Disclaimer: Paramount owns 'em. I don't.
Author's Note: My gratitude to Rocky, both for triggering this story and the beta.
Dedication: In memory of September 11, 2001. This story was written just a few days prior to the attacks in Washington DC, New York City and Pennysylvania; some things are too important to be left unsaid and on September 11, many people called home to make sure their loved ones knew exactly how they felt..
"I love you."
His words, warm, soft, tickle her ear. She stirs lazily, feeling the prickle of heat and straw against her bare legs. The warm air is heavy, blanketing them both; it is a welcome change from the crisp autumn air outdoors.
"What did you say?" she asks. Her body feels heavy against the haystack; she is so relaxed, so calm right now. Years of meditation never got her to feel quite this way before.
"You heard me." Softer, but defiant still. She props herself up on one arm, looking down into those blue eyes. His face is slightly redder than usual, an effect from their long day in the sun. His shirt is unbuttoned to mid-chest, revealing strands of blond hair. Sexy, she decides, as she leans over to plant a kiss on his forehead.
"I heard you." She smiles. "You've never said that before."
He smiles back at her lazily. "Must have been an oversight."
"Yeah." She leans back against the straw and focuses her gaze on the wooden timbers criss-crossing the ceiling. "Must have been."
He rolls over onto his stomach and looks at her. "Good day?"
She makes a face like she always does when he asks her about his holoprograms. A day at a farm, he had proposed, and she had winced; not quite her idea of fun, but it had been a long time since they had spent any time together and she needed this day in the country to unwind from her experience on the Borg cube.
"Perfect," she says. She touches his cheek gently with her fingers, reveling in the scratchy two days' stubble. "Are you trying to grow a beard??"
He laughs. "No, just lazy."
"Hmm... it suits you."
"Being lazy or the stubble?"
She stretches her arms above her head, feeling each muscle relax in its turn. "Both," she says. She grins. "I've always wondered what you'd look like with a mustache."
He raises an eyebrow in surprise. "You sure you're fine?"
She punches him in the shoulder. He grimaces and holds up a hand.
"Stupid question," he says ruefully. He sits up, brushing straw off his clothes. "Damn, this stuff gets in everything."
"Want me to help you with that?" she asks with an arched eyebrow and an expression that isn't quite innocent. She licks her lips as she leans in for a kiss. His hand slips to the back of her neck, drawing her close, the other hand cupping her jaw and cheek. She pulls away breathlessly. "I think that was a yes?"
He grins back at her. "Are you reading my mind?"
"No." Her tone is terse, almost harsh, in its intonation. He holds up a hand.
"Hey," he says. "I didn't mean it."
"I know." She sits up and draws her knees to her chest. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm still a little on edge."
"Assimilation can have that effect." He gets to his feet and holds out a hand. "If I'm not mistaken, we still have pumpkins to carve."
She is grateful for the change in subject; he is so good at distracting her. In so many ways, she thinks, her lips curling upward.
"Pumpkin carving?" she asks.
"You've never carved a pumpkin before?"
She shakes her head. "No, not really."
"Come on then," he says. He pulls her to her feet in one smooth motion, his other arm encircling her around the waist. "You're going to love this." He plucks straw out of her hair, letting his fingers linger in the soft strands.
"We'll see," she says. But then, she considers, this entire day has been a surprise. Never did she think she could enjoy lying in the warm sun on a stack of hay or even enjoy picking apples. She's even comfortable in the clothes he picked out for her - khaki shorts and a halter top. "Tom?"
"Yeah?" his voice is soft again, that gentle, contemplative tone she's grown to love, the tone she knows he reserves specifically for her. Early in their relationship, she'd wondered if he had used that breathless voice on other women. She doesn't think about those other women anymore. "You okay?"
He asks that question a million times a day. Every time she turns around, there he is, with that clouded look in his eyes, asking how she is. She doesn't know what to make of that look and it makes her uncomfortable that after all of this time, she still doesn't know how to read him. So she covers that uncertainty with action and temper; she swats at him, barks at him, yells at him to go away. To his credit, he puts up with her fury good-naturedly, probably because he knows she truly doesn't mean it. Other times, she melts when she looks at him and sees those eyes gazing at her with something other than lust. She has never dared to name that emotion before, mostly because she's afraid of imposing some kind of definition on their relationship. And more than anything, she doesn't want to be wrong, so she says nothing at all.
She swallows. "Do I get to pick my own pumpkin?"
He laughs, almost in relief. "Of course."
He pushes open the giant doors to the barn and they blink as they step into the sunlight. The sky is a deep blue, not a cloud in the side. In the distance, the rolling hills are covered with trees, their leaves spanning the spectrum of colors from darkest green to the brightest of yellows. She breathes in the cool, fresh air, feeling the chill in every part of her body. She shivers.
"Cold?" he asks.
"Yes." She gestures at her clothing. "Not the warmest weather for this outfit." She says this last bit with an edge.
He frowns, but then brightens. "But you look good."
She swats at him good-naturedly. "Better than the black leather look?"
His gaze is intense as their eyes meet. "Much better."
He leads the way to the pumpkin patch. The thick vines curl around the pumpkins, which are of varying sizes and shapes. She picks one that is rather elongated in shape, while he chooses a plump, round one. She compares the two pumpkins with a critical eye; his is rounder, smaller than hers, and she feels uneasy about her choice and wonders if she should choose another.
"That has an interesting shape," he comments. "Unique."
"I thought this pumpkin was appropriate," she says, hastening to explain. "It's the one no one else would want."
"It suits you." He runs his fingers over the ridges on his own pumpkin. "My mother used to say that each pumpkin was grown for a specific person."
"Really?" she is amused as she contemplates her pumpkin. "So now what?"
He indicates a picnic table at the far end of the field. "Supplies are over there. Race you?"
"With a pumpkin?" she laughs, but before she can move, he is already gone. She takes a deep breath and runs after him, holding the pumpkin close to her stomach. She makes it about halfway before walking. He is already at the table, waving at her. "No fair. You didn't count down."
"You were slow."
"Ha!" She straddles the bench and grabs a knife. "Okay..."
"Hold on. Here are some patterns." He pushes a stack of papers at her. "If you're looking for inspiration. You can trace the pattern onto the pumpkin with the marker."
She raises an eyebrow and takes the black marker he hands her. "Okay. Thanks."
"You're going to have to scoop it out," he says. He expertly cuts off the top of the pumpkin and reaches deep down inside as she watches in fascination.
"Scoop what out?" she asks suspiciously.
"This." He holds out a hand of messy seeds and pulp. She yelps as he lets it trickle through his fingers down to her bare thigh.
He grins back at her. "Sorry."
She frowns and turns her attention back to her pumpkin. Somehow, none of the suggested patterns appeal to her. Carefully, she removes the top of the pumpkin and pulls out a handful of the pulp. The mixture is cold and slimy against her palm. She grimaces and tosses the pulp and seeds to the ground.
He's already deep in concentration, his brow furrowing slightly as he wields his knife expertly through the flesh of the pumpkin. She contemplates the scene, smiling at the enthusiasm he has for these childish activities. Sometimes, she wonders how she can be so content with this man, as they are light-years apart in personalities. But at moments like this, she tries not to think too hard; she only knows how he makes her feel. It's a strange emotion, one that starts somewhere in the pit of her stomach and gradually takes over her entire body, leaving her lightheaded, almost in a daze. Her vision clouds, temporarily tinting the world around her in a softer light.
"You're not carving," he says. She smiles at him. His hair is in disarray, blonder than usual; the sunburn now extends across his nose and cheeks. He is wearing blue, her favorite color for him and not one he wears often enough. Sometimes she teases him, daring him to wear the blue uniform of a science officer instead of his usual red on duty. He always looks at her as if she's crazy for even thinking such thoughts, but she can't help herself; in blue, he's irresistible.
"It seems like..." she pauses. "I'm thinking about what it should look like."
"Take your time," he says. "You know, this is serious business..."
She makes a face. "Let's see yours then."
He turns his pumpkin around. Two triangles and an upturned jagged mouth look back at her. A crooked piece is cut out of the top - a wayward lock of hair flopping over the forehead. She smiles. It's the way she has always imagined him as a boy, with a trace of mischief in his eyes and an impish grin spreading across his face.
"Cute," she says. "You're good at this."
"I've had a lot of practice. Every Halloween," he says. "My sisters and I would carve a dozen pumpkins and arrange them outside the house. It looked nice, wish you could have seen it. We would light candles inside each of them and then turn off the outside lights. At least, we did until the day I knocked over one pumpkin. I didn't mean for the fire to start. My father was not happy with me, to put it lightly."
"I'm sorry," she says. He doesn't need to finish the story; she knows already how it ends. Maybe, she muses, this is what brings us together, this lack of happy endings.
He takes a deep breath. "Doesn't matter now, does it?"
"I suppose not." She glances at her hollowed out pumpkin. "Here, do mine."
"You don't like this." He sounds sad, almost apologetic.
"No." She gets up and wraps her arms around him from behind, resting her chin on his shoulder. His cheek is warm against hers. "I don't. Really. I'm sorry."
"I'm suppose it's silly, isn't it? To try and relive a childhood?"
"No," she says. "And-" she pauses. "Are we somewhere in particular?"
He nods. "Yes, the Chapman farm, in upstate New York."
"I didn't know you lived in New York."
"My mother's family," he says. "Every fall, we'd come up for a few days."
"It was nice. We used to pick several bushels of apples," he says. He smiles at the memory. "I used the rotten ones for target practice. In the evenings, my grandparents would light a fire and we'd sit around it, toasting marshmallows."
She smiles. The scene of him as a little boy holding a marshmallow-topped stick in the flames is curiously appealing and endearing. She wishes, not for the first time, that she had a memory like this to share with him - a memory of warmth and good times. She finds it strange now to think before Voyager, before she found him, she can't remember a single event of her past which fills her with peace. And it makes her sad, that she doesn't have a place like the Chapman Farm to escape to.
He squeezes her hand. "I have so many programs like this one, B'Elanna. Sometimes, I like to come out here and reminiscence. Remember the good times back on Earth."
This surprises her. He has never shown a desire to return to Earth; this is another thing they share, ambivalence toward the quadrant the majority of the crew considers home. He twists around so that he is looking at her.
"You're ready to go home?" she asks, her voice shaking slightly out of surprise. Never in all of their time together has he mentioned home; she just assumed he felt the same as she did.
"Not home, specifically but here, at this farm. Where it's quiet, where there are no-" he pauses, his gaze turns distant. "Out here in the DQ, I can't help but wonder how many more times we can tempt fate."
She understands now. "This is a place where you can be safe."
"Not just me." He looks at her intensely. She swallows hard and cups his jaw with her hand, leaning in to brush her lips lightly against his.
"I know," she says quietly. She loves the feeling of his hands on her waist; his touch, as always, is warm, gentle, soft. She shivers, but not from the cold. "You know, what you said earlier..."
"You've never said that before. Not in three years."
He shrugs and attempts to look nonchalant. "Didn't know you needed me to."
"No, no," she assures him. "I didn't mean that. I just wasn't expecting it, not today."
His expression softens. "The time seemed right."
She wants to ask him more questions, but the expression on his face prevents her from speaking. She can only formulate her own conclusions: that he wants to verbalize, in the aftermath of her excursion on the Borg cube, exactly how he feels. Perhaps, she muses, he thinks he wasn't strong enough in his protest when she volunteered for the mission. He hinted enough then, but maybe he thinks she didn't understand what he was trying to say, what maybe he had just figured out for himself. She wonders now what she would have done if he had said those words to her at that time.
She kisses him lightly, first on the cheek, and then on the lips. His eyes close and for the first time, she notices his eyelashes, which are short, curling ever so slightly at the ends. She runs her thumb on the skin just below his eyes.
"It's nice to hear the words," she says softly. "But I did know."
He opens his eyes. "You did?" He sounds surprised, like a small child caught with a secret. "How?"
She wraps her arms around him, pressing her lips against the nape of his neck. His hand runs up and down her back, before lingering on her hair, twisting strands around his fingers.
"You give yourself away," she tells him. "In your actions."
He grins at her. "Not subtle?"
"No," she says. She shakes her head, an impish grin turning up the corners of her mouth. "Maybe you're losing your touch..."
He nods. "Maybe, but I don't mind. I used to say the words at a drop of a hat, B'Elanna. I'd say them to anyone at anytime, you know, to convince them-"
"Shh." She presses a finger against his lips.
"I don't want to ruin what we have, B'Elanna." His breath is warm against her neck as he strokes her hair awkwardly. "I wanted to be sure."
She pulls back away from him, just a little.
"It's all right. You don't need to explain. I'm letting you off the hook."
"Good." He does appear genuinely relieved. She squeezes his hand and then nods towards her pumpkin.
"If I'm not mistaken," she says. "I think you need to show me exactly how it's done."
He grins. "My pleasure."
He carves expertly, shaping eyes, mouth and nose with skill. She watches, her hand resting gently on his shoulder. When he's finished, he looks at her in expectation. Carefully, she reaches forward, tracing the outline of the features with her fingers. It's a perfect face, she has to admit, right down to the little ridges across the forehead.
"That's..." she pauses. "I didn't expect you to carve a Klingon."
"Not just any Klingon," he says with emphasis. She softens, her shock at his portrayal dissipating. He's still looking at her, a questioning look in his eyes. "Don't you like it?"
She eyes it critically. "I was right, Tom. You're losing your touch."
"People have said worse about me." He says this lightly, but she knows that his wise-cracking veneer is just a way of covering up the hurtful comments which have wounded him over the years.
"Maybe an implant or two..." she says, almost teasingly, referring to the Borg implants which have yet to be removed. She makes jokes, on occasion, about her experience on the cube; she knows it bothers him to remember what she did, but she can't help herself. She needs - wants - to remember.
"No." He shakes his head. "That's not you."
"It is now," she says sharply.
He gazes at her and she is reminded of his objections to her participation in the mission to the Borg cube. It surprised her then how vehement he had been in trying to convince her not to go, to the point of giving up his hard-earned promotion - the tangible sign of his rehabilitation.
"Maybe," he admits. "But I'd rather not think about it."
"Okay," she says. She smiles. "I'd rather not think about it either some days, but I can't help it. Assimilation, you know, is a life altering experience."
"I know." He glances at the pumpkin. She wonders if he is remembering the way she looked after the mission: her bald head, the skin peppered with blue and red veins, implants protruding from all parts of the bone-constricting black leather suit. But he had not turned away when she had beamed to Sickbay. "I- B'Elanna, I-" he pauses.
She kisses his cheek lightly. "I know."
"You didn't let me finish," he tells her petulantly.
"You didn't have to."
They gaze at each other for a moment and then he says, "Something isn't right here."
"What?" She is suddenly afraid she has said something wrong. But the softness of his expression convinces her that she is being unnecessarily concerned. She watches as he pushes the two pumpkins together.
"Look good together, don't they?" he asks.
She squeezes his shoulder. "Yeah," she whispers. "Really good."
~ end ~
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