Tony's alive."

Maya's eyes opened and at first she looked puzzled, unsure where she was. Then memory came flooding back and with it absolute horror and devastation.

Helena watched her friend's lovely face fill with anguish, and kept talking insistently, knowing it would take a while before Maya took in what she was saying. "He's alive, Maya. They're both alive. An approaching ship managed to get them off before the Eagle exploded. John's just spoken to Tony. He and Alan are fine."

Maya finally focused on Helena's face with something nearing comprehension. The hope dawning in her blue eyes brought fresh tears to Helena's.

"It's true. Tony's alive. He and Alan are okay."

"You're not lying to me?"

Helena laughed and wiped her eyes. "I'm a doctor. I never lie."

"He's alive." Maya whispered it very softly. She barely noticed the hiss of the hypospray against her arm as Helena administered a mild stimulant. "I need to see him." She sat up, ripping the IV from her arm, ignoring Helena's half-hearted squawk of protest. "I need to see him, Helena."

The doctor sighed, recognising the stubborn expression on Maya's face. "Okay. But take it easy. They should be landing in a few minutes."

There was a large welcoming party waiting in the docking area. Helena and Maya weaved their way through the crowd to John.

He smiled down at Maya. "Feeling better?"

"Yes, thank you Commander."

The electronic panel above the docking bay door indicated that the Travel tube between the bay and reception area was in motion.

A minute later the travel tube doors opened and Tony and Alan stepped though. The crowd of friends and colleagues erupted into spontaneous applause and surged forward.

Maya found herself unable to move. The nerves connecting her legs and brain didn't seem to be working. Her gaze never left Tony's face.

He looked for her and started towards her the instant he saw her in the crowd, distractedly acknowledging the good wishes of the people around him.

She was pale, her eyes huge in her lovely face. Tony gently placed his palm against the curve of her cheek. "I'm okay."

Maya emitted a soft, inarticulate cry and threw herself into his arms. Tony closed his eyes and held her tight, alarmed to realise that she was trembling violently.

"Shhh, cara. You can't get rid of me that easily."

The sound she made in response was somewhere between a sob and a laugh.

Torn between elation that she cared, and concern that she was still upset, he stroked her back and held her quietly, letting the noise and movement in the small room flow over them.

Then Maya tensed and went completely still in his arms. And he knew their saviour and visitor had walked into her line of vision.

Rigellan was a tall, slim man in his late thirties; good looking in a finely drawn, donnish way. He was a scientist who'd been researching quasars in a nearby solar system when the Tra'an put out the general alert to all ships travelling in the vicinity of the moon.

He was also a Psychon.

Chapter Eleven

They were in the meeting room attached to Command Centre. Around the table sat Helena, Alan, Sandra, Tony, Maya and John.

And Rigellan.

The briefing had been underway for forty minutes.

Rigellan explained that he was descended from one of the first mass evacuations of Psychon. Several hundred years before Maya's birth 200,000 of her people left in a fleet of ships. They'd settled on an uninhabited world, but many found they were not suited to the hardships of pioneer life. Of the original 200,000, only half eventually remained on the new planet, which they named Solus. The others scattered across the galaxy.

The people Rigellan described were part of the history Maya had learned as a child. They were as mythical as the Ark stories the Terrans told. They had departed in a blaze of glory and promise, never to be heard from again.

"I've never quite believed I was the last." Maya said quietly. Tony squeezed her fingers and she gripped his hand with unknowing force.

"How did you come to be on Alpha?"

"Psychon was destroyed nearly ten months ago. My father and I were the only two left. He died. The Alphans offered me a home."

Sadness darkened Rigellan's eyes. "We were too far away to go back. Many of us assumed our home world had died many years ago. But others held out hope that Psychon still existed."

John stood. "We would be honoured if you would join us for dinner tonight, and be our guest for as long as you'd care to stay."

Rigellan also rose. "Thank you, Commander Koenig. I would be delighted." He turned to the young woman on his right, "Perhaps Maya could show me your Moonbase?"

She smiled, "Of course. I'll show you the Biodome first. It's my favourite place."

Tony sat at his post in Command Centre. To the casual observer he seemed to be studying the formulae filling his monitor, but was in fact somewhere else, mentally. It was midnight and the nerve hub of Alpha was quiet. He and Sandra were the only people on duty. He'd finished all his routine work, and there were no crises looming.

Which unfortunately left him with time to think.

Maya was spending a lot of time with Rigellan.

This, Tony kept telling himself, was entirely understandable.

But the visitor been on Alpha for two weeks and it was obvious to Tony that Rigellan was smitten. Why wouldn't he be?

He'd grabbed a quick sandwich from the cafeteria earlier that afternoon. As he was heading back to Command Centre with his mock tuna bap, his gaze happened upon a far corner of the nearly deserted restaurant. Rigellan and Maya sat at a table for two. Rigellan was smiling, his attention entirely focused on his companion; Maya laughing, her lovely face alight with vivacious enjoyment at whatever Rigellan was saying.

Tony had literally felt his gut wrench.

There was no denying the two Psychons looked good together. Maya, normally quite shy and reserved until she got to know new people, had responded to Rigellan's rather old fashioned courtliness with teasing warmth within minutes of meeting him.

And Tony didn't like it. Not one bit.

Since Rigellan had arrived Tony and John had been occupied with the organisational nightmare that was Operation Exodus. Those plans were now complete. They were set to go if and when the Federation contacted them. But the complicated preparations meant he hadn't seen much of Maya while Rigellan was here.

So he'd had no chance to sabotage his rival's efforts.

Maya had naturally been acting as Rigellan's guide. They'd been spotted together in the Biodome, watching a basketball game in the lounge, swimming, and at the recent performance of Handel's Dixit Dominus by the chamber choir.

Alan mentioned several of these sightings to Tony late one night over a beer in the lounge.

"I know you've been tied up with Exodus, mate. And I thought you should know."

Tony frowned and gazed into the wheat coloured depths of his brew. "I'd like to say he's not her type. But I can't." He smiled ruefully. "I doubt even Maya knows. She hasn't had much chance to find out."

"Don't give her a chance to find out. Scupper him." Alan took a long draught of his drink. "Women are easily grossed out. Expose him as a secret nose picker."

Tony couldn't repress a shout of laughter at this mental picture. "I'll get Security Ops right on it. Twenty four hour surveillance should do it."

Alan grinned. "Bonzer."

"And when Maya asks me how I happen to have pictures of her boyfriend with his finger up his nose?"

Alan sighed. "I knew you'd over-think this, Verdeschi."

The full senior crew complement was on duty. Tony, Maya, Helena, Sandra, Alan and John were all at their posts when the comms alert was activated.

"Commander!" Sandra turned in her seat. "Incoming transmission."

John exchanged a look with Tony before standing up. "On screen."

The amiable face of the Tra'an government representative who'd been their original contact appeared on the big screen.

"Greetings, Commander Koenig."

John smiled, hands on hips, "Hello again, Arcai"

"I have good news for you, John Koenig."

The Tra'an had managed to contact a Federation of sentient peoples in Earth's sector of the galaxy. A Federation starship was on its way to rendezvous with Alpha. They should be in transmission range in a few weeks. The Federation liaison had confirmed that this ship would be used to repatriate the Alphans if that was their wish.

John decided that every Alphan would have a say in where they went. They would wait to hear what the Federation representative had to say, then put it to the ballot.

Later that evening, Rigellan offered to take Maya to Solus.

"I don't live on Solus myself, but I travel there quite frequently. I have family there. I would be happy to take you. You would be welcomed as a lost daughter. Many of our people are keen for news of Psychon. They know nothing of what's happened since their forefathers left. It will be a blow to know that the mother world is gone, but you will be greatly welcomed and valued as someone who has known the Home."

She had been half expecting this, but the offer still came as a mild shock. From the first week she'd been on Alpha, Maya had done her utmost to blend in with the Terrans. And now she felt she was indeed one of them. An Alphan. What Rigellan didn't understand was that the Alphans were her people. She'd never known any other Psychons, apart from her father. Mentor had shunned traditional rituals and customs, preferring to live his life according to the tenants of science. All she knew of Psychon culture had been garnered from the archives Mentor preserved.

Although no one had said anything overtly, some Alphans seemed to assume that she would go to her own people. But she didn't want to. The inhabitants of Solus were strangers to her. Yes, she was overjoyed that she wasn't the last of her kind. But the Alphans were her friends...her family.

"Thank you," she said hesitantly, not wanting to refuse him outright. "May I think about it? Alpha has been my home for nearly ten months. I can't take any decision about leaving lightly."

"Of course." Rigellan smiled reassuringly. "Take the time you need."

After saying goodnight to Rigellan she sat on her sofa in the dark, trying to look at his offer from a purely logical viewpoint. Among her own people she would just be Maya, scientist, daughter of Mentor. On Earth, there was every possibility she would be regarded as a freak. But the Alphans had been so good to her, treating her as one of them from the very beginning. They were her friends. The only friends she'd ever known. Could she face the prospect of never seeing any of them again?

She sighed, and acknowledged that she couldn't look at it logically. Her emotions were completely engaged.

Her Alphan friends were her family, and you don't abandon family.

And Tony. Her world revolved around him. Her soul would wither and die if she said goodbye to him. If frightened her sometimes, the intensity of her feelings for him. But it was a good kind of frightened.

Her door chime sounded. Maya's heart leapt. Even before the door slid open, she knew who it was.

His slow smile set a blissful warmth flooding through her veins.

"I'm going to stuff myself with berries. Care to join me?"

"I'd love to."

It was a night cycle in the Biodome; the trails were softly lit by artificial moonlight (an irony most Alphans appreciated). Night blooming jasmine scented the air. They walked to the berry field. The dome was in the midst of a berry glut. The botanists had harvested what they could, and catering had been in every day picking, but the berries were in danger of rotting if more people didn't pick the fruit. Most Alphans didn't need telling twice.

At this late hour, Tony and Maya were the only two in the field. Baskets had been piled near a hedgerow. They each picked one up and immediately went to the bramble hedge.

They ate more than they put in their baskets. The blackberries were perfectly ripe, like sunshine on the tongue.

"My mother makes a wonderful bumbleberry pie."

Maya tilted her head quizzically, a blackberry half way to her mouth. "Bumbleberry? I've not heard of that fruit."

Tony chuckled. "It doesn't exist. Bumbleberry is a mishmash of blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, strawberry - any combination of berries you can throw into a pie crust. I think it's an American invention. Mamma is an accomplished internet surfer. I think she has..." he caught himself and switched to the past tense, "had the largest collection of pie recipes in Firenze."

"Rigellan has offered to take me to Solus."

This came from so far out of left field that for a moment, Tony didn't believe he'd heard her properly. And as soon as her words registered, his heart sank. An awful numbness swept over him, "And what did you say?"

"I haven't given him my answer yet."

There was a silence.

"What do you want to do?"

Maya bit her lip and slanted him a hesitant look through her lashes. "I want to stay with the Alphans." She couldn't quite bring herself to say what she really meant. I want to stay with you.

Thank God. The relief was overwhelming. But as soon as the thought crossed his mind, he questioned his motives. He was being selfish. Was staying with them the best thing for her? This might be her only chance to know her own people. "You're sure that's what you really want, cara?"

Even as he said it, he wished he hadn't. You're a fool, Verdeschi. Why tempt fate?

Her expressive face couldn't conceal the conflict his words aroused.

Tony interpreted the flash of distress as confirmation that she was torn between going to her own people and staying with the Alphans.

And she was thinking, He wants me to go.

Maya tried to enter into the exuberant spirit of the rescue preparations but grew more quietly distressed with each passing day. All of the Alphans would presumably want to return to Earth permanently. Would there be a place for her in their society? Would she ever see Tony again if the Alphans dispersed on returning to Earth?

Would he want to see her?

She'd been so happy on Alpha and now her imagination projected a future where she wouldn't belong anywhere - or be wanted by anyone. Maybe they all thought she should go with Rigellan. She felt lonelier with each minute that passed counting down to the arrival of the ship.

She stayed in her quarters more and more and began to retreat to the observation lounge, staring out at the stars for hours, keeping watch for the arrival of the starship that would tear her life apart.

Maya went to the first big Exodus party, more out of politeness than any desire to celebrate. Sandra had insisted that she not hide in her quarters for this event.

She'd been there an hour, and was momentarily on her own, Ilya Gregory asked her to dance.

Her skin prickling with unease, she smiled politely. "Thank you. But if you don't mind, I'll say no. I'm a bit tired."

She turned to leave, but was seized by the arm and pulled around to face him again.

He leaned in close and asked aggressively, "So I'm not good enough?"

Alarmed, she unconsciously backed away, "Of course not, I just don't want to dance. I was planning on going to bed." Too late, she realised how this could be construed.

He leaned in far too close, using his height and bulk to intimidate. And then he put his mouth next to her ear

"Bed, yeah. Let's go find out whether you move as well under me as you do on the dance floor."

At first Maya couldn't believe she'd heard him properly.

But the smirk on his smooth face when he stepped back to see her reaction told her otherwise. Then he leaned in again, and she knew he was going to try to kiss her. She tried to push him away and turned her head to avoid his mouth, her stomach turning as his foul breath assaulted her senses.

"C'mon, don't be so stuck up. Or is Verdeschi the only one who gets a taste?"

Her blood boiled.

All the unhappiness that had churned in her over the last few weeks rose explosively to the surface. Later she couldn't relate the exact sequence of events. One minute Gregory's leering, hateful face was in front of her. And the next thing she knew, he was on his back on the floor, with one hand over his nose, blood pouring down his face.

And suddenly she felt so much better.

Alan, who'd been standing just out of earshot, immediately came to her side and looked down at the prostrate Gregory before saying in tones of almost religious awe, "Jesus, Maya. Good one!"

Her adrenaline charged exultation faded rapidly. And was immediately replaced by horrified mortification. "Oh no."

Alan grinned. "Oh yes. I've been waiting years for one of you girls to clock the bastard. Now I can die a happy man." He put a congratulatory arm around her shoulder and beamed down at the bloodied Gregory, as pleased as though he'd done the deed himself.

Ilya opened his eyes, sat up and moved his hand from his bruised and misshapen snout. To the growing crowd of Alphans encircling him he now exclaimed indignantly, "She 'oke by uddy dose!"

The crowd burst into spontaneous applause.

This was not the sympathetic reaction Gregory had been looking for. Lacking any obvious allies in the room, he slunk away, clutching his wounded nose. He gave Maya a wide berth.

She wouldn't have noticed anyway. Face burning, she allowed Alan to lead her to a nearby table. The crowd followed. She sat down and buried her face in her hands for a moment. She could feel the heat from her cheeks radiating through her fingers. When she looked up again, it was to a very interested circle of Alphan faces; some concerned, some amused, most gleeful. None was even remotely disapproving.

Sandra handed Maya a glass of water, which she accepted gratefully. "Are you okay? I saw him corner you."

Maya smiled ruefully. "I'm alright. Just embarrassed."

Alan snorted. "Don't be. He has a reputation for refusing to take no for an answer."

Several of the women in the group exchanged knowing looks and there was general affirmation.

"He's a major league creep." "All muscle and no brains."

A dark haired botanist smiled and raised her glass. "The women of Moonbase Alpha salute you."

Maya couldn't help smiling in return. It was nice to feel this approval from the others. No matter how dubiously it had been achieved. "Do you think his nose really is broken?"

"Oh yeah." Alan laughed. "I've seen enough in my time."

Maya sobered. "Then he could have me up on charges." Oh God. Tony would have to interrogate her. The Commander would be grave and disappointed as he sent her to the brig...

"Not a chance." The laughter abruptly drained from Alan's blue eyes. "We all saw what happened. There's no way in hell John or Tony would ever let him try it on."

An Eagle technician whose name Maya did not know snorted and said sardonically, "I doubt we'll see much of him for weeks. His macho self-image has taken a battering."

He smiled down at Maya, "And your street cred has just gone through the roof."

Unfamiliar with the term, Maya's confusion must have shown on her face, because he continued, "News of this will be all over the Base within an hour. It's too good not to share. Your cool rating is about to skyrocket."

Tony was just about to come off duty when John bleeped him and asked him to see him in his office.

John sat with his feet up on his desk. He wore a peculiar expression; as though he was only just maintaining a straight face.

"What's up?" It was bound to be something confidential, for John to ask to see him outside Command Centre.

"There's been an incident at one of the Exodus parties." He referred to the flat screen on his desk. "The one in the recreation room."

"Was security called in?" If it was a serious incident, then he, as Chief, would get involved. Otherwise, it would be left to the Security Ops team to deal with.

"There's been no complaint. Doubt there will be. Apparently it was over almost before it began. This came from Alan, who thought I'd better hear about it from an eyewitness." He paused and appeared to be gathering his thoughts before continuing. "Ilya Gregory made unwelcome advances to a female crewmember. She retaliated by breaking his nose."

John was unable to prevent an extremely unprofessional grin, which was immediately mirrored by Tony.

"Bravo female crewmember."

They'd both had to deal with too many Gregory-related incidents in the past.

"This was the first big Exodus party, so Records had an operative in the crowd, filming for posterity." John pressed a button to bring the recording on-line. "You'll see in a few seconds why I thought I'd better brief you in here."

The video started with the party in full swing, with people dancing and standing around in small groups chatting. The operative was filming a group consisting of Alan, Sandra, Jason Theopolous from the Eagle Technical section, and Aisling Quinn from Hydroponics.

For a few minutes the record showed no more than the laughter and banter flowing between the group of friends. But then he recognised a familiar, slim figure walking by in the background, followed closely by the bulkier form of a man.


Tony leaned forward, his eyes narrowing, gripping the arms of his chair ever tighter as the drama unfolded.

Gregory grabbed her by the arm, turned her to him, before backing her against the wall, using his superior weight and height to prevent her escape. And it was obvious from the look on her face that escape was her primary objective. He leaned forward to whisper something in her ear. The camera angle obscured Gregory's face, but Maya's expression of shock and disgust told Tony more than he wanted to know. Then Gregory grabbed her by both arms and lowered his mouth to hers. Maya averted her face and tried unsuccessfully to push him away. Switching tactics, she ground the heel of her boot violently into his instep. Immediately followed, when Gregory howled with pain and released her arms, by a very creditable right hook.

Gregory dropped like a stone. Maya's expression of rage, and exultant satisfaction rapidly faded to alarm and embarrassment. Carter and Sandra were quickly by her side.

John stopped the recording. "Alan has already started calling her 'slugger'."

Tony couldn't help a smile. "She'll like that."

"You can see why I don't want you involved. I'll issue an on-the-record warning to Gregory. But I don't want a dead body on my hands. You're too valuable to Alpha to spend the rest of our journey in detention."

"So my aura of calm isn't entirely believable." He was amazed that he sounded calm as well. All he wanted to do was find Gregory and beat him senseless.

John leaned back in his chair. "About as believable as mine would be if he'd done that to Helena."

Tony went to Maya's quarters after leaving Command Centre and was relieved to find her in good spirits. Still slightly embarrassed, but the positive reaction of the other partygoers had buoyed her.

"You've heard then."

"Just now, from John." He tilted her face to his with a finger under her chin. "Are you sure you're okay?"

She smiled faintly. "I'm fine. Mortified, but fine." She inspected her knuckles. "I've already got a bruise."

They sat down on her couch, Maya turning to face him with her legs tucked under her.

Tony smiled. "It's not nearly as impressive as Gregory's black eyes."

She attempted an expression of nonchalance at this news but failed badly.

"Really. Both eyes?"

"Yup. Haven't seen it myself but I have my spies."

"Oh dear, that's too bad." But she was already laughing, and her amusement was infectious. When they'd both sobered somewhat, she sighed, "I'm afraid I can't feel sorry for him. He's a horrible man."

"You'll get no argument from me."

"And I really enjoyed hitting him."

"I'd be worried if you hadn't."

Three days later the Federation ship Leviathan contacted Alpha by long range transmitter.

The ship's Science Officer gave them an audio and visual debriefing of events on Earth since Breakaway. His name was Taleon. He had feline, upswept brows, a tall, elegantly slim build, and high cheekboned, delicately beautiful face. His ears were pointed and elongated.

He looked like a creature from Earth's mythology, one lost in the mists of celtic legend.

Taleon looked like an elf.

However fey and otherworldly his looks, his manner was purely professional and his briefing thorough.

The trip to Earth would consist of a month at high warp, followed by a jump through a stargate. The Alphans would not be able to completely strip the base, but all their personal effects and large percentage of their equipment could be accommodated.

Two hundred and fifty years had passed on Earth since Breakaway. The loss of the moon had catastrophic effects - massive flooding, earthquakes, and mega tsunami with huge death tolls. The planet's orbit also shifted slightly, causing a century long mini ice age. Earth's population had reduced dramatically.

Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, New York, Barcelona, Lisbon, Capetown, Hong Kong, Sydney, Bangkok, Mumbai and Tokyo were are all under water. Nearly every coastal city and town had been completely destroyed. Most major cities suffered severe damage and were quickly abandoned.

In the chaos following the natural disasters a cultural revolution had taken place, with a massive and violent backlash against scientists. The Lunar Commission took the brunt of the blame, and by association, so did everyone on Alpha. Science for science's sake was frowned upon - technology was now only developed for profit. The former USA, most of South America, Africa, China & Russia and parts of Europe were controlled by a mono government known as the Corporation. Most of Earth's human population of 200 million lived in domed cities and rarely ventured outside.

But on the plus side, outside the Corporation domes flora and fauna had recovered, many species from the brink of extinction. The Earth was once again green and unpolluted.

The matter was put to the vote, and all the Alphans agreed that they wanted to go home. Taleon told them Earth wasn't a member of the Federation, but there was some contact with the Terrans. In case some or all of the Alphans elected not to stay on Earth permanently, they would secrete a shuttle on the surface, which would enable an escape route and a means of contacting the Federation quickly.

Their ETA was one month.

Tony found Maya in the observatory later that night. He'd just come off duty and although she'd had the day off, none of her friends had seen her.

Maya was curled up in a corner of the sofa under the observation window, her hands clasped around her knees. Lost in unhappiness, she didn't hear him come in and he sat down beside her before she had time to hide the evidence of tears recently shed.

Before she could speak he gently brushed his thumb over the curve of her cheek, her tears warm against his fingers, and said quietly, "I can't bear to see you in this much pain."

Maya turned her face away, her profile heartbreakingly perfect in the silvery glow reflecting off the cold lunar surface. "'s just a bad headache."

She was a poor liar.

"Maya, please talk to me."

She sighed rather tremulously and wiped her eyes. She turned to him and attempted a smile, "I'm okay, Tony. Really."

He took her hand, "No, you're not." In fact, she hadn't been herself since they learned of their imminent rescue. "We've all become a bit carried away at the prospect of returning to's easy to forget you can't possibly feel the same way." He felt her tense and knew he'd hit the nail on the head.

She looked down at their linked fingers, "I've been happy here." With you.

"You're not alone, Maya. Try to believe that. We're all heading into the unknown. Earth society has probably changed beyond recognition in the centuries we've been gone. None of us knows what to expect, whether it will still be home."

"Alpha is my home," she whispered.

"Cara, I promise you - wherever we end up, there will always be a place for you."

The worry he felt was obvious in his voice, so she tried to smile and raised her gaze to his, "I know."

No, you don't. The bleakness in her eyes, her unhappiness ate at him like a physical pain. "Maya, if you're not..." He sighed impatiently and broke off as his commlock buzzed, "Verdeschi."

Alibe's face appeared on the screen. "Sorry, Tony. I know it's late - but Weapons Section have just reported a serious fault in the sensor array."

"I'm on my way." He returned the commlock to his belt and touched his hand to her cheek, "Cara, I don't want to leave you like this. Promise me you'll try to get some sleep?"

Maya nodded. He kissed her gently. "Try to believe me - this is only the beginning, for you, for me, for all of us."

No, it was the end. Until the Federation ship actually contacted them, the prospect of the Alphans returning to Earth had seemed distant, unreal. But now it was only too real. They were actually going.

The terror she felt surprised her. She'd felt prepared, psychologically, for the news when it came.

Not happy, but prepared.

Now she realised that assessment had been overly optimistic.

She'd learned from Taleon that many worlds had strict residency rules. There was a chance she wouldn't even be allowed to live on Earth.

Tony was worried about her, and that touched her, but there was little he could do to reassure her.

Well, yes there was.

But the longed for declaration of undying love belonged to the realm of dreams, not the icy light of day.

She had to prepare herself for the prospect of losing everyone she loved once again. Yes, they might see each other once in a while, but it would never be the same. Fresh anguish filled her at the thought. He would make a new life on Earth, meet a beautiful, witty Terran woman who understood all the Alphans' obscure cultural references and in-jokes. He would meet someone who wasn't awkward or shy around strangers, someone sophisticated and worldly. Then he would disappear from her life, despite his best intentions.

Maybe she would be better off going with Rigellan.

Maya went back to her quarters and cried herself to sleep, wrapped in the cloak Tony had given her, the velvet a soft comfort against her cheek.

By the time Tony had attended to the problem the hour was very late - he knew Helena was on a night shift and went to see her, needing advice.

Helena looked up from a pile of medical reports, "Hi, Tony. You're up late."

He sat on the edge of the doctor's desk, his hands shoved into the pockets of his jacket, his handsome features sombre. "I'm worried about Maya. She's terrified of leaving Alpha. Nothing I say seems to reassure her. " He rubbed a hand over his eyes tiredly. "I hoped maybe she'd spoken to you."

Helena sighed. He'd just confirmed her suspicions. "Unfortunately, she hasn't talked to me. You know how reserved she can be. It's the same anxiety a lot of us have been feeling, only amplified a thousand-fold. We're going home, maybe to a world where we don't quite fit, but it is home. She must be feeling completely alone, imagining the direst scenarios - number one being that we're all going to go our own way and abandon her to fend for herself. No amount of reassurance from me is going to help."

The doctor directed a level look at Tony. "She needs to know she's loved, that she's needed, that she won't be alone no matter where we end up...and she needs to hear it from you."

He took a deep breath and released it slowly, and then smiled wryly, "Do I look as pale as I feel?"

Helena laughed, "Nearly." She sobered a bit and tilted her head to one side and looked at him with a clinical eye. He was just beginning to feel like a laboratory rat under observation when she seemed to come to a decision and said, "Do you know what El called you two?"

Tony shook his head.

"'The Lovers'." Helena smiled at him affectionately as colour rose in his cheekbones. "He said he'd never seen a stronger life bond than the one between you and Maya."

His face lit up, then the hopeful light dimmed. "He was probably just reading me."

Helena only barely resisted the urge to shake him. "I have seen you put your life on the line again and again for this Base and its crew. You've got courage enough for ten men. Why are you so terrified of telling Maya how you feel?"

"Dying is one thing. Living the rest of my life without her is another. If I tell her and she doesn't feel the same way..." His eyes darkened with imagined anguish.

This time an exasperated Helena did shout. "She does feel the same way! You're just too blind to see it! Maya is breaking her heart imagining a future without you."

Her words had the same effect as a dash of icy water. He wasn't convinced Helena was right, but he couldn't bear the idea that he might be the cause of Maya's unhappiness.

Tomorrow, one way or another, he was going to tell her how he felt.

Maya had left by the time Tony arrived at her quarters the next morning and a passer-by informed him she'd seen Maya and Rigellan heading for the alien's ship. A sudden foreboding swept Tony like a heavy black cloud. He knew exactly how Rigellan felt about Maya.

I've lost her.

The conviction grew with every leaden step he took toward the docking bay.

Rigellan had everything to offer: position, wealth, and security. He was charming, good looking and a fascinating companion. What woman wouldn't fall for him? Tony had overheard several Alphan women enthusiastically discussing those very qualities.

And above all, Rigellan was a Psychon. He could take Maya home.

And just what did he have to offer? No wealth, certainly, although he knew Maya had little interest in material possessions. He would soon be jobless, along with the rest of the Alphans, and probably faced years of retraining before becoming eligible for any kind of responsible job in Terran society.

So it's down to my dashing good looks and charming personality. A twisted smile curved one corner of his mouth.

He was doomed.

Rigellan and Maya sat on the sofa in the main living area of his ship, pouring over an ancient, illuminated Psychon manuscript. Completely absorbed in the intricate design and rich colours of the text, Maya murmured an absentminded, "Hmmm?" when he said her name.

"I've only known you a short time but I feel I've known you forever."

Maya looked up, smiled and said with a hint of surprise in her voice, "I know what you mean. There's something very familiar about you." She laughed, "Maybe we knew each other in a past life."

"It's the future I'm interested in." He took her hand, "Maya, although we've had but a short time together, I have come to love you dearly."

Her eyes dilated with shock. This was the last thing she'd expected him to say. All she could manage was a faint, "What?"

"You would make me the happiest of men if you would consent to become my wife."

Maya felt the blood drain from her face.

This was her first marriage proposal. It should have brought joy, but all she felt was horror, and an intense embarrassment. There was only one man she could ever marry, and this wasn't him. What was she supposed to say? If the floor had opened up beneath her she would have greeted the abyss with gratitude.

A sensitive man, Rigellan didn't need to see the acute discomfort and embarrassment crossing her lovely face to read her feelings. Swallowing his own dismay and bitter disappointment, he pressed a gallant kiss to her hand, "Don't worry."

Maya visibly tried to pull herself together and stammered, "I'm very honoured..."


Miserable, and intensely aware that her words could only hurt him, Maya said quietly, "I like you very much, but I don't love you. I'm so sorry."

"Don't be. It was unfair of me. I knew within moments of meeting you that your affections lay elsewhere, but I had to try." He smiled at her. "Friends?"

Relief shone in her blue eyes. "The best of friends."

Despite his reassurances, she could not get out of there fast enough. Rigellan recognised this and let her go on the flimsiest of excuses. Maya kept herself together as she walked through the airlock linking Rigellan's ship to the Alphan docking bay and onto the Travel tube, but was in a distressed state by the time she arrived back on Alpha.

Her vision blurred by tears, she ran straight into Tony as she emerged from the travel tube.

"Maya?" He clasped her arms to steady her and frowned with alarmed concern as he took in her distress. "Has he hurt you?"

Startled, she raised over bright blue eyes to his, "No."

Relieved, but still worried, he gathered her close and cradled her head against his shoulder. His tenderness towards Maya belied the murder in his heart; Rigellan had done something to distress her to the point of tears.

He held her quietly for several minutes before she murmured a subdued, "But I think I hurt him."

Tony smoothed his hand soothingly over her back, "Do you want to talk about it?"

Maya shook her head. Knowing she would stay in his arms all day given the choice, she took a step back. Her smile was unconvincing, her eyes troubled as she raised her gaze to his. "I'm okay...I just need to be by myself for a while."

"Are you sure you're alright?" She nodded and he touched his hand to her cheek. "You know where I am if you need me."

Her responding smile trembled between bittersweet and sadness. Then she was gone.

Tony practically broke the buzzer announcing himself to the Psychon's ship.

"I need to speak to you." He was curt and to the point.

The Psychon seemed unsurprised to see him. "Of course, come in."

Rigellan met him at the entrance to his ship, took one look at Tony's grim face and got straight to the point.

"You have no reason to worry." Rigellan smiled wryly and indicated Tony to precede him into the spacious living area, "I did try, but she's not even remotely interested. I offered her everything and she turned me down."

"What do you mean by 'everything'?" Tony asked warily.

Rigellan made an encompassing sweep of his hand, "Everything." A shadow of sadness crossed his spare, clean-cut features. "I asked her to be my wife."

A surge of alarm and intense relief swept through Tony. The nightmare scenario that had kept him in a cold sweat on the walk here had occurred.

And she said no.

He closed his eyes for a second in a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving. Rigellan was smiling when he lifted his gaze.

"I'm sorry."

The Psychon laughed with real amusement, "No, you're not."

Tony chuckled. "No, I'm not. But I do sympathise with how you're feeling." He sobered. "I know I'd be absolutely gutted."

"Yes, that's why in a funny way you're the only person I can talk to." Rigellan gestured to a bar area. "Drink?" He poured them both ales and raised his tankard in a toast.

"To Maya."

"To Maya."

They drank and leaned back into the deep embrace of the sofa, both putting their feet up on the low table in front of them. Rigellan cradled the tankard on his chest and gazed at the simulated star field embossed on the ceiling. "Do me a favour?"

Tony raised an eyebrow, "If I can."

"Don't ask her to marry you while I'm still here." He paused and smiled, "My ego can only take so much battering."

Tony snorted, "What makes you think she'd accept me?"

"I've seen how she looks at you." His tone was quiet, wistful. "I'd give anything to have her look at me that way." Rigellan chuckled ruefully and shook his head. "She was so embarrassed, poor darling. I took her completely by surprise. I think she's more upset about it than I am."

There was nothing Tony could say to this. He'd seen for himself how she was suffering. Maya would hate the idea that she'd hurt a friend. And there was no getting away from the reality of the fact that this noble, honourable man had been hurt. They sat in silence for several minutes, each lost in his own thoughts.

Then Rigellan turned his head to look at Tony and a sudden, wicked smile curved his lips, "Stunning, sensual, brilliant.... and if I'm not mistaken, totally innocent. That's a terrifying combination."

"Completely terrifying." Tony agreed dryly.

"She doesn't know how you feel about her." This was a statement rather than a question. "So you've erred on the side of caution. Can't say I blame you. My time here is limited otherwise I'd probably have done the same."

Then Rigellan laughed, as though a thought had suddenly struck him. "One gift I will give you before I leave is a Psychon translator - there are thousands of languages programmed in - including English. "

A niggling suspicion that had lurked at the back of Tony's mind for months now began to blossom. "She's been messing with me."

"Oh, yes."

"Szae el aetra'an sidh dhleadh doesn't mean, "Greetings, I am Moonbase Alpha's First Officer." He'd used this phrase when first meeting Rigellan on the Psychon's ship.

Rigellan spluttered into his tankard, "No. What you actually said was, "Greetings, I am a half-crazed brewer of dubious beverages."

They looked at each other for a split second before bursting into uproarious laughter.

"The little devil! I wondered why you had that peculiar look on your face. I thought it was my atrocious pronunciation."

"Pronunciation is the least of your worries." Rigellan sighed as he wiped tears from his eyes.

They spent an hour talking and discovered they had a lot in common besides Maya. They parted with the sense that they would have become good friends had circumstance allowed.

"Will you try to convince her that I'm alright? I don't want to leave knowing I've burdened her."

Tony nodded, and then studied the other man's face, "But you're not alright, are you?" He knew he wouldn't be even remotely 'alright' under the same circumstances.

Rigellan smiled ruefully, "No. But I will be, in time." He held out his hand and Tony clasped it firmly, "Take care of her?"

"You know I will."

Tony went straight to Maya's quarters after he left Rigellan. He buzzed but there was no reply. Assuming she wasn't home and merely ignoring the buzzer, he set off for her favourite hiding place.

She was standing in front of the thick Plexiglas window, her face raised to the stars, arms crossed over her chest, as though warding off the chill of the vacuum on the other side of the barrier. The only illumination in the room came from the star field beyond the glass.

She looked up as he walked in and cast him a rather wistful smile. He approached her without speaking and slipped his arms around her waist. She leaned back against his chest with an almost undetectable sigh. Tony pressed his cheek to the crown of her head, breathing in the delicate, fresh scent of her hair. They watched the stars together in silence; he was happy holding her, she took comfort in being held.

Eventually, Tony said quietly, "He wants you to know he's okay."

Maya turned in his arms, her eyes dark and grave, "Then you know?"

"He told me what happened."

"I didn't know what to say..." she trailed off, distress shadowed her face and she lowered her gaze as she relived the acutely awful moment.

Tony tilted her face to his with a gentle finger under her chin, "Don't torture yourself, Maya. You haven't done anything wrong. And Rigellan is too busy worrying about you to feel sorry for himself."

"That doesn't make me feel any better." She sounded almost comically woeful.

"I know." Tony couldn't keep the smile from his voice, "C'mon, let me buy you a cheeseburger. You know how junk food cheers you up."

Maya slanted him a suspicious look, but allowed him to lead her from the room. "Why do I get the feeling you're enjoying this?"

"Enjoying is too strong a word." A wry half smile curved his mouth. He was genuinely sorry for Rigellan and his concern for Maya went deeper than she could ever imagine. But she wasn't completely off base. What he felt could best be described as relief.

"No," he repeated, "Just thankful you didn't say yes."

Rose tinted her cheekbones. The hesitant look she cast his way was shy, and absolutely bewitching. "I couldn't have married him."

The soft conviction in her voice was more than Tony could take. Heedless of the fact that they were in a much-travelled corridor, he stopped abruptly and pulled her into his arms. His voice quiet, but fierce, he abandoned all caution and spoke from the heart, "And I wouldn't have let you go."

Thrilled to her soul by this avowal and the stormy emotion in his dark eyes, Maya's face lit up as though illuminated by a thousand candles. With a hand that wasn't completely steady, Tony traced a line down the exquisite curve of her cheek, "Cara, from the moment, the second I met you there's been no one for me..."

He didn't get a chance to finish. Even as he said the words a crowd of Alphans rounded the corner and noisy, playfully pushing friends and co-workers engulfed them.

"C'mon you two, Rigellan is leaving. You're going to miss the send off." Alan Carter inserted himself between them and clapped an arm around each of their shoulders. They were swept along with the crowd.

Maya barely managed to put one foot in front of the other.

Had he really been about to say "...there's been no-one for me but you?"

Oh, please.

She risked a glance at Tony across Alan and was immediately transfixed by the intensity of his dark gaze. Some hint of the luminous joy threatening to ignite her soul must have shown in her face; his smile was incredibly tender. Maya's mouth curved in trembling, helpless response. She lowered her gaze and tried to control the violent pounding of her heart.

I've seen the way she looks at you. And now he'd just seen a hint of heaven in her eyes. Tony took a deep, calming breath and wished his cheerfully oblivious friends to perdition. No. Not this time. This time he was going to finish what he'd started. He ducked out from under Alan's arm, reclaimed Maya's hand and pulled her to one side, letting the crowd overtake them.

He took both her hands in his, "You don't have to go in there. He'll understand."

Maya looked toward the open door to the docking bay. A steady stream of people disappeared into the room. The party atmosphere was obvious even from here, with the sound of music and laughter wafting through the open door. It was the last place she wanted to go, and not just because seeing Rigellan would be difficult. She turned back to Tony and was instantly recaptured, mesmerised by the warmth, the light in his eyes. The party held no attraction when the alternative was being alone with him. She felt as though she was teetering on the edge of a wonderful precipice, and that she had only to take one small step in order to transform her life forever.

Tony watched the internal struggle play across her face. She sighed as she made her decision, "He would understand. But I'd never forgive myself if I didn't say goodbye."

"Just so long as it is goodbye." He drew her closer, their fingers still linked. "You're not going to change your mind, are you?"

"No," she whispered, thrilled that he cared so much that she stayed. Maya's mouth was curving into a smile of pure happiness even as he lowered his head to hers. With the first touch of his lips to hers she slipped her arms around his neck, buried her fingers in the short, silken hair at his nape, and melted into his arms with a sensuality that elicited an involuntary murmur of need from Tony. Maya's lips parted under his and they were both lost to anything but the absolute pleasure of the other's touch.

A blissful, heated eternity passed before Tony reluctantly lifted his mouth from hers. Maya knew a fleeting sense of disappointment, quickly dispelled as he pressed his mouth to the sensitive skin of her throat. She arched her neck, unable to contain her sigh of pleasure.

He cupped her face in his hands, adoring the velvety texture of her skin under his fingers, loving the slender voluptuousness of her body curved into his. Loving her.

Maya opened eyes made dreamy by sensation and he said simply, "You'll break my heart if you go with him."

She took a shallow, careful breath and tried to speak but at first no words came out. The bleakness in his eyes told her he meant every word.

"This is my home," she finally whispered, touching her fingers to his cheek, "With you."

Something caught fire in his gaze. "And mine is wherever you are."

Maya felt her world tilt on its axis. The white heat of the joy igniting inside her was almost frightening. Only the distant, insistent beeping of a commlock chipped away at the edge of the paradise on which they balanced.

With a stifled curse, Tony whipped the communicator from his belt and bit out a curt, "Verdeschi."

"Sir, Eagle 6 is fuelled and ready to go." The launch technician continued, "We're at T minus 30."


"Acknowledged." He and Alan were due to take a Survey Eagle up. His timing over the last 24 hours left a lot to be desired. He brushed his fingertips down Maya's cheek, "I've got to go."

"I know."

"I meant every word I said." He clasped his hands at the small of her back and drew her closer, "Wait for me?" They both knew that could be several days.

"I'll be here," she whispered. Her eyes drifted shut as he lowered his mouth to hers once more. The kiss was exquisitely tender and all too brief.

Then he was gone. Maya leaned against the wall and closed her eyes, her knees weak, unable to believe that the last 15 minutes hadn't been a wonderful hallucination.


She opened her eyes to see Helena's quizzical, mildly concerned face, "You okay?"

Blushing, she smiled and said, "I'm fine." More than fine.

"Are you coming or going?" With a jerk of her chin, Helena indicated the door leading to Rigellan's ship, the door Tony had just exited through to reach Eagle 6.


The two women walked along together. Inside the party was going strong. Rigellan looked up as the two entered. He greeted Helena with a formal kiss on the hand, and said to Maya, "I'm glad you came."

"I didn't want you to leave without saying good-bye."

Rigellan studied Maya closely for a minute, long enough for her to begin to colour under the scrutiny. Almost absently, he said, "If I were a suspicious man I'd think he'd broken his promise..."


Rigellan smiled ruefully and shook his head, "A conversation I had with your First Officer...a conversation that began with his sincere intention to inflict violence on me for upsetting you." He laughed at her look of alarm. "Don't worry. We parted good friends." Maddeningly, he seemed disinclined to elaborate any further. "Drink?"

He turned to get the two women a glass of wine. While he was gone Helena enquired, "What was all that about?"

"I wish I knew." What on earth had Tony and Rigellan talked about? Her obviously. And she wasn't going to get any answers from Rigellan. What promise?

"Why was Tony going to 'inflict violence'?"

Maya sighed, started to answer, and then stopped.

Helena raised her eyebrows encouragingly.

"He asked me to marry him."


Maya's colour rose and for a moment the yearning she felt was clearly visible in her face. "No. Rigellan. But I turned him down." She frowned and inspected her fingernails. "I ran into Tony as I was leaving Rigellan's ship, right after...I was a bit upset."

Helena chuckled, "And your knight errant went tearing to your rescue."

"He must have," Maya smiled at the thought, then sighed. "I know they talked - Tony knew that Rigellan had proposed when he came to find me later."

"He's worried about you." Helena took a sip of her wine. "Are you feeling any better about leaving Alpha?"

And mine is wherever you are.

The irrepressible glow of happiness illuminating Maya's face gave Helena her answer even before her quiet, "Yes."

She didn't sleep much that night. That wonderful interlude in the corridor still felt like a dream. Maya turned restlessly onto her side, hugging her pillow close. A smile curved her mouth as she relived his words for the thousandth time, her eyes closing. As she finally drifted off to sleep, she whispered to herself, "He wouldn't have let me go..."

Chapter Twelve

The next day. Maya sat curled up on a sofa beneath the picture window, her chin resting on her folded arms as she gazed out at the silvery, desolate lunar landscape. It was almost midnight but the impromptu bash in the next room was still going strong. What had been a casual gathering in the games room had escalated into a full-scale party when someone put on a cd and pushed aside chairs and tables to clear a dance floor. They'd started with Elvis, moved onto the Beatles and techno. Dancing to the fast songs had been great fun and there'd been no lack of partners - for her or any of the females present. But when the soft, romantic ballads had started, she'd quietly slipped away. There was only one man she wanted to slow dance with and he was exploring an asteroid several hundred thousand kilometres away...

Maya sighed and a dreamy light softened her eyes. Tony and Alan weren't expected back for another day, but he'd never been far from her thoughts.

Tony walked by Maya's quarters but didn't buzz. If she was asleep he didn't want to disturb her, and he had a sense that she wasn't there anyway. So after changing into casual clothes, he and Alan decided to check out the dance. They could hear music, laughter and voluble conversation emanating from the rec area even before they stepped off the travel tube.

Tony discreetly scanned the room for Maya but didn't see her amongst the dancers or the scattered groups conversing in various corners.

Sahn appeared at his elbow with a plate of potato skins, "You two must be starved. Have some junk food."

"So what have we missed so far?"

Despite his casual tone, Sandra knew him too well and quickly cut to the chase. "You mean who, don't you?" She chuckled evilly and ducked as he threatened her with his potato skin. "Ah, ah, be nice or I won't tell you what you want to know."

Tony popped the skin in his mouth and adopted what he hoped was a sweetly sincere expression. Sandra snorted at this rather unsuccessful attempt but admitted; "I saw her head towards the viewing room half an hour ago."

That was all he wanted to know.

He managed to restrain himself for a full five minutes before leaving the main rec room and walking down the short corridor to the viewing room. Noises from the party faded to a bearable, muffled background murmur, despite the open doors of both rooms. The only illumination in the viewing area was the light reflecting from the lunar surface. It bathed the seating area beneath the windows in a blanket of quicksilver. Maya was curled up in a corner of the sofa, her chin propped on her folded arms as she gazed over the back of the couch to the view beyond. She seemed totally absorbed in the brilliant starscape.

Tony leaned against the doorframe and watched her for a long moment. The eerie, harsh light only enhanced the exquisite quality of her skin and lovely features. She wore the green dress he liked so much - it complemented her sky hued eyes and tantalisingly skimmed the feminine curves of her figure. The short, floaty skirt clung to the long, beautifully slender lines of her stocking clad legs. Her shoes lay on the floor by the sofa. She seemed closer to the realms of faerie than the mundane world of mortal man. Untouchable. Unattainable. Serene.

Maybe he was nuts to tell her how he felt. If she didn't return his love any declaration on his part could create an irreparable gulf between them. His heart rate increased even as he contemplated that terrifying reality. He didn't know if he could bear not having Maya in his life. But if she did feel the same way...

He was trying to persuade himself to go back to the party and leave her to her stargazing, when she turned her head and saw him. All thought of leaving flew from his mind as his heart registered her smile and the delighted surprise in her beautiful cerulean blue eyes.

"When did you get back?"

"About an hour ago." He walked to the sofa and dropped down beside her. "Hi," he smiled into her eyes and gently tucked a loose tendril behind her ear.

"Hi," she whispered, her heart pounding. He leaned closer and a surge of heat flowed slowly through her veins as she awaited his kiss. With the first caress of his mouth against hers, Maya's eyes drifted shut and she melted into his arms. Her lips parted under his and Tony pulled her close with a fierceness that sent an instant thrill of excitement through her. Her heart thudded with an almost painful intensity as her body reacted to the first incredibly erotic caress of his tongue. A soft, involuntary pleasure sound escaped her as he explored the sensitive interior of her mouth with a breathtaking, wonderful slowness. Maya buried her fingers in the short, dark hair at his nape and kissed him back with all the love in her soul.

Her half-shy, but passionate response had an immediate and extremely satisfying effect. Tony shuddered with desire and the kiss deepened, grew even more wonderfully sensual. All sense of the outside world disappeared; Maya wanted only to feel his hands and mouth on her naked skin, to know the bliss of his powerful masculinity against her without the barrier of clothing.

They'd been locked in the embrace for a delicious eternity when Tony reluctantly moved his attentions from her luscious mouth. He framed her face with his hands, burying his fingers in the softness of her hair and brushed his mouth slowly over the creamy skin of her chin, the delicate arch of her cheekbones, the sweep of her long, silky eyelashes. Maya barely breathed as she awaited each caress of his mouth, the whisper of his warm breath against her skin, enthralled by him, by the slumberous, beautiful way he made her feel.

Tony was completely intoxicated by the incredible sweetness of her, the perfect, velvety texture of her soft skin, the rapid rise and fall of her breasts against his chest, the way she clung to him, the gently ragged quality of her breath. With every whisper soft caress of his lips against her warm, ivory skin she seemed to melt further into his arms, her beautiful face dreamy with pleasure.

"I was half convinced you wouldn't be here," he murmured, tracing a finger along the arch of her brow.

Maya opened her eyes and met his dark gaze. "But I am."

He smiled slowly, "Yes, you are."

They looked silently at each other for a long, wonderful moment. Then Tony drew her close, pressing his cheek to the side of her head. He ran his fingers through the heavy softness of the auburn tresses tumbling down her back. They held each other quietly for a long time, both slightly shaken by the intensity of the emotion passing between them.

Eventually Tony drew back slightly to look into her eyes. "Dance with me?"

The dimple flashed in her cheek, "Maybe."

He chuckled. "You're a hard woman."

"But I've been dancing all evening." She adopted a pathetic expression, which was meant to engender sympathy, but had rather the opposite effect.

"In other words you've been having fun while I've been off exploring the universe."

"It's very tiring, fun."

"My poor baby. I can't tell you how sorry I am for you."

"You're not at all sorry," she laughed. "Alright, one dance." Tony got up, and Maya held out her hands to allow him to draw her to her feet.

She slipped her shoes back on and they walked hand in hand back to the party, but stopped just short of the entrance. From the combination of sultry music and chatter coming from the rec area, the festivities had revved down a degree or two, but were still going strong. Tony was loath to share her with the besotted swains (one in particular) who no doubt loitered beyond those portals. There would be time enough for that tomorrow night when all of Alpha attended the Ball.

"We could, of course, just stay in the corridor." He said it half jokingly but felt distinct relief when she smiled and nodded her agreement. The room had been hot and noisy when she left and wouldn't have improved much in the hour she'd been gone.

As the slow, soft strains of a romantic ballad drifted through the open door, Tony drew her into his arms. He rubbed his cheek against the silk of her hair, savouring the combination of contentment and desire he always felt when he held her. Unable to resist the lure of her velvety skin, he trailed his fingers through the baby soft tendrils at the delicate nape of her neck.

Maya closed her eyes and gave herself up once again to the absolute pleasure of his touch, exquisite sensation shivering through her veins with every lazy movement of his fingers. She pressed her face to the strong column of his throat, breathing in the clean scent of him. She loved his warmth, the masculine strength of his torso radiating heat through his clothing, the brush of his lean thighs against hers. She loved everything about him. His slightest casual touch was always enough to warm her blood but she was slightly stunned by the heat of the desire that now liquefied her bones.

They lost themselves completely to the music and the magic of being together, moving with a slow, effortless grace through what could have been five or fifty songs. Both felt as though they were floating an inch off the ground.

Tony felt slightly drunk; everything about her intoxicated him, from her delicate scent to the lush female curves moulding so perfectly to his larger frame. They'd been dancing for some time in blissful silence when he murmured, "This doesn't mean you get out of dancing with me tomorrow night."

Maya lifted her face to his, "No? I did say one dance." She slipped her arms around his neck, mischief dancing in her beautiful eyes.

"Ah, but you didn't specify duration. As far as I'm concerned this just the first instalment." His lips curved into a slow smile as he lowered his mouth to hers.

Their lips were scant centimetres apart. Maya could feel the warmth of his breath on her skin even as she murmured a contentious, "I don't know about that..."

His kiss was sensuous, gentle, but with an underlying urgency that compelled her response. With the first caress of his mouth on hers Maya leaned closer into his embrace, instantly captivated by the heat, the intoxicating pleasure that always exploded into life at his touch. Her lips parted under his and he pulled her to him fiercely, burying his hands in the glorious softness of her hair. They stopped moving in time to the music as an infinitely more seductive, magical rhythm pulsed through their bodies.

They sensed another's presence in the same instant and looked up to see Dave Reilly silhouetted in the door, a stricken expression on his face. Tony instinctively moved to shield Maya, turning them so that his body came between her and the door. Dave disappeared back into the Rec Room before any words were exchanged.

Maya's colour heightened slightly at being observed in such a private moment. But she felt so right in Tony's arms, that only a slight puzzlement at Reilly's reaction clouded her happiness.

Tony followed the direction Maya's gaze to the Rec Room door and immediately guessed the reason for her bemused expression. Even after Rigellan, she was still almost completely oblivious to the devastating effect she had on men. Fond exasperation and a subconscious, possessive male need to see her reaction impelled him to admit, "Dave's crazy about you."

Maya tensed in his embrace. Her eyes briefly widened with dismay, then she laughed as though he'd told a mildly amusing joke, "No, he's not."

"Yes, he is."

"No, he's not!" She felt hot colour scorch her cheeks. It wasn't possible. But if it was... She felt awful. It was Rigellan all over again. There was no way she could return Dave's feelings - and yet she sympathised totally with how he felt. How long had Tony known about this? And how exactly did he feel about it? Completely flustered and more than a little embarrassed, she bit her lip and averted her face.

Tony immediately regretted his impulsive words when he saw how distressed she was. He clasped his hands behind her back and gently drew her closer. His eyes were grave as he gazed into her downcast face, "I'm sorry. I should have kept my big mouth shut."

So it was probably true. Maya's dark lashes lifted and her troubled gaze met his once more. "But what makes you think he feels that way?" Her voice was subdued; she half felt that if she whispered it the whole thing might go away.

This time Tony was unable to keep the fond exasperation from his voice, "Maya, half the men on Alpha are in love with you." This was an exaggeration but it held a grain of truth nonetheless. He vividly remembered the number of pages the computer had spit out detailing her lovelorn swain during the infamous Love Quiz.

She blushed wildly, shook her head and compressed her pretty mouth stubbornly.

Finally goaded into recklessness by the sheer intensity of the emotions he'd bottled up for months, by the frustration of being interrupted the day before, Tony framed her face with his hands, gazed into the haunting depths of her eyes and quietly admitted,

"I'm one of them."

It was out almost before he realised what he'd said.

For a moment time stopped and they stood silent - frozen.

Tony knew real terror with her soft intake of breath. As surprise and wonder dawned in her beautiful face a thousand emotions surged through him simultaneously - fear predominated. He'd come here tonight with the intention of finally telling Maya how he felt about her, in the event, the manner of his declaration hadn't gone to plan. But it was done.

And now the rest of his life hung in the balance.

Tony tried desperately to read the emotion in her eyes before she lowered her gaze and long, dark lashes veiled her soul.


Maya couldn't catch her breath. This wasn't real. The passionate yearning, the vulnerability, she'd just seen in his dark eyes had to be a product of her fevered imagination. But the wild joy that exploded into life at his avowal grew with each passing second despite the part of her that insisted she'd misunderstood him.

" me?" Her voice was hushed, hesitant as she struggled to deal with the impact of his words, afraid to give voice to a dream come true. She was terrified to look at him, afraid she'd see the truth in his eyes. He would take it back. His next words would be, "No, sorry. Just kidding..."

The two seconds between the words leaving her lips and his answer were an eternity.

"More than my life." His voice was low, rough with emotion.

He felt Maya tremble before going completely, unnervingly still. Her eyes were downcast, her long lashes casting delicate shadows on her ivory skin.

She can't even bring herself to look at me.

Anguished, Tony closed his eyes briefly and braced himself for bad news.

His jaw clenched as Maya took a careful, measured breath. Unable to bear the agony for another second, he was on the verge of blurting, "I don't expect you to feel the same way," when Maya raised her gaze to his again.

Her heart in her eyes, she whispered, "I love you, too."

Her smile was shy, luminously happy, and the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

He'd been expecting the worst, so it took a painful, endless eternity for him to comprehend what she'd said. When the truth sank in it literally took his breath. Tony's hand trembled as he traced his fingers over the satiny curve of Maya's cheek, his touch part caress, part reassurance that she was real.

"Thank God." Tony's whisper was a reverent thanksgiving. His dark eyes shone with such unashamed adoration that Maya threw herself into his arms with an inarticulate cry.

Tony hugged her fiercely; hardly able to believe she was finally his. He closed his eyes, buried his fingers in the soft mass of Maya's hair, breathing in the delicate, feminine fragrance that was uniquely hers, letting the incredible shock of happiness wash over him.

Maya could feel his heart pounding madly, the violent cadence exactly matching her own. She wanted to stay in his arms forever. Her breath caught in her throat with the sudden, glorious realisation that now she could. The fears that had haunted her over the last few weeks melted away under the fierce heat of happiness.

"Ti voglio molto bene." His voice was quiet, almost grave. He lowered his head to hers once more, and their mouths met in a kiss of exquisite sweetness. His touch was so tender, so reverent that tears welled in Maya's eyes before her long lashes drifted shut and she lost herself completely to him.

When they finally pulled back an inch or so, Maya touched a slender finger to his mouth.

Tony captured her hand and pressed a kiss to her palm. "My love." His eyes softened by the intensity of his feelings," I've waited my entire life for you."

Her smile was half shy and entirely bewitching. "And now that you've found me?"

"I don't think I'll ever be able to let you go." He sounded half apologetic.

"Good," she whispered.

They stood entwined, completely wrapped up in each other. The party inside started to break up and a steady stream of people exited to walk past them. Several keenly interested looks had already been cast their way when Tony took Maya's hand in his, smiled into her eyes and murmured, "C'mon, I'll walk you home."

They joined the throng of homebound Alphans, walking slowly, in blissful silence. The contact of their linked fingers and shared happiness made words unnecessary.

When he didn't enter past the threshold of Maya's door, she looked up at him quizzically.

"If I come in now I won't be able to leave." He traced a gentle finger over the exquisite curve of mouth, his eyes dark with love and desire, his tone rueful.

Maya slipped her arms around his lean waist and came into his arms with a natural sensuality that rocked his already less than steady self-control. She pressed her cheek to his heart, "But I don't want you to leave."

Tony closed his eyes, drew in a shaky breath and slowly stroked one hand over the silk of her hair. He smiled ruefully even as the warmth of her body and the sleepy pleasure in her voice sent blood rushing to his loins. "You've been my only dream from the moment I met you. But I'm supposed to be back on duty in," he glanced at the chronometer on the nearby companel, "four hours. If I hold you in my arms tonight it will kill me to leave you in the morning."

When Maya raised her face to meet his gaze he saw more than a hint of mischief sparkling her blue eyes, "We've slept together before without you suffering too much."

"You know exactly how much I've suffered." He smiled and drew her fully against him, letting her feel the reality of his need for her.

Maya's eyes dilated almost to black and a beautiful flush stained the delicate skin of her cheekbones as she felt his arousal hard against her abdomen. An intense burst of heat exploded in her brain and spread throughout her veins - a molten need that pooled in her centre, settling in her belly and lower body like liquid flame. She drew in a shallow, tremulous breath, slid her hands slowly up the inviting, muscular plane of his chest and melted into his arms.

Tony shuddered and pulled her closer with a fierceness that sent an intense thrill of excitement through her. His handsome features were tense with desire, his eyes darker than she'd ever seen them. Then he claimed her mouth, his kiss demanding, urgent - and passionately thorough.

Maya gasped quietly as his tongue sought and found hers. She buried her fingers in the soft thickness of his dark hair and responded with all the pent up longing in her heart. With the first caress of her tongue Tony groaned and pulled her even closer. Desire pulsed through her veins with the potency of a powerful narcotic - the more he demanded, the more she wanted him. A wonderful, languorous heat flamed and grew with each movement of his body against hers, each caress of his hands, every sensual thrust of his tongue.

Their breathing was ragged when Tony finally forced himself to give up the glory of her mouth for the safer territory of her slender throat. But as soon as he tasted the perfect sweetness of her soft skin, felt the rapid beat of her pulse immediately followed by her quiet gasp of pleasure, a rush of renewed desire told him he was kidding himself. Not even complete immersion in an ice bath would be enough to cool him down.

He made a slight movement of withdrawal, but she wasn't having any of it. "No." Her voice was soft but determined. "You're not leaving. I'll be good, I promise." She smiled winsomely at him and tugged on his hand, pulling him further into the room.

Tony allowed her to lead him to the sofa, ruefully acknowledging that leaving her was the last thing he wanted to do.

They were in each other's arms again as soon as they sat down. Maya's lovely eyes were still half-shy as she traced her fingers along the clean-cut line of his jaw, her gentle caress sending shivers of pleasure through him. She smiled with delight at his reaction to her touch, "See? I'm being very good."

Tony covered her slender fingers with his, and chuckled, "No, you're not. Torturer."

"Do you really think I'm a torturer?" She seemed unduly pleased by this.

He pressed a kiss to her palm, "I've longed for you day and night from the moment I met you." His mouth quirked in a rueful smile, "A beautiful, unwitting torturer, yes."

"Until now."

Tony laughed. "Until just over three months ago. You've been taking merciless advantage of the effect you have on me."

"That's true." Maya looped her hands around his neck, twining her fingers through the thickness of the short, dark hair at his nape. "But I want to touch you... and I want you to touch me," her voice was a husky whisper, her eyes dark.

Unable to resist her gentle seduction, Tony kissed her, and with the first touch of his lips to hers the heat that smouldered between them ignited into flame.

They were both breathing raggedly when they pulled a few millimetres apart some time later, neither willing to part further than that. Maya lay half under him, adoring the sensation of his masculine frame pressed close to her. Tony leaned over her, supporting himself on one elbow, propping his head in his hand as he gazed down at her. She traced a tentative, exploring finger down his nose, across the arch of his cheekbone, the curve of his dark brow. A violent, renewed surge of happiness warmed her from head to toe at the barely banked fire in his eyes.

"It's really true, isn't it?" She was half afraid that if she spoke in anything louder than a whisper, she really would wake up.

Tony twined his fingers with hers. "If it isn't you'll break my heart. Because I can't live without you...not now." It was a quiet, simple statement of fact.

It was too much for Maya. The wonderful upheaval of the last hour, the best hour of her life, finally overwhelmed her.

A huge lump formed in Tony's throat as the first tear traced a silvery path down her cheek. He could more than understand the emotion that gripped her. He blinked moisture from his own eyes as he carefully wiped a tear from her silken eyelashes, "Hey, you'll get me started."

"I never dared to really believe you'd feel the same way..." she whispered, her voice soft.

"Cara, from the moment I met you, there's been no one for me but you. I'm yours. Body and soul." His eyes grew dark, grave as he said the words, pledging his life to her. "I will always love you." And he would remember the luminous beauty of her shy smile until his dying day.

Maya sighed, "I don't know if I can handle being this happy."

Tony twined his fingers slowly through the silken strands of her hair, "That's too bad..."


"Because making you happy is all I want to do. It's my job. My chosen career."

Maya didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She sniffed, smiled and muttered, "You're making it worse."

"Sorry. Would a little verbal abuse help?"

"It might. How about 'I do not give orders just to hear myself speak!'" She did a passable imitation of his intense, furious tone on that disastrous mission. "That was quite effective."

His mouth curved in a wry smile, "You're never going to let me forget that, are you?" A shadow crossed his handsome face and he said quietly, "I dreamed of you falling for two weeks after we got back."

Dismay and regret crossed her vivid, expressive features, "I'm sorry, Tony. I didn't realise."

"I was terrified of losing you. And you are alarmingly accident prone."

"I am not!"

He smiled at the indignation in her voice, "Are too. Besides an alarming propensity for flinging yourself into pits of molten lava, there's been the Borg and the cave-in. Each of which took 20 years off my life."

"You're just as bad." She shivered and her eyes darkened with the memory of the recent Eagle mishap.

Tony opted not to argue the point but finally asked the question that had been nagging at him for weeks. "Cara, how did you know it wasn't me? The duplication was perfect - Annette had no idea that thing wasn't Bill."

She hesitated and lowered her eyes for a second before raising her gaze once again to meet his. "I just knew. It felt cold, menacing...wrong. As soon as I opened my eyes I felt dread creeping down my spine. That's not how you make me feel."

"How do I make you feel?" He asked quietly, his eyes dark.

Colour blossomed in her face again. He gently touched her cheek, and she leaned into his caress with the natural sensuality of a cat being stroked. Her eyes were shy as she whispered, "Beautiful..."

Maya's mouth curved as he pulled her down for a slow, wonderful kiss. When they drew back a few millimetres, her eyes were soft with a light that brought another lump to his throat, "I feel more like me when I'm with you. I know I can tell you anything and you'll understand. You made me laugh when I thought I'd never laugh again." She recalled the many occasions he had made life seem worthwhile, even when she was at her lowest ebb after the death of her father. "You make me feel special, " she said simply.

"You are special." He tucked a loose tendril of hair behind her ear.

Maya opened her mouth to speak, stopped, and then hesitantly voiced the question that had eaten at her for months, needing reassurance even now. "So, when we leave Alpha...I can come with you?"

Horrified, he framed her face with his hands and forced her to look straight into his eyes. "Maya. I would never have left you on your own after Exodus. None of us would. How long have you been worrying about this?" She obviously hadn't been at all reassured by anything he said after the news from Tra'an.

Relief filled her eyes as the last vestiges of unhappiness and uncertainty fled her heart, "A little while."

The truth dawned on him. He whispered, "My God. You've been worried about this from the beginning, since you first came to us."

Maya's silence was a mute acknowledgement.

"Cara, wherever we end up, if you're not with me my life won't be worth living. If you don't want to live on Earth, then I'll go wherever you want to go."

Her eyes shone, "You'd really do that for me?"

"In a second."

They lay quietly for some time, content to feel the other's heart beating.

Then Tony, ever so casually said, "Did I tell you Rigellan gave me a present before he left?"

"You mean after you went to his ship to beat him up?"

"Yeah, after that." Tony propped himself on one elbow and regarded her with a grave expression. "It's a Psychon translator."


"Yes, really. Apparently my pronunciation is so bad that what I'm trying to say bears no relation to what I'm actually saying."

"Oh dear." Maya's mouth trembled as she attempted to suppress a smile.

He watched her struggle to school her features into an expression of earnest dismay at his linguistic failure.

She failed.

Even had he not known, the mischief in her lovely face would've given her away.

"I am grateful to you for one thing."

Maya bit her lip. "What's that?"

"The fact that you only made me out to be half-crazed."

"Well, making you say you were completely crazed would've been unkind." She laughed delightedly at this. "How did you find out?"

"When Rigellan picked us up I introduced myself to him."



"Oh," she gasped. "I'm really, truly sorry." By this time she was crying with laughter.

"I can tell."

It was almost 6 o'clock in the morning when Maya finally fell asleep in his arms.

Tony carried her to the bedroom, tucked her in and then sat on the edge of the bed, just watching her for a long time, trying to comprehend that it was really true. Somehow, miraculously, he'd done it. Forget returning to Earth. This was a million times more thrilling.

Before he forced himself to leave he scribbled a note and left it on her bedside table.

Maya woke at 9.30am and for a few seconds it was a normal morning. But then the memory came rushing back - along with the heart shattering joy. Her discovery of the note Tony had left lifted her even higher.

It read simply, "Yours."

Helena would be calling for her in half an hour. The doctor had organised a spa day for the women of Alpha. Maya reluctantly dragged herself out of be and headed for the shower. The last thing she wanted to do at the moment was spend the day cordoned off from Tony.

She'd take the commlock with her. At least that way she could communicate with him. But this plan was quashed as soon as Helena saw her clip it to her belt.

"No you don't. We are strictly incommunicado today. No work related interruptions."

Maya protested but was swiftly over-ridden. Besides, she wasn't quite ready to tell her friend the reason for her wish to stay in touch. She hugged the wonderful reality of his love close to her like the delicious secret it was.

In the event, not seeing or talking to him merely concentrated the intense, pleasurable feeling of anticipation. Surely the change was visible in her face, her eyes? Maya was surprised Helena hadn't immediately demanded to know what was going on.

It was all she could do to keep a blissful smile from her face.

Command Centre was silent save for the occasional hum of a computer and the desultory conversation of the few essential personnel still on duty. Tony quickly analysed the latest quadrant scans as main computer fed the data through his terminal. All quiet, for a change. He stretched, easing the tension that had settled in the muscles of his neck during his six hours on duty.

Most Alphans were off duty, preparing for the festivities scheduled for that evening. Tony glanced at his watch - he'd put in another hour before calling it quits. The early warning proximity sensor he'd designed would allow all Command Centre staff to slack off their usual duties today in order to prepare for the party. Any abnormalities in the space around them would be communicated by the sophisticated probe and relayed automatically to the mini communicators he and John always carried. He knew the sensor worked faultlessly.

"More coffee, Tony?" asked Sandra.

"No thanks, Sahn." A smile lit his darkly handsome face, "You're about due to meet Maya and Helena, aren't you? Why don't you and Bill take off early? I'll cover ops until it's time to leave."

Bill wasted no time in abandoning his post, turning at the door with a cheeky grin, "Any idea what our Science Officer's wearing tonight?"

Tony glanced over at Maya's empty station. He'd missed her today more than he was willing to admit, to Bill anyway. This had been one of the longest and happiest days of his life - knowing his love waited for him just beyond his reach. Running a hand through his thick, dark hair, he grimaced ruefully, "Damned if I know. And Helena seems to have cordoned off most of the Base as Women Only. I haven't been able to get near enough to ask. They aren't answering comm calls, either."

Sahn chuckled, "You're suffering from withdrawal, Tony." She leaned over and ruffled his hair affectionately as she and Bill left Command Centre. "I'm on my way to the forbidden zone now. Any urgent messages you want me to pass on?" She turned in the doorway, raising a shapely brow at Tony enquiringly, and then laughed and ducked just in time as he launched his empty Styrofoam cup at her.

The solarium and adjacent pool area had a distinctly spa-like air. Females in various stages of undress occupied the numerous chaises around the swimming pool. Radiant warmth flooded from the sun lamps so necessary to the well being of the marooned Alphans. Leafy green miniature palms and brightly coloured swim wear contributed to the Mediterranean atmosphere.

Maya sighed as she pulled up an errant bikini strap and rolled over onto her stomach. Her absorption in her book had been half-hearted to say the least. Tony occupied all her thoughts. In her restlessness she happened to glance up and intercepted an icy glare directed at her from across the room. She dropped the book beside her chaise and whispered out of the side of her mouth to a similarly attired Helena. "She's still glaring at me. I'm starting to think that woman has laser beams for eyes."

Helena pushed her sunglasses up onto her blonde head and propped herself up on her elbows. "Ellen's been after Tony for years. I'm not surprised you're not her favourite."

The younger woman's mouth opened but before she could protest Helena continued hastily, "I know you've never done anything to provoke her. But not only is Tony escorting you to the Ball, he makes no effort to hide that fact that he wants to be with you. There's bound to be a woman or two on Alpha doesn't appreciate that too much."

Maya blushed, tried unsuccessfully to stifle her smile and picked up her abandoned book. It wasn't necessary to look at the doctor; she could feel Helena's amused gaze. She tried to focus on the words in front of her, but her minds eye insisted on projecting Tony's face until he was all she could see, all she could concentrate on. She dropped the book again and rested her head on her arms, her eyes closing under the warmth of the sun lamps and the dreamy quality of her own thoughts.

He loves me.

Maya smiled unconsciously, helpless to stop the joy she felt showing on her face. She'd relived every word, every touch, every wonderful minute of last night a thousand times. It was as though her soul had caught fire and now burned with a bright, pure light. So far she'd hugged the secret to herself, half afraid that if she mentioned it to anyone it would cease to be true. She was just dozing off when Helena's voice jarred her awake again.

"No you don't! If you fall asleep in here you'll wake up looking like a lobster." The doctor laughed as Maya pulled a face, "We're about due to meet Sahn at your quarters anyway."

"Is it really necessary to start getting ready for this dance four hours before it starts?"

"No, but tonight is special." said Helena. "You, Sahn and I are going to pamper ourselves. Manicures, face packs, make-up, champagne and girl-talk are the programme for this afternoon. Doctor's orders. We are going to get slightly sloshed and have a very good time. The last hour should be more than sufficient to actually get ready for the dance!" She glanced at her watch. "Come on, I told Sandra we'd meet her at three."

Two hours later they were, true to Helena's word, all slightly sloshed.

Maya peered dubiously at her reflection in her dressing table mirror, "I don't think it's going to stay like that." It being her hair, which was piled very precariously on top of her head in a mass of auburn ringlets.

"I'm afraid you're right," sighed Sahn. "Hair dressing is not one of my talents. That's why I keep mine short."

Maya sat in front of her dressing table, clad in her robe. Helena and Sahn were similarly attired. The air was fragrant with a mixture of perfume, dusting powder, make-up and champagne. Maya's bed was strewn with lingerie, brightly coloured evening clothes, dresses and sportswear. An empty magnum of champagne lay half under the bed, while another stood half full on the nightstand. The dressing table was so littered with make-up, perfume bottles, brushes and hair treatments that there was barely room for Maya's and Sandra's champagne flutes.

They'd spent an enjoyable and hilarious afternoon trying on each other's clothes, making each other up and playing hairdresser. Maya, still completely fascinated by cosmetics, had insisted on trying on every shade of lipstick, eyeshadow and blush. She marvelled as she watched Sahn deftly applying black eyeliner and mascara but finally allowed the others to persuade her that a light application of mascara and a touch of berry lipstick suited her ethereal looks far better than a heavier make-up would.

"You're lucky you don't need it, silly, " admonished Sahn fondly. "Here, have some more wine."

Maya held out her glass to accept the bubbly liquid, "Much nicer than Tony's beer." She laughed. "And if you tell him I said that, I'll deny it. Hic!"

This unexpected punctuation struck her tipsy companions as disproportionately hilarious and before long they were all laughing uncontrollably. Helena actually rolled off the bed, landing on the floor with a thump and an extremely surprised expression. Further paroxysms greeted this display and they were still giggling helplessly, interrupted by the occasional "hic!" from Maya, when the door chime sounded.

There was a moment of silence while their overextended nervous systems processed this new stimulus; each froze for a second before Maya roused herself and weaved to the intercom.

It was her door, after all.

She managed an extremely dignified, "Hello?"

Accomplishing this much, she slid slowly down the wall without waiting for a reply. The floor looked rather appealing.

"Maya?" A familiar voice echoed over the speaker. "I just stopped by to see if you ladies needed anything."

Maya's eyes widened and her heart began to pound madly. Her lovely face lit from within even as she looked imploringly to Sahn and Helena for help. She was in no condition to face Tony alone. In her current state she'd melt into a sticky puddle at his feet the moment he looked at her.

Sahn ran to the intercom. "No you don't, Verdeschi! This is strictly girls only, and you know it!" She glanced at her watch. "You've got another three hours before you're due to pick Maya up - so go away! We are en dishabille," she announced in dignified tones. Her speech was spoiled only somewhat by a distinct "hic" from the vicinity of her feet.

Tony smothered a chuckle and tried another tack. "I thought you might be running out of wine. I've got a bottle, but you'll have to let me in if you want it."

There was a considering silence from within, then, "Okay, but you can only stay a minute."

The door slid open and Tony beheld the chaos that three hours had wrought on Maya's quarters. He could see Helena though the open bedroom door, lounging on the blue duvet along with what appeared to be the entire contents of Maya's wardrobe. Girly looking bottles and pots covered every available surface. The doctor grinned cheerfully and waggled her fingers at him.

Sahn stood in front of him, arms crossed, her air of belligerence spoiled by the smile that persisted in curving her lips.

"I knew you'd try something, Tony. Now hand over the booze and vamoose." Sahn's normally precise speech always veered amusingly towards hard-boiled broad when she'd had more than one glass of wine. He meekly handed over the bottle, at the same time scanning the room for Maya's whereabouts. She eluded him until a muffled "hic" from behind him yielded up a vital clue.

Ignoring renewed chortles from Helena and Sandra, he turned to greet his date for the evening, unable to suppress a smile as he bent to greet her.

Maya sat curled in the corner by the door. Her russet hair had escaped from Sahn's ambitious styling and tumbled in molten waves about her shoulders. Silken tendrils framed her face and a becoming flush, brought about by his close proximity and the consumption of four glasses of champagne stained the translucent skin of her cheekbones. Fighting a sudden shyness, she slowly lifted her gaze to the clean cut lines of his face, mesmerised by the warmth in his eyes. The devastating effect of his slow smile made her heart trip-hammer even as an answering smile curved her lips.

God but she was beautiful. It took every ounce of self-control not to take her into his arms; but Helena and Sahn, fond as he was of them, were much too interested an audience. "You look like you're having fun." He grinned at her and she smiled helplessly in reply. "Are you sure you'll still be conscious by eight o'clock?" She smelled of spring and sunshine, everything about her drawing him closer. The silky robe she wore covered her only to mid thigh and did nothing to disguise the lissom feminine curves of her body.

"Of course!" She leaned forward and whispered confidentially, "I'm just a bit tipsy." She fought to keep her gaze from fixing fascinatedly on his well-shaped mouth, aware of a pleasurable heat blossoming deep within her that had nothing to do with champagne.

"Good," he murmured. The corner of his mouth quirked, "Are you comfy there on the floor, or do you want some help getting up?"

"Hic. Up?" The unintentional pun sent Sandra and Helena off into helpless hilarity once again. With their whoops resounding in the background, Maya looped her arms around Tony's neck and whispered, "Yes, please."

He slowly pulled her to her feet, slipping his hands around her slender waist as she swayed unsteadily, only too aware that she wasn't wearing a great deal under her robe.

Conscious of the intense interest of the room's other occupants; he leaned close and murmured in her ear, "You're adorable. And I do adore you."

They shared a brief look that communicated more than mere words ever could, and then he kissed her with a swift thoroughness that made her toes curl. Then he was gone, striding out the door with a backward wave to Helena and Sahn.

The two women exchanged knowing glances. Maya had been luminously happy all day and was now incandescent. Each was dying to pump their friend for information, but resisted valiantly.

"No more champagne for you, girl." Helena ordered. "If he has this effect on you now, any more bubbly and you'll collapse at his feet when he comes to pick you up."

Maya denied this rather indignantly but was still rather dreamy eyed when the other women left twenty minutes later. Sahn had arranged her hair in a simple chignon that suited her much more than the overly elaborate style she'd attempted earlier.

Tony arrived at Maya's door promptly at eight, nerves slightly the worse for wear after a prolonged battle with his bow tie. He took a deep, calming breath as he pushed the door chime for the second time that day, slightly amused to find himself feeling like a schoolboy on his first date.

A soft, "Come in," and the door slid open silently. Maya stood beside her desk, the reading lamp bathing her in a soft diffused light. She looked like a Botticelli come to life. For what felt like an eternity he simply stood and drank her in, a warm, wonderful ache tightening his throat. Then he walked to her slowly, mesmerised by the azure beauty of her eyes.

Maya forgot to breathe as Tony approached and lifted her slender hand to his lips. Pleasure danced through every cell in her body as his warm mouth caressed her soft skin.

He was absolutely devastating.

It wasn't fair. She'd had fantasies of charming him with her sophisticated repartee but she could feel her tongue tying just looking at him. All he'd done was kiss her hand and already she was a quivering wreck. Fascinated, she watched as the first hint of one of his knee-weakening smiles curved one corner of his mouth. She raised her gaze to his and an answering smile lit her face in helpless response to the warmth in his dark eyes.

Neither had spoken, yet the room was charged with their awareness of each other.

Tony lowered her hand but didn't release it, twining his fingers with hers. The fine material of his tuxedo hugged his broad shoulders, latent power evident with every subtle movement. As pristine as newly fallen snow, the crisp whiteness of his dress shirt contrasted strikingly with the darker tones of his skin and hair.

"I'll be the envy of every man on Alpha." Tony murmured, open admiration for her vivid beauty husking his voice.

A delicate rose tinted her cheeks and she dropped her gaze to his shirtfront, finding his button studs suddenly fascinating as the sheer romance of the moment overwhelmed her. He swallowed a tenderly triumphant laugh as the extravagantly long lashes that had veiled the splendour of her eyes lifted once more and she looked directly at him. Now he in turn had to concentrate on breathing as the full force of her extraordinary beauty bewitched him, body and soul. She was naturally, effortlessly lovely, and so endearingly unaware of the fact.

The midnight blue velvet of her floor length gown clung lovingly to her graceful curves. Embroidered brocade edged the neckline, baring her pretty shoulders and neck, dipping low enough to hint at the rounded fullness of her breasts. The rich fabric narrowed to emphasise her narrow waist and then flared over slim hips to fall in dramatic folds around long, shapely legs. Titian curls were swept up in a loose chignon, escaped tendrils caressing her neck and bared back. Her slightest movement released the warm, slumberous scent of her light perfume.

Unable to resist the lure of that gently burnished fire, Tony wrapped a stray ringlet around his index finger, marvelling at the luxuriant softness of her hair. She wore it loosely pulled back from her face, secured with a sapphire clip. The overall effect was one of ethereal femininity; delicacy laced with a tantalising hint of untried sensuality. A discreet application of mascara and a touch of berry lipstick emphasised the sky blue of her eyes and the lush fullness of her lips.

Tony knew only that she was infinitely kissable.

All he wanted to do was make love to her without holding back, physically or emotionally. A gentle tug on their linked fingers brought Maya closer. Tony's senses swam as the warm, evocative scent of her perfume lingered pleasurably in the air.

Faint colour still tinted Maya's cheekbones as she looked wonderingly up into Tony's dark, strikingly handsome face. This still felt like a dream. She was afraid to move too suddenly lest she awaken to a different, disappointing reality. The intensity of emotion in Tony's eyes made her pulse race madly and irrepressible, glowing happiness caught her breath in a gentle, almost undetectable gasp. His thumb brushed the smoothness of her cheek, his touch butterfly soft - she leaned into his palm like a pleased cat and swayed towards him unconsciously, completely enthralled by the tender delicacy of his touch.

"I didn't think it was possible."

"What...?" she whispered.

"That you could be any more beautiful than you are every day."

His baritone murmur shivered across Maya's nerve endings just as his fingers drifted from her cheek to the sensitive skin of her throat. She couldn't even blush, so transfixed was she by his words and loving touch.

"You really think I'm beautiful?"


As his mouth slowly lowered to hers, Tony gave in to the desire he'd been repressing for ten months, finally losing himself completely to the wonder of the touch and taste of her.

Maya's eyes drifted shut at the first warm contact of Tony's mouth with hers, a delicious lethargy dissolving in spreading waves from the centre of her being. She swayed towards him as his arms encircled her, sliding her hands up his broad chest to twine around his neck.

Tony kissed her lightly, withholding the deeper, more intimate contact both craved, teasing them both with sensation. Maya sighed softly as rapture seized her, body and soul. She yielded to an overwhelming desire to be closer still, pressing her breasts to Tony's chest and burying her fingers in his dark hair as her lips parted under the stirring caress of his mouth.

Enflamed beyond reason by Maya's response, Tony deepened the kiss, running his tongue gently, tantalisingly over her tender bottom lip, then slowly tasting the interior of her mouth. At first shyly, still not used to the erotic intimacy of the caress, Maya met his tongue with her own, gaining confidence rapidly as he clasped her to him fiercely and groaned his approval. A timeless, delicious eternity passed as they lost themselves to the embrace, neither able to get enough of the other.

Maya felt light-headed. Her knees had weakened but Tony was easily supporting her weight. Before him she'd never dreamed that the touch of a man's hands and mouth could evoke such pleasure.

Tony murmured her name and eased his mouth away from Maya's to trail languorous kisses along her delicate jawline to the slender column of her throat. Lost in the pleasure generated by his warm mouth and magical hands, Maya arched her neck, eyes closed, before burying her fingers in the silky thickness of his dark hair. She wanted only to remain in his arms forever. An intense wave of pleasurable heat flooded her loins as she pressed closer to Tony and felt the proof of his desire. She existed on a purely sexual level, woman calling to man - and her reward was a passion that burned white hot.

Tony's rational impulses were fast becoming blurred in the face of his overwhelming desire for this woman he adored. It was with the greatest difficulty and reluctance that he lifted his mouth from the delicious skin of Maya's throat, at the same time moving his hands to the relative safety of her slender waist.

Maya's eyes opened slowly as she registered this gentle withdrawal. She focused on Tony's mouth, reaching up with one slender finger to touch his beautifully shaped bottom lip, "Make love to me..."

Her voice was soft and infinitely seductive. Tony's eyes were black with desire as he gazed down into her upturned face. His ultimate fantasy was within reach, but still he pulled back.

"Do you know how often I've dreamed of hearing you say that?" He tucked a loose auburn tendril behind her ear.

"No." She dimpled and leaned against him provocatively. He was stalling. And she wasn't going to let him get away with it anymore. Totally inexperienced she might be, but there was nothing wrong with her instincts.

Torn between desire and laughter, Tony's mouth curved into a slow, dangerous smile and a molten ribbon of supercharged heat blossomed within her. "Enough that I'll never tire of hearing it." He traced a slow pattern on her back, the pleasure of his caress sending delicious shivers up her spine.

"And I'll never tire of saying it...." Maya's voice faded to a husky whisper, her breath mingling with his as he lowered his mouth to hers once more. His answer was a kiss that blended passion and tenderness, love and urgency so successfully that she was left in no doubt as to how much he wanted her. Maya responded with all the pent up longing in her heart, wanting only to touch and be touched, to melt into his embrace until their bodies and souls fused.

All thoughts of the Ball vanished. Tony swept her into his arms and carried her to the bedroom. Even the brief separation as he lowered her onto the bed seemed like an eternity to Maya. Impatient for the lean, masculine weight of him against her, she sighed with pleasure when he drew her back into his arms, arching her neck as he kissed his way slowly down her slender throat.

The delicious sensation of his mouth against her skin sent a wave of liquid pleasure coursing through her body. Maya buried her fingers in soft thickness of his hair and curved herself closer.

Tony raised his head and they lost themselves to the luxury of drowning in the other's gaze. After a while Maya looped her arms even closer around his neck, her mouth curving into an irresistibly seductive smile. Slowly, she drew his head down until their lips were scant centimetres apart. She could feel the warmth of Tony's breath against her skin as she murmured, "Does this mean you'll make love to me after all?"

Tony chuckled before pressing a leisurely and very thorough kiss to her smiling mouth. "Maybe. Someday"

"That's not very nice."

"Making love with you will be more than nice...It's just that I have the distinct feeling I'm witnessing the creation of a monster."

He laughed as Maya thumped him indignantly, and then rolled onto his back, pulling her with him. She fell across his chest, exhilarated, laughing and radiantly happy.

"I will forgive that remark only because you're probably right." She pressed a soft kiss to Tony's mouth, and then drew back a fraction to look at him. Their smiles faded. Tony slowly drew her back down to him again, torturing them both with delicious anticipation by delaying the contact they longed for. Their lips had just met when the strident buzzing of the companel brought them down to earth with a jarring crash.

"That's probably Helena," Tony sighed. "We were due at John's 20 minutes ago." They looked at each other, breaking into the same rueful smile - neither wanted go. Tony helped Maya to her feet and then took her into his arms again to kiss her with an unhurried sensuality that hastened both their breathing. They walked hand in hand to the companel.

Helena's face appeared on the screen but before she could speak, Tony said. "I know we're late. Sorry, Helena. We'll be there in a few minutes."

Helena laughed. "That's okay, Tony. I've only been here a few minutes myself. Our activities this afternoon seem to have slowed me down somewhat. Can't imagine why!"

John's face appeared on screen. "Yeah, if your "spa-goer" is anything like mine, it's a wonder they're still conscious!" He exited suddenly from view as Helena gave him an indignant push, but they could hear him chuckling in the background.

"We shouldn't be too long." promised Maya. She signed off, and then closed her eyes as Tony embraced her from behind, nuzzling the sensitive nape of her neck. As his strong arms encircled her waist, she sighed and leaned back against his chest.

Tony buried his nose in her glossy Titian curls, almost dizzy with the delight of holding her. "I've been looking forward to this evening for months," he sounded slightly bemused. "And now I'll be able to hold you all night without trying to hide the fact that I'm desperately in love with you. Do you know what you've done to me over the last ten months?" Maya could hear the smile in his voice.

She turned in his embrace, placing her hands on his tuxedoed chest. Her eyes were soft with unspoken promise even as her lips curved, "No. Tell me."

Tony traced a loving finger over her mouth, his smile fading. "I'd rather show you." He buried his hands in the silken mass of her hair, glorying in her eager response as his lips met hers. Maya looped her arms around his neck, her slender curves moulding perfectly to the length of his frame.

She arched her neck, eyes closed, as he moved his attention from her mouth to the sensitive skin of her throat and whispered, "I don't want to go. I just want to be alone with you."

He framed her face with his hands, pressing a soft kiss to the creamy spot in her cheek where he knew that tempting dimple hid, "And you will be, but I know how much you've been looking forward to this dance."

Their mouths met, the embrace deepening passionately as their tongues met in a slow, sensuous dance. Lost in a private world of love and desire, they stood locked together, neither willing to end the embrace. Finally, they parted, their breathing ragged, both shaken by the intensity of the desire that flashed into white-hot life whenever they touched. Tony rested his forehead against Maya's as he attempted to exert some control over his aroused body. After a moment, he opened his eyes and smiled down into her delicate, flushed face.

"If we don't go now, they'll never see us again."

The dimple appeared in Maya's creamy cheek as she smiled her agreement. Then, hands linked, they made their way to John's quarters.

Helena knew as soon as Tony and Maya walked through the door that something momentous had happened. She'd suspected something from Maya's dreamy, blissed out mood that afternoon, but seeing them together now confirmed it. About time, too.

Maya was absolutely radiant, and Tony had the slightly shell-shocked look of a man who's suddenly been granted his heart's desire - and who can't quite believe it won't disappear just as quickly.

Helena advanced on the couple with a wicked twinkle in her eye. Looping an arm through each of theirs, she led them to the comfortable seating area where John was already ensconced on one of the sofas.

Tony left Maya's side only long enough to get her a glass of champagne. Their hands brushed as he handed her the glass; the glass she nearly dropped when their fingers touched and a jolt of pleasurable electricity shot up her arm. For a moment they forgot where they were as they gazed adoringly at each other, the depth of their love obvious to anyone who observed them.

"Well, Tony, we're not going to be popular with the men of Alpha tonight." John raised his glass in a toast. "To the two most beautiful women on the moon."

"Here, here." said Tony quietly. He cast a warm glance at Maya. She flushed becomingly and sat gracefully down on the couch, smoothing her dress under her with one hand.

Helena plumped herself down next to John, laughing as she leaned comfortably against his shoulder. "And how much champagne have you had today, John? I thought we females were the only imbibers!" She grinned at Maya. "I see you managed to get rid of your hiccoughs."

"Helena!" Maya protested, "I'm never going to live that down! Besides, I'm perfectly sober now."

Tony took one of her hands in his. "Oh, I don't know. I thought you were extremely cute."

Maya tried to frown forbiddingly but failed miserably and ended up laughing with the others, enjoying the sensation of Tony's fingers entwined with hers.

After several minutes John consulted his watch and they agreed it was time they headed for the reception.

The huge gymnasium had been decorated for the occasion in a black, white and silver theme. Balloons and streamers festooned the walls and ceiling. Newly replicated white linen, silver cutlery and bone china graced the long tables. Hundreds of candles also adorned the tables, lending the room a wonderfully romantic, eighteenth century air.

Maya smiled with delight as they entered the ballroom and clutched Tony's hand. She was totally enchanted by the fairy tale atmosphere, the lights and the butterfly bright hues of the other women's gowns. Knowing that the tall, dark, handsome man by her side loved her added an extra dimension of wonder to what was already a magical evening.

Tony slipped an arm around her waist and hugged her to his side, pleased beyond reason at her obvious enjoyment.

They were standing close, Maya wrapped in the curve of his encircling arm, Tony's chin resting against the top of her russet head, when Helena walked up and dragged Maya away.

"Come. I have an overwhelming urge to visit the powder room. Tony, you're not invited."

Maya looked wistfully over her shoulder at Tony as the doctor led her away through the crowd, finally turning away as he smiled, raised his shoulders helplessly and accepted a consoling glass of champagne from Sahn.

Maya leaned against the vanity counter in the ladies room, watching Helena apply a fresh coat of lipstick.

"Well?" demanded Helena. "It's obvious something's happened. You two bring new meaning to the term lovestruck."

The younger woman's eyes shone with joy and a shy pride. "He loves me, Helena. I didn't know it was possible to be this happy!"

Helena gave her friend a hug. "I knew you two belonged together."

She observed Maya with a clinical eye, finally deciding that this hopelessly beautiful young woman had acquired a glow that rendered her even lovelier. "You don't need it, but you can borrow my lipstick if you like. You enjoyed playing with the stuff so much this afternoon, and the last coat seems to have been kissed off." This last, teasingly, as Maya blushed and rubbed a little colour onto her already bee stung lips.

By the time they returned to the ballroom more people had arrived and the air hummed with animated conversation. Maya's gaze instantly sought the far corner of the room, where Tony, John and Sandra stood surrounded by a vivacious group of partygoers. Ellen Morgan had planted herself proprietarily next to Tony. Maya's heart sank a little as she recalled several less than pleasant encounters with the beautiful blonde. Ellen was sweetness and light when Tony was around and distinctly unpleasant when he wasn't.

Then Tony looked up, their gazes met across the length of the room, and she forgot everything but the intense emotion transmitted from his eyes to her heart.

Tony was dimly aware that Ellen was addressing him, but his attention was transfixed by the vision in midnight blue advancing towards him through the crowd. He walked away while Ellen was in mid sentence, leaving her with mouth agape. Many interested bystanders watched as the handsome Italian and lovely Psychon met in the middle of the dance floor. Tony gallantly offered her his arm, which she took with a happy smile. Then they turned as one and strolled back to the group Tony had just abandoned, oblivious to the minor sensation they'd just caused.

Helena sailed along in their wake and then sidled up to John, demanding to know why he hadn't also marched out to escort her. He raised an eyebrow and, to the general amusement of the group, deadpanned,

"I'm afraid, Doctor, that only a European could have carried that off!"

Radiant with happiness, but at the same time a bit shy of seeing these familiar faces transformed by the formal and glamorous setting, Maya clasped Tony's proffered hand, reassured by the warmth of his lean fingers linked with hers.

"What would you like to drink?" He correctly interpreted the look of doubt that flickered momentarily over her face - she'd had enough champagne. "They do a nice fruit punch." At Maya's smiling nod he kissed her temple and threaded his way through the crowd to fulfil this mission.

"You two are cosy tonight."

Maya turned to face Ellen Morgan, icily elegant in a spangled gold evening dress. The other woman was a beautiful blonde with a spectacular figure, shown to advantage in her daringly low-cut gown.

Maya had always been impressed by Ellen's social ease and effortless poise, while at the same time remaining acutely conscious of the other woman's dislike of her. At first hurt and bewildered by Ellen's attitude, she simply avoided Ellen whenever she could now. The reason for this antipathy was now more obvious, given the fact that Ellen had never made her pursuit of Tony secret.

"Good evening, Ellen." Maya smiled politely, maintaining an outward calm that hid a feeling of unease. "The gym looks wonderful, don't you think?"

Ellen smiled coolly and didn't bother to reply, studying Maya with the clinical interest of a scientist observing a laboratory rat. Very uncomfortable now, Maya slanted a quick, slightly anxious glance towards the bar. She could see the back of Tony's dark head; he looked just about ready to start back. Thank God. She smiled politely at Ellen again, all the while screaming inside for Tony to hurry up.

Ellen twirled her champagne flute idly.

"Have you slept with him yet?"

She continued in a pleasant, conversational tone, ignoring Maya's startled intake of breath. "I hear he's a wonderful lover - second-hand info only at this point, unfortunately. I had such an interesting conversation with a rather tipsy girlfriend of his at a party about six months before we blew out. Nice enough girl, I suppose."

Ellen's expression became slightly malicious, "But she must have bored him fairly quickly, though, because she wasn't around much after that. A man like Tony needs a sophisticated woman, darling. I don't know how you managed to catch his interest - well, I suppose you're pretty enough..." She cast a dismissive glance up and down Maya's figure. "Take my advice, darling. Enjoy him while you have him. Because you won't have him long."

With this, Ellen smiled and moved off, waving to an acquaintance in the distance.

Maya stood rooted to the spot. Ellen's brief, astonishing speech, murmured in a pleasant, conversational tone, had targeted her insecurities with astonishing accuracy, and shaken her more than she cared to admit. Tony was older and far more experienced than she. All she knew of making love was what she'd read in books or seen on film. Would she know how to please him?

She was so deep in these unhappy thoughts that she didn't notice Tony's return and started violently when he touched her shoulder.

"Are you okay?" He asked concernedly, handing her a glass of fruit punch.

"I'm fine." She took a jerky sip of her drink, her distress palpable.

"No you're not! What did Ellen say to upset you?"

"Oh, God....please, Tony. I really don't want to talk about it...." With horror, she listened to the slightly tremulous quality of her own voice.

Alarmed now, Tony scanned the room for a quiet corner and led her, protesting feebly, to a dimly lit table. Once seated, he clasped both of her hands in his and leaned forward until his dark head was very close to hers.

"Ellen obviously said something that upset you. Please, sweetheart, tell me."

At the mention of Ellen's name, Maya looked away from Tony, biting her lip in an agony of embarrassment at her own insecurity, but unable to squelch the very real fears Ellen had raised.

"You'll think I'm incredibly childish." She whispered, glancing shyly at him, but with his quiet encouragement gathered enough courage to blurt haltingly, "I've never...I'm not very experienced." Maya dropped her gaze to their linked hands, blushing helplessly, "I'm afraid you'll be.... disappointed." She risked a quick peek at him through her lashes, and was alarmed for a second to see his jaw clench with anger, despite knowing it was Ellen he was furious with, not herself.

Tony controlled his temper rapidly, his concern for Maya over-riding his outrage at Ellen's vindictive behaviour. He raised Maya's face with a gentle hand under her chin, "I'm in love with you. Just holding your hand gives me pleasure. When we make love it will be wonderful because we love one another. Did I seem disappointed earlier?"

At her blushing negation he smiled tenderly and kissed her softly. "You are a beautiful, extremely desirable woman, Maya. I will always want you and only you."

"Good," whispered Maya softly, some of her natural sparkle returning, "because I think I might turn out to be the possessive type."

"Oh? Do tell!" Tony grinned.

"You have a rather, reputation." She said, blushing and laughing simultaneously, an altogether adorable effect in Tony's eyes.

"You heard this from Ellen?" He was incredulous, sure that none of his former lovers on Alpha would condescend to gossip about him with Ellen. By now they were both beginning to laugh helplessly, attracting amused looks from people in their vicinity.

When they'd sobered somewhat, he leaned his forehead against hers, and murmured,

"I'll do my best to live up to my reputation, whatever that may be."

Maya smiled. "Okay."

He was lowering his head to hers, their mouths barely touching, when they were interrupted by a discreet "ahem". They looked up simultaneously to behold Alan Carter, looking extremely uncomfortable in his tux.

"Sorry. Helena sent me to collect you. We're about ready to head for the buffet."

Ten minutes later Helena, Sahn and Maya were seated at their table. Tony, John and Alan had gallantly insisted on filling the women's plates for them and were at the buffet, absorbed with arranging salads, entrees and vegetables in an appetising manner.

Maya surveyed the ballroom interestedly, watching Tony's progress while chatting animatedly with Helena and Sandra.

"What on earth did you say to Ellen, Maya?" asked Sahn curiously. "She's looking in your direction with more venom than usual."

"All I said was 'Good evening, Ellen'. She did the rest of the talking." Maya's voice was quiet but had a distinctly ironic tone.

"I can imagine," said Helena, directing a cool glare at Ellen's table. "I'm glad Tony was able to administer an immediate antidote to whatever poison she was spitting." She raised an enquiring eyebrow at Maya, seeking confirmation that this was indeed the case.

"A wonderful antidote," said Maya quietly.

"Good!" chorused the others. Both had watched anxiously over this blossoming relationship and were hostile to anyone who seemed set to block the course of true love.

The men soon returned with plates piled high. Theirs was a rather riotous table, with regular outbursts of uproarious laughter. Maya, too excited and happy to eat with any real appetite, picked at her vegetables and salad.

"Did I choose badly?" Tony sounded slightly injured.

Maya laughed, "I'm just not very hungry... although your lasagne does look nicer than mine." She peered critically at his plate, "Your broccoli, too."

Tony obligingly fed her a choice titbit from his fork.

"Hmmm, it is nicer. You've been hogging all the good bits."

"We can swap plates, if you like."

She laughed, "That's no fun."

He smiled fondly at her, "I've noticed your larcenous tendencies when it comes to my food."

The music began just as they were finishing their coffees and they walked hand in hand to the dance floor. Many interested glances were cast their way; they were a strikingly handsome couple, made more so by the deep happiness they shared and could not even begin to conceal.

They might have been alone in the ballroom for all they noticed the other dancers, moving with effortless, unconscious grace to the slow music, oblivious to the admiring attention they were receiving.

Tony gazed into long lashed, clear blue eyes and wondered if he could possibly be happier than he was now. He had a wonderful feeling this was just the beginning. Even spinning towards the unknown on a lifeless piece of rock, Tony knew that as long as Maya loved him, the future could only be bright.

A pleasurable heat unfurled in Maya's middle as the tempo of the music slowed and Tony drew her closer. She clasped her arms around his lean waist and rested her cheek on his broad chest, her eyes closing contentedly as she listened to the steady beating of his heart. It was bliss, being held like this, knowing that before the night was over they would be lovers in every sense of the word; body and soul combined. Maya's senses were inundated with a supercharged awareness of Tony; her head swam as she inhaled his clean, masculine scent - a sexy blend of warm skin, crisp linen and a hint of woodsy aftershave. She shivered slightly as his hands lazily caressed the soft, sensitive skin of her bared back.

Tony concentrated on fixing her in his memory; the supple, delicate warmth of Maya's body against his, the luminous beauty of her porcelain skin as she tilted her lovely face to look into his eyes, the dimple that flashed in her cheek as her mouth curved sweetly into the beginnings of a smile. God, he loved her. His eyes darkened almost to black as he let himself drown in her cerulean gaze, an inexpressible tenderness softening the ruggedly masculine lines of his handsome face

Maya blinked back tears as her eyes misted in response to the naked love in Tony's gaze.

He traced a gentle finger over the feline arch of her brow, "It will break my heart if you turn out to be a particularly wonderful dream."

She held his hand to her cheek, her eyes filled with a soft light and whispered, "You are my heart."

His dark head lowered to hers and their lips met in a kiss that combined an infinite tenderness with a stirring, sensually heated undercurrent.

"Do you know how much I love you?"

Maya smiled, "Not as much as I love you."

He raised an eyebrow at her, "Yeah, but I'm truly, madly, deeply in love with you."

"But I still love you more." She smiled smugly, smothering a laugh at his pained expression.

The mischievous sparkle in his eyes belied his long-suffering sigh, "See? I even love your bloody-mindedness."

As Maya sputtered her outrage at this injustice, he swept her into a slow dip, suspending her easily over his arm, holding her there, laughing and breathless, for a few giddy seconds.

They smiled into each other's eyes as they danced, to all intents and purposes, alone in the crowded room.

"Those two have got it bad," Alan remarked laconically as he and Sahn twirled past the lovers. "I give it two weeks, tops."

"Alan!" Sahn glared at him indignantly.

"No, no. That's not what I mean." He smiled. "Two weeks at the most until they're engaged. Although I'd say it looks more like a matter of hours. Tony will never be able to hold out that long."

"I think it's all terribly romantic, " sighed Sandra.

"I just hope Maya loves him as much as he loves her." Alan said seriously. "We've been friends a long time and I've never seen him fall this hard." He glanced over Sahn's head at the subject of their discussion, and smiled. "I'd say our First Officer's bachelor days are definitely numbered."

Malevolent green eyes were among the dozens that followed Tony and Maya that night. Ellen Morgan was used to getting any man she wanted.

Tony Verdeschi was her first failure.

That mewling alien must have some less than obvious allure that was attractive enough to blind him to her own more voluptuous charms. That the little cow had run straight to Tony after their little chat was patently obvious from the stony look he'd cast her way during the banquet. The knowledge that she'd behaved badly and earned Tony's enmity only increased her jealous dislike of Maya.

Tony swam every morning before work and she managed to 'coincidentally' drop by the pool at the same time whenever she could. He had the hard, smoothly muscled body of a swimmer. He was extremely well proportioned and powerfully built, but without the distasteful bulkiness some men sought to acquire with weights. Dark hair liberally covered his magnificent chest, taping to an intriguing thin line that disappeared into the modest surfer trunks he invariably wore. What a waste. Less appealing men always seemed to wear the skimpy bikini styles that revealed more than they covered. Just once (well, more than once) she'd like to see their gorgeous First Officer in his full glory.

For five years she'd made her interest in Tony obvious and he'd responded with nothing more than friendly politeness. Oh, she'd had other lovers, as had he, but she'd kept her eyes open for opportunities to be near him.

Since Maya had arrived on Alpha he'd been preoccupied - even less responsive to her responses than usual. And now, well, he'd obviously chosen the interloper. Distinctly murderous thoughts occupied her mind as she watched Maya and Tony on the dance floor.

She turned her back on them abruptly, and a thoughtful expression crossed her face as she spied Dave Reilly propping up the bar. The Irish cowboy should have blended with the party atmosphere, surrounded as he was by laughing, chattering friends. What drew Ellen's eye was his wistful air as he unsuccessfully tried to avoid watching the dance floor. Ellen didn't have to look to know who had attracted Dave's unhappy attention.

"They make a lovely couple, don't they?"

Dave jumped, startled, as Ellen's voice rang in his ear. "Why don't you cut in? He doesn't have exclusive rights, you know."

The dark haired geologist looked uncomfortable, embarrassed that someone had noticed his longing.

"Are you kidding? Look at them." They both glanced over towards the dance floor where the objects of both their desires swayed slowly to the music, Maya's bright head tucked under Tony's chin. He murmured something in her ear, and then kissed her when she raised a dreamy face to smile into his dark eyes.

Reilly turned his back abruptly on the lovers and took a swig of his drink, his knuckles white where he clutched the glass.

"Aren't you going to fight for her?" Ellen demanded. "We could make a good team, David. You want Maya. I want Tony. If we work together it shouldn't be too difficult to break them up."

Dave laughed humourlessly and then said curtly, "If she hasn't fallen for me before now, what makes you think she'll change her mind all of a sudden?"

Ellen's voice was cold. "Does this mean you won't help?"

"Sorry, Ellen. I get the feeling I wouldn't be comfortable with your methods."

He admired her elegantly clad back as she spun furiously on her heel and stalked away through the crowd. Then Dave turned to his by now curious friends and quipped, "Do you think it's my breath?"

Maya floated on a heavenly cloud, a contented smile curving her lips. Clasped in Tony's arms, she felt safe and lazily, sensuously feminine. The outside world had ceased to exist for her from the moment Tony gathered her into his embrace. She rubbed her cheek against the crisp material of his tuxedo; her long lashes fluttering sleepily as she breathed in his clean, masculine scent. I wonder how long we've been dancing? It might have been hours or minutes - love had suspended her on a cloud of happiness, oblivious to the passage of time.

"Are you falling asleep on me?" Tony whispered softly in her ear. Maya felt the brush of his mouth on her forehead as she raised her gaze to his.

"No," she avowed, suddenly very much awake. She had a sudden, urgent desire to taste his mouth, to devour him hungrily, heedless of the other dancers around them.

He glanced at his watch. "It's almost two. No-one could accuse us of deserting the party early if we left now."

Maya nodded silently, mesmerised by the caressing tug of his fingers as he played with one of her silken curls.

"You must be exhausted. You've had a long day, Maya."

She knew the tack he was taking with this remark and made haste to deny any fatigue on her part. "I'm not at all tired. I just want to be with you." Nothing would stop her from being in his arms tonight.

Fifteen minutes later they were at the door to Maya's quarters, having said their good-byes to friends at the ball.

Tony took both her hands in his and said gently, "Cara, I want you to be absolutely sure..."

Before he could continue she placed a finger to his lips and whispered, "I am absolutely sure." Then she took his hand in hers and led him into her rooms.

The door had barely closed behind them before they were in each other arms. Tony cupped her lovely face with gentle hands, marvelling at her exquisite beauty, savouring the softness of her satiny skin under his fingers. Soft colour bloomed on her high cheekbones, accentuating the pure lines of her visage and drawing his gaze to the rosy fullness of her lips. He slowly pulled the pins from her hair. Auburn curls tumbled over her shoulders and down her back in a silken mass, the rich colour making her eyes seem jewel bright.

She felt incredibly fragile to Tony, her slender body fitting perfectly to his taller frame. An overwhelming rush of desire pulsed through him as Maya's full, rounded breasts pressed lushly against his chest. At the same time he had an equally strong instinct to protect and cherish. She had no conception of just how precious she was to him. Well, if he couldn't find the words, he'd have to show her another way.

Tony bent his dark head to hers, his lips delicately caressing the corner of her mouth, pressing butterfly kisses to her jaw. He buried one hand in the soft mass of her hair, cradling the back of her shapely head, the other hand slipped around her slender waist as he drew her closer into his embrace.

Maya's breath caught as Tony's mouth covered hers, and her arms tightened convulsively around his waist before sliding slowly up his strong back, adoring the sensation of hard flesh through soft cloth. Her lips parted responsively, her senses swimming as Tony claimed her mouth with a sensual thoroughness that weakened her knees.

They sank as one onto the sofa, murmuring endearments between kisses. Incredibly aroused though he was, Tony felt pleasure just holding her. Tonight his needs were secondary. Even had he not been acutely aware of her innocence, Tony knew he could happily linger over her for days - years, just for the wonder of watching the sleepy pleasure in her eyes blossom into ecstasy.

Maya, on the other hand, could not contain her disappointed sigh as he lifted his mouth from the creamy skin of her d?colletage, having worked his way with delicious slowness down the sensitive column of her throat to the top of her breasts. Minute by minute she grew more avid for the intimate touch of his mouth and hands.

Tony rolled onto his back, pulling her on top of him as he smiled at her delightedly. "You know I'm the who's been taking cold showers for ten months. You should be thankful you're not being thoroughly ravished." And I could definitely use some cooling off right now.

The curves of her slender body moulded perfectly, seductively to his larger frame. Sensation spiked like lightning down his spine as her long shapely legs entwined with his, the lush fullness of her breasts teasing the muscular planes of his chest, the soft curve of her abdomen cradling his arousal. She felt so incredibly good.

Luckily for his self-control, this admission distracted her momentarily, "For ten months. Really?" A half shy, completely female smile curved her mouth.


"I'd quite like to be ravished." She giggled and he drew her head down for a kiss.

"Shameless wench."

"Helena said you were protecting me from your baser instincts."

He made a choking sound. "When was this?"

Maya smiled, "Just before you picked me up for the second night of the Festival."

He tucked a stray tendril behind her ear, his lips quirking as he recalled the Doctor's words to him in the corridor that night. "Helena would make an excellent agent provocateur."

"I'd decided I wasn't going to put up with the big brother routine any longer."

"And what did Auntie Helena say to this?"

"I think it was something along the lines of, 'Don't seduce the poor boy right away, will you?'" She adored feeling his muscular chest lifting beneath her hands as he laughed.

"I wish I'd known this before."

"I've been trying, but you were being remarkably...." She paused. "Well, stupid."

He chuckled, "You've been driving me insane since quarantine, since the Borg. And as for Tra'an..."

Maya smiled impishly, "Yes, I was almost successful there, wasn't I?"

Tony sobered as he gazed into her sapphire hued eyes, "Do you know why I've been so cautious with you?"

As she silently shook her head, he continued. "Because I was scared to death. Because I knew if I told you I loved you before you were ready, frightened you and then lost you, it would kill me."

A soft light shone in her eyes, "How could I possibly be frightened by my best friend?"

Their lips met in a tender kiss that flamed within seconds into a passion that enveloped them both in its white-hot intensity. Maya wound her arms around his neck, wanting to be ever closer, resenting the layers of clothing separating them, thrilling to the sensation of his hands caressing her back, liquid heat flowing through her as he stroked her bare skin. She trembled in his arms, her mind and body drugged, capable of focusing only on the wonderful feelings washing over her in increasingly heated waves.

They both realised at the same time that they didn't have enough room to explore each other lying on the couch. Their breathing was ragged when Tony eventually sat up, gathering her into his arms once again after he eased them both to their feet.

She was so delicious. Her skin had a warm sweetness that drove him wild. Caressing her through the bodice of her dress, he could feel her nipples stiffening intoxicatingly, her satiny flesh peaking against the velvet of her gown. Almost out of his mind with need, Tony slanted his demanding mouth across Maya's again, gently nipping her tender bottom lip before losing himself again in the sensitive interior of her mouth.

Maya's knees had given out but Tony was easily taking her weight. A muffled cry of protest echoed in her throat when the intensely pleasurable stimulation of his gentle hands ended, followed quickly by an indrawn breath of anticipation as she felt his fingers pull at the zipper of her gown.

Tony drew back slowly from the kiss until their mouths were scant millimetres apart. Maya's eyes opened slowly and their gazes locked, the heat between them palpable. The intense love and desire Tony felt for Maya shone in his dark eyes as, with painstaking slowness, he lowered the zipper. He traced one hand lovingly down her back, exploring each newly bared inch of satiny skin with infinite care and reverence, until his fingers came to rest at the base of her spine.

"I love you," he whispered. Then he stepped back slightly and her beautiful gown floated into a midnight hued puddle at her feet. His brain absorbed the unveiled splendour of her in a heated rush.

Clad only in high cut white lace panties, sheer cream stockings and high heeled evening slippers, she stood before him with unselfconscious grace - her only reality the adoration in his eyes and the fullness of her own heart.

"You are perfect." He whispered. "My only love."

Eyes huge in her delicately flushed face, Maya brushed one hand caressingly over his cheek and Tony seized it, pressing a kiss to her palm. Then he claimed her mouth once again, kissing her with a passion tempered by gentle care as he lowered his hands to her slender hips, moulding her softness to his throbbing frame. With exquisite slowness, he traced the contours of her slender waist and back, delighting in the tremors that rippled through her as he stroked her responsive skin.

Maya's eyes closed in ecstasy as he slid his hands up from her slender waist to gently cup her high, rounded pink tipped breasts. He teased her already sensitised nipples into rigid peaks, his touch devastatingly slow, overwhelmingly pleasurable. This first, intimate touch of a man's hands was more than she'd dreamed it could be.

Mesmerised by her rounded fullness, Tony lowered his mouth to one rosy peak. His eyes closed and a shudder of pleasure jolted through him at this first delicious taste of her. Delicately licking the hard pink bud, he buried his face in her luxuriant softness before turning his loving attention to her other breast.

Maya stood enraptured, helpless to prevent soft sounds of pleasure from escaping her lips. Threading her fingers through the soft, dark thickness of Tony's hair, she leaned closer, newly avid for the unbearable pleasure of his touch.

Tony trailed slow kisses up Maya's slender throat to her waiting mouth. They kissed deeply, passionately. Maya moaned softly and slid her hands up Tony's chest to impatiently push his tuxedo from his broad shoulders. While Tony shrugged out of the black jacket, Maya fumbled with the buttons of his dress shirt, desperate to feel his bare flesh against hers. As his shirt fell to the floor she ran her fingers over his magnificent chest, powerfully muscled and liberally covered by a soft tangle of dark hair. She slid her arms around Tony's neck and shivered with delight as the hair on his chest brushed the sensitised tips of her breasts.

Standing on tiptoe, she moulded her frame closely to his, pressing her lace covered femininity to the excitingly rigid length of his manhood. A surge of liquid heat blossomed between her thighs and her breath caught in her throat as Tony groaned with desire and ran his hands down her naked back to cup her rounded bottom, fitting her more intimately to him.

Tony felt harder than he'd ever been in his life; he trembled with the intensity of his need for Maya. She was such a delicious combination of slender delicacy and lush provocation - the lover he'd always dreamed of. Her ivory breasts teased his naked chest as he stroked the supple curves of her bottom. Finally, unable to bear the erotic, undulating caress of her lace-covered mound against his throbbing erection, Tony hooked his fingers into the waistband of her French cut panties. He eased his mouth away from hers to tenderly kiss her flushed cheeks while slowly sliding the lacy scrap down her shapely thighs. When her lingerie lay at her feet, Maya kicked off her shoes and looped her arms around Tony's strong neck as he swept her up into his arms. Lifting her easily, he carried her to the bedroom, laying her gently on the soft duvet. His gaze never left her as he quickly removed his shoes and socks.

The soft light in the bedroom lent luminosity to her fair skin. One long, shapely leg was slightly bent at the knee, drawing Tony's heated gaze inexorably up her beautiful thighs to the softly curling triangle of her womanhood. The pink tipped globes of her breasts rose and fell enticingly, keeping time with her hastened breathing. Maya's long hair waved in a soft, tumbled corona over the pillow as she watched him disrobe with dreamily fascinated eyes.

He quickly shed his trousers and underwear, his magnificent erection rising hot and large against the flat musculature of his abdomen. Maya gasped softly as she beheld for the first time the naked glory of the man she loved. He was beautiful - tall and perfectly proportioned, broad shoulders and chest tapering to a lean waist and long, leanly muscled legs. The dark hair liberally covering his chest tapered in a thin line down his flat stomach to his manhood where it increased again. Maya's gaze lingered, fascinated, on his proud maleness, the thick staff arched boldly, seeming to invite her touch. She raised her arms, an eternally welcoming, feminine gesture, silently urging him to come to her.

Tony lowered himself onto the bed beside her, his hands moving gently on her silky thighs as he very slowly peeled the diaphanous stockings from her slender legs, removing one, then lazily stroking her smooth flesh, admiring the lithe shapeliness of her limbs, before sliding the other stocking slowly down her leg.

Their bodies touched for the first time as Tony leaned half over her, "You are so beautiful." He murmured, smiling tenderly as he watched the play of emotions across her enchanting face.

"So are you," she whispered shyly.

He smiled, "I don't know about that..."

Their mouths met in a deep, passionate kiss; Tony licked her tender bottom lip and continued to voluptuously trace the full curves of her lips with his tongue before dipping inside finally to explore the sweet interior of her mouth.

Maya's tongue sought his with an eager sensuality that forced a moan of pleasure from Tony.

He explored her slowly, savouring the perfect softness of her skin with his mouth and gentle fingers, trailing his hands from her collarbone, down over her breasts, across her smooth stomach, tracing the slender line of her hips, the rounded curve of her bottom, before finally coming to rest gently on the soft curls between her legs. Maya trembled slightly as Tony combed loving fingers through her feminine hair, cupping her with his warm palm. He gazed adoringly into her lovely face before kissing her parted lips, his chest brushing her full breasts. Although more aroused than he'd ever been in his life, his control was still strong enough to match his determination not to rush her. Their first night together was going to be one neither would forget.

Maya slid her hands over his shoulders to clasp her arms around his strong neck. She gasped, her blue eyes closing with pleasure as his exquisitely gentle fingers parted her softness to delicately explore the sensitive, moist flesh between her legs. She felt as though she were melting, her entire existence centred on Tony and the wonderful, overwhelming sensations he aroused.

Tony traced slow kisses down the slender column of her throat, revelling in the sweet satin of her skin, finally stopping at the pink and cream splendour of her firm breasts. He licked one rosy nipple slowly, moisture from his worshipping mouth causing it to gleam wetly in the dim light. He murmured with pleasure and sucked the hard bud with such an insistent, erotic rhythm that Maya cried out softly, her head tossing restlessly on the pillow. Her world had narrowed to encompass only the ecstasy of his mouth and the hot, wet, unbearably pleasurable sensation between her legs. It was almost too intense. Pleasure flowed through her veins like molten silk as she soared ever higher, ascending to another world, to a heightened state of rapture she'd never imagined existed.

Maya opened her eyes to meet Tony's passionately intent gaze. His touch was butterfly soft, soothing and inflaming at once as he teased her with the promise of even greater ecstasy before gliding away to explore her intimately. Back and forth his fingers danced slowly. Her hips lifted involuntarily and she gasped and pressed feverishly closer to Tony as the unbearably wonderful tension built and built, adoring his strength and the hair-roughened splendour of his hard flesh.

Tony pressed gentle kisses to her cheeks, forehead and eyelids. "I love you," he murmured, his voice dark with desire, promising her his life with three small words.

"And I love you..." she whispered huskily, then moaned softly with pleasure as his uncontrollable, teasing fingers propelled her into a delirium of mounting rapture. She whispered his name, trembling on the brink, half fearful of the feelings overwhelming her, opening her eyes to meet his heated gaze a second before his loving touch catapulted her slowly into a shuddering climax. Her pupils widened to black and she cried out his name, head thrown back, as her world exploded into wave after wave of unbelievable ecstasy, the rapture seemingly endless. Her eyes closed and she trembled in his arms as liquid, molten delight consumed her.

Tony continued his intimate caress, gently maintaining the intensity of her pleasure as long as possible. She was gradually floating down from the peak of sensation when he slid one hair-roughened thigh between hers and pulled her even closer into his arms, the rigid length of his manhood like a brand against her stomach.

He smoothed a damp auburn curl from her flushed cheek and smiled into her pleasure drugged blue eyes. He'd felt such fulfilment just watching the rapture on her beloved face - it was as though he'd peaked with her.

"I had no idea..." Maya's whisper was soft and awed; pleasure still rippled in gentle heated waves through her body, her orgasm fading slowly. A fresh thrill coursed through her as she felt him, hot and large and hard against her abdomen.

"I've always been good with my hands." Tony smiled with delight as her bee stung mouth curved in response to his gentle quip. She felt marvellous; the silky, slender length of her body fit his as though made for him. He rubbed his nose affectionately against hers and they smiled into each other's eyes before Tony lowered his mouth to Maya's once more and their lips met in a long, languorous kiss.

When their eyes finally opened once more, Tony lost himself in the stormy sapphire depths that had haunted his dreams. "Your eyes so beautiful..." He traced the delicate arch of her brow admiringly. "Like a clear blue sky..."

The dimple he adored appeared in her creamy cheek and her colour heightened beautifully. She traced a finger down Tony's throat, running her hands over his chest before twining her slender fingers into the dark hair furring that tantalising, muscular expanse. He shivered reflexively; and she revelled in the knowledge that he needed her touch as much as she craved his. Maya pressed her lips to the heated flesh at the base of Tony's strong throat, working her way slowly up his neck, tasting his pulse point with her tongue, pressing her nude form even closer to the rampant masculinity that was driving her wild. She could feel his pulse throbbing violently as she traced a hot, wet circle on his extremely appetising skin.

His breathing was ragged when she raised her bright head and smiled into his desire darkened eyes once again before continuing her leisurely exploration of his jaw line. He waited with hushed anticipation for each velvety brush of her mouth on his skin, hardening to almost painful dimensions at her sensual explorations. Finally, unable to resist the temptation of her soft lips, he dragged her mouth back to his, burying his hands in her hair, desperate for the sweet taste of her.

When they finally came up for air, Maya touched Tony's lean cheek, her heart in her eyes, "I dreamed of being with you, like this...."

Tony cupped her face in his hands, and said simply, "I would die for you." His words brought tears of happiness to Maya's eyes. They held each other quietly for a long moment before his mouth curved wryly, "Whether my blood pressure will ever come down is another matter."

Maya blushed, but there was a gurgle of laughter in her voice when she asked, "What do you think we should do about it?"

Tony kissed her smiling mouth and traced his fingers down her spine, "Whatever you feel like doing, my love."

"Do you mean I can have my way with you?" Mischief danced alongside another kind of excitement in her lovely eyes and she daringly traced her hand down his chest to the flat plane of his stomach, longing to explore but still a bit shy of his size and obvious desire for her.

The throbbing virility of his rigid manhood seemed to give off a heat of its own. Curiosity and desire drew her slender hand to the part of him that fascinated her. At the first tentative touch of her gentle exploring fingers Tony caught his breath, groaned and shuddered violently. Alarmed that she'd hurt him, Maya let go, her eyes widening as she met his gaze. His voice was thick as he took her hand and trailed it back down his body.

"You didn't hurt me." He claimed her soft mouth in a hard, passionate, demanding kiss. "Feel how much I want you." His harsh intake of breath and closed eyes as she touched him again sent an electric shock of excitement through Maya.

Her own breath quickened as she touched the satiny smooth length of him, marvelling at the throbbing potency of his desire. He was so large and hard, yet so smooth; she shivered with pleasure as he grew even harder, straining against her fingers, overwhelmingly male, rampantly virile. Instinct took over, obliterating even her slight apprehension that she would never be able to accommodate his enormous size. All she wanted was to feel him deep inside her.

Just before her caressing fingers sent him over the edge, Tony gently seized her hand and placed it on his chest, sliding his lean thighs between hers. Maya inhaled slowly as she felt his rigid maleness tease the moist, yearning entrance of her womanhood.

He gazed into her widening eyes, and whispered, "I love you."

Everything he felt for her echoed in those three words and was reflected in his dark eyes as he gently entered her for the first time, pushing a few slow, careful inches into her tight passage. At her first surprised intake of breath, Tony thrust past the thin barrier of her virginity, taking her quickly to minimise any pain and then closed his eyes, biting back a half anguished groan of absolute pleasure, overcome by the glory of her.

He looked down into his beloved's eyes; her pupils were so dilated, her eyes seemed almost black.

"Am I hurting you?" He barely recognised the suffocated exhalation as his own voice.

"No...." Maya was equally breathless. She'd felt some discomfort at first, nothing like real pain, and now she felt only the delicious, compelling reality of his throbbing presence within her. He hadn't yet moved but already Maya could feel a resurgence of the heated ecstasy she'd felt earlier. "You feel wonderful," she whispered softly. He smiled, lowered his mouth to hers and she came to life in his arms, a delicious pulsing blossoming in her belly as her loins suffused with heat.

Then he moved within her and the warm pleasure she felt slid into rapture. Tony withdrew carefully and thrust into her with exquisite slowness, his thick shaft frictioning wonderfully, slickly against her sensitive tissues. Maya gasped and then moaned softly into the moist interior of his mouth. The reality of making love with him surpassed even her most erotic dreams. His every movement sent her higher, made her want him more. Nothing had prepared her for the compelling sensation - this urgent striving to be closer still. For a long, heated eternity they lost themselves completely, the pleasure building, incredibly, second by second. Maya closed her eyes as his thrilling invasion impelled her ever higher; her hips lifted in rhythmic response to his slow, sensual thrusts. She wrapped her legs tightly around his hips as she gave in to mindless rapture, her second orgasm flaring like a super nova. She cried out, and clung to him helplessly, pulsating around his hardness as wave after wave of pleasure washed over her.

Driven past endurance by the sight of her ecstasy and the unbearable pleasure of her welcoming heat, Tony finally exploded, pouring out his need in a seemingly endless release, feeling as though he'd vaulted straight to heaven. They peaked at the same moment, each crying the others name in shuddering fulfilment. They kissed deeply, still intimately joined, floating upon softening waves of pleasure.

When Maya eventually opened her eyes she found Tony watching her closely.

"How do you feel?" There was gentle concern in his voice.

"Heavenly..." she breathed, her eyes soft with pleasure. She slowly traced Tony's chiselled features with one finger, as though really seeing him for the first time. "I had no idea making love would be so ...intense. Is it always like that?" There was a hopeful note in her voice.

Tony smiled and buried his nose in the tousled softness of her auburn curls, "That was pretty incredible. But then I think you and I are an explosive combination." Then he sobered and asked her seriously, "Are you sure I didn't hurt you?"

Maya looked blank for a second, and then blushed, hiding her face against his throat. "No, you didn't hurt me." If anything, she'd been too uninhibited, avid for this new, surging rapture.

Guessing the source of her embarrassment, Tony gently lifted her chin. "Do you know what it means to me to know I can give you as much pleasure as you give me?"

Maya slid her fingers exploringly over his chest. "No, but I know I want to find out. Will you teach" She trailed off, giggling as his mouth swooped down to claim hers.

"We'll teach each other."

Maya sighed happily and slid her arms luxuriously around Tony's neck, then whispered a soft, "Oh..." as she felt him stir with renewed desire. "Again?" Her voice husked with anticipation.

Tony kissed her, and felt an even stronger surge of desire as she responded; her mouth clinging, her breath hastening.

"Only if you want to." He smiled as she melted against him and slowly drew his mouth back down to hers. After several long, delicious minutes, he eased his mouth away and she sighed her disappointment. But then Tony lowered his mouth to the yearning peaks of her breasts and was quickly rewarded by the soft pleasure sounds that made him even wilder for her.

Glorying in Maya's ragged breathing, and, he delicately flicked her sensitive pink flesh with the tip of his tongue, moaning with pleasure as her nipple hardened even further.

A growing ache of intensely pleasurable tension flowered in her belly and between her legs as Tony hardened within her, stretching and filling her deliciously. She clenched involuntarily around him, once, twice and they both moaned quietly at the incredibly erotic sensation.

Her eyes opened to meet Tony's intense, desire darkened gaze as he began to move slowly. He thrust home with excruciating, tormenting slowness - allowing her to feel the sensual invasion of every thrilling inch of him. Maya wrapped her legs around Tony's muscular buttocks as he thrust with an erotic rhythm, withdrawing almost totally, then slowly penetrating to the depths of her welcoming softness. She whimpered; sure she would die of this exquisite, unceasing rapture.

Tony licked her full bottom lip and groaned with fearsome pleasure as he thrust into her molten feminine heart. She was so hot and tight, he was lost in unutterably delicious sensation, enveloped in the ultimate deep, wet kiss.

Maya arched her back, wanting him even closer, her hips lifting to meet his powerful thrusts. Then his mouth was adoring the tender peak of each breast, paying slow, exquisite attention to her sensitive pink nipples. She clung to him fiercely, unable to tell where he began and she ended, merged, fused, body and soul.

Maya's eyelashes fluttered and she gasped, "Ohhh, ....Tony...I can't!" It was too much. She wrapped her arms around his neck, sobbing with rapture as pleasure transported her again, and she came in a rush of almost painfully intense ecstasy, riding endless waves of shuddering warmth.

It was a wonderful eternity before she tumbled slowly back to earth, floating on a cloud of euphoria, still fluttering with exquisitely pleasurable sensation. Maya buried her face languorously against Tony's neck, whispering her love for him over and over again. The smooth muscles of his broad back rippled under her hands. Adoring the clean, salt taste of his sweat, she traced a warm path up his throat with her tongue, and was rewarded immediately by his urgent mouth on hers. Tony plunged past her moist, parted lips, his tongue stroking hers in a rhythm that evoked the glorious motion of their bodies. Maya moaned into his mouth, half afraid of the pleasure, the heat, that was building again. She would faint, shatter into a million pieces in his arms. Die of bliss.

Tony grew harder still as she writhed under him, unable to get enough of her. Aroused beyond endurance, he watched her lovely face as she cried out incoherently with the intensity of her renewed climax. With one final, deep thrust, he came in a violent, overwhelming outpouring of love and release, devouring her mouth again as she sobbed with rapture. Tony continued to move after the initial explosive fulfilment, crying out at the unbelievable pleasure as he surged into her.

They kissed deeply, revelling in the intimacy, savouring the pulsing, lush sensation still ebbing between them, loving the feeling that they were really one. Maya sighed quietly when Tony eventually gently withdrew from her, addicted to the wondrous union. He rolled onto his back and pulled her into his arms, kissing her temple while lazily twining his fingers through the silken hair tumbling down her back. Maya lay draped over his broad chest, her legs entwined with his, her auburn head nestled drowsily against his collarbone. She felt boneless. She would never have the energy to move again. And that wasn't a bad thing, because then she would have to stay in his arms forever. This was heaven - lying here in Tony's embrace, her heartbeat slowly returning to normal, feeling the steady rise and fall of his chest under her hands.

She was almost asleep, nestled blissfully against him, when Tony scooped her up in his arms and carried her to the bathroom. He smiled in response to her sleepy queries and led her to the shower, where he turned on the water and pulled her with him under the hot spray. Maya hummed with drowsy pleasure as he leisurely soaped her, his hands moving reverently against her wet skin.

She in turn took delight in lathering Tony's chest, then running her hands in slow, sensuous circles over his flat abdomen as the bubbles slid down his stomach. Following a natural progression, she grasped his manhood softly in her sudsy hand, moving slowly up and down his length to distribute the soap.

Tony groaned softly, feeling himself stir and harden. He carefully removed her fascinated hand and rinsed them both off, to the accompaniment of her disappointed sighs. He laughed down at her, absolutely captivated by her drenched beauty, her perfect face and figure glistening wetly, delighted by her natural sensuality.

"Maya. Cara..." He paused, pulling her against him, so she could feel the effect she had on him. "Normally I would be more than willing to make love as often as you want. But you will not be happy with me if you can't walk tomorrow!"

"But it's mine now. And I'm off duty. I don't need to walk..." She smiled and leaned against him provocatively, brushing her full breasts against his chest. "I'm really not that tired." Only her drooping eyelashes betrayed her and belied this avowal of alertness.

Tony wrapped her in a huge fluffy towel and carefully dried her slender curves. He scooped her up in his arms again when they were both dry and carried her back to bed.

Maya pressed her lips to the side of his neck. "I can still walk, you know."

The slow smile that was just a small part of what made him so devastating curved the corners of his mouth. "Humour me. It's the caveman instinct coming to the surface."

Pulling back the duvet, he laid her down carefully, tucking her in before joining her under the covers. She melted into his embrace, her hands palm down on his chest, silken legs entangled with his, the satiny curves of her bosom caressing his bare skin. Tony chastely brushed his lips against hers, twining his fingers in her tousled curls, still damp from the shower.

They gazed quietly into each other's eyes for a long time, still a bit awed by the beauty of this new, physical intimacy.

Maya brushed her knuckles slowly down the arch of his cheekbone, tracing a gentle finger over the well-shaped line of his mouth. There was wonder in her eyes as she met his dark gaze.

"You make me so happy," she whispered. Her full lips curved into a smile of such sweetness, such tenderness, that his throat tightened with the intensity of the sudden, absolute certainty that she really did love him.

"That's all I've ever wanted." Tony caressed the velvety softness of her bottom lip with his thumb. "From the moment I first saw you."

"Semi-scorched." She chuckled, unable to really believe he'd succumbed to love at first sight when she had been literally that - a sight.

"It's true. John and Helena can probably attest to it. I believe the term 'gob smacked' comes closest to describing my initial reaction to you. Very uncool." His mouth curved ruefully. "I was a complete goner within a month."

"But why me?" She was indescribably glad it was true, but genuinely puzzled.

His voice was tinged with fond exasperation when he answered, "Maya, I could list half a dozen men off the top of my head who would come running if you so much as crooked your little finger at them." He smiled as she blushed, tracing an admiring finger over the satiny skin of her rose tinted cheekbone. "You really have no idea how truly lovely you are."

Maya ducked her head, her colour rising even further. But he wasn't about to let her evade the issue. Tony raised her face again with a gentle finger under her chin. "And I don't mean just physically. You're sweet, witty, thoughtful, easy to be with, brilliant, naive. Maddeningly stubborn." He chuckled as her blue eyes flashed a warning, "And you make me laugh more than anyone I've ever known."

"I sound absolutely revolting."

Tony's mouth quirked and he pressed a swift kiss to her mouth. "Are you questioning my taste in women?"

A soft light shone in Maya's eyes, as she whispered, "No, I guess you're stuck with me." Their lips met again in a long, gentle kiss.

The caress of his fingers in her hair was soothing, loving, incredibly soporific, lulling her off to sleep. Maya sighed contentedly and snuggled closer into Tony's arms, her head cradled against the base of his throat.

Tony listened to her quiet, regular breathing, continuing to play with her silky curls. It was hard to believe that a few days ago he had despaired of ever holding Maya like this. But now, lying here with his sleeping love nestled trustingly close, his happiness was so deep he scarcely dared breathe. If this was a dream he would gladly die in his sleep.

She was everything he'd ever wanted.

Physically they were perfect together - more than perfect. His worry that she might be frightened by the intensity of his desire for her had proved groundless. Maya's trust in him and her natural sensuality had allowed nature to take its passionate course. Never had the act of love been so intensely pleasurable. Maya sighed in her sleep and moved closer into his arms. Tony smiled and closed his eyes, fighting to control his arousal as the nude heat of her impacted his senses.

Tony glanced at the electronic clock on the bedside table. It was 5.30. Thank God they both had the next three days off duty. He wanted to keep her to himself as long as possible. In fact, he wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of his life with her. Maya stirred slightly and he tightened his arms around her gently. Her exquisite features were relaxed in slumber, extravagantly long eyelashes creating interesting shadows on her porcelain skin, the faint light from the bathroom casting an ethereal glow over her features.

There was an ancient emerald ring sitting in a box in Tony's sock drawer. Over five hundred years old, the gold filigree heirloom had been passed to the youngest sons in his family for countless generations. The ring had graced the fingers of many brides over the years.

Tony took Maya's hand, admiring the slender elegance of her fingers, pale against the dark hair of his chest. It was enough, for the moment, to know she loved him.

But he knew his compulsion to know her answer would not outlive the week. It was a slightly daunting prospect. He'd never asked a woman to marry him.

Despite the lightning intensity of his thoughts, sleep eventually claimed Tony. Exhausted by the emotional and physical highs of a very long day, he fell into a deep, dreamless slumber, drifting into unconsciousness in the arms of his love.

Maya floated half way between sleep and wakefulness, too warm and comfortable to move. She lay on her side, close to Tony's lean length, one leg draped over his, her left arm flung across his chest. She opened one eye slowly, moving her head back from the strong shoulder that had acted as her pillow for much of the night.

He was real.

Tony lay on his back, his chest rising and falling under her hand with each quiet breath. He looked positively boyish, with his right arm and leg out flung, his handsome face relaxed, a lock of unruly dark hair falling onto his forehead. Only the dark shadow of his beard and the luxurious growth of hair on his muscular chest gave a hint that he was thirty-four, not eighteen. She admired his strong, clean-cut profile, his firm jaw and straight, slightly aquiline nose giving the air of a rugged Roman god. She had snatched more than her share of the covers during the night - Tony's chest, one leg and arm were bare.

Maya smiled and closed her eyes again, snuggling closer as she relived the previous two days. She felt as though her life had really begun the moment she heard those three wonderful words. As for their lovemaking...she hadn't imagined such pleasure was possible. No book or film had come close to describing what she'd felt in his arms. It was as though they'd fused - body and soul - and then soared straight to heaven. Repeatedly. Maya blushed slightly as she remembered Tony's words in the shower. Tired as she'd been, they were burned into her memory. She shivered and then smiled. She was already his Love Slave. Physically enthralled.

Tony awakened and slowly rolled onto his side to face her. Their eyes opened at the same time.

"Good morning." He ran a finger down the delicate line of her cheek.

"Hi," she whispered.

"I'm glad you didn't turn out to be a particularly wonderful dream. The disappointment would've killed me."

In response, Maya pressed her mouth to his, kissing him slowly, delighting in the scrape of his beard against her tender skin. Tony sighed appreciatively and rolled onto his back, pulling her on top of him. They kissed with all the love and passion in their hearts and it was a long time before Tony reluctantly pulled away. He cupped her face in his hands and smiled, "Cara, your face is going to be scraped raw if I don't shave."

She twined her arms seductively around his neck. "Can I help?"

"If you keep that up you'll have to." Tony groaned. "I'll probably cut my own throat!"

He kissed her again before swinging his legs over the side of the bed, reaching for the trousers he'd discarded the night before.

"You're not leaving?" Maya sat up abruptly. He leaned over and gently pushed her back against the pillows.

"Just to shave and get us some breakfast. I'm not letting you go that easily."

"I love you," she whispered. She twined her fingers in the thickness of his dark hair. They gazed into each other's eyes, sobering rapidly.

"And I love you. More than you'll ever know."

Maya watched with great interest as Tony stood and clothed his nude form. With her wistful, "Hurry back," Tony flashed her a grin and was gone.

She lay dreaming for several minutes before getting out of bed and walking to her dressing table. She examined herself for external signs of the momentous changes that had marked the last night. Her eyes and cheeks were brighter than normal and a happiness she could not conceal if she tried shone from her face. But she could see no real physical change. She passed her hands experimentally over her breasts; her nipples were tender. Her own touch sent shivers through her as she relived the sensation of Tony's mouth and hands loving her.

She went to the bathroom where she ran her bath, adding lots of bubbles. Humming, she brushed the tangles from her auburn curls before pinning her hair up in a loose topknot. She sank blissfully into the steaming tub and leaned her head back against the rim, luxuriating in the silky heat of the water against her skin. Tony had only been gone ten minutes and already his absence was an ache around her heart. It was a rather pleasurable feeling - a delicious longing for him that grew stronger with each passing moment.

Maya opened her eyes and raised one leg out of the water, idly pointing and flexing her foot as she watched the bubbles trail down her limb. The air was steamy with the light fragrance of honeysuckle.

Tony arrived five minutes later, laden with bread, cheese, fruit and a bottle of champagne. He'd showered, shaved and changed into jeans and a casual shirt. He passed through the main living area and into the bedroom, placing all the packages except the champagne on Maya's dressing table. The bathroom door was ajar and a muted splashing revealed Maya's whereabouts. He pushed the door open with one finger, then leaned silently against the door jam, captivated by the charming picture she made.

Soft auburn tendrils clung to Maya's slender neck, unruly silken curls escaping from her hair clip. She reclined back in the water, bubbles covering her completely, with only her head, shoulders and the rounded slopes of her pretty breasts visible to Tony's admiring gaze.

As yet oblivious to his presence, she scooped up a handful of foam and blew it into the air, wrinkling her nose as the bubbles burst over her face. Tony's throat tightened as he watched her, tenderness combining with an overwhelming urge to take her into his arms and never let go. Then she looked up and he dove into the depths of her gaze.

Pleasure and a deep happiness bloomed in her beautiful face as she beheld the tall, broad shouldered form of the only man she would ever love. Tony's mouth curved into a gentle smile, his dark eyes conveying a depth of emotion that went beyond words.

"I never realised a bathtub could be so seductive." He walked slowly into the small room and sat down on the edge of the tub, setting the champagne and flutes on the floor. Maya sat up slightly, pink and white skin gleaming tantalisingly through white foam as the bubbles covering her high, firm breasts disappeared. Tony traced a finger down her slender throat to lovingly trace the shape of one full, round globe.

Shivering with pleasure at the delicacy of his touch, Maya's eyes closed, her soft lips parting as Tony's mouth descended to meet hers. He cupped the nape of her neck gently and ran the tip of his tongue over her bottom lip with tormenting slowness. Her response was immediate and delightful. She slid her arms up his shoulders and pressed herself to the rapidly dampening material of his shirtfront.

"You're getting soaked," she murmured, pressing soft kisses around his mouth. "Why don't you take this off?" She plucked at his damp shirt and smiled innocently at him, mischief sparkling in her eyes.

"Maya!" He exclaimed, scandalised. "I'm not that sort of boy!" He grinned at her even as he unbuttoned his white cotton shirt.

"It's your own fault for having such a gorgeous body." Maya said demurely, smiling wickedly at him from under the veil of her long lashes. She hooked one finger into the belt of his jeans. "In fact, I'll even let you share my bath if you take these off." She opened the button on his jeans and ran one finger very slowly down the length of the metal zip, thrilling to the feel of him hardening under her touch.

Tony smiled into her eyes and leaned forward to kiss her again. They were both breathing rapidly when he finally pulled back an inch. "You do realise if your hand stays where it is you might find yourself being ravished in your bath?"

"Oh, really?" Maya asked interestedly, as her wayward hand continued to stroke the impressive outline of his rigid maleness. "It doesn't seem to want to stop."

Tony's laugh quickly became a groan of pleasure. He placed his hand over hers and guided her fingers to the tap of his zipper, holding his breath as she inched open his jeans. When Maya's small hand closed around him, Tony inhaled sharply, his eyes closing as she gently explored the length of his arousal.

Maya shivered with desire, excited by the sight and feel of his virile maleness. He was so large, arching boldly under her fingers, a thrilling combination of steely hardness and velvety softness.

Tony opened his eyes and gazed, mesmerised, into Maya's desire flushed face. He kicked off his jeans and lowered himself into the water, causing it to lap like a tide against the sides of the tub. He cupped her face in his hands and they kissed lovingly before smiling into each other's eyes.

"Somehow I don't think I'm the one doing the ravishing here." Tony chuckled ruefully as Maya knelt gracefully over him. She gasped as she lowered herself carefully onto his pulsating manhood.

Fighting to keep her eyes from closing with ecstasy as his heat filled her, Maya watched his face, delighting in the intense pleasure playing across his handsome features. Leaning back against his drawn up knees, Maya was instantly lost to the wonderful sensations generated by their sybaritic coupling. Warm water caressed their skin, adding an extra dimension to their lovemaking. Maya closed her eyes and arched her back as rapture spread through every sensitive nerve ending and Tony slid his hands up from her waist to gently cup and mould the rounded fullness of her breasts.

Maya sighed tremulously, wrapping her arms around his neck as the delicious heat flooded her senses. She started to move more frantically, his upward thrusts in turn becoming more forceful. Maya cried out softly, sobbing with rapture as the unbearable pleasure peaked and she swept helplessly to the extremes of sensation, trembling in his arms as wave after wave of throbbing splendour consumed her. Tony pulled her mouth passionately down to his and thrust deeply into her clinging warmth again and again, driving her over the edge before following her, exploding with his own release; the shuddering pleasure seeming endless.

The water lapped gently around them, cradling them softly as Maya collapsed into Tony's arms. They lay quietly, their breathing gradually slowing to normal, the slow caress of his fingers on Maya's back lulling her into a dreamlike state; half asleep and blissfully happy. They would both have been quite content to stay there for hours but the rapidly cooling water eventually drove them back to the bed.

In a teasingly chivalrous mood, Tony insisted on drying Maya, enveloping his laughing victim in a huge fluffy towel. When they were both dry he scooped her up and carried her to the bedroom, stubbing his toe on the doorframe in the process. Cursing and hopping one foot, he hastily dropped his by now helplessly laughing passenger on the bed before collapsing beside her.

"How suave." He muttered darkly, trying unsuccessfully to keep a smile from his face as Maya's infectious amusement spread to him. Warmth shone in his eyes as he gazed down into her face. "Do you have any idea how much I love you?" he whispered, awed at the depth of his feelings for her.

Sobering, Maya lightly brushed an errant lock of dark hair from his forehead, admiring the clean-cut, lean angles of his face. "No. But I know how much I love you."

She spoke quietly, her voice trembling slightly with emotion.

They melted into each other's arms, glorying in the knowledge that now they wouldn't have to let go - ever. Their lips met, gently, tenderly and they kissed for an eternity, parting only to whisper words of love. Inevitably, desire rekindled and their embrace became urgently sensuous; as the hours passed they made slow, exquisite love again and again...

Clasped close in Tony's embrace, Maya ran one hand lazily over his chest, admiring his muscled hardness as she twined her fingers through the crisp dark hair covering that expanse.

"Tony..." She rubbed her cheek against the smooth skin of his shoulder.

"Hmmm?" Eyes closed, he traced his hand slowly down her slender back to follow the curve of her hip.

"Is this addictive?"

Tony didn't have to ask what this meant. He opened his eyes and grinned at her. "Hopefully. You're showing all the signs." Then he squawked as Maya pinched him.

"That's not very gallant, is it? You have only yourself to blame, Verdeschi." She whispered. "Maybe if you weren't so good at it I wouldn't be so..."

"Insatiable?" Tony finished for her, now laughing uncontrollably, his amusement only partially muffled by the pillow Maya was attempting to smother him with. Lying atop his lean length, she lifted the pillow and lowered her mouth to press a soft kiss to his smiling lips.

"Where's my breakfast? You left," she glanced at the bedside clock, "four hours ago to get it and I still haven't been fed. Thoroughly corrupted, yes. Fed, no."

"My poor baby." He returned her kiss. "Look in the bag." He indicated a small duffel bag he'd dropped beside the dressing table. "I'll get the wine." He strode to the bathroom and picked up the abandoned bottle and glasses, stopping to gather up his jeans and shirt as he went out. He stopped abruptly as his fingers encountered a small, hard object through the denim. It was his grandmother's ring.

He'd impulsively put it into his pocket while changing, more from a desire to keep it near than any concrete decision to propose to Maya today. But he knew he wouldn't be able to wait. He had to know now. Heart thumping, he opened the champagne, painfully aware that the rest of his life rested on Maya's response the question he was about to ask.

Maya heard the cork pop and smiled to herself as she spread the feast Tony had brought upon the duvet. Wrapping a sheet around herself toga-style, she sat back on the bed, kneeling among the grapes, nectarines, croissants and cheese.

"My Vestal virgin." Tony said teasingly as he emerged from the bathroom. He'd slung a white towel around his lean hips and carried two brimming champagne flutes, the bottle tucked under his arm. The mattress curved under his weight, sending nectarines rolling as he sat close beside Maya.

She smiled, "Not after last night." Electricity sparked between them as he handed her a glass and their fingers brushed.

They looked silently at each other for a long, wonderful moment before Tony smiled tenderly and whispered, "My only love," lowering his mouth to claim her soft lips. When they pulled back from the kiss Maya was misty eyed, overcome by the exquisite gentleness of his caress.

Tony raised his glass and tapped hers, the crystal ringing delicately. "To us," he said, watching as Maya sipped her wine. He caught his breath as she lifted the flute again to admire the etched design. Almost immediately her attention was caught by the glitter of gold from the bottom of the glass.

Maya's enquiring glance at Tony revealed him to have gone curiously still, a tense, anticipatory expression in his eyes. She dipped two fingers into the shallow bowl and withdrew an exquisite, obviously ancient gold and emerald ring. At her wondering intake of breath, Tony put the flutes on the floor and took both her hands in his.

Maya forgot how to breathe as she met Tony's dark, serious gaze.

He tucked a loose tendril behind her ear and said quietly, "Marry me?"

"Oh..." Her state of joy exploded into an overwhelming, almost frightening euphoria. She caught her breath, blushed and whispered a half-shy, "Yes, please."

Maya knew she would never forget the brilliant light in his eyes.

Tony framed her face with his hands, his touch reverent. "I promise you'll never regret it. All I want to do is make you happy."

"You already do," she whispered. He lowered his head to hers. Their lips were a whisper apart. Maya could feel his breath mingling with hers, but the longed for contact didn't come. She opened her eyes and met his gaze, hot with desire and wonderfully turbulent, mirroring her own heightened emotional state.

Impatient, he demanded, "When?"

She coloured again, a beautiful pink tinting her cheekbones," As soon as they let us?"

His eyes darkened even as his mouth curved into a slow smile, "I'll talk to the Chaplain today." Then he placed the ring upon her slender finger, noting that it fit as though made for her. He kissed her soft palm and said simply, "I love you."

Maya threw herself into his arms and buried her face against his neck. Tony stroked her back, running his fingers through the silky curls tumbling past her shoulders. Light-headed, he had to fight an overwhelming urge to go whooping down Alpha's corridors. He wanted to share his joy with the world.

"I was going to wait a week or two before daring to ask you, but I had to know. You're everything to me, Maya."

"I'd marry you right now if I could," Maya whispered. Light seemed to dance in her vivid blue eyes as she lifted her face to his. A warm ache blossomed in Tony's throat, fierce pride warring with happiness and his overwhelming love for her as he heard the quiet certainty in her voice. For a long time they simply held each other, both too overcome to speak. Only an insistent rumble from Maya's midsection eventually disturbed their reverie.

"I told you I was starving." The dimple he found so irresistible appeared near Maya's mouth. Tony pressed a kiss to that tantalising spot before trailing a line of kisses down her throat, pausing only to untie the knot holding her toga together. Maya smiled as he lowered her back against the pillows.

"Are you planning a ravishment?" she asked in a brightly interested tone. His mouth quirked but he didn't reply, placing a kiss to the rosy peak of each breast before working his way leisurely down to her navel. There, he pressed a single kiss to the satiny skin of her tummy before turning his ear to her stomach. The rumble was plainly audible this time.

"Nope. Food now. Ravishment later. Can't hear myself think..." his last utterance was muffled by the pillow being applied to his face with considerable force and velocity. The rest of his undoubtedly witty remark came out as, "Umppphaagh..."

She let him beg for mercy for several minutes before allowing her basic good nature to reassert itself. From her position astride him (much better for smacking him in the face), she judged him satisfactorily subdued and slowly peeled back the pillow so his eyes were revealed.

"Do you give up?" Her tone implied that if he knew what was good for him he would answer in the affirmative.

"God, you're cranky when you're hungry."

He pulled the pillow from her grasp and she collapsed upon his chest. Tony wrapped his arms around her and they smiled into each other's eyes, their mouths lingering scant millimetres apart.

"Very cranky," she agreed.

"I'll have to remember that."

"And I'm addicted to caffeine. Your fault."

"My fault?"

"Who got me hooked on cappuccino?"


"So what are you going to do about it?"

He trailed a finger down her nose to trace the curve of her bottom lip. "How about sharing your morning cup with me for the rest of our lives?"

Her sudden soft intake of breath and the happy light in her eyes gave him her answer even before her whispered, "Okay."

The silken mass of her hair formed a veil around them as their lips met, the contact a tender affirmation of this commitment. Tony brushed his knuckles caressingly over her cheek, smiling as she leaned into his touch like a pleased cat.

They didn't move far from the bedroom all day and only got partially dressed when starvation forced them out to the kitchen.

There were several empty married quarters available. Maya at first declared that she wanted to live in his rooms, but eventually they both agreed they wanted a place that would be equally theirs - he already had too much stuff in his quarters. They could start fresh and each make the place their home, even if it was just for a month or two until the Federation ship arrived.

They both wanted children eventually. Maya said she would like at least two - a boy and a girl. Tony smiled, captivated by the thought of bringing another life into the world with her. "A little girl with her mother's eyes." He tugged gently on an auburn tendril near her ear, his touch sending an electric frisson of pleasure through her.

"And a little boy like his father." Maya impishly fed him a piece of her sandwich, "I'll bet you were an absolute terror."

He pulled a face at her. "I was an immaculately behaved child. In some lights you can still see my halo."

Maya raised a sceptical eyebrow and then laughed and scooted out of his reach as he grabbed for her. She didn't try very hard to get away and as she was soon being very thoroughly kissed, decided to provoke him more often if this was the result.

They lay entwined, Maya lying half on top of him, her cheek over his heart. She twined lazy fingers through the dark hair covering his muscular chest. "When did you know?"

"That I loved you?" He smiled. "Within a month. Although I was hopelessly infatuated the moment I met you. Helena and John were completely tickled by the whole thing, although they tried to hide it. But I was terrified of scaring you off - hence the kid gloves."

He traced one hand slowly down the curve of her spine, "What about you?"

Maya propped her chin in her hands and pondered this seriously. "I didn't know what I was feeling for a long time. I wanted to be with you all the time. But I realised I was falling in love with you on the first night of the Festival. As soon as I walked through the door with Helena and John, I felt like I was really seeing you for the first time. It was horrible."

"I'm so flattered."

She smiled. "Well, I wasn't used to thinking of you as a man."

He laughed, "How did you see me - faithful dog?"

"My best friend." Her lips curved as he drew her down for a kiss. "But it was horrible. And wonderful. I was awfully self-conscious. I couldn't even look at you."

"I noticed. I was sure I'd done something to offend you. I was in agony until you relaxed."

"Signor Ketchup." She laughed at the memory, "You are silly."

They entered Command Centre together, and took their posts as normal, their co-workers visibly striving to contain their curiosity. Tony and Maya prolonged the torture for an hour or so, until Sahn's air of imminent spontaneous combustion prompted Tony to slant an amused glance at Maya, asking a silent "shall I tell them?" She nodded, smiling even as ready colour washed her cheeks.

Tony cleared his throat. So immediate and rapt was the attention centred on him, that there was laughter as well as quiet pride in his voice as he stated, "She said yes."

The room erupted into whoops of congratulation and applause with hugs and kisses all round. All pretence of work ceased as Alan magically produced a bottle of champagne and half a dozen glasses. Tony lifted a surprised eyebrow at this display of precognition and Alan drawled, "Sahn and I had a bet as to how long you could wait before popping the question. I just won."

"Am I that predictable?"

Instead of replying, Alan rolled his eyes and turned to Maya, "Thank you so much for putting him out of his misery. He's been a soppy mess from the moment he set eyes on you."

Chapter Thirteen

They were married ten days later in the base Chapel.

Tony stood at the altar with Alan and the Chaplain, waiting for his bride. He and his best man wore formal morning suits. They both looked handsome and distinguished, if polar opposites, one dark, the other fair. To his friends and colleagues in the congregation, Tony seemed calm, if somewhat pale. Alan, who was fidgeting constantly with the cuffs of his jacket, appeared by far the more nervous of the two.

This was deceptive.

Tony was in fact in the grip of an agonised certainty that Maya had changed her mind.

John would walk through the doors, alone, and commence down the aisle with the bad news. He'd awakened at 4am with this gut wrenching vision and the feeling of impending doom hadn't faded with the light of day.

He took a deep calming breath; then let out slowly.

It didn't work.

So he tried it again. And again.

Alan's quiet voice murmured in his ear, "Mate. Relax. You'll be fine."

Tony kept his gaze on the chapel door. "She's not coming."

Carter, to his credit, didn't smile. "Tony, if she doesn't show, I'll buy you free beers for a year."

The groom's mouth quirked, but he didn't reply.

Then the poignant first notes of the Vivaldi Gloria filled the chapel, followed by the soaring voices of Alpha's small chamber choir as they began the Et in Terra Pax. The congregation stood, and the doors to the chapel opened. Helena and Sahn, elegant in dark green dresses and carrying posies of violets, began their slow, stately procession down the aisle.

And an infinity later, there she was.

Helena knew the instant John and Maya came through the door behind her, because Tony's face lit up like a thousand suns. His gaze never wavered from Maya's face.

The emotional tug of the hauntingly beautiful music and the naked adoration in Tony's eyes as he watched his bride walk to him was too much. The doctor was in tears by the time she reached the altar. Turning to face the congregation she found that Sahn, processing behind her, was in the same state. They shared a watery smile and mopped their eyes with a tissue.

Maya wore an elegantly simple cream ballerina-style dress with tulle underskirt. A garland of cream roses crowned her long veil. Her hair was styled in a simple chignon. She carried a bouquet of roses and violets. Her gaze sought Tony the instant she entered the chapel, and as his face lit from within, her beauty blossomed into radiance. Later, she would be unable to recall anything of her walk down the aisle with John. The instant her gaze locked with Tony's he became her world.

Finally, they reached the altar. John placed Maya's hand on Tony's, giving both their hands a squeeze before moving to stand by Alan.

Maya smiled into the eyes of her husband-to-be, and he gripped her fingers tightly, taking a deep breath as they turned to face Padre Owens.

"Dearly beloved. We are gathered here in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation to join together this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony..."

Maya listened to the Chaplain's words, transfixed by the intensity of Tony's gaze.

Tony looked into her beautiful blue eyes, and spoke to her as though they were the only people in the room, "I, Antonio, take thee Maya, to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward..."

Then he slipped the slim gold wedding band onto Maya's finger. "With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, with all my worldly goods I thee endow, from this day forward. Amen." He imbued every word with the love and devotion he felt for her.

Maya accepted Tony's ring from Helena and took his hand as he had hers. "I, Maya, take thee Antonio, to my wedded husband..." Her gaze never left his and her voice trembled with emotion as she promised him all her tomorrows. Then she slipped the wedding band onto his finger and gave him a shy, absolutely radiant smile.

Then, looking into his eyes, she recited the Psychon marriage rite.

Today I pledge my life to you.

For all my days, through joy and sorrow I will love you.

Before these gathered, I promise you my heart for as long as I live and beyond.

Tony said the words back to her, his accent perfect, while the Chaplain translated into English for the congregation.

Hands clasped, they turned to face the Chaplain again.

"Forasmuch as Antonio and Maya have consented together in Holy Wedlock, and have witnessed the same before God and this company, and thereto have given and pledged their troth either to other, and have declared the same by giving and receiving of a Ring and by joining of hands: I pronounce that they are Husband and Wife together, In the Name of the Father and the Holy Ghost. Amen."

Tony lifted her veil with unsteady hands and looked into the eyes of his wife for the very first time. "Mrs Verdeschi."

Maya touched her fingers his cheek and whispered, "Mr Verdeschi."

Then he lowered his head to hers. As their lips met the congregation exploded into applause.

The wedding party recessed down the aisle to the Gloria's Domine Fili Unigenite, the voices of the choir rising in jubilant celebration. Maya clutched Tony's arm and radiantly happy, they accepted the congratulations of their friends.

The entire population of Alpha attended the reception and wedding dinner.

Alan, as Best Man, made an extremely funny and slanderous speech. John as honorary Father of the Bride, made a similarly funny, but moving one.

When Tony and Maya left the reception it was nearly 2am. They dashed into the corridor in a hail of rice and rose petals, and then ran for their lives, hand-in-hand, laughing breathlessly. They skidded to a halt near a commpost and caught their breaths, having barely eluded their enthusiastic friends and colleagues.

"They're all completely mad," Tony said admiringly.

Maya chuckled and didn't disagree.

He leaned close and smiled into her eyes. "Hello, wife."

Maya sighed. "I like the sound of that." She wrapped her arms around his waist. "Hello, husband."

Their lips met in a kiss that flashed from tender to passionate almost instantly. They were both breathing raggedly when Tony pulled back slightly to press kisses to the satiny skin around her mouth. "Let's go home."

Maya blushed and nodded smilingly. Hands clasped, they walked to the travel tube.

On exiting, they didn't turn in the direction they should have for Tony's quarters. At Maya's quizzically raised eyebrows, he smiled and said, "I don't live there anymore."

He stopped in front of a strange door.

"Our new place."

Maya's eyes lit up. "Ours?"

"Petrov had a team move our things during the wedding."

He keyed open the door. Then he swept her up in his arms. Laughing, Maya twined her hands around his neck.

Their gazes locked and the smile faded from her lips.

Tony carried his bride over the threshold.

And the door slid smoothly shut behind them.

Maya woke in the early hours of the morning, and for a moment didn't know where she was. It was dark, and the bed, though comfortable, was unfamiliar. But then she felt the warmth of Tony's chest under her hand, heard the even rise and fall of his breath.

And she knew she was where she most wanted to be.

Her eyes gradually adjusted and for long while she simply looked at her new husband in the dim light. She still couldn't believe he was hers.

A quiet smile curved her lips and she traced a gentle finger over the strong arch of his brow. "How I love you," she whispered.

He stirred, but didn't wake.

Maya curved her body into his, and drifted back to sleep in his arms.

Two weeks later the Federation ship arrived to take them to Earth.

The starship Leviathan was luxurious and marvellously advanced. Although Maya was impressed with the comfortable, spacious quarters she and Tony were allocated, it was a wrench to leave their Alphan apartment. They'd only lived together there for a fortnight, but each moment had been bliss.

Every Alphan pitched in to strip the base of as much equipment as possible. The Leviathan had freed up four cargo bays for Alphan salvage. High priority items went in first; the seed and genome banks, and as many plants as they could sample from the Biodome; all the databases; the film, music and literature archives. They'd collected an impressive collection of extraterrestrial artefacts.

And after a week of frantic activity, it was done.

It was time to go.

Tony and Maya took a last walk around the eerily empty base and sat under their willow tree in the Biodome for the last time.

Then they gathered at the viewing port on the Leviathan and watched the moon slowly recede through the panoramic window. Every Alphan was present.

Maya gripped Tony's hand. She watched as long as she could stand, and then turned her head away. Tony whispered a quiet, "Come here," and drew her into his arms. The warmth and comfort of his embrace, the soothing caress of his fingers in her hair loosed the tears that had been threatening for hours.

He arranged for a quiet meal in their quarters afterward, knowing she wouldn't want to be social.

After a few days on the Leviathan Maya's mood improved significantly. She was too much in love and too happy in her marriage to feel depressed for long. She shook off the sadness she felt at leaving Alpha and began to look forward to the journey ahead, to seeing Earth for the first time.

The month long voyage gave them the honeymoon they'd not had time to enjoy on Alpha.

Maya watched the turquoise, blue and white beauty that was Earth loom into view from the window in their quarters. She and Tony lay on their bed beneath the large viewing port and watched his home-world grow ever closer.

"It's so beautiful," she whispered.

"Our fresh start." He traced his finger down the slender length of her arm, and then laced his fingers with hers.

"I'm glad you'll be with me."

Tony drew her closer into his arms, clasping his arms around her waist. "We're all a bit scared, cara. Earth society as we knew it is gone. It's a new world for all of us."

Maya sighed and turned to face him. They looked at each other silently for a long moment. Then she smiled, and touched his cheek. "It'll be fine."

As his wife drifted off to sleep in his arms, Tony watched Earth through the portal and thought,

God, I hope so.

The Corporation made contact with the Leviathan when they detected the ship in orbit. When it was explained that the survivors of Alpha had returned, they were rather grudgingly allowed to land. The Alphans were transported directly to the surface, along with their cargo. At John's request, a small team went down 24 hours before the Corporation were told to expect them, and several miles from the agreed location. Tony and a security team secreted the Alphan databases and computer logs, as well as other sensitive material. They also cached weapons, food and water, and then marked the site electronically.

The Alphans were given a very subdued welcome on Earth, and their arrival was not announced to the general population.

The Corporation Chief Executive decided that the Alphans would be housed in the American Dome. The inhabitants of the Dome were advised of the newcomers existence only because the Alphans stood out, Maya particularly.

The Dome was huge; a complex of 50 interlinked half spheres. It was entirely self contained and self-sufficient. The inhabitants had no need to go outside. Many had been born and would die without ever setting foot outside the nearly 1000 square kilometre enclosed area.

The Outside was considered wild, uncivilised and extremely dangerous. This was, for the Dome inhabitants, an indisputable fact. They were a privileged population, used to having their whims catered to. The natural world was completely alien to them.

The returnees were shown to quarters that were beautiful but sterile. The moonbase had been lush and warm in comparison.

It was like living in a very large, luxurious, soul-less shopping mall.

The Alphans were taken on an official orientation tour several days after their arrival. In groups of 20 they walked or rode in open topped electric vehicles through the various sectors of the Dome.

Maya, Tony, Alan and Sandra were in a tour led by Rafael, a pale, studiedly elegant man of indeterminate age. He was pleasant, but openly dismayed by the many questions the Alphans put to him. Their ideas obviously shocked him.

Questions about Outside made him very uneasy and he evaded them when he could.

"Who are the brown shirts?" Tony indicated two men walking by in chocolate coloured miltaristic style uniforms.

"They are members of the Unit. They enforce Corporate regulations and protect the Dome from Outsiders."

"Have you ever been attacked by these "Outsiders?", Maya asked curiously.


"Have you ever seen an Outsider?"


He was pleased to talk about the latest plastic surgery and rejuvenation techniques, but couldn't say what the average summer daytime temperature was Outside. Wouldn't admit to having any desire to ever go Outside.

All the different ethnic groups were represented in the people they saw, but there was a sameness to their features, height and build that spoke of the genetic standardisation the Corporation advocated.

Maya realised within minutes of starting out on the tour that her experience of this Dome would not be an unalloyed delight.

Rafael would not look her in the eye, but she caught him staring on several occasions when he thought she wasn't looking. She knew her looks were unusual, but the Alphans, even when she first arrived with them, had never given her this sense of unease.

People gawked openly at her, sometimes pointing.

Rafael shrugged, "They will soon get used to your alien appearance."

Maya shrank from this and sought Tony's hand; his responsive squeeze and set jaw told her she wasn't being over-sensitive.

The tour rapidly became an ordeal.

It was quickly apparent that they had nothing in common with the Dome dwellers. The Domers ate only processed food, were obsessed with status, celebrity and the search for eternal youth. They displayed no curiosity about the world outside, no creative spark beyond making money.

"It's Beverly Hills 2250." Alan couldn't disguise the contempt in his voice.

Within hours they were all wondering how quickly they could get out.

They'd been on Earth for a week.

Tony and John met the next day with the American Dome Chief Executive to discuss where the Alphans would live permanently. Few wanted to live in the Dome. John and Tony put it to him that the Alphans would be happier settling in a temperate zone outside the Domes. They assured the Corporation representative that they were apolitical, and would stay well away from inhabited areas.

In return they were met with blank disbelief that any of them would want to leave.

Tony had been gone ten minutes when the intercom beeped. Maya pressed the button to answer. It was Rafael.

She smiled politely. "Hello, again."

"Good afternoon, Mrs Verdeschi." He smiled in return. He still couldn't quite meet her eyes. "I've been asked to take the female Alphans on a tour of Dome facilities that may be of interest. It's part of your official orientation. Would you care to join the others? They've waiting by the entrance to the residence complex."

Oh, dear. If this tour was on the orientation schedule, then she'd completely forgotten about it. "I'll be out in two minutes."

"No rush, Mrs Verdeschi."

Maya hurriedly splashed some water on her face, brushed her hair and put on her shoes. Then she scribbled a note to Tony saying where she was going.

She pressed the button to open the door and smiled at Rafael, "Ready."

The door was already closing behind her when she noticed the two Unit guards standing with the guide. They both had their lasers drawn.

"Please come quietly."

"What is this?"

"The Corporation has some questions for you. Nothing to worry about."

Maya looked pointedly at the guards, "Then why are you pointing guns at me? Am I considered a danger? I assure you nothing could be further from the truth."

Rafael had seemingly done smiling. "They will holster their weapons if you agree to come quietly. No tricks."

Maya tried to remain calm, despite the cold trickle of fear that was working its way down her spine. "I'd like to let my husband know where I am."

Rafael took her elbow in his hand and firmly guided her toward the elevator. "In due course."

"But he'll be worried..."

Rafael interrupted her, his guiding arm exerting more force, propelling her forward, "Co-operate and there will be no need for him to worry."

As the lift doors closed and they began to descend, Maya had the impression that there was plenty to worry about. She closed her eyes and concentrated, feeling the transformation process begin.

But they'd obviously been warned, somehow, of her abilities.

Twin bursts of laser fire enveloped her in white-hot agony and her world went black.

Tony returned an hour later to find the apartment empty.

Maya was gone, and so were all her clothes.

Chapter Fourteen

"She's my wife."

"No, she is not, Mr Verdeschi. The creature isn't human. We already suspect there are significant genetic anomalies. The union is a perversion against nature. The Corporation will never allow you to remain together." The man steepled his fingers together. "Once our genetic tests are done, depending on the results, she may be allowed to live in some capacity within Dome society."

Tony felt the blood drain from his head. "And if the results aren't what you like?"

The official shrugged and held out his hands, Pilate-style. "It will be humanely done. We can't allow her to go into the Outside, as there is still a chance she may breed."

Alan and John took one look at Tony's face as he burst out of the briefing room, and immediately ran up to take a restraining hold of an arm each. This distracted Tony from his goal, which had been to go straight to one of the guards, disarm him by whatever means necessary, and armed with a laser, force the official to tell him exactly where Maya was.

They practically dragged him from the room in their haste to get him out of trouble's way. The guards eyed them warily, but let them pass.

Tony struggled to free himself, until Alan's quiet, intense voice in his ear penetrated the red fog that was clouding his brain. "Mate, how are you going to help her if you get yourself nicked?"

The Australian's grip on his friend's arm lessened as he felt Tony abruptly stop fighting him.

"They're going to kill her." He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, his jaw clenched. It sickened him just saying the words.

For a moment the other two stood silent, stunned. They didn't argue with him. They'd all sensed something deeply rotten permeating the Corporation.

"How can these be the people the Federation are in contact with? They won't tolerate differences within their own population, let alone welcome other species to their world."

"Maybe it's not the Corporation the Federated Worlds are in contact with." John said softly.

They fell silent as each considered the implications of this. As they walked, they looked about them with new eyes.

"The Corporation says the rest of Earth is uninhabited, except for a few scattered subsistence settlements. They do patrols and have reported no sizeable populated cities or towns. Only ruins." John rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "But what if the deadlands aren't so dead after all? There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with the Outside, except for the fact that the Dome dwellers don't care to live there. Animals and plant life are flourishing. And the human race is nothing if not adaptable. We've proved that over the last five years."

Tony was grim faced. "I'm going to find Maya, and then get the hell away from the Corporation. Firenze is supposedly in ruins. But even ruins have got to be better than this."

"I think most Alphans are starting to agree with you." John said thoughtfully. "I know I do. But they're not going to let us go easily."

Tony spent the next few hours trying to find an official who would tell him where Maya was. If Maya was. He met a smug bureaucratic wall of silence. John, Alan and the dozens of Alphans who offered to help did no better.

He lived through every minute since Maya's abduction with a sick sensation in the pit of his stomach and an ever-increasing fury.

He couldn't bear the idea that they'd gone through so much; survived the hostile coldness of space; only for her to be taken from him by his own people.

No, that was wrong. No way were these his people.

In the end he made such a nuisance of himself that the Corporation lost patience and threatened to imprison not only him but all the Alphans.

So he went underground.

From the computer terminal in his quarters he hacked into the Dome's defensive and security schematics. It was surprisingly easy. Maybe the population in general was so brainwashed that the powers that be felt no need for complicated firewall protection. He managed to get forbidden maps of the access passageways to the outside; service corridors and vents that the general populace obviously knew nothing about. He downloaded Unit security timetables and found out when shift changes occurred.

He thought he'd hacked in unobserved. But someone was monitoring him electronically.

An incoming e-mail alert flashed on his screen just as he was about to access deep level security files marked: "Genetic Anomalies Testing".

Tense, expecting to hear his door being kicked in at any moment, he opened the message.

Hands shaking, but suddenly fired with hope, Tony typed.

Later. You don't have much time. You will find details of your wife's location in the file you were about to open. Go tonight. Use the green access tunnel marked on schematic map 33-DA12. We will leave food and equipment you will need to continue your search. Good luck.

Spurred by this warning that time was against him, Tony opened the file he'd been about to hack into. As he'd suspected, it gave details of Maya's capture and transport. After taking her from the apartment she'd been stunned and immediately taken to a special shuttle. She was in Brussels, where the Corporation's Central Dome was situated.

Knowing he was taking a risk, but unable to leave without saying goodbye, Tony went to John and Helena's quarters. Alan and Sandra, he was glad to see, were also there.

Helena walked to him as soon as he entered, her expression concerned. "Tony, how are you doing?"

He smiled grimly. "Better, now that I've got a plan." He exhaled and looked them each in turn. "I'm going. There's a transport flight to Brussels tonight. That's where they're holding Maya. I plan to be on it."

Tony handed John a copy of his recent email correspondence. "There's at least one person prepared to help us get Outside."

The others clustered around to read the printout.

"Once I've found Maya, I'll go to Florence. I know the area. Even if the city's a ruin, the land still seems to be arable. And the Corporation doesn't have much of a presence in Western Europe outside of Belgium."

Helena tilted her head consideringly, "I wonder why?"

Tony snorted. "I don't care at this stage. Perhaps it's haunted." He looked at his watch. "I've got to go."

John clasped his hand, his face grave. "We'll be following you as soon as we can." He'd been quietly balloting the Alphans since Maya's disappearance. With one or two exceptions, they'd all voted to take their chances Outside at the first opportunity.

Helena gave him a fierce hug. "You be careful. And find her."

John too, hugged him, before slapping him on the back, "We've come a long way together. And it's not finished yet. If I was being detained by this lot I'd feel a lot better knowing you were coming after me."

"Thanks, John."

Alan stuck his hands in his jacket pockets. "Mate, I'm coming with you."

Pleased that Alan had made the offer, Tony nevertheless shook his head. "Thanks, Alan. But no. You're needed here. And I can travel less conspicuously on my own."

"Huh." The Australian smiled. "Rejected again." The two friends gave each other a bear hug, with obligatory male pattern back slapping.

Sandra's chin wobbled dangerously as she stepped close to kiss his cheek. "Find a nice trattoria in Firenze and we'll all meet you there."

Tony returned her kiss. "It's a deal."

He didn't return to his quarters. The small rucksack he carried contained all the maps he'd downloaded, as well as copies of the file on Maya. He'd thrown in a change of clothes and every picture he had of Maya. He had five minutes to get to the first access passage before the Unit shift changed. The doorway seemed clear when he got to it, but he waited a few minutes to be sure. Then he went in. The corridor was dusty and ill lit. Presumably only maintenance workers ever came in here. But then a faint sound behind him made him whirl around.

"Verdeschi." Ilya Gregory stepped out from the shadows. He was wearing the uniform of the Unit. "I knew it was only a matter of time before you went after her."

"I heard you'd joined up, Gregory. Nice to see you've found your level at last." Tony's voice was expressionless. "Twenty-third century equivalent of the Stasi."

Gregory sneered. "Where did science ever get us? Hurled half way across the galaxy. I'll take profit any day."

He took the truncheon he carried off his shiny black belt and slapped it lightly against his palm. "I'll get a nice reward for dragging your bleeding body back to the Unit. Renegade scientist, attempted escape from the Dome. Double points." His smile wasn't pleasant as he advanced on Tony. "Didn't you know? They raided your quarters fifteen minutes ago. It's just been announced over the commlink. You're a wanted man. I've wanted to do this for a long time, Mr Verdeschi. And there's no Command structure for you to hide behind now."

Tony said nothing. He rose discreetly up on the balls of his feet; eyes narrowing, and made himself wait until Gregory was within striking distance. Then, when the hulking bodybuilder lifted the truncheon, Tony kicked him in the throat. He only just restrained himself from using lethal force.

Gregory went down like an oak tree felled in the forest; nearly soundlessly, seeming to fall in slow motion. He landed with a gusted exhalation of breath and then lay silent.

Tony crouched down beside the prostrate Russian. His voice was deadly calm.

"You'd have been better off taking up tae kwon do, Ilya. Weight lifting has slowed you down. And you're right. There's no command structure now. No responsibility. No crew depending on me. I'm a "renegade scientist" with few ties to this society. And I'm about to walk out into the deadlands, where, if the Corporation is to be believed, I won't last a week. There's nothing, in fact, to stop me from snuffing out your miserable existence right now."

Ilya's eyes widened with fear. He clutched his throat. His windpipe was severely bruised and starting to swell, making it difficult for him to breathe, let alone speak.

Tony smiled, his eyes cold. "Don't worry. I'm not going to kill you. Shame, because I really want to." He stood." I'm going to find my wife now. But remember this, cross me again and I will hunt you down."

Gregory nodded, his face pale. He lay motionless on the floor for a full twenty minutes after Tony left before daring to move.

It gave Tony a sense of perverse satisfaction that he had been immediately branded a "renegade scientist". Maybe science did have some value after all in this society, if only as bounty.

The food and equipment he'd been promised lay just inside the small door to the access vent he needed to climb through to get out. Tony quickly abandoned his own rucksack and stuffed its contents into the larger black bag that had been left for him.

Then, anticipating the sound of laser fire behind him at any moment, he climbed into the vent shaft and out of the Dome.

The shaft ended at the landing strip annexed to the main Dome building.

Tony watched the comings and goings from the shuttle for more than an hour, and then stowed away quite easily on the government transport flight. Outside the Dome itself, Corporation security was surprisingly lax. If there was an alert on over him, it wasn't being very efficiently enforced. And certainly, no one seemed to have followed him from the Dome. Maybe he'd frightened Gregory enough to silence him. Tony's mouth curved into a facsimile of a smile at the thought.

Having made himself a reasonable hiding place in the centre of a pile of crates, he finally inspected the contents of his rucksack. He'd had time for only a cursory look before slipping aboard the flight. There was a flask of water, some dried fruit and what looked like cereal bars. A knife. A map of the Dome complex at Brussels. These were useful. But the prize was a commlink tuned to the Unit's frequency. Gregory's had broken when he fell. It functioned much as the Alphan commlocks had. Visual and voice communications. But this one had a text message function as well, which updated every few minutes. He could keep handily up to date on news of the renegade scientist Verdeschi.

And Maya.

The shuttle landed at Brussels an hour after takeoff.

After he slipped off the aircraft, Tony found a hiding place with a good vantage point and covertly surveyed the landing area. It was a large facility, with hundreds of uniformed personnel scurrying purposefully in all directions. Which presented him with an opportunity. With that many people, who was going to notice one new face? A Unit guard passed within metres of him every fifteen minutes. Always the same guy. It was obviously his patrol route.

The guard never knew what hit him.

Tony dragged the unconscious man into a cleaning supply cupboard, and left him stripped, tied and gagged.

When Tony stepped back out of the closet, he was wearing a Unit uniform. The guard and he were much the same size. Tony smiled as he looked down at his feet. Except my legs are longer. There was a rather obvious gap between the hem of the trousers and his shoes.

He'd memorized the schematics of the complex, and was able to go straight to the Unit office. He let himself in using the commlink.

He nodded brusquely at everyone he passed. Most gave him no more than a cursory glance. Heart thumping, he sat down at an empty desk and called up the main file menu on the desktop computer.

There she was. Maya had her very own subdirectory.

Alien Recovery Schedule.

She'd escaped. Within minutes of landing.

Tony closed his eyes and fought back tears of relief. This had been his biggest hope, that she'd outsmarted them and got away.

He tried to think what she would do, where she would go in a world where she was separated from her friends and where the powers that be had proven hostile. Would she try to go back to the North American continent?

According to this surveillance log, there had been no trace of her since she overpowered her guards on leaving the shuttle. She'd disappeared into thin air. Probably literally. Tony smiled to himself. If she'd transformed into a small enough insect she'd have appeared to vanish in a ball of yellow light.

Once out of the Dome complex she could have taken any form, been anyone. He tried to find her trail on the computer - and failed. He'd have to start looking outside the Dome. His gut told him Maya hadn't gone back to the American Dome.

She'd been fascinated by the images of Firenze she'd seen on Alpha and the stories he'd told of growing up there.

And she knows I'm coming after her.

Tony said a fervent prayer that his instincts were right and decided to follow his heart.

He was going home.

He set off with no more than the clothes on his back, his rucksack and as much water and dried food as he could purloin and still carry from a stores locker in the Unit office.

Orienting himself by the sun, he headed south-east, towards Italy.

It was hard going. He wasn't properly outfitted for serious walking. The towns he passed had all been looted of anything useful. He sheltered at night in buildings that looked less likely to collapse than their neighbours. It was early spring, and still cold at night. He acquired a filthy blanket but didn't sleep much. Exhausted, hungry and footsore, only sheer stubbornness and determination made him put one blistered foot in front of another.

After a week, in a small abandoned town, he found a treasure trove.

It was an unlooted camping store.

The roof of the building was still sound, so no water had permeated the store. The interior was musty, but dry. A thick layer of dust covered every surface. And Tony felt as though he'd just won the lottery.

He stripped off his filthy Unit garments and put on fresh clothes from the skin out; underwear, a white cotton t-shirt and thick hiking socks, heavy gauge chinos, sturdy hiking boots.

He treated his blisters with hydrogen peroxide and dressed them with moleskin plasters.

He found a large, lightweight hiking backpack into which he put another pair of socks, a change of underwear, a long-sleeved wool shirt, a spare t-shirt, a fleece pullover, and waterproofs. He also gathered together a utility knife, matches (which were sealed and still as fresh as the day they'd been made), a flint, a compass, a length of strong nylon rope, a fishing hook and coil of line, several zip up plastic bags, a small windup torch, a sleeping bag with ground sheet and a one-man tent. He then added water purifying tablets, a canteen, a collapsible cooking pot, bowl, fork and spoon, maps of Belgium, France and Italy. He also put in a razor, soap, a comb, a travel towel, bandages, and the bottle of hydrogen peroxide. A toothbrush, sunglasses and a hat completed his outfitting. The last thing to be added was a large hunting knife, which he strapped to his belt.

Tony hefted the pack onto his shoulders, it was heavy, but he had months to get used to the weight, and headed for the door.

On his way out he passed a selection of books piled on a counter by the till.

The haphazardly stacked, colourful titles dealt with DIY, voluntary simplicity, smallholding, self-building, organic gardening. A book perched precariously on top of a pile had a title that particularly caught his eye. "Vitriculture and Hop Growing in Northern Europe - A Guide for Smallholders."

On impulse, he picked it up, unshouldered his backpack and stuffed the book into the already crammed interior. If nothing else, it would take his mind off his bleaker imaginings and it could be useful. For a smallholder was what he was most likely going to be. A extremely small-holder, he thought, an ironic smile twisting his lips. If scraping survival on a wild land could be given even that modest a name.

Then he headed south-east again, but in a much better frame of mind. He followed the remains of the highways, rarely seeing people, only occasionally coming across small encampments where he bartered some of the light-weight objects he acquired along the route.

He walked by day and made camp out of sight of the road by night. Only the thought of Maya - and home - kept him going. He concentrated on walking as many kilometres a day as possible. His world became the rhythm of the road, the oddly pleasing repetitive placement of one foot in front of the other.

At night he dreamt of her, sometimes of their time on Alpha or Tra'an - sometimes of a future where they were living together in Firenze. The dreams lifted the ever-present threat of depression.

He didn't allow himself to dwell on the odds of finding her. The blackness that descended on him when he allowed himself to really think about what lay ahead was unbearable and took days to shrug off.

If she wasn't in Firenze, then he would spend the rest of his life looking for her.

Chapter Fifteen

It was three weeks before he opened the book.

Exhausted, after pushing himself to walk ten kilometres further than he normally managed, he barely had the energy to make camp beside a small stream.

Tony lit a fire, put up his tent, boiled some very stale vacuum packed noodles and fell into his bedroll fully clothed.

He was absolutely spent but as soon as he closed his eyes he knew he wouldn't be able to sleep. His brain churned even as his body begged for rest. Then he remembered the book. The light from the fire was low, but enough to read by. He dug the book out of the recesses of his pack, and climbed back into his sleeping bag. As he rifled through the pages a folded piece of paper fell out.

His name was written on the front.

Hardly daring to breathe, Tony opened the paper and began to read.

My husband.

I pray that you are safe.

I am well. They didn't hurt me and I escaped before they could do their "tests."

The Corporation is searching for me, I think. But I can much travel faster than they know. I expect they believe I will try to go back to the American Dome to be with the other Alphans.

But I knew you would come for me.

And I want to see Miss Honeychurch's view.

This is your world, and you know its dangers far better than I, but please be careful. I will be, so try not to worry.

I miss you so much. Every night I close my eyes and feel your arms around me. I know we will be together again soon.

I love you. Always.


P.S. I knew you wouldn't be able to resist this book.

Tony laughed, elated beyond measure that she was okay and seemed to be in good spirits. She was headed for Firenze, and if she'd found the camping store, she was reasonably well equipped.

Then, for the first time since she'd been abducted, he allowed himself to cry.

For two months he walked.

Solitary. Watchful.

Those few indigent humans he met told him stories of weird music and strange lights emanating from certain towns and ruined cities. It was said that they were haunted and few people dared to approach them. The nearer he got to Italy, the more often he felt that he wasn't alone - sometimes at night he was aware of the presence of another. It wasn't malevolent, more watchful. Increasingly he almost caught a glimpse of something, a movement or glimmer in the corner of his eye that disappeared when he looked directly at it.

Once he caught himself calling Maya's name, then shrugged uneasily and continued walking.

The landscape he walked through had quickly been reclaimed by nature. It was outstandingly beautiful, but eerily empty without the bustle of human activity. He saw more animals than he'd seen in his life; wolves, deer, foxes, wildcats, bears, eagles, songbirds and otters had all flourished since the fall of man.

Just outside Zurich he found a shop that had once reconditioned and sold light aircraft. Parts of rusted, incomplete micro-lights and powered gliders were scattered around the workshop. He sacrificed a week of walking to stay and put one back together. When the motor finally roared into life it was the sweetest sound he'd ever heard.

He covered several hundred kilometres a day after that, the solar powered motor keeping his precariously reconstructed craft a few hundred metres in the air.

He started to catch glimpses of fey laughing things out of the corner of his eye. Every day, they lingered a bit longer, giving him a tantalising glimpse of themselves. Then, one day, he saw one fully. It was hovering, like a hummingbird, about five metres ahead of him. But it wasn't a hummingbird.

I'm losing my mind.

He'd seen pictures of creatures like it in storybooks from his childhood. It wasn't holding a tiny wand, or dispensing glittering dust.

But it was definitely a faerie.

A silvery, otherworldly lilt of music echoed in his head. Then, in a blink, it was gone.

After that, he saw odd creatures every day. A unicorn grazing in a field. Tossing its head and whinnying as he passed, the sun glinting off of a silver horn.

Luminous lights hovered around his campfire at night, flitting away whenever he stood up to investigate.

And one night, a cloud city of crystal spires, seemingly made entirely of glass and light, floating several kilometres up.

One fiercely stormy night he set up camp under the shelter of a grove of oak trees. The wind threatened to whip the tent from his numb hands as he struggled to secure it to the ground. Sheets of icy rain lashed his face, finding its way in frigid rivulets through his waterproofs. A fire was out of the question. He stuffed his wet pack into the tent and then followed it. The sodden waterproofs came off, and every warm article of clothing he possessed went on.

He drank some water, ate some dried fruit and leftover trout, and got into his sleeping bag fully clothed. Then, listening to the rain rattling against his tent, he re-read Maya's letter by torchlight. It was his bedtime ritual. He knew every word by heart.

At first he thought the sound was just the creak of the metal struts of his tent in the wind. Then it came again. Tony put away the letter, cocked his head and listened intently.

There it was again. A whimper. Quite faint and close by.

He unzipped the door and stuck his head out into the deluge. At first he saw nothing but shadows of trees buffeted by the wind. And then a movement to his right. Something small and dark crouched about two metres from the tent. Tony directed the torch at it and turned on the beam.

A glimpse of matted, wet black fur, frightened eyes, and the flash of pink mouth and sharp white teeth as it cried.

It was a kitten.

Unwilling to leave the little thing out in the elements, he tried that universal cat attractor;

"Here, kitty, kitty."

Followed immediately by tantalising, soothing tongue clicking.

And, amazingly, it worked.

The little black shape edged closer, wary, but sensing an offer of comfort.

It took fifteen minutes of coaxing before it got within reach of the door. As it hesitated on the threshold, he reached out and grabbed it by the scruff. Toes flexed, legs splayed, it opened its mouth and emitted a frightened squeak.

Tony chuckled, and deposited it on his sleeping bag. It extended its claws and cautiously tried to walk on the cushiony surface. Before it got too far, Tony scooped it up and enveloped it in his towel.

"This is a sacrifice, kitty. I don't share my towel with just anyone." He sat it on his lap, holding it firmly with one hand while he dried it with another. Within five minutes indignant squeaks had given way to purrs.

It was bigger than he'd originally thought. More like a cub than a kitten. Its mother was no housecat.

Dry, he deposited it on his sleeping bag again. It kneaded ecstatically, purring loudly, then settled down like a baby sphinx and looked at him with big green eyes.

"I suppose you want food now."

Tony smiled to himself as he dug in his pack for a suitably tempting offering. It was nice to have someone beside himself to talk to. He'd caught and cooked a large trout the day before. It would've lasted him for days, but now he had two mouths to feed.

The kitten pounced on the proffered fish as though starved. Which it probably was, poor mite. When it had eaten its fill, it curled up into a vibrating ball on his sleeping bag and went to sleep.

From that night, Tony had a travelling companion. The kitten rode in the top section of his backpack when he flew, and frisked around his campsite while he cooked their evening meal. It acted as a purry hotwater bottle at night, sleeping on his feet inside the warmth of his sleeping bag.

As he neared Italy he pushed himself and the ultralight to the point of total collapse. And then, finally, Firenze was within reach.

He made camp about 5 kilometres from the city perimeter, completely exhausted, and knowing it wasn't safe to walk into the ruins in that state of tiredness so late at night.

Tony was asleep almost the instant he lay down.

That night, he had the dream...

The scene opened on a stunning, sprawling three-storey cedar and stone house set in extensive, beautiful grounds. Floor to ceiling cathedral style windows glinted in the sunshine.

The multilevel cedar deck was dotted with comfortable sitting areas and a multitude of flowering plants. Several brightly coloured toys lay scattered on the deck, as though their owners had abandoned them only recently. A mosaic tiled swimming pool glinted dark blue and green, restful marine tones. Off to one side beyond the walled kitchen garden extensive grapevines grew in orderly rows.

Water falling from a stepped stone fountain, birdsong and children's laughter were the first sounds Tony heard.

Two small children played in the garden - a boy of about 6 and a little girl of 3. They'd just clambered down from a child-sized playhouse built into the branches of a large oak. The children wore colourful, comfortable looking playsuits and masks that reminded Tony of some of the ornate Venetian masks so popular during that city's winter festival. The beautiful masks covered the upper parts of their faces and tops of their heads.

A large, black, panther-like cat sat nearby, watching over them. It was a magnificent animal, with an intelligent benevolent glint in its green eyes.

It became obvious as they played that the children were brother and sister and belonged to the house. The boy was Rhodri, the girl Ches. They spoke Italian. The children played together happily and had obviously been outside for several hours. The boy reminded her occasionally that she was only a bambino, and that he had the superiority of age. She was feisty and more than stuck up for herself. They spent much of the time in fits of giggles, running and jumping and larking about with the exuberance of happy, well-loved children.

They heard the sound of instruments being tuned and practice notes being struck coming from the open doors of a conservatory leading into the house. Rhodri and Ches looked at each other and quietened suddenly. The boy obviously knew and sympathised with what his sister was thinking, "Tia Ellen said we couldn't go in." His tone was cautionary. Auntie Ellen was obviously a force to be reckoned with.

"But I want to hear Mama sing."

"So do I." He thought for a moment and then smiled mischievously. A dimple flashed by his mouth that sent a jolt of recognition through Tony.

The boy has Maya's smile.

"Remember what Papa said?"

"Just don't get caught!" They chorused. The children obviously had parental license to disobey as many of "Auntie Ellen's" directives as possible.

They ran towards the house, Rhodri stopping to wait for this little sister when he outpaced her shorter stride.

They peered cautiously around a corner into the conservatory. It was a large, sunny invitingly furnished room, with lots of plants and informal furniture. Chairs and tables had been pushed against the walls to make room for the small trio in the middle of the floor space. Aside from the musicians there were about 20 adults, some sitting, others milling around chatting. The children crawled through the open conservatory door and under a table with a skirting. They could hear what was going on but were obscured from adult eyes.

The choir was good. They rehearsed Bach's Christmas Oratorio, the blended voices of soprano, alto, tenor and bass filling the room.

A buffet lunch was served after the rehearsal ended. One of the adults obviously realised the children where there, because a goody filled plate was slipped to them under the skirting. The children were having the time of their lives, greatly enjoying this complicity on their behalf. They were remarkably quiet, but inevitably a childish giggle gave them away.

Then Tony heard Maya's musical laugh, and immediately after, her smiling face appeared as she lifted away the table skirting.

"All right you two, you're busted. You'd better come out."

Her hair was shorter, cut in a feathered, feminine style that framed her vivid face. But otherwise, physically, she appeared unchanged.

The children crawled out from under the table, followed by the cat, to the amusement of the other guests. Tony recognised only Helena and Ellen Morgan in the crowd. The infants were understandably a bit grubby, having been playing in their tree house and in the woods digging for ancient civilisations most of the morning. Ches's once pristine sky blue jumpsuit was begrimed with muddy fingerprints and the boy was liberally streaked with similar debris.

"Did you find any treasures?" Maya removed Ches's mask and lovingly smoothed her hair where it had escaped from her ponytail. The little girl was obviously Maya's child; she was the image of her mother, with the same heart shaped face and bright blue eyes, but with dark hair.

The little girl dug in her pocket and brought up a brightly coloured eggshell. "Found this. Rhodri says the tree faeries were having b'fast just before we came."

Maya cast a smiling glance at the boy before returning her attention to her daughter, "I think he's probably right. You should keep that safe and show it to Papa later."

Rhodri pulled off his mask. If the girl was the image of her mother, then there was also no doubt as to the children's paternity. Tony's heart nearly stopped beating as he looked into the face of his son. If he compared pictures of himself at that age with Rhodri, there would be little physical difference - save two. The boy had his mother's smile and her vivid blue eyes.

One of the guests, an elderly woman said to Maya, "May I have the honour?"

Maya smiled, "Of course." She nodded to Rhodri, who walked up to the woman, held out his hand and said with grave politeness, "How do you do? I am Rhodrian Dominic."

Thoroughly charmed, the elderly lady shook his hand formally, "I'm very pleased to meet you, Rhodri."

Ches watched the proceedings with wide eyes, torn between wanting to do whatever her brother did and an impulse to hide her face in her mother's skirts. Her eyes shy, she sidled up to Rhodri, and receiving a reassuring smile from her mother, held out her fingers to the visitor.

"How do you do, Francesca... may I call you Ches?" The little girl nodded and they shook solemnly. Emboldened by this, Ches went around the room offering her hand to each of the adults in turn. The cat followed her patiently. Her social obligations fulfilled, she picked up her egg again and carefully carried it from the room, leaving a trail of captured hearts in her wake.

Maya offered Rhodri her hand, "That was a lovely story you told Ches." He beamed and slipped his small hand into hers. "How about 'pesto pescetti' for lunch? Archaeologists need more than cakes if they want to make important discoveries."

"Can I mash the leaves?" Rhodri's little face was rapt as he skipped along beside his mother.


Maya smiled down at the cat. "Danae, are you hungry?"

The cat chirruped at her, half meow, half purr.

"There's some salmon left. Are you sure you don't want that?"

Another purred exhalation, ending on an interrogatory note.

"Don't be silly. It'll go to waste otherwise."

When Maya and the children had left the room, the elderly Terran woman exclaimed, "What a delightful family."

"There's a lot of love in this house." Helena said simply.

The scene blurred, fading to sepia tones.

And Tony woke up.

For a long while, he lay in his sleeping bag, staring at the heavens while streaks of pale blue and pink streaked the dawn sky.

The dream had been so real, so vivid. Could his yearning for his wife have produced such a detailed, realistic vision? Usually his memory of dreams faded within minutes of waking, but this one stayed with him. Each detail; the blue of the children's eyes; Maya's smile as she looked down into the face of their son; the way her dress swirled around her ankles as she walked, they were all burned into his memory.

He wanted so much for it to be real.

He packed his camp and with some trepidation, started into Firenze. Even from this distance, he could see ruined shell that had been the Duomo. He'd placed all his hopes on finding Maya here. He could face the wreck that had been his home city, but he couldn't face the prospect of not finding her.

As he walked through the outskirts, the ruin became more apparent. Not a single building was left whole. Shattered mosaics and statuary lay in the streets like common bricks. His spirits sinking, he walked to the centre of town, dumping his pack in the shadow of a doorway. Unable to face the ruins of the family home just yet, he sought out landmarks he knew well. With the kitten gambolling by his side, he made his way to a café he'd spent a lot of time in as a youth. It too was a ruined shell.

But no.

He blinked; sure his eyes were deceiving him again.

A table and two chairs sat pristine in the middle of the ruined café.

And then he blinked again. A wine bottle and plates and glasses appeared, laden with steaming hot food. He could smell garlic and bolognaise sauce.

Tony stopped dead and closed his eyes. This was not the time to give in to the hallucinations that had been plaguing him. He opened his eyes again.

And there she was.

One of the chairs was occupied.

She smiled, the radiance of it reaching across the six metres that separated them.

"Caro. I've been waiting for you."

She stood up, the pristine white skirt of her sleeveless linen dress swirling around her ankles.

And as she walked to him, Florence burst into life around them.

The buildings came back first, exploding back into the full, vivid Renaissance splendour he remembered. Colour flooded his brain, followed immediately by sounds. People talking, laughing, children calling out. The sound of milk frothing for cappuccino. Church bells ringing.

Then the people. They faded in, going from ghost to semi-transparent, to full blooded, living creatures in an instant. The café was empty, save for he and Maya, but the street outside exploded into life.

Or maybe he had been asleep for a thousand years, winking into a world already in motion.

Maya took him into her arms even as he staggered and would have fallen. She framed his face with her hands. "You're not mad. And I love you."

Then she kissed him and he knew she was real. Her taste, the familiar, wonderful scent and feel of her; surely his fevered brain couldn't manufacture a hallucination this perfect?

They separated too soon. He touched his forehead to hers and whispered, "How?"

Maya wrapped her arms tight around his waist. He was thinner. "It's a forcefield. And magic. Outsiders are only allowed to see what we want them to see." She said "we" with a noticable inflection of belonging and pride.


"Those who live in Firenze. Some are human. Some are not. We're all Florentines." The way she said it, he knew she counted herself among this number.

Tony kissed her, worshipping the feel of her in his arms again. "God, I've missed you."

"And I've missed you so. I've been living for this moment." Maya pressed her face to his throat, breathing him in as he was her. "You found my note in the camping store?"

"Yes. That's all that got me through the last few months, knowing you were okay." He laughed. "Although the odds of my finding it were small to say the least. Someone was smiling on me that day."

"Not really. That was the first place I left it. But after that I became a bit obsessed. I left dozens along my route."

They sat down at the table. Or rather Tony sat down and pulled Maya onto his lap. With her arms twined around his neck and in between lengthy kisses, Maya explained that the non-humans were called the Sidh (pronounced "shee"). They were an ancient race, long lived, magical. They'd existed in human legend for millennia.

The humans called them Elves.

Over the centuries the exploding human population had forced the Sidh into ever more remote areas; the Canadian wilderness; the Amazon rainforest. They colonised the air and sea. Cloud cities floated in the stratosphere, hidden from human eyes. Great domed cities flourished on the ocean floors, lighting the depths.

After the moon broke away, the natural disasters and subsequent crash in human population gave them back their world. The Sidh recognised a kinship with those humans who resisted going into the Domes. The immortals offered help and the ability to magically shield vast areas of land. Land that appeared ruined and desolate but was actually thriving and verdant.

They'd always found certain aspects of human life attractive. Music, art, literature, food, the search for knowledge. With the help of likeminded humans, they blended the best aspects of Sidh and human cultures, rebuilding and conserving selected cities. A powerful glamour prevented outsiders from seeing truly.

The Sidh had been in contact with the Federation for nearly four centuries. Many Sidh travelled between the stars on Federation ships. Taleon, the Science Officer aboard the Leviathan, was, in fact, as much a Terran as any of the Earth born Alphans.

Maya stood and held out her hand. "Come. I want to show you something."

She led him to the Gelateria next door.

His brother Guido was the first person Tony saw when he walked through the door.

"About time. Another pistachio gelato and I'd have exploded." His eldest brother grinned, teeth flashing white in his tanned face, and got up from his seat at the counter.

Then his sister Gianna leaned forward from her place at Guido's side, the delight in her face matching that of her sibling.

This isn't possible.

Tony had accepted years ago that his family was dead. The laws of physics dictated it.

His mother stepped forward and he was enveloped in the soft embrace he remembered so well.

And suddenly the laws of physics didn't seem so immutable after all.

"Mamma?" He gripped her fiercely, still disbelieving, his head spinning.

"Time slowed down for us, Antonio. Welcome home."

He looked down into her face. She'd aged maybe ten years. He framed her face with his hands and watched tears fill her eyes. "Mamma."

Then the rest of the family descended on him in a whirl of hugs, kisses, backslapping and tears.

After they'd calmed down somewhat, everyone sat down at a large table. Completely speechless, Tony could only sit and look at them, trying to believe, while holding Maya's hand in an unknowingly vice like grip.

His father explained, "After Breakaway, the families of the Moonbase scientists were persecuted by the anti science extremists. The Sidh offered us a way of continuing our way of life. We were glad to escape from the Corporation, turning our backs on turmoil and pain to go back home. All we were missing was you, Tonio."

His mother took his hand, "How proud we are of you. And Maya is wonderful. She and Gianna are already like sisters. You've chosen well."

After several hours of joyous, emotional reunion and way too much food, Tony and Maya walked to the Verdeschi house in the hills above the city.

They walked slowly, hand-in-hand. Tony looked about him with a full heart; Maya, his family and now his home, all restored to him as though by magic.

Actually, it was magic.

There were no cars. People walked, rode bicycles or horses, many flew, whether by magic or science he couldn't tell. Communal vegetable and flower gardens grew where in the past designer shops had stood. The air was crisp and pure, without even a hint of pollution. Even when it was quiet, a silvery lilting music seemed to echo in the air.

Maya smiled down at the kitten, which tried its best to get under their feet when it wasn't off exploring by the roadside. "Has she told you her name?"

"I don't speak cat."

"You will. She's a felidae. They're sentient, mildly telepathic and have been companion animals to the Sidh for thousands of years. She's still a baby, once she's older she'll name herself."

Tony looked at his little friend with new eyes. "Not just a fur face with fish breath, then."

He had a strong suspicion that the kitten's name would be Danae.

He swung Maya's hand affectionately, "I take it Firenze meets with your approval."

"Oh, Tony! I love it here. It's even more beautiful than I imagined. And your family have been so good to me."

"How did you find them?"

"I didn't. They found me."

She'd walked into the city just over two months ago, finding it a ruin. Like him, she'd had sightings of magical things as she travelled. Maya was more accepting of them, not knowing what was natural and what was not. Like him, she was standing in the city centre when the Florence she'd seen in films and photographs burst into full bodied life around her.

Shocked, elated, she'd stood quite still for several minutes, drinking it in, before walking on trembling legs to a nearby bench. The people of Firenze smiled as they passed by, but no-one spoke to her.

Then a handsome, dark-haired older woman elegantly dressed in a long blue tunic and palazzo trousers sat down on the bench beside her. Maya turned to face her, and smiled shyly. The other woman smiled back, an all-encompassing warmth accompanying the gesture.

Something about that smile struck a chord deep within Maya. She knew it.

"You have travelled far." The woman spoke flawless English, with a British accent that struck another chord.

"Yes, I have. How is this possible?" Maya gestured to the beautiful, living city around her.

"It's a glamour. Only those who are judged worthy are allowed to see us. Otherwise, they pass through like ghosts."

"How do you know I'm worthy?"

"You can see the magical things that sometimes travel with you. Those who will not see do not find us."

The woman took Maya's hand. "And you're family."

She touched Maya's engagement ring. "This has been handed down through my husband's family for three hundred years. I gave it to my youngest son before he went into space."

"You're Tony's mother," Maya whispered.

The other woman smiled. Tony's smile.

Maya was taken home to the lovely villa she'd seen on Tony's wall and welcomed like a long lost daughter. Dominic and Breda Verdeschi lived in the main house with their daughter Gianna. Guido and his wife lived in a house a kilometre away.

And now that she had Tony back, Maya's happiness burned like a flame.

"Tony, a lot of the Sidh look like me. I don't stand out here. I'm just me." A silent tear trickled down her cheek. "People smile at me in the street because I'm an Alphan, not because I'm an alien."

"You were always just you, cara."

"But now I actually believe it."

After three quarters of an hour they reached the house, walking up the winding drive. The towering cypress trees whispered softly in the breeze as they'd always done. They rounded a bend, and there it was. The villa was 18th century, made of local stone. It was a beautiful building, but had always been a family home.

They walked through the house in silence; Tony too full to speak, Maya happy to just to be with him. There were changes, of course. Redecoration, some new furniture.

But his room was untouched.

"I've been staying in here." There were feminine pots and brushes on the bureau, her clothes in the wardrobe.

Maya sat down on the bed, leaning back on her elbows, a mischievous light in her eyes. "I've seen all the pictures of you as a seventeen year old nerdy egghead. And the videos of you as a two year old streaker." She giggled. "I think you should re-enact that for me sometime."

He sat down on the bed beside her in a similar posture, turning his head to look at her. "Didn't you promise to honour me all the days of our lives?"

Maya said sweetly. "I promised to love, honour and cherish. The making fun of is a bonus."

"No streaking for you then."

She rolled onto her side and smiled seductively. "Not even if I'm very nice to you?"

He grinned at her, "Okay then."

Maya laughed, "That was too easy."

"When it comes to you, I'm a very easy boy." He leaned over and their lips met in a kiss that started out passionate and quickly moved beyond that pale description.

"I've never made love in this bed."

"I should hope not," Maya frowned.

He kissed her again. "And I love the fact that you're jealous."

"Who, me?"

"Yes, you."

"I keel the woman who toucha you." She laughed delightedly. "See, I've been practicing my accent."

"You've been watching too many spaghetti westerns."

Maya twined her hands around her husband's neck. "I know someplace we can go. We can make love all night and no one will disturb us."

Tony smiled and kissed his way up her throat, "Where?"

"I'll show you."

She took his hand and led him down the main staircase and out through the French doors at the back of the house. They walked across the rolling lawn, toward the copse of oak trees at the base of the garden.

She stopped beside an enormous tree. A spiral staircase twined around the outside of the trunk.

"A treehouse."

Maya smiled and nodded. "Your family built it for you."

As they walked up the staircase, Tony admiring the intricately carved banister, he became aware that this was no ordinary treehouse; no ordinary tree. The staircase seemed to be part of the tree, like a branch that had magically broken free from the norm, twisting itself into a beautiful and decidedly unbranch-like shape.

The wood was reddish in colour, and seemingly impervious to the elements. It wasn't oak. Tony couldn't identify the species. The aroma emanating from the bark was wonderful, somewhere between cedar and sandalwood.

He'd been expecting a simple platform, maybe with a hammock.

But Maya stopped outside a wooden door built into the trunk just under the canopy. The tree trunk was large; but not large enough for that door to lead to anything other than a very small chamber.

But then, nothing about today had been ordinary.

"It's a Sidh tree."

Maya smiled, "It is. A magical, wonderful Sidh tree."

She pushed open the door and led him inside.

The interior of the house was beautiful, lovingly crafted. Like a faerie alpine chalet. And it was much bigger on the inside than on the out. Tardis treehouse, was Tony's first thought.

The treehouse had a rooftop platform garden, with panoramic view of the Italian countryside. There was solar electricity and under floor heating. There were two bedrooms, the master bedroom ensuite. The bedrooms, sauna and library were found up a spiral staircase to the upper level. On the rooftop canopy Guido and Dominic had built a deck and a container garden. It was an organic, living place with no hard edges, restful, comfortable and magical.

The first level held a living area, a bathroom and kitchen. A long, curving, deeply comfortable lounging platform cum window seat grew organically from the wall. It was more than a sofa, less than a bed.

"Breda told me it took them fifteen years to build. I think it was their way of keeping you alive," Maya said quietly. Then a smile quirked her mouth, "Or maybe they just don't want you in the main house. Did you sulk in your room a lot as a youth?"


Laughing, Maya obliged. The instant their lips met, the heat that constantly simmered between them flamed into lush, pleasurable life.

"Spogliami", she whispered. Undress me.

Tony chuckled. "Where did you learn that? Not that I'm not happy to oblige." He began unbuttoning the neck of her linen dress. He smoothed the material from her shoulders, and her dress fell to the floor.

"I've been watching old Italian soap operas with Gianna. Very educational." Maya yanked his shirt from the waistband of his trousers. Too impatient to unbutton it, she pulled it over his head.

They didn't make it to the bedroom, sinking into the plush depths of the enormous window seat.

A very heated eternity later, Maya sighed luxuriously and buried her face against Tony's throat, "I'd nearly forgotten how good you are at this."

He smiled and trailed his fingers down her spine. "I'm starting to think you only married me for my body."

"Only partly."

On their third attempt, they made it to the bedroom.

The master bedroom was partly open to the stars, the roof over the huge double bed made up of a canopy of shiny green leaves.

Exhausted but happy, they lay entwined in the dark, watching the stars overhead.

Maya was on the verge of sleep when Tony murmured a quiet, "I'm sorry, cara."

"For what?"

"That I wasn't there. When they came for you."

"Tony, you couldn't have known. And if they hadn't forced our hand, we might still be in that awful place."

"Maybe. It does feel as though we're home at last."

Chapter Sixteen

Ten years later...

The beautiful stone, cedar and glass house was a reality.

They'd lived in the treehouse until Francesca was born, then started building their dream home.

It was July. Maya was in the kitchen, casually dressed, her hair in a loose braid. She frowned over a recipe in a battered book, obviously having some trouble with it. Various pots, pans and ingredients surrounded her. The French doors leading out of the kitchen to the garden were wide open and the sound of children's laughter, splashing and shrieks of delight could be heard periodically, wafting in on the soft summer air. Maya listened with half an ear, smiling and chuckling to herself occasionally when the antics outside got really boisterous. She asked the computer to dial Helena and three seconds later a life size hologram appeared in front of her.

"I can't do this. I'm not meant to bake things."

"Sure you can. Just keep calm and don't hyperventilate like last time." The older woman turned her head as though listening intently and said, "What's that noise?"

"My children are drowning their father."

"Again?" The two women exchanged a smile.

Rhodri ran in, soaking wet, his eyes bright with laughter, his hair standing on end. "Do we have any ice cubes, Mama?" He looked up at the holographic image, and switched seamlessly from Italian to English. "Hi, Auntie Helena!"

Maya looked suspiciously at her son, "What are you doing to Papa?"

He giggled. "He's a polar bear. We need some icebergs."

Maya smiled and shook her head ruefully. "Okay, but put them in some lemonade. I don't think the polar bear will survive much longer without a drink." She filled three glasses, put them on a tray and handed it to her son, "Can you manage that?"

He cast her a hurt look, "I'm big now, Mama."

She smiled, "Sorry. You are big." He carefully carried the tray out and as there was no distinguishable crash, was successful in the endeavour.

Maya sighed and rather forlornly surveyed the carnage she'd wreaked on the kitchen. "I'm going to concede defeat."

Helena said, "If you give up now you'll never learn. Are you not his equal in all other things culinary?"

"Yes, but this is an Italian-blood thing... " She frowned forbiddingly in the direction of the pool. "And he's incredibly smug."

Helena chuckled, "Yes, but he's sinfully handsome and altogether lovable despite that fatal flaw."

The breadmaker smiled, "And a very convincing polar bear." The growls coming from the pool area were quite realistic. "See you tomorrow, usual time?"

"Kiss everybody for me." Helena signed off and Maya returned more determinedly to her task. Make ciabbata or die.

She read through the recipe one more time. What was she doing wrong? The dough looked like it had just crawled out from under a rock. A familiar tingle crept down her spine and Maya turned just as her husband crept silently up behind her. He was dripping wet - and absolutely devastating. Water glistened on his smooth, broad brown shoulders, and across the muscular expanse of his bare chest. His hair had been pushed impatiently back from his forehead and perfectly mimicked the electrified style of his son.

He smiled at her with a familiar, wicked glint in his eye.

"Don't you dare."

His expression instantly transformed to one of hurt incomprehension. "I just wanted to thank you for the lemonade." But he couldn't hold the innocent look and the evil gleam soon returned to his dark eyes. "Give the polar bear a kiss."

Maya shrieked and laughed as he enveloped her in a bear hug, lifting her off her feet. She abandoned all pretence at resisting him, wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him with equal enthusiasm. When they eventually parted, she smiled and lovingly brushed a strand of wet dark hair from his forehead, "Wretch." She was completely soaked.

"How's the bread business?" He raised a dark eyebrow and peered nosily over her shoulder at the devastated counter.

"Perfectly satisfactory, thank you." She retorted haughtily.

"Want some pointers?" He grinned at her and then prudently moved himself out of her reach as she looked wildly about for a weapon. "I guess not."

"Why don't you go entertain your children and stop tormenting me?"

"On one condition." He moved close and placed his palm gently over the just noticeable bulge of her tummy. "You've been on your feet all morning. If you lie down for an hour or two I'll get the kids dressed and we can go to Boccelli's for supper."

Maya smiled and looped her arms around her husband's neck, "I have a better idea. Why don't we settle the kids and you take a nap with me?"

Tony's mouth curved into a slow smile, "You know what happens when we take 'naps' together. The idea is for you to rest."

"But I'm not tired." She took his hand and led him to the window seat in the breakfast area. "Helena told me something today."


Her smile was luminously happy, "There are two heartbeats."


Tony placed a reverent hand over her stomach. His eyes darkened with the force of the emotion gripping him, "You are a constant miracle, " he whispered, awed. "Do you know how much I love you?"

Maya's eyes shone, "Yes." That was her miracle. "As much as I love you..." her mouth curved into a soft smile, "and I love making babies with you."

He closed his eyes, "You know what you do to me when you say things like that."

"That's why I say them."

The sound Tony emitted was half-way between a laugh and a groan. He pulled her onto his lap. "You're a provocative wench."

Maya smiled down into his eyes, tracing a gentle pattern across his forehead and down his nose with her index finger. "That's why you married me. You adore provocative wenches."

"I must, mustn't I?"


Several hundred people were gathered in the grounds of Tony and Maya's home.

The Alphans had reunited.

They converged from all over the world for the party. Some from other worlds. A number Sidh guests mingled with the humans, including Taleon.

The twins, Gabriele and Andrea were nearly 2 years old. They toddled from adult to adult, accompanied by the ever patient Danae, who regarded each of Tony and Maya's children as her own cubs. She was an excellent babysitter.

John, Helena, Alan and Sandra had settled in Firenze after they escaped from the American Dome. Three months after Tony escaped, the Alphans stole a transport shuttle and headed to Firenze. A Sidh glamour prevented the Corporation from tracking the flight path.

Now the Alphan crew had scattered across the world. Many Alphans now lived in Florence. Some lived in Sydney (not quite as drowned as the Corporation would believe), Oxford, Dublin and Montreal.

Tony's sister Gianna and Alan Carter had been married eight years, and had a son, Luca, who to the amusement of many Alphan guests, greeted his host with a cheerful, "G'day Uncle Tony."

Wine flowed freely and people milled around, talking in small groups and gathering at the long buffet tables that were set up at either end of the extensive gardens.

The Verdeschi vineyards were groaning under the weight of ripe fruit. This was a harvest party as well as a reunion. Tony and Maya produced a number of acclaimed labels. Their wines were renowned around the world, and had a growing reputation off-world too. El was visiting with his family; he and his wife had kept in touch and regularly stayed with Tony and Maya. Tony's wine was very popular on Tra'an and he and Maya had been back to visit twice.

Reunion events were occurring all over Firenze. John and Helena had hosted a breakfast that morning; Alan and Gianna a barbecue the day before. Today, as well as a wine tasting and grape pressing party hosted by Tony and Maya, Ellen Morgan had arranged a choral workshop in the small church near the Verdeschi house. Maya had volunteered to have a pre-workshop rehearsal in the conservatory and was bearing Ellen's officiousness with amazing equanimity.

Helena raised her eyebrows, "You're much more relaxed than I would be if she were bossing me around in my own home."

"Yes, but it is my home. My husband. My children...not hers." Maya smiled serenely, "I can restrain my violent impulses, for today at least."

Dusk fell, and shimmering otherworldly lights illuminated the trees, flitting from branch to branch. The guests lazed on the lawn, some sitting, others lying on the grass.

Maya sat on the grass beside her husband, their bodies close, hands clasped. Their friends and family sat or lay in similar relaxed postures around them. Happy childish voices could be heard drifting from the playhouse at the bottom of the garden. It was cloudy, but balmy, with scattered clearings in the night sky. A soft wind blew, cooling the mid-August night.

"This has been a perfect day." Maya sighed.

"I don't see how it could've been improved upon, " Tony agreed. "A greater selection of ales, maybe."


"Did I not willingly submit myself to five hours of tra-la-la this afternoon?" Men were a valuable commodity in any choir; and as Tony could actually sing on-key, he was doubly in demand.

"Yes, I noticed you were Ellen's star bass."

"I'm just supremely talented."

"She was practically drooling!" Maya turned her head and caught her husband's smug smile, and laughed. "If your head gets any bigger, it'll explode."

"True." He leaned over and kissed her, "She still doesn't hold a candle to you."

Maya felt her cheeks warm; he could still make her blush. She touched his cheek, the light in her eyes saying what words couldn't. They smiled into each other's eyes, and then reclined on the grass again, watching the sky.

At first the light didn't register consciously. It was simply a glow radiating from behind a cloud. On a primordial level, they expected to see it. From the dawn of time, this particular illumination had been as much a part of human consciousness as the sound of a heart beat.

A murmur went through the crowd as people started to realise what they were seeing.

It was moonlight.

A towering cloudbank scudded away; blown by the air stream; and there it was.

Gleaming and perfect. The familiar craters and mountains clearly defined by the brilliance of the sun's reflected light.

The Alphans stood, awed and silent, faces lifted to the night sky.

Whether by God, Arra or simple fate, everything had come full circle.

They were all home now.

Copyright (c) 2001. Reprinted with permission.
Space:1999 is (c) 1976 by Carlton International Media.
All stories are the property of their respective authors.

Database last modified in 2018.

If this page does not display correctly, switch to the Plain Text layout