Author's Notes: Certain graphic themes or depictions in this story may be disturbing to some readers. This story may be considered part of Annie's "Inner Landscape" time line. Set in season six, between "Memorial" and "Tsunkatse." Annie's spell checker takes precedence over Patti's, so British spellings honoured throughout. Thanks again to our betas, named elsewhere.
Disclaimer: Star Trek:Voyager and its characters belong to Paramount. No infringement intended. (c) February 19, 2001“Annie M and P. L. Heyes.
Foreword from Annie M: I can't tell you how big the grin on my face was when Patti consented to help me write this story. I'd been toying with the idea for a little while, but my plot was all over the place. So, I said to Patti one day, "Wanna have a look at something?" She was immediately enthusiastic, pestering me for more and more details, so much so, I asked Patti if she wanted to help me finish it. ;-) This was to be my second collaboration with another author, and I admit I was a little nervous, after all this is DangerMom we're talking about here. Fortunately, Patti and I seemed to click, even before working on this particular story, and it's been a great honour for me to have her as my co-author. I've learned from her“details, details! And I think she's learned a little from me“it's good to be evil sometimes. :-) We've had a lot of fun writing this, as we plotted and schemed our way through one draft to the next. And no doubt, the main reason my "little idea" became this story, was due to Patti's flexibility and generosity as a writing partner. All in all, a wonderful experience I wouldn't mind repeating. ;-) Thank you Patti!
Forward from P. L. Heyes: Thank you, Annie. It was quite the thrill, being invited to play in your back garden. I enjoyed the venture into new territory, and haven't had so much fun in IMs since my days of collaboration with Captain Chris. From idea sharing, to brainstorming, to getting it all down and revising like mad, right up to the last minute“it's been great. What's next?
Acknowledgements: Thanks go out from both of us to our beta readers and test audience: Diane Bellomo, Captain Chris, Katie Redshoes, Monica and JanD. Thank you all, your help was invaluable. The thanks wouldn't be complete without a huge thank you to Jim Wright for supplying transcripts and such wonderfully detailed reviews at the Delta Blue's site. Annie says thanks also to Nigel, for being so sweet.
A Question of Conduct
continued from part one...
The corridor outside the holodeck was mercifully empty, and B'Elanna made it only a few steps before she slumped against the bulkhead, struggling to control herself. She wanted to scream, to curse, denying everything that Chakotay had told her.
A cold fist of ice gripped her heart and started to squeeze. She recalled Tassoni and the other crewman in the Mess Hall the other morning, and the strange looks he'd given her when he'd come to Engineering the next day. Oh, God, she thought, they were looking at Tom that entire time, snickering and whispering and laughing.
Images of Tom Paris, Chakotay had said. And he had refused to tell her more.
But he had given her hints, challenging her knowledge of Tom's past, implying there were deep, terrible secrets he had kept--was still keeping from her. She knew there were things about his past Tom had never told her, just as there were things she'd not told him about herself. There would always be secrets too personal, too painful, to share.
She had told Chakotay she knew enough about Tom's history. It seemed now that he thought otherwise--that he knew things about Tom that she didn't. Something he thought she should know, but for whatever reason wouldn't--or couldn't even speak of.
What could be so terrible that Chakotay had treated Tom like dirt today?
What had Pete Durst apparently known that Tom had never trusted to tell her?
A desperate laugh choked its way past her lips, a sound that was almost a sob. Kahless--what irony! The first time she and Tom had opened their hearts to each other had been in that Vidiian hellhole where Pete Durst had died so brutally.
B'Elanna ground her fist into the wall. Why couldn't this secret, whatever the hell it was, have stayed dead with him?
She pulled herself up, quelling the sick fear churning inside her, and began the long walk to Tom's quarters, in search of answers she wasn't sure she wanted.
Without knowing how he got there, Tom found himself in the bathroom, leaning over the sink. He glanced in the mirror, then quickly away, unable to look at himself. Bending down, he splashed cold water on his face, then grabbed a towel and scrubbed at his skin, trying to feel something--anything. It didn't help.
He stumbled out into the cabin, still numb, still reeling, capable of only one thought.
He checked the chronometer. By now, her session with Chakotay would be over, and she'd be on her way here, for their promised rendezvous.
How could he face her? What was he going to tell her? What if she already knew?
What if she didn't?
He couldn't be so lucky, not on this nightmare of a day. Even if Chakotay hadn't told her everything, it was highly unlikely that he'd managed not to tell her something. And he'd most likely done so thinking it was in B'Elanna's best interests to know, that as her friend he was protecting her from further harm. Better she should hear it from a friend than through scuttlebutt, that's what Chakotay would think.
Sure, Chakotay, protect B'Elanna, and to hell with me.
Chakotay knew. Tassoni and Morrow--no wonder they'd been gaping at him in the Mess Hall. Chell? Did that explain his attitude in Sickbay this morning, or had that just been mistrust of Tassoni, without knowing the full details of his crimes?
Oh Christ! Had Chakotay told the captain, or spared her the worst of it? He must have held back, or Tom would be out an airlock by now.
What was on the vids only told part of the story. Pete Durst had understood when Tom had told him the rest, but would anyone else?
He went to the viewport and stared out at the stars. Dead men tell no tales, huh, Pete? I should have destroyed the chips when I had the chance, after you died...
But he hadn't, never imagining anyone would compromise a dead man's personal cache. That was probably the last time he'd given any conscious thought to the existence of the vids, which now seemed like an incredibly bad mistake.
He caught sight of his reflection in the port, and again turned away from his own face. The past was over, he'd come to terms with what he had done a long time ago, but shame and disgust still filled him--for having been caught out, for what others would think.
For what B'Elanna would think.
He paced across the cabin, holding his head in his hands. He didn't care if the new life he had built on Voyager was over, but if he lost B'Elanna--
The door chime sounded, cutting across his thoughts like a phaser beam, and through his soul.
He walked slowly to the door and palmed it open with a shaky hand. B'Elanna stood there, as he had expected. They looked at each other in silence. Tom easily recognised the signs of her distress--narrowed eyes, tightly clenched jaw, stiffly folded arms. Carefully suppressed anger, some confusion and a little fearfulness--he'd seen them all before.
No one else would have noticed as he did that her over-all tension faded infinitesimally as she read similar signs in him--guilt and apprehension hidden behind the thin set of his mouth, remorse lurking in his clouded eyes. The things he'd seen in his reflection.
Another quiet moment passed. "Come in," Tom said, moving aside as she did. He lifted his hand and let his fingers brush across her shoulder--in welcome, seeking reassurance, he wasn't sure which. She didn't flinch, but moved out of his reach, halting several steps away, her back towards him, ramrod-straight.
She turned her head slightly over her shoulder, not quite looking at him. "Cha--Chakotay said I needed to--to ask you something," she began, her voice raw with emotion.
The numbness he'd been feeling moments before gave way to a sick dread. "I know," he answered quietly.
B'Elanna whirled around, staring at him. "You know? You know that Tassoni broke into Pete Durst's files, and stole some holo-vids?" she said, her voice rising with each word. "Vids that Chakotay claims you appear in?"
He could only nod, afraid to trust his voice.
She was breathing in short, anxious bursts. "What kind of vids, Tom?"
The blunt, one-word answer stuck in his throat. He glanced away from her, looked back, then finally said, "The kind that are prohibited on Starfleet vessels."
It only took a second for the implication to register. Her eyes widened, first in shock, then disbelief, before her whole expression went blank. "Sex vids," she said tonelessly.
Tom nodded again, miserably, edging around her to sit on the couch. He sat with his hands clasped, his head bowed, waiting for whatever reaction was next. Within a few seconds he heard her move, and out of the corner of his eye saw her drop onto the other end of the couch. She huddled against the cushions, her arms still crossed defensively.
"How--how did you know I was going to ask you about them?" she said softly.
"I--I heard some talk today, about Tassoni, and I wondered what he'd done that was so bad it would make Chakotay pissed at me," he explained. "I got curious and checked the security logs. And then... I knew you were with Chakotay, and if he knew, he was bound to tell you... something."
She nodded, licking her lips in nervousness. "I knew he was upset, and I made him tell me--about the break-in, and what he did to you today. Then--he asked me how well I really knew you."
Tom tilted his head to look at her. He didn't miss the rages she used to fly into so easily, but her quietness now was unnerving, because it made it difficult to gauge how upset she really was. "Did he tell you I was the scum he always suspected I was?" he asked bitterly.
Anger flared briefly in her eyes. "Tom, that's unfair! He was only trying to--protect me."
He averted his gaze, remembering how she hadn't gotten mad at him when he'd shouted her down and refused her help, deep in the throes of his terrible, false guilt over Tarakis. She had simply walked away. Would she do the same now, only without telling him where to find her?
She didn't go, but stayed where she was, keeping the distance between them. The tense silence grew longer and more uncomfortable, B'Elanna studying him as if she'd never seen him before. When she finally spoke, her voice was again unnaturally calm. "Were you ever going to tell me?"
"What would have been the point?" he asked, just as impassively.
B'Elanna let out an impatient sigh. "To make me understand, Tom. Why--how could you do such a thing?" There was more disbelief, and genuine curiosity in her tone, than actual displeasure in what he might have done.
Eventually, though, she might feel that way, or as disgusted with him as Chakotay apparently was--unless he could explain in a way she could accept and understand. At least she was still here, willing to listen, so he knew he owed her the truth. He stared at his hands, still clenched tightly in his lap, and began with the most basic fact. "I did it because I needed the credits."
He shook his head quickly, to cut her off, though he was not surprised that she had come to the most obvious conclusion. "Listen to me, B'Elanna," he pleaded. "It's not what you think. I'm not--proud of what I did, but I'm not ashamed either. I was in a desperate situation, and I made a choice. Maybe a questionable one, but it was the best I could do at the time."
He glanced at her again. The trepidation evident on her face was not very encouraging. "Will you let me explain?"
After a moment, she nodded slowly. Words seemed to have failed her, but she seemed ready for whatever he would tell her.
A shudder of relief ran almost painfully up his spine. He closed his eyes for a second, searching for courage and the right words, focusing on bleak, bitter details he had suppressed for so long.
"It was--after my discharge. I'd been on my own for more than a year, going places in the Alpha Quad where Starfleet would never have taken me. Part of it was a need to get as far away from Earth as possible. Part of it, at first, was just the thrill, seeing and doing things that no upright Starfleet officer would ever contemplate. Being--out of control, like that, made it a little easier to... to forget certain things. But pretty soon that wasn't enough, so I started drinking. That made it harder to get work, to keep moving on. It got--bad, after a while."
There was no need to elaborate. He'd been given enough hints of what she had endured between her Academy years and the Maquis to know she'd understand.
"I managed to survive, but things got worse, and I had a few close calls. I started to wonder if I'd get out of the next scrape alive and hey--big surprise--I discovered I did want to live, that I wasn't committing a slow form of suicide."
He had to stop, take a breath and steady himself. He'd never told her--told anyone--this much about what he had endured in his aimless wanderings. B'Elanna was watching him closely, riveted by every word, but there was more concern than fear in her expression, so he plunged on.
"Somehow, I sobered up long enough to get a good piloting job--a well-paying if dubious one. This was way out in the fringes, where Federation law doesn't count for much. A... 'businessman,' a member of the Orion Syndicate, wanted to get home in a hurry to close a deal. He hired me, and I got a quarter of the pay up front. Unfortunately, when we arrived on Farius Prime, the deal had already fallen through and he was in big trouble with his associates. He disappeared, the ship was confiscated, and I was left in the spaceport with just enough credits to live on for a while.
"But it was one of those times when the Federation was attempting to impose stricter trade sanctions, meaning there was no traffic off the planet or out of the system, and prices started to go up. So I was stuck... and after a few weeks of living on that knife-edge, seeing how low life could get and how far sentient beings could sink into degradation, I realised I'd had enough, and all I wanted to do was go home..."
As he talked, the memories and images became as clear and sharp as jagged glass...
The voice seemed to come from very far away, which didn't make sense, since he wasn't drunk. It also had a grating, yet strangely sibilant quality to it.
He looked up from his Romulan ale--the only drink he'd had tonight, the only one he could allow himself with his carefully hoarded credits. It was more necessary to eat on a fairly regular basis than get drunk--more important that he look like a fairly competent pilot, if he wanted to get a job and fly away from this dangerous world. There were persistent rumours that travel would be permitted soon, and there'd be a desperate need for pilots.
He looked up--and up, discovering why the voice was so distant and so strange as he stared at the alien presence looming over him. An honest-to-God Gorn was gazing down at him. An expensive-looking tunic of many colours covered most of the scaly green torso; the perfectly pointed teeth were bared, and the eyes--he never expected that reptilian eyes could hold a look that bordered on compassion.
The creature saw it had his attention, and spoke again. "Earth boy--you are very pretty."
Oh, God--after decades of being part of the Federation, Gorns still had trouble sounding comfortable with Standard, even through the universal translator. But the voice had an unmistakable lilt that said "female." It was also full of undeniable admiration.
Tom felt his insides turn cold. In all his months of wandering, he'd sought solace and forgetfulness in booze, in dangerous situations and unsafe ships, and yes--in sex. But always with a willing partner--he'd never sold himself nor bought anyone's favours. And he'd done absolutely nothing in the past few weeks hanging around the spaceport to advertise himself as anything but a pilot.
Yet the limited contacts he'd made among the regulars in this bar, and a few other relatively "safe" establishments, might have begun to sense his desperation, and maybe thought it was time to do him a favour. To send a client or two his way. Give him a chance to earn a few more credits to survive on until he found the "right" kind of job.
He would have to be dead before he was this desperate. Slowly, he sat up straight and eased back on the bench, putting what distance he could between himself and the Gorn. He dredged up the steely-eyed gaze he'd long ago learned in dealing with his father, and said nothing.
The Gorn let out a little hiss, and its--her?--mouth stretched in what might have been a smile, as a sinuous tongue flicked into sight for just a moment. A clawed hand reached into the recesses of the tunic, and withdrew clutching something. Tom watched impassively, not even blinking when ten slips of latinum dropped on the table in front of him. He gave a brief shake of his head, and uttered a very firm, "No."
The scaly head dipped in response. "That is just for--talk. You are pretty, but I do not--" Tom heard a click and a growl--"humans. You will talk to me?"
He shrugged. The Gorn took that for agreement, and eased her--yes, he decided she was female--formidable bulk into the bench opposite. He still had to gaze up to look her in the... face. At closer range, the teeth were definitely off-putting. Tom almost wished he was drunk. His hand itched to pick up the latinum--if nothing else, it would at least eventually buy him passage to the next system. But he made himself not look at it, keeping his eyes on the Gorn. "Talk is cheap, they used to say on Earth," he said slowly.
She spread her claws on the table and slid the golden slips closer to him. "You will take this, and we will talk," she rumbled insistently.
His curiosity was now getting the better of him. He gave a slow nod and said, "Sure," although he still wouldn't allow himself to touch the precious metal gleaming on the stained tabletop.
The Gorn leaned back in apparent satisfaction. "Barman says you are in need of more of this--in need of employment," she said.
It occurred to Tom that she was speaking this way on purpose, that her seemingly poor grasp of Standard, or use of a faulty translator, was an affectation, as if she was deliberately flaunting her alienness. He found it annoying, but somehow amusing. "I might be," he said with another shrug, wondering if she could interpret human body language.
She suddenly bent forward, and he was again struck by the incredible--human quality of her steady gaze on him. "You are not just pretty, Earth boy," she pronounced, as he tried not to flinch from her flashing teeth. "You are old, yet still young. Weary, but strong. I have need of one such as you. The work is exacting, but special."
Tom could only stare at her, unnerved by the way she described him, intrigued by her offer. What did she want from him?
"Come, if you are interested." She reached inside her tunic again, this time producing an old-fashioned plas business card, which she placed on the table between them. "The pay is excellent." Then she stood, moving out onto the main floor with surprising grace. "That is yours, whether you come or not."
As she strode away, Tom picked up the card with one hand, as the other finally closed on the latinum.
"Her name was Acrophilana, and she probably saved my life."
He heard a sharp intake of breath from B'Elanna, the first sound she'd made during his entire recitation. It was a sound of recognition. He glanced up, realising that she'd moved closer to him at some point and he hadn't noticed. "You know the name," he said, not quite asking.
B'Elanna shrugged uneasily, swallowing down whatever mixed emotions she was feeling. "I've--heard of her. She was an--outcast among her own kind, and a criminal in several sectors, for the vids she produced, and her personal... activities."
Tom shook his head in despair. "She was an artist, B'Elanna, and a businesswoman. Most of what she did has been considered alternately legal and illegal over several centuries and on a hundred worlds. But 'Philana was a decent, caring being at the heart of it all. She took very good care of her--employees. I wasn't hired out of pity, or contempt. She saw that I was in trouble, and offered me a way out of it. Half the people she employed were in desperate straits of one kind or another. That's just the way she was. I think she was probably the closest thing to an empath the Gorn race ever produced."
"Fine--so she treated you right, and not like property." B'Elanna shook her head in turn, lips pursed tightly. "But it sounds like you're trying to rationalise all this, Tom. To justify what you did, because deep down it's shameful. What was it--acting, or sex for pay? Didn't you think of the risk--of disease, of damage--"
"There wasn't!" he cut her off. He stood up and began pacing, unable to sit still under her intense scrutiny. "It was business, B'Elanna. There were contracts, and release forms, and testing--psyche evaluations and physical exams. 'Philana wouldn't hire anyone who wasn't willing, or was unstable, or unhealthy. In fact, when I had my first physical, they found out I was anaemic, and coming down with a kidney infection. I didn't go to work until I had two weeks of rest and treatment."
"It still sounds like she bought you, Tom!" B'Elanna argued. "With medical care and shelter, instead of credits."
He faced her reluctantly, because that was partly true. "I know. 'Philana was more than generous, and you couldn't help but feel--obligated towards her. But she never coerced anyone into working for her. I didn't sign a contract till after I had recovered. At that point I could have walked out, with those ten slips of latinum and my health, and that would have been the end of it."
"But you didn't!" She slid off the couch, and took a step towards him, shaking with indignation. "You went through with it--why?"
"Because, believe it or not, it was the safest, and--and least criminal way to earn enough to get out of the sector and back to Federation space," he tried to explain. "Acrophilana operated in that region for good reason, but she kept clear of all other illegal activities. She also maintained a network of informants, and the rumour was she knew enough about the Syndicate's operations to make them very afraid of her. So they left her alone."
She eyed him coldly. "That still doesn't--excuse what you did, or make it any easier for me to--understand."
Tom met her hard stare with one of his own. "Well, now you know why I never brought this up before," he said bitterly. He'd messed this up, like so many other things, and she still didn't know the whole truth of it.
B'Elanna opened her mouth, then turned abruptly. With her fists clenched by her sides, she moved around the couch, away from him, headed for the door. "Well, if you think this is so pointless," she spat, "then so do I."
Angry frustration welled up in Tom. "No!" He intercepted her flight, holding her by the shoulders. "I know I've screwed up my life too many times already, but I'm not going to lose you over this!" She wrenched away from him furiously, and he let her go. "You can't walk out on me until you've heard it all." When she tried to move past him to the door again, he resolutely blocked her path.
"I've heard enough," she said, backing away. "You did it for pay. End of story."
"That wasn't the... only reason." This was what he dreaded the most--what he still had to tell her--what he had never truly admitted to himself.
She shook her head fearfully. "Tom--don't... "
He couldn't stop now, no matter how much it might hurt them both. "It was the thrill, B'Elanna," he confessed." Despite everything I'd seen, or heard about, part of me still craved... that little taste of danger. Excitement. Something new, and different." He saw her fear change to pained realisation, but he pressed on. "When I found out 'Philana specialised in vids depicting... interspecies sex, part of me was very, very curious."
"Curious," she repeated, without emotion, though outrage glinted in her eyes. A hand went to her forehead, her fingertips grazing the outward sign of her dual nature. "You always said I fascinated you, Tom. Is--is that why you're with me?" she demanded, her voice breaking. "Just to satisfy your--your curiosity?"
Tom felt her pain as keenly as his own. He held his hands out to her in desperate entreaty. "That's not true," he said hoarsely. "After everything we've been through together, you know that's not true."
B'Elanna stared at his hands, then looked searchingly into his face. Her lips trembled, and he knew she was remembering all the good and bad times of their relationship. Hesitantly, she took his hand in hers. "I know," she said softly.
He felt weak with relief, and wanted nothing else than to pull her closer, but he was afraid she wasn't ready to forgive him. "B'Elanna, I made a lot of mistakes with my life, but you'll never be one of them. You know how much you mean to me, don't you?"
"I know," she repeated, her mouth twisting in a rueful smile. "You have the strangest ways of constantly reminding me." She reached up to touch his face. "It happens too often, when something's gone wrong between us. I hate that, and I hate the things that went so wrong in your life." Then she moved into his arms, offering the same comfort she'd given him only a week ago.
Tom held her just as tightly as he had then. "Thank you," he murmured against her hair. "I know how awful this is for you. I--I'm sorry it had to come out this way--"
A little shudder ran through her. "If it hadn't, would you ever have told me?"
"I--probably not," he admitted shamefully. "I'm not--glad I had to tell you, but I guess I feel--relieved, in a way."
B'Elanna sighed. "I suppose you had no choice--you never expected it would come out at all, did you?"
"No, and sure as hell not like this."
She eased out of his arms, giving him a troubled, pensive look. "And there's more, isn't there?"
Too much more, he thought, his resolve wavering. But he'd come this far, told her so much already--could he live with himself if he didn't tell it all? "Yeah, there is--are you sure you want to hear it?"
In response, she pulled him back to the couch, forcing him to sit and curling up beside him. "I'm still trying to take it all in, Tom, but you have to tell me the rest--if you're up to it." She stroked his face, holding her hand to his brow as if he had a fever. "This has been one hell of day. Have you had anything to eat tonight?"
Food was the farthest thing from his mind, but her concerned question made him realise that his dismal lunch with Harry had been a long time ago. "No, but--"
"No buts," she said firmly, then got up and went to the replicator. He watched in bemused silence as she placed an order, and came back with a tray holding sandwiches and two hot raktajinos. This was a little more of what he'd had in mind when he'd been feeling only slightly miserable a few hours ago.
"Thank you," he said as she put the tray on the end table. The spicy scent of the raktajino hit his nose and suddenly he was famished.
"Neelix says food is the best thing in a crisis," she replied.
"Comfort food?" he asked, only half-joking.
B'Elanna glanced at him sharply. "I think we're both in need of a little comfort right now." Then she relented, giving him a look of fond exasperation and a rap on the shoulder. "Besides, I'm hungry, too," she added, grabbing a sandwich and a mug as she sat down again. "Now, eat."
"Yes, ma'am." She was right. They both needed a chance to regroup.
He ate two sandwiches in record time, while B'Elanna nibbled at her one, sipping her coffee and watching him like a hawk. The simple meal and her brisk attentiveness made him feel better than he could have imagined, given the circumstances. He was still feeling a bit unsettled, though, unsure of how to continue.
B'Elanna cleaned up quickly and efficiently when their break was over, then resumed her spot beside him. "Ready to go on?" she prompted gently.
"Yeah," Tom said, screwing up his courage again. "If you are."
"I do want to know," she said, although there was some indecision in her tone. "I just--have so many questions--" She studied him for a moment, then her hesitancy vanished and they came pouring out.
"What happened when you tried to get back to Earth? Did--anyone find out about the vids? And what the hell was Pete Durst doing with them on Voyager?"
The last one hit him hard as that anguished memory surfaced. "Oh, God--poor Pete... he knew, B'Elanna, and never told a soul. I owed him so much, and then I couldn't save him--"
"Don't!" she said in dismay, putting a trembling hand over his mouth. "I feel as much guilt over Pete's death as you do, Tom, but it wasn't your fault, or mine. None of it was."
He swallowed painfully, and nodded, trying to calm down. She had more cause than he did to regret Pete's horrible demise.
B'Elanna released him, stroking his face lightly, as much for her own reassurance as his. "It's okay--we'll talk about Pete later." Taking a deep breath, she settled back against the cushions. "First, tell me more about... Acrophilana."
The change in subject startled him. "Are you sure?"
He rubbed his hand across his face, not certain how much detail he was willing to get into. "You recognised her name," he began. "But you never actually saw any of her works?" Which he had already assumed--she certainly hadn't seen his "work."
"No, but... remember Kurt Bendera? He had a small, uhh, collection of erotic vids. Standard stuff, I suppose--mostly humans, but he talked about finding some of the more--exotic material. That's where I heard about your... employer."
She seemed a bit uncomfortable telling him this, and he was sorely tempted to ask if she'd seen any part of Kurt's collection, or any other types of holo-erotica, but decided against it. "I told you 'Philana was an unusual person. She was one of the first to... explore the sexual possibilities among human and non-humanoid races. She came from a wealthy clan and did a lot of travelling when she was young, which is unusual, since most Gorns have a xenophobic streak.
"Anyway, somewhere in her travels--she'd never say exactly where--she came across a system where the inhabitants were from the same species, but had evolved in slightly different ways over time, developing some different physical traits. What really fascinated Acrophilana about these people was that they used sex as a tool of diplomacy--to negotiate treaties, seal trade agreements, whatever. They didn't take it lightly, though; it involved a lot of ritual and care, and was an important part of their cultures."
B'Elanna looked perplexed. "I don't think I've ever heard of such a thing. Was it some kind of--'first contact' situation?"
Tom shrugged. "First and last, as far as I know--I think it happened some place beyond Federation influence or knowledge. Wherever it was, though, it made a huge impression on 'Philana. She would tell the story to everyone who worked for her, so they--we would understand what she was trying to accomplish."
"Accomplish? She produced smut... erotic holo-vids, Tom. People use them for entertainment, or to satisfy their--curiosity," B'Elanna pointed out. "And she probably made a small fortune in the process."
"Well, yeah," he agreed with a sigh. "But there was a lot more to it than that. She knew that almost every sentient race had a history of using sex as a weapon--of war, of subjugation. That individuals used it to express hatred, not love. What she witnessed in that nameless system convinced her that maybe intelligent beings of different races could gain a better understanding of each other through what she called 'the ultimate sharing of passion and pleasure.' "
B'Elanna frowned. "That doesn't always work, Tom, and I ought to know. Some differences--cultural, biological, whatever--can't be resolved through sex, or even--love," she said falteringly.
He put his hand on hers comfortingly. "I know, but that doesn't stop people from trying, does it?"
"No... " she conceded reluctantly. "But some... relations are just physically impossible. You told me that 'Philana admitted she didn't--or couldn't--have sex with humans."
"Couldn't, with most humanoids, although there were some exceptions," he informed her, nearly grinning with the memory of how 'Philana had once gone into great detail explaining to him exactly why she couldn't do it with Terran males. It had been an intriguing but embarrassing experience. "But that didn't stop her from, ahh... encouraging others to explore certain--possibilities. It wasn't like there weren't any instances of interspecies sex happening--mostly among the humanoid races, of course, and not always in positive circumstances. And like you said, there could still be barriers to understanding and compatibility.
" 'Philana considered her work elemental in breaking down those barriers. If two people of different species--and I mean really different--were capable of joining in a sexual act, then she wanted to depict it as naturally and as--beautifully as possible. And it had to be consensual and non-violent, otherwise her point would be lost."
"But--" B'Elanna frowned again, shaking her head as she struggled to comprehend. "Recorded depictions of sex--erotic or otherwise--have been around for centuries. Were hers really that different?"
Another memory surfaced--his first viewing of 'Philana's work, as part of his employee... training. He'd seen a few "smut" vids in his wayward youth, but they were like static, contrived 2-D images compared to the incredibly sensuous visions she created. Experiencing them was like being given a slow-acting aphrodisiac that crept through your body at a deliciously torturous pace, then without warning ignited your senses in a fireball of sensation. And then being part of them....
"Oh... yeah," he managed to utter, edging away from B'Elanna so she wouldn't feel the heat coursing through him. "Very--different. And highly sought after," he went on, trying to distract himself, "but hard to obtain. She used the most advanced encryption techniques to ensure her work could never be duplicated, or viewed without the right codes or special equipment. Her clientele was very exclusive. She'd only sell her work to the most--well, it sounds weird--'reputable' pleasure merchants, who had their own elite customers, and a very select group of scientists and researchers. Ever hear of Professor Richard Galen?"
"Galen the Preservationist?" she asked in astonishment. "The one who proved the Progenitor Theory, that most humanoid races were genetically related? That was big news just after I joined the Maquis--" She gaped at him. "He was one of Acrophilana's... clients?"
Tom grinned. "Not exactly, but they were good friends. She financed a lot of his expeditions."
"You're not serious," B'Elanna scoffed. "Next you'll be telling me she provided funds for the Bajoran refugee camps."
"As a matter of fact, she did," he said quietly. "Her support wasn't always welcome, but some people weren't concerned with where the latinum came from, if it saved lives. She hated war and conflict, and didn't care if she used unconventional means to counter their effects."
B'Elanna's cheeks reddened slightly. "Oh. I knew you--you meant it when you said she was decent and caring. I just never would have thought it was on such a large scale." She looked at him curiously. "You seem to have gotten to know her quite well. How long did you--work for her?"
He almost thought he heard a trace of jealousy in her voice, and sought to allay her fear. "It was only about three months--and not all of that was, umm, performing," he added quickly. "When 'Philana found out I was good at holo-programming, she had me create a few new set designs. I was paid extra for that. I ended up working with her more on that aspect of the productions than some of the others, so we did talk a lot. I got used to her, to her eccentric way of communicating. She liked to talk, about her work, her ideas. And--she liked me. She said I was a good listener."
"Hmm, I'd have to agree with her there," B'Elanna said with a wry smile. "That was the first--positive thing I ever noticed about you, when you weren't trying to convince people you didn't care what they thought about you."
Her admission touched him deeply, but his emotions were still in such a jangled state that he couldn't help reacting with a joke. "What, it wasn't my good looks?"
He wouldn't have blamed her if she lashed out at him for that, but instead she turned sombre, gazing off into the distance. "Your looks might have gotten you into far worse trouble back then if 'Philana hadn't found you." Her expression became even more remote and guarded. "I--I suppose you could have made worse choices, too."
Thoughts like that had crossed his own mind too often in the years since. "Yeah, I know," he acknowledged in a near-whisper.
B'Elanna smiled wanly and squeezed his hand. "Someday, we'll have to go find Acrophilana so I can thank her for saving you... for me."
"Definitely," he agreed, wondering how his benefactor had fared over the years. Perhaps not well, with the Dominion War and all they had heard about in their brief contacts with Starfleet. So many things could have changed--as they had changed for him--over the course of six years.
For a moment, they were both silent. B'Elanna was lost in thought, and Tom waited apprehensively for her next question. She had to be curious about his actual--performance, but how could he describe those intimacies to her? Could he admit he had enjoyed the varied exotic pleasures, but make her understand they really meant nothing, compared to the passion and desire he had for her, the complete and perfect joy he felt whenever they made love?
She looked at him, her brows furrowed, and he braced himself. "So," she began, drawing out the word hesitantly, as her expression cleared slightly, "eventually you earned enough to get safely out of the Syndicate's territory, once the sanctions were lifted?"
Tom tried not to let his tremendous relief show. If she wanted to skip over certain details, he was willing to oblige her, although he was sure she'd ask about them eventually... not that what happened next was a prettier picture.
"I did. I was able to get passage to Vulcan, of all places, and I stayed there for a few days, getting my bearings. I hadn't been paying much attention to politics out on the Fringe, except the local situation. So I hadn't realised that tensions were really building with the Maquis, or that trouble was brewing in the Gamma Quadrant." Although piecing together actual news and unfounded rumours hadn't been hard, the results had been disturbing.
"As I got closer to Sector 001, I saw that things were going badly with the Cardassians, too. People seemed on edge everywhere. When I had any contact with Starfleet, I knew something was up, that new policies were being implemented." That he remembered all too clearly--desperately hoping to find some stability or peace by going home, only to encounter the beginnings of chaos. "What I saw made me wonder if 'Philana's work--and my small part in it--was an exercise in futility. It--it all made me a little crazy."
She flinched at his desolate tone. "It wasn't what you were looking for," she guessed.
"And... and you started drinking again." It wasn't a question.
"Yeah," he said hollowly. "Drinking, taking stupid risks... I was still a Paris, though, and all that Starfleet breeding told me that war was coming, maybe not for months or years, but I knew--" He let out a bitter laugh. "I had enough honour left to feel ashamed that I wouldn't be able to do anything about it."
B'Elanna shot up, eyes blazing. "You never told any of us that! You let Chakotay think you were just after a way to pay off your debts, that you never had any other reason for joining the Maquis."
"With the reputation I had then, who would have believed the truth?" he retorted. "And in the end, it was just another risk, another chance I took that didn't work out. I tried to do the right thing, and I screwed that up, too."
She moved away from him, retreating into the corner of the couch again, her face distraught. "And that's just one more thing you were never going to tell me, isn't it?"
"You don't like talking about that time any more than I do," he answered with brutal honesty. This was getting out of control--each admission sent their emotions colliding and crashing, and it was getting harder to recover each time. He felt drained, and sick, almost ready to give up--
He looked at B'Elanna, pale and silent, her eyes fixed on the floor, and knew she was at the same breaking point. But he had to go on, for both their sakes.
"B'Elanna, I'm sorry--"
She held up a hand. "No," she said, slowly raising her head to look at him. "We've never been very good at this, Tom--baring our souls to each other, telling the whole truth. It's all right, it's part of what we are, what we--mean to each other." Sighing deeply, she relaxed her defensive position.
"It's all right," she said again, seeing his doubtful expression. "We have to finish this. Tell me the rest. Tell me about Pete."
There was no reprieve in her tone, no denying the determination burning in her eyes to see this through to the end. Sometimes, he knew, she was stronger than he was. And because he loved her for that, he was able to go on.
"Pete Durst," he said, trying not to think of the last time he'd seen his friend alive. "How well did you get to know him, B'Elanna?"
She thought for a moment. "Not as well as you did, it seems. He was--a good officer. A nice guy... he never struck me as the type who'd collect... prohibited material."
"I could say the same thing about Kurt Bendera."
"Well, I guess you never know with the quiet ones," she acknowledged. "His--hobby didn't make Kurt a bad person, though. The same was obviously true for Pete."
"Of course," he agreed, smiling inwardly at her staunch defence of fallen comrades. "Do you remember what Pete's job was?"
"He was a systems analyst, a trouble-shooter. He could do a little bit of everything, which made him a real asset out here."
Tom nodded. "Starfleet tries to have at least one person like that assigned to every ship, but not many people choose it as a career field," he told her. "Pete didn't. He was an orphan, from a small colony that had limited resources. But he was bright and capable, so his government sponsored him to the Academy, under the quota system--if you met all other qualifications, they'd take you if you'd accept the training chosen for you."
"That happened to one of my first roommates," she said. "She had to study exobiology, even though her real interest was stellar cartography."
"Well, they made Pete a trouble-shooter. Proficient in operations, maintenance, security--someone you could rely on in a crisis. And he was good at it, though he didn't like it much. But the system did have options--independent study, in a different field, and the chance to switch to it full time when you completed two tours of duty. So, Pete took that option, and studied on his own time to be a cultural anthropologist."
B'Elanna's mouth dropped open, but she shook off her surprise quickly. "Oh--I remember. He was always so interested in the aliens we came across in those first months. He loved talking to Kes and Neelix... " She trailed off, and her eyes grew huge with new understanding.
"His speciality was cross-cultural bonding and interspecies relations," Tom clarified.
"He--he was using the holo-vids for research?" She waved one hand in disbelief. "Wait a minute--that still wouldn't have allowed him to have them on a Starfleet vessel!"
"Well," he chuckled dryly, "that's true, but Pete had gone to a lot of trouble to obtain them through 'Philana's legitimate contacts. Apparently they were crucial to a paper he was writing. So he wasn't about to leave them behind when he got assigned to Voyager. In fact, he took a sort of perverse delight in taking them along, because he still resented having to work in the field Starfleet chose for him."
"That sounds more like something you would do," she said, shaking her head in amazement. "Thumb your nose at authority."
Tom gave a helpless shrug. "It's probably why Pete and I got along so well--only his rebellious streak was buried a little deeper than mine."
"Did--did he know you were in the vids before you met?" she asked anxiously.
"No. He hadn't viewed them at the beginning of the mission, and then he didn't get a chance to resume his studies until a few months after we got thrown out here and everything had settled down somewhat."
His mind drifted back to that evening so long ago, when Pete had approached him in the Mess Hall, looking perturbed, insisting that they had to talk. The revelation of his discovery had been devastating to Tom, but the would-be scientist hadn't been shocked or disgusted, only concerned and curious. They had come to an understanding, sharing and keeping each other's secrets.
A light touch on his arm brought Tom out of the past. B'Elanna was sitting beside him once more, her expression wary but concerned. "And he never told."
"Never," he said, gazing at her steadily. "I even helped him a little, with his research, by answering a few questions. He gave me a copy of the first draft of his paper, too. I kept it, after... after he died, so if we ever--whenever we got back home, I could turn it over to the right people, so his work would at least be acknowledged. Maybe even help validate 'Philana's work, too."
He had the paper encrypted in his personal files, and he should have taken the chips too, damn it. Pete wouldn't have minded. "It was the least I could do, after everything he'd done for me. Like 'Philana, he made no judgements, he just tried to understand."
B'Elanna looked away, biting her lip. "That's what I've been trying to do all night, Tom. But--" She put a hand to her head and stood up abruptly. "It's just so hard, and I'm so tired... "
It was like being in a state of mild shock, he realised. They were both dazed, and wounded in a numbing, detached way. "I don't care if you can't understand completely, or even forgive me, as long as you listened," he told her.
"I had to," she said simply, her face shadowed with anguish. She took a few steps away and stood by the port, watching the stars. "What do we do now?" she asked.
Tom got to his feet, wincing as all the pent-up tension of the evening lanced through him. What he had to do now would most likely be worse than confessing to B'Elanna, but he knew it couldn't wait. "I have to talk to Chakotay."
She spun around. "Tom, no," she pleaded, hurrying to his side and clutching his arms. "I left him in such a terrible mood, I don't know what he'll be feeling by now." She shook him in desperation. "He won't understand, not like I did, maybe he won't even listen to you--"
He gripped her by the shoulders, astounded by her involuntary admission. She stared back at him, realising belatedly what she had said. In an instant they came together in a fierce embrace, seeking to comfort and console each other yet again. Tom knew this daunting situation was far from resolved, but for the moment, nothing else mattered. Nothing except the fact that B'Elanna was still here, that she still loved him. She was holding on to him with all her strength, and he could feel her heart pounding as wildly as his own.
If only they could stay like this forever, he thought, showering her with grateful kisses, and forget that life could be so damn unfair--
But that wouldn't solve anything, not even for the two of them. Hating to do it, he pushed her away as gently as he could. "B'Elanna--"
"Please don't go, Tom," she said frantically, clinging to him. "Let it wait till morning--I'll talk to him, I'll make him understand."
He knew she wanted to protect him, that was all, but this wasn't her fight. He had to be the strong one now, and finish this himself. "I have to do this, B'Elanna," he said, pulling out of her grasp, "and it has to be now."
With a reluctant nod, she moved back, wrapping her arms around herself. "I know," she whispered, her eyes shining. "Go."
He turned to look at her on his way out. "You'll be here when I get back?"
That, more than anything, gave him the courage to walk out the door.
Chakotay sat cross-legged on the floor of his quarters, dressed only in a pair of loose fitting pyjamas, eyes closed and breathing in slow deep breaths.
After returning from the holodeck and the confrontation with B'Elanna, he'd been tense, angry and irritable. He'd tried exercise, music, reading and a shower, but nothing helped him relax. Eventually he attempted to induce a state of calm with meditation.
Considering the last few days--and especially the last few hours--he'd had, he didn't expect even this favoured technique to work, but it was having an effect, and with patience he'd managed to reach his centre of calm. His breathing deepened and became a rhythmic exhalation. Pushing all thoughts of his present turmoil to that place reserved for the waking time, Chakotay felt his consciousness slip into the realm of spirits and dreams.
An insistent buzzing broke through his trance. Chakotay blinked several times and looked around before his senses allowed him to identify the disquiet as his door chime. He rose slowly, grimacing as his knees popped with the effort. It was a sound he was getting used to.
"Come in," he called out, moving towards his door.
The last person he expected to see stepped in.
"Chakotay, I know it's late... but we have to talk."
It was Tom Paris.
The commander stood mutely for a moment, briefly considering how late it actually was; when in meditation he lost all sense of time. Paris didn't look half as bad as Chakotay had expected; his hair was a little mussed, his lips were drawn into a tight line and Paris kept his gaze averted from his superior officer.
"You've seen B'Elanna?" he asked.
Paris nodded. "Yeah."
"I see. What do you want, Paris?"
"I don't know exactly," he said hesitantly. "To explain maybe?" He gave a bitter laugh. "I guess...."
"Tom, I don't want to hear it. I really don't. Whatever you told B'Elanna... fine. I'm sure you had your reasons for doing... whatever you thought was necessary back then." Chakotay stopped talking and looked the pilot over once more. "Were you forced? Was that it?"
"Christ, Chakotay! Would that make you feel better? To think that I was coerced, or raped, instead of what really happened? Would it be better for B'Elanna to be involved with a fucked-up victim, rather than a desperately lonely man who was paying for his mistakes and trying to survive?"
"Paris--" There could be no doubt Tom Paris was still an enigma to him. Whenever Chakotay thought he was seeing beyond the pilot's barriers of false bravado and cocky self-assurance, to something more tangible and decent, his notion of what Paris was or might be was altered by the man's random acts of recklessness.
"I know it's nothing to be proud of, Chakotay, but I did what I had to do. I'm not asking you to like it, and I don't expect you to understand, but I needed a friend back then and 'Philana, the woman I made the vids for, was the only one willing to give me a break."
Chakotay watched silently as Tom tried to control himself, his outburst leaving his face flushed. His eyes appeared to search frantically as his head moved back and forth in some form of silent struggle.
"Does that make me sick, for taking up her offer, or some sort of whore?" Tom continued angrily. "Maybe by your narrow definition of personal morality, but I wanted to go home, and I needed the credits so I did it."
"And damn the consequences? What about your family--your father? Didn't you think explicit material like that would be freely distributed? Didn't you at all care who might see it?" Was there any way at all for him to understand Tom's reasons? Chakotay wanted to try, and not even for B'Elanna's sake, but for his own.
Tom shook his head. "It doesn't always work like that, Chakotay."
He couldn't help snorting, "Oh, really, Paris. Care to explain how it does work in your warped mind?"
"Damn it!" Paris shouted. "I'm trying to explain it, but you..." He sighed heavily and squeezed his eyes shut.
Chakotay knew he was looking into that paradox again, and every time it appeared, he couldn't help but try and pry it open--looking for that crack of daylight. "Why didn't you ever talk about any of this in counselling?" he asked suddenly.
Their sessions--all three of them--had been fairly brief affairs. Chakotay had hoped that after their first and most explosive session, which had ended with Tom practically assaulting him, the pilot would have been willing to discuss his feelings and fears a little more openly. Instead Chakotay had found himself having to order Paris to his office on a monthly basis. Tom would show up and offer curt responses to his mild enquiries for forty-five minutes, revealing very little about himself, his past or his family.
"Are you serious?" Paris asked, turning disbelieving eyes towards the older man. "I can see it now; 'Hey, Commander, guess what I did before you stumbled across my drunken ass and I joined the Maquis?' "
Chakotay tried to make his voice sound encouraging. "It might have helped."
"It wasn't an issue."
"It is now."
"For you, maybe."
"What about B'Elanna?"
"Don't use B'Elanna to get to me, Chakotay."
"I'm trying to understand this, Paris."
"I thought you 'didn't want to know.' "
Chakotay sighed in renewed frustration, but in an effort to prove his sincerity he said, with quiet conviction, "Well, I do. Help me to comprehend all of this, Paris. Explain it to me; tell me why you did it, and why Durst had those vids."
He watched as Tom struggled with the request, the pilot's face flushing anew, his creased brow betraying a legion of emotions. After several long moments Tom turned to the commander.
"You won't like it," he said.
Chakotay nodded, then he motioned for Tom to take a seat, knowing that he couldn't listen to this himself standing up.
Tom moved uncomfortably to a nearby chair but before sitting he turned and said, "You might want to get yourself a drink. You might need it... sir."
He almost smiled. Whatever Paris was he was certainly indomitable and irrepressible--qualities Chakotay couldn't help but admire. If it took a drink or two to loosen the pilot's tongue, or open his own mind to new possibilities, then so be it.
There were some things Tom Paris had never imagined himself doing; one of them was sharing a bottle of French brandy and talking about himself in Commander Chakotay's quarters. It had taken a while, but they'd both reached a point where understanding and acceptance were at least within reach.
Tom had prided himself on being as deliberately obtuse as possible during their few counselling sessions, determined as he was to never allow the commander the satisfaction of really "getting to know him."
Chakotay was always so calm and unruffled, so seemingly in control of almost every situation, maintaining that aura of tranquillity. Similarly, under extreme stress, outrage or embarrassment the commander's temper seldom went beyond one of dignified annoyance.
Once he'd realised he could pique the older man, trying Chakotay's patience had become a perverse sort of game to Tom, but he also had to concede that Chakotay possessed the ability to play him equally well; with patience, brutal honesty and cold indifference. They were equally matched and neither was inclined to yield, and as the night progressed Tom was realising that there was still room for them both to manoeuvre within the stalemate of their association.
Chakotay poured himself a fresh shot of brandy and took a sip.
"More?" he asked, waving the bottle unsteadily. Tom curled his fingers around his own glass and declined the offer. He'd been drinking slowly and had consumed less than Chakotay, but he was beginning to feel the effects of the real alcohol on his reflexes; if Chakotay's swaying was any indication, he wasn't about to have any more.
"Let me see if I have this right," Chakotay slurred. "This Gorn, Acro... Acro... whatever..."
"Yeah, her. She specialises in rare erotic art, selling them on to her connected-in-high-places clients, all to further the understanding of interspecies relations?"
Chakotay chuckled, taking another sip of brandy. "No wonder the encryption sequences were so tough to break--shit, I didn't confiscate whatever Tassoni used..." he rambled, his lips forming a brief frown before he started laughing again. "Your Gorn friend obviously never sold any to Vice-Admiral Nechayhev," he said, laughing at his own joke. "Now there's a woman who could have learned a thing or two about interspecies relations."
He continued to chortle, but to Tom the sound was hollow and bitter, and he imagined the commander's thoughts had drifted back in time, revisiting old hopes and regrets. Chakotay became quiet after that, leaning his head back against the chair and staring off into a dark corner of his cabin.
The last thing Tom had expected was for the commander to get drunk while he re-told the details of his youthful exploits. In some ways it had been easier to talk to him like this; relaxed, calm and willing to listen. Tom had to stop himself several times, believing it unnecessary to go into as much detail as he had with B'Elanna, offering Chakotay only hints of his life back then and enough facts to hopefully satisfy the man's understandable curiosity.
"You know," Chakotay said, still looking away. "I studied anthropology too, but I was always more interested in how a species lived; their basic culture and belief systems--iconography, things like that." He became silent again for a few minutes, seemingly lost in thought, then said, "So, Durst never had any interest in those vids outside his own research? And he really wrote a paper on it?"
"Yeah," Tom replied, reaching for the brandy, thinking what the hell. "Pete was only supposed to be aboard Voyager for a six-month tour, to fulfil the requirements of his commission before he could pursue his scientific career full-time."
"Poor bastard," Chakotay muttered.
Tom took a long swallow of his drink. "Yeah."
"He was a good man. I liked him."
"And he never said a word..."
Tom let the statement drift as he looked into the amber liquid in his glass. Pete Durst was a good man, and not just to have kept his secret safe, or by being so non-judgemental when he'd realised Tom Paris and Alan Smithee were one and the same. Pete was good because he was always more interested in what lay inside a person.
Tom smiled. Pete was a lot like 'Philana in that respect, sharing an equal desire to understand and redefine the mysteries of personal aspirations over social, economic and political acceptability.
"Did you enjoy it?"
Tom looked up and found Chakotay watching him through red-rimmed eyes. The truth was he had enjoyed it, thoroughly, and there was no point in denying it to himself now. Whenever B'Elanna was ready to ask that question, he would admit it to her freely, but damned if he'd take that step with Chakotay, drunk or not.
"I did what I had to do," he answered.
Chakotay drained his glass and laughed quietly. "That's it, Paris, keep that guard up," he rumbled. "Keep feigning left and right, bob and weave... use that jab..." he trailed off, still chuckling to himself.
"You're drunk, Chakotay."
"Spirits, I am, aren't I? Well, it's been one hell of a few days and I think I deserve to be, don't you?"
"No argument here."
"Are you okay with all this, Chakotay?"
"Okay?" he laughed again, a gleeful sound that reverberated around the room. "No one will hear about it from me, that's for sure. Kathryn... she'd... she'd be pissed for a while, she'd even forgive you... but... she'd never understand it, Tom. Never. Hell, I still don't." He scooted forward in his chair then, and rose on very unsteady legs. "While I remember..."
"I didn't mean the captain," Tom tried to interrupt.
"No?" Chakotay moved off and staggered into his bedroom. "Where did I put those damn things?"
"Are you all right?"
"I'm drunk, Paris, not bloody feeble-minded," he called back. "Here," Chakotay said, weaving back into view and offering his hand to Tom. "I thought you'd want to destroy these yourself. Prohibited material and all that."
Tom looked at the chips lying in Chakotay's open palm.
Tom licked his lips, unable to take his eyes off the data chips. "Are you sure?"
"I have no desire to see the contents of these things ever again, Paris," Chakotay answered, pushing the chips into Tom's chest. "Your 'acting' just doesn't do it for me. Besides, I already told Tassoni and Morrow I'd destroyed them."
"I don't know what to say," he responded, catching the chips as they fell from Chakotay's grasp into his cupped hands.
"Just promise me you don't have any other surprises like this hanging around on this ship. I don't know if I could take it," he said, as he slumped back into his chair.
"You really are okay with this?" Tom asked again.
" 'Okay' is relative, Paris. It was a shock and I'm..." He shrugged. "I'm sorry if I over-reacted."
"I guess I can't blame you," Tom admitted, thinking back to the day he'd had.
"It's funny really, Paris, 'cause if I'd seen those vids five or six years ago, I wouldn't have been surprised at all."
"I just mean that I think you've really grown up on this ship, Tom. Maybe all those masks you wear protected you from... a lot of stuff. Maybe they still do, but we can all see that you've come a long way...." The commander trailed off once more, lost in thought.
Tom gripped the data chips tightly in his fist. He'd come a long way all right, been to Hell and back again, and sometimes without any assistance at all. A part of his past was now in his hands. A past he'd tried to bury as surely as the memories of his friends at Caldik Prime; Auckland; his father, and his journey to near oblivion beyond Federation space. He felt the memories keenly, and the pain of those half-forgotten, half-denied lives he'd lived was just as intense as the psychological assault he'd suffered on Tarakis.
Here at last was one piece of his splintered history he could finally put to rest, and like Harry had said, he'd trust... no, have "a little faith" that 'Philana, if she was still alive, and he hoped desperately that she was, hadn't compromised her marketing strategies. Either way he could begin to forgive himself.
:::Torres to Paris. Tom, are you okay?:::
A slow smile spread across Tom's face, her voice was all he wanted to hear right now. He glanced at Chakotay, who sat sprawled but grinning against the cushions of his seat.
"He's okay, B'Elanna," Chakotay answered.
:::Oh.::: Tom could tell there was hesitation in her voice, and could almost see her anxiety for him through the thickness of the ship's bulkheads.
"I'm fine, B'Elanna. I'll see you in a few minutes, okay?"
:::Good. Torres out.:::
"Is she going to be mad when she smells that alcohol on you, Paris?" Chakotay quipped.
"Not when I tell her that I left you practically passed out."
"Hey, it's my quarters, I can do what I want in here."
Tom got to his feet slowly, and was surprised when the room started to sway a little. "I should go."
"Thanks for... you know."
Tom took a few ungainly steps for the door, then stopped himself. "Hey, Chakotay... you sleeping?"
"Not yet, wise ass."
"Can I ask you a favour?"
"No, you can't have tomorrow off."
Tom laughed and found himself lurching off balance. "Figures. Something else."
Tom made his request and Chakotay took a while to think about it, struggling, as he must have been with the need to sleep, pee or finish the brandy; who knew in what order.
"I'll try and arrange something," Chakotay answered tiredly. "But send a message to my database or I'll forget all about it. I am drunk, you know," he warned.
"Sure thing," Tom obliged as resumed his journey to the door. "Thanks."
"Yeah," he heard the older man say, as he struggled with the door controls. "And next time, the drinks are on you."
The following day, B'Elanna worked quietly and alone at the upper workstation of Engineering, needing the time and the space to take in the events of the previous evening without too much distraction. Checking the assorted boards in front of her for progress and repair schedules, she tapped in several commands, issuing orders to various support crews.
The sound of the warp core's gentle thrumming in the background was having a calming effect on her. When words weren't enough to penetrate B'Elanna's steely resolve, and other people's patience chafed at her moody disposition, the only location she could go to re-establish her equilibrium was in Engineering.
If some of the crew found solace in prayer, or a connection to a higher being in a temple of some kind, then Engineering was B'Elanna's own holy place.
What a night, she thought, starting with Chakotay's tense demeanour during their hoverball match, followed by Tom's difficult and painful confession to her later. Nothing, not even Chakotay's veiled hints, or her own nameless fears, could have prepared her for Tom's revelations. Yet what had surprised her the most during the entire night had been her own calm and compassion.
Yes, she'd been shocked and wounded by Tom's admissions; angry, resentful--but his pain, so evident and palpable, had become hers. What else could she do but try and assimilate it?
"... If two people of different species--and I mean really different--were capable of joining in a sexual act, then she wanted to depict it as naturally and as--beautifully as possible..."
Tom's words surfaced again in B'Elanna's mind, as others had throughout the rest of the night. She shook off the uncomfortable feelings they gave her by throwing her shoulders back and shaking her head. Concentrating once more on the board in front of her, B'Elanna tried to focus on the readouts.
She fiddled with the collar of her tunic and pushed her hair out of her face. Damn it, why the hell was she feeling like this?
B'Elanna grabbed a PADD and made her way back down to Main Engineering. Offering stiff nods to the various crewmen in her line of sight, she went to her office to collect a tricorder and a tool-kit.
"Nicoletti," she called. "I'm going into the Jefferies tubes for a while. I want to make sure we don't have a recurrence of the turbolift malfunctions we suffered yesterday."
B'Elanna crawled through a series of tubes and interconnecting sections of the ship, using her tricorder to measure power distribution among the various nodes and cabling.
She'd been so worried about Tom, when he'd gone to see Chakotay, knowing he had to, but unsure of the outcome. Whatever state she expected Tom to return from Chakotay's quarters in, it wasn't falling-down stinking drunk.
B'Elanna shook her head ruefully. He'd stood before her, his eyes bloodshot and wearing a silly drunken smirk on his face, clutching in his hand what she knew had to be the vids.
Chakotay had surprised her again; she'd never anticipated that he'd just hand them over.
"Are those...?" B'Elanna had asked, knowing the answer, but already fascinated by the thought that they were so close. She could almost touch them.
Tom had seemed bemused for a second, having to look down at his hands before he could answer her question, and haltingly fill her in on his encounter with Chakotay.
For some unknown reason B'Elanna didn't want Tom to destroy those data chips... not yet. She couldn't explain it, she only knew that she had to stall him anyway she could.
"Did Pete finish his research? Don't you have to make sure his papers are intact?" It was mindless drivel of course, and she knew if Tom had been sober he would have seen right through her....
"When I found out 'Philana specialised in vids depicting... interspecies sex, part of me was very, very curious."
B'Elanna pulled at her collar again. It was getting warmer in this section. Gathering her gear together she moved off into another passage.
The chips were still intact, safely hidden away in Tom's quarters.
She reached a cross passage and climbed through, and as she put her hand on the ladder to climb up a deck she heard footsteps from above. Someone was climbing down. Holstering her tricorder, B'Elanna stepped back and waited.
"Ah, Lieutenant Torres," Chell greeted as his feet touched the deck and he turned towards her. B'Elanna barely heard his address as a low growl started to rise up from her throat. That petaQ Tassoni was with him.
B'Elanna balled her fists and willed herself not to strike the hapless, dumb son-of-a-bitch with too much time on his hands.
He was keeping Tom's secret, she reminded herself sternly.
At least Tassoni had the decency to look shame-faced when he saw her. She recognised it as the same expression he'd worn when he last came to Engineering.
B'Elanna's teeth clenched.
"Anything wrong?" Chell asked.
She pulled her gaze away from Tassoni and faced Chell. "You tell me. What are you two doing here?"
"We've got on-going waste management problems, B'Elanna. You're lucky your quarters are on Deck 9, Decks 7 and 8 are having real problems."
"Too bad," she answered, looking directly at Tassoni.
A hatch to B'Elanna's right popped open by her legs and another crewman emerged looking sweaty and exhausted.
"Jimmy?" Tassoni said, his face growing pale.
B'Elanna looked from Tassoni to the man who was replacing the hatch.
"Morrow?" she growled.
Morrow turned in shock as he looked about him.
"What... what's going on?" he stammered timidly.
B'Elanna felt another wave of anger encompass her. The two of them, Morrow and Tassoni, here, now. How easy it would be to snap their puny necks, or reach into a junction and grab a power conduit... fry the skin off their backs. Chell would understand, he was Maquis after all.
They were keeping Tom's secret, she reminded herself. Yeah, and they'd keep it a lot better dead.
"Crewman Morrow, what a pleasant happenstance," Chell crooned.
Maybe she'd kill Chell too.
"Jimmy, what are you doing here?" Tassoni asked, his eyes panic stricken as they wavered between B'Elanna and Morrow.
Morrow held up some tools. "I'm... I'm..."
B'Elanna's growling was getting louder.
"What's wrong, Lieutenant?" Chell asked. He seemed oblivious to the mounting tension surrounding them in the small-enclosed space.
B'Elanna was baring her teeth in an angry snarl.
"Close quarters always gets to me too, B'Elanna. Remember that time in the Maquis? You, me, Ayala and Hogan having to stay cooped up in that freighter hold for what seemed like days, but was only a few hours? What a day that was."
She sent a menacing glance the Bolian's way. "Shut up, Chell."
:::Chakotay to Morrow and Tassoni.:::
"Yes, Commander?" Tassoni responded immediately.
:::I want you and Crewman Morrow to report to Holodeck 2 on the double.:::
B'Elanna watched as the two crewmen's eyes met and wavered. Chell pursed his lips.
"Chakotay," Chell responded. "Tassoni and I are in the middle of some maintenance diagnostics."
:::You do have other crewmen under your command, Chell. Use them.:::
"On our way, sir," Morrow quickly confirmed.
Like scurrying rats leaving a sinking ship the two men headed for the nearest access hatch and were gone.
"I wonder what Chakotay has in store for those two?" Chell pondered. B'Elanna ignored the question and took in a deep breath. "Oh, well, I suppose I'd better round up another crewman."
B'Elanna still didn't respond, instead her eyes remained focused on the hatch Tassoni and Morrow had just crawled through. She decided she didn't want to kill them anymore, just... hurt them.
When B'Elanna finally stopped staring at the hatch, she realised she was alone again in the cross passage. Chell must have slipped away without her noticing. She slid down the wall and sat heavily against the floor, listening to the sounds of the ship's engines as they pulsed and throbbed their way through the stars. The gentle thrumming soothed her, and eventually she uncurled her fists.
The holodeck doors slid open and Angelo Tassoni and James Morrow entered. The tension had been so strong between them they'd barely said a word to each other as they'd crawled through Jefferies tubes to the nearest turbolift.
"Man alive, I thought Torres was gonna kill us down there," Tassoni had confessed as they hustled through the tubes.
"Yeah, I thought we were dead meat. Do you think she knows?"
Tassoni gave his friend an exasperated look. "Of course she knows!"
"Chakotay probably had to let Paris know what was going on, and we all know Paris and Torres are lovers, so... Come on Jimmy, a child could do the math!"
"Right," Morrow agreed sullenly. "What do you think the commander wants?"
Tassoni shook his head. "I dread to think."
They moved further into the simulation and quickly realised they were standing in an approximation of one of the shuttle bays. A lone shuttle stood at the heart of the program and the two men approached it cautiously.
"Commander Chakotay?" Angelo called out.
The hydraulics of the class-two shuttle doors engaging sounded, and both men moved towards the lowering ramp. As the ramp descended Tassoni caught sight of an officer in red standing behind it and immediately drew himself to attention, Morrow following suit.
"Reporting as ordered, sir," Tassoni began. He looked closer and sucked in an audible breath.
"Shit," he heard Morrow whisper to his left.
"Hi," Tom Paris greeted them amiably, as he strode down the ramp.
Paris watched the momentary shock play over the two men's faces and instantly tried to put them at ease.
"Commander Chakotay tells me you two haven't logged much time in a shuttle recently, and that your piloting skills are getting rusty. Care to step aboard?" he said, motioning them up the ramp with a sweep of his hand.
Tassoni and Morrow hesitated briefly, exchanging furtive glances, before moving to join Tom on the ramp and following him into the shuttlecraft.
This was the favour Tom had solicited from Chakotay the night before. He wasn't entirely sure talking to Tassoni and Morrow was a good idea, but he was willing to take that chance. In a sense they were willing to do as much for him--and had already done as much, by keeping quiet.
"So, it's just you and us?" Tassoni asked, as he took a seat behind the pilot's chair.
"Yeah," Tom said, settling himself into the co-pilot's seat. "Chakotay sometimes schedules these things on the fly, you know, to break up your boring duties. I hope you guys aren't complaining, 'cause you'd be the first."
"No, sir," Morrow answered quickly, still hovering behind Tassoni.
"Hey, no need to go overboard with the 'sir' thing, you can call me Tom... or Mr. Paris," he said with a roguish grin. Indicating the pilot's chair to Morrow he added, "Take a seat."
When Morrow was finally seated, Tom turned to him. "Okay, crewman, show me what you got. Secure the ramp, fire this baby up, and take her out."
Tom let Morrow and Tassoni take turns during the simulation; making suggestions and offering encouragement as they vectored, rolled and manoeuvred their way across the simulated backdrop of stars and various spacial anomalies. He noted the two men were fairly tense as they got underway, not that he was surprised by that, considering, but they seemed to be relaxing into the program and his company, and growing more confident in their abilities to handle his basic exercises.
"Okay," Tom said after a while, "who's ready for more of a challenge?"
Both men nodded eagerly and Tom grinned. "Great. Computer, run Paris pilot program Beta-V-One-Seven."
The star-field beyond the view screen immediately filled with the image of another ship.
"Wow, what's that?" Tassoni asked from the pilot's seat.
"Check your sensors, Morrow," Tom warned from his new position behind the co-pilot.
Morrow quickly complied. "It's a Vidiian ship, and they're on an intercept course."
"Vidiians?" Tassoni asked, sending a panicked glance at their instructor.
Tom gave him an encouraging nod to carry on.
"I'm bringing shields on line. What else can we do?" Morrow asked quickly.
Tassoni swung back in his chair, giving the view screen a hasty glance as he entered new commands. "We can go to warp and get the hell out of here."
"What the hell..." Morrow cursed. "Warp engines just went off line. Re-routing to auxiliary back-ups, but I don't think we'll have enough speed--"
"Shit. They're firing at us. Trying evasive manoeuvres, pattern Delta."
"Direct hit. Shields down to seventy-five percent."
"Bring weapons on-line and fire at will," Tassoni ordered.
The shuttle rocked under the repeated weapons fire as the two ships exchanged blasts, but the shuttle's weapons were having little or no effect on the larger vessel.
"Shields are down," Morrow reported.
"I'm detecting a transport!"
Three Vidiians materialised in the aft section of the shuttle, aiming their modified phaser-type organ extracting devices at the three Starfleet crewmen.
"Computer," Tom called, "freeze program and delete Vidiian characters and their ship."
The aliens vanished from sight under Tom's command and he was left looking into the defeated expression on Morrow's face. Tassoni on the other hand was glaring angrily at the chief pilot.
"I guess there was no way we were going to win that one," Morrow said dejectedly.
Tom shook his head. "That's not true. You weren't keeping your eye on the sensors, Morrow. If you were, you would have spotted the leak in the plasma manifolds and corrected the problem before it was too late."
"It's a common mistake. Remember, things aren't always what they seem. Never assume things are fine and always check your system status boards. It's the only way you can give your pilot a chance," Tom explained kindly.
"Why the Vidiians?" Tassoni asked shortly.
"It's just part of the training program."
"Yeah, but why the Vidiians?"
"Ange, what's the problem?" Morrow asked. "I goofed, I'm sorry."
"It's not you, Jimmy. It's him," Tassoni sneered.
Tom arched an eyebrow in surprise. "I beg your pardon?"
"Are you trying to send us a message? Threaten us somehow?"
"What? I don't understand," Tom said, genuinely confused by Tassoni's outburst.
"It's obvious Commander Chakotay must have told you about the vids--"
"Angelo... stop, please," Morrow tried to interrupt.
"He did, didn't he?" Tassoni demanded, ignoring Morrow's pleading tone. "But why threaten us with this scenario? We're already under orders not to talk from the commander. You really think we want to alienate ourselves from this crew any more than we already have?"
"Wait a minute, just calm down a second, Tassoni," Tom urged, wondering how they'd moved so quickly from camaraderie to hostility. He drew in a deep breath and went on. "Yes, I know about the vids," he confirmed, "but why would you think this scenario was some sort of threat?"
Tassoni grimaced, "Because of the Vidiians."
Tom shook his head, still not grasping what the man was trying to tell him. "What about them?"
"I know how Peter Durst died," Tassoni said impatiently. "I know you and Lieutenant Torres were on that planet with him when it happened."
It had never occurred to Tom that Tassoni would have been interested in the circumstances of Pete's death, even though it was obvious he had used a highly sophisticated device to break into the dead man's cache. Somewhere along the way he must have investigated Durst's history on Voyager.
Having to dredge up the awful memories of the lieutenant's demise was weighing heavily on Tom. If he'd chosen the Vidiian scenario for any particular reason, it was only because of that. He could have easily ordered up an encounter with the Kazon or the Borg instead.
"Chakotay said you and Durst were friends," Tassoni continued, his voice becoming calmer. "But this program... it made me think--well, maybe you and Durst weren't such good friends after all."
Tom blinked, trying to take in the implications. Looking from one man to the other he tried to gauge the emotions on their faces, but found his own confusion flustering anything he might interpret. He stood up and paced to the back of the shuttle.
"You think I killed him, don't you?" Tom asked quietly, facing away from the two men and doing his best to remove every vestige of emotion from his voice. "Or, at the very least, made sure he didn't make it out of those mines alive, right?" He didn't wait for a response or look back at them for confirmation.
Tom continued to pace, eventually turning to stare directly at Tassoni. "I've been guilty of a lot of things, Angelo, but cold-blooded murder has never been one of my offences." Manslaughter, on the other hand, was a word he heard often enough in his dreams. He shook off the unsettling thought and pressed on. "Besides, if you did your homework, and I'm betting you must have, you'd know I had the opportunity to kill Durst long before we ended up in a Vidiian mining colony. And does it make any sense that after he was dead I never took the files myself and destroyed them?" Tom marched closer to the two men and he paused to study their faces before taking his seat again.
"Pete Durst and I were friends. He knew I was on those vids and promised me he'd never tell anyone else about them. He never did. Not because he never had the chance, but because he was Pete Durst; honourable and trustworthy.
"I'm sorry you feel differently, and let me promise you that Vidiian program I just ran was one of the many I have on file." Tom paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. "I guess, though, that it wasn't a random choice. I haven't run it for a while, but knowing you guys broke in... saw the vids--I got to thinking about Pete all over again, and thinking of him, for me, goes hand in hand with thinking about his killers, the Vidiians. But this whole thing was just a miserable coincidence."
A long tense silence stretched out among the three men. Tom sat back in his chair, his head throbbing painfully at having to go through yet another round of what felt like interrogation. How many times would he have to explain himself, and to be practically accused of murder too?
"I never wanted to believe that you'd killed him," Tassoni said at last. "I just figured if that were me, I'd have probably posted it on the ship's net."
Tom gave a bitter laugh and closed his eyes. "I guess I got lucky."
"How did you ever end up making those vids anyway?" Morrow asked. "Angelo tells me that Acrophilana's work was pretty exclusive--her audience and her... 'actors.' "
Tom opened his eyes and sat up in his seat, rubbing his fingers against the stubble he could feel forming on his cheeks. "It's a long story," he said wearily.
"We're not going anywhere until you tell us to," Tassoni reminded him with a friendly smile.
That was true enough, Tom thought. Chakotay had allowed him "as much time as he needed" to set things straight with these two on the holodeck, and while the situation had taken an unexpected turn they both now seemed eager to listen to the rest of his story.
God, please let this be the last time.'>
He looked at the two men, their eyes bright with confident expectation. Tom leaned forward in his chair and began.
"I never thought I'd get a second chance at life, I guess you two know what I mean--being on Voyager." He paused to let his words sink in. "Anyway, I'd been on my own for more than a year when 'Philana... found me...."
He told the story differently than he had to B'Elanna or Chakotay, leaving out certain things altogether, although he made sure to include why Pete had owned the vids.
Tassoni and Morrow remained engrossed in his narrative, calling for further descriptions or clarifications on the points of detail that interested them the most: Acrophilana and her distribution methods; felinoids and what positions they preferred; had Tom ever had a Gorn. Important issues like that.
Some of their questions had been direct in the extreme and Tom had never had cause to laugh so hard, blushing under their frank scrutiny and obvious admiration. The tension and distrust he'd experienced earlier, after what must have been over an hour's worth of discussion, had vanished, replaced by a renewed sense of comradeship which continued after the two men seemed finally satisfied.
"You know, if we ever get back to the Alpha Quadrant," Tom offered, "perhaps I can introduce you guys to 'Philana."
"Wow, you'd do that for us?" Morrow beamed.
"Sure. Angelo, would you like that?"
"Like it?" Tassoni responded ecstatically. "Just the thought of meeting Acrophilana again would be.... Geez, I'm lost for words."
Tom and Morrow laughed warmly at Tassoni's inarticulate enthusiasm.
"Come on, lets get out of here, you two. Do you want to join me for something to eat in the Mess?"
"Yes, sir." Tassoni was quickly out of his seat and rubbing his hands together. Morrow turned back to the controls and released the ramp.
Tom looked at them seriously for a moment. "I want to thank you both for your--discretion about this, orders or not. And I guess I don't have to remind you that we can't talk about any of it unless it's in extreme privacy," he cautioned.
"Don't worry, Tom, we won't say a word," Morrow confirmed as he stood and followed the other two down the ramp.
"Say, Tom," Tassoni asked hesitantly as he strode next to the pilot. "Can I ask a favour of you?"
"What is it?"
"We, ah, saw Lieutenant Torres, um, earlier on today, and she seemed... pretty pissed with us. Do you think you can ask her not to kill us, the next time she sees us?"
Tom laughed all the way to the Mess Hall.
The chief engineer returned to Main Engineering after completing her distracted but thorough survey of the Jefferies tubes. There'd be no further turbolift malfunctions this week, she assured herself.
Reclining in her office chair, B'Elanna casually looked over several new reports she'd been handed upon her return. The systems seemed to be behaving themselves for now by all accounts, and that assurance, coupled with the familiar sound of her engines, was easing a little of her lingering tension.
Lost in thought, it took her a while to realise that there was a large shadow looming over her. B'Elanna turned and looked up to find Chakotay standing before her, his face tired, but offering a sympathetic smile.
"Everything... all right, B'Elanna?" he asked quietly.
She stared into his eyes for a long moment, understanding his meaning, but searching briefly for any traces of animosity towards her lover. "Yes--" Except for the still simmering urge to seriously hurt two crewmen. "Everything's fine, Chakotay."
He moved closer to her, put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed lightly. "You're a good woman, Torres," he whispered.
B'Elanna reached up and curled her fingers over his, gripping them tightly for a second before letting them go. "Thank you, Chakotay... for being a friend."
He squeezed her again, then stepped back, still smiling. "I've noticed you've been logging some long duty hours, B'Elanna. Why don't you get away early and do something relaxing."
B'Elanna tilted her chin at her former mentor. "Is that a suggestion or an order?"
"Today, whatever you want it to be," Chakotay grinned down at her.
She tossed the PADD she'd been reading aside and let Chakotay pull her out of her chair. "Today," she said, "I think I might take you up on that suggestion, Commander."
"Good. I'll ask Seven to come down and keep an eye on things here for you," he added.
B'Elanna turned a deadly scowl Chakotay's way, only to find him holding back a badly suppressed smirk. She softened her expression slightly and pursed her lips, giving him a baleful glare. "You're so twisted, Chakotay."
"Apparently, I'm not the only one," he implied with a saucy wink.
She almost reacted to the comment, but read only humour in Chakotay's eyes. Shaking her head in exasperation and waving a mock fist at him, B'Elanna headed for the exit.
B'Elanna immediately stripped off her uniform as she entered her cabin, pausing only to check any messages on her personal database. Tom had left one, stating that he had some work to catch up on, but otherwise everything else was fine, and he'd see her later. It amazed her that reading those simple words made another knot of tension disappear.
Continuing to disrobe, B'Elanna headed for her bathroom and a shower, thinking that preparing a nice dinner for Tom in his quarters would be a good idea. As she stood under the sonic pulses and felt them tingle over her skin, another inspiration hit. She had to admit, it wasn't really an inspiration, more of a final decision.
Well, damn it, she thought, smiling to herself under the continuing throb of the shower, if a lowly crewman and Chakotay could do it, so could she.
Within twenty minutes B'Elanna was cleaned up and heading towards Tom's cabin. She wore a simple brown, thin-strapped, sleeveless dress, which in a certain light reflected small gold-coloured shapes as she moved. The dress dipped low in front and back, showing off the creamy, coffee-complexion of her skin against the darker material she wore. She hadn't dressed up for an evening with Tom in quite a while, and somehow, doing it tonight just felt right.
As soon as she entered the code on his door and entered, B'Elanna set to work, quickly setting the dining table for two and programming the replicator to dispense their meal and a chilled bottle of white wine whenever they were ready. Then she started on her real task.
She retrieved the vid chips from Tom's shoe-rack, where she had carefully placed them for him last night. They were deep in a pair of his off duty footwear, buried under some sour-smelling socks.
B'Elanna held one of the four chips up to the light and studied it closely. Did she really want to do this?
There were questions she had wanted to ask Tom, the night of his confession--was it only last night?--but she'd been too afraid, or too embarrassed of the answers. This way she could... see for herself, what Tom had described so briefly.
B'Elanna recalled the emotions playing over Tom's face; his eyes going wide, his mouth opening up and his tongue darting out... "Very--different," he'd said. All of those signs pointing to his own arousal, and she knew if she'd had the courage to ask him, he would have answered her questions truthfully.
So did she really need to do this?
She took a deep breath and moved to Tom's small desk, knowing what to look for and where to find it. She was the chief engineer, and it wasn't going to take her too long to circumvent the supposed "advanced encryption techniques"; not when she practically lived with the best hacker on Voyager.
Forty-five minutes later B'Elanna sat in a pile of circuitry in front of Tom's couch. She'd pulled his television apart and was reconfiguring it to play the vids. It was painstaking, slow work, dressed as she was. Finally, she was happy that sound and vision would be at their optimum, and quickly reassembled the set. Then she headed for the bathroom to clean herself up.
She caught sight of her reflection in Tom's mirror as she soaped grease and small bits of plastic wiring from her hands; B'Elanna decided she looked determined and a little guilty. You don't have to do it, she began reasoning with her image, you can still replace the vids and forget all about them after Tom destroys them.
Undoubtedly he would on his return. Should she wait for him, ask him then? Would he be angry if he knew she'd seen them too?
But this was what she wanted to see, had to see for herself. All of the pent-up energies, anger and frustrations she'd felt today weren't totally on the account of Morrow and Tassoni, it was the vids; what they implied and what they contained. B'Elanna glanced at herself once more, her jaw was set and her eyes were narrowed in a steely resolve she barely recognised but instinctively knew.
She dried her hands and moved back towards the couch, grabbing the remote control unit as she sat down on the edge of the seat, leaning forward to rest her elbows on her thighs. B'Elanna stared at the blank television screen for a long time, fingering the buttons of the remote.
Biting her lip to quell any further doubts, she activated it.
At first B'Elanna thought there'd been a mistake. She couldn't spot Tom anywhere in the first fifteen minutes as various characters, mostly non-human, were introduced on-screen and appeared to pair off. Tracking the vid forward, she stopped when she caught a glimpse of a pale body lying on a large bed. Quickly, B'Elanna tracked the vid back to the start of the scene.
The soft lighting flickering from the television filled the cabin and was complemented by a soundtrack of low tones in bass and percussion. There was a familiar cadence to the sound B'Elanna couldn't identify, but all thoughts of music flew from her mind as the camera angle panned forward to reveal a large luxurious bed, covered in what looked like rich, dark-blue satin sheets. As the camera continued to pan up, taking a position above the bed, the pale, naked body of a human male was revealed. The male lay face up, a hand obscuring his face, his body in repose. The hairs of his physique glowed almost a russet red hue against the darker sheets.
At the foot of the bed another person was just coming into the shot. From the camera angle, which revealed certain distinct curves, it appeared to be a female, with orange-tan coloured skin--wait, was that... fur? Long blond hair, the colour of the sun, reached down to the middle of her back, just inches above her swishing... tail?
B'Elanna leaned further forward and cocked her head at an angle. Yes, it was fur, and a tail. A fairly long one that seemed to rise and fall and swish with the rhythm of the soundtrack.
A Caitian female, B'Elanna deduced, though she'd never met one. She had heard and read about them during her stay at the Academy: bipedal, human-sized felines, a sentient race commonly referred to as felinoids.
The Caitian's grace was mesmerising as she crawled onto the bed, the tip of her tail rising as she did so. The female purred loudly and ran her paws over the long legs of the male, who remained still. Another series of purrs and then the Caitian leaned forward. As she did the camera angle changed, revealing a close-up of her face, as her long tongue reached out to rasp hungrily at the exposed male thighs below her. She licked long, slow patterns against the man's skin and he moaned imperceptibly, moving his body closer to the point of contact and opening his legs wider.
Words failed B'Elanna as she realised the Caitian was giving the man a thorough, lavish tongue bath. She could see the male's skin flushing and his chest heaving under the Cait's ministrations, his skin dampening and the hairs of his chest and thighs curling with moisture from the rough lashings.
The male moaned again, louder this time, when the Cait's attention was drawn to his groin.
B'Elanna felt the remote slipping out of her grasp and clutched at it, belatedly realising that her palms were sweaty, her skin was feeling flushed and she was rubbing her thighs together. She looked back at the screen.
The felinoid had gotten the male to turn over and was bathing his back with her tongue now, swishing her tail over his legs as she licked across his ass and up his back, purring loudly when the male continued to cry out in little moans and sighs as he bucked his hips into the sheets.
The man's face was partially obscured by a pillow, and the shadows cast by the odd lighting. But another angle change caught the unmistakable expression of pleasure on his face. B'Elanna had no doubts now. The male was Tom Paris.
She wasn't surprised that she wasn't totally shocked by what she was seeing. Tom's limited descriptions had prepared her a little. But she'd never imagined this level of eroticism. If anything truly surprised her, it was how young Tom looked. He was so lean, almost skin and bones, yet strong looking and athletically built, and enjoying every moment of the experience being played out before her.
Somewhere deep inside, she felt a tiny burst of fierce jealousy, fuelled by the sight of another female ravishing her man, provoking such reactions from him. It faded as part of her recognised it as unreasonable--these events had transpired long before she even knew Tom Paris existed. Then it died completely under the surge of another primal reaction.
On the screen, the Caitian moved higher against Tom's back, straddling him over his ribs, and her tail moved lower, flicking against the skin of his ass and insinuating itself at the juncture of his thighs. The Cait's claws were now exposed and she ran them over Tom's shoulders, scratching and marking him there. Tom's hiss sent shivers down B'Elanna's spine, and when she heard him whisper, "More," she felt a wetness stain her panties.
Now, she was completely hypnotised, watching Tom raise himself slightly as the camera moved in to show the slow coil of the felinoid's tail around his penis. Purring loudly, the Cait moved her tail to stimulate the organ, bringing a strangled groan of ecstasy from Tom and a similar sound, one of needy frustration, from B'Elanna.
There were two things Tom noticed when he entered his cabin after a long afternoon of filing conn reports. The first was the lovely way the table was set, which was a delightful surprise, as B'Elanna didn't tend to "fuss" that often.
The other took a few more moments to register. The odd but vaguely familiar music wafting through the room was almost subliminally soft, yet penetrating. Then his attention was unexpectedly seized by the sound of his own voice.
A red alert wouldn't have penetrated his shock as he recognised the music fully, and the sounds of a purring Caitian in heat. Then he heard an insistent "mrrrow," echoed by a deep-throated moan. His mind reeled.
Realising, at last, that he still had legs that could move, Tom took a few tentative steps forward.
He saw B'Elanna sitting uncomfortably close to the edge of the couch. Her hands, partially hidden from his sight, appeared to be wandering absently over her body. She was spellbound and totally unaware of his presence. Tom moved his gaze to the television screen and was instantly transported back in time.
He hadn't seen these images in a very long time, not since they were first made. He'd always remembered that the vids were incredibly arousing, but seeing it again, playing out before him; the feel of her claws against his skin, her tongue, her tail wrapping itself around him and squeezing softly....
And B'Elanna was watching it--utterly captivated.
Tom was as hard as stone.
He watched his younger self on the screen roll over, gasping in hard breaths, his erection rearing up like a projectile as he moved to grab the mewling Caitian.
B'Elanna's loud moan brought his attention away from the TV. She still didn't know he was here.
She spun around to face him, her eyes dark and wild with arousal, a sheen of moisture on her face and neck, glistening against the flickering lights from the screen. Tom felt his own face burning under the heat of her stare. B'Elanna looked feral, almost as if the Blood Fever was upon her again. Her nostrils flared and she opened her mouth, touching her tongue to her lips before she spun back and reached for the remote, shutting the television off hastily.
B'Elanna turned back to Tom, breathing harshly through her open mouth, her teeth showing in that hungry way he was all too familiar with.
"You could have just asked me," Tom rasped, moving to stand at the end of the couch, not trusting himself to say more. He couldn't seem to get any air.
A sound came from B'Elanna's throat, but he didn't hear it. "What?" he asked, still panting.
"Had to see," she croaked back, turning her still-fevered eyes towards him.
"B'Elanna..." She never gave him a chance to finish as she lunged for him, her hands against his scalp as she pulled him closer and ravished his mouth and face with ardent kisses.
Tom responded to her passion with equal fervour, hugging her to him as they fell back against the couch. His hands roamed over the taut material of her dress, his tongue licked at the exposed skin of her shoulder and under the strap there.
"Why'd you call yourself Alan Smithee--on the vids?" B'Elanna questioned breathlessly, while her fingers set to work on the clasps of his uniform jacket.
Tom sat up a little, giving her room to disrobe him further and offering her a tiny grin. "Twentieth century thing," he said, running a hand up her thigh. "From when 2D films were the great entertainment of the day, and a film's director was seen as a powerful component in the movie-making process."
His jacket came off and B'Elanna started pulling at the hem of his grey tee shirt. "Alan Smithee was a pseudonym, a name respected and renowned directors used if they felt their vision had been horribly compromised by the studio, or if they were embarrassed by their own work. It became sort of an in-joke within the industry and to movie-buffs, as everyone else normally knew who the directors really were in the first place."
"Uh-huh," B'Elanna hummed, working her fingers under the material and rubbing them again his abdomen.
Tom kicked off his shoes and pulled a strap from B'Elanna's shoulder, exposing a breast that was pebble-hard and begging him to suck it. He lowered his mouth and did just that. B'Elanna moaned loudly, digging her nails into his shoulder.
"Take this off," she muttered, pulling at his shirt again. Tom slowly raised himself up and let her help him pull the shirt off completely.
He knew B'Elanna liked looking at his body and she seemed to feast her eyes on the exposed skin, as she brushed her fingers gently through the swirls of his chest-hair. She moistened her lips with her tongue, drawing her bottom lip in slightly against her teeth. Tom watched her intently, taking in short breaths at her soft caresses.
"You enjoyed... making them, didn't you?" she asked, never taking her eyes off his flushed body.
Tom didn't answer immediately, wanting to look B'Elanna in the eyes when he answered her. There would be no more doubts between them, not about this. When she finally lifted her gaze to meet his, his voice shook a little but the declaration was strong and clear. "Yes."
"No kidding," she teased, pulling his hand off her thigh and bringing it back to the breast he'd been sucking. Tom brushed the moist nipple with his thumb. Sparing the TV a quick glance as she lightly scraped her nails against his ribs, B'Elanna asked, "Is that how you learned to enjoy being scratched?"
Tom felt himself blushing hotly all over again, adding to the warm pulses of heat her fingers were sending to his groin. "Um, I guess so... she, S'rish, was, uh, sort of my favourite to be paired with," he said, still playing with B'Elanna's nipple.
The small sound of doubt stilled Tom's fingers. "But I like it when you do it, too! It's such a--Klingon thing," he enthused.
B'Elanna glanced away from him for a moment, and started to gnaw at her lip. "Well, no," she began, sounding a little offended and maybe a touch embarrassed, Tom thought. "Biting is a Klingon thing. Breaking bones, that's a Klingon thing... but not..." She didn't seem able to finish.
"But--you've always done that to me, even before you knew I liked it!" Tom exclaimed.
She turned back to him, her eyes immediately tender, cuddling closer as she touched his cheek with soft fingers. "Shh, I know," she breathed.
Tom looked at her in confusion; she was practically half-naked on his lap, and now--after all those times they'd made love and she'd marked up his skin and he'd howled in pleasure and begged her to do it again--she was telling him that scratching during foreplay was foreign to her?
B'Elanna rubbed her cheek against Tom's and whispered in his ear, "This... this isn't the first time I've seen this sort of thing," she began haltingly. "And you know that thing I do to you, that you like when... when we're making love, and I run my nails down your back to your ass and up again?"
Tom nodded; it was so hard not to come when she did that to him. He tightened his hold on B'Elanna's hips, pulling her closer against him so she could feel his arousal.
"I saw it in a vid one time," B'Elanna admitted. "Kurt Bandera's."
Tom chuckled softly. "I was going to ask you if you'd watched any of those." He eased B'Elanna back across his legs slightly, tracing her full lips with his index finger. "So you decided to try it out on me?"
B'Elanna smiled shyly and nodded, her gaze shifting to Tom's groin. She moved to cup him, tracing the length of his erection with one finger. "The guy's reaction in the vid was so... hot, I knew I had to... try it out--if I ever got the chance," she finished with a throaty laugh.
"How did this one compare?" he asked with a grin.
"Oh, you know," B'Elanna said, feigning disinterest. "The music was okay."
Tom grinned back. "Just the music, huh?"
"Actually, the music was pretty good. It kind of reminded me of the warp core."
Tom raised his eyebrows at her, wondering if B'Elanna had a kinky side he had yet to discover. "You get turned on by the warp core?"
"No, silly," she said, slapping his thigh. "It just makes me feel... I don't know... comforted somehow."
The vulnerability of her voice made Tom smile, and he reached up to caress her chin.
"But some of that other stuff was pretty okay, too," she said, with a casual shrug.
"Okay?" Tom said, mortified. "I'll show you 'pretty okay,' " he promised, pushing B'Elanna back into the couch and reaching for one of her shapely legs. He slowly removed her shoe, staring intently at her as he did so, then started kissing her leg from her ankle to the softer skin behind her knee. Tom ran his fingers up her other leg, pushing her dress higher and planting whisper-soft kisses and licks against the satiny insides of her thighs.
B'Elanna moaned and undulated her hips under his delicate touches. She reached down and started to squirm when she couldn't get her dress to hike up. Tom paused a moment, easing up and using a hand to help her get the dress up to her belly. When he saw the dampness staining B'Elanna's panties, he whimpered. Still writhing, B'Elanna pushed a hand into the lacy material and started to fondle herself.
Tom swallowed hard and rubbed at his rock-hard erection as he watched B'Elanna's bunched-up fingers moving urgently behind the distended cloth.
"You're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," he swore hoarsely.
"So are you, Tom," B'Elanna managed through a ragged breath. "Let me see you," she begged. "Let me see all of you."
Tom nodded, barely trusting himself to do much more as his gaze remained fixed on the outline of her thrusting fingers. "Take off your dress for me, B'Elanna... but leave your panties on," he requested roughly. He felt desperate to taste her skin again, to sniff and lick at her through the thin material there. His penis surged against the constraining fabric of his pants and he quickly sat up to remove them.
As they finished stripping, their ragged, laboured breaths seemed to heat up the air in the cabin. Finally naked, Tom turned back to B'Elanna.
She was kneeling on the couch in only her panties, her breasts high and firm, nipples erect, her skin flushed and glowing. Her mouth was parted slightly and she was watching him with dark passionate eyes, her gaze taking all of him in greedily.
They reached for each other simultaneously and shared a hungry kiss as their bodies came together. Tom twisted B'Elanna around and fell back with her against the couch. He arched up and pushed his chest into B'Elanna's breasts, capturing her moan and his own in another satisfying kiss. Tom stroked down her back with his fingers, then moved lower, to feel her wetness for himself inside the briefs she still wore.
The flow of her arousal against his fingers made him grunt in pleasure and thrust his hips up instinctively. B'Elanna pushed back against him and cried out, digging her nails deeply into his shoulders.
A flood of tangled emotions ran through Tom at that moment and he slowly removed his fingers from his lover. Kissing her chin gently, he grasped her hips and flipped them over. Nestling his erection between B'Elanna's open thighs he placed one hand against her neck, stroking lightly, and pushed the other into her soft dark hair, staring at her silently.
Tom realised he must have been wearing an odd expression, because B'Elanna touched his cheek and said, "Hey, where are you?"
This whole thing had been so hard for her, Tom thought, and here she was, still in his arms, still his. He was so grateful he didn't know if he could ever thank her, ever let her know what a true gift she was to him.
"Can you forgive me?" he asked. "For the things I did... and didn't do."
B'Elanna smiled up at him, her expression beatific and peaceful. "What's there to forgive? It all happened so long ago, before we even met, before I knew you existed," she said. "You made what choices you could, Tom, and maybe sometimes you regret it," she sighed, curling her arms around his shoulders and pulling him closer. "We all make decisions we regret later... for whatever reasons."
"Like Dreadnought?" Tom whispered into her neck, recalling the Cardassian missile B'Elanna had reprogrammed, against the orders of Chakotay when they'd still been in the Maquis. The missile had somehow ended up in the Delta Quadrant and had nearly decimated the population of an entire planet.
"Yes," B'Elanna admitted, with a tiny shudder. "I thought I was doing the right thing--I took a chance and it backfired. If I had to die trying to shut that thing down... I was ready to. I figured I deserved to anyway."
Tom kissed her cheek. "I'm glad you didn't have to die, B'Elanna."
"I'm glad you made the choices you did, Tom, so we could be here, like this."
He raised himself slightly and rubbed up against B'Elanna's groin. "Like this?" he asked, treating her to a hard and fast grind of his hips. "Or like this?" he added, slowing to a deliciously torturous pace.
"Mmm... definitely more like that."
Tom lowered his head to B'Elanna's and they shared a deep kiss that was full of warmth, belonging and love. Entangled once more they rolled onto their sides, deeper into the couch, and Tom yelped as something bit into the middle of his back.
Throbbing music and the sounds of slow passion came from the TV. Tom felt behind him and pulled out the remote control. His thumb was poised over the off switch when he realised that B'Elanna was turned away from him, immediately captive to the images on the screen.
He watched briefly over her shoulder and found himself blushing furiously.
His younger self had the Cait, S'rish, on her stomach, her rear end and tail raised high in the air by several pillows. Tom lay along the length of the Cait's legs, his head pointing towards her feet and his arms supporting his weight on the bed. He was buried in her deeply from behind with only his groin and the front of his thighs were touching her. His body at such an angle that his feet stuck up in the air. Tom moved into the felinoid with a rocking motion, using his elbows as a brace to push and pull back, almost like doing pull-ups at a gym.
His expression alternated between extreme concentration and mounting ecstasy.
B'Elanna fumbled blindly for Tom's hand, guiding it impatiently back to delve under the waistband of her briefs and between her legs. Covering his fingers with hers, she controlled his pace as she writhed against his compliant touches.
Tom moved his hips closer to B'Elanna, thrusting himself lightly against her firm buttocks, while his fingers remained busy and his head moved lower to nip at her shoulder.
"Rowwwll!" The Cait was howling and helpless in this position as Tom moved above her. Her claws were ripping into the sheets as she turned her thrashing head this way and that in unqualified rapture.
B'Elanna turned abruptly to Tom, her hand stilling over his, her eyes blazing as she demanded in a ragged gasp, "Why haven't you ever done that to me?"
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