Disclaimer: See chapter one...they aren't mine.
Notes: Thanks a million to Cheshire for being beta for most of the story. She's awesome! And she helped out with the last scene in this chapter, too (because I have a sadistic muse that despises endings above all else).
I fix the final pip to my collar, scrutinizing my appearance like I would a cadet under inspection. And I'd pass, I decide. Every hair is perfectly in place, the uniform perfectly crisp and devoid of a single wrinkle. The hollows of my cheekbones are already filling out, the color returning to my cheeks. My eyes still require a heavy bit of makeup to conceal the circles under them, but I've discovered that a slight shimmer to the shadow I apply to my lids helps counteract the residual dullness in my eyes, the only remnant of my most recent trek through hell.
I only have five minutes to be in the conference room for our early morning briefing, time for one last…
He appears behind me, steaming mug in hand, which he reaches around in front of me to curl into my already twitching fingers. His soft smile crinkling the corners of his eyes as his hands come to my shoulders, working the knots leftover from this morning's wakeup activities like a pro.
"That's a lot of tension for this hour of the morning."
"Mmm," I groan. "Talk to Seven."
"She demolish you on the hoverball court again last night?"
He knows better than to ask right after I come back, especially if I've got that look on my face.
"Demolish is a strong word."
"It is," he agrees.
"Well, it was more like pulverized." He winces sympathetically. "She has no concept of the word pity – make another bad 'irrelevance' joke, and you're a dead man," I caution, pointing at his reflection warningly.
"Wouldn't dream of it. Not at this hour of the morning, anyway." I hear the quiet laughter in his voice but he hides it well enough, for the most part.
"I knew I liked you for a reason."
"Tom asked for an appointment with you again."
I freeze only slightly, but I know he feels it. "Not today, Chakotay."
His hands stop moving only briefly. "You can't avoid him forever, Kathryn."
"I'm not avoiding him. My schedule's too full," I dismiss lightly. Even if it's the lie we both know it is; my schedule is always too full, but I always manage to fit in crew concerns in spite of it. He says nothing to that, simply resuming the tantalizing motion of digging his fingers into the knots at the base of my neck, and I make the near purring sound only he can wring from me, closing my eyes and leaning back into his magic hands. "Remind me to promote you later, will you?" I murmur, anxious to change the subject but undeniably near ecstasy at the melting, molten pleasure spreading through my aching shoulders and neck.
He grins. My eyes aren't open, but I can feel it as his lips press warm into the skin of my neck just above my collar and the rest of him presses up behind me, letting me know what the sounds I'm making are doing to him. In case I didn't know damned well already. "That might be a little difficult. Two captains on one ship could get to be confusing, don't you think?"
"Right." I frown. "I suppose that's why you had to take the demotion in the first place, isn't it?" He smiles, the soft smile again if I know him at all, his hands never stopping their miraculous motions. Taking the first and best sip from the perfectly prepared coffee, my eyes open to regard his well groomed appearance in the mirror, and I meet his eyes. "Well, I'll just have to come up with something else to thank you, then, won't I?" This time, it's me that smiles, wickedly as he swallows hard, his hands pausing for the second time, and then I laugh, turning into him.
"No time like the present," he murmurs hopefully, his arms coming around me with no regard for the hot drink I'm still balancing in my right hand, his head angling down until his mouth hovers over mine. Fortunately, I have plenty of practice at handling both coffee and first officer simultaneously, and I dodge his kiss easily.
Leaning up instead, I press a soft line of kisses along his jaw, stopping just below his ear. My teeth sinking into his earlobe and nipping hard, I let my body slide slowly back down the length of his and promise, "Later, Commander." And shove him away as he tries to keep me against him, a low growl issuing from deep in his throat. "We have three minutes left to be on the bridge," I shrug. "I can't be late to my own briefing."
"You're the worst damned tease I've ever met, you know that?" he growls, his eyes moving like smoldering flame over me as I expertly dodge another attempt to catch me back to him. I can't entirely blame him. This is the first morning I've felt up to anything like this level of play with him since I've been back.
"Yes," I acknowledge freely, laughing and ducking through the doors leading out into the living room as he follows. "I am. And at times, I almost feel sorry for you."
"No, you don't."
"All right, I don't," I admit, still grinning. "But it's only teasing if I have no intention of following through, and I promise you, I do…eventually. In the meantime…" I indicate the door. "Are you coming?"
"I think I need a minute now, thank you," he grits, and my eyes follow his hands as he pointedly adjusts his waistband, seeing the fit of his pants is now uncomfortably snug, and I can't quite help grinning at his predicament.
"You started it," I have to remind him, very little sympathy for him coloring the amusement in my voice.
I take a last sip and recycle the cup, and his soft curse has me laughing again as I leave him standing in my living room.
The smile is easier to plaster on my face this morning as I traverse the corridor to the turbolift, greeting the crewmen I pass with every ounce of acting ability I possess, knowing who and what awaits me in the briefing room and doing my damnedest not to think about it.
Maybe, just maybe, today will be a little better than yesterday was. Maybe it'll take less effort to make it through the day while simultaneously avoiding the one person I don't want to see.
I guess I always thought that if anyone could hide on a ship this size, it would be me.
I guess I was wrong. The captain has given me one hell of a run for my credits this past month. I've never encountered anyone this proficient in the art of avoidance, even if it's a specific kind of avoidance. Because she's not avoiding me, exactly; somehow, she's found time even in the middle of her busiest few days to make sure I'm holding up all right after our ordeal. She always finds an opportunity to send an extra smile or encouraging pat on the back my way. She makes sure to ask after B'Elanna, checking she isn't overtaxed in Engineering and that she's getting enough down time, staying updated on the baby's progress. She just somehow manages to do it all under circumstances where I don't have the slightest chance of getting into anything serious, either on the bridge or in the shuttlebay where the Delta Flyer has been being reconstructed.
When I can track her down off-duty at all, she always manages to find some excuse for not being able to stay wherever I find her. At first I couldn't blame her: we both had a lot to catch up on and two and a half months worth of reports to write up. We've been busy with repairs, routine maintenance, rebuilding: the usual. So the first week I couldn't manage a one on one with her, I attributed it to the above. The second week, I chalked up to coincidence. Sometime around the three week mark of being completely unable to have more than a thirty second exchange with her at one time was when I realized she was deliberately avoiding me. The captain makes a point of being assessable to the crew as possible, and that's true especially of the senior staff.
Last time I checked, I was still a member of said group, and none of the others seemed to be having the same difficulty, including Seven.
That was when the challenge, in my mind, was set. All right, Captain, I decided when she excused herself from her ready room though she'd just gotten there, claiming an urgent appointment with Tuvok and leaving me with a pat on the arm and the scent of the half-full cup of coffee sitting on her desk without a backward glace. My eyes had narrowed in on her retreating form. You want to play hard ball? Fine by me; I've learned from the best.
Unfortunately, so has she.
No effort to meet up with her during the times she was in Sickbay for her continued checkups paid off. She always managed to outwait me by engaging the doctor in conversation for much longer than I'd given her credit for being able to stand. The messhall was unfortunately the same, substituting Neelix in for the doctor, of course. When she used Chell the fifth time, actively and voluntarily engaged him in a conversation about Bolian customs, I knew I was bested there. If she was willing to listen to a thirty minute explanation of Bolian tea ceremony etiquette, I knew I needed a change of strategy.
I started using B'Elanna and the captain's interest in the baby. She started using Chakotay and his interest in the baby. Three times, B'Elanna contrived to maneuver the captain into a more intimate setting under the pretext of seeking her advice on some minor decision or another. The first time, the captain claimed a forgotten appointment just as I was "accidentally" arriving to spend some quality time with my wife. The second two times, she came prepared; Chakotay accompanying her on both occasions, explaining that the captain had invited him to lend his support to the subject at hand, also.
I've given it my all, but to no avail. It seems that when the captain doesn't want to be pinned down by a particular member of her crew, she isn't.
She's afraid of me, I've finally realized. Not of me, personally, but rather of what I've seen. On some level, she must have realized how close to broken I saw her. Her report shows how much she remembers of our last week on Jifan; it's enough that she mentions how I had to handle her as best I could while she was under the grip of delusions and hallucinations.
And I doubt she'll ever forgive herself for giving into those drugs at all, let alone so completely.
Chakotay was really the final nail in the coffin. I hadn't realized he'd witnessed my last attempt to pin the captain down for a set date to talk, focused only on the persistent way she kept wriggling out of it, but as she headed for the turbolift after a morning briefing and I made to follow her, I felt a hand on my arm pulling me back around the corner.
"Tom," was all he said, his voice low, shaking his head at me.
"I need to talk to her," I'd replied just as evenly. Just as aware of the bustling activity going on around us as everyone else made their way back and forth across the bridge to their stations. "There are…things I need to know. And she isn't exactly making it easy to get her alone where we can discuss it."
"Give her time."
"I've given her three weeks, Chakotay."
"And I'm asking you as a personal favor to give her a few more."
He was asking me to drop it. I'd thought she'd had the time to get her feet back under her, thought she could handle the conversation or I'd never have asked to talk to her to begin with. But it was that important to him that he asked right then, while we were still on the bridge. Only because I know he knows her, maybe better than I do, did I have to acknowledge the burning intensity in his eyes, the near desperation with which he was making the request. I nodded reluctantly, although at the time I'd no intention of backing off for very long. Yet every time I'd opened my mouth to ask for another meeting, or my eyes had followed her into her ready room and I'd decided enough was enough, and I'd give it one last try, he seemed to be watching and then I'd see the slight shake of his head. The deep frown of disapproval warning me off.
He doesn't want me near her, that much is clear. Still. Neither he nor she has any intention of letting me have this conversation with her. I almost want to ask my father, but somehow, that's even more out of the question. We just don't have that kind of relationship. I couldn't just open the comm. during the next regular data stream and ask him if he was ever captured and tortured…and worse…by Cardassians. If that was the reason things went so far south so quickly between us all those years ago…some of the reason, anyway.
I've slowly had to come to terms with our experience and with the shield of indifference the captain has been rebuilding between us, but it haunts me. It all does. What we went through together, what she went through. Having to listen to her screaming, being helpless to do a damned thing about it. The drugs and those hallucinations. Her thinking I was my father, and then the way she reacted when she thought the guards were the Cardassians (whether from her mind or from her memory). Her face, the terror in her eyes. The way she looked at me, trusting me to lead her – I can't seem to let go of a lot of it. It follows me into my dreams, still, nearly two months later.
And on those nights when it gets the best of me, I get up and out of bed. B'Elanna is having enough problems sleeping as it is with the baby starting to kick. She doesn't need me tossing and turning beside her, too. I've always been a late night person anyway, so I have plenty of tried and true methods of entertaining myself. Tonight I've pulled up Sandrine's on the holodeck. It's been awhile. I leave most of the characters turned off and just help myself to the setting. Randomly sinking pool balls and practicing trick shots is a no brainer when it comes to killing time. I've been going at it for about an hour when I hear the doors slide open.
Looking up, I could not be more surprised to see her walking in. After all this time of trying to track her down, it's she who finds me. I stare, dumbfounded as she approaches the table. She's still in uniform, but she wears the jacket open, a sure indication that she's not feeling quite up to regulation. She stops at the edge of the table. "If you're feeling up to it, Mister Paris, I'll rack 'em up while you pour us a drink."
I stare at her. She easily could have checked the holodeck to see who was on it, but even if she didn't, once she spotted me around the entrance, she could have left before I even noticed her. Why didn't she? Is she slipping?
It's only when I don't offer a response of any kind that she actually finds my eyes. She cocks an eyebrow, and I finally snap out of it. "Sure," I blurt out, moving towards the bar.
"And none of that synthetic stuff," her voice carries after me as she moves around the table, plucking the balls out of the pockets. "I know you have something good stashed behind that third bottle to the left."
It doesn't surprise me at all that she knows I have a real stash somewhere, but I cant help but be impressed that she also knows exactly where it is. But two can play at this game. "I just might have something for you," I allow. I set two tumblers on the bar and uncork a bottle. "But when my stash runs out, will we switch to that bottle that's tucked behind the tonic water?"
The only indication of surprise that she gives is a pause longer than necessary as she places the triangle on the table. "Oh, I don't think we'll be needing a second bottle tonight. I'm not as young as I used to be."
"None of us is as young and we used to be anymore, sadly." I finish pouring the drinks, leaving the bottle out on the bar. "Not even Naomi. Luckily for you, you have the kind of ageless beauty that stands the test of time."
Straightening up from the now-set table, she winces, and hell, so do I. "You really are losing your touch, Mister Paris. That was the kind of cheesy remark I'd expect from Neelix or even Chell, on a good day. You can't do any better than that?"
I circle to the front of the bar and hand her a glass. "Well, I did have a better line in mind. But something told me calling you the sexiest CO I've ever had the pleasure of serving under would land me either in the brig or on the couch, not to mention Sickbay, and my back really doesn't agree with any of them anymore." I watch her eyebrow come up and grin, satisfied. "How was that?"
"Better," she smirks. "I think we can forgo the brig – this time. No promises on Sickbay." She holds her glass up. "So, what are we drinking to?"
This is the deciding moment. It all rests on what I come up with right now. If I give her a flippant response, the evening will continue with light banter between us. If I give her something more serious, I may get the answers I've been so scared to hear. So desperate to hear. Staring into her eyes, I can't tell which she'd prefer. I can hazard a damned good guess, but then I also can't help the choice I make, either. "How about to Ashley Whitmore?" The tone I use is deceptively casual. "She always enjoyed a good stiff drink."
I watch her eyes, and for a moment the blue seems to almost crystallize with pain. Then she gives a sharp nod and repeats, "To Ashley." And slugs back half her drink without the grimace that should decorate her face with the strength of what I just poured in that glass. She swipes the back of her hand lightly over her mouth, not looking at me but at the table. "It's your break."
It takes me a minute to understand her meaning, but when she stands to the side with pool cue in hand, waiting, I realize that she hadn't set the table up just for show. I select my cue, make my shot and frown when I manage to sink nothing. As we trade places, she hands me her now-empty glass before choosing her shot. Taking the hint, I cross to the bar to refill it.
"I've thought about her more than once the past few weeks. Not just at her service, I mean." Her matter of fact tone surprises me, as does the fact that she spoke next, without further prompting, but I don't turn back to her. "I can't help but wonder if maybe she was the lucky one."
That's not an observation you generally hear people speak aloud. Think, yes. Agonize over, ponder into the ground, but not speak. The strike of the balls against each other punctuates her comment, and my hand jerks, spilling the drink slightly as I pour.
"Solids," she announces, without looking up. "After all, survival sure is a hell of a lot harder than dying. Four in the corner."
What does she mean by that? I turn in time to see her miss her shot. She straightens, giving the errant ball a glare for good measure.
"Don't get me wrong, Tom. I'm thankful to be here, of course." She plucks the glass from my hand. "But it just never seems to get any easier. It's your shot."
I move numbly towards the table, trying to categorize all the things she's saying, the things she's not saying and think of the best way to respond, all the while trying to find a decent shot open on the table. I manage to sink the ten.
"This isn't the first time I've had to work my way back." Her voice hitches for the first time, and I look up. She immediately looks away. She'd been watching me. Her gaze isn't something one doesn't feel when it's on you, but I understand what she means, what she's talking about now.
I check the table. "Fourteen. Side."
I miss. She doesn't move immediately, studying the table from her seat instead. I can only lean my cue against the bar, relieved that she hasn't drained her glass a second time. Pushing herself to her feet, she brushes past me.
"Those drugs Gwi…he gave me, they made it easy for him to get me to talk about my past. Well, no, not just talk. They made it more so it was as if I relived it. And of course with the proper encouragement from him, it didn't take much for my mind to wander to the most horrible memories instead of the more pleasant ones." She calls her shot and makes it. "Not that I really remember any of it first hand, but he made a point to…dissect and examine every painful point for me once I was back in the land of coherence. To rub my nose in them, so to speak."
My hatred for the alien explodes again, goes higher, and I hadn't thought that possible. It wasn't enough that he physically thrashed her to within an inch of her life. It wasn't enough that they used me against her, abused me in front of her and vice versa, but he'd delved into her mind, as well. Consciously, not by accident. He'd dredged up old demons and God knows what else on purpose so that he could use it against her.
If someone did that to me…I shudder to think of all the material they'd have had to choose from. And knowing the extent of some of the captain's past experiences now…
She takes a seat beside me, and I realize belatedly that she finished her turn. I jump up as she reaches calmly for her drink. Considering she's been doing all the talking, she's handling this a lot better than I am, which I guess really was her point of avoiding me all along. This conversation was only going to happen when she was ready for it and on her terms.
I haphazardly call a shot and end up scratching.
She retrieves the cue ball from the pocket and makes a tsk-ing sound, and the tips of my ears go red; it was a rookie mistake, and we both know it. Retreating to the bar, I refill both of our glasses while she makes the best of the basically free shot I gave her. Resolving to give her a better game if I get another shot at the table as she sinks another, leaving her with only two on the table, I clear my throat. "I had wondered if you remembered the…uh, hallucinations."
It's the first time I've prompted her in the conversation. She glances quickly at me and then back to the table. "No. I don't remember." She sinks the two ball. "Not exactly, anyway. Gwiln…" she strangles slightly on his name but manages to say it this time, "knew things about my past that I must've told him. The death of my father and fiancé. Circumstances of the death of crewmen, on Voyager and before. My relationship with Chakotay."
It's her turn to blush as she mentions this last bit, leaving me to wonder what she told him and how he must've used it against her. She misses her shot and heads for her drink, sparing me a thankful nod for refilling it. I manage to sink two balls in the time it takes her to pick the conversation back up.
"I was surprised that Gwiln never mentioned one of my more…trying experiences."
I can't help but pause, holding my breath, wondering if we've reached the one thing I've been trying to grasp.
She continues, "I can't imagine that he wouldn't have jumped on the chance to use it against me if I had told him about it, but he didn't. Not that I can recall, anyway."
She pauses, and I somehow sink a straight shot. Amazed that I just made that, I take a chance and glance up at her as I come around the other side. She doesn't notice. Her eyes are focused on the table, but I know she isn't seeing it, just as I'm only going through the motions of breathing but not seeming to take in any oxygen. My heart pounds.
"And yet, I remember having thoughts about it…just flashes really, like all the others." She frowns and shakes her head. Looking up, she catches me watching her. My heart continues to pound. Was that my answer? Is she telling me that her hallucinations were real?
She isn't done. "It makes me think the drugs really did cause me to re-experience it again. But by that time, I was experiencing the memories in conjunction with real life events as they occurred around me, so they were all mixed together." It's the first time she's held my eye. "By the end, it was all one large blur of past and present. It was difficult to tell where I was and what time period I was in in any given moment. Everything was constantly mixing together."
She leaves the sentence hanging there in the air. Open-ended. It's a challenge. An offer. Her eyes hold mine across the room. And I have the chance to get my answers. She's said all of her hallucinations were true in origin. But she also just told me they weren't all strictly accurate in the end. And she's waiting for me to ask my questions, the ones I've been dying, burning to ask, but she isn't volunteering to open the subject. If I want to know, I have to ask. She's offering me another piece of her soul, leaving the ball in my court.
She's also begging me not to take it. By letting me know just what Gwiln used those pieces for, she's letting me know what it will mean to her to have to discuss it, how much it costs for her to have relive any of it. How much it must have cost her already.
I lean down over the table and predictably miss my shot. Despite my best efforts, my head isn't really in the game. She watches me closely as I take my seat next to her. Waiting. The questions swirl in my mind. So many I'd wanted, felt I've needed answers to. Specifics and verifications I've been convinced will give me peace of mind to have.
And I'm wondering how much they're worth now, at that kind of price. Can I really keep demanding to pursue this, at the cost of that look in her eyes? The look I remember nearly destroying both of us back in that prison cell?
I've been convinced that I've needed to know if it was the truth. Convinced that I'm not going to be able to rest without those answers. I look up at her, meeting her eyes. She's still waiting, her chin up and head tilted back. Preparing for the onslaught of my inquiries. Preparing to hold up under the inquisition as best she's able to.
I gesture to the table. "It's your shot."
For a brief moment, her eyes become brighter…it could have been from tears welling up, but I prefer not to think that. She purses her lips and slides off the stool, heading for the table, where she sinks her last ball and then the eight ball.
I challenge her to another game, and we go best two out of three. We trade stories back and forth. At one point, I tell her about crashing my father's shuttle into the lake. She laughs and assures me she'd heard a different version. He did notice, after all.
And it turns out he was absurdly proud of me for the stunt I pulled in getting it out of the docking yard in the first place. Boasted about it, even, because it reminded him of the kind of antics he'd pulled as a cadet. While I'm trying to wrap my mind around the magnitude of just how little I really know the man I call my father, a soft chime sounds, and we realize someone else wants to use the holodeck. It's almost 0700, and we've been here for hours, somehow. Fortunately, I do have the rations to back up the time we've spent in here.
Chakotay enters as we unlock the doors. I hadn't noticed her locking them. Then again, I hadn't noticed her entering, either. I tense as he appears and his eyes find me first, but then I see plainly that his smile is easy. "Morning, Tom."
He knew she'd been coming. And he obviously knew she was ready this time. I greet him back, putting away the bottle and glasses the captain and I had been using.
He holds up a padd at her. "The computer told me I'd find you here. I was on my way to the bridge. Thought you might want to have a look at the bridge rotation before the morning briefing."
They still go through the motions of keeping up appearances, even in front of me. It's actually rather cute, considering all three of us know that I know he probably just rolled out of her bed and had been well aware of where she was the whole time.
"Of course." She smiles. "Well, Mister Paris, I think we'll have to continue our game later." She racks her cue and begins to fasten her jacket, stopping to run her hands through her hair at the small mirror over the bar.
Another chime sounds, signaling that someone else really did have the holodeck booked for this morning.
"Anytime, Captain. For now, though, I think I better get home and wake B'Elanna before we're both late for our shift."
"You didn't set the alarm?" she asks, looking for all the galaxy like she just slept eight hours instead of staying up all night playing pool.
"Well, it seems she's been sleeping through it, lately. Guess the baby isn't used to keeping Voyager hours like the rest of us yet."
"She'll learn soon enough, I'm sure. If not, let me or Chakotay know."
"We'll see what we can do to have someone cover her for the early morning shift and let her take beta, instead," he agrees.
By "let" he means encourage, and strongly, because it's B'Elanna's prerogative on how to make up the duty roster in Engineering. We also all know how dead set she is against letting pregnancy change a single thing about the way it's currently set up.
"Thanks." I nod gratefully as we exit the holodeck, and all three of us nod at the crewman waiting patiently outside the doors. The turbolift arrives, and we state our destinations. It goes down first, heading for my deck.
The doors slide open, and I step out, pausing long enough to look back at them. Chakotay's hand is supportively on the small of her back, I see now. I swallow and smile. "I'll see you on the bridge, Captain. Commander."
He nods politely, but his attention is really on her.
She quirks a smile at me. "That you will, Lieutenant."
It's the first smile to reach all the way to her eyes in months.
I decide to take it as a good sign.
End notes: Thanks to everyone who reviewed and stuck with the story, and also thanks to Splvy, Gates, Maja and I think Ria for peeking at parts of the beginning and giving their approval way back when I first started. I think that's all the thanks. Thanks, everyone! :D