A hand claps my shoulder out of nowhere, and I pause in looking at my readings long enough to smile up into the commander's still-stained face.
"Good work, Ensign," he all but beams down at me. "Your teams did a hell of a job today."
"Thank you, Commander." Strictly speaking, they weren't officially "my" teams, but he'd pretty much left it in my hands after beaming down with us. "They all did good work," I'm careful to note, and he nods understanding and agreement. I indicate the array of fruit spread out before me. "We should be ready to beam up within the hour…once all the crates have been inventoried and scanned."
He smiles softly. Looking…more relaxed than I've seen him in a good long time, I decide on closer inspection.
I decide I like him like this, too. A little softer. Not so much with that hard edge around him all the time, the way it has been lately since…
He pulls me out of my reflections. "I'll let Tuvok know you're on schedule," he assures me, and without further ado, heads for the cavern exit.
I stare after him. Weird. I knew he'd been down here, of course – he'd been with us out in the fields for hours, helping us pick the moist, purple-berry fruits we'd detected from orbit. Coming on the heels of a food-shortage, the deliciously tart, still sweet Toka-fruits were a blessing to detect on sensors, even if Neelix hadn't been able to quite remember they were here in the first place. And the commander had been in the thick of it as soon as we'd beamed down, indulging along with the rest of us, right in there eating with the best of us, I grin remembering now.
But it's still a little disconcerting to note how, not only had I not noticed him enter the cool cave we'd now gathered in to conduct the inventory, but he'd also managed to circle around behind me at some point while I'd been so intent with my scans.
I feel my frown etching deep into the lines of my face. Am I really that much of a workaholic?
I shrug it off, burying myself back in my work. Trying not to notice how uncomfortably, almost disgustingly full my belly is, for the first time in almost a week…we just haven't had the resources to stuff ourselves lately. A lot of our food stores in the hydroponics bay were destroyed in that last battle with the Ogla, and we're only just now starting to replenish our supplies.
A loud squeal of what sounds like delight erupts behind me, and I don't think much of it as I continue to bend over the basket of over-ripe but still-edible fruit we've sorted to take back to the ship. Merriment has been the general theme of the day today, and it's nothing out of place enough to stop me inspecting my inventory with my tricorder to make sure there aren't any alien parasites living in the freshly-picked bunches of grape-like berries. Something we should ideally have done this thoroughly before eating, yes, but our preliminary scans hadn't detected any, and the bounty was just too sweet-smelling, too ripe and temptingly juicy to resist. Knowing we had more than enough to feed the hungry bellies of our shipmates for weeks to come took some of the guilty sting out of digging in before returning to the ship, too.
We've already sorted out the spoiled fruit that had been tossed in, unnoticed, with the rest out in the field. These that I'm scanning now are the best of the batch…
"Ow – hey! Harry! Over here – help me!" a feminine voice shrieks, cutting over the low buzz in the cavern room.
I turn sharply in the dimly lit alcove, instantly tense until I zero in on the source of the distress call. Then smiling, I relax to see Meghan Delaney ducking nothing more sinister than flying fruit. She's laughing and shrieking, ushering me over to where she and Chapman are suddenly in the middle of an all-out food fight with some of the spoiled goods.
And they're not the only ones – everyone seems to have joined in the fray, to some degree or another, as I look around in amazement. There's flying fruit everywhere. It looks like all-out war, actually.
I can't help grinning, and, dropping my tricorder, have to go to the lady's aid, of course. Anything less wouldn't be…chivalrous.
Chapman hears her calls for help, though, and her oncoming reinforcements don't go unnoticed. One of the rancid fruits sails toward me, and I duck just in time to miss it, turning to watch it strike the cave wall several meters behind me, where it explodes in a purple, red-seed-dotted corona of fury, violently staining the wall and sliding down the grey cavern wall in great, heaping globs of sticky, slimy goo. That had almost been my head.
I spin back to the source of the throw, growling a little in the back of my throat. That had been a direct challenge, all right!
"Okay, that's it," I announce, as Chapman winds his arm back for another throw, his purple grin grotesque and strangely appealing from across the large space still spanning out between us. "You're asking for it now, Chapman," I warn fairly.
Everyone else stops and turns at the sound of my voice, waiting to see what I'm going to do next. Because without Chakotay around, I am, technically, the man in charge right now.
Chapman is hardly intimidated, though. He can see I'm in a playful mood. "Come on, Ensign Bridge Officer," he taunts boastingly, so everyone can hear him even as the fighting resumes once they can all see I'm not against a little unwinding – unorthodox as it unarguably is. "Don't think I'm afraid of your soft ass – sitting up on the bridge all day, counting stars and getting the captain's coffee!"
Oh, that one hurt.
"Better than wasting away down in dark, boring Engineering, getting B'Elanna's," I retort, as he lets another one loose. I swerve, but he had a mean curve on that thing, because he still pegs me squarely at the edge of my now-twisted hip. Despite my best defensive measures, the splatter explodes everywhere, spewing up across my chest, down my leg, and even into my eyes. Basically covering me from top to bottom, even though I tried to throw my hands up to shield my face from the worst of it. I glance down, frankly in a little bit of shock. Reaching up with my left hand to retrieve a dripping globule of goo from my hair, and rubbing the spoiled, gross findings into mush between my fingers. I left my head just before hurling the remnants to the ground in disgust.
Through the responsive shrieks of laughter now echoing in the musky, cool cave, I lock eyes with Chapman. Zeroing in on my enemy. And bend down slowly and menacingly to retrieve the largest piece of un-exploded fruit I can spot. Lifting my arm high and back over my shoulder as I straighten, sending Chapman starting to jog for non-existent cover–
"Hold your fire!"
Oh…shit. I freeze in mid-release. I know that voice. It sends a little shudder through me. Particularly as the picture of what I must look like right now courses through me in one, mortifying rush. There's absolutely no denying what I've been up to the past few minutes, as my un-officer-like appearance will no doubt attest to.
I hastily lower my arm, noticing how everyone else is suddenly bending over crates of fruits, scanning away and looking properly – if messily – busy, and studiously avoiding looking in my or the captain's direction.
"Traitors," I mutter under my breath. And spin resolutely on my heel to turn and face the music.
"Captain," I start to splutter. Stumbling to come up with an explanation for this, conscientiously dropping the fruit like a hot spanner and glancing down over myself. Hoping it's not as bad as I think it is, and acutely aware of the condition I'm in. Grimacing to discover it's actually a little worse, if anything.
Damn. If Chakotay hadn't just left, I know he'd step in for me, explain that he'd been the one to sanction our not-quite-reg indulgence earlier…but as it is, with him off somewhere, I'm unofficially the one in charge of this team right now. It's my responsibility, and that's exactly how it's going to look from her point of view.
I try smiling at her unreadable expression, but to my horror, remember only at this moment that my mouth looks exactly like Chapman's does. Stained to hell, and grotesquely so, and I immediately clap a stained hand over my mouth in further mortification.
Great. Fantastic. We shouldn't really have been eating at all until it was all collected and taken back to the ship to be divided up and entered into the ships stores, but there was so much of it that I hadn't seen fit to discipline anyone on the collection teams…to remind Chakotay of the regs, or myself, for that matter, before indulging.
Something I regret to hell now.
"I'm sorry," I begin weakly. Starting to get a little furious with myself, if I'm honest. It figures. It just figures… "We were having a little…" I cough, "Uh…well…fun…with the uh…spoiled fruit. Things were getting a little out of hand. I…uh…I should have put a stop to it…"
But the captain's actually chuckling, I realize belatedly.
I let the breath leak out of me in a deflated sigh of relief. Only now feeling my heart beginning to slow a little from its thumping and mortified rhythm. And as I dare to glance up, really look at her, it's only now that I fully notice that her mouth is stained a deep, unmistakable purple, too.
I relax by about a million fractions, then. The captain had obviously seen nothing wrong with a little indulging herself, either.
"At ease, Mr. Kim," she chuckles genuinely. Rolling her eyes a little but decidedly indulgently as she takes in the state of the rest of the away team and the mess we've made of the far cavern walls. Her grin flashes again. "It looks to me like you were all having a bit of harmless fun."
I shrug sheepishly. Smiling a little, and mostly in relief. "Yes, ma'am…uh…I guess…we were."
For a second, she keeps looking around her. Smoothing her uniform absently as she takes in the picture of the rest of them, and as I follow her gaze, I can see that everyone else has decided she isn't about to take my head off – or theirs, for that matter. They've gone back to their merriment, short of throwing fruit, of course, and are once again full of mirth and life and just general laughter. And as I take the time to study her distant but warm smile, I think what she sees actually pleases her.
Unexpectedly, she puts her arm around my shoulder, ignoring the mess all over me, she ushers me into the little offshoot of stone she appears to have emerged out of just now. Taking a seat on a little outcropping of rock I hadn't noticed, and tugging my arm in indication that I should drop down beside her.
"Ensign," she begins, as she turns to look at me in the darkened, musty light, "these are the times we have to remember." She gestures with her other hand to the rest of the team. "Not the battles, or the hard losses – you can't ever forget those anyway, no matter how hard you try. But if life has taught me anything by now …it's that the good times are the easiest to take for granted. Don't ever be ashamed to enjoy them…or to live life to the fullest and to encourage those around you to do the same. Understood?"
The intensity with which she fixes her gaze on me at the last statement has me blushing a little, though I feel comfortable enough now to have stopped dipping my head and trying to hide the telltale stains all over my face. I straighten, give her an understanding nod, because she seems to be waiting for some acknowledgment from me. And I can tell she thinks it's important that I take in her meaning here.
"Aye, Captain," I affirm, and as her grin stretches mischievously across her features again, I can't help grinning back at her in response, "I'll remember that."
"Good," she nods, her gaze wandering over the endless stockpile of crates we've collected. She purses her faintly purple lips. "Your teams have been busy," she acknowledges. Sounding impressed. "There's enough fruit here to feed us for weeks. Once we get it into stasis, it should last a while. Good work, Harry."
"Thank you, Captain. It was hard work. But everyone pitched in, and we were done before we knew it."
But, even as I say it, it's…really weird that she seems to be seeing it all for the first time now. We'd been in here for a good hour already…yet no one had seen her enter that I could recall, even though here she was, appearing from even deeper inside the caves. She doesn't just pass through a room unnoticed, on the ship or not.
So then…where in the hell did she just come from? And how long has she been back there?
I frown at her out of the corner of my eye. It occurs to me that no one's seen her, or mentioned seeing her, since we've been here. And considering her mouth is all stained from the fruit, too, I can't imagine where she would have gotten any of the alien fruit back inside the caves she just stepped out of…had she beamed down early? Before my team even got here? I wonder. Burningly curious the more I think on it…
"Uh…Captain…" I shift my feet a little where they stretch out in front of me on the cavern floor, unsure of myself, "are there…" I frown. "Are there fruits growing in the caves, too?" I squint past her shoulder, looking in the direction of the narrow tunnel she'd just emerged from. "We didn't think they would grow in here, out of sunlight, but if we should check…"
She laughs in interruption – but almost nervously, and my senses are piqued by the incongruity of the tenor of that laugh in comparison with the woman I know as Captain Janeway. It's a little too…unsure. She shifts her feet a little, too, just like I had seconds before, and then a guilty twitch at the corner of her mouth is what completely betrays her. By the time her eyes dart to the ground briefly and then back up to mine, I realize that I've somehow, some way, caught her at something. Something she didn't really want to be caught at.
The curiosity is absolutely killing me before she finally leans in conspiratorially. "Actually, I was out in the fields a little earlier on." She glances around me, then ducks back and lowers her voice even more, causing me to strain my ears to hear her what she imparts next, "And…well…I'm afraid all that exercise and hard work left me a little hot and sweaty. I wandered inside to cool off a little, found a nice soft spot to lie back on in some springy moss, and then I was just…" she shrugs, wincing a little, but her eyes hold firmly to mine this time in classic Janeway fashion even through the admission, "well, I'm embarrassed to admit that I'd dozed off before I knew it. Chakotay noticed I was missing, and managed to track me down and woke me – and it's a good thing, too."
So that's where he'd come from. It made sense now…not how he'd gotten past me without me noticing in the first place, but why he'd been in this rather secluded part of the cavern.
"I'm supposed to check back in with Tuvok in less than three minutes," she continues, "and I don't know about you, Ensign, but I shudder to think what kind of alert he'd have called if I'd missed it – considering we're still officially in Kazon Space."
I laugh genuinely at her not-quite-joke, "Yeah, Captain. That'd probably have raised the old Vulcan blood pressure like nothing else, all right."
But my eyes are widening in surprise at the whole concept, really. Captain Janeway…actually letting herself rest? For once? And in hostile space?
I guess stranger things have happened.
Her eyebrows wriggle a little at my shocked expression as she catches how surprised I am at her admission. "I can see now that I've horrified you with my laziness," she deadpans.
I have to laugh again, even if a bit self-consciously. "Uh…no, ma'am," I assure her. "I was just thinking it's…refreshing…to see you taking a little down time."
It really is, though, I start to realize. I mean…considering.
"If you don't mind my saying, I think we…er…that is the crew…well, sometimes we get to worrying that you don't take enough of it. It'll ease everyone's minds to know you're letting yourself unwind, too."
She offers me a coy quirk of her lips, her hand coming to rest solicitously on my arm the way she does sometimes so easily. "Actually, I was hoping you wouldn't see the need to mention that little detail to anyone else, Ensign."
I frown at her in confusion, and she chuckles darkly, explaining, "I don't care how you paint the picture; the image of the captain asleep on the job isn't exactly going to inspire confidence among the ranks, now is it?"
"Uh…oh. You're right!" I realize out loud, on thinking about it. No it really won't, now that she puts it like that. I flush a deep red, knowing I'm doing it at the heat that creeps up from my uniform tank and into my neck and face.
I catch myself. Realizing she's still waiting for an assurance from me that I won't say anything. Much as it's going to kill me to keep this little kernel of knowledge from Tom, especially, I'd never betray her confidence when she asked me point-blank not to say anything. I deepen my voice in mock solemnity, straightening for good measure. "Don't worry, Captain. Your secret's safe with me," I promise.
The radiant, satisfied smile she beams on me now erases the mortification at how stupid I'd been a second ago, and I relax under it like nobody's business. Perfectly at ease. She's good at that.
When she wants to be.
She takes my hand in one of hers, patting the top of it with her other hand, and I glance down, starting at the contrast between her almost perfectly clean fingers and hands and my deep, purple-stained ones. The worst she's got is a few faint smudges that could be dirt from the moss she'd been sleeping in as far as I can tell in this dim light. But before I can much think on it, she's giving me a final pat and releasing my hand. "I knew I could count on you, Ensign," she sparkles at our shared joke. An actual twinkling in her bright blue eyes. "See you back on Voyager."
As she straightens to leave, she cranes her neck, probably to ease a crick she must have gotten while resting on the cavern floors, and I notice that her neck has some odd purple blotches on it, in a strange line along the side trailing above and what looks like even extending underneath her collar, but a flash of green draws my attention away from the splotches almost immediately.
"Captain," I call out and stop her before she takes more than a step, and she turns to quirk a brow at me. I point to her and then to my own head, lowering my voice, "You've…you've uh…still got a piece of moss in your hair."
"Oh." She looks guilty again, her hand coming up to pat at the only slightly mussed red tresses, and finding the offending piece of lichen, which is what it really is if my earlier scans of the interior were correct, she eases it loose from her simple bun and only pulls out a few extra strands of hair in the process. She tosses it to the floor, looking expectantly to me and then turning slightly so I can see the back of her head. "Did I get it all?"
I squint, scrutinizing the finished product and nod, feeling free enough to even wink at her. "You're good."
She shoots me another grateful grin, adding a wry, "Thanks."
"Any time, Captain," I assure her faintly.
She slips away from me, waving and nodding in greeting to the crewmembers she passes as she strides out into the glaring sunlight at the entrance to the cave, her silhouette growing dark against the glaring brightness before finally disappearing from sight.
A bit nonplussed, yet mostly warmed by the captain's strangely relaxed and even whimsical behavior, I smile faintly. And stare down at my hands, spreading my fingers and inspecting the stains that are set into the nails, nail beds, and deep into the ridges of my fingerprints and along the sides of my fingers.
Weird, how aside from those few faint marks on her neck, only her mouth was stained. Really, her lips. When she smiled at me, it was clear her teeth weren't stained like ours are, either. The rest of us look like downright slobs with the stuff slathered all over us from where it dripped and oozed over our fingers and faces and flashing purple smiles. I shake my head, turning back to the group and slowly ambling my way back over to them. Thinking.
Maybe she found a natural spring or something and was able to wash her hands. She must have.
Maybe I'll go back down that corridor she just came out of and see if I can take advantage of her secret spring before calling for a beam-out. Try to make myself semi-dignified before returning to the ship. Maybe. But in the meantime…Chapman's not looking. He's paying no attention to me and has probably forgotten all about me.
I grin a feral, anticipatory grin and reach for a huge piece of the fruit. Soft, he'd called me? We'd see.
It hits him, dead center in the back of the head, bursting and showering him in bits and pieces of pulverized fruit. Raining down over him in a deluge of purple glory.
He freezes up, and the cavern once again goes completely silent, like it had when the captain had stepped out into the middle of the first fruit fight. And all thoughts on how she managed to keep her hands and teeth clean while consuming the messiest, most skin-staining fruit in four quadrants flees at the shocked, priceless expression on Chapman's face as he turns, very, very slowly, to see what – rather, who – had just hit him.
"Aw," he exclaims on seeing me, and looking down over himself amid the peals of hysterical laughter breaking out through the previous silence of the cave.
"Yeah! Go, Harry!" Meghan shouts in approval from the other side of the cavern, more towards the entrance. A few people whistle, and then a burst of applause ensues.
I feel my cheeks warming a little under all the sudden, admiring attention. But it feels pretty good, I have to admit.
Chapman takes in everyone else's amusement. Their accolades. And after a good minute of silent processing, he just nods in appreciation, his eyes gleaming with recognition even as a huge globule of fruit slides off to top of his now-slick head to drop down in front of him, barely missing his nose and the front of his chest to splatter on the floor. His eyes follow the trail of the fruit as it falls, then snap back up to me. He shakes his head. Having a hard time processing how he hadn't seen this one coming, if I know him at all.
"You're a dead man. You know that, right?" he finally intones. Still not having moved.
I grin triumphantly back at him, savoring his residual disbelief and not even remotely worried.
The captain's right, I decide in this moment, as several more people resume their original alliances and enmities, and fruit is once more sailing in all directions, exploding throughout the cavern.
These are the times we have to remember. Maybe this is one planet of not very many that we'll all be able to remember fondly.