Disclaimers: Part 1
"Of course, Starfleet is sympathetic to your son's plight, Mrs Paris. That's why I came here," Necheyev said sweetly, but I knew from previous experience that her smart Admiral's uniform and petite blonde image hid the killer-instincts of a shark.
Jacqueline obviously wasn't fooled by the Admiral's saccharine appearance either. "You came here because of my husband's influence. He is now dead. "
"I admit that it does change matters somewhat," Admiral Necheyev said bluntly. "But, only further in your favour, to be honest."
"I don't understand," Jacqueline said.
However, I did. I suddenly understood EXACTLY why Necheyev had come.
"What she means is that Tom's story would have been given a certain amount of publicity, whatever Starfleet did to try to quash it. Now if it emerges that Owen has died a hero, the newshounds will be all over the story. It will be even more difficult to keep certain facts from emerging."
The Admiral gave me a curt nod of annoyed agreement.
"It is necessary, for the sake of the Federation and for continued peace in this sector, for us to appear united in the public eye. This 'matter' could easily be blown out of proportion. The peace of the Quadrant cannot be threatened simply for the sake of two love-sick men who were old enough to know better and should have put duty before their personal happiness," she snapped.
"Tom and Chakotay are blameless in this. They have become Janeway's scapegoats for her own failures and lies," I told her angrily.
"Whatever," she conceded with an abrupt nod. "This is my offer. I am prepared to offer Tom full amnesty. His service record will be expunged of any suggestion of misdeeds. His original prison sentence will be revoked. Tuvok's report of Tom's mental imbalance will be erased, as will all records of his suicide attempts. His field rank of Lieutenant will be confirmed as a permanent rank and, should he agree to the prosthetics, he will be cleared for duty once more. You can even have him posted to the Enterprise as your pilot."
Jacqueline gave a huge sigh of relief, but then again, she didn't know Necheyev as well as I did.
"What's the catch?" I demanded.
"Catch, Jean-Luc?" she purred dangerously, reminding me that, when all was said and done, she was an Admiral and I was only a Captain.
"What are your conditions in exchange for this unexpected leniency?" I asked more politely.
"Tom's marriage to Chakotay will be annulled. Voyager's logs will be sealed. There can be no suggestion that Starfleet Captains 'go bad.' No public, or private, mention of either Captain Ransom's or Captain Janeway's actions will be made by ANY party, ever. A public announcement will be made to the effect that unfortunately the strain of her great achievement in bringing Voyager home has left her physically frail. She will be retired with full honours to a private rest home where she will spend the remainder of her years in seclusion."
"Her own private Elba?" I mocked.
"If you like," she conceded.
"What about Chakotay?" Jacqueline demanded.
Annoyance flitted over the Admiral's face.
"It is unfortunate that he was caught up in this. However, the fact remains that he is a Maquis terrorist. He will be arrested and brought to justice for his crimes to Cardassia. The Cardassians have protested the amnesty offered to the Maquis crew of Voyager. We will hand Chakotay over to them in a gesture of appeasement."
"But he was pardoned," Jacqueline gasped.
"No he wasn't," I told her reluctantly, as the Admiral's words sank in and I cast my mind over the amnesty notice. As Necheyev said, the Maquis Crew were pardoned, nowhere was it specifically written that the Maquis LEADER had been. It was semantics of course, but it allowed the Federation to make sure that Chakotay was never able to spread the tale of a Starfleet Captain's disgrace.
"He's Tom's husband, you can't do it. You might be able to force Jean-Luc to stay silent but Tom will tell what really happened and so will I," Jacqueline declared.
"In that case, there's hardly any point in giving Tom amnesty, is there? His prison sentence was not revoked, Mrs Paris, he was given conditional parole. He can be returned to prison at any time if his behaviour is seen to be anti-social. He still has six years to serve. It won't be easy for him in Auckland in a wheelchair."
"You BITCH!" Jacqueline screamed. "You'd put my disabled son back in a maximum security prison just to save Janeway?"
Instead of flaring up in the anger I expected, Necheyev sank into a seat and passed a weary hand over her eyes. Her voice was surprisingly gentle when she finally replied.
"It's not about saving Janeway, Mrs Paris. It's about upholding the sparkling integrity of the Federation to the non-aligned worlds. We have just survived a terrible war. The Dominion may have been defeated but the cost was high in both lives and public confidence. We cannot afford the lives that may be lost if this scandal becomes public."
"So why can't you offer Chakotay amnesty too, in exchange for his silence?" I asked.
"Three reasons. Firstly, he has been publicly vilified as a villain. He was seen to 'kidnap' Tom. How can we explain letting him go without the truth coming out? Secondly, he is a Maquis. He has already proven that he has no loyalty to Starfleet. How can we trust that he will keep silent? Thirdly, his records show that he is a man of great integrity. How, in all conscience can he keep silent about what has happened?"
"You do realise that your second and third points contradict each other?" I asked mildly.
Necheyev shrugged. "It's a complicated situation and he's a complex man."
"Whom you are prepared to hand over to the Cardassians," I snarled.
"Sometimes terrible choices have to be made. At the end of the day, he is only one man."
"You are overlooking some obvious problems, Admiral," I replied.
"Such as?" and her voice almost sounded hopeful. I was beginning to understand that yet again Necheyev was being forced to act in a way that she found personally reprehensible, and that she would welcome a different solution to the problem.
"You can silence one man. You cannot silence two planets. Both Dorvan and Hera will stand against you if you attempt to arrest Chakotay," I told her.
It was as much a lie as the truth. Dorvan was a harmless little world and, as for the Herans, Plano only planned to run off with Chakotay and, to be honest, Necheyev would probably find the idea of his incarceration on Hera to be as attractive and less guilt-ridden than his being sent to Cardassia.
However, she didn't know this. In fact, since Owen had told the Federation that Hera was offering an alliance with Dorvan and Plano had called in his reinforcements, there was no reason for her to believe anything other than Owen's lies.
"It's ridiculous. They can't possibly start a war over one man. What the hell has it got to do with Hera, anyway?"
"Well, that's up to you, Admiral. You see the question is really about Tom and Chakotay. IF Chakotay's marriage to Tom was legal, then the Herans have no claim on him. On the other hand, if you persist in your allegations that Chakotay kidnapped Tom, then his previous betrothal still stands. Since THAT fiancé is the son of the Heran Senior, Chakotay has Heran citizenship by proxy and you will be arresting a Heran. Since Hera is a closed-world their citizens have diplomatic immunity and any attempt to arrest Chakotay will be seen as an act of war."
"And just where do the Dorvanians fit into this scenario?" she snapped.
"Chakotay is the son of one of their great shamans. His father died in the Cardassian invasion. The Dorvanians have more than enough reason to feel aggrieved with the Federation. They are desperate for independence. They will use your arresting of Chakotay as an excuse to start a new rebellion. He will become a martyr to their cause. The whole quadrant will ring with news of your infamy. To be honest, they will probably be disappointed if you DON'T arrest him."
"What a mess," she sighed tiredly, rubbing her face again.
"I have a solution," I offered.
"You always do," she snapped, but the edge of her mouth quirked as though she were suppressing a smile.
I couldn't believe it, simply couldn't believe it.
"Really?" I gasped.
"Really," my mother replied kindly as she held my hand in the Enterprise's sickbay.
"He's been planning to run away with me all along?" I asked again, needing the reassurance.
"He never considered any other option. He just couldn't tell you in front of the Herans, and he couldn't bear to visit you again before you knew the truth. He was too worried about your reaction to his last visit and that you might, you might -" and she began to cry.
"I'm sorry, Maman," I whispered. I honestly hadn't even considered the possibility that anyone would even miss me.
"So," she said, wiping her eyes, "are you absolutely certain?"
"Oh, yes. Tell Captain Picard I agreed completely."
"He IS your father, Tom. Couldn't you at least call him Jean-Luc?" she asked sadly.
"My 'father' is dead, Maman. The Admiral might have been the biggest bastard this side of the galaxy, and he might not have given me his genes, but he WAS my father."
"If only he had always understood that you WERE his son," my mother said sadly.
"I will TRY to accept Captain Picard, Maman. I understand you love him, and I am happy for you. Just give me some time to work it all out in my head," I offered hesitantly and was rewarded with her smile of gratitude.
"That's all I'm asking for, Tom, that you should try."
"How are Jeanette and Elizabeth taking it?"
"Elizabeth is distraught, she always was close to Owen. Jeanette is more like you. She grieves but only in a quiet, reflective way. She is in mourning for the father Owen MIGHT have been. They will both be glad to go home. What about you? What do you want to do? Where is your home now?"
"Anywhere that Chakotay is," I replied softly and she nodded.
"He's a wonderful man, Tom."
"I know. I can't believe he still wants me, after everything."
"Only a fool wouldn't want you, Tom," she replied.
"You're my mother, you HAVE to say that!" I replied, but my tone was easy and her eyes sparkled in appreciation.
"I LOVE YOU, Thomas," she whispered and I felt the pain of the last few days peeling away like a discarded skin.
She loved me. Chakotay loved me. What more could anyone want?
"So, let me make sure I understand you correctly, Picard," I said, sitting down weakly in the Enterprise's ready room, where I had abruptly materialised. His words had taken all the strength from my knees.
"Tom and I are free as long as we agree not to argue with the official story of Janeway's 'retirement.' I become known as the misunderstood lovesick hero, who kidnapped my husband, Tom, in a moment of panic because he was mentally ill and I thought that the only solution for his illness was on Dorvan, but no one would listen to me. Owen was simply struck by lightening in a natural electrical storm, and Tom retains his reputation for being mentally unstable, but fortunately the cure seems to have worked sufficiently to keep him out of hospital."
"Essentially," Picard agreed.
"It sucks. Tom will NEVER be able to fly for anyone ever again! No one will ever trust him with their ship." I argued. "How the hell can you let the whole Federation believe that your own son is insane?"
"Because it's the only way to save YOU, and without you he truly WILL become insane," Jacqueline answered for him.
She was right, dammit, but it still felt like a damning betrayal of Tom.
"What about the Herans?" I asked suspiciously. It had been three days since the Wkangana, and still Angel had failed to visit me, but I was damned sure he was just waiting in the wings to get his claws in me.
"Senior Plano and I agreed at the beginning that should the Federation offer you a pardon, then he would take Angel home alone. To be honest, he doesn't approve of you as his son's mate," Picard said.
"How do you know he'll keep his word?" I challenged.
"Look," he said and he pointed out of the view port. To my amazement, I could see the Heran ships grouping and preparing to leave.
"What about Tom?" I screeched.
"He was transferred to our sickbay 30 minutes ago," Picard confirmed.
"And Angel has agreed?" I asked dumbfounded.
"He sent you a personal message, I had it downloaded to the terminal in your quarters. He requested that I not give it to you until he had left."
"I don't understand," I whispered, looking at the departing ships in confusion and misery. As much as I hated what he had done, and was glad to see him go, still my heart ached. I HAD loved him once. Some of my thoughts must have spilled onto my face because Picard gave a rueful chuckle.
"I shouldn't worry about him, if I were you. Will's gone with him."
Picard shrugged, although his face betrayed sadness at his first officer's decision. "Will never got Hera out of his system, to be honest. He hasn't been happy for a long time. It seems that Angel and he made a connection. Will has taken a prolonged leave of absence. It is possible that he won't return."
I just gaped out of the view port. Suddenly I had no doubt at all about the Spirits' intervention. This was just too damned good to be true.
"Don't take it personally, Chakotay," Picard laughed, "but Plano seems MUCH happier with Angel's new love interest."
And I joined in his laughter as relief almost made my heart burst. However, I sobered quickly as I considered Tom again.
"So Tom pays the price of our freedom?" I asked bitterly.
"He wants to do it."
"You've spoken to him?"
Picard and Jacqueline both looked embarrassed.
"We had to give HIM the choice, he could have left you and kept everything," Jacqueline explained.
Therefore, I had cost him his future. The knowledge was bitter in my mouth. I had thought myself to be the strong one, I had promised to always protect him. Now, twice in three days, HE had been the one who had given up everything for me. I didn't deserve him. The price of my own silence about Janeway was nothing compared to his sacrifice.
"I've been authorised to offer you your Starfleet rank back," Picard continued. "I need a First Officer and the Enterprise is built to carry families. Tom can live on board with you. "
"But you won't have him as your pilot?" I hissed angrily. "Your own son, Picard. The best damned pilot you'll ever meet and you won't give HIM a job?"
"He can't be allowed to pass a psyche medical, Chakotay. Admiral Necheyev HAS agreed that he could work on the Enterprise as a civilian, BUT not as pilot and not at all unless he agrees to the prosthetics."
"And I guess he won't?" I said sadly.
"He can't," Jacqueline answered. "He simply can't."
I digested this for a long time. I understood, and I didn't. Surely, he would jump at the chance to walk again, and yet how could he face half of his body being removed and replaced with mechanics? The very idea was obscene in my eyes, and yet his lungs were mechanical, did it really matter if his legs were too?
I shook my head wearily. Only Tom could make that decision, no one else had the right.
"Admiral Necheyev offered you a different solution. She said you could return to your position as tutor at the Academy. Tom's life as a civilian would be easier on Earth."
"I'll discuss it all with Tom," I replied, too stunned by the rapid turn of events to deal with the future right now.
"What about the Dorvanians, have they agreed to tell the 'official' version of Owen's death?" I asked, with surprising disinterest.
"In exchange for certain minor concessions, such as independence," Picard said so softly that it took a moment to sink in.
"Dorvan is FREE?" I gasped.
"The Federation has agreed to sign their charter of independence and to accept them back into the Federation as a self-governed planet." He confirmed.
So finally the Spirits had everything they wanted. Perhaps they would finally leave Tom and I alone.
"Wabashaw sent you a message, by the way. He says they may have misinterpreted the Great Spirit. He has offered to let you and Tom live there together as long as you are discrete about it."
"I'll just bet he did," I growled bitterly.
"I'm so sorry all this has happened to you Chakotay, but it has all worked out, one way or the other." Picard said, and his unconscious echo of my own father's words sent chills up my spine.
"I need to go speak to Tom," I muttered abruptly.
"He's waiting for you in YOUR quarters," Jacqueline told me with a small smile. "Come with me, I'll show you the way."
"How is he?" Chakotay asked as we walked. His face was serene as always but I could see a nervous twitch under his right cheek.
"He - he's dying, Chakotay," I finally admitted and, as though saying it out loud made it more real, I felt my legs weakening and I leant back against the corridor, closing my eyes.
"DYING?" Chakotay demanded, shaking me back to my senses with surprising aggression.
"There's a point of starvation at which the body begins to feed on its own organs, Chakotay. Despite the drips and the hyposprays, Tom is slowly starving himself to death. He has refused to eat for so long that I'm not even sure he can anymore."
"Haven't you told him I'm here? That I have ALWAYS intended to take him with me?"
"Yes, Chakotay, I have, and I can't even begin to describe the look on his face when I told him you still loved him, but, to tell the truth, I don't think he believes you will stay with him, especially now that he's paralysed again."
"He doesn't trust me," Chakotay admitted, "and I don't blame him, but I do love him, Jacqueline."
"I know that you do, Chakotay. Why do you think I agreed to Jean-Luc's deal? Tom has nothing without you, even with you there's no guarantee he'll get through this," I told him.
"Oh yes there is, he's going to damned well pull himself together," Chakotay replied with such aggression that I suddenly wasn't so sure that I understood this man at all. I had expected him to cry, to rush to Tom's side and hug him, suddenly I wondered whether he was going to hit my son instead. I was no longer sure I wanted to take him any further.
As if he could read my thoughts, he reached out and gently stroked my cheek. "I love Tom, please trust me," he asked, and I nodded slowly. To be honest, he was the only hope I had.
We reached Riker's old quarters, where Jean-Luc had put Chakotay in the hope of tempting him to his offer, then the door slid open and Chakotay froze. Even my words hadn't prepared him for the sight of Tom, huddled in a blanket like a fragile old man, his slight frame dwarfed by the wheelchair, his blue eyes huge in his emaciated face. In just the two days since Chakotay had last seen him, Tom had acquired the parchment-thin skin of impending death.
I heard the big man choke back a sob of horror, and his whole frame trembled as he met Tom's adoring eyes and saw a ghost of a smile flit over Tom's thin face.
"Cha?" he whispered hopefully, so I was not prepared for Chakotay's violent response.
"You little SHIT!" he snarled at Tom, and I saw my son crumble, his eyes filling with confused tears and his body shaking like a leaf. "What the hell have you done to yourself, you selfish bastard?" Chakotay continued, striding across the room like a vengeful demon and ripping the blanket away so he could see the full extent of Tom's self-damage.
Before I could interfere, Chakotay swung away and marched to the replicator, and I saw such grief and horror on his face that I was as confused as Tom by his vicious words. 'Trust me,' he had said, and I wanted to, but I wasn't leaving them alone until I knew what was going on.
A moment later Chakotay turned back from the replicator with a bowl of steaming soup and a spoon. I saw Tom's eyes widen and he flinched in his chair.
"We've been here before, Tom. So do we repeat the whole damned thing, or are you just going to eat it?" Chakotay snarled.
For a moment, their eyes locked and a world of understanding seemed to pass between them.
"I'm sorry, Cha," Tom finally whispered. "I thought I had lost you."
Chakotay's face remained as immovable as granite until Tom finally sighed in defeat and reached out a trembling hand to accept the soup. It wasn't until Tom had actually taken a mouthful and swallowed that the tension drained from Chakotay's body and he leant forward and kissed Tom's forehead.
"If you EVER try to take your life again, Tom, I'll kill you myself," he growled.
Tom's eyes widened in shock and then a grin spread over his face and he actually began to laugh. "That's hardly an appropriate response, Cha. It's a good thing you're so damned sexy, cos I didn't marry you for your money, and you sure as hell hid this shitty temper well."
"I'll be next door if you need me," I muttered softly, and left them laughing together, suddenly sure that Chakotay knew EXACTLY how to handle my son.
"Love me," I whispered when I had finally finished the soup and Chakotay had gently cleaned my face where my trembling fingers had inadvertently spilt the liquid.
"You know I do, Tom, more than my life," he assured me, his chocolate-brown eyes so soft that I just wanted to melt into them. He had chosen me, had stayed with me. It meant everything and nothing at the same time unless I KNEW he really, truly wanted me.
"Don't tell me, show me!" I demanded.
For a heart-stopping moment he hesitated, and my ego began to splinter into a million pieces, each bitter shard ripping at my fragile self-control. What if he didn't want me like this? Perhaps he couldn't bear to go back to life with a cripple. I closed my eyes against the sudden pain and so his movement caught me by surprise as he scooped me out of my chair, with arms so strong and yet gentle that I gasped as he pressed me to his chest and carried me to the bedroom.
He said nothing as he laid me on the bed and began to unfasten his clothing. As though he had taken my instruction not to tell me literally, he was silent as he stripped, his dark eyes flashing with a myriad of emotions, love, fear, uncertainty and lust. Oh yes, dear god, it WAS lust.
I felt the tears welling in my eyes as I drank in his magnificent body, the curves of his muscles, his flawless bronze skin and knew, finally, that they were mine.
My own trembling fingers fumbled with my shirt buttons, as the need to feel his skin against mine drove all rational thought from my head. It had been so long, too long, and the last time we had slept together had been a disaster. It had been the night I left Voyager, and his touch had left me cold. I needed the fire to be reawakened; I needed to know that the flame still burned between us.
He knelt on the bed, his sure fingers joining mine and helping even as he leant down and traced the lines of my tattoo with his tongue. My right hand crept up and touched his twin pattern and he closed his bright eyes and leant into my caress with a deep sigh. It was not until I sat forward slightly to help him ease the unfastened shirt off that he finally spoke, and his words were a choking sob.
"Your shoulders. Spirits, Tom, your shoulders."
"It's okay, Cha, they don't hurt, honest."
"Why the hell didn't the Herans remove the scars?" he demanded furiously.
"They tried, but they won't go," I explained nervously, wondering whether he found the marks too obscene to deal with. Was my battered body simply too damaged now? Where the hooks of the Wkangana had pierced my body and pulled, there were three deep scars on either side of my chest, reaching from my pectoral muscles to my shoulder blades. They shone silver in the dim light of the bedroom.
As did Chakotay's tears.
"Talons," he finally whispered.
"What?" I asked uncertainly.
"They look like talon marks, as though a huge bird had carried you in its talons."
"Passamaquoddy's going away present, I guess," I said bitterly. "He took my wings and made sure I'd never forget that I once had them. Your spirits are cruel, Chakotay."
"I know," he whispered back. "I'm so sorry, Tom."
"Have they finished with us now? Do you have any idea what this whole damned thing was about?" I asked helplessly.
"I think it's finally over, Tom. I think we can move on now, together," he told me.
I would have called him on his obvious avoidance of my second question, except that he took that moment to slide down the bed, finish removing my pants and then his velvet lips closed over my cock and it surged eagerly to life.
"Oh GOD," I gasped as his hot, wet mouth devoured me with licks and tiny bites and the deep pulsating suction of his ragged breath. He bobbed up and down my shaft, the fingers of one hand squeezing and massaging my balls, the other running incessantly up and down the tender skin between my scrotum and anus. "Stop, Cha, I can't - I can't," and then it was too late, I erupted into his mouth.
And, in the midst of my ecstasy, I froze. Instead of sucking and swallowing, he pulled away, opened his mouth and spat my semen out into his hand. Pain and rejection knifed into my heart and I opened my mouth to tell him to go fuck himself, if he found me that disgusting now. However, before I spoke I realised that he was using my semen to coat his proud erection.
Understanding dawned, and I gave a small sob of combined relief and embarrassment. As always, nerves forced a wisecrack.
"I know we're hard up, Chak, but can't we even afford lube?"
"We are guests on your father's ship, Tom. Do you really want our second replicator request to be recorded as lube?"
"He's not my father, " I snapped. "Anyway, we're married. What does he think we're doing in here? Playing chess?"
"Do you want me to go get some real lube, babe?" Chakotay replied gently, obviously assuming my temper was due to fear.
"No, I want you to stop fucking about and FUCK ME!" I yelled, thrusting my hips up meaningfully. I couldn't make my useless legs open to make the point so I used my arms to haul myself over onto my stomach and hoped he would take the hint.
The soft caress of his tongue on my buttocks proved that he had.
"Can you feel that, Tom?" he asked a little uncertainly.
"God, yes. I can feel EVERYTHING except my actual legs. Do that thing with your tongue, Chak, please, you know, that thing you do."
"This thing?" he asked with a snigger and I felt his tongue stabbing at my hole, pushing through the resistance until the walls of my sphincter crumbled under his assault.
"Oh Chak!" I screamed as he fucked me with his tongue. Nothing felt this good, nothing, except what always came next.
"Take me, Chak, PLEASE!" I howled.
I felt his gentle hands on my hips, pulling me backwards. I only knew he had spread my legs because of the rush of cold air onto my balls and the way that his tongue managed to sink even more gloriously deeper into my insides.
Then its hot caress was withdrawn and I whimpered and sobbed.
"Shush, babe, its okay," he whispered, and then I felt the head of his erection pressing against me and my body remembered and relaxed to him in complete surrender.
I felt him slide slowly in, filling, stretching, reclaiming me as his own until he was buried so deep within me that I lost awareness of where he ended and I began. For a long moment we lay like that, attached like Siamese twins, two hearts, two minds, one body, and then he began to move in me.
Like velvet-sheathed steel, his cock slid up and down my slick passage as I groaned and writhed under the sensations of this internal stroking. It was slow and languorous, as though time had stopped and eternity would be filled with the sliding of his skin in mine.
On and on, the soft gentle rhythm continued, unceasing, unchanging, until I was driven to madness by sensory overload and just as I was ready to howl, just as I couldn't take it anymore, Chakotay finally stopped playing with me and his rhythm changed.
Suddenly the gentle strokes became violent thrusts that punched against my prostate. I was screaming now. I had a vague awareness that my mother was next door and I had absolutely no idea of how thick the walls were, yet nothing short of a gag or a heart attack could have stopped the wails of ecstasy that Chakotay was ripping from my throat.
Just as I was about to tip over the edge, Chakotay froze inside me. He waited for the crisis in my groin to pass and then resumed his previous slow strokes.
Jesus, he was a sadist. He was fucking me to death, keeping his own self-control, completely dominating my body with his own, playing me like a virtuoso played a violin.
It had never been like this, so intense or painfully wonderful. This, I suddenly realised, was our first time since our marriage. This was more than sex, this was Chakotay taking back control, proving that it was he who was in charge of our relationship, and that I was helpless in his hands.
I surrendered completely, accepting his ownership of my body and my soul, and somehow he sensed the change in my attitude and began to speak as he laid my spirit bare with his thrusts.
"You are mine, Tom. I worship and adore you, but you are mine. You will NEVER attempt to take your life again, because it is MY life, do you understand?"
I sobbed and agreed as he pounded into me, possessed me, claimed me, and proved to me that I WAS the centre of his existence. As though my capitulation was enough to break his rigid self control, he gave one last, vicious thrust and his semen filled my ass. His shuddering orgasm tipped me over the edge at last and with a scream of relief I came too, my cum splattering the sheets beneath my stomach and my internal spasms milking the last drops of semen from Chakotay's cock.
"I love you, Tom," he gasped, collapsing breathlessly onto my sweat-slicked back and for the first time, I really, truly, believed him.
"When did I become a whore, Chakotay?" Tom asked me bitterly when I finally finished telling him everything.
I hugged him tightly to me under the sheets and felt his heartbeat drumming through his emaciated chest, like a trapped bird. To be honest, I also wanted to tell Wabashaw exactly what he could do with his damned offer. How the hell could I expect Tom to agree to live on Dorvan with me in the knowledge that the censure against our marriage was still there, just cloaked by a thin veneer of acceptance? Tom was right; Wabashaw had accepted Dorvan's freedom as though it was our dowry payment, but it felt far more like prostitution.
"So, what do you want to do, Tom?" I asked him, throwing the ball right back at him.
"Perhaps you should accept the Admiral's offer. You could rejoin Starfleet and take the posting on the Enterprise. Captain Picard told you he'd accept me as your family on the ship. Hell, he'd jump at the chance to have me where he can keep an eye on me and make sure I don't embarrass him any more."
Tom's refusal to acknowledge Jean-Luc as his father had surprised me. I knew he had always had a bitter relationship with Owen. Perhaps he just classed all fathers as probable bastards. I was more surprised, though, by his suggestion that I accept the First Officer's position. I actually gaped at him in amazement. How the hell could he suggest that after what Starfleet had done to us? Besides, how could he bear to live on a Starship while being classified unfit for duty himself?
"And you'd do what, Tom? Sit in our cabin and play chess all day?"
"I - I could - I could agree to the operation," he mumbled.
"I thought you wanted me to do it?"
"I do, Tom, if it's what is right for you, not just because you are being forced to do it. I understand why you don't want it. I would probably feel the same way. I won't stand by and let you make a major decision like that for the wrong reasons."
"We could go to Earth. Maman said we'd be welcome, and you could take that teaching post at the Academy," Tom offered tentatively.
It was a temporary solution, at best, but, at this point, we didn't have that many other options.
"Perhaps that's best, Tom. At least until we get a chance to sort our lives out."
"Maybe we should just steal the HPTS after all?" Tom joked, but there was a hopeless pleading in his eyes that belied the humor.
"We can't. We would just start the witch hunt all over again and this time we might not be able to just walk away," I replied, and then I flinched at my choice of words.
"Oh well," Tom said softly with a brave smile of forgiveness for my thoughtless phrase.
"I'll go talk to your mother, Tom, and see what we can work out."
I looked at this strong proud man, my son's husband, and the desolation in his eyes saddened me.
"Of course you are both welcome to come and stay. The house is huge; Tom would get a chance to meet his niece and nephews. We can be a family, at least until you decide what you want to do."
"Will Tom cope with the house?" he asked.
"Physically, yes. Owen has left me very comfortably provided for. I can easily afford the installation of lifts and whatever else he'll need," I told him. Particularly soundproof walls from what I had heard earlier, I thought with a grin. I had had to personally stop security from beaming into their quarters earlier, in view of the noise my son had made. I had explained that it WAS their honeymoon, so to speak.
"Psychologically, I don't know. It was never a happy place for Tom. He always felt trapped and stifled there. Being disabled in the Admiral's house will only make those feelings worse. On the other hand, you can hardly find an apartment of your own. If you take the teaching post, Tom will be left alone for hours every day. He would be better off with us."
"Will Captain Picard stay with you now?"
I stiffened at the impertinence of his question and then sighed a little. Of course, he had the right to ask whom else he and Tom might be living with.
"No, he offered but I refused. He will stay with the Enterprise and visit me for shoreleave until he retires. Then, when the little ones are a little older and better able to deal with their Grandmere being a transporter ride away, we will both move to France together. Of course, if you and Tom are still with me then, we will have to make arrangements together."
"To be honest, Jacqueline, I can't see us staying long at all. As soon as I have saved enough money to buy a small ship, Tom and I will leave."
I had suspected as much. "And you'll do what?"
Chakotay shrugged and gave me a disarming dimpled grin.
"Whatever. We can do some freighting, some passenger transport, anything, as long as Tom can fly again."
"That's all you care about isn't it?" I asked wonderingly. "Jean-Luc's offer of a job, Admiral Necheyev's offer, Wabashaw's concession, you turned them all down because of Tom."
"Tom HAS to fly, Jacqueline."
"I KNOW, I just wasn't sure whether you did," I replied. "It will take a long time on teacher's pay to buy a viable ship."
Chakotay flushed a deep purple and shuffled awkwardly, his head ducking from my eyes as he spoke.
"I - I was wondering - well, wondering -" and his voice trailed off in embarrassment. I could see him trying to find the right words to ask his question and his desperate struggle to break down the walls of his pride made something inside me ache. Chakotay was not a man who easily took the position of supplicant. I knew exactly what he wanted to ask. He was wondering whether Owen had left me well enough off to help him give Tom his wings back.
My sympathy was not enough to stop me from teasing him a little, though.
"Owen was a very cautious man. He made many long-term investments. There is very little in the form of liquid assets in his estate. Most of the stocks and shares he held will be tied in escrow for some years, I fear."
He nodded and shrugged his resignation. A look of combined disappointment and relief filled his face. I understood his feelings. He wanted Tom to be happy, more than he valued his own pride, yet even so, it had gone against his whole personality to ask me for money.
"So, it's just as well, isn't it?" I asked cheerfully.
"What's just as well?" he replied in confusion.
"That the HPTS belongs to Tom," I answered with a smug grin.
His knees nearly buckled as my words penetrated him.
"I don't understand. She's Starfleet registered."
"Only for insurance and strategic purposes."
"But I thought she was an Admiralty perk."
"Once the war broke out, Owen never left Earth, Chakotay. Starfleet never assigned him a ship because he refused to use one. Owen himself bought the HPTS privately. He registered it with Starfleet BUT the ownership was always in Tom's name."
"I don't understand."
"Sit down, before you fall down, Chakotay, and I'll explain. Owen bought the HPTS after the first success of the Pathfinder mission. He had two reasons; firstly, if you ever returned to the Alpha Quadrant he wanted to be able to guarantee that Tom would be collected off Voyager and brought straight home. He did not intend to wait for red tape. Secondly, and most relevantly, he bought her as a peace offering to Tom. He had always been so damning of Tom's urge to fly.
"He didn't see Tom's flying skill as an asset towards the swift-promotion ladder and to be brutally honest, Tom's gypsy nature reminded him too much of Jean-Luc. Anyway, the HPTS was meant to show that he had mellowed. He thought that the best way he could show Tom that he had changed his mind was to give him his own ship."
"I can't believe it. You mean, all this time, Tom and I have been plotting to steal his own ship?"
I laughed at his rueful expression. "Absolutely."
"Tell me something?" he asked.
"Why did Owen choose such a stupid name?"
And I lost it. He sat in bemusement as I rolled about the couch laughing. Finally, I wiped my eyes and answered.
"He didn't. Jeanette did. Owen had this whole list of fancy names: the Hercules, the Excalibur, the Destiny and so on. Jeanette said that Tom would hate all of the names because he preferred plain things. She said calling the ship something pretentious would be like telling Tom he should like ratatouille instead of tomato soup. And that's how she got her name."
Chakotay still looked blank.
"HPTS. It stands for Hot Plain Tomato Soup!" I explained and this time he joined in with my laughter.
"I can't believe he agreed. I never realised he had a sense of humor," he finally said.
"He didn't, but he was too stubborn to admit that he didn't get the joke, so the name stood."
"I don't think I like the idea of spending the rest of my life traipsing around the galaxy in a ship called soup," he said with a grin.
"I'm sure you'll find a better name for her now," I replied gently and his brow furrowed a little and then cleared. That beautiful smile spread across his face once more.
"I know just the thing," he whispered, his eyes a little vague as his thoughts obviously drifted off to consider my son.
"Well?" I asked impatiently but instead of answering me, he leapt to his feet and then reached out a hand to tug me up too.
"Come on, we have a lot to do," he said excitedly. I was so infected by his sudden high spirits that I just followed him breathlessly as he charged out of the door.
Chakotay had been gone for hours and slowly my earlier feelings of concern over our future grew and increased. He was leaving Dorvan because of me, had turned down the position of First Officer on the Enterprise and was now facing a lifetime, planet-bound as a damned teacher while looking after my own sorry disabled ass.
I should have the operation, I told myself repeatedly. I knew there were no guarantees but even so, if it worked I would have the chance to walk again, fly again.
Yet, the idea of my flesh being replaced by silicone, my actual legs being sliced off my body and replaced by prosthetics, was too horrifying to contemplate. When Chakotay touched me, I wanted him to caress my flesh, not some machine.
I knew I wasn't being logical and I couldn't even begin to explain my real reason for refusing without sounding insane. How could I tell anyone that the trauma of losing my wings was too great for me to contemplate losing my legs too? They would look at me pityingly, deciding I had finally lost all my marbles. How could the pain of losing something I never had make me refuse the only chance that Chakotay and I had of continuing the lives we loved?
For Chakotay I could do it, only for him, and being Chakotay he would not allow me to do it if it were only for him.
If only we could just run away together. If only we had stayed in the Delta Quadrant. If only I wasn't such a burden.
Perhaps I could show him how well I could cope if we stayed on the Enterprise, I decided. I stripped and re-made the bed. It only took about an hour to do it from my chair and then another half-an-hour to recover from the exertion. Then I went to the bathroom by myself. Not the proudest achievement of my life, admittedly, but it was a huge step in proving my independence. I had a little panic when my wheelchair refused to fit through the narrow doorway, but my arms were strong and I crawled, dragging my unresponsive legs like deadweight until I eventually dragged myself up onto the toilet seat.
I sat there breathless and triumphant, before realising that the toilet seat was supposed to be UP and my pants were supposed to be down. So, I slid myself back off and then on again, feeling like the biggest idiot in the galaxy. I made a mental note to get some kind of handles fixed to the wall. Then, I realised why I had never taken a piss sitting down before and so I spent the next hour or so cleaning up and changing my trousers to hide the evidence of my inability to fully comprehend the laws of physics.
Then I floated around tidying, rearranging, fiddling. I set the table for dinner. I checked the time, 1300. I tried to watch a vid, an old favourite, but I had last watched it with Harry and B'Elanna, back in my last days of complete uselessness, and memories and regrets flooded me until I couldn't see the screen for my swimming eyes. 1330. I contemplated visiting Ten Forward but the curious pitying glances of the crew were too much to face and besides, Chakotay and I needed every credit we owned. He wouldn't appreciate me drinking our tiny bank balance dry.
As the day continued, and still Chakotay failed to return, my guilt slowly turned to anger. He had left me here alone. Was this how our lives were going to be from now on? Was this his way of showing me why staying on the Enterprise wasn't even an option anymore?
I would go mad alone, hour after hour in these quarters. Shit, maybe Starfleet didn't trust me to fly but I could do SOMETHING! I could work in engineering, or pour coffee in the mess or even sit on the bridge and crack inappropriate jokes at tense moments. Hell, what better morale officer could they have than a wisecracking cripple?
Where the hell was he? Where the hell was everyone?
"How do you imagine we can do THAT without a dock?" I asked.
"A coating of tetryon particles and lasers," Geordi replied with a smug grin. "If we re-set the phasers we can use them like laser scalpels and carve into the coating."
"You are planning to use a Sovereign-class Starship as an 'airbrush?'" I asked incredulously.
"It might be like swatting a fly with a torpedo, but so what? It will work!" Jacqueline grinned.
I rubbed my forehead tiredly and reminded myself again, why I had stayed single all these years. The problem with women was they had this knack of making ANYTHING sound reasonable.
"Very well, but as for the rest of it, unless Beverly agrees it is safe, then I'm not going to allow it."
"With respect, Captain," Chakotay growled with anything BUT respect, "I don't recall asking your permission to leave."
I genuinely liked and admired my son-in-law, and I had no doubt as to his love for Tom, but I had serious doubts about the wisdom of his plan.
"Tom is disabled. There is no telling the full extent of his injuries since our medical science cannot even begin to understand how he was cured at all by the V'rakn'hal. What if the paralysis continues to spread? You are planning on flying off by yourself without even a Doctor on board. What if Tom's condition worsens? I won't allow you to put Tom in danger," I told him firmly.
Chakotay took a deep breath before looking me straight in the eye.
"I understand and share your concerns, Sir. However, Tom's happiness is more important. Your Doctor might be able to keep Tom alive, but that's not the same as LIVING."
"He's right, Jean-Luc," Jacqueline said softly and, as always, I crumbled before her where an army would have failed to move me.
"I'd still be happier if you had a Doctor on board," I snapped.
"Oh, I think that might be doable!" Chakotay replied with a sly grin at Data.
I narrowed my eyes suspiciously but let the matter drop for the moment. I had more chance of a straight answer if I cornered Data alone, I decided.
When I finally returned to our quarters, Tom's first unguarded expression was a combination of sullen misery and reluctant relief. Then, like a shutter coming down, his face transformed into a soft welcoming smile beneath his bitter blue eyes. He still didn't trust me enough to show his anger, I realised sadly.
I had left him alone all day, with no explanation. He had every right to question me, to demand to know what I had been doing, but he obviously simply didn't dare. He still thought I might leave him if he as much as complained. We had never had a chance to prove ourselves to each other. Events had always conspired to rip us apart and then throw us back together without us ever learning any real trust.
However, all that was going to change now. Finally, we had a second chance, a new start, and now time would begin to heal our wounds and allow us to grow.
"I'm sorry I've been gone so long," I said gently.
"S'Okay," he mumbled.
"It's NOT okay, I should have commed you, but we wanted it to be a surprise!"
I saw interest spark in his eyes and a cautious excitement appear.
"A surprise for ME?" he asked like a five-year-old.
"Yes," I grinned.
"Will I like it?" he asked suspiciously.
"I truly hope so, Tom," I said. "Come on and I'll show you."
He flinched a little as I gestured at the door.
"Can't you bring it here?" he whined, refusing to meet my eyes.
That's when I knew I was doing the right thing. Tom was already reverting to his old habit of wanting to hide. If we stayed on the Enterprise or even if we went to Earth, Tom would become an invalid. Slowly but surely he would become agoraphobic. The more time he spent alone in our rooms, the harder it would be to get him out of them.
"It's a LITTLE too big to fit," I replied easily and saw his brow crease into a new frown as he tried to imagine his surprise.
"What kind of surprise?" he asked as I began to push him to the door.
"If I told you it wouldn't BE a surprise," I laughed. "That would disappoint a lot of people who love you, Tom. We've all worked really hard today to get it ready for you."
I saw a happy, embarrassed flush rise up the back of his neck at my words. He still couldn't handle the idea of how many people seemed to genuinely care about him now. He didn't speak again until we were in the turbolift.
"How about you tell me, and then I PRETEND to be surprised?" he asked.
I couldn't resist bending down and kissing his irrepressible smile. Besides, it also saved me answering his question.
I really wanted to continue sulking when Chakotay returned, but my heart jumped mad somersaults of relief just to see him and the last thing I wanted to do was say anything that might make him turn around and walk back out of the door.
I knew he wouldn't, of course, but knowing in my head and believing in my heart were still too difficult to combine. He had left me too many times before. Only time would heal those scars and then only if nothing drove a wedge between us in the meantime. Like our exile on Earth would surely drive a wedge of mutual resentment between us.
I was back to that feeling of living on borrowed time, and I had no idea of how to put it right.
When he told me he had a surprise for me, though, most of my miserable self-pitying thoughts flew out of my head. Here I had been, feeling neglected, and all the time he had been doing something nice for me. The immediate feeling of warmth and well being that surged through me was only dampened by the realisation that I was going to have to leave our quarters.
I wasn't stupid. I knew I couldn't hide away forever. The loneliness itself was enough to make me want to climb the walls. It was just that I couldn't face seeing all the people who still had jobs, still had lives, and still had legs. I was bitter, jealous, and afraid. Not afraid of THEM, but of being compared to them by Chakotay and being found to be lacking. In a room full of healthy, independent, useful, people how could I look anything but second-rate?
In a way, the Enterprise, hell, the whole galaxy, was populated by millions of "Angels," all with the power to possibly steal Chakotay away from me.
What did I have to offer him? The answer was nothing but my love and a whole shit-load of problems.
To my astonishment, Chakotay pushed me to the Bridge. Maman, Jean-Luc, Jeanette and Elisabeth were present. Maman and the Captain had closed expressions but Jeanette and Elisabeth both looked like it was Christmas morning. I looked around the bridge and saw a sea of expectant faces but I was at a complete loss as to what it was that was happening.
"Cha?" I asked nervously.
I felt his strong hands grip my shoulders and I couldn't keep myself from ducking my head, closing my eyes and running my cheek over his right hand.
His left hand reached under my chin and gently pushed it up.
"Look out of the viewscreen, Tom," he whispered.
I opened my eyes and gasped.
She was beautiful.
Wonder and sorrow hit me like a physical blow, quickly followed by anger. Why did any of them think this would help? Sure, I had never seen such a wonderful little ship. Her unbelievable paintwork would haunt my dreams forever, nightmares of knowing such a ship existed and that I would never touch her helm.
Was she as beautiful inside? Did she fly like the eagle that she resembled? Had her engines been as intricately designed as the individual feathers that had been airbrushed over her sides? Did she move as swiftly as the eagle face that graced her front? Were her weapons systems as perfect as the beak painted on her nose cone or the talons etched on her nacelles?
"Tom?" Chakotay's voice said worriedly as my bitter silence continued. I forced myself to get my act together. They had meant well, I reminded myself.
"She's gorgeous," I muttered sorrowfully. "Who does she belong to?" I asked, not that I cared, but I was trying to be polite.
"You," Chakotay replied.
It took a moment for his comment to sink in, and when it did, only confusion followed in its wake. "What?"
"Thomas Eugene Paris-Chakotay," Chakotay said with a flourish, "I'd like you to meet the Thunderbird, formerly known as the HPTS."
I blinked in disbelief, and yet even as he said it, I saw beneath the artwork and recognised the familiar lines of the sleek yacht.
"Um, it's a neat disguise," I mumbled, "but don't you think it's a bit too conspicuous for a stolen ship?"
It wasn't THAT funny a joke, so I was completely bewildered by the hilarity my comment elicited.
It was my mother who stepped forward to explain. Throughout her words Chakotay kept his tight, loving grip on my shoulder and I drew on the comfort of his touch as yet again my feelings about my 'father' were confused once more. Again, I wished desperately that I had had a chance to speak to him before he died. There was so much left unresolved, so many feelings unexplored, so many hurts and yet other things, like this ship, that made me flounder in my own confusion.
Yet, above everything, as I gazed at the Thunderbird, I understood what hope she meant for me, for Chakotay, for US.
"I hope you like the name, Tom," Chakotay said, his voice a little concerned.
"It's perfect, Cha. She IS the Thunderbird. She's my wings."
Having met Chakotay, I shouldn't have been surprised to find that his family were so nice and ordinary. Yet, the images of the Wkangana had haunted me in my dreams for days and I suppose I had sub-consciously decided that the Dorvanians were vicious, uncivilised savages.
Visiting the farm of Chakotay's family opened my eyes. Yes, these people were strange to me, but we were not strangers. Chakotay's mother was so warm and welcoming, particularly to Tom, and I saw tears of genuine love between them as he sought desperately to assure her that his paralysis was not her fault.
Having heard Tom describe her part in encouraging him, I admit that I was prepared to hate her. Yet, how could I, when Tom himself bore no grudges?
Chakotay had refused my offer of a financial 'nest-egg' to help them get started, but he had allowed me to contribute towards medical facilities for the Thunderbird. His pride was great, but not as great as his love for my son and he accepted that Tom would need more than a basic first-aid kit to cope with his disabilities.
Similarly, he had accepted Beyvahl's offer of grain and fresh food from the farm and had taken the opportunity of collecting the supplies to say his farewells to his family. It was not until he disappeared, with Nayib and Beyvahl, to help load the foodstuffs onto our shuttle that I had a real chance to observe the relationship that Tom had developed with these people, in such a short, painful time.
It was a touching scene, and although I had accompanied them down out of a sense of motherly protectiveness, I soon realised that these people were truly special to Tom and that he had embraced their beliefs openly. I still wasn't sure that I forgave them, but I found that I liked them nevertheless.
When Chakotay's sisters presented Tom with a huge bundle of ornate, hand-quilted bedding, all beautifully interwoven with images of the Thunderbird, I was as moved as he was. To my surprise, Chakotay's mother then gave me a shawl embroidered with the same design.
"So that you always feel close to his spirit," she whispered to me, and finally the dam of my resentment broke and I cried and hugged her, even as Chakotay's sisters cried and hugged Tom.
When my son-in-law finally returned to the cabin, he found all six of us collapsed in a weeping heap. He flushed a deep red, muttered something vague about having forgotten something, and backed out of the room so quickly that our tears dissolved into hilarity.
Tom, Chakotay and I stayed late into the evening, until the embers of the fire dimmed to orange and the conversation dwindled to a quiet reflection. They had tried to convince Tom and Chakotay to stay on Dorvan, to weather the prejudice and overcome it. Yet, both men were determined to leave and would not be swayed.
"But where will you go?" Bey asked, for what seemed like the hundredth time, and Chakotay gave the same shrug he had given Jean-Luc and I.
The truth was, they didn't care. They just wanted to follow the winds of fate wherever they took them, like a bird drifting aimlessly on the warm currents of air.
I watched Tom's chair slide under the helm and then two clamps extended and locked him securely into place. He gave a small start of surprise.
"That's to stop you sneaking off to lunch early," Harry sniggered from ops.
"Neelix will need some restraints in the mess to make him eat lunch at all!" Sue replied from tactical.
"Neelix?" Tom asked
"He decided we would starve without his tender mercies. He doesn't believe in us eating alone in our rooms so he's turned the First Officer's quarters into a mess hall, since we are sharing the Captain's quarters." I explained, tactfully substituting Captain for Admiral, and First Officer for Captain. There was no need to put salt on THAT wound.
"Where are you quartered then?" Tom asked Harry with concern. The yacht was too small for luxury. Other than the spacious quarters for the Admiral and the Captain, the Thunderbird only had three communal quarters, a cargo bay and a dock for a single shuttle.
"Sue and I are in crew quarters 2. We threw out all the bunks and it's surprisingly large. We have a HUGE bathroom."
"With FIVE urinals," Sue added with a snigger.
Tom grinned and then frowned. "Why not crew quarters 1, surely that's bigger?" he asked in confusion.
Harry looked at me, obviously assuming that I would prefer to tell Tom THIS news myself. He was right.
"The Doctor said he needed the extra room for his sickbay," I told Tom.
He went white with shock.
"Maman told me he was DEAD," he accused, hurt and hope warring on his face.
"Strictly speaking he was. His mobile emitter was destroyed on Dorvan and his matrix was lost."
"So he's not OUR Doctor?" he asked
"He is. He just has lost a few days of memory. Data managed to retrieve most of the parts of his program from Voyager when he was looking for evidence to clear our name. We weren't certain there was enough data to create a secure matrix, so we superimposed him over a new EMH. A Mark V. To all extents and purposes he's the same, only he has a different face."
"Fortunately, I HAVE maintained all of my sub-routines including my extensive vocal repertoire," the Doctor announced smugly from the doorway.
Tom swivelled and stared in disbelief
"You've got hair," was all he could manage.
The Doctor grinned. "I'm still trying to decide whether to permanently change my appearance. This new default is strange, but I must admit it takes years off me. I see YOU have not improved in my absence, Mr Paris. Every time I turn my back on you, you get yourself in another scrape. I can see I'm going to have my work cut out looking after you."
Tom grinned with obvious relief. The Doctor might have looked like a 25-year old at that moment, but he evidently hadn't lost any of his acerbic wit.
"Glad to have you back, Doc," he said with such happiness that all of my painstaking work with Data proved worthwhile. Of course, the downside of retrieving the Doctor's program was that Neelix had insisted on coming with us after all. Then again, there was no Leola root in the Alpha Quadrant.
Tom turned back to face the view screen and tapped his elegant fingers impatiently on the helm.
"Where to, O Captain, my Captain?" he asked merrily.
"Straight ahead, Tom, warp nine."
"What's our course heading, Sir?" he asked as the Thunderbird shot forwards in an arc of light and the stars blurred around us.
"Our future, Tom," I announced expansively.
"For the cause that lacks assistance,
For the wrong that needs resistance,
For the future in the distance
And the good that we can do." Tom quoted happily.
"Damn, now I KNOW Picard's your father," I told him in mock disgust and he looked back over his shoulder at me, and winked.