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Sometimes the things we do come back to haunt us. Literally.

If there's one thing prison teaches you, it's this: in the end there's always a payback, and nothing we do comes free. The shadows of the choices we've made never entirely disappear, even on the brightest day. Call it kismet if you want. Whatever you call it, it's something we've all had to learn, out here seventy thousand light years from home. Your ghosts will follow you no matter how far you run.

And sometimes it's the ghost you least expect.

* * *

"Hey, Tom, what's in the box?"

I'm attempting to tame the chaos of my quarters and Harry's, um, helping.

"What box?"

I don't turn around, because I'm sitting on the floor buried in a pile of half-functional components I've salvaged over the last few months. I was meaning to build something out of them. For some reason that busted generator with the thermal inducer made me think 'coffee-maker' at one point; now it just looks like scrap. There's not a single coffee bean to be had in the Delta Quadrant anyway. Why do I always seem to collect things like this?

"This gray one in the back of your closet."

"Dunno. Dead body maybe?" I pick up a strange, spidery- looking object. It looks like it might once have been a hydraulic hair accessory, or some weird sexual toy. I seem to recall I got this one from the Doc. Hmm, maybe there's something he's not telling us...



"No, it's flat and square, not long and thin and smelly."

"Beats me. Why don't you open it and see?"

"You sure?"

"Yeah. Say, Harry, what does this look like to you?"

I hold up my find so he can see it over my shoulder. There's a thump and the rustling sounds from the closet stop for a second.

"Um... an orthoscopic polycaliper? No, a juicer."

I shrug and toss the thing back into the pile. The rustling sounds have resumed, and finally I can't resist the temptation any more. I turn and look.

Just as I'd suspected, Harry's down on his hands and knees rummaging in the aforesaid box. His head, arms and shoulders are buried in the depths of the closet; only his legs and posterior are visible.

And oh, man, what a view.

We're off-duty, and he's wearing black denim jeans and a white t-shirt tucked in, and from where I'm sitting, the view looks so sweet I can hardly stand it. It's not the first time I've done this, sneaking a peek when he's not looking.

Okay, more than a peek. Let's face it, Paris, you eat him alive with your eyes when he's not looking.

Ah, shit. Why do I do this to myself? Just watching him like that makes me hard. I remind myself that Harry has never, not once, given me any indication that he's ever had interest in me-- or any other guy--beyond friendship. I remind myself that it's only been five days since our last Libby conversation.

I try to make myself look away, anywhere else but at my best friend's ass, but the temptation is too great. I don't get many opportunities like this one, and it's been months since I had any release besides my own fantasies. My cock is pressing on the zipper of my own jeans, uncomfortable as hell. I'm miserable and ashamed, but it feels so damn good that I'm afraid I'm going to do something unforgivable.

Then it hits me.

"Harry, wait!"

I say it, and then realize what I've done. He's gonna look at me because my voice was too loud, almost panicked. Shit, I can't let him see me like this. I grab a data padd and position it strategically just as he turns around.

It's too late, I can see that immediately. It's too late because what he's got in his hand is a book, and I can see its cover from here. I meet his eyes, knowing that my face must be bright red. My cheeks feel like they're on fire.

The rest of me does, too.

The book is Paradise Lost, and that's so trite I could almost laugh out loud. But I can't laugh, because something's in my throat. I don't know if it's my desire for him, which has never been stronger, or if it's the worried look he's giving me, or if it's some other thing altogether--but I've just realized, as if someone has struck me in the chest, how much I love him. And I can't laugh because that makes me so happy and so sad that what I really need to do is cry.

I don't, of course. Because now there's going to have to be an explanation. He's not going to let it go without one.

"Tom? What's wrong?"

See?

"Nothing." I shake my head. It doesn't seem to help; that thought I had a second ago is still in there.

He looks at the book in his hand. "Paradise Lost... I love this book." The expression on his face is priceless. ItÌs obvious heÌs trying to figure out how a book like could end up in the hands of someone like me.

"Mmm." I can't manage anything more coherent. I've got to get myself under control, or I'm going to blow it for sure. I can live with loving him, I think. But I couldn't deal with his pity. Or worse.

He's looking at me again. "You okay? You look kind of green."

"Fine. Just... dizzy for a second. I didn't eat breakfast."

Oh what a glib one you are, Tommy boy.

He's opened the box. I'm not sure how I feel about that, really. With all the other things I'm feeling right now, it seems like that box hardly matters. I suppose it was time--past time--and if it was going to be opened, I suppose I'm glad it was Harry that did it.

I take a deep breath, trying to steady my heart, which is racing like I've just run a marathon. For months I've known I want him. It's gotten so bad that I can't even face the thought of making it with anyone else. I've fantasized about him and been ashamed afterward, and tried to make it up to him in the ways that friendship allows. I've dreamed about him.

Not until just now did I realize I'd fallen in love with him.

The box. He's digging around in it again. I've got my traitorous libido reasonably under wraps, so I get up and go toward him. He's begun taking the things out of the box and stacking them on the carpet around him. I go and sit beside him, the piles of stuff between us.

More books. Paradise Lost goes on the bottom of the stack, and is joined by The Fountainhead and The White Room and The Magus. To those he adds a dog-eared copy of NorthÌs Shadows at Noon, and a couple of Lovecrafts. Funny, IÌd forgotten what a paranoid soul I was in those days, seeing conspiracies everywhere. Seems like another me, another lifetime.

Next to the books he places a display that holds eight holopics, my father smiling menacingly up at me from the one on top. I ignore him. I watch Harry's graceful hands disappear into the box again.

It's not a large box, and it's not fancy. It's just gray, and squarish, with my name imprinted on the side and on the lid. They delivered it to me when I arrived at Deep Space Nine, and some crewman put it in my cabin. It got shoved to the back of the closet, to wait for the day when I could open it without it hurting. I've never touched it.

Harry's hands reappear holding a folded piece of cloth: a blue tunic. Placed neatly on top of the tunic is a Bajoran earring.

I surprise myself by being able to look at the earring without flinching. Maybe it's only that in the face of my recent realization, nothing can faze me.

Well, almost nothing. I'm sitting a meter away from Harry, and I can smell the faint scent of his shampoo.

He shoots me a sidelong glance, questioning.

"A friend," I say, and he nods. I know that some day he will ask me about it, and I will tell him the story. The earring belonged to a woman named Vel Morena, who died saving my life because, for some reason, she saw something in me worth saving. You and Morena had that in common, I will tell him when he asks. But for now, he doesn't push.

He places the tunic and earring next to him on the floor. Next comes my old uniform, folded less neatly, the threads loose where they pulled the pips out of the collar. This, too, he sets aside, and then he looks at me, obviously uncomfortable.

"You sure you don't mind me poking around in here?"

I swallow. I have to remind myself to watch it; he's very sensitive, and doesn't miss much. It's hard not to let my heart show in my eyes. "It's okay. I want you to."

"Tom... what is this, exactly?"

I look down at my hands. "This is the box they sent from Auckland. It's the stuff I had on me when I was arrested."

I can feel his eyes on me, but I can't meet them. Finally he turns back to the box, and the few items remaining inside. There's a copy of my discharge papers, which I've looked at only once before. Who knows why I carried the things around with me in those days? Guess I thought the chip I was carrying on my shoulder wasn't weight enough.

There's a ring that I'd forgotten about, though I wore it every day for six and a half years.

The ring is quite beautiful, an intricate design of Celtic origin. Brogan gave that to me--god help me, I remember the day he did. I was fifteen then. Another best friend from another lifetime, and seeing the ring glinting in Harry's palm, I realize that I haven't thought of my first love in over a year.

Harry tries to give the ring to me.

"No," I say. "You keep it. I'm allergic to the metal."

He's not fooled. He looks at me a long time before slipping the ring on the middle finger of his right hand. It looks really striking there, burnished silver against the rich walnut of his skin.

There's only one thing left in the box, and now he takes it out and turns it over in his hand. The puzzled frown he's wearing makes me look down at what he's holding.

It's a storage wafer, and for a moment I'm as puzzled as he is. I can't remember if I've ever seen that disk before, or what might be on it. Wherever it came from, it's some serious data; the thing is at least half a centimeter thick.

Harry turns to me and I shrug, baffled. I can't remember transporting any data for the Maquis. It's the kind of disk I favored back then, though, the kind I used to store programs I had written. You could cram a fully rendered holoplanet on one of those things, right down to the mosquitoes.

He reads off the faded label. "NCC1701-K. That's weird. It sounds like a Starfleet registry--but as far as I know there was never a ship with that number. The Enterprise sequence only goes up to E..." He's talking to himself, trying to puzzle it out.

But I'm not really listening any more, because now I've remembered what's on that disk.

I put out my hand, and Harry places the wafer in my palm. I stare at it, trying to cross the vast distances of space and time and circumstance between that long ago day and this one. It's so surreal that for a moment I think I must be dreaming.

I thought this little gem destroyed years ago. All my sim disks were lost when the Feds fired on our ship, the case of wafers incinerated along with half a deck and four of my Maquis comrades. All my disks except this one, apparently. I remember now that I'd kept it in my carryall, wrapped up in Morena's tunic for safekeeping.

"What's on it, Tom?" he asks deferentially, like he's afraid of invading my privacy.

Imagining his face if I told him makes me want to laugh out loud. I shake my head. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

He can see from my face that it's not personal, and now I've awakened his curiosity. "Aw, come on. That's not fair."

"You're never gonna know what's on it, Harry, so forget it."


"I won't tell anyone. I promise."

This is a little known fact about our Ensign Kim: keeping a secret from him drives him crazy.

"I said forget it."

We're still sitting on the floor, cross-legged now, facing each other. I'm teasing him mercilessly, and he's getting desperate. It's cruel of me, because I really won't ever tell him what's on the disk.

He really wouldn't believe me.

On the other hand, I think, the cruelty of his beauty is sufficient tease in kind, and if I can sit here with him and not kiss him, not shock him senseless with the things I would do to him, then he can certainly live with some unanswered questions.

"Please," he says, looking hurt. "Can't you just give me a hint?"

"No."

"Is it a holoprogram?"

"No!" But I'm weakening, and he knows it.

I am, of course, the world's most terrible liar. That's always been my problem. People who can't tell a decent lie should keep themselves honest, or they end up at the Auckland Federation Penal Settlement.

"What kind of program is it?" He gives the closest thing to a leer that someone so unsullied can manage. "Is it something ah, personal?"

I take this as evidence that my efforts to corrupt him have not been entirely wasted. His head may not yet accept that Libby is a distant dream, but his body knows that he is a young man, with needs dreams can't fulfill. It's only a matter of time before his head realizes it too.

But that, my dear Mister Paris, is not a direction your thoughts ought to be taking right now. Not when he's sitting so close, and your defenses are shot to hell...

"Yeah," I say, getting up. "It's personal. So stop asking me about it!"

He keeps trying, but I stick the wafer in my pocket and refuse to say another word.

* * *

I can't seem to stop thinking about the thing.

I should've destroyed it when Harry found it a week ago. Instead I keep carrying it around with me, transferring it from pocket to pocket, like some illicit secret. Thinking about it makes me feel like a little kid who's broken a lamp and swept the pieces under the rug.

We had a staff meeting today, and when I looked at the captain, I caught myself thinking, 'What would she say if she knew?'

I knew then I was in trouble.

The first hologram I ever wrote was this sweet thing named Lisa. She was a collaboration with my roommate, sophomore year. Before that I had done some set design, and nonspeaking characters, but that was the first time I ever wrote my own AI. After Lisa, I was hooked.

I would hang out down at the sim lab and work on any project they'd let me, even though it often meant I didn't sleep. In my senior year I won a Lansing award for character design. I never did tell my father about that one.

I think I would have gone into sims full time, but Daddy wanted his boy to be a pilot. How many times I wished I could just mess up, just prove I wasn't any good at it. Problem was, I was good at it--and like I said, I'm a terrible liar. So, a pilot I became. And in the end I piloted myself right into a dishonorable discharge, and eventually into a jail cell.

Well, that's irony for you. Stay tuned, folks. I've got a million of 'em.

Sandrine's has become a vital part of life on Voyager--but I know that if it were gone tomorrow, no one would shed a tear. Except me, of course. In a way, those 'people' are my children.

There's something about writing a real AI that's highly addictive, and highly personal. When you've written a really good hologram, it breathes, it feels, it lives. You put your soul into it and when it's done, it's a part of you. The first time you run that sim, and interact with it, it's like seeing your newborn child. I've been known to get teary-eyed.

See, the problem is, I never ran this one.

It was probably the most intricate and difficult programming job I ever did, and I never got to see the results. That was part of the deal. I got paid a lot of money to write it, and in return I put everything I had into it, and kept my promises. I never breathed a word to anyone. I coded the final runtime so only one person would ever be able to view it; the man who had hired me to write the thing. The temptation to keep a copy for myself was almost overwhelming--but in the end, I couldn't bring myself to do it. Maybe it was because I couldn't bear to intrude on the man's pain.

It was that Lansing I'd won that brought him to my door. He needed the best, he said. At the time, that was me--though I was still a cadet, and not yet twenty. We sat in my tiny living room and talked for three hours, while he sized me up. At last, when I had passed some test of his, he told me what he wanted.

Right away I knew I had to take a shot at it. Maybe it was the way he sounded when he described the sim he wanted me to write. He wouldn't look directly at me, but I could hear the pain in his voice in spite of his control, could see how hard it was for him. I think coming to me was maybe the most difficult thing he'd ever done. I didn't want to let him down.

He named a figure, and I said I'd do it. Even at that age my vices tended to be expensive ones; I was forever spending my living allowance on better computers, newer extrapolation modules. But I'd have done it for less--heck, I probably would've done it for nothing. It was the challenge of a lifetime.

After that first time he didn't come in person any more. I sent him progress reports, and he sent me the things I asked for, usually without comment: video files, log entries, medical records. He worked on the determination matrices himself, and when he sent them back to me, I knew that this AI would be like no other I had ever seen. I took everything he gave me and built it into my newest character generator, and when I ran the betas they were everything I'd hoped for, and more.

I'll admit I had some doubts, then, about the morality of what I was doing. It was the only time I ever wrote a sim based on a real person--and I knew from the betas that I had done my job very well. In the end I decided that I would leave the philosophical considerations to the man who had hired me, and try to put my conscience to rest.

When it was finished the man came to me, saying little. The funds had already been wired to my account. He left with the disk and for days afterward I couldn't stop thinking about him. I wanted so badly to know that the work I'd done had brought him some peace. But I had the most awful feeling of premonition.

Then, about two weeks later, I got this package. It was delivered to my box at the student union, and it had no return address on it. As soon as I saw it, I knew what it was.

I opened the thing up, but there was no note inside, no explanation. Just the disk. I recognized the media brand; it was the original.

He'd sent it back to me.

For a while I wondered about it, tried to figure out what it meant. We'd worked on the thing for half a year. He'd spent a small fortune on it. If he'd been unhappy with my work, why wouldn't he say that? I might have been able to fix the problem.

But the thing is, I knew that wasn't it. I knew that sim was the best AI I'd ever written... maybe the best ever written, period. I supposed it was possible that he'd decided the whole thing was just a bad idea in the first place. But then why send it back to me? I'd built three hardcore copy protection safeties into the program--there was no way anyone could make a reproduction. Why not just destroy the thing?

The only thing I could think is that he'd had a change of heart about the whole project, but that when push came to shove, he couldn't bear to wipe the file entirely.

I toyed with the idea of destroying it myself. Or playing it. God, I almost went crazy with curiosity, wanting to see my creation with my own eyes. It wouldn't hurt anyone, I told myself. No one would ever know.

But I guess I couldn't quite face that thought either, because in the end I just sealed the disk in a protective case and put it out of my mind. Until Harry dug it out of that box last week, I hadn't laid eyes on it in years.

And now I can't stop thinking about it.

It's driving me crazy. I'm distracted all the time, can't keep my mind on work. Today, skirting a tricky little nebula, I forgot to set the compensators, and almost flew us right into an ionized boralium cloud. Thank god I recovered before the captain noticed; she would have reamed me a new one for sure.

I really need to do something to get my mind off this thing, and I guess there's only two choices. I could destroy it, like I should have done years ago. Or... I could run it.

Is it rationalization to think that maybe that's what he wanted me to do? Maybe he sent it to me because, in some strange way, he needed a witness for what he'd done? Back then I didn't see that possibility, because back then I didn't understand what guilt can do to a man. I didn't realize how hard it is to bear one's crimes in secrecy.

Back then I didn't know firsthand how powerful the need for confession can be.

Two choices. But I guess there's really only one choice, because I'm honest enough to know that there's no way I'll ever be able to destroy the thing without running it first. No more than he could. I guess in a way we were both possessed by the same demon.

And now, after all these years, it's demanding to be let out.

* * *

It's late. Sandrine's is quiet, with that comfortable, depressed feeling it gets around three or so, when the 'real' patrons have gone to bed and the regulars are all that's left. B'Elanna was the last one to leave; we talked for a while about nothing in particular. I think she knows that I've been kind of down lately, though she doesn't say anything. I wonder if she has any idea.

Harry didn't come tonight. He usually does; if I don't show up at his quarters after dinner, he usually finds his way here and we shoot a few, or just sit around drinking synth-beer. Tonight no Harry. Was he down in the gym maybe? Or maybe he just needed an evening to himself--we all do, from time to time. I haven't let myself think about what else he might have been doing. The truth is, if B'Elanna hadn't been here all night I would have guessed he was with her.

Shit, Paris. Don't start that. Not tonight. They're just friends, and you know it. Harry Kim is not the type of guy to go for hell-on-wheels Torres.

Ah, who'm I kidding. What guy in his right mind wouldn't fall for B'Elanna in a heartbeat, if she gave him the slightest encouragement?

Suddenly I can't stand the smoky gloom of this place one more minute.

"Computer, end program!"

It obliges me, and in a moment every trace of Sandrine's is gone, as if it's never been. I'm alone, with only the muted lighting and a black-and-yellow checkerboard for company.

Come on, pull yourself together, Tommy boy. How'd you like Chakotay to come in here right now and see you like this, standing by yourself on the empty holodeck, looking like your dog just died?

Hell, right now I'm so depressed even Commander High-Horse would be a welcome distraction.

I head for the door, sick to death of myself and determined to get some sleep. I haven't been getting much lately, and my reflexes are starting to suffer.

It's official: I'm in love, and it's killing me.

This is the twenty-fourth century; you'd think someone would've invented a cure by now. It can't be healthy for a human being to expend so much mental energy on something so pointless. Where's the survival instinct in wanting something so badly that your gut aches all the time, and you can't sleep, or eat?

Every day I think, I can't stand it any more, I have to tell him. And every day he looks at me with that innocent, unsuspecting trust, and something chokes the words back before I can say them.

I've reached the exit. I look down and realize that I've got the disk in my hand, that I've stopped in front of the control panel beside the door.

So, it's to be tonight then.

The ship's well into third shift by now. First shift's asleep, and second's mostly been here and gone. The display tells me that no one's reserved a personal time slot before eleven hundred hours tomorrow.

Deep breath. You sure you want to do this, Paris? You're not exactly in prime emotional shape right now, and this is likely to be pretty intense. Are you sure you can handle it?

"Engage privacy lock, authorization Lieutenant Thomas E. Paris."

I guess you are.

Okay, slip the storage wafer into its slot. Hands shaking a little. Nervous, I guess--it's conceivable that he'll actually perceive this as an invasion of privacy. Remember, Tommy boy, you wrote him. You're in control of this situation.

Yeah, right.

"Run program NCC1701-K."

"That program requires retinal scan verification."

I draw another deep breath.

"Override security protocols. Authorization Paris, subroutine 1147-P." After all these years, I still remember the codes. Guess I was keeping them stored up there for a reason.

"Please enter password."

I hesitate. In the polished display crystal, I can see the faint ghost of my own image, reflecting through the multicolored readouts. Maybe I'm the ghost, I catch myself thinking, and he's the reality. Maybe I'm a bad dream he's been having, and when he wakes up, I'll be just an unpleasant and fading memory.

That doesn't sound so bad.

"Deus ex machina," I say. I must have been having delusions of godhood when I picked that one. My shadow-self gives me an ironic, derisive smirk.

And everything changes around me.

* * *

I'm in a wide, shadowy corridor, standing in front of a closed door. I look in both directions, but no one is coming along the hall, not at this hour of the night. On this ship, as on Voyager, it's deep into third shift.

I stand there for a minute, trying to control my breathing and the pounding of my heart. It's tempting to go along the corridor peeking into all the rooms, admiring my handiwork. I wrote this thing for detail, and I put six months of my life into it--it's only natural to want to look around. Plus it's a little like waking up to find yourself in King Arthur's court; every beam and nail and stone is the stuff of legend.

But that's not why I'm here.

Okay then, pull it together Paris. I draw myself up straight before the door, not letting my eyes stray to the name plate I know is there. I don't need to look. You don't win a Lansing by forgetting obvious details like that.

I reach out and press the buzzer, once.

For a moment I expect to hear, "Come." But there is no answer from within; the door simply slides open, revealing the dimly- lit room beyond. Of course. He's expecting only one person-- and they, apparently, have no need of such formalities.

I square my shoulders and step through the doorway, into the lion's den.

The room is not large. In front of me is a narrow desk with an incredibly outdated computer terminal mounted to its top. Behind the desk is a none-too-comfortable-looking chair, and behind that, a mesh screen that serves as a room divider. On the wall to my right is a large, breathtaking painting of an old sailing ship. There is a shelf behind the desk, upon which rests a stand holding several antique, leather-bound books, and I have to smile to see Paradise Lost among them. Alongside these sits a red Kassarian sphere, and next to that something which looks like a fake flower made of cloth--the kind that women used to wear as ornaments on their garments, in a century long past. It might once have been yellow. It's been preserved in a block of transparent crystal.

I examine the flower more closely, since I know it's a construct I did not write. It's a beautifully rendered object, really outstanding set design. There's something tight in my throat all of a sudden. Even though I don't understand its significance, that detail tells me a great deal about the man who so carefully built its algorithm into my program.

It looks like no one's home at the moment. I step past the divider and into the cramped sleeping area beyond.

The room is almost painfully neat. Not one object appears out of place, and the regulation coverlet on the bed has been arranged in precise, even folds. I guess I shouldn't be surprised by that, but I am. For some reason I always kind of identified with the image history painted of him, and it's a little unsettling to find this difference in our characters illustrated so obviously. I've never inhabited a room this neat in my life.

Pretty damn arrogant, really, now that I think about it. How much could someone like me have in common with someone like him, anyway?

There's a sound behind me, the swish of a door opening. I turn, almost stumbling in my surprise.

And he's there, in the doorway, the force of his presence smacking me in the gut. Even the betas I'd run, even the stories I'd heard, didn't prepare me for it.

"Who are you, and what the hell are you doing in my quarters?"

His voice is low, predatory. He says it softly, the gentle threat making the hair stand up on the back of my neck. His face shows no fear whatsoever, even though he's just stepped through the door to find a complete stranger in his bedroom.

"Ah, Captain, this is going to take some explaining..."

"Oh, I believe that." He's coming toward me, as if meaning to pin me between him and the mesh screen behind me. "Perhaps you'd better start with the first question."

I'm backpedaling, knowing already that I'm in serious trouble. Not just because he looks like he's going to wipe the floor with me, but because I was right all along. I never should have come here.

He's just come from the shower, you see. He's got a towel slung around his broad shoulders, and he's wearing nothing but a pair of loose, drawstring pants. His upper torso is covered with a fine sheen of water. It's formed droplets on his skin.

And seeing him like that I know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the answers to any uncertainties I might still have harbored about the nature of this program.

True, I wrote the AI. I also coded most of the response algorithms. But not all of them--and not this one.

I put up my hands, as if to ward him off. I have to force myself to stop backing up, to stand my ground and face him. His eyes approve me when I do. "I'm Tom Paris," I say. "I'm--the programmer." It's self preservation. I had to say something, and that was the first thing that came to mind.

It stops him. He looks at me for a long time, pinning me with his eyes as surely as if he'd done it with his hands. That look isn't one you can shrug off. It reaches down into me and squeezes around my heart, making it hard to breathe. But though his expression doesn't change, I can see, even in the shadows, that the blood has left his face.

In theory, he should now demand to know what I'm talking about. But he doesn't. He just keeps looking at me, shocking me with his perfect comprehension. This avatar was never supposed to be self-aware; I didn't program him to know he was a hologram.

There's no doubt at all that he knows. It's written in every line of sudden tension in his body, every accusation in his eyes.

To my surprise and horror, it is he who looks away, unable to hold my gaze.

"What do you want?"

It's only a whisper, and so far from the steely demand he greeted me with that I can hardly believe this is the same man.

"Just to talk to you." The words escape me without thought, and it's the simple truth. That is what I want--or rather, what I wanted. Now I just want to beg his forgiveness for what I've done to him.

And oh, god, look what I have done.

I did my job well. Too well. He was the last man in the universe who should have had to live with this terrible knowledge. Faced with his mute agony, I can't believe I didn't see how awful it would be for him. I gave him every scrap of skill I had. I wrote him a soul, for godsakes--maybe a better one than my own.

Goddammit, I never meant for him to know he wasn't real!!

The fine muscle in his jaw jumps; he's struggling to stay calm. "What is it that you want to say to me?"

I can feel the anger pouring off of him now, blunted only by despair. It's more than I can take.

"I'm sorry."

I blurt it out, and my reward is seeing him flinch.

Him! Flinch! Oh, god...

He looks at me, and I believe I might turn into ashes from the heat of that look. He's burning inside, consuming himself with his own self-loathing and hopelessness. For one instant he turns that flame on me, and if I could breathe, I would weep.

His tight answer flays me to the bone.

"No one is more sorry than I am."

"Captain--"

His lips curl back in a snarl. "Don't call me that!"

"What do you want me to call you?" My voice is hardly more than a whisper.

"Nothing. Don't call me anything. Just leave me the hell alone."

He turns away from me, as if he'll leave the room the way he came in. The muscles slide under his skin like a cat's as he moves. The flagrant beauty of him is like another kind of punishment: look how perfect your twisted creation is, look how true to the life. Too bad you couldn't keep him in the dark about what he was. Too bad you couldn't make him real...

"How did you--?" I choke on the words, for a moment unable to get them out. Maybe I will weep, after all. But I have to know. "How did you find out?"

He stops, frozen a step from the door. I hear the sharp, hissing intake of his breath, as if I have stabbed him with some sharp and cruel-edged blade. He doesn't turn.

"How do you think?" He spits it at me bitterly, his broad shoulders bent as if the weight of his own words is too much to bear.

The silence stretches. I realize then what the answer must be. There is only one way he could have learned the truth--only one man who could have told him what he was.

The man who'd hired me to write him.

Before I can think of anything to say, he turns on me.

"Just tell me one thing, Paris. How could you do it? How could you actually go through with it?"

I recoil defensively. "You weren't supposed to know."

His face twists, the force of his fury like a storm in the room. "Is that supposed to change anything?"

I'm utterly speechless. Why Spock would have told him, I cannot imagine. But that's not even the worst of it; what's really horrifying about the whole thing is that he's saved that knowledge into the matrix of the AI. I can't imagine what it would be like, to learn that everything you knew, everything you were, existed only inside a computer simulation. And then to be cursed with that knowledge and forced to live with it...

He's close to me now--too close; I can smell the heat coming off him, can feel it. He's clenched his fists around the ends of the towel, as if to prevent himself from releasing the violence that's churning under the hard green surface of his eyes. His voice has sunk to a growl. "Do you really think that changes anything?"

"I know this is hard for you to understand--"

He shakes his head in disgust, mouth twisting. "You don't know a damn thing about it." His eyes go dull, as if I have lost whatever interest I might have held for him. He swings around again, making as if to leave. And again I stop him at the door.

"I know enough to know he loved you!"

The look he turns on me... all I can say is that no man should ever have to face a look like that. Rage and pain battle for dominance in his face, and his lips go white with anguish. "What did you say?"

"That's why I did it," I say recklessly. Too late to turn back. "I saw how much he needed to find some peace."

That pushes him over the edge. His eyes fill up with darkness, so bleak I almost can't look at them any more. And then he begins to laugh. It's a bitter sound, like broken glass under boots. "Peace." He laughs again, then cuts it off abruptly. He takes a step toward me, and this time I think that he's going to break my neck for sure. "Then he was a fool, and so were you."

If he's going to kill me, there's probably nothing I can do to stop him. Might as well try one more time to reach him. "No," I say, forcing myself to meet his gaze. "He wasn't a fool. He was desperate."

That's done it. Oh, shit, you're in for it now, Tommy boy.

The shattering sound of something breaking makes me jump a foot. It takes me a second to realize he's hit the metal divider screen, and not me. I make myself breathe and take a mental inventory. No, nothing damaged. I summon courage enough to look at him.

He's standing there, staring dumbly at the blood that's dripping from several small cuts on the edge of his fist. His shock is so eloquent I can see it on him; he can't believe that he's actually bleeding. I want very much to say something, but nothing comes.

The silence goes on so long I feel that maybe I've gone suddenly, inexplicably deaf. But at last he covers up his bleeding hand with his undamaged one, bringing them both to rest in front of him. I can see he's embarrassed that he lashed out like that, and I'm embarrassed that I drove him to it. He's not a man who's accustomed to losing control.

Still not looking at me, he draws a deep breath, steadying himself. The anger has gone out of him entirely. When he speaks at last, I have to strain to hear him.

He says, brokenly, "Don't you see?"

My throat is so dry I can't make a sound. I shake my head once, helplessly.

His mouth curves in a lopsided, painful expression that might be a smile, except for the awful brightness in his eyes. "Don't you see... you're wrong. It isn't me he loves."

For a second I don't understand.

And then I do.

In spite of everything mirrors and memory and instinct tell him, he knows that he isn't James Kirk, not really. Not where it counts. And that's when it occurs to me, belatedly, that although I got the disk back years ago, for him it's only been hours. From his perspective, Spock has only just left. His pain, for all that it's been delayed almost a decade, is still just as fresh.

I reach out to him, unable to do anything else--but I'm not surprised when he stiffens and turns away from me.

I've just realized that there are tears on my face. Well, they've been a long time in coming. I guess I can cry some for him, too.

"He wanted to," I whisper, knowing it's no consolation at all. "He wanted to love you."

His back is to me. I see him shudder, a slow vibration which starts at the small of his back and runs through him. I can see him control it with a fierce effort. "Why do you say that?"

"Because it's true." I have to bite my lip, or I'm really going to come apart. "Do you want me to tell you about him? About how we did this?"

It's the story of his own creation I'm offering him; my delusions of godhood persist, I guess. But I can't let him hurt like this without trying to do something. Maybe talking about it will help.

He doesn't want to want it, that's obvious. But he doesn't say no, and I take his silence as acquiescence.

Okay then, begin at the beginning.

"I recognized him as soon as I saw him standing on my doorstep. I would have, anyway, from my history classes, even if he hadn't been all over the news holos a few months before."

He looks at me sharply. "News holos?"

Oh shit, I've already put my foot in it. "He didn't tell you?" I say in a small voice.

Something shifts in his face, as if he'll defend the Vulcan from me, even now. But he says only, "No."

It's hard to tell him this. "His wife died. She was killed on a civilian ship near the Romulan neutral zone. The ship went down under very suspicious circumstances, and there were broadcasts about it for weeks afterward."

"What was her name?"

It's hardly more than a whisper.

I try, I really try to remember. But for me it's been almost ten years, and memory fails. "I'm sorry... I don't know."

He just nods acceptance. I blow out a sigh, rubbing at the ache behind my eyes. It's been a long time since I slept. "I know this is pretty hard for you to take in," I say lamely.

There's that scapegrace little smile again, not quite so painful this time.

"You could say that."

Man, he really is something. His face is so expressive that you can't help but stare at him. His charisma's like a weapon; I can feel it undermining what shaky composure I've got left. Well, it's not like I didn't have some idea what to expect. Had I really thought I would be in control of this situation?

I push on doggedly, praying that I've made the right choice in telling him.

"So, he showed up on my doorstep, and I recognized him and invited him in. He grilled me for over three hours before he'd tell me what he'd come for. Had I ever done any component algorithms based on existing people? Did I know anything about high-level engram mapping? I told him about the-- programs I'd written."

I have to swallow. At the word 'programs' he's gone a shade paler.

"He asked me a lot of personal questions, too. Why wasn't I studying programming at the Academy? Could I be discreet?" I blush furiously, and curse my fair coloring for the thousandth time. "Did I have any moral objections to the practice of homosexuality?"

His shocked look registers before he can keep it from me.

"Did he tell you--?"

"No," I hasten to reassure him. "No. We never discussed it."

I can see him swallow, his throat moving almost imperceptibly. "Go on."

I start to pace a little, back and forth in the cramped space between his bed and the partition with its dented metal screen. "It was obvious to me that he was in a great deal of pain."

I can hear him shifting, but I don't look at him.

"How do you know that?"

I stop, at right angles to where he's standing near the bathroom door. I can see him out of the corner of my eye. He's got one hand propped against the doorjamb, as if he needs the support.

"He wouldn't have come to me in a million years otherwise." I start to pace again. "Who knows why he came to me when he did? I'm not sure even he knew. Maybe his wife dying made him face up to some things he'd been holding inside for a long time. All I know is that he was driven. He put his heart and soul into you." I meet his eyes then, across the room. "I did, too."

He's silent for a minute. Finally he says, "He didn't tell me... how I died."

That sounds so damn surreal that for a second I want to laugh. But I hadn't really thought of it like that. For me, James Kirk is a figure of legend, eighty-five years dead. But this Kirk is living outside of time, perpetually thirty-five years old, surrounded by the trappings of another century.

I weigh my answer carefully, not sure how much I should say. How much would I want to know in his place? "You died saving the Enterprise," I tell him at last.

I watch him digest it. He doesn't say anything, but after a moment, he nods, once. His eyes have regained a little of their natural luster, and I can see that in a strange way I've pleased him.

"He wrote some of the code himself," I say, as gently as I can. "Did he tell you that?"

He averts his face before I can read what it betrays. "No."

"Yeah. He did--he wrote a lot of it in fact." I look at the carpet, feeling the warmth in my face. "If the module was self-contained, if I didn't need to work on it... a lot of times I put it into the compiler without running it first."

It's almost an insignificant technicality, and I feel embarrassed for saying it as soon as the words are out. He's a hologram, for godsakes. How much privacy can he have, realistically? But it seems to mean something to him.

"Thank you," he says softly. "I--didn't know that."

It's the first time he's spoken to me without anger, without condemnation. The quiet gratitude in his low, liquid voice makes my heart skip, makes me look up.

He's come a step closer. For the first time he's looking at me without the shield of his bitterness between us, and I find that I've suddenly forgotten how to breathe properly. His eyes on mine are so compelling that I can't look at him without needing to do something, say something, though I don't know what. All I know is that I have to respond somehow, or my heart will implode on itself.

It occurs to me that I now know the answer to a question I'd had years ago. I'd wondered, in my foolish youth, how the memory of one man long since dead could have cracked Vulcan ice so cleanly.

I'd wondered what would drive a man like Ambassador Spock to seek out a man like me.

Now I know.

I take a cautious step toward him, mindful of this fragile vulnerability he's let me see. I know I shouldn't mistake it for forgiveness. I want so much to reach out to him that I have to clench my fists to avoid doing it.

"Tell me what happened."

He knows right away what I mean. I can see it's hard for him. He wants to talk about it, needs to tell someone--but he doesn't know for sure if he can. Not and keep hold of his fiercely exerted self-control.

He tries for that hard bitterness, but what comes out is more like a plea. "Why should I tell you?"

Gently, I ask, "Who else can you tell?"

For a second he doesn't say anything. Then he makes that sound again, the laugh that sounds like glass getting crushed underfoot. "Well, I can't argue with that one." He gives me a look that's at once so ironic and so uncharacteristically uncertain that a lump rises in my throat.

He goes past me into the office area, raking his hand through his still-damp hair. He sits in the single chair and rests his elbows on the desk, pressing his fingertips to his lips as if he's thinking, trying to decide. Or maybe trying to find where to begin. There's no place else to sit in there; I take that to mean he doesn't want me to look at him. If he's going to do this, he doesn't want to have to face his audience.

So I sit on the bed, watching him through the mesh divider.

At last he laces his fingers together, leaning forward until his forehead is resting on his joined hands. His face is now hidden from me, his broad shoulders hunched protectively, the muscles of his back clenched tight. For the first time I can see the graceful curve of his nape; I make myself avert my eyes, look down at the precise, metallic weave of the coverlet, waiting for him to speak.

"This is a lie," he says at last, his voice harsh. "You know that, don't you?"

I'm at a loss. "What is?"

He makes a violent, jabbing motion with one hand in the air. "This. This... thing that you wrote for him. It's all a lie." I want to protest, but manage to keep a leash on it. Don't interrupt, Paris. Let him get it out.

His left hand has gone back to its spot, clenched once again in his right. The control he's exerting to sit still like that is making my gut ache in sympathy.

"We were never... we never..." He draws a breath that I can hear, even from three meters away. "It never happened in real life."

I am so stunned I cannot for a moment process it. Is he saying...? What exactly is he saying?

It's a possibility that has never even occurred to me.

He's chuckling softly, bitterly. "I know the rumors said otherwise. I know people think--well, I know what they think. I've worked damn hard to make sure that Spock doesn't--" he catches himself "--didn't hear about it." His voice sinks to a murmur I can barely make out. "I don't know if he ever has."

My mouth's open, ready to say something. When Spock first came to me, I'd read everything I could find on the two of them, spending days poring over old news broadcasts and written commentaries. It's a matter of record that once when James Kirk was shot and nearly killed, his first officer--some fifteen light years distant--fell down where he stood and lay comatose for the two hours it took the medics to bring Kirk back. It had been the end of the decades of rumors about the two of them; after that, the rumors had been mostly accepted as fact, had become an essential part of the legend. It's never crossed my mind that history might be mistaken.

But of course, I cannot possibly say any of that. I shut my mouth quickly.

"Spock was a fool." His hands are pressed flat against the surface of the desk now. His face is turned toward the wall, away from me. "And so was I."

When he doesn't say anything else, I risk the question. "What did you do that was so foolish?"

He's shaking his head. "It's not what I did--it's what I didn't do. Which is to say, I never... pushed." He gets up then, unable to sit still any more. On the other side of the divider, he begins to pace, gesturing impatiently at the room around him. "In this reality, I'm thirty-five. I've got my whole life ahead of me. Every day I see him on the bridge, or across a chess board, or at my side on some planet, and I want to tell him how I feel... make him face up to what I see in his eyes when he looks at me. And every time my courage deserts me." The irony is thick in his voice. "Just a little longer. I'll wait just a little longer. There'll be plenty of time for us once the five year mission is over..."

There's a funny little choked sound then, and I can't be sure which one of us has made it.

"Yeah," I say, "I know that particular brand of foolishness quite well."

But he's not really listening to me.

"We were both guilty of it. I just never thought..." He drifts off, not finishing the sentence. He stops at the far corner of the room, obscured by shadow, but I can see him put his hands over his face for a moment as if he's trying to hold himself together to tell the rest of it.

Finally he straightens, looking around at these familiar things I've created for him, these unreal phantoms of a life that was never his. "This..." he says, almost to himself, "this travesty was the worst foolishness of all." Dreamily, he reaches out to brush a fingertip along the leather-bound books, the cloth rosette in its crystal casing. I might as well not be in the room. "Ah, Spock..." he whispers huskily, "...my friend, what did you think would happen?"

For an instant, I almost believe his whispered words will conjure another ghost, one with pointed ears and haunted eyes. But no. That one's already come and gone, and left this wounded specter in his wake.

I clear my throat, acutely uncomfortable. "Forgive me." My voice is hoarse and sounds like an invasion. His eyes turn to mine and tell me that it is. The anger is back now, the bitterness. But this time it's not directed at me.

I look down at my hands, pale and ineffectual against the scarlet coverlet. "You have to believe that I don't want to do any more damage than I already have. If you want me to go, I will. You don't have to tell me any more. It's just--" I hesitate, not sure if I should speak further. But I look up then, and his eyes are wide and deep as the sea, and they demand honesty from me if nothing else. "It's just that he sent the disk back to me. I've got the strongest feeling that there was a reason, something he wanted me to do."

He blinks, too slowly. I see that with the mention of the disk, I've shocked him back into awareness of his reality, or lack thereof. I feel sick to my stomach, ashamed, as if I've hit him. My hands open involuntarily, as if there's some kind of appeal I can make that will reach him. I don't really expect him to forgive me. But I need him to understand.

"Do?" That one word is an awful sound, edged with hysteria. He grimaces, as if he's biting back a laugh. "Haven't you done enough?" Then his mouth twists. "There's only one thing you can do, if you want to help me, and that's turn this thing off and wipe the file. Now."

I'm on my feet, facing him. There's about a meter of space between us. He fights down a shudder, the strongest one yet, and his facade of calm is betrayed.

In spite of myself, I feel a thrill of recognition.

He truly is self-aware! In spite of his pain, in spite of what we've done to him--he doesn't want to die.

This must be how Pygmalion felt, the first time Galatea breathed.

In that moment of understanding, he is as real to me as anyone ever has been, and I begin to perceive the faintest shadow of what it is Spock wanted of me, what it is he hoped for when he sent me this poor damaged soul on a ten centimeter by ten centimeter storage wafer.

But first I have to convince him to let me help.

He's not a man who excels at letting others help him. He'll be stubborn, I know--I wrote him to be. He'll fight me every step of the way. But my blood is up, my heart's beating way too fast, and suddenly I think maybe I need this as badly as he does.

I draw a deep breath, mustering courage for the plunge I'm about to take. "If that's what you really want," I say to him, "why didn't you ask him to do it?"

His face couldn't have gone any paler if I'd slapped him.

"What makes you think I didn't?"

"I know you didn't."

He takes one short, explosive step toward me, his lips pulling back from his teeth. "You've got a hell of a nerve, Paris." It's a grating hiss, low and menacing. "Do you like poking around in my memories for fun?"

"No! No--I just know you didn't ask Spock to erase your matrix." Before he can wrap his square, strong hands around my throat, I take a step backwards. "I know because he told me once that he could never deny you anything." It's the answer to the question he won't ask, and it stops him in his tracks. More gently, I continue, "I know because you have to know that too. That's exactly why you would never ask it of him. No matter how angry he's made you, how much you want to hate him--you'd never ask him to live with that."

I can see in his face that I've hit on the truth.

"No," he says, staring at me as if I've turned into some sort of treacherous serpent. There's a new darkness in his face; suddenly, he's afraid of me. "You're right. I never would."

"Because he loved you."

His head jerks slightly to one side, but he refuses to let his eyes slide away from mine. The effort that costs him wrenches at my heart. "Not me. Some other James Kirk."

It's the first time he's used the name, any name.

"Even more so, then. He created you."

"Yes," he whispers, defeated. I know too much; he can't fight me. I see it in his defensive stance; he looks like a wounded stag on three legs, fighting off the circling wolves.


Now, while he's off balance... "What went wrong?"

He sucks a sharp breath in through his gritted teeth, and bites off the word. "Everything."

And when he answers me, when he doesn't shove me through a bulkhead for my audacity, I know I've won.

He's breathing hard now, fighting for air with deep, uneven inhalations. His compact frame is visibly trembling. He turns away from me with a violent jerk, goes to lean heavily against the wall, his head on his forearm. "Shit," I hear him mutter. I can't see his face.

For a long time he stays like that, fighting to regain the control that's betrayed him. Then, finally, his words muffled against his arm, he begins to speak in harsh, ragged sentences, letting out the truth he can't keep in any more.

"I don't know what he thought would happen. I don't know how he could have hoped for anything good to come of this."

"Maybe he had to try." I've taken a step closer to him, though the aura of blind fury and grief he's projecting has literally raised the hair on my arms. This suddenly feels like the most important conversation of my life.

"No, goddamnit!" There's a hollow impact of his fist on the bulkhead. "He didn't have to try. We missed our chance--he should have damn well had to live with that!"

"He lived with it for almost a century. Maybe he just couldn't do it any more."

But his head rolls back and forth, once, against his outstretched arm. "You can't ever go back. I learned that in a back alley in 1930, and it's always been true. The minute you start to think you can, you're lost."

I'm thinking, suddenly, painfully, of Harry and his fantasy of miraculously returning to Earth, finding that nothing has changed in his absence. I wish very much that he could hear those words spoken with such conviction. I wish, and I admit it's a selfish wish, that he could accept that truth.

"But Spock tried," I say, very softly. "Against all logic, he tried."

"Yes." There's condemnation in that word. "Yes, he tried."

I take another step, and now there's only a little distance separating us. "Tell me what happened."

That violent shudder again, as if he's trying to wake himself from a dream that's turned nasty. But the nightmare is in his skin with him. He can't get away from it. "I didn't know." His voice sounds like it's being dragged through gravel. I hear him draw a deep, shuddering breath. "When he came to me, I didn't know. I didn't know what this was. I didn't know what I--was."

"You weren't supposed to."

He makes a sharp sound that I can't quite identify. "Yes, exactly. I thought I was him." There is naked loathing in his voice when he says it. This reproduction has learned to hate the real Kirk, for all the reasons I should have understood. Most of all for being what he can never be.

"I was sitting there, at the desk, ignorant as a baby. Working on reports. Waiting for Spock to show up so we could play chess." I can hear the bitter irony, thick enough to slice. "Just another day like any other."

I remember, I'm thinking. I wrote it that way.

"And then he came in, and he--" He breaks off... swallows, hard. "He looked the same. To me, he looked the same."

Is it an apology? An explanation? Damn Spock and damn me too for twisting his reality so badly that he feels like he has to apologize for falling for our little sleight-of-hand. I remember now, too well--we altered his perceptions so that he'd see Spock not as he was, but as he'd been a century ago.

"I know," I say. "We didn't want to shock you."

He jerks away from the wall, rakes both hands through his hair. His back is still to me. "Shock me?" His voice is small with disbelief. That painful laugh comes again for a second. "Oh, he shocked me all right. He came in, stopped just inside the door. I looked up from the desk, and he was just staring at me, just devouring me with his eyes. I said his name three times before he even blinked.

"So I got up. I came around the front of the desk. Asked him if he was all right. Finally he says that he's fine, just preoccupied. As if it's a perfectly normal thing for my Vulcan first officer to look at his captain like that, like a starving man at a banquet.

"I decided to go ahead and act like everything was normal. I'd keep an eye on him, I thought. We sat down to play."

He's turned toward the office, where I can see the three-d chess board in the corner, obscured by shadows. But he's not looking at it. His profile is to me now, and I can see that his eyes are closed, remembering.

"We'd been playing for five minutes or so, and neither of us had said a word. That in itself wasn't unusual. But he was staring at me so hard and with such a... hunger in his eyes, that I was starting to go quietly mad. I was sitting there thinking--" he swallows convulsively "--hell, I was thinking all manner of unspeakable things. Finally I couldn't stand it any more. When he reached out to move one of his pieces, I grabbed his hand. Demanded to know what the hell was going on." His words come faster now; his eyes are clenched shut. "Why was he looking at me like that? I wanted to know. If something's wrong, for godsake, please tell me!" With this he makes a pleading gesture with his hands, palms up, and the heat wells up in my throat again. He's reliving it, as he's done some uncountable number of times in the hours since it happened.

"And then he said my name." He's turned away from me again, his hands clenched into fists on his hips. His head's tilted back, as if he's looking at something really fascinating on the ceiling. The light from the desk lamp is casting him in bronze. "He said my name, and then he--" his voice catches, hard, and for a second I think the sobs he's been holding back might finally break free. But no. He gets the words out without losing it. "He said, 'There's something I have to tell you.'"

For a long moment he doesn't say anything more. Just when I've started to think he's not going to, he turns, slowly, forcing his hands to his sides. Looks at me. My throat is full of ashes.

"I always knew, of course," he says softly. "I knew there was more between us than loyalty, more than friendship. But I swear I never thought--I never thought I'd hear him say the things he did. Never thought I'd needed to hear them." He's still looking at me; his face is flushed with the revelation, the bravest he's made yet.

"I understand," I say hoarsely, and I try to let him see how well I really do.

"I'm not telling you this because I'm ashamed of anything," he says a little defiantly. "I'm telling you because when he said those things to me, when he told me how he...felt, I wanted to shout it out to the whole galaxy. But now--it looks like you're all I've got, Tom Paris." The shocking gentleness in his voice takes the sting out of it, makes me want to prostrate myself before him and let him condemn me, strike me, anything that will ease his pain. After what I've done to him, still he can find strength to offer that gentleness to me.

"Why?" I say, not meaning to speak. The word's pulled out of me and I can't stop it. "Why don't you hate me?"

His face shows genuine surprise that I haven't understood. "Because of the things he said to me. Whatever else you've done, you gave me that. I can't hate you."

I have to swallow, and then swallow again. My throat is so tight I can't breathe. I know my eyes are giving me away--I can feel the pricking behind my eyelids, and know they must be red. Somehow, I manage to keep the tears from spilling over. "What did you do?"

The change comes over him, then, and I can see it happen, can feel it like the gradual crumbling of brick and mortar over centuries. At last he bows his head and turns away, finally unable to let me witness that slow erosion any more. "I-- kissed him."

The image which flares in my brain hits me so hard, so unexpectedly, that I actually gasp with the force of it. The thought of the two of them together, one all gold and cream and softness, the other dark and severe and hard planes and angles, pressing together, their tongues touching, sets off a sudden inferno in my belly.

My gasp makes him glance back at me over his shoulder. It's just a fraction of an instant, but he sees my stunned expression, and there's ironic acknowledgment in his eyes. He knows. The heat in my body is suddenly warring with the heat in my face.

"Yes," he says darkly, turning away again. "Exactly. I thought I was going to pass out. Or go nova, maybe. It was the finest moment of my life."

I'm holding my breath, waiting for the falling of the other shoe. He's standing with his back to me, too still. Then, as I watch, a fine trembling starts in his legs and spreads through his body. I see him press his hands flat against the bulkhead.

He doesn't wait for me to ask.

"For a minute he let me do it. He even kissed me back. He put his hands on my waist, under my tunic, and I thought I'd die with the pleasure of it.

"But then he let go of me, as if I'd burned him. He broke away from me. Pushed me away from him so hard he bruised my arm. I stayed where he pushed me, holding on to the edge of the desk. I felt like I was going to fall down. He was backed up against the wall. From across the room, he stared at me like I was some kind of--monster. I could see his hands trembling."

Still he does not weep; still his voice is low, rough with anguish, fiercely controlled. But he's shaking badly now. "I said his name, and took a step toward him, but that dark thing in his eyes only got worse." He draws one painful, carefully regulated breath. "And then he started to--"

He catches himself. The pressure in my throat increases beyond bearing. Even now he won't betray Spock to anyone, not even me. It doesn't matter. I can imagine what the Vulcan would have done at that particular moment. I'm doing it myself, for the second time tonight.

I cross the room toward his broad, hunched back, not knowing what I can do, only unable to bear it any more. But when I'm almost there, he moves, with a broken unsteadiness that stops the breath in my throat, stops me where I stand. Slowly, slowly, he leans forward, until his face is hidden against his hands. And a sound comes from him then, an awful, tearing sob which rips at my insides.

"My god, the pair of you--what did you think would happen?" The words are almost lost in the grief that's been held in for too many hours. "What the hell did you think would happen?? He's a telepath for godsakes! A touch telepath..."

He gives in then, letting the harsh sobs have their way with him. I'm stunned, I can't move. All the horror I've been feeling fades in the face of this. He was right; Spock and I had both been fools.

Now I can't believe I didn't see it sooner.

Oh please, please forgive me, I think, and my hands are reaching out, reaching for him. The sound of his crying is killing me. Can't let him hurt like this any more.

The moment my fingertips touch the warm curve of his shoulder, I know it's right. I can no more stop myself than I could have destroyed him when he asked me to. He's only the shadow of a legend, but he's a part of me. His courage has touched something deep within me that I can't yet fully grasp.

And I am not a telepath.

I touch him, my hand closing on his shoulder, and he jerks away from me, turning, stumbling blindly in his haste to get away. I catch him. He's all smooth warmth under my hands, the tremors running out of him and into me. He's broken and vulnerable and utterly undone, and I can't help myself--I pull him hard against me, into my arms.

He's too far gone to fight me, though he doesn't really give in, either. He just lets me hold on to him, and bows his head against my collarbone. His tears are hot and feel like they soak into me through my shirt.

My own tears have stopped; I can't cry any more. I hold him close and rock him against me, pressing my fingertips against the hot, moist skin at his nape, stroking his head like you might stroke an animal. The short hair is soft and damp and sweet against my palm, and smells like salt and evergreens.

That would be enough. I wouldn't ask for any more than that he let me hold him like this, let me bury my face in his hair. But suddenly his throat catches mid-sob, and he turns his wet face against my cheek, and his mouth brushes across mine hesitantly.

I moan aloud. Man, I'm gonna go out of my head from that gentle touch of his lips. And god help me, I've imagined Harry doing this so many times, imagined his mouth, and how he would smell--I draw in a breath, fighting for air, and the smell of him fills me up, overwhelming me. I can't help it--I pull him closer still, and the feel of him against me is pure heaven. He's warm and satin-smooth and the hard muscles of his thighs are pressing between mine. I lower my head and kiss him, unable to do anything else.

Maybe it's like that for him, too. Maybe he's closing his eyes, too, imagining. He's breathing hard, ragged gasps, his sobs turning to something else, and he moans faintly against my lips. His tongue's in my mouth, hot and tasting of that smell that's coming off of him in waves. His hands are powerful, his fingertips exquisitely pressed against the small of my back.

I don't know what the hell this is, grief or comfort or just plain lust, and I don't care. I don't think he does, either. He was written for this--and I've been alone way too long. The thought hits me, just as I close my eyes and push my tongue into his mouth, that if I know all his secrets, he just as surely knows all of mine. They're part of him, just as he's a part of me. I press against him harder, feel his hot arousal against mine, and my body's answer makes my knees give out.

Can't stand up any more. "Please," I gasp out, holding on to him for support. We're only three steps from the bed, but I don't know if I can make it. I can't keep my hands still. They're stroking his shoulders, his back, tracing the fluid muscles under that amazingly soft skin. I think of Spock, remembering that he never knew this feeling under his hands, and want to cry again. I can't; I can't do anything except lean against him, letting him take my weight, kissing him as if he is air I need to breathe. He puts his hands into my hair, his fingers pressing lightly on my scalp, holding me still so that he can touch every part of my mouth with his tongue. I know that if he doesn't stop, I'm going to come just from his mouth on mine.

At last we break apart, gasping. He's flushed the most delicious shade, and I know my own face must be hot and rosy, my eyes glittering. His are. They're gold and green and big enough for me to drown in.

He doesn't have that broken look any more. And it's passion that's making his eyes shine, not tears. Which one of us is being comforted here? I think crazily. He sees the words that I'm trying to muster the will to say, and shakes his head. "It's all right," he whispers. "It doesn't matter."

God, I want him so bad I think I'm going crazy with it. Him? Or Harry? And is it me he's kissing when his eyes are closed? I don't know. But I have to be sure. "You don't have to--"

His hands are at the hem of my shirt, are sliding underneath, drawing fingers of flame up my ribs. "Yes," he says. "Yes, I do."

And the answer I would make to that gets lost when his fingertips brush across my nipples. "Oh..." I groan and sag against him, the blunt, shivery pleasure shooting straight down to my knees. "Oh, please... don't stop."

He doesn't, and the next touch of his hands makes me shudder uncontrollably, makes me bury my face against his throat with a strangled moan, nibbling and kissing him there. I have to have more of him. Now. My shaking hands find the drawstring of his pants.

"Shh," he whispers, his breath teasing across my ear. His lips touch me there, teeth drawing across my earlobe. For a second I almost black out, the pleasure is so intense. Next thing I know I'm lying on his narrow bed and he's undressing me. His knowing hands feel so good on me I can only throw my head back and let him do what he will; I'm helpless under the thrall of this power he has, this control.

When I'm naked he kneels over me, straddling my thighs. I can feel the heat of him on my bare flesh. It's making all the hair on my legs stand up. I'm so hard that if he doesn't touch me soon, I'm going to beg.

He surveys me from under those ridiculous lashes, pursing his lips as if he's giving me a professional evaluation. "Well, well, Mister Paris. I'm impressed." He is, too, I can tell--he's breathing hard, and his loose pants don't conceal much. At the thought of what's under there, of what it would feel like to have him inside of me, a little sound I can't control escapes me.

His eyes come back to my face, and now I see that gentleness in him that squeezes at my heart. "You are very fine, Tom, do you know that? Do you know what that mouth of yours can do to a man?"

At Auckland my baby face was not exactly an advantage and I got called a lot of things--but no one's ever looked at me like that when they said it. I shake my head.

He smiles, and when he does, I realize it's the first time he's really smiled at me; all the other times were just twisted reflections of this pure, uncomplicated beauty. There is, I think to myself, nothing that I wouldn't do to make him smile at me like that again.

And that's the answer of course, to the question he'd asked earlier--the one about what Spock had hoped for when he'd turned his back on a lifetime of logic and hired me to write this sim. I doubt even a Vulcan could be immune to that smile, or the possibility of seeing it again.

He's leaning over me then, his tongue a warm wet shock on my stomach, my chest, shooting white flames of electricity through me when he laps at my nipple. It's instantly hard, and his teeth nip at the tender flesh, at both of them until I'm writhing under him. The way he's bent over me now the heat of him is scalding my cock, the slide of hard flesh through fabric more than I can bear. I grab hold of the waist of his pants, push them down over his ass, the satin tip of his cock brushing against my belly. His breath catches.

I can't stand it any more, it's still not enough. I wrap one leg around both of his and push his pants the rest of the way off with my foot, then pull him down against me.

I've surprised him--he groans into my neck and melts against me, thrusting jerkily, his hardness and his heat rubbing voluptuously against my own. He's wet and slick against me and oh, god, he's as ready as I am, in another second he's going to push us both over the edge. "No!" I gasp out, clenching my eyes shut, concentrating. "No, not yet--" In spite of his strength, I manage to twist out from under him. He's too far gone to fight me. I roll him down against the bed and force myself to back off a little, though it costs me.

His face lost in passion is so transcendent I almost can't look at him. He's watching me through slitted eyes, his lips flushed bright red, faint sheen of perspiration on his upper lip. "Tom," he says. Just my name. I know what he wants, what he needs. There's nothing that I want that moment except to give him what he needs.

And so I kneel above him, straddling him as he did me, but lower down. I drag my fingertips down his broad ribcage, tracing him. He is so incredibly responsive that I can feel the blood rush to follow my touch. I bend and run my tongue once over his balls, spread my hands against his hipbones, and take him in my mouth.

I don't tease him. I can't. All I want is to make him cry out with pleasure, and so I do, sucking his rock-hard hotness into my throat, pressing my tongue all along the length of him, to the root. I suck him as if I can suck all his pain out of him, as if I can tap this well of pleasure in him and somehow heal him. He grabs my head and holds it still, moaning uncontrollably, and thrusts deep into my mouth. I realize that I'm making little sounds of my own, in sympathy.

But when I feel the telltale surge under my tongue, the gathering vibration thrilling through his lower body, his hands tighten on my head and pull me away, holding me still above him.

I look up, astonished that he would stop me--astonished that he could. I'm almost coming myself just from the friction of his thighs against my scrotum. His head's thrown back; he's bitten his lip. There's blood on his mouth. His chest is heaving and there's a battle in his face for control. He wins it, barely.

"What do you want?" I whisper, stroking him gently along one pale flank. "Anything you want. Just tell me."

He doesn't answer, but opens his eyes enough to look at me. He lets go of my head, lowers one shaking hand to brush his fingertips, very gently, against my weeping cock. I draw in a sharp breath, and a ghost of that devastating smile touches his lips.

But he doesn't say anything. What he does do is grab my hips in the palms of his hands and lift me up, shifting under me until I'm between his thighs, and his luscious ass is pressing against my balls. And then, watching me every second, he slowly brings his other hand to his mouth, wetting three fingers.

Shit, he can't mean--oh, shit, he does mean. He brings his now- glistening fingers to my cock and rubs that moisture across the head. The thought of what he's telling me with that gesture causes my whole lower body to throb, and a surge of fluid--mine--coats his already dampened fingers. His ghost- smile widens, and in one motion he strokes me, hard, and pulls me down against him, pressing me in between his thighs.

And oh, god, he's so tight and I'm so wet that even though I've never been so hard I slide right in, buried in his heat. He rocks against me, raising his hips so I can go deeper, deeper, so I can wrap my hand around his cock and stroke him as I move. I do, and he's already there, already coming with a raw, ragged sound deep in his throat, incredibly strong pulses against my palm, hot wetness surging under my fingertips, and he's so hot all around me, so hot--oh god oh my god ohmygod--

* * *

It's when I'm lying boneless and gasping on top of him that he realizes.

"Tom--" I feel him go still under me, his heaving chest catching for a second in the moment when the thought occurs to him. I close my eyes, afraid of what he's going to say.

"Yeah?" I have to struggle for air even to manage that one word.

"I didn't... I never asked you. How long has it been for you? In the--" real world, he doesn't say "--outside?"

I move off him a little, burrowing down into the space between him and the edge of the bed. My nerve endings are humming. It takes every bit of strength I have to lift my arm, but I do. I put it loosely across his stomach, a kind of embrace, and he allows it. With that encouragement I lay the side of my face against his upper arm.

I can't lie to him.

"It's been nine years and eleven months since I last saw him."

He doesn't say anything, just lies there, looking up at the ceiling. Finally he says softly, "For me, it's been less than a day."

There's not really anything else I can say, except, "I know."

We lie in silence for a while, letting lungs and hearts regain their normal rhythm. I can feel him gathering himself, making a conscious effort to regulate his breathing. When he's got himself back under control, he shifts slightly. At first I think he's gonna pull away--and he does, a little. But he lets my arm stay where it is.

"Do you know...?"

I shake my head against his shoulder. "No. Not for sure. My ship got trapped in the Delta Quadrant three years ago. I've been pretty out of touch." I draw a deep breath. "But last I heard... he'd been on Romulus, and the Federation operatives there had lost contact with him."

He's very still under my arm, not quite breathing. "Do they have any idea what happened?"

I have to tell him; there's no getting around it. "Last I knew, they had him listed as... missing."

He just digests that quietly. After a minute, I feel the regular rhythm of his breathing start again. To my surprise, his chest rumbles with a low chuckle. "Ah, Spock. Always keeping them guessing." I am utterly surprised to feel a twinge of jealousy when he says the Vulcan's name.

Something else I have said catches his attention. "You said... 'my ship.' What ship?"

"She's called Voyager." I know he can hear the quiet pride in my voice, and don't care. If anyone will understand, it's him.

"Starfleet vessel?"

"Yes." I suppress a grin. What would Chakotay have to say about that?

"Tom Paris... Commander Paris?" he hazards.

I blush, and am glad he can't see it. "Lieutenant."

"Lieutenant," he muses, and doesn't comment further. He's stroking my hair gently, rhythmically, and I'm getting hypnotized by it. "You know, Lieutenant, this was a first for me."

"What, you've never had a lieutenant before?"

"No... never been had by one."

I choke back a giggle. "First time for everything."

But he doesn't laugh. "No," he says quietly. "Not everything."

I want to put my arms around him, want to kiss him and stroke his hair, but I know if I try he'll pull away. Instead I prop myself up on one elbow so I can see his face. When I move he stops petting me and tucks his arm up under his head.

"Can I ask you something?"

His lips twist in a little self-mocking smile. "Is there anything you don't already know about me?"

"There's a lot I don't know."

He just lifts his eyebrows. Like what? the expression says.

"Like why you didn't break my neck as soon as you laid eyes on me."

Now, finally, he looks directly at me. "I told you why."

I hold his eyes, searching them. The darkness I saw there before is mostly gone. And so I ask him, the one thing I still don't understand. "Why did he tell you?"

He blinks, and after a moment, looks back at the ceiling. "You mean... why did he tell me what I was?"

"Yes."

He sighs, and there's mostly resignation in his face. "I forced it out of him."

I blink, finding that damn hard to imagine. "You... forced him?"

He's smiling, a private smile that speaks of things beyond my ken. "I have a long history of making him tell me things I'm not supposed to know."

My anger shows through. "I can't imagine doing what he did. In my book, it was unforgivable."

But he's shaking his head. "You wouldn't understand this," he says, "but he meant it as a kindness."

"A kindness--!"

"He knows me very well."

"You mean you're glad he told you?"

His smile is sad, and the momentary touch of his eyes on mine feels like pity. "No, Tom. But for me... it would be worse not to know."

I don't really have anything to say to that. I've separated myself from him now, a little space of mussed scarlet coverlet between us, and though I want to touch him again I don't know how to cross back over. There's a distance between us that wasn't there a minute ago.

"You've forgiven him, haven't you?" I whisper finally.

His eyes close; I see the tightening of his throat as he suppresses the instinct to swallow. "Of course. I never could stay angry at him."

"And me?"

It comes out sounding small and pathetic, and I wish instantly that I'd been strong enough not to ask something I'm not sure I want the answer to.

But he touches me then, the brief caress of his hand in my hair, stroking the back of my neck, once. "Sure," he says, as if it's easy, as if it doesn't cost him anything at all to say it. My throat closes with gratitude.

Then, suddenly, his eyes are on me, stabbing through me in one swift stroke. "Just promise me one thing."

"Anything." I don't hesitate.

"Whatever you do, don't wait to say the words. You hear me? Don't wait until it's too late." His face is full of fatal understanding, and it stops my heart.

"I won't," I say, and I let him see the promise in my eyes.

* * *

We're standing at the door to his quarters. I need to go through that door, because I can't be looking at him when I shut the simulation off. I couldn't bear that. If I wasn't so damn tired of crying I might be doing it now.

"Are you sure?" I hate myself for asking it again, but I want desperately for him to give me another answer.

He is serene, in control, the quintessential starship captain. "Yes, Tom. I'm sure." He gives me the barest shadow of his extraordinary smile. "Spock would be, too."

"I could... I could rewrite the matrix, you know." I'm choking on the thought, but say it anyway. Anything but what he's asking of me.

"You mean, make me forget?"

"Yes. You could be like you were meant to be. You could be... him again." But I know as soon as I say it that he doesn't want that. It would be living a lie, in the truest sense of the phrase. He'll take an honest death over that kind of existence.

He only shakes his head.

I catch up his hand in mine, and he doesn't pull away. For a second we stand awkwardly, looking down at the place where our fingers interlace. Finally I find a smile from somewhere, though I suspect it looks pretty shaky. "Do you think this is what he meant to happen, when he sent me the disk?"

He gives a soft snort of laughter. "Somehow, I doubt it. Maybe he just knew..."

I look up, meet his lion eyes. "Knew?"

"That you were the only one who could help me."

I nod. "And vice versa."

That touches him, shakes the newfound serenity up a little. "Is that true?"

I try to give him a grin, but I'm not entirely successful. "Oh, yeah, I was a basket case when I came in here. You should have been a shrink instead of a starship captain."

He looks at me for a long moment. "Thank you, Tom. For everything." Gently, he disentangles his hand from mine. "Remember, don't wait too long."

I nod, stiffly, and start to go.

"Paris?" My name sounds harsh on his lips.

I stop, turn back.

He doesn't want to say it. Whatever it is, I can see the struggle in his face. "It's all right," I manage to say. I'm holding my breath. Can he mean to stay my hand? To spare me, and himself? I want to say his name, but don't quite dare.

"Tom, if you should ever..." His voice catches. "If you should see him, tell him... I'm sorry. For everything. And tell him that I--"

He can't say it. He meets my eyes, trying to make me see in his the words he can't say, even now. I nod, once, letting him see that I understand. It's all I can manage. I hurt so much for him--for them--that I'm thinking in cliches. There's got to be something broken inside of me, for it to hurt like this. Finally he touches a control stud, and the door slides open behind me. Hardly seeing, I turn and step through it.

"Good-bye," he says behind me, and the door slides shut. I draw a breath.

"End program," I say.

I'm standing then in semi-darkness, alone. The display panels glow expectantly. I close my eyes, feeling a tear or two slip down my face; it seems I'm not quite done with them after all. I'm thinking of Spock, wishing that I could tell him that he'd been right all those years ago. He'd been right when he'd guessed that I would be able to give this shadow-Kirk the comfort he couldn't.

And I did give him that, I think. There's a serenity in him now that wasn't there before. But all the same, even though Spock was right, even though I understand, I can't help but hate the Vulcan a little, for leaving me to face this moment alone, for not sharing the burden.

It's some minutes before I can make my throat let go enough to let me speak the words.

"Computer, delete file NCC1701-K. Authorization Paris, Thomas E."

* * *

Harry's in his quarters, asleep, when I sound the buzzer at his door. It's just after oh-six-hundred, an hour when all sane people are in bed. We don't have to be on the bridge for another three hours.

Don't wait, the man said. Well, I can't wait. I hurt. I need to see Harry, if only for a few minutes. I need to touch him, hear him, smell him, know that he's real. I sound the buzzer again, impatient.

My clothes are too neat, distressingly free of any sign of what I've been doing for the last three hours. I don't even have the smell of him on me; every trace has vanished with him, back into the holodeck computer from whence it came. And that absence of proof makes me want to go off and hide somewhere by myself, remember every moment I was with him so that the reality won't disappear.

At last Harry answers the door, and when I see him, warm and mussed from sleep, his hair in disarray, I want desperately to grab him and hug him hard to me and not let go. I want to tell him I'm sorry for waiting to tell him, for even considering the possibility of not telling him how I feel.

He rubs his eyes sleepily, blinking in the muted light from the corridor. I'm thinking, he is so damn beautiful.

He frowns at me. "Tom? What's wrong? Are you okay?"

"Yeah," I say, holding tightly to the thing that's trying to get past my throat. "I'm fine."

And then I'm smiling, just grinning at him like an idiot, because I can't help it. "Listen, Harry? There's something I have to tell you..."


* * *

(Note: cbtreks has written a Paris/Kim sequel to this story. It can be found here.)

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