by Irene Deitel
A child's shriek of pleasure and a man's exuberant shout of "bombs away!", followed by a loud splash, were the first sounds Commander Chakotay heard as he slipped quietly onto the holodeck.
As he watched unobtrusively, Naomi Wildman and Tom Paris climbed out of the water and up onto the rocks jutting out over the crystal clear lake. Bright sunlight bounced off the tops of the two blond heads as they stood, poised for a moment, before jumping in again, hand in hand. Naomi's cries of glee brought a smile to Chakotay's normally stern visage as he settled himself into a lounge chair next to B'Elanna Torres.
Torres glanced at the uniform and started to rise from her chair, then stopped when she realized it was Chakotay. She settled back against the cushions.
"Naomi's certainly enjoying herself," Chakotay observed, the smile on his face reflected in his voice.
"Yes, the kids," B'Elanna emphasized the 's' on the end of the word, "are having a great time." Her tone was one of amused indulgence, but Chakotay could read the concern in her eyes, as she diligently kept one eye on Tom.
Chakotay allowed his gaze to follow Tom and Naomi as they once again scrambled out of the water and up the rocks. Despite three operations and a month of physical therapy, Paris's limp was still noticeable, and, clad only in a pair of bathing trunks that looked like they were going to lose the war against gravity any second, his almost ten kilo weight loss was all too apparent.
Chakotay swallowed around the lump in his throat, the one he got every time he looked at Tom and thought about the shuttle accident six weeks earlier. He and Ensign Wildman and Lieutenant Brooks had escaped with only minor injuries, thanks to Paris, but Tom had nearly died. He could hear Paris's voice in his head, as clearly as if it were happening all over again.
"Get in the back with Sam and Dave and strap yourself in tight, Chakotay," Paris ordered as he fought a losing battle with the controls. Their unexpected, too close encounter with a quantum filament had damaged both nacelles and disrupted every system on the ship. "This thing is bucking like a Farenkamen water hopper," he added tersely, a thin sheen of sweat already visible on his brow.
"I can help you," Chakotay offered, while at the same time gripping the back of the co-pilot's seat to keep from falling on his butt. The tension in Paris's voice confirmed his fears of just how serious the situation was. He'd always hated that water hopper ride.
"Forget it," Paris snapped, never taking his eyes off the helm. "I just might be able to maintain enough control to set her down nose first, and protect the aft section. You'll all stand a chance back there. But it's certain as hell that whoever is sitting up here won't survive the impact."
"Tom," Chakotay began, then stopped as Paris spared him a quick glance. He saw in Tom's eyes the knowledge of the sacrifice he was ready to make. If anyone had the skill to save them, it was Tom. He was willing to forfeit his own life to save Chakotay and the rest of the away team.
Chakotay rested his hand on Paris's shoulder and nodded wordlessly, accepting his priceless offer, then turned away. Paris's soft tones called him back.
"Do me a favor, Chakotay," Paris asked quietly.
"Anything, Tom," the Commander replied soberly, ready to move heaven and earth for the man he owed his life to once again.
Paris looked at Chakotay for a long moment. Chakotay returned the scrutiny patiently, as he allowed the admiration and respect he felt for the young officer to be reflected in his dark eyes. Apparently, Paris found whatever he was looking for, because Chakotay saw him nod his head almost imperceptibly and start speaking. "Tell B'Elanna that she's the best thing that ever happened to me, and I love her more than anything in the world."
Paris turned back to his controls, exerting all his strength on trying to hold the shuttle together during their steep, uncontrolled descent to the planet surface.
In the last few seconds, Paris had been able to alter the shuttle's trajectory slightly, so that the impact was off center of the nose, sparing him from the full brunt of the crash. Through the grace of God, and his extraordinary piloting skills, he had survived the impact.
With major internal injuries, a skull fracture, and his left leg so badly crushed that he was sure the Doctor would have to amputate, Chakotay had been afraid that Paris would die before Voyager could rescue them. But, in his usual stubborn, defiant manner, he managed to hang on. He had even regained consciousness briefly, just long enough to beg Chakotay to promise to not let them cut off his leg. He had honored that promise.
Chakotay watched Tom swimming in the lake with Naomi, as if he didn't have a care in the world, and couldn't help but admire his fortitude. His recovery had been slow and painful, and it wasn't over yet. The doctor had scheduled another surgery for the next morning, in hopes of relieving Tom's constant pain and eliminating the limp completely.
Chakotay turned his full attention to B'Elanna. The past six weeks had been hard for her too, he knew, but they hadn't really had a chance to talk about it. She had been there for Tom every step of the way. Every spare minute she had was spent helping him recover. For the first four days, when they weren't sure if he would live or not, she had refused to even leave sickbay. Chakotay had never told her what Paris had said to him, and he wondered now if that were a mistake. She looked haunted, as if she hadn't slept well in weeks. He knew her well enough to know that something was weighing heavily on her mind.
"How are you doing?" he asked softly, his keen gaze missing nothing as he observed her every expression and gesture.
"I'm fine, Chakotay." At the disbelieving look he favored her with, she sighed heavily. "All right, maybe not fine. But I'm holding it together. I'm just a little worried about tomorrow," she admitted. "Boy," she added quietly after a moment, "it feels good to be able to say that aloud to someone."
"I thought the Doctor was very optimistic about the outcome of tomorrow's operation," Chakotay remarked.
"The doctor is certainly not lacking in confidence in his abilities, but even he said that there are no guarantees." Torres hesitated, about to say something further, but then decided not to.
Chakotay placed one hand over hers, where it rested on the arm of the chaise. He missed their times together, their sharing of confidences. As Tom and B'Elanna had grown closer, the two of them had drifted apart. But he was still her friend and would always be there for her, and he wanted her to know that. "I'd like to help, B'Elanna. I know this hasn't been easy for you."
Torres glanced at him, and Chakotay was surprised to see her eyes filled with tears. He couldn't recall her ever crying. He'd seen her so angry she could have ripped the head off a targ with her bare hands, but he'd never seen her reduced to tears. "I'm afraid for him, Chakotay," she whispered. "He's fought so hard to get to this point. If this surgery doesn't help, I don't know what he'll do. He won't even talk about it. I'm afraid I'm losing him."
"Losing him? What do you mean?" Chakotay could sense they were getting to the heart of her distress, and he knew that the only way B'Elanna could successfully deal with her current problem was to talk about it.
"I think things were getting pretty serious between us before the accident, but now Tom's closed off a big part of himself. He's shut me out. I'm not sure where we stand anymore. I don't know what to do to help him. Or if he even wants my help. I love him, Chakotay, and I don't want to lose him."
"I'm sure he hasn't shut you out deliberately, B'Elanna. He's had to focus all of his energy to come back from such devastating injuries. Maybe he's afraid of losing you if he doesn't recover completely, and that's why he's concentrating only on his recovery right now, to the exclusion of everything else."
"Why would he be afraid of losing me?" Torres demanded.
Chakotay hesitated, trying to frame his answer in as polite a way as possible. Torres didn't take criticism very well, and although he didn't mean what he was about to say in a negative way, she could easily construe it as such.
"You're a strong, independent, no-nonsense woman, B'Elanna, and you don't have much tolerance for fools or weaklings. And since Tom is neither one of those things, it's never bothered him before. In fact, it's probably part of the attraction. But now, he's at a physically and emotionally vulnerable point, and maybe he's afraid you won't be willing to stick around. Maybe he's distancing himself from you so that you won't see how much he needs you right now."
He held up his hand to forestall her angry rebuke. "I'm not saying it's your fault, or even that it has anything to do with you. This is about Tom and who he is, and how he's learned to deal with life. And it doesn't mean he doesn't love you. I know he does," Chakotay added.
"How do you know that?" Torres asked. Although their relationship had undergone a subtle transformation - for the better - since the accident, Tom and Chakotay weren't exactly bosom buddies, much less the types to wear their hearts on their sleeves.
Chakotay told her about the message Paris had asked him to convey. "He was sure he wouldn't survive, and he wanted you to know how he really felt about you," he concluded.
"Thank you for telling me. It really means a lot to hear those words," she told him, her smile bright beneath the tears that were now rolling slowly down her cheeks. She brushed them away hastily, as Naomi's high pitched greeting reached them.
"Hi, Commander!" she called out gaily, as she and Paris came toward them. "Are you coming for a swim?" she queried, dancing on the balls of her feet, clearly still full of energy. Paris, on the other hand, sank onto the end of B'Elanna's lounger, unable to hide his pain and weariness. Torres wrapped a big towel around him, and handed another one to Naomi.
"Fraid not," Chakotay told her. "I'm not exactly dressed for a swim right now. Your mother asked me to find you. She thought you would have been home by now. I guess she was worried that Tom might have let you drown," he teased the little girl, dropping a quick wink in Tom's direction.
"Don't be silly," Naomi retorted, sounding remarkably like her mother. "Tom would never let me drown. Besides, it's only a holodeck," she pointed out, as if he had no idea that the safety protocols would keep her from harm.
"You know, you're absolutely right, young lady," Chakotay exclaimed in mock surprise. His voice dropped to a near conspiratorial whisper as he leaned closer to her. "The truth is, your mom said it's time for dinner, and she wants you home right away." Chakotay stood up, clearly waiting for her to accompany him. Although she was a civilian, Naomi knew that when the command staff said something, you did it.
"Oh, all right," she replied sulkily. She knew she had to listen, but she didn't have to like it. She turned to Paris, throwing her arms around his neck and kissing his cheek. "Thank so much for bringing me here, Tom. It was wonderful! I had a really great time!" She turned to leave, then turned back and whispered something in Paris's ear that brought a small smile to his face. "Bye, B'Elanna," she added, waving at the pair as she followed Chakotay out of the simulation.
Torres waited until they were alone before wrapping her arms around Paris and helping him dry off. She could see that he'd overexerted himself. He was pale and shivering, and lines of pain were etched into his face.
"What did she say to you?" B'Elanna queried, as she rubbed his arms to restore warmth to them. "Or is it a secret?"
"No secret," Paris replied quietly, as he buried his head in the towel to dry his hair. "She just wished me luck tomorrow. Sam must have told her about the surgery."
"Are you worried about it?" Torres asked with deceptive lightness. As she had told Chakotay, Tom had closed off part of himself, and she didn't know what he was feeling these days. He had brushed off her comments and concerns about the upcoming operation with some glib remarks, the kind that made her bite her tongue to prevent a choice Klingon expletive from escaping.
Paris stared at her intently for a few moments, as if seeing, and realizing, something for the first time. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "I guess I haven't been very good at letting you in lately, have I?"
"No, you haven't," Torres replied softly. She knelt behind him, hugging him gently and resting her chin on his shoulder. "I love you, Tom," she reminded him. "It scares me when you shut me out. I'm afraid of losing you."
Paris turned around, pulling her into his arms and kissing her tenderly. "The only way you'll lose me is if you shove me out an airlock," he declared, a distinctly impish Paris grin flashing across his face. It vanished as quickly as it came, but Torres was glad to have seen it at all. She couldn't remember the last time he'd smiled like that.
"I wouldn't have made it through these last six weeks without you, B'Elanna," he allowed, taking her hands in his and rubbing his thumbs across the tops. He met her gaze squarely, and B'Elanna's breath caught in her throat as she stared into blue eyes filled with love.
"Every time I look at you, I'm reminded of why I'm fighting so hard to come back. You're the light of my life. I want things to get back to the way they were." Paris paused, and Torres saw the color return to his cheeks as a slow blush crept up his neck and into his face. She wondered idly what he was thinking about that could have caused it. His next words answered her unspoken question. "I was all set to ask you to marry me, but the accident put a little crimp in my plans."
B'Elanna could barely breathe from the weight of his pronouncement, and she had to force the words out her suddenly parched throat. "Why can't you ask me now?"
Paris shook his head. "It wouldn't be fair to you. Look at me now. I can't even make it through a duty shift, and it may be a while before I can. How can I ask you to tie yourself down to me when I'm in this condition? I don't know how I'm going to end up when all this is over."
Torres snorted in disgust as she struggled to keep her Klingon temper in check. She got up and began pacing in front of him. "You know, Tom, there are times when you really piss me off. And this is one of those times," she declared hotly, her face just inches from his. "I love you. Do you understand what that means? Obviously you don't," she answered, not allowing him a chance to respond. "It means I don't care if you have one leg or two. Or none. I don't care if you can't beat me at Paresees Squares anymore. I don't care if we have to be a little more human and a little less Klingon in our lovemaking." B'Elanna knelt in front of him, resting her hands on his knees.
"I do care that you can make me laugh and feel good about myself. I do care that you're there to hold me in the middle of the night when I have nightmares about the Cardassian prison camp, and you make me feel safe and secure. I do care that you'll do something unexpectedly nice for me when I've had a really bad day. I do care that my Klingon half doesn't scare you. I fell in love with you because of how I feel when I'm with you. And because you're irreverent, easy-going, sensitive, brave, stubborn, shameless, charming, very handsome, and extremely sexy. You're my support and strength. And I hope I'm yours, as well. I care that you know that I will always be here for you, no matter what. And whatever happens tomorrow, that is not going to change."
Paris's eyes brimmed with unshed tears. "I hope you don't care that I'm an idiot, because I really feel like one now," he laughed shakily, his hand reaching out to stroke her hair. B'Elanna had been totally honest with him and she deserved nothing less in return, but it was difficult to say out loud what he'd only recently admitted to himself. His voice was so low that Torres had to strain to hear him.
"I've been so scared, B'Elanna. Afraid that if I relied on you too much, if I let you know how scared I was and how much I was hurting, you'd decide I wasn't worth the hassle, and leave me."
Torres shook her head. Thank you, Admiral Paris, she thought to herself, wishing, not for the first time, to have five minutes alone with that odious man, so she could tell him exactly what she thought of him and his lousy parenting skills. "You mean everything to me, Tom. I'm a fighter, and so are you. We're not going to give up just because things have gotten a little tough, are we, Ensign?" she ordered sternly.
"No, ma'am," Paris responded obediently, as Torres got up and pulled him to his feet as well. It suddenly occurred to him that life with a wife who outranked him would be very interesting. He hoped it wouldn't be too long before he got his lieutenant's pip back again.
"In that case," she continued in her best Chief of Engineering tone, the one that had the junior officers scrambling for the nearest Jeffries tube, "what have you got to say for yourself?"
"Requesting permission to marry you, ma'am," he replied crisply, standing at attention and watching her carefully, knowing that the most important moment in his life was happening right then and there.
"Permission granted," smiled Torres. She reached up and put her arms around his neck as his lips came down to meet hers in a kiss filled with passion and promise.
"Come on, let's get you home and out of that wet suit," she whispered in his ear, after they came up for air many minutes later.
"You'll have to make an honest man out of me first. I'm not that easy," Paris chuckled, unafraid, for the first time, of what tomorrow would bring.
"Oh, yes you are," Torres corrected him, laughing, knowing that whatever the future held, they would face it together.