The Shattering of the Mask 42
See part 1 for disclaimer
Tom trembled with a combination of fear and excited anticipation as Chanti helped him strip and change into the scant Osari costume he would wear for the ceremony of Aktar. Despite his determination to go through with the ceremony, he felt almost nauseous with dread. He knew that what he was about to do was a gamble, that the odds were stacked heavily against success and failure could cost him not only Chakotay but most probably would result in his having to choose between spending the rest of his life on Osar or in sickbay.
The Captain would undoubtedly see what he was about to do as proof of his insanity, and given the way his heart was racing, his knees were shaking and the almost painful ache of his cheek muscles because of a manic grin that he couldn't control, he wasn't entirely convinced she was wrong. He was so tense he wanted to scream, so scared he wanted to cry and yet so excited it was all he could do not to simply charge into the main hall and get the whole thing over and done with. After all the months of caution, of creeping around like a criminal, of pretending to be in control of himself when all he wanted, needed, was to throw himself at Chakotay's feet and cling to the older man like he was a life-line, he was finally going to risk everything on one roll of the dice.
He was going to throw away all that he and Chakotay had worked for because 'safe' wasn't enough anymore.
He *was* crazy.
But it was a good crazy. It was the madness of love that drove him, and if that was an illness then so be it. He didn't want to be cured.
Even so, despite the warm temperature of the room, his trembling wasn't only anticipation. His near nakedness made him feel chilled and vulnerable. It seemed that it wasn't enough that he had to face the possible humiliation of Chakotay's rejection. Simply entering the room in front of his fellow-officers dressed Osari fashion was going to be enough to destroy whatever little credibility he still had.
Chanti misunderstood the reason for Tom's distress.
"Your new master gives you the Bengat to signify his acceptance of your Aktar," Chanti advised, touching his own gold filigree collar reverently. "I expect that Gaskar will provide him with one for the ceremony but if you look closely at my Bengat, you'll see that it's not a random design. The links are formed in the shape of C's and B's, signifying that Baltzar and I are bonded. After the ceremony, your warrior Chakotay will commission a new Bengat especially for you."
"It's not my bare neck that worries me," Tom snarled.
His costume consisted of no more than two short oblongs of white fabric, fastened at shoulder and waist by gold clasps. It left not only his limbs exposed but also a wide swathe of flesh down the sides of his body, so that his ribs and hips were revealed. To his added consternation, the only undergarment Chanti offered him was a tiny golden thong that fitted like liquid metal over his groin and disappeared entirely between the crack of his ass. He was all too aware that every stride he took would give onlookers a flash of his butt cheeks and his gold encased balls.
"Why's it so damned short?" he demanded, looking enviously at the more discrete length of Chanti's otherwise identical tunic.
"For the ceremony, it is important that you show both your intended Carskoni and his gathered peers the value of the prize you offer him. After he accepts your pledge, it is normal to afterwards conceal his property from the eyes of others," Chanti replied. "It is important for a supplicant to create an impression of beauty and willing servitude. The envious reactions of other Carskoni is an important part of the ceremony. Unless at least one other Carskoni raises challenge, your would-be Master would be seen as foolish to accept your offer."
Tom's face drained of all color.
"What challenge? Nobody said anything about a challenge."
Chanti laughed and patted Tom's shoulder gently.
"Don't worry. The challenge is usually just a formality and it's far more likely to harm a Carskoni's pride than his body. It's just the guests way of expressing their approval of you as a prospective Aktari. Your Chakotay should wear the bruises of his combat with pride on your behalf. Besides, since you *do* fear your chosen warrior will reject you, it's an opportunity for you to see who else might be interested in sharing Aktar with you if you stay here after your ship departs. Remember, the Aktar is always an Osari's choice. Another Carskoni may challenge your intended Master, but that only gives them an opportunity to tempt you to change your mind. No Carskoni may take you against your will. Though, I suppose I should point out that my own Master, Baltzar, won me in challenge."
"But you just said it was the Osari's choice," Tom protested, his fear-filled eyes swirling with confusion.
"It is," Chanti grinned, "but I would have been stupid to choose the vanquished Carskoni, wouldn't I?"
"This is a mistake," Tom choked. "I never meant to put Chakotay at risk. I've changed my mind."
"He's a warrior, isn't he?" Chanti asked, frowning with obvious confusion. "Why would you choose a Carskoni who will not fight for you?"
"I want him to fight for me with words, not fists," Tom exclaimed. "I want him to stand up to the Captain, not a stranger. I won't have him hurt."
"As I said, the only real hurt he might face is to his pride. The challenge is a civilized one. No weapons are allowed and often no more than one or two token blows are exchanged before it is clear which Carskoni is stronger. Once dominance is established, Gaskar will immediately stop the fight and allow the next Carskoni to offer challenge. That way, even if many Carskoni vie for your attention, your chosen warrior will not be defeated by weariness or injury. There are rarely more than a half-dozen challenges and usually there's only one or two as a token gesture. It's not often that a challenger *seriously* intends to win the fight. My Master was the exception, rather than the rule."
"I want to talk to Gaskar before the ceremony," Tom declared.
"But that's not done. Osari do not demand to speak to Carskoni."
"But I'm not an Osari," Tom replied firmly.
"Forgive me," Chanti replied, with a bow. "Your beauty made me forget that you are Carskoni too. I will speak to Skani for you and ask her to request that her Master should attend you."
"What's going on?" Janeway demanded, as Gaskar left the room after a whispered conversation with his slave. "First they extend the dinner for some unexpected ceremony and now the ceremony is delayed. The whole thing smacks of some form of deceit. How do we know this isn't some ploy to keep us away from Voyager?"
"Perhaps it is," Chakotay replied grimly, so worried about Tom that he could barely sit still. It was bad enough that he'd had to remain on the planet when Tom had fled back to the ship. The idea that Tom might be in danger *on* Voyager was terrifying.
"It is not likely that the delay is deliberate," Tuvok interrupted. "The Carskoni are so technologically advanced that they have no need for subterfuge. If they intend to capture Voyager, they can do so without resorting to an elaborate charade."
"They're obviously not advanced enough to arrange a simple 'marriage' ceremony though," Kathryn snapped.
"It *would* appear that the ceremony is being delayed by factors Gaskar had not anticipated," Tuvok agreed.
"Why do I get the impression you know something that we don't?" Chakotay demanded, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.
"I do not *know* anything," Tuvok replied blandly. "I merely am contemplating a possible explanation based upon available facts and the most probable behavior of a certain individual who is likely to act in improbable manner."
"That sounds like a contradiction in terms," Chakotay replied, more than a little bemused.
"Contradiction is an appropriate adjective to describe him, certainly," Tuvok agreed.
"I don't understand what you're talking about, Tuvok," Kathryn griped impatiently.
"Evidently," Tuvok replied dryly.
"It's out of the question," Gaskar stated firmly.
"Why?" Tom challenged. "I thought you people embraced change."
"We do," Gaskar agreed. "But we don't condone folly. While I do not doubt that you are a brave man, Lieutenant Paris, you are clearly not physically at your best. Although we are not familiar with your species physiology it is clear to me, from observing the other members of your crew, that you are severely underweight and are recovering from some incident of physical trauma. I would not allow one of my own warriors to fight under the circumstances. Besides, it is completely unnecessary. The warrior that you wish to pledge Aktar to is evidently a strong man. There would be no more than a few token challenges of his right to accept your offer. Your urge to protect him is laudable but completely erroneous. We are a civilized people who have no intention of attempting to prevent your choice of Master. The challenges are merely to show honor to you as his would-be Aktari."
"I understand that," Tom agreed. "Chanti explained that the combatants usually suffer no more than bruises and scrapes."
"So why are you suggesting this madness?" Gaskar demanded, his confusion evident.
"Because it's not the challenge of your people that matters here. If I want my crew to accept my decision, I can't be seen as weak, Gaskar. I can't give the impression that becoming Chakotay's Aktari makes me less of a 'warrior'. I don't want Chakotay to fight for me. I have to fight for myself. This is about me fighting for the right to become his. Can't you understand that?"
Gaskar pondered quietly, weighing Tom's words while his dark intelligent eyes observed Tom's expression of proud defiance.
Finally, he gave a reluctant smile and nodded.
"I understand completely. You wish to prove your strength as a Carskoni before you lay that strength voluntarily at Chakotay's feet. You believe that is the only way that your fellow warriors will accept that your decision to offer Aktar is not born of weakness."
"Exactly," Tom replied with a relieved sigh.
"But what if you are defeated? The challenges may not be dangerous, but they *are* serious. Just because a Challenger will not be permitted to strike more than a few blows, it doesn't mean that his victory is not real. If he simply proves that he *could* defeat you, then he will be declared the victor. I doubt your Captain and crew will be impressed to both see you offer Aktar *and* be beaten in combat. It is unlikely that they will still see you as Carskoni under the circumstances. You double your risk by this choice."
"I know but I'm already risking everything. If I lose Chakotay, nothing else matters anyway, and at least this way I double my chance of convincing them that I have the right to make the choice that I have," Tom replied quietly.
"And if you are defeated?"
"Then I guess I'd better hope you meant it when you said we were welcome to stay, 'cos I doubt I'll be able to go back to Voyager unless I agree to spend the rest of our journey home in a padded cell."
"My offer is sincere, although if your warrior will not stay here with you, you will have to put aside your strange ways and attempt to fit within our society. If you have any doubts about Chakotay, I suggest that you desist now from the ceremony. That way you could remain here as just a Carskoni. Once you have declared your desire to be Aktari, it would be impossible for my people to see you in any other light. Even though you would be valued for your warrior skills, you would find yourself constantly pursued until you offered Aktar to one of us."
"I understand that."
"Even if that means you must offer Aktar to a new warrior?"
"Yes. If it comes to that, I'll have little choice," Tom admitted. "But if I thought Chakotay would leave me here alone, I'd hardly be offering him Aktar in the first place."
"Of course," Gaskar agreed. "I merely wanted to be sure you understood the possible consequences of your decision."
"The ceremony will begin shortly," Gaskar announced, with a smile, as he returned to the main hall. "For the benefit of our new friends, I would explain a little more about the Aktar before it begins. It is traditional that after the supplicant has announced his or her choice of Master, assuming that the chosen Carskoni accepts the honor that he or she has been offered, that any other Carskoni who desires the would-be Aktari should offer challenge."
"What kind of challenge?" Katherine asked.
"A physical test of unarmed prowess," Gaskar replied.
"A fight?" Chakotay asked, interested enough in the concept to temporarily put aside his growing worry for Tom.
"Indeed," Gaskar confirmed. "It is a tradition, It enables the gathered Carskoni to demonstrate to the supplicant that they may be a more suitable choice for his or her Aktar."
"What happens if the chosen Carskoni is defeated? Does the 'supplicant' then belong to the victor?" Tuvok asked. Although his voice was steady and his face expressionless, both Katherine and Chakotay turned to look at him worriedly as something in Tuvok's tone suggested that he was seriously concerned about the answer.
This time, Gaskar gestured that Skani should answer the question.
"No. The supplicant may choose to offer Aktar to their chosen warrior regardless. The challenge is intended to widen the choices of the would-be Aktari, not reduce them."
Tuvok nodded, apparently satisfied by her assurance.
"What if no one challenges the Carskoni's right to accept the Aktar of the 'supplicant'?" Harry asked.
"Usually the Carskoni decides to retract his or her acceptance of the Aktar. There is no honor in accepting the Aktar of a supplicant that no one else desires," Skani replied.
"It seems to me that your ceremony is full of similarities to our own culture, yet at the same time it's completely alien," Kathryn commented. "It's strange. In the traditional human marriage ceremony there is also an invitation for a third party to object to the union, but if they do it certainly isn't seen as a compliment to the couple. Quite the opposite, in fact."
"Still, diversities of opinion and culture are just a matter of external perception," Skani replied. "The only important matter is the love and sincerity of the two people who wish to be bonded together. The manner of their joining is only important in that it ensures the couple are serious enough about their love to make a public declaration of their intention to make their relationship permanent. Ceremonies are simply a society's way of condoning such a choice and the ceremony of Aktar serves that purpose for us just as your ceremony of marriage does for yourselves."
"Indeed," Gaskar agreed with a small smile. "The reason the ceremony of Aktar is so sacred to our people is that it cannot be entered into lightly. Both the supplicant and their chosen Carskoni face a great potential risk to their pride. This is also why the Aktar is rarely broken. Value is placed most highly on that which is difficult to obtain. Neither a Carskoni nor an Osari enter into this ceremony unless they are seriously in love."
"So the challenge is a test of their love for each other?" Chakotay asked.
"Yes," Gaskar agreed.
"I can see that the Carskoni faces pain and the fear of public humiliation in the challenges," Kathryn replied thoughtfully, "but what does the Osari face?"
"The Osari faces the possibility of intense humiliation if no other Carskoni offers challenge. More than that though, they face temptation," Skani pointed out, with a small laugh. "If the would-be Aktari can be tempted away from their chosen by a stronger warrior, then their love is not true and will not last. It is best to find that out before the Aktar is sealed."
"I admit that I'm very interested in observing the ceremony," Kathryn whispered to Chakotay. "It's a fascinating culture, isn't it?"
He looked at her in surprise, but she had already turned away to gaze at the doorway in anticipation.
"Let the supplicant enter," Gaskar announced loudly, and the door shimmered and disappeared to reveal the would-be Aktari.
For a moment there was stunned surprise throughout the room, both from the Voyager crew and from the gathered Carskoni. and it was a wide-eyed Harry who finally broke the silence..
"Jesus," he exclaimed loudly. "It's Tom"
As though his voice broke the spell of shock that had frozen her to her chair, Kathryn surged to her feet, torn between surprise, concern and pure outrage as Tom entered the room. Save for his pale skin, the shortness of his costume, and the absence of a gold torque around his neck, he was dressed Osari fashion and there was no doubt whatsoever in her mind about what his intentions were.
To her left, the only person who had anticipated the identity of the would-be Aktari hid his satisfaction behind an emotionless mask.
"What the hell do you think you're doing, Lieutenant?" Katherine barked. "Stand down and stop this farce immediately."
Immediately, two armed Carskoni bore down on her, grim frowns on their faces.
"If you wish to offer challenge, you must wait until the appropriate time," one of them advised her coldly. "If you attempt to interfere with the ceremony itself, you will be forcibly removed from this room."
"That is a member of my crew," Kathryn spat. "I insist that..."
"May I remind you of our delicate situation, Captain," Tuvok interrupted smoothly.
Kathryn's face twisted with impotent rage as she realized instantly that the safety of the entire crew still hung on the good will of the Carskoni. She sank back into her seat, eyes flashing at Gaskar. She was furious with herself for not anticipating Tom might do something stupid like this. Her only comfort was that Chakotay looked, if possible, even more stunned than she was.
His cheeks burning in an otherwise white face, Tom kept his eyes averted from his crew mates as he glided across the room. His long, pale legs gave no indication of his inner turmoil as they carried him towards Chakotay and then folded beneath him as he sank gracefully to the floor at Chakotay's feet.
Only then did he dare look up to face the stunned eyes of his lover. Chakotay's brown eyes were filled with fear rather than approval, and the expression wiped the prepared words of the Aktari ritual from Tom's tongue. His face drained of all remaining color and he began to panic. Only the sudden weakness of his legs prevented him from surging back to his feet and fleeing the room.
"Proud warrior," an Aktari kindly stage-whispered from the crowd.
Tom caught the words like a life-line and repeated them in desperation.
"Proud warrior..." he whispered, then his voice trailed off into an awkward silence. But just as the gathered Aktari were beginning to shuffle in sympathy with his embarrassment, his memory returned to rescue him. In a stronger voice he started again.
"Proud warrior, Chakotay, I ask you to consider the humble supplication of this unworthy vassal," Tom said. "Your bravery is legendary, your self-sacrifice for our people is sung by the tongues of countless more worthy candidates than I. Yet my heart sings a song that is for you alone. I offer my life, my body, my soul to you. I offer you my comfort when you are weary, my consolation when you are saddened, my companionship when you are lonely, my heat when you are chilled, my..."
Tom's eyes flared with panic as the words of the ritual fled him again in the face of Chakotay's continued silence. His eyes silently begged Chakotay to say or do anything to indicate that he understood and approved of his decision to offer Aktar to him. And when that didn't work, when Chakotay continued to look more embarrassed than moved by Tom's action, his fear was replaced by an almost angry desperation.
"I love you," he blurted. "Say I'm yours, Chakotay. Tell them you love me too, that you want me. Please!"
"Not like this, Tom," Chakotay begged, tears of shame forming in his eyes.
His embarrassment wasn't because of Tom's decision, it was because he'd allowed Tom to become desperate enough to do it. He felt ashamed of himself, as Tom's courage in defying the Captain so publicly cast his own caution under an intense spotlight and left him feeling that, yet again, he'd let Tom down. Over and over, despite the general perception of Tom as being weak, the pilot kept proving his courage was beyond question. It angered him that no-one else saw Tom for what he really was. With the possible exception of Tuvok, who was the only other person in the room who seemed completely unfazed by Tom's decision.
"Get off the floor, Tom," he practically growled.
Tom flinched at the seeming rejection, until Chakotay continued speaking and Tom realized that the other man's anger wasn't directed at him after all.
"You don't have to do this, Tom. I'm sorry I've made you feel that you had to. Well, no more. This ends here and now. I love you more than my own life and I'm not going to let us be kept apart anymore. I don't care what anyone else thinks. I swear I'll fight for you, for us, against *anyone*."
He surged to his feet and swiveled to face Kathryn.
"This is your fault," he accused her. "See what you've driven him to?"
Then the anger drained from his face, replaced by a weight of guilty sadness.
"No, it's not your fault," he muttered. "It's mine. I should have stood up to you before now. I should have made you see that no matter how terribly our relationship started, our love for each other will not be denied. I love him. Do you hear me, Kathryn? I LOVE HIM. And if you can't accept that, if you can't accept that we want to be together, then leave without us. We won't be parted any longer."
Tom's eyes were shining as he looked between Chakotay and the Captain, but his next words addressed her alone.
"I'm sorry, Captain. I know you've only ever tried to protect me, but can't you see that this is what I want? What I need? Asking me to give up Chakotay is like asking me to learn to live without breathing. I can't do it. I don't want to do it."
Kathryn gazed uncertainly between her glowering First Officer and the man kneeling at his feet. The situation had spiraled out of her control once more and she knew there was no point denying the inexplicable bond that had formed between the two men. Short of exiling Chakotay from the ship or putting one or the other in the brig, it was pointless to keep trying to part them. Even so, she couldn't wipe her hands of her responsibility to Tom. The last time she had trusted Chakotay with Tom's safety he had abused that trust and no matter how many times she reminded herself that Chakotay had been ill at the time, she was crippled by the fear that she was going to make the same tragic mistake again.
After Chakotay's attempted suicide, when Chakotay had been open to being *Tom's* property, she had found a temporary peace. As long as Tom had seemed in control of the relationship she had been able to put aside her own guilt-ridden doubts. But it had soon become clear that no matter what 'games' Tom and Chakotay played, no matter how submissive Chakotay was prepared to act, the dynamics of Tom and Chakotay's relationship centered around the pilot's inexplicable need to let Chakotay dominate him.
And Katherine, whose own self-image depended so completely on her need to dominate the world around her, could only see Tom's desire to participate in a dominant/submissive relationship as being evidence of mental instability. It wasn't that she was naively unaware that such relationships existed. It was that she couldn't envisage anyone as bright and talented as Tom ever voluntarily choosing to partake in one.
So although she wasn't foolish enough to continue denying the very obvious need Tom had for Chakotay's love, she was equally certain that once Tom was 'better' he'd be grateful to her for not allowing him to make a complete fool of himself in this way. Somehow she had to find a solution that would give them all some breathing space until Tom truly recovered..
"Tom, Chakotay, there's no need for any of this. We can work something out. As long as you agree to certain conditions, I am open to the idea of you continuing your relationship on board Voyager."
"What conditions?" Tom laughed bitterly. "A constant barrage of psychological tests? Regular physical examinations to ensure he doesn't hurt me? You going to bug our quarters, our bedroom or ourselves? You're my Captain, not my keeper."
"I'm responsible for your mental health as well as your physical body, Lieutenant. You said it yourself. I'm your Captain and I don't take that responsibility lightly. I've stood back and let you be hurt before. I won't ever make that mistake again."
"What the hell gives you the right to tell me who or how I should love?"
"I think the very fact you are kneeling half naked in a crowded room, begging Chakotay to accept you as his *slave* gives me the right, Tom. Your behavior here tonight proves that you're still acting under the influence of your past experiences. I could perhaps accept you were in your right mind if you had attempted to marry Chakotay as his equal, but for you to believe this...this..." she gestured around the room, "...this bizarre ceremony is appropriate, just convinces me that you're still far from well and I won't permit you to do this to yourself."
"Tom, the Captain's...." Chakotay began.
"Don't you DARE say she's right, you bastard," Tom snarled.
Chakotay just smiled reassuringly.
"As I was saying, the Captain's obviously forgotten where she is and who is listening. I'm sure she had no intention to insult our gracious hosts by suggesting that she disapproves of their sacred ceremony of Aktar."
"Indeed," Gaskar interrupted grimly. "I am sure you meant us no offence, did you, Captain?"
Kathryn pulled her face into an expression of diplomacy. She cringed inside at the cruelty of her next words and prayed that Tom would forgive her for them when he finally came back to his senses.
"I am not questioning the validity of your beliefs," she replied, "and I agree that your society is harmonious and civilized. However, Lieutenant Paris is one of MY people and I say it is not appropriate for him to take part in this ceremony. I don't blame you for agreeing to allow Tom to do this, and I understand that you see the offering of Aktar as being a sane and honorable choice for an Osari. But that's exactly why Tom can't take part in this ceremony. You don't understand the deeper ramifications of his decision. Although I regret saying this publicly, Lieutenant Paris is not...is not completely sane, Gaskar. Although I would not object in principle to one of my crew embracing your traditions, Tom's case is different. He isn't well enough to make an informed decision about what Aktar really means. So allowing him to do this doesn't honor your ceremony, it makes a mockery of it. I don't know what he said to you to convince you to allow him to do this, but I doubt he admitted to you that he has a history of severe mental illness. You're unwittingly taking advantage of his vulnerability."
"Is this true?" Gaskar asked Tom, his brow creasing with concern.
"Yes," Tom agreed. "'History' being the operative word. I don't deny that I suffered a nervous breakdown as the result of a traumatic experience. It's no secret. *She* made sure of that. But it's irrelevant. It doesn't mean I'm unwell now. If you have any doubts about my mental competence, our own Doctor will confirm that I am completely cured and am of sound mind. I'm making this choice freely and with full awareness of all the possible consequences."
Gaskar looked at Tom's expression of fierce determination and nodded thoughtfully.
"That seems to negate your concerns, Captain," he said firmly. "Had the Lieutenant once lost his sight, then regained it, you would not continue to call him blind, Likewise it seems to me that a previous mental illness does not justify you now declaring him unfit to offer Aktar. Only the warrior Chakotay can now say whether Tom's Aktar is acceptable to him."
The low grumbling of discontent from the gathered Carskoni suggested that Gaskar's decision sat no easier with his people than it did with the Voyager crew. Kathryn took heart from their doubt and stood her ground.
"The 'warrior' Chakotay was the cause of Tom's illness," she declared loudly. "When Tom refused to voluntarily become his lover, Chakotay kidnapped him and held him captive. He abused Tom so badly that Tom's mind shattered. Now Tom believes he loves his previous captor, but it's a love born from fear. Do you really believe that Chakotay can be trusted to *own* him now?"
"Is this true?" Gaskar demanded, turning towards Chakotay with a look of shocked horror on his face.
"I..." Chakotay began helplessly.
"Commander Chakotay *did* hurt the Lieutenant," Tuvok interrupted. "But he was not responsible for his actions. He had been grievously wounded by the chemical weapon of an enemy and it affected his behavior and judgment. Since that time, the relationship between the Commander and the Lieutenant has been one of mutual healing. While the Lieutenant's relationship with the Commander is unusual within our culture, I believe it would be more harmful to both of them to stand in its way." He turned to address the Captain directly. "They have found a path to walk together that fulfills both of their needs. It is illogical to deny the validity of their love simply because you disapprove of how that emotion was originally forged."
"You're the last person qualified to lecture on emotions, Tuvok," Katherine snapped.
"Captain... Katherine. Can't you see that Tom and I need each other?" Chakotay begged. "I agree that I harmed Tom in ways that I can't begin to put right and perhaps he'll never completely recover from what I did to him. Just as nothing you do now will ever erase the fact that you let him down when he *did* need you. It's too late now. You can't turn back the clock. Denying him what he wants now won't make up for the past. This isn't about Tom and I, this is about your own guilt. Don't hurt him just to salve your own conscience."
"Chakotay, I'm warning you," Kathryn snarled, turning to her First Officer. "If you let him do this, then I'll consider you to blame, not Tom. I'll have you thrown in the brig the moment you step foot back on Voyager."
"I accept your warning," Chakotay nodded, then turned to the kneeling pilot, "and I DO accept your Aktar, Tom."
Tom scrambled to his feet and threw himself into Chakotay's arms.
For a moment there was a deathly silence in the room as the gathered Carskoni mumbled amongst themselves uncomfortably, disturbed by the revelations of the Captain.
Gaskar glanced around the room worriedly.
"Are there any who would challenge Chakotay's right to accept the Aktar?" he asked.
The room was silent.
Tom sagged in Chakotay's arms, trembling as he realized that not only had Kathryn ensured that he and Chakotay would have to stay on Osar, but that Chakotay would now be seen as a Carskoni who had accepted an inferior Aktari.
"I'm so sorry," he sobbed into Chakotay's neck. "I've ruined everything, haven't I?
"You have to," Chanti hissed.
Baltzar glared at him.
"He's flawed. He has offered his Aktar in ignorance. You heard his own Captain condemn him as mad. How can I stand in praise of his Aktar if it is not real?"
"She's an alien barbarian. What does she know?" Chanti argued. "I spoke with him, Master. I *know* his mind is clear and his Aktar is true."
"You accept him as a fellow Aktari?" Baltzar asked.
"I do, and who but an Aktari can judge such a thing?"
Baltzar looked thoughtfully at his lover.
"Then I must accept your wisdom, Chanti," he said finally. "It is a foolish Carskoni who doubts the wisdom of his Aktari."
"Just as only a foolish Aktari would doubt the strength of his Master," Chanti replied. "Please do not vanquish him."
"I have seen him fight verbally, Chanti. I don't doubt his fists are as sure as his words. He will make good account of himself, I am certain."
"I love you," Chanti replied, then drew back to allow his Master to rise.
"I CHALLENGE THE AKTAR!" Baltzar bellowed, surging to his feet.
Tom sagged against Chakotay in relief as the roar filled the hall and was applauded by a tumultuous banging of fists against tables from the gathered Carskoni.
"Challenge has been made," Gaskar announced, barely able to hide his relief.
Chakotay kissed Tom's forehead.
"I love you, babe," he whispered. "I'll make you proud of me."
Tom detached himself and gave Chakotay a mysterious smile.
"I'm already proud of you, Chakotay. This is my turn to make you proud of ME."
"What are you saying?" Chakotay demanded.
"I'm accepting the challenge myself," Tom announced calmly.
"It's not up to you, Chakotay. This is MY fight."
"GASKAR," Chakotay roared. "What is this madness? You said the Carskoni was the one who fought the challenges."
"Indeed," Gaskar replied calmly, "and Tom IS a Carskoni. His choice to become your Aktari has not diminished him in our eyes. Has it diminished him in yours?"
Understanding filled Chakotay's face, but he lunged forward and caught Tom by the arm.
"Don't do this, Tom. Not for THEM!" He glared at the stunned faces of the Voyager crew. "They aren't worth it. You don't have to prove anything, Tom. We can stay here. We can be together. Who cares what *they* think?"
"I do," Tom replied firmly. "They think I'm mad, Chakotay. They think the only reason I want to be with you is because I'm too traumatized by what you did to me to even be a real member of the crew anymore. They think the only reason I want to kneel at your feet is because I'm weak and I need your strength to support me."
"Look at the size of him," Chakotay hissed, as Baltzar stripped his outer robe to reveal his strong, clearly-defined physique. "What the hell do you know about unarmed combat?"
"As much as any *other* Starfleet Officer," Tom growled back. "I might have been thrown out of the Academy, Chak, but it wasn't because I failed self-defense 101. Or don't you trust me either? Are you just like the rest of them? Don't *you* have any respect for me?"
"Dammit, Tom. You know that's not what I'm saying. I'd object as strongly if it were B'Elanna trying to accept the challenge and you can't doubt my respect for her. This isn't about your courage, Tom. Spirits, you've got more of that in your little finger than anyone else I've ever met. But you're dangerously underweight still and in no physical condition to fight."
Tom's eyes just glinted cold blue fire. Chakotay sighed and changed tactics.
"I box for a hobby, Tom. I'd *enjoy* the challenge. Why not let me have some fun here?"
"Because this isn't "fun", Chakotay. This is our love I'm fighting for," Tom snarled.
"You mean your *pride*," Chakotay accused.
"That too," Tom admitted without shame.
"Did you mean it when you offered me Aktar?"
"Of course," Tom said, his face twisting with fresh hurt.
"So you agree I'm your Master now?"
"Yes," Tom whispered.
"And if I refuse to let you fight, what then?" Chakotay asked pointedly.
Tom deflated visibly.
"Please don't do this to me," he begged.
"So if I say 'no', that's the end of the matter?" Chakotay demanded coldly.
"Yes, Sir," Tom whispered, dropping his face in defeat.
A wave of relief flooded through Chakotay as Tom's defiance crumbled. He couldn't bear the thought of ever seeing another bruise on Tom's pale skin. Better that Tom's pride was wounded than his still-fragile body was subjected to Baltzar's fists.
Except, perhaps, that Tom's pride was far less likely to heal.
He gazed for a long time at the bowed head of the man he loved, then looked speculatively at the people around him. Katherine was still glowering with anger, but she had relaxed perceptively when she had heard him forbid Tom to fight. Her relief was echoed on everyone else's face too.
No, not everyone's face, he realized. Both Tuvok and, oddly, Harry seemed to be glaring at him with expressions of disapproval.
"Gaskar?" Chakotay called out.
"My Aktari accepts the challenge," Chakotay announced.
He sensed, rather than heard, the Captain's hiss of outrage but he was too enraptured by the look on Tom's face to give it more than passing concern. Tom raised his head so he could stare Chakotay in the face, and his expression was filled with so much love and gratitude that Chakotay felt fresh tears brimming in his eyes.
"Just remember this, Tom," he said, forcing the words through a throat tight with emotion, "whatever happens, you can't lose because you've already won. I'm yours, Tom, if you want me."
"I want you," Tom husked back. "All I want to do is prove how much."
"When this is over, I'll expect you to prove that to me personally, in a *far* less public way," Chakotay replied.
Tom blushed and his eyes sparkled.
"Hold that thought," he said, rising gracefully to his feet, then cursing as he realized that he most definitely wasn't dressed for fighting.
As though he was psychic, Chakotay understood Tom's problem immediately and called Gaskar over again.
The Carskoni approached with a surprisingly patient smile on his face.
"If Tom is fighting as a Carskoni, he should be dressed as one," Chakotay pointed out.
Gaskar looked surprised, but nodded.
"I agree," he said, gesturing Skani to take Tom to prepare for the challenge.
"I can't believe you're allowing this," Katherine snarled, as soon as Tom left the room. "What the hell do you think you're playing at, Chakotay? Am I seriously supposed to believe you love him when you're allowing him to take part in this barbaric ritual?"
"The ritual of fighting for one's mate is widely practiced, Captain," Tuvok interrupted. "We do the same on Vulcan and you have never expressed any concern over *our* rituals."
"I'm no happier about this than you are," Chakotay replied, as Katherine glared at Tuvok. "But Tom's pride is at stake here and I don't have the right to interfere. Bruises fade far sooner than injuries to the spirit. I refuse to insult him by suggesting he isn't capable of making his own decisions. Just because Tom has trusted me enough to give me power over him, it doesn't mean I have to use it. Except in our private lives, I have no intention of ever interfering with his right to make his own choices. Perhaps you should attempt to show him the same respect."
"He's left handed," Skani said, as she handed Tom a Carskoni uniform. "He's very strong, but a little slow because he has a barely-healed hip injury . You'll notice he favors his right leg. I'd suggest you move fast and attack his point of weakness. A good kick to his pelvis will take his right leg out from under him and if he stumbles, you'll instantly be declared the victor because Gaskar won't want to risk you re-opening Baltzar's wound. Our warriors are far too valuable to Osar for them to risk injury in this type of combat."
"Thank you," Tom said, surprised by her help.
Skani grinned. "You might be Carskoni, but you're also an Aktari now, Tom, so you're fighting for our pride as much as your own."
She dropped to her knees and helped Tom with the unfamiliar fastenings of his boots.
"To be honest, almost all of the Carskoni are pretty slow on their feet. Because the defense of Osar depends on the strength of our military weapons rather than actual physical combat, not many of the Carskoni even know *how* to fight. Challenges to the Aktar are the only occasions they face combat and they depend on brute strength rather than skill."
"But they are all so muscular," Tom pointed out, confused by the picture Skani was painting.
"The Carskoni exercise almost constantly, using weights to increase the size and definition of their musculature, but it's just for show. The most important skills of a Carskoni are the ability to fly a ship and fire a weapon. So although you can't compete with them for size and strength, your speed and intelligence should more than make up for their bulk. Between you and me, none of the Carskoni are particularly smart."
"I can't believe you just said that," Tom laughed.
"Why?" Skani asked. "It's true. It's not their brains that attracts us, you know. We fully appreciate the strength and bravery that they use to protect us, but there's no point denying the fact that many of them initially chose to join the warrior caste because they weren't smart enough to be technicians. It's not insulting to simply acknowledge people's limitations. Their value to us is as protectors, just as our value to them is as the thinkers. Both castes, the Aktari and the Carskoni, work together to make Osar a safe place for the other citizens. I'm lucky, because Gaskar is wiser than most Carskoni but, even so, it was his noble spirit I feel in love with, not his brains. Of course, his body is a definite bonus too," she added with a grin. "But let's face it, no one is perfect. Not even our Masters."
"Chakotay is," Tom replied loyally. "He's clever and loyal and brave and noble and gorgeous and..."
"And very lucky to have an Aktari who loves him so much," Skani interrupted softly.
"I do. I know what you heard out there, what the Captain said about us, but it's not true. I *do* know he's the only person who can ever make me happy. I don't care whether everyone thinks I'm mad for loving him so much. I just...just wish they'd trust HIM. That's the real hurtful thing about all of this. Whenever anyone says I'm insane for forgiving him, it's not me they are attacking really, it's Chakotay. It's all very well them saying he was ill when he hurt me and that they trust him now. It's just words, because as long as I'm being criticized for loving him they don't really believe in him, do they?"
"Forgive me for being blunt, Tom, but you're not being completely honest either, are you?"
"What do you mean?" Tom asked fearfully.
"I've seen the way you and Chakotay interact. Your obvious need of his approval is extreme even for an Aktari. I'm not criticizing you, I'm simply pointing out that your Captain isn't completely wrong when she sees your relationship with Chakotay as potentially dangerous. You are giving power over yourself to someone that she isn't sure is worthy of the trust. On Osar, it wouldn't be an issue because no Carskoni would ever abuse an Aktari. Given your own people's lack of familiarity with this form of relationship, you are making a leap of faith when you offer Aktar to your warrior. You do not *know* he will not abuse you. You merely *hope* he won't. And the slightly disturbing aspect is that I get the distinct feeling that you don't really care whether he does. You want him anyway."
"That's not true," Tom snapped, then the anger faded from his expression under Skani's gentle gaze. "Well, maybe it is a *little* true," he confessed reluctantly. "I mean I *do* trust him completely. But I suppose, even if I didn't, I still couldn't give him up. Sometimes, it frightens me how much I need him. It's like I've lost part of me and I can't find it again. I feel empty, amputated even, and I need to fill that aching void with *something* and...and..."
"And only Chakotay can fill it?" Skani asked.
"Yes," Tom whispered.
"Everyone needs a little support sometimes," Skani replied. "And I can see that your warrior is strong enough to bear the burden of the little extra weight you place upon him. As for your Captain though, I think it's time you sat down with her and explained what's truly in your heart. It's obvious that she does care very much about you. Perhaps if you tried to explain, she would listen."
"I'm hoping that after she sees me fight for what I want, she will believe that my need for Chakotay isn't a weakness, even if it is."
"Remember what I said about understanding that people have limitations?" Skani asked.
"Then why not understand that you have limitations too? Nobody is good at *everything*. No one is strong all the time, and the stronger you are in some aspects of your life, the more you have a need to relax control in others. It seems to me that you must have always had a genuine need for a supportive relationship, otherwise you wouldn't have the confidence to fight for Chakotay against everyone's bad opinion. In a way, you're fighting for the right to be able to be weak. That's not a bad thing, Tom. It's about balance and harmony. In my own life I have great responsibility. That responsibility is a weight that I gladly lie at the door of my bedroom when I get home at night. Then my time as Gaskar's Aktari allows me freedom and peace so that I regain my strength. Chakotay's decision to allow you to fight the Challengers is proof enough that he understands that you will always live two lives, one public and one private and that the edges might blur but can never be erased. That, I believe, is the difference between what we call Aktari and what your Captain calls slavery."
"How come that outfit makes the Carskoni look dangerous but just makes Tom look sexy as hell?" Harry griped, as Tom re-emerged into the main hall clad in black leather. "There should be a law against people being *that* good-looking."
Harry's comment caused lips to twitch along the otherwise worried row of faces among the Voyager crew and Chakotay threw him a grateful glance. He, of all people, knew how much Harry loved Tom so he fully understood Harry's attempt to break the ice for what it was. Unfortunately, Katherine's face retained its narrow-lipped displeasure.
"The Lieutenant will prevail," Tuvok told him, with quiet confidence. "His courage and determination are greater weapons than muscle alone."
"You've always supported us, haven't you?" Chakotay asked, in a low voice.
"No," Tuvok replied. "but I've always supported Lieutenant Paris. Once it was clear to me that he was able to make reasoned decisions once more, I accepted his choice of you as a mate."
"a'Tha," Tuvok replied. "All Vulcans possess direct experience of the force responsible for the creation and maintenance of the universe."
"You mean you believe in the concept of a single God?" Chakotay replied, a little surprised.
"Not precisely. The terms are not comparable. The concept that I am raising comparison to is 'fate', perhaps. I believe that fate brought you and Mr. Paris together. It appears, from observation, that you are his Adun, his chosen life-partner, and although your relationship may still prove injurious to one or both of you, it is as illogical to attempt to prevent it as it would be to attempt to prevent a tide from turning."
"I don't think I can do this," Chakotay interrupted, as he saw Tom square off against the challenging Carskoni.
"a'Tha," Tuvok repeated. "This is Tom's destiny. You cannot interfere."
"You've picked a hell of a time to go mystical on me, Tuvok," Chakotay snarled.
"Look within yourself," Tuvok replied. "You understand the concept yourself of arivne, the state of unity between matter, energy and thought. This *is* the only way that Tom can demonstrate that his decision to bond with you brings balance to his life rather than discord."
"You called him Tom."
"This is not a time for formality, Chakotay. It is a time for us to demonstrate our affection towards him by allowing him to choose his own path."
"Spirits," Chakotay half-cursed, half-prayed, as he saw the huge Carskoni throw a bone-shattering punch directly at Tom's face.
Only Tuvok's presence at his side prevented him from leaping to his feet and snatching Tom out of the way of the blow. He half-closed his eyes, unable to bear the sight of Tom's blood splattering the floor as the alien's fist connected with his nose.
But it didn't.
Tom ducked his head, skipped backwards, twisted and let loose a round-house kick that connected with Baltzar's hip. Gasps of surprise echoed through the room as the Carskoni staggered slightly from Tom's blow and then gazed at the smaller man with an expression of obvious surprise.
Baltzar was more cautious as he approached the pilot again. This time he fainted with his left hand and struck a powerful blow with his right. Tom was caught by surprise and Baltzar's fist connected with his ribs, but it was only a glancing blow. Tom was moving away too fast for the Carskoni to connect with any real force. Instead of leaping backwards, he dove inside Baltzar's swinging arms, jabbed two sharp punches against the spot he had kicked then dropped to the floor and rolled backwards before the Carskoni could close his arms into a crushing bear-hug.
As Tom scrambled back to his feet and faced Baltzar once more, a murmur of approval began to rumble through the audience and reluctant smiles began to appear on the faces of Voyager's crew as they watched Tom make his much larger opponent look like a blundering ox. They winced as Baltzar finally landed a blow against Tom's shoulder that nearly knocked the pilot off his feet, but when Tom turned his near-fall into another round-house kick that made Baltzar bellow in pain, Harry leapt to his feet and cheered loudly for his friend.
Before Baltzar recovered to strike again, Gaskar stepped forward, arms raised.
"The first challenge is complete. The Carskoni Tom Paris is declared victor," he announced.
To Tom's surprise, a wide-smile spread over Baltzar's face and he gave Tom a short but sincere bow.
"Are there any other Challengers?" Gaskar asked.
Chakotay held his breath, then released it in a hiss of dismay as another Carskoni surged to his feet.
"I challenge," the stranger announced, with an eager grin.
Baltzar leant in towards Tom.
"I don't know who told you about my hip," he whispered, "although I suspect it was Skani, the witch. Anyway, Draskar is right-handed and cracked two ribs bouncing a shuttle last month."
"Which side?" Tom whispered back, with a grateful smile.
"Left," Baltzar laughed, patting Tom on the shoulder before returning to his seat.
"How long is this going to go on for?" Chakotay demanded, as the sixth challenger entered the combat area.
Tom's hair was stained dark with perspiration, his right eye was blackened and puffed closed and another bruise shadowed his left jaw. Chakotay didn't even want to imagine the color of Tom's skin under the black leather. He'd seen at least four serious blows connect with Tom's shoulders and ribs and Tom had been limping badly since the fourth Challenger had managed to kick him viciously in the thigh. Yet in each individual combat, Tom had clearly emerged the winner.
"It's difficult to say," Skani replied. "It's not usual for there to be this many challenges, but I think that every time Tom wins he becomes a more attractive prize. Nobody's ever seen an Aktari who could fight before. The more Tom proves his physical strength, the more potential honor is offered to his Master. The Carskoni are beginning to envy you, perhaps. It is a little disconcerting, to tell the truth. Perhaps they will no longer prize a normal Aktari so much."
"It's not his strength he's proving, it's his courage," Chakotay growled, as he saw that Tom's new challenger had learned from the mistakes of his predecessors and instead of allowing Tom to dart around him like an irritating fly, the Carskoni drove Tom back against the first row of the audience so he couldn't escape his blows.
"Or his intelligence," Skani laughed, as Tom realized he was trapped and instead of trying to duck the Carskoni's fists he threw himself at the warrior, wrapping his legs in a crushing grip around the larger man's waist and then striking his head with both fists while the outraged Challenger tried to pry him off.
"Shit!" someone declared, as the Carskoni gave up trying to unwrap Tom's legs and struck a savage blow against the back of Tom's head.
Chakotay tore his eyes away from the fight and stared in complete surprise at the Captain. She was bouncing up and down in her chair, her own fists clenched as a series of extremely un-Captain like curses emerged from her mouth.
Tom boxed the Carskoni in the right ear, then the left. The Carskoni bellowed and struck the back of Tom's head again. This time Tom was ready. He tucked his chin against his chest and allowed the Carskoni's own blow to drive his forehead against his opponents nose.
"YES!" Katherine exclaimed, as the Carskoni staggered back, blood splaying from his broken nose, and Tom dropped to his feet and swayed as he was declared the victor.
Chakotay barely heard her. He was too concerned about the almost cross-eyed glaze of Tom's eyes.
"He's concussed," he declared to Gaskar. "You have to stop this now. He's fought enough."
"I challenge," a new Carskoni roared, surging to his feet and striding forward.
"I accept," Tom hissed, although the Challenger was little more than a dark blur in front of his eyes.
Gaskar frowned. The challenge was getting out of hand. What had started as no more than a traditional affirmation of the Aktar had become an ugly hunger as Tom had proven his Aktar to be something more precious than any of the Carskoni had ever imagined. Tom was not only offering the devotion of an Aktari but the strength of a Carskoni, and with every warrior he defeated the definition of a desirable Aktari was being changed for good. This fight was threatening to become something that could change Osar forever, and although Gaskar didn't think that was necessarily a bad thing, he knew his people weren't ready for such a rapid upheaval.
He had to stop the challenges and the only way he could do that was to remove Tom's need to keep fighting.
He spun on Katharine.
"Is this what you needed to see?" he snarled. "Do you still say Lieutenant Paris is *vulnerable* and in need of your protection? Can you sit there and see this warrior fight and still doubt his strength? It is not his muscle that is winning the challenges, it is his mind, his will, his determination not to be defeated. Can you see that and still not see that he *must* also have the ability to choose his own path? Are you really willing to lose a warrior like him from your crew rather than admit that you were wrong about him?"
Katherine's face twisted with indecision, her eyes darting between Tom's bruised face and Chakotay's almost equally wounded eyes.
"Please, Katherine," Chakotay begged. "Don't make me sit here and watch him suffer any longer."
"You could stop this," she snarled sarcastically. "You're his *Master* aren't you?"
"And you're his Captain. BE his Captain."
"He's made it perfectly clear that he doesn't give a damn about my opinion," she growled.
"Would you just listen to yourself, Katherine? You don't sound like a Starfleet Captain, you sound like a jilted lover. Spirits, that's the problem isn't it? You're jealous."
"I can assure you I have NEVER been attracted to Tom Paris," she snapped.
"I know," Chakotay replied, "but that's not the kind of jealousy I'm talking about. This isn't about Tom loving me, it's about Tom trusting me. You hate that, don't you? You hate that he's chosen to turn to me instead of depending on you."
"*I* didn't hurt him, Chakotay. It wasn't *me* who abused him. All I did was make the mistake of trusting *you* and he's never forgiven me for it. How the hell can he forgive you for what you did and still hate me for making that mistake?"
"Katherine, Tom doesn't hate you. He doesn't blame you. He never has. The only person blaming you is yourself. Let it go. Put it behind you like Tom and I have put it behind us. Forgive yourself. Don't let your own unnecessary feelings of guilt blind you to the fact that he needs you."
"Does he?" Katherine asked bitterly.
"Find out for yourself," Chakotay replied. "Tell him you want him to come back to the ship. Tell him you'll accept our relationship. Just try it and see how fast he comes running to you, Katherine."
"He won't," she whispered. "I've hurt him, hurt both of you too much. I can see that now. I can see the dislike in your own eyes. You seem so calm but I know you too well for you to hide it from me. You really hate me, don't you?"
"Yes," Chakotay admitted. "But then I hate myself too, so don't take it personally. Tom doesn't hate you though. I don't think Tom is capable of hating anyone. No matter how much someone hurts him, he always finds a way to forgive. I'm proof of that. If you reach out to him, he'll accept your apology. Trust me."
"And that's what it all comes down to, doesn't it? Me trusting you?" Katherine asked.
"No," Chakotay replied. "It just comes down to you trusting Tom. The rest will eventually work itself out."
For a long moment Katherine stared at Chakotay, her eyes unreadable, and then she surged to her feet and strode towards where her battered pilot was warily circling his new opponent.
"Tom, please," Kathryn begged. "Stop. Stop now. We were wrong. *I* was wrong. You don't have to prove yourself to me any more. I believe, Tom. I don't understand, not really, but that doesn't matter. You've proven your point. I'm sorry. Please Tom, I was wrong and I'm sorry."
It took a few minutes for the words to sink into Tom's befuddled brain. He staggered around to face her, swaying on his feet.
"Captain?" he croaked.
She walked towards him, opening her arms to grasp him by the shoulders.
"Forgive me, Tom," she pleaded. "Come home to Voyager where you belong."
Tom blinked at her uncertainly, his blood-shot eyes too unfocused for him to recognize more than the blur of her chestnut hair.
"Me AND Chakotay?" he asked.
"Both of you," she promised. "I lost sight of what was important, Tom. You're right. I should accept you for what you are, not try and change you to what I think you should be. I've been so busy trying to do the right thing that I couldn't see how badly I was harming you."
"You just wanted to look after me," Tom whispered. "I know that. I know you didn't want to hurt me. But you did."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"If we come back to Voyager, what happens to us?"
"Nothing. I butt out of your personal life for good," Kathryn promised. "But I'll still kick your ass if you ever do anything this stupid again. Just look at the state of you."
"I'm serious about the Aktar," he warned her. "It's not a game. It's real. I belong to him, Captain. I *want* to belong to him."
"It's patently obvious how serious you are, Tom," she replied. "I can read it in every bruise. I'll respect your choice, Tom. There's not an officer in this room who hasn't learned to respect you today. But I can't promise you won't suffer some problems with the crewmembers over this choice. Just know I'll support you from now on. Both of you."
"That won't be an issue," Tom whispered. "Not anymore."
"What do you mean?" she asked. Then she looked with concern at the way Tom's face drained of color. "CHAKOTAY!" she roared.
Chakotay leapt to his feet and raced over, just in time to catch Tom as he fainted.
"The challenge is over," he growled at the Carskoni who had been waiting to fight Tom, "unless you want to take it up with ME now!"
The Carskoni looked at his flashing eyes and furious face and began to back away.
"The ceremony of Aktar is complete," Gaskar declared, adding his glare to Chakotay's in case there were any last minute dissenters. "I declare the warrior Chakotay to be the Master of the noble warrior Aktari Tom Paris."
A loud rumble of approval filled the room, and to Chakotay's surprise he heard an answering wave of rapturous applause from the away team.
"Katherine?" he asked cautiously.
"Who would dare make a stand against this?" she asked, gesturing around the room. "I might be arrogant, Chakotay, but I'm not completely stupid. Tom's earned the right to make his own decisions. He's made it clear that whether I consider his choice a mistake or not, I don't have the right to interfere."
"Do you?" Chakotay asked.
"Think he's making a mistake?"
She looked at the way Chakotay was cradling the unconscious body of his battered lover and sighed.
"Not any more," she admitted, then gave a sheepish smile. "But even if he is, I've finally accepted that it's his mistake to make."
Chakotay managed to find a small smile for her. Unlike Tom he wouldn't instantly forgive her, but in his heart he knew her interference had always been prompted by genuine concern for Tom's welfare and it was impossible to be angry about that.
"But if you *do* ever hurt him, I'll kill you," she muttered under her breath.
And oddly enough, it was that comment that broke through Chakotay's last doubts about returning.
"If I hurt him, I'll help you hide my body," he replied.
"No need, I'll just throw you out of an airlock," she snorted.
"I heard that," Tom whispered, although he was too tired to open his eyes.
Katherine and Chakotay exchanged a worried glance, concerned their awkward teasing had been misinterpreted.
"How are you feeling, babe?" Chakotay asked softly.
"Like I lost an argument with a photon torpedo," Tom muttered.
"You'd better transport him directly to sickbay," Kathryn said, relieved Tom was awake but still concerned about the possibility of concussion.
"Not yet, I've got to speak to Skani," Tom insisted, although when he struggled to open his one unswollen eye he winced in obvious pain.
"We can come back *after* the Doctor's seen you, " Chakotay insisted.
"No, too important," Tom argued. "Gotta ask about the conduit."
"Do you want a swollen ass to go with that eye?" Chakotay growled warningly.
"What conduit?" Katherine demanded, too excited to even react to Chakotay's comment.
"The transwarp conduit," Tom whispered, "The way home."
"I warned you," Chakotay said placidly, as he laid a second palm print on the pale skin of Tom's buttocks.
"But nothing. You heard the Doctor. He said another half-hour and you could have ended up in a coma."
"Ow...that really HURTS," Tom protested, squirming as Chakotay continued to spank him.
"It's supposed to," Chakotay replied. "That's why it's called punishment."
He gave two more firm slaps, then changed his smacks to a lighter flurry of taps that made Tom wriggle and writhe on his lap.
"But I found a way home, Chak," Tom wheedled. "It's not fair to punish me for that."
"I know you did, Tom," Chakotay answered, moving his hand down to spread the rosy pink blush onto the back of Tom's thighs.
"So why are you still spanking me?" Tom wailed.
Chakotay squeezed his own thighs tight against Tom's almost painfully stiff erection.
" 'Cos you like it," he purred.
Since Tom had suggestively opened his legs wider to allow Chakotay's hand to slap the inside of his inner thighs, he realized there was no point continuing his charade of outrage.
"I know what I *would* like," he said suggestively, then arched his back with pleasure as one of Chakotay's smacks caught the back of his scrotum.
"Is that good?" Chakotay asked, adjusting Tom's body so that he had better access.
"Oh shit, yeah," Tom exclaimed.
He was Aktari now, Chakotay's Aktari. He didn't need to pretend. He didn't need to deny what he wanted, what they both wanted. He'd fought for the right to allow himself the freedom to accept his own desires. Perhaps it would take time before he was fully comfortable in expressing what he wanted from Chakotay, but this was a start. A good start.
He wriggled his flaming ass in Chakotay's face.
"You missed a bit," he complained.
Chakotay looked blankly at the even rosy glow.
"Where?" he asked.
"The bit inside. It's still cold, Chak. Aren't you going to warm me up there too?"
Chakotay's answer was to slip a lubricated finger inside the purportedly cold place.
"Feels pretty hot in there to me, Tom," he grinned, pressing a second finger alongside the first and delving until Tom leapt and squealed as Chakotay brushed his prostate.
"Oh god," Tom sighed happily, as Chakotay's fingers began the slow ritual of stretching that would drive Tom half out of his mind before Chakotay felt confident enough to actually fuck him.
"Engineering," Chakotay said suddenly, as Tom arched and writhed like a snake on his lap.
"Huh?" Tom gasped, between his ecstatic moans.
"I just realized, Engineering's directly underneath us and absolutely everyone is in there watching the new drive being fitted. Since I'm planning to drive you through the mattress, Tom, I was wondering whether they'll hear me make this bed buck like a bronco."
Tom just gave a strangled laugh, too excited by the thought to give a coherent reply.
"You ready?" Chakotay asked, but he didn't wait for an answer, he just picked Tom up by the waist and folded him so that his head and chest were on the mattress and his ass was high in the air.
"Oh Shit," Tom gasped, as he felt Chakotay's huge cock press insistently against his pucker. As always it seemed impossible that it could fit inside him yet, as soon as he felt the velvet smooth skin start to breach him, he thrust back greedily to devour Chakotay's offering.
Chakotay grabbed Tom's hips and steadied them, forcing Tom to allow him to enter at his own far more cautious pace. No matter how often Tom's body opened to accept him, he never allowed his own excitement to put Tom at risk. He didn't mind Tom's desire to be taken roughly, he just liked to make sure Tom was safely prepared before he gave in to his own urge to give Tom what he wanted.
So he ignored Tom's moans of protest as he eased himself into the tight, delicious heat of Tom's body and luxuriated in the almost painful pleasure of feeling every inch of his cock being welcomed and embraced as the walls of Tom's passage surrendered to his entry. Only when he was buried so deep that his balls were pressed snugly against Tom's own scrotum, and Tom's moans had become pathetic whimpers of need, did he finally begin to rock his hips back and forth.
"Oh yeah, yeah," Tom gasped, as Chakotay's cock slid over his prostate sending needles of white-hot fire through his entire nervous system. "Harder, please. Fuck me hard."
"Is that what you really want?" Chakotay teased, still continuing his slow maddening thrusts.
"Oh god, yes...YES," Tom screamed, "Please Chak. I need it. I need to feel you, really feel you, inside me. Please."
"Then ask me nicely," Chakotay purred.
"Please...Master," Tom wailed.
And with a broad smile, Chakotay proceeded to give Tom what they both could finally admit they wanted.