The Shattering of the Mask 37
See part 1 for disclaimer
Tom spent the next fortnight lost in a drug-induced haze.
It wasn't the sedatives that kept him trapped in a semi-conscious state, it was the fact that despite the Doctor's medical care, Tom developed a serious infection in his arm.
The skin of his forearm, already multi-scarred by his previous abuse, resisted the Doctor's efforts at regeneration. There was too little undamaged skin for the Doctor to work with and because of Tom's poor general health a skin graft was out of the question.
The Doctor decided to let the wounds scab and close naturally. He could clone some of Tom's DNA at a later date and attach fresh skin to cover the scarring.
Unfortunately, Tom had an allergic reaction to one of the various anti-biotics included in the cocktail of drugs the Doctor mixed up to speed the healing. By the time the Doctor had isolated the culprit, Tom's arm was weeping with infection and his whole body was wracked with fever.
Then, despite the best application of 24th century medicine, or at least the facilities that were available in Voyager's now depleted sickbay, Tom proceeded to prove that even unconscious he could be the Doctor's worst nightmare.
Time and again the Doctor devised a treatment that couldn't fail to work, and each time Tom's body defeated him, refusing the medicine, reacting violently against any application of drugs that could reduce the livid, throbbing wound on his arm.
The vibrant wound mocked the Doctor with its absolute refusal to heal. If the Doctor had been a flesh and blood person he would have given in to the increasingly superstitious feeling that the word FOREVER was self-aware and determined to prove itself no less permanent than the sum of its letters.
"Can't you just seal the flesh closed?" Kathryn asked, looking in despair at the clear plastiglass cover over Tom's arm that was designed to keep any airborne infections out of the weeping wound.
"The only thing that would work is a laser," the Doctor replied, "and that would simply burn the word into his arm. A graft would never take over the top of it. He'll be permanently scarred."
"Perhaps that's what he wants," Kathryn murmured.
"You said yourself there's no physical reason for him to keep rejecting the treatments. Perhaps his reactions are psychosomatic. He wants the scar."
The Doctor nodded his reluctant agreement.
"I have come to the same conclusion," he admitted. "Obviously it's a symptom of his illness, however, which is why I am determined to overcome his resistance to my treatment. When he is well again, he will almost certainly find the permanent mark distressing."
"Possibly," she agreed. "The way I see it though is that if you don't stop trying to beat Tom's determination now, he won't survive long enough to be cured."
"The operation was a success but the patient died?" the Doctor asked dryly.
"Some old joke Mr. Paris once told me," the Doctor replied.
"Laser the wound, Doctor," Kathryn ordered firmly. "We'll deal with the aftermath later."
Chakotay ignored the aggressive stance of the crewman and concentrated instead on the information flashing on his terminal.
"This is the fourth time this week you've been late for duty. Twice in the last month, members of your team have been cited for leaving their posts without permission. You have failed to hand in your last two station reports and now I find that you haven't even started your team on the assignment I gave you last week."
"We did start it," Collins argued. "Then we realised it was a waste of time. We're just duplicating work that the maintenance crew on Beta shift are doing. What's the point of crawling along Jeffries tubes just repeating their work?"
"The *point* is that they are critical systems. The Beta shift need the experience of doing the work but I need it double-checked by more experienced crewmen," Chakotay explained, forcing his voice to remain steady in the face of Collins' insubordination.
"Yeah? Well that's the job of their supervisor, not my team. It's not my job to baby-sit, Commander."
"No," Chakotay agreed. "It's your job to follow orders, which you are patently unable to do. I'm entering a note into your performance report. Unless your attitude changes dramatically, you will be turned down for promotion again this year."
Collins face flushed with anger.
"I'm the best maintenance engineer on this ship. Even Torres says so. I've had the responsibility of running my own team for five years. I deserve that damned promotion."
"Not on this performance you don't," Chakotay replied. "It's not enough to have ability, Mr. Collins. If you want to be an officer on this ship you have to set an example to your team by your own behaviour."
Collins laughed nastily.
"An example?" he mocked. "You mean I ought to take a firmer hand with my team? What do you suggest, *sir*? Should I fuck 'em into submission or just beat their asses? I mean you're the expert on correctional behaviour, aren't you, Commander?"
"Dismissed," Chakotay growled, clenching his knuckles until they turned white. The blood was pounding through his head, his whole body poised to jump up and wipe the mocking smirk off Collin's face. It took every ounce of his strength to simply sit there and maintain a mask of indifference.
"What? No pointers, Sir?" Collins continued. "I mean, if I want to be an *Officer* like you, I obviously need to learn your special form of discipline, don't I?"
"I SAID DISMISSED," Chakotay roared.
Collins smirked, gave a salute so precise that it was a gesture of utter contempt, turned on his heel and marched out of the room, his whole body radiating satisfaction.
Chakotay just sat there, staring at the closed door, trying to remember how to breathe. A couple of minutes later, his comm badge chirped.
"Chakotay," he growled, slapping his chest so hard that he bruised himself.
"Commander," Tuvok's dispassionate voice replied. "I wondered whether you have time to see me for a few minutes. There are a couple of security issues I would welcome your opinion about."
Chakotay shrugged. He wasn't up to dealing with another crew discipline session and nobody came to him for counseling any more.
"I'm available," he told Tuvok shortly.
As if you didn't already know, Chakotay added silently, deliberately not looking towards the tiny blinking red light in the far corner of his room. He'd been told it was part of a life-support secondary system. He'd seen the schematics, understood the theory, hadn't even queried the fact that there was a matching red light in his living room and even his bedroom. It was the fact that it hadn't been installed in his bathroom that had given the deception away.
Even Kathryn obviously drew the line at placing a camera in Chakotay's bathroom.
Tom glared resentfully at the Doctor's self-satisfied smirk.
"I feel FINE. You could at least let me get up and use the bathroom."
"The bio-bed is perfectly capable of dealing with all your bodily functions," the Doctor replied smoothly.
"I want to talk to the Captain," Tom insisted. "She promised me I wouldn't be restrained."
"You aren't," the hologram replied smoothly. "You are free to sit up in the bed. You can get up and sit ON the bed. You can even walk around it if you prefer. The force field merely prevents you from leaving Sickbay."
"Then why is it around my fucking BED?" Tom demanded.
"Because there are a lot of items in sickbay that you could *accidentally* hurt yourself with," the Doctor answered. "This way I don't have to keep you under constant surveillance and you can have a little privacy."
"I want to see Chakotay," Tom muttered.
The Doctor sighed impatiently.
"We have already had this conversation, Tom. Numerous times. The Commander has been ordered to stay away from Sickbay. You cannot see him."
"Then I want to *talk* to Chakotay," Tom replied.
"As I have explained before, your comm badge will not work through the force field."
"THEN DROP THE FUCKING FORCE FIELD," Tom screamed.
The Doctor sighed and activated the sub-routine that would send a sedating gas into Tom's air supply. He watched Tom fighting the gas, battering his hands desperately against the invisible wall that trapped him, screaming abuse and threats at the Doctor. He waited until Tom's screams became ragged sobs, until the strength of Tom's anger was replaced by a confused, depressed sorrow. Then Tom's body sagged with exhaustion and he crawled back under the bedcovers, his fury replaced with tired bitter tears of despair.
Only then did the Doctor return to his office and write a new entry in Tom's medical report. Tom had managed 4.356 minutes before giving in to hysteria that morning. It was definite progress.
B'Elanna nudged Harry roughly.
"What?" he complained, as her elbow connected with his ribs hard enough to almost make him drop his tray.
She dipped her head towards the far corner of the Mess Hall where Chakotay was sitting alone, pushing his dinner listlessly around his plate and pretending to be absorbed in a data padd.
Chakotay wasn't merely sitting alone at his table. The surrounding tables were also conspicuously empty despite the fact that the room was so full of people that the other tables were overcrowded.
"Bastards," Harry hissed, as he realised how hard the entire crew were working to make Chakotay feel isolated and unwelcome.
"Come on," B'Elanna growled and began to march towards Chakotay's table.
Harry flushed as he realised the eyes of the whole room were on him. He knew that if they sat at Chakotay's table the contempt currently reserved for Chakotay would be extended to them too. The thought made his stomach roil.
Then he stiffened his shoulders. If it was Tom he wouldn't hesitate, and he knew, beyond any doubt, that Tom would want him to do this. Whatever had happened, whatever Chakotay had done, Tom loved Chakotay and Tom was Harry's friend.
He'd been a bad friend to Tom recently. He knew that. Every time he reached out to his beloved B'Elanna, he had a flashback to how he had allowed Tom's destruction just to steal Tom's girlfriend. What he owed Tom could never be paid, but maybe by reaching out to Chakotay, Harry could reduce a little of the interest on his debt.
"May we?" B'Elanna asked loudly. She didn't wait for an answer, she just pulled out a chair, plonked her tray noisily on Chakotay's table and sat down.
Chakotay nearly dropped his padd in surprise.
"You've let your dinner get cold, Commander," Harry said as he joined them. He snatched Chakotay's plate, replaced it with his own steaming pasta and rose to fetch himself another serving.
"What are you doing?" Chakotay asked quietly.
"You know that expression, a drip of water wears away the hardest rock?" B'Elanna asked.
Chakotay frowned in confusion.
"Well the rock is the stupid, ignorant attitude of these idiots, and Harry is the drip."
"Hey," Harry protested. "What are you then?"
B'Elanna shrugged and gave an evil smile.
"Me? I'm a Tsunami. Kahless himself can't help anyone who stands in my way."
Chakotay smiled despite himself.
"You can't change attitudes by breaking noses, B'Elanna," he admonished softly.
"Want a bet?" B'Elanna replied with a cool smirk.
"How is he?" Tom asked quietly.
Kathryn sighed, stretching her legs as she leaned back in the chair, and she looked worriedly at Tom's face. Even with the force field between them she could almost feel the misery radiating from the pilot.
"I didn't come here to talk about Chakotay," she reminded him gently. "I came to see how *you* are."
"Please," Tom said, dropping his head to stare at his lap. "I just want to know he's okay. The Doc won't tell me."
"He's having a hard time," Kathryn admitted finally. "But he's okay, he's strong. He'll get through it."
Tom nodded slowly.
"You care about him, don't you?" Tom asked.
Kathryn jerked in surprise.
"Of course I do. He's a good man, Tom. I understand that. Despite everything that happened. I trust him and care about him, just as I care about you."
"But you don't trust me," Tom replied bitterly.
Since Kathryn hadn't even considered sitting inside the boundaries of Tom's 'prison' she could hardly deny it.
"You're ill Tom. It's not your fault. All we're doing is protecting you until you're able to look after yourself."
"By which you mean keeping us apart," Tom accused.
"Only until you're feeling better, Tom."
"How the fuck am I going to feel better without him? I NEED HIM!" Tom screamed, moving towards Kathryn so that his final words were almost spat in her face.
Kathryn jumped, despite the force field. Tom's sudden swing of mood had caught her unprepared.
"It's exactly this kind of behaviour that convinces me I'm right, Tom," she told him coldly, rising to her feet to leave.
She wasn't angry with him, not really, she was just beginning to despair whether Tom would ever recover. The Doctor had already said there was no physical reason to keep Tom in sickbay any longer. Yet Tom needed to be constantly supervised and kept away from dangerous objects. Such as First Officers.
As much as the thought sickened her, unless Tom began to recover soon Kathryn had the horrible feeling she was going to end up putting him in the brig just to keep him safe.
Chakotay walked so slowly and reluctantly in Kathryn's wake that he seemed to be en route to his own execution.
"Come on," she urged. "Just one drink."
"It's a bad idea," Chakotay replied.
"Nonsense. It's my idea, therefore it's a great idea, because *I'm* the Captain," Kathryn growled, only to ruin the effect by sniggering.
Chakotay smiled despite himself.
"Come on," Kathryn urged. "Come have a drink with me and I'll give you an update on Tom."
Chakotay snatched hungrily at the dangled bait. He was so desperate to hear her news that he barely noticed the fact that over half the crewmembers in Sandrines rose pointedly at his entrance and stalked out.
Kathryn noticed though and glared so fiercely at the next table of occupants who were clearly planning to leave as though Chakotay carried the plague, that they seated themselves once more.
"How is he?" Chakotay asked, sipping cautiously at the double scotch the Captain had *bought* him.
"He's over the infection, he's rational most of the time," Kathryn said cautiously.
"And the rest of the time?" Chakotay demanded.
"Whenever he mentions you, he loses control."
"I told you he needs me," Chakotay replied. "Let me talk to him. I can calm him down. I can help him get better."
"No, you don't understand, Chakotay. It's not a case of him simply 'missing' you. He gets hysterical, crazy even. It's like he's addicted to you and just the slightest mention of your name knocks him sideways and back into madness."
"Tom isn't mad," Chakotay growled defensively.
"No," Kathryn agreed, "but the Doctor says he's skating on a thin line of sanity and it wouldn't take much to push him over the edge."
"Shit," Chakotay hissed, taking a deep gulp of his drink. The liquor burned his throat and threatened to liberate the tears that were clustered precariously at the back of his eyes.
"The problem is that he's not getting better and he can't stay in the Sickbay forever. I'm going to have to move him to somewhere equally secure though, unless his behaviour changes radically."
Chakotay looked at her in dawning horror.
"The brig? You want to put him in the brig? That *will* push him over the edge."
"I know," Kathryn confessed. "That's why I want your help."
"I know you love Tom. Really love him. That's why I'm going to ask you this. I know how much it will hurt you but if you really love him, you'll do it."
"I want you to tell Tom it's over between you. Cut him loose. Give him a chance to get over you before he destroys himself."
Tom double checked the electronic signature to be sure the padd hadn't been tampered with then he considered the hurtful words. Yes, they'd definitely been typed by Chakotay and signed by him too, but they were stilted, wrong, obviously contrived. There was no flow or emotion to the words.
"For a long time I've been thinking about our relationship. Only you have ever touched my heart. Reality can't be denied though. Everyone is saying I am harming you. Various recent incidents have proved them right. Even though I love you, I have decided that we can never see each other again. Refuse to accept this and I will be forced to leave the ship."
Tom read the padd again, then shifted the text, rearranging the sentences so that they stood one above each other.
"For a long time I've been thinking about our relationship.
Only you have ever touched my heart.
Reality can't be denied though.
Everyone is saying I am harming you.
Various recent incidents have proved them right.
Even though I love you, I have decided that we can never see each other again.
Refuse to accept this and I will be forced to leave the ship."
Tom felt his heart jump in his chest. Then he looked over to where the Captain and Doctor were holding their breaths, obviously waiting for his hysterics.
Instead Tom gave a gentle smile.
"He's right," he said quietly. "We're no good for each other. It's time I accepted the truth."
Kathryn and the Doctor exchanged bewildered looks.
"I want to get well," Tom announced. "I'll start taking that medication I've been refusing and you can tell Tuvok that I've decided to take him up on his offer of counseling. It's time I let Chakotay go."
"How did he take it?" Chakotay asked.
Kathryn gave him a perplexed look and reached a comforting arm out to touch his hand before replying.
"Don't take this the wrong way, Chakotay, but he read your note and he actually seemed relieved."
"Did he?" Chakotay asked steadily.
"Yes," Kathryn replied, still obviously bemused by Tom's reaction.
"Well, he's a smart man, Kathryn. He might be ill, but he's not stupid. He can read between the lines. He knows he'll never be allowed his freedom unless he shows you that he can let me go."
Kathryn nodded, still too relieved at Tom's unexpected compliance to figure out why Chakotay's answer bothered her.
"Lieutenant?" Chakotay asked calmly, his face expressionless except for the tightening of the skin around his eyes.
Tom moved stiffly into the room, his body taut with tension, his eyes refusing to meet Chakotay's face.
"Reporting for duty, Sir. The Doctor has finally cleared me to fly again," Tom told the wall behind Chakotay's head.
"Congratulations, Tom. I'm pleased you're feeling better."
"I am," Tom replied steadily. "Everything's a lot clearer now. I understand that I was confused. That I was attempting to avoid dealing with my problems and that's why I wasn't getting better. The Doctor has helped me a lot."
"I'm glad," Chakotay replied, forcing his voice to remain calm, determined not to allow his own heart-ache to show.
"I appreciate that you did what you thought was best for me, what I asked you to do," Tom continued. "So although the Captain didn't think it was wise for me to do this, I wanted to tell you my decision to your face."
"I still love you, Chakotay. I always will. But we can't see each other that way any more. Our relationship is bad for me. I don't handle it well. I hope we can still work together, be friends at least."
"Of course," Chakotay replied. "I only want what's best for you."
"How's your arm?" Chakotay asked.
Tom rolled his uniform sleeve up and revealed the still livid scars.
"The Doc's mad about it. Says despite the infection he should have been able to remove it, but the skin simply won't regenerate. Seems I'm stuck with it forever."
"Forever," Chakotay repeated slowly.
Tom's eyes darted towards the winking camera in the corner of the office and he twisted his body slightly so that his right shoulder obscured his left arm. Only then did he use the fingers of his right hand to carefully trace the lines of the word carved on his flesh.
"Some things never fade," Tom murmured. "Some things never change, no matter how hard people try to change them."
He finally looked Chakotay in the face and it took all of Chakotay's self-control not to react to the clear message in those blue eyes.
"I'm glad you're feeling better, Tom, and that you know what you want. I assure you that my feelings about our relationship are exactly the same as yours."
Tom gave a tiny shudder, his eyes closed briefly as he struggled for control. Then he used the distraction of rolling his sleeve back down to regain his composure.
For the benefit of their audience, Tom gave a casual shrug.
"Thank you for understanding, Commander," he said calmly, using his eyes alone to project his real meaning.
"I do," Chakotay assured him, reaching out his hand to shake Tom's in a gesture of dismissal.
Even Tuvok's eagle eyes on the monitor didn't register the tiny, comforting squeeze of Chakotay's hand around Tom's fingers. The gesture was too small, too insignificant, yet in the mingling gaze of the two men, a secret pact was agreed, a private vow reaffirmed.
"Dismissed Lieutenant," Chakotay said softly.
"Sir," Tom replied equally calmly, and in front of the camera they both simply turned and walked away from each other, Chakotay to his desk, Tom out towards the Bridge.