A Man Alone
He couldn't breathe.
The darkness was utter. It was complete. Eyes open, he strained to see through it, but there was nothing to see.
Nothing to breathe.
Terror closed an iron fist around his heart. Writhing helpless like a small white rat crushed to blood and gore, it flailed a frantic rhythm, escalating to arrhythmia, cramping to cardiogenic shock.
He was dying. Beyond question, beyond doubt, he was dying.
Panic overwhelmed him. He began to thrash, his feet breaking against duranium with hollow-core rings, his fists turning to raw meat as they pounded, pounded, pounded.
He opened his mouth to scream, but there was nothing in his lungs to expel. His eyes rolled back in his head. The blackness turned blood-red, and then became nothing.
He was dead.
Tom Paris woke with a jolt. Flesh slick with sweat, every muscle in his body clenched to an agonized cramp, he was trembling in a palsy of terror, his fists entwined in bed sheets like corkscrews buried in cork.
"Tom?" B'Elanna shifted at his side, her bare flesh brushing his as she moved. "You okay, Tom?"
He managed a grunt, a small expulsion of sound.
Sitting up, she studied the twist of his half-naked body with the critical eye of an engineer. "What's wrong?"
He sat up, too; drew a deep breath and released it slowly. One hand worked itself free of the knot he'd made of her sheets to run over sweat-slick features, then through the dishevel of his hair. "Wow," he muttered, swallowing hard.
B'Elanna frowned. "What do you mean, `wow'?"
"I mean wow," he repeated. A shiver ran down his spine. The flesh of his arms and shoulders pimpled with chill.
Reaching out to brush sweat-damp hair back from his forehead, she ventured, "Bad dream?"
"Bad doesn't even begin to cover it." He shivered again, then, climbing out of bed, reclaimed a pair of loose sleep pants from where they'd been flung hours before, donning them to wander her quarters like a lost soul with no destination in mind. "Remind me to avoid the leola root pizza next time we're going to make an early evening of it, will you?"
Arriving at the nowhere of his intentions, he sank to the rim of an arbitrary chair and dropped his head into his hands. Bare shoulders slick in the moonlight, he struggled to regain a sense of calm, every labored breath a subtle rise and fall of the curvature of his spine.
Though time healed him as it heals all wounds, it left behind scars: insecurities in his posture, the memory of panic in his expression.
"Are you sure it was the pizza?" she asked finally.
He lifted his head from his hands, flashed her a small smile. "I suppose it could have been the leola root beer." Having repossessed himself of his composure, there existed once again a feigning sleight-of-hand to his manner, a magic trick of misdirection that played bait-and-switch with the truth.
Wise to the smoke and mirrors of the his well-practiced illusion, she said, "This is the third one this week, Tom...the fifth since we emerged from the nebula. Are you sure it isn't something else?"
Exposed, his smile wandered, the shift of his bearing becoming a disaffection. He studied a nearby wall, his silence a subtle verification.
Wrapping herself in a sheet, B'Elanna crossed the room to join him on a chair designed for one. "You want to talk about it?"
He shrugged. "Nothing much to talk about. It was the same as all the others: I can't breathe, I can't see, I can't move more than half-a-meter any direction without running into duranium. And then I die."
"I heard somewhere that you aren't supposed to be able to die in your dreams," B'Elanna ventured.
"Evidently you can."
"Or if you die in them," she revised, "you die in real life, too."
"Maybe I am dead. Why don't you take my pulse and find out?"
B'Elanna leaned forward, slipping a hand into his lap. "Your pulse feels fine to me."
He smiled. "I gotta say, I like your bedside manner a lot better than I like Doc's," he quipped.
She moved closer to him in the already cramped confines of the chair. "If you like the way I take pulses," she purred, "just wait until you see how I take temperatures."
Tom's smile deepened. "I feel a fever coming on," he told her.
B'Elanna's hand shifted in his lap. "I feel it, too," she agreed.
Chakotay considered the request for a long, silent moment, wondering as he chewed on exactly what day he'd shed the reputation of terrorist to become the conservator of the crew's psychological and/or spiritual welfare.
"Are you sure it isn't just the leola root pizza?" he asked finally. "I hear he ate enough of it to kill a normal man."
Torres leaned forward, glaring at him over the table they shared. "Yes," she said, enunciating her words clearly. "I am sure it was not the leola root pizza. This isn't some kind of joke, Chakotay. It's the fifth night since we left the nebula that he's had the dream, and I'm worried about him."
"That's obvious. What isn't so obvious is exactly what you expect me to do about it."
B'Elanna Torres's temper flared. Her hands whitened flat on the table as she thrust to her feet, her chair clattering back with the impetus of the brusque gesture. "Forget it," she snapped. "I should have known better than to come to you with anything having to do with Tom."
Chakotay looked up, catching her with a command glance even as she began her pivot to turn away. The motion arrested itself, leaving her precarious in her stance, half facing him, half turned away.
"Sit down," Chakotay said.
It wasn't a request, it was an order, so she obeyed, albeit truculently. He detained her a moment longer with his gaze, then returned his attentions to a breakfast that walked a fine line between nutritional necessity and a breach of the Saladis Convention. The eggs were undercooked and poisoned with leola root, but he ate them anyway, a leisurely extravagance of an intermission to give her time to remember that she was addressing a superior officer who could play any conversation as a friend or an XO. He glanced up, checking her progress, then took a sip of replicated orange juice before settling back to a posture that granted permission to speak to him in the borderline insubordinate tones that had defined their relationship since the day they met.
She glared at him, choosing not to speak.
"You were saying?" he prompted.
"I was done," she returned tersely.
He gestured to her nearly untouched plate. "You're far from done, Lieutenant. You haven't eaten enough to justify the expenditure of replicator rations."
"I'm not hungry any more."
He sipped of his orange juice again, then went back to eating his eggs.
"Permission to leave," B'Elanna said after a long moment of silence.
She watched him eat, and he ate. Time passed. He finished his breakfast; she still hadn't touched hers.
"Are you going to eat that?" he asked, indicating the now-cold pancakes with a simple flick of his fork.
Pushing his plate aside, he replaced it with hers. Slowly, deliberately, he began eating her breakfast as he'd eaten his own.
"Tom's problems are no less important than anyone else's on this ship," she announced.
"And no more important," he countered between bites.
"I'm not asking you to make them more important, I just don't appreciate
you trivializing them down to leola root pi-"
"The leola root question was a valid one," Chakotay interrupted. "You're just angry because you think I was making fun of your boyfriend."
"Weren't you?" she demanded.
"No, I wasn't. I was exploring other options."
"Nobody asked you to explore other options, Chakotay. All I asked you to do-"
"What you asked me to do," he interrupted, his tone sharply reprimandatory, "isn't something I'm particularly inclined to do; so if there are other options available, I want to know what they are."
"Then your answer's `no'?"
"I didn't say that."
"What did you say?"
"I said it isn't something I really want to do."
"Fine," she snapped. "Don't do it then. I didn't say you had to do it, I just asked if you would."
Chakotay sighed. "Contrary to popular belief, I'm not the ship's counselor. It's not my job to cater to the crew's emotional well-being."
"I thought the XO's first responsibility was to the crew," she challenged.
"To the crew as a whole," he corrected tersely, "not to each crewman in specific. If you need a morale officer, I suggest you try Neelix."
"I don't need anything, Chakotay," she reminded him. "Tom does."
"Then tell Tom to try Neelix."
The stir of her agitation roiled to a boil. "Are you saying it's Tom in specific you don't want to help?" she demanded.
Chakotay's eyes narrowed, his expression taking on a cautionary cast. "Watch yourself, B'Elanna," he advised quietly.
"I think it's a valid question," she countered. "I mean, it must be Tom, because you did it for me, right? And for Neelix. And rumor has it you did it for Captain Janeway, too; so it's not like it's some sort of sacred, secret ritual, right?"
Chakotay's features clouded. His eyes went angry flat as the line of his posture mutated from irritated to defensive.
"So why won't you do it for Tom?" she pressed. "What's so different about him from...say...Captain Janeway?"
"Who I choose or choose not to counsel is none of your business, Lieutenant," Chakotay informed her, his tone warning, his posture past warning and well into angry.
"I didn't say it was," she retorted. "I just said it isn't something you haven't done before."
"And it isn't something I haven't refused to do before either. When someone comes to me for-"
"I didn't come to you," she interrupted. Then, at his slight frown of confusion, she clarified, "Back in the Maquis, when you took me on my spirit plane, I didn't come to you, remember? I didn't ask for your help; you offered it. In fact, you more than offered, you pretty much bullied me until I gave in."
"I didn't bully you," he growled.
"What would you call it? For three weeks, you made it impossible for me to be around you without the subject coming up. That last raid on Shalla Nor it was all you talked about, the whole way there, the whole time we were on-planet, the whole way back. I finally agreed to do it just to get you off my back."
"If you didn't want to do it, you should have told me you didn't want to do it."
"I did tell you, Chakotay. I told you twenty times I had no use for a pep talk from an imaginary animal, but you just kept hounding me. By the time I gave in, you'd called me everything short of a coward."
"I never called you a coward," he said quietly.
"No," she agreed, "but you did say the only reason I didn't want to meet my animal guide was because I was afraid it might turn out to be a bunny."
"I think I said `rabbit.'"
"You said bunny, Chakotay. Your exact words were `big, fluffy, flop-eared bunny.'"
Chakotay sighed. "All right," he conceded as if it were a generosity undeserved, "I may have pushed you a little, but I felt the pressure was warranted. You needed to meet her. You were seeking guidance in the wrong places-looking to me, looking to the Cause. I thought the wisdom of an animal guide would help you. I thought it would give you direction."
"It did help me," she assured him. "I worked off a lot of aggression hunting that sanctimonious pig. And now I'm telling you, I think it will help Tom. So how is that different?"
"It just is."
"No it's not, Chakotay. The only difference is that it's Tom who needs help this time. Tom, instead of me."
He didn't answer for several long, pregnant moments. When he did finally speak, his voice was cold and flat: "All right, B'Elanna. You win. Tell me about the dreams."
"You'll help him then?"
"Tell me about the dreams," Chakotay repeated.
"It's only one dream...a nightmare. He can't breathe, he can't see, he can't move, and he feels like he's dying."
"Has he ever had this dream before?"
"I don't think so. Certainly not to this degree, at least."
"Has he discussed it with the EMH?"
"Doc says there's nothing wrong with him physically. He suggested-" she hesitated a beat, then pushed almost belligerently on, "-Tom avoid leola root too close to bedtime."
Chakotay let the opportunity pass, asking instead, "Has he discussed the situation with the captain?"
"Why do you think, Chakotay? He's embarrassed. He's not going to run to the captain and tell her he's having bad dreams any more than you would."
"Embarrassed or not," Chakotay reminded her, "as a rank officer, it's his duty to report any physical or mental incapacitation to the captain."
"It's not a physical or mental incapacitation," she snapped. "He's having bad dreams."
"Sleep deprivation can affect his performance on the bridge."
"So can indigestion," she retorted. "Or bad sex, or any of a dozen other things that you don't drag into the ready room to discuss with a superior officer. He did what he was supposed to do: he went to the EMH and Doc cleared him for duty. According to regs, that's all he's required to do."
"Bad sex, huh?" Giving her no chance to rebut the assumptive implication of his tone, Chakotay rose and crossed the lightly-populated mess hall to the replication slots. He returned a moment later with two mugs of raktajino, a social stimulant the replicator mimicked to a better end than traditional Earth coffee. "Sounds like you could use a drink," he said, sinking back into his chair as he pushed one mug across the table and sipped of the other himself.
"That was just an example," she announced.
"Interesting example to choose. Are you sure there's not something other than his dreams you'd like to discuss?"
"It was the first example that came to mind," she insisted. "Our sex life is fine."
"If you say so." He sipped of his raktajino, watching her.
"I say so, Chakotay. Now can we get back to the dreams? I think they may have something to do with the nebula."
Chakotay considered it. "Seven did say he came out of stasis four times during the crossing," he noted. "Has he ever mentioned anything to you about being claustrophobic?"
"No." She thought about it for a moment, then added, "But he could be. The idea of being put in a stasis tube really spooked him."
"It spooked everybody," Chakotay said.
"Not the way it spooked Tom. He was really scared." Stirring her raktajino with a fork, B'Elanna stared into the tarry, black liquid with a revulsion she'd never broached with Chakotay over the multitude of raktajinoes he'd bought her through the years. "He wouldn't admit it, but I think climbing into that stasis tube was one of the hardest things he's ever done. He kept saying it was like crawling into a coffin."
"Did he say anything else?"
"He mentioned a couple of times that if we ran out of air, nobody would even notice. I thought he was kidding, but maybe he wasn't."
Drinking steadily, Chakotay drained his mug to the coarse black grounds, seemingly oblivious to his tablemate's grimaced concessions to the niceties of appearances. "So you think this dream stems from being confined in the stasis tube for a month?" he surmised finally. "And that taking him for a walk on his spirit plane is going to solve the problem?"
"It worked for you," she pointed out. "You told me once that you were acrophobic, but you worked through it on the spirit plane and now you're not."
"I was acrophobic because I fell off a cliff when I was three," he countered. "All the spirit plane did was help me find the source of the fear and, as an adult, realize it wasn't rational to experience vertigo whenever I got more than ten meters off the ground."
"So maybe Tom got locked in a closet when he was a kid or something. If you take him to his spirit plane, maybe he can figure it out so he can quit waking up in my bed, thinking he's being suffocated."
Chakotay started to comment, then didn't.
"What?" B'Elanna demanded.
He shook his head. "Nothing."
"Nothing my ass. You started to say something. What was it?"
Chakotay shrugged. "I was just thinking that if he only has these dreams in bed with you, maybe he's not claustrophobic, he's just feeling a little...claustrophobic."
B'Elanna tensed. "Claustrophobic, as in crowded?" she demanded. "As in, he needs his space?"
"You have to admit," Chakotay allowed, "Paris isn't the poster boy of committed relationships. I think you two are going on some kind of record for him."
For a long beat, Torres didn't respond. She stared at him, a dozen emotions waging war for the chance to dominate her expression. Anger won, backed by equal parts outrage, indignation and bitter betrayal. "Is that a problem for you, Chakotay? The fact that we're going on some kind of record?"
"Not a problem for me," Chakotay demurred.
"But you think it's a problem for him," she accused. "You're saying he's having these dreams because I'm suffocating him. That he feels trapped in our relationship so he's having nightmares about dying."
"I didn't say that."
"Didn't you, Chakotay? That sure sounded like what you said."
Chakotay frowned. "I was just raising the possibility," he allowed after a beat. "I'm sure you're in a much better position to judge that than I am."
"Yes, I am," she agreed angrily. "I'm in a much better position." Leaning into their conversation, she spoke in a quiet hiss over her still-full mug of raktajino: "This isn't about me, Chakotay. If it were, he would have told me."
Her encroachment into the neutral zone between them prompted instinctive aggressions. Though he repressed the urge to respond in kind, there was an edge to his voice when he asked, "Are you sure? Standing up to an issue isn't exactly his strong suit."
"And it is yours?"
Her tone was an open-handed slap. Chakotay tensed to angles and anger, the shadows of betrayal collecting in the hollows of his face. "What is that supposed to mean?" he demanded, his voice the low and ominous rumble of distant thunder.
"You know exactly what it means," she returned, meeting his glare head-on.
"Are you trying to equate your situation to mine?"
"Why would I do that? Our situations are nothing alike. Tom and I are honest about our relationship. If he was starting to feel confined, he'd stand up and say so."
"And you're saying I wouldn't?"
He stared at her for a beat. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"I'm talking about the same thing you are, Chakotay: standing up to the issue." Her tone was baiting, her eyes fire. "Have you told her you're feeling confined? Have you said you want to change it or you want out?"
"You don't know what you're talking about," he repeated, the change of a single word mutating his response from a wary disavowal to a terse warning.
"Deny it all you want," she said, "but just because you do, don't think Tom would. He may not have been as committed to the Maquis cause as you and I were, but that doesn't mean he's a coward, or the mercenary you make him out to be."
Chakotay snorted derisively. "Sell it to someone who's buying," he advised.
"I don't have to sell it," she countered. "Everyone but you sees it. There is nothing spineless or corrupt about Tom. He's risked his life a dozen times over for this crew."
"And he's been paid for it. He's a bridge officer on a Starfleet vessel. He was promoted there from the brig."
Her hands clenched to fists on the table. "What more do you want from him? How many more times does he have to save the ship before he's done proving himself to you?"
"He can't prove himself to me," Chakotay snapped. "It's a waste of time to even try."
The open warfare between them began to draw attention. Lowering his voice with an effort, Chakotay glanced surreptitiously about, checking his flanks for viable eavesdroppers. Though every table in their sector was empty, when he spoke again, it was in a Maquis murmur that defied the curiosities of the smattering of crew that had begun to take an interest in the atypical exchange. Leaning in close, he said quietly, but with the intensity of a phaser set to a pinpoint focus, "No one's contesting the fact that Paris has saved this ship on occasion. So have you. So have I. For that matter, so did Suder. But just because he's risen to the occasion when his own neck was on the line, don't you dare try to sign me up for the Tom Paris fan club because you and I both know better, don't we?"
"What I know is that you won't even give him a chance to prove he's changed."
"He hasn't changed, B'Elanna. Not enough. Yes, he's an exceptional pilot; and yes, he's turned out to be more of an asset to the command crew than I thought he'd be; but at the core, Tom Paris is still the same self-serving, mercurial bastard who betrayed us in the Maquis, and I am not willing to forgive him his failings just because he's a-"
He cut his own remark short, his jaw working with the effort of not saying what he wanted to say. His eyes burned into her, and her eyes burned back.
"Because he's a what?" she demanded after a moment of electric silence. "Because he's a brave man who's risked his life a dozen times over for this ship and this crew?"
Chakotay pulled away from her, sitting upright. Flesh still irradiated with fury, he nonetheless tried to break the confrontation by increasing the distance between them and looking away.
"Or because he's a man who makes me laugh?" she pressed, a flicker of danger in her expression, a flicker of violence beyond her Klingon norm. "Who makes me feel like it's okay to be who I am instead of who he thinks I should be?"
Chakotay didn't answer, sublimating the ferocity in his own posture, re-structuring the set of his own features to a charade of neutrality as if an accusation not actually spoken did not hold the means to fracture a friendship that had survived the Cardassians, the Kazon and the Borg.
"Or were you going to say," B'Elanna went on, straightening as she spoke, her voice fading to a calm, dispassionate ice, "that I forgive Tom all his failings because he's a good fuck?"
"I didn't say that."
"You didn't have to." She thrust to her feet, stepping back from the table. "I've changed my mind, Chakotay. I don't want your help. I don't want anything from you at all."
Scanning a mess hall that had gone nearly deserted as the pending duty shift drew perilously near, he spoke to her without looking at her. "Sit down, B'Elanna."
"Do you want me to make it an order?"
"Take your order," she growled, her tone cold, her posture inflexible, "and shove it up your ass." Turning away, she strode through the mess hall, forcing him to call her down or let her go.
Because she'd saved his life a dozen times, and because he'd saved hers a dozen more, he let her go.
"What?" Paris had her cornered in an out-of-the-main-thoroughfare cubby, one hand on her arm, his body serving as an effective roadblock to her progress. "What's wrong? Why are you so upset?"
"I'm not upset," Torres snapped. "I just have work to do, and you're in the way."
"Are you mad about last night?"
"Why would I be mad about last night?"
Paris shrugged. "I don't know-because I woke you up? I mean, it can't be much fun sleeping next to Sweat Boy ..."
"I'm not mad about last night," she assured him. "Now get out of my way. I've got an injector flush scheduled for fourteen hundred and there's a lot of prep work left to do." She shouldered by him, crossing to a wall padd on the opposite bulkhead. Accessing the primary subroutines, she stood with her back to him, running a series of diagnostics that had nothing at all to do with the injectors and everything to do with buying time.
"Maybe I should stay at my own place tonight," he said.
"If you want to." Pressing buttons like mad, she made a good show of scrutinizing the readouts as if they were forking over vital information rather than the exterior skin temperature of the aft bulkheads. "I mean, I wouldn't want you to feel crowded."
Glaring at the square-shouldered stance she habituated by nature, Paris announced, "Those dreams don't have anything to do with you, B'Elanna."
"Are you sure?" Working to make the challenge seem nothing more than a good-natured jibe, she said, "You can't see, you can't breathe, you can't move-sounds a little like you're being smothered, don't you think?"
She looked up from the wall padd, flashed him a quick smile. He took a single step toward her, and she dropped back into engineer mode, manipulating a dozen access functions that accomplished absolutely nothing.
He crossed the corridor to her side. She ignored him. He moved a little closer, his body pressing gently against her arm. The simple point of contact was electric. She tried to ignore that as well, and failed.
He reached out, laid one hand over the pointless wanderings of ill-disguised evasions. Her fingers stilled. Her hand closed to a fist against the wall padd and his closed around it.
She looked up finally, met his eyes.
"No," he told her firmly. "I don't think it sounds like that at all."
"Lieutenant?" Appearing at the juncture where their corridor met the access corridor leading back to engineering proper, Vorik stopped short at the sight of them, hand over hand, standing so close their uniforms wrinkled with the contact. He lifted a single eyebrow in a Vulcan equivalent of a surprised grunt.
"What?" Torres answered. She didn't move; Paris didn't move. With Vorik less than ten meters away, neither of them stepped down from the impropriety of the small intimacy between them. Neither of them capitulated to the pressure of public display, and neither of them retreated to the easy solution of maintaining a charade.
"We are ready to prime the injectors," Vorik informed her with impeccable Vulcan calm.
"I'll be there in a minute," she agreed. Paris was watching her. She was watching Paris. Though each of them waited for the other to buckle with embarrassment, neither showed the inclination to fail.
"As you wish," Vorik agreed. He retreated, his footsteps fading quickly as he left them to each other.
Paris's posture fell to ease first. He smiled, a gentle humor invading his eyes. "Well, there's a juicy one for the rumor mill," he noted. "Paris and the CE, sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-"
"Vulcans don't gossip," Torres interrupted, "and all we were doing was holding hands. Besides which, there are already two dozen rumors flying around out there about us anyway, so what's one more?"
He squeezed her hand, then let it go. "Only two dozen, huh? I've heard twice that many just this week. Did you hear the one where you're pregnant with Chakotay's love child, but I'm willing to do the right thing anyway?"
She snorted. "No. I hadn't heard that one."
"What about the one where it's Seven's love child?"
B'Elanna's body jolted with a flash of irrational anger. Her eyebrows clenched to a knot, and she opened her mouth to rage.
"I'm only kidding," he assured her hurriedly. "I made that one up, just now."
"Why would you make up something like that?" she demanded.
He shrugged, the smile stealing back into his eyes. "I'm a man?" he offered by way of an explanation.
She tried not to smile, but it was more than she could manage.
"I would, you know," he said quietly.
"Would what? Like to see me and Seven-"
"I'd do the right thing."
The whisper of a smile turned her lips. "You mean kill Chakotay?"
"I was thinking more along the lines of telling the captain and letting her kill Chakotay."
B'Elanna's smile deepened. "That would probably work, too."
His expression sobered, his gaze intensifying by degrees as he stared into her eyes with singular focus. "I don't know where you got the idea that I was," he said quietly, "but I'm not feeling crowded, B'Elanna. In fact, I've never felt so perfectly uncrowded in all my life."
"If you were," she returned just as quietly, "you'd tell me, wouldn't you?"
He leaned in and kissed her. It was a passionate caress, a flyby of anti-decorum executed with the speed of public necessity. Tasting her lips deeply, he left the warmth of her response when he would rather have stayed, stepping back as if he'd never engaged.
"I won't ever tell you that," he said firmly, "because it won't ever be true."
"Tom and B'Elanna, sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G."
He smiled at her. She smiled back. "I have the holodeck reserved for nineteen hundred," he said. "I thought we might find a beach somewhere and be decadent."
"Sounds good to me."
"Meet you in the mess hall after shift?"
"Only if you promise to stay away from the leola root pizza."
"And the leola root tacos," he agreed.
"And that leola root mousse," she added.
"Hey. The mousse wasn't half bad." He wanted to kiss her again, but he didn't, settling instead for a quick brush of fingers against her cheek. "The mess hall: be there or be square." And then he walked away.
She watched until he reached a juncture in the corridor, then returned to the interrupted task of prepping the injectors for flush.
"You seem upset," Janeway noted.
Chakotay glanced up from the personnel report in his hand. He studied her for a moment, then allowed in a guarded voice, "Do I?"
"Yes, you do." Stretching as if her decision to take a break had only to do with placating malcontent muscles, she set her own report aside and turned to face him on the ready room couch. "Want to talk about it?"
"Sure." He set his report aside as well. "In what way do I seem upset?"
She smiled. "In an I've-had-words-with-B'Elanna way."
His expression barely flickered. "Really. And what exactly do I do when I seem upset in an I've-had-words-with-B'Elanna way?"
"Well, for one thing, you don't talk much. For another, you tend to glower a bit more than usual."
"Than usual?" he challenged. "You aren't suggesting that I glower as a matter of course?"
"You glower often," she compromised. "You sometimes frown, and you even, on occasion, smile."
"I sound like a real barrel of monkeys. How do you ever put up with me?"
Janeway's smile deepened. "Actually, glowering suits you to a degree. You have the features for it."
"Do I?" This time the phrase was less an evasion than an engagement.
"Yes," she agreed. "You do."
He studied her for a moment, then said, "So I glower. And I don't talk enough. Anything else?"
"As a matter of fact, yes, there is something else: you always seem upset in an I've-had-words-with-B'Elanna way shortly after a little bird tells me you had words with B'Elanna. Remarkable coincidence, don't you agree?"
"This little bird wouldn't happen to have spots and a unfortunate devotion to leola root, would he?"
"As a matter of fact, I think he does."
Shaking his head, Chakotay eased back into the cushioning of the couch. "The one thing I really miss about Dorvan is just a teacup's worth of privacy," he observed drily.
"If you want privacy, Commander," she chided, "don't lean into a table and hiss at the chief engineer over breakfast."
"I wasn't hissing."
"My little bird says you were."
"Your little bird should worry more about his own beak and less about mine."
"My little bird was just trying to be helpful. Would you care to talk about it?"
"Talk about what?"
"Oh, the weather. What holoprogram is getting the most play this week. Whatever it was that you and B'Elanna found important enough to quarrel over in the mess hall."
"The Tarzan one, I think. Followed closely by Sandrine's. That's a consistently popular program-I think it's the hostess's accent and her less-than-discerning taste in men."
"Let me guess. It had something to do with Tom."
Chakotay lifted an eyebrow. "Your little bird must have good ears."
"That was a guess. An accurate one, obviously, but a guess nonetheless. And here's another guess: it had something to do with Tom and B'Elanna's relationship."
Chakotay shrugged the assumption off. "Not really. More to do with Paris's sleeping habits than anything."
Janeway frowned. She studied her XO for a long moment, then asked, "What in the world could you and B'Elanna argue over on the subject of Tom's sleeping habits? And why would she be discussing his sleeping habits with you in the first place?"
"B'Elanna has some concerns she brought to my attention."
"And?" Janeway prompted.
"And I suppose she didn't particularly care for my interpretation concerning the source of those concerns."
"What kind of concerns does she have?"
"That's a little personal."
"I won't tell her you told me."
"I'd be more comfortable if you asked her."
"I'm asking you, Chakotay."
He hesitated for a beat, then allowed, "Paris is having some trouble sleeping. Evidently, he's been experiencing a recurring dream since being revived from stasis."
"I don't like the sound of that. What kind of dream is he having?"
"Sounds like some sort of claustrophobic-based panic attack. He's talked to the EMH about it and gotten a clean bill of health, so it must not be any kind of threat to his performance capacity."
"I wasn't thinking of his performance capacity," she assured him.
"That was the only capacity in which I felt it appropriate to be concerned," Chakotay returned.
Janeway frowned. "Maybe that's the only capacity in which you feel it's appropriate to be concerned," she allowed after a moment, "but I'm more interested in his state of mind. If these dreams are bothering him enough to take them to the EMH, why hasn't he brought them to me?"
Chakotay shrugged again. "B'Elanna says he's a little embarrassed."
"He's embarrassed to tell me," she demanded incredulously, "but he'll discuss it with you?"
"He didn't discuss it with me; B'Elanna did."
"She wanted some advice."
"What kind of advice?"
"The kind she didn't get."
"Ah." Janeway nodded knowingly. "And thus the words in the mess hall."
"I said some things she didn't want to hear."
"I can imagine."
It was Chakotay's turn to frown. "What do you mean by that?" he asked after a beat.
"I just mean that I can imagine that, on the topic of Tom Paris, you have a number of things to say that B'Elanna wouldn't want to hear."
"I'm not sure I understand your point."
"I don't have a point, Chakotay. It's merely an observation."
"I'm not sure I understand your observation, then."
Janeway sighed. "It's not a big secret that you don't approve of Tom and B'Elanna," she allowed.
Chakotay stiffened. "I've never said anything to that effect."
"You don't have to say it, Chakotay. It couldn't be more obvious if you wrote it on your forehead in red ink."
Chakotay pushed to his feet. He strode across the ready room, putting his back to her as he stared out the viewing portal at the stars that scrolled by outside. "That's twice today I've been told that I've become so transparent I no longer have to speak my mind," he observed bitterly.
"I wouldn't say transparent," Janeway corrected, "but you certainly aren't the most circumspect individual when you have strong opinions on a subject."
"I have no strong opinions on B'Elanna's choice of companions."
Janeway chuckled softly, a response that earned her an angry glare. Sighing, she rose and crossed the room to stand at Chakotay's side. Watching the stars as he watched them, she waited until the urge to find his indignation amusing passed before noting, "B'Elanna's been your friend for a very long time. Some might even suggest that she's your protegee."
"B'Elanna's a grown woman," he announced coldly. "She can spend her time with whomever she chooses to spend her time with."
"But that doesn't mean you have to like it."
"No one asked me to like it. No one asked my opinion at all."
"No, they didn't. Does that bother you?"
He snorted. "I couldn't care less who B'Elanna dates. I've got better things to do with my time than play Cupid for an engineer who views mutilation as a courtship behavior."
"But it would have been nice to be asked, wouldn't it?" Janeway pressed gently. "To be given the chance to air your concerns...especially concerns about someone as concern-worthy as Tom Paris?"
He shot her another glare, this one less angry, but no less indignant. "If she'd asked-which she didn't-I would have told her the same thing I'm telling you: B'Elanna's love life is her own affair."
"That's a very evolved viewpoint."
"I'm a very evolved man."
"Not that evolved, Chakotay. It may sound good in theory, but in practice-whether you come right out and say it or not-you don't think Tom is good enough for her and everyone on the ship knows it."
"I'm glad the crew is so in tune with my sentiments on the subject."
"You don't make much of a secret of your opinions when it comes to Tom."
"I consider Tom Paris an excellent officer."
"I'm sure you do. But on an ethical level, it's obvious you still consider him a mercenary at best, a traitor at worst."
"He's proven himself a dozen times over the past four years," Chakotay pointed out.
"Proven himself an asset to this crew," she replied. "Not a man worthy of the affections of B'Elanna Torres."
"Once again, we're back to the issue at hand. I'm not in the business of screening B'Elanna's dates."
"You care about her, Chakotay. It's only natural that her choice of a mate concern you-especially if you don't approve of that choice."
"It's not my place to approve or disapprove."
"Maybe not, but we-" she chose her pronouns carefully, "-can't help having our opinions, can we?"
"My opinions aren't the issue here."
"Of course they are. They've been the issue since the day Tom and B'Elanna started seeing each other."
Chakotay turned, studied her for a moment. "I've never made them the issue."
"They are, nonetheless, the issue. Can you imagine the strain it must be on B'Elanna to have the one man whose opinion she values most view the man she loves as a failure at the task of being a man?"
"B'Elanna knew my opinion of Paris before she got involved with him."
"I'm sure she did," Janeway agreed, "but she got involved with him anyway. I think that's a testament to the depth of her feelings for him." She hesitated, then pushed on, "Maybe you don't realize it, but she loves him, Chakotay. And from everything I've seen, he loves her, too. Thus far, they've cleared every hurdle in their relationship except the hurdle of you."
He walked away from her again, this time wandering the confines of the room like a restless tiger. "I can't change my opinion of Tom Paris just because B'Elanna wants me to like him," he announced suddenly. "I can't just forget the things he's done, or pretend he has the qualities I look for in a friend."
"I don't think B'Elanna expects the two of you to be friends," Janeway said gently.
Chakotay looked up, met her eyes. "We aren't friends, and we never will be."
She smiled. "You have Tuvok's knack for stating the obvious."
"I'm don't think I can ever be more than tolerant of him," he went on, "but I am that. I am tolerant. I try very hard to be civil, to appreciate him for what he is and not punish him for what he isn't."
"You have toned down your level of antagonism," Janeway agreed.
"I've done more than tone it down," he countered. "I've tried to sublimate it completely. I watch every word I say to him, censor every comment I'm tempted to make but don't."
"I think B'Elanna was hoping for a little more."
"I've told her a dozen times I value him as an officer. Why isn't that enough?"
"Because she loves him."
"I'm sure she does, and for her sake, I'm doing my level best to hold the line at professional respect."
"After four years, maybe it's time to trade in a little of that professional respect for a modicum of personal forgiveness."
Chakotay's jaw clenched. "I'm not big on forgiveness, Kathryn. You of all people should know that."
"I do know it, Chakotay, but I think Tom's earned a second chance."
"And I've given him one. I work with the man every day. I give him every respect he's due, and I treat him the way I treat every other member of this crew. I don't think it's fair for either you or B'Elanna to expect anything more."
Janeway sighed. "It isn't what we expect, Chakotay," she said gently, "it's what B'Elanna needs. She needs you to understand that, whatever your differences may be, whatever your past is and whatever you may feel personally about him, Tom Paris is the man she's chosen to love. She needs you to understand that and respect it and be happy for her."
"I am happy for her."
"You're not happy for her, Chakotay; you're watching from the shadows, waiting for it to all fall apart. Waiting for Tom to fail her, waiting for everything she's built to crumble around her. I know you have good intentions-that you're doing it so you'll be there for her when and if it happens-but just the fact that you expect it to happen is a betrayal to her. It betrays every dream she has, every hope she holds for the future."
"I'm not trying to betray her. All I want is for her to be happy."
"She is happy."
"I think that's all any of us can hope for, isn't it?"
"It's not enough for you."
The statement stunned Janeway, jarring her to silence.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "That was inappropriate."
"No," she said, "you're right." Her voice was low, full of pain. "It isn't enough for me. But it seems to be enough for B'Elanna and Tom."
"Then that's all that counts."
"Yes," she agreed. "It is."
"Not my opinion," he added. "Not what I feel."
"What you feel is important."
"It isn't important enough."
Janeway looked away, understanding that he was no longer talking about B'Elanna, understanding that neither of them were. She stared for a long time at the stars, aware of him when he re-crossed the room to her side, aware of his nearness, of his presence and the bitterness he held close beneath a cloak of heavy silence.
"I will try to be a little more circumspect with my opinions," he said finally, his voice an abrasion against the open wound between them. "That's the best I can do."
"Your best has always been good enough, Chakotay," she said.
"Almost always," he corrected. And then he walked away.
He couldn't breathe.
The darkness was utter, complete. Eyes open, he strained to see in through it, but there was nothing to see.
Nothing to breathe.
It's okay, Tommy. Don't panic. Everything will be okay.
Terror closed around his heart like an iron fist. He opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out.
It's okay, Tommy. Don't be afraid. Please don't be afraid.
His eyes rolled back in his head. The blackness turned blood-red, and then became nothing. Panic overwhelmed him. He began to thrash, his feet breaking against duranium with hollow-core rings, his fists turning to raw meat as they pounded, pounded, pounded.
Everything's going to be okay, Tommy. Everything's going to be okay....
"Tom. Tom. Wake up, Tom. Listen to me. You have to wake up."
Tom Paris jolted to an awareness of sun and sand and water. He sat up sharply, blinking away the fierce residuals of shadows that poisoned the corridors of his mind.
The Antarian beach was a striking panorama of tropical paradise: white sugar sand sloping gently to the brilliant indigo sea, an endless azure sky stretched over them, cradling the twin orbs of the Antarian binary suns.
Beside him, B'Elanna Torres sat like an enchantress carved of soft caramel. Her iridescent bathing suit, cut high and low in appropriate places, clung to every curve of her body, distracting him for the briefest of moments from the concern cut deeply into vaguely Klingonoid features.
"Are you all right?" she demanded.
"Yeah. I'm fine."
"You were dreaming."
"Was I? Yeah, I guess I was." He stood, brushing sand from his swim trunks, wiping it off his skin where it clung in clumps and globules and long twisting rivers of dream sweat. "I don't really remember. You up for a moonlight skinny dip?"
He could tell she knew he was lying, but he clung to the repudiation with a cavalier nonchalance that had served him well the vast majority of his life. Addressing himself to the computer, he ordered, "Computer, age program Paris Beta Four to timemark twenty-three hundred hours. Full moon, light breeze, clear sky."
The Antarian beach scene mutated quickly. Night like ebony silk fell around them as the dual suns raced for the horizon and a trio of luminous moons rose in their wake.
"What do you think?" Paris gestured at the lightly-ruffled water that looked black now in the yellow-white light of the moons. "Romantic enough, or should I add some background music?"
"I think we need to talk about this, Tom."
"Okay. We'll talk about it. But not right now, okay? We've got less than an hour left in the deck, and I don't want to waste it talking about my dreams."
"You already wasted an hour of it sleeping," she pointed out.
"You wore me out. Besides, I wasn't sleeping, I was resting my eyes. And anyhow, you're the one who said you just wanted to lie on the beach for a while and enjoy the sun."
"I'm worried about you, Tom."
He flashed her a winning smile. "Don't worry about me, B'Elanna. Really. I'm fine. I promise. Now how about that skinny dip?" He held out a hand in invitation. For a long moment, she resisted, then finally, she accepted his hand and he pulled her to her feet.
Chakotay lay in his bed, thinking. The night had worn itself to early morning, sleep passing him by as he considered for hours the many complexities of the life he'd constructed from the rubble of the life he'd intended to lead. In either life, that B'Elanna Torres was his friend stood as a given, yet Janeway had made an interesting point: they hadn't spoken in months but to snipe at one another or to come to command prerogative over one aspect or another of Seven of Nine's duty assignments. Though it wasn't like them to spend so much time without consulting one another on the daily events of their lives, it wasn't until now, lying in his quarters and mulling it over in his mind, that it occurred to him to truly miss her.
That she'd chosen to fall for Paris had made him angrier than he thought.
The quiet, comforting hum of Voyager's engines prompted a distinct yearning for the smell of Dorvanian grass. Clothed only in loose-fitting sleep pants, he crawled out of bed and retrieved his prayer bundle, sinking cross-legged to the floor to spread the contents ritualistically before him. Kept company by the stars and the disquietous agitation of his own conflicted thoughts, Chakotay closed his eyes and called upon the ancestors of his wise and forgiving father.
"So," Chakotay said.
Though it seemed a casual comment, it was not. The weight of expectation lay heavy in his tone, as it did in his expression, and the presumption of that expectation was not lost on the man who shared his company.
"So," Paris agreed, sipping at his raktajino with the practiced indifference of a man well used to being viewed as something less than he knew he was.
It was early for the alpha shift-too early for more than a smattering of crew to be up and about, let alone ready to eat. Half-lit and vacant, the mess hall had yet to officially open for the day, playing host only to Neelix with his culinary putterings, and to the two senior officers drinking raktajino near the aft bulkhead. Though each had arrived of his own agenda, they'd converged upon the replication slot in tandem and sat now at a single table as if forced to their camaraderie by a lack of available accommodations.
"So," Chakotay repeated.
"You said that already."
"I thought it bore repeating." Chakotay leaned back in his chair, sipping of his raktajino and watching Paris like a cat considering a one-legged cricket.
"Well, it's been fun, Chakotay. Glad you asked me to join you." Paris shifted as if to stand.
"What's your hurry? You still have four hours to shift."
"I have a girlfriend," Paris countered, "and I'm an early riser."
"B'Elanna isn't much of a morning person," Chakotay said. "You put your `early riser' too close to her at this hour and she's liable to snap it off."
Paris hesitated. "You may have a point there," he conceded, settling back into his chair.
"Trust me," Chakotay assured him, "I do."
Paris frowned. He didn't ask for several moments, but finally ventured, with a cavalier that smacked of fraudulence, "So I could ask how you know that, but I'm not sure I really want to know."
Chakotay shrugged. "Not much of a story. When we were stationed together at Bola, we used to run early morning raids on Gul Evek's munitions outposts. Didn't take long to figure out that our greatest advantage was siccing B'Elanna on the Cardies before she'd had her first raktajino."
Paris's frown mutated to a small smile. "She hates raktajino," he observed. "Told me once it tastes like tarmac sealant." He took a sip from his mug and grimaced. "I can't say that I disagree."
"She hates it," Chakotay noted, "but she drinks it."
"She drinks it because you buy it for her," Paris countered.
Chakotay sipped his own raktajino, his mouth turned slightly at one corner. "I buy it for her," he said, his tone levelly informative, "because she hates it, but she drinks it anyway."
A silence fell between the two men as they shared a rare moment of camaraderie at the expense of B'Elanna Torres. The moment faded, unable to maintain its half-life within an atmosphere dominated by subliminal discord, and the simple connection frayed to a single strand that snapped.
"So how are you and B'Elanna getting along these days anyway?" Chakotay asked; again, a casual inquiry that was not.
"Fine, I guess. Unless you know something I don't?"
Chakotay glanced away. Watching Neelix prepare the morning meal as if the intricate procedure held some sort of interest for him, he said, "B'Elanna and I don't talk much any more. We've drifted apart over the past several months."
"Any particular reason?"
"We don't seem to have much in common these days."
"Did you ever have much in common?"
It was a barbed question, but Chakotay ignored it because it was phrased in such a way that he could. "We had enough," he allowed.
"Like blowing up Cardassian strongholds?"
"We had more than that. We used to play hoverball. We used to talk about life."
"We talk about life," Paris asserted a little too quickly. "She has some interesting perspectives."
"She has some unique perspectives," Chakotay corrected wryly, "but I suppose that's to be expected, considering her background and racial heritage. It's not a particularly homogenous mix."
"I like her mix," Paris stated. "I think it's refreshing."
"A quick dip in the polar caps of Chyrenon can be refreshing, too," Chakotay pointed out. "Emasculating, but refreshing."
"I've never thought of B'Elanna as emasculating."
"Then you've never seen B'Elanna mad."
Paris shrugged. "Matter of perspective, I suppose. Personally, I like a challenge."
"Well, she is that."
"Yes," Paris agreed. "She is that."
They fell again to silence, the distance between them palpable. "I've noticed the two of you spending a lot more time together these days," Chakotay commented suddenly. "It's not often I see one of you without the other."
"We try to spend as much time together as we can," Paris allowed guardedly. "Why? Is that a problem for you, Chakotay?"
"Not a problem, just an observation."
"An observation, huh?" He drank his raktajino, the bitter tang of it unnoted in his expression. "Is that why we're having this little chat? Because you've observed us spending too much time together?"
"I didn't say that."
"Because if that is a problem," Paris went on, "you could always reassign one of us to beta shift. I mean, you are the XO, right? If you work at it, I'm sure you can fix it so that, between our duty assignments, we only have time for food and sex."
For a long three-beat of silence, Chakotay said nothing at all. In that time, Paris didn't so much as blink.
"Good morning, gentlemen," Neelix greeted, flashing bright teeth in an ingratiating smile as he slipped neatly into the black hole newly opened. "And what a beautiful morning it is. I have to say, the two of you looked hungry over here, so I took the liberty of whipping up a special batch of my Tumarian muffins." He placed a plate of gnarled orange lumps onto the table with a pontifical flourish. "I hope you like them. They're an old family recipe-very tasty, even if I do say so myself."
"Thank you, Neelix," Chakotay said quietly.
"Yeah," Paris agreed, his gaze still unflinchingly direct. "Thanks."
"If you like them," Neelix prattled on, "I'd be more than happy to add them to the standard breakfast menu rotation. As I said, they're an old family tradition. My aunt used to bake up the most exquisite-"
"The lieutenant and I are discussing a private matter," Chakotay interrupted flatly. "Maybe you should tell us this story another time."
"Oh." Neelix looked from one man to the other, his expression somewhat strained by the effort of feigning oblivity to a dynamic manifest from a parsec distant. "Oh, of course. Well, I'll leave you two alone then; but if you need anything-" he gestured vaguely toward the kitchen area.
"Thank you," Chakotay repeated, his tone a dismissal.
Defeated, Neelix retreated.
"So where were we?" Chakotay prompted after another long moment of silence.
"We were discussing ways you could try to interfere with B'Elanna's and my relationship," Paris answered calmly.
Chakotay's expression flickered. "If I wanted to interfere," he said, "I'm sure I could find more effective ways than changing your duty shift."
"Take your best shot," Paris agreed.
Leaning forward slightly, his features working hard to maintain a sense of neutrality to his expression, Chakotay informed the younger man in a grim, fierce tone, "I didn't ask you to join me to take potshots at your relationship with B'Elanna."
"No. I didn't."
"Then why did you ask me to join you?"
"I thought maybe we could talk."
"About what? I mean, we have so much in common...." Picking up a malformed muffin, Paris studied the multitude of crags and crevasses that made up a surface the texture of wet, clumped sand.
"We have B'Elanna in common," Chakotay said firmly.
"And that's what you want to talk about? B'Elanna?"
"All right, let's talk about B'Elanna." Tossing the muffin back to its compatriots, he asked congenially, "Are you interested in the sordid details of our holodeck liaisons, or do you want to cut straight to the chase and tell me why I'm not good enough for her?"
Anger flexed Chakotay's expression. "I have no intention of telling you you're not good enough for her," he said, his tone losing its neutrality as he spoke, honing itself to an edge of frustrated aggravation.
"No. I don't."
"Wow. Short conversation. So what, of the many other things we have in common, do you want to talk about now?"
"We're not done talking about B'Elanna."
"Aren't we? I thought we were."
"Then you thought wrong. I have a few questions I want to ask you."
"Really? That's a fascinating coincidence. I have some questions I want to ask you, too."
"Go ahead," Chakotay agreed.
"You first," Paris countered.
"This isn't a competition, Paris. If you have questions, ask them."
"There's only one, really."
"The answer's no."
"You haven't heard the question yet."
"You want to know if B'Elanna and I have ever had sex," Chakotay surmised confidently. "And the answer is no."
Paris's eyes narrowed. "That isn't the question," he said.
"Really?" Expression explicit with a vaguely derisive skepticism, he asked in a patronizing tone, "Then what is your question?"
Paris leaned forward slightly. "Are you jealous of me, Chakotay?"
Chakotay snorted in surprise. "Jealous?" he repeated.
"Yeah. Jealous. Envious. About me being with B'Elanna, I mean."
Chakotay let a beat of silence pass, and then another. "No, Paris," he said finally. "I am not jealous."
"Because it would explain a lot," the younger man pressed. "I mean, if you had your eye on her and I just kind of," he gestured with one hand, "zigged in front of you there and cut you off at the pass-that would explain a few things."
"Things like what?"
"Oh, just things."
Chakotay shook his head. "Sorry to disappoint you," he said, "but I'm not jealous."
"Are you sure? Because you sound a little jealous."
"I'm sure," he repeated. "If I wanted B'Elanna, I'd already have B'Elanna."
"You think so?" Paris cocked his head to one side, squinting his eyes as if considering the viability of the contention. "I don't know, Chakotay. I've noticed you're not much of a closer when it comes to the ladies."
Chakotay's jaw flexed. He straightened slightly in his chair, the texture of his expression changing from vague agitation to striated stone. "You're out of line, Paris," he said warningly.
"And you're not?" Paris countered. "You think you have the right to sit here and tell me I'm dating your cast-offs?"
"I didn't mean it that way."
"You said it that way."
"I only meant that if B'Elanna and I were interested in one another, we would have acted on it before now."
"So instead of saying you could have B'Elanna if you wanted her, what you meant to say is that the only reason I ever got a shot at B'Elanna at all is because you didn't want her?"
Rather than answer immediately, Chakotay picked up the muffin closest to him and broke it in half. Repulsed by the viscous pool of gelatinous filling nestled in a crater of granular orange batter, he changed his mind about tasting the professed delicacy and set both halves back on the plate.
"I want to be clear about this, Paris," he said finally, his voice a structured calm. "For B'Elanna's sake, I don't want there to be any misunderstanding." He looked up, fixed Paris with an unblinkingly direct gaze. "My only interest in B'Elanna Torres is as a friend and an engineer. There is no point of competition between us for any aspect of her affections."
"Then why are we talking about her at all?" Paris demanded.
"Because, as her friend, I'm concerned about her."
"Concerned about her getting mixed up with a guy like me?"
"This isn't about you, Paris. This is about her."
"About her seeing me? I have to admit, Chakotay, I was expecting this talk some time ago. I'm very impressed you were able to hold out this long. So what is your primary concern? That I'll betray her, or that I'll corrupt her?"
"My primary concern is that she seems upset."
"Yes. She's been edgy for a while now-ever since we came out of the nebula. Something's bothering her, and I want to know what it is."
Paris hesitated. He studied the other man for a long moment, then admitted, "I'm not following. What's your point?"
"My point is, she seems upset and I want to know why."
Confusion sublet Paris's expression, forcing anger to half a closet and a sock drawer. "I don't know," he hedged, buying time. "Why don't you ask her?"
"I did ask her. She said she's fine. That's why I'm talking to you."
"If she says she's fine, then she's fine."
"She's not fine, Paris. I've known her a long time, and I can tell when something's bothering her. She's upset about something, and it's starting to affect her work. As the XO, I need to know what's going on. As her friend, I want to know."
"So you're asking me?"
"You seem to be the man to talk to on the subject."
"Because the two of you spend the majority of your time together. And because, unless she's changed her dating habits drastically, I have to assume that she confides in you, at least to a limited degree."
Overwhelmed by the realization that Chakotay was seeking his insight on the subject of B'Elanna Torres, Paris looked away. He studied the replication slot on the far wall for several seconds without answering.
"So?" Chakotay prompted.
"I don't know what to tell you," he admitted.
"Tell me what's going on," Chakotay countered. "I'll keep our conversation in confidence, if that's the issue. She'll never know where I got my information."
"There's really...not...." Whatever he intended to say faded to a silence of nothing.
"I can make it an order, if that will help," Chakotay offered after a beat.
"I know the line between personal loyalty and duty is a hard one to define," Chakotay allowed. "Confidences shared in the context of an intimate relationship can put you at odds with your duty. But make no mistake, Paris, it is your duty to tell me what's bothering her when it's bothering her enough to interfere with her ability to do her job. If you can't tell me as her friend, then tell me as her XO."
Paris shook his head. "That's not the problem," he muttered. "I just...I'm not really sure what to tell you. It could be a dozen things, really."
"Any one thing stand out more than the others?"
Paris hesitated for several long, grudging seconds before conceding in a quiet, reluctant voice, "I suppose she's a little worried about me."
"You?" The surprise in Chakotay's eyes seemed genuine. "Why would she be worried about you?"
Paris shrugged a one-shoulder shrug. "Personal stuff."
"Are the two of you having problems?"
"No." The answer was defensive, and to soften the implication of it, Paris added, "I've just been having a little trouble with dreams lately."
"What kind of trouble?"
"Nothing serious." His posture was evasive. "Waking up in the middle of the night, cold sweats, heart palpitations, that kind of thing. I suppose that could be what's bothering her, though. I mean, it's not the most romantic thing to have going on in your bed."
"Have you seen the Doctor?"
"He says nothing's wrong with me."
"Something's obviously wrong," Chakotay pointed out, "or you wouldn't be having these dreams."
"He says it's nothing physical," Paris revised quietly. "Nothing he can treat."
"Are you exploring other options?"
"I'm staying clear of leola root for a while."
"Is it working?"
"Not so far."
Chakotay watched the younger man for a beat, then asked "So what are the dreams about?"
"They're just dreams."
"The same one over and over, or different ones?"
"Pretty much the same."
Chakotay leaned back in his chair. "I've had some experience with dreams," he said calmly. "Why don't you tell me what this one is about?"
Snorting lightly, Paris shook his head. "Thanks but no thanks, Chakotay. I can handle this myself."
"That doesn't appear to be the case."
Paris shrugged, looked away.
"Maybe I'm not making myself clear," Chakotay said after a long beat. "You can either discuss these dreams with me, or you can discuss them with the captain."
Paris stiffened in his chair. "My dreams are none of your business," he said.
"They become my business when they start interfering with the effectiveness of the command crew," Chakotay corrected calmly. "Both you and B'Elanna are off your game, and I can't afford to be down my pilot and my CE if we run into trouble."
"This is a private matter," Paris insisted. "One I'm sure as hell not going to discuss with you."
"Would you prefer to discuss it with Tuvok? Or with the captain?"
"I'm not going to discuss it with anyone," Paris announced. "The only reason I even brought the damned dreams up in the first place is because you said this was about B'Elanna, not about me."
"It was about her," Chakotay agreed. "Now it's about you."
Paris looked away. His body language was a training demonstration on evasion, the finely-buffed veneer of glib he wore to protect himself from the unsolicited opinions of others beginning to show pits and pockmarks and small craters of anxiety. "I...I don't want to talk about this, Chakotay. It's really personal."
"I understand that," Chakotay allowed, "and whether you believe it or not, I empathize with it. But this isn't a negotiable point. You have to discuss this with someone. The best I can do is offer to keep it between you and me."
"I'd rather keep it between me and me."
"That's not an option."
"What are my options?"
"You can discuss it with me, now, here; or we can make it a command issue."
"And if I make it a command issue?"
"That gives you the prerogative of excluding me from the process. You can address it with another member of the senior staff, meaning the captain or the second officer."
"Does anything give me the prerogative of excluding everybody from the process?"
Paris didn't say anything.
"So...it doesn't go on the record if I discuss it with you?" Paris ventured finally.
"I'll keep it as confidential as I can."
Paris snorted. "As confidential as you can? That's not very confidence-inspiring."
"I'm not a priest, Paris. Or a lawyer." He glanced to the chronometer on the far wall. "But for three-and-a-half more hours, I'm not the duty officer, either. What we talk about over raktajino stays in this room unless ship's safety dictates otherwise." He folded his hands, met the younger man's eyes. "And like I said, I've had some experience with dreams. I might be able to help."
Paris sighed. Slowly, grudgingly, he began to speak.
"It was really weird," Tom said, already fully dressed and watching with interest as B'Elanna emerged from the sonic shower, her skin an agitated dusty rose. "He asked me to join him, and we almost had a civil conversation."
"That is weird," B'Elanna agreed. "What did you talk about?"
She flicked him a glance. "Me?"
He shrugged. "I think you're the only thing we have in common."
She picked up a brush, watching him in the reflection of the mirror as she ran it through her hair. "So what did he say about me?"
"He said you can be emasculating before your first cup of raktajino."
"And your response was?"
"I told him about my dreams."
"Yeah. He seemed interested. He said maybe he could help me work through them on the spirit plane." He was watching her watch him, his eyes appreciative of her casually-exposed body; but also quietly evaluative of every expression that tracked her face. Paris added, "I don't know if I'll take him up on that, but it was pretty wild that he offered, don't you think?"
"Yes," B'Elanna agreed. "That is wild."
"He said he used to be acrophobic," Tom went on. "Said he fell off a cliff or something when he was a kid and that once he figured that out on the spirit plane, his fear of heights just went away."
"Maybe he can help you then."
Finished with her hair, she laid the brush down and crossed the bedroom to sit on the corner of the bed. He grinned up at her, stretched across the rumple of sheets and blankets, his vertical to the mattress's horizontal, his legs dangling in open air, his feet close enough to the chronometer on the nightstand to make her nervous. "Wanna wrestle?" he asked.
"Hand me my uniform, will you?" she countered.
His gaze flicked to her uniform, and his grin deepened. Draped on the bed to keep it from wrinkling while she showered, it was an easy reach for him and a graceless sprawl for her. "Can't reach it," he said. "Guess you'll have to get it yourself. So anyway, what do you think? You think I should take him up on that spirit plane thing?"
"If it helps the dreams," she asked, "what would it hurt to try?"
"I don't know. I mean, what if he gets me out on my spirit plane and then decides to ditch me? How am I supposed to find my way back?"
"Take a spirit compass," she suggested, grinning. "Or drop spirit bread crumbs."
"What about spirit birds?" he challenged. "Don't they eat spirit bread crumbs?" He glanced at the bedside chronometer, then added, "Getting late. You better get dressed."
B'Elanna smiled. Leaning across him to retrieve the newly-replicated uniform, she let her bare breast brush his cheek in a way that could have been unintentional, but wasn't. Taking the contact as an invitation, he snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her off-balance, rolling them both as she fell, pinning her to the bed. The uniform she'd kept so carefully flat rumpled to a knot under his knee.
"Watch the uniform," she said.
"You're not even wearing your uniform," he countered. His hand slid across her flesh in a caress that warmed her to his touch. "So tell me, B'Elanna." He kissed her, then kissed her again. "If I got lost on the spirit plane, would you turn to Chakotay for comfort?"
"No," she said, "I'd come in after you and kick your ass all the way back. Now let me up. You're going to make us late for duty shift."
"I'm willing to be late," he said.
"You may be willing, but I'm not."
He shifted his weight, intruding it more fully against her. "You feel willing," he murmured.
She smiled again, arching her back slightly to bring one thigh to bear against his groin. "Tom," she said, her eyes an ominous seduction, "let me up, or I'm going to have to hurt you."
He laughed, retreating slightly from the intimacy he'd established between her legs. "Careful, B'Elanna. Don't break anything you might want to play with later."
"I have plenty of toys," she returned, "and only one shot at perfect attendance this rotation. That's an extra six holocredits, in case you're interested. Now get off me."
He rolled to one side, releasing her to sit up and retrieve her uniform. His eyes followed her every move as she rose and began to dress. "I can't believe you'd sell me out for six holocredits," he said when the most interesting portions of her anatomy had taken shelter behind gold and black.
"I wouldn't. But I would hurt you for six holocredits." Fastening the last closure with deft efficiency, she turned to face him, surprised to find his eyes had grown serious since she lay beneath him on the bed, his expression one of contemplation now, rather than flirtation. "What?" He made a dismissive gesture with one hand, but she pursued it, asking again, more forcefully this time, "What?"
He sat up, faced her. His posture seemed to set itself, almost as if preparing for a blow. "You didn't say anything to him, did you?" he asked quietly.
"What do you mean?"
"Say anything to Chakotay," he clarified. "About my dreams."
Crossing the room again to the dresser, she picked up her commbadge and affixed it firmly to her uniform. "Why would I say anything to Chakotay about your dreams?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. It just seemed..." he hesitated.
She tossed him his commbadge. "Seemed what?"
"It seemed almost like he was leading me. Like he used to do to the Cardies-the way he'd set a trap that had them taking the bait like they thought it was their own idea." He stood, pressing the commbadge to his uniform with a haphazard slap.
B'Elanna picked up the brush again and ran it one more time through perfect hair. "Chakotay always seems like he's leading you," she said finally, "even when you're leading him."
Holding her gaze in the mirror's reflection, Tom crossed the room to stand behind her. He slipped his arms around her waist and asked, still speaking to the mirror, "You didn't say anything then?"
"Don't be ridiculous. Chakotay and I hardly even talk any more."
He brushed her hair aside with one hand, kissing the back of her neck. "That's what he said."
"It's the truth."
He kissed her neck, working his way toward her left ear. "I think he misses you," he murmured.
She tilted her head to one side to allow him better access. "Did he say that?"
"More or less."
"Really? He said he misses me?"
"Mmm hmmm." He bit her earlobe gently, chewing it for a moment. "Why?" he whispered against her skin. "Does that make a difference on whether or not you'd turn to him for comfort if I got lost on the spirit plane?"
"Bite harder," she suggested, the muscles of her stomach bunching beneath the hand he'd laid flat to hold her against him. He obliged her, and she rewarded him with a roll of slender hips. Exposing more of her neck to him, she said, "Yes, it makes a difference." The fingers of his left hand tightened into her uniform; the fingers of his right, into the hair near the nape of her neck. "If he misses me, I might take time to play a game of hoverball before I come in after you and kick your ass all the way home."
They ended up back on the bed, late for duty shift and six holocredits poorer.
Chakotay and Seven of Nine were configuring an engineering console to accept a boosted signal from Astrometrics when B'Elanna paused in one of her many passes, meeting his eyes when he looked up and speaking before he had a chance to ask what was on her mind.
"Thank you, Chakotay."
His expression flickered, and he turned back to the console he and Seven had nearly reassembled from the component vivisection they'd performed on its internal circuitry. "I haven't done anything yet," he said, his voice as quiet and unassuming as if he'd asked Seven for a sonic wrench.
"Thank you for offering," she said. "And for not telling him I said anything."
Chakotay glanced up, met her eyes. "You've never been much of a tactician, B'Elanna," he said as if answering an inquiry she hadn't made. "And what may seem to you to be evasive maneuvers is far more likely to be strategy. As you will recall, when waging a war against impossible odds, timing is everything. If you strike too soon, it's over before it's begun."
"If you never strike," she returned, "you never win or lose. You just live your life, stranded in strike formation, growing old until you die."
"You may have a point," he allowed. "I'll take it under advisement." And then, almost as an afterthought, "And you're welcome."
B'Elanna Torres nodded and walked away.
They worked on the console for another twenty minutes before Seven said, "Interesting."
"What? The phase variance?"
"No. The efficiency with which you and Lieutenant Torres communicate. I often find Human conversations to be cumbersome and redundant. It is interesting to bear witness to one so economically precise."
Chakotay went back to the console. "I'm gratified you find us efficient," he said drily.
"I did not say I find you efficient, Commander," Seven corrected. "I merely noted an occurrence of anomalous behavior. On the whole, I find you indulgent in your attempts at levity and imprecise in your everyday communications."
"`Indulgent and imprecise,'" Chakotay mused. "I find that twice as gratifying as `efficient.'"
"I thought that you would," Seven allowed.
"You thought right," Chakotay said.
"I'm in the mood for sailing," Janeway announced. "What would you say to playing hookey and spending the rest of the afternoon on Lake George?"
"I'd say that isn't much of an example to set for the more corruptible elements of your crew, Captain." Popping a small tomato in his mouth whole, Chakotay leaned back in his chair to watch her across the low, ready room table, a twinkle of mischief hiding behind the devil's-advocate stance he preferred to adopt with her when she was championing the cause of self-indulgence.
"Actually, I'm feeling a little corruptible myself today. I think, in addition to playing hookey, we should use a significant chunk of your replicator rations to bring along a fine bottle of chablis."
He lifted an eyebrow. "My replicator rations?" he challenged. "I don't even like wine."
"Sacrifice is a noble character trait," she informed him blithely. "One I'll be sure to note in your next performance review. Besides, it would be a waste to use good rations on mere lagerhead, don't you think? Almost...sacrilegious."
"How about a compromise?" he suggested. "You use your replicator rations for lagerhead, and I'll promise to drink it with you."
Janeway laughed. "That's not a compromise, Chakotay, it's a strategic Maquis operation to have your lagerhead and drink it, too."
"You can take the boy out of the Maquis...." Chakotay quipped.
"I think that's what I like about you," she announced. "All those less-than-reputable Maquis residuals." Then, as if it had anything at all to do with the ebb and flow of their conversation, she added, "I've been thinking about what you said yesterday, and I have to admit, you have your points."
"Which points would those be?" he asked.
"Your point about B'Elanna being happy only in terms of now. About her willingness to risk Tom's jeopardies to be where she wants to be, with whom she wants to be there with, and damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."
Chakotay's eyes flickered. He looked away.
"That point," Janeway finished, watching him closely. "The one about happiness now as compared to security in the future."
"If I recall correctly," he said quietly, "I believe your stance was that, for Tom and B'Elanna, it was an equitable tradeoff."
"Yes," she agreed. "I believe that was my stance. It wasn't until later that it occurred to me that I might be viewing the issue from too narrow a perspective."
"Then you don't think it's an equitable tradeoff?"
"To the contrary, I still think it's an equitable tradeoff; I've just come to the realization that the issue is applicable to more than Tom and B'Elanna."
He didn't answer for some time. When he did finally speak, it was with a flat voice that made no pretensions to interaction. "I'm not sure what you mean," he said, looking through her with reflective eyes that concealed his thoughts, rather than revealing them.
"I mean I'm not very happy right now," she said. "And my future is just as uncertain as it ever was."
"I see." Chakotay pushed to his feet. Retrieving his empty salad plate, and then hers, he took them to the recycling chute and dropped them to their transitory destiny.
"I've made you uncomfortable," she decided quietly.
"Not at all." He turned again, faced her. "If you're unhappy, then we should discuss it."
Janeway studied him for a long moment, reading nothing to his posture but deflection. "My father always said I was too much of a planner," she said finally. "That I think too far ahead, that I sacrifice the present for the future. I suppose I've done that here-that I've given up things I should have kept in order to secure something that can't be secured."
"You did what you felt you had to do," Chakotay said flatly.
"Yes," she agreed. "I did. But as time passes, I find myself confronted on a daily basis by a future that is always one step ahead of me. I reach for it, but it's the future, and it always evades me. I think, after all this time, I finally understand something you tried to tell me on New Earth. I think I finally see your point about living in the present and letting the future come, rather than pursuing it at the cost of every day that slips through your fingers to the past."
He didn't answer, waiting instead for her to go on.
"We Janeways aren't always the most insightful individuals when it comes to our own problems," she said finally. "We make great advisors, always Johnny-on-the-spot with very sage and telling advice for others, but when the subject turns to keeping our own house in order, I'm afraid we can be a little slow."
A corruptive latticework of bitterness etched Chakotay's expression. "I wasn't aware I'd been relegated to the status of `problem' to you," he said.
She smiled: sad, gentle, forgiving, needing to be forgiven. "I think you know what I'm trying to say, Chakotay."
"I don't have any idea what you're trying to say, Kathryn," he countered, his voice colder by degrees. "And I'm not convinced that you do either."
"You're probably right," she conceded. "But just because I don't know exactly what I'm trying to say, doesn't mean I can't try to say it, does it?"
"I'm still listening," he said, keeping the distance of the room between them.
"And I'm still talking. That is, at the very least, a starting point, isn't it?"
"You can't start the game over every time it suits you."
"This isn't a game," she announced. "And I can start it over as many times as it takes to be comfortable with the rules."
"So this is only about you?"
"I hope this is about both of us."
"It hasn't been up to this point."
"I know it hasn't. That's why I think we need to start over again."
His expression flexed, bitter neutrality losing traction against a foundation of frustration and anger. "I'm tired of starting over," he said. "I'm tired of re-defining our parameters and re-evaluating our status and completely re-configuring our entire operating system only to end up in the same damned place every time. I'm tired of it, Kathryn. Tired."
She accepted the flare of hostility gracefully. Her voice a calming influence on the raw abrasion of the moment, she asked, "So you're saying you want to be friends, then?"
"I have never wanted to be friends," he retorted. "I just don't
think I have the endurance level required to be anything else with you."
She drew a deep breath, then nodded. "All right, Chakotay. We'll be friends. It's a comfortable relationship-one I value a great deal. I think you know that." She smiled, forgiving him for failing her as she had so often failed him.
A shadow of regret flickered across Chakotay's features as she closed the books on negotiations he'd worked years to open. "I know that isn't what you expected to hear," he said suddenly.
"I was prepared to hear it," she allowed. "I've known for some time that every day that passed without some kind of reciprocation to what you told me on New Earth was a risk."
"Then why did you wait?"
"Because I wasn't ready until now, I suppose."
He took a step closer to her. "Things have changed, Kathryn. We aren't the same people we were even a year ago."
"That's the nature of time," she observed. "Everything changes. Everything evolves."
"A lot has happened," he pressed. "It wasn't that long ago that you felt I betrayed you. That you told me unless I followed your lead in a matter that went against every instinct I have, you were truly alone."
"It wasn't that long ago," she returned quietly, "that you countermanded my orders the moment you were afforded the opportunity to do so."
"I had to do what I felt was right," he announced.
"And you did," she agreed.
He stared at her for a long moment, then said, "I think it's obvious I'm better served standing at your side as a friend and confidante than I am by taking a position that requires me to consider the damage to our relationship above the safety of the ship."
"That has a familiar ring to it, Commander," she said gently.
"I've found," he went on as if she hadn't spoken, "through hard experience, that I am capable of sacrificing your trust in me; your confidence that I will do what you want me to do; your willingness to touch me when we talk, to laugh with me when we're alone, to believe that I will always stand by you and that no matter what happens, you will never be alone." He took a step closer, and then another. "I've found that I can sacrifice all those things if, by making that sacrifice, I know I'm doing what has to be done to preserve the safety of the ship." He took a final step, bringing them almost to touching distance if either of them had cared to try.
"But if things had been different," he went on, "if you'd given me what I asked for on New Earth and what I was sacrificing was something deeper than friendship, I might have found that I was unable to make that sacrifice." He squared his shoulder, lifted his chin slightly. "The decision I made was the right decision for this crew. I was convinced of it then; I'm still convinced of it now. To have made a different decision because I knew you would consider the decision I needed to make a personal betrayal to you...." He stared at her, wishing there was some way out of this trap they'd mutually constructed of logic and duty. "It's too big of a risk," he said finally. "Especially now, knowing how different we have become and how inevitable it is that we will once again find ourselves at the kind of impasse we reached over Species 8472."
She'd stood silently throughout his dissertation, listening to every word he said. "You're right, of course," she conceded gracefully when he was finished. "We have become very different people. There are times that I think now, more than when our differences were defined by our political affiliations, we are on opposing sides of every line."
"We've grown into our respective roles as Captain and XO," he agreed. "The command structure has always been based on point and counterpoint."
"I suppose it has."
"And we're effective in that capacity," Chakotay added. "And happy, in our own way."
"Content, at least," Janeway allowed.
"Secure in the knowledge that we are doing everything we can to get this crew home."
Janeway nodded. Less than a hand's reach from him, she turned away, wandering the ready room until she came to rest, as she often did, before the panoramic view of stars out the viewing portal.
"Are you still in the mood for sailing?" he asked quietly.
"No. I don't think that I am." She flashed him a wan smile over one shoulder. "Maybe another time."
"Another time," he agreed.
He headed for the door. She nearly let him escape before asking.
"Are you happy?"
"Yes, Captain," he lied. "I am."
She nodded and let him leave.
Striding across the upper command tier of a calm and tranquil bridge, he nearly made it to the turbolift before Harry Kim glanced up and asked, "Are you all right, Commander?"
"I'm fine, Ensign."
Paris looked over from the helm. At tactical, Tuvok did not raise the eyebrow that twitched at the XO's tone.
Taking the hint, Kim turned back to the diagnostics scan he was running from ops. Standing at attention near the turbolift door, Seven of Nine said, "I came to the bridge to find you."
"So you found me," Chakotay said. "What's on your mind?"
"I am experiencing difficulties in the astrometric enhancements. I believe your non-traditional approach to empiric engineering would be of assistance."
"Let's get to it then." He pressed the call button, and the doors hissed open. Together, he and Seven stepped in. The doors closed. The lift began to move.
"You do not look fine," Seven noted calmly.
Chakotay glanced up, met her steady gaze.
"You do, in fact," she added, "look remarkably unfine."
"`Unfine' is a very imprecise term," Chakotay said.
"I am attempting to communicate with you in the imprecise fashion you appear to prefer. However, if you wish me to detail every aspect of your manner and appearance that supports Ensign Kim's basis for inquiry..."
"No," Chakotay said quietly. "Let's just let it go at `unfine.'"
"As you wish, Commander." The turbolift hissed to a stop, and they walked to the astrometrics lab without speaking. Three consoles in various stages of evisceration were strung out across the otherwise spotless floor. "If there is anything I can do..." Seven said as Chakotay crossed to the first console and began poking around inside.
Chakotay looked up.
"An imprecise offer," Seven conceded, "but an offer, nonetheless."
"You can get me a sonic wrench," Chakotay told her.
Seven nodded and joined him at the console.
Whistling to himself as he perused the memory of B'Elanna's body in his mind, Tom Paris rounded the corner and nearly ran into Chakotay. "Oh. Hey." He frowned. "What are you doing here?"
"Waiting for you. Have you thought it over?"
Paris glanced at the door to his quarters. "Uh...yeah. I've thought it over."
"And?" Chakotay prompted.
"And I think you're right. Maybe it'll help. So when do you want to-"
"I'm free right now," Chakotay said. Straightening from his lean against the bulkhead, he exposed the small bundle held covertly in the lee of one hip. "Let's go inside."
"Uh...actually...I can't. Not right now. I've got a date in ten min-"
"Not any more. You've been scheduled for an extra duty rotation. As far as anybody knows, you're cleaning the warp manifolds."
Paris curled a lip in distaste. "Lovely."
"Let's go," Chakotay repeated, indicating the door with a quick nod.
"What about dinner?"
"You can eat later."
"What if I get hungry?"
Paris snorted. "I can tell right now that you're going to be a very nurturing and supportive tutor, Chakotay. Unfortunately, I haven't really had much of a chance to gather up the things we talked about, so maybe we should wait until-"
"The manifolds really do need cleaning," Chakotay interrupted calmly.
Paris frowned. "Is that a threat?" he asked.
"Consider it an option."
Paris sighed. Stepping up to punch his entry code into the wall padd, he muttered, "That's what I like best about you, Chakotay. You always give me a choice."
Chakotay studied the small collection of items, well aware of the vulnerability they represented. Reflective of his pre-Voyager nomadic lifestyle, the few items Paris had chosen to connect him with every aspect of importance in his life were so small that even combined, they made an insignificant pile on the floor of his quarters.
Fidgeting slightly, Paris shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "I'm not sure this is what you were looking for," he ventured, "but it was all I could come up with on short notice."
"Why don't you sit down," Chakotay suggested, sinking easily to a cross-legged position on the floor.
Already half-descended into a nearby chair, Paris caught himself, revising his choice of seating as if it had always been his intention to join Chakotay on the floor.
"Tell me the significance of each item," Chakotay instructed.
"Well...let's see." Paris picked up a pip, turning it over in the palm of his hand like a small kernel of precious corn. "I guess this is representative of my life here on Voyager. Of my duty, of my rank. And besides that," he held it up, rolling it like a drop of quicksilver between his fingers, "it's a shiny little bauble, and I've always been attracted to shiny." He placed the pip back on the floor. "So that's that. And this," he picked up a small doll's head, decapitated from whatever body it once owned, "is off the favorite doll of the first girl I ever kissed. She cut it off to impress me, so I kissed her to impress my buddies. Nice hair, don't you think?" He set the doll's head back down and picked up a pair of sheer silk panties. "And last but not least, these are B'Elanna's. They're..." he hesitated, then finished, "...well, they're panties. I guess the rest is pretty self-evident."
"They don't really look like the kind of thing B'Elanna would wear," Chakotay noted. Then, at the flicker of a frown that passed through Paris's features, he added, "I'm only guessing, of course."
"Actually," Tom said, shifting the silk between his fingers. "I bought them at the Nekrit supply depot back before we ever started dating. Gave them to her on a lark. Told her they'd help improve her disposition."
"Improve her disposition?"
Paris blushed slightly. "I think I said something to the effect of her needing to get laid. And then I may have offered to take her out on a test run to straighten out any kinks she might have developed over her stay in cold storage."
Chakotay chuckled, shaking his head. "Can I assume this story involves broken bones?" he asked.
"Let's just say Carey isn't they only guy to have his profile re-arranged by a Torres left hook."
"If that's all she did to you, then you got off easy."
"That isn't all she did to me, that's just all I'm going to admit she did to me."
"So clarify this for me: you chose the panties to represent B'Elanna's capacity to beat the crap out of you?"
Paris shrugged slightly. "Actually, I chose them because they represent her in general. Who she is. Who she isn't. And because..." he started to say something else, then changed his mind. "Never mind," he said. "I'm not going to tell you that part."
"I have an imagination," Chakotay noted drily. Then, picking up the only item Paris had failed to address-a small metal vehicle with four tiny black wheels and only the barest indication of its original florescent purple colorbond-he asked, "What about this?"
Paris's eyes clouded. "That's just a toy," he demurred, taking the car from Chakotay and returning it to the pile as if the negligible weight of it offended his hand. "I've had it since I was a kid. You said include something from home, and that's the only thing I've got from home."
"Looks like some kind of internal combustion vehicle," Chakotay prompted.
"It's a sixty-seven 'Vette. Doors open and close, and the hood pops so you can look at the engine."
"Interesting. Where did you get it?"
Paris rolled one shoulder, twisting his neck slightly as if he'd developed a cramp. "Is that really important?" he asked.
"It is if I'm going to advise you effectively. I need to understand the significance of each item in your prayer bundle-why you chose it and what it represents to you."
"I already told you why I chose it-it's the only thing I have from home."
"Tell me where you got it," Chakotay instructed calmly.
Paris sighed. "Fine. Whatever. My dad gave it to me. He used to collect antique cars-the full-size ones you can drive around in if you get an aero-contaminant waiver which isn't all that hard to get if you're on the fast track at Starfleet Command. Anyway, his pride and joy was a sixty-seven 'Vette. He bought this little one for me so we could have a matched set."
"I didn't think you and your father were close," Chakotay noted.
"We aren't. It was a long time ago. I was just a little kid. Guess I wasn't old enough to be an embarrassment yet. He still had plans for me. So what do you think? Will this stuff work?"
"It'll work," Chakotay allowed, "although I think we need to have a talk some time about why you would bring the decapitated doll's head of the first girl you kissed into space."
Paris smiled slightly. "What? You've never had a lucky doll's head?"
Chakotay placed his own prayer bundle on the floor and quickly arranged its contents before him. "Choose something to hold," he said. "I'm going to put the akoona here." Setting the akoona near Paris's knee, he picked up the inscribed stone that represented the lands of his ancestors and began turning it incessantly in his hand, warming it to a compatibility with his body.
"What's the bird's wing for?" Paris asked.
"None of your business."
Resentment stiffened the helmsman's spine. "What?" he demanded. "I tell you about B'Elanna's panties, but you're not going to tell me about a fistful of feathers? That hardly seems fair."
"Fair has nothing to do with it. You're the pupil; I'm the teacher."
"So I'll decide what you need to know and what you don't."
Paris snorted. He chose a talisman from the pile before him-a flush of silk he held loosely in one hand-saying, "Let me guess: it's the wing of the first bird you ever kissed."
"This exercise is about harmony, Paris, about finding peace within yourself and opening the doors to a higher level of consciousness. It is not about swapping stories and spitting into handshakes."
"I don't want to trade spit, Chakotay. I just thought-" He shook his head, looked away. "Never mind. Let's just get on with it."
"You can't access the spirit plane from a foundation of hostility."
"I'm not the one getting hostile."
Chakotay sighed. "I'm not being hostile," he explained impatiently. "There's just no reason for you to know about the contents of my prayer bundle."
"No reason except that I asked."
Chakotay studied the other man for a long moment, then rather than argue, he said, "I killed a raven with a stone when I was six. I thought my father could bring the bird back to life, but he failed me. Instead of rectifying my mistake, he offered me the raven's wing to honor the bird's departed spirit. I kept it to remind me that the Sky Spirits were nothing more than a superstitious old wives' tale with no applicability to life or death or destiny."
"It represents your faith, then," Paris surmised.
"It represents my lack of faith," Chakotay corrected. "I keep it in my prayer bundle to remind myself I can be wrong."
Paris smiled slightly. Shifting silk between his fingertips, he said, "I have my dad for that. And B'Elanna. And you."
Opening his hand to reveal the small, round stone nestled in his palm, Chakotay went on, "This stone represents Dorvan. The cartouche is an ancient hieroglyph in the language of my ancestors that translates, more or less, to `home.' I use it as my focus fetish because it has the most applicability to who I am." His eyes flicked meaningfully to the panties Paris held in his hand. "You should choose your focus fetish carefully. It can be very important to the process."
Paris's fingers tightened into silk. "This pretty much defines me," he said.
"I think the car would be a better choice."
"You said pick something that I'm connected to, right? Well, take my word for it, I'm much more connected to B'Elanna than I am to home."
"The car represents home," Chakotay explained patiently, "and it also represents your childhood. Whatever's behind your dreams will probably be more easily accessed by focusing on an applicable time and place."
Still, Paris hesitated. Resistant to the idea of exchanging silk for metal, his hand closed to a fist, crushing the panties to a wad of wrinkles.
"Are you looking to explore your nightmares or your sex fantasies?" Chakotay pressed. Picking up the small metal toy, he held it out to Paris, his expression clear with its expectations.
Grudgingly, Paris acquiesced. Replacing the panties in the small pile before him, he accepted the car, engulfing the small toy in a white-knuckled fist.
"Put your hand on the akoona," Chakotay instructed. Paris did as he was told. "Now repeat after me: Akooche moreh."
"Akooche moreh," Paris muttered.
He couldn't breathe.
The darkness was utter, complete. Eyes open, he strained to see through it, but there was nothing to see.
Nothing to breathe.
"Relax, Tom. Don't fight the memory."
He recognized the voice, was comforted by its presence even as he struggled in wild desperation to get one good breath from the decaying atmosphere rotting against his skin.
It's okay, Tommy. Don't panic. Everything will be okay.
Terror closed like an iron fist around his heart. He opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out.
"Relax, Tom. Tell me what you see."
"I can't see anything," Tom whispered. "I'm dying, I'm dying..." He began to thrash again, panicking, desperate. "I can't breathe. I can't breathe!"
He realized then that there was an oxygen mask on his face. His hands clawed at it, tore it away. Spoiled air became no air. He began to suffocate in earnest.
It was cold. Freezingly, numbingly cold.
Warning, a metallic voice stated. Failure in oxygen tank number two. Oxygen reservoir depleted. Warning.
"Talk to me, Tom. I can't see what you're seeing. I can't hear what you're hearing. You have to tell me what's going on."
"I'm dying," Paris moaned. "I'm dying."
"Why do you think you're dying?"
"I can't breathe."
"Are you alone?"
"No. She's here, too. She must be dying. Oh, God. Don't die. Please don't die."
"Who's with you, Tom? Who's dying with you?"
It's okay, Tommy. Don't be afraid. Please don't be afraid.
His eyes rolled back in his head. The blackness turned blood-red, and then became nothing. Panic overwhelmed him. He began to thrash in earnest, his feet breaking against duranium with hollow-core rings, his fists turning to raw meat as they pounded, pounded, pounded.
"Talk to me, Tom."
Everything's going to be okay, Tommy. Everything's going to be okay. Here, baby. Everything's going to be okay.
Oxygen knifed through his body. It lit fires along his neural pathways, igniting a storm of pain and panic.
Goodbye, Tommy. I love you.
Paris broke from the spirit plane in a scrambling lurch, jolting into motion, striking out at anything and everything. A clenched fist caught Chakotay on the shoulder. Another caught a bulkhead and cracked with the sound of breaking bones.
"Just relax," Chakotay was saying. "Relax, Tom. Relax." He had him pinned against a wall, his Maquis training and superior bulk not entirely equal to the task of restraint, but close enough to keep panic from escalating to outright chaos. "That's it," Chakotay said. "Just catch your breath and try to clear your mind."
"Dammit. Let me go, Chakotay."
Chakotay's grip loosened a bit.
"Let me go!" Paris snarled.
Judging the clarity in the younger man's eyes, Chakotay found it adequate. He released his grip the way a man releases an angry cat, throwing his hands wide, stepping back, moving away. Tom sagged immediately against the wall. He fell to the floor in a boneless heap as Chakotay wiped blood from the corner of his mouth, then rolled his left shoulder as if testing the extent of an injury.
"Just sit there and catch your breath," Chakotay advised. He crossed Paris's quarters, ordering cool water from the replicator and bringing it back. Crouching near Paris's slouched body, he held the glass in easy proximity until Paris reached for it.
"Thanks," Paris muttered as Chakotay once again backed away.
"Don't talk. Try to regain control over your autonomic functions. Slow your breathing down. Try to keep your heartbeat under control."
Paris sat for several minutes, his color gradually returning to normal, his skin losing the slick sheen of utter hysteria. "What in the hell was that?" he asked finally.
"That was a memory," Chakotay said. "Probably the source of your dreams."
"No. It was..." He shivered. "It was the dream. The dream, only worse. But not a memory. This never happened to me. It was a dream."
"Your dreams are a reflection of the memory," Chakotay explained. "They resemble one another, but they aren't the same."
"This never happened to me, Chakotay."
"Yes, it did. Whatever you saw on the spirit plane just now did really happen. It may not have happened in that exact detail, that exact sequence, that exact format; but it did happen."
"No." Paris was shaking his head. "No, it didn't. I'd remember it if it had happened."
"Not necessarily. You were probably very young."
"But I...I died."
"You obviously didn't die."
"I did," Paris insisted. He shivered again, the water glass an instability in his hand. "I died. I felt it, just like in the dream. I died."
"You didn't die, Paris," Chakotay repeated patiently. "Your memory is of that sensation. You may have thought you were dying. You may have come very close to dying. But you didn't die. Whatever really happened, you survived it or you wouldn't be here now."
"Unless this is the spirit plane," Paris murmured. "And the nightmare is real life."
Chakotay's eyes narrowed. He studied Paris in wary silence for several long, pregnant seconds.
"I'm kidding, Chakotay," Paris said finally.
"That's not funny."
"Sorry." Wincing, he struggled to his feet, favoring the hand already swelling with the force of flailing blows to Chakotay and the bulkhead. "Damn," he muttered, wiggling his fingers to limited success. "I think I broke something."
"Probably broke it on me," Chakotay said, rolling his shoulder again.
Paris looked up. "I hit you?"
"I think you dislocated my collarbone," Chakotay agreed. "Let's get down to Sickbay. We'll take this up again tomorrow, see if we can get any deeper into that memory."
"I don't want to wait until tomorrow," Paris said.
"I don't recall asking what you wanted. When you outrank me, I'll consider asking your preference; but until that time, we'll do this my way, on my schedule."
"This isn't about rank, Chakotay," Paris announced, his voice edged with a belligerence that flirted with insubordination. "And I'm on my own time."
"No you're not, Paris. According to the duty schedule, you're still cleaning the warp manifolds under my direct supervision for another six hours. And even if you weren't, I still outrank you, even on your own time."
Paris returned to the scattered remnants of his prayer bundle and sank gingerly to the floor. "You go on to Sickbay if you want," he said grimly, "but I'm staying here."
"This isn't up for debate. You need medical attention for that hand."
Ignoring the escalation of command authority in Chakotay's tone, Paris reached over to pull the akoona to him. "It's not that bad. Show me how this thing works before you go, will you?"
"You can't explore your spirit plane without a guide."
"Why not? You do it, don't you?"
"I know what I'm doing, and I have an animal spirit to guide me."
"So I'll pick myself up a dog at the spirit plane dog shop. Just show me the basics, and I'll figure the rest out myself." He placed one hand on the akoona and it began to pulse with light and sound. "Oh. Never mind. I got it."
With a grunt of harbored pain, Chakotay stooped and took the akoona away. "You're not going back until you've had medical attention and a period of rest," he announced. "We're done for tonight. Tomorrow, we'll talk about what happened and go from there."
"Give me back the damned akoona, Chakotay," Paris snapped.
"My akoona, my rules," Chakotay returned easily.
"Fine. I'll replicate my own."
"Akoonas can't be replicated. A large portion of their technology is based on elemental compounds the replicator can't synthesize. The next time I'm on Dorvan, though, I'll pick you up one."
Frustrated, Paris pushed to his feet, stumbling awkwardly as he faced the bigger man. "You can't do this, Chakotay. I was close. I think I was almost to a point where I could have figured out what's going on. If we take a break now, I may not be able to get back there again."
"You're not ready to go back yet."
"It's my spirit plane," Paris announced, every line of his posture a belligerence. "And my decision."
"Not as long as you need my akoona to get there," Chakotay countered calmly.
"Then I'll go without the akoona."
"You have any peyote?"
"Good luck." Chakotay turned, the akoona still in one hand, and headed for the door.
"What's peyote?" Paris demanded.
"Hallucinogenic narcotic," Chakotay answered. "Indigenous to Earth. Been extinct for about three hundred years."
Paris sighed. "I don't suppose it can be replicated?"
"Nope. And even if it could, the computer's safety protocols would lock you down if you tried."
Paris sighed more deeply. "Then I guess I don't have any choice, do I?" he muttered.
"You can sit in here and chant and hope the pain from your hand makes you delusional." Stepping into sensor range, Chakotay triggered the door open, then placed himself in such a way as to block it from closing again. "Now if you're finished with this little insurrection, I suggest you accompany me to Sickbay."
It was a long walk to the turbolift and they made it slowly in deference to their respective injured body parts.
"You can't force the spirit plane to reveal her secrets," Chakotay said as they neared the lift at the end of the hall. "She has to be worked in progressions, one step after another until you arrive at a destination where she chooses to reveal to you whatever it is she chooses to reveal."
"I just...I want to know what's going on."
"What you want isn't important to the spirit plane. What you need is important."
"I need to know what's going on," Paris revised quietly.
"Then we'll figure it out, but you have to give it some time." He pressed the call button, and the lift arrived almost immediately.
"I thought I got an animal guide to lead me on the spirit plane," Paris said as he stepped inside. "I thought that was your part in this-to introduce us."
Chakotay joined him, and the doors hissed shut. "Because we have a specific agenda and I don't have time to train you before we start looking for answers, I'm acting as your animal guide for the time being." Then, to the lift, he ordered, "Sickbay."
Paris shot Chakotay a quick glance as the lift began to move. "You aren't a turtle by chance, are you?" he asked.
Chakotay smiled in spite of himself. "I didn't say I was your animal guide, Paris. I said I'm serving in the same capacity as your animal guide would."
Paris nodded. Then, almost as an afterthought, he said, "Sorry about the arm."
"The spirit plane always holds the potential for unpredictability," Chakotay returned. "If you're not prepared to handle whatever happens, you have no business visiting her."
"Why do you keep referring to the spirit plane as `her'?"
Chakotay shrugged. "Habit," he admitted. "In my tribe, we always referred to forces of nature in matriarchal terms."
"You mean, like tornados?" Paris ventured.
"Tornados," Chakotay agreed. "Hurricanes. Floods. Earthquakes."
Paris smiled. "Sounds a little like B'Elanna on a tear."
Chakotay smiled, too. "We refer to them that way for a reason."
The lift arrived, and the door opened, depositing them directly in front of Sickbay.
Chakotay hesitated short of the activation sensor. "What?" he prompted when Paris didn't go on.
"I just..." He shifted uncomfortably.
"You just what?"
"I just...I wanted you to know that I appreciate what you're doing for me. I know you're not in the habit of hosting guided spirit tours; and even if you were, I'd probably be the last guy you'd want to introduce to any of your sacred ceremonies."
"This isn't sacred, Paris. It's spiritual. There's a big difference."
"Okay. Well, anyway, you taking me on this vision quest thing-"
"It's not a vision quest. All we're doing is looking into your past to see what's hiding there."
Paris glanced away, his expression a quiet grind of exasperation against features working to hold their stance of affability. "Well, do you mind if I thank you for that?" he asked quietly.
"On how you plan to thank me."
"I thought I'd...say `thank you.' Something like that."
"You can do that if you feel it's necessary."
Paris snorted lightly. "Glad to hear it. Maybe I will."
Chakotay waited a beat, then asked, "Were you planning to do it now?"
"No. Not really."
"Then do you mind if we go in? My shoulder hurts like hell."
Paris gestured. Chakotay stepped forward, triggered the proximity sensor. The door hissed opened and he walked in, Tom Paris close on his heels.
"So how exactly did you dislocate your collarbone?" she asked for the third time in as many minutes.
Out of glib responses, Chakotay merely smiled, enjoying the play of cool breezes through his closely-cropped hair. They were sailing despite their earlier decision not to, exploring the almost oceanic vastness of Lake George like two Bohemians with no responsibilities beyond the deck rails of their vessel and no culpability beyond that of the immediate moment. Stretched out on deck, his shoulders propped against a burnished brass railing and his legs crossed at the ankles, he watched her wield the jib and the boom like a salted seabee as she directed their course across smooth, moonlit waters.
"No, wait," she said as if interrupting an intent to answer he had yet to display, "don't tell me, let me guess: you insulted the size of Tom's...instruments...and B'Elanna responded by putting you in a headlock."
His smile deepened to a grin. "Unless Paris is more of a man than I think he is," he allowed drily, "or you are using the term instruments in an entirely different connotation than I think you are, you can go ahead and limit the reference to the singular tense."
Securing their course with a series of autolocks, Kathryn Janeway joined him on the slightly domed deck, taking a seat at his side to enjoy the rush of cool air that kept the sails billowing like sheets in the wind. "Well, you're no fun, Commander," she announced. "I was hoping to start new rumors, not put old ones to bed. Although the fact that you know anything at all about Tom Paris's instrumentation..."
She let the comment dangle lasciviously, and he chuckled. "To be quite honest, Kathryn," he told her in the tone of a confidential aside, "I'm not really up to spec on the subject, but I do know an engineer who is, and she's never been much of one for delicacy in such matters."
"Or discretion, it would appear. Vorik tells me he ran into them holding hands in the corridor yesterday."
"Really? I heard they were necking in the turbolift."
"I heard she was carrying your love child. But back to the original question, I give up: how did you dislocate your collarbone?"
"My love child?" Chakotay repeated, his eyebrows arched expressively.
"That's what I heard. But about that collarbone...I really am curious."
He stared at her for a long three-beat, then said, "Zigged when I should have zagged."
"That's not very precise, Commander."
"I'm not in a particularly precise mood."
"What kind of mood are you in?"
"After that `love child' crack, I think I'm in the mood for tequila, but I suppose I'll have to settle for chablis."
"Actually..." She leaned across him to scavenge amid some ropes and a tool box, producing two small bottles and holding them up, "....all I brought was lagerhead." A twinkle of mischief sparked bright in her eyes. "Shall I toss them overboard?"
"Not unless you're in the mood for a moonlight swim."
She flicked him a coy smile. "Not at the moment, thank you, but maybe later." Popping the top off both bottles, she handed him one and kept the other for herself. "Cheers, Commander." She touched her bottle lightly to his, then took a long, deep swig, coming up for breath long after he would have thought she'd drowned.
"Damned good lagerhead," she announced.
He laughed, watching the play of moonlight on her hair as she turned to study the seemingly endless expanse of water stretching before them. "So," she said, her eyes on the horizon, her face upturned slightly as if seeking the blessing of the moon, "now that you're in a little better mood, how did it go with Tom? Do you feel you made any progress?"
"We made some," he allowed.
"Good." She took another long draw on her now half-empty bottle of lagerhead, shaking her hair in the wind, listening to the snap and billow of sails and smelling the sharp tang of the warm, salt air.
"I think we've located the problem, if nothing else," he added.
"That's a start." Savoring the plethora of tiny details woven through the complex tapestry of this single holographic program, it occurred to her as it had never occurred to her before that the sensory minutia of this experience was nothing less than a labor of love. This gift of the oceanic lake-this gift of the openness, of the wildness, of the spirit of adventure that was every captain's nirvana-this gift was as much a sonnet written in command strings and executable variations as was the graceful curve of wood sanded to a glove-soft finish.
"I also think," he went on, "for the time being at least, that it serves the process to keep the details confidential."
She glanced up, flashed him a quick smile. "That's fine."
"I told him it wouldn't become a matter of record unless ship safety warranted it," he elaborated.
"I agree. The circumstances of the situation are intrinsically private; it's only fair they remain that way unless necessity dictates otherwise."
A shadow of anxiety she'd only now noticed dissipated in the subtle gentling of his features. "I'm glad you understand."
"Of course I do, Chakotay. And I trust your judgment on the matter implicitly." She turned back to her musings, eyes refocusing themselves into the ever-looming distance.
He watched her for several moments before asking, "What are you thinking, Kathryn?"
"I'm thinking this is an amazing program," she answered without the slightest hesitation. "You made it so real, so complete. There are times I almost believe we could grow old sitting here like this, waiting for that horizon to come to us."
"Or we could hop out and walk," he suggested with a small smile. "Holodeck wall's about seven meters dead ahead."
She jarred him playfully with her shoulder, failing to notice the small wince the impact provoked. "Don't spoil the illusion, Chakotay. Play along or I'll be forced to feed you to the fishes."
"Is that a threat, Kathryn?" he asked.
"Yes. That's a threat."
"It might be a more effective threat if I hadn't programmed the lake to identify me by my electromagnetic signature."
She flicked another glance his direction. "Meaning?"
"Meaning, on Lake George at least, I can walk on water." He grinned at the surprise that flashed in her eyes. "I thought I might need to impress you sometime," he clarified wryly.
"You already impress me," she assured him.
"And you've never even seen my most impressive features," he quipped.
"Is that an offer?" she asked.
"Just an observation."
They fell silent, sharing at once a closeness and a distance, a camaraderie and a tension.
Gliding through the water, swayed by the gentle surge of chop breaking against the hull as the streamlined boat cut a line for the horizon, they found themselves serenaded by the siren songs of ancient myth. A subliminal underpinning of melodic harmonies, the lake sang to them in the haunting whispers of a thousand lost souls, a seduction of the soul to a sense of attainable eternity.
"Do you hear that, Chakotay?" she asked finally.
"What is it?"
"It's the sound the wind makes as it runs through the high meadow grasses on Dorvan."
"Why did you program it into a holo-simulation of a lake?"
He hesitated a beat, then allowed, "Because I thought you'd like it."
"I do," she agreed. "It's beautiful."
"It always reminded me of the vastness of the universe," he noted. "Of how much more there is to any one place than what we will ever really see of that place."
She closed her eyes, listening to the sound of his voice, hearing in it the seductive winds of Dorvan.
"As a boy," he went on, "I used to hike to the high country at dusk. By the time I arrived, the moon would be showing her colors, lighting my path. I'd find a meadow as vast as the ocean and lie down in a sea of grass; and in that sanctuary of grass and sky, the wind would sing her songs for me. I'd listen by the hour, staring at the stars, dreaming of the future."
He watched her in the moonlight, watching his words paint the colors of her emotions, watching the reflection of his home in her every expression. Compelled by the mere image of her, he continued to speak, his voice a confessor seeking souls to save. "That's still where I go when my spirit is troubled," he murmured. "It is the one place that brings me peace. That makes me happy."
She smiled, as if finding succor in the thought of such a place.
"Are you happy, Kathryn?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered, her eyes still closed. "At this moment, in this place, here, sitting on this deck next to you, I am happy."
He turned away from her, replacing in his eyes the image of her with the unbroken vistas of the endless ocean beyond. Though he knew the limitations of his world-the holodeck horizon parameters, the captain's distance that would forever mine every ingress to the vestibule of her affections-he allowed himself a single moment's grace to believe the illusion.
And for that moment, he, too, was happy.
It was a bright, florescent purple, and the doors opened and the hood popped and under that tiny purple hood, a shiny, metal engine that served no practical purpose at all was inarguably the coolest thing that Tommy Paris had ever seen. Running pell-mell down the hall, the 'Vette's small black tires leaving skid smears along the wall as it dodged knickknacks and bric-a-brac with the evasive skills of an A-1 pilot on leave for the weekend with money to burn, he cornered from the hallway to the kitchen in a quick aft-thruster burst of heels and running shoes and plunged headlong into heretofore unexplored country only to be brought up short by black wool and a tank of a body and rough hands that twisted and yanked and tape and he couldn't see and he couldn't breathe and he was dying....
he was dying...
he was dying...
Tom Paris jolted awake, his body bathed in sweat, B'Elanna Torres already steadfast at his side.
"It's okay, Tom," she soothed, familiar now with the routine. "Relax. It's okay. It was just a dream."
"I know it was a dream," he snapped. Throwing the covers aside, he crawled out of bed and stalked the room, as blind to the resplendent display of stars out the oval viewing plate as he was to the silent twist of hurt to her features.
He ran a hand through sweat-damp hair and retreated to the washroom. Small and claustrophobic, it drove him back to the bedroom proper.
"Are you hungry?" she asked helpfully.
"No, I'm not hungry, B'Elanna. Just leave me alone for a minute, will you?"
"Fine. I'll leave you alone. Wake me up if you want to talk." Turning her back on him, she snuggled back into bed, pulling a coverlet over one bare shoulder and settling immediately into the pretense of sleep.
He crossed to the viewing portal, staring out over the passing star field with a blind eye for its intoxicating beauty. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to snap."
She ignored him, feigning a sleep neither of them believed.
"It's just so damned frustrating," he announced. He ran a hand through his hair again, and began re-stalking territory he'd already covered. "I hate this," he said. "I really hate it."
"I hate it, too," she said from his bed.
"I know you do." He stopped at a table, staring disconsolately at the small pile of belongings that constituted his prayer bundle. And an impressive prayer bundle it was. An offset to Chakotay's cartouche-engraved sacred stone and luxuriant black raven's wing, he'd come up with a decapitated doll's head and a small metal toy.
A sixty-seven 'Vette with white sidewalls and a hood that really popped.
Tom shook his head. Picking the toy up, he closed his fingers around it, feeling the weight, remembering the texture.
"What's that?" She was sitting up in his bed, watching him with a critical eye.
"Just a toy," he allowed.
"Where'd you get it?"
"My dad gave it to me when I was a kid."
"Really?" She held out a hand. "Toss it here." He obliged her, watching the flash of it tumbling through the air to alight in her palm. "Looks like some kind of primitive hovercraft," she noted.
"Car," he corrected. "Sixty-seven 'Vette."
"One of the bulkheads is loose."
"That's called a hood. It's hinged. The engine's underneath."
She popped the hood and studied the small metallic engine. "Internal combustion?" she asked like a xenobiologist taking a stab at quantum physics.
"Yeah. Doors open, too."
"Yeah," he agreed. "I guess. Toss it back, will you?"
"What do you mean, `no'?"
"I mean no. If you want it, come and get it."
He studied her for a long moment from across the room. "You know," he said, "I lost my virginity in a 'Vette."
B'Elanna eyed the toy speculatively. "Must have been kind of cramped."
"Not that 'Vette. The one my dad had. He stopped driving it when I was just a kid. It sat in the garage and rotted until I took it on as a history project when I was fourteen. Took me three years, but I restored it back to mint condition."
"History or biology?" she asked.
He smiled. "A little of both by the time I got done."
"So why don't you come over here and show me what you learned?"
"I think you've already passed that class."
"So give me a refresher course."
Tom crossed the room, sliding into bed beside her. "Well, first," he said, taking the toy and setting it on the nightstand, "you have to close your eyes...."
It was late, and he should have been sleeping, but there were things to be done that needed to be done. Sipping raktajino in the quiet of his office, Chakotay continued scanning records, the smell of the ocean still sharp and intoxicating in the folds of his memory.
They'd stayed too late, he and Kathryn. Enjoying the sail. Enjoying the passing of time. Enjoying, for a change, the chance to be alone somewhere other than the ready room, other than the mess hall, other than the bridge.
He'd avoided her for some time now in any capacity beyond their daily routine. Meals in the ready room, casual banter in the mess hall, a cup of raktajino in the morning, or of pajuta at night: these were the intimacies of their friendship, and he'd maintained them with the diligence they deserved.
But afternoon sails on Lake George, quiet picnics on Dorvan, a simple swim beneath the waterfalls of Betazed: these intimacies were of a different sort, and they were the ones he excised from his life.
From her life.
From their life.
He had ready excuses when she asked-calm apologies and promises of rainchecks, but what he never had was the time. No time for sailing or dancing or playing out holonovels on the holodeck. No time for star watching. No time for quiet introspection on the spirit plane.
No time for Kathryn.
He hadn't exaggerated his sense of exhaustion to her. Tired of the game, tired of the chase, tired of always finding himself alone at the end of the day, he hadn't overstated his unwillingness to continue running a race whose finish line was but the starting line for the next.
But he had lied to her. He'd lied when he said he was better served standing at her side as a friend and confidante, just as he'd lied on New Earth when he said that serving her would be enough.
It wasn't enough.
And it never would be enough.
What he lacked was not the endurance to be her willing consort. What he lacked was the heart.
And yet, listening to the wind and the water and warmed by the proximity of her where their bodies almost touched, he'd seemed neither lacking in endurance nor in heart, but rather only in the courage it took to join the foray once again.
To strike, and damn the consequences, full speed ahead.
The record he was reading cross-referenced another, so Chakotay followed the string. It led first to a series of incident reports, and then to an access port that required security codes to clear. Curious as to how the deep background personnel file of a non-classified officer could possibly dovetail with restricted Starfleet files, he hacked through the system, bypassing a dozen defense subroutines with Maquis cyberstrategies designed to access Cardassian outpost coordinates and Federation medical drops.
Within half-an-hour, he'd cleared the hurdles designed for lesser trespassers and burrowed deep into a database Starfleet Command had had the arrogance to consider secured. The incident report he found there washed all thoughts of Kathryn Janeway from his mind.
Chakotay scrutinized the document, finding answers, finding clarity. It was all there, buried as deeply in his records as it was buried in his mind. As he read, Chakotay began to understand a man he'd thought he knew.
"What are you thinking about?" B'Elanna asked.
"I'm thinking about you."
She smiled, running one finger down the line of his spine. "You're a liar, Tom," she said. "But you're a liar with a very nice-"
He lifted his head off the pillow, smiling up at her as the caress reached the end of his spine and reversed itself, retracing her descent as an ascent, exploring every vertebra along the way. "A nice what?" he prompted.
"Nice eyes," she said.
"You said `a very nice,'" he reminded her.
Having reached the base of his skull, she began playing with his hair, twisted it gently around one fingertip after another. "Well, I didn't want to say anything earlier in our relationship, but you do have one eye that's not quite up to snuff."
"Oh, I do, do I?" He rolled onto his back, folding both hands behind his head. "And which eye would that be?"
Her hand wandered a lazy journey across his neck, over his chin, bridging the treacherous chasm of lips that tried to waylay her progress and climbing the gentle rise of one cheek. "This one," she said, tapping the destination to which she'd come.
"This one?" he repeated, winking at her.
"Yep. That's the one."
"And what's wrong with it?"
"It wanders occasionally. Roams...strays...I caught it watching Jenny Delaney the other day. And the day before that, it was-"
"Actually," he interrupted, "this eye should be your favorite."
"Yes, it should."
"Why is that?"
"Because this eye," he winked at her again, "is the one that checks out all the competition so I can feel sorry for every other guy on the ship."
B'Elanna smiled. "That's quite a sacrifice."
"Dirty job," Tom agreed, "but somebody's got to do it."
B'Elanna shifted at his side. Folding her arms across his chest, she settled into him, saying, "Then I nominate Harry. He's a capable young man, and I think it's time you learned to delegate."
"Harry?" Tom considered it for a moment, then shook his head. "No, I don't think that'd be right. I can't, in all good conscience, ask a junior officer to do something I'm not willing to do myself. Besides, Harry's kind of overworked in that department right now. Both of his eyes are pretty much busy with Seven."
"I'll just bet they are." She snuggled deeper into his chest. "So are you going to tell me, or not?"
"Tell you what?"
"What you were thinking about."
"I already told you, I was thinking about you."
"It was a different dream, wasn't it?"
Tom's eyes went on evasives. He studied the ceiling for a moment, then looked around at the smattering of decorative items that adorned his walls. "Yeah," he allowed finally. "I guess. A little different, at least."
"Why don't you tell me about it?"
"I really don't want to talk about it right now, B'Elanna."
"Was it worse, or better?"
He shrugged her off his body, twisting out of bed and pushing to a stand. "Just different." He walked into the bathroom, ran water in the sink and splashed it on his face.
"Do you think you and Chakotay are making progress?" she asked from the bathroom door.
"I don't know. It's kinda hard to tell. What time is it?"
She glanced over one shoulder at the chronometer near the bed. "Still two hours to shift. Are you going to try and get some sleep?"
He emerged from the bathroom, slipping by her, his hair damp, his face wetly reflective even in the low light. "I think I'm going to go get something to eat."
"I'll come with you."
"No. Go back to bed. You're on duty in two hours, too, and it won't look good if we both nod off at our stations."
"I'm not tired," she insisted. "I'd rather go with you."
"I don't really want you with me, B'Elanna."
B'Elanna stiffened. "Oh." She stepped back. "Okay."
"I didn't mean it that way. I just meant I kinda need some time to myself."
"Fine," she said, turning away. "I didn't really want to go anyway. I was just trying to be supportive." She picked up the car still sitting on the nightstand and tossed it at him. "Here's your toy."
Tom sighed. "Now you're mad," he decided.
"I'm not mad. I'm just tired. I've been up all night. Go eat. I'm going to get some sleep." She crawled back under the covers. "Computer, lights down." The bedroom fell to a darkness relieved only by starlight.
He watched the lump of her for several seconds before saying, "You can come if you want to."
She didn't answer.
"I'd like you to come, if you want to," he revised.
Still, she didn't answer.
"Come on, B'Elanna. I really want you to come with me."
"I'm tired," she announced.
"You weren't tired a minute ago."
"I'm tired now. Go get something to eat. I'll meet you for lunch or something."
"Are you sure?"
"Okay. I'll meet you for lunch, then."
She didn't answer. Picking his uniform up off a chair, he dressed quickly in the near-total darkness and left without another word. When he was gone, she lay under sheets still warm with the impression of his body and listened to the silence of his departure.
The pneumonic echo had not yet entirely faded from the metallic resonance of the bulkheads when the door hissed open again. Standing silhouetted in the doorway, his face obscured by shadows, he stared at her in silence, the slump of his shoulders an eloquence unto itself.
"Have I ever told you what a jerk my dad is?" he asked finally, the question just loud enough to reach her from the doorway.
She didn't answer.
"He's one of those kind of guys that won't let anybody get close to him," he went on. "He's the terror of Starfleet Command, running his adjunctants off regularly, scaring the bejesus out of all the new interns. It's all this big thing with him: he thinks that if he's nasty enough, no one will want to be around him. That's the way he likes it. Nobody to care about. Nobody to worry over. Nobody to let him down."
She still didn't answer.
"Sometimes I can be a real jerk, too, B'Elanna," he said, still standing in the doorway, still hiding himself in the backlight from the corridor. "Sometimes I act just like him, and I don't even know why."
"Because he's your dad," she said.
"That's not a good enough reason. I hate what he is. I don't want to be anything like him."
"You aren't," she allowed.
"I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings."
"You didn't," she lied.
"Why don't you get dressed and come with me?"
"You said you needed some time to yourself."
"I don't know what I need anymore. Or what I want." He stepped inside then, letting the door close behind him. Striding purposefully across the social foyer and into the bedroom, he crouched beside her and looked her straight in the eyes. "Except you, B'Elanna. I know I want you. I know I need you." He stared at her a moment longer, then said, "Get dressed, okay?" Then, more quietly, "Please?"
She sat up in bed, swung her legs over the edge and put her feet on the floor. He rose and handed her her uniform. She dressed without comment, running a quick brush through her hair and then turning to face him.
"You know," he said, "you've been really good about all this."
"I know," she agreed.
"When it's over, I suppose I'm going to owe you, huh?"
He smiled, a lopsided, half-assed expression of appreciation and vulnerability. "You wanna go get something to eat?"
"Not really," she said, "but if you ask real nice, I will."
The light twinkle of the ready room call was a small jolt of surprise in the early morning silence. With more than two hours yet to shift change, she'd expected to finish her paperwork in peace before the morning bustle of a waking ship began to intrude.
"Come," she called, her surprise deepening exponentially when the door slid aside and Chakotay strode in. Still dressed in off-duty blues, he was agitated and tense, his eyes a flash of confrontation that preceded him to her desk.
"You're up early," she noted cautiously.
"I'm up late," he corrected. Then, placing a data padd in front of her as if presenting an exhibit for the prosecution, he added, "I was up all night, reading this."
She picked up the padd. "What is it?"
"Something I found in the computer."
Scrolling through the data padd's contents, Janeway frowned. "This is a highly-classified document, Chakotay. I find it difficult to believe you `found' it."
He leaned into the desk, his hands flat on the highly-buffed surface and his shoulders tense with agitation. "Did you know about this?" he demanded.
"I know some of it," she conceded. Having finished an initial scan of the introductory narrative, she began reading the report thoroughly, digesting it in detail. "I remember when it happened. There were a lot of rumors flying around. My father and Tom's were friends, and I remember how upset he was when I came home from the Academy with a sensationalized-and evidently inaccurate-version of events."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
She glanced up from the report. "I didn't think it was relevant."
"You didn't think this," he gestured sharply at the padd, "was relevant?"
She frowned. "No. I didn't."
"Skip to page three," he instructed.
She did as he asked, reading several paragraphs before her fingers went white against the datapadd.
"Did you know about that?" he demanded.
"No," she murmured. "I didn't. The details were all very hush-hush. At the time, the admiral had just been promoted to captain of the Al-Bataani and Starfleet Command didn't want his personal business hung out for the press corps to desecrate."
"You served under him on the Al-Bataani, didn't you?"
"And he never mentioned it? Never said anything to you in an unguarded moment?"
"If you knew Admiral Paris at all," she said quietly, "you would know he doesn't have unguarded moments."
"So he never said anything," Chakotay surmised.
"All you knew about the entire incident was that it happened?"
She looked up again, met his eyes. "I knew it happened. I knew she died. And I knew that, according to my father, Owen Paris was never the same. If I had known this," she turned the reader padd off and set it aside, "I would have said something."
Chakotay stared at her for a moment longer, then nodded.
"How does this affect your agenda?" she asked.
"How does it affect it? It shoots it the hell out of the water, Kathryn. That's how it affects it." He pushed off the desk, turning away, pacing the confines of the ready room in agitated frustration. "This is a much deeper issue than we should be dealing with on the spirit plane. I never would have engaged the process had I realized the source memory was a trauma of this magnitude."
"I thought the spirit plane was a forum for self discovery and spiritual actualization," Janeway ventured. "Isn't that precisely the type of arena in which Tom should-"
"He's a child," Chakotay snapped. "A neophyte, an amoeba on the evolutionary scale. I haven't even introduced him to his spirit guide yet. To allow him to engage this sort of catastrophic regression right now would be like sending a ten-year-old to the Cardassian front."
"Then how do you want to proceed?"
"I don't want to proceed at all. Do you have any idea what uncovering this is going to do to him?"
"No," she admitted. "I don't."
"Well, neither do I. I have no idea how he'll react, but if I had to take a guess, I'd say he'll be devastated. It will destroy his whole perception of who he is, or worse. And that's the optimistic side of the coin."
"Then we have to stop the process now, before it goes any further."
"It's already gone too far. We've opened the door, Kathryn. He knows the memory exists."
"Then we have to close the door."
"I don't think we can. I've already given him the tools to continue on his own. He wants to know the truth. Even if I stop instructing him, he's going to eventually find his way to it."
"Then what do you suggest, Chakotay?" she asked. "Do we have any other options?"
He'd made his way back to her desk, leaning on it this time in fatigue rather than anger. "I've given it a lot of thought," he said, "and the only thing I've been able to come up with is a mind meld. Maybe Tuvok can block the memories off somehow."
"Have you spoken to him about it?"
"No. I haven't spoken to anyone about it."
She considered the suggestion for several seconds before saying, "Setting aside for the moment whether or not it can even be done, and if it can, whether or not it is a viable solution to the problem at hand, I can tell you now that Tuvok's primary concern is going to be consent. Ethically, he can't perform a mind meld on Tom without his permission. Even if it is a feasible alternative, how do we convince Tom he should submit to a procedure that will erase a large portion of his past without explaining to him why that past should be erased?"
Chakotay sat down heavily in a nearby chair. "I didn't say it was the answer, Kathryn," he muttered. "I just said it was the only option I could think of." He rubbed at his eyes, ran a hand through his hair.
"I don't think a mind meld is an option," she said quietly. "I think the only option we have is to help him face this."
"Facing it could destroy everything he is."
"Or not. Tom's a survivor. And he's come a long way since the Array snatched us out of the Alpha Quadrant and deposited us here."
"Yes, he has," Chakotay agreed. "And this could destroy it all. It could destroy everything he's worked so hard to build."
"Or not," Janeway repeated.
"And it could leave us without an experienced pilot," he finished grimly, refusing to equivocate an issue they had no choice but to consider. "We both know that if he faces this and it destroys him, it will lessen Voyager's chances of ever seeing home again. Regardless of what may be best for Paris, can we afford to take that risk, Kathryn?"
"I don't see that we have any other choice," she answered.
"We do have a choice. We can do whatever it takes to make sure that Tom Paris never goes back to the one day in his life that has defined every other day he has lived since. Whether it's a mind meld or something else, we can find a way to destroy that memory."
"And you think we should?"
He stared at her, his features dark with lack of sleep and strain. "I don't know," he said finally. "I don't know what to do. I really don't."
"What would you want?" she askedfinally. "If it were you?"
"It isn't me."
"If it were."
"I'd...I think I'd want to know. I'd want to know why my father can't look me in the eyes. I'd want to know why he has punished me my entire life, why nothing I ever did was good enough for him. I think I'd want to know. I think I'd need to know."
"I think Tom does, too."
"But if knowing would destroy me," Chakotay went on, "and if in destroying me, knowing would endanger my friends and my ship, I would want my captain to make sure that I never knew."
Janeway stood. "That's an admirable sentiment," she allowed, "but I can't run this ship as if a reasonable risk-even a significant risk-taken for the sake of one man is too high a price to pay. I have to value every man and every woman as an individual. I have to value them enough to risk us all for each of them, or we have nothing out here, Chakotay. We are alone, and in that aloneness, we will perish."
She moved out from behind her desk, sitting in a chair close to his, facing him directly with nothing between them but the air.
"But we are not alone, Chakotay. None of us are alone. We have each other. I have you. You have B'Elanna. B'Elanna has Tom. Tom has me. And I think you're right: Tom needs to face this. He needs to know the truth, and he needs us to help him survive it. His importance to the command structure, the ramifications of his loss to the command structure if that is what happens-those have to be secondary considerations. Tom comes first. He has to."
"Then you want me to help him face the memory?"
"Yes, Chakotay. I want you to help him face the memory."
Chakotay nodded, the decision made.
"Maybe you should tie me down or something first," Paris suggested, his tone jocular but the cant of his posture nervous.
"I think I can take care of myself," Chakotay allowed. Settling himself on the floor directly opposite Paris, he spread the accoutrements of his prayer bundle before him and set the akoona between them.
"I don't suppose you're going to let me try the panties this time?" Paris asked.
Chakotay touched the akoona to bring it to life, then removed his hand and picked up the touchstone that was his personal talisman. "Use the car," he said. "Akooche moreh."
Sighing in resignation, Paris picked up the car. "Akooche moreh," he muttered, placing his hand on the akoona.
He couldn't breathe.
"You can breathe," Chakotay corrected, his voice steady, calming. "There's an oxygen mask on your face, isn't there?"
Chakotay was right: there was an oxygen mask on his face. It supplied him with a steady stream of cool, fresh air.
He couldn't see.
"There's something over my eyes," he said.
"What is it?" Chakotay asked.
Tom reached up in the blackness. When one hand moved, the other did, too. His knuckles barked themselves on duranium. He began to panic.
"Don't panic, Tom," Chakotay ordered.
"My hands. They're tied together. I'm in a...this place is like a coffin. I can't breathe."
"You can breathe," Chakotay reminded him. "Now touch your face. Tell me what's over your eyes."
He touched his face, his fingers finding a rough, familiar texture. "Some kind of...of...it feels like tape. That's what it is. Tape. I think it's tape."
"Why is there tape across your eyes, Tom?"
"I don't know. Why is there tape across my eyes?"
"Where are you, Tom?"
"I don't know." He could feel the panic rising in him again. He struggled in vain to see something, staring into the blackness, praying for something, anything, to make itself known to him. "Why is there tape around my hands?" His knuckles brushed metal again. He lashed out, striking it. His knuckles began to bleed. The panic welled, making it hard to breathe.
It's okay, Tommy. Don't panic. Everything will be okay.
It was a woman's voice, a familiar voice. He tried to listen, but he couldn't breathe. His throat was closing up, his body going numb with cold. Heart flailing wildly in his chest, the panic overwhelmed him. He began to thrash in earnest, his feet breaking against duranium with hollow-core rings, his fists turning to raw meat as they pounded, pounded, pounded....
Chakotay had him shoulder-locked to utter immobility, his face forced to the bulkhead, both shoulders strained nearly to the point of dislocation. He couldn't move at all, couldn't struggle, could barely breathe.
"Let me go," he gasped.
"Are you in control?" Chakotay demanded.
"Yes," Paris rasped. "I'm in control. Now let me go before you break my damned back."
Chakotay lifted his knee from the pressure point at the base of Paris's spine and released one arm, granting the awkwardly-sprawled helmsman partial mobility without releasing him entirely.
"Are you sure you're in control?" he asked again.
"I'm sure, dammit. Let me up."
Chakotay stepped back, and Paris scrambled to something that less resembled a beetle on the bottom of a boot. Breathing hard, his skin slicked with cold sweat and his eyes wild as they jumped around the room, Paris struggled to his feet. He didn't ask what was going on, didn't need to be reminded of how he got pinned in a corner.
"You know, don't you?" he demanded, the question an accusation Chakotay faced with structured calm. "You know what's going on in there."
"Yes," Chakotay agreed. "I know."
"It doesn't work that way. You have to face this yourself. You have to remember it the way it happened or it won't do you any good."
"Who is she?" Paris demanded, stepping forward.
"I can't tell you," Chakotay answered, giving no ground.
"Why am I so scared? Why can't I breathe? Why is there tape over my eyes?"
"I can't tell you," Chakotay repeated.
"It's bad, isn't it? Whatever happened, it's bad." The fear in his features wasn't a child's fear any longer. Deep and harsh and consuming, it was the terror of a man alone, facing his darkest moment.
"Yes," Chakotay agreed. "It's bad."
"Please. Just tell me."
Paris closed his eyes. He was trembling, his body threatening to spill him back to the bulkhead.
"Do you want to stop?" Chakotay asked.
Paris didn't answer.
"If you want to stop," Chakotay pressed, "we can."
Paris forced his eyes open. "I want to know who she is," he whispered.
"Maybe you don't."
"I want to know what happened."
"Maybe you don't."
Paris pulled himself together with an effort. Staring into Chakotay's eyes, his hands still atremble at the ends of his arms, he said, "Yes, I do. I want to know."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. I'm sure." He stepped past Chakotay and made his way back to the oddly-accessorized patch of empty floor near the center of his quarters. "Let's do it," he said, sitting down, crossing his legs, picking up the discarded purple car.
Chakotay crossed the room, too. He kept his feet, looking down at the younger man. "Do you want to rest for a while?"
"No," Paris said without looking up. "I want to get on with this."
Chakotay sank gracefully to the floor. He picked up the stone of his ancestors and held it as Tom Paris put one palm on the akoona.
"Akooche moreh," Paris said.
"Akooche moreh," Chakotay replied.
He was crying. Tears ran down his face, tracking into his ears, freezing into his collar.
"Concentrate, Tom," Chakotay ordered. "There's no reason to be afraid."
"I'm cold," he moaned.
"Why are you cold?"
"I don't know. It's cold in here. It's freezing. I'm going to freeze to death. I'm going to die." He began to twist and flail. His hands clenched to fists. He kicked out blindly.
Please, Tommy. Don't panic. Hold still, honey. Don't panic. Everything is going to be okay.
"Who are you?" he wailed.
Don't panic, Tommy. Please don't panic.
He couldn't breathe. He couldn't see. Acidic gum from the tape was eating into his skin, blistering it raw. He cried harder. Trapped by the tape on his face, tears puddled to deep pools, drowning his eyes. Small streams of runoff escaped the tape dam in wrinkle viaducts, cutting ice rivers across his skin, into his ears.
He was cold. So cold. His bones ached. His knees throbbed where they'd jarred themselves again and again against metal.
Don't panic, Tommy. Please don't panic.
"Talk to me, Tom," Chakotay instructed. "Tell me where you are."
"I'm cold," he moaned again. "I can't see anything."
"Try to tell me where you are," Chakotay repeated.
"I can't see anything. I can't breathe. I'm going to die. I'm going to die!" His eyes rolled back in his head. The blackness turned blood-red, and panic overwhelmed him. He began to thrash in earnest, his feet breaking against duranium with hollow-core rings, his fists turning to raw meat as they pounded, pounded, pounded.
Warning, a metallic voice intoned. Failure in oxygen tank number two. Oxygen reservoir depleted. Warning.
"Tom. Stop it, Tom. Stop it. You have to regain control. Tell me where you are."
"I don't know," he wailed. "I don't know. I'm dying. Help me, Mama, I'm dying."
"Are you alone, Tom?"
"I'm dying. Help me, I'm dying."
"Who's there with you, Tom?"
"I can't breathe. Help me."
"Tell me who's there with you."
The air was spoiled. It was a thin wisp of a line, not enough to breathe, not enough to stave off the crushing pressure in his lungs. His fingers clawed frantically at the face mask, tore it away. Spoiled air became no air. He began to suffocate in earnest.
"Help me!" he screamed. "Help me! Help me!"
"Who's there with you, Tom?" Chakotay demanded.
"Help me, Mama!" he screamed. "Help me! I can't breathe! Mama, I can't breathe!"
"Is your mother there with you, Tom?"
"I can't breathe!"
Everything's going to be okay, Tommy. Everything's going to be okay. Here, baby. Everything's going to be okay.
Oxygen knifed through his body. It lit fires along his neural pathways, igniting a storm of pain and panic.
"Is your mother there, Tom?"
"Yes," he whispered. "Mama's here." She was cold, getting colder. Her body began to convulse. He heard her gasping, heard her thrashing underneath him. "Oh no," he moaned. "No, no, no ..."
Her fingers twined like claws in the back of his shirt. They tightened, twisting, tearing ....
Goodbye, Tommy. I love you.
"No, Mama. Don't go. No, no, no ...."
"Tell me what's happening, Tom."
He could feel her body under his. They'd laid them in like logs in a fire, one on top of the other to save space. He could feel her breathing and then he could feel her not breathing.
"No, Mama," he whispered. "No, no, no ...."
"Tell me what's happening," Chakotay ordered again.
"I'm alone," he whispered.
"Where's your mother?"
"I'm all alone." His voice was small, inconsequential. It rang hollowly in the confines of the sealed torpedo casing.
"Talk to me, Tom."
"I can't see," he whispered. "I can't see."
"You're not alone, Tom. I'm right here."
"I'm all alone," he moaned.
"You're not alone," Chakotay repeated.
"I'm alone. I'm alone."
"Can you hear me, Tom?"
"Can you feel the car in your hand, Tom?"
The sixty-seven 'Vette. They'd taped it shut in his hand. His fingers were cramped around it, the metal burning ice blisters into his flesh.
"Can you feel the car, Tom?"
"Yes," he whispered.
"Concentrate on the car."
"Concentrate on the car, Tom. Concentrate on the car."
His eyes popped open. Without warning, without transition, his eyes popped open and he was free of the spirit plane, free of the memory and free of the claustrophobic confines of a airless, frozen torpedo casing.
But this time, he was different. This time, he knew.
Staring dully at Chakotay, his flesh a blanket of ice on trembling, jointless bones, he said, "I killed her."
"You didn't kill her."
"I kicked the oxygen valve. I broke it. She put her mask on me and then she died. I killed her."
"It wasn't your fault."
"I killed her."
"The men who kidnapped you killed her."
"We had enough oxygen. They put enough in before they welded the casing shut and launched it into orbit. My father gave them what they wanted, and they gave him rendezvous coordinates." Paris stared at Chakotay, stared through him. "She wouldn't have died if I hadn't kicked the oxygen valve. There was enough air for both of us, but she had to give me hers."
"You were a child, Tom. You were six years old."
"I killed my mother." He was fracturing, his mind splintering to a thousand shards. The devastation webbed across his expression in fissures of insanity. "I killed her."
"My mother died when I was twelve," Chakotay said. "She died in a shuttle accident, while we were coming back to Dorvan from a treaty conference in the DMZ."
"I'd been begging her for sectors to let me take the helm, and she finally gave in. She set the stasis parameters and then sat back and let me fly."
Paris blinked again.
"Something happened. I lost control of the flight plane. We started to spin. The gyro compensators blew. They knocked out the aft thrusters and the primary coolant systems. She took the helm back, but we'd already lost too much altitude. She tried to land us, but we crashed thirty meters short of the shuttlepad. The helm detached and crushed her. It broke every bone in her body. I wanted to die, but I didn't. I broke my leg. She died, and I broke my leg."
Slowly, Paris focused. His face was ashen, colorless. His eyes were a dull, flat blue.
"You didn't kill your mother, Tom."
Paris drew a long, slow breath, and then released it in a soft, soughing sigh. "My father said I did," he stated flatly.
"Your father was wrong."
"He said I killed her. He said I killed her because I panicked."
"You didn't kill her, Tom."
Paris closed his eyes. He sat in silence for two minutes. For three. For four. Breathing, only breathing. Finally, after five, he opened his eyes again and stood. "I've had enough for today," he announced.
He started for the door. Chakotay rose, stepped into his path.
"What are you doing?" Paris asked.
"Sit down," Chakotay ordered.
Paris forced a smile that bore no resemblance to expression. "I'm okay," he said. "I just want to get out of here."
"Sit down for a while," Chakotay insisted. "We'll talk."
"I don't want to talk."
"I don't care whether you want to talk or not. Sit down, Tom. That's an order."
"I thought maybe I'd go find B'Elanna."
"I'll find her for you. Sit down."
Paris tried to sidestep Chakotay. The bigger man countered easily, keeping his body between Paris and the door.
"It's okay, Chakotay," Paris repeated reassuringly. "I'm fine. Really."
"I don't want to sit down. I want to leave." Brushing Chakotay's restraining hand aside, he took another step toward the door.
It hit him like a phaser set on kill. His knees crumpled, and his body went slack. Chakotay caught him before he hit the ground.
She held his hands, watched his eyes, waited for him to speak. When he did finally share with her, it was in a flat tone so rife with emotion that it could express nothing at all beyond the words required to recount the event in the barest of terms.
He began to cry before he finished. He hung his head, somehow shamed, and her heart ached with the simplicity of his strength.
When he rose to leave her, she followed him to the door. Her hands on his back stopped him, turned him.
"I know you're tired," she whispered, "but I think you should stay. I want you to stay."
"I'm alone," he said.
"No." She lifted one hand, tracing the simple geometric lines engraved into his flesh. "You're not alone."
The mess hall was quiet, amicable. It ebbed and flowed with the currents of conversation. B'Elanna Torres sat alone, staring out the starboard viewing portal, watching the stars roll by.
"Mind if I join you?" Chakotay asked.
It took her a moment to retrieve her thoughts, a moment to reel them in from the far and distant waters through which they swam. "Sure," she said. "Have a seat."
He sat down across the table, setting a mug of pajuta in front of her and one in front of himself.
"What?" she asked, eyeing the thick, rich drink. "No raktajino?"
Chakotay smiled. "Not in the mood for tarmac sealant this morning."
"Great," she said. "The one morning I could really use a raktajino jolt, and you're not in the mood." She sipped of the pajuta, the hollows of her face deep with exhaustion, the shadows under her eyes dark nearly to the point of bruises.
"How's Tom?" he asked as if the question might be routine.
"Broken," she answered.
He nodded, retreating to the stars that she'd left to join him. "I wish I could have done more..." he started.
"Don't." She shook her head, then looked away. They sat in silence, listening to the distance between them. "You told him about your mother," she said finally.
"I thought it might help."
"He said it must have been hard for you, sharing something like that with him."
"I came to terms with my mother's death years ago."
Chakotay looked down, stared into his pajuta. "I thought it would help," he repeated.
"It was the only thing I could think of to convince him he wasn't alone."
"I think it saved him," B'Elanna said. "Not the story itself, just the fact that you shared it. The fact that you would share it. Share it with him."
"I wasn't sure he could even hear me."
"He heard you."
Chakotay nodded. He drank pajuta and tried to find something to look at other than her.
"He spent eighteen hours in that photon torpedo tube," she said suddenly, her voice a veil of unshed tears. "Lying on top of his cold, dead mother. Did you know that, Chakotay? Eighteen hours."
He looked up, met her eyes. The distance between them had grown, was growing still. He reached across the table, touched her hand to draw her back. She accepted the gesture, holding fiercely to the simple anchor he offered.
"I don't know how to help him," she whispered.
"You can't help him," he said. "Not the way you want to. All you can do is be there. He loves you, B'Elanna. Having you there will be enough."
"He talked about it a little last night," she ventured. "He told me that his dad didn't speak to him for a year after it happened. And that when he did start speaking to him again, he never said a word about his mother. They never spoke of her again. It was like she'd never existed."
"His father is a short-sighted man."
"Tom grew up knowing that no matter what he did, he could never make amends. No matter what he accomplished, no matter how well he did, nothing would ever make up for kicking that oxygen valve."
"You can't change how he grew up. Only how he'll grow old."
B'Elanna's hand tightened on his. "He's going to get through this, Chakotay. I know he is."
"He's already made it through the most difficult part," Chakotay agreed.
"He's a survivor."
"Yes, he is."
"I love him, Chakotay. I know that disappoints you, but I love him."
"It doesn't disappoint me."
"He's a good man."
"He's a strong man."
"He's a lot like you." Her fingers trembled where they lay against his. "He reminds me of you sometimes."
Chakotay smiled. "Probably not something you'd want to mention to him," he noted drily.
She laughed. "I won't. I wouldn't." She squeezed his hand. "Thank you for helping him, Chakotay. I know you didn't have to tell him about your mother. I know you didn't want to tell him that."
Chakotay turned her hand in his, holding it now instead of letting her cling to him. "I'm not going to lie to you, B'Elanna: Paris doesn't deserve you. He never has, and he never will." He squeezed her hand gently. "But in a way, I guess I'm glad he has you." He stood then, looked down at her. "Don't leave him alone too long. The last thing he needs right now is to be alone."
"Doc's running some tests. He's going to meet me here as soon as they're done."
"Who's meeting you here?" Paris asked, walking across the mess hall with the calm, confident stride of a Starfleet officer on break.
B'Elanna smiled, slipping her hand gently from Chakotay's grip. "You are," she said, kissing Paris quickly as he slid into the chair beside her.
"Commander," Paris greeted, "care to join us?" His eyes were flat, dead. The expression on his face was a lie that could have sold a three-legged horse to a galaxy-class equestrian.
"No thanks," Chakotay demurred. "I was just on my way to the bridge."
"I'm buying," Paris offered. "Can't make you a better deal than that."
"Maybe another time," Chakotay said.
Paris shrugged. "Your loss."
Chakotay hesitated a beat, then asked, "What are you doing later?"
"Why?" Paris countered. "You looking for a date?"
"I thought you might want to talk."
Paris's dead eyes flickered slightly. "Not tonight," he said. "Maybe next week."
"Next week," Chakotay agreed easily. Taking the response as a rebuff, he started to turn away, but Paris's voice drew him back.
"I thought maybe, if you're comfortable with it, you might teach me how to contact my animal guide." Though his voice was desolately flat, there was a flicker of emotion to the lay of his features, a small spark of Tomness that still existed beneath the layers of dull and flaking wasteland. "You said that would take a couple of weeks, right?"
"It's a process," Chakotay allowed.
"I'd be interested in learning it, if you're willing to teach me."
"I'll teach you," Chakotay agreed. "Let me know when you're ready."
"I will." His eyes flicked to Chakotay for the barest of moments, then fell away. "Maybe next week."
"Next week," Chakotay agreed again. And then he left, making his way to the bridge.
"Come," she said.
The ready room door hissed open, and he stepped inside. It closed behind him, and the room pressurized to a palpable tension.
She could hear the thunder of his pulse in the silence.
"I lied to you," he announced. "I'm not happy in this capacity, and it isn't enough for me to serve at your side."
She considered the proclamation, letting it fester in the silence.
"I need more," he added after a beat.
"More in what capacity?"
"More in every capacity."
The small lines of a pending frown etched themselves near her mouth, in the corners of her eyes. "I'm not sure I understand what you want from me," she ventured.
His answer was unequivocal: "I want the same thing I have always wanted."
"You have that. You've had it for some time."
"I have what?"
"Your heart isn't enough. Not when you keep it buried inside your chest where it plays captain's games with what I am and am not allowed to feel."
Her frown deepened, turned to frustration. "I don't know what you want me to say," she informed him tersely.
He took a step closer. "I want you to say we're done playing tag."
"We're done playing tag."
He took another step. "I want you to say that you understand I cannot live this way...that I will not live this way."
"I understand that you cannot live this way."
He took a third step. "I want you to say things will change."
"Things will change."
"How, Kathryn? Tell me how they'll change."
"How do you want them to change?"
He stared at her, trying to decide what to ask. "I want you here," he said finally. "By my side."
"I am at your side."
"No. I'm at your side. There's a difference."
"I'm the captain, Chakotay," she returned quietly.
"And I'm a man alone."
"You're not alone."
"You said that last night, but it's a lie. I am alone. I'm alone as long as you won't come to me."
"Why do I have to come to you?"
"Because I've come to you a dozen times."
"Come once more."
"You can't? Or you won't?"
"Then we have nothing to discuss."
He turned to walk away. The door accosted him, confronted him. His body rebelled at the thought of crossing a threshold that couldn't be re-crossed. His feet refused to move, his shoulders trembled under the strain of knowing that what he must do, he could not do.
He did not want to leave her. More than anything-more than pride, more than even his own happiness-he did not want to leave her as she would leave herself, as she had left him, as he would be leaving himself.
A man alone.
He turned to try again, and she was behind him, standing so close that their uniforms brushed one another in a whisper that spoke to the silence.
"I'm here," she said. "And this is how things will change." And then she kissed him.
And everything changed.
- END -