Title: A Delicate Affair
Author: Seema
Contact: seema (at) seema.org
Series: VOY
Codes: P, P/f, P/T
Rating: PG-13
Parts: NEW
Archive: ASC yes, everyone else please ask
Feedback: Constructive feedback always welcome.

Summary: Tom indulges with his holographic girlfriend; B'Elanna finds out.

Disclaimer: A hologram may have been deactivated during the writing of this story, but Tom, B'Elanna and Neelix were returned unharmed to Paramount, which owns them.

Author's Notes: Thanks to Amiroq for the beta. Much appreciated.



****

Do you have any Saurian Brandy? I need something strong to burn away the taste of bile and self-loathing from my throat. Don't look at me like that with your understanding eyes. Don't pretend you don't know what's wrong. Okay, sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you and you're right, I shouldn't have asked for the brandy; Even if you had it, I'm going on duty in an hour.

Very nice of you not to call me names or look at me with that expression of disgust mixed with pity. I've been getting enough of that from everyone else on this ship. Why can't people mind their own business anyway?

Thanks for the tomato soup. It's not the brandy, but it's going to have to do. In fact, could you replicate another bowl for me? I may be here for a while.

At least until B'Elanna calms down.

But who knows when that will be? We could be back in the Alpha Quadrant before she forgives me. Damn. We'll both be old and gray, stooped over, and she will still be silently fuming.

God.

I shouldn't have been so stupid.

I guess you know and that's why you're being so nice to me. You don't want to be nice, that much I can tell, but that's you, Neelix, kind and sympathetic to a fault.

Couldn't ask for a better morale officer, no indeed.

I might as well set the record straight. You know how gossip travels on this ship. Faster than warp speed. Facts get twisted, misrepresented, and you know, this time I'd really like to make sure someone hears my side of the story.

You know B'Elanna isn't talking. She gets tight-lipped and very, very quiet. I hate that quiet. Cliche as it might sound, but when B'Elanna shuts down, you know that an explosion is imminent. You don't know when it's coming, but you know it's going to be good, loud and colorful.

And she does have a right to be angry. I'll give her that. Hell, I'd be angry if she did the same thing to me, but she wouldn't. B'Elanna's not that type.

So you ask me why? Why did I do it?

I can't help myself.

Not a very good defense, is it?

So let's get to the bottom line: I'm a guy. Sometimes my brain moves south and that's the end of it. I can't help myself. Really, it's that simple.

Besides, I'm not the only one. Everyone else does it. But I guess B'Elanna has branded her name right across my forehead, so that's why everyone is looking at me like I'm the newest species of fungi in the Delta Quadrant.

Part of the problem is B'Elanna. That's not fair, is it? I mean, she's everything I could want in a girlfriend. Beautiful, smart, funny, feisty. God, I care about her. A lot. Too much sometimes. It frightens me that I care so much about her. There are days when I can't wait to see her, can't wait to tell her something, no matter how trivial - I want to share with her.

So what's the problem you ask?

Well, there's that medical condition of hers, known by its common name - workalcoholism. She's always down in Engineering. Either she's utterly intent on a minor fluctuation in the warp coil matrix or she's concerned about realigning the forward induction relays or maybe recalibrating the inertial dampers is on the menu - you get the picture. It's always something with those damn engines of hers.

Occasionally I'll go down to Engineering and offer my help. She accepts gratefully and in return, I hope for something, anything - the barest sign from her that she know I'm alive. Occasionally, she will look over at me in surprise and I know she's forgotten me. That's how intent she gets sometimes.

"Sorry, Tom," she says. "You know how it is. Next time."

Yeah, I know. And maybe I'll get a light kiss on the cheek or a soft caress on my arm, but even sometimes, that little flutter of affection is too much to ask.

So yeah, sometimes I get so damn annoyed by those engines.

You think I'm jealous? Maybe you're right. Maybe it is jealousy. Do you blame me? Pretty funny, huh? You know, I could deal with another guy. Really. But engines? How do you even compete? I don't know.

I know that's not an excuse. I know.

Yeah, so I messed up.

So what happened?

Well, it was a program I created, oh four or five years ago, definitely before B'Elanna. Believe me, I'm not so lustful that I'm creating new holo-girlfriends every second of my free time. There were one or two programs - well, seven - and I happened to pull Betsy Jo out this time.

I loved that program.

I mean the programming, Neelix. Don't look at me like that.

Besides, it's not really infidelity, is it? I mean, a hologram isn't sentient - don't tell the Doc that - and it can't really breathe and it has no thoughts of its own. So how can that be cheating?

God, I don't know how anyone can fall in love with a hologram, no matter how perfect she might be. And believe me, Betsy Jo is perfect. She's tall, has really long legs with just the right amount of muscle tone; when she walks, you can see the muscle ripple. I gave her brown hair because I've got a thing for brunettes; that hair is long and shiny, and her eyes, God, you get lost in those eyes. She's got curves. I love running my hand down her side, you know the one I'm talking about? The curve from breast to hip? I programmed her so that my hand fits perfectly on her waist.

But let me make this clear: I'm not in love with Betsy Jo, never have been. I'm not Harry, for God's sake. I'm me - lustful and deviant. No shame in that, but of course, that's all a matter of perspective.

And it's not the same with a hologram, believe me.

There have been women in my life. Lots of them. Some of them didn't have names. Some didn't even have faces, only limbs which magically wrapped themselves around my sweaty body.

Do I feel bad? Yeah, now I do. Back then? No, not at all.

I developed my reputation as a ladies' man back at the Academy. I loved turning on the charm and watching the women fall in line. Once a sorority set up a betting pool where they competed to see who would go home with me; the winner took all. I think all of them, in her turn, won.

But of course with B'Elanna, it's different. I never know what I'm going to get with her and the little things she does to me - like kissing that little patch of skin behind my ear - drives me absolutely crazy.

Oh, wait. I was telling you about how it was a hologram. I can't believe you actually want to know and I can't believe I'm actually telling you.

Well, sex with a hologram is rather... scripted. Betsy Jo will do anything and I mean anything. It's a little scary and I get Betsy Jo to do those things I'm afraid to ask B'Elanna for. But it's not the same.

With B'Elanna, I'm aware of everything. I breathe in that scent that is uniquely B'Elanna, and then I run my hands over her skin, feeling the warmth of her beneath my palms. There are moments that are singular - like the night when I was lying on top of her, our lips barely inches apart and I noted the fan shape of her eyelashes and the way her breath came out in short gasps. Or then there was the time when I woke up just to watch the rise and fall of her chest. I remember putting my hand over her heart and her eyes opened.

"What are you doing, Tom?" she asked.

And of course, I felt really silly in that moment. I didn't want put into words what I was feeling. Didn't want to explain that rush of emotion that had overwhelmed in me at that particular moment. So I shrugged off her question, kissed her cheek, and wrapped my arms around her body. She seemed satisfied and fell right off to sleep.

So why was I with Betsy Jo? Good question. I'm still trying to figure out the answer myself.

Let me explain the program to you a bit. The setting is a farm yard, very rustic, and with plenty of cornfields. There's this truck. Yeah, go with me. Maybe I'll show it to you later. Much later, of course, when B'Elanna's forgotten all about it.

You're right; I probably should delete the program, but I think Harry uses it. I'd hate to cut him off.

But back to the truck; it's gray and rusty and in the back, there's plenty of room and I covered up the truck-bed with a patchwork quilt. The quilt's dirty - it's got hay and mud on it, but that's part of the charm. I think.

Anyway, I hadn't seen B'Elanna in days. Really. She seemed to be spending all of her time in her quarters or on the holodeck. I'd seen the bruises on her arms, seen evidence of heavy dermal regenerator use and I knew I wasn't responsible for any of those injuries.

I was afraid to ask.

I know everyone is wondering how I didn't know, but honestly, there are some places that are so dark, you just can't bring yourself to go there. That's how it was with B'Elanna. I didn't want to ask questions that I already knew the answers to. I didn't want to ask because then somehow, I'd have to work at putting things back together for her.

So that was the first time. Me, Betsy Jo and a haystack behind the fire engine red barn. I felt phantom prickles of hay in inconvenient locations for days afterwards.

Don't think I'm insensitive, because that's not true. I cared, truly did, but sometimes, I can't bring myself to face those things I really should. B'Elanna's the same way. It's like the blind leading the blind. Neither of us exactly follows the right path. It's a terrible, terrible character trait.

See? That's the first step in rehabilitation. Admit your faults. I'm getting good at this therapy stuff. What do you think? Okay, maybe not. You still think I'm the lowest of the low. I get it. B'Elanna's wonderful and I'm just the louse who cheated on her.

Yeah, I'm getting to the good part. That's what you wanted to hear, right? No one wants to talk emotions anymore. God, even I don't want to, but it's hard in this situation to separate actions from emotions. You know, there is such a thing as just sex. There really is. With Betsy Jo, that's exactly what it was.

Lousy excuse, isn't it? I told you at the beginning that this wasn't going to be pretty.

But I only used the program because I missed B'Elanna. I guess that's some kind of moral justification right there, lousy as it might sound. And since finding out about the Maquis, she was working tirelessly and generally finding ways to not spend time with me. I don't think it was intentional, but there you have it.

So I dug out the Betsy Jo program and she was lovely that day, wearing this little red-and-white checked blouse knotted right beneath her breasts and these short - very short - ass-hugging blue denim cut-off shorts. Very sexy. So we were in the back of the truck, and well, that's when B'Elanna walked in.

"Tom Paris," she said in that very low voice. I looked down at Betsy Jo and her bow-tie lips formed a giant "O."

So I scrambled out, pretty much naked, mind you, and B'Elanna was not amused. She stood there, arms folded across her chest, her expression darker than I'd ever seen before. I waited for Hurricane B'Elanna to blow me away, but she focused her gaze directly over my shoulder where a voluptuous Betsy Jo stared my darling down.

"Who is that?" B'Elanna asked in a strained voice.

"Betsy Jo," I said idiotically. I reached for my jeans. If I was going to be dismembered, I wanted to make sure vital organs were protected, even if only by cloth.

"You gave her a name."

"Yes."

"You gave a hologram a name."

"Yes."

"Is this the first time...?"

Hell, I thought I might as well 'fess everything at this point. I was going to die anyway. Might as well go with a clear conscience.

"No."

"You have other programs?"

"Yes."

"Captain Proton?"

"That's one of them, yes."

"The slave girls program Harry's always talking about? Did you use that one?"

"Yes."

B'Elanna was silent and then she looked back at Betsy Jo, probably trying to compare that paragon of perfection to herself. That's when I knew I had hurt B'Elanna.

The thing is, there really is no comparison. Betsy Jo is a bunch of photons held together by a force field. Sometimes, if I pushed too hard, she'd fade in and out. B'Elanna, on the other hand, is flesh and blood, soft, pliant, and delicious. I - well, you know how I feel about B'Elanna.

I mean, isn't it obvious? How I feel?

That's what I don't get. How can she not know? How can she possibly feel threatened by a hologram when she knows I care about her?

But back to the holodeck. B'Elanna didn't go ballistic like I'd expect; instead, she remained calm and collected. And the next words out of her mouth were not the ones I expected.

"I don't want to look at her," B'Elanna said. "Computer, delete the Betsy Jo hologram."

So Betsy Jo went poof and I really expected that I would follow. I just hoped that Captain Janeway would be able to put a good spin on my death, be able to explain to my father that his prodigal son had had wild, wonderful sex with a hologram when he had a perfectly good girlfriend.

A girlfriend with a killer right hook.

I should have known better.

I didn't think B'Elanna had it in her to cry. She gets angry a lot. She rages and throws things, but she never looks really sad. Yeah, when she was throwing herself out of airlocks in her suicidal orbital skydiving modes, yeah, she looked - well, she looked dead. But when she caught me with Betsy Jo, well, she simply drew her lips into a straight line and her posture drooped, enough to let me know how disappointed and sad she was.

"I'm sorry," I ventured. Hell, why not? Apologize quickly and sincerely and get it over with. Maybe she'd make my death relatively painless in return.

"I am too," she said. She didn't give me any more information than that and I couldn't tell what exactly she meant. Look, I'm still learning how to have a mature relationship with a woman. I still haven't grasped the subtleties of woman-speak. God, how was I supposed to take that? Was she sorry that she hadn't been there for me? Was she sorry in the sense that our relationship was over?

Who knows? I certainly didn't.

Anyway, B'Elanna walked out and that thundercloud over her head, it followed her everywhere. Everyone knew within minutes what had happened and Harry just looked at me sympathetically. I think he knew that I was going to die.

But amazingly, that hasn't happened. For some reason, I'm still alive talking to you and slurping tomato soup. Makes me wonder, really does, if she's going to ambush me or if she's got something more sinister in mind. God, I don't even want to think about what my punishment could entail.

You are right about one thing. It's going to take a hell of lot more than a couple dozen roses to get me out of this mess.

~ The End ~