"Before we go any further, Azai, I'd like to ask a question," Tom stated as he leaned back in his chair and gazed enquiringly at the Derzai.
"Please, ask," Azai replied. "I will answer if it is within my power to do so."
"Okay," Tom nodded. " You said that Chakotay and I used our link to 'find the path to happiness', but what would've happened if we didn't share a link? Would the gift still have grown?"
"That is easy to answer. Without the link, you would not have been given the gift. In part, I gave the gift to you in acknowledgement of the honour you both granted me when I witnessed your bonding. That would not have taken place without a link."
"Perhaps you could explain something to me, then. How did you know that we had a link? I mean, Chakotay and I only found out about it by accident. And we still don't really know why we have it."
"I am Derzai, I can recognise these things," Azai stated. "I can say no more about my perceptions. As to why you have the link, that will take a little while to explain."
"Would you tell us then, Azai?" Chakotay asked. "As Tom said, it's something that we don't really understand, but we would like to, if it's possible."
"Very well," Azai said, bowing his head slightly. "I believe I have said before that your species is similar to the Dergaj."
"Yes, you have," Tom confirmed.
"Then I will tell you about them and you will also know about yourselves," Azai continued. "All Dergaj are born with the potential to acquire a link with another, and to ultimately become Derzai. Very few achieve this, however, because it requires a certain combination of events and conditions. These cannot always be met."
"Why?" Tom asked. "Are they difficult?"
"Yes. And the most difficult thing for any Dergaj to do is to find the one who will make them truly complete."
"You mean, they have to find the right partner," Tom said, attempting to clarify Azai's statement.
"Yes. It is not an easy task," Azai replied. "Although a Dergaj may take anyone he chooses, he can only fully bond with the one who was born for him. If he does not find that one, he will never have the opportunity to become Derzai."
"What do you mean by 'born for him', Azai?" Chakotay queried with a frown. "Are couples somehow linked before birth?"
"One half of a whole," Azai stated. "This is how all Dergaj enter the world. They must find the matching half. Many may come close to fitting, but only one will complete them."
"Are you saying that Tom and I were always meant to be together?"
Azai smiled, then looked from Chakotay to Tom. "You found each other. You are complete."
"But we're not Dergaj," Tom said, a little bewildered. "Even if we *were* meant to be together, I still don't understand how we got our link. I thought it had something to do with the Doctor's mood enhancer."
"That may have been a contributing factor," Azai conceded. "But it was not the cause. Although you do not appear to recognise the fact, your species also has the potential for links between harmonious couples. The drug you were exposed to did not create this situation, it merely helped you achieve one of the necessary conditions for the link to be attained."
"Then, what *are* the necessary conditions?" Chakotay asked, taking hold of Tom's hand beneath the table. "Please explain as much as you can, Azai."
Azai nodded. "Very well. You understand that you complete each other, that the first, and most difficult obstacle, had been overcome. You found each other.
"The next stage in creating a link comes with the first joining. A couple must give themselves to each other freely, without hesitation. Emotions must run high. There must be real passion. That is where your Doctor's experiment may have helped. It did not create what you felt, but it took it to greater heights."
"And you're aware of what went on in sick bay? You know what we did?" Tom queried.
"I have seen into your minds, yes. It could not be helped. In order to create the correct gift for you, I had to know what lay within."
"Okay," Tom said quietly. "But what happened next? How did we get the link?"
"The first time you shared your essence, the connection was made. Not only were you joined physically, the beginnings of a mental link were also established. Unfortunately," Azai continued. "You, Chakotay, were greatly affected by this, at a time when you were not in a position to understand what was happening.
"Your body shut itself down and you slipped into a coma. Your mind became separated from it, as it was today. You eventually went to your mate and, without realising it, enticed his consciousness away from his own body. This should not have happened. You should not have had the ability to do that so soon."
"So, how did I do it?" Chakotay asked, feeling guilty for being the cause of Tom's coma.
"Your mind is strong, Chakotay," Azai answered. "You have trained it well, through meditation. I believe it was this fact that gave you the ability to do what you did.
"Although your interpretation of the events was not entirely accurate, once you had *some* understanding of what had happened, it was your strong mind that finally allowed you to guide your mate from the place of his fears back to the physical world."
"What would've happened if Chakotay hadn't brought me back? Would the Doctor have been able to do anything about me?"
"I am afraid not. You would have been lost. There would have been no way for you to return to your corporeal form."
"So, everything that happened to us was because of our link," Tom said thoughtfully as something else came to mind. "What about the headaches we experienced? Why did we get those?"
"Your first joining only created a connection. A link is cultivated and nurtured at each subsequent mental or physical joining until a couple are fully bonded. If they are separated before this has occurred, problems sometimes arise. In your case, this manifested itself in the form of headaches."
"And we didn't become fully bonded, as you say, until that time on the holodeck," Chakotay commented. "The first time we used both our minds and bodies when we made love."
"Yes, that is correct. And, as it was witnessed by a Derzai, the final condition was fulfilled. At that moment, you became eligible for the gift. You had the chance to become Derzai."
"I thought the term 'Derzai' was a title given to the Dergaj 'Holy people'? How can we become one of those?" Tom asked, confused. "As I said before, we're not Dergaj, and there's certainly nothing 'holy' about us."
Azai smiled, then answered Tom's question. "You are mistaken in your knowledge. The term 'Derzai' is not a title, as such. It just distinguishes us from the Dergaj that we once were. We are not 'holy', although that is the word your universal translators decided upon, along with the word 'sacred' to describe the Derzai's special world. That is also incorrect. It is possible you may discover more about that later.
"As Derzai, we have an increased understanding of our surroundings. We have knowledge beyond that of others. We are able to do things that the Dergaj cannot. You will become aware of this, also, in the course of your studies."
"What studies, Azai?" Chakotay asked, squeezing Tom's hand tightly.
"Those you need to do in order to make the most of your gift. I told you I will give you access to the knowledge, but what you do with it is up to you. Everything you require is within this room. You must look, listen, understand. I cannot guide you any further. You must make your own decisions. Deep inside, you both know what you most desire. You now have the chance to make that dream a reality."
"And that's all you can tell us, Azai? We just have to stay here until we have enough knowledge to do whatever it is you think we want to do? Is that it?" Tom questioned the Derzai.
"I *know* what you want to do," Azai insisted. "And *you* will realise soon enough. But, I can say no more. It is for *you* to reach your own conclusions. It is for *you* to decide whether or not you want to use your gift for the fulfilment of your wishes.
"Just because I know what you would like to happen, does not mean that you will decide to go ahead and make it so. There will be obstacles to overcome. Maybe they will be insurmountable. I do not know. I *believe* you will be successful in whatever you choose to do, but I cannot guarantee it. The future is your own."
"I get the impression that you're about to leave, Azai," Tom remarked, sitting forward in his chair. "And, I also get the feeling that we might not see you again."
"You are correct in your first assessment, I will leave shortly. As to whether we meet again, only time and circumstance will decide."
"If you go, though, how will we return to our physical bodies? Won't we be trapped here?"
"No, my friend. You and Chakotay will discover many things, one of those will be the way back. Remember, you have done it before, even though it was under different conditions and you were not entirely cognizant of it at the time."
"And Harry is really okay? He won't know that anything's happened?" Tom questioned further.
"Your friend is fine," Azai assured him. "You will find him as you left him." He stood up, Chakotay and Tom following his lead, and held out his hands to the two men.
"I wish you knowledge and happiness," Azai said quietly as the men each took a hand. "May you find what you seek and have the courage to use what you will learn. I will, however, give you a warning. Nothing ever comes without a price. Keep this in mind, as it will be for *you* to decide whether the price you will have to pay is too high. Also remember that you have a choice. If you choose not to use your gift, you will pay nothing. If you do decide to go ahead, then keep the law. That is essential."
"Thank you, Azai. Tom and I are grateful for all your help," Chakotay said, smiling. "And we'll remember your warning."
Azai nodded, releasing the men's hands. "I am pleased," he said with a bow. "You will make very good Derzai. I am honoured to have been the one to guide you. But I must take my leave now. Have courage, my friends. All will become clear to you soon."
As Azai finished speaking, his form gradually began to fade. A moment later, Chakotay and Tom found themselves alone in the small room, the Derzai having disappeared completely.
"So, what now, Cha?" Tom asked, turning to face Chakotay. "What do we do first?"
"First, I think we should take a good look around this room," Chakotay replied. He pointed at the shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling on the wall in front of them. "Let's start over there."
"Have *you* any idea what it is that Azai believes we desire?" Tom asked as he picked up a metallic object from the shelf and looked at it quizzically. "Because *I* can't really think of anything. Well, apart from you. I always desire you," he added, placing the object back, then moving closer to Chakotay.
Chakotay smiled and pulled Tom in for a hug. "I always desire you too, Tom," he said, kissing his cheek. "But at the moment we need to do what Azai said, and learn."
"That's okay with me, I want to learn. I want to learn more about your body," Tom grinned, cheekily.
"I admit, mutual exploration *would* be a very interesting course of study, but we're not physically here, Tom. These aren't our bodies," Chakotay replied, gesturing to himself and then Tom.
"Well, that didn't stop us before. We managed to have a pretty good time on the bridge, if I remember correctly. And besides," Tom continued, slowly rubbing himself against Chakotay's groin. "I wouldn't mind a little out-of-body experience."
"You really are incorrigible, Tom. You know that?" Chakotay replied with a small snort. "And I love you for it," he added, as he nuzzled Tom's neck.
"Good," Tom murmured as Chakotay started to nip at his throat. "Because I love you too. And I intend to show you just how much. We're in a pretty unique situation here, y'know, Cha."
"How do you mean?" Chakotay asked as Tom reached for the fastenings on the older man's pants and began to undo them.
"Well, think about what Azai said," Tom replied, tugging Chakotay's pants down until they were pooled at his feet. "Time has no meaning here. We could spend years here, making love, and still return to our bodies at the instant we left them. We could have an entire lifetime together and we'd remember every minute of it when we go back to the physical world. We could make love for the next hundred years and still be the same age afterwards."
"That's an incredible thought, Tom," Chakotay gasped as Tom knelt before him and took his erection into the moist warmth of his mouth. "And one that I think we should pursue," he added with a soft moan.
"I'm glad you agree with me," Tom said, then ran his tongue over Chakotay's balls. "And I take it, you can still feel all the same sensations you would if your body was really here?"
"Uh huh," Chakotay mumbled, grasping Tom's head and pulling him back to his throbbing erection.
"Good. Then prepare to experience a lifetime of love, Cha." Tom responded as he began to deliver the first instalment of his promise.