Jeffrey removed his headset and pushed it, along with his HGT, to a corner of the desk. He was dimly aware of the sounds drifting in through the observation chamber's half-open door--the clicks and whirrings of Mission Control's various processors--but he couldn't bring himself to leave the chamber or close the door. Depression washed over him in a swamping wave and, to his horror, the world before him suddenly became a watery blur.
Pressing the heels of his hands hard against his eyelids, he fought to keep his emotions in check. He was a teenager now, too old to be dissolving in tears over every bad thing that happened, to him or to anyone else for that matter. And he'd told Bogg the truth: however much the loss of his parents hurt, he'd rather have had them for even a short time than never have known them at all. But knowing that did nothing to ease the ache in his heart.
There was the thump of a crutch just behind him, and a box of tissues appeared at his elbow. "Blow," Olivia's voice advised him gently.
He took two tissues and obeyed, hiding his face until he thought he could hold on to his composure. Shoving the crumpled tissues in his jeans pocket, he used a third to wipe his eyes before glancing up at Olivia through damp lashes. "Thanks," he managed to get out.
To his relief, she didn't ask him if he was okay. Instead, she simply ran a hand up and down his back and over his shoulders. It felt surprisingly good, easing knots of tension he hadn't been aware of until that moment. His mom used to give backrubs too, mostly to his dad. If he just closed his eyes and pretended . . . but that was no good. Fourteen-year-old boys didn't take refuge in make-believe either.
Jeffrey sniffled, wiped again at his eyes, and sat up a little straighter. "Sorry to be such a wimp."
"You're doing fine," Olivia assured him. "Some of my trainees would be having hysterics right now if they were in your shoes."
"Yeah, but no one rags on girls if they cry."
"Who said I was talking about girls?" Olivia retorted. She looked at Jeffrey, her expression softening. "Nobody's going to rag on you, I promise. This is your life on the line, kid -- your memories being stirred up. You've got a right to be this upset."
Her kindness brought him close to tears again. To save himself, he quickly seized on the problem his partner had presented. "Bogg told me somebody might have tried to hurt my mom today. Back in 1968," he clarified. "He asked me if my folks had any enemies. And I've thought really hard, but I can't come up with anyone who'd want to hurt either of them."
Olivia frowned. "That's a pretty scary thing to contemplate--no wonder you're on edge!"
Against his will, Jeffrey felt his eyes starting to sting afresh. "It was bad enough that I couldn't save them in the accident. I can't fail them this time too!"
"Shhh." Olivia rubbed his shoulders again. "You won't fail them. You and Phineas will figure everything out, just like you always do. Together or apart, you're still one of the best teams in the field."
"Yeah, well--maybe it's better that we're apart, right now," Jeffrey muttered. "I mean, I miss him and all, but . . . " His voice trailed off and he stared down at his hands, now crumpling the tissue into a ball.
"But--?" she prompted.
"I keep thinking about my parents. And how Bryce said that if I wanted my future--this future--to turn out the same, then my past has to stay the way I remember it too." He swallowed. "But if I'd been able to go with Bogg this time, maybe it would have been too hard not to--to interfere."
"You mean, change things?" Olivia put her arm around him. "Make it so the accident never happened?"
Jeffrey nodded, grateful for the understanding. "I don't think I could resist the temptation to save them," he confessed. "Save them, or die trying."
Olivia's encircling arm tightened. "Well, I can tell you one thing--Phineas would definitely object to your doing the second!"
"And I know we're not supposed to change history, especially for our own benefit," Jeffrey went on, his words almost tumbling over themselves. "But my folks were good, loving people--how could it have been right to let them die? How can it be right to let anyone who's good and loving die? And in some stupid, senseless accident . . . “ He choked to a stop, unable to continue.
Olivia knelt down on her good leg beside his chair and enfolded him in a fierce hug. "You think you're the only one who's ever asked that question? Or been tempted to go back and undo something in the past? Accepting that we can't--or recognizing that interference on that scale comes with a price--is one of the first lessons Voyagers have to learn. And the hardest." She pulled back slightly and Jeffrey saw with a shock that her own eyes had filled. "I wish you hadn't had to learn it so young," she added softly.
Jeffrey swallowed again, painfully. "I don't regret meeting Bogg or becoming a Voyager. But I can't help wondering what would have happened . . . if my folks had lived," he finished in a whisper.
Olivia shook her head. "I don't have any answers for you. I wish I did. But Jeffrey, no matter what happens, you've got people who care about you right here, right now. Phineas, Susan, me--just to name a few. And we'll do everything in our power to give you a future--whatever you decide to make of it once it's yours."
Jeffrey nodded mutely. He understood what she was saying, and he appreciated that she was trying to make him feel better--about everything. It was just so hard to focus on the future, when he knew that everything in his past was suddenly in doubt.
"Bat's breath!" Bogg glared at his reflection and attempted once again to master a Windsor knot.
"Forget the tie, Phineas," Susan advised, coming up behind him. "It's summer--you'll be much more comfortable without it."
He turned away from the mirror, with a grimace. "Yeah, but what about how I'll look?"
Susan smiled. "Allow me." Removing the tie, she undid the first two buttons on his shirt and nudged the wings of his collar further apart. "Now, if you'll just shuck off that jacket and go with this instead . . . "
Bogg obeyed, exchanging the gray tweed for the lighter-weight navy blazer she was holding out for him.
Susan studied the result with evident approval. "I thought so. The color really brings out your eyes, Phineas. Now just relax--you look great."
"So do you," Bogg replied.
Rather to his relief, Susan had toned down her make-up, using only enough to darken her brows and lashes slightly and play up the blush along her cheekbones. Even her lipstick was a soft, unthreatening pink. Her outfit for the evening was also less outrageous, though very becoming: a pale blue minidress, patterned in swirls of white and silver, silver sandals, and a gauzy white blouse, worn like a jacket over the dress.
Under different circumstances, he knew he'd be seriously turned on, and the irony did not escape him. Here he was, embarking on a date of sorts, with a woman he'd fantasized about for years--yet most of his present thoughts revolved around a second woman he could never have, a man he would never think of betraying, and their someday son, who had come to mean the world to him.
Jeffrey. Inevitably, his thoughts went back to his partner. "Keep my folks safe," the boy had exhorted, and he'd promised to do exactly that.
If only he knew just what he was keeping them safe from.
Susan's voice broke into his thoughts. "Ready to brave the subway again?"
Coming back to the present, Bogg grimaced but nodded and offered her his arm.
On the way to and from the subway station, they worked out the details of the answers they'd give if asked about their lives and jobs in New York City. Bogg couldn't help but be impressed: Susan might not have chosen fieldwork as her vocation but she approached it with the same meticulousness she'd shown in her Academy studies, all those years ago. His own approach was more casual: his good looks and easy manners usually helped him adapt to new surroundings fast.
Aldo's, on Grand Street, was not an especially large or impressive-looking restaurant, but it had a pleasantly homey atmosphere and was redolent of enticing smells. It was busy too, Bogg noticed as he escorted Susan inside. While not standing room only, the place was clearly doing a brisk trade.
He spotted Kathy at the hostess's station almost immediately, though she was dressed differently than she'd been that afternoon. Tonight, she wore an off-the-shoulder white peasant blouse and a wine-red full skirt the same shade as the rose pinned in her hair, now loose about her shoulders in a mane of dark curls. Although Bogg had warned Susan earlier about the resemblance between Jeffrey and his mother, he still felt her do an almost imperceptible double-take when she saw Kathy's face. Fortunately, she recovered quickly as Kathy approached them, bearing two menus in her hand.
"Phineas!" Kathy greeted him with every sign of pleasure. "Glad you decided to come tonight, after all."
"Yeah, my girlfriend here," Bogg indicated Susan, "said she'd heard the food was terrific and we should try it, since we haven't gone out to dinner in a while."
Smiling, Kathy turned to Susan. "Well, I admit I'm biased, but I think we've got the best Italian place in Manhattan, Miss--"
"Susan Chase," the other woman supplied, smiling back.
"Kathy Rossini," Jeffrey's mother introduced herself in turn. "We've introduced a new policy here at Aldo's: would you prefer to be seated in the smoking or non-smoking section?"
"Non-smoking, please," Susan replied. "The smell always gives me a headache."
"Me too," Kathy confessed. "And the smoke's terrible for the throat too. Right this way."
Expertly threading her way through the crowded restaurant, she led them to a table in a quieter section of the dining room. A familiar face looked up from the table opposite as they approached.
"We meet again," Jeffrey's father remarked pleasantly.
A stroke of luck, Bogg thought, giving the man his friendliest smile. "Nice to see you. Bill Jones, right? This is Susan Chase."
Bill stood up to shake Susan's outstretched hand, then reach for Bogg's again. "How do you do? Kathy here," he indicated his fiancée with a nod, "was hoping you might stop by. We're having a bit of a celebration tonight, once she gets off-shift--and since you partly contributed to it, why don't you and your date join us?"
"Oh, we don't want to intrude--" Bogg began.
"You wouldn't be intruding," Kathy interrupted, smiling. "The more the merrier, in fact. Unless you and Susan would prefer some privacy--"
"On the contrary, I love a celebration," Susan said brightly. "What's the occasion?"
Bill smiled fondly. "Kathy landed a place with the New York City Opera company today."
Susan turned to Kathy. "Congratulations! You must be over the moon."
"Oh, I am," Kathy replied. "It's a wonderful opportunity. But, in case your boyfriend was too modest to mention it earlier," she added, smiling at Bogg, "he saved my life this afternoon, on the way to Lincoln Center. So, why don't you two make yourselves comfortable, and order whatever you like. It's on the house." Placing their menus on the table, she turned to Bill. "See you in five minutes, caro mio. Uncle wants me to serenade an engaged couple before I go off-duty."
"Have a seat," Bill invited Bogg and Susan, indicating the vacant chairs at his table.
With alacrity they obeyed, Bogg seating Susan first, and then reached for their menus.
"I can recommend the calamari appetizer," Bill suggested. "And the cold antipasto platter is also great, especially on a hot summer night."
In the midst of their discussion of various dishes, a pure female voice rose effortlessly in song from another part of the dining room. "O mio babbino caro, mi piace è bello, bello . . . "
Susan's eyes widened. "That's Puccini," she whispered, in delighted recognition.
"Mm." Bogg wouldn't have known the difference between Puccini and porcini, but he decided not to admit as much.
Bill's smile was tinged with nostalgia. "I first heard her sing the night we met. Un moto di gioia--I've always been a sucker for Mozart. Right after she finished the last note, I went over and introduced myself. She hasn't been able to get rid of me since."
"By the looks of it, she doesn't want to," Susan pointed out, smiling back. "Phineas mentioned that you were getting married soon."
"This Saturday," Bill confessed. "We've been engaged for almost a year."
"You must really be looking forward to it, then," Susan said. "Going any place special for the honeymoon?"
Bill shook his head. "A big wedding trip's not in our budget just yet, though we might manage to get away for the weekend. At least we have a place to move into, afterwards."
"You two find a nice apartment?" Bogg asked, now entering the conversation.
"Better than that," Bill reported proudly. "Professor Carson, one of my graduate advisors, is going on sabbatical and he's renting out his house in Queens. He said he'd rather rent to somebody he knew, so Kathy and I got lucky. It's not a big place but it's fine for a couple just starting out. We're even throwing a small housewarming party there tomorrow night."
The reek of cigar smoke suddenly drifted their way. Susan's nostrils flared and Bogg felt his own nose wrinkle slightly. Not that he'd never smoked a few times in his life, but the smell was definitely overpowering in these intimate surroundings.
"Isn't this the non-smoking section?" he asked.
Bill nodded. "Give it a minute. Aldo's is pretty firm about keeping smoking and non-smoking areas separate. So I'm sure whoever it is will be asked to put it out or be directed to another table."
He was correct. Within a few minutes, the worst of the smell had dissipated, though traces still lingered in the air. Kathy joined them soon after, though Bogg noticed that her brows were knit and she looked decidedly annoyed about something.
"The joys of being a hostess," she explained, rolling her eyes. "I'm just getting off-shift, when the guy about two tables over from you lights up, all of the sudden. I told him this was the non-smoking area and offered to re-seat him in the smoking section." Kathy pulled a face. "He looked at me like I was a bug in his soup, stubbed out his stogie, then got up and stalked out."
"Without paying the bill?" her fiancé asked.
"No, he did leave some money on the table. I assume we're meant to keep the change. Not that it matters--I'm sure his tips are as lousy as his manners."
"The down side of being in the restaurant business," Bill remarked, reaching up to administer a consoling pat on the back. "Rude customers."
Kathy sat down next to Bill. "Actually, most of our customers are pretty nice," she defended. "Just every now and then you get one with a really bad attitude, like this guy. Full of himself and convinced that the rules don't apply to him." She shook her curls as if to dislodge unpleasant thoughts and reached for a menu. "C'mon--let's eat!"
Before dinner was over, the four of them were chatting like old friends. The quality of the food helped--from the crusty bread to the crisp salads and savory pastas, everything tasted great and Bogg and Susan were lavish in their praise. Susan's turning out to be an opera buff also smoothed things along, as she and Kathy enthusiastically discussed the merits of Verdi versus Puccini. By the time the entrees arrived, the two women had made a date for the following day to shop in the garment district, where Kathy had to go for a final fitting of her wedding gown.
Bogg's own opportunity arose when Bill mentioned that he'd be at the Queens house the next day, waiting for the movers to deliver some of their furniture. Quickly, Bogg had offered to lend a hand, pointing out that unpacking went a lot faster with two people than one. Bill had accepted his offer but only on the condition that Phineas and Susan stay for the housewarming too, a proposal that Kathy instantly seconded.
So everything seemed to be falling into place, Bogg thought with satisfaction. Even his concerns about the couple's safety for the rest of the evening were soon alleviated. Coming up the stairs from the men's room on the lower floor, he caught sight of Jeffrey's parents on the landing, sharing a kiss steamy enough to melt a whole carton of gelato.
"--stay the night, caro?" Kathy murmured. "There's that extra bedroom at Nonna's."
"Sweetheart, I can't keep imposing on your grandmother! And you know I have to be at the house tomorrow early."
"I'll see that you make it," she promised. "And you know Nonna adores you. She'll whip you up some breakfast too. Your favorite--scrambled eggs with prosciutto and a piece of her famous crostata."
Bill chuckled. "Dragging out the heavy artillery? Well, if you're going to twist my arm like that . . . "
They submerged themselves in another kiss. Bogg shook his head, feeling amused and indulgent at the same time. Crazy kids. He deliberately trod hard upon the last two steps to let them know someone was approaching and smothered a grin when they hurriedly broke apart.
"Great evening, guys," he greeted them genially, betraying no sign of having witnessed their lip lock. "But it's time Susan and I called it a night."
"Thanks for coming," Kathy said, still standing within the circle of her fiancé's arm. "We're glad you enjoyed yourselves."
"Wouldn't have missed it for the world," Bogg assured her. He turned to Bill. "What time, tomorrow?"
"Around ten would be fine," Bill replied. "The movers said to expect them before eleven. Have you still got the address?"
"Yeah, thanks--it's in my wallet. I'll see you then." Bogg smiled at Kathy, shook Bill's hand, and headed back to the dining room to collect Susan.
"They really are nice people," Susan observed as they made their way back towards the subway station. "Bill's a good guy and Kathy's just lovely."
"Yeah, on both counts," Bogg agreed, frowning. "Which is why I can't see why anyone would want to hurt them."
Susan sighed. "I don't suppose the Omni's magically turned green in the last few hours?"
Bogg consulted the device. "Nope," he reported regretfully.
"Then I guess we stick to tomorrow's plan," she said. "It can't hurt to keep an eye on them, all the same."
"I wish I had something more definite to tell the kid. He must be going frantic back at Headquarters."
"Well, he's got Olivia to talk him down, if he needs it," Susan reminded him. "I guess we're all going to have to be patient and let this play itself out. Some missions just take longer than others."
Bogg nodded reluctant agreement and flipped the Omni shut again as they neared the stairs to the underground.
It was well past eleven o'clock by the time they reached the apartment. A yawning Susan went straight to bed and, to judge from the complete silence emanating from her room, fell asleep soon after. Bogg, however, lay awake on the sofa bed, feeling far too wired to follow her example, though he couldn't have said whether the cause was nerves, the lumpy mattress, or the iced cappuccino he'd ordered at dinner.
Irritably, Bogg thumped his pillow a few times and shifted his position. He couldn't afford insomnia right now. Tomorrow he would need to be awake and alert, especially if he was spending the day with Bill Jones, trying to protect him from possible threats to his life. Jeffrey was counting on him.
Gradually, drowsiness began to steal over him; he felt his muscles relaxing, his lower limbs growing pleasantly numb. Thoughts still drifted through his mind, though, formless and insubstantial as smoke. Cigar smoke. Cigar . . . something about a cigar . . . Bogg's eyes drifted shut, then suddenly snapped open as a white light filled the living room.
A light shaped like a doorway into the future.
"Kid?" Fully awake again, Bogg rolled over and grabbed his own HGT from the end table, donning the headset and activating the switch.
Again the holographic corridor materialized in the center of the living room, and there stood, or rather sat, his partner -- cross-legged--on what looked like one of the infirmary beds. "Yeah, Bogg-- it's me."
"What are you still doing up at this hour?" As his eyes adjusted to the light, he noticed that Jeffrey was back in the white nightshirt he'd worn after his medical examination. "Hey, you okay? You didn't have a relapse, did you?"
"I'm fine," the boy reassured him. "But Olivia told me to get some sleep before I fell on my face. They let me take the HGT back to the infirmary with me, when I asked."
"Pretty high-tech security blanket," Bogg remarked. "You know, most kids just take a teddy bear to bed with them."
Jeffrey rolled his eyes. "Gimme a break, Bogg. I never even owned a teddy bear!"
"Then I'll get you one for your next birthday," Bogg said, straight-faced. "Along with a pair of those cute pajamas with feet . . . "
He couldn't keep up the pretense, though, at the sight of the kid's horrified expression. He chuckled, Jeffrey glowered, and for a moment, everything seemed--normal. As if they weren't separated by what could be centuries or dealing with anything more complicated beyond their usual give-and-take.
"Real funny, Bogg," the boy grumbled. "Now, if you're through busting my chops, can you tell me anything more about what's happening with my parents?"
"Well, Susan and I thought the smartest thing to do would be to go down to Aldo's tonight and keep an eye on your mom. Your dad was there too, so the four of us ended up having dinner together and getting real friendly . . . " Quickly, Bogg filled the boy in on the rest of the evening.
"So tomorrow," he concluded, "I'm gonna be helping your dad out at the house he's renting in Queens, while Susan goes shopping with your mom. We'll be sticking to them like glue the entire time, so I'd say all the bases are covered."
The boy looked apprehensive. "What about after dinner, though? Did my dad go back to his place alone?"
Bogg smirked. "I think your mom talked him into sleeping over."
Jeffrey blushed visibly as the meaning sank in. "Great," he muttered. "I think I'm gonna be scarred for life now!"
"Relax, kid. From the sound of it, your dad's spending the night in your great-grandmother's spare room. In any case, I figured he'd be safe enough, staying at his fiancée’s house."
"Makes sense," Jeffrey acknowledged judiciously. "Dad always got along pretty well with Mom's family. They won't let anything happen to him, especially so close to the wedding."
"My thoughts exactly. So, how's it goin' with you, kid? Any brilliant ideas?"
The boy shook his head. "I've been thinking about what you asked me before, but I can't come up with anyone who'd want to push my mom in front of a car. Or my dad, for that matter."
"Well, I don't wanna deal in clichés, but--have you considered the possibility of organized crime?"
"Organized crime?" Jeffrey echoed, his brows arching incredulously.
"Yeah--like a protection racket. Or even the, uh," Bogg felt almost embarrassed to say the word aloud but pressed on regardless, "the Mafia."
Jeffrey's expression was indescribable. "Bogg," he said, after a lengthy pause, "I think you've seen 'The Godfather' too many times."
"I haven't even seen it once!" the older Voyager protested. "My old Omni only goes up to 1970!"
"Well, I can vouch for my mom's family not being mixed up in anything like that," Jeffrey said with finality. "Besides, they came from Florence, not Sicily! I had to do a family tree once, for social studies."
"Okay, okay--it was just a thought, and obviously not a very good one. Grasping at straws, I guess. It's not like we've gotten hold of anything more substantial yet."
"I feel like we're getting nowhere fast," the boy admitted, sighing.
"Yeah, me too. But Susan said some missions just take more time and we're gonna have to be patient. And given what's at stake," Bogg added pointedly, "I'd rather play it safe than go off half-cocked and screw everything up."
Jeffrey nodded, his dark eyes huge and solemn. "Bogg," he began, somewhat hesitantly, "if someone out there really is trying to hurt my mom and dad . . . he probably wouldn't care if you got hurt too."
"Probably not," Bogg conceded. "But, Jeff, I knew there might be risks right from the start. The point is, some things are worth the risk. Like our partnership and your life. Especially your life."
"Yeah, but your life's just as important," Jeffrey countered, giving him Bill's level stare. "My folks were irreplaceable, Bogg. So are you. Promise you'll be careful?"
"I promise. Now, get some rest, kid."
"You too. G'night, Bogg." The boy's hologram flickered out again.
Deactivating his HGT, Bogg lay back in bed, feeling oddly cheered by his inclusion among the irreplaceable people in Jeffrey's life. It wasn't a contest, of course, and never had been. Jeffrey had adored his parents; Bogg understood that--even more, now that he'd actually met them--and he would never have tried to take their place. But then he hadn't needed to: the bond he and the kid had developed was strong enough to stand on its own. They were partners, friends, family . . . Jeff had insisted as much one memorable Christmas night in 1892.
All the same, it felt good to be reminded of that, now and then. Stretching out to his full length, Bogg closed his eyes and eventually drifted into a dreamless sleep.