By Shayenne

Disclaimer: Paramount owns everything but I doubt they want this.

Rated PG

Written for Vanhunks in VAMB's secret ficlet exchange, following on from her first line. Vanhunks also provided the excellent title!

"If I say we land the ship, we land the ship!"

"I'm still alive, Mr. Paris. I haven't died and left you in charge."

"I mean, it's possible to land the ship." Tom had the grace to blush.

"Anything is possible. One day, you might even turn into a deferential officer instead of a cocky braggart."

"Not fair, Captain. I don't brag."

"Your definition of the word may differ from mine in that respect." Janeway stalked to the viewport and gazed out at the swirling mass of turbulent cloud that blanketed the planet below them. "Sensors show that taking Voyager down into that atmosphere is at best hazardous, at worst lethal." Turning back to face him, she jammed her hands on her hips, as if daring him to contradict her.

"With respect, Captain, I don't think it's that bad. It was almost certainly the buffeting winds and pressure differentials that caused Chakotay's shuttle to crash. Chakotay's a good pilot, but in a ship that small he wouldn't have stood a chance."

For an instant, a look of raw grief flashed across Janeway's face. It was gone so swiftly Tom wondered if he'd imagined the twisted look of naked emotion.

He cursed himself for his lack of tact. "I meant, he wouldn't have stood a chance of bringing the shuttle back out of the atmosphere. I'm sure he managed some sort of landing."

"I know what you meant, Tom." Janeway's voice was as steady as their orbit around the planet.

Did she ever give in? Tom wondered. A lost shuttle, three missing crewmen - one of them the man she loved, even if she'd never admitted it to anyone. Not even the big man, Tom would bet his last replicator ration on that.

"Voyager has the bulk to withstand the turbulence," he persisted. "Taking another shuttle would be a disaster. And with transporters unable to penetrate the atmosphere, landing Voyager is their only hope."

She folded her arms, her fingers digging convulsively into the fabric over each elbow. For a second, she appeared to crumple in the middle, bending over her arms as if the steel had finally leeched from her spine.

Tom took a step forward, ready to catch her if she slid to the floor, but as if his movement had strengthened her, Janeway straightened, her arms moving stiffly to her sides.

"I can't risk 132 lives for three."

"Then bundle the crew into escape pods. We'll collect them on our return."

Janeway huffed a short laugh. It sounded as strained and forced as her voice. "And leave them to die slowly when we don't return?"

"Okay, stupid suggestion. But Captain, I know I can do this. Seven downloaded the scans to my station. Harry's been analyzing the turbulence patterns. It's not as great a risk-"

"I don't have to explain myself to you. Have Seven and Harry determine if the atmosphere will stabilize-"

"It won't. And every minute we delay, our missing crew's chances diminish. If we don't take Voyager in now, you're sentencing Sam and Tuvok to death." He hesitated, then added quietly, "And Chakotay."

Cold fire flashed from her eyes. "Is that supposed to mean something, Mr. Paris?"

He thought about backing down with a simple "No, Captain". He could taste the words on his tongue, almost see her bristling subside. With two words he could ease them back into their accepted relationship of stern captain, never quite a friend, and cocky pilot, never bold enough to cross the line.

He looked her in the eye, the two words he should say framed in his thoughts. But some lines were put there to be crossed, and this was one of them.

"Yes. It means that you've never yet abandoned a crewman, even when others felt there was no hope. If you abandon Tuvok, Sam, and Chakotay, I'll know, and the rest of the crew will know, that it's because you think that by leaving Chakotay behind, you'll prove to yourself that you don't love him. By leaving him behind, you think the crew will nod wisely and say 'the Captain did the right thing, putting us first'. It doesn't work like that, Captain. That's not how it is!" He hadn't just crossed the line; he'd smashed it into a starburst of atoms with his raised voice and balled fists.

Her posture was as steel-backed as the Borg, but her eyes Tom had seen hate in her eyes before, but never directed at one of the crew, at him. He shivered, despite the constant temperature.

"Return to your post, Mr. Paris."

He didn't dare look back as he exited the ready room for the bridge, but he could feel her eyes drilling into his shoulders.

Tom sat at his post keeping his gaze fixed on the viewscreen. He could sense Harry was desperate to know what the captain had said, but even though Voyager was on a steady orbit, he didn't dare leave the conn. The ready room doors remained obstinately closed. Two minutes had passed since he had left the ready room, each thump of his heart ticked down the chances of the rescue mission going ahead. Tom swallowed hard against the thickening of his throat, trying to erase the acrid taste of failure. His friends' faces floated before his eyes. He wasn't ready to give up on them. Naomi needed her mother. Hell, he'd even miss that damned Vulcan. And the Captain needed Chakotay whether she admitted it or not.

His fingers twitched on the conn. He could make the decision himself: break orbit, enter the atmosphere, take Voyager in steadily. Harry would back him up, give him sensor data. He took a deep steadying breath and his fingers reached for the controls that would drop them out of orbit.

The swish of the ready room doors stalled his hand. He didn't turn around, simply sat there, his breathing shallow.

"Please," he whispered to himself. "Please." It was as close to a prayer as he'd ever come.

"Harry." The Captain's voice sounded huskier than usual, an octave below her normal black velvet tone. "Feed your analysis of the atmospheric patterns to the conn. Seven, extrapolate the possible position of the missing shuttle based on available data. And watch the sensors for a possible landing site."

Her footsteps were almost silent on the deck plating, but to his supercharged ears they rang with possibility.

"Mr. Paris, take her down. Let's find our missing crew."

He felt her fingers squeeze his shoulder briefly, a firm touch that negated the animosity, the words that should never have been spoken. He wanted to reach up and clasp her fingers, let her know that it would be all right, but instead his fingers flew over the conn with the lightness of joy as he said, "Yes, Ma'am!"


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