He walked briskly up three flights of stairs, disdaining the elevator which would have taken him to her door in seconds. For a man of his years, one who had gone through all he had, he was in good shape and knew it. That wasn't why he'd decided against taking the elevator, though. He knew he would need those few minutes of stair climbing to compose himself, at least enough to be able to say what he knew he needed to say to her.
It had been a while since . . . he wasn't sure, now, just how long it had been since they'd actually been in the same room together. It had been a long while since they'd had all that much to talk about.
Tonight, there was much to discuss. The grin bloomed across his lips before he could contain it. And why should he try to stop it? He hadn't been so happy since . . .
Well, it *had* been quite a while.
Reaching the top step of the stairs, he halted for a minute, breathing deeply to slow the beating of his heart. The hammering in his chest wasn't because of exertion-oh, no, not at all-but from the clamoring emotions that threatened to spill out of him again at any moment. After a quick wiping beneath his eyes with his forefingers to make sure his face was still dry, the tall man in the uniform of a Starfleet admiral walked slowly towards the second doorway on the right.
Stealing one more deep breath, he placed his hand upon the doorbell, beneath the small, tasteful brass nameplate lettered, "Alicia Kelley."
For several very long moments there was no response, enough for the admiral to wonder if she had chosen to go out just when he had decided to come to her. That would certainly be ironic, all things considered. He'd checked the sensor record to make sure she was home before deciding to transport himself to this part of the city.
He was just about to tap his comm badge when an achingly familiar, warm and musical voice ordered the door to open, and there she was, standing before him in her robe and nightclothes, hair disheveled from sleep, and as beautiful as ever. Of course it would have taken her a while to come to the door-it was almost 0400 hours, after all! He felt stupid not to have made allowances for that when he rang her bell.
"Owen! This is a surprise! I could barely believe it when the scanner said . . . Owen? What's the matter? Oh, God, is it Tom?"
Admiral Own Paris nodded his head. "Alicia, the Pathfinder Project was a success! We were able to make contact tonight . . .he's still alive and well and we're going to be able to send messages and we can . . . "
And then he leaned into his wife's arms and clung to her, crying like the proverbial baby.
"You didn't get a chance to talk to talk to him privately?" Alicia asked, seating him at her kitchen table and turning on her old-fashioned stove to put the kettle on for tea.
"No, we couldn't. Barclay's connection time was pretty much used up just finding Voyager's position in space. They've made best case scenario progress, Alicia! We were amazed. Anyway, we barely had time enough to open the channel, exchange data, and greet each other before it failed. But Barclay and I both spoke with Kathryn. I told her to tell him I was proud of him, Alicia, and she said that Tom could hear me. He must have been right there on the bridge when we were talking. So, at least he heard me."
Alicia sat down at the table and clasped his hands in hers. "I'm so happy for you, Owen."
Although her eyes blurred with unshed tears, she could see that goofy grin Owen Paris would get whenever he was thrilled beyond words by something. She hadn't seen it on her husband's face in so many years-not since the Cardassians had captured and brutalized him. The only time she'd seen it since then had been on their son's face.
Tom. Tom was not only alive, confirming the report Voyager's holographic doctor had made when he had visited the Prometheus, but he was serving on the bridge of Kathryn Janeway's Voyager. Blessed be!
"I wish you could have been there tonight, too. Maybe some other time you can come. If Mr. Barclay's calculations are correct-and they seem to be-we'll be able to have regular contact with Voyager from now on."
"You mean, actually talk with him?"
"I hope so. It won't be like talking over a comm channel, not at first. We have so much to send to them in the compressed data stream, and them back to us, that there won't be much time for direct communication like we had tonight. Not for the next several months, anyway. Maybe at some point in the future, though, after we've exchanged the most critical data, we might be able to work out a schedule to let people actually talk for a minute or two with their family members on Voyager's crew."
Alicia's mouth twitched. "The Maquis families, too?"
"Well, if we can get word to them . . ." The admiral shifted his weight in his chair in a nervous motion that Alicia knew well from long years of observation. He did that whenever he was discomfited. /Serves him right. He should be. He's earned the burden of being uncomfortable about the Maquis!/ The awkward moment threatened to stretch out to an unconscionable length of time before Owen said, in a soft and shaky voice, "Perhaps you could help us with that?"
She rose up from her chair as the kettle began to sing. "I can try. I do have a few contacts on Bajor."
In silence, Alicia went to the stove and shut off the heat before asking, tentatively, "Owen, has anyone given you any trouble about me?" Alicia poured steaming water into the two cups she had prepared for them on the counter while waiting for his answer. It was the first time she'd felt asking the question might not be met with another argument.
"Not at all. I think everyone pretty much knows, but you've been so discreet, even Necheyev hasn't said anything to me."
"Good. I really don't want to embarrass you, Owen. You do know that, don't you?"
"I do. I just wish . . . well, I just wish things could be different."
" 'Things' can't be different until a certain someone becomes more vocal about certain actions the Federation has taken during the past few years," she admonished, in as gentle a tone of voice as she could muster. She braced herself for an explosion.
He had the good grace to drop his eyes down to the cup of steaming tea, a look of chagrin upon his face. "I can't do that, Alicia. You know I can't. Not that I can't . . . I can see your . . . uh. Well, let me just say I've had a chance to think about your position lately, and I can see that, maybe, some things could have been done . . . a bit differently."
" 'Some' things?"
"A lot of things, maybe." His eyes were still glued to the curl of steam ascending from the hot liquid in the cup in front of him. "Maybe most things." He sighed and raised his eyes to gaze into hers. "I'm proud of what you're doing with the Desdichado Foundation, you know. Humanitarian aid . . . no one can be against that. Not even Necheyev and Ross."
Hope and pride warred within her only briefly as she realized the full implications of what he'd said-and not said. "But you're not ready to come out and acknowledge it publicly yet, are you?"
"I wish I was, Alicia. But no. I can't do that. Not yet."
/You'd have to admit you were wrong. That you were such a hard ass because somebody had to pay for your losing your boy, and it wasn't going to be you. It couldn't be Starfleet that was to blame. No wonder you can't say it yet./ Alicia kept these thoughts inside her head, but from the quick way he looked away again, she knew that he knew-or could guess-what she'd been thinking. /Good. Maybe someday you will be able to say it openly, and we can see where that can take us./ Instead, she said, "I can't come home then, Owen. Not yet."
He sighed, nodding his head wearily, as if he'd expected this response. "Well, anyway, I just wanted you to know so you could get some letters ready to send. Last time, we didn't get a chance to notify everyone that we were going to send messages to them via the Array. You were off Earth, of course, but we even missed some who were on planet. So, this time, I wanted to make sure you had the opportunity to write to Tom. We'll be contacting everyone we can, but with your . . . contacts, you can reach some of those who are still in hiding."
She refrained from stating the obvious: that they wouldn't have to be in hiding any more if the Federation could really accept that the war was finally over. Instead, she said, "When do you want them?"
"In the next few weeks, if possible. We expect to be able to send a compressed data stream once a month. News, tactical information, technical innovations-anything that might help Voyager get home a little sooner. But letters, especially. Print and audio only at first, but as soon as we get all the bugs worked out, video letters, too. And we'll get them home, Alicia. I want to hold my son in my arms and let him know how much I love him before I shuck this mortal coil. I promise you, we're going to do it!"
"I'm sure you will," she replied confidently, unwilling to voice any doubts she might have. "I was planning on leaving for Bajor next week, as a matter of fact. I may be able to move that forward a few days. Then I'd be home in about three weeks. That should be soon enough to deliver what I can get to you, I suppose?"
"Soon enough, I guess. Not as soon as I'd like it to be." He spoke with a mournful tone of voice. She wasn't sure whether he was unhappy about how long it would take for the letters to arrive, or for her to return. Perhaps it was a bit of both.
If messages were going to be frequent to and from Tom, then there was another matter that needed to be resolved. She patted his hand lightly. "Do you want to be the one to send him the news about us? Or shall I?"
The admiral shook his head adamantly. "No, don't do that. Don't do it at all. It would only upset him."
"Owen, he has to know."
"Of course he does. But if we're back together before he knows, it won't bother him as much. I don't want him worrying about us out there. I only want him to concentrate on getting back home." The admiral took to his feet and walked to Alicia's sink, which faced east. The sky was lightening now, the stars disappearing at dawn's approach.
"You don't really think he's spending much time thinking about us, Owen!" she laughed.
"Sometimes he is."
"However do you know that?"
"I got a letter. It was filed with an automatic 'send' on it, so once Voyager got into 'contact' with Starfleet, it would be released. When Kathryn authorized the official ships logs to be sent to us, it was included." He chuckled softly, perhaps with a touch of bitterness, Alicia could not be sure. He was still facing the window. The brightening sky lit his face, which bore a strangely pained yet proud expression. His hesitancy to say more made Alicia want to kick him.
"Well, out with it!" she finally demanded. "What did he say?"
"He explained to me why he had been demoted to Ensign."
"Demoted! Owen! Whatever for?"
"It was . . . a matter of principle." He turned towards her again, his expression still ambiguous. "He does take after you in a lot of ways."
"Don't tease me, Own!"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. All the log information is classified, but I can share my own personal letter with you." He pulled a data chip from his pocket and handed it to her. "Go on, play it. I want to hear his voice again. Even though this is addressed just to me, I'm sure he expected me to share it with you. When you hear it, I think you'll understand why it was addressed just to me."
She stared at the chip in her trembling palm, not sure if she could bear to listen to it. Ensign. He had lost his rank again. For principle . . . again. She didn't know whether it hurt more to know that, or to know that he had written only to his father and not to her, too.
Of course, he had no idea that his parents were no longer living together, either. The chance to hear his voice won out over her dread of hearing what he had to say about this new disgrace.
She walked to her computer, slipped in the chip, and instructed it to play. Tears began to flow as soon as she heard Tom's first words, "Dear Dad . . ."
As she listened to her son tell the story of his failed attempt to save the wondrous sea world of the Moneans from the mortal damage its short-sighted people were inflicting upon their ocean, Alicia did, indeed, understand why the message had been addressed only to Owen. The letter was a plea for understanding to the one who might not be able to forgive him for his demotion. After the message ended, she longed to tell the computer play it again, to listen to it over and over, no matter how bitter the story might be, just to hear Tom's voice. She could almost imagine he was only a few light years away, on board a starship posting. Lord knows, she had had hundreds of messages from Owen over the years, and a few from Tom, too, before . . . ."
"You can keep that chip, Alicia. I have another copy."
"Thank you, Owen, so much. I . . . I'm not sure what to say, beyond that. It's so good to hear his voice, no matter what his news is!"
"It is, isn't it? And you understand why it's just to me? Tom knew you would understand and forgive him, just as you always have. Me, he wasn't so sure about." The admiral's voice had a slight catch in it at this admission.
"I do. And I trust you *do* understand?"
"Yes, I do. He was stupid, wrong-headed . . . it was insubordination, pure and simple. He deserved to be demoted! But considering the circumstances-and knowing the way he feels about the sea-I do understand. And anyway, he'll get his rank back soon."
"You sound rather confident about that."
"Well, off the record, I listened to Kathryn's official logs about the incident."
"Which, of course, you can't tell me about."
"Not in any detail. Maybe I *can* say she respects him for the way he accepted his punishment. She hasn't held this incident against him. She'll reward him once he's done something heroic to force her hand. You know our Tom."
She laughed. "Oh, I certainly do. Sounds like he's still pretty close to that engineer, B'Elanna Torres, doesn't it?"
The admiral arched an eyebrow ruefully. "The half-Klingon Maquis. Yes, it sounds like it."
"She must be a good influence on him."
"Must be," he agreed, glancing to one side, unable to meet her direct gaze again.
She decided to ignore this further evidence of a guilty conscience. "You've broken a bunch of regs, I'm sure, sharing this message with me."
"Not at all. I'm allowed to share any personal mail from my own son with his mother! As for the rest . . . I need your help, Alicia. The admiralty would understand that, too."
"If they knew who Alicia Kelley really was."
"Officially knew," he corrected. "Like I said, it's pretty much an open secret over there."
"I'm glad they've been understanding about it."
"Yes, they have." He shifted from one foot to the other and cleared his throat. "Well, Alicia, it's time I went back to my place to get cleaned up. I start my shift in about two hours."
She felt the barrier raise up, shoving them apart again. Talking about officialdom always rebuilt it. The wall might help him separate from her by shielding him from his own feelings, but it brought so much pain to her. Every time, she hoped that this time it would be different. Instead of parting, oh, so amicably, they would find a way to get back together. It was foolish of her, but somehow, she always half-expected it to happen. Her heart might cling to hope, but her head did not. She knew he would say he had to go sometime in the next few minutes.
This time she had to share the blame, since all she said was, "On no sleep? If you were up all night, surely they won't expect you to be at your post so early."
"I'll be fine. I've still got a pretty good adrenaline rush going from speaking with Kathryn."
"I guess you do! You'll crash later on though, mark my words! You should go home this afternoon and take a quick nap if you feel at all tired, or you'll be all cross and bad-tempered by this evening."
He scrunched up his face. "Yes, Mother."
He looked just like Tom making that face-sounded a lot like him, too. How many times had she gotten that line and expression from Tom! She didn't know if she wanted to swat Owen or cry her eyes out. Voyager was still so far away from home, and so many things could still happen to take Tom away from them for good-like a propensity for heroics. Heroes didn't always come home.
The silence became awkward as she tried to think of something else to say to her husband of almost four decades, the much-loved husband from whom she had been estranged for the past five years. She couldn't think of anything; there were so many things they had to say to one another that she could not bring herself to pick out one over the rest.
Perhaps he felt the same way, for when he did speak, he said the expected: "I really should be going."
She berated herself for feeling disappointed by her dashed hopes. She knew better. Her response was civil, as always. "Of course. Thank you again for bringing this to me, Owen."
"No problem. As soon as Kathryn's logs are released-any part of them-I'll let you know anything else they have to say about Tom."
"And I'll get those messages to you for transmission, as soon as I can." So they finally had something to say. Mundane business matters, not the deeply emotional confessions they needed to share with one another.
"Thanks." He started to walk towards her door, then pivoted suddenly. The unexpected movement caused her to bump into him. His arms closed around her. Without thinking, she returned his embrace, as well as the soft kiss upon her lips. It was no more a kiss of passion than it was a perfunctory act between two old friends who had met on a street. Rather, it was a farewell between two who had much history together, a history both expected to continue for a very long time, although the shape of that history was very much in doubt.
As their lips parted, she laid her head against his chest for second, remembering how very right it seemed for it to be resting there.
Then he stepped away, and the door was closing behind him.
He took the elevator down to street level, not because he was tired, but because his heart was too full and brain too foggy to trust himself not to miss a step and fall down three flights of stairs if he went that way.
Tom Paris and his Maquis engineer girlfriend. Admiral Owen Paris and his Maquis sympathizer wife. If life was very strange in its twists and turns, the life of a Starfleet officer had the potential to be stranger still. There was so much he had to ponder, a lot of conscience-searing decisions to consider and reconsider. How many could he undo if he thought he'd made a mistake? Would he even be able to admit to having made any mistakes?
His son seemed to be doing a good job of doing just that, so far away from home on Voyager. Maybe it was easier that way, when survival was the first rule. Isolation and distance helped to make the past clearer; former actions were easier to evaluate and comprehend; and a second chance was easier to obtain because of simple necessity. Everyone had to work together if all were to return home. If Tom had never been flung into the Delta Quadrant, would he be the man who could go into the brig for thirty days and come out a wiser man? Owen doubted it.
As he walked the streets of San Francisco to his own apartment, a mere two kilometers from his estranged wife's, Admiral Paris considered his own life and the alliances he'd made along the way-some of them just as unholy, he now suspected, as his wife had told him they were on the day she'd left him.
Should the man who had suffered at the hands of the Cardassians have been more understanding of the plight of those who had been betrayed by the Federation-in a treaty in which he'd never believed himself, no matter what he'd said publicly? Alicia had steadfastly maintained this, so much so that she'd left her husband and devoted her life to helping the disenfranchised families of the Maquis. By reassuming her maiden name, she'd acted according to her own conscience without embarrassing Admiral Owen Paris, no matter what she felt about the rightfulness or lack thereof of his position. It had been a matter of principle, she'd said.
Principle. Admiral Owen Paris had always been the staunch defender of the Federation and its humane policies, but he'd supported a policy towards the Maquis that had been anything but, all in the name of defense. With Cardassia shattered as badly as the worlds of the Demilitarized Zone were, thanks to the depredations of the Dominion War, he could see how, step by step, what seemed to be acceptable accommodations on his part had helped lead to disaster.
Even the skyline of his beloved San Francisco was not the same as it was when Tom, cashiered from Starfleet and convicted of treason, was sentenced to serve time in New Zealand. At one time, he could not have imagined felling any pain greater than that; he had expressed that pain by seeming to reject his only son. How ludicrously self-centered he had been to think that way, in the face of all that followed: the war, Tom's disappearance in the Badlands, the Breen attack on this very city which had left so much of it in shambles. For five years, he had been in hell, and much of it had been very much of his own making.
But San Francisco was being rebuilt now, as was Cardassia, as was the Dominion, as were the worlds of the DMZ and Bajor-just as Tom was rebuilding his life and career in the Delta Quadrant.
Owen Paris wasn't quite ready to say the words or take the position that his wife wanted him to take, her prerequisite for returning home to him. Now, though, it was no longer unthinkable he ever would.
Perhaps, as Alicia might say, it was not Hell but Purgatory in which he had been living for the past five years. Only time would tell him which it had been.
Original publish date: 11/23/2000