Disclaimer: The characters aren't mine.
Rating: T for language, adult relationships and themes.
A/N: Because the undertones in that Caretaker confrontation between Chakotay and Paris begs some back consideration, no?
For Shayenne, who waited so patiently for this story from a fanfiction auction for hurricane relief *cough* last year. Thanks immensely to both Cheshire and Froot, who are both amazing humans and helped me nitpick it until I felt it was semi-worthy to give to a master.
"It's good to see you, too, Chakotay."
It's hard to do glib when it feels as if his mouth is full of sand. Still, he tries. He tries to hold steady when Chakotay starts towards him, but under the synthetic skein of red and black, Tom's heart is pounding out of his chest.
"At least the Vulcan was doing his duty as a Starfleet officer," Chakotay snarls, "but you? You betrayed us for what?"
The only thing missing in the accusation is Paris. Paris, the name he'd betrayed when he'd joined Chakotay's ragtag band of merry men.
He's still looks good, Tom thinks behind the glass smile, and it hurts him to notice that. Chakotay was always beautiful when he was angry. Of course, angry, he's the most dangerous. Tom knows the strength in the body that radiates disgust at him now; he knows the power coiled into just one of those clenched fists. Truthfully, he knows every curve and hidden plane of the man in front of him, even if Tom's more accustomed to having Chakotay standing behind him. Despite his best efforts, flashes of sweaty memory are striking him as surely as Chakotay's fists once had. He's trying to stay grounded, present in the moment, but not-so-ancient history is eating him alive, and then there is Chakotay's body pinning him against the cold cavern wall.
"Come on, Paris. Show me you're serious. Show me you really want to be here. Show me this isn't some elaborate Starfleet trick to get me to drop my guard and let you in."
He huffs a scoffing laugh. "Believe me, this wasn't my first choice, but it's all I have left. It's not a game to me, chief."
Tom knows the buttons he presses; he feels it in Chakotay's tightening grip and grins a flattened grin into the rock face.
"I told you not to call me that, Paris."
So he has – more than once these past few days.
"Fine. Don't call me Paris," Tom counters, doing his desperate best to project disinterest with his cheek smashed into a rough cave wall.
And as far as clandestine hideouts go, he has to hand it to them: the Maquis don't discount the cliché, and they probably shouldn't because it works. No one who doesn't know exactly where he or she is looking will ever find them down here. Which could be a bad thing, for him, if he pushes too far. The implied threat isn't lost on him, or on his body, where Chakotay's weight crushes that point home into his aching ribs.
"Why not Paris?" Chakotay is demanding. He's always so demanding, and it's rather annoying, actually. So are his targeted verbal strikes which he delivers, unerringly, where they penetrate the most. "It's who you are, isn't it?" he's needling. "Cadet Paris, the boy who almost saved the Federation turned wonder pilot screw-up. Or so we're led to believe by the press. Did you use Daddy's money to buy them off or did you acquire the funds on your own?"
The accusing barb sinks deep into Tom's organs, stinging worse than he wants. "Fuck you," he blithely suggests.
Chakotay's warm, sinister chuckle drags unexpected tingles down Tom's stiffened spine when he promises, "Not a chance in hell, Paris."
A challenge? They'll see about that. And, "Stop calling me that, chief."
"No," Chakotay refuses. "Either you're Daddy's little failure, and my soldier, or you're a sneaky, two-faced rat putting on some elaborate show, hoping to redeem himself and get back into the 'Fleet fold. So which is it? Are you Paris – or aren't you?"
Paris, the name he shames so badly just by being here, the name he's never going to wash clean if he does this thing he's contemplating. He's being strong-armed into a verbal pact with Chakotay, the man who's offering him redemption, character, a chance to do something meaningful in his masticated life. A chance he never thought he'd see again when that panel of ice statue admirals stripped the rank bar off his neck and his dad, the man he would have given his dominant piloting arm to make proud, had had to sit in the back of the room, watching it all unfold.
He can't choose between them. How can he choose? He lets his head drop against the cold cavern wall. He won't answer. Chakotay will either take him or he won't. Chakotay will decide for him.
But of course he's not getting off that easily. Chakotay whips him around, crimson blood trickling from his bent nose. This is the head of a confrontation that has been building for days, starting when Jonas had brought him sniffing around the cell. Chakotay hadn't liked him on sight but had been too busy to deal with him until now. The single lucky blow Tom landed across his face makes Chakotay look feral, strongly potent. In this light, Tom has no doubt that Chakotay could kill him if he thinks it's necessary. He isn't so sure he'd care if he did.
He's seen the sense of family, the unity of purpose among the Maquis, and the way Chakotay tends to his den. His blood screams that he needs this, needs this man's respect and approval. But if he screws it up, just like he screws up everything else? What will he have then? Who will give him another chance? Certainly not Starfleet. Certainly not Owen Paris.
"Time's up, Paris," Chakotay is warning him. "Choose. Now. Which is it? Do you want this or not?"
Choose. Right now. Try and probably fail, or don't try and die quietly, alone in some hole in the wall. It isn't until this moment that Tom realizes stinging, terrified tears are forming in the corners of his eyes and a now-familiar panic is swirling over his feet, threatening to swell up and overtake him because, "Yeah." He almost can't get it out, he's so terrified to speak the words and make them true. "Yeah, I really do."
Chakotay sears him with scorching scrutiny. He's reaching deep into Tom's soul. He's going to reject him. He has to reject him. Tom has nothing to bring to the table. He's going to wander the seediest parts of the galaxy, disgraced and unimportant to the end of his miserable days...Chakotay nods one miserly fraction of a centimeter, and it's done. He's in. There's no going back, and the visceral panic makes good on its threat and swells, ferocious, inactivating his lungs because what has he just done? He can't screw this up now – and he is going to. He always does.
Certain failure, trust, one of them is crushing him. He can't breathe. He can't…fucking…breathe. The broken sobs set in like lightning, a faulty plasma sealant hissing, building pressure filling up in his body, and he's bawling now, choking, gasping broken breaths of air. He isn't aware of the big man pulling him up from the ground he must've slid to until dark eyes loom in his blurred vision.
"Hey." Strong hands turned unbelievably gentle dig into his shoulders, shaking the dust off his unwashed clothes. "Paris! Knock it off."
Knock it off. Yeah, that's a good idea. Stop making a fool of himself. Stop breaking down in front of a man he barely knows and was trying to impress with his indifference a half a second ago. Except he can't. Oh gods, he can't. A drop of his left shoulder, a quick slap to his face does nothing to quell the storm, and Chakotay is forced to grab his shoulder again to keep him upright.
"Cut it out, Paris," the bigger man orders, and there is a tinge of something softer than the hard animosity that has been directed towards Tom all this time. "The food's not as bad as it looks, I promise."
Tom snorts, a snot bubble forming at the end of his cherry-red nose; he wipes madly at it with his flailing sleeve. But he can't stop. fucking. crying.
"Paris, listen to me." And the words are so insistent that Tom can't help obeying. "It's going to be all right. I can't promise this won't end badly for all of us, but you chose us. You're in, understand? That means your life belongs to me, and I'm not going to let anything hurt you if I can help it."
How can he keep the kind of hurt that Tom is terrified of experiencing, of causing, away? No one can do that. The fact that he even offers to try is, hell it's tragically heroic. It's savagely poetic, and so clichéd, just like the Maquis, like Chakotay, the man. It's so damned beautiful. Just like Chakotay, the man whose sympathetic mouth is so close and perfectly made…
Tom leans forward and seals the full, compassionate mouth hanging in front of him with his lips. He's pouring every desperate milliliter of fear and longing into that surprised cavern of warmth. Against him, Chakotay stiffens, probably fighting some internal battle of morality, but surprisingly, he doesn't pull away. His hard, pillar-of-strength body stays flush against Tom, hands fisted into his ratty shirt to keep him standing, rock solid as the wall behind him and so pulsatingly warm. Not even when Tom's fingers curl into the ridiculous, open vest Chakotay wears, pulling it from broad shoulders that are offering to shelter him from a life with no purpose, a death without honor, not even then does Chakotay pull away. Ever after, he pins, he wrestles, he restrains, and he bucks, a wild stallion in sweaty abandon against Tom's lighter body, but never once does he ever pull away. Even on the modest bridge of the small Maquis ship, he feels Chakotay's presence behind him, turns, and he's rarely far away. It seems he's always behind Tom, watching his back no matter where he goes.
It only made his first rescue mission all the more hellish and real. That, too, assails him as a torrent of stabbing memory.
"He's ready, Chakotay," Seska declares.
"Not this time." Chakotay's tone is gritted, certain authority, his expression stone as he walks past her, unheeding. "I'm leading the-"
Seska's hand on his thick arm jerks him back to her. "No," she says, ardent blue eyes glittering, "you're not."
Tom has never seen someone do that and not get knocked back against the wall. It speaks of their recent, smoldering history together. Their breakup was notoriously volatile; people are still talking about it, months later. Far from jealous, Tom is intrigued. He openly watches the exchange, even as the others pretend to be busy with tasks that won't exist until a decision is made.
"You going is exactly what Evek wants."
Tom watches Chakotay's jaw flex, indication that he's at least listening if about to knock her hand off his arm. Seska cocks her head like a cobra about to strike in that way she has when she's extra serious.
"He may not know who you are, but he knows you. He knows the way to rile you is to hit close and humiliate you."
Her long fingers stroke the bicep flexing in her grip, and Tom watches, taking internal note of the way Chakotay responds to the motion he doesn't even seem to notice.
Seska keeps turning on the charm, deep honey in her throaty voice. "Don't you see? He wants you angry, that's why he hit the civilian center we aided. You going into that camp yourself, angry, is exactly the reaction he's hoping for."
It was one of the only times Chakotay ever listened to sense that Tom had witnessed. And so Tom, freshly recruited, had been pressed into his first mission, lead by Seska, the roughened Bajoran. Then he'd learned. Oh, he had learned things that he hadn't known as a sheltered cadet son of an admiral, things he'd never…
Gods, the conditions of those prison camps. The screams. He hadn't known. He hadn't known. Starfleet couldn't have known, his father couldn't know what the Cardassians were like. He couldn't, Tom had sworn to himself as his hands had shaken, white leaves trembling in a gale-force wind. Even trembling, the rage had steadied his aim. His contraband disruptor had lasered true, his focus honed soundly onto the monstrous, obstructing targets responsible for the horror. Somehow, he pulled three people out of hell, felled at least a quarter-dozen Cardassians in the process, and all the while, he'd sworn to himself that there was no way his father, or Starfleet, could have known.
The recoil from the tractor beam of the hidden ship that had caught him, mid-impulse, still stings. So too, had the identity of his capturers, and his interrogator, but then, now, it's so obvious that it had all been intentional.
"Come on, son." His father's kindly blue eyes are in front of him, not Chakotay's dark discs of understanding. Oddly, Owen is in a relatively good mood with him, for once, as he coaxes, "Redeem yourself. Tell us what you learned. Tell us which cell you were in."
"I can't do that," Tom demurs, staring at his swollen feet.
"And we can't help them avoid the kind of fate you saw today if you don't tell us where they are."
Chakotay's bronzed skin, stretched under hot sun, tethered up against the brown Cardassian railings. How does his father know about that? Had he been there on the base, watching it all unfold?
Chakotay had always been rough in the beginning and so mind-blowingly gentle by the end. The way his thicker frame had cradled Tom's hips, so fucking gentle. That gentleness, destroyed? He couldn't stomach it. It's the only excuse he can use to justify his betrayal. But how does he say all this, now? In front of everyone? How can they understand?
The people he and Seska had gotten out needed medical attention. As his shuttle was the one captured and he, the better pilot, had had the injured with him, they were taken too. Starfleet had provided that desperately-needed treatment, his dad had seen to it. At least there had been that, in the end. At least those three souls had been saved from enduring any more of the kind of hell he'd witnessed that day.
"Do you really want your other friends to end up like those poor people you rescued?"
Friends was putting the thrusters before the shuttle a bit, but, "No." Gods, please, hell, no. He would have killed himself if it had looked as if it was coming down to capture, and it would have had nothing to do with any lingering 'Fleet pride. The empty, shellish eyes of the people who'd been there too long to be helped…he tried not to see Chakotay's rich, dark brown eyes as hollowed-out shells. Not Chakotay. Not the others. No, no please, he'd do anything.
"Give me the name of their cell leader. You don't have to give us anymore. Just the leader's name, and we'll do the rest."
Why can't his father understand? It would be a betrayal of all the trust they'd placed in him.
"You can," Owen informed him softly, "and you will. As soon as you do, we'll make sure your friends are safe. Isn't that a better end than letting them continue on this fool's mission of revenge?"
Tom can still see him in that stark interrogation room. Owen's blue eyes were almost Chakotay-gentle, coaxing, proud. It was classic, in retrospect.
"It's not revenge." That isn't what the Maquis are about, not just that. He has to make them see.
He still doesn't think anyone at Starfleet Headquarters is really aware of that distinction. It was about saving lives, too, standing up for the defenseless and making sure others didn't suffer needlessly, alone.
"You don't want your friends to suffer, do you? They're better off in Starfleet custody, where they'll be safe from the Cardassians. Starfleet can handle the rest of the rescues. We have the resources and the Maquis don't. You know all of that deep down, don't you, son?"
Yeah. After today, he does. He licks his cracking lips, his mouth so very, very dry. They'd barely made it out alive with a full rescue party. And he hadn't made it out. Starfleet had netted him like a fish in a shallow pond. How hard would it really have been for the Cardassians launching a counterattack? Maybe Seska's shuttle had been caught by them. And if she was caught, how long before they forced her to give up the rest of it?
Somewhere in that shame and shock soup he'd been swimming in, Tom knows that had been a factor in his decision that day. No one who didn't know where they were looking could have ferreted out Chakotay's stronghold on that asteroid, but anyone who did could have led an entire Cardassian invasion force right into those unidirectional tunnels and no one inside would have seen it coming.
"Just the name, Thomas. Give me the name, and you'll redeem yourself. That's what you wanted in the first place, isn't it? Redemption?" His father's hand on his shoulder is heavy, reassuring. "I know, son. It's okay. I'm…"
He still hears the hitch of hesitation in his father's deep breath.
"I'm proud of you, you know."
That was all he'd ever needed to hear – from anyone, it seemed, but he had given up hope of ever hearing that from the one pair of lips that mattered.
"The name, Thomas," his proud father intones. "Just the name."
He almost laughs. It had been the simplest, most merciful of requests at the time.
"Chakotay." The word's a tortured whisper, and Tom's doing the right thing, once and for all. He knows it.
So why does it feel so awful when he lifts his heavy head and searches his father's face for the approval he's been chasing his whole life?
"His name is Chakotay. He used to be in Starfleet. That's how he stays one step ahead of the patrols. He knows how you think."
It wasn't until his father's ice-blue eyes hardened that Tom realized what he'd done. Now, he knows that his father being anywhere close enough to the Cardassian border to be there so soon after his capture should've been the first clue but back then, it had been so hard to think straight. That was their doing, too. The "medicine" for his injuries: drugs. The kindness, the understanding, the concern for his cell members, Owen's approval, the golden carrot dangled in front of his greedy eyes. It was all scripted, staged, an interrogation tactic, every last bit of it.
The present solidifies around him, and he's in the fucking delta quadrant, squaring off with the one man he never wanted to see again after that day. Okay, one of two men he'd never wanted to see again. His eyes flick over Chakotay's escort and he licks his lips, amending that count to two of the three men he'd never wanted to see again. Ayala was, had never been, anything to sneeze at in his own right.
"What was your price this time?" Chakotay demands. "Freedom from prison? Latinum?"
No. A father's feigned approval and a lover's false deliverance.
And all that's missing in the accusation is Paris. Paris, the name that had betrayed him. He hadn't seen his father again until his trial, where he'd testified to what his outlaw son had confessed. He'd stayed for sentencing and not much else. Tom didn't blame him. Owen had done what he thought he had to do, his duty, what he felt was right. They didn't agree on what was right but then, they never really had, had they?
Tom can't hear the words she speaks when Janeway steps into him, but he watches her posture, Chakotay's reaction to her obstruction, and he understands. Chakotay will hate it, but he has a new protector now. Sadly, no matter what he owes her, he's learned one thing in all of it. He's going to make a bloody mess of her expectations, too.
Except he doesn't. Not right away, and not through the entire ordeal with the Ocampan city or when he somehow manages to carry Chakotay's stubborn, idiotic, heavy lump of mass up to the surface. Not even when she orders the array destroyed and strands them all out here, and not when she tells him he's got to watch his back for the conceivable future but that he doesn't, because Chakotay has promised to protect him from the resentful Maquis.
"…something about his life belonging to you?" Janeway's half smile betrays a hint of wickedness that thrills him, intrigues him. He's going to bark up that tree until she puts him to heel once and for all, but as yet, she hasn't done it.
He hasn't messed it up yet, that's got to be a new record. And in the meantime, her words fill him with an uncanny sense of hope. The phrasing was missed on her, but not on Tom. No, not on Tom.
Later, he passes Chakotay in the corridor, off duty, and Tom smiles at him.
The warmth of earlier congeals, souring milk in his gut when Chakotay completely ignores him.
The sting just shouldn't be there. What did he think was going to happen? That he was going to roll right back into Chakotay's outlaw bed as if nothing had ever happened? Tom should have expected this, but he hadn't and it burns.
Okay. He works his jaw, smiles it away. That's how the big guy wants to play this? Fine. Tom's tongue takes over – damn it all, his tongue.
"Whatever," he snarks over his shoulder at the passing, tattoed brute. He can pretend Tom doesn't know exactly what he looks like naked, or straining for what his old pal Sandrine charmingly refers to as la petite morte, all he wants. No amount of sulking by Chakotay can change the fact that, "Your life still belongs to me."
Chakotay pinning him against the cavern wall.
As a canvas for his face to be plastered against, Tom can't say he objects to the softer medium of a bulkhead, but that is all that's softer about this position. Damn, he'd forgotten just how fast it could happen, how effectively he could be pinned by Chakotay's rock-hard body. The 'Fleet uniform hides the red-beating muscle all too well.
"You owed me at least two lifetimes the minute you agreed to help Janeway track us down. Any other man, I would've killed for that."
Tom's heart flutters, buzzing wasps of guilt stinging the insides of his ribs, and he takes a squeezed breath in the nonexistent space left between their bodies. "Chakotay," he squeaks out, breathless. Now. He has to explain it all now. There might not be another chance. "About that-"
"Don't." Chakotay's breath is warm and warning in his exposed ear. "I'm not anywhere near ready to hear it."
Tom believes him. That does nothing for his insides, or the angry wasps that sting him every hour of the day, but, "Fair enough," Tom gasps, though it isn't. It isn't fair, but he can admit he hasn't exactly earned fair.
"Even if you had the right tribe, which you don't, by my count, that means I still own you, Paris. Not the other way around. Don't forget it."
"Okay," he says, because that seems about right to him. He'd saved Chakotay twice but it's okay math as he stands here, between warm Chakotay and the cold wall.
Chakotay lightly smacks the side of his face. Tom blinks. The big guy only needs one arm and a stone body to pin him, how sad is that as Chakotay growls, "Okay, what?"
"Uh," Tom licks his perpetually dry lips, scrambling for the right thing to say. "Okay, I won't forget it?"
Another tap, and damn it feels so good, that flesh on flesh contact, the sting of acknowledgment.
"You won't forget it, what?"
Ah. He should have guessed. "I won't forget it, sir."
"Good." The pressure doesn't let up as if it is, though. "Then there's just one more thing."
There's always just one more thing with Chakotay. Tom doesn't care if there's a hundred more things or if he passes out from restricted oxygen; this can go on forever as far as he's concerned. "And that would be?" He tries, damn it. He tries so hard to keep his dignity. The sarcasm helps. It helps with that, and not much else.
"Janeway's giving you a chance you shouldn't have. It's your last one. Make her sorry for it, and you're a dead man."
It's an insult to his shredded character. It stirs the caustic beast of his tongue and yet it's so goddamned true at the same time that his tongue rolls over and he chokes out one heartfelt, plaintive request instead. "Chakotay?"
"What." It's not so much a question as it is an annoyed grunt.
"Call me Tom?"
Tom, the name that means less than it should, things to people that it shouldn't, and yet remains so much less tainted than Paris, or Thomas, or Tommy, somehow. If he has any chance out here, under any name…
Silence. He'd almost think Chakotay is gone if there weren't tears in the corners of his eyes from the familiar whisper of warm breath across the side of his face and the weight he never thought he'd feel against his back still pressing his cheek into the bulkhead.
"Please," Tom adds, knowing it's the one word that might ever be able to reach the man behind him.
The pressure increases exponentially, the breath concentrated on his skin for an agonizing, perfect nanosecond, and then the hold releases and he's free and so damned naked as he stands, facing the wall, cheek throbbing, and waiting. "Cha-"
Okay. No promises then, but Chakotay has made few that he couldn't keep in his lifetime. He's gone by the time Tom turns around, but the ship isn't as big as it had looked from that shuttle, back at DS9. And even if it was bigger, his heart does a funny little skip inside of him because the bridge is even smaller. Then he grins, the first real grin he's felt in as long as he can remember because looks like Chakotay's going to be behind him for a while longer yet – whether he likes it or not.