Disclaimer: Characters and places belong to Paramount.
Author's note: Thanks to Liz Logan for the beta.
When it gets cold, really cold, you don't even mind feeling it anymore. The breath freezes in your nose and your fingers creak when you try to move them. Sometimes you wiggle your toes, just to make sure that they are still there.
I could get closer to the fire, but Chakotay is there, hunched and brooding. He must know by now that I'm upset with him but it makes me furious that he doesn't seem to care. And so I wrap my anger around me, hoping that it warms me here in the middle of the artic tundra, because it's easier to blame Chakotay than Tom. But I know Chakotay and I know we feel the same hurt; he misses the Captain, almost as much as I miss Tom. Except *he* won't admit it.
So I stand in the middle of the only road in this godforsaken colony, watching Chakotay warm his fingers over a sputtering fire. I don't know what possessed Chakotay to invoke his Spirit Guide tonight. Maybe it's the lack of the moon or maybe like me, he's so damn numb that after a few minutes in the cold, it's impossible to feel much.
Or so I want to believe.
"B'Elanna?" Sveta puts her hand on my shoulder. The warmth of her tough passes through my thin shirt. I shiver.
"Hi," I reply.
"What are you doing out here?" Sveta says. Her voice is soft, underlying concern; I know she thinks I'm brittle, inclined to shatter into a thousand pieces at the slightest provocation. I want to prove her wrong, prove Chakotay wrong, but it gets harder and harder each day we're out here.
"I need to talk to Chakotay."
"Now?" Sveta glances in Chakotay's direction. She shakes her head. "What in the hell does he think he's doing? Is he crazy?"
"Yes," I say softly. I rub my palms together and Sveta looks at me. I know she's thinking the same as me: Chakotay doesn't look like he's in the mood to talk to anyone.
"Come inside," she says.
I look at Chakotay again. He chants, his voice so soft I can't make out the words. His eyes are closed. "In a minute. After I talk to him."
Sveta looks at me like I'm crazy. Dig your own grave, her expression seems to say.
"Fine," Sveta says. "I'll be inside."
But she's back, a minute later, and presses a blanket into my hand.
"At least use this," she says. "You've already been sick once. No need to risk hypothermia."
I thank her and wrap the blanket around my shoulders as I stumble towards the warmth of the fire. Chakotay raises his head to look at me, noticing me for the first time.
"B'Elanna," he says. "How long have you been watching me?"
I cover the distance between us, leaving maybe two to three meters between us. It feels like an enormous distance.
"Ten minutes, give or take a few."
Chakotay moves his hands over the crackling fire, inhaling deeply.
"Feel better?" I ask.
"Seems to me like it's an awful waste of time to sit out here hoping for something that might make you feel better."
"I didn't say it was a waste of time."
I squat down next to him.
"Yeah? So what brought on this need to explore your spiritual side?" I ask.
"It's been a long time."
"You can't fool me, Chakotay."
He glances at me sideways.
"I wasn't trying to fool anyone," he says quietly. "How are you, B'Elanna?"
I hate that question because you have to come up with a nice, pat answer. Half the time, the other person has already moved on, without hearing the response to the question. So you automatically answer "Fine," even if you do feel lousy. For the most part, no one wants to be bored with your bad day.
Except Tom, I think. My bad days fascinated him, made him reach out even more, made him softer as he comforted me.
"Fine," I say.
"Fine," Chakotay says, coughing lightly as if to stifle a chuckle. "I suppose that's why we're both out here, isn't it?"
"If you're thinking about the cold, you're not thinking about much else."
"You hate the cold, B'Elanna."
"Tell me something I don't know."
"You want to tell me why you've been ignoring me?"
"I haven't been ignoring you."
"Yes, you have." Chakotay leans forward to throw another log on the fire. "Warm your hands, B'Elanna. You don't want to get frostbite."
I oblige. The smoke stings my eyes.
"How are you, B'Elanna?" Chakotay repeats.
"I answered the question."
"No, you didn't. You said what you thought I wanted to hear."
"What do you want to hear? I can say anything you'd like."
"I want to know how B'Elanna Torres is doing. Why is that so hard for you to answer?"
I bite my lip and I think of all of the rational things I could say. In every situation, you have choices in your response. You can be witty, truthful, simple, pleasant, but I settle for shocking only because I want to jar Chakotay out of his complacency.
"I wish that virus killed me," I tell him. "I want to be dead."
Chakotay stares at his feet and then puts his hands over the fire again.
"Well?" I ask. "You asked."
"If that's how you feel," he says in a low voice.
I shiver. A brooding Chakotay, now that I can't handle. I want him to be like me, to be more intense, yet he sits here and thinks about a woman who never truly belonged to him. I want Chakotay of the Maquis days back. Hell, if they're going to treat us like Maquis, we might as well act like Maquis.
"Is there anything else?" Chakotay asks softly.
Anything else? Dear God, there are many things, so many more things than I can possibly name. If I started on my list, we'd be here until the red-pink of the dawn sky edged out the night. And maybe, when all was said and done, I could feel my hands again, or any other part of my body, for that matter.
But really, now, only one thing concerns me.
"I'm worried about Tom," I say suddenly. Chakotay's head shoots up, his eyes suddenly alert. His hands stop moving as his eyes meet mine.
"Because," I say. "He tends to do things that don't necessarily make sense, don't fit the situation."
"That's his way. That's what Tom does."
"I'm worried he'll do something stupid."
"Don't worry about him. He's like a cat, he'll land on his feet."
I get up from my seat and take a couple steps towards the settlement. Nightfall here is dark and sinister; graying-blue clouds obscure what little moonlight there is. The edge of the forest, only fifty meters away, echoes with unusual sounds and crackling branches; I shiver.
"B'Elanna?" Chakotay's voice is calm.
"He doesn't think things through as well as he should," my voice quivers slightly. "He acts first, thinks later."
"What do you think he's going to do?"
A branch snaps in the distance, a strange animal howls, and the wind stirs the leaves at my feet. The chill of the coming winter hangs in the air.
"Do you think there's a reason for this?" I ask. I gesture to the settlement. "We sit here and we don't say a word, and we certainly don't ask why."
"I imagine it's because our past has finally caught up with us."
"I wish you weren't so complacent," I complain. "There's something more, Chakotay. Something I cannot put my finger on."
"And that makes you worried about Tom?"
I come back to my seat, picking my discarded blanket up and putting it around my shoulders.
"I want to see him," I tell Chakotay. "I want to touch him, make sure he's all right."
"You didn't answer my question."
"Oh what do you care!" I lash out in sudden frustration and desperation. "You've never liked Tom, never gave him a chance. Even when he changed, reformed himself, you wouldn't let yourself see the changes. Kahless, I suppose you like that he's not here and that he's somewhere I can't get to."
"It's true," I say. My teeth chatter, clacking clinking against each other. "You're jealous of him, aren't you? Jealous because everyone likes him instantly and you have to work so hard for it."
"That's not true."
"You still hold what he did in the Maquis against him, even though you know what really happened, that he didn't betray us."
"I wasn't wrong about Tom Paris then and I still don't think I'm wrong," Chakotay says coolly. He doesn't meet my eye. I clutch my blanket closer to me; do I even know Chakotay any more? Have the weeks since we returned to the Alpha Quadrant really changed us so much? I try to think of how many days it really has been, but the timeline is a blur. There was Seven's announcement that we were closer to home than we thought, persuading Tom to marry me and there was the starbase and the questioning - and the explosion which lit up the galaxy. I remember being hustled off, of falling asleep on the trip to Alonius Prime. I remember trying to contact Voyager, of falling ill, of hallucinating, of my grandmother reminding me of my honor. And I remember Tom hovering over me, his voice soft and warm as he whispered into my ear, cajoling me to get well. So much memory, so little of anything else.
And I think of all that has happened and wonder whether we'll be able to put this behind us, whether we can be the people we once were in the DQ.
I wasn't wrong, I think, not wrong to want to stay behind, not wrong not to want to return to the AQ. But Chakotay's another story. He would have died to come back here, of this I'm certain. Not because of any deep-seated affection for the AQ, but rather his devotion to the captain blinded him to the reality I feared would come to pass - and which did come to pass.
"Things are different now," Chakotay says. He looks towards the distance. "We have to acknowledge that. We aren't on Voyager any more, that that life is lost to us. We're exiled, peripherals to the AQ. Unwanted, unneeded, enemies of the state."
"I'm convinced the Captain will speak for us."
Chakotay shakes his head. "I know she will, but who will listen? All of our hopes lay with Admiral Paris-" The sneer in his voice catches my attention.
"You're holding what his father did against Tom. That's not fair either," I say angrily.
"I'm not," Chakotay says. "You are right. Tom has changed, but he hasn't necessarily always done the right thing. He doesn't always treat you well."
Chakotay does have a point there. Tom does have his moments of unreliability, when his latest toy is more important than quiet time with me, but he makes up for those disappointments with a flurry of sweetness and charm. Somehow, I always succumb, no matter how hard I steel myself for the inevitable barrage of apologies and gentle considerations. And I don't want to admit to Chakotay that Tom is my one weakness.
"What does he have to do to earn your approval? Walk on water?" I ask softly.
"Why does my approval matter?"
"That's all Tom wants from you. He wants you to like him."
"He was a good officer on Voyager."
"So your opinion did change."
"Maybe, slightly," Chakotay's voice wavers. "He- I didn't think he respected me."
"He did but you never gave him a chance to show you. You were too busy looking in every direction but his."
"What do you want me to do about it now?"
I shrug. Chakotay glares at me.
"What?" he shoots back. "Look, I know you miss him, but you don't need to take your anger out on me."
"I'm not angry," I yell. "I'm just tired of the way you treat him. Like he doesn't matter. Like we don't matter."
There - I said it. The words hang between us and after a very long moment, Chakotay runs his hand through his hair.
"I never thought the two of you didn't matter," he says finally.
"You never supported us. That's why you made him leave me here. To have your way, because you don't think - you've never thought - that he's what I need. Maybe so, but he's what I *want*."
Chakotay glances down at his hands. I note that his palms are cracked, roughened by the chill. Smooth hands, I think idly, are a bygone luxury.
"What do you want from me, B'Elanna?" Chakotay's voice is barely above a whisper.
"I don't know," I tell him. "Maybe I just want to know that you approve, that you're okay with the choices I've made."
"Your decisions are your own. I don't have any right to interfere."
"But you did." I twist the gold band around my finger. "Answer me. Why did you make him go?"
"You told him that it wasn't safe for me to go to Earth, so he left me here. *You* made him do it."
"I told him what I felt. Tom made his own decisions."
"But you pushed him," I say softly. "He wouldn't have gone without me. I know that."
"That's what *you*
want to believe," Chakotay says. "Tom leaves when the going gets tough.
I simply laid out the options for him. Leaving you behind was *his* choice."
I get to my feet. "I'm going inside. I can't even feel my toes anymore."
I walk away but after a few seconds, Chakotay calls my name.
"You're wrong about everything, B'Elanna," he says. I turn around. "Whatever you think my motivations are or were, you're wrong."
I take a deep breath.
"I'm leaving, Chakotay," I tell him. "I can't stay here anymore. It makes me crazy to be this useless."
"You don't know what you're getting into."
Yes, I do, I think. I remember the starbase exploding, I remember vague delusions from sickness, I remember accusations, flying fast and furious. Yes, the Alpha Quadrant is a different place than we had expected; no ticker tape parades, simply a cool welcome - if we could even call it a 'welcome.' No, on this one thing I'm certain - staying on Alonius Prime, waiting for *something* to happen is not an option.
"Anything's better than rotting here," I tell Chakotay.
"Maybe, maybe not."
I stare at him. Suddenly I feel hard, edgy inside. "Paranoia doesn't become you, Chakotay."
"What? You really expect a welcome home party from Starfleet? After everything that has happened? Look at this place! They banished our Maquis friends to this iceberg in the middle of nowhere! You think there isn't something going on?"
"I don't intend to spend my entire life out here," I tell him. "No matter what. I'd rather fight than freeze." The cold has seeped through to my bones. I rub my hands together. "Come on, Chakotay. Let's go inside. Get warm."
"In a minute."
"Don't sulk," I say sharply, almost disrespectfully. Out here in the middle of nowhere, there's no such thing as rank; respect is earned, not automatically granted. That's the Maquis way, has always been, and here, we the few survivors cling to that code. But it's not easy to forget Chakotay was once my commanding officer, that I took my orders from him as well as a woman whom once I would have considered my enemy.
He doesn't answer, only stares at the flickering flames in front of him. The shadows of Voyager, the shadows of the Maquis - those whom we served with, those whom we bonded - I can almost imagine their flickering forms in the red-orange flames.
"For what it's worth, I miss them too," I say. With that, I turn and head back to the quarters I share with Sveta. She is wrapped in a blanket when I enter, sipping tea.
"He's still looking for his spirit guide," I say as I plop down into the armchair opposite Sveta. My hands are stiff and I gingerly flex my fingers. "How do you manage to stay here? To *live*? Without going crazy, I mean."
Sveta shrugs. "They don't want us. It's not an understatement, B'Elanna. You don't understand how many people think of the Maquis as terrorists. They refuse to even see what we have lost, what we've been through, and instead, we're the terrorists. We're the only ones who made a stand for what we believed in, and look where it got us. Dead or frozen. Sometimes, I don't think one alternative is any better than the other."
"I'm worried about Chakotay."
"He'll be fine."
"The man sitting out there, that's not him," I say. "Damn, it's cold. Does the sun ever come out here?"
"Wait another two months. Summer here is almost twenty-six hours of daylight."
"That's almost too much sunlight."
Sveta looks at me seriously. "You know, Torres, I like you a lot better when you're not whining." She sits back in her chair, gulps down the rest of her tea, and sighs heavily. "You didn't used to play the victim like this. Stop feeling sorry for yourself."
"I'm not feeling sorry for myself."
"The hell you're not," Sveta says. She gets out of her chair. "If Tom Paris really loved you, he wouldn't have left. He would have stayed. You know that. It just goes to prove that people don't really change. Maybe it was all an act, something desperate because you were stranded and there weren't that many options open. Now he's back in the AQ and you know that the possibilities are endless."
"Shut up, Sveta."
Her mug clatters noisily in the recycler. "Where is he then, B'Elanna?
You know he betrayed us before-"
"That's not what happened."
"You're blinded. He's got you so you're turned upside down and inside out."
"There you go. Defensive again. Not even bothering to see what's right in front of you. Where is he, B'Elanna?" her voice raises to a fevered pitch and I can't stand it any more.
"That's it," I tell her. I get up and head to the door. "I don't need this, not now, not from you, not from *him*." I jab my finger in the direction of Chakotay's fire. Damn if he isn't still sitting out there, searching for Kahless only knows what. I want to be cynical and tell him that he can meditate all night long, for the rest of his life, if he'd like, and it's not going to get him what he wants.
I stumble out into the cold and make my way down the single path that meanders through the Maquis colony. This is a rough life, but then again, we Maquis are used to toughing it out. But we're not used to surrender - no, that was never our credo and the change I see in my friends greatly disturbs me.
*We aren't the same people we were*.
I realize how important it is so to have a cause, the one thing that binds us all together, to hold us deeply. Here, we're almost nothing to each other, only survivors of the same hell. We've gone and come back, yet we can barely communicate anymore except in outraged and raised voices in self-righteous pontification.
At the end of the road, I stare up at the sky, its darkness making one thing very clear: there is no way off this planet. I shiver.
"Damn you, Tom Paris," I whisper. I bite my lip. Even in the cold, it surprises me how much I can feel. I turn and head back into the colony.
~ the end
Continued in The Solitary
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