Continued from Culmination 1/4

For warnings, codes and disclaimer, see part 1/4


Culmination 2/4

I look at him with a start, confusion shrouding my senses as I notice
an expression of enigmatic understanding settle on his face.

"You know? How?"

"It's different," he breathes evenly. "The shell, Tom, it's changed."

"It's your shell, Chak," I say to him, perplexed at his words. "YOUR
SHELL. What are you saying?"

"It's packed with sand."

I blink at him. Sand? So--

"I know you did a good job trying to clean it up, Tom," he continues,
uninterrupted, "But there were still some granules that you couldn't
quite reach even with the sonic-brush. You used the wrong size." His
gaze penetrates mine. "I suggest you use size 3-c the next time you
try to clean a seashell from the inside out."

Sonic brush? Size 3-c? He isn't mad? Instead he's giving me lessons on
shell cleaning? What is going on here?

He looks at my duped expression and frowns. "Tom?" He shakes my arm.

"Aren't all seashells packed with sand?" I offer, baffled.

The corners of his mouth twitch as if a smile is fighting to emerge, a
notion that baffles me even more, but he instantly schools his
expression into one of sobriety.

"Not this shell, Tom," he says. "It was always squeaky clean, had no
sand, nothing inside it, from the time it was given to me three years
ago. It also seems a little... faded now, some of its shine's missing,
as if it's been BURIED under sand for a long time." He looks into my
eyes, "I find that very strange."

My mouth opens, trying to form words, but nothing comes out. What can
possibly come out anyway? I have no idea what to say to him.

He studies me for a few seconds, his gaze appraising yet surprisingly
without any hint of previous accusation, and takes a deep breath.

"I did a multifarious, sub-molecular analysis of the sand granules I
collected from inside the shell, Tom, and found something
interesting," Chakotay informs me like a geology professor giving a
lecture. "The decomposed organic matter found in the soil sample is
not indigenous to the original habitat of this seashell. This shell
originates from the North American continent on Earth, the sandy
beaches of San Diego to be exact; but the microorganisms I found in
the soil do not originate from the area this class of Nautilus lives
in. The sand is not from North America. It isn't even from Earth."

His eyes are shining, as if he's close to solving a big mystery, which
I suppose he is. I am too flabbergasted to interrupt him now, too
amazed at his deducing abilities.

"It DOES however match the soil sample I collected from one of the
planets here in the delta quadrant in the Sinkari sector last month."
He pauses to take a breath and tilts his head to his right, his eyes
boring into mine. "You have any idea how could that be?"

"You're collecting and analyzing delta quadrant dirt?" I blurt out.

He sighs. "Yes, Tom. Remember that planet we visited where we found
signs of an ancient civilization? Signs of buildings, graves, bones,
we even found traces of an ancient irrigation system. I spent a lot of
time down there, collecting samples, studying the ruins, trying to
analyze their history."

"But why? We're in the delta quadrant," I say, still not quite
understanding his passion. "These ruins have nothing to do with OUR

He looks at me with surprise, his eyes widening, and then a slow smile
breaks on his face. "I am a paleontologist, Tom. Study of past
geologic periods based on fossil remains is part of my job as a
scientist." His eyes are twinkling, his face animated. "A scientist's
job is not confined only to his roots. It was an AMAZING opportunity
for me. Just imagine - I was the first human ever to set my eyes on
those ruins. Could there be anything more blessed than that?"

I take a ragged breath, absorbing everything he's told me - my eyes
pinned by his, unable to break free.

A paleontologist.

A new side of him. One I never saw before. One I never even heard of

I have known Chakotay the warrior; the Maquis renegade; the Starfleet
Commander and the impeccable First Officer onboard Voyager.

I even met Chakotay the beautiful, passionate, ravishing lover last
night. The one who got under my skin in a way no one else ever did

But a scientist? He keeps unfolding like a flower. How many other
things are there that I don't know? I suddenly realize I know very
little about him. I never got a chance to know him before.

"I didn't know you were a paleontologist, Chak."

He smiles a sad smile. "That part of me didn't get out too much during
the war. When you're fighting for your life, fighting for the lives of
those you care for; when you're fighting to honor those who lost their
lives for the land and in the name of the cause, your own hopes and
dreams, all of a sudden, seem so... inconsequential."

His eyes are suddenly moist, the glittering, dark depths filling with
years of pain and loss and anguish. Feeling a jolt of pain knife
through my gut at his hurt, I reach out with my hand to touch his neck
and feel his pulse throbbing, hot and furious.

Honor. He fought in the name of honor. Fought for the lives of those
he cared for.

I trace the line of his throat with my questing fingers, reaching his
chin, sliding up to rest on his cheek.


My thumb lightly strokes his lips, as I try to convey my feelings, my
silent support, through the simple touch.

He sighs and looks at me, his hand reaching up to cover mine. My heart
speeds up as he threads his fingers through mine, gently squeezing,
and then lowers both hands to his lap, keeping the fingers entwined.
An inscrutable expression passes his face, one of melancholy and pain
and inner disquiet, one that makes my heart skip a beat in alarm, and
then once again he schools his face into composure.


"So, Tom." He looks straight into my eyes. "A seashell, that
originates from Earth, is found with you, packed with sand that when
analyzed is found to be filled with organic matter originating from a
system of planets in the delta quadrant. Any idea how that came to

Whereas I was a mercenary. Looking to pay off my bar-tab. Nothing

I quell the surge of apprehension and look into his eyes.

"Maybe," I say, "maybe, its because the shell WAS buried under sand on
one of these planets in the delta quadrant."

"Did you bury it?"

"No, Chak."

He maintains eye contact. "Who gave you the shell, Tom?"

He'll never buy it. He'll think I am out of my mind. Or worse that I
am still lying. But I have to come clean about this. I have to come
clean about this at some point. Even though there's a possibility that
he will probably never consider any word that comes out of my mouth as
reliable, will never consider it as something he can trust.

Even at the risk of rejection, I have to give it a chance - once and
for all.

"Torres," I say.

"B'Elanna?" His brow wrinkles, his eyes probing, then smoothes in
acknowledgement. "That would explain her fingerprints."

Fingerprints? That must have been one hell of a multifarious scan,

"No, not B'Elanna." Now that I have jumped into the fire, I can't have
him confusing the issue, can I? "TORRES."

His eyes narrow in uncertainty. "There's a difference?"

"Oh yeah," I snort. "B'Elanna hates my guts. Torres on the other hand
was my friend. Though I don't understand why? I fucked up her life
down there too."

"Fucked up whose life and down where?" he asks, confused. "What are
you talking about?"

I swallow at the tightness in my throat. "When I..." I struggle with
the words, wetting my dry lips with a flick of my tongue. "When I...
failed you at Ocampa."

"Failed me?" His bafflement is profound. "How?"

"At the stairs, Chak."

"You... you saved my life at the stairs, Tom. How did you fail?"

"Oh I saved you this time." I look down at our linked hands, my
fingers suddenly clammy and find them shaking slightly. "But I... I
lost you the last time."

There is a slight pause and I steal a look at his face and feel my
heart squeezing in consternation. He looks undeniably disturbed, his
expression one of extreme bewilderment, his eyes filled with conflict
and confusion.

And why wouldn't he be? I am testing the limits of his patience and
understanding. I try to imagine how I'd feel if I were in his
position. Would I be as accommodating, as eager to learn all the dark
details of my delirium, as he is?

I am not so sure.

"I don't understand, Tom," he says.

 "I know, Chak," I sigh.

 "Why don't you tell me what's going on?"

"You'll think I am crazy."


"If you don't already, that is."

"I don't think you're crazy but you're surely driving ME nuts."

My heart speeds at his desperation. He needs to know. I am aware of
that. But how do I assure my panicky heart which is hell bent on
believing that this is the last straw, the last chance, the last
conversation, that he will certainly, absolutely, surely, haul me to
the sickbay on charges of lunacy the minute I am done relating my


"Why don't you start from the beginning, Tom?" He squeezes my hand,
his grip unrelenting, his eyes remarkably warm and reassuring. "Try

So, focusing on his steady, searching gaze - the warmth in the
glittering, dark depths somehow calming my staggering heartbeat - I

He listens.

I tell him everything, right from the beginning. The stairs and my
failure. Kazon and Voyager's fate. Lovaugim and the whole horror of
our existence down there. The failure of the Maquis/Starfleet amalgam.
The nightmares and my sighting of the shell around his neck in them.

It's as if I can't keep anything from him. I have lost any control I
held over my words, my reflexes, and my thoughts. Everything that ever
bruised me, that ever pierced my heart like a thorn, making me hurt,
making me bleed, is out in the open now.

Well, almost everything. I leave out the bit about the various
scattered incidents with the Yosa-types down there. I also leave out
the names of those who were not exactly on my side on Lovaugim. I
don't want any repeats of last night occurring. I'll just have to
manage things with the Maquis on my own, without letting Chakotay get
involved in any way.

The rest, however, I relate to him without any qualms.

I speak until my voice is hoarse and until my vision is clouded and
until it hurts my chest and my head to speak because the memories are
too damn painful.

I watch the expression on his face go through gradual changes. As each
piece of information is digested, his face changes masks from
incredulity to clarity to skepticism to bewilderment.

And then, slowly, gradually, a strange thing happens.

As the words flow out of me, the tension dissipates. The weight from
my chest, my shoulders, my mind, lifts.

I see the pain, the perplexity in his eyes and know that I am taking
down my burden by laying it on him. Though, before I can do or say
anything to ease his discomfort, he gets up from the couch and goes to
the replicator to retrieve something. He turns around with two glasses
of water and a stack of paper napkins and as he sits down next to me,
he pulls me closer to clean my face with the napkins.

This is when I realize that I have been crying. I don't know when and
how I started. I certainly didn't do it intentionally and it's
happened without my being aware of it.

"Shh, its okay," he murmurs, running his fingers through my hair. "I
am here with you."

He lets me cry just as he let me speak. And after I have gulped down
the water from the glass he holds up to me, he lets me lean on him
too - rubbing my back, stroking my hair, holding me close.

We stay like this for a while, arms locked, chins resting on
shoulders, hearts beating in tandem.

I want to talk to him. I want to ask him what he thinks of all that I
said. I want to know if he thinks I am crazy yet. Does he think I am
delusional or deranged? Does he still think I am lying? I need to ask

Yes, I am afraid to know what he thinks. I am afraid that this will be
the end, the closure of all points of happiness in this brief respite
I've got with him.

I am very afraid.

But I need to know. I HAVE to know.

I feel him stir, his breathing evening out, as a kiss lands on my
neck, and hold my breath as he pulls away from me. I look into his
eyes, searching for any sign of rejection or acknowledgement or
reconciliation, but he gives nothing away. He holds my gaze, his eyes
warm, yet his face remains absolutely calm and neutral.

Utterly unruffled.

"I am hungry," he declares. "Aren't you hungry too?" He looks up to
check the chronometer. "See? It's almost eight twenty. It's breakfast
time. Let's eat."

I am quite sure my bewilderment is apparent on my face but he either
doesn't notice it or chooses to ignore it. Instead, he leads me to my
own dining table and, pulling out a chair, settles me down. He, then,
proceeds to replicate a huge breakfast of waffles, orange juice,
assorted fruits and coffee, rounding it off with a serving of
scrambled eggs for me.

I want to ask him if he thinks I am crazy. I need to know if he thinks
I am lying.

He sits down across from me.


He looks into my eyes, his gaze steady yet noncommittal. "Eat, Tom,"
he says, patting my hand, and digs into his waffles.

I look at him for a second and then down at my breakfast and, with a
sigh, I pick up the fork.

I eat.


Taste buds are funny things. When they agree with the food prepared
and consumed, the tiny nerve filaments conveying the electric impulses
to the brain can be cause for boundless savory delights for your oral
and tactile sensory perceptions.

Yet when they don't, they - helped by your unfailing olfactory
senses - can turn your stomach.


Insert Neelix in the equation. Talaxian male, of obvious humanoid
origins; he apparently has a constant, unending urge to please
everyone around him. At any damn cost.

It's something else that the said cost is usually paid by the
unfortunate 'others' around him, but of course that is the least of
his worries.

The other day he tried to make fudge cream cake with burnt sugar
topping for Harry. We didn't know what we were walking into when he
cheerily sat us down at the table and scurried into the galley to
bring out the cake. Suddenly, the whole messhall filled with choking
smoke and as he set the masterpiece down on the table in front of us,
we came to an astounding realization.

He had actually used a mini flame-torch to burn the topping crisp.  It
was scorched black. Fuming with acrid smoke.

Yet Neelix, being the way he is, still urged us to go on and try it.

Harry, the eternally nice guy and unwilling to hurt the Talaxian's
feelings, tried to pry the topping away to get to the inner layers of
the cake. Only to have his fork sink into slices of candied leola

I am convinced that Talaxians, more so than the other assorted species
of the delta quadrant, have an entirely different set of taste buds
and sensory organs. There's simply no other way to make sense of all
the culinary monstrosities he has served us in the short time we've
been in the delta quadrant.

"Here comes, Megan," Harry whispers. "Shit, Jenny isn't with her

I quit stabbing the yellow glob in my plate and look up to see the
friskier of the Delaney twins walk into the messhall.

"What difference does that make?" I grin at him. "They're identical
twins and I bet that little inflection Jenny has in her voice would
become insignificant once the lights are off."

"Very funny, Tom." Harry rolls his eyes. "I haven't thought that far

"That's the problem, Harry," I say, putting my fork down. "You think
too much."

"And you don't think at all, do you?" he grimaces, as he swallows a
mouthful of his lunch. "By the way, where the heck were you yesterday?
Both the Delaneys were at Sandrine's and I tried looking for you but
you were holed up in your quarters the whole day. You forgot the
promise you made that we will double date the twins, didn't you?" He
looks at me enquiringly. "And you weren't answering the comm. OR the
chime. What WERE you doing?"

Double Date? Shit. Sorry, Har, but no can do.

I push the plate away. "Cleaning my quarters."

He raises an eyebrow in disbelief. "It took you the whole DAY to clean
your quarters?"

"Yep, they were really dirty."

"I don't believe you."

I take a deep breath and look at him, watching his eyes narrowing in
scrutiny. What to tell him? That I wasn't really cleaning my room
after all? That I was busy acquainting myself with the finer things in
life by spending the day in bed with Voyager's First Officer?

Or that I have NO idea where I really stand with the said First
Officer right now because he chose to clam up after I poured my heart
out to him?

Before I can say anything, though, the swishing slide of the messhall
doors opening diverts our attention. We watch B'Elanna walk inside and
halt for a moment, scanning the room for whomever she came here
looking for. And then her eyes rest on the two of us and it occurs to
me that it was us she was looking for, as she makes a beeline for our

She flicks a quick glance at me before resting her eyes on Harry.

"Hey Starfleet," she greets him, with the nickname she has reserved
for him. "Remember the computer core modifications I was telling you
about? I really want to get started on those as soon as possible. Do
you mind if we discussed this now?"

"Not at all, Maquis," Harry replies, pulling up a chair for her. "Have
a seat."

She sits down but not before I am treated to the same half-peek
directed at me before she focuses her attention onto Harry.

What's with the covert glances? I feel suddenly uncomfortable.

I sit between them, listening to them discuss the technical details of
things that make neither head nor tail to me and, for some ungraspable
reason, it leaves me a little restless.

I feel my brow wrinkle as I look at her with averted eyes and try to
place the feeling.

Its nothing apparent, nothing too open I guess, just this below the
surface feeling that something is out of place. Outwardly she is
engrossed in her discussion, but her body language is a little off.
She seems on edge, as if her mind is on something other than the
reason she said she wanted to talk to Harry. He doesn't notice it
though. But then again, Harry doesn't know her the way I do.

I pick up the glass of water and take a sip from it, trying to tune
out their technobabble. Today is my second off day, as is theirs, as
is most other people's. Though it's not unusual to find Harry and
B'Elanna holed away in a corner of the messhall, discussing work
problems in their off-times. I personally like to relax on my days off
and find it hard to listen to them going on and on about plasma
discharge or warp core diagnostics at the best of times. And
today--well, today is a whole different matter.

Today, I have way too much on my mind.

I look up as the doors slide open to admit someone and my shoulders
slump in disappointment when its not who I want it to be. I don't know
why I am disappointed though. Chakotay very clearly told me he'd be
busy the whole day in meetings with the captain. Something about
repair teams and energy conservation issues or the like. He and the
captain are apparently another two people who like to take their work
home, or rather who go to work on off-days.


He's another enigma I can't make either head or tail of at the moment.

Beautiful. Thoughtful. Gentle.

A considerate man. A skilled lover. The best I've ever had.

I've been ruined for the rest of my life. He made love to me, listened
to me, took care of me and, then, made love to me all over again.

I am still sore. And it feels great.

Yet, there's something still not quite right. I can feel it like a
thorn in my heart, stabbing at my soul, twisting my gut, confusing me.
A thorn of uncertainty. Of doubt and needless pain and perplexity.

He won't talk to me about Lovaugim.

I don't know why. I told him everything that I could and what I didn't
tell him, I know he figured out from my reaction afterwards. I saw the
look on his face, when the mask was not yet back in place, and know he
felt my pain and grief. If for nothing else but the fact that talking
about it wounded me and filled me with anguish.

And then something changed. His body language, his whole demeanor,
somehow shifted. His attitude wasn't negative in any way. He was kind,
warm and patient, spending the whole day with me, talking to me,
loving me. He talked about everything else to me, from the crew's
reaction to Sandrine's to the last M-Class planet we visited in the
Sirkani sector to Neelix' cooking.

It's just that -- it's just that he won't talk about Lovaugim. He
didn't acknowledge anything I said about that planet. Not once. It's
as if he didn't hear anything I told him about my other life, as if I
poured my heart out to a brick wall. It's as if what I said didn't
matter. As if I didn't matter

That hurt. A lot.

I don't know what to make of it. Even after spending a whole day with
him, in the most intimate of situations, Chakotay's still a mystery to
me. What is he thinking? Did he feel sorry for me? Was yesterday just
a case of charity, a pity fuck? Why didn't he talk to me about what I
said? Did he think I was making it up? If yes, why the hell didn't he
bring it out in the open with me?

What is he going to tell me tonight? That it's over? Over before it
even gets a chance to properly get off the ground, whatever the heck
it is that we've found together.

Is it over? I feel terrible despair enveloping my whole being at the
bleak thought. Is it? Can I survive it if it is?

I don't think I can.

I don't think I want to.

I gulp more water, trying to ease off my tightening throat and realize
the conversation on my table has died down. I look at Harry and
B'Elanna and find them staring at me with identical expressions on
their faces. Concern.

Now what?

"Tom, are you alright?" Harry speaks first, his eyes troubled. "You
look really upset about something. What were you thinking there?"

"Yeah, Paris, you look like you lost your best friend," B'Elanna says,
addressing me for the first time since sitting down.

There's an edge to her voice that irritates me and I whip my head
around to look at her, a sharp retort ready on my tongue, only to halt
at the expression on her face. Her eyes are surprisingly warm and
compassionate, shining with a concerned glimmer. I blink at the
unexpected softness on her face.

What does she know?

I take a deep breath to ease my thudding heart.

"Nothing's wrong, Har. I'm fine." I look at Harry, smiling, and then
turn my eyes to B'Elanna. "You must be mistaken, B'Elanna, since my
best friend is sitting right here with me."

She maintains the eye contact, her dark eyes probing mine, unwilling
to back down. I stare at her for a few still seconds, letting her
stare back at me and then pull back the chair.

"Are we through?" I ask Harry as I stand up, and he nods, looking a
bit baffled at the interaction he just observed across the table. I
choose to ignore his puzzlement for now.

We grab our empty trays and take them to the counter for recycling.

It's as we're listening to Neelix' spirited exchange about some new
fruit he is growing in the hydroponics bay and trying not to cringe at
his promise to bake a tart with it, that I catch sight of someone in
the corridor through the closing doors of the messhall. I mutter a
quick excuse to my companions and hurry out of the messhall without
looking back at either of them.

Continued in Culmination 3/4