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The next day started normally but a half hour into the shift Commander Chakotay broke the routine by asking, "Lieutenant Paris, could I see you in the Captain's ready room for a moment?"
"Yes sir." Lieutenant Paris said, then waited until Ensign Baytart relieved him at the helm.
* * * * *
Chakotay was about to ask to speak to Tommy but stopped at the determined look in the Lieutenant's eyes as he stood at attention.
"At ease Lieutenant." Chakotay said and watched him closely.
Lieutenant Paris put his hands behind him and fell into a textbook 'at ease' stance.
"Your performance on the bridge the past few weeks has been exemplary. If you're interested, I'd like for us to sit down sometime and discuss your career plans." Chakotay said carefully.
"Yes sir. I would be very interested." Lieutenant Paris said with a note of enthusiasm in his voice.
"Good. Right now I need to speak with Tommy for a few minutes, then you can go back to your duties." Chakotay said as he watched the Lieutenant with interest.
"Yes sir, and thank you." Lieutenant Paris said formally, then a look of confusion came over his face.
"Tay?" Tommy asked curiously.
"Hello Tommy. I was just thinking about something and thought I'd ask your advice." Chakotay said with a gentle smile.
"Sure. What can I do to help?" Tommy asked happily.
"Well, you remember when I said that I wanted to have sessions with Tom and Flyboy sometime soon? It turns out that I'll have the time tonight and wanted to know if Tom would be willing to meet with me."
Tommy closed his eyes in concentration for a moment, then finally said, "He'll do it. I can't promise that he'll be nice about it, but he'll meet with you."
Chakotay smiled at the statement, then said, "It's okay Tommy. I know that I'm not one of his favorite people. Please just ask him to meet me in my office at 17:30 and I'll handle it from there."
Tommy's look became distant for a moment, then he asked, "Could you meet at 18:00? Tom's going to be working half a shift in sickbay today. When he's working with the Doctor they don't always finish on schedule."
"18:00 will be fine." Chakotay said and noticed the uneasiness in Tommy's expression.
"I noticed that we're both off duty tomorrow, do you have any plans?" Chakotay asked, hoping to divert Tommy's attention.
After a moment of thought, Tommy replied, "No. Nothing yet."
"What would you think about spending the afternoon in the resort program on the holodeck, just sitting by the pool and relaxing?" Chakotay asked with a smile.
"That sounds wonderful. I've watched Tom go there dozens of times but I never, you know, went as myself." Tommy finished shyly.
"Then it sounds like a plan. Is 12:00 alright with you?"
"Yeah. Thanks Tay. I was wanting to ask you to go do something tomorrow but I couldn't think of anything." Tommy said happily.
Chakotay smiled and said, "Well, don't think you're off the hook completely. You get to plan the next outing."
"Oh great! No pressure." Tommy said in a teasing voice.
"Lieutenant Paris had better get back to the helm. I wouldn't want him to miss out on too much of his piloting time." Chakotay said as he took a step toward the door.
"Yeah. Thanks Tay. It was good to have a chance to talk with you." Tommy said with a shy smile, then the look faded to that of Lieutenant Paris.
"Dismissed." Chakotay said casually.
"Yes sir. And thank you again." Lieutenant Paris said formally, then left the ready room.
Chakotay shook his head and smiled as he wondered how things were going to work out in the long-term.
* * * * *
"Where's the doctor? Gerron needs help!" Lieutenant Ayala said forcefully as he carried an unconscious Bajoran man in his arms.
"I'll get him." Tom said quickly and raced out of the room.
He returned a moment later with the Doctor following close behind.
"Please state the nature of the medical emergency." The Doctor said as he approached the young man who was now laying on a biobed.
"I'm not sure. I stopped by airponics to talk with Gerron on my break and I found him like this in the floor." Ayala said as he watched with worry.
The Doctor activated the biobed and started looking at the readings.
Tom saw the look of helplessness in Ayala's eyes and quietly said, "Why don't you come over here and sit down? The Doctor is going to help Gerron, but it's probably going to take a few minutes and you might be in his way if you stay here."
"I'm... I'm supposed to be back on the bridge... um, five minutes ago." Ayala said in a distracted voice.
"I tell you what. If you go back to the bridge, I'll send you a message as soon as we know what's wrong with Gerron." Tom said seriously.
"You promise?" Ayala asked cautiously.
"I swear. Lieutenant to Lieutenant. Just as soon as we know what's wrong I'll let you know." Tom said firmly.
Ayala looked at Tom appraisingly for a moment, then said, "I've been watching you for five years and haven't found one reason yet that I should trust you... but if you'll take care of Tem for me... I'll let all the rest stay in the past."
"It's a deal." Tom said firmly and held out his hand to shake.
Ayala looked at the hand, then said, "Take care of Tem."
Tom nodded and watched as Ayala walked briskly out of the room.
"Epinephrine." The Doctor said in concentration.
Tom rushed to the supply cabinet and loaded the hypospray with the requested medicine.
As he handed the hypospray to the doctor, he asked, "Do you know what's wrong with him?"
"It appears to be a severe allergic reaction, but I can only work to counteract the symptoms until I'm certain." The Doctor said in concentration.
"He works in airponics, maybe he's allergic to something in there." Tom said as he watched the doctor work.
"I'm sure Crewman Gerron would have taken the proper precautions if he had an allergy to any of the plants in airponics." The Doctor said seriously.
"Only if he knew. Maybe he picked up something new at Fennis II." Tom said speculatively.
"Perhaps. I'm going to examine his blood sample to see if I can verify what caused this reaction. Examine his hands and arms for any signs of irritation. If he regains consciousness, ask him if he purchased any new plants while he was on shore leave." The Doctor said as he carried a blood sample to the lab equipment on the other side of the room.
"Yes Doctor." Tom said seriously as he began to examine Gerron's hands carefully.
"Gregor?" Gerron asked in a weak voice.
"He's on the bridge. I told him that I'd call him as soon as we figured out what was wrong with you." Tom said seriously.
Gerron turned his confused gaze on Tom and tried to focus his eyes.
"Gerron, do you know what caused this?" Tom asked firmly.
After a moment of consideration, Gerron slowly shook his head.
"Did you buy any new plants while you were on shore leave?" Tom asked carefully.
"Yes. I bought five new plants." Gerron said in a semi-coherent voice.
Tom moved closer so Gerron could see him more clearly and said, "It's possible that you're having a severe allergic reaction to one of those plants. "
"I... I want Gregor... Please... I'm scared." Gerron said in a small voice as his eyes began to fill with tears.
Tom looked over at the Doctor who was engrossed in his work then down at Gerron who seemed to be on the edge of losing his emotional control.
Between one heartbeat and the next the expression on Tom's face changed from helplessness to sympathy.
Tommy took firm hold of Gerron's hand and said, "You don't have a thing in the universe to be afraid of."
Gerron looked at Tommy with confusion.
Tommy smiled and said, "You know how good the Doctor is, he'll figure this out. I'm going to stay right here with you until Ayala can come back here and take care of you himself. So you're not alone and you're going to be just fine."
Gerron examined Tommy's face carefully and saw the sincerity in his eyes.
"Who are you?" Gerron asked cautiously.
"Tom Paris." Tommy said in a gentle voice.
"No. I've seen Tom Paris a lot of times. You're not him." Gerron said as he started pulling his hand away.
Tommy looked to see that the Doctor was still busy, then leaned in closer to Gerron to whisper, "You're right, but it's okay. I'm a friend."
Gerron stopped struggling and looked at Tommy with question.
"The Tom Paris you know is a big confident loud show-off. I'm the regular guy who lives inside him." Tommy said quietly.
"There is an ancient story among my people about a man with a hundred thousand masks. He entertained and delighted people all over Bajor with his ability to become anyone he wanted. The audiences would call out names of prominent citizens and he would flawlessly transform his appearance to each and every one. But one day he was given a request that he couldn't honor. A young boy asked him to be himself. He searched through the hundred thousand masks, but couldn't find his true face. The story ends with him going insane with grief... it's strange. A lot of Bajoran stories end like that." Gerron trailed off in thought.
Tommy smiled and said, "You don't have to worry about me. I only have three masks, and this is my true face."
Gerron looked Tommy in the eyes, then smiled.
"You should wear this face more often. I like it." Gerron said consideringly.
Tommy smiled at the statement, then said, "I still need my masks sometimes, they protect me. But I'm learning that it's important to show my true face to the people who can understand me... you're the second."
"Thank you. I'm honored." Gerron said peacefully.
"I've got it!" The Doctor said in triumph.
"Sounds like good news." Tommy said as he continued to hold Gerron's hand.
The Doctor approached the biobed, then started programming the scanners to look for something specific.
"Can you tell us what's wrong with Gerron?" Tommy asked cautiously, secretly wishing that Tom would take over to deal with the Doctor.
"One moment and I'll show you." The Doctor said with certainty.
Gerron and Tommy both watched the Doctor expectantly.
"And there it is." The Doctor said with a triumphant smile.
"There what is?" Tommy asked cautiously.
The Doctor moved down the bed and rolled up Gerron's left pant leg.
"The allergic reaction was caused by this insect bite." The Doctor said as he exposed a small red bump on Gerron's leg.
"Does that mean you can treat it?" Tommy asked hopefully.
"No Lieutenant. That means *you* can treat it. I'm going to attend to locating the insect or insects to remove the possibility of another case such as Crewman Gerron's." The Doctor said firmly, then handed a dermal regenerator to Tommy.
"Wha..." Tommy began to ask when information started to flood his mind.
"Oh. Okay." Tommy muttered to himself as he turned on the dermal regenerator's display and started to adjust it to the proper setting.
"Did the Tom Paris that I know just tell you how to do that?" Gerron asked speculatively.
Tommy looked to see that the Doctor was walking away, then said, "Yes. I don't have a clue about anything in sickbay. But Tom just told me what I needed to know to help you."
Gerron looked at Tommy curiously, then asked, "Why didn't he do it himself?"
Tommy looked at Gerron shyly and said, "The truth is that I'm enjoying talking to you and I didn't want to leave. Tom knew that and decided to help me."
Gerron smiled at the statement and said, "I'm enjoying talking to you too."
Tommy pressed a button on the regenerator and said, "This is probably going to feel weird for a few seconds."
"It's okay." Gerron said as he watched Tommy moving the regenerator carefully over his lower leg.
Tommy stopped the regenerator and pulled a comm unit on a swing arm around to Gerron's side.
"While I'm regenerating your leg, I think there's a Lieutenant on the bridge who would like to know how you're doing." Tommy said then went back to work.
"Thank you Tom." Gerron said quietly.
"Your welcome... and you can call me Tommy if you want." Tommy finished shyly.
Gerron looked at Tommy with surprise, then quietly said, "And you can call me Tem."
Tommy looked up from the regenerator as he realized the significance of what Gerron had just said.
For a Bajoran to offer the use of his given name was a gesture of trust and respect.
"Thank you Tem." Tommy said reverently, then turned his attention back to the regenerator.
"Hi Gregor." Gerron said into the comm.
"Thank the prophets." Ayala said in relief.
Gerron giggled, then said, "I'm the one who believes in the prophets."
"Oh, I knew it was one of us. Did the Doctor find out what was wrong?" Ayala asked in concern.
"Yes. Some sort of insect bit me on the leg and I had an allergic reaction. Tom is regenerating the wound now." Gerron said quietly.
"Is he taking good care of you?" Ayala asked cautiously.
"Yes Gregor. In fact, he just exposed himself to me." Gerron said in contentment.
"HE WHAT!? I'LL KILL HIM!" Gregor shouted through the comm.
Tommy's eyes went wide as he grew pale.
Gerron thought for a moment about what he had said, then shook his head.
"Humans." He muttered, then waited for Ayala to come back to the comm.
"Gregor?" Gerron said timidly.
After a silent moment, he said it louder, "Gregor?"
Lieutenant Ayala stepped back in front of the comm unit, then said through gritted teeth, "Tell me *exactly* what he did to you."
Gerron rolled his eyes as Tommy felt his knees get weak.
"Tom held my hand when I was afraid and spoke honestly with me. He exposed his true inner self to me. That's all." Gerron said firmly.
"So he didn't make a move on you?" Ayala asked in a gruff voice.
"No Gregor. He has behaved as a friend toward me." Gerron said seriously.
"Okay." Ayala said hesitantly, then let out a sigh of relief.
"Gregor. Please trust my judgment. Tom is my friend." Gerron said firmly.
"Oh. It's like that... Okay Tem. I trust you." Ayala said in resignation.
"I'll see you when you get off duty." Gerron said in a more gentle voice.
"Call me if you need anything before then." Ayala said quietly.
"I will. I promise." Gerron said peacefully.
"Then I know it's the truth." Ayala said, also sounding peaceful.
Gerron turned off the comm, then pushed the unit out of his way.
"I'm done." Tommy said quietly as he looked over Gerron's unblemished leg.
"Thank you Tommy. I didn't think you wanted me to use your true name in front of Gregor." Gerron said quietly.
"Thanks Tem. I hope it won't be too long before I can... expose myself... to him too." Tommy said with a blush.
Gerron giggled at the statement, then said, "You Humans change colors at the strangest times."
Tommy smiled and said, "I suppose we do."
"Mr. Paris. I have used the ship's sensors to locate the insect in airponics and have contained it behind a force field." The Doctor said as he walked to Crewman Gerron's bedside.
Tom smirked at the Doctor and asked, "Why do I get the feeling that I'm going bug hunting?"
"Because you are, Mr. Paris. Spray it with this compound and bring it back here so I can make sure that it's not carrying any disease." The Doctor said and handed a canister and a sample container to Tom.
"You got it Doc." Tom said as he accepted the items.
"Tom?" Gerron asked from the bed.
Tom turned to find Gerron looking at him curiously.
"Thanks for letting him help me." Gerron said quietly.
"Glad to do it." Tom said with a big smile and a wink, then hurried away.
"How are you feeling Crewman?" The Doctor asked as he ran a new scan.
"Like I just made a new friend." Gerron said happily.
* * * * *
"Okay. I'm here. Now what?" Tom asked as he threw himself into the chair in front of Chakotay's desk.
"I've scheduled the holodeck for us for the next few hours." Chakotay said as he stood.
"What do you want us to do there *Commander*?" Tom asked in nearly a snarl.
"You'll see when we get there. And can you drop the attitude? It's not helping." Chakotay said as he walked toward the door of his office.
"Is that an order, sir?" Tom asked in a challenging voice.
"No. No orders. The only thing I'm going to ask of you for the next few hours is not to wimp out and quit on me before we're finished." Chakotay said as he stepped out of his office.
"Fat chance." Tom muttered as he reluctantly followed.
"If you're so dead set against this, why did you agree to it?" Chakotay asked as they approached the turbolift.
Tom looked around to be sure nobody could hear them, then said, "Because of what you're doing for Tommy. I may not like you, but I've got to admit that you're really helping him."
"So are you willing to go along with this because it might help him, or because I might be able to help you?" Chakotay asked curiously.
"Help me? I don't need any help. I'm just fine the way I am." Tom said seriously as he followed Chakotay onto the lift.
"Holodeck 2." Chakotay called out to the ceiling.
"Come on *Tay*, fill me in. What's the plan?" Tom asked as he crossed his arms across his chest.
"You may call me Chakotay if you like. Only Tommy gets to call me Tay." Chakotay said firmly.
Tom got a look of surprise, but didn't offer any objection.
"And to answer your question, we're going to have a competition." Chakotay said seriously.
"Okay. You've got my attention." Tom said with a confident smile.
Chakotay turned away to hide his evil grin as the turbo lift doors opened.
* * * * *
"Where is this?" Tom asked as they walked into a strange dim desert landscape.
"Dorvan Five. My home world." Chakotay said simply as he led the way.
"If you're trying to make me comfortable, I'd have to say that this is a step in the wrong direction." Tom said as he strained to see where he was walking in the hazy orange light of the sunset.
"Who said I was trying to make you comfortable? Now quit whining, the lodge is just over this rise." Chakotay said and pointed to the path in front of them.
"Lodge?" Tom asked cautiously.
"That's right." Chakotay said seriously to Tom at his side, then in a louder voice called into the air, "Computer: Engage level one privacy lock. Disable all communications..."
"Chakotay..." Tom began to say but was stopped as Chakotay raised his hand to indicate his wish for silence.
Then in a firm voice he continued, "...and override safety protocols. Authorization Chakotay Beta Beta Two Four." Chakotay said into the air as they walked.
"Privacy Lock: Engaged. Communications: Disabled. Safety Protocols: Disabled."
"What are you doing Chakotay?" Tom asked as he watched Chakotay cautiously.
"Something dangerous." Chakotay said as he finally crested the small hill.
"I got that part when you turned off the safeties. But *what* are you doing?" Tom demanded.
Chakotay turned to face Tom and said, "Tom, I won't ask you to do anything that I'm not willing to do myself. What we're going to do has it's dangers, but without the danger the ceremony is meaningless."
"Whatever. Just do your hocus pocus so we can get out of here." Tom said irritably as he looked away.
"That's the spirit." Chakotay said with a smirk, then continued to follow the path in the diminishing light.
* * * * *
"Take off your clothes." Chakotay said as he sat down on a rock and began to take off his boots.
"Excuse me?" Tom asked with wide eyes.
"You heard me. Take off your clothes, that includes jewelry and anything else that you weren't born with." Chakotay said firmly.
"Commander, I don't know what you have in mind, but just because I was in prison doesn't mean..." Tom trailed off as he looked at Chakotay suspiciously.
"Tom. We do this ceremony naked. That's the way it's always been done. But if it helps to ease your mind at all, this is a holy place and I wouldn't desecrate it by suggesting anything sexual. You have my promise." Chakotay said solemnly.
"Yeah. That and two replicator rations will get me a cup of coffee." Tom said as he glared at Chakotay.
Chakotay stopped undressing and said, "It's really simple. This is an endurance test. You go into the sweat lodge and see if you can last for the first forty-five minute cycle, then the second and keep on through the fourth. The only thing keeping you in there is your own will power. You're free to leave at any time, but if you leave, it will be with the knowledge that you failed."
"This isn't really fair. You get to come here and do this all the time." Tom said slowly as he considered what Chakotay was proposing.
"I've done it four times in my life. Once since we've been in the Delta quadrant." Chakotay said seriously.
"Let me guess, after our last encounter with Seska?" Tom asked as he watched Chakotay's expression carefully.
"As a matter of fact, yes. The second cycle of the ceremony is focused on cleansing." Chakotay admitted reluctantly.
"Okay Commander. Let's do this before I can think about it and come to my senses." Tom said as he sat down to take off his boots.
"I'm willing to leave the ranks out here with the uniforms if you are." Chakotay said, then pulled? his shirt off over his head.
"Tommy is going to owe me soooo big for doing this. I think three extra nights with Harry and B'Elana should about cover it." Tom said as he stood.
"He didn't have any idea I was going to do this. Please don't make him pay for what I'm asking you to do." Chakotay said in nearly a whisper.
Tom pulled his shirt off, then stopped at the look of concern in Chakotay's eyes.
"Okay. I won't make him pay me back for this." Tom said, then pulled down his pants in one indignant move.
Chakotay smiled, then casually took off his own pants.
"You're sure about this?" Tom asked cautiously as he stood only in his boxer shorts.
"Does this answer your question?" Chakotay asked, then pulled down his briefs.
Tom reluctantly reached down to catch his thumbs in the waistband of his underwear, then slowly pulled them down.
"Good. Perfect timing." Chakotay said as he faced away.
Tom looked up to see what Chakotay was looking at.
The last rays of the sun were fading on the horizon.
"What now?" Tom asked with his hands strategically placed before him, trying to look casual.
"Follow me." Chakotay said and led the way down a narrow path between some gnarled trees.
Tom followed closely since there wasn't much light.
Flickering firelight could be seen through the trees ahead as they approached a clearing.
Tom came to a sudden stop when he realized that there were people gathered around the fire.
"Don't worry. They're here to help with the ceremony." Chakotay said in a whisper.
"Enter." One of the men said in a low voice without looking away from the fire.
Chakotay motioned for Tom to follow him, then walked to a dome-like structure across from the fire.
The opening was low to the ground. Chakotay got down on his hands and knees, then lowered himself almost completely to the ground before he began crawling into the impossibly low opening. Tom gave him a moment to get inside, then hesitantly followed.
Inside the dome it was pitch black.
"Chakotay? Where are you?" Tom asked as soon as he was fully inside.
"Stop. There's a pit in the middle of the room. Turn to your left and feel along the wall. Follow the wall until you find me." Chakotay said quietly.
"Okay. Thanks for the warning." Tom said seriously and did as he was told.
When his questing hands finally made contact with living flesh, he pulled back quickly, not wanting to think about what he might have just touched.
"Have a seat. The elders are going to bring the stones in just a minute." Chakotay said seriously.
"I don't know... am I allowed to talk or... what am I supposed to do?" Tom asked cautiously.
"It depends on the intent of the ceremony and those participating. If we were two teenagers having a sweat lodge to celebrate the journey into manhood we would have a completely different ceremony with many formal requirements. In this case, all I'm asking is that you be respectful of my religious faith and culture. Otherwise you are free to speak if you want to." Chakotay said seriously.
"Um. Okay." Tom said reluctantly.
There was a scraping sound across the small room from Tom, then a glowing red light could be seen.
"They're passing in the stones. We're just about ready to start." Chakotay said from his sitting place about a foot away.
"What are you going to do with that?" Tom asked in a quiet voice as he saw the glowing hot rock being lowered into the shallow pit in the middle of the room.
"This is a sweat lodge. The stones provide the heat." Chakotay said simply.
"Good. I don't really know anything about your traditions, but I was afraid..." Tom began to say.
"You won't be forced to do anything and you can leave at any time." Chakotay said seriously.
"Really? I mean, those guys out there won't hunt me down and drag my bare ass back in here if I try to run away?" Tom asked cautiously.
"No. And you wouldn't have to run. You could walk. They're only here to carry out their part of the ceremony." Chakotay said solemnly.
"Okay. What's their part?" Tom asked as he watched another glowing hot rock being lowered into the pit.
"For the most part, their job is to tend the fire and heat the rocks." Chakotay said frankly.
"Makes sense." Tom said consideringly.
"Once the stones are all in place, they will leave us alone in here. Under different circumstances, they might join us. This tradition of my people is one that has many meanings and can be adapted to serve a variety of purposes." Chakotay said introspectively.
"What is it's purpose this time?" Tom asked curiously.
"I can't say specifically. The ceremony we are participating in has many purposes and it's my hope that we will gain something from each cycle that we endure." Chakotay said cautiously.
"Um... That wasn't anything like an answer, was it?"
Chakotay chuckled as he said, "No. I guess it wasn't. How about I tell you the purpose of each part as we come to it and you can focus on that?"
"Okay. How many more rocks are they going to load in there?" Tom asked as he leaned forward to look into the pit.
"They're almost done." Chakotay said calmly.
"So what's the purpose of this, um... whatchacallit... cycle?" Tom asked cautiously.
"This cycle is to help us connect with the spiritual realm. Our purpose during this time will be to ask for guidance." Chakotay said quietly.
"So you're hoping the spirits can give you an answer about what to do with me?" Tom asked in a defensive and slightly mocking tone.
"No Tom. I'm asking for guidance for my own life. You can ask for guidance for whatever may be confusing or troubling you." Chakotay said slowly.
Distantly they could hear the beat of a drum begin, slow and rhythmic.
"They're done. It's time." Chakotay said as he moved along the wall to the doorway and lowered a flap to close it off.
Tom watched Chakotay's vague image in the meager light from the glowing rocks then hesitantly asked, "Okay. What happens now?"
Chakotay moved to an urn beside the pit and dipped out a ladle of water.
A loud hiss sounded as the water sizzled across the hot rocks.
"You scared the hell out of me Chak!" Tom said in a gasping voice.
"Then you probably didn't need it in you to begin with." Chakotay said with a smile, then carefully opened a bundle beside the urn.
"Whoa, it's really getting hot in here." Tom said as he noticed that the faint glow of the rocks was fading.
"It's a sweat lodge. That's the point." Chakotay said as he took a handful of herbs from the bundle and scattered them over the steaming rocks.
"What's that smell?" Tom asked as he felt a wave of panic welling up inside him.
"Some soothing herbs to make the experience more pleasurable." Chakotay said as he folded the bundle closed.
"I... I don't think I like this." Tom said through heavy breathing.
Chakotay quickly worked his way to Tom's side and said, "I'm here with you Tom. Just try to calm yourself and experience the sensations as the steam penetrates your body and releases the toxins."
"I'm really used to my toxins being right where they are. Maybe we could just change the holodeck over to Sandrine's and shoot some pool." Tom said quickly as he realized that the light from the pit was now gone.
"Tom. Tell me what you're feeling right now. What about this experience is bothering you so much?" Chakotay asked quietly.
"All of it. The heat, the wet, the dark, the drum... the way we came in here... it's all... it's like..." Tom sputtered to a halt.
"The womb." Chakotay said in almost a whisper.
Silence fell between the two men as they felt the moist heat and listened to the sound of the drum.
"That's what this is about isn't it? That's the connection to the spirit. Being naked and in this dark cave. We're back in a place where every thought is pure and the world hasn't contaminated anything yet." Tom said speculatively.
"This ceremony has many meanings and it's meaning is different for everyone who performs it. If that's what you take all of this to mean, then follow that path and find your guidance." Chakotay said seriously.
"How? I mean, isn't there a chant or something that I'm supposed to do?" Tom asked cautiously.
"Yes. There is a chant that we could do right now. The words are ancient and sacred, but their meaning would be lost on you. If you feel like chanting, then chant. If you feel like singing, then sing. You can cry or pray or sit in silence and meditate if you think that's the appropriate thing for you to do." Chakotay said reverently.
"But what if I do something... weird?" Tom asked hesitantly.
"Anything you share with me will stay between us. I swear on my ancestors that I will never divulge anything that happens here, be it good or bad. Just follow your heart." Chakotay said seriously.
"Okay." Tom said reluctantly.
Silence fell between the men, then in a small voice, Tom said, "Great Mother of us all. Please hear your lost son. I hear the sound of your heart and feel the warmth of your love and am afraid. Please show me the way... I know that you love all your children, but please show me the way to accept your love."
Chakotay sat in fascination at the heartfelt prayer from the usually gregarious pilot.
"What do I do now?" Tom whispered.
"Sit quietly and let your mind wander. If a vision appears to you, follow it and allow it to show you your answer." Chakotay said cautiously, having difficulty believing that Tom could make a full spiritual connection on his first try and without the benefit of an akuna.
Chakotay relaxed back and focused on the sensation of the steam.
He was breathing it in and it was penetrating the pores of his skin.
Chakotay could visualize the tension and toxic energies washing out of him, being carried away by the steam.
Suddenly, Chakotay felt a sense of caution. Tom had remained silent too long.
"Tom, are you alright?"
There was another long moment of silence, then Tom took in a sudden deep breath.
"Wow. That was... I saw it... I mean... I really saw it... I mean it was like this big deer but he had the biggest horns I've ever seen." Tom said with excitement.
"Tom. Settle down. You've just taken a spiritual walk. Was the stag the first animal you saw?" Chakotay asked carefully.
"Yeah. And he talked to me. He said his name was..." Tom? began to say.
"Don't tell me. That was for you and no one else. I probably shouldn't know that your spirit guide is a stag, but I'm sure he'll forgive us under the circumstances." Chakotay said cautiously.
"Yeah. I know he will. He was so incredible." Tom said, still nearly breathless with his enthusiasm.
"When I told you to ask for guidance, I thought you might get a sense of what the proper direction might be for your life. I didn't expect for you to be introduced to your spirit guide." Chakotay said with a smile, being drawn into Tom's enthusiasm.
"Thank you for bringing me here Chakotay. I really thought it was weird at first and kind of creepy when we had to get naked but now... thank you. This is the best thing that's ever happened to me." Tom said in complete joy.
"I'm glad you think so." Chakotay said with a peaceful smile.
"How can I do it again? I want to talk to him some more." Tom said and Chakotay could imagine that he was bouncing with his enthusiasm.
"Just calm yourself and allow it to happen. But there's something you need to keep in mind." Chakotay said, feeling truly happy.
"What's that?" Tom asked cautiously as he stopped all movement.
"This is only the first cycle."