Disclaimer: We don't own them.
Rating: T+ for themes and swearing and general darkness of soul
Froot's A/N: I helped write this. It is about things.
QS's A/N: Froot wrote MOST of this. The majority of writing and scene conception was her. Since she doesn't have an ffnet account, I'm hosting it. Much Counterpoint, copious darkness, and many deceptions ensue.
"Men become accustomed to poison by degrees."
- Victor Hugo
Accustomed By Degrees
Door chimes don't mix well with soothing forest imagery. The discordant noise sounds again, jerking me back to the present, and I'm irritated.
"Come in." If it came out ungraciously, I couldn't help it.
The doors hiss open just as I lose my hold on the leather pouch I'm stuffing behind my sofa cushion. There's a surge of anger at my own clumsiness that's disproportionally strong. My hands haven't exactly been steady lately. Tipping the cushion over to hide what I'm not in the habit of sharing, I admit it takes a minute to realize whoever I've just invited to interrupt a desperately-needed ritual is holding out for a second invitation. That's irritating, too. I glance over, see you, and that changes things. You're standing in my doorway, one arm resting against the frame.
It's not unusual for you to drop by afterhours, but you're not the person I expected when I answered that chime. There's a surge of something like panic because I'm not ready, not by a long shot. Not that that's ever mattered when it comes to you.
Out of habit, I repeat my invitation to enter because you aren't moving, but you don't react. That, more than anything else, draws my full attention.
Studying you closely, I see your head is up, your eyes on the stars outside, but I can't be sure you're seeing them. Wherever you are right now, it's not here on this ship. That's why you haven't reacted; you probably haven't really heard me. I can relate to that, but the thought drops off into nothing the longer I look at you.
Something's off. Something besides who and where you are isn't right. Your skin is pale, your mouth lax, your eyes half-glazed, yet none of that alarms me. That's you, exhausted, as I'd expect you to be. Your hair is still damp, the scent of fresh soap invading into my living room, and your jacket is straight, your boots on and polished and I can't see-
Your arm. The one leaning against the door. Like my hands, it's not steady. It vibrates, pulsing like the warp core in the late stages of deuterium depletion. That faint shaking extends from your fingers to your buckled hand, through your arm, your shoulder, even up your– My breath snags when I get to your bare neck, rising above your clean, crisp collar. The crisp, naked collar.
You aren't wearing any pips. They may not mean what they once did to me, but to you… Those cold little pieces of metal are more than just their weight. Tom broke your heart twelve weeks ago, and the hardest swing you could land on him was to take one of his away.
It would be better if you were wearing civvies. Workout gear, nightclothes…anything else. In uniform, without those small brass circles, you may as well be wearing nothing at all.
"Kathryn?" I have to see you look at me. Your head angles one, maybe two centimeters left, and your dark, blue eyes find my face. My face, but not quite my eyes.
You look guilty. That, I don't like. I know you. Knowing how your mind works, whatever sacrifice you made up there today should have been enough to absolve you of your guilt, at least for a while. Why wasn't it enough? All afternoon you've kept me at arms' length, assigning tasks I couldn't argue needed doing, but that's not unexpected. I can burn in the not knowing. I can function in a state of guessing and watching movements from afar; I know how to keep it together, bear down and take care of this ship and its crew when you can't. Knowing damned well you were doing your best to do the same, I gladly gave you space, time to construct the defenses I expected you to prepare for when you couldn't keep me out any more. I was prepared to wait for all of that, but I don't know what to do with this version of you that came to me tonight. It's too early. You should need more time. Days. Weeks, even.
This is not in the script.
I'm at the door, the book I'd been pretending to read an hour before you rang my chime somewhere on the floor between my chair and where you are. You're standing in front of me, with no pips on your collar, the smell of shampoo clinging to you like fresh morning rain, and I know, deep down, that I can't handle whatever it is that you're bringing to me.
So far, I know only this. Kashyk left us in peace and you walked away from your last meeting with him. But he unsettled you enough to have security teams crawling through the bowels of the ship for hours, checking for traps before you would release the rest of us from the cargo bay. I haven't checked the sickbay logs yet because I saw you at the cargo bay doors when you gathered Tuvok and the others. I saw your determination to pretend, and in front of the crew I would never challenge that. You've kept me busy enough since then – you've kept all of us busy. I've let you, and I shouldn't have. I see that now in your hesitation to look me in the eyes.
You're afraid to open your mouth and tell me something, even knowing I must have an idea of what happened up there while the rest of us were locked in the cargo bay. Suddenly, it's nothing as simple as what I thought it would be, and that only means it's worse, worse than anything that's come between us so far. It's deeper than Seska, more dangerous than Seven, worse than the Borg. The only person who has the power to make something so threatening to us is standing in front of me now.
You look guilty. And that scares the hell out of me.
My mouth opens, and I hear myself asking what I'll never be able to un-ask, but I have to know…even if it destroys me.
"What have you done, Kathryn?"
I could destroy you. I meant, full well, to destroy you – have I destroyed you? I find I have no idea.
The doors to the command center hiss apart, a den of snakes opening before me, and Prax looms tall across my blurred vision. I pretend to see him perfectly, hope the deck in front of me is straight instead of waving the way it seems, and I take the middle of my three customary seats and wait for my drug-masticated memory to solidify.
Waiting. I do despise waiting unless it's a time period I have personally set. I have set nothing. My fist flexes, the leather rubbing between my itching fingers. You treacherous white-and-crimson harka leech. The only reason you still have your artificially red head is because I still have mine. Prax doesn't suspect. He's never suspected. I squint at him with aching eyes that won't cooperate. He doesn't suspect…he can't suspect.
Nor did I. Of course you have no concept of how amazing the latter is. I only thought, in those last moments I still can't recall, that you must have wrenched my secrets from my loosened lips. It's what I would have done to you, had the situation been reversed. That, and so much more.
I know that I taste you: not just your slick cosmetic gloss. There is a metal, unfamiliar, and I assume it to be your alien blood. My teeth had sunk into some fleshy part of you, furiously ravenous as I was, but the mark was missing when I looked for it. Where is it? You hid it well. You hid so many things from me.
How did I miss the intent? I don't speak your lower language, you understand. I could never read your thoughts in words, only images. It isn't my fault that half the images in your mind were very clear pictures of desire to harm me, but it was always understood that you were too intelligent to give in to your baser desires, some of your baser desires. Somehow your authentic memory of solidifying whimsical intent has blended in with all the fantasies of poisoning me and slitting my throat, spacing or phasering me, all interspersed with the real erotic images I know you would have killed to hide from me and which distracted me most thoroughly, and the end result is that I missed it. You succeeded in what must have been a last-minute decision. Well played, Captain.
I would harm you if I could, I did harm. I wish I could recall how much, but the memories are alien and is this image of your throat in my hand real, or is it chemical? Is it your imagery, or is it mine? The effects are wearing off too slowly. Gradually, I feel less like a fist is clamping my lung into bite-sized pieces and more like a proper Devore leader in full command of his faculties though still too weak to lead a military offensive. And all the while you're racing away from me, out of reach.
Surely the memory of your breasts pinned flat beneath my chest and this mirage of you fighting for breath within my clenched fist is genuine. That certain event was never in question, nor was the location of your desk as the setting for my personal triumph over your overconfident person.
It's the rest of it that's gone to all seven hells and back again.
How I would make you suffer for this if I could. You must burn.
There had been a way to destroy you, another way. Something rooted in the oaf you call a first officer, something I had been looking forward to revealing, something I had been torturing you with for weeks aside from the surface obvious…some indicting image you let slip, it will not come to me. It hangs tantalizing, an elusive shadow dancing out of reach when I attempt to snatch it down to cognizance. A dirty thing that you had done, either in life or in some nightmare. Either way, it has power. I'd been using it, hinting, pressing, wielding what I'd seen in a fleeting moment to bare your secrets and uncover more. When I probed, I tasted your fear, almost as strongly as when I pressed the telepath seizing/impounding of your vessel button. Something you did. Something that should have warned me, something that-
I knew only in your ready room this morning, for the first time, how true that it was. It was simple, substantial. Pertinent. I can't even recall what I thought that it was before the realization, only that I had intended to thrust the weapon between you and watch you both bleed out from the delicious wound I inflicted.
I comfort myself with slowly returning faculties and awareness of my surroundings, and the certainty that you are in as much pain as I. I'm almost certain I broke something. I can only hope it was your spirit, or at least some part of it.
My head aches so very much…
Sleep just isn't happening. For what has to be the hundredth time, I turn and try to settle into a more comfortable position, and it's official. That position doesn't exist. It should. I've just had a very long, terrifying duty shift where any wrong move could have killed us all, and yet the exhaustion weighing down every limb for most of today disappeared the moment my head hit this pillow. And to think, I was even excited to turn in early tonight, for once.
I know what's keeping me awake, even if I don't want to dwell on the specific particulars. It's too disturbing, too bizarre. What the hell happened on the bridge this morning?
When you contacted me this evening, explaining that you needed my medical opinion and that you needed it quietly, I thought it had to be B'Elanna or Harry messing with me, because why would you ask me for something like that when you've got the best damned doctor in four quadrants just waiting around in sickbay for this exact purpose? Of course, after scraping together a few seconds of sluggish thought, I realized B'Elanna was still in Engineering, making sure the Devore hadn't tampered with her precious domain, and Harry was busy cramming in a nap before bridge duty. I knew the last part because he'd told me off in his "I'm asleep" voice when I hailed him just after the end of my shift to see if he wanted to grab something inedible from the mess hall before passing out.
So my second reaction was to be pissed off, if I'm honest. It's not nice, I'll admit it, but that doesn't make it untrue. It's been almost three months since "the Monean incident", but let's just say the wound is still a little raw. At least for me it is. You've been acting like nothing happened since you stripped that pip off my collar – of course, that makes sense, because it was the worst thing you could've done to me and we both know it. The brig was just jibalian fudge icing on the humiliation cake. Deeper down, I may know the personal nature of that crackdown had more to do with how my actions affected you personally, but that doesn't mean it was ever completely right or that I'm in a place where I can objectively confront any of those feelings just yet.
Even that sharp, petty streak of anger was taken from me the moment you marched in here and I passed the wand of the medical tricorder I keep on hand for emergencies – and apparently, starship captains with something to hide – past your skull.
Son of a bitch, I remember swallowing, and then choking on a whistle of appreciation for the kind of edema you were nursing under all that red hair.
I begged you to use Doc, or at least let me grab a more comprehensive medkit from Sickbay, but you refused – well, refused is putting it mildly, isn't it? It'd be more accurate to say you stared me down like I was missing a piece of a chromosome for daring to suggest a mutinous thing like getting your health restored by someone with more than a year's worth of medical training. So it was just going to be, I gathered. Like a good little soldier, I kept it clamped, my jaw locked, and I scanned the rest of you. Halfway into that, the silence got heavy, tilting awkward because, well, what do you say in a situation like that? What the hell did you expect me to say? I knew better than to ask what I wanted to ask, to point out how much a full set of teeth marks breaking the skin had to hurt, and the rest…I couldn't.
I wanted to offer at least some standard comforting words, something, anything, but with the way your gaze was practically burning holes into the bookshelf across the room, I kept my platitudes to myself. I guess it wasn't any easier on you.
So I healed you to the best of my limited, frankly shoddy ability, but I felt this tiny thread of panic. You know the kind you get when you have no idea what's going on and nothing makes sense, but you know enough to know that what little you do know is a glaring sign that things are not good? Well. I chuckle darkly into my scrunched-up pillow. Maybe you don't. The rest of us do. Anyone else would understand.
I held it together long enough to get your major issues patched up to a satisfactory degree. Any other day, Doc would be horrified by what I'm calling satisfactory, but given the limited tools at my disposal, I think he would've been almost proud of me. If he could have gotten past the fact that I healed your mysteriously-acquired injuries in secret without telling him first.
Now, with some of the shock sliding away and the sharpness setting in, all I want to know is how the hell could you ask me to do that? You're just expecting me to keep this kind of secret from people who trust me to have your back and you never even blinked about it.
The sheets rustle as I flop onto my back and stare at the ceiling. Why did you call me, of all people, besides the fact that I know my way around a medkit? Despite everything that's happened, you must still trust me enough to know I'd never tell anyone about your visit. I guess you think I'm sensitive enough, or mature or discreet enough, to keep a lid on something that's this serious. That, or you figure I'm sufficiently cowed after thirty days on the wrong side of the forcefield and won't turn on you again: presumptuous as hell, but you're right. I won't.
Well, almost won't. I can't think about it anymore or I'll lose my nerve. My hand gropes out in the dark until I feel the familiar points of metal I'm searching for. The chirp under the precise pressure of my thumb is both guilt-inspiring and explosively relieving.
"Paris to Tuvok."
No hesitation. "Tuvok here."
"Heeeeey, Lieutenant." I guess I should have rehearsed what to say before calling, though, because now that I have him, I'm drawing a big whopping blank on what to say. How to say it, without betraying trust explicitly?
"Ensign." I can hear his left brow rising. "How can I assist you this evening?"
"Uhm…I was just wondering about…well…" Damn. There's no finessing this, not on such short notice. "When was the last time you talked, uh, to the captain?"
A long, Vulcan pause. I heard the rustling of cloth die off before he stilled, letting me know he's probably in his stiff, native sleepwear, tucked securely in the Vulcan Vault. Good. That means no one else can overhear this.
Don't worry. I'm not going to tell him. I may inadvertently drop a few hints…just for security's sake. For your sake. Enough to make him check up on you. Kill me later, if you want, but if anyone can help, I know it's him. At least, I hope it's him. Because after this, I'm certainly out of options. There'll be nothing else I can do for you. You're just going to have to work through…whatever this is…on your own.
For the first time in a long time, for no real reason I can put my finger on, I find myself hoping that you're strong enough to do that.
I notice two things at about the same time: first, that the euphoric tingle in my limbs and head is substantially less than it was, and second, that you are no longer fighting back. I struggle to keep the glorious, godlike feeling alive, but there is nothing I can do. I crash hard, and the feeling of immensity recedes entirely, leaving an empty shell in its wake.
With it goes most of my neural function. I'm barely cognizant enough to realize that something's deeply wrong with my mind. How much time has passed, and what did you do to me? I press a clammy, glove-encased hand to my forehead ridges, sucking in deep wells of air, trying to take stock of known quantities.
Earlier, although I'm not sure how much earlier, you came into your ready room when called. I dismissed my men under the guise of explaining our protocols to you, and when the room was empty, your lips met mine. And then everything melted away into a shining haze of pleasurable fury, a feeling I've never experienced even under the influence of the most potent substances in the Imperium.
The sound of you crawling away draws me out of my blank memory and into the present. From between my fingers, I see you using the metal railing to lift yourself to a standing position. Your uniform is a rumpled mess, and your hair isn't faring much better, but your expression is the very picture of neutrality. Mere hours ago, I would have found this impressive. Presently, it makes me feel worse, because you're likely hiding the secret to my current condition.
Focus is difficult. I squeeze my eyes closed, trying furiously to think, but the afterimage of your shocked face proves an annoying distraction, along with the part of me which wants nothing more than that breathtaking high back, the how and why I got it be damned.
There is a hiss as the doors to your ready room open. Prax must be wondering why our little meeting is taking so long, if indeed it's been a long time at all. I open my eyes, and there he is, plump and concerned. Two of my men stand further back, near the door. All three cast wary glances at you.
"Inspector, are you all right? Did she attack you?"
The very idea that you could best me in a physical confrontation is insulting. Yet, it's obvious that something irregular just occurred in this room. "She didn't attack me, but she's done…something. I don't feel well." I wave my hand, hoping for your sake and the sake of what I already plan to do to you when this horrific nausea recedes that it isn't shaking as badly as I fear. "Scan the room. Scan her. Quickly."
The two men near the door confirm and immediately fan out, scanners in hand, but Prax isn't done talking. "Sir. There's something else. It's about the telepaths."
He's terrified of my reaction. I can feel it. Then it's gone.
It's becoming increasingly difficult to keep slow, regular breaths, and everything around me is slipping in and out of focus. I can still see your hands tighten slightly around the railing, whether it's your image or my own.
"What do you mean?" I struggle to recall. "I told you there were a dozen of them in transporter suspension in Cargo Bay One."
"No, sir. There were cargo containers, filled with vegetables."
I cling to focus, while I have it. "Then where are they?" I demand of both of you. Damn you; you knew all along.
"Two of this ship's shuttles were missing, but they didn't show up on scans. We finally thought to check for refractive shielding, but by then it was too late." Prax stops and frowns. I take a full moment to work out why.
When it hits, the wave of your triumphant glee makes it pack twice the punch.
Weeks of tracking, gone. Through gritted teeth, I voice what Prax will not. "They made it through the wormhole."
He is extremely hesitant to confirm. "Yes, sir."
I should be furious. I want nothing more than to be furious, but the fog over my thoughts and vision won't allow it. I hear you ask what happened to your crewmembers, and one of my men states simply that they're alive. For now. If the rest of this damned inspection went according to plan, they're being held in the other of your cargo bays, but after this, I'm content to let you simply guess their fate.
One of the men waves his scanner over two mugs of coffee on the edge of your desk. "Sir. Are these drinks supposed to be identical?"
Drinks. He's scanning the coffee. Identical. Are they supposed to be…
Yes, they are. I ordered them both from your replicator myself just before you entered the room. Black coffee, which I admit I'm beginning to enjoy. Nausea pelts me again and I grit my teeth against the debilitating waves. "Are they not?"
"No, sir. One contains a…foreign substance of some kind."
His voice sounds like it's coming from a distance, but I know what he's telling me. You slipped something into my drink. You tried to win our little game by cheating, although you must have miscalculated because I could so easily have killed you when your head hit your desk.
I grab the mug and swing it into your field of vision. Eight frames of still motion of the cup flare in my eyes but I focus on your hazy face. "How long?"
You don't answer, and I recall, with some difficulty, all the mugs filled with hot coffee you offered me over the course of my stay and wonder how many of them were spiked. No Devore has ever dared harm me. But you – a gaharay, a lower life form – had the gall to poison me, maybe even repeatedly.
I'm staring at you in what I hope is an intimidating manner, but my sight has become so blurred that you are little more than a red and white nebula in the middle of a universe of grey. My hand shakes, sloshing the lukewarm liquid around in its container, and this visual reminder of my weakness finally unleashes my dormant anger. What's left of the rational portion of my hobbled mind pleads for calm, but its protests are drowned out by the satisfying clank of the metal cup connecting with the bulkhead across the room. The red and white blur that is you flinches, stunned by the sudden noise and movement.
You have something that will end this. You must. I need it before the rest of this inspection goes straight to all seven hells and your people find a way to escape from the cargo bay. I can visualize them overtaking their guards and streaming down the corridors like stampeding beasts, coming straight for you. The imagery is so vivid I swear I see their shadows dancing in the periphery of my compromised view.
Suddenly, they're swarming into the room from everywhere – the doors, the hatches, all covered in the blue gore of their betters. The telepath commander who has done his best to invade my perfectly-erected walls of mental protection has Prax's severed head dangling from his bronzed hand, and I think one's just shot me because I feel beads of blood streaming down my face. They're yelling in their crude language, crowding around their captain – around you. I can see their features and details clearly, badges, faces, weapons, all of it. The oaf. I will tell him…
Something you have will make them go away. I sway on my feet, trying desperately to dredge up the demand I must make. "Give me. The antidote."
Your blur shifts slightly, but you don't back down. "Let us go."
Not the answer I require.
"Now," I bark, attempting to remain threatening in the face of so many enemies.
"If you agree to let us go and not pursue us, I'll give you the antidote."
What in hells would make you trust that assurance, at any rate?
In the throes of my earlier euphoria, I remember smashing the back of your ridgeless alien skull into your desk, and I reach out to do it once again, but my hand closes on nothing save for recycled air. Frustrated, I stretch my arm out further, but I can't seem to make contact. Just then, the gravity of your ship decides to exponentially increase, and I tumble forward, bringing half of your filthy lapdogs down with me…
Arms catch me before I make contact with the deck, hoisting me back to unsteady feet. I turn and find Prax, his bland head still squarely on his equally bland shoulders. He took a great risk touching me, but I will forgive him just this once. "Sir," he says. "Can you hear me?"
"Yes, of course," I grumble, and now there are three of him. I run a glove over the moisture on my face and look at the palm. The leather is clean: no blood. Only a clear sheen of sweat. I turn back to you, squinting all the while to bring this scene into some semblance of focus. While you're certainly accompanied, it's by my own men, not a whole horde of gaharay. One seems to have backed up to avoid being toppled over, but they are otherwise unharmed and blank-faced. At some point, they moved in to flank you. Good.
You aren't interested in them. Your focus appears to be on Prax.
"He'll die without the antidote," you say.
Prax issues the threat before I can. "Then give it to us, or we'll commandeer your vessel on a permanent basis and take the cure by force."
"Good man," I mumble. You both ignore me.
"Go ahead. Good luck finding it in time. I'm the only one who knows where and what it is."
"Then we'll execute one of your people every minute until you feel the need to talk."
You quirk your absurd eyebrow. I feel it. "And if I do talk and you cure the inspector, you'll impound my vessel and have us shipped off to die anyway. Do it, if you think it will help. But how much more time are you willing to waste?"
On top of my poor vision and hallucinations, searing pain sets in behind my ridges. Perhaps my reaction to your drugs wasn't a miscalculation on your part. To keep myself from doubling over, I settle into the chair behind your desk and clench and unclench my fists, doing my very utmost to ignore the shadow-humans still lingering around the room. I cannot effectively negotiate with you. It's up to Prax, and he will cave; he may be excellent at memorizing rules, but he has no fortitude.
And frankly, neither do I at this juncture.
"This is your last warning, Captain."
"Admit it, Prax. You've failed. The Brenari escaped and your inspector is dying. Even if you capture our little ship as a consolation prize, how will you rationalize losing both the inspector and your prey? Somehow I don't think your Imperium looks kindly upon failure. It's over."
Prax stammers. He stands no chance.
You repeat your request from earlier. "Let us go."
My second-in-command turns to me, eyes wide as the discs of the two moons over Devore Prime, clearly hoping his ailing commander will magically solve the situation. Unfortunately for him, I'm too busy writhing in discomfort in your desk chair to think of an alternate end to this encounter. Death doesn't particularly worry me, but I'd rather not meet my end here at your feet, unable to discern between delusions and reality. The telepaths are gone, and it would indeed destroy my reputation if it got around that I was outsmarted by gaharay. Even posthumously.
I look down at the desk, head cradled in my hands. "You're dismissed. Let them go."
"Imperative twelve, codicil six requires –"
"To hell with protocol, Prax! As far as you're concerned, this incident never occurred. Make sure your teams share that understanding."
As soon as I was sure your many self-imposed tasks for the day were completed, I asked the computer to give me your current location. When it told me you were in your quarters, I contacted you and asked to meet regarding a matter of ship's security. For Mister Paris' sake, I decided to leave his name out of my upcoming conversation with you and broach the subject with my own observations regarding your health. You hid your injuries well around most of the crew, but I did not miss the subtle change in your gait or your hesitancy to change the elevation of your cranium.
When you entered the room, you were slightly unkempt, but missing the curious stagger and excessive care with upper neck movements I'd observed at 1436 - the precise time you entered the cargo bay and asked for my assistance in sweeping the ship for Devore devices. This development reinforced Mister Paris' innuendo that you sought him out for some form of covert medical assistance, and so I set myself to the task of solving the remainder of the puzzle. You were reluctant at first, and understandably so, given the details - but eventually you provided the information I sought, along with some information that came as something of a shock.
I steeple my hands, only in the preliminary stages of digesting that shock now. "Will you be informing the commander?"
"No. We've come too far as a crew these past four years. If I tell him, it will destroy all of the trust we've built." You lean back in your chair and extend your legs slightly under my dining table in order to stretch. That you can do so is testament to what Mister Paris must have effected, given your confession.
I offer a dire alternative. "There is a strong likelihood, given today's events and your suspicion of the inspector's knowledge, that he will learn of your deception on his own. He is likely already wondering what occurred between you and Kashyk. This method of enlightenment, as I'm sure you'd agree, would be even more devastating for both the commander and the crew."
"Are you suggesting mutiny as a consequence to keeping my silence, Tuvok?" A revolt appears to be something you had not considered, and your expression indicates that the notion disturbs you deeply.
"I believe, given how little we knew at the time, you made the logical decision four years ago. Nevertheless, it is a possibility that the former Maquis will not sympathize with your rationale, particularly if they learn of your choice via rumors."
You lean forward again, bracing your elbows against the tabletop. "Do you remember when we kept Chakotay in the dark while we were investigating Jonas? I assured him we'd never exclude him again. If he finds out I've been hiding this for years…"
"The incident was before the promise you speak of."
"Exactly. It doesn't apply to this situation."
I nod. It was your predicted response. "And yet, by some logic, and I believe by his, you are currently breaking that promise by keeping this secret, no matter when the secret was initiated."
Stillness settles on the room as you contemplate my statement. It must be very difficult for humans to face dishonesty from one another. Four years ago, I had no difficulty informing Chakotay that I was a spy in Starfleet's employ, but I am aware that such admissions of deception do not come as easily to you.
The moment of quiet ends as you ask, "Isn't the hour too late to bring up old demons, Tuvok?"
"Literally, or figuratively?"
"I do not believe so. As you would say, 'the sooner the better.'" You will turn it down, but as a courtesy, I offer, "I could arrange a meeting for the three of us to discuss this matter if the thought of direct confrontation is daunting."
"No," you say. "It's all right. The entire thing is my responsibility, and it's partly a personal matter. I appreciate the offer, but I'll go see him alone."
Then you have made your decision. All that remains is to prepare for the aftermath.
The table shifts slightly under my arms as you push back your chair and stand.
I nod again. "As you wish."
When your back is turned, you ask, "Tuvok?"
"In your estimation, what is the probability that the relationship between Chakotay and I will survive this?"
Your question warrants a raised eyebrow. I am no authority on human friendships, and as such, cannot give you a worthwhile estimate. Before I can tell you this, you turn to me with a small smile that conveys more sadness than joy.
"Just a dark joke. I already have a pretty good idea."
I cannot tell you that dark times will not follow when Chakotay's very human, emotional reaction to this news unfurls. I do rise and make my way to your side. "Allow me to remind you that you are always welcome to participate in my meditation rituals, should the need arise."
You gently touch my shoulder. "Thank you, old friend."
While I am generally uncomfortable with touch unless it is related to telepathy, I admit I have come to find yours oddly comforting over the years. I reciprocate my placing my fingers atop yours, and it seems as though your smile becomes slightly more genuine.
"What have you done, Kathryn?"
As soon as the question is out of my mouth, I know I won't be getting an answer just yet. It's obvious whatever reserve of strength brought you to my door is nearly depleted. It's unclear if you even heard what I said at all.
I try again, going for something slightly less imposing this time. "Do you need to sit down?"
You nod. We backtrack to my couch under the viewport, taking care to avoid the book. When we reach the couch, you almost fall to the cushions, where you instantly double over with your head between your knees. Before I can even ask, you answer me in a muffled voice. "This is more dignified than fainting."
I'd laugh if I wasn't so scared. "I'm calling the doctor-"
"Don't. It's not physical."
Does that make it better or worse? I hold off on the comm. call to sickbay. For now. "Do you need anything?"
"If you have anything strong stashed away," you mumble, "that would do nicely."
No coffee. No food, either, but that's to be expected. I guess it's straight to the alcohol. I do have some whiskey and a couple of snifters on hand. I replicated them for your upcoming birthday, actually. Due to our frequent skirmishes, I try not to replicate too many pieces of easily-breakable glassware, but I figured the inevitable loss of my glasses was worth spending a good evening with you.
I walk over to the cabinet next to the far bulkhead and heft the whiskey bottle, wondering what truths it's going to reveal. When I turn back to you, you've returned to a normal sitting position, your fingers rubbing at your temples. As I set the bottle and glasses on the low table in front of you, you grace them with an approving glance. I dole out one glass's worth of alcohol for each of us and settle down on the sofa to your left.
You gently take your glass off the table and hold it just over your lap. "Sláinte," you mutter, almost inaudibly. The snifter is emptied in seconds and clinked back into place.
After a brief delay as the warming liquid presumably trails its way through your body, you take a deep breath and dive in. "Well, I assume you want to know what happened at the inspection today."
I decide to let you take the lead in drinking for now. "Unless you coming to my quarters unannounced with your pips missing is related to something else."
Please don't let it be related to something else, Kathryn.
A shaking white hand reaches up, brushes the blank, naked collar. Your eyes widen in shock. "I didn't even realize. I forgot to replace them after the shower." You allow the hand to fall back to your side. "I've been…preoccupied."
It's an incredible understatement for the condition you're in. I reach for the bottle partly so I can refresh your glass and partly to get into your field of vision. Even in our worst moments, you've always looked me in the face, and your continued refusal is tightening the knot of worry in my stomach.
You quirk your head ever-so-slightly to the left and watch me tip the bottle over your empty glass. Your eyes look huge in your face. "Thank you."
As I pour with my unsteady hands, I make myself ask, "What happened up there?"
And the lack of pause before you dive into it is the worst yet.
"While you were in the cargo bay, Kashyk flew into a rage in my ready room." The knot tightens and the alcohol keeps trickling. You should have needed so much more prompting than this. "He attacked me." It's not something you would ever admit without being confronted with the irrefutable evidence that I already knew it had happened. You don't have that evidence because it doesn't exist yet. I cork the bottle with shaking hands. "He…tried to – well, it's not important." Not important...? My brain skips several thought beats digesting that. You tip your head back and take a deep breath. "He ultimately failed. The hell of it is, the entire thing was my fault."
I almost slam the bottle back on the table in shock as the knot in my stomach frays and snaps, leaving me livid with that smug alien bastard and his whole kind. "No! Kathryn, what he did was not your fault."
I see red of varying shades inside my eyelids. Everything tinges red. Why did I agree to an idea that was certain to leave you alone with those xenophobic, violent bastards? All of us crowded in some room decks away, unable to help when you needed it most.
"No, in this case, it mostly was," you say a little too calmly, shaking your head. "I drugged him with a substance meant to make him susceptible to outside influence." I blink, blindsided because we never even thought about discussing drugging an already dangerous man, but you're continuing. "The problem was, you see, that I didn't take into account the fact that Devore biochemistry isn't like our own. Not at all. Yet the substance was created for use on humans."
It takes a full moment to process what you said over all the self-berating and questioning going on in my head. But I finally understand, and it raises an entirely new worry. A drug. A mystery drug that you pulled seemingly out of nowhere. A mystery drug…intended for use on humans. What are we doing with that kind of a substance on our ship? This tidbit of information is both new and deeply concerning, but shove it back because it's not even important.
I need to know what happened to you first.
"I lied to them. I told them Kashyk was going to die." You shake your head. "For all I know, he really did die after they got back on their ship."
It's not making sense. "But why did they let us go if your plan failed?" I ask quietly. "Did this influencing substance," it's even frightening to say, let alone contemplate, "work that well?"
"Not really." There's embarrassment, dry and monotone but there, in your tone. "Part of the drug's mechanism of action depends on the subject not realizing he's being chemically influenced." How you know all this intimate detail about this mystery substance is something we'll be getting to soon. "That part of it backfired." I blink, waiting. You still won't look at me. "The inspector was so affected he could hardly stand. They assumed it was poison," you relay with a little shrug that denies the weight of all you're saying to me. A hoard of armed Devore soldiers who have done nothing to mask their disregard for our lives thinking you'd poisoned their leader, and it's a small jerk of your right shoulder.
"Obviously, you corrected them."
You shake your head and I don't know why I'm surprised anymore. "No. I used their assumptions. I claimed I had an antidote and told them I wouldn't hand it over unless we were freed."
"And they accepted that?" I frown. It's far too easy. Too neat, too clean.
You scoff. "They had little choice. Kashyk was bombed out of his mind, and Prax is as bad a negotiator as you'd expect. He was clearly inexperienced in dealing with ultimatums or thinking on his feet, and he was too visibly concerned for his inspector to conceal how much his life mattered."
As I would have been for you, in reverse. As am for you in retrospect.
"Kashyk, of course, was too high to reason his way through it."
Gods, Kathryn. The flaws in logic, the bluffs, the risk involved. Kashyk wasn't a stupid man. In normal condition he'd have seen through it all in whatever constitutes a heartbeat and you had to have known it all along.
"When they finally realized they had no choice but to let us go, we went to Sickbay, where I injected Kashyk with the generic analgesic the doctor gives humans for headaches. I made a show of preparing another hypospray, and then I told him the compound wouldn't come into an active state until they were at least two hours away from us and I sent an encoded transmission to the casing from Voyager."
Clearly, the inspector was out of his mind if he bought that flimsy claim. Subspace activation of an antidote? The blatant deception in such a scheme. The outright danger. I can barely swallow enough to ask, "And the analgesic worked?"
You flash a humorless smirk and take a swig. "Fortunately, it was the one time that drug that wasn't an epic fail at relieving symptoms. Apparently, it made Kashyk feel convincingly better. All things considered, they bought my lie and left with their antidote."
My eyes close from fluttering so hard at all the ways it could have blown up in our faces. In your face. I open them and search your closed-off expression. "You weren't entirely sure they'd stay gone, though, were you?" The rest of the today plays through in my mind. "You worked the entire security division into the ground looking for suspicious devices."
Again, you shrug. "It was a flimsy bluff. I wasn't sure if they were convinced by my story, or if they were just going back to their ship to regroup or to regain some element of surprise."
Now that I know more, my internal anger at myself expands to include you as another target of my ire. You're damn right your story was flimsy. Our original plan was risky enough, but I guess you just couldn't resist throwing yourself on the altar at the last minute. I'll give you credit: you learned at least one important lesson from the Void incident. You no longer announce your near-suicidal ideas to anyone who can possibly stop you.
"We had a plan." A dangerous plan that I would never approve again, but one the entire senior staff agreed to this morning, nonetheless. "We agreed on what would happen today. Why?"
"Just before the inspection, I became concerned that our ruse wouldn't be enough to distract him. I knew we'd free the Brenari, but I wasn't entirely sure the inspector would leave afterward. I decided at the last minute to use the drug to make sure of it."
I try to remind myself that we're currently safe and alive in order to return myself to a level of calm. Things worked out, and you're all right. It's all right. Nothing I say or do is going to change what you did. "Okay," I say, starting to digest all that you've said to me.
But you're apparently not done. "Chakotay. There's a reason this substance is on board. The Doctor doesn't even know it exists. It's an experimental drug that was created by Federation chemists for use on…ships like this one."
There's a silence as I wait for you to continue, but whatever confidence you had during the last several minutes is gone. Knowing what happened with Kashyk makes me hesitant to draw out the rest, so I decide to wait you out. You turn the glass in your hands, causing light to reflect off the gently sloshing amber liquid in a mesmerizing display.
Abruptly, the glass stops turning. "Ships sent to hunt the Maquis."
My gut clenches. And then it loosens. If this, along with the incident with Kashyk, is the great concern that's been plaguing you to the point of distraction, we can deal with this. Yes, it's bad. But our contact with the Alpha Quadrant told us of far worse atrocities; even before the Maquis were decimated by the Jem'Hadar, a Starfleet captain used trilithium resin to poison least one colony in the DMZ. But I do wonder why you kept it this long.
I ask as much.
"Today isn't the first time I've used it," you say, addressing your answer to the deck.
I hope you're burning.
In the aftermath of the drugs you gave me, pieces of memory fall into my lap, flaming chunks of sky raining havoc into my aching awareness. I want so desperately to conjure the elusive memory of pounding you into your precious grey desk, to have at least this satisfaction to clutch in the cold nights to follow, but it doesn't form. I can see you crawling away from me, clothed, shimmering triumph nothing more than a mirage in the desert.
I hope I broke your fragile, overinflated cranium.
The fleeting sensation that you have set some trap to unfurl in retaliation for my indiscretion isn't lessening – some trap aside from the obviousness of my altered mental condition – and I find myself watching the two blending Praxes with uneasing distrust. What have you told him? He seems to be acting normally. Did you even know? I awoke with the certainty that you did know. Or was that my own intent to destroy you bleeding over into my false memories? I could never tell, you know. Images of intent versus fantasy. That has always been the downfall of my inherited condition. I would risk a mental scan of Prax's thoughts just to be sure, but he is too intent upon my condition to miss that brush. We do train for years against it. I almost laugh. After a childhood of learning to close off my own thoughts and feelings by learning what worked for others, I'm an expert. Prax's skill is minimal. I can scan later, when he is asleep. Assuming I return to normal. I only pretended to feel any better to get the hell off your ship of the damned, away from your shining devil's eyes and your white, glowing skin.
You're so very lucky I had no idea what I'd said to you. You're fortunate I lost muscle control. You're fortunate you crawled away from me when I lost consciousness.
You had better know how fortunate you are that I don't turn my ship around right now. The call of vengeance smolders beneath my sulfurous veins. The missing piece presented only moments ago, the chance I missed to rip you in two with one well-uttered phrase throbbing with the ghostly severity a severed limb. The only fleeting chance I have is if you don't tell him. You have no idea what he will do to find out what I must have done to you. And we both know that you won't tell him that either, whether I can remember doing it or not. No, that was the entire point of drugging me, wasn't it? Just to make sure I didn't reveal how alike we two are at the core…
I hope your hip is fractured. I hope your thighs are sprained. I hope I pounded you senseless and just can't remember it.
I hope you don't tell him. If you thought I was insensate with rage, wait until the oaf discovers what you've done to him. Your grasp of his simple psyche is slightly skewed. You think you've tamed the beast inside of him and yet, you have never witnessed firsthand the things he's done in blinded rage. I have. I had no way of hinting this without revealing my heritage; I knew only that when you touched him there was threat to my agenda because he had the power to turn you if he only he had used it.
You have no idea what's inside of him. And he has no idea what lies inside of you. You may have outmaneuvered me, but you, my dear gaharay genius bitch, are dancing your way toward certain destruction and have been from the moment you joined crews. You gravitate around one another like binary stars, never realizing that your eventual end must be only one course: mutual annihilation. I shall have to be satisfied with knowing a headache is far less than I could have suffered due to my inexcusable oversight, and with imagining your implosion when the secret you've been guarding ignites underneath of you.
I only hope that you don't tell him.
My chest tightens as the little glimmer of hope and relief fades away because my earlier suspicions were spot-on. There is absolutely no way I can handle what's coming next. I decide to follow your example and give my full attention to the carpet. The shame, the missing pips, the refusal to visit Sickbay, and the uncharacteristic hesitance all coalesce into the real answer to my question: the one I asked when you first stumbled into my quarters. The only thing left is to hear you say it out loud.
"The first time I used the drug on you was during our discussion about merging the crews, just after I destroyed the Array. As it turned out, it worked perfectly."
And there's the KO. The admission hits as hard as an uppercut to the jaw and leaves me just as stunned. It's so absurd I half expect you to turn and tell me the whole thing has been some tasteless joke. Of course, you don't – you just continue sitting, a motionless stone figure to my left.
"It won't matter to you that I discovered Starfleet had deliberately created an imbalance in your brain chemistry before you resigned. Or that this drug did have the intended side effect of reversing it."
You're damned right it won't.
"So that was your excuse?"
"Yes," you say frankly, seemingly no more human than Seven is some days. "It was."
"Not good enough," I spit.
You only nod perfunctorily, as if you expected it, and I'm burning. My old fury at the Federation, and, by extension, you, threatens to wake from its long hibernation. I can accept the drug as a relic of its time, albeit an extremely distasteful one. Starfleet? I never had an ounce of real respect for the hierarchy or the politics or conniving behind the scenes "for the good of the quadrant" which is what the manipulation of my mind, and who knows how many other loyal Starfleet officers that turned Maquis, was. Hell, it's not even all that surprising. Sickening, yes. Surprising, no. Not even that fells me as strongly as it probably should, or might, later, when I have time to process this mind-numbing revelation.
But you? What I can't accept is that you kept it, used it, and never said a damned word to me about any of it. The words tumble out in an anguished yell, crashing through the silence with the force of a thunderclap: "I destroyed my ship for you! Wasn't that proof enough I could be trusted?" I can't sit any longer; I need to move. I launch myself to pacing feverishly in front of the couch. "From the very first time that we met, I was willing to work with you to find our missing crewmembers on Ocampa."
You're watching me, your burning eyes lasering the path of my furiously pacing feet as I move. "Knowing what I know about you now, the drug was unnecessary," you're kind enough to give me. "But back then, I just couldn't be sure. With so many of my crew dead, we were defenseless if you turned on us."
"You were hardly defenseless. The people you did have left alive were properly fed and in good health. Just the thought of having access to working replicators was more than enough to sway the opinions of several of my crew. I knew better than to bite the hand that fed me, Kathryn."
You respond in the low, dangerous tone you usually adopt when you're going on the defensive. "It was about our survival – yours as well as mine. Starfleet Intelligence pegged you as a dangerous criminal. They did their best to make you one. If you were in my position, wouldn't you have considered it?"
The question is ludicrous. I halt my pacing and snort. "Every single day was about survival for us. You know I took people into my cell based on their word." I leave it at that, but we both know what "people" I'm talking about.
You say something I don't catch.
"I didn't quite hear that," I warn to the top of your head.
Whiskey and defensive anger must have finally infused you with some measure of your usual confidence, because you finally stop assessing the condition of your boots and meet my eyes. Your eyes burn into me as you grate out, "I said, 'and that approach clearly didn't work.'"
Oh, classic. Low, and you damn well know it. Even so, a small part of me is encouraged to see you hold my gaze. I can almost believe you're still the woman I thought you were. "You can try and justify your actions all you want, but if you're so confident you made the best possible decision at the time, why hide it from me?"
"Hindsight clarifies everything, doesn't it?"
If you think I'm taking that open-ended reference to betrayals that pale in comparison to what you're dredging up for me today to heart, you're so sadly mistaken that I can't help you find the truth but you're continuing.
"But if you had been dangerous, I don't think influencing you would've been a mistake."
The smile that curls my lips up on either side would make you shiver if you knew the slew of dark thoughts that was forming behind it. "And if you had run out of the drug? If I had built up a resistance or it hadn't worked the way Starfleet intended it to…then what?" I think of the number of times we took tea or coffee alone together in your ready room those early days and wonder, if I had been the man you seem to have thought I was, what you were thinking to be alone with me at all.
"I would have crossed that bridge when I came to it," is all you seem to have.
It's as if you want to push me over the edge. As if you have no idea who you're dealing with after what you've revealed to me, or, knowing you, I suppose it's as if you know exactly. In fact, that's probably it, exactly, isn't it? You'd like that, wouldn't you, if I lost all control and my reasoning and slammed you up against the wall, like Kashyk probably-
"And what about what happened today?" I could write off your commentary on my proclivity to invite spies into my inner circle; those wounds are old, healed over. But even though your injuries are fresh, literally and figuratively, I can't quite help throwing your own words back in your face. "That approach clearly didn't work. And Kashyk was a known threat." Unconsciously, you rub the back of your head with your free hand. To hell with you for making my hand twitch to massage it for you. It's entirely possible that the version of you that I would do that for never existed, except in my mind. "What the hell possessed you to take a risk like that, with so much on the line? I have to know. And don't give me the same party line about the ship."
"He knew, Chakotay. He knew what I'd done."
That isn't possible. It can't be…you seem deadly serious. Then all I want to know from you is, "How?"
"I don't know how, but he did. I used the drug as a last resort to convince him to let us go, but also to get out of him how he knew and to convince him to keep quiet. My only mistake was assuming he'd be affected similarly to you-"
"Your mistakes are too many to count, Kathryn." I can't stand here and listen to you spinning some version of reality that claims otherwise. "But let's start with the callous disregard for the promise you made to me about keeping me in the loop."
"Why do you think I'm here? I realized my mistakes, and I've come to you and confessed. I can apologize until I'm blue in the face, and I am deeply sorry that I've hurt you, but I can't undo what I did four years ago."
"So you're confessing – because you were afraid I'd find out on my own. And that's supposed to make it magically okay?"
"No. It's supposed to mean something that I didn't let you find out from someone else!"
"Well, sorry. It doesn't!"
We're both worked up now, livid – and going absolutely nowhere. It's crystal clear for no good reason in this instant. A few seconds of forced restraint while I try and calm my breathing reveals why. Realistically, there's nowhere to go tonight. Nothing short of time travel will instantly fix this, and that only happens at the most inconvenient and unexpected moments. For the first time, I feel the weight of the snifter in my hand. Maybe it will dull the sting of betrayal in the absence of my medicine bundle, still jammed behind the cushion. Just as I'm about to take my first drink of the evening, however, another thought strikes me – a horrible one. "Are you still using it on me?"
You give me a look of disbelief. "I only used it on you three times, all during our first few months out here."
I take my lips off the glass and suspiciously eye the amber alcohol within. I decide I don't want to know about the other times you chemically tampered with my mind. And maybe you're still lying, for all I know. This whole thing could be a setup, like the way you tried to emotionally manipulate me during our encounter with the Borg last year. You come in here with your sad story about Kashyk, make me guilty about not protecting you, with your pips missing and shaking and it's all crocodile tears and bullshit so that I'll just nod and roll over and say it's all right.
Although, if you are just acting, you're turning in a masterful performance. Just like you've done for the last four years, I guess.
"What would you have done if I hadn't told you?"
I snort in disbelief. Your priorities are so far out of whack to me if that's the question you're asking. "Does it matter?"
"Yes," you say flatly. "It's all I have left."
My eyes track from my snifter back to you. I look at you. I don't want to look at you. It hurts so damned much to look at you right now. "I don't know." I try to imagine coming across this in some file, or worse, having some slimy son of a dragon-whore like Kashyk telling me, and I shove that thought away from me with everything I have because I don't want to know what I'd be capable of in those circumstances. I have a feeling it would be kinds of things that would rip whatever's left of my sense of peace and sanity into bloody shreds and I can't face it.
All of which leaves us with now. The big, thick wall standing in front of us now. In a last-ditch effort to get around our impasse, I ask, "So how do we move past this?"
"Maybe we don't."
Your blunt answer is the complete opposite of what you told me next to the fireplace in da Vinci's studio a year ago, your face wreathed by warm illusory firelight, full of easy confidence that we'd pick up the pieces and move on. And we almost did. But here, now, with your face half in shadow and backlit by the cold, real light of the stars, that day's little more than a meaningless old memory.
So, you agree with me that we're trapped. However, just like you four years ago, I'm backed into the ugly corner of having to think about our crew's survival first. There's no way this information can get out. It would be the killing blow for the hard-earned harmony on this ship, and if we behave unusually, questions are going to get asked.
"We can't function as a team without trust, Kathryn."
"I know," you say softly, resolutely, as if you knew all along we'd reach this point. I suppose you probably did.
"Well?" My harsh, demanding tone contrasts sharply with your quiet acceptance. I'm genuinely curious what kind of inane speech you have prepared in your head for this moment, and I stand poised to tear whatever you're going to say to shreds.
"Maybe we pretend."
I nearly strike before your words fully register in my mind. Thankfully, they filter through the heady haze of anger surrounding me just before I open my mouth and drag this doomed fight out any further. Maybe we pretend. Unexpectedly defeatist, coming from you. I force myself to slow my breathing; truly consider the proposal. So we don't get around this wall. We just camouflage it and cause anyone passing by to believe there's nothing there at all.
It's...not a wholly unacceptable idea, but it is a difficult one. It would be no problem for you to pretend, of course, but could I do the same? Doing our jobs side-by-side is one thing. Having to smile, to banter, to be friendly, well, that's the real test. We'd have to fool everyone, every single day. Tuvok, Harry, Tom, all of them. And then there's B'Elanna. She can detect shit a kilometer away, and we can't lie to each other for very long.
And what happens when another disaster strikes this crew and you and I disagree? Who will die when all this anger inevitably bubbles to the surface at the wrong moment?
I don't want this, but there are no alternatives. God damn it.
Drained, I settle next to you on the sofa and hunch forward like the old man I feel like. The exhaustion from earlier sets back in, where it piles on top of my disappointment in you, in myself for being a rube, in everything, really. I've been burned far too many times by people I thought I could rely on, as you so kindly pointed out, and I just can't do it again. My trust in you is gone, and we've got to be out there next shift projecting confidence to a crew badly shaken by the Devore. Maybe pretending is the best we can do anymore – for a long time coming, at least.
The pungent fumes from the whiskey, so expertly trapped by the snifter's design, tickle my nose and invite me to partake despite my reservations. Might as well start faking it right now. I look at you and reach out my glass.
"Good enough," I say flatly, by way of a toast. You acknowledge by half-heartedly lifting your own glass a few centimeters off your lap.
We throw back our drinks.