Title: Equinox 2: Interludes
Author: Julie Evans
Codes: Torres, Chakotay, Burke, P/T
Summary: Set during and right after the events in the episode "Equinox, Part 2." B‘Elanna and others deal with her feelings about Max Burke‘s betrayal. Sequel to "Equinox 1: Interludes."
Disclaimer: Star Trek and its characters are the property of Viacom/Paramount. I am just borrowing them for fun, not profit.
Notes on the passage of time in the episode Equinox 2: As with Equinox 1 I took my best guesses. I assumed at least two days passed during the events of Equinox 2, maybe longer. It certainly took quite a few hours after the Equinox‘s initial escape for Voyager to get the warp drive online and then to locate the hiding place of the Equinox. After the fairly quick events in the planet‘s orbitócapturing the Equinox away team and engaging in the atmospheric fightóHarry said it would take several hours to get the primary systems online again. Then Janeway went after the Ankari ship and intercepted it, and returned to the planet again to re-engage the Equinox. At this point a day and a half to two days probably passed. I‘m assuming that it couldn‘t have been much longer, because during most of this period the doctor is working on taking apart Seven‘s brain, and though he said it was a long process, I‘m thinking many hours, not many days. If much more time had passed he would have achieved his goal and Seven would have been irreparably damaged. After the Equinox is destroyed in that re-engagement I‘m assuming only a few hours passed before Janeway told the surviving Equinox crew what their place would be on Voyager. And a short time after that she and Chakotay were discussing the state of repairs on Voyager and making their hesitant amends to each other. So, for the purposes of this story, I assumed a passage a little over two days from beginning to end of Equinox 2.
Additional notes: Thank you to Janet for beta-reading, and for her excellent advice on how to improve the story. This story can be archived to the ASC, PTF Archive, PTC Archive, and the BLTS. All others, please ask the author for permission.
"Equinox 2: Interludes"
by Julie Evans
Voyager, 2224 hours, approximately 30 hours after the
Equinox crew stole Voyager‘s field generator and escaped:
Chakotay looked surprised to see her standing there as the door to his quarters slid open. He obviously hadn‘t been expecting her to drop by. "B‘Elanna." He recovered quickly enough and stepped back, inviting her in. "What are you doing here?"
She stepped in. "I only have a few minutes. I‘m on a meal break and I wanted toÖcheck on you." She noticed that he was still wearing his uniform. He probably should be getting some sleep. He hadn‘t had any more opportunity than the rest of the crew to sneak in more than short naps and hurried meals when there was a short period of stand-down from red alert. But she wasn‘t surprised he was still awake.
"Did you eat?" Chakotay asked.
It took her several moments to realize that he was referring to her mention of a meal break. An enforced meal break she would have skipped if she could. She scowled. "You sound like Tom. I can figure out when to feed myself, thanks."
Chakotay didn‘t reply. He just gestured toward the couch as they walked into the room, indicating that she should sit down. Then he walked over to the replicator. "Vegetable or chicken noodle?"
He didn‘t flinch at her annoyed glare, and B‘Elanna decided it was easier to choose than to argue. Besides, she probably did need the nourishment. "Chicken noodle."
"How are things in Engineering?" he asked as he waited for the items from the replicator.
"A mess, but the primary systems are online, including the warp drive. At least for the moment." Right now they were en route to intercept the Ankari ship, and still recovering from the pounding they‘d taken engaging the Equinox in an atmospheric fight. But soon enough B‘Elanna knew they would be back to re-engage the Equinox. In the meantime she and most of the crew would be working straight through to make sure that Voyager could withstand another confrontation. And that Voyager could trounce the Equinox this time.
"Though I‘ve spent more time recently in Astrometrics than in Engineering," B‘Elanna added with annoyance. "I never thought I‘d miss Seven‘s presence."
"I have a feeling Seven would prefer to be in Astrometrics right now rather than a prisoner on the Equinox," Chakotay said as he set two bowls of soup on the low table in front of her.
"At least she managed to sabotage their enhanced warp drive before she got caught," B‘Elanna said, almost envious. She thought she might not mind being a prisoner on the Equinox right now, where she could at least have the opportunity to get her hands on Ransom, or Max. She snarled in frustration. "On Voyager we‘ve been outmaneuvered at every point."
Chakotay sat down next to her. "They planned this out, B‘Elanna. They outmaneuvered us because they set up the situation, and left us in the position of reacting to their moves, usually a few seconds too late."
"Right," B‘Elanna growled. "Whatever." It stung that someone she‘d considered a friend, whom she‘d once cared about, had set her up and used her, and then walked away without the least concern for her welfare, or anyone else‘s on Voyager. That he‘d proven to be without conscience or honor. And that she‘d believed he‘d ever cared about her. In Astrometrics she‘d swallowed her pride and personally appealed to him to stop the killing, hoping that he had even the slightest feeling left for her, and that it would make a difference to him. He hadn‘t shown a bit of emotion when he‘d said that he regretted she would be among those who died on Voyager. It still slammed her in the stomach every time she thought about it. She‘d never forgive him. But even worse, he‘d played her for a fool and outmaneuvered her repeatedly, used her own tricks against her and beat her at her own game. For that she wanted to kill him.
"If Max Burke was the one who got the field generator specs, what does it matter?" Chakotay broke the silence, reading her expression. Or maybe he and the captain had figured out the likely culprit on their own. "Burke had access and you had no reason to be suspicious of him," Chakotay added, and then shook his head. "None of us were any more suspicious of anyone on the Equinox."
B‘Elanna scowled and slammed her spoon into her soup. No reason. Apparently not. After all, she hadn‘t asked a single pertinent question when she‘d found Max at one of the command stations in Engineering. Her usual possessive nature about her turf had vanished when he‘d started flirting with her. For gods‘ sakes, she‘d even flirted back with him. She‘d rambled like an idiot when he‘d started coming on to her, absurdly flattered that he was still attracted to her, thinking it was harmless and kind of sweet even though he knew how she felt about Tom.
Harmless. He wasn‘t attracted to her. He‘d been robbing her and Voyager blind, and she‘d acted like a complete fool and let him do it. Maybe she could blame it all on her sentimental human side this time.
"B‘Elanna, eat your soup instead of trying to kill it."
She noticed then that she‘d slopped some of the soup onto the table. "Sorry." She managed to rein in her temper long enough to take an obedient sip of the soup. She changed the subject to something only marginally less infuriating. "Why are you here, Chakotay?"
"You must have heard, B‘Elanna," Chakotay said dryly. "The captain relieved me of duty."
"I heard." One more thing to add to her bad mood. "I‘m asking why she thinks she has the right to do that to you."
"She has the right to do it because she‘s the captain. She and I have been inÖstrong disagreement on how to handle this situation with the Equinox."
B‘Elanna saw the small vein throbbing in Chakotay‘s forehead, a sure sign he was angry under his apparent calm. She‘d seen it throb on occasion in the Maquis. "You‘ve disagreed before and she hasn‘t relieved you of duty," she pointed out. "There‘s a rumor going around about the captain‘s interrogation methods of Equinox away teamó"
"Sometimes I wonder if there are hidden cameras all over this ship,"
Chakotay said, shaking his head. "I stopped the captain from doing something she‘d regretó"
"You shouldn‘t have bothered," B‘Elanna said bluntly. So the story was true. As far as she was concerned the Equinox crew deserved everything they were hopefully going to get.
Chakotay‘s mouth was set in a hard line. "I couldn‘t stand by while the captain committed murderó"
"*They* committed murder!" B‘Elanna said angrily. "Not just of the aliens either. Some of our friends are dead because of them." Her spoon clinked hard against her bowl again. "And donít tell me two wrongs don‘t make a right."
"I know you have no sympathy for them, B‘Elannaó"
"Not now," B‘Elanna snarled. "Maybe never."
"Fair enough. But the captain doesn‘t need sympathy either to act in accordance with Starfleet‘s policies, and to what‘s right, rather than sinking to the level ofÖ" Chakotay didn‘t finish that thought. He sighed. "Would you kill someone who was completely defenseless at the moment, B‘Elanna? Is that honorable?"
B‘Elanna snorted. "If you‘re talking about Klingon honorÖin this situation, yes. Fair retribution. If you‘re talking about meÖ" She paused for several moments, and then glared at him, irritated by the way he‘d turned the conversation on her. "I don‘t know," she growled, and gave him a defiant stare. "Maybe I would."
Chakotay nodded, looking suddenly weary. "Maybe we should change the subject."
"Chakotay, I admire your ability to stand by your own principles. I‘m sorry if I don‘t necessarily agree with all of themÖ" B‘Elanna frowned at her soup and added softly, "And I‘m sorry if that disappoints you." Unfortunately there was a lot of that going around lately.
"I‘m not disappointed in you, B‘Elanna," Chakotay said quietly. "You‘re entitled to your feelings. And I‘d rather you feel them than deny them."
B‘Elanna met Chakotay‘s sharp gaze. She knew he was referring to her inability to deal with her feelings about the Maquis. And her anger now, about Max Burke.
Chakotay smiled and squeezed her shoulder. "B‘Elanna, you have plenty of reason to be angry at Max Burke. Just like the captainólike all of usóhave reason to be angry with the Ransom and his crew. We treated them like friends and they betrayed us in the worst way. I don‘t want them to get away with this any more than anyone else does. But I also don‘t want this to destroy any of us in the process."
She had known from the moment she‘d walked in that Chakotay was angry too, maybe as much over what this was doing to the captain and to the morale on Voyager, as he was over the actions of the Equinox crew. She also knew that Chakotay was a master at holding his temper, and at not letting his anger drive his actions. "But it‘s different for me. I knew Max, Chakotay." She frowned. "But maybe he‘s just another example of how bad my judgment can be."
"You knew Max Burke a long time ago, B‘Elanna. Don‘t start doubting your friends now because back then you didn‘t see Max Burke for everything he really was. Or would become."
B‘Elanna shook her head. "I slept with himÖ"
"Thanks for sharing that, B‘Elanna," Chakotay said dryly. "Though I had figured that out already."
She gave Chakotay an annoyed look, and then frowned. "How could I have been intimate with him and not have seen what he was?"
"I slept with Seska," Chakotay reminded her. He gave her an ironic smile. "Welcome to the club of astoundingly bad judgment in past relationships. Just be glad we learn from our mistakes."
B‘Elanna nodded. "I suppose."
"B‘Elanna, I know your pride‘s wounded. Believe me, I‘m familiar with that feeling. But you weren‘t in love with him, were you?"
"No." She was grateful now that she hadn‘t even gotten close. And to think she‘d wondered if there was something wrong with her at the time.
"So maybe you were unconsciously protecting yourself because part of you knew you couldn‘t trust him."
B‘Elanna thought unwillingly of the dream she‘d had the other night, after seeing Max again. Chakotay would probably think it had been some kind of premonition, or intuition, or something equally intangible. As if she could ever recognize that sort of thing. That was Chakotay‘s talent, and she didn‘t really want to consider that she‘d ignored the clues about Max somewhere along the line. She just shrugged, and muttered a noncommittal "maybe."
"Besides, do you think that your judgment hasn‘t improved?" Chakotay asked. "For instance, do you think there‘s even a remote chance that Tom would ever act like Max Burke, and kill without remorse, or that anything could induce him to ever purposely put you in mortal danger?"
B‘Elanna stared at Chakotay. "Since when did this become about Tom?"
Chakotay shrugged. "Is it about Tom, even partly? Do you think because you misjudged Burke once, that you‘ve misjudged Tom too?"
"No, I don‘t," B‘Elanna said defensively. This had nothing to do with Tom. She‘d barely talked to him in two days, but that was because they‘d both been working almost constantly and the few breaks they‘d had hadn‘t coincided. They‘d only crossed paths a couple of times in the briefing room, and there hadn‘t been any opportunity to do more than say a few quick words in passing. So it had been a surly "I‘m fine" on her part, but she wasn‘t avoiding him. She was just feeling angry and unsettled by everything that had happened, like everyone else. And Chakotay didn‘t have to try and infer some hidden meaning. "Why do you even say that, Chakotay? Do you think Tom and Max have something in common?"
"B‘ElannaÖ" Chakotay shook his head. "I only exchanged a few words with Max Burke. He seemed to be a man who could use charm and easy humor to his advantage, and who preferred to keep his real feelings to himself. If that bears a passing resemblance to the way Tom sometimes presents himself, it still doesn‘t say anything about the real character inside." He gave B‘Elanna a penetrating look. "But you should know that even better than I."
"I do," B‘Elanna said. "I know Tom wasn‘t exactly a choir boy in the pastó" Chakotay snorted and looked amused by her choice of words, and B‘Elanna gave him a warning look. "But I trust Tom. And he and Max aren‘t really anything like each other." She hesitated for a moment. "Tom and I may sometimes have our differences, but he would never do anything to hurt me if he could help it," she added quietly. "I do know that also."
"I agree," Chakotay said simply. "If I didn‘t, I would have said something a long time ago."
She smiled a little at that . Then she shook her head. "I always knew Max wasÖshallow in some ways, but most cadets at the Academy were shallow. And I suppose I thought Tom was pretty shallow too when I first met him." She saw Chakotay‘s lips quirk, and she knew full well how Chakotay had felt about Tom at first. "But the strange thing is, I sawÖsomething beneath all of Tom‘s slick charm even back then, a kind ofÖdespair I guess, that he tried to conceal." Her lips own quirked sardonically. "I admit he did hide it well most of the time. But sometimes I could glimpse the hurt. Maybe I recognized it because I felt it sometimes too." She shrugged. "I never saw anything like that in Max when I knew him. I don‘t guess I ever saw anything beneath the surface of Max at all."
"I think the darkness in us is most apparent when we struggle against it," Chakotay said.. "Like Tom has. And you have. And we all do at one time or another. People who are really without conscience...well, maybe the evil lives so comfortably in them that no one can see it. There‘s no real feeling, and no struggle going on inside. And it‘s harder to defeat what you can‘t see always coming until it‘s too late."
"But it‘s not too late," B‘Elanna said sharply. "The Equinox is going to be defeated." And so was Max Burke. "The captain‘s not going to give up until they are, and I for one am glad."
"We may disagree on the methods," Chakotay said, "but I‘d like to see the Equinox defeated as much as anyone. The sooner the better," he added, looking grave. "Before the damage gets any worse."
B‘Elanna wasn‘t sure if he was referring to Voyager, or the crew in general, or to his relationship with the captain. "She still didn‘t need to relieve you of duty."
"Considering the strength of my feelings on the subject, I gave her little option."
B‘Elanna frowned. She hated these conflicting feelings of allegiance in her. Janeway was her captain, whatever disagreements they‘d had in the past, and she agreed with the captain‘s position in this case. But she owed a great deal of loyalty to Chakotay. "Chakotay, if it came down toó"
"Don‘t even think it, B‘Elanna," Chakotay said softly. "You owe Captain Janeway your allegiance, not me. The only way that should ever change is if your own conscience dictates otherwise, without any reservations whatsoever. None. And that‘s not the case here. The captain will do what‘s right in the end."
B‘Elanna wasn‘t sure Chakotay completely believed that, but she smiled reluctantly and shook her head. "Ever the optimist, Chakotay." She looked down at her soup and was surprised to see the bowl was empty. She‘d barely noticed that she‘d been eating it during their conversation.
"I need to get backó"
Her commbadge beeped before she could finish her sentence and Chakotay smiled. "You were saying?"
"Mulcahy to Torres."
"Lieutenant, we‘re having some problems with the antimatter containment field. It‘s stable but the field is fluctuating by .02 percent and we‘re not sure whyó"
"I‘ll be right down," B‘Elanna interrupted the ensign. "Torres out."
"You‘d better get back to work, B‘Elanna," Chakotay said as they both stood. "And I guess might as well try to get some sleep."
Chakotay didn‘t look like he wanted to sleep. He looked restless and frustrated, and B‘Elanna knew it must be irking him not to be able to contribute right now. She frowned, and Chakotay shook his head, reading her expression again.
"It will work out, B‘Elanna," he said, his hand on her shoulder nudging her toward the door. "In a day or two this will be resolved, one way or the otherÖ" he paused for a moment as they reached the door. "And I‘d like to believe that in the end it will be resolved in a way we can all live with."
B‘Elanna turned as the door opened. "If I can do anything for you, let me know."
"I‘ll be fine," Chakotay said firmly, practically pushing her out the door.
She turned around in the corridor.
"You can do one thing for me. Don‘t let Max Burke have any power over you. Be angry, be hurt, but accept it and then don‘t let him score any more points at your expense. He‘s not worth it. Get your revenge by getting on with your own life, and with Tom, and dismiss him into the past."
"Is that how you dealt with Seska‘s betrayal?" B‘Elanna asked quietly.
"Yes, it is," Chakotay said. "Though without Tom, of course."
B‘Elanna snorted at Chakotay‘s sly look. "Very funny." She couldn‘t help smiling. She was glad Chakotay hadn‘t lost his sense of humor because of all this. Her smile faded a little, and she addressed his actual request. "I‘ll try."
Chakotay nodded. "Good enough."
B‘Elanna glanced back one more time as she turned the corner and she saw Chakotay‘s door close. She decided that he was right. Max Burke wasn‘t worth it. He never had been. She wasn‘t going to suffer over his betrayal or berate herself because he‘d taken advantage of her. She just might see him again, in Voyager‘s brig. It would be the safest place for him, because one thing hadn‘t changed.
If she ever got her hands on him, she still planned to tear his heart out.
The Equinox, 1307 hours, the following day:
Was it true that your entire life passed before your eyes right before you died, those few seconds as your existence ceased stretching almost endlessly into a tapestry of reflections on what your life was, and what it might have been? Could you think a lifetime of thoughts in those few measly seconds while your body was being devoured, disintegrated from the outside in, like a piece of paper in a flame? Even as your body is dying, could it be that your mind makes one last Herculean protest against death, every synapse firing at once in a multitude of activity, in an explosion of simultaneous thoughts that stretch out in one prolonged moment that finally expands to encompass infinity, or is snuffed out by eternal darkness?
It seemed that way to Max Burke as the alien embraced his body and his skin began to shrivel and his organs to melt. Through the agony of the attack his thoughts shot off in a hundred simultaneous directions, and his life passed before him. Even if his eyes were quickly scorched and blinded, he could see it all. The careless, easy existence of his childhood and youth, the casual, transient way he‘d approached love and friendship, the cool, calculated choices he‘d made on the Equinoxó millions of moments and memories all escaping from his mind in one frantic forceful burst. The later choices stood out.
He had no regrets. He‘d remained loyal to the goal, determined to return home no matter the cost, whether it was the lives of those inconsequential aliens or the lives of everyone aboard Voyager. If some had changed their minds at the last moment and abandoned the goal because of an attack of "conscience," it was their betrayal, not his. To turn back would have been nothing less than failure. He‘d been willing to sacrifice everything and everyone, including B‘Elanna. Including the last vestiges of himself, that old self that had once known B‘Elanna at the Academy, that person who‘d still retained the smallest capability of moving his life in a different direction. Of perhaps even realizing love. A part of him that had always been elusive, and could no longer even be found.
He might have loved B‘Elanna, once. Of anyone, she had come the closest, and he had almostóalmostóloved her. If he had loved her, perhaps she could have loved him. And if he had loved heróif it had been in him to love heróthen she might have saved him.
Except that he didn‘t need to be saved. He‘d done what was necessary, that was all. If she‘d believed too highly of him, that was her own fault. If she was disappointed, or hurt by his actions, Tom Paris would no doubt comfort her. Hold her. Love her and make her forget.
He‘d given Tom Paris that opportunity. It was an opportunity he could have taken away if he‘d stayed on Voyager, because he could have had B‘Elanna back. He could have had any of the women there, but it would have been B‘Elanna. Even if he didn‘t love her, even if Paris did, so what? He‘d always been good at pretending. And he‘d wanted to beat Tom Paris. He‘d seen it in Paris‘s eyes, the shadows there of a man who‘d almost lost his soul. But Paris had reclaimed his soul before it was too late, and B‘Elanna loved him because of it. He‘d lost his own opportunity to change that, but Paris hadn‘t won.
Because he could have had B‘Elanna back. And if a tiny thought, buried somewhere deep in the avalanche of thoughts colliding through his mind, actually doubted that he would have succeeded, and regretted the pain he‘d caused B‘Elanna, and even hoped that Tom Paris would give B‘Elanna everything she deservedóeverything he‘d never given heróit couldn‘t surface above the weight of the rest. The bittersweet was overwhelmed by the unrepentant.
Eventually, it happened. The immeasurable handful of seconds passed, and his thoughts, swirling over each other, innumerable yet distinct, coalesced into one maelstrom of sudden incoherence, joined in agony with his body as his brain broiled. A bleak and vicious darkness clawed at him, screaming and rending his soul. Through the unexpected terror, a final desperate thought burst from his mind as the encroaching black pit yawned in front of him.
He feared the darkness.
So he repented. He shied away from the nothingness, and he begged for forgiveness. In the nanosecond left to him he cried out in fear, and pleaded for one last chance to change everything.
But it was too late. As his body shriveled and his mind fell apart, and the black emptiness ignored his plea and swallowed him, he, lastly, cursed them allóthe aliens, Ransom and the rest of the traitors on the Equinox, the Voyager crew, Tom Paris, and B‘Elannaóand he consigned them all to join him in hell.
Then his body died, and his mind with it. And where his soul had been, there was nothing.
Voyager, 2311 hours, nearly ten hours after the Equinox was destroyed:
Tom walked into the Mess hall, not surprised to find it nearly deserted. The most critical repairs had been made, and after three days of near constant duty for many, including himself and B‘Elanna, Janeway had ordered a large number of the crew off duty at 2200 for the next twelve hours. He couldn‘t help but wonder at the time if the captain‘s order had included herself.
He‘d tracked B‘Elanna down immediately when he‘d gotten off shift, but when he‘d found out where she‘d gone, he‘d elected to wait. He‘d stopped by Sickbay, where there were still a few patients from the last skirmish with the Equinox, relieved to see that the doctor seemed to be fully himself again, acerbic humor and all. Then he‘d taken a long hot water shower to wash away the grime and tension of the past couple of days. Finally he‘d checked again on B‘Elanna‘s whereabouts and had been informed that she was here.
She was sitting at a table next to the window, alone. B‘Elanna wore her moods so openly that most of the crew knew exactly when to avoid her, and right now there might as well be an impenetrable force field around her.
He stopped at the kitchen first, where Neelix was still behind the counter. Neelix smiled at him and glanced over at B‘Elanna. "She just came in a few minutes ago."
Tom nodded. "Tarkelian tea?"
Neelix nodded back. While raktajino was probably B‘Elanna‘s favorite drink, Tarkelian tea was her drink of choice when she was tense or angry. Tom started to ask for a refill, and for a cup for himself, but Neelix was already setting a warm pot on the counter, along with an empty cup. He must have had them waiting.
"You were expecting me?" Tom asked dryly.
Neelix smiled. "I assumed if B‘Elanna was here, you would be showing up not far behind."
Tom picked up the pot and the empty cup. "I guess I‘ll go see if she‘s in the mood for company."
"I wouldn‘t suggest just anyone approach her right now, but you‘re hardly just anyone," Neelix said, looking confident.
Tom smiled. "Thanks, Neelix."
"You bet." Neelix held up a datapadd. "And don‘t forget you have to sign up for the potluck tomorrow."
"Just put me down for pizza," Tom said.
"Okay." Neelix was shaking his head as Tom turned away. "No one will ever guess."
Tom forgot about the potluck as he walked across the room. B‘Elanna hadn‘t seen him yet. She was staring at the stars, her posture tense and her expression distant and preoccupied. He‘d expected to finally run her down in her quarters, but maybe she‘d come here to unwind after her time in the holodeck. He‘d been surprised to find out that she‘d gone to the holodeck in the first place. It wasn‘t offline, but under Voyager‘s current power constraints the available programs were limited to those with a stationary background that used rudimentary power levels, which meant mostly systems training programs. B‘Elanna didn‘t need the assistance of any programs related to Engineering, and she wasn‘t likely to be taking recurrency training on Voyager‘s other systems at the moment. What she was actually doing had occurred to him quickly enough, and he‘d realized that any basic holoprogram setting would suffice as long as she could route enough power to add in one additional character.
He stood silently next to her table for nearly a full minute before she sensed his presence. Finally she turned around slowly. She looked as tired and drawn as he felt, but sometimes it seemed like B‘Elanna had almost endless reserves.
"Hey," he said softly, his standard greeting. He tried not to make it too soft, since in certain moods B‘Elanna didn‘t respond. Her only response now was to grunt something that might have also been "hey," and then turn her gaze back to the window.
He waited several moments before he spoke again. "Do you want me to leave?"
She moved her gaze back to him and they looked at each other silently. Finally she shook her head slowly. He accepted the invitation and sat down across from her. He refilled her cup and then filled his own, and set the pot on the table.
"Thanks," she said quietly as she picked up her cup.
He nodded and leaned back in his chair, cradling his warm cup in his hands. After several moments she narrowed her eyes at his scrutiny. "I‘m not going to bite your head off, Tom," she said irritably. Then her expression softened and she sighed. "Really. I‘m too tired."
Tom‘s lips quirked. "Good." He took a sip of his tea. "So, how many times did you kill him?"
B‘Elanna‘s eyebrows rose momentarily, but she didn‘t appear all that surprised by his deduction. Even though an unexpected revelation or character quirk still surfaced from time to time to keep things interesting, by this point they‘d come to know each other pretty well. "Four," she said with grim satisfaction, and a touch of defiance.
"Four," Tom echoed. He sipped his tea again. "Where?"
"In Storage Bay Three."
That was a simple simulation, but a cluttered one, with lots of nooks and crannies. "Giving him a chance to hide, were you?"
"Not for long," she said evenly.
Tom smiled. He wished he‘d been there. "How?"
"With a wrench."
Tom‘s eyebrows rose. "With a wrench?"
"It was handy," she said shortly. "The first time. Then I used the barrel of a phaser, then a laser cutter, then a bat‘leth."
"Well, I‘m glad you didn‘t leave your Klingon side out of it," Tom quipped dryly.
B‘Elanna gave him a hard stare. "I don‘t care if you, or Tuvok, or
anyone else approves of my methodsó"
"Hey," Tom protested. "Donít lump me and Tuvok together. And it was only a simulation. I don‘t see that it‘s much different than pounding a punching bag in the gym. We all need a physical outlet sometimes. Well, except for VulcansÖmaybe." He took another drink of his tea. "I would have been glad to help you, you know."
"I didn‘t need any help," B‘Elanna said shortly. Then she added in a softer voice, "Thanks for the offer though."
"Well, maybe next timeÖ" Tom said. That elicited a small smile from B‘Elanna. He shook his head slowly. "In the end, especially if those aliens got him, his death was probably a lot more painful than anything you could have done to him."
Tom thought he saw something flash in her eyes, maybe regret or sadness, and she pressed her lips tightly together. Then it was gone, and she said brusquely, "Good."
Tom didn‘t feel the least bit of sympathy for Max Burke himself. After several hours in Sickbay seeing the pain and death of his shipmates and friends that Burke had helped cause without any compunction, he thought Burke‘s own death hadn‘t been nearly painful enough. And if Burke had caused B‘Elanna even the smallest amount of grief, then the man doubly deserved every agonizing moment he‘d suffered. And more. "B‘Elanna, I am sorry that you had to go through this. I know he was your friend once."
"I don‘t think he ever really was," B‘Elanna smiled, though it was melancholy. "It‘s not like I loved him, or even thought about him more than maybe half a dozen times in the past ten years. I don‘t dwell on my days at the Academy, but at least that part was a pleasant memory. I thought it meant at least that much to him too. I thought I meant at least that much to him once, enough that he might actually have a second thought over dismissing my life so easily." She shrugged dismissively, though he could see it still had some effect on her. "So, it wasn‘t true. It‘s not the only part of my life that‘s ever been a lie."
Despite the fact that he‘d despised Max Burke almost from the moment he‘d met the man, Tom didn‘t like seeing B‘Elanna‘s sense of disillusionment, over Burke or over part of her past again. "Maybe he was different back then, B‘Elanna. Maybe he really did care about you, but the years in the Delta quadrant sent him over the edge, and leached any feelings out of him."
"The Delta quadrant hasn‘t sent us over the edge," B‘Elanna pointed out sharply.
"We didn‘t have it nearly as bad at the Equinox. Sometimes desperation can push people to do things they regretó"
"Max never showed any regret, Tom," B‘Elanna said harshly. "Not any." She set her cup on the table with a clatter. "Why are you defending him?"
"I‘m not!" But it sure sounded like he was, he realized. Why? Because he was defending himself more than he was defending Max Burke? Because maybe the thing he hated most about Burkeóbeyond Burke‘s willingness to commit murder and destroy Voyager without a shred of remorse, even beyond that Burke had hurt B‘Elanna and had callously discarded her life tooówas the fact that Burke reminded him of himself back in those hellish days when he‘d come so close to letting himself sink completely into an amoral abyss. There was a period when he might have become Max Burke, and the thought was disturbing.
B‘Elanna was looking at him, her brief flare of animosity replaced by a puzzled look.
"I just don‘t want you to be hurt by memories from your past again," he said quickly.
B‘Elanna was silent for several moments. Then she shrugged. "I‘ll get over it. Max really wasn‘t worth any more thought than I‘ve already given him. I mean that. He‘s not even worth killing anymore."
She sounded like she meant it, and Tom was relieved, though he frowned in mock disappointment. "I really wanted my chance at him."
"I won‘t tell anybody if you take your best shot at him," B‘Elanna said. "The program‘s retrievable." She gave him a conspiratorial, almost ruthless smile. "Storage Bay Three does have lots of potential weapons laying around. All the cluttered containers and boxes make for anÖexhilarating hunt, and a good workout at the same time."
Tom smiled back. "Damn, I love it when you‘re bloodthirsty, B‘Elanna."
B‘Elanna opened her mouth to say something in retort, or maybe just to say "thank you," but then her expression froze. Tom turned, following the direction of her gaze, and saw the Equinox crewmembers, who‘d now become part of Voyager‘s crew, albeit stripped of rank and privileges, walk into the Mess hall. Several other heads turned also, and most of their stares were as hostile as B‘Elanna‘s.
B‘Elanna growled low in her throat as she watched them. "The captain should have left them on the Equinox!"
Tom looked at B‘Elanna. "I think she considered them marginally less guilty than Ransom. Or Burkeó"
B‘Elanna snorted. "Just because they were following orders? That doesn‘t exonerate them."
"No, but they didÖact on their conscience finally, to help Voyager escape."
"Too little, too late," B‘Elanna opined harshly.
Acting on conscience belatedly was something else that had once been all too familiar to Tom. He shifted a little uncomfortably as he watched the Equinox crewmembers take a tray of sandwiches from Neelix and walk silently toward a table, keeping their eyes averted from everyone else in the Mess hall. Even Neelix was watching them with ill-concealed resentment as they walked away, and Neelix didn‘t have an unfriendly bone in his body. "Maybe they do deserve a second chanceó"
"You sympathize with them."
Tom realized he‘d inadvertently spoken his thoughts out loud, and B‘Elanna was staring at him, her words practically an accusation. "Maybe a little," he admitted reluctantly. He watched the Equinox crewmembers choose a table in the farthest corner near the wall, behind some potted plants. A corner that he knew offered isolation and refuge from the surrounding malevolent gazes. He‘d sat at that table by himself many times during the first few weeks he‘d been aboard Voyager, when he‘d been a pariah to nearly everyone on the ship, including B‘Elanna.
Tom looked at B‘Elanna again. "I was going to say maybe they deserve a second chance, but it‘s going to take a lot of effort on their part. No one, including me, is going to forget about Pablo, or Olga, or Ryan." The memory of seeing them dead and their bodies desecrated was too fresh in his mind, though it warred with older memories. He really didn‘t know how he felt right now.
"Well, I certainly can‘t forget about them," B‘Elanna agreed darkly. She glared again at the Equinox crewmembers. "I won‘t. No matter what the extenuating circumstance are, or how hard they try to make up for it, they still caused the deaths of three friends, and I don‘t see how that deserves a ‚second chance,‘ or why I should ever forgive them."
Tom shrugged easily, though his heart suddenly felt numb. He looked down at his tea and swirled the remains in his cup. "It‘s a lot to forgive someone for, I know." He hadn‘t meant to make that sound so heartfelt, and he felt B‘Elanna‘s gaze suddenly and intensely focused on him again. He looked up. "I do know how it feels to be on the other side," he added quietly.
"It wasn‘t the same, Tom."
B‘Elanna said it so matter-of-factly that he knew she accepted it without reservation. And it wasn‘t exactly the same, but he‘d been as responsible for the deaths of three people as the Equinox crew was for what they had done. Extenuating circumstances hadn‘t absolved him either. Only time and a second chance to prove himself, to prove that he wasn‘t the sum of his past mistakes, had mitigated his past actions, to himself and to those around him. Including B‘Elanna. It did comfort him that she believed in him so completely now, though it also bothered him that she did so with no real knowledge of that part of his life. They still tended to share the more painful details their pasts reluctantly, in small bits and pieces, usually under the cover of night, as if the darkness could hide the worst aspects. It was especially true of him, since he‘d seen far more of her dark places than he‘d allowed her to see of his. And the darkest place, the still unhealed wound of Caldik Prime, he kept buried as deeply as possible. Someday, he knew he‘d have to tell her all of it. Someday, he‘d have to know if she could hear it allóbeyond the deliberately self-effacing quips he‘d occasionally made, or the couple of times he‘d awakened with the shakes in her presence and downplayed the significanceóand still feel the same.
B‘Elanna‘s fingers closed over his, bringing him abruptly out of himself. "Tom, it wasn‘t the same," she repeated firmly. "They deliberately set us up, and abandoned us, knowing that our defenses were minimal and that the aliens would probably kill some of us. It was no accident. It was intentional."
"No, it wasn‘t the same," he finally agreed, partly in relief. Someday he‘d have to talk about it, but not now. "I won‘t say anything else about themó"
She squeezed his hand. "If you feel some sympathy for them, Tom, that‘s okay. I donít want you to deny that for me. But just don‘t expect me to feel the same. Not yet."
Tom looked up to see Neelix smiling down at them.
"I hope I‘m not interrupting anything," he said apologetically.
Tom shook his head. "What‘s up?"
"I‘m going to call it a night, but I wanted to check and see if you wanted another pot of tea."
Tom looked at B‘Elanna, and she shook her head. "I don‘t think so, Neelix. I have a feeling we‘re going to follow you out of here pretty quickly."
Neelix nodded. "Okay, if you‘re sure I can‘t get you anything elseÖ"
"Go to bed, Neelix," Tom groused mildly. "I know you‘ve been here too long already. You need sleep just like the rest of us."
"Actually, we Talaxians function quite well on very little sleep. We have a certain gland called the arvadian maximal gland, which does mainly regulate the reproductive cycle and heighten sexual stamina, but it also improvesó"
Tom and B‘Elanna said his name in unison, and then looked at each other.
"Sorry," Neelix said sheepishly. "More than you needed to know, right?"
Tom nodded. "I‘m afraid so, Neelix."
"I actually do feel unusually tired," Neelix said. "I guess these past few days have frayed everyone‘s nerves a littleÖ" He glanced at the Equinox crewmembers and a small frown crossed his face. He was clearly not sure how he should deal with them. Then he looked at Tom and B‘Elanna again. "That‘s why I planned the potluck tomorrow." He waved the datapadd in his hand. "So we can all recoup our spirits after everything that‘s happened."
Tom thought it might take a little more than that, with the animosity floating in the Mess hall right now, and after the falling out between the captain and Chakotay. But he didn‘t say so. Maybe it was a start.
"Can I decide what I‘m bringing later, Neelix?" B‘Elanna asked, forestalling the likely question.
"Of course, B‘Elanna," Neelix said agreeably. "I guess it won‘t be gagh."
Tom smiled as B‘Elanna made a face. "No."
Neelix shrugged. "Okay. You can get back to me in the morning. In the meantime, sleep tight, both of you."
"You too, Neelix," Tom said. He watched Neelix leave, and then looked at B‘Elanna. He yawned unexpectedly, and smiled ruefully. "I guess I wasn‘t kidding about being right behind Neelix."
"You do look exhausted, Tom," B‘Elanna informed him, looking him over critically.
"Which hardly seems fair, since you always look beautiful," Tom countered smoothly.
B‘Elanna rolled her eyes. "Since you‘re tired, I‘ll overlook that trite line.
Or maybe because I‘m tired." She rose from the table.
Tom stood up as she did, and actually swayed a little. Apparently the long hours really were catching up to him.
"Need some help to your quarters, Tom?" B‘Elanna asked as she put a hand on his arm to steady him.
"I‘d rather have help to your quarters," he countered softly.
B‘Elanna‘s eyebrows rose and her lips quirked. "Is that a proposition?"
Tom shook his head. "No, I‘d probably just pass out. As much as I try I don‘t have quite your level of stamina. I just want toÖsleep with you," he said, slipping an arm loosely around her waist. Then he flashed her an impudent grin. "At least until my strength is revived," he added, with a meaningful gleam in his eyes. He didn‘t have to tell heróor probably anyone else on the shipóthat their morning lovemaking sessions were often even more physically vigorous than their evening ones.
B‘Elanna grinned back and slipped her arm around his waist as they walked toward the doors. "I think both can be arranged," she said archly. Then she pressed her cheek against his shoulder. "And I think I used the rest of my reserves killing Max four times. Right now I‘m ready to forget these past few days, cuddle up next to a warm body, and go to sleep." She squeezed his waist lightly. "And you are my favorite warm body."
Funny how those lightly teasing words were music to his ears. He didn‘t need to hear any other words or reassurances. It was enough to know that he was here, and Max Burke wasn‘t. That was the bottom line, in a way. He knew it wouldn‘t have made any difference in B‘Elanna‘s feelings for him if Burke had survived, but he selfishly relished the fact that the other man was no longer a presence. It didnít mean his and B‘Elanna‘s relationship would suddenly become any smoother or easier. It certainly didn‘t mean they wouldn‘t continue to argue, or to thrust and parry around their feelings in the strange dance they did with each other, openly exposing a vulnerable bit of themselves one moment, and retreating protectively behind their defensive shields the next. It was a gradual shift, but slowly, inexorably, they were becoming more comfortable with the former, and less dependent on the latter. Harry had once teasingly referred to it as a "one step back, two steps forward" approach to a relationship, but Tom figured as long as the forward steps were outnumbering the backward steps, they were doing okay.
All that had really changed in that equation right now was that Burke was no longer a part of it, and as Tom stepped out of the Mess hall with B‘Elanna, he could only feel glad.
A very few minutes later, after a hasty disrobing and rapid untangling of the sheets on B‘Elanna‘s unmade bed, they collapsed together into each other‘s arms, heaving mutual sighs of pleasure. B‘Elanna spooned herself against Tom and snuggled her back against his chest, almost purring in satisfaction. He draped his arm over her waist, cuddling closer to her, and sighed contentedly. Her hair tickled his nose and he pressed his lips near her ear. "B‘Elanna," he whispered, brushing her earlobe with his lips, the way he‘d done many times before, "you do knowó"
"Yes, Tom," she said softly, her voice drowsy and content. "I do know." Her hand curled over his where it was curved against her waist. She threaded her fingers in his, and murmured in a barely audible voice, drifting already into slumber, "Me, too."
And they both promptly fell asleep.