"I'm so sorry, Owen," Kathryn Janeway said, stroking the hand of the shaken man by her side. "All I can say is that without the sacrifice your son and Chakotay made, the rest of us wouldn't be here. I'm still not completely sure what happened, but *they* knew what they were doing. They had it all planned. They willingly put their lives on the line so that we'd have a chance to get Voyager through the wormhole and away from the threat of destruction. A scenario that was more than a possibility if those aliens had attacked the ship again.
"We had been virtually dead in space; no shields, no warp drive, just impulse engines and enough power for a couple more phaser blasts. One more direct hit and Voyager could well have been history." She shifted slightly in her seat, looking closely at the Admiral's pale face that clearly showed his distress. "I know it's a small consolation," she said softly. "But Tom's life ended the same way that he lived it in the Delta Quadrant: heroically. He was a brave man, Owen, and he proved it on more than one occasion. You should be extremely proud of him."
The Admiral nodded slowly. "I am, Kathryn," he said quietly. "I've always been proud of him. Even after the fiasco of Caldik Prime. I know I was angry at first, more concerned with the family name and honour than I was about Tom, and that I lashed out at him. But I realised afterwards that it took courage to confess to filing that false report, and to willingly put himself into the hands of the investigators, knowing that he would be charged. I was proud of his honesty, but I allowed my own stubborn pride to get the better of me.
"Then, after his capture while piloting a Maquis ship, I treated him far worse than I ever should have, and I've regretted my actions every minute of every day since Tom disappeared. I made up my mind a long time ago that as soon as Tom was found I would tell him how I really felt. But now...." He shook his head and swallowed hard, tears forming in his eyes as he held a picture close to his chest; Tom and Chakotay, taken just after their marriage. "Now," he continued shakily, glancing down at the men's smiling faces. "I'll never get that chance. My son's gone to his grave believing that I despised him."
Janeway ran a hand across her chin as she listened, the man's abject sorrow too much for her, and tears rolled down her cheeks. She didn't know what to say, couldn't think of any words to comfort him as she acknowledged the probable truth of his statement. Instead, she settled back in her chair and continued to rub his hand, trying to convey her sympathy for him with her touch, her mind wandering to a thought that had plagued her since the deaths of her officers. Would Chakotay and Tom still be here if she'd listened to Tom's objections, and kept to the course shown on the star chart?
Harry Kim was slumped in a chair in the crowded Mess Hall, completely oblivious to the other occupants and his surroundings. He sat alone, still unable to get his mind around the idea that Tom was gone, his long-time friend's cheerful face constantly flitting into his thoughts as he stared out the viewport at the stars beyond. He rested his head in his hands and sighed, a feeling of total unreality pervading him as he tried to come to terms with the fact that he would never see Tom in person again; that the best friend he had ever had was dead; and that Tom had died while they were still at odds with each other.
He was so engrossed in his thoughts that he didn't notice B'Elanna approach, so when her hand lightly touched his shoulder, he started, looking up into her tear-sore eyes. She'd decided to put her own problems with Harry aside, her anguish at Chakotay and Tom's deaths more than enough for her to cope with now. Looking down sympathetically at Harry, she attempted a small smile, but failed, sinking wearily into the chair to Harry's right.
For a few moments the pair sat in silence, each occupied with memories of their lost friends, then Harry spoke softly, his voice heavy with emotion. "They're gone, B'Elanna," he said, dropping his gaze to the table. "They're gone. And they died so close to home," he stated, tears welling in his eyes. "Willingly. For us."
"I know, Harry," B'Elanna said, her chin quivering as her grief took hold again and she, too, began to cry. "To come all this way, then... It's just so unfair."
Harry reached out and took B'Elanna's hand in his, then pulled her close and hugged her as she sobbed uncontrollably, her tears falling onto Harry's shoulder and soaking his uniform. "They loved each other so much, Harry. They were so happy together," she whispered brokenly.
Harry weakly nodded his agreement, guilt overwhelming him as he remembered the night in Sandrine's not too long ago. The way he'd belittled Tom and Chakotay's intentions of marrying with his comment that they were both men, as though they had no right to marry because they were both of the same gender. He remembered how upset Tom had been, Chakotay's anger, and the older man's pained expression at Tom's dejection. "I really hurt both of them that night in Sandrine's. I didn't give a damn about their happiness. All I was concerned about was me. I was so selfish," Harry said mournfully, burying his face in B'Elanna's hair. "Just so fucking selfish. Why didn't I see it sooner? I'll never have the chance to apologise to them now." He pulled away then, staring back out at the stars as he wished with all his heart that he could travel back in time and do things differently.
In another place, consciousness slowly started to return. Light, warmth, love. A gentle breeze tickling his skin. Voices, music, laughter.
Tom rubbed his eyes and sat up, jumbled thoughts filling his mind. Dazed and confused, he took in his surroundings. The scenery was familiar, he'd seen it before but he couldn't quite remember when or where. It was somewhere he'd once visited, he was sure of that, but he couldn't place it; couldn't recall how long ago he'd been here, or why. Frowning, he struggled to his feet and made his way towards the sounds that were drifting to him on the breeze; calling out to him to follow them.
Something nagged at him as he walked, rolled around inside his head, trying to push its way out of the confines of his muddled brain and make itself known. It was something important, he knew, but what was it? He walked on, a small pinprick of light making an appearance at the back of his mind, and as he concentrated on it, it grew and moved forwards, filling his head with visions. A smiling face, a warm touch; love.
Tom stopped as sudden realisation hit him, and he looked around wildly, crying out for the other half of his soul. "Cha," he called plaintively. "Cha. Where are you?" When there was no answer, he rushed forwards, running headlong towards the music and laughter that grew louder with each step he took, stumbling through the long grass as he made his way up the hill before him until, finally, he reached the top, and stared in puzzled wonder at the sight that greeted him. "Chakotay?" he whispered, moving rapidly down the hill to where the older man lay surrounded by a multitude of dancing, laughing people, their attention centred on the man they circled around.
Pushing through the crowd, Tom knelt down next to Chakotay's still form, placing his shaking hand on the older man's forehead and gently brushing back the dark hair that had fallen across it. He bent forward, leaning closer as Chakotay stirred and his eyes slowly opened, then closed again. "Cha?" he whispered once more. "Can you hear me? Are you okay?"
Chakotay stirred again, and this time his eyes remained open as he tried to focus on the man bending over him. It was a struggle, his recollection of who it was that looked at him with such concern, hazy. He knew the face, could recognise the obvious love that the man had for him, but his name escaped him for the moment. He screwed his face up in concentration as he sifted through the confusion in his mind. He had a deep connection to this man, he knew, but he couldn't remember what it was.
"Chakotay?" Tom called again, softly. "It's me, Tom. Are you hurt? Can you talk to me?"
"Tom?" Chakotay croaked, barely audible above the incessant chorus of voices around them, the happy group of people edging closer as he spoke. The fog in his brain began to clear then, and he looked up at the younger man with sudden recognition. "Tom. Where are we? What happened?" he asked, reaching out to grasp Tom's shoulder as he tried to sit up. "Who are these people?"
"I don't know, Cha. I can't seem to think straight at the moment," Tom replied. He slipped his arm around Chakotay's waist and helped him to sit upright. "Are you okay, though?" he asked worriedly, gazing at the older man's bewildered expression. "Did you get injured when the shuttle...." He stopped as the events that had taken place flashed before him, and he grabbed Chakotay, pulling the older man tightly to him as he relived the moment when their small craft exploded; remembering vividly the kiss they'd shared as they'd given their lives for their friends.
"I remember, Tom," Chakotay said softly, Tom's thoughts blending with his own so that he, too, could see the fateful moment again. "I remember," he repeated.
"We died," Tom mumbled, looking confused. "We died. So, what...? Where....?" He pulled away from Chakotay and stared at the sea of faces that surrounded them. "Who are you?" he asked. "What is this place? Is this the afterlife? I don't understand."
"Friends. We all welcome you." The crowd became silent, and a man stepped forward, smiling. "I wasn't sure that we would meet again," he said, addressing the two men. Chakotay and Tom looked at him, unsure at first who he was. Then, as he stepped closer, realisation dawned. "You know me now," Azai remarked, kneeling down in front of them. "That is good. Now look around, Tom. You know this place. Remember," he instructed. "Tell me where you are."
Tom frowned, then gazed around, ignoring the enquiring faces that stared at him as he concentrated all his attention on the landscape. There were tall trees smothered in pale pink blossom, their leaves rustling as they swayed in the light breeze. Beyond them, a field containing low-growing shrubs that were covered in tiny apple-like red fruit that looked familiar, with smaller, but sturdier, plants dotted along the field's edge. Another side showed that large quantities of leaves had been removed from some of the bushes. There was an area devoid of plant life, the ground clearly showing where people had dug there and removed its contents, the workers' tracks still visible in the heavy soil. And nearby was a large, open stretch of ground, the tall grass covering it flattened and scorched by something alien to this place. Tom slowly turned back to Azai, nodding as he finally remembered. "Neelix and I obtained supplies here," he whispered. "This is the Derzai's world."
"You are correct, my friend. This is the place that all Derzai call home. And *you* may call it home now, too."
"What do you mean, Azai? How did we get here?" Chakotay asked, taking Tom's hand in his as the group of people that had surrounded them began to move away, leaving just the three of them together on the grass. "What happened?" he enquired.
Azai smiled and reached out to place his hands on the two men's shoulders. "With your selfless act, you passed the final test," he informed them quietly. "You willingly paid the price to save your friends, and in so doing, you have been rewarded with more than just their safety."
"But we died," Tom insisted. "The shuttle exploded."
"Yet you are here," Azai remarked. "How can that be? Have you never experienced this phenomenon before? Think. Remember. I know it is difficult, the transition from one state to another is not always easy, but concentrate and all will become clear."
The two men sat pondering Azai's words until the light finally dawned, and they stared at each other, awareness clearly showing on their faces. "We've been separated from our physical bodies," Tom said, turning to face Azai. "We're existing solely on a mental plane."
"Excellent. Your perception is very close to the truth," Azai declared. "I believe you will grasp the entire situation quite quickly."
Tom ran his fingers through his hair, then looked at Azai again, a puzzled expression on his face. "But if our bodies no longer exist, if we really did die on that shuttle, how can we exist *now*, with no bodies to return to?"
"You understand this, Chakotay," Azai said, nodding towards him. "You once explained it to your Captain."
"I did?" Chakotay asked, looking as bemused as Tom. "When?"
"When you found yourselves parted from your physical selves for the first time. Before you departed on your quest to find Tom in his place of fear, you stated correctly that although a physical body will eventually die, the spirit will continue. It is one of your beliefs, is it not? And one that has now been confirmed for you. I have been your guide. I have watched you since the day I first gave you the beginnings of the gift. And at the moment of your deaths, I used my own gift to call your spirits here."
"So we really *did* die in the physical world," Tom said quietly, grasping Chakotay's hand tightly. He shook his head, his thoughts in turmoil. "And this is our home now?" he questioned, frowning. "We'll never see our real homes, or our friends and families, ever again?"
"I did not say that," Azai responded gently. "You are not prisoners here. You may come and go as you please. But this is the place where those Dergaj that have met all the necessary criteria first become aware of their altered state. It is where they learn that they are Derzai. Do you not call the place of your birth, 'home'? It is the same for the Derzai. This is the place of our creation. Our home."
"You say that we can leave, Azai," Chakotay remarked. "But where can we go? How can we exist on the physical plane in our present state? And if it *is* possible, how would we travel? Can we interact with people if we have to follow the Derzai Law? We were told that we should never reveal our gift to anyone besides other Derzai."
"So many questions, Chakotay," Azai said, smiling. "I will try to answer." He moved from the kneeling position he'd maintained since his arrival, and sat cross-legged on the soft grass instead. "Firstly," he began. "You may go anywhere you please. Although it is sometimes necessary to use a craft of some sort, to hide the nature of your gift from others, you will learn how to travel without the need for any kind of vessel.
"You may follow your friends if you so wish. But if you do this, you must be very careful to comply with our Law. It does not usually matter if people know that we are Derzai, as it is only the gift we possess that needs to be kept secret. But, because of circumstance, you can never reveal to your friends what you are. If you were to do so, the connection between *you* and the true events surrounding their departure from this region of space could be made too easily. Your gift might be discovered. I was always aware that a situation of this kind might arise, and that is why I originally insisted you kept your link concealed."
"But we could travel to the Alpha Quadrant?" Tom questioned hopefully. At Azai's nod of confirmation, Tom continued. "And if we came up with some kind of plausible explanation of how we survived, and how we got there, then kept our new status to ourselves, we could see our friends and families?"
"Yes, you could do that," Azai confirmed. "Now that you are Derzai, it is possible for you to appear as though you exist in the physical world even though you have no physical substance. In fact, Chakotay, although you should not have been able to do this until now, you accomplished this once before. Do you remember?"
Chakotay thought hard for several moments, then shook his head. "No, Azai, I don't."
"I do," Tom remarked, studying Chakotay's face. "It was when you came to me in my cabin after the accident with the mood enhancer. Although I didn't know it at the time, you weren't really there, not physically, because you were still in a coma. I just thought you'd recovered and decided to pay me a surprise visit."
"That is the occasion of which I speak," Azai confirmed. "Chakotay's mind has always been very strong, and because of that you were able to interact with each other. Despite the fact that your link was so new, you were able to exist on different planes, and even able to make love before Tom's spirit was enticed from his body. A most unusual occurrence for couples who are still to achieve their full status as Derzai."
"I remember now," Chakotay said, nodding. "But when we were on the bridge a little later, no-one could see us. They couldn't feel us either. Why? With Tom, I had no such trouble while he was still on the physical plane and I was existing outside my body."
"Surely the answer to that is obvious," Azai replied smiling. "Tom is the one who completes you. You will always respond differently to him than you will to anyone else. But what you achieved before was done unknowingly. You were not in control of your actions. Now that you are truly Derzai, you will be able to exist as you please. As it was in my room, so is it everywhere for you now."
"You mean, whatever we want, we can have?" Tom queried, somewhat confused by Azai's words. "We just have to think about something, the way we did in your room, and it'll appear?"
"Yes. And more," Azai replied. "Have you forgotten that time had no meaning in my room? I arranged for you to remain there under the pretext that you should study, but I will admit now that I had an ulterior motive. Your stay was to ensure that you were adequately prepared for this moment."
Chakotay moved closer to Tom, placing his arms around him and giving him a gentle hug. "Are you saying what I think you're saying, Azai?" he asked uncertainly, peering at the other man over Tom's shoulder.
"That you will never grow old? That your spirits will never die? That you will be together for all eternity? That you can exist wherever and whenever you desire? Yes," Azai stated, smiling at the two men as they both turned towards him. "That is what I am saying. There are Laws that you must adhere to, and you will one day guide others as I have guided you, but from this moment on, you have no further need of corporeal form. You are no longer bound by any physical restrictions. You are Derzai. You are free. *This* is your ultimate gift."