At Any Cost (part two)

Disclaimer: See part one...they aren't mine.

Rating: M

Notes: A huge, HUGE thank you to my wonderful beta Cheshire, who is finally letting me thank her for all her hard work in her own gift (yep, I meant I have NO shame). Without her, I'd most likely be sitting on an even bigger pile of unfinished stories than I am already. Any plot inconsistencies throughout this story, minor or major, I probably managed to sneak in during a compulsive period of reediting after she'd weeded all the others out. As for unbearably wordy passages – chances are, I snuck those in last minute, too :D

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Eleven


Gwiln


Janeway has proven everything I'd hoped she'd be and so much more. I'd gotten the barest inkling of her incredible will at the reception hall, but I'm pleased to see now, after spending most of yet another day together, how much sheer strength she was hiding from even my perceptive study.

Since commencing with the heavier part of the routine of breaking her down, she's told me her name, rank, and service number. The last was surprising. I can only assume that, for her organization, this is acceptable information to offer an enemy. Not so with us. Were she Jifani, she would be burned for providing her identification number so freely. Never mind that it means nothing to me, it's a matter of what should be personal honor to her. When she recited this for the first time, I experienced a thrill of disappointed triumph. Until I studied her tone and body language more closely. It wasn't fear that prompted her response, I'd realized. It was determination. Janeway had resolved to tell me those three things: name, rank, and service number – and nothing more.

I have to keep in mind that she is not Jifani. Not so difficult, in theory. It should be easy to remember, considering that odd red hair and pale skin of hers. I'm not so sure I like her coloring. In places, I can see the blue veins webbing just beneath her flesh; it's that white. It's alien. Not quite repulsive, but still, a glaring reminder that she is not of this world.

Airrek has no trouble with her odd appearance. I think he rather enjoys her strangeness. Possibly too much so. And Kohr is impressed enough. The two of them are almost drooling when they think I'm not looking, and it's disgusting how easily distracted they are. I've already denied two requests from the lower ranks on her wing to lift the restrictions regarding her status, and my first instinct is to attribute the apparent interest in her to the fact that there are rarely any women here. I should simply sanction more leave…allow them all a few nights out on the local town to relieve their baser frustrations.

Then again, there's the disgusting way Kaelo conducted himself with her. He has few restrictions on his availability of options, being who he is. I frown. I suppose I must accept that I'm in the minority in my reluctance to view her as an attractive female.

But her prowess as a military mind…this fascinates me. Initially, I watched her dance determinedly in and out Kaelo's fumbling grasp, denying him without outright insulting him, and then, with my own eyes, witnessed the amusing spectacle of her putting him in his place. That was a sight worth seeing. I did admire her for that, though I hadn't expected it of her. Janeway is stronger and less pliable than she looks.

I'll keep her restrained at all times. I have no desire to be caught underestimating her strength the way Kaelo did.

She is bent over at the moment, recovering from this last jolt, and having difficulty breathing, too, I notice. It seems painful for her to inhale very deeply. I think this is residual discomfort from her previous wound, which we received a full accounting of from the Grall. We know her medic saved her life, but I don't like that the injury hasn't fully healed yet. It could force me to terminate our session prematurely.

I wonder again how long it will take to break her. I've given her enough zaps with my trusty charger to have felled a small work animal already. She has screamed and convulsed prettily enough, but I can see from the set of her jaw that she's no closer to breaking for it.

This is curious. I'd expected her to put up a token fight, but I really hadn't anticipated this level of resistance. I haven't found women to be as challenging as men, though I do have respect for them. They are, at least in our race, slightly less resistant to pain. They seem to feel it more acutely, and particularly at the height of their cycles. I'm uncertain whether this is a factor for humans, but either way, Janeway is not giving a microscopic centimeter.

I've encountered women before who were harder to break than most men, but only those who have had something very dear to them at stake: mothers protecting sons or daughters, wives shielding husbands, lovers refusing to betray their paramours. The absolute worst are the religiously devout. Of course by worst, I mean most satisfying…for they all break eventually. Janeway will, too. It's only a matter of the degree of challenge they present beforehand.

I'm told she has no family, no religion as we define the term, and yet, clearly, there is some higher calling at work here. Only the most religious, the most zealous, and the most emotionally attached are able to withstand my sessions for more than a single round or two. Barring such a motivator, too often, I don't even get as far as administering the first energy discharge before I have them crawling, cowering, and begging for their lives.

Not this one. Most assuredly not this one. I have been doing this for a very long time. I know after the first shock, simply by looking into the eyes, whether or not the subject will be broken by anything less than the full, comprehensive regimen I've spent my career perfecting. Janeway's eyes are hard. Even now, as I press the tip of the weapon she has already grown to fear to her injured side, she can still display defiance.

Good. It's been too long, and I'm redefining my plans with regard to making her comply with Kaelo's wishes.

Yet again, Kaelo will not be pleased. He's going to be livid, I imagine, when I tell him later today that there has still been no progress to speak of. He won't appreciate the gift of having a subject worth at least a modicum of my talented attention. I do. Too rarely does this happen. This will be done properly with her.

I had to turn off the surveillance equipment in her cell. A shame, as watching her interact with her officer and the guards each evening could have taught me a great deal I'd never learn about her otherwise. But Kaelo can tap into any military frequency at any time, and I know too well that he'll be able to see from those recordings that I'm not using techniques to his satisfaction. And I've set stricter limits on her care and handling by the guards responsible for her each evening. I don't mind them harassing or ogling her, especially if it unnerves her, but I will not abide any violence against her not orchestrated under my controlled supervision.

I've also had to take great care not to mark her in ways I can't easily cover up. Jorca is already on the lookout for the woman being mistreated while in government care. The judge advocate has even used her position to arrange a personal inspection of the prisoner at some point in the near future, and not even Kaelo dares publicly defy her, political climate being what it is at present.

I don't like that in the slightest. Janeway is my subject. Already, I feel the connection of captor and captive forming between us. It's a thing of unparalled beauty. Having someone else step in and dictate terms regarding my prisoner is difficult to swallow.

For now, though, she belongs solely to me. I study my subject. She shivers under the spotlights that do too little to warm her icy flesh. Her slight form trembles from the most recent jolt of electrical current I administered. Simply standing must be difficult by now, not that she has a choice in those ankle restraints. I'm certain her legs ache from the hours of standing and from the seizing up of her muscles; I've engineered this result, knowing what even the simplest of discomforts can do to break down a humanoid's will if endured long enough.

Today, she hasn't removed her hands from the wall, except involuntarily, and that small concession pleases me.

This is an intimate process – in many ways more intimate than any professional or romantic relationship. It requires us to remain in close confines, in relative isolation for however long it takes me to achieve the results I desire with her. For the next days, perhaps even weeks, Janeway will be the center of my world. I am coming to know her, to know what makes her flinch, what makes her grimace, and what makes her scream. I will know what makes her fearful, what gives her hope, and what brings her despair. Soon, I will be so in tuned to her body's every twitch, her face's every miniscule expression, and her mind's most intimate workings that it will be difficult to know where she ends and where I begin.

And it will be the same for her. Though, in her case, it will be more a matter of survival than of fulfillment.

I look forward to it.

Slowly, I'm learning everything I need to know in order to compensate for her alien physiology. The six hours' rest I afford her each evening in her cell doesn't appear to be enough for her muscles to recover. Her legs now tremble even before I have her placed in the restraints. I'll have to look into that if I don't want her unable to stand at all. Perhaps eight hours will be required this evening. And I've already had to incorporate small breaks in our routine for Kohr to offer her a set ration of water – iced, of course – against the dehydration she seems prone to with the purging each morning. I may have to increase the amount; it hasn't seemed to help, and I can't have her dying or lapsing into a coma on me before we've scarcely begun.

Already, I know that she is intelligent, remarkably so, and I can tell that she has trained for this. More likely, what she has trained for is the forcible extraction of information, but that is also a part of what I do now. In order to mold her to my bidding…or rather, to Kaelo's bidding, I must extract key information regarding what will most effectively break her. And she is uncommonly good at suppressing this information. Even after I've driven her body to the limits of what she appears able to endure, she has held her tongue when I could see in her bright eyes that she was just burning to spit abuse at me. It's a shame her control extends so far, for through anger, I should be able to goad her into letting crucial details slip, but she appears to know this already. And she is determined to thwart me in every way.

She even angered me that first day. Genuinely angered me when she attempted to use my own men against me. I was tempted to congratulate her for it. Janeway is a clever woman. I have to watch myself with her.

I smile at her now, though she can't see it. It excites me beyond measure to have such a challenge.

The key to breaking her will be to uncover the hidden object – most likely a person, though I haven't yet ruled out principle in her case – she is striving to protect by remaining silent. The most obvious answer would be her ship, or someone on it, but I've been careful not to mention her vessel for that reason. Possibly, this is where I have been in error. We will see, eventually. But for now, I've given her long enough to recover.

She tenses visibly as I trail my baton along the bones that protect some of her vital organs, and I'm pleased. Already, she is learning to fear certain actions from me.

"Frightened, Captain?" I inquire softly, pressing myself ever so lightly against her back. This should simultaneously reassure and unnerve her. I won't deliver a charge while standing so close to her skin, and she should have noted this by now, but she simply doesn't like it when I stand this close. When I touch her at all.

Her body remains tightly tensed. Strained. I can see the rippling of her fine musculature beneath that almost translucent flesh of hers.

I keep my voice low. "Have anything you'd like to tell me before we continue our little session?"

"No."

Her voice is so throaty, so rich. Raw, at the moment, pained, but still distinctive. I like the sounds she makes with that voice, even if I have to listen hard to properly hear it through the rabble of the translator.

"No?" I repeat, wondering what she thinks of my voice. As I'm behind her most of the time, she must rely upon cues from my tone to signal when I'm displeased or planning something sinister for her to endure next. She must be acutely aware of my own unique inflections by now.

I twist the end of the baton gently against her flesh, letting her feel the motion as a subtle threat. "Are you sure?"

"Yes," she grits, without hesitation.

I let my free hand come around the side of her, resting it against her thigh. Were it not procedure to avoid flesh to flesh contact with subjects, I might like to know whether the skin there is as soft as it feels through my glove, but I have to settle for smoothing my covered palm over her bare thigh instead. "Nothing about meeting with members of the resistance while you were here the last time?"

I can feel her try, and almost succeed, to keep her cool. I smile and afford her the courtesy of containing my laughter.

"No," she snaps, fighting so very hard to keep still.

But my ministrations have done at least a little to sap her of her strength and stoic demeanor. Her fingers flex slightly against the wall. She's having trouble holding still and not reacting. She stares straight ahead, her jaw set in a firm line and it, too, flexes as her teeth clench together.

"So determined not to show me how afraid you are of my touch, aren't you? So hell bent on not letting me see how you tense at the thought of another burst from my wand. You don't want another jolt, do you, Captain?"

She surprises me.

"No," she admits, her tone flat, "I don't."

"But you know I'm going to apply it because you refuse to cooperate."

Silence. Just as I assume Janeway has given me all she is going to, she spits, "Yes."

I withdraw my hand from her leg. "Then why do you still refuse to give me what is necessary to stop me from doing it?" I ask, genuinely curious.

"I told you. Because you're asking me to admit to something I haven't done."

That isn't the answer, though. Not entirely. If it were just that simple, she'd have confessed after the first demonstration of my ability to make her suffer until she capitulates. No, there is something more at work here. Janeway is protecting something. I know it. After days of following the same procedure, it's time to take our interaction to the next level. But I don't dare increase the voltage of the baton without first knowing what the effects of it will be on her alien physiology. It makes my next step doubly strategic.

"Perhaps. But I've been wondering something, Captain."

"What?" she finally demands, after a long moment of silence from me.

I let my hand find her shoulder. "I wonder if your officer might be able to help us come to some sort of agreement." I feel the tension in her body redouble. I wait another moment, reveling in it, before continuing, "So I've dispatched someone to fetch him from your cell. He should be arriving here shortly."

I watch her fight to control the tension rippling through her, only half succeeding at her attempts, and I smile, sensing that I am on the right track.

Yes, Janeway is a pleasure to work with.


Tom


She's trained to handle this. It's what she keeps telling me, and I have to remember that. If it had been most of the other crew on Voyager…me, Harry, or, God help me, B'Elanna…

It could be much worse. At least command training leaves the captain properly equipped to deal with the situation. Regular, non-command and other than high risk personnel like the rest of us are taught only the basics of interrogation and torture resistance. Command school has entire months set aside for the topic.

Right?

Another scream echoes in the hall outside of the cell, completely undoing my weak attempt at rationalization. There's nothing in that horrible, pain-filled sound but agony. Despair. It's almost inhuman, really. And then a heart-stopping shriek follows the moment of silence in between. It didn't even sound like her that time…but it was. I know it was. I never thought Kathryn Janeway would be capable of making sounds in anything close to that pitch. I highly doubt she did, either.

I'm on my feet again. For the tenth time, I can't help yelling out for them to stop hurting her. Trying to cover up the horrific sounds of suffering still being wrenched from my superior officer.

"Stop it! Leave her alone!" Not that there's anyone even listening to me, but at least as long as I'm shouting, I can't hear those God-awful sounds. I learned that yesterday, the first time it happened. "Damn you, she hasn't done anything wrong!"

For about a minute, there's quiet. Tantalizing quiet. And in my tormented state of mind, I actually entertain the notion that anything I say or do might have some bearing on whether or not they leave her in peace.

And then she screams again. The sound is a whole lot weaker this time. More desperate than angry. More of a wail than a scream… And then another cry echoes out, just like the last one. This time, my knees give out, and I let myself sink to the filthy floor, rubbing the heels of my hands into my eyes and trying to wrap my mind around this helpless, gut-twisting feeling.

This is the ninth day we've been on Jifan, and for the first week, except for that first night, we weren't allowed to see each other at all. But since being transferred to military custody, it's gotten even worse.

This is the fourth day of interrogation by military officials. The fourth day she has been awoken by the same two soldiers and literally dragged out of our cell. The second day that I've had to sit here and listen to her periodic screaming…and it's gotten progressively more intense each time.

By now, it doesn't sound like they're letting up enough for her to even breathe properly in between…whatever it is that they're doing.

I think the last time I was in anything like this situation, I had to watch them take Durst away, knowing he wasn't coming back again, and every morning, I can only hope to hell I haven't watched the captain walk away from me for the last time, too. Even though I know they aren't likely to kill her – at least not until she gives them what they want – I just can't stop wondering what could make Kathryn Janeway, the woman who defeated the Borg, scream like that?

The impotent rage is beginning to return. They're doing this on purpose. Of course they are. They keep our cell right near the interrogation room on purpose. I'm meant to have to listen to her screaming. As if to add emphasis to the point, somewhere between there and my cell a guard laughs, makes a comment to one of his companions. Their voices draw nearer, approaching from around the corridor just outside my view. They're probably coming to watch me suffer again, to laugh about what's going on in the room those screams are coming from now. They're vicious – calling them low-life scum would be an insult to low-life scum. They hate that they haven't been able to convince her to "be nice to them", as they put it, and they seem to hate even more that they're so obviously not allowed to touch her. Which is about the only thing I can think of to be thankful for in this place.

She won't tell me what they're doing in there. I wish to hell she would, but every time they bring her back and I ask what's been happening, she'll only shake her head and tell me she's fine. That they're not really hurting her so much as trying to frighten her. And there may not be any marks on her that I can discern, aside from the increasing swelling and discoloration around her ankles and that split lip from the first day, but there's a hell of a lot more going on in that room than just a friendly chat.

Even if I couldn't hear her screaming half the day, I'd know that much from the circles under her eyes and the continuing weight-loss I observe. We've both lost weight since being taken into Grall custody, her more than me from her illness, but the past week it's almost a noticeable daily decrease in her. Her prison uniform, always in the exact condition it was in when she left, hangs increasingly loose around her small frame, and I can't understand why that is. She's eating as much as I am. I make sure of it…hell I watch her eat. The portions aren't enough to make us gain any weight, that's for sure, but they should be enough to ensure that it takes a good solid few months before we're in real danger of malnutrition. She looks on the verge of it already.

A piercing shriek again. It cuts right through me, slicing me to the core. Silence, deathly silence, and then more laughter.

Something in me snaps. I'm ready to move this time – fuck this. I'll be damned if I can sit here and do nothing while they...whatever it is they're doing. All I need is for them to let down that field for a second. Just for one second…

They swing into view: not the regular prison guards but different soldiers…just like the two who come for the captain every morning. In fact – I think they are the two that come for her every morning.

They know where she is. I know they know where the captain is, and what is happening to her.

"What the hell are they doing to her?" I demand. Daring them to toy with me this time. Daring them to keep those smug looks on their faces while I can still hear…it only dawns on me now that it's been silent for a few moments.

They come right up to me. I didn't really expect it, considering who they are, but it's clear now that I was their destination all along. I feel my insides turn over. This time, they've come to speak with me. Which means something important is up. So I draw myself up to full height as they step right up to the forcefield and one of them levels a hand held disruptor at me.

"You. Medic. The intendent wants a word with you."

I don't care that they have a weapon on me. I can remember telling Durst to back down in a similar situation, and I know why the captain wanted me to stand down when she was taken...again. But this time, it's a little different. This time the danger is imminent, and whatever else happens, I can't go on listening to those screams without knowing what is happening to her. It'll kill me, as surely as a blast from one of those mean-looking disruptors will. It doesn't matter if they shoot me. I'm damned either way.

"I want to see my captain first," I clip, surprising myself because the bravado in my tone isn't even a little bit false. "I'm not going anywhere or speaking to anyone until I'm allowed to see Captain Janeway."

And I do mean that. They'll have to drag my limp body anywhere else but to the captain's side.

The taller soldier sneers. "Don't worry, medic. The captain is with the intendent as we speak, and I'm sure you'll get to see plenty of her. Let's go," he orders.

I'm not sure what he can find so amusing, and I'll be damned if I really care. Again, almost the entire day has passed while we've been separated, and now they're finally going to let me see her. I don't even bother to give them so much as a glare as the tall guard forcefully stops me with a hand on my arm. "Hands behind your back."

I obey without hesitation, even impatiently, so that he can attach restraints to my wrists. He tightens them a little too much, but then, that was deliberate. I keep silent, lost in thought and dreading the condition I'm probably going to find her in as I'm escorted roughly and swiftly down the short hall adjacent to our cell.

They must be healing her in between sessions. She claims they aren't, but they have to be…

And if they can do that, then what am I for?

Chills of space-cold ice shoot through me at the thought. Is that it? Have they finally gone too far with her? Please don't let that be why she's suddenly silent. Don't let that be why they're finally bringing me to her.

It isn't, I tell myself. It can't be. If they kill her, they can't get what they want out of her. I repeat it over and over in my mind as I'm escorted down the hall, but the icy chills won't go away.

It isn't too far down the dark, narrow second corridor that I'm stopped with a jerk on my arm, surprising me. I knew it had to be close, but still…the small door in front of me parts, and then I'm shoved into a small, rectangular room much longer than it is wide.

The first thing I notice is the small unclothed woman standing with her ankles chained to the floor, leaning slightly forward with her palms braced against the far wall. Her head is bowed, and even though she has her back to the door, the white skin and red hair are a dead giveaway…

Bastards. My breath catches in my throat, a painful hitch of captive air, and before I can even really take in anything else, the outrage is boiling over. "What the hell is this?" I demand, fixing a burning glare on the tall Jifani officer standing beside her. I barely notice that it's the same man from the reception hall when we first arrived. I've wrenched my arm out of the guard's grip and started forward to go to her. "Captain? Are you–"

I don't get far. The guards have flanked me before I've managed more than a step or two, and then they let loose. They've drawn their weapons, and the hard club to the back of my neck sends me instantly to my knees. More blows reign down as I struggle to defend myself, but they're coming at me from all angles, bashing me several times more than necessary to make sure I'm subdued.

"Leave him alone, Gwiln," the captain snaps almost listlessly from against the wall. "You can't blame him for being shocked." She sounds tired. More tired, even, than she did last night when they dragged her back and dumped her into our cell. "There's no point in beating him. You're wasting your–" she cuts off at the crackling of sound of an energy discharge, and a guttural cry escapes into the small room. It sounds just like the cries I've been listening to for the better part of the day; only this time, the sound isn't muted. And it's even worse so close to the source.

The blows stop, and when they do, I'm curled up on my knees and blood gushes freely from my nose. Even so, my head snaps up, and through the solid legs of the soldier in front of me, I catch a glimpse of the strange baton in the officer's hand withdrawing from the captain's back.

He grabs her by the hair, forcing her head back, and intones, "Hands against the wall, Captain. Don't make me tell you again. The results might be…distressing…for your officer to witness."

"What the hell are you doing to her?" I demand. I spit the blood from my mouth, but I'm helpless to wipe it from my lips and nose. The guards haul me to my feet, heedless of the injuries they've just inflicted to my back, shoulders, arms, legs and face. But otherwise, they're ignoring me. When I look over again, it's to the sight of the captain slowly replacing her shaking hands against the wall.

"Good girl," the familiar soldier drawls. "You might not be an entirely hopeless case after all." He releases her, shoving her head forward and then whirls to face me, brightening grotesquely into a cheery smile. "Mister Paris! How kind of you to join us."

As if I had a choice.

"What…the hell…are you doing to her?" I repeat slowly.

"Intendent Gwiln," he supplies smoothly, though I didn't ask and could not care less, striding forward and indicating the solitary chair with a nod to his guards. My bound arms are released from their restraints but not the soldiers' grip, and I'm maneuvered roughly into the chair as Gwiln continues, "And if that little lesson in following instructions disturbed you to watch, I'd advise you to sit still while my men secure you. It will be nothing to what she will suffer if you cause any more trouble."

Counting Gwiln, there are too many guards with weapons in this room. I have no real choice but to sit still while my arms are strapped to the metal armrests of the chair, and then my ankles are carefully positioned into the straps affixed to its legs. The metal is hard and cold. Unforgiving. I won't be complaining – at least they've let me keep my clothes.

A guard comes around in front of me, holding a small black case open in his hands and blocking my view of the captain entirely. The shorter, older soldier runs a scanning device over me. Frowning at the readout, he begins removing small, metallic circular patches from the plush case. He's placing them along the pressure points of my body as he removes them, checking back with the scanner every so often.

"Aren't you going to ask what he's doing?" Gwiln inquires, a taunting lilt deep in his voice as the soldier directly in front of me shifts to the side.

"Does it matter?" I snort, glancing up. "You'll do what you want anyway. I can't stop you."

He smiles a smile that doesn't reach his eyes, but my eyes go past him to find her again. "I see you both share the same annoying arrogance. Must be a human trait. Tell me. What is your relationship to your lovely captain?"

Warning bells go off in my head. My eyes snap back to him, and I forget the throbbing sting in my nose. Relationship? It's an unexpected question, and one that can't have many good answers. I automatically glance to her, but the captain remains silent, and of course I can't see her face at all. And he's blocking my view of her arms, should she feel safe enough to give me some signal with her hands. No help there at the moment. And yet, not answering is likely to come off looking pretty guilty…

"I'm one of her officers," I reply tonelessly, as if I couldn't care less about the question.

"Only one of her officers?" he prods.

My stomach is doing funny little flops inside me.

"I don't quite understand the question. What else would I be?" Looking convincingly confused, at least, isn't very difficult. I don't have any idea how we could have appeared otherwise…unless it's the way we've been sleeping at night. If you can call it sleeping. She's usually shivering so violently when they bring her back that I've had to use my own body heat to warm her up again. Of course, it seems like by the time she stops shivering, they're back for her already…

"Hmm," he muses. I already hate him. "We'll see." He turns away from me as his man continues working at placing the small devices over my skin.

This can't be good. Whatever it is, it just can't be good. While I wait for the man to finish, my eyes fix on the captain again, wanting to ascertain her physical condition. And I'm thankful that, whatever they're planning to do now, it will at least mean a few moments of peace for her while they focus on me.

She's shaking all over. That much I can see clearly, but the temperature in this room is comfortable for humans. She may be feeling the loss of the extra layer of clothing, but even so, that wouldn't account for her violent shivering. Her arms have trouble keeping her palms steady against the wall. She's drenched, and it looks as though she was doused with water. At least…I hope it was only water. There are drains on the floor around her, but telltale, residual slickness remains pooled on the metal grating, and her hair is in damp curls from beginning to dry naturally. I search for other injuries, but there are only a few small bruises visible along the exposed curve of her back. Amazing. From the screams I've been listening to all day, I almost expected to find her battered beyond recognition, but then again, I can't see the front of her at all. Those ankle restraints look too tight, not unexpected from the bruising I do keep observing there, and her feet are changing color. I surmise that she's been standing there pretty much since I last saw her, which was hours ago…

"Enjoying the view?" sounds in my ear, and I jump at the unexpected tickle of warm breath on my skin.

Feeling another trickle of liquid creep from my nostrils, this time down the back of my throat, I swallow hard as my entire body tenses. "What?" I grit out through clenched teeth.

Gwiln strolls around to take up position in front of me, forcing the soldiers to move aside for him. They're still working at placing the cool, circular nodes along various points of my skin. My prison uniform is ripped open to expose my chest, and they continue their work while the intendent addresses me.

"The view, Mister Paris. I asked if you were enjoying the view. We certainly have been, haven't we, gentlemen?" They nod, murmuring appreciative comments, and he turns back to study the captain with a slight leer evident on his face. "She may not be very talkative, but at least she's pleasant enough to look at, all things considered." He faces me again, his black eyes lighting on my face. Studying me, and looking for all the universe like he can read every single thought flitting through my brain. "I really do hate having to work with unattractive subjects. Leeches all of the joy out of my profession," he imparts in a confidential tone.

I like to think I'm pretty good at reading people, and what I read in Gwiln's eyes is enough to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. This isn't some inexperienced, low-level officer making idle threats and blistering intimidation. This guy is smart. He knows what he's doing, and he keeps himself under a pretty tight control.

I'd been waiting for her to say something, but the captain isn't speaking. I can't imagine a set of circumstances under which she doesn't have something scathing to say to disgusting comments like this – she doesn't let the guards from our cell get away with half that much. And she can hear them…she's only a few meters away. So unless she's purposefully denying them a reaction for some reason… That must be it. I cringe at how long it took me to get it. My eyes slide back to Gwiln, who stands watching me intently while his soldiers work around me. He's waiting for a reaction. Studying me.

I have to play this carefully, I realize. I weigh the pros and cons of each response before asking in the most neutral tone I can muster, "You really find it necessary for her to be unclothed while you question her?"

Gwiln's eyes flicker with mild amusement. He shrugs. "Not really, no."

I have to force myself to unclench my jaw and say nothing – show nothing. It's hard as hell when I'd sooner spit in his face than listen to another disgusting word from him.

"Don't you want to know what I want with you, Paris?" he asks, after a moment of watching me silently.

"Does it really matter what I want?"

The smile is slow forming, but wide when it does. "No. It doesn't. It will save time that you already know that. And it amuses me that you don't beg for mercy. Yet."

"Glad I could amuse you," I retort. "But I'm a better medic than an entertainer."

Never thought I'd hear that particular phrase coming out of my own mouth. I'm only grateful the doctor isn't here to add his scathing two cents to this conversation. Then again, I'd listen to him berate my lack of medicinal prowess every second for the rest of my life if it meant being back on Voyager right now.

"Yes, I've been told about your medical skills. The captain would seem to owe you her life – or so I've heard. I hope she was appropriately grateful. A shame she won't have a chance to reward you with a better post. Or perhaps a nice, new shuttle to fly."

Oh shit. How does he know that? Too late, I realize that simply by looking to the captain, even that small, automatic gesture has given too much away.

"Oh yes," Gwiln continues, and I can only call the silkiness of his voice dangerous, "President Araken was most distressed to learn of your untimely demise. She sent word that made it all the way here about the remarkable Voyager captain and her young companions. A charming young woman, I believe, who did not make it through the battle with the Grall, and a young male pilot...a lieutenant who was, and I quote: 'nice to look at, but not much in the way of brains'. There was no mention of any medic, oddly enough. Nor of any male ensign."

"She must have been confused," I try. The captain shifts slightly, the fingers of her left hand spreading out into a precise pattern which I recognize as a sign to keep up what I'm doing. She also gives a modified version of 'I'm fine', but I already know that's bullshit…

God, Chakotay, is all I can think. Hurry the hell up, would you?

"Maybe. Maybe not," Gwiln dismisses.

"There isn't any 'maybe' about it. She was confused. I am a medic. If I weren't, the captain wouldn't be standing here right now." And that could be the damnedest thing of this whole situation, really.

The guards have stopped working. I assume they're finished.

"Perhaps. Let's hope you were telling the truth about saving her life, and not just putting on a grand show for the benefit of your Grall captors. Your captain's life may well depend upon it now, Mister Paris."

Shit, I don't like the sound of that.

"What is your full name?"

I can answer that. I don't need the captain's go-ahead to give him that much, but even so, I can't help noting her thumb moving distinctively against the wall again.

"Thomas Eugene Paris."

"Very good. Your captain's name?"

Does she even have a middle name? I realize I don't know the answer. Odd, how I don't even know a simple little detail like that… "Kathryn Janeway."

"How long were you in orbit around Jifan before your ship left?"

Common enough knowledge. "Three days."

It's clear what he's doing now. This is an autonomic response test. The captain's steadily giving me the all clear to keep answering his questions. She'll let me know when to stop, if for some reason I can't rely on my own judgment.

"Your function aboard Voyager?"

It's the truth, I remind myself: "Medic." Half the truth, anyway.

He observes the readout monitor from the case carefully. I fight the temptation to hold my breath.

"Hmmm. Interesting."

It's nerve wracking. Interesting good, or interesting bad? Am I lying, according to the little devices, or not?

"What is normal human blood pressure?"

I let out an imagined breath. Are they testing my knowledge of medicine now? If so, I'm not worried. I can answer most of the questions they could possibly throw at me, and the captain's giving her silent consent for me to answer. "One fifteen systolic, seventy diastolic."

Gwiln turns to raise a brow at the soldier applying the test and monitoring the readout alongside me. "Kohr, I trust you can decipher what that devil that means?"

The soldier grunts an affirmative response, his eyes glued to the readout of the equipment casing. A nifty little setup, I can't help thinking pointlessly. The cold metal on my skin still hasn't warmed, even against the heat of my body temperature. Odd…

"And what is a normal human heart rate?"

Knowing the captain's is prone to being slightly high and that mine must be right now, as well, I pause, considering. I wonder what they'll think if I give them an answer that differs from what they may have observed in us so far, or if it's better to adjust my answers to fit what they're reading in us. The captain isn't any help with this one, though. She can only tell me to answer, but not how to answer.

"Mister Paris? Having difficulty answering the question?" There's danger in the intendent's tone.

"Seventy," I answer, hoping I've done the right thing.

The soldier pauses for the first time, glancing up at the intendent. At Gwiln's nod, it's the soldier who takes over the questioning.

"That's a resting heart rate, you mean." I nod slowly, wary of this line of inquisition. "What are the ramifications of the human heart rate being spiked to levels of one thirty or higher?"

I'm still not following. Has the captain's been pushed that far? It never should have, unless she's been exercising fairly strenuously…and again, from the looks of those restraints, she's been standing there all day. Then, of course, I remember that I've heard her screaming. Not that I'll ever be likely to forget those sounds, or the helplessness I felt at being shut away where I couldn't do anything to help her…

And it dawns on me now what this line of questioning is all about.

Oh, fuck me.

They don't care about any tactical information I might have; they're using me. Using my medical knowledge. They want to know how far they can safely push her. The autonomic response testing is just to make sure I don't soft-pedal my responses.

I look to her, knowing it's probably obvious that I keep doing that, but unable to help it. Does she know what they're doing here…yes, of course she does. And she keeps giving me the go ahead to answer, too. Well, if I don't, they're just going to hurt her. Not that they won't anyway.

Damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it.

"Mister Paris?" Gwiln is smiling, the bastard. He sees I've become wise to their little game. "Answer the question, please. Unless you prefer that we find out on our own? If you really prefer that we risk any…mistakes?"

"I…you'll have to be more specific," I try, stalling for time. "How long are we talking here? And what's the specific method being used to spike the heart rate to those levels?"

It's the wrong question – and then some.

"Oh. I see," he sneers quietly. "You need more information before you can answer. Well, let's just see, shall we? I really think I can better answer that for you with a demonstration." Removing the wand from his belt again, he casually strolls up to where the captain is restrained, placing the baton at the base of her exposed spine. His thumb flicks over the control panel at the hilt of the weapon. "This is a nice setting – one we haven't tried yet. I think this will do nicely. I've been curious to see how she'll react to it."

Shit, no. My gut clenches in preparation, and I can see the captain's back stiffen automatically. "No! All right! Wait, damn it, I'll answer the–"

"Too late," he drawls.

***

Twelve


Tom


The sizzling, crackling sound fills the room. The captain's body begins to convulse, and another agonized cry is wrenched from what sounds like her open mouth. Gwiln's hand closes around her upper arm as soon as he withdraws the baton, holding her upright as her muscles spasm uncontrollably, thrashing her upper body towards the wall.

I can only watch helplessly, restrained and unable to help her as the current of…whatever…ravages her system. It's probably wreaking havoc with those rib muscles I spent hours knitting, and it has to hurt like absolute hell. That's what's been making her scream, of course. That's what they've been doing to her all this time. And it's my fault they're doing it now. It's because of my brilliant delaying tactics.

Don't react, don't react, don't react…she signed up for this, remember, you both did – damn it, Paris, hold still and don't react…

I'm cursing them in every language I know, snarling, can feel myself thrashing what must be nearly as hard as she is in those restraints. Straining in the chair against my bonds and not even feeling the way they're cutting into my skin as the uniform rides up my arms and legs. Somewhere, it occurs to me dimly that I'm giving them exactly the reaction they want, but I can't bring myself to stop long enough to care as those grins are flashing in front of me. They're enjoying this. They're enjoying the hell out of themselves right now.

It's horrible. The worst feeling I've ever... Though the charge applied was only seconds, the aftershock of the current seems to go on for eternity with her convulsing, occasionally making involuntary sounds as he holds her upright, careful to keep to the side and away from any spasmodic jerks of her arms, and me writhing in the chair, forced to watch the entire spectacle unfold without being able to do a damned thing about it.

When it finally ends, I stop struggling so hard in my restraints and do my best to take in air, dimly noting that I haven't been breathing along with her the whole time.

The intendent smoothes a gloved hand over her hair as she quiets and stills, the pain finally having subsided – for the moment.

"How tired you must be, Captain," he sighs over a gasping, choking sound from her, using a tone that indicates he's been the one in pain these last few minutes. "You can put an end to all this, you know. You really don't have to suffer anymore. I can send Mister Paris back to his cell right now, and you can rest. All I need is just one, simple little admission from you…"

Her skin is a sick, deathly pallor, a fine coating of perspiration glistening under the spotlight. She slumps forward against the wall, still trembling involuntarily. One arm shakily tries to keep her upright, the other hand clutching her injured side. The sound of her ragged breathing fills the air, rasping and irregular.

But she doesn't give in.

"You can go…to hell," she manages, her speech slurred and halted but her defiance audible, nonetheless. "I'm not…confessing…to something I…haven't done."

How she has the strength to give that answer, considering all she's been through and knowing he isn't even close to stopping, is beyond me. I only know that if ever I doubted the strength or the force of will within Kathryn Janeway, I never will again.

With the end of his baton, Gwiln traces the tips of the fingers holding her side. "You are a stubborn one," he observes dryly. "But Kaelo warned me that would prove to be the case with you."

Without any warning, the zapping sound of the energy weapon sings out again, and the captain jolts. An inarticulate cry escapes her lips, a startled curse from mine, and she yanks her hand away, wringing it in the air.

"That was nothing. Just a little sting this time to remind you," he breathes, before spitting, "hands against the wall, Captain."

His head shakes slightly back and forth as she turns her glare away from him and shakily complies. "What a difficult concept this seems to be for you today. And I'd thought we'd been making such progress. Perhaps, with Mister Paris's assistance, we can fine tune our methods of persuasion. Let's see, shall we?"

He looks positively thrilled when he nods over to the soldier kneeling in front of me.

The soldier has made a few adjustments to another scanner, one produced from his leather uniform pocket, and he waves it back and forth in the captain's direction. The readings he then smugly displays for me are decipherable by the pictures. They're the captain's vital signs, and they're spiking like crazy.

BP is one thirty five over eight five – still, even after it's finished. Heart rate is one twenty and falling slowly. The beat is erratic, but calming down at least.

The readout keeps scrolling, and more information is made available. There's trace electrical activity in each of her nerve endings…and particularly in her pain receptors. A huge buildup of lactic acid in her muscles – no surprise there after the way she was convulsing. And the pressure in her brain, from dehydration, must be giving her one hell of a migraine. She probably can't even see straight right now, the pain must be so glaring. I can't understand how that's possible, though. She had only a little less food and water than I did…and yet her system shows only minimal levels of processed nutrients and a severe lack of hydration.

She's on the verge of hypothermia. There are obscene levels of cortisol and adrenaline in her bloodstream. And really, the one thing I can bring myself to be thankful for is that there's no evidence that she's been subjected to the kind of assault I'd have to find a way to kill them for inflicting on her…

"Well?" At the sound of his voice, I raise burning, bloodshot eyes to the intendent's expectant stare. "I'm still waiting," he drawls. "What are the long-term consequences of this kind of stress? And speak up; I'm sure the captain would like to know exactly what's happening inside of that lovely body of hers whenever I'm forced to apply these methods."

I'm stuck. The impossibility of the situation is infuriating, but I don't dare stall out on an answer again. I can only fix him with a hate-filled glare. "That weapon is not only extremely painful but physically harmful. If you keep stimulating her heart rate like that, you'll keep releasing stress hormones into her bloodstream. The damage to her heart will be severe. You're risking killing her by repeatedly inflicting that kind of damage."

"Then how do you repair it?" the more knowledgeable soldier demands from my side.

At this point, I'm assuming he must be their version of a military medic. It should be reassuring to know that they're at least trying not to kill her…yet…but it isn't. Not if the price for keeping her alive is going to be this kind of suffering for who knows how long.

A sharp, open-handed slap to my face brings me back to the soldier.

"Look at me when I'm speaking to you," he snarls. I obey, doing my best to look more amused than angry, but he could obviously not care less about how I feel. "How do I go about repairing the damage?"

She's probably damned either way. So what's worse? Answering, or not answering? I know there's a good chance that they won't care if they kill her in the end…or that they'll take the chance if I don't tell them how to repair the damage they're inflicting. But I can't help thinking I'd be betraying her by giving them an out to keep torturing her indefinitely. At least if they're afraid she'll die before they get their confession, they might take it easier on her… The captain is no longer in a position to cue me as to how to respond. She's still having trouble staying upright from the little I can see of her, but more importantly, my view of her hands is blocked again.

"Mister Paris, it seems that the captain's pain isn't going to persuade you to be more forthcoming." The intendent isn't happy about my delay. Again. His lean but solid bulk springs away from the wall, unwittingly reminding me of a panther or some sleek jungle cat as he steadily approaches me. "I'd thought, with you being a medic, those readings would have been enough to discourage you from wanting to see her subjected to it. It's excruciating, you know. But that doesn't seem to be working, does it? Perhaps you need to experience it first hand?"

"Answer him, Tom." Her tone is razor sharp, suddenly: surprising, given how physically drained she must be.

I let out a breath. She must have realized I couldn't see her anymore. That, or she thinks I'm ignoring her.

Answer him, she says. Answer him… With the tone she just used, it's definitely an order. Gwiln is right in front of me now. Pressing the baton to my throat. I swallow, feeling the smooth tip digging into my adam's apple. All he has to do is flick that button, and I'll know pain in a way I probably haven't yet. He has all the power here, and his smirk tells me he knows it. The wise thing to do is to answer him.

Only if I give in to the bastard now, he's going to think it's because I give a damn about what he might do to me. He's going to think it's because I'm afraid of him. His dark, obsidian eyes bear into me. Damn, he's a smug son of a…

"Answer him. That's an order."

Yeah, but I already knew that. And it feels so important not to give this bastard what he wants…for the captain's sake, as well as for the sake of my own self-respect.

"Trying to spare your officer unnecessary pain, Captain? That's good. A very noble, captainly thing to do," Gwiln smirks, looking over his shoulder at her back. "Unless you're more concerned with that damage being done to your heart, now that you know what's happening to it?"

She doesn't reply – at least not to him. "Answer him, Tom," is all she says. This time, though, she sounds as exhausted as I know she must be, and I just can't justify giving them any information that will help them wear her down even more than she already is.

"Yes, Mister Paris. Answer me," Gwiln mocks, so obviously sure that I'm going to.

It's the last straw. I make my decision.

"I'm sorry, Captain," I have to tell her, "but I'm not sure I can do that."

"You'd better find a way to do it," Gwiln is threatening, a little angry now, if I had to guess. I find myself liking it more than I should: him pissed off, looking just a tiny bit less in control. Then again, that could be my imagination.

"Last chance," he snarls, twisting the end of the wand into my neck. "How do I repair the damage, Paris?"

"I'm sorry, Intendent." My eyebrows rise innocently. "I've lost track of the topic. What damage were we talking about again?"

"Tom!"

I am sorry for putting that almost frightened edge in the captain's voice, though. He won't read it, but I do, and I immediately regret taking my pointless stand for that alone. For disobeying her again.

Gwiln smiles, but his eyes don't. His thumb twitches. The pain is indescribable. Shattering, mind-boggling. It's like feeling muscles and skin both burning and alternately freezing, seared until utterly raw. A current of sheer crackling power tearing through me. I think my teeth chatter uncontrollably along with the muscles in my neck, back and shoulders, and I hardly even see what's in front of me anymore. I'm only aware of his eyes, the vicious light in them, and then the agony searing through me all the while. God, it's incredible. It has to kill me. It has to end, but it doesn't seem to.

I don't know that I've screamed. I don't know, that is, until I come back to reality, when the pain finally fades, and my throat is so raw it hurts.

And I stare in front of me, where Gwiln stands, but all I'm focused on is the captain. That's what she's been going through for hours at a time – for days now? How the hell has she possibly been dealing with that level of pain and not breaking?

I'm already positive I would have. But she hasn't, because she's holding out for Voyager, I know. For me. I hate myself for being even a small part of the reason she keeps refusing to give in to them. Essentially choosing to endure this hellish pain rather than put one or more of her officers in danger.

And I despise Kaelo, and especially Gwiln, for putting her in this impossible position in the first place. The pain only sharpens my hatred. I hope to hell that if…when…Chakotay comes for us, there will be time to make sure these two bastards regret this for the rest of their miserable lives before we depart from this hellhole of a planet.

The pain recedes, but my mind is clouded, I find. Everything seems dim. The questions keep firing. When I remember to check, the captain makes it clear she wants me to answer. For the most part, I reply to them mindlessly, almost unaware of what it is that I'm responding to. My brain feels fuzzy – fried, like Neelix's Tarkadian sausages. He claims leaving the downy, fur-covered skin on adds to the smoked flavor…

I have to focus and it's hard as hell. Still, the questions keep coming, no matter how many I seem to have responded to already.

"What is the highest jolt of pure electrical stimulus a human can withstand?"

"Could you repair any damage done by higher jolts?"

"How long can human beings go without food or water? What are the repercussions of long term deprivation?"

But he doesn't ask me the original question again right away. That much I know. I hold on to that fact, using it to buffer me through the agony of aggravated wounds the soldiers had already inflicted on me. It's a tiny victory, a temporary one, but a victory, nonetheless.

"What is the optimum range of internal human body temperature? How low is dangerous? What is the most efficient way to raise it once it drops to critical levels?"

"What is the risk of prolonged periods of oxygen deprivation? How is the damage reversed?"

When I hesitate, or flail around for a less damaging answer, either another jolt is administered or one of the two soldiers hits me. I try to take it, to keep my focus and to not give too much away, and I think, somewhere in the back of my mind (what remains of it through the fog of electrical agony) that I'm succeeding. Somewhat.

"Do you expect any permanently deleterious consequences would arise from compatibility issues between our two species?"

My head snaps up. He's caught my attention again. What? What the hell does THAT mean? I snap to attention a bit more clearly and force myself to focus – really focus – on Gwiln. As the view in front of me crystallizes under the extra effort, the disgustingly smug look on his face is impossible to miss. He's smirking again. In growing horror, I look to her, but of course I can't see her face.

"Well?" Gwiln prompts after a moment of sickening silence. "Do you expect any negative consequences?"

If my mouth wasn't already so devoid of moisture, it would have gone bone dry in this moment. Shit. I thought we settled this with the whole them not being allowed to touch her concept. It occurs to me now that there's no telling whether or not that applies to Gwiln. And hell, if he felt free enough to hit her before…

I swallow with some difficulty. "I…can't answer that."

"Answer him, Tom." Why does she think that will work this time, when it didn't before, I wonder?

"I don't remember giving you permission to speak, Captain…perhaps another lesson is in order?"

"No!" I won't – can't – watch that again. It'll kill me. "God damn you, all right! As far as I know, the answer to your question is…no."

"I thought as much," he sneers triumphantly.

"You didn't let me finish," I cut in, desperately trying to focus on thwarting his confidence. Not this. Just…not this. I can't let them do this, not because of anything I've told them. "I said as far as I know. But I don't know anything, really. I've never even seen a scan of…"

"Easily remedied." He waves an unconcerned hand. "Airrek. Give medic Paris here a visual aid."

The head of the soldier in question, the one with the short hair, tilts up at the intendent's address. The young Jifani has been reclining against the side wall most of this time, watching lazily and awaiting his chance to participate. He doesn't even hesitate before unfastening his belt and dropping his pants, and then he's standing proudly, displaying his half-erect organ with no sign of embarrassment.

Well. It's always nice to see someone with a healthy dose of self-esteem, I guess. Except when that someone is allowed to roam freely around my restrained and unclothed commanding officer, that is…

"Sufficient?" Gwiln asks, a smile a kilometer wide stretching his smug face this time. Damn, those white teeth of his are almost blinding…

The second he gives me the chance, I know I'm going to knock them right out of his skull for him.

I swallow thickly, averting my eyes from the spectacle displayed hardly a meter away from me. "No," I snap, grateful beyond measure that I don't have to lie to give him an unclear answer. "I have no idea what kind of bio-organisms might be transmitted from that kind of contact between our species. You could still kill her by bacterial or viral infection."

I can hardly look at the captain. Even if I can't see her face, the proud way she's still holding herself while they coolly force me to participate in a discussion about the possibility of raping her is nothing short of heartbreaking. Gods, but she was right; I should have stayed on the Grall ship. I'm only giving them all the ammunition they need to know how to break her down completely.

She's trained for it, I remind myself. And then I have to suppress an hysterical snort of laughter, as I realize how much bullshit that has to be. How the hell does anyone train for that?

"Her?" His laughter echoes into the interrogation room, an eerie, sadistic glee lighting in his black eyes and snapping my attention back to him. He's wandered over to her while I was trying to control myself. Fuck. Every muscle in my aching, throbbing body tenses.

"That's quite an assumption, Mister Paris." He casually leans an elbow against the wall, sweeping a section of her hair back to expose the side of her face and drawls, "What if I think it might be more effective to make her watch while you provide the first raw data for your little theory?"

I tense a whole lot differently. Well, that was unexpected…I'm not sure how to respond.

But it isn't my response he's after, I see; his eyes are fixed on her. He scrutinizes her for a long minute. "Well, Captain?" he asks eventually. She slowly turns her head to look at him, the first sign of reaction she's given at all to this new proposal.

"Well, what?" she growls.

"What do you think about letting Mister Paris here test his theory?"

She regards him silently for a time. Then she shrugs. "As long as I can watch."

He appears taken aback – and he's not the only one! I don't really win the struggle with myself not to choke on my shock.

His gloved fingers tighten over her shoulder. "You really expect me to believe you don't care what happens to him?"

"Should I?" The captain's voice picks up no hint of emotion other than…well, scorn. "He's not even my main physician. And what you're proposing isn't likely to kill him, from what he's said." Her head angles around to steal a glimpse at me, and I think I can see the most twisted little smile I've ever seen playing on her features. "Not that I'm not fond of him, mind you," she swivels back to face Gwiln, "but I'm sure he can handle it."

That makes exactly…one of us, then. I'm still having trouble believing what I'm hearing, wondering if that damned baton really has fried my brain.

"And yet, when I brought him in here earlier, you were adamant that I not harm him." Gwiln's hand migrates to her face, and he twirls an idle finger along her cheek as he speaks. "You seemed quite upset then."

She doesn't even flinch, or so much as bat an eyelash. "I spend time having my people trained, Intendent. I'd just hate to see such a solid medic go to waste."

Damn me, she's a good actress; I almost wish she was a little less good. It's eerie. But I'll do my part, of course. Assuming I've read her right and this is again about denying the arrogant son of a bitch our reactions. "And here I thought you at least cared a little about us, Captain." I make just the right tinge of anger color my words. "Guess that was my mistake, huh?"

Gwiln looks dubiously back and forth between the two of us. Finally, he snorts, "A good effort. Both of you. But I'm afraid I'm not convinced of your lack of devotion to each other so easily, after the protectiveness you've displayed for each other otherwise."

I laugh out loud. With the onset of mild hysteria, it isn't difficult. "You've mistaken necessity for devotion, Intendent. On a ship as small as ours, it benefits the whole crew to protect its individual members. Particularly when we're so far from home and have no way of replacing them. But you're right. It would be nice to be able to think your commanding officer gives even a little bit of a damn about what happens to you."

"Of course I care, Tom," she throws over her shoulder at me. "As I said, you're a valued resource. But you'll have to forgive me if, given the choice between the two of us, I'd prefer to watch than to participate directly in that kind of activity."

I really, really wish she hadn't said that just now.

Sure enough, Gwiln's eyes light up malevolently, and he pounces on the opening she just gave him. "Why, Captain…is that an admission that you'd prefer not to entertain us personally?"

I could kill her in this moment – if I could reach her. Damn her. She knew what she was setting up just now. She knew exactly; she planned it. My heart sinks at the realization. She just played us both, simultaneously.

Damn her – and damn me especially for not expecting it.

"Well, Captain?" Gwiln goads, a sick, broad smile flashing those damned brilliant teeth again. "I don't understand. Why does it take you so long to formulate an answer to such a simple question? Surely you wouldn't mind taking a little break from the boring and painful monotony of our session." Still leaning against the wall, he takes his fingertip, placing it deliberately at the point of her shoulder, trailing a long, invisible line down the side of her arm. "So why is it that you wouldn't want to entertain us in the meantime?"

My insides twist in revulsion, in horror. Anything I could possibly say is going to make things worse, give too much away. If there's anything left to give away anymore, given her latest response.

And with that thought, I realize I have absolutely no idea what to do now. The captain is on her own.


Kathryn


"Well?" Gwiln repeats, his smile too broad once again. "Why is it that you wouldn't want to engage in that kind of activity with us, Captain?" His fingertip trails along my arm, and I fight with myself not to tense up under his hand. "Are we not to your taste? Not attractive enough for you? Not good enough for some reason?"

He isn't stupid, unfortunately. He's anything but convinced by our ruse, but I can't overplay this, either. He'll be suspicious if I let too much slip; I might have done so already.

"I didn't say that," I respond evenly, holding his eye. "I said that, given the choice, I prefer to watch than to participate directly."

"Really? And why is that?" He's enjoying this, and he has likely only just begun. Tom's flimsy responses and stalling out on answers only pointed him right back to this tactic, but it isn't his fault. He hasn't trained for this like I have, hasn't had the experience needed to know better. I've failed him in the first place by not being able to keep Gwiln from summoning him here. What he's already witnessed is enough to make me sick on his behalf. Knowing what it feels like to have to watch and listen to, knowing the kind of helpless terror it instills – not to mention what he's been subjected to, himself. It's been nothing short of a test of every ounce of my self control not to scream at them to get away from him. Only knowing that my reaction will encourage their depravity has kept my lips firmly shut the entire time they've been questioning him.

Gwiln's hand continues to trail lazily back and forth over my arm, and I'm no longer doing the thorough job I was of not reacting, either. I can feel the tension rippling through me; the trembling of every aching muscle won't let me hide the additional strain. It's obvious to all of them, probably.

It chills me to the bone to know that what he suggests he could much more freely inflict upon Tom than upon me, considering that neither one of us is entering into such a scenario willingly. And unfortunately, I can't remember if I ever knew enough about Jifani sexual preferences to determine to what degree this is likely to be a tactic he'll actually employ. To my knowledge, the guards haven't shown any interest in him. But if they lay one finger on Tom in that way…I'm not sure I can handle it. Not that. Not him.

They won't. Gwiln is toying with me, baiting me, I decide. I can't let him.

But I'm tired – well beyond tired. Staying sharp is much harder when my muscles feel like agonized gelatin. I can no longer feel my feet, and my teeth chatter uncontrollably. I'm freezing. I hate the feel of this man's hand on me. My stomach is none too pleased with me, and worst of all, this damned headache is so glaring my entire skull feels ready to burst open under the pressure. I'd kill for a drink of water. And yet I'm supposed to school my features, to control my tone of voice, and to make intelligent decisions which will likely determine the fate of my officer over the course of the next few days.

"Are we not good enough for you, Captain?" Gwiln drawls, taunting me into responding.

I've done the only thing I could, under the circumstances. I put myself back under his focus, drawing it away from Tom, and I can only pray that that will be enough for him. If it isn't, and if he decides to torture Tom instead, there's nothing I can do about it. That knowledge alone feeds my anger enough to fuel my response. "I had no idea you were interested in the first place," I snap. "I thought I wasn't your type, Intendent?"

"And does that disappoint you, Captain?" he laughs, making me itch to slam him face first into this damned wall I'm still bracing against. "Somehow, I don't think it does. In fact, I think you find it very reassuring that I might not think you attractive. But you're a perceptive woman. I'm sure you've noticed that my men like you a great deal. I've already had to deny several requests from the lower ranks on cell watch to turn you over to them. I highly doubt we'd have any trouble gathering a few volunteers."

"So, let them have her and get it over with, then," comes from over my shoulder before I can formulate a response, startling me considerably. "The hell do you need me for if that's what you're looking to do here?"

I don't let my mouth drop open in shock at Tom's interjection. He picked up on this game too swiftly, but then, he always was a quick study. Damn him…he makes it all but impossible to shield him from the worst of our experiences. Does he have any idea how difficult he makes it to keep him safe when his every action seems engineered to put him directly in harm's way?

"Or, if it's really me you're interested in, then get a move on." I can hear the leer in my officer's hard voice as he continues, "I won't pretend it's my first choice, but the captain runs a pretty tight ship. It's been awhile since I had a chance to let off any steam of this…ahem…particular nature. At this point, I'll take whatever I can get…"

"Shut up, Ensign," I manage as mildly as I can with my heart pounding the way that it is now. I throw him a glare for good measure before looking to Gwiln and adding, "Since you insist on keeping him here even after he's answered your questions, couldn't you at least find a muzzle for him to wear? Or something to that effect? I, for one, have no desire to listen to his mouth all day. It's half the reason I keep him in sickbay instead of on the bridge in the first place."

Gwiln is quiet for only a brief pause. He smiles thinly, his chuckle dry and short. "Captain, don't think for a moment that I've fallen for your questionable performance here. I know you're capable of so much better." He turns away from me. "Mister Paris, as...plausible...as your opinions of one another may be, I get the impression that the two of you are protesting just a bit too much for me to believe you. For instance, this is the most our dear captain has said to me in the past five hours combined. That alone tells me more than words ever could how very much you two mean to each other. However, there is plenty of time for us to add new dimensions to our interaction, and, in the meantime, I believe there are still a few questions for you to answer. Proceed, Kohr."

He stalks back over to Tom, cutting short the inward sigh of relief I'd just been permitting myself as realization slinks over me. Gwiln isn't finished with us yet.

He's just getting started.


I've been terrified of this, from the moment we were captured by the Grall and I realized who wanted us, and now it's here.

Only a few hours have passed since Tom was brought into the room…I know that, because they haven't stopped for a break yet. They always stop every so often so they can eat…another tactic carried over from Minister Dukkan and crew. But they haven't stopped, and it's the only way for me to differentiate between five minutes here and five hours. It seems like it's been an eternity.

Tom can't seem to help taunting him. He isn't ready for this, was never ready. Not that anyone can be, but he still lets emotion overrule his common sense, and he's been taking one hell of a beating for it. I've tried to draw Gwiln's ire back to me time and again, but I know he isn't biting for a reason, and that reason is that he's trying to gage what Tom's worth is to me.

I've walked the line as best as I'm able. I listened to him being questioned. Held myself back from intervening as much as possible after he applied that first jolt to Tom. Then they'd finished, and by the time they had, Gwiln had more than enough information with which to justify stepping up his attacks. For the first time, I've been moved from the ankle restraints and they've strung me up from my wrists so that my toes barely graze the floor. Facing Tom, of course. What good is torturing the two of us if I…either of us…miss all the action?

And of course Tom protested this. And of course Gwiln seized on it, used his anger to play off his reactions and emotions.

But Tom has been standing firm on some points. He has refused to "confess" to having had any knowledge of my meeting with terrorists to supply them with weapons. And so, they've increased the setting of the weapons. Things have gotten progressively more serious since the time they finished questioning him. Now, a single jolt from Gwiln's baton leaves me paralyzed for moments afterward…to the increasing agony of my wrists as they bear my full weight while I hang, waiting for the sensation to return to my feet, when I can shift some of my weight back to my legs. But my legs have taken the most abuse, and even with sensation, they can't support me for much longer…

Finally, just as I can no longer stand and slump in the restraints, Gwiln signals for the termination of the session, and then it's over.

I've made it. I didn't cave.

"Take her down," Gwiln murmurs, waving to his associates, who look reluctant to comply. "We're done here for the day. Unlock her restraints, and escort her to the hospital wing. Be certain no one sees her. And make no mistake, gentlemen: she is not to be underestimated." He smiles at me. "Be sure she is properly restrained at all times. It'll be your heads if she causes any trouble."

My heart sinks, not that it's any great surprise. I knew he wouldn't just give up. But I honestly don't know how much longer I can do this… You'll do it for as long as you have to, my inner voice chides.

And I will; I don't have a choice.

"What about this one?" the older soldier demands, kicking Tom's restrained shin as he stops in front of him and I crane my neck around to get an idea of what kind of condition he's in.

I ache at the sight of him. He looks like hell. He's taken a beating, and added to the injury he sustained from the guards when he first entered, he may be in worse shape than I am. His nose is broken, from the looks of it…he's pale and shaking…much the way I am at the moment. But at least he isn't freezing. Or nude… It's mortifying to be undressed in front of one of my officers, but that is the least of my concerns. At least Tom has only been subjected to a few jolts of Gwiln's vicious energy weapon, the one triumph I can boast in this whole mess...

It's small comfort.

"Leave him. See to her first. You can return for him when you're done."

Damn Gwiln. He needs medical treatment. I don't want any if he isn't going to receive it first.

"You can return for him when you've finished, and then he can show you how to properly regenerate her."

I'll make sure he's able to treat himself before he touches me, I decide. I'll demand it, or I'll refuse to let them treat me at all. I breathe in a sigh of relief to know that he will be escorted to the hospital as well, and then clamp down on the moan that rises up as the old injury at my side makes its presence known. Too deep. I need to remember to take shorter, shallower breaths. The opposite of what Tom keeps saying, yes, but he isn't living with this agony, either. If our positions were reversed, I'm certain he wouldn't be singing the same tune about taking those deep breaths.

The soldiers crowd me, lifting me off my feet briefly and not particularly caring where their hands end up landing as they do so. I don't really have the energy left in me to care, either. The older one leans up to unlock my wrists from the restraints that now only lock them together, while the younger holds me loosely against him, supporting my trembling upper body as he releases my wrists. I sag down against him, hating it but too tired, again, to give any resistance.

The restraints click open, freeing me, and I make the mistake of trying to step into a more stable position. It becomes painfully clear that the wrist restraints themselves have been supporting me this whole time and not my swollen feet, as I had assumed. In addition, the dizziness is dreadful. My feet don't cooperate. My vision doubles, and my stomach lurches. My legs give out. The soldier catches me just before I hit the ground, smirking as he swings me up into his strong arms and throws me – rather unceremoniously – over his shoulder. The last little bit of breath is crushed out of me upon impact and my injured side connects with his shoulder.

The last thing I see before fading out of reality is Gwiln approaching Tom, a sick smile spreading across his face...

Damn it.

***

Thirteen


Kathryn


I can't look at him, can't see that look in his eyes, see the shame or the pity I know must be there as their groping hands and fingers dig uncaringly into me. Instead, I look at the floor, at the far side of the courtyard. At my feet. Anywhere but at his unclothed form while they hold me still in front of him.

I'm a Starfleet officer, I remind myself through gasping breaths of panic. We don't give in to fear. We maintain our dignity, hold on to our pride no matter what …

Tearing sounds at my side. The humid air hits bare skin on my stomach and side as the sleeveless tank falls open, the shoulder strap of my regulation bra dragged down the side of my arm by one cold hand when I move to grab another insistent hand, desperate to keep it from sneaking past the front of my waistband. I feel my cheeks coloring in mortification, in shame as I'm left standing shirtless, but for once I'm glad for the particularly prude cut of the undergarment remaining, blessing it for staying up in spite of the falling straps being pulled off my shoulders. My other hand still clutches the front of it, helping keep it upright, but even now I know I can't stop them all, that there are too many of them with hands tearing at my clothing.

Stop, I want to scream, but the words aren't leaving my mouth. Not this. Please, not this. Not in front of him, don't make him watch this, please… Gritting my teeth instead and refusing to cry – I'm a Starfleet officer. It's all I've ever wanted to be, all I've ever thought I'd be – and Starfleet officers don't give in to fear.

"How well will the little kitten hold up under the four of us?" the one holding my hair, keeping my head up grunts. "You don't mind sharing her with us, eh?"

"Can't promise to give her back in one piece, though," another snickers. "Tiny little thing like her. Looks like we might split her in half, actually."

"What do you think, Admiral? Think she can take it?"

"That one?" The sound of his hoarse, gruff voice makes me look up in spite of myself, surprised. "I'm sure she'll be fine." A harsh laugh as the scorn-filled eyes rest on me – not the men who have tormented him for hours on end – me. "Sorry…to break it to you…boys. But she's no…blushing…virgin. Let me know…how she is, will you?"

My eyes must be the size of saucers as any stability, any security of principle or expectation is yanked right out from under me. I stare at him, forgetting the hands on my skin, forgetting to block their access entirely. He isn't defending me. He isn't telling them to stop. He's encouraging them. And I can only stare in horror, greater horror than I feel at the intentions of the rough men, the aliens still surrounding me.

The comments fade out as the admiral draws in a shaky breath to continue. "Been meaning…to try her. Why I brought her…with me…"

I don't know what he's talking about, or for that matter why he's wasting breath he clearly needs. I almost can't believe he's able to talk in this condition. After what I've heard all day… Maybe what he's saying isn't surprising. Maybe he thinks I'm someone else…maybe he can't see clearly…surely he can't think clearly...

"You expect us to believe you don't care what we do with her? Bullshit," the one holding me sneers, winding his arm tightly around me and squeezing hard, making me gasp. "Nice try, Admiral. You're still watching us play."

Why are his eyes moving over me the way theirs are? I can't breathe. This isn't right, can't be right…I think I've fallen through the looking glass from hell. Maybe the concussion is playing tricks with my mind…

That or I must still be dreaming, have to still be dreaming.

I want to wake up now.

He laughs. He actually laughs. "You really think I give…a rat's ass…what you dowith the little slut?"

"Sir?" the whisper forces itself out of my throat somehow. My head wants to shake in denial, in confusion, but the grip on my hair won't allow it, hasn't been allowing it. I force my eyes to stay open, force my body not to flinch at the wet mouth spreading the stench of alcohol and rotting meat across the side of my neck, the horrid smell stinging my nostrils and churning my stomach. The admiral's blue eyes, hard through the hooded veil of suffering, hold me through all of it. "Admiral, what are you…?"

The harsh laugh again. The open scorn that makes me physically flinch back more than anything the ones holding me is doing. He hates me. Oh, God, he must hate me to be able to look at me like that. He must hate me for not being the one chosen instead of him. Or maybe he can just see through me, can see the weakness I'm fighting not to display even though I haven't been hurt like he has –yet – and he's disgusted by it. Disgusted by me.

"Oh, come off it, Ensign." So much derision in the voice that barely speaks. He knows who I am. I recoil under the impure leer of a man that should be more like a father to me than anything, shuddering, floundering under the icy cold waves it sends crashing over me. "I'm sure you know why I chose you…for our little expedition. You know it sure as hell…wasn't …for your scanning…abilities." He can't mean that. He doesn't mean that. I must be losing my mind, I think. I have to be going mad, but if I am, then so is everyone around me.

"Don't believe…her little innocent act. How do you think…she made it through the academy…to begin with? Trust me, it wasn't…on scientific…merit."

Maybe he's lost his mind. I must have if the only thing I'm worried about while about to be stripped and…if the only thing I can force myself to think about right now is whether or not he believes what he's saying. If he really thinks…

It takes me a full minute to realize that the body pressing up against me from behind has stopped moving or that the vice lock his other arm had taken around my waist has been loosening.

The grip around me slackens, and I slump to a hard surface, groggily opening my eyes to see what I've fallen from. From the set of his sleeping body and the arm still slightly over me, I realize that Tom was doing his best to keep me from contact with the cold floor, which is what I've hit. In sleep, his grip had loosened.

At least when I awake this time, there's no confusion to find myself stirring (almost) in my helmsman's arms. I know precisely where I am and what has brought me here. He groans as I stir, pushing free of his arms, and I'm horrified to note that, while my legs and side feel a thousand times better, every one of Tom's injuries remains. He looks like absolute hell.

"Ensign." I prod his unbruised shoulder and he sits up immediately, grimacing, for which I can't blame him.

At my pointed questioning, he explains that he would have addressed some of his own injuries…if he could have. He wasn't allowed. Aside from having had the opportunity to at least close a few of his wounds, they let him do nothing more. He'd been too closely scrutinized. Gwiln's man Kohr kept him busy with questions, observing while Tom healed my wounds, and the instant the soldier had been satisfied that I would neither die nor appear to have been mistreated, we were taken back to the cell.

They made Tom carry me. He averts his eyes while reassuring me (if you could call it reassurance) that he had been the one to dress me in the uniform I awoke wearing. Pride makes me stiffen, but given the choice between being dressed by my own man, Gwiln's men, or left undressed, I have to admit that Tom did the right thing. I quietly thank him, my eyes finding it difficult to fix on his blood-smeared face for very long.

"What are your injuries? Are you able to determine them, at least?"

"For the most part," he nods.

I listen stoically to the recitation of the list. He estimates that he has a broken nose, several loose teeth, and a fractured arm – an arm, I note, that he was still using to try and keep me from coming into contact with the floor despite the pain it must have caused. No wonder his grip loosened in sleep. He hesitates, and my attention is caught on the pause. Pressed, he admits that he suspects, but can't confirm, that he now suffers from a bruised kidney, as well.

Bastards. They didn't even let him run a scanner over himself, nor was he permitted to cleanse his wounds. He'd sterilized the cuts in his mouth covertly, deeming the risk of infection worth the chance he took in doing so, and I'm glad for that small measure of self protection he's taken.

I don't ask how it is that I awoke feeling clean and fresh, despite the hardships of the day and the filthiness of our bleak cell. I somehow doubt knowing the answer would bring me any peace of mind.

We discuss our options. He apologizes for disobeying my orders in the interrogation room, and I let him off with a fairly light glare and a silent acceptance of his apology. His remorse is genuine, and I'm not in any frame of mind to redress him for long. He did the best he could under impossible circumstances.

"I understand your dilemma, Tom," I tell him, "and I'm…sorry you had to see…" I trail off, assuming he knows what I mean and not having any desire to dwell on what had happened in that room. "But if they do it again, or if you're questioned separately, you're not to resist again, for any reason."

He accepts my direction with a verbal affirmation, and, looking deeply into his doubtful eyes, I have to be content with it.

Now that he's seen some of the layout on his route to the medical facility, we again discuss the likelihood of escaping from the prison.

"Without some form of inside help from one of the guards, our chances don't look good," he admits.

Tom has had no luck identifying any particular weaknesses in the system of the guards' rotation yet, but I'd thought as much. Escape from such a secured location generally takes weeks, if not months, to plan. After a few, frustrating minutes of circular discussion, I realize that our best chance at escape would be to send a signal Voyager might hopefully pick up.

Acknowledging the difficulty of getting into a position to access equipment needed to achieve this end, I can't help shaking my head as Tom offers me a sip of water from the sealed container. The contents are meager, and I have to hope we'll be given more soon. I'm parched with thirst, but I'm careful to take no more than a sip of the precious liquid. At least I'm being healed, but with potential kidney damage, Tom will need this water much more than I will. Ignoring his protest that I take more, I hand the container back to him and watch carefully as he, too, takes a scant sip before leaning in to level with him, "I'm not sure I'm prepared to bring Voyager into this mess, assuming they do believe we're dead and haven't already set course for the planet." Hopefully, our whispered musings aren't able to be picked up on any surveillance feeds. It looks a good deal more intimate that we keep leaning in close to each other, I'm sure, but that really can't be helped now.

He nods curtly, batting away at one of the palm-sized insects flirting at the edge of his pant leg. For some reason, they seem to like him better. "I understand."

"But unless we find some way of letting them know we're alive, I can't see much chance of getting you out of here. The prison is too secure." He's already told me that the hospital wing is even deeper into the prison, so I know that escape from there isn't likely, either. "So if the opportunity arises to get your hands on any communications equipment, I want you to send the signals we discussed." He nods without argument. I decide to see if I can take advantage of his remorseful mood by once more bringing up the only point I really care about, the one point I must bring home to him. "If by chance you find an opportunity to get out of here entirely while I'm gone tomorrow – or any other time – you're to take it, Tom. Don't look back." I hesitate to mention this, but if we somehow did put on any kind of convincing performance for Gwiln today, they might try and take advantage of any rifts they think lie between us. I want him to know how I expect him to handle it. "And if they happen to offer you a discharge from military custody in exchange for your testimony against me – tell them whatever they want to hear."

He sets the container down, batting away another of the more curious fellow inhabitants of our cell. This insect chitters angrily as it scurries back into its home at the latrine in the corner. Once again, I can't help a poorly repressed shudder and an odd thrill of gratitude that my system is so thoroughly cleaned out; I don't have to trust any of my more sensitive parts to the mercy of the insects living in that hole in the ground.

Tom isn't so lucky. He settles his back against the wall, eyeing me warily. "Leave without you?" he scoffs almost unintelligibly. His mouth looks like hell with the blood crusted over his lips and nose. "Not a chance."

I shift closer to him, using my movements to mask the fact that my lips are moving. The strong scent of him is something I no longer consciously notice. "They aren't going to take as many chances with me. There's no circumstance under which they're going to allow me an opportunity for escape, but they might be less careful with you." Because you're expendable, I don't add. "And if you're offered a way out, you certainly have to take it. Your confession shouldn't be as damaging as they'd like it to be – they'll still need mine to convict me without any hard evidence."

His quiet laughter isn't strictly reassuring. "No deal," he hisses, making a show of scratching the caked dirt on his neck, staring hard at me. "If we get out of here, we go together."

He more than sets my anger aflame with his callous refusal to obey orders – again. "Ensign, I'm giving you a direct order. If you get the chance to escape, you're to take it. There's nothing you can do for me, and the longer you're here, the more at risk you are. Surely you see that by now?"

He doesn't quail, even when I address him by his false lower rank. "I don't know a single member of Voyager's crew who could follow that order, ma'am."

Damn him, but he doesn't even flinch, and I'm giving the glare all I've got while pretending to sweep away some of the dirt on the floor between us. "I won't have you sacrificing your life for me," I hiss. "In case you've forgotten, you have a family waiting for you back on Voyager. I'm trying to see that you're safely returned to them."

It was a low blow, maybe, but I don't regret using any means available to convince him to see reason.

"I haven't forgotten anything. Believe me, if there's one thing I haven't forgotten in all this, it's my wife." He shakes his head, and again, I have to acknowledge that there's much more of the man in his staunch expression than there is of the young adult I first met six years ago. He assures me quietly, making a show of helping me swipe away some of the dirt on the floor, "And yes, of course I'd like to return to my family. But if there's one thing you've taught us out here, it's that the ship as a whole comes first, and if I don't do everything in my power to get the ship's best asset back to her, then I'm not doing my duty as a member of its crew."

I could hit him right now, but then…he usually has that effect on people. Me included.

"I'm not irreplaceable, Tom. No one person's life is more valuable than another."

"Good," he snorts. "Then you can accept that I could no more leave you here to fend for yourself than I could any other member of the crew."

"It's my job to keep the rest of you safe," I growl. "As captain of the ship, that's my ultimate responsibility."

"And as an officer of that same ship, my ultimate responsibility is to make sure you're equipped to do that job properly," he counters smoothly, sounding bored, and I'll be damned if it isn't infuriating. "And correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure you can't do that if you're dead or stuck in a cell here indefinitely."

"And what good is it to the ship if we're both imprisoned?"

The determined light in his eyes intensifies, and it only serves to frighten me more. "Captain, I'll follow your orders to the best of my ability. You know that. But there's no way in hell I'm leaving you here alone, even if I somehow did get a chance to escape on my own. Besides, there's no guarantee that I'll get the chance. I haven't seen any opportunity so far. In fact, I haven't seen so much as an opportunity to get near enough to anything that might give us the opportunity. As for any offers in exchange for my false testimony against you…I haven't heard so much as a whisper of that, either."

No. I've just been hoping he will. It's not outside the realm of possibility that they'd make him the offer... A hiss of pure frustration escapes me at the stony set of his expression. It's familiar, somehow…oh yes. I know where I've seen this look before now; he comes by it honestly. Unfortunately. I force in a deep, not quite so calming breath. "I'm not going to be able to talk any sense into you, am I?"

"Nope. Not this time, Captain."

I've given it my best. In the end, it's his decision. There's nothing left to do but to brush my palms together in an effort to swipe away some of the dirt from the floor and slide down the wall and sit next to him. I lean my head back against the cool stone, reveling in the soothing sensation against my now throbbing headache. "Tom?" I venture, after a moment of silence.

"Yeah, Captain?"

"You really do piss me off at times – you know that, don't you?"

"Yeah," his slow, easy grin displays relief that I'm not going to pursue this any further…for the moment. "I know, Captain."

God, his face is grotesque with those injuries swelling his lips and his nose and mouth still covered in streaks of blood. I can't help what I say next. "You look like hell, Ensign."

"Thanks," he deadpans.

I ignore him, forcing my exhausted limbs to cooperate as I crawl back to our water container. "Let's see what we can do about it."

I do my best to help him clean the blood and grime from his face, ripping off a sizeable strip from my left pant leg (mine being the cleaner of our two uniforms by far) and pouring a few drops of our drinking water onto it. A few drops will be worth it to keep these wounds from becoming infected, and he doesn't argue only because he knows it, too. As his face begins to become visible once more and I continue running the cloth over the blood-streaked stubble now growing in thick on his face, I find I can't help the wry quirk of my lips at the sight of it.

He sees it, drawing back to hide a wince as my fingers press too deeply into the cut on his lip. "What?"

I let him draw back. "Sorry. Nothing."

"Well, you obviously found something funny. Is it that bad-looking?"

Worse. I manage another small smile. "You've looked better, but that isn't what I was smiling at."

"What then?"

I wave him off. "It's nothing important."

"You can't do that and then not tell me what's so funny."

"I can. I'm the captain, remember?" He looks unimpressed as I use a few more drops of water to moisten a clean edge of cloth and continue dabbing at his lip. "Believe me, it wasn't anything worth mentioning."

"Oh c'mon, Captain! That's not fair!" He's actually whining now. At my raised eyebrow, he shrugs, unabashed. "It's a polite rule of any civilized society."

He wants to be distracted – desperately, I can see. It's probably the least I can do for him, considering… "Fine. You win." I lean back, dropping the cloth on my thigh. "I've just always wondered..." It's really a stupid thing to wonder, I muse, trailing off in a frown.

"You've always wondered…?" he prompts eagerly.

I sigh. "What is it with men and shaving?"

"Huh?" He looks surprised but then passes a chuckle while I wring out the small amount of water from the strip again.

I dab a few more drops of "clean" water from our container and begin wiping off the cuts over his nose, taking even more care to be gentle this time, knowing it's probably broken.

"Honestly? That's what you were wondering?"

"Honestly," I nod. Determined to settle this once and for all now that he's dragged it out of me. "Almost every man I've ever met – some of you quite intelligent, mind you – and hardly one of you has the sense not to handle a sharp instrument first thing in the morning. Particularly on a starship, of all places." I shake my head, wringing out the cloth and unfazed by his laughter. "An average of three trips to sickbay in any given month are for shaving related injuries, did you know that?" I didn't, until Seven pointed it out a few months ago.

It takes him a moment to contain his laughter. "I take it you mean you've wondered, why don't we just have the hair follicles deactivated, like women with their legs?"

He indicates the strip of my ankle and lower calf now visible as my legs stretch out beside me and I nod curtly. "Exactly. It's a simple, five-minute trip to any sickbay. Considering the amount of time it must take each morning…the danger involved in nicking yourself with the blade…" I shake my head in genuine bewilderment. "There must be something I'm missing there. Apparently, even Tuvok does it."

"I know Tuvok does. You'd be surprised how hairy Vulcans can be."

"How would you…?" I realize it and answer myself before he can. "Sickbay."

Tom nods. "Yep. But I'd have known from the time he and the doc and I fell into that gravity well."

"Right. I hadn't thought of that." I keep forgetting that, to the three of them, it was months on end they were stuck down there on that planet...what was yet one more occasion I came closer than I'd like to losing some of them.

"Well, it's worth mentioning that a few of the men just use an auto-powered razor, you know."

"The more intelligent among you, no doubt."

"Not me," he adds hastily. Looking almost proud of the fact, to my utter disbelief.

"Why not? Why the insistence on such an archaic method? It would be far less disturbing if you'd at least use a safer instrument."

He shrugs, offering another small grin. "The auto-powered stuff doesn't do the same quality job." He ignores the snort of disgust I don't bother repressing. "Does Chakotay, by the way?" he quips innocently. "I've never noticed. I haven't seen him come by for a dermal regeneration, either, that I can recall."

The death look, as usual, has little effect. "He might have mentioned something about it once or twice." I move on before he can get comfortable on the topic I least want to discuss. "So what's the attraction with shaving? Please. Explain it to me."

"I don't know. I'm guess I've never really thought about it." He chuckles, scratches at the dirt on his neck again, and I brush his hand aside to use the last of the moist cloth to clear some of it away. "I guess for me it comes from having watched my dad do it when I was little. I remember not being able to wait until I was old enough to do it, too. It's kind of like a coming of age thing."

"If that's the case, why not do it manually for a few years…and then do it the sensible way? Surely having to deal with the regrowth under circumstances like these can't be worth it. Doesn't it itch?"

"Like hell, at first. But it goes away in a few days." He actually looks uncomfortable at the thought. "I dunno." He shrugs. "I guess I don't like the idea of having to go to someone else if I want to grow it in…it's just a part of being–"

"Male?"

"Yeah," he nods, seemingly grateful that I understand. "Kind of."

He looks far too satisfied with his non-answer. I can only shake my head. "So you deliberately choose to handle a dangerously sharp blade – at the risk of the ship coming under attack while you're doing it and killing yourself in the process – because it's the male thing to do." He doesn't argue, flashing a sheepish expression at my summation, and I huff. "If personal shavers weren't specifically sanctioned in the regs, you'd better believe I'd outlaw the damned things. And I consider it proof that most of those regs had to have been written by men, I might add."

"Well bless the guy who made that one, then." He pauses, reflecting. "And especially whoever kept those short skirts regulation for as long as they did. Ah, the good old days…" His grin stretches across his face as much as possible given his swollen mouth. "I do miss 'em."

"I'm sure you do," I agree dryly. "I think that's all I can do for now." Sitting back on my heels, I scrutinize the result. "It's not perfect, but it's a hell of a lot better. You aren't likely to frighten small children, at any rate."

He takes the cloth I slap into his upturned palm, folding it up and setting it aside for future use, offering a quiet, "Thank you, Captain."

"You're welcome. Now try not to go getting yourself used as a punching bag anymore, if you'd be so kind."

A small smile as he settles himself back into his preferred corner along the wall. "I'll do my best."

I hope he will. I take a seat next to him as the lull of utter exhaustion pulls at me. With nothing more to be said, we lapse into silence for a long while, each of us lost in tired thought. It's no mystery where his thoughts lie during the long, eternal silences in our bleak cell. And, as I've begun to suspect, given his deliberate prods time and again, it may not be such a mystery to him where my thoughts inevitably wander, either.

I miss him, ache with the gaping loss I feel without his familiar presence by my side. It's strange. I thought we'd been growing a little distant from each other lately. But it's one thing when the separation is purposeful, intentional...and something else entirely being separated by such a large physical distance without any say in the matter. It hurts not to have his steadying counsel, which I've always known is available to me any time, day or night, regardless of how well we're getting along otherwise. It hurts twice as much not to have his calming presence at night. To hear him snoring lightly beside me. Even when I can't sleep at all, which is often, the sound of his breathing has seen me through some of the darker nights of the past two years.

We've been having our differences lately. It isn't often that he's made it over to my quarters in the past few months, and I know much of that has been me pushing him away again. It always is me. He's just not as spiteful as I am – as I can be. I never have liked that about myself, for the most part have kept it in check. But he always has gotten saddled with the worst parts of me out here, usually in trying to keep it from spilling over to the rest of the crew. It isn't fair to him, this relationship, never has been. He only gets the leftover parts of me, what remains after I've given every ounce of the best I've got to the ship and the others. And some days, the leftovers aren't so pretty. He'd never say that, though. Would never let me say it…

And as the days crawl slowly forward, I find it's harder and harder to remember all the reasons he gets under my skin. All the fights, the heated arguments and disagreements fade into the background, until I find I can't even recall the specifics of most of them anymore…or why I was punishing him this time in the first place. I think it was Teero.

I wonder if it's the same for him, back on Voyager. If he's thinking of the last time we argued, or if he's forgotten most of it by now. If he thinks I'm dead…

I don't want to think about that now. I wonder how the ship is doing. Will B'Elanna remember to check that the plasma manifolds aren't sticking again? Will anyone else put together the connection between the problem in the hydroponic trays and the faulty replicators we used to replicate them with? That had come to me three days ago, while I'd been trying to block out Gwiln's efforts during a session. I hope someone has put it together by now. Any issues with our food production systems have a tendency to radically alter the status of the ship's food stores if not properly monitored…they can't afford that, especially now…

The entire night, like the last four, we have one visit from the prison guards. The pair brings with them the standard tray of barely edible prison fare. Again like the past four nights, they make sure we both remain at the back of the cell while one keeps a weapon on us and the other warily sets the tray down just inside the perimeter. And again, as usual, they take great pains to assure me that better amenities could be made available to us if I could only find it within myself to "be nicer" to them.

I hold back on my scathing retort this time; Tom's condition still overrides all other concerns, including sleep. I've been waiting for this moment, so that I can approach the guards for assistance…

When I demand that they take him for treatment, gesturing to his obvious wounds with anger, I'm laughed at and asked, in a way that can only be considered especially crude, what it's worth to me. When I remain silent, glowering, the guards simply laugh and stalk away down the corridor – leaving Tom to suffer with his injuries in the meantime. Not that it was entirely unexpected.

They still haven't healed him. As of this morning, when I was summoned by Gwiln's men for the fifth consecutive round of interrogation, Tom's injuries have not been addressed.

I made the same demand for Tom to receive medical attention before being sent into the tiny room for "purging", but Gwiln's soldiers didn't even bother to reply before shoving me into the tiny bathroom. A short while later, Gwiln himself only raised one of those thin, dark Jifani brows and accepted my uniform, which the one called Airrek held out to him upon entry. Gwiln fingered the material idly, looking me over much more closely than he had the days before, and asked whether or not I was ready to cooperate yet.

"Not a chance in hell," I took great satisfaction in replying, keeping as tight a reign on my anger as possible.

He smiled slightly, shrugged, and set my clothes on the bare shelf beside him. "Then I really don't see what I can do for your officer," he retorted before ordering me positioned against the wall exactly as I had been the day before.

The rest of the routine has been the same. Standing in the same awkward position, forced to bend at an odd angle and to keep my palms flat against the wall in the freezing section of the small room. If I moved for any reason, even to scratch at an itch on my nose or to alleviate the discomfort in my stiff limbs, another jolt of that God-forsaken baton was administered. Several times, buckets of frigidly cold water were dumped over me to ensure that I never had the chance to completely dry out and warm up.

Now, as I stand here shivering, I have to admit it's working, to some degree. It's amazing the amount of demoralization that can be inflicted by techniques that leave hardly a single mark on the body. I try not to dwell on the last time I pondered this concept or the fact that Tom is sitting, injured in that cell and that I can't do a single thing to help him. I focus on Voyager and the hope that, by holding fast to my resolve, I can protect the ship and keep Tom alive for as long as possible. It grows harder to do, however, with each passing moment.

Hours pass with Gwiln pressing, taunting. Questioning. Insinuating, trying to intimidate, to confuse… It takes me until the third jolt to begin silently praying for relief, but of course, none comes. There are only hours of the same. Cold, extreme discomfort, more and more severe as time passes. Dizziness and weakness from the purging and the energy weapon discharging jarring volts of energy into my aching body. Questions, one right after the other. Gwiln laying out the scenario I'm supposed to adhere to, intermittently throwing out different details for me to pick up on…for when I finally break and want to "confess", of course. I couldn't very well do so convincingly without having any knowledge of this resistance movement, its capabilities, or its agenda.

I do my utmost to block him out. I don't want those details. The very last thing I want is for those bits of information to sink into my brain for later recall, but the intendent is uncommonly good at his job. Every time I manage to withdraw into myself or to find some way to maintain my mental distance from what is happening around me, either a sharp slap or an icy shock awaits me at his hands. Sometimes, he simply raises his voice and shouts into my ear. Condemning, threatening. Anything to bring my focus fully back to him.

Hours of this, followed by long periods of silence. His men leave the room (I think, from the sound of the door opening and closing), and Gwiln busies himself with paperwork or whatever administrative tasks a military interrogator has. Hell, for all I know, he's practicing his tennis serve behind me, but it's the silence that is the worst of all.

My tongue begins to loosen. I want to talk. After what seems like hours of standing in silence, doing my utmost to block out every single threat that has passed from Gwiln's confident lips, I find I have to add a certain perverse craving for communication to the list of things I have to fight with everything I have.

And, already, I don't have much of anything left over. Physically drained more and more as time has passed, I begin to feel my resolve to keep silent weakening, crumbling away…

My mind must have wandered. He's noticed, of course. I'm brought back to the present by the shifting of his weight behind me…when did he approach? I hadn't even heard it this time…

And then, without warning, something large and round, not the energy baton, digs deep into my upper back. The acute stinging sensation as the unknown implement pierces into my over-stimulated musculature catches me entirely off guard.

This is new. I cry out, unable to stop myself. The instrument is withdrawn just as brutally as it was inserted. Swinging my head around, I note Gwiln insolently soothing what I assume is a mark on my lower shoulder with the tip of his gloved index finger.

It's worse than the moderate pain he just inflicted by far to feel him touching me so arrogantly. As if he has the inherent right to do so…

He twirls the end of the crude Jifani hypospray in his other hand.

From deep within my throat, I feel the growl rise out of me. "What the hell was that? What did you just give me?" Damn him, this is the second time during our short association that he had caught me unawares with some unknown substance. I should have anticipated it, and… And what, my inner voice mocks. Even if you'd known what was coming, what were you going to do to stop him?

I ignore the voice: consciously, anyway. It does nothing to help maintain my resolve. "Was that another one of your sedatives?" I demand, feeling the weak, residual trembling in my arms, which ache to fall down and rest at my sides.

"Don't worry, Captain. It won't kill you." Of course it won't. That would be too easy. "It's just a little something to help things along."

"Meaning?" I hiss, wanting desperately to reach behind me and feel the small wound left behind. It stings like hell – much worse than before.

Something tells me this isn't the same mild sedative I was given at the reception hall.

He only continues to smile insolently. "You'll realize on your own soon enough, I'm sure. Which brings me to another matter. Since you're proving so remarkably resilient to our methods, the prefect has given permission for our time together to be extended. Instead of tomorrow, your new plea hearing has been scheduled for two weeks from now."

At this casually offered information, my stomach feels like someone kicked me in it. That plea hearing…that break in this torturous routine…has been keeping me going for the last five days. Knowing that tomorrow is now likely to bring a hideous repeat of the last five days of suffering only increases the spasmodic trembling in my arms and legs.

My God. Two more weeks of this…my eyes close tightly as I withdraw inside myself to find my dwindling source of inner strength. I'll need every last dreg of it that I can access to hold out that long. Two weeks?

"Why, Captain," his hated voice drawls next to me. Close. Too close. "Is that disappointment I sense? Really," he clucks his tongue, "you'll have me developing a complex. Surely spending time in my company isn't so bad? I know I, for one, am enjoying every momentof our time together."

I tense, hating it, but again, unable to stop doing it. His tone is getting to me. The weariness, the constant discomfort, hunger and fatigue are all getting to me. There are cracks developing in my wall of stoicism.

He sees them. I've never encountered anyone quite so good at noticing every little nuance of every single motion I make…

Well, that's a lie. There's Chakotay, of course. But this man is foe, not friend. My first officer has known me for years; he's a trusted and dear friend. He's…well he's so much more than that, when my guard is down enough to admit it, like it is now.

Gwiln has only known me for a scant ten days. He shouldn't be as good at this as he is.

A wave of…something…washes over me. It's internal. Physical. My vision wavers, and everything seems to…pulse. The cracks in the wall in front of me, so familiar by now, seem to be…breathing, somehow. I suck in a breath, a tiny one, as the muscles at my damned side still haven't been fully healed. It hadn't been one of the medic soldier's priorities, or so Tom informed me; therefore, Tom had not been permitted to do much to repair the basic tearing, and I've done further damage to the injured tissue today.

God, it's cold. My eyelids flutter closed. So tired…

A strong slap against my wet thigh snaps me back to the present. "Focus, Captain," Gwiln drawls, mortifying me as I realize that I've indeed been letting my mind wander...but this time entirely unintentionally. "That would appear to be growing increasingly difficult for you."

Another growl rises up in my throat. The urge to scream at him is intense, but I clamp down on my tongue in the last instant before giving in to the urge. That's exactly what he wants. He wants my explosion, my anger. This man is trying to break me, and he'll use any means necessary to do it. But I'm a Starfleet officer, as I remind myself for the hundredth time today. A ship's captain. I have my officers and Voyager to protect. I won't let his idle taunts get the better of me. I'm smarter than that. I'm trained better than that, damn it.

I cough. As I do, I realize dimly that it's the second time today I've done that. The ventilation systems in this room leave much to be desired.

Gwiln bends down to inspect my bindings. They aren't as tight today – the one kindness I've been afforded in this room – but they still hold me in this damned awkward position. He withdraws, moving farther away from my back. As much as I'm pleased by the additional space this puts between us, I can't help feeling the loss of his natural body heat. And he's a bastard for that alone, I decide, knowing he has probably done this on purpose. I shiver more violently.

"Cold, Captain?" he taunts. "Tired?"

I bite harder into my tongue. Now I can taste blood, and I have to let up. I settle for grinding my teeth together instead. Again. It's a wonder I haven't worn them down to nothing by now.

"You know you'd be perfectly comfortable back in your cell right now…if you would only agree to be reasonable."

"Our definitions of 'reasonable' differ, Intendent." My teeth are so clenched it hurts to speak through them.

"But they don't have to," he replies quickly, jumping on the opening my reply has created for him. "Tell me about meeting with members of the resistance; what harm can it do? It'll put an end to all your suffering. Surely that sounds good right about now, my dear?"

Too good, in fact. My anger and irritation are growing. Gwiln's footsteps are drawing near again.

"And…obviously, I'd have no problems with treating Mister Paris's unfortunate injuries if you were inclined to cooperate."

I'm sure he wouldn't. Bastard. Despicable bastard. I might actually think less of him than I do of Kaelo. Damn him. He's doing it. He's slowly backing me into yet a tighter corner. If Tom's injuries become serious enough, Gwiln is going to force me to choose between defending against a potential threat to my ship and an imminent threat to my officer…

"No." Once more, it takes everything in me to keep my reply short. Annoying, anomalous spots have appeared in my vision, and I attribute them to exhaustion. On top of everything else, I don't think I can handle the assumption that I've been given a hallucinogen.

"Well, then. There's always tomorrow, eh, Captain?" Through the exaggerated sigh of regret, he sounds positively cheerful, "Though I regret to have to inform you that our session is ending early today."

My ears perk up at this. "What?" Am I hearing things, already? At this early juncture in the process?

"I said that our session, unfortunately, has to end early today," his voice carries over from the far side of the room as I continue to fight the urge to slump in my restraints, despite knowing how painful that would ultimately be.

"Oh?" I'm not hearing things. It is a reprieve. "And just why would that be?" There has to be a reason. If I can just provoke him into telling me what it is…"Don't tell me I've worn you out already, Intendent?" My raw, scratchy throat drips scorn at him, finally, the way it's been longing to all day.

He smiles his small, indulgent smile. I can't see it, but I know it's there, just the same. "Your concern for my well being is…touching. But you needn't fear a woman of your age is any danger of exhausting me. At least not in any such mundane pursuits as you force us to engage in here, Captain."

Again, he's infuriating me. I don't know why, all of a sudden, that should be the case when I've weathered so many worse insults from this man for the past five days… it hits me then. I feel my eyes drawing narrower. "What the hell was in that hypospray you just gave me?" I demand again, surprised and not in a good way, at how long it's taken me to remember it.

His laughter is mocking, light, as though he doesn't have a care in the galaxy as he calls for his men to step forward and escort me to the hospital wing.

At least this time, I don't pass out before we get there.

***

Fourteen


Tom


As she half limps into the medical bay, the captain takes one look at my face, at the stiff way I'm holding my arm, and she knows I'd been beaten since she's last seen me.

"What happened?" she demands in a low, dangerous hiss.

"I'm fine, Captain," I respond tightly, taking a page out of her book and keeping my gaze on the readout monitor as I scan her shivering body with my good arm.

"You're anything but fine," she persists, snapping, trying to sit up. The shorter haired soldier, Airrek, takes great pleasure in forcing her back down onto the medical cot. She looks furious. "Was it them?" she asks dangerously, her glare narrowing in on them. She looks ready to spring for their throats, causing them to tense and move their hands nearer their weapons. "Did they do this?"

I shake my head. I can't do this here – not in front of them. Not at all if I can help it, but if I know her, I won't be able to…

"No. And it's worse than it looks." Then, seeing that she isn't going to accept my answer, I add, "I'll fill you in later." I fix my eyes on hers, willing her to calm down before she gets herself even more hurt. "I promise, Captain."

She seems to accept that, at least. But she's definitely on edge. That much is apparent when, minutes later, she nearly takes a swing at Kohr, who is, granted, being insufferable this afternoon.

His comments are unnecessary and demeaning, and in general, his manner is gruff and uncooperative. Like yesterday, he observes my progress carefully, making me explain every move I intend to make before eventually allowing me to proceed with treating the captain's injuries.

There aren't many, actually, aside from the usual. Her heart has undergone severe stress and the muscles adjoining the chest wall are still torn…more so this time. Her muscles are strained beyond belief, cramping what has to be painfully and, once again, I'm baffled by the further deprivation of nutrients in her bloodstream. Her levels shouldn't be anywhere near this low.

To be absolutely certain, I run a discreet scan of myself while Kohr's back is turned, and, sure enough, my levels, though low, are nowhere near as low as hers. This doesn't make sense. I don't ask about it in front of the soldiers, but I mean, hell…I watched her eat this morning and last night, and yet there's nothing anywhere in her stomach or intestines. Her stomach, in fact, growls loudly as I scan the readout from her body again. She looks embarrassed by it, and I pretend not to have noticed. I also pretend I didn't just see the scanner confirm that I do have kidney damage as I wave it discreetly over myself. I suspected as much earlier anyway, when trying to relieve myself in the cell.

Damage to her stomach lining and esophagus clue me in to the captain's problem and then I think I might have an idea of what's been going on with her dehydration. Remembering the jolts that baton of Gwiln's delivered, I could kick myself. And it's no wonder she hasn't been dying to discuss it, either. If those energy currents are making her physically sick, I'm sure the smug son of a bitch has been mocking her for it…

My eyes catch on a small screen. There's fluid in her lungs. A trace amount, but still…damn it. This is what I was afraid of…I definitely need to take a more thorough scan.

"You're too slow," Kohr snaps, snatching the regenerative tool from my other hand and going to work on the captain's ankles. He isn't gentle, but the captain isn't going anywhere, anyway. The other one has taken it upon himself to keep holding her down while we work. She doesn't resist…much…and he does no further visible damage by pinning her in place with his hold on her shoulders. The restraint marks on her legs aren't as bad this time, at least…

Kohr switches off the regenerator with a flourish; the "examination" is concluded, just like that. The tricorder is also snatched away from me, before I can take another, more focused scan, and the younger guard hauls the captain to her feet and looks her over more carefully than he should ever need to. It's hard to keep my cool.

"Good enough," he grunts. "Now you shower, and we'll return you to your cell." He begins to drag her over to the shower unit installed along the wall.

She resists. "Wait." She pulls back and glances at me and then at the medic. Her voice is like steel, and she doesn't appear to see the warning looks on their faces as their hands find their weapons on their belts. "I'm not doing anything else until you allow my officer treatment."

I stifle a groan. "Captain," I hear myself intone, surprised at my own audacity, "I don't think now's the time to–"

"No," Kohr cuts over me loudly, "we won't. Treating him is a waste of time."

She wants to approach him. I can see it in her eyes, but Airrek keeps a firm grip on her arm, holding her in place. She settles for glowering at him. "His injuries are serious," she clips, "and if you want him to survive long enough to continue to fix me up for the sake of appearances, then you'll–"

Kohr laughs then. Throws his head back, opens his mouth wide and cackles, long and hard. It sends rivulets of unease shivering up and down my spine. When he finally recovers, he sneers, "Too late, Captain. You should have asked a day ago."

A day ago, I wasn't injured this badly, but I somehow doubt that bit of logic is going to matter to him at all.

The captain pales, but only a little. "What do you mean by that?"

"Just that we don't need him anymore," the medic crows smugly. "Your officer has just become obsolete. I've already learned what I need to know from him to keep you alive and relatively functional for the remainder of your stay with us. I can now heal the marks on you myself." He chuckles again, enjoying his moment as the reality sinks into my brain. He's right. If he's learned enough…and he probably has, for their purposes…then I am now completely expendable. "So what do I care if he dies from his injuries?" Kohr continues. "Let him bleed out in your little cell. It'll be one less mouth for the government to feed in the meantime–"

She moves so fast, I hardly even see her. The captain wrenches her arm out of Airrek's surprised grasp and leaps for Kohr, a growl so fierce erupting from her throat that I think even B'Elanna would have to raise an eyebrow in respect if she could hear it.

I take the chance and reach for Airrek, but his fist strikes hard and true. One blow to my injured side is all it takes anymore, and with a final knee to the diaphragm on the way down, I'm doubled over on the floor, rocking automatically as I gasp for air. Damn it.

They subdue her, of course. Together, they manage to pull her back and restrain her. Another quick round with the regenerator, which she sits still for when Kohr, in exasperation, finally holds his disruptor to my head. The captain quiets then, but her glower never wavers in intensity. For my part, I have chills watching her eyes tracking his every movement like a Hirogen stalking prey. If she'd ever once looked at me like that…

It isn't normal. I've seen her angry, but this is unnatural. This edgy, almost feral aggression the captain is displaying is much more reminiscent of those few weeks that we were the unwitting subjects of alien science experiments and her dopamine levels were through the roof.

Actually, she was only testy then, now that I think on it. Ok…really testy, but this is something even more. It's closer to the kind of aggression I remember of the clamps used in the Akritirian prison. I didn't have the chance to check her hormone levels, not even remotely thinking it necessary, but now I find myself wishing I had.

Airrek drags her over to the shower stall once they're finished, physically holding her under the water stream with his hand in her hair. He directs her to use cleansing foam from the dispenser on herself and basically makes a point of enjoying the show. And then something else clicks into place for me about when she and I were first reunited in this place and I probably should have guessed that, too.

I grit my teeth and keep quiet, aware by now that my protests are only going to drag out the whole process.

It occurs to me that I must smell pretty disgusting by now, to say the least, though the captain hasn't mentioned it, and I'm not at all surprised when my request to be able to shower is denied.

New guards come to escort us to our cell just as the captain is pulling on her uniform. She stiffens at the added audience, but I can see her jaw set as she lifts her chin and makes a point of not hurrying her movements any.

"Watch out," Kohr sneers, indicating her as they relinquish us into the others' tender care, "this one is a real bitch."

I blanch, embarrassed and angry on her behalf, but I can't bring myself to outright deny it. She can be, if circumstances warrant it.

Apparently, she feels that circumstances are very warranting today. The captain gives the new guards a hell of a time, too. Demanding to know who they are and why they're taking us instead of the other two. Why it is that this is the first time we're being allowed contact with any additional soldiers. Yanking her arm free from their grasp and insisting that she knows the way back to our cell. She doesn't, but that isn't the point, I take it. On the whole, they accept her defiance better than I expect, almost with amusement which pisses her off further, but I'm grateful for it anyway.

The moment they leave us standing in our cell, she whirls on me, an odd, gleaming light in her eyes. Her fists clench and unclench at her sides. "Something's different today," she announces flatly. "Something's happening. He ended the session early, but he wouldn't say why. Have they mentioned anything to you?"

"In between beatings, you mean?" I can't help retorting with a wry smile. My sore body hurts everywhere, but I make myself hold her gaze levelly. I straighten as I shake my head at her unamused expression. "No, ma'am. Not a thing."

Even my last answer pisses her off. I can see it in the spark of irritation that flashes across her face; she doesn't entirely manage to hide it in time. "What happened?" she demands, her intense grey eyes raking over my face. "Why did they attack you this time?"

"No reason that I could tell. They came to throw in some more water, and when I asked them if you were being given any in the interrogation room, they took offense." I shrug at her suspicious look, but really, I'm growing more and more concerned with each passing minute. This isn't like her. It's like she's having to constantly fight to keep control of herself, and she's glaring at me as though it's my fault the guards used me for a punching bag. She should be tired beyond belief after what she's endured today, just as she has been the past several days, but she seems to have energy to spare. Where it's coming from, I can only guess…

"That's all you said?" she demands, catching my attention. "You didn't intentionally try to provoke them?"

"Of course not." I wonder that she'd think I'm that stupid in the first place.

"They beat you for asking after my well being?" she rephrases. I can hear the dubious note in her sharp voice, and I don't blame her for it. She knows I'm leaving something out of my explanation.

My feet are suddenly looking more and more fascinating by the second. I hadn't wanted to get into this with her at all, although I knew she wouldn't let me off without an accounting of the incident. But the last thing the captain needs to know right now is that the guards are taking out their frustration at not being allowed to touch her on me. "Seems they found it presumptuous," I grin, not exactly feeling the humor. "Didn't think it was a no-name medic's place to question military officers' decisions."

She grabs my arm, her grip like a vice lock over torn ligaments and tendons in my elbow, and both pain and surprise startle me into looking up before the mask is in place. But she doesn't see it through the intense anger burning in her eyes. "Then you're not to ask them anything like that again, is that understood?"

She shouldn't have missed that look on my face. I'm thankful she did, but no way in hell should Kathryn Janeway have missed the unguarded pain in my eyes when I glanced up at her. Something is seriously wrong here, and I feel my stomach do even worse flip flops than it's been doing since this morning. "Uh, Captain," I stutter, unable to help myself, "is everything…all right?"

"All right?" Her eyes narrow further, and her nostrils flare. Her knuckles have gone white with the pressure she exerts in balling her fists, presumably to keep herself from pacing back and forth – or even hitting something. "You've been beaten severely, again, and I still can't secure treatment for you. No, Tom, I'd say everything is most certainly not 'all right'."

"No, I mean with you," I interject swiftly. "I…forgive me if this is out of line, but you don't exactly seem…yourself."

That seems to startle her. Nothing about her behavior has signaled something wrong to her. Another bad sign…

"What do you mean?"

"I…you're…you seem…particularly…on edge." I stammer, feeling a little like Harry in my hesitation as my tongue trips over the words. But this is a delicate line to walk with her in this mood.

"That's ridiculous," she snaps, proving my caution valid.

Right, then – my mistake. She usually rages around like a Klingon on steroids.

I keep my mouth firmly shut.

"I'm not on edge, damn it! I'm perfect…ly…" The captain pales considerably, seeing the disbelief on my face and trailing off abruptly. "Damn him!" She spins around to the side wall, slamming her fists against it.

"What?" I move forward a step, wanting to reach for her to try and calm her but not able to. "Captain? What is it?"

She turns back to me, her eyes swinging to the far wall, focused on some unseen sight, and the venom springs back in them almost immediately. "He gave me something," she spits, making my stomach drop to the floor at the revelation."I'd forgotten. I don't know how that's possible, but I forgot…"

I follow her blank stare, frowning, frankly more than a little worried at this point and take an unwise step forward to close the distance between us. "Who, Captain? Who gave you what?"

"Gwiln." She spits the word out like so much acid. "Just before I was brought to the hospital wing, he stuck a hypospray into my back."

Alarms go off in my head. "Hypospray?" This can't be good. "What kind of hypospray?" I hadn't seen anything on scanners…but then I hadn't the chance to do any blood work.

She waves her hand vaguely in the air. "Some crude version of it…the needle points were long. I felt them penetrate into my muscle." She squeezes her eyes shut, turning away from me and pacing toward the far wall. "A few minutes later, I did notice a slight…edginess."

My throat goes drier. Damn. They're drugging her now. Perfect. As if plain torture and borderline, mystery starvation weren't enough to deal with.

"But I have it under control," she adds, the hand on her increasingly slender hip daring me to disagree with her and discouraging the snort of disbelief from escaping my throat. "Now that I know it's affecting my disposition, I can handle it."

Her increasingly dilated pupils tell a completely different story, but now isn't the time to mention it. I'm not sure I'd survive a remark like that, given her current frame of mind, so I proceed carefully. "Captain, can you think of any reason they would give you something to make you…uh…edgy like this?" I venture gently, trying to ignore the sharp looks she keeps giving me.

"Of course," she snorts. "If I appear aggressive and not in control of myself in front of the panel, I'll look that much worse for…" she trails off again, and I'm beginning to wonder if the drug is affecting her concentration, too.

"Captain?"

She turns back to me again, pausing her pacing and growing increasingly pale. "But that can't be it."

It can't? "Why not? It sure sounds like a perfect way to –"

"No," she interrupts, her eyes glowing annoyance at nothing in particular, "there isn't going to be any hearing tomorrow. He's had Kaelo postpone it by two weeks."

But we'd been counting on that hearing. To me, more media coverage increases the chances of word somehow getting to Voyager. And a day at the reception hall meant at least a day of rest for her. Maybe not for me, probably left back here, but I can handle the beatings. For a while longer, anyway. Hopefully, for long enough for Voyager to get here, but now that crucial respite is being denied us. She may be Kathryn Janeway, woman of steel, but no one can hold out against the kind of pain I experienced earlier on in the week forever. My heart sinks into the stone floor. "So they'll be coming for you again in the morning?"

"I assume so, yes," she nods. "But that doesn't explain why he ended the session early today. Or what they've given me, or why."

I don't have any answers, and if I did, I doubt that they'd be positive. Ironically, I ask myself what Harry would say in this situation, and the smile comes to my lips. "There's always the chance that you just wore him out, you know. That he's trying other methods because you're trying his patience."

She gives me an odd look, but at least it's devoid of spitting rage this time. It's something. "That's what I said to him when he told me he was ending the session." Another look crosses her face, this one darker, but she says nothing else. Instead, she resumes her restless pacing. Ridiculously, considering the trembling in her overused muscles from standing all day. Again.

There's nothing I can do for her in the cell without access to any medical equipment, though I understand why they were so hedgy about allowing me to use the scanner now. They obviously didn't want me to check her blood chemistry to see what they'd given her. I have to assume that this, too, is a bad sign. Why would they care if I knew what they'd given her?

In the end, there are no answers to be had. We simply have to wait it out and see what's in store for us: not something either one of us has ever been particularly good at. I guess it comes from being an admiral's kid, wanting to be in control of the situation at all times. Maybe.

Eventually, I convince her to lie down on the grimy floor next to me and to try to get some rest, but she refuses to let me try to keep her from contact with the floor, despite the way she's still shivering.

"You're injured. You can't keep losing sleep and body heat trying to keep me warm. And there's no sense in us both being wet."

The way she snaps it, I don't have any room to argue.

It takes less than two hours before they come for her again. This time, there are four of them. They're military, I can see from the uniforms, but none of them are the same two from the interrogation room. Again, they're not Gwiln's men…and they aren't the same two who escorted us back here, either. Instead of the long, mid-thigh length tunics worn by Gwiln's men and the two that escorted us back to our cell this afternoon, the newcomers wear much shorter tunics over their stiff, coarse-cut military trousers. They're dressed more like Gwiln than the others, actually…

Officers, I realize belatedly. Not just footmen, but people who matter.

She was right. Something is up. We both rise slowly to our feet as they reach the forcefield in front of our cell and after imputing the ever-changing code, which they seem to have, it snaps away.

One of them points to her. "You. Janeway. Come with us."

"Why?" She makes no move to join them. In fact, she stays right where she is, beside me along the far wall. "What do you want?"

I move in front of her. Slightly, but enough to catch her attention. Instead of snapping at me, however, she reaches out and deftly grabs a fistful of my tunic, hauling me back against the wall with strength she shouldn't even possess.

"Obey me, or we will come in and retrieve you."

"You know," she hisses, taking a challenging step forward, and shifting in front of me, "I've had just about enough of this. I'm tired of being summoned whenever it suits someone else's fancy. We've done nothing to warrant such inhumane treatment. I demand that my officer's injuries be addressed, and I demand that we be allowed to meet with legal counsel–"

"Oh, you demand legal counsel, do you?" The field is already down. The foremost of the group of four soldiers is striding towards her with clear purpose. The smile on his face makes me wary, and the fact that two of his friends are starting towards me as he moves forward, hedging her away from me and into the corner does nothing to reassure me, either.

The other two force me back, their hands flexing menacingly as they crowd me. Boxing me in. From over their broad shoulders, I just catch a glimpse of the fourth soldier heading for her.

"You demand that your officer's injuries be addressed? Sure, Captain."

The two in front of me both grin. One of them reaches for me. I dodge sharply to the left, trying to zig closer to the captain, but the other is there between us in a flash, thwarting my intentions.

"No problem," the first's snide voice continues. "Why didn't you say so in the first place?" He turns and nods at the two in front of me. "Address his injuries for the lovely captain."

I only manage to deflect the first few blows. After the first kick connects with my kneecap, I go down to the floor in agony, my involuntary cry of anguish echoing out into the tiny room. The floor really is filthy. During the day, while waiting for the captain to be returned, I have a lot of time on my hands while listening to her periodic screams. I've spent some of that time sweeping aside the litter on the floor and clearing a sleeping space in the grit and grime, figuring it would be best if we could keep contact with the bugs and rodents that also call this cell home at a minimum. It's this mostly clear space I fall into now, and as the two soldiers descend over me, leaning over and reigning down harsh blows over my exposed back, I just catch a glimpse of the captain, pulled around in front of the fourth soldier, who keeps her still in front of him with her arm wrenched behind her.

"Is this addressing enough for you, Captain?" The first soldier leers as his buddy holds her tightly through her outraged struggles.

The next few minutes are a blur of pain and blood. I'm dimly aware of the officers' laughter, and of the captain's impressive vocabulary of multi-lingual curses. The whole time, she shouts abuse at the men beating me.

With a final, vicious boot to my jaw, the soldiers tire of their game and back away from me. With my left eye swollen shut and the right nearly so, I'm not even aware of the fact that the captain is being hauled out of the cell while I lie here on the gritty stone floor, helpless to do anything about it. I only hear her enraged shouting fade as she's taken further and further down the hallway and away from the cell. The impact of her removal escapes me at the moment. It's too hard to think clearly about anything but the pain.

At least those damned bright lights are finally out, I think fuzzily as reality fades away from me.


Kathryn


They beat him out of pure spite – for fun, and he'd already been injured. I'd been concerned about him before, and now I don't even know how badly he's hurt. They could have left him there to die. Alone, on that filthy stone floor…

I saw him spit out at least one tooth before they crowded in on him, and then I couldn't see him anymore at all. I could only listen to the pained grunting noises coming from his throat as they pummeled him senseless. Not again, was all I could think as I fought to break free, God help me, not again…

The picture doesn't leave my mind. It's all I can see as I'm dragged bodily down the long hall, close to kicking and screaming the entire time.

Tom. They're taking me further and further away from him. How the hell can I help him now?

Primal fear, rage make me lash out with the hand I manage to wrangle free of a strong grip, but the grip is reestablished before I can do any damage, which only enrages me further.

Damn it, no. I'm not losing another one. I refuse to let him die here, and he will if they keep subjecting him to treatment like that. I'm overcome with the urge to hurt them, as they have hurt my officer and are likely to hurt me now, though that's nothing I can't handle. Probably nothing I can't handle. They aren't allowed to mark me. I don't think they are. Their laughter burns into me. I can't breathe for wanting to see them suffer as they would have us suffer…I'd kill right now to make them bleed the way they have him.

But the inevitable realization that they're not going to help him – and that right now I can't either – sinks in. There's absolutely nothing I can do to help Tom.

Spots are dancing in front of my eyes. And from the amused laughter and the snide faces surrounding me, they know precisely the internal struggle I'm having. This is what they wanted. They want me to lose control. They keep having to shift me between them to try and hold me still. But they're laughing. This amuses them.

"That's right, Captain, get it all out," the first soldier drawls though his amusement as we progress further along the hall. They're dragging me back toward the main base, I realize. Back along the path I first took when escorted to our cell for the first time. "Get it out of your system now, and I'm sure you'll feel better."

Bastard. When I go for his throat this time, it takes all three of his friends to hold me back. They barely manage it. In their effort to pin me back against the wall, one of them grabs my left wrist in an awkward grip. It's too easy to break his hold before he can reestablish it, and then easier still to catch his thumb and snap it back. The cracking sound of a joint snapping is music to my ears, and at his thick cursing, I can't help but enjoy his impotent frustration, barely sneering at the empty threat as he instinctively raises a hand to strike a blow he doesn't dare follow through with. They have my hands again before I can do anything else.

I'm shoved against the wall just short of the arched doorway that leads back out into the main section of the base. The officers holding my arms press me up against the wall, pinning me there with their broad shoulders, and the one I take to be the ranking officer (as he has called the shots thus far) leans into my face.

"Now listen closely, Captain," he instructs. I confess; it's more difficult than it should be. "Right now, your officer is in dire need of medical attention. My officers just gave him one hell of a beating. He could be bleeding to death on that floor…" he trails off in with a short bark of laughter as I almost make it away from the wall again.

They shove me back as I force the image of Tom's battered face away in my mind so that I can focus on the sharp features of the soldier in front of me. He's waiting for something, waiting to see my response. I can hear the heavy sound of my own breathing. Deep and exquisitely painful behind my tender ribs. There's a slight wheezing quality to it as I lock gazes with him.

"What do you want?" I snap. "What will it cost me to have him treated?"

Because he wants something, that much is plain.

"Judge Advocate Jorca has arranged to meet with you this evening." The name is familiar, but I can't place it immediately. "She'll want to inspect and question you regarding the treatment you've received while in government custody."

Jorca. Jorca…my mind swirls through the hazy recollections of that first day in the reception hall. Kaelo's words come back to me now. She'll scream the entire panel down on our heads trying to protect the bitch's rights.

Jorca. The woman who so vocally urged caution to the panel of justices presiding over the indictment proceedings. My one potential ally, now coming to meet with me, but of course that would have been too dangerous for Kaelo and Gwiln to simply allow without exercising some form of control over my responses… It clicks then.

"You want me to keep my mouth shut."

The soldier smiles smugly, but the rage is already redirected to Gwiln, who must be the one who orchestrated this entire scenario.


Gwiln


It's important that she appear aggressive and unpredictable. Most of the soldiers stationed here don't have access to her and can't know what she's normally like, and I don't need her developing admirers or unwitting allies – especially not Jorca.

It's interesting to watch her like this. Worth the inconvenience of having to end our session early. She should still be less in control than she is. I can see her fighting with herself to remain calm, even as they hold her down and strap her to the chair furthest from the door of the small meeting room. Even as she wants to fight like a wild animal to escape their hold, she fights with herself to regain control also.

The urge to chuckle passes quickly. I peer closer and frown at the monitor. Janeway appears to have suffered a few minor injuries on the way in – not good.

I cannot wait to be free of these restrictions regarding her appearance. At least with the struggle she continues to maintain with her bindings, the new marks can be explained away easily enough. Especially if she keeps it up…

Really, I only need her to pass the initial inspection. If she plays her part…and I expect she will, for that medic's sake…this will be swift and easy. Jorca is a creature of habit. Her procedure of inspection never varies. She will examine Janeway for obvious signs of mistreatment, even going so far as to ask her to strip off her uniform. Jorca will then meticulously record every detail, every mark of discoloration and demand satisfactory explanations for each of them.

I hope our little warning will be sufficient; I prefer not to have to take extreme measures just yet regarding either woman.

I watch the other monitor. Jorca has arrived. She brings her own people, though she knows only she will be permitted entry into this base. I shake my head. Stubborn woman. I hope it won't be her downfall. I can't say I'll regret it too much if that's the case; I did warn her once.

I smile, recalling her disdainful reaction to my friendly advice all those years ago. I have warned her that her dogged determination and unnatural curiosity will be her undoing. It will be up to her whether or not she walks out of this facility alive.

Back to Janeway. She makes an effort not to strain in her bonds as my officers make deliberately inflammatory statements about her officer's condition. Sweat beads on her forehead, soaking her shoulder-length red locks at the hairline. Her hair darkens when wet, I've noted. And her skin blues with the cold.

I like it better blue.

But the color that's been draining out of her more and more each day has returned, which is another thing I was after. Jorca is meticulously detail-oriented; she'd have noted the extreme lack of pigmentation to Janeway's skin, and she'd have realized that it was unusual for her race.

I can't have that.

The officers were carefully selected. None of them are local, yet they're loyal. The commander is a personal friend of mine. He and his men know what to do. Two of them leave to greet Jorca, and it takes only a moment before they are standing within the frame of the other monitor in front of me. They collect her, their faces impassive as they bow low, giving her the reverence her position commands. She eyes them with barely concealed disgust, and I smile again. She thinks herself so very much above us – always has. All of us who have chosen to defend our people from harm, possibly with our lives, if necessary…and Jorca, with her plush, cushy position on the judiciary panel believes that her path of non-violence sets her above us.

And perhaps it does, after all.


Kathryn


I can't understand why my anger isn't subsiding. All I can see is Tom, huddled on the floor as the strong, well-fed soldiers crowd him, beating him senseless. My arms restrained behind me, unable to help. Whitmore's ashen face lying on the floor of that shuttle…and I don't care that they're strapping me to the metal chair. I don't care that they're restraining me, I intend to take a piece out of at least one of them before they manage it, damn them.

But it's so hard to focus on anything at all. There's only rage at what has been done to my officer.

Before she returned to the Kobali, Lyndsay Ballard asked me if I'd sent her on that fatal away mission because I wasn't as close to her as I am with the senior staff. I told her I wasn't offended by the question, and it was the truth. I wasn't offended; I was devastated. I couldn't believe that I'd allowed any member of my crew to come under the assumption that their lives meant less to me simply because I didn't have the benefit of day to day interaction with some of them…

They're all my responsibility. They entrust their lives into my care, and the weight of that trust never leaves my consciousness entirely for a single second.

Taking one of them and abusing them in front of me…potentially killing him…is the worst thing they could do to me – to any leader who gives half a damn about the monumental responsibility of command. The instinct to protect my people is deeply ingrained, and nothing has ever had the power to rouse my fury like an attack on one of mine…

You can ask Species 8472 about that. What's left of them.

Whatever Gwiln gave me earlier is only serving to intensify my natural anger. It's all-encompassing. One of the soldiers gets too close, leaning over me to tighten the wrist straps to the arm rests of the chair, and I visualize my teeth sinking into his exposed neck. That smooth expanse of crimson flesh practically calls to me…but I hold still. Barely.

The door opens, and two unfamiliar soldiers stand in the hallway, peering eagerly into the room next to a woman I faintly recognize.

I understand that the drug I've been given was meant to make me violent. It was intended to make me lose control of myself, not just to make me 'edgy', as Tom so delicately put it. The realization does nothing to temper the violent urges. Tom, I can't help thinking. Just let him be all right…

"Why is this prisoner being restrained?" The woman's cold voice demands, as though she doesn't see the way I can barely hold myself still or the scowl of menace I can't help leveling in her direction.

"Are you insane?" the soldier I considered biting and the one whose thumb I broke growls, whirling to face the well-dressed Jifani woman with the long, dark coat that does little to hide her svelte figure. It's quite an impressive figure, actually, for a woman who looks to be about my age…

The woman's nostrils flare, and her face, unlike the soldier's, goes a little whiter. "I'd ask the same of you, Lieutenant," she snaps derisively as her brown eyes sweep over the ranking sashes affixed to his shoulder, "but everyone knows that officers are prone to hot-headedness. I'll forgive your insolence this time, and assume your irreverence is due to your lack of awareness of my position."

"Don't you recognize this woman?" he hisses, gesturing to me, his face flushing a burgundy hue with his annoyance...his feigned annoyance, if I'm reading the situation correctly. "She's a menace. Dangerous!"

"Madame Judge Advocate," the soldier who first addressed me in the cell is careful to stress for his companion, "is here to interview the prisoner, Kelm." He strides forward with an ingratiating smile which only sickens me in contrast to the violence he orchestrated against Tom hardly moments ago. The urge to get my hands around his throat causes me to twist my wrists within the restraints holding me, in spite of my better judgment.

Of course the thick leather-like restraints hold fast, and my energy is quickly sapped anyway.

To the new, still-gaping soldiers (who must have escorted Jorca here) eyeing the scene with unmasked curiosity, and even, unless I'm way off, a little admiration, he jerks his head towards the hall, dismissing them. They leave, but not without shooting final, reluctant looks my way. I must be putting on one hell of a show right now – not exactly good for our cause.

Even that doesn't stop the violent impulses. But it's probably exactly what Gwiln wants – what Kaelo wants. I have to find a way to remain calm.

"Madame," the same soldier continues, "I know you'll forgive my companion. He couldn't have known who you were without your official garments."

Jorca…whom I now recognize as the woman from the initial greeting panel when we were first brought to the reception hall from the Grall ship…sees right through his smarmy attempt at placation. She sniffs her contempt, waving away his false apology. "I ask again," she repeats, her eyes finding mine from across the table separating us, "Why is this prisoner restrained? I can't examine her for signs of mistreatment like this." She waves a regal hand dismissively in my direction.

I should be grateful for her appearance. This is the woman I have to thank for the little restraint that has been shown us…well, to me…thus far. I should be making every effort to placate this woman, even to befriend her, if possible. She obviously has no love of the Jifani military, and I know she despises Kaelo, and he her. She's an ideal ally, possibly the only one I'll find on this planet. Even if I can't tell her the truth of Kaelo's methods, I should at least strive to make a favorable impression.

But the unknown substance in me has me raging under her cold scrutiny instead. At some point, my vision has tunneled, so that now all I see is the object of my ire and virtually nothing else. Jorca is in my sights now, her cool demeanor, her elegantly coifed ebony bun and regal bearing only infuriating me further. Tom lying on the floor, trying not to cry out as the soldiers beat his already weakened body... This woman is as much to blame for the untenable situation I find myself in now as Kaelo is. Without her, Gwiln's efforts would be focused solely on me. He wouldn't have had Tom brought in, and the prison guards wouldn't particularly care about injuring me. Those that beat him while I was in session with the intendent might have left him alone, if not for that worry. They might have waited for me to return and sought their entertainment another way. Gwiln wouldn't have to care about regenerating me…

The tiny voice in the back of my head – what's left of my reason – tells me that Tom would only have been used against me in some other way if not for the influence this woman appears to exert over Gwiln and the other officials…that Tom may have been killed already, if they hadn't needed him to patch me up. It isn't enough to quell the growl I feel rising up in my throat. My eyes bear into hers, and it's difficult to keep from writhing against the restraints again.

She appears taken aback by my aggression. It rattles her composure for a brief second. Good, I can't help thinking – though it's really not. She swallows obviously, the gills I can see on her long, elegant neck fluttering. "Release her restraints," she repeats, sounding only a tiny bit less sure.

There's no way they're going to do it. No way are they that stupid…

"Madame Judge Advocate," the same officer intones, shooting an odd look at his disgusting compatriots and then at the viewer I know must be recording this entire exchange, "I really must protest. This woman is aggressive. She's violent and emotionally unstable."

"He's lying," I growl. Writhing again in the restraints, hardly conscious of the burning of the leather against my raw skin. Not really blaming her for the disbelieving look she tosses my way.

The soldier spares me a guarded, warning glance but otherwise ignores me and smoothly continues, "She injured one prison guard the day of her arrival," my head snaps up at the obvious lie but he doesn't even glance at me, "and she has just assaulted one of my officers on the way here. Releasing her would be very unwise."

Right now, it certainly would be for him. Again, visions of Tom taking the beating at this man's depraved direction, simply for his amusement and to make sure I don't interfere with their little plan to get rid of Jorca flares up and obscures all else. I nearly miss the way he again looks directly to the recording device.

Of course they're recording this. Kaelo wouldn't let me have an unmonitored conversation with this woman… The thought of him is nearly enough to send me over the edge of reason itself…he is the reason Ashley Whitmore won't be returning to her friends, our family aboard Voyager. He is the ultimate reason that Tom and I may not, either.

"Of course I'm sure." She sounds it. I'm impressed. "She can't take off the uniform unless you first remove the restraints."

What did she just say? My head snaps back up at her cool assertion. Damn it, I have had more than enough of stripping in front of people on this miserable planet…

"How can I examine her for injuries if I can't see her undressed?"

"You can try a scanner, for one thing," I snarl, amazed at the level of venom in my voice. She ignores me as if I haven't even spoken: apparently common procedure. The lead officer approaches me, and then his hands reach for my restraints. Just before he touches them, his shifty eyes slide over me. His dark eyes latch onto mine.

"Remember your officer, Captain," he breathes low, almost inaudibly, bending over and pretending to inspect my restraints. "One wrong word, and I'll go back and finish the job myself."

The restraint over my left wrist clicks open.


Gwiln


I lean into the screen, watching intently. He plays his part perfectly. If I weren't going to kill him after this, I'd reward him for his performance. I'll miss him. He was a good friend.

"I only protest for your safety, Madame," the lead officer blusters loudly, even as he unlocks Janeway's restraints with a dark look only she and I can see. He murmurs something to her and I grin when she stiffens in response. Her color is fantastic. She's even more rosy-cheeked than she looked during trade negotiations, when she was both well fed and rested, and I'm pleased. The drug is doing wonders for her complexion and her demeanor.

Bolas's tone remains worried. "She's…the woman is dangerous, Madame. At least keep well on the other side of the table, please. For your own safety."

It's almost a shame that he does this so well. And I will miss him, too.

Janeway slowly pushes herself to a standing position, and I can see the magnificent rage flashing in her eyes. Even so, she holds herself back with incredible restraint. Watching her, every fiber of my being is in tune to her slightest movements…

The rage is competing with something else now. It takes a minute to place that particular expression on her face, but when I do, I realize she's working something out. Trying to reason through the virile aggression I've induced in her brain chemistry. Good. I was a little worried that I'd given her too much adrenaline earlier. I only wanted her energized and ill-tempered, not completely out of control. That never would have worked, given that Jorca's already met her, albeit briefly.

Jorca's lip curls. "I'm certain that the three of you," she insists to Bolas, taking note of the fact that Kelm has excused himself in order to seek medical treatment, "big, strong soldiers can ensure my safety from one small human woman."

I do have to laugh out loud at that one. Oh, my dearest Jorca, if you only knew

She already has her notepadd out, thumbing through the preliminary data there. "Kathryn Janeway. Federation starship Voyager. You have now been imprisoned for ten consecutive days. Have you been subjected to any ill treatment while in government custody?"

For a long moment, no one breathes. Janeway's small jaw is working back and forth, and her eyes dart over to Bolas. Slowly, she slides her eyes back to Jorca, and then she opens her mouth. I lean forward, still not entirely breathing until she finally clips, "No."

There is a noticeable release of tension in the officers and in Jorca also. I feel it, too. That was too tense a moment for my preferences. With narrowed eyes, I resolve that Janeway will suffer for that little hesitation later.

Jorca thumbs her notepadd, and my heart is slowly beginning to function properly once more.

"I can see your wrists are bruised," the advocate notes. "I saw that happening just now while you struggled against your restraints. And yet, otherwise, there is little evidence to discount your assertion, Captain."

I begin to breathe again, albeit shallowly. She hasn't seemed to notice the way the guards hung on Janeway's response, but nor does she seem inclined to take Janeway at her word. She rarely does, though, so that isn't too worrisome – yet.

Jorca's eyes slide over the human woman standing before her again. "You do, however, appear to have lost some weight over the past few days. You are being provided with adequate food and water?"

Janeway says nothing at first, but her fists are balling at her sides. Upon closer inspection, I do believe I can see a tiny trickle of blood trailing over her right index finger. "Yes," she growls eventually.

"Really?" Jorca's eyebrow rises. It's clear she isn't entirely convinced that Janeway isn't lying. My index finger moves to hover over the tiny intercom button in my hand.

"Yes," Janeway confirms.

"And yet you appear much thinner. Can you explain this phenomenon for me, Captain?"

Silence, stubborn and long.

"Well?" Jorca prompts, after a long standoff.

"No" – tersely, like a small child being forced to reply to her caretaker's questioning of her bad behavior.

"No?"

A low growl barely audible over the channel. "I guess Jifani prison food just doesn't agree with human physiology." And the sarcasm drips in her voice, though Jorca doesn't quite pick up on the reason for it. My eyes narrow, but nothing comes of the reply.

"Perhaps. Or perhaps it's the weight of the monumental guilt on your conscience that accounts for your digestive difficulties."

"I have no guilt on my conscience," Janeway snaps, rather viciously. "I haven't done anything wrong."

"Well," Jorca glances up coldly, but there is the hint of a smile on her lips, "I'll have someone look into it. Now, please remove your clothing so I can verify that you are uninjured."

"No. I won't do that."

Jorca's delicate brow rises again, this time in obvious disdain. It's clear she has no more respect for Janeway than she does for the military. "May I remind you, Captain, that you are still in government custody, and that you still stand accused of a heinous crime?"

"You can remind me of whatever the hell you please." A grin splits my face at her tone. Janeway is pissed. "It won't change the fact that I'm innocent and that your government condones and supports the unlawful detention of innocent persons," Janeway snaps, taking a solitary step forward which Balos and his companions are quick to note. They edge forward, prepared to jump in and restrain her if she takes a single additional step.

Jorca's eyes flash under Janeway's accusation, and this is truly priceless. Watching these two women square off against one another is pure entertainment. If the stakes weren't so high in this situation, I might even be inclined to arrange future sessions purely for the comedic value.

Jorca's eyes have narrowed now, and I know why. It was the worst thing Janeway could have said to her. "My government does nothing of the sort. If what you say is true, and you are innocent, you and your officer will be found innocent and released. Now, you'll do as I have requested and remove your uniform, or I will have these officers do it for you."

Janeway's jaw is working now. The solitary trickle of blood in her palm is joined by another and she growls, "If any one of those three men attempts to touch me, I won't be responsible for what happens to him."

I can see that Jorca isn't sure whether or not to believe her. The officers wait, eyes trailing back and forth between the two women as they await direction, either from me or from Jorca…

"Have you no dignity whatsoever?"

"I assure you, Madame Judge Advocate – I'm trying to hold on to what's left of it!" Janeway spits dangerously.

"You're making this much more difficult than it has to be, Captain."

"On the contrary," Janeway's hard voice rings out again, "I'm cooperating to the best of my ability given my current circumstances. My officer and I have been forcefully kidnapped from our people. Another of my officers was killed in the battle with the bounty hunters your government sent after us, and our best shuttle was destroyed in the process. We were brought back here against our will, falsely accused of terrorism, and made to stand before an inquisition panel. Since being incarcerated, I have been questioned endlessly while denied legal counsel–"

"The innocent do not need legal counsel," Jorca interjects waspishly, but Janeway merely raises her voice slightly and continues to speak over her.

"I have endured all of this, Madame Advocate, with as much dignity and grace as I can muster, but if those officers approach me, I'm not sure I'm going to be able to continue to keep my temper in check."

"The woman is unbalanced, Madame Advocate," Balos ventures tentatively.

"When I want your opinion, officer, I will ask for it," Jorca hisses, dismissing him with a glare. "Captain remove your uniform. I will of course ask the officers to turn their backs while you disrobe."

Janeway's gaze slides from him back to Jorca. Her teeth are so clenched I can positively hear her grinding them together, but still, she doesn't move from her position. At Jorca's curt nod, Balos takes a hesitant step in her direction, mumbling, "Think, Captain. What kind of an example are you setting for your officer right now?"

"All right!" Her voice explodes into the still room, cutting the tension like a whip cracking through the charged air. "I'll do it. You don't take another step near me," she hisses, pointing a finger that trembles, presumably with rage.

I breathe a sigh of relief as Janeway's trembling hands move to strip off her uniform. Jorca smiles as she nods to the soldiers to turn their backs while the human woman disrobes, and, though it irritates her further, she complies, believing that it will spare her man further mistreatment.

Unfortunately for her, it only solidifies the notion that she will do almost anything to spare his life.

Sadly, ironically, this is her final mistake. If she was thinking clearly, I'm sure she'd have worked it out in time…but, of course, she isn't.

Now, the only question that remains is what I intend to do with my newfound knowledge.

 ***

Fifteen


Kathryn


I know something's wrong this morning when we march directly to the interrogation room with no customary stop at the tiny bathroom for "purging" first. They let me keep my prison uniform, chaining me in place by my wrists, facing outward from the wall this time, as they did days ago when they brought Tom in. The slack is tightened, pulling me up on my toes until only the balls of my feet barely support me against agonizing strain in my weakening wrists.

The intendent waits with his usual expression, ignoring me completely until Airrek pronounces me secure in my restraints. Gwiln turns slowly from his desk against the far right wall and approaches me. I wonder if this is the expression he's had on his face most times he's approached that I couldn't see him. Slow. Smug. Cocky. Entirely secure in his position. And I know, from having lived under his mercy these past two and a half weeks, that there's more to come – he never lets up.

I'm already drained from the short walk to the room. There's hardly anything left in me with which to mount a defense. My body hardly tenses anymore, so overtaxed already that it can't muster the strength. There's only the sinking sensation of an empty stomach and a weak spark of hatred as he approaches and stops, very close to me. Too close. He's always too damned close.

"Good morning, Captain." Those white, even teeth spread out in a smile. This one reaches his eyes, the first that has ever done so. Something is definitely wrong. "Since you were so obedient about playing your part during your inspection with Judge Advocate Jorca, you'll be pleased to know the report she submitted regarding your treatment here was quite favorably received by the entire judicial panel. They've determined that your military incarceration is completely legal in accordance with Jifani law. Which means our time together has been extended indefinitely." He's begun pacing again, a short, tight line in front of me, but I know, by the tone of his voice and the controlled glee practically radiating from him that he isn't finished. My heart begins beating in time with his steps. Twice per pace… "However, it's now my sad duty to inform you that her one report will have to stand for the duration of your incarceration." He stops again. Again, just in front of me, his face so close I can feel his breath on my already freezing cheeks. He grins this time, a full-blown grin. "You see, I'm afraid an unfortunate accident occurred with her hovercraft while she was on her way home yesterday."

I say nothing, only concentrating on directing my remaining strength to meeting his eyes, to the heat of my glare as he expands, "All that was left of the explosion were charred pieces of the interior of the vehicle…and a burnt frame."

They killed her. I don't know which one of them did it, or had it done, but it was either Kaelo or Gwiln. One of them killed her for intervening. And the loss of life, an innocent life, should register first, but it doesn't, to my eternal shame. No, the only thought I have in this moment is that Jorca had been my only ally. My one saving grace…and it's gone. One of them has taken it from me.

He sees it. He must have seen the flicker of desperation I'm no longer strong enough to hide, because he chuckles, and in that sound I can detect only pure, unadulterated malice. His gloved hand comes toward me, a fingertip trailing lightly down the side of my face. "So you see, sadly, there will be no more inspections. It's just you and me, Captain, for as long as it takes to get what I require."

"Your false confession?" I spit, the contempt entirely unhidden in my face, in my voice. Contempt is more useful than fear, and I cling to it like a life preserver now. In this moment, that's what it truly is. "It's important enough to the two of you that an innocent woman had to die for it?"

"Oh, no. No, no, no, Captain. The confession, I will have shortly, my dear woman. Before the end of the day, in fact. But I've told you that our sessions will continue for as long as it takes to get what I require." The absolute certainty with which he utters this assurance makes my insides roil…mostly in rallying defiance this time, until he continues, "Your confession is the prefect's requirement, not mine." He makes no move to shift positions, no move to stop tracing that line along the side of my face…no move to elaborate on his cryptic statement as I shift to alleviate some of the pressure on my wrists, knowing the pain there will only magnify as the day wears on.

I bite. I have to. "And just what the hell is it that you want, Gwiln?"

He laughs again, the sinister sound of it like poison or acid to my ears even though the tone of it is silky. "What I want…is so much simpler, Captain. All I require is the satisfaction of a job well done. And now, I will have it."

"What the hell does that mean?" I shouldn't waste any of my remaining strength on speech, and I know it, but he's infuriating with his vague responses. Does this mean he killed Jorca himself? For some other insidious motive I've failed to recognize all this time? Is the military truly that powerful…or is that only Gwiln? How far does this monster's influence extend? What is it he wants if not the confession he's been seeking all this time?

Voyager? Is Gwiln after the ship, then?

I almost miss his response, so focused am I on my increasingly hard-to-focus thoughts.

"You surprise me, Janeway," he smirks. Never stopping that possessive, idle stroking of his gloved fingertip, which has migrated to trace the line of my jaw as he taunts me.

With a simple twist of my neck, I could sink my teeth into the offending digit, and for a long, eternal moment, I give the idea an almost obsessive consideration…

"I thought we understood each other by now. You see, when our esteemed prefect gave you over to me, he did so with the understanding that what I do is a fine art." My snort of disbelief is weak, but he gets the message. "Despite what you may believe, I'm not just some well paid thug in the habit of beating responses from uncooperative subjects."

"Forgive me if I'm unconvinced, because from where I stand, you've been doing a wonderful impression of it so far."

He laughs again. "Yes. There's that clever wit I so admire in you, Captain. You've been a fascinating subject from the beginning, and that is exactly my point, right there. My profession is about so much more than I've been able to show you until now. It's a true craft, a delicate process involving so much more than I've been able to show you. It's not at all these crude displays we've been limited to playing out." He pauses, then simply states, "I break people, Captain."

It's in this moment that my hatred for Gwiln surpasses any contempt I've ever had for Kaelo. It's not until now that the nature of our positions is completely shed away in my mind, and I lose any objectivity about the situation I've been able to maintain in spite of what he's subjected me to already.

"I deconstruct the psyche," he continues, that hated voice a veritable purr. "I strip away the layers of personality and individuality until all that is left is the malleable under core. That is the process upon which we embarked that first day you were brought to me. It is this process which we will finish…and finish properly, before I ever let you go, Captain."

"Why?" is all I can push out of my burning throat.

His hand stops its idle stroking, moving to cup my face, holding my head still so that I can't look anywhere but into his dark, triumphant eyes, even if I'd been inclined to give him the satisfaction of looking away. "Why? Because I can."

I know fear again, and I hate it. Hate him and hate myself for wearing down so quickly. No more inspections. No more inspections means no more restrictions. Jorca has been the only thing holding Gwiln back from letting loose completely, as he has informed me time and again…and now I know that he won't stop even after he has his confession. This is already personal to him, has been all along, and he now holds all the cards securely in his hands to be able to effect that end he so chillingly describes.

I have nothing. He can do what he likes, can continue in his quest at his leisure, and I know, without a doubt now, that he will eventually succeed in his goal.

He's halfway there already.

But I meet his eyes. I refuse to look away from him, even as he leans in the slight space between us to sets his lips close to mine, chuckling. "You look distressed. Cheer up, Captain. You have no idea what kind of fun I have in store for the three of us, but I can't wait to show you. Shall we get started?"

And he does. But not with the hell of electrical jolts or even physical blows I've come to expect from him. Worse, he leaves me hanging in my restraints without a word.

Kohr remains in the room with me, insolently stalking over to the huge monitor across from me, one that hasn't been used the entire time I've been here yet. He turns it on, and the first thing I see there is Tom, sitting in an identical chair to the one in the center of this room, the one he'd been strapped to during his one and only visit to this room.

My heart stops again. They've gone back to our cell and taken him, too, apparently have set him up in an adjoining interrogation room while Gwiln was busy taunting me in here. As I watch Tom try to school his expression, I have trouble controlling mine, because the clear view I have of the door behind him opens, and then Gwiln steps through it.


Tom


I've been trying all day not to think about what happened in that interrogation room this morning. And all day, I've been able to think about nothing else.

The drugs are finally clearing from my system. As my escort drags me along the same long trek through the main base gates I took a little over two weeks ago, my thinking is beginning to clear. Through the strangling guilt that has my stomach clenching in shame, I'm fully conscious of the invasive search the intake guards subject me to, grateful that at least the captain isn't here to endure a repeat of the experience, also. Especially after this morning.

I really need to get to her. It's nearly nightfall, as I saw on my way through Kaelo's courtyard an hour ago. They've kept me from her all day now, and there's no telling what kind of condition she'll be in. I need to see what kind of a mess Kohr has made of healing her. If they've even bothered to try yet – they were pissed enough about having to heal all my obvious wounds for the emergency session they called. But I'm not even sure I can face her, should face her, after what I've just done in that courtroom…

"And it's your testimony, Ensign, that you adhere to every detail in this confession as it has been read aloud for the court? That this confession, signed by you is, in fact, the truth? That Captain Janeway knowingly conspired with the planet-based terror group known as the Underground Resistance with the intention of inflicting severe casualties?"

The sea of faces in front of me are all blending together. I'm numb. Entirely numb, and I can hardly even seem to hold my eyes open. So tired…but that's the drugs, probably.

Jorca isn't here, I realize for the first time. Instead of two women on the panel, there's only one. Shouldn't she be here?

"Ensign Paris, what is your response?" An insistent voice tugs at me from my stupor. "Is it the truth or isn't it?"

The truth? Of course it isn't. I can't go through with this. I thought I could earlier, that this was the right decision. That no living being should be made to suffer what I witnessed in the captain barely six hours ago this morning, when I watched over that viewer while they destroyed her. But now that I'm here and she's back in our cell, presumably, the immediate danger has passed.

So I don't have to go through with it, do I? I can say no, can deny the whole thing. I can tell the whole panel the truth about what's going on behind closed doors, and maybe it'll save her somehow…

An icy chill weaves its way up my spine. I can feel the burn of Kaelo's eyes boring into me like Gwiln's did earlier, when he refused to order a stop to the captain's ordeal until I'd made it through the recording of my confession.

I can't stop myself from glancing up from my worn, threadbare slippers and am caught immediately under the heat of that stare. If ever evil has worn a humanoid face, this is surely one of them.

"Well?" This time, it's Kaelo himself who prompts me to reply from his throne-like chair at the center of the impressive panel, just as I'd instinctively known he would. "What say you, Ensign? Is she guilty or not? Is your confession the complete and unbiased truth?"

Pure threat overwhelms me from those black eyes. An entire world of hurt and suffering promised for her if I don't give him the answer he wants to hear now…

And I know I can't listen to the sound of the captain screaming like she did this morning EVER again.

Either way, we're damned. She's damned. They're only leaving it up to me to decide if she continues to suffer a while longer before they kill her.

"Ensign? Do you need a little more time in your cell to think about your answer?"

"No!" My head swivels, and my eyes dart automatically behind me, to the side of the hall where Gwiln stands watching. Seeing everything…he's scowling.

No, no, no, no, GOD, no. They can't send me back! I can only imagine what Gwiln would do to her then, if they send me back there without getting what they want out of me first.

I know what he promised to do. What I've already seen him do.

"No, I don't need time!" My tongue sticks to the back of my throat even after I've tried, and failed, to swallow. "Yes, it's the truth. Captain Janeway…did what you said."

The deafening roar of the crowd behind me is not enough to block out the obscenity of the smug smirks on Kaelo and Gwiln's faces.

All through the rest of the proceeding and the guards transporting me back to the dreariness of the underground military base, I've clung to the thought that, through my betrayal, I've at least saved the captain from more of the horrors they made me watch them inflict on her this morning. I still cling to it; I'd do it again, if I had to. I know as we round the last corner that leads to our cell that I would do anything in the galaxy to keep that from happening to her again. I just don't think I'll ever forgive myself for not believing he'd do it. For letting it happen to her at all by calling Gwiln's bluff. Like an idiot, I'd thought indifference was going to be our one defense against tactics like that…and I was dead wrong. He called that bluff this morning.

Kohr is waiting at the entrance to the cell. My heart begins to pound even faster, especially at the sickening expression on his disgusting face. Oh Gods, did he lie, is all I can think for a long minute while I shuffle to the entrance as fast as the two escorting me allow. My stomach drops to the floor. One glance inside the empty space confirms my worst suspicions; she's not there. She's not there

"Where is she?" I blurt out, before my throat closes in frantic horror and I can't say anything else.

"Don't worry, human. The intendent thought you might want to see her when you returned. I was ordered to take you straight to them," Kohr snickers, his weapon already herding me from the other two as he takes my arm in his other hand. "I'll take him from here," he dismisses the other two.

I'm literally speechless. Did Gwiln lie? Did he decide to keep at it the whole time while I was gone? To try to get her to confess? Was the entire day I just spent at the proceedings worthless? Pointless? Is she…?

Kohr has me turned back the way I just came, already pulling me along with him. "Let's go. Don't want to miss this, I promise," he sneers.

I get the sensation that I want nothing more than to miss whatever Gwiln has cooked up for her now. My heart is thumping painfully inside my chest. She was supposed to be here. He was supposed to stop when I gave him my confession. She was supposed to be all right now.

Kohr's smirk and snide comments tell me she's not. For a heady few seconds as he drags me back down the corridor, I envision leaping at him, maybe ripping out his throat or pounding that smug expression back into his crimson face. But the lingering remnants of the substance in my system hardly let me stay upright at the fast pace and then, the one I really want is Gwiln.

The only way I manage to hold onto even a shred of my sanity is in the knowledge of what Chakotay, what B'Elanna and I will do to him for what he's already done to her this morning.


Kathryn


He didn't beat Tom. He did much worse to both of us. It seems the intendent is a skilled holodeck programmer – or perhaps he's simply skilled with surveillance feeds. I don't quite know which, but somehow, he'd managed to fabricate one hell of a show. I couldn't see it from the angle of the imager in the other interrogation room, but the sound was excellent. I watched Tom's eyes go wide and wild, furious and terrified (a combination I understood well) as Gwiln switched on the viewer in front of him, and then I heard the string of curses, the impassioned threats he spit at the intendent. I had no idea until I heard the sound of my own voice screaming coupled with other unmistakable male voices (when Tom wasn't yelling over them), what it was he thought he was being forced to watch.

With gritted teeth, I cursed Gwiln through the screen, and then Kohr beside me, who found the spectacle singularly amusing. I called them both every name I could conjure in any language I knew, but the fact was that I couldn't do anything to stop it or to intervene, of course. I could only watch, in rage, horror for what Tom was convinced was happening to me, in shame at what he thought he was seeing, in gratitude that Tom wasn't being physically hurt…

And it was the last that angered me the most. That they could invoke such an inappropriate sense of relief while they mentally destroyed him, toyed with and manipulated him to their bidding, only told me how successfully Gwiln was doing his job.

Tom lasted about thirty seconds in his rage before the fear and horror won out, and he was begging. Begging Gwiln to put a stop to the disgusting, false show, offering him whatever he wanted if he would only "make them stop". I couldn't say I blamed him. I could say that I could have killed Gwiln with my bare hands alone.

Less than a minute later, Tom was recording his official statement that I'd met with several key members of the resistance in order to supply them with weapons to help their cause. He was held still by Airrek, drugged with something. And then Gwiln escorted him directly to the medical wing to be fixed up before an emergency session of the "judiciary" panel so that he could make his confession to the court. As he had Tom restrained and ushered from the interrogation room, Gwiln paused just in front of the imager and winked at me through the screen.

I lasted a few hours in silence, staring at the darkened viewer after Kohr had left me alone in the freezing section of the room. Or maybe it was only minutes. But eventually, my legs and eyes gave out, and I felt myself slump in the restraints despite the anger, despite the deep hatred I'd been allowing to simmer, to fester and grow within me in order to have something to draw on to make it through the hell I knew was coming when Gwiln eventually returned for me. Despite the pain in my wrists as I sagged in the cuffs holding me, I gave in to the lure of sleep, opting to brave the consequences I knew I'd face for it…

I don't know how long it's been when the sound of the door banging shut startles me into wakefulness. Gwiln stands, grinning in the center of the room, as always. Watching with hands clasped lightly behind him as if he'd never left in the first place. He doesn't speak a word. Instead, he waits for Kohr to approach me, check my restraints, and step back again before he signals for the door to open, and when it does, the four guards I recognize from having been taken to meet with Jorca two days ago appear, marching into the room in two pairs. Between each pair is dragged a bedraggled figure in restraints. One is Tom, as the hair tells me immediately, and the other an older Jifani male I don't recognize…or do I?

Oh God, I do. It's the man I saw them beating on the imager that first day at the reception hall.

My heart stops. "What are you doing?" I venture unsteadily, my head still fuzzy and slow with the haze of recent slumber. "What is this?"

Tom's eyes are wide with worry. "Captain? Are you…" He turns to Gwiln in mounting anger. "You bastard," he spits. "You said you'd send her back to the cell if I gave you what you wanted!"

I turn saddened eyes back to him, briefly, feeling myself color in embarrassment at the memory of what he thinks he witnessed earlier, and I realize that Gwiln hasn't revealed his deception yet.

"Tom. It was a fabrication. The footage wasn't real." He shakes his head, staring at me, his eyes moving over me, scrutinizing me for specific injuries, for indication that I'm in denial and the hatred swells up in me again as my eyes snap to Gwiln's supremely entertained smirk. "None of what you saw this morning actually happened. I'm fine."

"You son of a bitch," Tom growls as realization sets in. As he realizes how effectively he's been deceived and manipulated today. "You slimy bastard," he spits, making a start for the intendent. A blow to the back of his head with one of the guard's weapons stops him before I can say a word, even if I could, knowing my reaction does nothing but endanger him further. He moans weakly and slumps in their hold, the blood trickling from the open wound sprung from the force of the hard weapon striking him.

But damn it, he can't keep taking punishment like that. I doubt they'll heal anything else now that they no longer need his testimony…or anything else from him.

Gwiln barely tosses a disgusted glance at Tom, unimpressed by his anger. "You'd prefer I'd actually done it, then? Let them have her? I'll have to remember that for next time. If there was going to be a next time for you."

My heart stops again. "What are you talking about? Haven't you done enough to him already?"

He strides forward, unaffected. "I told you this morning, Janeway. We're going to settle this matter of your confession, once and for all." He gestures to the two men, each being held firmly between two guards, Tom is stirring again and groaning in what must be acute pain from his newest injury, but I can only spare him a quick look as Gwiln continues speaking. "Both of these men have assured me that they witnessed you meeting with members of the resistance. They've testified to that in hearings. Yet you claim that you did no such thing. Are you calling them liars, Captain?"

"They told you what you wanted to hear," I growl back, my eyes finding Tom's again and sliding over him. True to the soldiers' words, after my compliant performance with Jorca the other day, he was healed later that night…mostly. They did a bit more work on him this morning, and probably only so that they could present him in court for his false confession today, I realize now. But they only gave him a cosmetic treatment. His internal injuries probably aren't healed, and the blow he's just taken is likely to cause additional problems, from what I can see of it…

"Telling me what I want to hear, if you are innocent as you claim, would still make them liars," Gwiln points out smoothly, snapping my attention back to him, a predatory smile now decorating his hated face. "And I do not stomach liars in my presence. A demonstration, if you please," he calls over his shoulder to the soldiers lined up behind him. Airrek and Kohr have their weapons out at once, making for the two unfortunate figures held still between their captors.

I see now where this is going, and it's going exactly where I feared all along that it would. "Don't." My mouth has gone unfathomably dry. "This is between you and me, Gwiln. Isn't that what you said this morning? These men haven't done anything to you; they have nothing to do with this."

He pauses, a sickly smile on his face, and holds his hand up to still his men. "Did you have something you wanted to get off your chest then, Captain?"

The unknown man's eyes are swinging wildly back and forth, from me to Gwiln and back again. The terror screams from his eyes, even as his mouth opens uselessly. He knows what's coming if I don't give Gwiln what he wants…

Airrek levels his weapon at Tom, followed immediately by Kohr. They aim for his head. The intendent fixes his eyes on mine as the realization floods through me in a sickening wave… They aren't using the old man at all. They're finally calling me out, once and for all.

Time's up. I can see it in Gwiln's face, in his hard, dark eyes. Triumph is glittering there, and I know the bitterness of this moment will stay with me always…for as long or as short as I have left to live.

Tom's miserable blue eyes, so fraught with the pain I have failed to shield him from on this planet, lift to mine. I know the effort it costs him even to move this much. The back of his head is grotesquely swollen and as he shakes his head, I already know the words he will speak before they leave his parched, ashen lips, "Don't…Captain. Don't give…bastards…satisfaction…they won't let…either of us…live anyway."

They hit him again, a hard punch to the gut, and he doubles over, the blood spilling out of his mouth this time as he coughs violently, and my eyes snap shut against the sight of yet another graphic example of his suffering…

"Well, Captain? Did you have something you wanted to say to me, or do I give the order to fire?"

"You bastard." I can feel the tear spilling over, escaping from my left eye. It boils a scalding a trail, down, over my cheekbone, but when I open my eyes again, it's with the determination that only the damned can muster.

"I'm waiting…"

"All right," I whisper, feeling something almost tangible inside of me come unraveled with those two words.

"All right, what?"

"All right, I did it!" I spit, "I orchestrated the attack on your capital!"

His grin is offensive to every single one of my senses. "You'll testify to this? In open court for all of Jifan and beyond to hear?"

I turn away from Tom, unable to bear the disappointment in his defeated face. His suffering, his strength, and his unfailing loyalty…all of it for nothing. They'll kill him anyway, once I confess. I know it, and so does he.

But it's the only thing I can do for him now. They've called my bluff, and to buy him time, whatever last crumbs of it I can snatch for him, I have to give them what they want.

I meet the crowing triumph in Gwiln's eyes yet again, finding even that easier to look upon than the utter disappointment that must echo in my helmsman's face in this moment.

"Yes. I'll testify in open court and wherever else you require. I'll say whatever you want. Now let him go."

But he doesn't. Not right away. Gwiln isn't content with letting me have even that small measure of comfort just yet. He only stands there, smiling. Basking in my defeat. Reveling in his own glory, as his gleaming eyes shift back and forth between Tom's and mine.

"I'm not sure I believe you, Janeway."

My heart skips entire beats, but I can't say whether this is fear or hatred driven. "What?" I hiss. "Why? I said I'd say whatever you want. Let him go."

Gwiln's smile widens, and he takes another step forward, edging closer to where I'm held, my arms still secure in their restraints. It's the only thing holding me still in this moment. "But how can I be sure you won't go back on your word once I send him back to his cell?"

I start to open my mouth to bite out a response, but he shakes his head, chuckling softly. Dangerously. "No. I don't think so, Captain." He approaches steadily, swaggering closer, making me lift my chin to keep eye contact when he stops barely centimeters away from me, our toes almost touching. "You think you're smarter than I am, don't you, Janeway?" I can feel the heat radiating from his crimson body, and that alone makes me want to be sick.

"No," I choke out automatically, fighting to contain the rising bile in my throat.

But he's ignoring me. Raising that hated gloved hand of his to lightly squeeze my jaw. His strong fingertips press into the bone, and I can feel his breath fanning over my face, smell that distinct spice it usually carries… "I don't think so," he repeats softly. "I think you need an incentive. Something to make sure you don't get any brilliant ideas about stalling later on when they come to record your confession."

I know an instinctual fear from the malice in his tone alone, even if I couldn't see the twisted perversity of the pleasure he's taking in his wicked thoughts, whatever they are…

"I said I'd confess, Gwiln." And now I'm fighting back rising panic as well as bile and hating him for it. "I've given my word; what more can you want?"

He still looks at me, still holds my chin cradled in his left hand, still grins triumphantly, hardly even angling his head around to bark out the order, "Gentlemen. Make sure the captain has a reminder of what happens if she decides to be clever later and take back her promise."

"You bastard, what are you…"

Gwiln releases my face, steps back, and then I can see one of them has a knife. Oh God, no, is all I have time to think, and then the soldier pulls back his fist and rams the blade home.

Tom's scream of pain rips through me, a wave of disgust, terror, and hatred drowning out Gwiln's casual order to take us back to our cell. Nothing else penetrates but the sight of Tom slumped over at the waist, a spreading stain of crimson darkening the top of his pants as they drag us both from the room.


Kathryn


This time the hall is even more crowded. This time, the onlookers crowd the entire back half of the room, spilling out into the courtyard outside. As the doors are open today, I can see the mass of people gathered outside, straining to see around each other and peer into the room. The roar quiets as I'm dragged into the main section, out before the crowds and the panel of judges alike. This time is also different in that there are no preliminaries.

"The prisoner will come forward."

"The prisoner" would sooner eat dirt than obey that imperious voice issuing forth from that smug, cocky face, but there is little choice in the matter. I allow my handler to nudge me closer to the panel, to the red square where the accused typically stands and awaits the almighty judgment of the justices above. Somehow, that red square has come to represent so many things it cannot logically represent. Somehow, that red square represents defeat.

If only Chakotay didn't have to read about my feelings in that letter; it's the last way I'd have wanted him to know. Not that he doesn't know. I'm sure he must. He knows me well enough to know I'd never have let him so close, never have invited him into my bed if I didn't love him with every fiber of my being. I don't regret the decisions I've made, of having waited so long, of hiding our involvement or of keeping many things unsaid. Not where he's concerned. We did what was right for the time and our positions. I only wish I'd told him once. Just once, verbally, what should have been so evident in thought and deed anyway…

He'd deserved to have heard the words from my own lips just once.

Unruly as the crowd is, as soon as Kaelo rises to his fat feet, they quiet respectfully, their noisy chattering and harassing catcalls fading to a dull murmur. The blood rushes to my head, my stiff joints lock even more painfully at the expression of unfettered triumph on the bastard's face.

"Well, well. Janeway. I was surprised when they told me you had something to tell the court today."

Holding my head high is harder and harder these days. But not impossible.

"Is this true?" he prompts at my continued silence.

"Yes." It barely comes out of my throat, wanting to stick there indefinitely.

"And what, pray tell, is it that you would like to tell us about your plea, Captain?"

I won't look around. I won't look away. "I'd like to change it."

"Change your plea? Are you certain?"

"Yes."

"Captain, this is a serious proceeding with very serious ramifications. Are you aware that in changing your plea, you place yourself at the mercy of this court, and that the court has the right to declare sentencing immediately thereafter?"

"Yes."

"And you still wish to change your plea? Even knowing the sentence for a crime of this magnitude is usually death?"

The crowd no longer makes a sound. You can hear a pin drop in the room. More specifically, you can hear the thrum of your own heartbeat and the whistle of your breathing. In weakness, I look away for a moment, everything in me balking at what they have forced me to in this moment.

My mind turns to Tom, lying back in the cell. He's probably twisting in his delirium, ripping open his wound. It's infected, badly so. The past several days while Gwiln has been smoothing my recorded confession to be submitted to the panel, he has refused to treat Tom. Gwiln won't treat him until after I'm done here. He'd ignored me when I told him Tom could die of the infection he's developed long before I got here, and when I threatened to withhold my confession until he treated him, the bastard threatened to have him killed instead, smirking that he'd wait for the confession before he'd have terms dictated to him by me.

This morning, the guards who watch us in our cell finally offered to get Tom a doctor. If Gwiln doesn't keep his word, I may be forced to entertain their offer, but at least I know I'll likely be returned to the cell after I leave here. Sentencing, as I was informed, will be declared immediately after my plea change but not carried out. A separate proceeding will be scheduled for that, so I'll still be able to see that Tom gets the help he needs, one way or the other.

The crowd begins to twitter again in the interim my long silence creates, but something, some basic inner part of me that has been fighting this moment from the instant we arrived, maybe even before, is put to rest with that one thought of Tom. Because I haven't lost anything. I'm not losing anything. Not if Voyager can produce the kind of officers that Tom Paris has turned out to be. Not if it can produce the kind of man that he turned out to be. They are my legacy, I realize now. They are the imprint I leave behind me after the sentence is carried out. No matter that I will lose my life, my ties to this world after I give Kaelo the admission he wants so badly. He may win the battle. But I haven't really lost this war. Not if Voyager can come in time to save Tom, if this can buy them enough time to get here for him.

And if they make it home, I can live with this decision.

Most importantly, I can die with it.

Kaelo's face is expectant. The triumph displayed so openly. So unabashedly. The victor. But what has his life meant? What will he leave behind when his time comes? A legacy of cruelty and corruption. An empty space that some other soul will fill and he will not be missed by much of anyone. His existence is hollow, as meaningless as the sordid pleasures he so ruthlessly seeks above all else.

He has nothing. In the end, he is nothing.

I can't say this aloud to him. But he reads it in my eyes. I know, because his expression as I turn back to stare at him slowly loses some of that unwarranted confidence. Hints of that undeserved sneer of victory begin to leave him. I smile genuinely in return. It feels good to do that after weeks of not being able to. It isn't so hard to hold my head up anymore. I've won, not him. Where it matters, I will be the ultimate victor.

"Eventually," I tell him, only him, and I know that he'll understand the deeper meaning in my final words if the others listening to my sure voice echoing in the chamber don't, "the truth will out, Kaelo. It always does." I give him a minute, perhaps my last, to grow increasingly uncertain under my sure, steady gaze. Just as his left eye begins to twitch maddeningly, I declare, "I hereby change my plea to guilty, your honors."

The roar of the crowd behind me finally drowns out the sound of my heart beating.

 ***

Kathryn


"The typical sentence for the crimes you have committed is death. However," and my eyes snap up to him, my heart skips a loud beat, but the wicked look in his dark eyes is warning enough, "your crimes were of such a hideous nature and on such a grand scale it reaches proportions that haven't been seen on this planet in centuries. Your schemes cost the lives of thousands of Jifani. You turned brother against brother in the aftermath of your manipulations, and you left behind thousands of grieving families in your wake." The grin is hidden from the rest of them as his eyes bear into mine, but the malice, the triumph is there in his eyes. And that, he does not have to fake. "It is crucial that we have every kernel of knowledge from you regarding the whereabouts and identities of the members of the insidious Underground Resistance. Yet Intendent Gwiln has informed me that you have been less than responsive to conventional methods of questioning. He believes you continue to withhold vital information which could aid us in shutting that organization down for good. I have to say, given what this court knows of your character already, I and the rest of the panel are inclined to agree with him."

What? What the hell is he babbling about? I stiffen as the crowd begins to chitter noisily. This is irregular, from what I gather. I can feel Gwiln's eyes on me from the side of the room. "Given the sensitive nature of the information he believes you to possess, the court is suspending sentencing until such time as the Intendent is satisfied with the information you have provided him."

The proceeding is over, and the sentencing hasn't been set. Neither Kaelo nor Gwiln bother to hide their grins this time as I'm turned and led from the hall without fanfare. Taken not into the release of death but thrown into the hands of the devil himself and escorted back into the depths of hell. Now I understand. Kaelo, in return for the confession he so desperately wanted out of me, has skillfully managed to have me given back to Gwiln. So he can finish his task, as he so smugly informed me he would. Then they'll kill me, but not before. I'm vaguely aware of Gwiln behind me while they hustle me out of the side entrance to the hall and back toward the ground vehicle that will take me back to the military base and the prison cell.

I'll be able to see to Tom's recovery, at least. It's more than I hoped for. At least now Gwiln will have to keep up his end of the bargain to heal him. I've given the intendent what he wanted, after all. Kaelo has his confession, and now, thanks to Kaelo, Gwiln has been granted extended leave to pursue his personal conquest to break me completely.

He should be pleased, I think bitterly. He has everything he wanted. They both do.

Sixteen


Tom


The guards from our section swing into view again. I see them, but just barely. My vision still isn't quite right, but at least the pain and the inflammation have receded enough that I can lie here on the filthy floor in something less than acute agony. The light, cheerful alien tune one of them hums as he approaches makes the nature of their visit clear.

Again.

"You need rest, Captain," I manage through gritted teeth. "You're in no condition to go with them."

She doesn't answer, but then…I knew she wouldn't. And her silence speaks volumes anyway.

I turn away, can't keep looking at her as she rises to unsteady feet, knowing she'll steady herself quickly enough. We've both been getting stronger with the slightly better food she's securing us. When we're able to keep it down, that is.

She does manage to right herself, I can tell by the sound of her movements. When I dare a quick look out of the corner of my eye, I can see as, without a word or a glance back at me, she steps unsteadily forward as the forcefield sizzles inactive, passing over the threshold without hesitation. One of them curls a hand possessively over her arm under the pretense of steadying her and I look away again. Unable to watch.

"Ready for us today, Captain? I hope so. Your performance yesterday was…disappointing. So lackluster," one chides in mock disappointment.

"Your medic looks better. He might make it, after all," the second one remarks.

They make a point of lingering around, of letting me hear their conversation. As far as I'm concerned, these two are as bad as Gwiln. He may have refused to treat me after she gave her confession, but they could have summoned the base physician at any time during the days I was slowly bleeding out and the infection was taking hold, but they waited until I was on the brink of death to offer their "assistance", knowing she had nothing to trade them for it.

Correctly betting on the fact that she wouldn't let me die if she could do anything to stop it.

"He does look better," the first agrees, "but that infection needs aggressive treatment. Who knows what could happen if the treatment stopped now?"

"Can we get this over with?" she clips in a low growl. It's the first thing she's said, and though her fury comes through in the gritting of her teeth, the tone of her voice isn't anything like as scathing as it should be, and they aren't intimidated.

They laugh at her, tell her to walk faster if she's so eager to get on with the evening festivities because they know she isn't about to refuse them.

They know she won't dare tell Gwiln about the new arrangement, either. They know she won't do anything to endanger my welfare, and they've promised to make sure one of their friends finishes me off if his wrath should come down on them for it.

I can't stop her from going. I couldn't if I tried; I know. The second time they came to collect her (that I was awake enough to be coherent, that is) I did try, but I couldn't even stand. And all three of them ignored me anyway.

I wish I'd been with it enough to realize what it meant the first time she came back with the base's main physician. Or thought to ask how I was waking up in a fevered daze to being spoon fed something that tasted vaguely like fresh vegetable broth instead of the usual, half-rotted swill they serve us here…but I hadn't. I wish I thought to question how I was swallowing droplets of fresh water all of the sudden whenever I licked my parched lips – fresh water, without the tainted, rusted flavor we've become accustomed to. Or how the burning in my side was dimmed when she coaxed me to swallow the small pills she pushed into my mouth…

I didn't.

When I woke up yesterday, it was almost morning, and when I noticed she was gone, I panicked, confused and remembering that she'd been taken to sentencing…but it was when she returned, trailing between two very satisfied looking guards, her arms full of food and blankets… It was the moment I caught sight of her expression that I knew for certain. Even in my weakened physical and mental condition, her face said it all. She couldn't look me in the eyes.

She couldn't…Kathryn Janeway couldn't look me, Tom Paris, in the eyes. Nothing can make that better. Nothing can make it right again.

This time, I say nothing. What's the point, when all it does is add to the phenomenal tension between us now? She refuses to discuss it. Not after that first time she came back and we had it out.

"I can't eat this." The words stick in my dry throat. I don't know how she thinks I can. How can she expect me to choke down that broth?

"Tom…it isn't what you think…"

"It isn't?" I scoff, following her nervous movements, easily noting the way her hands are shaking and she can't seem to stop moving. As if she doesn't feel right in her own skin. "You don't go with them in order to bring back food and medicine for me?"

She still isn't looking at me. "Yes, but –"

"Then I don't want it." The anger at myself for being alive right now, if this was the cost of that life, hardens my tone to laser-like sharpness.

"You're exaggerating the situation. It's not as bad as you think. We're…not even compatible…it's…more like show and tell then anything." But the suspicious pauses in her speech, the calculated aversion of her eyes don't ring true with her words. Even if I hadn't seen for myself that our two species are compatible enough, I still wouldn't believe her.

"And the last game of show and tell you participated in that left you unable to walk properly was…?" When she doesn't answer, I can't help but scoff, "Yeah, that's what I thought. Thanks but no thanks, Captain. You can't ask me to eat this…not when I know damned well how you got it."

"I'm not asking anything. Eat. That's an order." A blank order, matching the crushing lack of fire in her eyes. She still doesn't look at me, even when, to place the bowl of soup within my reach, she has to stop curling the first blankets we've seen in weeks around me. Blankets that feel like they're suffocating me, they're so tainted with what she's given for them. It doesn't matter that I'm freezing; I don't WANT them. I don't want them near me, but even less do I want to attempt to choke down that broth.

"Do you need help holding the spoon?"

"No, I don't need any help!" She pauses at my sharp, accusing tone, freezing in mid-motion. I can't believe her. I can't believe she can be so calm about this. "I don't want it. I can't eat this," I spit, pushing the bowl away, angry. Angry that she's done this. Angry that she's done this for ME.

Her eyes finally snap up to mine, and I'm taken aback at the sheer lack of emotion there. The only thing I can find in those blue depths in this moment is bitterness, and then I start, pulling back as if burned. Of course she resents me; how can she not resent me now…?

"For the last six days," she hisses dully, "I've watched you toss and turn with infected wounds and a fever so high you were practically comatose with delirium. I didn't know whether you'd pull through at all, and the physician hasn't seemed hopeful. The medicine is only just starting to take effect, and he says you need at least several more days of rest, proper nutrition and treatment, or the infection will flare again, worse this time. If that happens, it will kill you. Even I can see that."

I'm not affected by her glare anymore – only by the slightly chagrined and even shamed look in her eyes, visible even through the vague impression of annoyance and resentment. That look doesn't belong there. Not in her face, it doesn't. It makes it even worse, my anger. Feeds it, gives me courage. After living in the delirium of dreams she just mentioned for the last several days, I feel like I've awakened to a special kind of hell instead. I manage to shift awkwardly all the way onto the side I'm resting on, and, despite the weakness dragging my every movement, I shove the tin of water she now offers back at her.

"I. Can't. Eat this." I repeat – loudly. Not caring that she's the captain. Not caring that my stomach was growling treacherously only a little while ago, or that the dizziness makes me lay my head back to the cool stone floor immediately.

"If you don't, then all of this," she gestures to the blankets and food spread around me, "was for nothing."

I don't say anything, though my gut clenches tightly at the thought. Great. Now she's using guilt. Must have learned that one from my father.

"Our first duty is to survive until help arrives. Without food and adequate nutrition, we can't do that."

She sounds like a damned textbook now. Definitely gets that one from my father. I keep my mouth shut, not trusting myself to speak. Wishing for that delirium to hurry up and swallow me again. Wondering how long it will take when I refuse the medicine they're using to treat me, too…fuck that. I don't want any part of it.

I'm surprised when my chin is grabbed hard, and then the captain is looking down over me. Her grey, clouded eyes are hard this time. Angry, and not just at me…

"You'll eat this food because we don't have a choice. I certainly don't, and so neither do you."

I swallow hard at the still muted quality of her anger as she releases me, pushing the bowl back over to within reaching distance. She doesn't look at me again, and I watch her out of the corner of my eye as she picks up the second bowl and settles herself a few feet away from me against the wall. Slowly, without so much as glancing in my direction again, she brings the spoon to her mouth with a shaking hand.

She looks like absolute hell, I realize suddenly. I can't look away from her gaunt, haunted face. The circles under her eyes have deepened while I've been out of it… It's with a sick kind of fascination that I watch her eating. I don't know how in the hell she can even contemplate eating that…

It quickly becomes apparent that she can't – at least, not so easily. She makes it to the third mouthful before the spoon falls with a clatter, the force of it striking the bottom of the bowl, splattering the broth all over the floor. Within seconds, she's made it to the hole in the ground that serves as our latrine and is leaning over it, retching.

God. There's no way I can reach her to help, not that she'd want me to…but how she feels about the new accommodations we're now enjoying is all too clear.

I should have guessed as much.

I'm no less angry, and the leaden sensation in my stomach isn't helped by the sounds of her vomiting, either. Struggling to sit up, I notice that she's lost even more weight in the last few days, and it occurs to me fully that she's been having to stomach this as well. She did this for me, would never, ever have done it for herself, but I doubt they've been delivering our standard, rotting rations in addition to the fortifying broth she's been procuring for me, so she's had to live on this lately, too. Again, for me. The kind of success she's had in keeping the unwanted food down is evidenced right beside me when she sits back on her heels, spent, wiping the back of a shaking hand over her mouth. She looks exhausted, and not just physically.

It occurs to me also how much effort it must have been to care for me the past few days in addition to everything else, being taken for most of the day to endure Gwiln's hellish routine...probably worrying about leaving me the entire time she was gone…

And she's right, I realize bitterly. We don't have a choice. When have we ever? As bad as this soup is going to taste now, as unappetizing as it has suddenly become for me… It has to be even worse for her. And not eating will not only not get back for her what she's already given to keep me alive, it's going to make the sacrifice she made utterly meaningless.

As her burning, sunken eyes make their way back over to me, I make sure mine are averted before she catches me staring.

By the time she made her way back to what remained of her portion, I'd choked down half of the vile broth, wondering all the while how it could have smelled as enticing as it had when I'd first detected the scent of it filling the cell. But then…that had been before I caught sight of the expression on her face.

He has her confession now; he recorded it in painstaking detail before escorting her to another session with the panel so she could change her plea to guilty.

And Gwiln still refused to treat me, even then. He lied. He'd never had any intention of having me treated…as far as he was concerned, he'd have been happy to make her watch me die, slowly, and having not been able to do a single thing about it. He'd have preferred it, because it would have meant that he was that much closer to breaking her for it. Guess he didn't take her resourcefulness into account.

Guess I didn't, either.

Kaelo's supposed to be waiting for Gwiln to decide he has enough information from her. Only they both know damned well she doesn't have any. They're still taking her every morning. And Jorca is dead. There's no help there.

He started drugging her yesterday. She could hardly talk when she came back, much less function for a long while after. It didn't stop the guards from taking her for their session. And there's nothing I can do about any of it.

I've tried bribing the guards myself to get them to help her. I think one of them might even be a sympathizer to the resistance, but either I have nothing they want, or they're too frightened of Gwiln to intervene any more than they already have in getting me treatment. I don't know what he or Kaelo are waiting for, but eventually they'll sentence her. For a crime of this magnitude, the sentence is death.

Unless Kaelo decides to grant her leniency, which is about as likely as Q showing up to help us. Kaelo's the one who orchestrated this entire thing in the first place. Nothing short of escape or Voyager's timely arrival is going to be able to help her now.

I find myself wondering whether they'll wait to bring me back to the cell after finishing her off, or whether they'll just let me take my place by her side when the moment arrives. Either way, I intend to ask when the time comes. She won't like it, but I'd rather die on my feet with what's left of my dignity than waste away in here without it. I'm hoping she understands that, when the time comes.

It's been a little over six weeks since we arrived here, but, already, it feels like an entire lifetime has passed. Add to that the two weeks or so we spent on the Grall ship, and Voyager is over a month overdue. We're still holding out hope, officially, and the captain hasn't shown any signs of wavering in her belief that they're coming for us, but…

I'm not so sure anymore. A week's delay just to track us down, I could see. They'd have to find the Grall first, in order to track us here. Or would Chakotay and Tuvok know to come immediately here? The captain had said they'd expected Kaelo to come after Voyager, but would that theory still hold water for them when they didn't find any evidence of Jifani warp signatures where the Delta Flyer's remains were? It's getting harder and harder to believe that it would.

It's getting harder and harder to keep up hope that either one of us is going to make it out of this alive.

I'm starting to wonder if I even want to anymore.


Kathryn


My own sharp intake of breath has me starting suddenly, and the deluge of icy water has begun again. The trails of dripping liquid make their way down from my shoulders and over my back and chest. Each trickling cascade freezes my already swollen, taut tissues so thoroughly that it feels like burning instead of freezing now. So cold. God, how I hate the cold…

Slosh. The laughter disappears under the wall of liquid closing over my face, the last pail dumped right over my head. The liquid pours over my damp hair, soaking it again, closing over my ears so that I'm trapped in a temporary bubble of muted sound. But I need the sound, need it to know what's happening as I can't see. The cloth covering my head won't allow me the benefit of sight, the crucial reassurance of my most trusted sense – the latest torture applied on a regular basis. For a second, I can't hear the taunts of the guards responsible for tormenting me, and that, more than anything, sets a wave of fear shooting through me. Cold. Am I under the ice again? Oh God. Justin. Daddy. I have to save them; I can't let them die again…would rather take their place. Or was it Tom under the ice? Chakotay?

No, it's Gwiln doing it; I remember now. His guards. But what if I'm wrong? Have to help them…

Before I have time to register the shock of the isolation, to determine where I really am…

Slosh, from in front of me, hurled straight into my face this time. The water is dangerously cold. Stinging. Giving new definition to the word frigid. It's creeping up my nose, even through the thin cloth, sloshing down my throat as I gasp in shock. I'm drowning. Coughing. Panic is impossible to keep at bay. More arctic liquid, splashed across my exposed and sore back. Drenching me. Again in my face, invading my nose and throat. Choking. My muscles are so taut now, so tensed in shock and cold that I can feel the sinew and tendons pulling sharply into unnatural positions. A special agony. Fire under water. My teeth are making the sound of an angry rattle snake, chattering and clicking madly together as I choke and splutter, trying to expel the arctic liquid from my burning lungs.

Who knew hell was so cold after all?

While I choke, I try to pull my thoughts together, try to remember where I am and why this is happening. A cruel hand slaps down hard on my thigh, the searing sting unimaginably sharp against the wet, frigid skin. The sopping cloth is pulled from my head, and then the light is almost blinding.

The water stops, too. Not drowning. Coughing, freezing, burning…but not drowning. Before relief can take over, another hand twists in my hair, yanking my head back, a familiar action, and then too-familiar black eyes appear inches from mine as my enemy swings around in front of me.

Enemy. How I hate this man. He lied. Lied about letting Tom be treated for his wounds once I confessed to the court. He would have let Tom die for the sheer sake of making me watch it, knowing there was nothing I could do about it. Now, he only uses the fact that I managed to save him to torment me further.

Evil. As evil as any man, any creature I've ever met. And I have looked into the face of evil before. His is only the most recent.

"Had enough yet?" is snarled into my face. The words so loud, so angry that I wince, trying to brace for the bone-jarring blow the tone usually portends from this man. "Ready to be cooperative now?"

"Cooperative" now means participating in whatever humiliating show of obedience he decides to compose for me. How many people has he broken? How many spirits has he crushed, smashed to bitter, tear drop pieces under the weight of his cruelty?

I only begin to know true fear as the instrument I loathe is pulled from the holster at his belt, trailed across my cheekbone then drawn down along my neck. How many psyches has he permanently shattered, destroyed inside of the sizzling snap of that damned iron baton?

"Do you need another session with our friend, here?"

My entire being tenses. As much sheer agony as it is to hang in this icy hell of exhaustion and hypothermia, I know it's nothing compared to what the weapon in his hand will do to me. God, no. That is the last thing I need, or want. I would do most anything to avoid that.

I can't help the automatic whimper as the baton is pressed into the soft, wet flesh of my abdomen, is dragged lower.

I haven't whimpered since I was four years old…and yet there another escapes my burning throat as I try in vain to catch the breath that eludes me now.

"Yes, a little reminder, I think," the voice is hissing softly. I meet those eyes, knowing my own are wide and almost pleading as the cold threatens to break me even before the jolt I know is coming now.

"No," I manage through violently chattering teeth.

A cold smile of indivertible steel is my only reward, and then comes the sizzling sound that I know I will hear in my nightmares for the rest of my life…however long or short that will be. My wrists above me. Hanging in place. Helpless to stop the…

The sound of roaring and distant screaming fills my ears. My body jerks violently against the tethers holding me, and electric blue fills my vision. The muscle contortions are sheer torment as the vibrations sweep through me, alighting fire and hatred alike through every single nerve in my battered body. The room fades into white, and then white is all I can see as I'm pulled into the timeless dimension of unbearable pain…

For a moment, I've no idea where I am, have almost no clue who I am or what is happening to me. There's only pain, and a hopeless blanket of despair cloaking my fuzzy thoughts.

My head hangs limply over my chest, my chin resting against my collar bone. I can't move a finger, can't shift to alleviate the burn of my abused limbs. The after ache is almost worse than the shock. My world is but slick, wet silver grating, the scent of blood and sweat, bright lights and the pervasive exhaustion of a battle-weary soul.

When I'm fully (?) aware of my surroundings again, it takes everything in me to keep hold of my sanity. Of my identity. I can't move: paralysis, yet another hellish side effect of a higher setting. I hate it, the complete loss of control, and I'm beginning to wonder dimly why I am still doing this. Why am I still refusing to cooperate with his demands? All he wants is my complete and utter submission. My obedience. Surely there's nothing that can be worse than remaining here in this room, with this man and his unbending cruelty.

The greedy gleam in his eyes, as I contemplate the merits of submission, jolts me out of my daze. He's hungering for this, I remember. This is what he's waiting for: my surrender. It feeds him, adds an excited flush of deep crimson tint to his appropriately blood-colored flesh.

I force myself to remember why I am doing this, why I will remain silent and refuse to capitulate no matter what they subject me to here. I'm a Starfleet officer, and I have a duty to uphold the principles of my organization. A duty to the truth and to maintaining my dignity, at the very least. Above all else, a duty to my ship and crew. Voyager. Tom. Giving them what they want will mean certain death for him, as it always does here. I'll hold out as long as I can.

I don't know how long that is, anymore, but I don't think it can be much longer.

My head is again pulled up by the fierce twist of fingers in my sopping, wet hair. He loves doing that. The voice I've come to hate, to recognize even through inhuman amounts of pain sounds again in my ears, and the face I despise is looming directly in my line of vision. "Ready to be reasonable yet?" the cold voice demands. "It's such a simple thing I've asked you to do, Kathryn."

Simple. Yes. This time. He wants me to crawl to him on my hands and knees. And then to follow any directive he gives without thought, without hesitation. Without free will, no matter how degrading or how wrong it may be. And in this moment, it isn't such an absurd thing to ask anymore. I want to tell him that anything he wants is his. I want to tell him that I will do whatever he wants, say whatever he wants, give him whatever he wants, if he will only let me sleep now. It's working. Damn him, his so carefully constructed regimen is working. I'm breaking down…

Tom. Blue eyes swim in my vision, and then morph to smoky brown. B'Elanna. Their baby. How can I tell her I let the father of her child die because I couldn't take a few more minutes of pain? I can't. He will kill Tom, once he's broken me. That threat, as always, looms imminent. Why leave witnesses behind? He won't, and I know it. Our first order of business once I returned from the session was the summary execution of the poor man who thought I'd saved him when I'd agreed to confess. Khor forced the man to his knees and Airrek fired the single shot that killed him. That's exactly what they'll do to Tom the minute I break and Gwiln has what he wants.

I can't.

It takes all of my strength to summon the word. Still, it doesn't, won't leave my lips. It can't. I won't be able to speak for several minutes yet. My eyes will have to speak for me, and I can tell that they do.

A soft hiss escapes my tormentor at my silent refusal: a satanic hiss that portends nothing but more pain, more suffering. The intendent shakes his head sadly. The end of the baton is under my chin now, and if I could tense, I would. Hell, if I could scream, I would. I know he isn't beyond using it again, now, and directly on my neck. The agony when he uses it so close to my brain…worse even than that which I felt moments before.

"No? Haven't had enough yet? Perhaps you'd prefer another round of the drugs, then?"

Yes, I would. I hate myself for that, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would prefer the humiliation he speaks of now to the agony he silently threatens as he idly twirls the end of his weapon in a small, stationary circle at my throat. In this one moment, I would prefer death to the pain of that instrument, but I also know I won't be granted anything like such a merciful reprieve.

But then I know that the damage done by that vile drug will be worse, in the long run, though I won't remember any of the next few hours until he shows me what I've done. What I've revealed in my delirium.

The hypospray is produced instead, pressed into my neck without pause and without remorse. On cue, the two familiar guards step into view just behind him, ready to release me from my restraints. I'm not difficult to control in my drugged state. Or so I've been told, I reflect bitterly.

Gwiln smiles broadly, and so do they. "They do so enjoy your company," he adds, stepping back as my head slumps once more over my chest. "Especially as entertaining as you are in this condition."

Yes, I've seen myself now, talking to people I've known, to members of my crew who are not there, and once, begging them to stop screaming only I seemed to have heard. And I can only thank every god I don't believe in that Tom hasn't had to witness any of this, his commanding officer losing her mind to delusional fictions… If he knew how close I truly am to breaking, mentally, he wouldn't be able to maintain any kind of hope that we'll make it off this planet alive.

But of course he already knows how close I am to breaking if I'm honest with myself. How can he not, when I can no longer look at him most times for fear of what he will see there in my eyes?

Vaguely, I recognize the steady, rhythmic sounds of the scanner he runs over me. "You have thirty minutes to get her into condition," he informs them. Condition means to guide me into a scenario that is beneficial for them to torment me with delusions of…in other words, some form of imagined, hellish terror probably induced from memories of my own past and then warped by the specifics of present circumstances to make them even more horrifying then they were originally.

The scanner stops. "Her vitals are dipping," he announces. There's a long pause, while I assume he is considering his next actions.

I can only hang limply, listening to him decide my fate for the next few minutes. How I hate the loss of control more than anything.

A muttered curse is an indication of my saving grace. "She just reached the critical point," he snaps. Clearly displeased. "Next time, a little warning, please, Kohr? That was a waste of a dose; we'll have to end early now." The scanner snaps shut. "Bring her out of the isolation zone and warm her up. Then take her back to her cell. That'll have to do for today."

"Shall we take her to the infirmary first?" Khor ventures somewhere through the haze of my awareness.

"No," Gwiln spits derisively. "Let her live with the injuries a while. Maybe it'll help her come to a decision to be more agreeable."

I hear his retreating footsteps echoing smartly off of the hard floor as he strides for the door, and I'm beyond thankful for the limits of the human body. Until I realize, as the familiar darkness of the mind-altering substance starts to sweep over me, that this will mean Tom has a front row seat for the hallucinations and the delirium that are about to overtake me.


Tom


I conjure up B'Elanna's image in my mind, picture myself at home in bed with her, my palm splayed protectively across her middle. Over our daughter. I imagine I can see the slight smile tug her lips upward, and that I can hear her insulting my sentimentality while her indulgent tone lets me know how much she loves me for it. Immediately, the freezing room seems a little warmer as I open my eyes to the sound of the guards shifting outside. I lose the image, but not the warmth. I even think I detect a hint of B'Elanna's sandalwood perfume lingering in the air.

God, I miss her. I hope she's all right. She's probably going out of her mind with worry right now…they all are, but it concerns me for the baby, especially. It's been over eight weeks now since we were supposed to check in. By now they're either closing in on an answer to where we are, or…

Or they've buried you the nasty voice in the back of my mind taunts. I find that voice to be the most honest, the most sanity preserving and the most tormenting companion during the long hours of separation while I have to listen to the captain's periodic screams. And oddly, it's the increasing periods of silence that are now the worst. In silence there's no testament to her continued survival.

This time when they bring her back, she's incoherent. Babbling freely and incessantly. When I gather her to me, huddling with her against the cold as I always do, she fights me. I can see the wild look in her eyes as she speaks of Starfleet and torture devices, secret missions, and, of all things, coffee ice cream. It kills me to listen to it, but I don't let go, needing to raise her body temperature as I try to establish as much skin to skin connection with her icy blue flesh as I can. Eventually she stops struggling and gives in, going lax in my grip, and I can tilt her head back to make eye contact, to see the extent of the dementia.

I stare deeply into wide portals of blue, and I don't see any sign of the competent woman I know. I see a stranger, frightened, and yet somehow fearless. Scared, and yet doing her damnedest to appear in control. She hasn't stopped muttering as she tells me I can do what I want. That it's nothing she hasn't had before, hasn't endured before. I urge her to calm down, reminding her not to attract the attention of the guards – knowing that if she does, they'll try and take her for their own amusement again.

And she laughs at me.

"Let them come," her hoarse voice challenges coldly. Defiantly. "Do you think I'm afraid of you or your little friends? I've already been to hell." Her laughter is quiet. Hysterical and borderline deranged. The chills I'm experiencing with each casually offered word have nothing to do with the coldness of her dreadfully thin frame in my lap. "So go ahead, do your worst. I survived before, and I'll do it again."

I realize now that she has no idea where she is this time…maybe even who she is, let alone who I am. And it scares the living hell out of me.

Since they've started using the drugs, it's been coming, I remind myself. You knew she wasn't going to be able to hold it together indefinitely. Hell, SHE knew. You have to be strong. Deal with it. Keep her calm.

Only it's harder, so much harder now that it's actually happening. The days are getting longer, the interrogation sessions more and more brutal. They're not so careful about erasing the marks from her skin now, and clearly they've given up on caring about the evidence their efforts leave behind. Each day has been harder than the last, and with hardly any food or water staying down in either of us, I'm beginning to give up hope that I can keep her alive for much longer. She's wasting away, physically, and now mentally, too.

Not that I'm so much better off. But at least my mind is intact. Aside from the mental game they play of having me "tend" her in the evenings, where I basically just get to review the abuses she's suffering when she's wrenched out of my arms every morning, I'm not being bothered anymore. The guards seem to have tired of beating me since Gwiln's assault, and are, for some reason, still handing over the daily doses of medicine even though it's been almost two days since she was well enough to fulfill her end of the "arrangement" with the prison guards in our section. But only on the condition that she'll be well enough to "make it up to them soon".

I still can't bring myself to stop hating her for making the deal in the first place. It can only be helping Gwiln to break her down more completely.

Maybe it's wrong that I hate her for that. That gratitude for the kind of sacrifice I have to assume she made on my behalf just won't come, no matter how hard I will it with all my might. It's probably evidence of some crucial defect in my personality that I can't be thankful for the lack of beatings or the occasional, scant offering of food the guards now toss into the cell whenever they can be bothered to think on it.

That some disgusting, primal part of me hates her for letting me see her on the verge of breaking at all, when she's the one we're all supposed to be able to look to to be unbreakable, sickens me.

"Captain, it's Tom. It's Paris," I remind her softly, still keeping a loose grip on her slight, shivering form. "I'm not going to hurt you. It's safe here; no one will bother us." For a few hours, at least…

Huge eyes dominate the ghostly pale face of my captain, my commanding officer, my…well…not quite friend. Never have we crossed that line. I'm not sure she ever really crossed it with any of us. Maybe not even with Chakotay, though we all thought they'd shared more than that on the planet in Vidiian space. Now, I'm not so sure. I'm no longer really sure of anything. Except that if we don't get out of here soon, not even the doctor is going to be able to fix the mess that lies trembling in my arms.

I know she's a woman, a flesh and blood human being as vulnerable as the rest of us, probably better than anyone. But it's the shield of indifference, the iron mask of control she's spent her whole life building that matters here. It not only protects the rest of us from the fear that she will break, but it protects her from it, too.

If they keep breaking that down, keep stripping it away from her time and time again, eventually, she won't be able to resurrect it. And she will break then.

She can't break, damn it. Not now, not like this, not to Gwiln and not to those guards who are nothing compared to her, to what I've seen her capable of standing up to. No.

If she breaks, we haven't got a chance left of surviving in this hellhole.

If she breaks, so will I.

Her eyes settle on my face, and it may be wishful thinking on my part, but I think I catch a hint of awareness. "Paris?" she whispers tentatively.

"Yes." Encouraged, I nod gratefully, not even caring that it's an odd way for her to address me. "Yes, it's Paris. You're fine now. It'll be fine," I lie, feeling steel etched where there should be softness, and guilt for the deception wrung from my cracked lips. "Trust me."

I'll help her rebuild now. I'll help her to regain herself, to effect the shield she needs, the persona that will carry us both through this.

She swallows and stares up at me in the too-bright lighting. "They hurt you," she whispers in a voice no doubt raw from screaming.

Her hand comes up tentatively to touch my face, and it's all I can do not to flinch from the contact. To recoil at the vulgar vulnerability in the eyes of the woman I trust to be unbreakable, no matter what fate may throw at her.

"Not today." I gently remove her hand. "Those are old marks. I'm fine."

"You're lying," she accuses softly. "I heard…heard you screaming, sir. Heard it…saw, remember? I saw them do it." Oh God, Kahless…Q, for that matter…any one of you that happens to be listening, please help me because those are tears in her eyes.

She's crying.

"They made me watch," she whispers. "I'm sorry, sir, I couldn't…I'm sorry."

I have no idea what the hell she's talking about. Sir? Heard me screaming? I snort into the darkness, surveying her absurdly earnest face. Is she delusional now? Or did they conjure up a holo-video for her to watch of some imagined torture, maybe? I know Gwiln's capable of it.

I shake my head. Rebuild her. "You're confused. It's all right. I'm fine. You're the one they're hurting, not me."

"No." She's adamant. "You wouldn't let them. Don't you remember, Admiral? You talked them out of it…"

Admiral? Didn't let them? Gods. She's lost it. That's it, then, she's really lost it. What the hell do I do now? The captain has lost her mind…I can't rebuild that. I can't fix that for her.

"I wish…" Damned dry throat keeps making my voice crack. I clear it, but that doesn't help much. "I wish I could have stopped them, Captain. I wish I could stop them from doing this to you."

I'd kill them to make that happen. Cheerfully. With my bare hands.

"Don't call me that. Please." She shakes her head at me, and God. She looks so sad. And tiny. She should weigh more, damn it. A person who takes on command of an entire starship should be more solid. She shouldn't feel this insignificant in my arms.

At least her shivering is less violent now.

"Why did you choose me for this mission, Admiral?" I shake my head, at a loss for words, but she isn't placated. "I know…what you told them isn't true. That you'd never…" She swallows. "But why me, sir?"

Her voice is a confidential whisper now, thankfully. The last thing I want is a reminder to the guards that she's here…and delusional.

"You knew about Cardassians. Knew what they're like, didn't you? What they…would do to us…will do, if we don't get out of here."

Hell. She thinks...I don't know what she thinks, besides that I'm an Admiral. That I outrank her. What in the hell are they giving her? And Cardassians? Gods. I stare down into her pale face, wondering if that awful glaze is ever going to retreat from her eyes, if the damage to her mind can even be undone, or if the captain is gone forever thanks to the Jifani drugs.

That thought is unbearable. It's unbearable to see her like this: not in control. I can't remember a time that I've ever seen her lose control, and this…this is horrifying.

"Captain," my voice cracks on the word, throat still too dry from conserving the water to give to her (who needs it more), "can you tell me who I am?"

Her brow furrows. She looks angry again, and her feeble struggles to escape my loose hold renew. "Why would you ask me that, Admiral? You know who you are; you just said it yourself. You're Paris." The joy I feel is short-lived as she continues, "Owen Paris."

My heart breaks again. Of course. I probably should have guessed that the second she said "Admiral". She thinks…she thinks I'm my father. I know I look like him. Everyone says I look like him. Hell, my grandmother used to call me Owen all the time. We finally stopped correcting her by about the time I turned twelve. And I keep forgetting how the captain knew my dad when he was much younger. Not as young as I am now, but not too, too much older, either.

She has some of her facts clear, I guess. Maybe there's hope in this. This isn't a complete delusion; it seems like more of a regression. Not out of the realm of possibility, if you take into account the alien properties of the psycho-active drug they're giving her combined with the physical torture she's been enduring for the better part of four weeks. But Cardassians?

Suddenly her comments of a few weeks ago hit me, and for some strange reason, they hit me hard. When I was an ensign. We were captured by Cardassians.

A cold chill sweeps through me and not just from the iciness of her skin pressed against mine. My father did research on the Cardassians. A lot of his time was spent studying them when I was growing up. Most of it was top secret, though, lots of highly classified material he never discussed…long deep-space assignments we didn't discuss even at home, though we always knew when we were told he "wouldn't be back for a while" where he was going.

The captain's deranged mumblings of a few minutes ago stick out in my mind now, too. Starfleet...coffee ice cream…no help with that one, but secret missions? l…no. A sneaking suspicion overtakes me. She can't be…can she?

I don't argue with her assertions this time. Instead, I go with them. Wondering if maybe I am losing my mind to even be considering that she has a rational thought in her head right now. "Can you tell me where we are?"

"We were checking the sensor readings, sir. Are you having trouble remembering, too?"

In a manner of speaking. I nod. "A little, yeah. Where, specifically, were we checking them?"

"We were at the Urtean moon when they tractored us onto their ship. We're in a Cardassian prison facility…I think on a planet, but I'm not sure. I'm sorry, sir, but I don't know exactly where we are. The Cardassian…Camet, I think he said his name was…he wasn't exactly forthcoming with information."

At a prison facility? With my father? Or is she confused because she sees me here, and is mistaking me for my father? That must be it. I mean…how would I not have known about this? Captured by Cardassians? Surely there would have been at least the casual mention of this one at the dinner table!

It's not possible. She's talking nonsense.

But of course my father never discussed his missions with us. But he was in deep space, and several times right on the fringes of the Cardassian border, though we were only told about it afterward. I was an ensign, she said. I do the math. The timing fits. My stomach flutters dangerously. This could have happened. It isn't beyond the realm of possibility. But then…why wasn't I told? Why didn't he tell me? Why didn't she tell me before now, under the influence of some drug that has her regressing into the past?

Or maybe it's just the torture breaking apart her mind. Maybe she just can't handle the pain anymore, and her mind is combining elements of this situation with the other. That makes sense, too. Maybe it's the starvation and fatigue that has me even considering buying into her delusions for one single second. Probably.

It doesn't stop me from needing to be sure.

I almost ask her when this was supposed to have happened, before I realize that if she's actually fixating on some point in the past – and not just completely lost her mind – that I'll have to pose the question differently to find out what I want to know. "What's your rank? How old are you?" I ask.

"Ensign." She looks at me suspiciously. "Twenty-five. Why are you asking me these things, Admiral? You know the answers to all of these questions…" Her breath catches sharply, sending her lapsing into a deep fit of coughing. When she recovers enough, she sputters, "Are you…afraid that I'm not me? Do you think they'll use holograms to try to trick us into talking? No," she bitterly answers her own question, pausing to cough some more. "They wouldn't care enough, would they?"

A good half of what she says can't be much more than paranoid gibberish. Most of it, I ignore. I do the math again. Swiftly calculating the difference in our ages and come to rest on an appropriate time frame…and the facts line up startlingly with the fragments of memories I have of when I was fifteen…just after I'd lost my father's private shuttle to the icy depths of Lake Tahoe. He'd returned home early from an away mission just a few days later… Months early, the first time he'd ever done so, now that I think on it. I assumed he'd come back to help my mother "deal" with me. Or at least that's how my parents were fond of referring to the months I spent grounded to my room for my latest infraction of the Paris Code of Conduct.

I remember something about a hospital, and my mother saying something about visiting him there. Starfleet Medical. And my sisters and I being shipped off to live with Aunt Agnes for a week. I assumed as punishment for what I'd done… God, I was trembling at the thought of having to go back home and face the music…! And when I finally did, the tension in that house was so thick, it was unbearable. The way my mother fawned over him, as if she was expecting him to explode and have a heart attack any minute, though outwardly there seemed to be nothing wrong with him. He was his usual, reserved and critical self. Maybe a little quieter. I guess a lot quieter, actually. I hid in my room as much as possible, assuming that the explosion was coming any minute…

But he never mentioned the shuttle. Though my mother must have told him…and surely he'd noticed the huge, conspicuously gaping, shuttle-sized empty space in the docking yard...he never said a word. Not even a few weeks later, when he brought home a new one.

It still blows my mind, actually – the worst thing I'd ever done, and my father never did so much as mention it to me. Well, he did worse: he practically ignored me. He barely said two words to me at a time. Couldn't even look me in the eye anymore. The added distance between us showed up then, more so than ever before. The look in his eyes, and how it was never the same again after that. How he could hardly ever be bothered to acknowledge my existence from that point on.

He was gone again two months later, back into deep space, our mother told us the morning after he'd left. He hadn't had a chance to say goodbye… We were used to that, though. Frankly, I was relieved.

I've been assuming, all my life, that he only maintained that added distance with me. That I'd disappointed him one too many times to ever go back to the way things were when he'd occasionally find something to be proud of in my academic achievements. But…had it been more than me? Was it really possible that those events had nothing to do with me after all?

It feels like my whole world is being ripped out from under me.

The captain laughs that almost hysterical laugh again, catching my attention, bringing me back into the here and now. She's still babbling.

"I mean, why would they care, unless they just wanted to screw with our heads? They don't want information, do they? Not really." Her voice fades to a whisper. "They just want to break us. He…he told me." She shakes her head, seemingly in disbelief. "The man in charge, Camet. He smiled when he said it, sir. These people are…they're monstrous."

That sounds like the Cardassians I know and love, all right. Not to mention "Camet" being a dead ringer for a Cardassian name. It only adds credence to the idea that she's not hallucinating – at least not entirely. Some of this is coming directly from the captain's own memory. It must be.

"How…how long have we been here?" I venture, not sure I want to know now what she has to say. Knowing that I have to know and hoping that I'll be able to sort out what's real and what isn't. Forgetting that we're supposed to be rebuilding her so that she can hold out against the next session.

She blinks up at me, the trust implicit in her stormy, blue-grey eyes. She's never once looked at me like this, I'm certain of that. Like she trusts me to protect her, somehow. Like I'm even able to…

"I'm …not sure, sir. I'm sorry, I… I blacked out in the shuttle, and when I woke up, I was in the holding pen. Maybe…two days?"

Blacked out in the shuttle…we haven't been in a shuttle in weeks. That part of it sounds genuine.

I tell myself that this isn't wrong. That I have a right to my father's past, even if he himself never saw fit to share it with me. I tell myself that even if I'm violating the captain's explicit wishes by allowing her to discuss something in an altered frame of mind which I know damned well she had no intention of getting into with me. I tell myself that this could all still be some figment of her imagination, and none of it really happened… I tell myself these things, and then I open my mouth to ask the question I can't ever take back.

"And what…did you see them doing to me?" I ask, my heart barely beating.

The tears again. It's almost enough to break me, too. "They were…hurting you, sir. Torturing you."

My whole world changes in this moment. It shouldn't, knowing how delusional she is, but it does. This all makes far too much sense to me now to simply be discarded out of hand.

And suddenly it makes much more sense about her, too – how she could take a bunch of Maquis criminals and fold them into the ranks of her ship seemingly without a doubt and had never looked back. It would make sense, if some part of her sympathized with the plight of the Maquis. If she'd seen…my stomach twists again. Wait a minute – seen? If she'd been with him…if my father was tortured…

I've never heard of anyone leaving a Cardassian prison camp unscathed, let alone a young and defenseless female prisoner. The captain is a beautiful woman. I can't imagine that she wasn't a beautiful youngwoman. I wouldn't trust one of them with her now, when there's a treaty, for God's sake, let alone as a fresh-faced young ensign without the protection of that treaty.

Not that the Cardassians ever had particularly high standards, but still…

My throat proves to me that it can indeed go even drier, disproving my idle theory of a moment ago. The words are like dust, hardly making it out of my mouth, "And what…were they doing…to you, Cap…Kathryn?"

A long moment of agonizing silence while she fights with herself and I fight not to pressure her, before: "I was next. They were going to…" she trails off in a whisper, averting her eyes.

"They were going to what?" I prompt, having to know.

Only knowing that I have to know.

Another deep, rattling breath makes me fear the pneumonia I've been so afraid she would catch has finally caught hold of her. Combined with the cough of a moment ago, it's a horrid sign.

"They made me listen to you…to you…screaming. For…hours, days, I…don't even know. I tried not to listen, to block it all out, but eventually I couldn't..."

I know exactly what that feels like now, don't I? I know exactly what kind of hell that is. But she wasn't finished; the way she trailed off tells me that. I swallow again, and it's no easier than it was a second ago. "And then?"

"They…they pulled me out of my cell. And they told me I was next, but that first they wanted to…" she swallows back a sob, visibly, audibly, and I can't imagine what could make her do that – no, the real problem is that I think I can. Maybe she was just a lot freer with her emotions back then, but that awful voice in the back of my head is whispering that what she's going to relate to me now is just that horrible.

A semblance of the woman I know reasserts some measure of control. She forcefully subdues the tremors rolling through her, and her voice takes on the eerily formal edge of a crewman giving a report to a superior officer as she looks straight ahead of her, at the wall just behind me. "They said they wanted to see what kind of stamina human women had."

God, no. My grip has gone completely lax now. She moves to the floor, and sits opposite me, drawing her knees up to her chest and beginning to rock slightly back and forth while she continues, "They wanted to know how many of them I could 'make it through' before I passed out. They said…they wanted you to see what they were going to do with me…wanted you to know that I was theirs now, and that you wouldn't ever have the chance..."

Oh no. Oh no, no, no. God, no. Had my father been forced to watch…was the Captain…was Kathryn…?

"What else did they say?" I ask, knowing that isn't the end of it. Needing to know, somehow, about this hidden piece of my captain's and my father's past.

Her lower lip is trembling now as her eyes glaze over even more. She doesn't look at me this time while she answers, realizing what she's doing and forcing herself to stop rocking, to bring her hands down into her lap. But she fidgets slightly still, not seeming to know what to do with her hands. I have never seen her so unsure of what to do with herself.

"I…they were disgusting. You heard what they said, sir. Please don't make me repeat it." Her eyes harden, and so does her voice, and then I visibly observe as a semblance of the famous captain's mask I know of today slams into place. And I begin praying to all those gods I called upon earlier that I'm not witnessing her reliving the memory of when that mask first began to form.

"You heard, sir," she finishes, with an angry lilt of challenge tingeing her voice.

She even sounds younger, somehow. It's insane. This whole thing is insane.

"Were you…" I almost can't even form the question. Some hidden barrier keeps stopping my tongue from moving. "Did they…" But, somehow, it has monumental importance to me to know the truth. I force the words to take shape on my cracked lips and around my uncooperative tongue. "Did they rape you, Captain?"

She flinches, and so do I. "Please don't call me that," is all she whispers, though.

"Answer the question, Janeway." My voice is hard, cracking out like a whip. I have to know.

"No, sir." It's a whisper. A benevolent benediction of an utterance. "I–I'm sorry. It should have been. They wanted to …" is barely heard chasing after the relief borne from her lips. "Were planning to, but you wouldn't…let them. You…taunted them into…"

And then hell follows, like fables of a grim reaper riding a storm of black, unending despair, and I can see the foreboding storm clouds gather in her stark, desolate eyes before it comes.

"They raped you, sir."

What's left of my world crumbles into darkness on the heels of those words.

 ***

Seventeen


Kathryn


"Why did you choose me for that away mission?"

"Why, I suppose I thought you were best suited for the job."

"No, I wasn't. Dilithium extraction was always Lieutenant Torres's specialty, and Tuvok had far more experience conducting away missions, but you didn't send either one of them. Was it because they were closer to you?"

I don't know why it is that I can't let go of that question. I hear it ringing in my head late at night when all the other voices have long since faded…

He's here. His hands are on my shoulders, smoothing back and forth, and I don't bother to contain my sigh of contentment. I don't want to open my eyes, or to move, ever again. He's working up to one of his miracle massages. I think I could come closest in my life to purring in these moments. Chakotay's hands really are magic. He's the only man I've ever known who can work the tension out of my neck and shoulders like a trained Risan masseuse, even when the ship has been on full red alert all day.

But it's not entirely unselfish. He knows I can't resist him when he does this. Unless he does his job too well, and he puts me to sleep…he must know where my thoughts have wandered. Again. He always knows.

He's had a hell of a time with me this past month. The rest of the crew never saw it, but I've been like a mad woman since we lost her…again. Working myself into the ground. Refusing to sleep and avoiding food…they always feel like indulgences after losing someone else. Questioning, second guessing myself. Wondering if that was how they all felt, that I saved the most dangerous missions for those "less valued". And worse, wondering if Lyndsay was right. Wondering if there wasn't some tiny kernel of truth in her assertion…

I've hated myself for not being able to come up with a satisfactory answer to that question. Until Chakotay finally pinned me down in my ready room a few nights ago and confronted me on my withdrawn behavior. He forced me to talk to him after nearly a month of putting him off and shunting him back to his own quarters at night. After I raged and threatened myself hoarse, he simply blinked and asked if I'd finished and wanted to talk about it yet.

I let it all come pouring out in a huge rush, almost wanting to punish him for his invasion into one of my weakest moments with the harshness of those questions I'd been asking myself. Punishing us both, I suppose, for having pushed the envelope a step too far and crossing the line into forbidden territory.

He only listened silently, holding my furious gaze with the tenacity of a river rock that refuses to give way to the raging tide no matter how hard it storms or how far the river swells and gushes around it. Then, in that infuriatingly calm voice of his, he asked me if I'd ever grieved for a single one of them any less than the others. He asked if I'd ever send any one of them into a dangerous situation if I could get away with going myself. And then, even more quietly, he asked if I could really fault myself for being human. For allowing myself to get to know those closest to me a little more. For letting some of them in. For letting him in.

He knew what was really bothering me all along, even when I didn't. That I hadn't remained impenetrable to them all. That I'd let some of them in, albeit in varying and (mostly) limited degrees. I wasn't supposed to let any of them in at all…

But I let them in, all of them. Him, most of all. I thought I could keep him at that last bit of distance. That if we didn't make it official, if we didn't say the words, then it didn't mean as much, but that was wrong. It's too late to seal the leak, now, I realize in retrospect. It has been too late for some time. The cracks are widening, have been ever since that first one formed.

And the only one still fighting it is me.

I just don't know if I have it in me to stop fighting it. Especially now, when it feels so important to maintain the barriers of a command structure…

But then I have to shake my head. Of course it always feels that way, no matter what the circumstances. It's born in me, it's bred into me, and it's been beaten into me by life and by bitter experience. But it's times like these, when I know I've put him through hell again, and he hasn't complained, hasn't ever pushed me for more than I have to give, that I wish I had it in me to stop fighting it so hard. To say the words he deserves to hear from me, just once. To tell him what he must know instinctively is true, because if he didn't, he wouldn't put up with everything I throw at him on a regular basis…

A harsh slap across wet skin jerks me to awareness. I open my eyes, slowly, but it's not immediately apparent where I am. I only know that this isn't Voyager, and my insides tighten viciously. Pain. I hurt everywhere, but I can't remember why. Where is the pain coming from? What's happening?

"The first officer, was it? So he's the one."

I know that voice. I hate it. It isn't Chakotay. I flinch, finding my footing and trying to stand, trying to shake the suddenly unwanted hands from my shoulders in horror. They're his hands, not Chakotay's. I blink, still wondering where the pain has come from. I was on Voyager, wasn't I? Chakotay was there…he isn't here now. Why do I hurt so much? I'm hanging from my wrists… Is the crew here, too? Do I have to help them?

The voice laughs softly, breath hissing over my ear, but the hands slide away from my shoulders. The sick sensation of the feel of them lingers, though. "No wonder he was so terse and brooding during his visit."

Drugs. I've been given drugs, I remember, trying furiously to think past the muggy haze of my thoughts and the blinding flashes of pain still shooting through me.

"And here I thought it might be Paris. But it was Chakotay, the first officer, was it?"

I've been speaking aloud this whole time. I must have been while I was dreaming, hallucinating, whatever it is the drugs make me do. But I rarely remember it…I don't know what it means that I do this time.

Damn it, they've been digging around in my head again, and I wasn't even aware of it. Camet…no, Gwiln, I remember with a shudder that makes my teeth chatter. Freezing. So cold…he comes around in front of me, that smile that is so often on his face widening.

"How sad," he taunts. He's always taunting now, always reveling in the things he can make me do with these drugs, with the brutal techniques he now has the freedom to apply whenever it suits his twisted purposes. It gives him a sense of power, of pleasure to have control over my responses.

"You love him, Captain? And yet you've never told him. How utterly tragic." He clucks his tongue in mock sympathy. "It must be nearly as heart-wrenching to know you'll never tell him now as it was to remember that you could have saved your lover all those years ago when he drowned under that ice…"

Bastard. He got that from me yesterday, I remember now. More of it coming back to me with each passing second. He spent an hour taunting me with that. Digging. Asking how it felt to be an indecisive coward who froze under pressure. A leader who continued that pattern of getting those around her killed by the decisions she makes…

"Tragic. Perhaps if your father had done a better job of raising you, he wouldn't have had to die, either."

I hate him. My God, do I hate this man. He's worse than a Cardassian. He's lower than scum. He's been making me recall the worst experiences of my life while he watches on in amusement, and then uses the information he gathers to dig the knives even deeper.

"You wouldn't keep getting your crewmen killed on this fool's errand to get them home." His grin is all I can see, so close it is in front of me as he leans in, continuing with obvious relish. "Maybe, if Admiral Janeway had instilled some of his infamous backbone into his eldest daughter, you might have thought about what you were doing before making the unilateral decision to strand them all here in the first place. You might have had the strength of character to choose the welfare of your own people over the potential safety of strangers."

"Shut up." It escapes from my gritted teeth, one of which is missing, I realize now as my tongue works furiously against the back of them to keep from saying anything more. I don't have time to prepare for the fist lashing into my stomach, directly into my diaphragm, but I should have. I know better. I know better than to antagonize him, damn it…I know what happens when I do, and it's rarely worth it. The injury is made all the more painful when I can't double over to relieve the seizing pressure.

I grit my teeth through the pain. He's nothing without his devices, without his guards to do his bidding, to help keep me restrained. No matter what information he gets from me, he will not win. I won't allow it, can't allow it. He will not break me.

He's unconcerned. Acting as if the last exchange hasn't taken place while I hang limply, mouth agape, trying in vain to suck in air. Of course he's unconcerned. He has all the time in the world to draw this out, doesn't he?

Hell. This truly is hell.

"So many of them have died already, thanks to your incompetence. And that's not to mention those you've sent to death by your own calculated hand. You're a murderer, Janeway."

I still can't breathe, can't do anything to block out the damning words, lethally aimed to rip right through any shield of indifference I might have had before Gwiln got his claws into my brain with these drugs of his. A murderer. He's right…

I shake my head slightly, the only movement I'm capable of. No. He's wrong.

"Really?" He laughs, an incredulous look on his face. "What about Tuvix? Begging for his life, pleading for your mercy. And what did you do?"

Damn him, I know what I did. Does he think I haven't seen that face every night of my life since that moment?

"You coldly killed him, by your own hand. That's murder and of the worst kind. Because you made the decision, but only after intensive deliberation. You thought about it. You planned your method. You looked him in the eye, and you personally performed the procedure your own physician couldn't, in good conscience, perform."

No. It didn't happen like that. It was one life to save two, I want to scream.

To him, or to myself?

"You tell yourself that it was to save two lives, but is that any less a murder?"

No. Damn him, and damn me, it isn't. It never was anything less than murder. But someone had to make the decision, and I couldn't stand to lose two more of them. Tuvok. My oldest and dearest friend. I couldn't… No. Not if I could do something about it. One life for two. I couldn't stand still again and choose inaction. Why is it so hard for him to understand…?

"It was murder. That makes you a murderer, Janeway. You're a criminal. How your crew could look you in the eyes, how they could follow you, after such a cruel display, is beyond me."

Cruel. Was it? I know it was murder. I've never been able to find a way around that simple fact, no matter how many justifications it has taken to quiet the internal voice so that I could get some sleep at night…

Why? I put this to rest, long ago. Why is he digging this up now?

Air, finally. It fuels the hatred, so I've discovered in this God-forsaken room. All I want to know in this moment is why. Why is he doing this?

"Why?" I wheeze, in between sharp, agonizing gasps of breath. Feeling the tears that formed long ago breaking through the shield of my eyelids as he casually tears into the deepest wounds to my soul. Feeling them spill over in bitter, utter hatred for the man in front of me. "Why…are you…doing this?"

But I know.

"Why not?" he presses, genuinely serious this time in his question. At least so it seems. "It's no less than you deserve, Captain."

How does he manage to make that word sound like such a mockery? Such a curse? I've never hated anyone in my life the way I hate Gwiln, including Camet and his minions when they were torturing Owen, Seska and Cullah when they were manhandling and relocating my crew, even Ransom when he was torturing and killing those nucleogenic life forms just to get himself home faster…and that is saying something, indeed.

"How can you stand there and pretend you should be treated any differently? The very least you can do for your victims is to give a solid accounting of your various crimes. You're a murderer, Janeway."

No. Yes, but only when there was no other choice…

"A murderer and a poor leader with no honor left, no loyalty to her organization or to its principles."

No. I live for my crew…what does it matter if my honor has to be sacrificed on occasion to save them? I live for them, to get them home…

He's too good at this. Too good at wearing me down and stripping away my defenses. As good as any Cardassian, I'll wager. His tactics are different, maybe, but the end result is the same if he keeps this up for much longer…

"You break the Federation's most valued principle."

No. Yes, but with good reason…

"It seems to me that we've done your crew a favor. What are their chances with you continuing to lead them?" No. They haven't suffered for my mistakes… Well…

"And the commander!" he laughs his cold, cruel laugh. "Him, most of all. I'd say he should thank us for taking you off his hands before you could kill him, too."

No. It's not my fault. Damn you, it wasn't…I never meant…

He doesn't hear me. I'm not even sure I've spoken at all, so weak does my voice sound in my ears. It does nothing to drown out Gwiln's relentless, increasingly calculated assault. I need to hear the snap, the crackle of my command tone reassuring me that I've still got some fight left in me, but I can't even muster that which has come naturally to me for so long. I don't have the wit, the pretty words or stoic sarcasm, much less the strength to waste on summoning it.

"Tell me, Captain. Have you ever brought anything but pain, heartache, and death to those closest to you?"

Fuck you!

"What?" My head snaps up to look at him. He looks thunderstruck as he stares back at me. "What did you just say to me?"

In shock, I realize that he heard that. Seems I've spoken aloud again. I hadn't meant to say that aloud. Had I?

"What did you say, Janeway?"

Well it wasn't very captain-like, that's for certain. I just can't bring myself to regret having said it, even though I know what it will cost me. "I said…" Evenly, I meet his eyes, raising my voice, hoarse with screaming by now, to a clearly audible level – won't do to have to repeat myself again. "Fuck. You."

He raises his gloved fist to strike me, and I'm ready for it, know it's coming. It will have been worth it this time.

The blow doesn't come. He stops himself, the battle with his own self control evident in the shaking of his arm.

And then he smiles, his hand moving instead to his pocket, where he withdraws another hypospray, which is when every lingering ounce of bravado is drained from me in one instant. "Another round then, I guess," he spits with venom. "Since you just can't seem to learn."

"No." Anything but that. Anything but more of that hideous…the cool metal presses into my neck. I try to move away, but I can't. There's no fight left in my abused body anymore. He's done his job too well. The needles prick deep into my neck and the hiss of the contents releasing into me are my only warning before I'm plunged straight back into the depths of hell – a hell of my own making. Then again…aren't they all, I acknowledge vaguely until the vapid darkness descends, and I lose myself in it once more.


Tom


Gwiln hasn't called me again, not since the last time, when he used me to get her to confess. They're focusing their efforts primarily on her. Trying to break her. And damned if they aren't doing a hell of a job, from what I can tell. They only come to take her early in the morning, and then reappear again to toss her limp body back into the cell with me hours and hours later. Occasionally, of course, the regular cell guards still come in the evenings to meet with her, not seeming to mind the fact that last time they practically had to carry her out with them.

We don't discuss that anymore, haven't for days. In the meantime, the waiting is pure hell. In the meantime, I have only the images of Voyager to sustain me, the picture of my wife to keep me warm and the image of our child nestled in B'Elanna's womb to keep the fires of hope burning in the hearth of my heart. I don't let myself worry about what kind of a father, what kind of a husband I'm going to turn out to be anymore, with the kind of example that I had growing up; I hold on to the images, and in my mind's eye, I can see my fingertip tracing the lines of B'Elanna's ridges as I lean over her while she sleeps. I'd give anything to be back there with her now. She must be out of her mind with worry.

Even that is less painful than thinking about my current companion; I try my damnedest not to think about the captain. It's a losing battle every time. I no longer know what condition she'll be in when she gets here, or even if she'll know who I am.

And I know I've always known that she's not infallible, have always realized that she's just as human as the rest of us. I've always thought myself different in that regard, always told myself I saw her for the woman, and that was what I respected in her, what I was initially head-over-heels attracted to in her: the whole woman, strengths and flaws alike. Sometimes, like when she threw me in the brig after demoting me, I've taken great comfort in that knowledge, in knowing that she can be flawed, can be ruled by emotion, can be just as wrong as the rest of us. It made me feel better then.

Not now. Not in a situation like this, it doesn't. This is when I most need her to be strong, to be Captain Janeway, not Kathryn Janeway, mortal human. Because a regular mortal like the rest of us can be broken, and I'm terrified that she will be, now. And if that happens, if we can't pick up the pieces…we don't stand a chance in hell of ever making it home.

I've thought about my father all day long also. About what the captain revealed to me yesterday. I want to know if it was real, if it really happened, or if it was hallucination mixed with memory, the way others seemed to be, but the only way to find that out is to ask her when she's coherent. And even if she is again, I'm not sure I'm willing to ask her to relive what was clearly one of the worst experiences of her life during the only time she's allowed to rest during another of those worst experiences of her life.

It's killing me, not knowing. Not being able to say for certain whether or not my father was severely abused by the Cardassians…in that way…or not. But now isn't the time to ask her; I can't, I won't do that to her now. If we get back to the ship, maybe…

Today they've had her much longer. Already, the sounds of the guards changing rotation have come and gone, and the sentries on night duty have appeared in the edges of the doorway. Taunting me with their leers and malevolent grins. But I have to admit, as loathsome as they are, they do detract from the boredom, from the insanity I can feel pulling at the edges of my mind while I'm sitting here for hours on end with no distraction from my own confused and rambling thoughts.

The beating the last pair gave me last night still keeps me curled up on my side, trying to lesson the pain by not moving, knowing I'll need my strength to look after her when she comes back. I can feel the heavy bruises forming on my back where they kicked me, and along my arms where I finally had to curl them over my head to protect my skull from their hard boots. They're vicious. Taking pleasure in inflicting pain. At least I don't think anything is broken – this time. I know they'll be back for more, eventually. I'm still grateful that that's as far as they go. Compared with other forms of prison entertainment, I'll take the beatings every time. And at least they didn't take her this time…

I wish I had a mirror to assess the damage to my face. My left eye is swollen shut, and the split over my upper lip stings like hell. If I could, I'd find some way to mask the bruises, but I can't. The captain is going to know what happened the instant she sees me; there'll be no way to hide the evidence under the bright lights they keep shining even at night. Knowing her, it's only going to add to her sense of failure, and to her determination to keep enduring their sessions, thinking it will keep me alive until Voyager arrives…assuming she's even remotely coherent, that is.

She's here. Thank every god in the galaxy, she's finally here. But she can barely stand this time. I'm already uncurling myself from my protective position on the floor in the farthest corner and moving to stand. Her escort likes to toss her in without any ceremony. After yesterday, I'm afraid she'll be hurt when they release her to her own devices…

And it's a good thing I made the effort. The field snaps down and I hobble forward a few steps, limping on a sprained left ankle. Kohr practically throws her into me, and my arms come out to catch her as she stumbles and loses her balance. Only I underestimated the force of his toss. Or the strength of my legs. Either way, the result is the same. She hits me. My arms close over her around her rib cage, feeling her frighteningly slender frame flinch at the contact, and my knees buckle. We hit the floor, and she lands on top of me.

Kohr gives an uproarious laugh. "Is that how you train your crew, Captain? If so, you might have yourself a new recruit. You can train me anytime."

Her eyes snap open. That they closed at all sets off about a dozen alarms in my head. I stare up at her as the soldier's footsteps trail off down the hallway.

"Tom?" she croaks, her voice raw and sore. And it's no wonder if the screams I've been hearing all day have come from her. I know they have. "What's going on?"

I can't help but give a wry smile. "Didn't you hear? Apparently, I'm getting a training session. I know it's been awhile, but I have to say, I don't remember this being a standard technique at the Academy."

Whether it works because I've still got my sense of humor, or because she's letting it to relieve the tension, her answering smile is reassuring as I manage to arrange my feet flat on the floor and get the leverage to shift her off of me.

"You just…didn't take the right…courses," she huffs, trying to help me get out from under her, though with poor results.

"Figures. My father picked my classes for me." Along with everything else in my life. I shove that thought away from me with all that I have, aware now that she has no idea what she says under the influence of the drugs they give her. I set her back against the wall, wincing at the new bruises I've accumulated from the fall, and begin to study her. "Shame," I murmur, desperate to keep the humor going, for the both of us, but mostly because it's the only thing that seems to keep her focused sometimes. "I always learned better under a more…personal touch." Today, her skin looks immaculate. Pink and freshly scrubbed in some places, if blue around the lips and fingertips. She's shivering. "Regenerated you today, did they?" I ask quietly. They only do that nowadays when the beatings have been bad enough to hinder Gwiln's mind-fucking, I think darkly, leaning in to get a good look at her pupils. They're incredibly dilated. They've worked her over today, more physically than mentally, from what I can tell. She must have done something either right or wrong, I'm not sure which. But I'm thankful as hell that she's semi-coherent.

She closes her eyes, swallowing and nodding once. "Yes." She's still for a moment as I take her pulse. It's thready. "I'm fine, Tom. Just…tired."

Does she even hear herself deny what's happening to her all day anymore? Somehow, I doubt it. It's become our routine.

She's still drugged. I can hear it in the slur of her speech, but it's not too bad today. Thank God. After the past few days…after yesterday…

Every once in a while, her muscles give an involuntary spasm, and a look of pain crosses her features. I could tell her what I suspect, which is that she isn't fine. The drugs…whatever they are…are accumulating in her system. She wasn't even completely normal by the time they came for her this morning. Hunger and repeated abuse is taking its toll, too. They aren't healing her underlying muscle tissue properly, either, if the hiss that escapes her at the light touch of my hand on her wrist is any indication. It leads me to seriously doubt whether they'd be healing any internal damage to her organs, either. I don't like how pale she is…

She slumps down along the wall.

"Whoa…" I make a grab for her, catching her upper arms and setting her upright again. "Captain?"

No answer.

Alarmed, I try again, shaking her slightly. "Captain!"

The blow takes me by surprise. One minute I'm peering intently into her face, and the next I'm lying on my back, staring at the dingy ceiling. Stars are going supernova inside my skull. A load groan escapes me, and then she's leaning over me.

"Oh God! I'm sorry!" she's whispering. And now she's the one taking inventory of my wounds as I lie there on the cold floor, trying to get my bearings. There's no hint of the slurred speech from her now. She seems to have come back to herself, and her voice hardens. "What happened to you?"

"Just a little misunderstanding with the guards." I smile, but I'm kind of sure it looks more like a grimace with my swollen mouth, and she flinches. Damn. Is it that bad? "It's worse than it looks. C'mon, let's get you warmed up." I pick her up like I always do (now that I'm strong enough again), and settle her into my lap. She doesn't even offer token protest anymore. I almost wish she would. I know she doesn't remember the incident from yesterday, when they came for her while she was in her meltdown state. She didn't recognize them, much less remember the "deal" she made for me. She thought they were Cardassians, coming to take her to finish what they'd started before...I shake myself out of that again. I spent all day thinking about, agonizing over that. I refuse to think about it now.

I couldn't let them take her. Not in that state, not with the terror so clear to be heard in her voice like that when they came to drag her out, spouting their usual, vile comments. She thought they were taking her to… I didn't think I had the strength to stand and fight the way I did, but I found it. I'm not sure I can do that again today, if they come for her. I'm not even sure it made a difference really; they had me on the ground in seconds. In the end, I think it was the look in her eyes and the wild way she fought them that made the difference. They aren't supposed to harm her, even now while Gwiln's destroying her, and while they'll beat me within an inch of my life, they wouldn't risk the serious injury to her. Gwiln has them terrified.

"Misunderstanding?" she slurs, her back relaxing back against my chest. Damn. The drugs again.

I smile wanly, wincing again at the pain. "They don't seem to find me as charming as you do."

"You're kidding." She takes my hand in hers, and at first I think she's examining it for injuries, but then she begins tracing her fingertip along the lines of my palm in a playful manner. The drugs. It has to be.

"About them not thinking I'm charming?" I carefully wrap my hands around hers. Ostensibly to warm them but also to keep her from continuing to touch me in a way she wouldn't ordinarily.

"No – in thinking that I do."

The playful lilt in her voice is such a contrast to the scratchy tone left by her earlier session. As much as I hate the drug that's causing her to behave this way, I'm mildly thankful that she at least seems to not understand our current suffering because of it. I doubt Gwiln had escapism in mind when he pumped her full of the hallucinogen, but at this point, I'll take whatever help I can get. Best to keep her talking.

"Now I'm hurt. And I seem to remember a certain starship captain finding me irresistible at least once…"

"Well, you were the only man on the planet. And technically speaking, I wasn't really the captain at the time…" She curls further into my lap, turning so that the side of her face leans against me. "But, Chakotay, you know it was more than once, even if I did make you wait a few years for a repeat performance."

I find I have absolutely nothing to say to that. No response finds my tongue; nothing works through my tired brain fast enough. She tilts her head back and despite the blackness of her pupils taking up the majority of her eyes, I can't help but see the complete trust she turns towards me. Well, not towards me, she would never allow me to see her this exposed. This open. Her hand has slipped free from mine and she traces the stubble on my chin. Her voice is a whisper when she speaks.

"New Earth was just the first time I found you irresistible."

Oh, shit. I know the planet she's talking about. The nickname, it was in both of their official reports. Oh, but this little detail sure as hell wasn't!

I'm not above begging. And I would beg every deity in the galaxy to not be in this position right now. Another time, another place, and this revelation at how effectively they'd pulled the wool over the rest of our eyes regarding the progression of their relationship would be of monumental interest, but not now, and not like this. I shouldn't be hearing any of this… Her hand starts to trail down my chest.

"Captain, please." I manage to trap her wandering hand again but not before a sultry laugh escapes her throat.

"Oh, it's 'Captain' now, is it?" Keeping her warm is crucial, I tell myself, with eyes squeezed tightly shut against the passion-darkened look in her eyes. "That's not what you called me last night, but if you really want to play, Commander…"

Before my mind can once again jump past the complete outrageousness of this situation, she leans in and nips at my neck.

I can't do this – I can't allow her to do this. I grab hold of her more roughly than I intend to and push her away, holding her at arm's length. For the briefest moment, I see the complete trusting love in her eyes that I can only imagine one other person on the ship has ever seen, but then the love turns to confusion as she reads the shocked look on my face.

"Tom?" she gasps. Even drugged, the captain is a quick study, and before I can drop my hands, she takes in the picture the two of us must present. One of her hands is still curled into the front of my shirt, and despite my rigid grip holding her away from me, she is still very obviously curled into my lap in a more provocative manner than is usually required to share body heat. The look on her face turns to sheer horror before she pulls herself back into neutrality again.

"I'm sorry," she whispers, withdrawing from my grasp and struggling to her feet.

"Captain, it's okay," I start, but she waves me off, leaning her head against the dingy wall of the cell, keeping her back to me.

"No, Tom…nothing…about this…is okay."

I can hear the pain in her voice again. She just snapped out of a hallucination of being in the arms of a man she apparently loves only to find herself back in this hell. With me. If I had tears left anymore, I would cry for her. It's not bad enough that she has to endure unending pain, it isn't enough that she has to prostitute herself to the guards to protect me, but now she knows that I've seen her broken as well.

"Captain, please." I try again. "You need to rest. It's just the drugs; I know that, and so do you."

I don't really expect a response, so when her hand wraps in the front of my shirt again, bodily dragging me to my feet, she's taken me completely by surprise.

"Where is he?" Her face is only inches from mine, and I can easily see the beads of sweat dotting her skin. I can also tell that, once again, she isn't seeing me. As close as she is to me with her eyes so completely dilated, I'm sure all she can see is a blur if she's seeing anything at all.

"Who?"

"Chakotay! He was just here…"

Thankfully, she releases her grasp on me as I fumble for a response. "He…" Do I play into her delusion or try to explain reality? I clear my throat, drawing her attention back to my face. "He left, Captain."

She stops her limped pacing to stare at me. "You let him leave?"

I imagine I must look like a fish out of water as my mouth moves but no sound comes out. "I….uh…he'll be right back."

She sways on her feet, and I move to her before she can fall. The move proves to be a prudent choice as she reaches out and I manage to hold her upright. She shivers in my arms. "It's so cold. Why does it have to be the cold?"

I rub my hand up and down her back while trying to ignore the way her voice has gone small again. That might be the worst of all, when this happens. The flush of heat the drug produced in her moments before has left her skin feeling clammy and damp. "Come on, Captain. Let's sit down."

She barely nods and allows me to once again get us seated together. She curls into me as her body shudders again. "Please, Chakotay...don't leave again. I can't get warm. So cold."

And it's me who breaks this time. She's all I have here, all I have had, through weeks of starvation, isolation, and beatings, of being caged in this filthy box, at the mercy of cruel and demented beings intent only on breaking us. All we've had is each other. At the moment, the captain is all of my world that I have left. But she no longer even has that same, small final comfort in me, blinded by the delusions as she so often is now…

"Don't leave…please…"

"I won't," I promise, hoping like hell it's a promise I can keep. Knowing there's a good chance it isn't. I wrap my arms around her and keep her as close to me as possible. I don't resist the urge to kiss the top of her head. "Rest now, Kathryn. I won't leave you."


Kathryn


Darkness. I can't see. "Please…"

"Please, what?" The voice I hate, the voice I fight like hell with all that I am. The voice I'm learning to obey, because it's the only voice I know that can stop the God-awful sounds they keep making me listen to.

"He's still screaming," I whisper. He won't stop screaming. They won't stop hurting him, damn them; damn them to hell, they won't stop making him scream.

"Who is screaming, Kathryn?"

"Chakotay…?" It sounds like him. Is he here? I can't tell over the screaming anymore.

"Chakotay is screaming? What did you do to him, Janeway?"

"Nothing!" Icy water is sloshed over me again. Burning ice, tensing, torn muscles.

I disagreed. I'm not supposed to disagree. They'll hurt him even more now. "No…I'm sorry!" Cold. He's still screaming. Chakotay is still screaming. What will it take to make them stop hurting him? Agree…beg, I remember. "Please!"

"Please, what?" the voice demands again.

"He's screaming. Don't…"

"Don't what? You want me to get him away from you? So you can't hurt him anymore?"

"No! Don't…take him! Don't you touch him!" I snarl before I blanch, remembering that I'm not allowed to disagree. That I should apologize, immediately. That it hurts to disag–

Too late, as the roaring sound fills my ears and the white-hot agony sizzles through every part of me that I can feel. For just a moment, my own screams drown out those others…but then it fades, and the screaming is back, and I can see. The hood is pulled away from over my head. Camet is in front of me again, and that's right, I think, as my head is pounding furiously…until I blink rapidly to clear the water from my eyes.

"So I can have Paris, instead?" Gwiln snarls back.

I blink at him, seeing Owen behind him, hanging in those chains… But that's not right. That was long ago. It can't be him. So it has to be… "Tom?"

"Yes, Tom. I can take him, if I leave Chakotay?"

"I…No."

"Which one, Janeway? Which one lives? Tom or Chakotay?"

"I can't!" God, I can't choose between them. They can't mean to make me. "Leave them alone. Stop!" I can't cover my ears, I just want to stop the screams…

Ice-water. Drowning, coughing. Disagreed again. And then I clear my eyes again, and Camet is standing over Chakotay, who hangs limp in his bonds… No! God, I can't stand that sound! "He's screaming!"

Gwiln in front of me, the baton in his hand. I hate Gwiln; he's doing this to torment me. He's using them, hurting them in order to break me. He has Chakotay now…and I can't get my arms free, I can't even feel them anymore…he's letting them drown under all that ice, making me watch as they…no. No that's wrong. They're torturing him, breaking him. In frustration, in blind rage, I yell, "Stop hurting him! Leave him, damn you!"

Laughter. Fine. She wants to be difficult this morning? Give her another dose. Double it. Yes, that size

Did he say that or did I imagine it?

"I'm not the one hurting him, Janeway." Something sharp, a familiar stinging in my neck. "It's you. It's always you, isn't it?"

Agree. It hurts to disagree. "Yes…" Gwiln. I have to fight him, am living to fight him. "No…" Cardassians. Cardassians have Tom and Owen. They're going to…no. "Please! He shouldn't be the one…it's my fault! Please!"

What do I have to do to get those screams to stop?

"He's screaming…"

"Yes. Because you're killing him."

"Me?" Am I? "I'm…" Bony, ridged eye sockets flash in front of me, malevolent faces leering over me. Owen…screaming. "Stop it!" My hair is grabbed, a hand on my shoulder. Gwiln. "It's not me, it's you. You're hurting him!"

A hand exploding across my cheekbone, snapping my head back.

How much of it does she need? You're really starting to piss me off now, Janeway, do you know that?

Shit, it hurts to disag…

"Kathryn, it's going to be all right."

The face I want to see more than anything appears in front of me, tenderly concerned. Pained. Eyes so full of sadness it breaks whatever's left of my heart. "Chakotay," I croak in disbelief. In relief. But then I remember that he can't be standing in front of me, can't be near me. But he looks so real… "Chakotay, run, please…they're hurting you."

More laughter. Gwiln. "He's not here, Janeway. He left you, remember?" I open my eyes, just barely managing it this time. "They all did."

"Why?" I want to know, but my eyes slide shut again, and I can't hold them open anymore. I can barely form the word on my lips, so numb and uncooperative as they are now…there's blackness for a moment.

"Kathryn!"

"Chakotay?" I can't open my eyes. But I hear him. He's here.

"Yes. Kathryn. Help me, Kathryn…please." Chakotay. They're torturing him, beating him, doing so, so much worse. I can hear the sound of their weapons discharging in the background, I think. Killing him.

Screaming.

"What the hell is that?"

"Check it out. Quickly! We're making progress here…"

What? I don't understand. What is it that he wants me to do? My muscles, those I can feel at all, are in agony. "Please…hurts."

The screaming starts again, and I forget about the pain. The screamer is in agony, letting out inhuman, animalistic howls…I'm supposed to save him. It's my job, my duty. I'm supposed to save him, but I can't, and he won't stop screaming. I shake my head furiously back and forth, because I can't cover my ears the way that I am longing to now. "Can't make them stop…I'm sorry! Please stop…screaming…"

"You want it to stop, Janeway?"

"Yes!" It's all I have ever wanted for an eternity, now…just not to have to listen to the sound of those screams. "Please! He's screaming, please…stop! Stop hurting him…"

The scalding fluid washing over my cheeks this time isn't ice-water.

"What would you do to make his pain end?"

"Please. Anything…"

"I thought so." Jarring pain, in my feet, my knees, hands. Agony. The ground…I've hit it. "Crawl, Janeway. Crawl to me."

"You'll stop?"

"Crawl!"

"Yes…" I wince, expecting the blow. Expecting the screams.

I don't care anymore. I keep seeing the box, the pen as I try to focus on the floor, on reaching those boots a few meters away from me. Weapons' fire… Screaming. Debris, and falling bodies. Cardassians everywhere, they have our team pinned down in the caves. The filthy cell floor. Blood. Tom. I have to help him, to make them stop hurting him…

"Crawl to me. That's it. So simple, isn't it?"

Simple, yes. He's screaming; I have to make it end. If I make it across the courtyard to those boots, I might be able to finally make it end… I know I'm sobbing, and I no longer care. "Please…"

"Kathryn, it's all right! I've got you!"

Hands are digging into me, curling under my arms, lifting me from the floor, raising to me my feet. My entire body tingles, and the pain leaves for a moment to return full-force. A blurred face, black lines. Chakotay, in front of me. Hands smoothing back my hair, pulling me close to a solid, so warm body.

Commander, there appears to be a squadron of warships forming on the other side of Jifan.

We've got them, go to warp! I'll be right there.

So cold. Hands in my hair – Gwiln. Stopping me from my goal. I have to make it to those boots, have to make the screaming stop. I scream in frustration; I was so close!

"No, get away from me!" Wildly, I claw at those hands, trying to push him away from me, to get back to the floor, where I'm supposed to be. There'll be pain for all of us if I don't…unless I make it to those boots. The Cardassians said to crawl. "I have to get to him!"

"Kathryn, stop it, please! Calm down. It's okay; no one is going to hurt you again!"

I laugh hysterically as the voice of my imaginings lies to me. Hurt is all I will ever know now, if I can't get back to the floor to do what I was told. I have to get free.

Commander, I need you to hold her still, please!

I'm trying, but you can see she's panicking! I don't want to frighten her!

Try to calm her down.

What do you think I'm doing? What the hell have they done to her? Kathryn, please. It's me. It's Chakotay. I'm here…

"You're not real," I whisper. This isn't real. Chakotay isn't real; he's never real. I stare into the face of the owner of the hands restraining me, keeping me from ending those horrible screams, and it's Gwiln, of course. I fight harder, clawing at his hands, desperate. "No, you'll hurt him!"

"Who, Kathryn? If you mean Tom, he's right here…"

"No! Let him go!" This is a new room, I see, as my eyes search the room frantically for Tom's face. I can hear him screaming; they've brought him in again to torture him. It looks like a medical bay, and the instruments adorning the nearby table make my stomach churn in trepidation.

"Captain, it's all right…I promise you it's going to be all right!"

Tom. He IS here. They've brought him in again, oh God, what do I do now? I can hardly even see; my eyes are stinging so badly. I have to get back to the floor…

Damn it, Doc, let me up! She might respond to me; let me try!

Mister Paris, I need you to lie back down NOW. Your injuries are too severe…

Tom, hold still, damn you, you're hurt! Now isn't the time; Chakotay has her, she'll be fine!

"B'Elanna?" I blink at the sound of her voice. They have her, too! "No…no, the baby, please! Let her go!"

No, Kathryn. She's fine, it's not real. Whatever you're seeing, it isn't real. She's safe, you're safe…

Gwiln's face is inches from mine. Smiling, grinning. What did he say? I missed it! What am I supposed to do? If he told me to do something and I'm not doing it…

It hurts to disagree.

Captain, it's safe. We're on Voyager, this is Voyager.

No, I can't talk about Voyager. I can't trust myself not to tell them things I shouldn't… Tom. I need a weapon, something in me says. My hands are free, but they won't let me go to him…if they won't let me see him, I'll need a weapon…can't let them hurt him. Not anymore, they'll kill him. B'Elanna? They have her, too? Damn it, it's too hard to think with all the…

"Stop screaming! Please!"

There's nothing in the courtyard but rows of holding pens, like the one they've just pulled me from. But which one are they in? I have to find them, now, before…!

Kathryn, please! Listen to me. You're all right. It's going to be all right…let us help you!

Stay right there, Commander. Keep her there. Don't move…

Chakotay. He's here. As I blink again, furiously, the red face in front of me loses its distinctive eye ridges, its distended neck cords and softens. My teeth are chattering, as always.

Doc, I really don't think that's a good idea right now...

"Chakotay?"

"Yes. I'm here." There are tears in his eyes this time. "You're here, Kathryn. You're on Voyager."

Doc, you don't want to do that, I'm telling you…!

Tom, yelling. He's in pain. My heart stops. Again. Chakotay is false, he's always false. I know better than this, damn it, I've done it again…a flash of something silver appears at the corner of my eye as I turn to wrench myself free from the false Chakotay vision. Gwiln reaches for me, one of his hands clutching the crude hypospray with more of those drugs… I scream and fight the hold on my arms like mad, desperate to avoid that instrument, yanking away from the strong grip trying to pin me still for him. "No!" No more drugs!

My hip slams into the sharp edge of something…and it moves. I grab the mobile furniture and shove it with all the force I can muster behind me, at Gwiln. It hits him, and he's stopped for long enough for my eyes to scan the room for Tom…he's there. They have him restrained to a bed. But the arms are around me again, pulling me back and the hypospray is approaching again…

I scream, panicking, fighting like mad to escape. No! No more! No more drugs!

All right, Kathryn, it's all right. No drugs, I understand... Back off, Doctor!

Commander, I understand how you feel, but I really must get her sedated. There's no way to treat her in this condition. She needs –

I'll handle it, but back off!

"Tom! He needs my help. Please…"

"Shh. Kathryn. We'll help him. But I need you to trust me. Listen to the sound of my voice. You know me. I need you to come over to the biobed. Can you do that? We'll help Tom. We'll take care of him, I promise you that."

"Tom." He's here. I can see him lying on the bed behind us now. "You'll help him?"

"Yes, we'll help Tom, Kathryn. I promise. Calm down, please. Can you see me? Do you know who I am?"

They'll help Tom. I remember how I got him help before, and how I'm supposed to agree. The hands holding me, I almost escaped them, but not quite, and now they're pinning me again.

We'll help Tom.

Is it the guards, then? It must be. They have to help, now. He's running out of time!

"He's dying," I explain. The tears are blurring my vision. The guards can help Tom, they said. My duty to get him out of here, alive, and he's dying. He needs help…needs medicine, and food. Water, clean water. Be nice to them, I remember. Be friendly with them. I can do it and not think about it, and then they'll help him. They're the only ones who might, but they won't lift a finger unless they're getting what they want in return.

This is important, and I force myself to think, to slow down and concentrate, but it's so hard because my vision's blurred…and it hurts, everywhere…Tom.

"He needs a doctor. Please."

My hand reaches up to rest against the side of his face, the blurred face, and I step into the guard's solid warmth, no longer trying to pull away, but no warmer for the added heat against my icy, numb skin. They like this, I remember. I'm glad my skin is numb right now.

Kathryn?

"If you'll help him, then I'll give you whatever you like." I try to paste a semi-less-panicked look onto my face. "I won't fight, I promise. I…I won't tell Gwiln." Remembering what else they like, I swallow and then shrug the blanket away, force myself to move my hand between us, searching out and swiftly finding my target. "He doesn't have to know if you help him…"

"Kathryn!" The voice is strangled, from what I can hear through the awful screams, and then I'm thrust away from him, the hands holding firm to my arms. "Kathryn, what are you…?"

I blink, confused, trying to clear the moisture out of my eyes, to see clearly. Have I done something wrong? "Please. Tell me what you want and I'll do it, I will! He needs a doctor!"

No, B'Elanna, let go! Please! It's the drugs; she doesn't know what she's doing. Just let me talk to her, I think I can get her to calm down!

Lieutenant, Commander…I think it would be best at this point if we let him try. He seems to be the only one of us she recognizes.

Thank you…!

Suddenly, the hold is released, the guard steps away. Tom moves in front of me, and I reach for his face, to make sure he's really here…he's solid. He's standing. He smells like him. I know him. I breathe a sigh of relief.

He's not dead.


Tom


She lets me approach without protest, going still as soon as my face comes into her vision. "Tom?" She reaches up to me, her hands searching for my face.

"Yes, Captain. Tom." She lets me pull the blanket back around her shoulders and close it over her. She's freezing, swaying on her feet, and I catch her by the shoulders. "Let's get you warmed up, all right?"

She nods, though I can see she isn't entirely reassured. But this is routine; this is what she'll understand right now, and I know that. I don't have time to explain it to the others, but I know what she'll respond to, and it isn't either one of them right now. It isn't even B'Elanna, who I pray understands that this is more comfortable for me at the moment in some strange way, too. I want to see my wife, have lived to be able to see her for weeks now, but I can't rest, I can't let go of the captain until I know she's safe and taken care of.

I promised not to leave her.

She isn't fighting me, relaxing slightly against me. I can feel Chakotay's eyes on me, can feel his confusion and his automatic resentment. And I understand it, but I also know he'll keep it in check for her sake since he can plainly see how much calmer she is already. And then I dismiss him, the doctor, the pain and even B'Elanna from my mind and focus on the captain as a rattling cough seizes her, racking her emaciated frame. I start to turn her gently, carefully supporting her, keeping her from falling over onto the floor.

"Cold…" she whispers when the coughing finally stops, her teeth chattering and that institutionalized melancholy descending over her.

Good. This is normal, to us. It's better than panic, better than terror…infinitely better than watching her try to throw herself at any of us, thinking she needs to get me help again. I know exactly what's been going through her mind, even if the rest of them don't. They only see the result of her actions, but I was there to see it all. That's why I know how to help her now.

She's freezing. I nod. "Yes, I know, Captain. It's cold. It's all right. We'll move over here, OK?" I pull her gently over to the biobed, settling myself back on it and pulling her up with me. Again, I try hard not to focus on Chakotay, even though I can see him tensing through the shocked horror of what he's been witnessing. B'Elanna has moved to his side, a fist pressed tight against her mouth as she watches warily, the same horrified expression on her face, too, but I don't care about that at the moment. I don't care that my back is screaming in agony at the position, just that the desperate, awful confusion is leaving the captain as I settle her against me, pulling her head down to my chest the way I have every night for a while now. This is what she's used to, the familiar…but I also know it won't last long. Another delusion is going to hit her any second, and I find the doctor's wide, seriously concerned eyes over the top of her head. Dropping my eyes to the hypo he still clutches in his hand, the one that made her panic before, I tilt my head back, gesturing him over. Slowly, I mouth over the captain's head. When he's within arm's length, I reach out to take the hypospray he offers, staring him back until he's once again against the far wall…well away from her.

And now, what I have to do, to end this, to let her rest, breaks my heart, and I hope to hell the sedative is instantaneous and that the drugs can be cleared from her system before she wakes up again.

If it isn't…if they can't…well then, the captain just might not be able to trust anyone or anything ever again, and then…

And then I really will have left her.

***

Eighteen


Kathryn


necessary to keep her… How is she… …safe …she keeps waking up…aren't there?

I don't know…to tell you, Commander. As far as I can tell…left her system.

When can we expect

have to rememberfor weeks. …keeping her sedated so that

dehydration didn't help

The voices are always back and forth over me, around me, but it's hard to make out over the screaming. It's confusing…everything shifting. The words fade in and out, none of it meaning much of anything.

all right, Captain. …here. We're both going to…fine now. …not going anywhere, and the doctor can't make…

Mister Paris, unless you want… …your wife gets here. I doubt…to know you aren't… …would you?

fleet medical. …blackmailing patients…exactly conduct becoming…

ever works, Lieutenant. I'm not above…

Fine. …over the sedative then… … a few hours, Captain. Just rest… …be all right.

I so wish it was silent; it feels as though it's been forever since I've experienced the simple tranquility of silence. But then I'm not entirely ungrateful for the voices. When they aren't here, I only hear the screaming. The screaming that reminds me how I've failed, once again, to keep those with me safe.

I can't seem to move.

Now, sometimes, there is nothing. Only darkness, which is all right, or just endless, ceaseless white – which I hate. I think hell is white…and icy.

It's cold. Once or twice, I think I've felt the distinctive pressure of a hypospray against my neck, and that's when I know that Gwiln is here. Still. Bastard. Will he never let us go? How many of them does he have now?

Occasionally, blurred faces appear in front of me, faces I know, should know, but that are hard to place.

The voices are soothing, for the most part. It's the faces that are disturbing, because I can't tell if I'm imagining them or if my eyes are really open and seeing them. B'Elanna. Is she here? She can't be. The baby… And Owen. I don't want them here. I have to get them out… Seven? Tuvok? No

Occasionally, when the Cardassians appear, I panic. I try to do as I'm told, try to remember to agree, but I can't tell if I'm managing it.

The pain is less.

Voyager. I seem to be hearing the word often. Are they ever coming for us, or is pain all we'll know until the Cardassians finally decide to kill us?

You've been lettingParis…?

circumstances…the harm. It might even…

What's his prognosis?

here, Chief. …nothing wrong…my hearing, you know.

Sometimes I know I hear Chakotay's voice. Or Tom's. I want to believe both are real, that both are alive, and that they're safe, that I've kept them safe and alive, but I can't handle opening my eyes anymore, expecting to see them, only to look up into Gwiln's face again. I simply cannot take that again: the concrete proof that my mind is permanently shattered. Besides, my eyes are really too heavy to open mostly. Whenever I feel as if I might be able to and might want to risk it to know where I am, where they're keeping us now, another hiss sends me back into oblivion for an indistinguishable period of time.

What are… …any progress on… …her system?

sorry, Commander. …really can't say with any degree of…

It's been…days now. …can you not know?

Unfortunately, medical science isn't…dealing with alien…

see her? …promise not to…her.

a minute. I'm sorry…tell you this… I waited until…to be sure. …something disturbing…scans.

Disturbing, how?

I think we should…my office, please.

Darkness always sets in before I've heard the voices for very long. That, or the moment I start working out snippets of what the voices are saying, they fade, almost as if they know when I'm close to being able to understand them. The screams get louder whenever the voices fade, and I realize that it's been some time since I've heard Tom's voice now…I think. It's so hard to remember anything, but at least the cold has gone away…for now. But that's almost worse, to know the warmth, because it's a cruel, teasing warmth. I know I'm never warm for very long, and the moist peat of the box will leech all the heat out of my bones before long, and then it will be cold again.

And someone must have moved me...at…some point. I think I might be on my side. And I'm coughing less. It's easier to breathe. Whether that has anything to do with the new position, I'm not sure, but this is much more comfortable, now. I'll be careful not to show it; I doubt that was their intent when they did it. And I'm not so thirsty today, I think…maybe I can hold out a little while longer. There's a chance I may be well enough to open my eyes, to sit up soon, and if so, I might be able to find a way out of here. To get Tom out of here.

Maybe the screams aren't real. They can't be real and keep up so long, can they?

Maybe we'll make it, after all…long enough for Voyager to come. For Chakotay to come. I miss him with every fiber of my being…

A loud eruption of sound comes from somewhere near me, perhaps in the next room, sending me spiraling into panic. I've done something, made them angry again. What have I done? The sound of something striking the wall follows immediately, then again, harder, before a roar of rage that would make me jump if I could move at all echoes all around me.

The voices fight with the screams to make themselves heard, but as always, the string of words only leaves me with an impression of emotion instead of actual meaning – usually a sense of hope or of confusion or mostly, vague despair.

This time, the emotion is fear.

der, please! I realize how upsettingbe, but you…

discussion right now, if…what's good for… As acting… …my decision. …terminate, is…understood?

at least wait until… the captain…right to know...

said yourself… …won't survive?

I can't follow the voices, can never seem to follow the voices, the words for more than a phrase or snippet at a time, but then, I've never wanted to. I'm not sure I want to now. I can only tense inwardly and hope to hell I'll be the one to suffer the consequences instead of anyone else.

Chances are…nonexistent. But my point… when she can decide…

And what good…do, Doctor? …difference, and after the hell… She doesn't… …to know!

I don't believe we… …assume the captain… …decision.

absolutely no doubt in my...

She may want… …no physical evidence of trauma to support…

after what we saw…? No. As of now…speak to…Paris but…

I hear Tom's name, clearly, and my heart stops in my chest. Gwiln has him, might have others, too. What could I have done to make him so angry? I must have disagreed, somehow…but I don't even hear the questions anymore, let alone know how to answer them! Will he hurt them, now, because I've angered him again? Oh, God, can I even move to stop him if he does?

…he confirms, I…care of it. …that's an…. And there isn't to be…logs, is that…?

Clear as…Commander.

No words will come out of my mouth. Despite my best efforts, I can't move, can't so much as lift a single finger. Am I paralyzed? Have I been, all this time? I'm fighting the pull of the darkness that has been wanting to claim me since before the explosion of temper so nearby. I have to apologize, tell Gwiln I didn't mean it, whatever it was. I have to get to the floor, now. I have to get to him…but my eyelids alone feel as if they weigh a ton.

all right, Captain…the doctor. I'm only going to… sleep now.

A hypospray. More drugs. More damned drugs… Without so much as having been able to open my eyes, I enter the darkness again in utter despair, leaving my crew behind me, defenseless, to Gwiln's wrath.


Tom


It never occurred to me, the whole time I was sitting in that cell and dreaming of home, that it would be awkward having to adjust to being back here. But the captain and I did live what seemed an entire lifetime in that cell. Me, more so, I guess, as I spent the most time there, but the past weeks…it was an eternity, in some ways every bit the disconnect between returning after a year to find that only a few hours had gone by here two years ago.

This time, it's worse.

I've tried not to show it, for B'Elanna's sake, but it's been strange, waking up to her the past few nights. I keep expecting it to be the captain, tossed back into our cell while I've drifted off to sleep.

After the first night of me being back, we learned to keep the light on. It was an awkward moment, to say the least, when I turned and gathered her in my arms in the darkness, feeling her settle against me with a little sigh, and I pulled her closer, making sure to get as much of her as possible against my warmer skin…and called her Kathryn.

I knew by the way she went stiff in my arms, remembered as she sat bolt upright that I was back on Voyager, but it was too late to take it back. B'Elanna didn't say a word, didn't ask a single question, but I knew the damage had been done. I could feel the tears springing to her eyes even if I couldn't see them in the starlight, even if she was careful not to show them and especially not to let them fall.

"B'Elanna," I ventured hoarsely, "I'm sorry…Gods, I didn't mean that how it probably…Gods."

"It's all right, Tom," she tried to assure me. "I understand."

But she didn't, I knew she didn't by the small quality of her voice…not really. How could she, not having been there?

I didn't want to talk about it. Not then, not ever, if I could help it. I couldn't; I couldn't keep those things from her, no matter how much I wanted to shield her from them. I think I was afraid that by talking to her about it, really talking, I would be dragging her back into my own personal corner of hell. And in a way, I was.

But I don't keep things from my wife, and I certainly don't do it when not explaining…everything…means leaving that look in her eye indefinitely.

The first thing I assured her of was of what didn't happen, never happened, and didn't ever cross my mind to have happen. She looked into my eyes for the first time, and though I wanted to look away, to keep it from contaminating her, it started to spill out when I saw the faint relief in her eyes.

Our abduction. Ashley Whitmore's last moments. The Flyer…

She broke in then. "We found the pieces. Some of the weapons' fire had sealed organic matter to the bulkhead underneath the charred exterior. Organic matter…with human DNA."

"Who…?"

"All three of you," she said, her voice steadier than I expected. "The commbadges made it through. Parts of them, anyway." They're designed to make it through most anything. "We thought…" On the hitch in her voice, her fist lashed out, closed in my tee…I still can't quite get warm enough at night…and she pulled me close, staring at me fiercely for an interminable minute. Then she rested her head on my shoulder, and the tiny puffs of air I could feel against my neck was the life being breathed back into me, too. "Don't ever do that to me again, Tom Paris. If you make if back alive next time…I'll kill you myself."

"I'm sorry," I whispered, pulling her closer, wrapping her into my arms and wishing that I could hold her there forever. Knowing how easily it could have been her, instead, and how much it twists into your gut when it's the one you love that you don't know if you'll ever see again. "I'm so, so sorry…I never meant to scare you like that. At times, I was…pretty scared myself, if it's any consolation."

She pulled back a little, and I caught her wry smile through the tears she'd kill me for ever mentioning aloud. "A little."

I told her the rest of it, about the Grall, and the captain's injury. I gritted my teeth in telling her the part about the offer to be allowed to remain instead of going with the captain, hesitating just before telling her my response as I thought of the captain's "threat" to tell her what I'd done.

But I know my wife. I'm grinning again now just remembering her reaction.

Her eyes went dangerously narrow. "So help me, if you tell me you even considered leaving the captain to go to that bastard alone for one nanosecond, I swear, I'll break your–"

"Don't worry, I didn't," I broke in with a wide grin. "I'm twenty times more afraid of you than I ever was of Kaelo."

"Good. I guess you aren't completely brain dead after all."

"Guess not."

I do know my wife.

"We never found the Grall," she told me. "We would have; they were the only unidentified signature left once we'd tracked down all the others. No one wanted to talk about them; apparently people who do tend to disappear. President Arakan pointed us in a few good directions, and thanks to her, we were on the verge of shaking it out of a couple of sleazy locals we had in the brig for a few hours."

"Disgruntled clients?"

"No. The Grall are the best in the business. Apparently, there are no dissatisfied clients. No one that close to them would talk. These two were disgruntled traders, actually. And even they were holding out. Chakotay had just given me the go-ahead to sneak down there and have a little chat with them Maquis style while Tuvok was distracted. That's about when Seven summoned us all down to Astrometrics. Lucky for the sleazes," she muttered darkly.

They'd caught the broadcasts, like the captain had been hoping. Even though they'd been too far away to pick them up at first, essentially stuck at impulse until they could guarantee a replacement for the deuterium, Seven had been monitoring and sifting through all subspace channels. She'd even brought out the cortical subunit from storage (against the doctor's advice) so she could shift through it all while she regenerated. And she'd put together a few obscure references by other aliens' communications who'd seen the broadcasts and had referred to them enough to put together a picture of what had happened to us. And, fortunately, she'd only accused Neelix of trying to overthrow Tuvok through some convoluted combination of food poisoning designed to target the Vulcan immune system and orchids engineered to give off nearly undetectable toxins – B'Elanna was fuzzy on the details. Not that I blame her. Chakotay figured it out quickly enough and took the subunit back before any real harm was done to Seven (or anyone else). And somehow apparently the orchid seeds Neelix gave Tuvok for his last birthday were producing slow-developing toxins the environmental systems weren't picking up, so all the orchids grown from the seeds had to be collected and put in stasis…

Anyway, Seven was still right about where we were. As soon as they focused on boosting power to long-range sensors, they were able to pick up pieces of the captain's trial. And then they knew for sure we were alive and of course where we were.

It was getting us out that proved to be the tough part, the deuterium again the main culprit in their taking so long to get to us. Arakan had been one of the only people brave enough to trade with us, and the captain and I had nearly cleaned her out the first time around. Even scavenging from the shuttles and Neelix's ship hadn't been enough to close the gap in what was needed.

"So where did you get the rest of it?" I'd asked.

Her look of disgust told me before she replied. "The sleazes. Chakotay and I haven't lost our touch, at least. We'd done a good enough job of setting them up for the next phase of 'convincing' them that by the time we finally made our way back down to the brig to release them, they were sweating bullets, ready to help us with anything they possibly could. They pointed us in the right direction, another old client of theirs, and they made a few vouches for our character."

I told her about the trial and why they'd wanted the captain in the first place. Why they'd set the unbelievably high ransom for her to come back alive.

She erupted in a stream of curses and the bulkhead next to the bed took a couple of hard hits before I could calm her down enough to get coherent, Standard phrases out of her.

"B'Elanna, calm down! That can't be good for the baby…we knew Kaelo was a bastard. It's not like it was all that surprising, if you think about it…" It took a minute for me to get that her reaction wasn't just for the injustice of having the captain accused of such a heinous crime – as I'd assumed at first.

I turned her in my arms, ignoring the danger at interrupting a Klingon in rage, used to it, and she rocked my whole world at the set of her expression as she faced me, confused at my confusion to her intense response to Kaelo's actions.

"Oh, God, you don't even know, do you?" She breathed as she searched my face for comprehension I knew wasn't there.

"Know what? What is it, B'Elanna?"

She swallowed. "It was him, Tom. It was Kaelo, all along."

My brow furrowed. I nodded dismissively, impatiently. "Yeah, that's what I'm telling you. We knew that from the beginning. He picked her to take the fall for it because she embarrassed him at the rep–"

"No, Tom," she told me, shaking her head as she put her hands on my shoulders, willing me to understand. "You still don't get it. I don't just mean that that motherless petaQ was behind your abduction or that he wanted the captain to take the fall for it. I mean he was behind it. All of it. The whole thing."

It took a minute, I admit it. "What? What are you…?"

"All the evidence points back to him, indirectly or otherwise. It was him, Tom. He set the whole thing in motion, and then he used it to rally the political capitol to wipe out the remaining members of the resistance. He orchestrated the bombing, from start to finish."

The blood left my head in a rush, and I had to sit down before I fell.

"That son a bitch…" was the first thing I managed. Somehow, it sickened me and it sure as hell enraged me, but it didn't entirely surprise me. Not deep down, anyway.

"I know," she tried.

I hardly heard her, only able to whisper, "Please tell me he's dead."

But I knew again, from the look on her face, that the captain wasn't even going to be able to have that small amount of justice. The angry tears welled in my eyes, mirroring those in hers as she wordlessly shook her head at me.

In a dull, dead voice, I told her the rest of it then: everything the captain and I had gone through while we were in Kaelo's tender care. I told her about Gwiln and his mind fucking, about the initial sessions and about the waiting. How the waiting was the worst. How the thoughts were almost enough to drive me crazy and how I almost welcomed the hellish visits from the guards because it would at least break the monotony. I told her about listening to the screaming, and she was at least able to relate to that part, specifically, I knew. She'd been in the position before; she'd had to sit through Tuvok's torture by the Mokra. She knew the almost schizophrenic sensation of half wishing that it was me and half being grateful it was someone more trained to handle it.

Most importantly, she knew exactly what it felt like to realize the fallacy of those lies we tell ourselves, about us and about them: that they are trained to handle it, that we're trained to handle it, and that any of it makes it any less horrific than it is when it actually happens.

She understood, never judged – just let me hold her when I needed it and gave me space when I needed that more.

It made it easier, almost, to tell her about the last weeks, after Gwiln had had me stabbed and left to bleed out. It made it a whole lot easier to tell her what it had cost one of us for both of us to return. I could tell she'd guessed at part of it from before, from the captain's behavior when we first got back to Sickbay, but hearing me confirm it was the push over the edge of reality that had the tears running over and down her face. And I knew the captain wouldn't have wanted me to tell her, either, that I was betraying her on some level by doing it, but for my wife not to have an explanation for the captain's behavior – for B'Elanna not to know the price the captain paid to save her husband's life – seemed the greater crime.

I told her the rest of it. About watching the captain slowly give in to the Jifani drugs about what it was like seeing her retreat into the past…

I told her about my father. About the captain, the Cardassians and my father. By the end, the moment when I saw her face framed at the entrance to our cell and it took me several full minutes to believe what I was seeing, I'm not sure which one of us was holding whom. I'd at least been there, had had time to digest it all; this was all news to her. And taken all at once, I'm sure it was a lot to handle.

She understood about me needing to know. She does understand. She also knows none of this is going in my report, and that despite her instinct to look out for the welfare of one of her best friends, I'm not going to be telling Chakotay any of this last part, either. If the captain wants him to know any of it, it's her decision, her place to tell him. I've already stepped far enough out of place in telling B'Elanna all that I have, and in telling her about the relationship between the two of them.

I've been off duty this whole past week now, and every day I feel stronger, better physically. Like death warmed over, to be clear, but better than the day before. My kidney is progressing to the doc's satisfaction. He replicated the antibiotic he found in my system, the one the base's physician gave to the guards to treat my infection. It's mild enough that my kidney was handling it all right despite the bruising. He started me on another course of treatment; I'd missed a few days in the interim, by the time we got back here and the doctor was able to begin diagnosing and treating me.

My nutrition will take a good month to restore. The broken bones and lacerations, bruising and simple stuff he took care of the first two days.

The mental part is slower…for both of us, me and the captain. But it's easier and easier to stay awake longer periods of time at her bedside, where I spend the majority of my day. At least until the doctor loses his patience and chases me back to my quarters for more rest. I always hate it when he does, and I push him for as much time as he'll give me. I feel guilty for every second that she's awake and I'm not there to calm her. I know it doesn't make any sense, that she's fine in the doctor's care, but I can't help that I feel compelled not to leave her. Not until I know that she's come back to us, until I know that she knows we're both going to be all right.

Of course, there's the fact that we don't really know it. Not in her case, we don't. As I look down at her now, I can see her looking better. There's more color in her face. Less shadow under her eyes. It's her expressions I worry about when she's dreaming. I wonder what she's seeing, whether or not she even knows that we're here yet and that we're safe. I suspect she doesn't.

She's still not responsive, at least not verbally, but we do know that she's been conscious, going in and out. We know she should be able to hear us, at least some of the time. Yesterday and the day before, we tried letting a few people in to see her, to jog her memory, in case it needed it and hoping that it would go a ways toward helping her feel safe enough to wake up fully. When she even reacted at all, showed signs of having heard them, recognized them, it seemed to make things worse, though, sent her adrenaline levels spiking through the roof. We finally called a halt to it yesterday when B'Elanna tried again, and the captain's heart rate showed signs of hitting dangerous levels…

Oh, yeah. A few more rounds of those drugs probably would have killed her because of the cumulative damage to her heart – drugs, not drug. Apparently, Gwiln was shooting her up with a whole assorted cocktail of stuff. Hypnotics, amnesiacs, hallucinogens, stimulants…you name it, and he was giving it to her. It's really no wonder she was out of her mind most of the time; the wonder will be if it doesn't leave any lasting damage. It took the doctor three days to right her brain chemistry and to undo the damage to her fused neurological pathways. Aside from the physical organ damage and the bronchitis/pneumonia (yes, both), that was what he spent the majority of his time fixing as he alternated back and forth between us the first few days. We think he's righted it all, at least whatever's evident on scans, but there's really no way to be sure until she wakes fully and we can interact with and assess her.

At this point, seven days after we were rescued, most of the physical injuries are healed. He went in and undid the initial surgery I performed to her chest wall and ribs and healed both properly. And he was nice enough to tell me I did a remarkable job with the tools at my disposal, that it's thanks to me she's still alive at all, but it still had to be redone because neither injury had healed correctly. Meaning she obviously lied when she told me it wasn't hurting the whole time we were on Jifan, but hell, that's no surprise. Looking over her files (which the doctor tried to lock me out of when he decided I was obsessing but which I have no problem getting into anyway), I note that he's only really keeping her until she decides to wake up again.

And it is a matter of deciding. Physically, she's pretty much a new woman. She'll need to get the weight back that she's lost, and that'll take weeks alone as will restoring her nutrition levels, but her heart's much better, almost entirely repaired, her brain chemistry is normal, her lungs have reached the turning point in battling both infections and the fluid has stopped accumulating, finally. She doesn't cough nearly as much now. He repaired the corrosive damage to her stomach lining and esophagus from the constant purging she was apparently subjected to (news to me, she managed to not mention that the whole time we were there, either).

Physically, she's almost recovered from most of the things we experienced. My eye catches on mentions of things that had better not stay in those files if the doctor knows what's good for him, and then, just when a heart-stopping phrase jumps out at me, one that sure as hell wasn't in there yesterday and I don't know how he could have missed to begin with, a shadow falls over my shoulder, and I start, tapping out of the files what I hope is quickly enough.

"Doc, I was just…"

I shut up abruptly upon turning and seeing who's standing behind me before swallowing reflexively. "Chakotay. You're early, aren't you? Don't you usually take night watch?"

Stupid, yes. But I'm trying to think on my feet, and that expression on his face isn't exactly warm and friendly, as usual the past seven days, and I can't think why he'd be here right now and not on the bridge, where his shift should have him.

"I need a minute, Lieutenant."

Shit. "With the Captain? Sure, I'll just go keep the doc company in his office…"

"No, I need a minute with you."

That's not going to be good. This is just…not…good. He's been doing his best not to let it get to him, I know, and he's probably been under an intense amount of strain these past two months, and that's why I've been doing my best to ignore it, but he is not okay with this lingering connection I can't seem to sever with the captain. He is not okay with the fact that I've been the only one not to cause her to panic, the only one whose voice she takes at long intervals without negative reaction, and I know he is considerably less than okay with what he saw that first day, both between us and when she thought he was one of the guards. All of which is what I'm pretty sure has been the reason there's been a faint glimmer of murder in his eyes every time he's entered Sickbay while I was sitting here next to her – and none of which makes me any less resentful of his resentment.

I understand it, yes. I'm just not in any frame of mind to put up with it for too long, either. His focus should be on her, as far as I'm concerned, and not on me at all, not for even a nanosecond, particularly considering what I just read in those files. Whether he knows about this latest development or not, the captain doesn't need his misplaced jealousy in the slightest right now – and neither do I.

I especially don't like the way his eyes flash with that accusatory hint to them whenever he looks at me, like he is now.

However, I'm not at the ends of my patience yet as I hear B'Elanna's words in the back of my mind: how would you feel if the situation was reversed, Tom? What if it was me instead of the captain?

I don't want to think about that for one second. But she has a point, and this can't be easy, so I smile gamely at the man in front of me. "Sure. What can I do for you, Chakotay?"

He glances over to where she lays on the biobed, and then his eyes slide back to me. "Let's step into the doctor's office, shall we?"

"Um…" No, I'd rather stay where there are witnesses, even half-conscious witnesses, thank you. "Sure."

It wasn't a suggestion, anyway.

He gestures me in in front of him, and immediately, I see that the doctor's not here anymore.

Ambushed. They planned this. Or at least Chakotay did.

Not a good sign.

My stomach clenches tightly. I turn as he enters the room behind me, ready for what I instinctively know is coming next. I see the dark expression on his face, well, more in his eyes, really, and that's when I decide to head this whole thing off at the pass. For both our sakes, before he makes any more of an ass of himself than he has been already, in my opinion.

"It's not mine, Chakotay."

"Excuse me?"

I ignore his false indignation and his feigned shock, continuing, "I don't know what you think went on, and frankly, I don't care, but let me clear this up for you, anyway. Nothinghappened…between us down there."

A muscle in his cheek twitches. He doesn't move, doesn't speak. For a long minute, he just glares at me. I don't back down. Finally, he snaps, "First of all, those files are confidential, and I know for a fact the doctor locked you out of them."

"Only because he thought it was interfering in my recovery the way I've been worried about her. And he's probably going to need my help in terminating if he doesn't want to introduce any new drugs into her system, so I didn't see anything I wouldn't have seen in a few days or so anyway."

He's quiet for another minute, glaring openly now, and I know that I'm glaring right back at him. "Second of all," he continues, in a deathly calm voice as if I'd never even spoken, "I know nothing happened between you. I never thought otherwise."

"You didn't?" Even I can hear the disbelieving drawl in my words.

His face has gone blank as he studies me with more intensity than I'm strictly comfortable with, but his voice stays quiet. "If I did, do you really think you'd be standing here right now? As drugged out as she was when we got the two of you back?"

Oh. The wind leaves my sails considerably while I take that in. And, yeah, and that's a pretty good point he makes, now that I think about it; I would be a dead man already if he really thought that.

Why didn't I think about that to begin with?

"So…what did you want, then?" It sounds about as stupid as I feel. Which is saying something.

"I read your preliminary report. It doesn't contain any mention of how she ended up…in that condition."

"Neither will the official one," I tell him almost defensively. Why in the hell am I still feeling defensive?

"I know." Silence. His expression still hasn't faltered. Not a flicker either way. It's starting to bother me, actually. "I need to know, Tom."

"Know what?"

"Who did the captain think I was when we first brought you back?"

I can feel a muscle in my own cheek twitching. I don't even want to answer him, but I grit my teeth and force it out, "The guards."

"Guards?" This time there is a tiny flicker of…something. "More than one?"

"Yes."

He digests that with only another twitch and a single flexing of the fists at his sides. I'm actually impressed with the restraint he shows.

"So it was the men who were with her when I found her?"

I shake my head. "I don't think so…you found her with Gwiln, didn't you?"

"I didn't catch his name," Chakotay clips, another miniscule expression I can't read flitting across his stony features. "I was a little busy making sure he never touched her again."

Oh. Now I get what that expression was. And I don't know what it means that I'm not sorry at least one of them died, but I'm not. Not in the slightest. Gwiln deserved to die for what he did to us – for what he did to her, especially.

"Military?" he prods tersely. "An officer with two lower ranking officers with him? Was it them?"

"No," I tell him quietly. "As far as I know, they never touched her. At least not like that. It was the regular guards she went with. The soldiers assigned to guard our cell."

That muscle twitches again in his cheek. "I see." The words are quiet, as if they leave a bad taste in his mouth.

They leave one in mine, somehow.

"No, actually, I don't think you do," I tell him coldly.

Damn it all, I know full well he should be hearing all this from her, if she decides it's any of his businss, but there's no way in hell I'm going to let him walk away thinking…whatever it is he's thinking right now. He might deserve to suffer for being enough of an ass to doubt her for one single second, but damn it, she doesn't.

"They weren't going to treat me," I tell him flatly. "At all. Gwiln had me stabbed in the stomach and left me to bleed out afterward. He told her they'd get me help once she'd testified in the hearing. Once she gave her confession. But even after she did what he wanted, he backed out of his end. He was just going to let me die. The guards who kept an eye on us stood at the entrance to our cell and watched her try to help me – when she wasn't in session with Gwiln, getting the shit beat out of her all day, that is. The guards found it all entertaining. I remember them taking bets on whether or not I'd make it through the first night. They laughed at her efforts to treat me, told her she was wasting her time. They even asked her what she was going to do with my body if they didn't have me removed from the cell afterward. Would she like living with a corpse and so on. I still didn't have any idea what she was thinking of…" I cut myself off. That's not what's important here. What matters is that he knows what she went through. What little of it I know, anyway.

"They waited at least two days to offer to get the base's regular physician to take a look at me. They waited until I wasn't conscious anymore and the infection had me pretty good. From what I gather, when she came back the second day, I'd slipped into a coma or something. I was at least unconscious, because I don't remember any of it. I'd lost so much blood. It wasn't healing. The wound was too deep, and I kept thrashing around in my sleep when she wasn't there to hold me still, ripping open whatever parts of the wound she managed to get to clot. The guards told me all of this a few days later when I woke up again, by the way," I answer the unspoken question in his eyes before he can pose it. "They enjoyed telling me all about the deal they offered her to get me help behind Gwiln's back. They knew what time Gwiln left for home every night, and they knew when they could do it without the chance of him noticing."

I can feel Chakotay's dark eyes trying to burn holes through me now, but then, that's exactly what it feels like my glare is trying to do to him. And I don't give him the chance to interrupt me.

"They didn't even give her the option until it was clear I wasn't going to turn the corner without some sort of medical intervention. There was nothing else she could do. She didn't have a fucking choice, Chakotay." My voice is rising, and this is certainly no way to be speaking to a superior officer, but I'm officially on medical leave, and I'll be officially damned if I'd care even if I wasn't. "Gwiln may as well have handed her to them on a silver platter when he stabbed me. They'd wanted to get at her from the first day we were thrown in there, just because they'd been told they couldn't, but she made it clear that she'd fight them from right from the beginning. And they were too afraid to really come after her because they weren't allowed to hurt her. Only Gwiln was allowed to do that," I spit bitterly, remembering just how neatly we'd both been trapped between Gwiln and those guards.

"They took out their aggression on me during the day when she was gone because of it, but they still couldn't touch her. They didn't dare. And I thought she was safe, at least from them…"

"Tom," Chakotay starts, his face a complete mask of stone for all I can tell.

"No, Chakotay," I cut over him, not giving him the chance. "You need to hear this!"

He does. I know he doesn't want to, know that it's probably making him sick to hear it, but I can't really have any sympathy for it when this is what the captain and I had to live for over eight weeks.

"Don't you understand what I'm saying? They'd been waiting for that, just waiting to have something to hold over her. She was like some kind of challenge to them. They'd tried pretty much everything. They tried to tempt her with things they could get for us to make our lives easier. They tried to offer us better food, painkillers, blankets, anything they could think of, and she always shut them down with a scathing remark without a thought. But when Gwiln stabbed me and refused to get me any treatment, he made them her last hope to save my life. There was no one else who could get me the help I needed there. There wasn't even Jorca after they had her killed…"

"Jorca?" he cuts in in confusion. "Who is Jorca?"

I don't acknowledge the question; it's not important.

"My point is that she had to…" I can feel my voice rising, even breaking on the last words, and there's nothing I can do about it as it really sinks in for me what that must have been like for her to do – what it must have been like for her to have to do with them.

"They were real bastards. There's no way they made it easy on her, either. They only gave her enough medicine to treat me for the day – they had all ten doses, you see, but they gave them to her one at a time. So she had to go with them, not just once, but for days because they kept making her 'renegotiate' for every single dose of the medicine I needed. She couldn't even tell them to go to hell after one time…"

"Tom."

I barely hear him. "I told her to stop going. I yelled at her not to go with them. We had a fight as soon as I was awake enough to realize what was going on. I asked her to stop, Chakotay, I swear I did. Damn her, I told her to just let me…"

I trail off, because I'm too choked up to keep going. God, do I hate myself for being the reason she… And now, to top it all off, it looks like the day her boosters went inactive, one of those Jifani bastards managed to get her…

"Tom."

It's now I realize that his hand is heavy on my shoulder, and as I look up at him, shocked that he's standing so close now, I see the last thing I expect to see in his eyes at this moment.

Sympathy. Through the burning ebony, the intensity of everything else glittering there, sympathy.

"It's not your fault, Tom," he tells me quietly. "It never was."

And as I stare stupidly, wanting to tell him he's missing the point, wondering how he could have missed the point of that whole rambling speech so badly, it suddenly occurs to me at the funny fluttering feeling inside my stomach…that maybe he didn't.

"She did…what she felt she had to," he rasps. His voice is tight, his expression controlled, but his speech is halting, as if he's having difficulty finding words.

I know the feeling.

"She'd have done it for any of us. It's just that you're the one who happened to be with her. And I know you'd never have let it happen if you could have stopped it."

I don't say anything; I find I can't. My eyes are on the captain through the window. Watching the steady rise and fall of her chest that reassures me she's still breathing, almost hypnotized by the repetitive motion, but I hear Chakotay speaking.

"No one blames you for this – or her, for that matter." I look back to him, and it takes a minute. But I can see now that he doesn't, at least. He's serious.

I certainly didn't realize that I must've been holding my breath this whole time but as I exhale shakily and drop into more than take the seat behind me, it becomes apparent that I was.

"I should have stopped it." My voice is tiny in my ears.

"From the sound of it, you had more than enough on your plate just trying to hang on at the time. Tom." He makes me look up at him at the insistence in his tone, and I can't even believe he has the fortitude to be giving enough of a damn about me to care, considering the circumstances. "I didn't have to ask her, or you, to know she didn't…" He stops, and I can see that he's on the verge of cracking. I look away out of respect until he manages, "The doctor would only proceed without her consent if you confirmed the circumstances."

I nod as it sinks in slowly – all of it, and especially how I'm not sure I ever really realized how worthy this man might be of her. Because if this were B'Elanna, if it was me in his place, I'm not sure I'd be able to be that forgiving…at the very least I don't think I could bring myself to notice, or care, about the guilt of the other person involved.

I look at him again. Though he's looking away, at her again, I see that darkness in his eyes that I've been seeing there the whole time. I see the glint of murder, and I understand where it's directed now, where it's been directed this whole time. He's being honest. He doesn't doubt her. He never did.

I take a deep breath. Possibly the deepest yet in a long stretch of weeks. The captain is all right now.

She's in good hands.

He turns back to me. "Do you know…if she…the captain…knows? Did she suspect anything?"

"She didn't." I shake my head. "She couldn't have…how could she? It's only…two, three weeks, at most?"

He looks relieved at that, but I don't really process it.

"I know about you two." It might be a blurted, un-thought-out admission, but it feels appropriate to tell him now.

"So I gathered." It surprises me again how clear his expression is. There's the darkness there. The one that used to be there all the time but that had disappeared, but there's still no overt expression I can identify. He's better at this than I ever realized…

"How, if you don't mind my asking?"

"While the drugs were in her system," I tell him tonelessly, "the last weeks were bad. She lost track of who was really there and who wasn't. It was hard to keep up with her."

"I understand," he tells me quietly. "And I trust you not to repeat anything she said to you – to me, or to anyone else."

I look at him sharply then, wanting to find the subtle accusation, the hidden threat in his tone or eyes, but neither is there. I realize then that he's just making a statement. That's all. A statement.

"I'm sorry to make you go through this with me. And I'm sorry…for what you went through down there."

"She got it a lot worse than I did, Chakotay."

"You had a far greater amount of physical injuries inflicted on you."

"She got her fair share of those, too. But she was the one being patched up most of the time. And you know physical beatings are only a fraction of what someone can be made to endure."

"Just as you know that's one of the reasons not being the one chosen can be just as horrifying. Don't downplay what you endured on that planet." His tone is quiet. "If we could have gotten there sooner…"

His eyes dart out through the clear window, to where she's laying just as she has for the past seven days. The same muscle twitches in his face. No expression, still, but his eyes are pools of the darkest night I think I've ever seen.

"Chakotay," I venture before I can even think about what's coming out of my mouth, "It wasn't your fault, either."

His eyes slide back over to me. He doesn't address the statement or even seem to have heard it. "The fetus won't develop properly." His tone is almost clinical, his voice quiet as I try to follow the abrupt and jarring change of topic. "It's a wonder the conception occurred at all. There's already an issue of compatibility that's causing her body to reject the embryo. It seems to need something she can't provide for it, and her system isn't completely recognizing it for what it is. That's why it took so long to register on scanners. The doctor thinks her body's compensating by depleting her brain of certain elements to redirect to the embryo. At the same time, her immune system is attacking it as a foreign body."

"Like a cancer," I muse aloud. He nods once, but I'm already on to the next point of interest. "We can't suppress her immune system right now…"

"I know. And the additional depletion of potassium is dangerous to her heart if it continues. We can supplement her, but only to a certain degree."

I nod. Termination it is then. "But the captain…it's hard to say what she'd want…"

"It's not really an issue. If we do nothing, it'll happen naturally within two weeks, according to the doctor's projections. But by that point, it could put her recovery in further jeopardy." I nod, in complete agreement with his assessment. "The doctor can't stop the process, and he doesn't think her body is healthy enough for any more chemical intervention than he's already giving her. He's confident that he could delay the whole thing by two months, maybe three if he continues supplementing her, but no longer."

"We can't take the risk, Chakotay."

"I've made the decision to have him take care of it this afternoon. Hopefully before she wakes up."

I hold his eye as I realize what he's about to say. As I realize why he sought me out in the first place – at least in part. "She isn't going to know about it, is she? You're not going to tell her."

"No. I'm not." He locks eyes with me again. This time, there is a hint of…something. "And neither is anyone else."

It's presumptious as hell. Certainly not his place, or mine, or anyone else's to make that kind of call.

I happen to agree with his decision. I don't think there's any way she needs to know about this, given the circumstances. The only thing knowing could possibly bring her is more pain. And I know both of us would rather be damned than to be responsible, no matter how small in part, for bringing that kind of emotional turmoil on her after…everything.

It also feels a bit like playing God by deciding for her. And then not even telling her. But this isn't my decision, anyway, for which I'm glad, and it's already been made.

"You'll need to get this out of the medical logs. Doc shouldn't have put it in the first place."

"He wants his notes on file until after the procedure. Then we'll erase them."

Not encrypt – erase. In a Starfleet database, that's much more complicated than any encryption. It's not even supposed to be possible with all the backup mechanisms in place to prevent it.

"You'll need B'Elanna." It's not a question.

He hesitates. "Seven could probably do it…"

I frown until I decipher the hint of reluctance I sense. "B'Elanna already knows. Not about…this part, but the rest…" With my eyes, I will him to understand my decision to tell her. "I couldn't not tell her, Chakotay. But I hope you know you can trust both of us not to breathe a word of any of it."

He nods again. "To be honest, I wasn't exactly looking forward to asking Seven. And I know the captain wouldn't have wanted either of them to know. But what's done is done. And I have to assume she'd prefer B'Elanna." He fixes me with a solemn look. "If she's willing to help me with this, I won't turn down the offer."

"She will, Chakotay." I already know she will. "She'll want to help if she can."

I watch him tug his ear for a few seconds, still debating as he looks out over the empty surgical bay and his eyes rest on the captain. After a minute, he nods. "The procedure is scheduled for 0400. If you're feeling up to it, the doctor could use your assistance. B'Elanna can take care of things tomorrow morning. Tom," he adds, as I get to surprisingly steady feet, taking the hint his eyes keep giving me to give him a few minutes alone with her, before someone comes by for something, as usual, or the doctor reactivates on his own to check on her.

I pause at the door and look at him again, wondering if that look in his eye, that darkness is ever going to fade again or if it's there permanently now.

"Get some rest in the meantime, will you?" He surprises me as his lips unexpectedly twist into a faint parody of a smirk and he explains, "You still look like hell."

I'm not the only one, then. The circles under his eyes are no joke. Neither are the tired lines creasing his face that are the only thing that remind me he isn't as young as he'd like us to think he is anymore. I say none of what I'm thinking; instead, I give him a small nod, my best attempt at a smile and head for the exit. By the time I reach it, I don't have to turn back to know that he's already at her side.


Tom


I may have misjudged this time. B'Elanna is considerably unthrilled about erasing logs and particularly unthrilled about why she's being asked to do it. I've tried to avoid answering her directly, but it doesn't take much more than a glance at the files in question for her to realize what's what.

"Just who the hell do the three of you think you are to make that kind of decision for her?" I wince at the first explosion of what promises to be many, if that look in her eye and the venom in her tone are any indication.

The doctor stays out of it, standing in the background with a raised eyebrow, while Chakotay and I try to talk her down in hushed whispers, mindful of the captain sleeping hardly meters away from us. In the end, it takes Chakotay taking her aside and explaining his reasoning behind the decision.

"No, Chakotay! Tell me why you think she can't handle this! She's going to remember the rest of it, isn't she?"

He looks quickly to me and then to the floor again, the way he does whenever he's uncomfortable. "Most likely."

"Then why is this the one thing you don't trust her to handle?"

B'Elanna's voice is rising with each phrase. I shush them as best I can, sending a desperate look their way with a wave in the captain's direction. Chakotay catches it and pulls her further into the doctor's office.

I guess I underestimated that women's bond thing this time. I start talking to the captain, the way I'm used to doing now, scrolling through the files in question one last time while I talk about the ship's status now that I'm filled in and babble about the latest baby developments now that I'm filled in on those, too. Everything on the tests checks out, just like it did yesterday evening when we'd finished, and just like it did five minutes ago…

I look up as B'Elanna stomps out of the doctor's office. She looks like a storm cloud ready to descend and wreak holy havoc on some atmosphere, but she walks up to the console, kneels down to remove the paneling and goes to work. I breathe a sigh of relief as Chakotay finally steps out of the doctor's office but look away just as quickly when I see that he's not as composed as he wants to be. For a minute, I feel his eyes rest on the captain, and I push myself away from her side, wheeling the doctor's chair back toward where he stands going over the latest general physical scans. I pretend to go over them, too.

We both pretend not to notice Chakotay stand over the captain's bedside for a long minute or hear that he's whispering to her.

"I have to get to the bridge," he finally clips into the deafening silence.

I look up at him, surprised that he's leaving, until I realize that's only because I know about the two of them now. Of course he can't stay when he's supposed to be on duty. Tuvok, for one, would grow suspicious if he did that, not to mention the rest of the bridge crew. And then I guess there's nothing technically happening here, either. It just feels like a day that he would want to spend with her – and he probably does. It's just that he can't. She couldn't, and he has to be her in her absence. If they indulged in regular shows of support like normal couples, it wouldn't be much of a secret. I'd almost be angry that he isn't making an exception this one instance, if I didn't know how he spends his evenings by her side, even though he can't much talk to her because anyone that tries besides me still sends her into a panic. If I didn't know that he's been showering and changing here in the morning for the past week before going on bridge duty and overseeing repairs…

If I didn't see what this has done to him, probably like no one else ever will…

I just nod him on, even though he doesn't see me as he heads out the door without a backwards glance. Beside me, B'Elanna works in silence, and I don't dare disturb her. The doctor and I work through some nursing exercises to pass the time.

It takes her a good hour until she's satisfied with her work, but finally, she sits back and gives the job her seal of approval: she seals the panel shut again. The doctor and I both test the files for any indication that there's been a removal of information while B'Elanna stands over our shoulders, alternating between noises of disgust and snorts of laughter.

"That wouldn't work to find an encrypted sequence let alone flag a deleted file," she smirks as I try to bypass the system entirely and go in around the command code prompt to access the data in the captain's file.

But I smile back at her, because it's her way of letting me know she understands what we've asked her to do. She may not completely agree with it, but if she had significant doubts about deleting the information, she'd never have done it. Whatever Chakotay's specific reasoning was, it was good enough to sway her to our side.

I can't help thinking that the four of us have done the right thing here, and as I give up and tap out of the file, turning to look down at the captain, I realize that even if we haven't, it's done now.

All that's left to do now is to wait for her to decide to wake up.


Kathryn


When I open my eyes, the first thing I notice is the lack of lighting. It occurs to me that I should be grateful for that, as my head feels like it's been split in two, and those are the only three thoughts I have time to register before the adrenaline kicks in.

Danger. Move, run, fight. And I know at once it's crucial that I be alert, and my mind manages it, snapping into wakefulness with a remorseless thump that hurts my brain as it throbs inside of my skull…

Stop. Assess the situation.

I don't know where I am, and for that matter, I don't even know where I should be.

Something, some unseen sense tells me that I am where I belong, though. The fear begins to ebb at once; I don't yet know how, but I do know that I'm where I'm meant to be. The feel is there, in the texture of the robe I wear, in the deceptive coolness of the blanket tucked under my arms – I'm completely warm and, other than the headache, entirely comfortable beneath the cloth layers. The smell is there: an annoyingly familiar, sterile tang to the temperate, dry air. The scent itself is restrictive safety.

Even the sounds are there. Faint, rhythmic beeping and hums of something I should know but can't quite place are a part of me. My heart, my breathing…both are in sync with these sounds.

One of the closer sounds stops abruptly, disrupting the harmony, and movement at my side draws my blurred gaze from the ceiling above me.

"Kathryn?" A warm, honeyed voice issues from the owner of the movement, and I turn to look at the considerably sizeable man seated beside me in the dim lighting. "Kathryn, it's all right. You're safe here."

I stare into his eyes, taking in his features but mostly those dark eyes mirroring the uncertainty and apprehension I feel right now, which is as if there's something I'm expected to do now, to say, but I don't know what it is. If I had to guess by his actions, by his soothing tone and by his inflections, I'd say he feels the same way.

I drink in his face, realizing that I trust it, that I should trust it as I listen to his voice, which is so undoubtedly right, somehow, tell me over and over that I have nothing to be afraid of. That I'm safe, that we're all safe, and that everything is all right now.

"I know," I finally tell him quietly, because I do know this, somehow, and because he seems to be waiting for me to reply with everything that he is, and I'm surprised at the rusted quality of my scratchy voice when it sounds in my ears.

But my response seems to please him. A grin, a beautiful, dazzling smile breaks out across his warm features, and then I truly know that I'm safe. I'm home.

 ***

Nineteen


Kathryn


My bedroom materializes around me, finally. Home, I think fleetingly as the doctor heads straight into the living room to program the necessary additions to my replicator.

Frankly, it hasn't come a moment too soon. I'm certain the doctor is as glad to be rid of me as I am of him, and I don't bother waiting for him to come back; I'm already in the bathroom, running the first spectator-free shower I've had in months. After the photonic little tyrant he's been about keeping me confined in that sterile, coffee-less hell for the past two weeks, I don't experience a single twinge of regret for making him wait for me to finish. And I may have only been conscious for the last five days of it, but it sure as hell felt like the full two weeks.

I'm of half a mind to make him wait through a full bubble bath, but really, between needing to get out of this horrid Sickbay gown and needing a cup of coffee, I'm not going to put principle ahead of necessity. And a proper bath would take too long to run.

The gown hits the floor, and I avoid the mirror for all I'm worth, not anxious to see what I look like just yet. Without makeup and not having had so much as a hairbrush for two months running, I'm sure it's not a pleasant sight. The water, a near scalding temperature, is heavenly. At first I'm afraid I may have to cut the knots out of the back of my hair, but the conditioner is working its magic, and I can already feel the gnarled tangles coming undone under my fingers.

If I'd had to cut it again, I do believe Chakotay might have cried this time.

Pushing him out of my thoughts, my mind drifts to Tom as I work, and I wonder whether he's been enjoying his first few showers. I forgot to ask; it's still difficult to look him in the eye, much less ask relevant questions. But I'm sure he must have enjoyed it. They didn't let him shower more than once or twice the entire time on Jifan. I stopped noticing his strong scent after about two weeks or so…and it was strange having to adjust to the lack of it again. And to his clean-shaven face. He looks so much younger without the stubble I'd grown accustomed to seeing there. I wonder how it's been for him, readjusting to life with B'Elanna. He says it's been fine, but I know he must be finding it as strange as I am to be back in the lap of luxury – which is really what this ship is, though it's easy to forget it.

I'm doing my best, now that most of the experience has trickled back to me and I feel the toll the past few months have taken on my soul settling in. I'm doing my best not to show them all that I only feel like half of me anymore, and I am doing my damnedest to make sure I don't look at them whenever I can't force the light back into my eyes. I don't want any of them to have to see the haunted, half-mast remnants left behind in Jifan's wake.

I know what that look will do to the ones I'm supposed to lead. I remember having to get used to seeing it in Owen's eyes, and I don't know if I can live with myself if I let them see it in mine. Especially not out here. And it may be too late to protect Tom, but not the rest of them.

I hope.

My skin is horrible: pale and off-color. Just generally unhealthy. I can see that as I look down, but I don't suppose I'm completely against the weight loss. The past year has been the first time in my life that I've ever held any weight on me at all. The doctor informed me that I had a slowing metabolism to thank for that – as if I needed to be told. Aging is no picnic, as the aches and pains I can still feel from having been lying on the biobed for so long reaffirm. There was a time when I could sleep on a rocky cavernous floor and not feel it all the next day. I could drink coffee by the gallon and eat nothing but chocolate for months and still not reflect it in my complexion or my figure, and I certainly never had to worry about the elasticity of my skin or about the brightness of my eyes.

My body is no longer so forgiving.

The only thing I lament about the weight loss is the loss of the one asset the weight gain afforded me in the first place. The guards were kind enough to point out the difference between when I arrived and the last few weeks we were there in case I missed it…which, of course, I hadn't.

Not having known me from the beginning of our incarceration, the general physician who provided them with Tom's medicine had no basis for comparison. I remember being thankful for that small favor.

I step out of the shower, already exhausted by just this small exertion. The comfortable pair of sweats I slip into is one of the most calming balms to my body imaginable, even surpassing the scents of my shampoo and body rinse clinging to my skin again after so long. My own clothes, at last. It's absurdly comforting to be in them again, and they smell exactly as they should, fresh and crisp, but they don't exactly fit properly. Fortunately, this pair of sweat pants has a tie around the waist, and it's easy enough to cinch it closer to my new waistline. With an inward sigh, I acknowledge that it won't be a problem soon enough again, despite my own preferences for maintaining a lither frame. Fortunately, Chakotay doesn't hold with that particular viewpoint.

Or unfortunately, as the case may be at the moment. I won't stand a chance in hell of keeping myself this way, even if I did manage to make it to the holodeck for regular workouts. I'll be surprised if the man doesn't arrive with a plateful of brownies in hand immediately…

I turn off those thoughts, pleasant as they inherently are, running the coveted brush through my hair a few times extra before reentering my bedroom. Not only am I just as afraid for what will come of the pending visit, the first chance we'll really have to talk since I awoke in Sickbay, but the chronometer says it's 16:00. Chakotay won't be by until at least 20:00, depending on how things are going on the bridge and with repairs. There's a decent chance he can't break away until at least 23:00, if not later. Until then, I also have over two months worth of reports to catch up on, both reading and writing.

Crinkling my nose at the thought of them, I lament for an indulgent second how I would so much rather be on the bridge. If I didn't think it'd be even worse for crew morale for them to see me up there looking…like this…I'd be there already.

"I see you've made yourself comfortable." The faint sarcasm in the doctor's voice goes in one ear and out the other as I brush past him where he stands in my bedroom. "Now, I did take the time to put all this in writing for you, and I'll leave you with the instructions before I go, but I wanted to go through my directions with you verbally, in case you have any questions."

I barely hear him launch into the usual routine and cataloguing the list of vitamins I'm supposed to supplement myself with over the next month. My mind already on the first updates I'm going to demand on ship's systems from all department heads, I have no trouble tuning him out, well practiced in the art by now. If I adhered to half the medical directives he's given me over the years, I'd hardly have time for anything else, let alone for captaining my ship. Still prattling, he follows me out into the living room, where I halt at the doors in shock.

I'm going to have a half-starved crew for months, is my first thought as I stare at the spectacle in front of me.

On some level, I admit I realized it was going to be bad. Almost every one of them has brought something by my bedside this past week – or so I was told as I slept through a lot of it. But they'd kept clearing it all out every few hours, so as not to drown me in flowers and little knickknacks, I suppose, and so I never got a sense of the sheer amount of it all. Not even close.

And honestly, this is absurd. I can feel my mouth opening and closing as I try to come up with words. As the doctor passes by me to begin explaining his modifications to my replicator (so they dispense everything he wants me to take over the next four weeks), my only thought is in damage control as I look over my living room for the first time in just over two months.

The desk looks like it sprouted and…well…grew. Vibrant, fragrant bouquets of every imaginable origin and variety spring from the top of it, and larger, more vine-like plants have been arranged all around the edges. Many have already begun to reach for the floor. I can't see an inch of the desk itself; even the legs are obscured, and if I didn't already know what color it was, there'd certainly be no way to tell right now.

My dining table looks like it suffered some sort of bizarre volcanic eruption at Christmas. Multi-colored boxes with shiny bows I barely recall having opened are stacked much higher than what looks strictly stable. Small gift bags, several of which are hand-crafted, I remember holding thoughtful things like chocolate covered coffee beans and hand-stitched scarves or painstakingly fine-tuned symphonic recordings of my favorite classical composers. One even had a set of microscopic noise cancellers for when the doctor was in a particularly musical mood this past week. My coffee table is covered, as well, mostly with coffee-related items, mugs, ornate stirrers, rich alien blends, personalized mugs, flavored dipping spoons – and I toy with the idea that now might be a good time to take a cold hard look at my coffee consumption.

Even my reading chair and then a portion of the floor beside it are covered with various gifts from my crew. As I try to take it all in, I almost can't breathe properly for looking at it all.

I don't deserve any of it. I don't, and this is painful to look at in its entirely, almost physically painful. I wrack my brain trying to remember having received half of it, but only snippets of it will come to me.

This is a special assortment, Captain. It's supposed to promote health and vitality. My grandmother developed it herself. She was a healer in our village, and she used to say the specific arrangement was as important as the individual flowers themselves. The blue blossoms are for strength and stamina. They go around the edges. The white are for health of body and spirit, and they're central, of course. The yellow are…

If you can't get the doctor to okay you for a cup of coffee yet, these should be easy to sneak in a pinch when he's not looking. Just don't tell him who gave them to you!

I remembered you said once you hated picking up a coffee that's gone cold without realizing. Seven helped me search the database for the best warming plate and my mom helped me save for the rations to replicate it. It doesn't give off heat unless the cup is in the indent, so even if it falls off your desk during turbulence or an attack, it isn't a fire hazard. Neelix says you're always looking for ways to set an example for the rest of the crew, so I thought of that while I was looking, too. This one has a naturally renewing energy source so the ship's lighting will automatically keep it functional, and it won't use up any additional energy. Seven says it's the most efficient design on file. It even has your name on it, see, Captain?

You were right about Wang's second postulate, by the way; took a little longer than I expected. In fact, it pissed me off so much, after I annihilated it and Schlezholt's theory, I went back and knocked out Wang's third and fourth postulates, too. I thought you might want to have a look at it for tone before I sent it through the next datastream. Let's be honest; I'm not exactly known for tact, and while I couldn't really care less, I thought you might as you'll probably go down in history as the woman who commanded me while I wrote this paper. Oh, I almost forgot. Microscopic noise cancellers – the best in specs. These are in case the doctor is an operatic mood. No one should have to suffer through that defenseless, in my opinion. And on this last padd…I came across your junior thesis on massive compact holo-objects while I was researching Schlezholt. Your second proof was solid, but your first and third both have gaping holes in them. I took the time to make some notes for you…in case you felt like brushing up while you're recovering.

I'm unable to entirely suppress a giggle now that he's not here to witness it: the laughter escapes even through the hand I clap over my mouth. He's such an insufferable little bastard. He really is. And I wouldn't trade him for any other officer in the galaxy now, either. I should stop down there to see him as soon as I can walk better…

The tears are already springing in place of the burst of unexpected mirth. I don't deserve any of it. I don't deserve them.

"Captain? Have you been listening to a word I've said?"

He's blurry through the sheen of tears stinging my eyes, blue and black and flesh-colored lines wavering in and out. Guiltily, I shake my head at him.

"Are you all right?"

"Yes. I just," I nod, realizing my hand is still covering my mouth and removing it with reluctance, "this is…it's too much."

"Too much?" he echoes blankly, staring at me as if I've grown two heads.

I don't know where the resentment stems from all of the sudden unless it's a direct result of the tears.

"There are easily enough replicator rations in this room to feed the entire ship for several months." With some satisfaction, I hear the crispness settling into my voice and I force the moisture to recede from my eyes. "It's extravagant, and we certainly can't spare the energy. You should have stopped them."

He gapes at me. "Pardon, Captain? I should have?"

"Someone should have – one of you should have. It's the job of my senior staff to look out for the ship when I'm not able to, isn't it? And this is the most unacceptable waste of resources I've ever..." I have to trail off again, shaking my head as I approach the replicator, determined to have some tangible object in my hand to focus on, but I hesitate upon reaching it with a backward glance over the smorgasbord littering my living area.

Hell. What's one more at this point?

"Coffee, black."

"You could at least have the courtesy not to flaunt your deliberate disregard of my instructions right in front of me," he huffs indignantly. "And as to the 'waste' you're referring to… What we spend our rations on is our choice, is it not?"

"Within reason, Doctor. This," I turn back to sweep a hand over the collection in disgust, "is hardly what I'd call within reason."

"With respect, it's not up to you to decide what the rest of us feel you're worth."

I'm almost sick right there on the floor, unable to help the nausea that automatically springs to mind at his phrasing, whirling to face the replicator before he sees it.

I know what I'm worth, Doctor, I can hear myself answer him clearly inside my head. I'm worth exactly two worn blankets, one tureen of only half-rotten vegetable broth, one bottle of fairly clean water and one standardized antibiotic tablet – and it all fits tucked under one arm, if you arrange it properly.

Damn him. I can't be sick in front of him; he'll haul me right back to that hellhole he calls a Sickbay if I am. I grip the edge of the console in front of me hard, leaning into it rather than slamming my fists through it the way I'd like.

"Who are you to tell us–"

"Was there anything else, Doctor?" I clip harshly, taking my newly-appeared coffee mug in hand with a vengeance. He has to get out of my quarters now, or he will see the look in my eyes. I can't hide it.

"You'll need to call me right away if you experience any sharp abdominal pains or unusual weakness in your muscles. Any chest pain must be reported immediately. That's immediately, Captain. Not when you decide it's become bad enough or when you think it's cause for conc–"

"Did you write it all down or not?" I bury my face in the coffee cup, using the rim and the steam to hide behind.

"Yes, I did, but–"

"Good." I take the padd from his not-quite-outstretched hand, striding past him. "Then I'll see you tomorrow morning for the next checkup, thank you."

I leave him standing in my living room, hearing the bedroom doors hiss shut behind me just as I collapse back against them, cradling the coffee cup in my hands and sliding down the length of the doors until I hit the floor.


Kathryn


"Kathryn?"

The doors hiss open, tickling across my back and startling me out of my trance. I crane my neck around to look up at him as he sidesteps around me with some difficulty, squeezing in between me and the doorframe.

And then he's in front of me, and I blink up at him in confusion. "Chakotay? What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be on the bridge?"

He crouches down until he's almost kneeling in front of me. "It's 22:30, Kathryn. I'm sorry; I just managed to break away."

Well then. I've been considerably lost in thought. That's a shame, because this is the one moment that will make or break us, and we've had to wait for the doctor to release me – one week, to be exact – to have it. And I should have been preparing all this time, gathering my strength so I can show him the Kathryn he's longing to see, needs to see in front of him, but I haven't, and I'm afraid for him if he looks into my eyes right now…

I swallow, offering him a smile as he gently uncurls the long-empty coffee cup from my decidedly stiff fingers.

"How are repairs coming?" I ask.

He sets the cup aside on the floor, giving in and sinking to his knees across from me because it's become apparent to both of us that I'm not going to move. I can't even feel my legs, so I can't imagine I'll be rising any time soon. And I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, to admit that I've been so lost in reflection and regret that I'd completely and utterly lost track of both time and my surroundings.

I feel his finger hook under my chin and he raises my head so I'll look at him.

I look away, not quite to the floor and not quite to the side, but especially not at him, because the way he's looking at me right now is far too intense. I can feel it, and I'm not quite sure I can take it. Especially the way I'm still hearing Gwiln's words ringing true in my ears about how much I've only brought hurt to those I come into contact with. Especially how I still feel hands that aren't his touching what only he should and particularly unforgivable is the way I can remember reacting to hands that I thought were his but should have known weren't.

"Kathryn." He sounds concerned, and there isn't a damned thing I can do about it. "Will you please look at me?"

I shake my head once as his voice whispers through me, warming me to the bones that had been colder than I realized, but frightening me at the same time.

"Why not?"

The carpet is an interesting pattern. I look at the tiny lines I'm not sure I've ever paid much attention to before, and I see the minute lines of folded fibers that weave through it do form a specific if unobtrusive pattern.

"Kathryn? Why won't you look at me?"

He hasn't let go of my face, and though it can't be comfortable, he hasn't made a move to adjust his position. Ready to wait me out like he always is, and I know full well if I sit here in stubborn silence for another decade, here he will sit in front of me, holding my chin up to him and waiting. Like he always has been.

"I'm…afraid to," I venture.

"Why?"

"I'm afraid…you won't like…what you see if I do."

"What is it you think I'll see, Kathryn?"

It's so hard to explain, and I wish he would just let go but know better than to ask or to even consider he will until I answer him. "Someone…else." My voice cracks on the word, and I swallow, but it does nothing noticeable to moisten my raw throat.

"Who, then?"

"Someone…less…than the woman you knew." My voice is so uncharacteristically quiet, so oddly unsure. But there's nothing I can do to change it at the moment; it only feels crucial that he not make me look at him.

Neither of us speaks or moves for a long, eternal minute. He doesn't let me go. I can feel him staring, feel his eyes bearing into mine even though I'm still tracing the newly discovered pattern on the carpet beside us with my gaze.

"Right now," he breaks the unbearable silence, "the only woman I see in front of me is the woman I love."

He's never said that before. Never dared. I tense, but he isn't done.

"I see the woman I've missed, the woman I grieved for when I thought she had died – and the woman who would have taken half of me with her if she had."

I can hear the sorrow in his voice, his warm, soothing voice that I've missed with every fiber of my being.

My eyes fly up to meet his, and I see the soul-destroyed look I was so afraid I'd have put there. All of his pain is written there, every heart-wrenching thing he's experienced since Tom and I have been gone is plainly etched across his face and in his eyes. It rips the tears right out of my eyes and they spill hotly over my face.

It rips out a part of me to know I've done this to him.

"I'm…so sorry, Chakotay." My voice breaks horribly as my eyes search his face, taking in every new worry line and every new crease of sorrow that wasn't there before. "I never meant to put you through all of this…"

"Shh, I know," he whispers over me. "It wasn't your fault. You couldn't have known. None of us knew…"

It's my job to know.

"We lost her."

"I know." His hands are framing both sides of my face now, his thumbs stroking my cheeks and his fingers sliding forward into my hair, massaging my scalp. "There was nothing you could do, Kathryn."

That may be so, but it's no comfort. It's my job to protect them.

Then he's touching my arms, my shoulders, everything. The tears I know he hasn't let so much as shine once in his eyes – at least in front of anyone else – are spilling over his cheeks, and I know what he's doing. He's making sure I'm really here, in front of him, and it has probably been killing him not having been able to do it until now. It just barely becomes clear to me that I'm doing it, too. That I have been, all this time, and that this is what I've been longing for from the moment I woke up to him sitting beside me in that chair.

"You know, don't you? What I…did down there…?" I have to ask, have to know if he knows…all of it…or if the look I'm seeing there right now, and all the love I wasn't sure I had the right to ask for from him anymore is always going to be there, or if he will not be able to see past certain actions I felt I had to take while we were separated.

He knows what I mean, though; I can tell from the flicker of raw hurt that sears into me and the hitch in his breath as he tries to take in air. As he tries to fight the crumpling of his expression and the darkening in his eyes he's always so afraid he'll frighten me with if he lets me see it unguarded. "You did what you had to," he barely manages through shaky breaths.

He does know. He understands. Somehow, some way, he understands what it cost me to have to do. I shouldn't have doubted that in him, feel so guilty now that I doubted him, but he won't hear it as I whisper the words as best I can through broken, shallow breaths, interrupting me and telling me he isn't angry, that he could never be angry with me for very long, no matter what I did, and certainly isn't for being afraid he wouldn't understand.

I wish to hell I knew how to be so inherently good as he is, how to be what he deserves instead of the way that I am, the way that I have to be to stay whole and sane, to stay strong, but he won't let me say those words either, even if I didn't realize until he stops me that I was saying them aloud.

Somehow, we're on the bed; he must have picked me up, and he's massaging the sensation back into my legs, which is painful, but, God, do I not care if they catch on fire in this moment anymore, as long as I can still feel him against me, cradling me on his lap the way he is. As long as I can smell him like this, feel him real and alive and breathing against my neck…

Does he know how long I've been waiting for this? Does he know that I thought about this, only this, for the majority of the time that I was gone? That when I closed my eyes to block out anything, this was the place that I most wanted to come back to: him, right here, like this?

"I've treated you horribly at times," I inform him, as if this was news to either of us.

"Only when I deserved it." His strong fingers knead expertly into the muscles of my right thigh, which is bent in close as his arms wrap around it, and the sigh of contentment comes of its own volition. Nothing feels as good as this – nothing anywhere. "Kathryn, were you sitting there all day? Have you been on the floor like that since the doctor left you?"

"No." I shake my head, turning around in his arms to face him, sniffling what I'm sure is horribly unattractively and laughing in his face as he assures me I've never looked more beautiful than right now. "Liar. You're the most wonderful, horrible liar I've ever met. And no, I went back out into the living room once to look at all the…did you see it all? Did you see what they…?" I can't finish the sentence, the emotion swamping back words once more.

"Who do you think had to lug most of it in here?" He smiles through the tears, the laugh lines I love spreading out in his face as my hands cup it and hold him to me and press his forehead into mine.

"Did you see…I didn't even know Lessing painted."

"I did see, yes. He asked the senior staff for a picture to use, and when he did, I was…a little apprehensive about giving it to him. I had to ask what it was for."

"You were afraid he'd use it for dart practice?" I can see that he was, and I laugh through the tears that only want to come harder when I think about the way I look in that portrait. And how much time it must have taken to complete, and how differently even he seems to see me at times from the way I see myself. And especially as I think about how I acted that day, and a few others. "I wondered which picture he used and where he got it. Thought he couldn't have used the photo in my file; the positioning was wrong." I swallow with difficulty, the lump in my throat painfully lodged. "It's beautiful. I couldn't believe how much. I mean, I don't even…" I trail off, uncertain whether or not it's a thought that even bears uttering.

"Have horns? Or at least a forked tail?" he supplies for me with half a laugh as I realize consciously that he's shaking under me.

"Exactly." I start to crawl off him, wanting to sit beside him and give his muscles a break, but for some reason it disturbs him to see. He curls his arms under me, lifts me and then positions me next to him, where I'd wanted to be, and again I feel him shaking beside me.

I'm tracing the lines of his face again, of his tattoo, recalling all the things I'd realized I wanted to say to him and fighting with all of the reasons I don't deserve to have this with him. Struggling to just be. His hands are smoothing my hair, running through it, and it's more reassuring than anything I've felt in so long.

"I'm not always as nice as I should be," I tell him sadly. Lamenting that I'm not when, really, he deserves so much more than I can give him, at least out here.

"You can't afford to be nice all the time, Kathryn."

"I'm not always as nice as I should be to you."

"You can't afford to be nice to me all the time, either. Sometimes especially not to me."

He's right, but at the same time, he's letting me off the hook again. Again.

"I've done horrible things." He cannot argue with that, though I wish to hell he could…

"So have I." He's fighting to hide the darkness again; I know him well enough by now. My heart aches for him the way he feels he has to do that, still.

"The intendent?" I ask, stiffening, not because I feel brave enough but because I saw the flicker in his eyes that tell me part of what he meant by his admission. He's not just talking about his past, from before I knew him. This is recent, and I can only assume it stems from that. "You found him with me, didn't you?"

His hands shake again and he has to drop them, so he takes my hands in his and rests them in my lap, where his thumbs begin to trace the outside edges of mine.

"Yes." His eyes are fused to the motions of his fingers. That worries me all the more for him. "I found him with you."

All I remember is a blur of screaming and pain. Cardassians, Camet. Owen being tortured. Gwiln digging around in my head. Tom needing help, occasional glimpses of Chakotay's face…but all of it spans days, and I saw Chakotay so often in hallucinations that none of it is easily identifiable as the moment in which he found me. And of course most of that wasn't actually real, anyway…

I force myself to ask the question. "Do I want to know what was happening when you arrived?"

Slowly, his head begins to shake back and forth. He will not look at me: this time, it's he who can't make that connection.

I tighten my fingers around his hands, needing to know who else saw me in that condition. Needing also to know who was there for him during what must have been hell for him to witness, during yet another example of the way I'm just not any good for him. "Who went with you?" My voice cracks on the last word. Apprehension, pained empathy.

His eyes finally meet mine again, and I'm going to have to make it my priority to erase that haunted look in them. I hate seeing it there; it doesn't belong there, and I hate more that I'm the reason it's there again.

"Into that room…no one did. Ayala and Rollins waited in the hall."

He's proud of his decision; I can see it, can see he thinks he did me a favor by not allowing anyone else to see…and he did. He certainly did, but my stomach jolts and roils viciously at the thought of him and Gwiln in any room together, alone. "Chakotay, that's not only against procedure but dangerous." My voice breaks, again, and damn it but it was supposed to be steel, to snap at him the way I should for the risk he took with his life. "You could have been killed."

"I didn't know what I would find."

"What did you find, Chakotay?" I'm sure I don't want to know, don't what to hear what kind of broken, pathetic mess he found in that room, but maybe if he talks about it, it will help him. I can handle anything for him, even the worst kind of humiliation. Even the worst kind of lost faith in me, and even if it might rip my heart out coming from him.

He says nothing, only continues to reassure himself that I'm real, taking his hands from mine and resuming tracing the lines of my arms, at the same time rubbing warmth into them through the sweatshirt that should be doing a much better job of warding off the chills running through me continually.

"You aren't going to tell me, are you?" I finally realize aloud after thick eternal silence stretches on indefinitely.

Slowly, he shakes his head again, bringing my hands up to his mouth and kissing the tips of my fingers, holding them to his lips and breathing a repentant warmth into them.

I swallow his resolution even though it wants to stick in my throat, for I know he won't be moved. Not now, not for an eternity.

And they call me stubborn.

So I ask instead that which I must know, whether he wants to tell me or not. "The intendent you found with me? Gwiln?" The name alone produces shudders of pure hatred I can't repress. "What happened to him?"

"Took an early retirement." At my questioning look, he provides without hesitation, "A permanent one."

He doesn't look sorry about that, nor does he sound it. His eyes are a burning, if bitter, triumph. Oh, God. It must have been horrible then, worse than I'd been assuming. Whatever he found, whatever was happening…the tears for him, for what he must have been seeing spring again, and my eyes slide shut, squeezing more tears through my lashes. "I'm sorry, Chakotay. I'm sorry I couldn't keep better control of myself over those drugs…"

"It's not your fault, Kathryn," he patiently replies.

But he's wrong. My eyes open to his, so close I can see my own reflection burning accusatorially back at me in his pupils. "It is if you killed him for me."

Though he doesn't move, doesn't blink or look away, the image of myself somehow fades to be replaced by obsidian certainty. "I killed him for me, Kathryn."

He doesn't look away even after he speaks, doesn't try to hide from the truth, and a deep stirring of trepidation prickles through me at what I read in him in this moment. "Chakotay–"

"Don't worry; it was all by the book."

The hell it was, I bite back on retorting, for both our sakes, as he continues.

"The other two drew their weapons and were going to fire at me immediately, giving me no choice but to fire first. Gwiln…if that was the officer's name…" I nod curtly, and he finishes, "had some kind of energy weapon on you. I didn't know whether or not it would kill you. I couldn't take the chance."

I'm fairly certain he had a good idea it wouldn't; if they'd wanted me dead I would have been long before he got there and he knows it. But I can no longer question his account because if I do and if he did cross that line, I'll be forced to take some form of disciplinary action. There are things I cannot ignore, and unjustifiable homicide is certainly one of them. No matter how justified it may have felt.

Right now, I don't know for a fact that it wasn't justified. It has to stay that way, and his eyes are warning me I might not want to pursue this line of questioning. He won't lie to me – withhold answers, certain facts, yes – but lie he will not. And if I order him to answer questions I shouldn't ask he will tell me the truth.

"He broke me," I admit aloud, the first time I've done so, even to myself. Feeling even more of me come undone at the acceptance of that hard, cold truth. "More than once."

"No, he didn't." He sounds so sure, is so adamant through the hoarse rasp of his aching voice. It's almost harsh as his hands tighten over my face, making me look up at him again and then his eyes are drilling into me, trying to make me believe him even though he's still managing to apply only the pressure he would to the finest of porcelain through his fingertips. "Don't ever give him that credit, Kathryn. Don't you even think it."

"He did," I admit with bitterness, with certainty because it's the truth. I won't have him admiring me for things I didn't do, and remaining strong, remaining unbreakable through Gwiln's hellish routine was not one of them. "I did everything he asked me of me in the end. I confessed. And I…"

He isn't hearing it, cutting me off with the insistence in his tone. The insistence in his eyes. "Kathryn, listen to me. What was your primary goal when you first walked into that prison?"

I blink, confused, although the question isn't hard to answer. I'm just not sure what it has to do with this conversation. "To keep Tom alive until I could get him out of there. Or until you could reach us…"

And then I understand, even before he responds and his hands slide down to my arms again, massaging warmth back into them. "And you did that, didn't you? You didn't let him divert you from your primary goal. You brought Tom back alive."

It isn't the same, isn't an excuse for what I allowed Gwiln to force me to do. But it's something, however small, and I nod. Latching onto that one truth, needing it, knowing he needs me to use it as much as I need to use it.

I swallow hard as Kaelo's face and the last conversation I had with Tom spring to mind. "Is it true? Was it Kaelo all along?"

Slowly, he nods. "We headed a small investigation of our own on the way. He killed most of the people who had firsthand knowledge of his involvement, but a few were smart enough to get off planet before he could. All evidence points to him."

I suck in a breath, feeling the rage slam through me all over again, only his hands stroking my hair as they frame my face again keeping me stationary, his anger validating mine and keeping me grounded, to him.

"We released the evidence we'd accrued to the media. An investigation was being called for by the time we left orbit. It was the cover we needed to get inside the base you were being held inside in the first place."

"He followed us?" I already know he did, have been wondering how the repairs caused by his pursuit have been coming all along. There's no way in hell Kaelo could just let me waltz out of his clutches under those circumstances, not without trying to sink his teeth in and keep me under his thumb, where I could be used in his defense.

"His warships did, but they gave up quickly. There was quite a bit of civil unrest after their media got a hold of the information we released. Their ships were needed to help maintain order, so they were recalled almost immediately – against his direct orders – by the same panel of advocates that ruled over your trial."

"We were lucky, then," I tell him, an accusatory tone not quite solidifying as I regard him sternly. "That panel rarely goes against him. You shouldn't have risked the ship to come after us."

He's unconcerned. Unabashed. "We had it under control. Madame Araken was prepared to help us once we reached her sector."

I nod slowly, still uneasy about the risk. But I know even now that I would have done the same, had it been anyone else on that planet, so long as I was relatively confident that I could pull us out again successfully. I trust that he was confident because I have to. "And the resistance? They stopped rounding them up once the evidence was released into the public, didn't they?"

He hesitates, his eyes flashing sorrow, and I brace myself for his response but not in time.

"He'd already executed most of them by the time we got there. Their families…had disappeared as well. No one seems to know what happened to most of them. There aren't any official records."

There don't have to be. My eyes close and I slump against him, sorry for so many things all at once. And exhausted. Soul exhausted with the addition of so many additional innocent names and faces, voices that are forever silenced. The only kind of justice any of them will ever see now will be posthumously.

What kind of comfort can that offer when they won't be here to see it? Even if Kaelo doesn't manage to slither his way out of facing the consequences for his crimes, what good does it do his victims now? They're already gone, forcefully ripped from life, and their last moments, I know from my own bitter experience in that prison, must have been of utter, soul-crushing, hopeless suffering and despair.

It's all I can handle today, and my mind shuts down automatically. Suddenly, I'm not sure I can keep my eyes open much longer.

His arms are around me, whispering that he understands as he kisses my hair, the top of my bent head as my forehead rests against his chest. And I know that he does, and that hurts almost as much as it soothes, but then that's most of life, as I came to realize long ago. For everything beautiful there is some price to be paid for it.

Just as for every unjust suffering, some good must spring from it. Even if it's only in the ability to empathize with others who have suffered or the ability to learn from our collective mistakes.

Right now, I'm not in any frame of mind to find the good in this injustice. Not today. Today, I just need to be angry for a while, to rage against unfairness and to wallow in the hatred that comes so easily at the moment.

Tomorrow, I'll be left to sort through the ashes and to sift out what good, what lasting beauty I can find and to begin to help others do the same, if they're ready. The only question I have now is who will be at my side when I stand ready to make the salvage.

My arms come around his broad middle, and I press into him, burying my face in his warm neck. I breathe in the wonderful, familiar scent of him, his amber spice and faint musk essence, brushing my lips against his neck, not sure I want to ask the last question but needing to because I have made enough assumptions regarding him to last us both a lifetime, and that isn't fair to him.

"So where do we go from here, Chakotay? What do we do now?" It's his choice, this time, I want him to understand: after pushing him off so many times, it should be up to him this time. Especially considering that it's only half of me that's come back, it feels like.

He doesn't hesitate. "Now," he lies back on my pillows, his arm around my waist hauling me with him until he's stretched out with his boots at the foot of the bed and I'm lying next to him, half draped over him and half on the bed, "we get some rest."

"And when we wake up?"

"And when we wake up, we get a decent meal into you."

"Not hungry," I dismiss sleepily, deciding to ignore the fact that he didn't answer the question I was really asking – at least not directly. It's enough to tell me he isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

"Too bad," he laughs, uncaring, his breath tickling my ear. "You're lucky I'm not making you stay up and eat something right now."

"Lucky?" My brow arches in tired annoyance over his chest, but he's not intimidated.

"Yes, lucky." The fingers of his right hand dig teasingly into the sensitive bones of my ribs, too lightly, and I wriggle, trying to get him to stop, finally sinking my teeth into his chest until he yelps and gives in.

"You're the lucky one," I grumble, tempted to make him suffer more for doing what he knows I can't stand but instead melting into the pull of sleep, the pull of the comfort his warm body radiates into me. He's always so warm.

"You're right about that," he answers, again without hesitation, smugly as he deliberately twists my words. His arm resting over me, he leans down, his lips brushing my temple.

I decide to let him think he's won this round – but only because he feels so good against me and only because I'm too tired to argue with him now. I'll set him straight in the morning, I decide. Instead, with my remaining strength, I wriggle closer to him, as close as I can until I'm close enough to just barely whisper the words I promised myself I would say to him if I ever got this chance again. The words I haven't been able to bring myself to utter, no matter how much he has deserved to hear them.

He whispers the words right back to me, like he's been waiting years for the freedom to say them. And I know he has. His voice is strained with emotion as he thanks me for coming safely back to him one more time and his arm tightens possessively, protectively around me, taking me under into the oblivion of sleep.


Tom


"B'Elanna, are you almost ready? We're gonna be late!"

"Two minutes," she calls from the bathroom.

That means at least five or ten until we can leave, but she could be out of there any second, so I gulp down the rest of my coffee before she can come out and realize that I have it in the first place.

She's really not taking the coffee thing well. I don't know when she started drinking so much of it, but something tells me a few all-nighters of repairs and strategy meetings with a certain captain probably helped her addiction along. More than a few have fallen by the wayside of caffeine addiction that way aboard this ship; keeping up with the captain is a bitch, sometimes.

I get a burst of shower-fresh scent as she sails past me to the table, the crinkle of her nose as she sniffs the air and the dark look she shoots me telling me I'm caught anyway, despite the fact that I already recycled the cup. Damned superior Klingon sense of smell…everyone has a better sense of smell than humans, damn it.

I give her my most endearing, boyishly charming smile, pecking her on the cheek for good measure as she finishes my juice in retaliation. And she rolls her eyes, thrusting the empty glass at me and dragging the brush through her wet hair as she heads back into the bedroom without a word, presumably to get dressed.

I just can't help the stupid grin spreading across my face.

Yep. I definitely have the captain to thank for this one. And the shine is fading from my return. I'm getting away with fewer and fewer of the little things, and it makes me absurdly, ridiculously happy to note it. Slowly, it's getting back to normal in here – whatever passes for normal in the Paris quarters, anyway.

I'm sorry for all the exchanges just like this one that I've missed over the past few months. I'd have given anything to be able to be the source of my wife's near-constant ire.

Life just doesn't feel right if she isn't annoyed at me for something.

She comes back out dressed, coiffed and dried, six minutes later, and we're already late for the baby's check-up, but the doc hasn't even bothered to call yet, knowing that's about par for us. He'll worry if we hit the twenty minute mark, but not before.

We stroll in exactly nine minutes past our appointment time, and the first thing I notice is the doctor standing in front of the biobed closest to the door. And I see by the flash of red hair just around his shoulder as he pulls away that he isn't alone.

It's the first time I've seen her in uniform in a long while. She wasn't scheduled to go back on duty for at least two more days, but I know she's been seriously pushing for a good week now. That he's held out this long is amazing.

I've been back for four days already; I should have guessed I didn't have as much time left as I thought.

I'd wanted to talk to her about my father, about what she told me while we were on Jifan, but I've been holding off. For one thing, it's not the kind of thing you just blurt out after hello. I couldn't go barging into her quarters or just comm. her and ask straight out. Good evening Captain. By the way, I know you don't remember telling me you and my father were captured and tortured by Cardassians, but you did, and I let you even though you'd made it clear you didn't want to talk about it, and I was wondering if you'd mind telling me if that all really happened or if your mind was creating scenarios for you while you were in that drugged-out haze.

Yeah, somehow I'm having trouble coming up with a way to broach the subject. But on the other hand, I also haven't wanted to do anything to make her readjustment to being back here any more difficult than it must be already. If she's been having anything like the kind of trouble that I have been with it, bringing it all back up isn't going to do anything to help.

As I look her over carefully, I can see that I can't wait much longer. Eventually, and especially once she goes back on duty, it's going to be too difficult to cross back over that line of captain and crewman, and I might lose the courage to ask at all.

I have to ask. I have to know.

"Any chest pain whatsoever?"

"No."

"Excessive tiredness or tenderness anywhere unusual?"

"Neither."

"How about your digestive system? Any –"

"Doctor, I have no residual symptoms whatsoever. I happen to be blessed with an amazing physician who works miracles of restoration, and he has done his job remarkably well yet again."

"Well." The doctor seems fazed by her open praise and I think I even hear him sniff almost…emotionally. "I appreciate that, Captain."

"I thought you might," she quips, spotting us as he turns and rolling her eyes up to the ceiling, making me fight the smirk she inspires.

"Ah, Lieutenants," the doctor greets us, a disturbingly sunny smile on his face. "Only ten minutes late this morning. By your standards, that's early."

"Tom, B'Elanna," the captain nods to both of us. "Here for the baby's checkup?"

B'Elanna and I both nod.

"Doctor, have we finished here?"

"Your scans reveal nothing of concern." He sighs. "Very well, Captain. I hereby officially restore you to active duty."

"Thank you. Let me know how it goes, B'Elanna," she adds. She's already on her feet, having pushed herself off the edge of the biobed to stand. She's almost reached us and as I realize her intent is to head right for the bridge, I exchange a look with B'Elanna, who squeezes my hand and nods encouragingly. She knows what I've been thinking, and she's letting me know she agrees that it might be now or never.

"Captain, did you have a minute?"

She stops, turning slowly and looking at me oddly. "Of course, Lieutenant. What can I do for you?"

"Uh," I scratch the back of my neck awkwardly. She's back in captain mode – already. Damn, this isn't easy. "I wondered if you wouldn't mind if we could talk."

Her chin lifts a notch. "Certainly. What's on your mind?"

"Uh…actually, I meant privately."

Her eyes narrow in a very hard, assessing way. I can feel myself shrinking slightly under her scrutiny, but her expression lightens a few seconds later. "I was just on my way to the bridge. Unless it's something urgent…why don't we set aside some time later on?"

I nod, getting the sinking sensation in my stomach that I'm being put off but unwilling to press her…not just now. "Sure, Captain. See you on the bridge." My voice sounds empty, but I hope I at least masked the disappointment in it well enough

She flashes the smile at me – the one I haven't seen in a good two and a half months, no three now – and pats my arm on her way out the door.

I suppose it can't hurt too much to give her a few days to settle in, can it?

B'Elanna beckons me over to where the doctor is just activating the screen above her reclining form and then all thoughts of the past flee from my mind as my future is revealed in front of me in the form of a tiny, pulsing heart beat.

 ***

Twenty


Kathryn


I fix the final pip to my collar, scrutinizing my appearance like I would a cadet under inspection. And I'd pass, I decide. Every hair is perfectly in place, the uniform perfectly crisp and devoid of a single wrinkle. The hollows of my cheekbones are already filling out, the color returning to my cheeks. My eyes still require a heavy bit of makeup to conceal the circles under them, but I've discovered that a slight shimmer to the shadow I apply to my lids helps counteract the residual dullness in my eyes, the only remnant of my most recent trek through hell.

I only have five minutes to be in the conference room for our early morning briefing, time for one last…

He appears behind me, steaming mug in hand, which he reaches around in front of me to curl into my already twitching fingers. His soft smile crinkling the corners of his eyes as his hands come to my shoulders, working the knots leftover from this morning's wakeup activities like a pro.

"That's a lot of tension for this hour of the morning."

"Mmm," I groan. "Talk to Seven."

"She demolish you on the hoverball court again last night?"

He knows better than to ask right after I come back, especially if I've got that look on my face.

"Demolish is a strong word."

"It is," he agrees.

"Well, it was more like pulverized." He winces sympathetically. "She has no concept of the word pity – make another bad 'irrelevance' joke, and you're a dead man," I caution, pointing at his reflection warningly.

"Wouldn't dream of it. Not at this hour of the morning, anyway." I hear the quiet laughter in his voice but he hides it well enough, for the most part.

"I knew I liked you for a reason."

"Tom asked for an appointment with you again."

I freeze only slightly, but I know he feels it. "Not today, Chakotay."

His hands stop moving only briefly. "You can't avoid him forever, Kathryn."

"I'm not avoiding him. My schedule's too full," I dismiss lightly. Even if it's the lie we both know it is; my schedule is always too full, but I always manage to fit in crew concerns in spite of it. He says nothing to that, simply resuming the tantalizing motion of digging his fingers into the knots at the base of my neck, and I make the near purring sound only he can wring from me, closing my eyes and leaning back into his magic hands. "Remind me to promote you later, will you?" I murmur, anxious to change the subject but undeniably near ecstasy at the melting, molten pleasure spreading through my aching shoulders and neck.

He grins. My eyes aren't open, but I can feel it as his lips press warm into the skin of my neck just above my collar and the rest of him presses up behind me, letting me know what the sounds I'm making are doing to him. In case I didn't know damned well already. "That might be a little difficult. Two captains on one ship could get to be confusing, don't you think?"

"Right." I frown. "I suppose that's why you had to take the demotion in the first place, isn't it?" He smiles, the soft smile again if I know him at all, his hands never stopping their miraculous motions. Taking the first and best sip from the perfectly prepared coffee, my eyes open to regard his well groomed appearance in the mirror, and I meet his eyes. "Well, I'll just have to come up with something else to thank you, then, won't I?" This time, it's me that smiles, wickedly as he swallows hard, his hands pausing for the second time, and then I laugh, turning into him.

"No time like the present," he murmurs hopefully, his arms coming around me with no regard for the hot drink I'm still balancing in my right hand, his head angling down until his mouth hovers over mine. Fortunately, I have plenty of practice at handling both coffee and first officer simultaneously, and I dodge his kiss easily.

Leaning up instead, I press a soft line of kisses along his jaw, stopping just below his ear. My teeth sinking into his earlobe and nipping hard, I let my body slide slowly back down the length of his and promise, "Later, Commander." And shove him away as he tries to keep me against him, a low growl issuing from deep in his throat. "We have three minutes left to be on the bridge," I shrug. "I can't be late to my own briefing."

"You're the worst damned tease I've ever met, you know that?" he growls, his eyes moving like smoldering flame over me as I expertly dodge another attempt to catch me back to him. I can't entirely blame him. This is the first morning I've felt up to anything like this level of play with him since I've been back.

"Yes," I acknowledge freely, laughing and ducking through the doors leading out into the living room as he follows. "I am. And at times, I almost feel sorry for you."

"No, you don't."

"All right, I don't," I admit, still grinning. "But it's only teasing if I have no intention of following through, and I promise you, I do…eventually. In the meantime…" I indicate the door. "Are you coming?"

"I think I need a minute now, thank you," he grits, and my eyes follow his hands as he pointedly adjusts his waistband, seeing the fit of his pants is now uncomfortably snug, and I can't quite help grinning at his predicament.

"You started it," I have to remind him, very little sympathy for him coloring the amusement in my voice.

I take a last sip and recycle the cup, and his soft curse has me laughing again as I leave him standing in my living room.

The smile is easier to plaster on my face this morning as I traverse the corridor to the turbolift, greeting the crewmen I pass with every ounce of acting ability I possess, knowing who and what awaits me in the briefing room and doing my damnedest not to think about it.

Maybe, just maybe, today will be a little better than yesterday was. Maybe it'll take less effort to make it through the day while simultaneously avoiding the one person I don't want to see.

Maybe.


Tom


I guess I always thought that if anyone could hide on a ship this size, it would be me.

I guess I was wrong. The captain has given me one hell of a run for my credits this past month. I've never encountered anyone this proficient in the art of avoidance, even if it's a specific kind of avoidance. Because she's not avoiding me, exactly; somehow, she's found time even in the middle of her busiest few days to make sure I'm holding up all right after our ordeal. She always finds an opportunity to send an extra smile or encouraging pat on the back my way. She makes sure to ask after B'Elanna, checking she isn't overtaxed in Engineering and that she's getting enough down time, staying updated on the baby's progress. She just somehow manages to do it all under circumstances where I don't have the slightest chance of getting into anything serious, either on the bridge or in the shuttlebay where the Delta Flyer has been being reconstructed.

When I can track her down off-duty at all, she always manages to find some excuse for not being able to stay wherever I find her. At first I couldn't blame her: we both had a lot to catch up on and two and a half months worth of reports to write up. We've been busy with repairs, routine maintenance, rebuilding: the usual. So the first week I couldn't manage a one on one with her, I attributed it to the above. The second week, I chalked up to coincidence. Sometime around the three week mark of being completely unable to have more than a thirty second exchange with her at one time was when I realized she was deliberately avoiding me. The captain makes a point of being assessable to the crew as possible, and that's true especially of the senior staff.

Last time I checked, I was still a member of said group, and none of the others seemed to be having the same difficulty, including Seven.

That was when the challenge, in my mind, was set. All right, Captain, I decided when she excused herself from her ready room though she'd just gotten there, claiming an urgent appointment with Tuvok and leaving me with a pat on the arm and the scent of the half-full cup of coffee sitting on her desk without a backward glace. My eyes had narrowed in on her retreating form. You want to play hard ball? Fine by me; I've learned from the best.

Unfortunately, so has she.

No effort to meet up with her during the times she was in Sickbay for her continued checkups paid off. She always managed to outwait me by engaging the doctor in conversation for much longer than I'd given her credit for being able to stand. The messhall was unfortunately the same, substituting Neelix in for the doctor, of course. When she used Chell the fifth time, actively and voluntarily engaged him in a conversation about Bolian customs, I knew I was bested there. If she was willing to listen to a thirty minute explanation of Bolian tea ceremony etiquette, I knew I needed a change of strategy.

I started using B'Elanna and the captain's interest in the baby. She started using Chakotay and his interest in the baby. Three times, B'Elanna contrived to maneuver the captain into a more intimate setting under the pretext of seeking her advice on some minor decision or another. The first time, the captain claimed a forgotten appointment just as I was "accidentally" arriving to spend some quality time with my wife. The second two times, she came prepared; Chakotay accompanying her on both occasions, explaining that the captain had invited him to lend his support to the subject at hand, also.

I've given it my all, but to no avail. It seems that when the captain doesn't want to be pinned down by a particular member of her crew, she isn't.

She's afraid of me, I've finally realized. Not of me, personally, but rather of what I've seen. On some level, she must have realized how close to broken I saw her. Her report shows how much she remembers of our last week on Jifan; it's enough that she mentions how I had to handle her as best I could while she was under the grip of delusions and hallucinations.

And I doubt she'll ever forgive herself for giving into those drugs at all, let alone so completely.

Chakotay was really the final nail in the coffin. I hadn't realized he'd witnessed my last attempt to pin the captain down for a set date to talk, focused only on the persistent way she kept wriggling out of it, but as she headed for the turbolift after a morning briefing and I made to follow her, I felt a hand on my arm pulling me back around the corner.

"Tom," was all he said, his voice low, shaking his head at me.

"I need to talk to her," I'd replied just as evenly. Just as aware of the bustling activity going on around us as everyone else made their way back and forth across the bridge to their stations. "There are…things I need to know. And she isn't exactly making it easy to get her alone where we can discuss it."

"Give her time."

"I've given her three weeks, Chakotay."

"And I'm asking you as a personal favor to give her a few more."

He was asking me to drop it. I'd thought she'd had the time to get her feet back under her, thought she could handle the conversation or I'd never have asked to talk to her to begin with. But it was that important to him that he asked right then, while we were still on the bridge. Only because I know he knows her, maybe better than I do, did I have to acknowledge the burning intensity in his eyes, the near desperation with which he was making the request. I nodded reluctantly, although at the time I'd no intention of backing off for very long. Yet every time I'd opened my mouth to ask for another meeting, or my eyes had followed her into her ready room and I'd decided enough was enough, and I'd give it one last try, he seemed to be watching and then I'd see the slight shake of his head. The deep frown of disapproval warning me off.

He doesn't want me near her, that much is clear. Still. Neither he nor she has any intention of letting me have this conversation with her. I almost want to ask my father, but somehow, that's even more out of the question. We just don't have that kind of relationship. I couldn't just open the comm. during the next regular data stream and ask him if he was ever captured and tortured…and worse…by Cardassians. If that was the reason things went so far south so quickly between us all those years ago…some of the reason, anyway.

I've slowly had to come to terms with our experience and with the shield of indifference the captain has been rebuilding between us, but it haunts me. It all does. What we went through together, what she went through. Having to listen to her screaming, being helpless to do a damned thing about it. The drugs and those hallucinations. Her thinking I was my father, and then the way she reacted when she thought the guards were the Cardassians (whether from her mind or from her memory). Her face, the terror in her eyes. The way she looked at me, trusting me to lead her – I can't seem to let go of a lot of it. It follows me into my dreams, still, nearly two months later.

And on those nights when it gets the best of me, I get up and out of bed. B'Elanna is having enough problems sleeping as it is with the baby starting to kick. She doesn't need me tossing and turning beside her, too. I've always been a late night person anyway, so I have plenty of tried and true methods of entertaining myself. Tonight I've pulled up Sandrine's on the holodeck. It's been awhile. I leave most of the characters turned off and just help myself to the setting. Randomly sinking pool balls and practicing trick shots is a no brainer when it comes to killing time. I've been going at it for about an hour when I hear the doors slide open.

Looking up, I could not be more surprised to see her walking in. After all this time of trying to track her down, it's she who finds me. I stare, dumbfounded as she approaches the table. She's still in uniform, but she wears the jacket open, a sure indication that she's not feeling quite up to regulation. She stops at the edge of the table. "If you're feeling up to it, Mister Paris, I'll rack 'em up while you pour us a drink."

I stare at her. She easily could have checked the holodeck to see who was on it, but even if she didn't, once she spotted me around the entrance, she could have left before I even noticed her. Why didn't she? Is she slipping?

It's only when I don't offer a response of any kind that she actually finds my eyes. She cocks an eyebrow, and I finally snap out of it. "Sure," I blurt out, moving towards the bar.

"And none of that synthetic stuff," her voice carries after me as she moves around the table, plucking the balls out of the pockets. "I know you have something good stashed behind that third bottle to the left."

It doesn't surprise me at all that she knows I have a real stash somewhere, but I cant help but be impressed that she also knows exactly where it is. But two can play at this game. "I just might have something for you," I allow. I set two tumblers on the bar and uncork a bottle. "But when my stash runs out, will we switch to that bottle that's tucked behind the tonic water?"

The only indication of surprise that she gives is a pause longer than necessary as she places the triangle on the table. "Oh, I don't think we'll be needing a second bottle tonight. I'm not as young as I used to be."

"None of us is as young and we used to be anymore, sadly." I finish pouring the drinks, leaving the bottle out on the bar. "Not even Naomi. Luckily for you, you have the kind of ageless beauty that stands the test of time."

Straightening up from the now-set table, she winces, and hell, so do I. "You really are losing your touch, Mister Paris. That was the kind of cheesy remark I'd expect from Neelix or even Chell, on a good day. You can't do any better than that?"

I circle to the front of the bar and hand her a glass. "Well, I did have a better line in mind. But something told me calling you the sexiest CO I've ever had the pleasure of serving under would land me either in the brig or on the couch, not to mention Sickbay, and my back really doesn't agree with any of them anymore." I watch her eyebrow come up and grin, satisfied. "How was that?"

"Better," she smirks. "I think we can forgo the brig – this time. No promises on Sickbay." She holds her glass up. "So, what are we drinking to?"

This is the deciding moment. It all rests on what I come up with right now. If I give her a flippant response, the evening will continue with light banter between us. If I give her something more serious, I may get the answers I've been so scared to hear. So desperate to hear. Staring into her eyes, I can't tell which she'd prefer. I can hazard a damned good guess, but then I also can't help the choice I make, either. "How about to Ashley Whitmore?" The tone I use is deceptively casual. "She always enjoyed a good stiff drink."

I watch her eyes, and for a moment the blue seems to almost crystallize with pain. Then she gives a sharp nod and repeats, "To Ashley." And slugs back half her drink without the grimace that should decorate her face with the strength of what I just poured in that glass. She swipes the back of her hand lightly over her mouth, not looking at me but at the table. "It's your break."

It takes me a minute to understand her meaning, but when she stands to the side with pool cue in hand, waiting, I realize that she hadn't set the table up just for show. I select my cue, make my shot and frown when I manage to sink nothing. As we trade places, she hands me her now-empty glass before choosing her shot. Taking the hint, I cross to the bar to refill it.

"I've thought about her more than once the past few weeks. Not just at her service, I mean." Her matter of fact tone surprises me, as does the fact that she spoke next, without further prompting, but I don't turn back to her. "I can't help but wonder if maybe she was the lucky one."

That's not an observation you generally hear people speak aloud. Think, yes. Agonize over, ponder into the ground, but not speak. The strike of the balls against each other punctuates her comment, and my hand jerks, spilling the drink slightly as I pour.

"Solids," she announces, without looking up. "After all, survival sure is a hell of a lot harder than dying. Four in the corner."

"Captain?"

What does she mean by that? I turn in time to see her miss her shot. She straightens, giving the errant ball a glare for good measure.

"Don't get me wrong, Tom. I'm thankful to be here, of course." She plucks the glass from my hand. "But it just never seems to get any easier. It's your shot."

I move numbly towards the table, trying to categorize all the things she's saying, the things she's not saying and think of the best way to respond, all the while trying to find a decent shot open on the table. I manage to sink the ten.

"This isn't the first time I've had to work my way back." Her voice hitches for the first time, and I look up. She immediately looks away. She'd been watching me. Her gaze isn't something one doesn't feel when it's on you, but I understand what she means, what she's talking about now.

I check the table. "Fourteen. Side."

I miss. She doesn't move immediately, studying the table from her seat instead. I can only lean my cue against the bar, relieved that she hasn't drained her glass a second time. Pushing herself to her feet, she brushes past me.

"Those drugs Gwi…he gave me, they made it easy for him to get me to talk about my past. Well, no, not just talk. They made it more so it was as if I relived it. And of course with the proper encouragement from him, it didn't take much for my mind to wander to the most horrible memories instead of the more pleasant ones." She calls her shot and makes it. "Not that I really remember any of it first hand, but he made a point to…dissect and examine every painful point for me once I was back in the land of coherence. To rub my nose in them, so to speak."

My hatred for the alien explodes again, goes higher, and I hadn't thought that possible. It wasn't enough that he physically thrashed her to within an inch of her life. It wasn't enough that they used me against her, abused me in front of her and vice versa, but he'd delved into her mind, as well. Consciously, not by accident. He'd dredged up old demons and God knows what else on purpose so that he could use it against her.

If someone did that to me…I shudder to think of all the material they'd have had to choose from. And knowing the extent of some of the captain's past experiences now…

She takes a seat beside me, and I realize belatedly that she finished her turn. I jump up as she reaches calmly for her drink. Considering she's been doing all the talking, she's handling this a lot better than I am, which I guess really was her point of avoiding me all along. This conversation was only going to happen when she was ready for it and on her terms.

I haphazardly call a shot and end up scratching.

She retrieves the cue ball from the pocket and makes a tsk-ing sound, and the tips of my ears go red; it was a rookie mistake, and we both know it. Retreating to the bar, I refill both of our glasses while she makes the best of the basically free shot I gave her. Resolving to give her a better game if I get another shot at the table as she sinks another, leaving her with only two on the table, I clear my throat. "I had wondered if you remembered the…uh, hallucinations."

It's the first time I've prompted her in the conversation. She glances quickly at me and then back to the table. "No. I don't remember." She sinks the two ball. "Not exactly, anyway. Gwiln…" she strangles slightly on his name but manages to say it this time, "knew things about my past that I must've told him. The death of my father and fiancé. Circumstances of the death of crewmen, on Voyager and before. My relationship with Chakotay."

It's her turn to blush as she mentions this last bit, leaving me to wonder what she told him and how he must've used it against her. She misses her shot and heads for her drink, sparing me a thankful nod for refilling it. I manage to sink two balls in the time it takes her to pick the conversation back up.

"I was surprised that Gwiln never mentioned one of my more…trying experiences."

I can't help but pause, holding my breath, wondering if we've reached the one thing I've been trying to grasp.

She continues, "I can't imagine that he wouldn't have jumped on the chance to use it against me if I had told him about it, but he didn't. Not that I can recall, anyway."

She pauses, and I somehow sink a straight shot. Amazed that I just made that, I take a chance and glance up at her as I come around the other side. She doesn't notice. Her eyes are focused on the table, but I know she isn't seeing it, just as I'm only going through the motions of breathing but not seeming to take in any oxygen. My heart pounds.

"And yet, I remember having thoughts about it…just flashes really, like all the others." She frowns and shakes her head. Looking up, she catches me watching her. My heart continues to pound. Was that my answer? Is she telling me that her hallucinations were real?

She isn't done. "It makes me think the drugs really did cause me to re-experience it again. But by that time, I was experiencing the memories in conjunction with real life events as they occurred around me, so they were all mixed together." It's the first time she's held my eye. "By the end, it was all one large blur of past and present. It was difficult to tell where I was and what time period I was in in any given moment. Everything was constantly mixing together."

She leaves the sentence hanging there in the air. Open-ended. It's a challenge. An offer. Her eyes hold mine across the room. And I have the chance to get my answers. She's said all of her hallucinations were true in origin. But she also just told me they weren't all strictly accurate in the end. And she's waiting for me to ask my questions, the ones I've been dying, burning to ask, but she isn't volunteering to open the subject. If I want to know, I have to ask. She's offering me another piece of her soul, leaving the ball in my court.

She's also begging me not to take it. By letting me know just what Gwiln used those pieces for, she's letting me know what it will mean to her to have to discuss it, how much it costs for her to have relive any of it. How much it must have cost her already.

I lean down over the table and predictably miss my shot. Despite my best efforts, my head isn't really in the game. She watches me closely as I take my seat next to her. Waiting. The questions swirl in my mind. So many I'd wanted, felt I've needed answers to. Specifics and verifications I've been convinced will give me peace of mind to have.

And I'm wondering how much they're worth now, at that kind of price. Can I really keep demanding to pursue this, at the cost of that look in her eyes? The look I remember nearly destroying both of us back in that prison cell?

I've been convinced that I've needed to know if it was the truth. Convinced that I'm not going to be able to rest without those answers. I look up at her, meeting her eyes. She's still waiting, her chin up and head tilted back. Preparing for the onslaught of my inquiries. Preparing to hold up under the inquisition as best she's able to.

I gesture to the table. "It's your shot."

For a brief moment, her eyes become brighter…it could have been from tears welling up, but I prefer not to think that. She purses her lips and slides off the stool, heading for the table, where she sinks her last ball and then the eight ball.

I challenge her to another game, and we go best two out of three. We trade stories back and forth. At one point, I tell her about crashing my father's shuttle into the lake. She laughs and assures me she'd heard a different version. He did notice, after all.

And it turns out he was absurdly proud of me for the stunt I pulled in getting it out of the docking yard in the first place. Boasted about it, even, because it reminded him of the kind of antics he'd pulled as a cadet. While I'm trying to wrap my mind around the magnitude of just how little I really know the man I call my father, a soft chime sounds, and we realize someone else wants to use the holodeck. It's almost 0700, and we've been here for hours, somehow. Fortunately, I do have the rations to back up the time we've spent in here.

Chakotay enters as we unlock the doors. I hadn't noticed her locking them. Then again, I hadn't noticed her entering, either. I tense as he appears and his eyes find me first, but then I see plainly that his smile is easy. "Morning, Tom."

He knew she'd been coming. And he obviously knew she was ready this time. I greet him back, putting away the bottle and glasses the captain and I had been using.

He holds up a padd at her. "The computer told me I'd find you here. I was on my way to the bridge. Thought you might want to have a look at the bridge rotation before the morning briefing."

They still go through the motions of keeping up appearances, even in front of me. It's actually rather cute, considering all three of us know that I know he probably just rolled out of her bed and had been well aware of where she was the whole time.

"Of course." She smiles. "Well, Mister Paris, I think we'll have to continue our game later." She racks her cue and begins to fasten her jacket, stopping to run her hands through her hair at the small mirror over the bar.

Another chime sounds, signaling that someone else really did have the holodeck booked for this morning.

"Anytime, Captain. For now, though, I think I better get home and wake B'Elanna before we're both late for our shift."

"You didn't set the alarm?" she asks, looking for all the galaxy like she just slept eight hours instead of staying up all night playing pool.

"Well, it seems she's been sleeping through it, lately. Guess the baby isn't used to keeping Voyager hours like the rest of us yet."

"She'll learn soon enough, I'm sure. If not, let me or Chakotay know."

"We'll see what we can do to have someone cover her for the early morning shift and let her take beta, instead," he agrees.

By "let" he means encourage, and strongly, because it's B'Elanna's prerogative on how to make up the duty roster in Engineering. We also all know how dead set she is against letting pregnancy change a single thing about the way it's currently set up.

"Thanks." I nod gratefully as we exit the holodeck, and all three of us nod at the crewman waiting patiently outside the doors. The turbolift arrives, and we state our destinations. It goes down first, heading for my deck.

The doors slide open, and I step out, pausing long enough to look back at them. Chakotay's hand is supportively on the small of her back, I see now. I swallow and smile. "I'll see you on the bridge, Captain. Commander."

He nods politely, but his attention is really on her.

She quirks a smile at me. "That you will, Lieutenant."

It's the first smile to reach all the way to her eyes in months.

I decide to take it as a good sign.


 

 

End notes: Thanks to everyone who reviewed and stuck with the story, and also thanks to Splvy, Gates, Maja and I think Ria for peeking at parts of the beginning and giving their approval way back when I first started. I think that's all the thanks. Thanks, everyone! :D