I have always prided myself on my fairness. When I'm wrong, I say so. Apologize and move on. So why have I held on to this ... hatred of our pilot for all these years? He's a prison slut, sarcastic, devil-may-care, and hazardous to the Maquis health and a traitor. Oh sure, he saved Chakotay's life, exposed Seska and the Kazon and broke the warp 10 barrier. Gods, why did it take Geron to show me the person behind the brash mask?
Earthers have a saying 'out of the mouths of babes' and I can only shake my head at its truth. When young Geron asked me to go with him into a new holodeck program, I indulged him. Most of us do but his naturally sweet nature seems to draw forth caring from the entire crew, Federation and Maquis alike.
We entered another world once the holodeck doors closed behind us. The next four hours passed quickly while we traveled from a Bajoran village through an Earth valley to what would be a Dorvan city, he said. The entire program was a feast for all our senses. The rich earth crumbled beneath our feet on the meandering path. The scent of wildflowers and earth mixed into a heady bouquet. The wildlife that ran before us on fleet hooves with a flash of white tails and scampered overhead among the towering green trees were the only sounds save for the sighing of the wind.
Geron went down onto one knee and tenderly touched a small white flower that bloomed on a waxy green leafed bush beside the path. "Jasmine. I smelled it once and he said he'd program in some for me."
"Very fragrant." I bent to sniff the sweet petals.
"C'mon, Greg. He said he'd program in something special in the next glade." Geron glowed up at me and sprang to his feet with all the exuberance of youth, tugging at my hand and urging me on.
Laughing, I followed along. A trill from overhead sent our eyes to the leafy limbs above us but nothing showed. Another burst of song sounded just ahead and our pace quickened then slowed as the sound of gurgling water wafted from behind a hanging curtain of vines just off the path. Geron gingerly parted them and we eased slowly through onto the soft moss of the bank of a fresh water spring with steam rising from its surface.
On a rock, at the top of where the spring burst forth out of the stone, was perched a creature from some wondrous myth. We both sank into a crouch so we wouldn't frighten the small being who sang so beautifully for us. It was a combination of so many different things, I was hard put to decide what it reminded me of the most. Soft white fur covered it from the round head with its yellow beak over the plump body down to its yellow claws. Diaphanous wings spread out like crystal covered cobwebs in a figure eight shape, twice its size.
The notes rose pure and sweet in the morning air like a melody half remembered from a dream. For a long moment, it seemed the creature sang directly to me, reminding me of early mornings at home when the day was new and fresh and anything was possible. Then the music died away and it arose from the rock and flew upward with slow flaps of those sparkling wings.
"Oh. He was right. She is beautiful." Geron was crying and smiling at the same time. "She was from Kes' world. Extinct since the war but Kes told him about her and he promised to try and recreate her for the Ocampan. But Kes didn't stay long enough. I told him that if he put her in this program, maybe where ever Kes is, she'll know."
I felt a tear leak from my own eye and I smiled down at him. "What is the creature's name?"
"She's the Locar. There's only ever one of her. Kes told me the story once a few years ago. When the world needs hope, the Locar is born. She sings for the people where ever she flies, always looking for her mate. Until, when she is very old, she takes her last flight up into the clouds far above the world. Then, singing, she falls to the planet surface and dies." Geron's smile faded. "Always alone. But she never gives up hope that another will be born to share the world with her."
"How very sad, Geron. Who helped you create this lovely world?" I wondered at the intricacy of detail that had gone into the subroutines of this illusion.
"Tom." He smiled up at me before darting past to look at a small brown and orange caterpillar that inched its way over a nearby leaf. "He creates beautiful programs."
I was stunned into immobility for a moment. Geron had been spending time with the pilot? Why didn't any of us know so we could protect him from the immoral bastard? I could feel my blood pressure rising and I took another moment to calm myself before questioning him further.
"It must have taken quite a while to write this. How long have you been working with Lt. Paris?" I tried to keep my voice even but I must have failed miserably because he turned to me and sighed.
"I knew that would be your reaction. You all hate him so much. I have never understood why. None of you ever look behind the mask that he wears for you so you won't be disappointed in him."
"Disappointed?" I paced back and forth angrily. "He betrayed us and would have killed us if he could."
"That's what you were told but you never asked him. No one ever asked him what his truth was. Not even after he saved us from the Kazon or saved Chakotay's life." Geron perched cross-legged on a flat rock at the water's edge and watched me with his wise young eyes.
"There is only one truth. He sold us out so he could escape prison for a crime that he admitted committing."
"For a mistake that he admitted and for which he took the blame. I asked the Captain to explain it to me. It was very hard for her to talk about that time and Tom wouldn't answer my questions. It hurts him still." Geron sighed and tossed a pebble into the pool.
I bit back my automatic response of 'good', knowing that it would only hurt the tender hearted young man.
"I've talked to almost everyone about him. But Kes especially. She told me that Tom was like the Locar. She said his mate traveled with us but that he was blind to the love that Tom has learned to hide. She always sighed and shook her head when I asked her when he would smile again. Really smile like when I was telling him about my village back home and how the bread smelled early in the morning fresh from the oven. Or when he told me how it felt to break warp 10."
I sat down at his side and sighed. "Geron, it's no good. There's too much animosity for us to ever trust him. Too much history."
"Yes, the Maquis are very good at holding a grudge. But B'Elanna likes him now. And when I asked him, Chakotay says that there is peace between them. He doesn't get angry at him anymore like he used to." Geron laid his hand on my knee. "And Tom's so very sad sometimes. He only ever smiles these days when we're talking. It's been almost six months now that we've been working on this program."
Six months? Great Gods, what kind of influence has he had on our youngest member?
"You're so silly, Gregor. Do I seem different to you? Are you afraid that he's corrupted me? Seduced me?" Geron laughed up into my face with bright peals of giggling mirth.
I smiled involuntarily. "Would you tell me if he had, little one?"
Geron cocked his head to one side and smiled impishly. "Yes, I would, if only to see your face. But he hasn't. And if you'd stop and think about the last year, you would know that he hasn't been corrupting or seducing anyone. He never goes out except to play pool with Harry or to swap recipes with Neelix at dinner. Name me one time that you've seen him outside of duty."
I cast my mind back impatiently over the last few months. Surely, the little imp was wrong. Paris was always getting into trouble with his smart mouth and cold eyes. Eyes. Suddenly, my memory replayed a scene from almost six months back. Geron had been teasing me about one of our projects and I'd mockingly raised a hand to smack his behind. I'd looked up and caught Tom's glance. Terror had shone for just a moment in those blue eyes then it was gone while Geron threw his arms around me and pleaded forgiveness which of course, I gave.
And just last week, I'd caught an almost wistful look in those eyes when he'd come in to eat and seen Seven tasting a morsel from Harry's fork while the young Ensign laughed at the look of distaste on her face. Followed by such a blank shuttering of his whole face that he'd resembled an effigy of himself. Then the half smile was back and he was teasing Neelix about the amount of leola root in the bread.
Those two memories were all I had of the pilot except for when we were on duty or on a planet gathering supplies. My face must have been baffled because Geron laughed gently and patted my hand.
"You can't, can you? He doesn't sleep much so he works on programs for the holodeck or goes to sickbay and works there. I think the holodoc likes to have him even though he blusters a lot about Tom always being underfoot. But sometimes he wonders through the hydroponics bays and talks to the plants. He really would like to make the Captain's coffee plant bear fruit but nothing so far." Geron sighed and locked his hands around one knee, leaning back alarmingly over the pool.
"It's really not good for you to spend so much time with him, little one. His ways are not ours." I struggled to explain what I feared.
"Yes. He made a lot of mistakes in his life. He told me that I must be very careful not to do the same. Tom didn't want me to work with him but I insisted. It's not good for him to be alone. It brings back bad memories and then he gets so quiet and just watches the stars as if he wished he could be outside the ship flying with them. Then I remember what happens to the Locar and I'm afraid. Afraid he'll fly so high and far that he won't come back to us."
I felt a cold shiver up my spine when I remembered how he had flown off to the Kazon to betray us yet again. Except he hadn't. He and the holodoc had saved us then. I had never taken the time to count the cost to them. Paris had gone knowing that we would despise and hate him for another betrayal. Seska had counted on that. Had any of us ever told him thank you?
Of course not. We had grudgingly accepted Seska's perfidy and simply gone on with business. After all, it was his duty and he was the only one they would have believed to be a traitor, anyway. He'd been even quieter than usual since that time. Thinking back over the only conversations we'd had lately, I could only remember a brief sentence or two from him and an icy look that stopped any comments I might have made.
"I thought maybe he'd given up hope but now, I don't think so. No one who'd given up could create something so beautiful." Geron sat up and turned onto his stomach, trailing his hand in the steaming water. "Wow, this is nice and warm but not too warm. I think that he puts his love into his programs since he doesn't have anyone to give it to. I asked him what it felt like to be in love."
I watched him compassionately. There were so few of us and hardly anyone in his age group with whom he could bond. "And what did he say?" Hoping against hope that the promiscuous pilot had lied to him.
"He grew sad, then he tried to smile and told me he wasn't a good person to ask because he'd never been in love. I asked him why not and he just sighed and shook his head. He said you couldn't fall in love when you couldn't be loved. I wasn't sure what he meant and I told him that your family always loved you." His eyes came up to meet mine and tears shimmered in his gaze. "He got that blank look he gets sometimes and just said I was very lucky since my family and all the Maquis loved me very much and would always take care of me. Then, he tousled my hair and told me he had to leave and get some sleep. Gregor, are there families who don't love their sons?"
Great Gods, such a hard question. I rested a gentle hand on his back for reassurance. But I'm not sure who I was reassuring. "There are parents who don't deserve the wonderful children they receive. Sometimes, love can be in short supply. He was right, you are well loved, little one. And always will be."
"You're thinking of your sons. You miss them, don't you?"
"I think of them every day. I wish I'd told them I love them more often than I did. You can never say it enough." And there was little Ivor in my mind, tumbling over the grass when he was four and laughing little boy giggles while I pounced on him and raised him high in the air. "But sometimes, your actions say it for you. I think you're right about Paris. This program shows much tenderness of feeling."
Geron smiled at me and drew me to my feet. We continued on through the program and I watched closely while he prattled on about his talks with the pilot and why certain parts of the city were the way they were. A most enjoyable time but it raised such doubts in my mind that I resolved to watch Paris and see why Geron was so sure he was a good man.
Well, I pondered my inability to find the pilot over a cup of coffee in Sandrine's during third shift. I was on second shift for a while and he was on first but still ... Just casually, I'd asked around for the latest Paris story but all I got were rehashes from months before. He really had dropped out of sight and no one had noticed. So much for our belief that nothing got by us.
How much else of what Geron had told me then was true? He was young and inexperienced but he also had no grudges to hold that might distort his vision of others. Had we so misjudged the pilot until in self defense he hid who he was from us? And why were we judging in the first place? Because he was so different from us? Coming from a Star Fleet family, leading a pampered life and making mistakes that killed people.
Well, the last one was not just his prerogative. What about that mistake I made in the border raid on Hetzern 3? I didn't heed the warning that the old man gave us and led us right into a trap. I almost had ten deaths on my conscious then, except for the lucky chance that brought another party into the mix. I shuddered and drank the last of my tea before getting up to get some more.
The door opened and there was my quarry, his blond hair mussed as if he'd been running his hands through it and his blue eyes worrying at something. At least until he saw me. He hesitated then came on in. No swagger just walking past the bar heading for the replicator on the far side.
"Paris. If I could have a word?" I spoke as softly as I could but he still flinched.
"Sure." He had the blank look back again, his eyes focused somewhere near my left ear.
"I'm having a cup of tea. Join me?" I gestured to the steaming cup that Sandrine had just set on the bar.
"You should try it, mon petite. Very soothing. It might help you sleep." Her silky tones flowed over us and I wondered how close to real life she was.
"Sure. That would be fine." He took the proffered cup and followed me to the table. Except for holo-characters, we had the place to ourselves.
"Geron took me through the new program you helped him with." I started off gently so was not prepared for him to go rigid on me. Fear or something very like it radiated off him like a heat wave. "You did a good job. Some of the details of the Bajoran village were very true to life."
He relaxed a little and took a cautious sip of the tea. It's an herbal mixture my wife invented when the boys were little to calm them down after a long hard day of playing and working.
"I appreciate the time you spent with him." I decided to leave it at that and see what he would say.
"He's growing up quickly. You ..." His eyes darted up and met mine briefly and I saw doubt there before they went blank again and his voice became impersonal. "If some of you could spend a little more time with him, you could answer some of the questions he's beginning to think. I'm not the right person for him to ask."
"Oh, I don't know. You did pretty well when you told him not to make the mistakes you'd made. If he ever asks you why you made them, I appreciate knowing what you'd say to him." This was tricky territory but suddenly, I wanted to know for myself.
So much pain behind the walls he raised to keep us out. It flared briefly then I saw him lock it away behind a set of durilium shields. "Oh, they were all my own fault. My judgement has always been lacking. I don't do well on my own. I do best when I have someone strong minded making my decisions for me. The Captain and Commander can handle the job, Ayala. You don't have to worry about me screwing up now. Thanks for the tea."
And he was gone. Well, that went well, I thought while picking up our cups and taking them back to the bar.
"Thank you, Gregor." Sandrine smiled kindly at me. "It was nice to see Tom talking to someone. Usually when he comes in this late there is only me."
"Well, I don't know how much good I did. My last question upset him." From the beginning, she had been extraordinarily easy to talk to.
"I would rather see him reacting with the passion he's capable of than hiding behind the walls he built when he was a child." She shook her head and gazed off into the distance. "The Admiral should never have had children. And when his mother died so young, my poor Thomas took the brunt of his ill humor. Many times he would come to me to hide for a while until he could find the courage to return and face his father's disappointment."
"Why was his father disappointed?" I asked gingerly, hoping that she would continue her tale.
"Thomas wanted to fly. He has always wanted to fly. But he didn't do well with his reading so those grades were low and he was grounded. He didn't want to go to all the parties that his father insisted upon to show what a *loving* family they were but his father dragged him anyway. He wanted to learn how things work so he could fix them himself but a Paris didn't do such dirty jobs. There were a great many things a Paris should not do. Coming to me was high on the list. But he had so few friends because only the best would do for a Paris."
My throat ached with tension. "Perhaps the Admiral only wanted to protect him. Many fathers do."
"Quite right, Gregor. But those same fathers will sometimes tell their son that he did well or that they are proud of him and to my certain knowledge, he never once told Thomas either one. He told me once that the only person, he thought, who'd ever loved him was his mother. But he couldn't be sure because she had died when he was two. He had a memory of her playing the five little pigs with his toes and when he laughed, he thought she hugged him and said, 'I do love you, little Tom.' He sighed and told me it could just be a false memory because he wanted it so much." She rubbed the counter with her cloth, her eyes gleaming with unshed tears.
My whole jaw ached with the need to keep a hold of my emotions. When I thought of the times, I'd held a grubby little boy who'd been 'fixing' something or making something for me; when they'd failed again and again trying to learn something new; when Ivor had finally ridden his bike without help and Sandor had taken his first strokes on his own in the lake, I felt again the pride and delight in them. How I'd picked them up and swung them around, perching them on my shoulders and taking them back to the house for ice cream to celebrate.
"I would appreciate it if you would not mention this to the others. You are the first to approach him since we've been out here and I would not want him to think I spoke of this to just anyone. But you are a father yourself, no? It shows when you and Geron come in. Now, there's a good boy who grew up with the right kind of love."
I cleared my throat. "Don't worry. I will say nothing. And yes, Geron is growing up on us. Soon he will have questions that need answering. May I come to you for advice if he comes up with something I'm unsure of?"
Her eyes lit up. "But, of course, Gregor. I would be honored."
I nodded and said goodnight. The path to my quarters wasn't long but I remember nothing of the walk, my brain teeming with questions of my own. I had obviously hurt him and I needed to make that right. But how? And who else could I talk to about Paris? Geron said he'd spoken to lots of people. I would have to ponder this further.
I finished my breakfast and had some time to kill before going on shift. Neelix was wiping down tables nearby and I suddenly decided to ask him some questions. "Neelix, have you got a moment?"
"Certainly, Mr. Ayala. Let me just finish ... there that's done." He finished wiping down that table and came over to sit across from me.
"Perhaps Geron told you of the program that Paris and he have been working on?" I was feeling my way, unsure of what I should ask.
"Oh my, yes." Neelix beamed at me. "Young Geron spoke to me frequently and Tom as well. Kes told me the old stories so many times that I could recite them in my sleep. It was good to talk about my Sweeting again. I still miss her very much."
"I remember her too, Neelix. I've thought of her often in the last few days. She saw people clearly, didn't she? Beneath the surface of what we present to the world."
"Yes indeed, she did. Many's the time, she sat me down and told me just what was wrong with someone." He shook his head and frowned sadly. "The worst was Tom, of course. I disapproved of him and his actions. I thought he hurt people for no reason. But she shook her head and told me that was all an act to keep the rest of us from hurting him instead. He expected it, you see, so he gave us what he thought we wanted from him."
"She told me once that I should let go of my anger at him. That if I knew the truth behind the lies, I would finally be able to come to terms with him." I swirled the last of my tea around in my cup.
"Yes," he nodded understandingly, "she said much the same thing to me after he left the ship. She was the only one to see him off and when she came back to our rooms, she was crying as if her heart would break. I held her for a long time until she finally went to sleep. Well, I thought he'd said something nasty to her so I wasn't very kind to him in my next broadcast. She chastised me for that and said that all was not the way it seemed. And of course, she was right."
"That little plan took us all by surprise. I'm afraid we never thanked Paris for what he did. We took it for granted that he did it under orders."
"No, he volunteered to the Captain. Kes told me that when she said goodbye to him, she felt such a mix of terror and hope. But when he returned, she could only feel helplessness. I apologized to him. Yes, indeed I did. He looked so surprised and he tried to downplay what I'd done. Pointing out that I'd helped his disguise. But Kes told me later that he was pleased. We stayed friends after that and when Kes ... left me, he would come by and listen to me talk about her. That was such a nice thing for him to do. Don't you think?"
I had to clear my throat. Some of us had been less than kind to this odd creature from the Delta Quadrant who'd given us nothing but his best from the first day he'd come aboard. "Yes, just what a friend would do."
He beamed at me and patted my hand. "Exactly. And he doesn't have many friends aboard. Even after all these years. I've often wondered why so few see him the way he really is. Indeed, he hides but we all hide a little, those parts of ourselves we think will offend someone else. Geron is very good for him. That young man could make a Rarracnian Elder smile. And believe me, they rarely smile."
I laughed. "I can just imagine. Thank you, Neelix, for sharing your memories with me. I've got to get to work but perhaps we can talk again."
"Certainly, Mr. Ayala. I enjoy talking about Kes. It brings her nearer. Come back anytime." He bustled away from the table still talking and I left the dining hall with a smile on my face.
I sat across from Chakotay and watched him read my report. He sat back, at ease with me as I was at ease with him. We go back such a long way. Our families knew each other and I was glad to know from the message from home that my wife and sons were safe with his mother and at least one of his brothers.
We'd always been able to talk to each other and I decided to sound him out about Paris. After we discussed the problem and my solution of which he approved, I brought up the program and Geron's part in it.
"And you're worried about our pilot's influence on young Geron?" Chakotay's eyes smiled at me. "I was the one who suggested he get Tom's help. I think their collaboration was good for both of them."
"I agree. But I fear that I hurt him a few days ago when I asked him what he would tell Geron about the mistakes he'd made. He said that all the fault was his but that you and the Captain would make sure that he didn't screw up again." I sighed and sat forward. "It was not what I meant to happen. Geron pleads his case well and I wished only to see why he finds Paris so different than the rest of us. He said that you told him there was peace between you."
Chakotay just looked at me for a long moment before he slowly nodded. "I have come to terms with his betrayal of the cause. I can not judge him any longer by just our standards. He was not raised like we were so his reactions will not be ours. I owe him my life and for a long time I resented that. But no longer. I thought he would hold it against me but never once did he ask for special treatment because of it. I was so angry when he left for the Kazan but it was nothing compared to my fury when I learned the truth which had been kept from me."
His eyes flared with fire for a moment then he shook his head ruefully. "But Katherine reamed me out good when she realized what I was doing to him. She said when he came to volunteer that he insisted that no one know. He knew what our reaction would be and he thought he deserved it. She had hoped that when the plan succeeded, we might cut him a little slack but you know what happened."
"We resented him proving us wrong and so dismissed the very real danger that he put himself into for us. We dashed any hopes he might have had of getting through to one or two of us." I met his eyes with a rather sad look of my own.
"Exactly. I went back to my cabin to meditate and when I asked my spirit guide to help me with my anger, she kicked my butt from one end of the spirit realm to the other. For a very long moment, she sounded just like my mother." He chuckled. "I sat back and reviewed all the times he'd come through for the ship. All the dangerous jobs he took on as a matter of course because he could do them. The whole warp 10 incident still makes me shudder. We almost lost him then and this ship would be the poorer for it."
"And so you made your peace with him." I sat back and rubbed my chin. "But the rest of us and indeed, a good portion of the Federation crew still expect him to screw up." I told him of the bit of research I'd done and the old news that masqueraded as current gossip.
He frowned at that and his finger traced an intricate pattern on the top of his desk. "It is worse than I thought. I know Katherine worries about him but then she worries about all of us. I had hoped that Geron would help to bring him out of his shell. I don't suppose you need any help with a program?"
"No. I'm not much of one for creating long strings of code in layers upon layers." I shuddered in mock disgust. "I leave that to the artists among us. But I wonder if he could do a security program that would test us with different scenarios. It's been a while since we've had a problem and I think Tuvok worries that we're getting soft."
"I'll talk with him. Perhaps you could be liaison with Paris in working on them."
I nodded and that's how we left it.
"Lt. Ayala?" His voice was hesitant and when I looked up, he was hovering just inside the door, poised for flight.
"Lt. Paris. Tuvok told me you had some questions for me about the new programs. I will help all I can. We are going stale without being challenged." I waved to the seat on the other side of the table in the workroom that security had taken over near the brig.
He sat down on the edge of the seat and I proceeded to fill him in on our needs. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his jaw drop while I blithely laid out all our weaknesses, person by person, Federation and Maquis alike. He was shaking his head by the time I was done.
"Why? Why so much personal detail? They'd kill you if they knew you were telling *me* these things." His whisper was appalled and his eyes darted from side to side as if expecting them to come rampaging in.
"Chakotay says that he trusts you. And so do Geron and Neelix and Kes. Not to mention the Captain and Tuvok. If they all believe in you then perhaps it is time for some of the rest of us to let go of old wounds. You will need this information to create a truly challenging program that tests our abilities to the max." I sat back and watched him.
He shook his head in disbelief and I felt again the sorrow that I'd felt when Sandrine had told me of his father. Had he ever been told what a good job he was doing? Had anyone ever trusted him to *not* screw up? How do you believe in yourself when no one else does?
"It will ... take some time to do it properly. Tuvok says I'm to work with you on this." His eyes were rather bright but I ignored that and nodded.
"Yes. I am not a great programmer but I will do what I can to help. I look forward to working with you. Perhaps we should make plans to get together in about a week. You'll have questions by then. I've made a list of suggestions for possible scenarios and also a list of some of the things I just told you." I pushed a padd across the table to him and he took it gingerly as if he thought it might explode.
"A week? Yes. That would be all right. I'll just read this over and comm you with any questions." He rose abruptly and nodded to me before fleeing the room.
My cheerful look faded as I contemplated his reactions. Time was on my side, of course. With all wild animals, you must move very slowly so as not to frighten them. Patience was not my main virtue if I had any virtues but I would practice it because I must.
Three months, I thought to myself while I scanned for anything out of the ordinary while the others picked fruit. Three bloody months and I was still no closer to solving the enigma that was Thomas Paris. We'd met a total of six times and the only time I'd seen him smile was when Geron came in with him and teased him into a small grin. Not the shit-eating grin I was used to but a tiny quirk of lips that relaxed his whole face and made his eyes seem bluer than normal.
I don't think he is scared of me anymore. He seems to be a little less tense than he was that first meeting. But my patience was wearing just a little thin while I contemplated what it would take to make him really smile. At me instead of Geron. I shook my head and slowly made a circuit of the clearing where the six others were busy picking the large orange gourds that Neelix swore we would just love.
How odd that all my thoughts had concentrated on one man and such an unsuitable man at that. But concentrate I did. It was getting almost frightening how much he was in my thoughts. I'd even begun dreaming about him and I didn't need Chakotay to tell me what that meant. The first few had been rather worrisome because he was always in peril and I couldn't reach him in time.
But the last one had been different and I'd awakened with a hard on that was rather embarrassing. I'd had to bring myself off in the shower before going to work and *that* was something I hadn't had to do in a very long time indeed. And all we'd done was kiss in the dream. Kissing a man is quite different from kissing a woman.
A man is all hard angles instead of soft curves and this one was just a little shorter than I which was nice for my neck muscles. His lips were soft and his tongue tasted of spices from the south. The hips beneath my hands surged into mine and our groins mated through our clothing. I was enjoying the dream until I opened my eyes and saw Tom's face so close to mine with his eyes closed and a look of joy on his face.
I awoke in an instant, panting among the tangled sheets. That was this morning and I'd been slightly on edge ever since. I circled again and this time, the small blip on the edge of my tricorder screen really registered with me. The planet scan had said there were some mammals of various sizes but nothing our phasers on stun couldn't handle. I quietly commed Tuvok, who was shepherding another group a few miles away, to let him know that I had a reading.
None of the other five groups had reported anything like this and Tuvok was just suggesting that we should join their party when it came charging out of the bush right for us. It was vaguely lion-like with horns and scales instead of fur and my phaser barely slowed it. It was headed directly for the main party when I saw Tom, from the corner of my eye, wave his arms at it and run away from the others.
It changed direction immediately and within another few feet would have had him except for my dialing up the phaser to kill and dropping him just as he leapt on Tom, bearing him to the ground beneath his dead weight. Naomi was screaming and her mother and Geron were trying to calm her down while Green and Ketchner had their phasers out and were scanning for other creatures.
I hurried to Tom who lay unmoving beneath the beast, praying to all the old gods that he was all right. It took all my strength to heave it off the still figure and it was only then I saw the blood from the great claws that had raked his back into shreds. I could see bone gleaming through the widening pools of blood and I commed the ship in tightly controlled panic.
They beamed him up immediately and my prayers went with him while I slowly rose and returned to my other charges. We hurriedly gathered up the filled containers of fruit and headed back to the shuttle to join the others. I'm not the pilot that Tom is but shuttles aren't that hard to fly and I got us there in one piece.
I reported to Tuvok and explained in greater detail the only warning we had had. Just a little blip and then ... wham! I rejoined my fellow security crew and we all worked very quickly to fill the holders of fruit so we could depart. All the while I scanned and paced the grove, a small part of my brain kept replaying his brave action over and over again. While yet another, sent up prayer after prayer to gods I wasn't even sure I believed in anymore.
It was another two hours before we'd all returned safely to the ship. And another hour before my debriefing with the Captain and Commander was finished. Taking a life was the last thing I'd wanted to do but going from stun to kill when one of the crew was at stake was deemed justifiable. I don't know who was more surprised when I asked about Tom.
The Captain probably, but she told me he was resting comfortably in sick bay where he'd have to stay overnight to be sure there was nothing lurking in his bloodstream. Alien claws would have been full of alien bacteria. I nodded and left, breathing a little easier but still determined to go and see for myself.
I met the Wildmans coming out and little Naomi was prattling away. I was glad to see her perking up after the gruesome incident.
"Unk' Tom was vewy bwave, wasn't he, Mommy?" Her five year old tongue was having problems with her r's but she'd grow out of that.
"Yes, sweetheart. Tom was very brave to lead the nasty beast away from us." Samantha's eyes met mine and she smiled gently. "Let's go get some dinner, Naomi. Tom will be eating his own dinner with the holodoc."
"Okay!" Naomi giggled and waved at me. "Hi, Unk' Gweg. Thanks for shooting the big bad lion-beast."
"You're welcome, Naomi. Have a little ice cream on me after you eat all your vegetables. Okay?"
Sam rolled her eyes while Naomi hugged my leg enthusiastically. They headed off down the corridor, the little girl talking all the way. I shook my head, remembering another five year old who'd had trouble with his r's. Ivor had been 'Ivow' for several months before my wife had patiently taught him the pesky letter sound.
The door slid open and I entered the half lit chamber, my eyes searching for the diagnostic bed with Tom on it. The holodoc materialized with a martyred sigh.
"Another visitor. My, aren't we lucky today?" His sarcasm usually makes me smile but not now. Not when I needed to see Tom was all right for myself.
He was lying on his stomach, a light cover over him and his head turned towards the door. He'd fallen into a doze and I watched those long lashes flutter once before he woke up and saw me. I crossed to his side and laid a hand on his shoulder to stop him from rising. There was a chair by the bed and I sat down so he wouldn't have to strain to see me.
"Are you feeling better?" I kept my voice low. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the doctor move away from us.
"Yeah. Thanks for killing it." His eyes weren't quite in focus and I could see the little tremors that ran down his arm to the hand beneath his cheek.
"You're welcome. Thanks for drawing it away from the others." For once, I was determined that he would understand he'd done a good thing.
He tried to shrug. "Anyone would have."
"But *you* did, Tom. So, please understand how grateful I am not to be visiting Sam or Naomi or Geron here. It's bad enough that you're here." I pulled the blanket up a little. The doctor never kept this place warm enough. "Computer, raise temperature five degrees."
"Acknowledged." The bland female voice answered and within a few moments, it felt better to me.
"How's your back feel?"
"Tight. New skin always feels too tight. Kind of itchy." His voice faltered and he licked his lips.
"Thirsty? Let me get you some water." I rose to go to the replicator and order a glass of cool water with a straw.
He drew on it, his lips barely sucking on the straw and I was immediately in trouble. Hopefully, he wouldn't notice that I was getting turned on watching him drink a glass of water. How pathetic was that?
"Thanks, Ayala." His lashes fluttered shut again.
"You're welcome, Tom. Do you think that maybe its time for you to start calling me Gregor? We've been working on the security program for three months now and we've got a ways to go. Would you mind?" I had a really dreadful wheedle in my voice.
He opened his eyes wide and looked at me in shock which turned into a very sweet smile when he saw my grimacing face. "Gregor."
"Hah! Very nice. And you can say your r's too." I grinned at him and he chuckled once before a yawn cracked his face. Too late he covered it with his hand, looking at me guiltily.
"It's nice to see I haven't lost my touch. Whenever I visit the wounded, they fall asleep." I made a silly face and surprised him into another smile. "Go ahead, Tom. Sleep is the best thing for you. I'll check in again later. To make sure you're okay."
"'kay, Gregor." His voice was a little slurred and his eyes closed.
I watched him for a long moment before quietly getting up and going over to the doctor. He was waiting for me and when I asked my questions, he answered patiently enough ... for him. There were no signs of infection but he would monitor him through the night to be sure. I thanked him before leaving for dinner.
Dinner was a rather long and protracted affair. Rumors were flying around the room and each one I heard was worse than the next. Chakotay was frowning when he sat down beside me and I was fuming to put it mildly. We spoke briefly then he stood up and whistled the place silent.
I stood beside him and told the story in the quiet room, exactly how it happened and how Tom had saved the Wildmans and Geron from almost certain mauling. Sam got up and told it from her viewpoint but when Naomi stood on her chair, tiny hands on hips and glared at everybody, the tension finally broke.
"And Unk' Tom was vewy bwave. He's a hewo, the Captain said so. And when he's all bettew, he can have ice cweam too."
Laughter filled the room and Neelix called for ice cream for everyone. Among them all, Harry was the only one who came over to ask how Tom was now. When he heard I'd left him asleep a half hour before, he thanked me and hurried out. He's a good friend. Chakotay sat down heavily and shook his head.
"We have an uphill battle, Gregor. They're assuming this is a fluke of some kind. It's so odd that they refuse to see the changes in him."
"Not so odd, Cha. If they admit they were wrong about him, then they must admit to a flaw in their thinking. Not a comfortable thing to do. Look how long it took us." I pushed the blue vegetables around on my plate. "Are these any good?"
"Kind of crunchy but all right. Dip them in this." And he pulled one of his bowls closer to me.
The sauce was just spicy enough to cover the rather pasty taste of the blue tubes. I finished them while watching the other tables talk. It was better now. This looked to be a nine day wonder. We still needed to go back to the planet and finish harvesting another crop. One of the crews had brought back some water tubers and the holodoc had pronounced them an excellent source of iodine and other nutrients that we needed.
B'Elanna joined us with a request for Chakotay to authorize an engineering team to go rock hunting at the northern pole of the planet. She went on and on about some crystals that they could use for the replicators and certain instruments. The planet was proving to be a mini-treasure trove of supplies that we desperately needed.
It was good to just sit and chat with them but soon I found myself itching to go. Go where? Back to Tom, of course. I'd given up chiding myself for these urges I was having. It was probably just a midlife crisis of some kind, I decided. Excusing myself from the growing table of engineers all talking over my head, I left the dining hall and hurried through the empty corridors to sickbay.
The lights were dim and the doctor was off line. I crossed to Tom and sat again in the side chair. I brushed a lock of hair off his forehead and felt the heat radiating from him. Grabbing a tricorder from the side table, I took a reading. 101 degrees. Too high.
I pressed the button that would activate the doctor and made for the replicator to get another glass of water. The doctor materialized with a quip that soon turned to a frown when I told him what I'd found. He rechecked him and began an in-depth analysis, muttering all the entire time.
"But he was fine an hour ago... . What in heavens name is that? ... That's interesting. I think we need another blood sample." He directed me to the storage cabinet and the packs that would enable us to take a blood sample quickly and painlessly.
Tom was getting restless now, joining in the doctor's mutterings with some of his own. I found the alcohol wipes and opened one to run over his flushed face. The doctor took the blood sample and headed for the lab after I asked if it was all right if I eased Tom over onto his back. He nodded and I moved him gently off his front and over. Untangling the sheets from his lower limbs, I straightened him out and covered him back up.
He was semi-awake now and I held his head while I guided the straw between his lips. He took almost half the glass before shaking his head.
"Gregor? Why is it so hot?" He sounded about as old as my Ivor when I'd last seen him.
"You're running a fever, Tom. The doctor is running some tests but it looks like the lion-beast infected you before he died. It will be better soon." I ran another wipe down his throat, over his shoulders and along his right arm.
"Feels good. Cool." He just lay there, limp and still.
That seemed so wrong to me. All his energy disappeared into this quiet acquiescence. I moved around the bed to get his other arm and he roused briefly, his cloudy eyes following me wonderingly.
"Is that better? Shall I get your chest too?" My fingers itched to draw down the coverlet and touch that pale skin. He seemed incapable of responding so I took a chance and pulled the sheet down part way and ran the alcohol wipe over his satin flesh.
He sighed and his eyes closed so I pulled it down to his waist and bathed down to the waistband of his pajamas. The golden red curls grew sparsely on his chest, arrowing down to his groin in greater profusion. His nipples had tightened when I ran the cool cloth over them and the pink nubs stood out in bold relief to the rest of his chest. His shoulders looked broader somehow against the white sheets.
His head was moving restlessly again and I drew the sheet back up to cover him. Rounding the bed again, I grabbed the tricorder and took another reading. 103. Not good. Not good at all. He was licking his lips again so I got his head tilted up and put the straw between his lips. He finished the glass this time so I went and replicated a pitcher of water this time.
The doctor came back while I was doing that and I hurried back to hear what he had to say. He had a hypo in hand and he gave it to Tom in the carotid artery before he said anything.
"Well, there's an infection in his blood that should be cured by this broad spectrum antibacterial. But we'll have to watch him closely. If his temperature gets much higher, he could go into convulsions." He didn't sound too worried but then he never did.
"I'll stay right here and watch him. You'll need help if we have to pack him in ice to bring the temp down." I'd had to do it once before to a compatriot whose wound had gotten infected. It wasn't fun but it had saved his life.
"Thirsty." His whisper was so hoarse, I almost didn't understand the word.
And so started the rest of the night. The doctor commed the Captain and she came down to see Tom for herself. We agreed that I'd stay and help the doctor. She said she'd see that Tuvok was notified that I would not be reporting for duty at all. She stroked the hair back from Tom's flushed face with such a maternal air, it was hard to believe that it was the same woman who ordered us around so handily.
"Captain? Sorry." He recognized her and tried to look alert.
"Hush now, Tom. It's not your fault that that beast infected you. You did a very brave thing. And I have it on good authority that just as soon as you get better, Neelix has some ice cream with your name on it." She teased him gently and went back to stroking his hair.
"Pistachio?" His lips quirked up and he smiled at her.
"I think that could be arranged. Just rest now and get better." She trailed a finger down his cheek and he smiled again before he fell back asleep. She watched him much as I had earlier. Then sighing, she crooked her finger at me and headed for the door.
"Thank you for volunteering for this watch, Lt. Ayala. Just why are you?" Her wise eyes appraised me and it felt like they reached deep inside of me for the answer.
"I think we may yet be friends, Captain. I've been wrong about a lot of things in my life but ... I think I was very wrong about Tom." I didn't know what else to say but she just nodded and left.
He was trembling by the time I got back to the bed, only calming when I laid my hand on his shoulder. "Gregor?"
"I'm here, Tom. Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere. Would you like some more water?"
I dozed by his bed in between wiping him down and watering him. He grew incoherent after a couple of hours, begging for someone to stop hurting him. When I restrained him, he cringed away from me as if I was beating him. I tried to wake him, to bring him back to the here and now but he was lost in the past. And all too soon the fever went higher and he fell quiet.
The holodoc decided that 106 was too high and we began to pack the ice packs around his body. He began to shiver before we were half done and his eyes opened but didn't see us. He endured silently and after an hour, his temperature began to go down. Once we removed the packs, he fell into a more natural sleep and I was able to catch an hour myself, pillowing my head on my arms on the side of his bed. If he moved, I'd wake up.
"Hey ... Gregor." The whisper woke me out of my doze.
I raised up and blinked the sleep out of my eyes. Tom's eyes were clearer and he was looking at me with such a puzzled look.
"Hey yourself, Tom. You look better. Let me check your temp." I reached for the medical tricorder and found it down to 99 degrees. "Almost normal. Do you want some more water?"
He nodded and accepted the straw, drinking while he watched me. "The doc needed a little help while you fought off the infection left behind by the lion-beast. That's what Naomi is calling the creature. You'd have been proud of her last night. She got up in the middle of the dining hall and told everybody that you were 'vewy bwave'."
He choked and I watched him worriedly for a moment but it was just a laugh mixing with his drink. Not a good combination. I found myself patting his shoulder while he got his lungs back under control.
"I'll bet that went down well." He sounded resigned. "I hope they didn't laugh at her. She's a sweet little girl and she means well."
Why hadn't I noticed that before? The way he thinks of others first, just assuming that he's due whatever blame or punishment is being handed out. Suddenly, I wanted to hurt everyone who'd ever told him he was a screwup.
"Oh, I don't know. After Sam and I told them what happened, they pretty much accepted that you'd done a pretty brave thing. Which Chakotay backed up as well." I kept my voice even with an effort.
His eyes went wide and he almost looked frightened for a moment. "Oh well, it will all die down. I really don't need a lot of attention right now while we're trying to write these programs."
We. I fought to keep a silly grin off my face. He acknowledged that 'we' were working together. "You're probably right. The next crisis and everyone will be talking about that. The rumor mill on this ship is amazing."
He smiled shyly and those amazing blue eyes met mine again. "Why were you the one who helped the doc?"
"Because I was here and I volunteered. Harry visited while I was at dinner. Do you remember him being here?" He nodded hesitantly. "You were kind of drifting in and out for a while there. But when I came back after dinner, you were starting to run a fever. You surprised the doc, you know."
"Nonsense. Nothing Lt. Paris does could surprise me." The prissy tones of the holodoc came from the foot of the bed where he'd materialized.
I rolled my eyes and Tom smiled again, enduring the doc's fussing and tests. He still had that faintly puzzled look in his eyes whenever he caught me watching him and I just smiled gently and stayed right where I was. He was going to have to get used to having me around. Because sometime in the night, I'd realized two things.
First, it was time to move on with my life. Seri, my wife, had remarried and the boys had a new father. I'd finally finished my mourning and could begin again in this new universe we were flying through. I'd done my share of looking and just hadn't felt comfortable with any of the possibilities. But then, I'd been looking in the wrong places all the time.
Second, Kes had known what she was talking about all the time. Letting go of my anger *was* the next step along the road that would lead to my happiness. And for whatever reason, Tom was on the same path that I was on. If I was very lucky, we'd be able to walk it together. Slowly and with care, but together.
I helped him sit up and let him rest his golden head on my shoulder while the doc thumped his back and listened the old fashioned way to his lungs. I tried to keep it impersonal for now, afraid that I'd scare him by going too fast. But suppressing the need to hold him was perhaps the hardest thing I'd had to do in a long time. And when I caught him taking in a deep breath and holding it, I could have cheered. He was sniffing me.
What an erotic little gesture and one I'm quite sure he didn't realize he was making. Next to tasting, and that was an image I had to banish quickly, scenting is the sense that most quickly identifies a person to another. I'd already begun imprinting him into my senses and his warm, spicy scent would stay with me forever. Even overlaid with the alcohol wipes I'd used on him, the smell of him reminded me of fresh baked bread and sunshine.
An odd combination, I know but addicting anyway. I laid him back reluctantly and pulled up the blanket, tucking him in so he wouldn't catch a chill, while listening to the doctor pontificate on about the decreasing infection and the need for him to stay another 24 hours in sickbay.
He rolled his eyes tiredly and I hid a grin from the doc while I congratulated myself on his acceptance of my presence. The holodoc suggested a light meal of soup and his eyes lit up.
I smiled and went to the replicator to order it. I charged it against his account so it would be the kind he wanted. It was a delicate line I was walking. I wanted him comfortable with me but not beholden to me. We had to meet as equals or this wouldn't work. Right now he was weak and vulnerable and I couldn't take advantage or I'd lose him before we ever had a chance to be together.
I asked for it in a mug so he could drink it himself as much as I would have enjoyed feeding him. I stole all the pillows from the other beds and used them to prop him up high enough so he could eat comfortably. His hand shook as he sipped the soup and he had to rest the mug on his chest in between but he managed. I replicated a snack for myself so I could keep him company. Just a bowl of frijhas chips.
"What are those?" He noticed the dark red color and twisted shapes.
"Frijhas. Want to try one? They're kind of spicy." I gave him fair warning but handed one over when he nodded.
His eyes widened immediately but his grin flashed out like a beacon. "Wow! You're not kidding. That tastes great. Have you ever tried jalepeno pepper soup? They remind me a little of that."
We talked of food for the next twenty minutes while he finished his soup and a couple more of my chips. His color was back but when I checked his temperature, it was still 99 degrees. He laid back with a sigh when I removed the excess pillows.
"Thank you, Gregor. I'll be all right. You should go and get some sleep. I don't need babysitting anymore." He looked pensively at me and I smiled at him.
"Not babysitting, Tom. Just watching over a partner. There's no *way* I could finish those programs by myself. You need to get better so we can get back to work." I laid a hand gently on his shoulder and gripped lightly. "I'll check in later and see if the doc is willing to spring you."
"Okay." He smiled back and barely stifled a yawn. "Thanks for the frijhas chips. They were really good."
"You're most welcome. Sleep well, my friend." And I left him without another look. One of the hardest things I've ever had to do. It felt wrong to leave him alone in that sterile place, but we'd come far enough for now.
Tomorrow, I'd intensify my campaign. Grinning, I headed for bed and maybe another dream, this time with sound and scent effects.
The end of part one