Chapter 8: The funny thing about time

They sit together on the same couch they've occupied for seven years, Janeway contemplating her coffee while Paris watches her do so. When she adds a bit of sugar, he approximates her degree of turmoil. One lump is like B'Elanna craving banana pancakes. Two means she's holding it together with bloody fingernails.

She dissolves the second lump with a slow stir of her spoon, and he purses his lips, waiting. He can't be the one to break the silence. Not on this.

"I don't trust her," she says eventually, and still regarding her mug.

Tom's expression shifts only a little here. But by this stage, 'a little' is more than enough of a clue for either of them to read the other.

"You do," Kathryn ventures, meeting his gaze straight on.

"Yes," he replies simply.

"She's misled us already," she counters, a slight edge creeping into her voice. "Why would believe she isn't doing so still?"

"Because she's you."

"She isn't me." Her back goes rigid with anger as she voices the declaration, her eyes aflame with challenge and something else.

Whether she's too close to see it or else terrified because she does, Tom doesn't know. But either way, he doesn't voice the thought that Admiral Janeway is her, in any number of ways. The stubbornness. The forgoing of other peoples' feelings. The telltale signs of cynicism and darkness that have been but foreshadowed in the first seven years of their journey, brought to full maturity in the older Janeway by two and half decades of burden and stress; another ten years to mull over the losses she and her crew racked up on the long way home.

Tom averts his eyes away from Kathryn, unable to bear the full pain of this last thought.

"So what do we do?" he asks, focusing on the contents of his own mug.

"I don't know."

He's struck by the rarity of her admission. So much so that he doesn't even crack a joke to lighten her mood. He sets down his mug on the table in front of them, proceeding afterward to stretch out with his hands behind his head.

It's a posture his father would call 'inappropriate' and one Kathryn herself would have glared at him for, back when this all began. At present, she simply watches him, taking comfort in his natural ease, even in the midst of the most stressful circumstances.

"You once told B'Elanna to have a little faith," he comments. "Maybe you should heed that advice yourself."

When their eyes meet, Kathryn's are brimming with reservations, and something about the sight calls forth in Tom the memory of a brief exchange years earlier; the echo of a profound feeling of inadequacy and fear.

Do you think. . . there will ever be a day when I'm assuring you instead of the other way around?

That fledgling First Officer is light years behind him. But even as he looks back at Kathryn with his blue eyes full of hope, he carries the fear that his optimism has never been quite enough to lift her misgivings.

. . . . .

"Everything's ready," Tom announces, clicking off the shuttle's panel.

"Thank you, Commander." Admiral Janeway voices the reply with a curt nod, but doesn't meet his eyes. A continuation of the carpet avoidance of any conversation with him since her shuttle appeared off Voyager's port bow.

"Are you sure about this?" Tom asks, giving her one last chance to pull out before he gives her the hypo, and even though he knows she won't.

"Quite," she answers, a clear note of 'dismissed' in her voice.

He touches her arm, forcing eye contact, as he scans her face for all the signs he's seen traces of in the last few days. She hides her discomfort well, though not as well as her younger self. Given the extra years she's had to practice concealment, Tom takes this is a further confirmation of what he already suspects.

After a few moments, he wordlessly presses the hypo to her neck instead of simply leaving it for her. Admiral Janeway closes her eyes at the contact, her pulse quickening under his index finger when he doesn't draw away.

"I'm dead in your timeline."

Her eyes fly open at his statement (for it is a statement, not a question). And despite her surprise, she realizes there's no trace of fear or pain on his face when he voices the thesis.

After almost two decades without him, she's forgotten how easily he could read her. He must have guessed the nature of her discomfort with him sometime earlier.

She lets go of a deep breath.


"And you told her- Kathryn- about my. . . your Tom's death?"

Your Tom. The two words stab at the Admiral like a bat'leth even as Tom's eyes become dark and disapproving. But even then, there's an absence of anger about him; a kind of unconditional acceptance that she's dearly missed.

"I told your Captain. . . a great deal of things. Most of which she would have preferred not to know."

Here Tom shakes his head and looks away. He'd wondered where Kathryn's shift in attitude had come from since their conversation in her ready room, and now he knows for sure.

"You shouldn't have," he says, the Admiral's face immediately becoming resolved if impassive in response.

"She needed to know the consequences of her decisions."

Tom shakes his head again, but doesn't verbalize a response this time. Keeping to himself the worry that Kathryn will now torture herself with the decisions she made- even in a future that might not happen.

When he looks back at his companion, her face has softened and her eyes are shining. Seeing Tom this consumed with emotion for her younger self is overwhelming. Which is precisely why she has tried to stay clear of him until now.

When Tom takes her hand, she lets go of a ragged breath. It's one that's meant to steady her, but it fails, the hardened mask she's worn slipping away to reveal her pain and loss; an old longing that becomes open, and only for the second time.

"He loved you."

The aged woman seems torn between the joy of the assertion she's never heard voiced, and the pain of the very same. She tries, unsuccessfully, to pull her hand away after Tom speaks it.

"He loved you," he says again, this times vehemently. The Admiral's eyes begin to slowly shed tears they haven't parted with in years.

"He loved you," he says one final time, and closing the proximity between them to rest his forehead against hers.

"I know," she replies, the sound coming out as something between a whisper and sob.

The scent of him in her nostrils is overwhelming, the tears that continue spilling down her cheeks hot and burning. In the back of her mind, she thinks it fitting that her last pleasant sensations are of this man. And simultaneously she decides that this is more torturous than even the waiting fate of painful assimilation.

But even as the shuttle's console blinks and blinks in front of them, a time and battle-hardened Kathryn Janeway allows herself to give in completely to the proffered warmth of Tom Paris.

. . . . .

In front of Kathryn, the fireplace in her mother's living room pops and crackles.

She's on the couch, buried under a thick blanket. And even though she keeps her eyes on the glowing fire, she knows she's being watched.

"I'll got to bed soon, Pheebs," Kathryn murmurs, and knowing that her sister can tell it's a lie. The same one she's been telling her for four decades now.

Phoebe lets out a long sigh. She and her mother are both worried about Kathryn, but there's only so far either of them will push. . . At least when it comes to her sleeping habits.

"Just try to be in bed before mom gets up at five. If she catches you still awake, I'll never hear the end of it."

Kathryn smiles. Glad that even if so much on Earth has changed, her younger sister is the same; opinionated, meddling, and strong-willed to the point of driving Kathryn insane.

"Night, Pheebs. Love you."

"Love you, too."

As Phoebe turns to go up the stairs, Amelia, who has been sitting patiently at Kathryn's feet, follows the younger Janeway sister to bed. The dog prefers sleeping with Kathryn above anyone else, but all things considered, she values her rest above her preferred companionship. After three straight nights up shooting up in bed because she couldn't hear the hum of a ship that now sits in dry dock, Kathryn can't quite blame Amelia's choice.

When Phoebe and Amelia both leave her, Kathryn tries to devote her attentions to the copy of the Divine Comedy in her lap. After less than half an hour, she's made little progress, her mind occupied, as it has been for the last seven days, by the sketch of a future she'd never imagined. A looming fear she'd tried to think about, now brought to life by her own voice.

"In five years, Tom dies on an away mission," the Admiral shouts, as Kathryn turns away from her in the corridor.

Kathryn freezes instantly, not turning around to face her older self, but listening. Listening intently.

"He's killed during a trade negotiation. . . It takes four hours to get back to Voyager. By that time, it's only to bring his lifeless body back to his wife. . . B'Elanna, their daughter Miral, they never recover from the loss."

Resting in the house she grew up in- having made it back to the relative safety of the planet it took her alternate self countless more sacrifices to reach- the tranquility of her homecoming is jarred by images that have assailed her even as Tom took the conn, piloting Voyager to McKinley Station as her hand shook ever so slightly on his shoulder.

His wife. B'Elanna. Their daughter Miral.

The idea that in only five years time Tom could have married B'Elanna and fathered a child took Kathryn completely off guard, wounding her almost as profoundly as the news of his death.

In the days that have ticked by since, after the heralded homecoming and being released by Starfleet for three weeks with the promise of long debriefings to come, she has turned the idea of Tom's marriage over and over again in her mind. And by now, she thinks she's a fool to have been surprised.

How long did she expect Tom to wait, and for a woman who, in the end, has no claim on him? And marrying B'Elanna. An attraction has long simmered between Tom and the engineer, their rediscovered friendship likely being the first step toward Tom being willing to start a relationship.

How had she not wondered these last months (as she had years earlier) when Tom announced he had plans with B'Elanna in the holodeck, or the pair's sharp banter added levity to an otherwise dry meeting? Was it lack of observation, wishful thinking, or simply the misguided belief that Tom would continue to sink himself into the same loneliness his friend and Captain had chosen?

Kathryn throws her book across the couch, it landing with a heavy thud that perfectly satisfies her mood. Whenever she sees Tom and B'Elanna, she chides herself, she will not be petulant or anything less than completely supportive. But here, at this moment, she will allow herself the full force of her disappointment.

When she hears the thud of footsteps on the front porch, she's long-since stretched out on the couch, now rushing to sit up at the sound. The door opens and closes with a low thud, the floorboards of the housing creaking in all the usual places as whoever it is taps something into the computer panel next to the front door.

Kathryn has just finished considering her methods of defense, if necessary, when a familiar voice rings out from the entryway.

"Kath?" Tom calls, "I'm sorry I'm late. Damn transport operator said he couldn't land in more than a meter of snow." A pause, filled with the sound of a satchel hitting the ground with force. "I mean it's Indiana. Does he expect to hold transports until April?"

Everything about this, from his arrival to the casual way he's strolling in, throws her off completely.

"Late?" she manages. Mentally kicking herself for her acute concern over the state of her hair, even as she straightens her nightgown and robe.

"Told Phoebe I'd be in four hours earlier." He adds, appearing in the living room with a spreading smirk, "to which she informed me that your Mom said 'dinner is held for no one, regardless of rank or age.' "

He plops down on the couch beside her after he finishes shrugging of his outer garments. Large snowflakes, already melting, cling to his hair and pants. As he slides into the blanket next to her, a large drop of ice cold water descends down his cheek, landing on Kathryn's bare foot. When she jumps with a reflexive start, he looks at the appendage apologetically.

"Sorry," he says, automatically moving to rub her skin.

His hands don't help the chill since they're like ice from being outside. Still, the feel of his freezing fingers on her warm skin isn't the most unpleasant sensation of those competing for Kathryn's attentions, his words a moment earlier finally sinking in.

"You talked to Phoebe?" she asks, hesitantly pulling her foot away from his reach.

"Two days ago. When I was in Marin with my father."

As Kathryn inwardly curses her sister, Tom spreads out on the couch, beginning to tug at the blanket Kathryn is currently monopolizing.

She looks at him quizzically, her reservations and discomfort quickly giving way to curiosity. He's upbeat, a carefree (and even youthful?) air about him.

Perhaps it's being home with loved ones, or else shedding the burdens of the Delta Quadrant. Perhaps it's even B'Elanna.

Even the pain of the last possibility doesn't extinguish the happiness she feels at seeing him like this. And after a few moments of watching his ear-to-ear smile, she forgets her torment from minutes earlier.

"How was your time with your father?" she asks, leaning her head to rest on her hand.

"It went well," he says, his toothy grin being usurped by a more serene expression. "I think. . . He's still going to have some ideas about my career that I won't appreciate it, but we'll deal with that in time."

"He's proud of you," she says, smiling now. "Give him a little space to imagine his son's bright future."

"I will," he allows tentatively. "But at some point I'm going to have to break it to him that I'm not looking to make Captain, or Admiral, or. . . President of the Federation."

Despite the levity he voices the statement with, Kathryn sees through to the real worry and fear behind it. But whether those things are about not falling into the same pattern with his father's expectations, or the more general desire to avoid being dragged back into a command position again, Kathryn doesn't know. Maybe part of her doesn't want to.

"What's the matter," she begins, forcing the same light tone, "don't want to have your own ship someday? And here I thought you liked bossing people around."

He leans back on the couch with a mischievous expression that makes him look like the young man she met seven years earlier.

"I liked being on your ship just fine. Wouldn't know what to do if I sat on a command deck without you barking orders next to me. And at me."

She scowls at the word 'barking', but before she can voice a serious response as to his command potential, he's deliberately moving on.

"Speaking of commands. . . Tell me you're not going to take that blasted promotion!"

She isn't surprised, given his family connections, that he's heard about Command's yet-to-be announced plans to make her a Vice -admiral. But she is taken back by how freely he voices his opinion of it.

"It's a good opportunity. . . I'd get to focus on rebuilding the Fleet, making progress with the Romulans."

"You'd be behind a desk."

Her normal dispositions finally catching up to her after the shock at having Tom turn up (quite literally) at her front door, Kathryn folds her arms and raises an eyebrow.

"It's my duty as a Starfleet officer to go where I'm needed, do what I can for the Federation. Can you really tell me that you would turn your back on the same kind of request?'

He contemplates his reply for a moment, his leg brushing hers as he shifts under the blanket.

"I don't know," he says finally. "But I'd like to think that after seven years of sacrificing my personal life out of necessity, I would realize that my own wants and needs deserve equal consideration." He continues, adopting the same eyebrow arch she used on him only moments earlier, "and a wise woman once told me that duty and desire aren't the same thing."

Kathryn inwardly cringes. Not only is he using her own words against her, but he's saying exactly what her mother and sister have been telling her, however artfully, since she arrived in Bloomington.

"Back to Tom Paris," she says, deciding she doesn't know how to continue their last topic. "If you don't want to continue on the command track, does that mean you want to go back to flying?"

"Maybe," he shrugs. "But I kind of doubt it."

"So if not command, and not flying, what then? Going to follow up on those medic courses the Doctor was always threatening you with during cross-training?"

The joke succeeds at making him pull a face, but after her chuckle subsides, she looks at him intently. He realizes that she's dead set on getting some kind of answer out of him as to his professional intentions.

"Kath," he says, a bit bemused. "I really don't know. And to tell you the truth, I don't want to think about it yet. All that stuff. . . It'll keep. Right now, I just want to be around the people I love and enjoy my life."

At this, the expression fades from her face completely, and he thinks maybe he's overstepped a boundary she wasn't ready to have crossed yet.

"How's B'Elanna?" she asks stiffly.

He seems momentarily confused at the change of topic, but he knows how worried she is about the crew adjusting. And B'Elanna's family relationships have been as strained as his in the past.

"Fine, I think."

"You think?" she asks cryptically, and he looks back at her with renewed puzzlement.

"I haven't talked to her since she went to stay with her father," he admits, and realizing he should probably give his friend a call. "Oh, but I did talk to Harry this morning. He's already putting in a request for a deep space assignment when our leave period ends. Can you believe that kid?"

When he changes the subject, the thought occurs to her that maybe he's not ready to openly discuss his relationship yet. Still, she thinks if he's tip-toeing around it, it's likely for her benefit, and this she simply can't bear.

"Has B'Elanna decided if she's going to keep her commission yet?" she asks suddenly.

"I don't know," he says with a small gesture. "I would like to think so. . . given the opportunities it will give her. But I think that's her choice in the end."

"Her choice," she agrees, "but it's going effect you. If she turns down that commission, it may be difficult for her to go wherever you're stationed."

Her last statement throws Tom off completely. He realizes that he must be missing something.

"What do you mean 'go wherever I'm stationed'?"

She gives him a muted glare, her frustration beginning to mount that he's treating her like a child.

"I assume you two will want to be near each other given that you're dating."

His only reply at first is an open mouth and disbelieving eyes.

"I'm not dating B'Elanna," he says finally.

The flat denial makes Kathryn's buzzing brain snap to attention. Tom's never lied to her before, and she can't imagine him doing so now, even about this.

"You're not?" she asks after a beat, and feeling an embarrassed flush beginning to form on her cheeks.

"No," he replies, and looking as though he's caught her in something. Or maybe just beaten her at pool. "Can honestly say the thought hasn't even crossed my mind."

She tries to find another topic of conversation, and quickly, but her mind is bogged down with too many sudden emotions. Embarrassment. Relief. Fear.

More than anything, fear.

"Would it matter to you if I had been dating her?" he asks, taking her hand.

"Of course," she responds, in a very small voice. "I want you to be happy. . . You know that."

"So your concern for me is just. . . friendly?"

The open question in his eyes scares her more than his verbal one. She pulls her hand away again, trying to find a way to answer him.

Watching her wrestle with it, Tom realizes that as much as she's yearned to shed the burdens of her Captaincy, she's also gotten used to hiding behind them. And despite his time as an XO, Tom's pilot instincts about when to change his approach vector are still pretty sharp.

"You know," he begins, before she can cobble together a polite and appropriate response. "when you first made me your First Officer, I was terrified of failing. Scared of being the fuck up again, the failure. Letting everyone down the way I did my father."

"But you didn't," she says instinctively.

"I know," he smiles briefly, "but the important thing was the way I felt about myself. Being trapped under all those insecurities and fears. . . It was a solid year before I started to really crawl out from under that. Learned to fill that role with the fullness it deserved."

"You didn't really have a choice," she sighs. "There was a lot of pressure on you."

"No," he admits, "it some ways that's true. And I guess that's the part I let myself get lost in. You know, the idea of being responsible for one hundred and fifty people. Their safety. Their happiness."

She looks at him apologetically. But isn't an apology he wants. In truth, he wouldn't really change all that much even if he could.

He's sure she would never believe this last part, and so doesn't think to voice it to her, Kathryn being a person who is driven by the future largely because she thinks it's the one thing she can still change.

"But," he continues, "now all that pressure and responsibility has finally lifted. And as much as it changed me for better as a person, I know that it's no longer what I want to define my life by."

She looks at him thoughtfully for a while, understanding his sentiment. Envying it all a bit too.

"And so now that the burden has lifted?" she asks finally. "What gives it all meaning . . . without that sacrifice?"

He tugs on her hand that he apparently started holding again, though when she isn't sure. And as a smile spreads across his face, the same mix of relief and fear floods her again.

"This," he answers, squeezing her fingers. "Us. . . You."

It's a declaration of love, though one that could easily be treated as one of friendship. Another opportunity that could escape her, only to be examined much later, and with unflinching scrutiny, when she reflects back on it.

Because that's the funny thing about the present; it has the strange ability to seem as unchangeable as the past- right up to moment when it actually slips away.

Rising up on the couch and leaning forward, Kathryn presses her mouth to Tom's until his lips part against hers.