Title: Consequences

Author: Ruralstar

Spoilers/Set: Anything up until 5x8 "Nothing Human"

Pairing: P/T

Summary: Every action has consequences.

A/N: This episode resonated with me during its' original airing in December of 1998, and remains just as powerful nearly 12 years later. I love the ethical dilemma faced by the entire crew. The writing is tight and the performances by the cast and guest star David Clennon are spot on. "Nothing Human" is Star Trek at its' very best.

Disclaimer: Star Trek Voyager is the property of Paramount, Rick Berman, Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor. This story is for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended.

Consequences

"Any consequences of this decision will be my responsibility."

Fine and noble words. Tom did not doubt that the Captain meant every syllable. Nor did he question the additional burden his whispered 'thanks' at the end of the briefing placed upon her shoulders. At that moment, and for the minutes and hours that followed, he did not care what anyone thought—including B'Elanna. His love for her was a single-minded entity vehemently opposed to the reasoned arguments presented by Chakotay and the others. Tom was teetering on the edge of rationality before he entered the meeting. Unreachable when the doors slid closed on the Captain's nearly inaudible sigh.

Tom's emotional outbursts compelled the Doctor to ban him from the holodeck. He fell to pacing the length of the corridor outside while the two holograms performed surgery. For the first time since the onset of this crisis he had time to ponder his well-intentioned albeit selfish words and actions. But his mind had become a void. Voyager going to red alert and the subsequent altercation failed to produce a customary surge of adrenaline. Instead, Tom drifted in a numbed malaise. Guided by the instinctual determination that it was better to sit down than be thrown down, he sat against the wall opposite the entrance to the holodeck and waited. Blue eyes fixed firmly on the closed doors, hardly blinking as the lights flickered and the deck plates shuddered beneath him.

He did not know how much time passed before the lighting returned to normal and the low hum, which characterized Voyager at station keeping, altered pitch. Like any good pilot, Tom could sense the shift a split second before the ship gathered herself and accelerated to Impulse. A brief pause and then a second, stronger vibration heralded the jump to Warp. Monitoring operations through the tips of his fingers and the soles of his feet had become second nature to Tom. He rested his head against the wall and entwined his fingers between his propped knees, trying to relax. Warp 6, he concluded after a moment's concentration. The Captain was in a hurry to put some distance between them and whoever had attacked. Had the alien's companions returned? Did the fact that Voyager wasn't a cloud of microscopic dust mean the operation had been successful? Tom pressed his palms to the wall behind him. Voyager was a peaceful giantess cradling her crew close within, listening without judgment, calming without words. He drew strength from the steady throb of her warp core several decks below as he slowly stood up.

The holodeck doors abruptly swished open sending a jolt of surprise arcing across Tom's raw nerves. The Doctor guided an anti-grav gurney with B'Elanna strapped to it out into the hallway. The alien was nowhere to be seen. Struck mute with concern, Tom helped the EMH steer the gurney around the corner and in the direction of the nearest turbolift. B'Elanna was still unconscious but her features were relaxed. Free of the pain inflicted by the creature.

"Mr. Paris, the operation was a complete success and the alien has been returned to its compatriots." The Doctor cast a critical eye on the gurney's sensor display and frowned. "Given the extensive trauma to B'Elanna's nervous system I thought it prudent to use a gurney instead of transporting her directly to sickbay."

Tom held B'Elanna's limp fingers in his and nodded acknowledgment. There were no words; only an overwhelming sense of relief. B'Elanna would live. He would worry about the rest later.

After B'Elanna was settled in sickbay for post-op procedures, the EMH ordered him to return to his quarters and get some sleep. Tom did so reluctantly. He lay down on the bed still fully clothed and attempted to read one of B'Elanna's Klingon romance novels as a distraction. Two hours later the door buzzer roused him from a fitful doze. "Come in," he responded automatically as he rolled off the bed. He was halfway across the living area when the door slid open to reveal Captain Janeway. Tom stopped short, sighing involuntarily. It was too much to ask that B'Elanna could—or would—come to him, yet he had. Swallowing disappointment along with the dull ache in his throat, Tom gestured the Captain inside.

Janeway stepped in just far enough for the motion sensor to register and close the door. She noted his disheveled appearance at a glance and said, "I'm sorry I woke you."

"It's fine, Captain." Tom rubbed tiredly at his forehead and nodded towards a chair.

She demurred with a slight shake of her head and crossed her arms. "You were expecting someone else."

"Hoping," Tom admitted warily, unsure of the Captain's motivation despite her evident sensitivity. He was exhausted and not in the mood for a lecture, well deserved as it was, on his insolent behavior in the staff meeting. "Captain, if this is about the meeting…"

"It's not," she denied. "Not to say that there aren't grounds for a reprimand should Chakotay feel the need to press the issue."

"I know." Tom agreed. "I will make a point of speaking to him before the start of my next duty shift."

The Captain caught and held Tom's restless gaze. "I expect nothing less, and I do understand your feelings. So does Chakotay." She relaxed marginally, giving him silent license to do the same. "This…situation…has raised a lot of questions for everyone on board. We'll be asking ourselves for a long time to come whether we made the correct ethical choice regarding B'Elanna's care. And we may come to regret whatever decision the Doctor ultimately makes regarding the disposition of Moset's program." A wry smile twisted her lips. "Despite your assertions to the contrary, I don't believe Moset's involvement was a black and white issue for you anymore than it was for the rest of us."

"I haven't thought about it much."

"You will."

Kathryn Janeway had gotten to know her senior officers pretty well over the last four and a half years. Her conclusion was likely correct, Tom allowed.

"I've spoken to B'Elanna."

"Oh?" The Doctor was supposed to inform him when B'Elanna was up to receiving visitors. Tom flushed with irritation at the lapse.

"Captain's prerogative," Janeway explained, reading his emotions as easily as she read a data PADD.

"How is she?"

"Angry, hurt, frustrated…"

"Feeling better then," Tom quipped feebly. He turned away, scrubbing both hands through his hair as he paced to the windows and back again. B'Elanna's words, a plea as much as a command, echoed through his head. "…If I let that pig touch me…I won't let him near me…Find another way…" He stopped pacing next to the couch and his hands fell to hang limply at his sides. He couldn't look at the Captain, couldn't ignore B'Elanna's visage vividly displayed before his mind's eye. "What did she expect us to do?"

"That's a question you'll have to ask her yourself. I told her it was my decision to utilize Moset's research. My choice to make as Captain of Voyager."

"I'm sure that went over well."

"I've had more productive conversations with my replicator."

The shock of what had almost happened descended on Tom without warning. He sighed raggedly and clenched his fists in an effort to quell the intermittent tremors that made every muscle in his body ache. Sobs of frustration, fear, and blessed relief clawed at his constricted throat. The Captain stepped closer. Her fingers light on his shoulder provided an anchor as the cabin spun around him. Tom dropped heavily onto the couch and buried his face in his hands. He was grateful for the support, and equally terrified that his fragile self-control would splinter completely before she could leave.

The Captain perched on the cushions, her body comfortingly close even as her hand drifted to her lap. "B'Elanna doesn't know what you said in the briefing. I didn't think it was my place to tell her."

"Thanks," he murmured, enduring a disorienting moment of déjà vu.

"She knows you love her but right now I'm not sure she's ready to listen to anyone." Janeway touched him briefly on the arm before rising. "I make it a point of staying out of my crewmember's private affairs unless their behavior compromises the ship, or becomes inappropriate."

Tom forced himself to look up. Not surprised by the mischievous spark in the Captain's eye which belied her stern tone. He offered a weak smile in return. "I know my place was on the bridge during B'Elanna's surgery. I'm sorry I let you down."

"You were right where you needed to be, Tom." Janeway headed for the door. She turned back just as it slid open and waited for Tom's eyes to meet hers. "You know that my door is always open if you need to talk?"

"I know," he whispered.

The door slid closed and Tom moved to prop an elbow on the back of the couch and rest his head against his hand. The stars streaked by the window and he watched them for a long time. His free hand alternately kneaded the cushions and rose unconsciously to wipe stray tears from his cheeks.

Tom bolted awake in a tangle of sweat-soaked sheets, anxious and still exhausted. He did not remember going to bed. The nightmares were another matter. A disturbing cacophony of colors and sounds had chased through his subconscious. The scenes were familiar but they possessed no discernible order, and were now completely irretrievable as the reality of his quarters settled into focus. Coughing to clear the sleep from his throat, Tom swung his feet to the floor and glanced towards the chronometer on the far wall. Startled, he blinked and looked again. 0932 was spelled out in clear red digits. Tom lurched to his feet. "Computer, why didn't you wake me!"

"Your wake-up call was deleted at the request of the First Officer, Commander Chakotay."

Tom shook his head in silent gratitude. He had lost track of time completely during B'Elanna's crisis. He did not expect preferential treatment based on the closeness of their relationship however. Certainly not from a man so often at odds with him. Summoning his wits, Tom crossed to the replicator. "Computer, hot coffee with cream. Deduct the credits from my account."

The mug appeared and Tom carried it over to the couch. He took a cautious sip before speaking again. "Computer, locate Commander Chakotay."

"Commander Chakotay is on deck 2, First Officer's private office."

"Send a page requesting private communication."

The computer beeped. "Page sent."

Leaving his mug on the coffee table Tom went into the bathroom to prepare for the day. He was still on duty until informed otherwise. Ten minutes later he was tucking his uniform tunic into his trousers when the computer announced, "Private communication from Commander Chakotay."

"Accept," Tom sat on the couch and collected his coffee. He had time for a bracing swallow before the First Officer's disembodied voice issued from the wall speaker.

"Good morning, Lieutenant. Sleep well?"

"Not really. Thanks for asking." Tom held the mug with both hands, suddenly nervous. "Commander...I appreciate you letting me sleep in this morning. After yesterday's incident I didn't expect…I mean…"

"You're off the duty roster for the next two days." The First Officer's soft tone indicated sympathy, not discipline. Tom slumped in his seat and grimaced as coffee sloshed over his fingers. Chakotay continued in the same tone. "I will not tolerate insubordination, Tom, but I'm not insensitive to your situation. B'Elanna will be off duty for the rest of the week. Spend some time together." He paused. "Is there something else I can do for you?"

"No, Sir," Tom said quietly. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. As for yesterday, consider your holodeck privileges revoked for the next two days. Keep your head in the real world, Mr. Paris."

Tom chuckled softly beneath his breath. It was a reprimand and gentle encouragement at the same time. "Yes, Sir."

"Chakotay out."

Tom considered his half empty mug. The conversation with Chakotay had been awkward but relatively painless. He doubted he would be as fortunate with his next endeavors. "Computer, locate Lieutenant Torres."

"Lieutenant Torres is in her quarters."

Tom nodded to himself. "Computer, send a page requesting private communication to the Doctor."

Beep. "Page sent."

He only had time to finish his coffee and recycle the mug before the Doctor replied.

"Good morning, Mr. Paris."

"Depends on how you define 'good'," Tom muttered ruefully. "Have you spoken with B'Elanna this morning?"

"I've just returned from her quarters. She is recovering as expected."

"House calls, Doc?"

"I am fully capable of adapting to the needs of my patients." The Doctor sounded pained. "Is there something I can help you with?"

"How is B'Elanna doing?"

"Her health is a matter of doctor patient confidentiality, as you are well aware."

"Of course I'm aware," Tom snapped. "I mean how is she doing?" There was a pause as the Doctor mulled the question. The hair on the back of Tom's neck stiffened at the delay and what it might imply. "Doc?"

"She is in a very volatile emotional state right now. I suspect the neurological trauma she suffered is still having an effect. However, that is only a small part of the problem."

A sarcastic retort leapt to the tip of Tom's tongue. He bit it back forcefully. "What did you do with Moset's program?"

"I deleted it and all related files."

There was a note of regret in the Doctor's voice. Tom understood and sympathized to some extent. Ethics aside, Moset's research could be invaluable. Especially in the Delta Quadrant where their resources were often limited to precedents established some thirty thousand light years from their current position. Something important had been lost but Tom knew that many crew members would breathe a sigh of relief—himself included. The former Maquis would find new respect for the Doctor. And balm for the perceived slight inflicted by a Captain who put the well-being of one, and extensively the entire crew, above moral conscience.

"Are you still there, Mr. Paris?"

"Sorry, Doc. I was just thinking." He expected a derisive remark and was mildly surprised when the Doctor did not seize the opportunity. "Does B'Elanna know what you did?" he asked.

"I informed her after her exam. She was…conflicted."

Tom cocked an eyebrow at the adjective but chose to let it pass. The Captain had been right. Everyone would have questions. He cleared his throat. "Doc, about my attitude in sickbay and during the staff meeting…"

"You are nothing if not consistent, Mr. Paris. You were equally acerbic with all members of the senior staff. I do not feel singled out nor do I desire an apology for your behavior. Merely a concerted effort on your part to not duplicate it in the future."

"Fair enough."

"The First Officer has informed me of your duty status. I would like you to come to sick bay if you experience any symptoms of stress or anxiety."

"I'm fine."

"Nightmares, insomnia, lethargy, loss of appetite…"

"Would you stop already! I know the symptoms."

"And I know that you are under the misguided impression that you are, in the parlance of your 20th century obsessions, 'bullet proof'. B'Elanna was an obvious victim here. But I would be remiss in my medical duties and in my duties as your friend, if I did not acknowledge the effect this incident has had on you."

The EMH's concern touched Tom deeply. He swallowed hard, relieved that he was alone and invisible to the Doctor's scrutiny. "I'll stop by later."

"And in the meantime?"

"I'm going to see B'Elanna."

"I don't want to see you in here with a broken nose in addition to anything else you might be experiencing. You have been warned."

Tom smiled. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. Doctor out."

Tom sat for a long time staring into the shadows. He had no idea what to expect from B'Elanna. Being thrown out of her quarters bodily was as likely as a passionate embrace or a sobbing mess. The plethora of possibilities twisted his empty guts into tight knots. He decided on toast to settle the nausea and give himself a bit more time to prepare. While he ate, he contemplated calling B'Elanna. By the time he recycled the plate, he had concluded that surprise was probably the only advantage left to him. Screwing a smile on his face on the off chance that he might meet someone en route, Tom left his quarters. The halls and lift were empty and he was standing in front of B'Elanna's door before he had the chance to second guess the decision.

"What?" came her irritable reply to the buzzer.

"It's Tom. Could I talk to you for a minute?" There was no response. Tom tried to be patient as seconds stretched to a minute and then two. He felt self-conscious and silently prayed that no one would catch him standing outside his girlfriend's door looking for all the world like the penitent fool he was. "B'Elanna…please," he murmured, trying the buzzer again. In the ensuing silence Tom pressed a palm to the door and rested his forehead against his knuckles. Could they get past this? More than a missed date or an inconsiderate word this latest incident spoke to fundamental differences in personal philosophy.

As a young man, Tom never chose the path less traveled unless it led to an adventure he wished to pursue. Risks aplenty were undertaken for the sole purpose of personal pleasure. When it came to academics and the expected career path set out by his domineering father, he preferred the quickest route available. A childhood of hurt and disappointment quickly evolved into an adolescence of rebellion. Loyal, angry, and occasionally brilliant Tom Paris consciously refused to live up to the moniker of 'special' bestowed upon him by so many: and withdrawn without quarter after the disaster at Caldik Prime.

His experiences since joining Voyager had changed him in ways Admiral Paris would have never dreamed. Tom was a respected officer with principles and goals. He actively considered the needs of crewmates and aliens alike no matter his personal feelings towards them. And he valued loyalty proved in action far more than simple words. Still, he harbored a selfish streak. A defense mechanism which roared to the forefront whenever Tom felt threatened or protective of those he loved. B'Elanna's was his polar opposite in terms of personal standards. Hot tempered to a fault but with a nurturing spirit few people had ever seen. Her passions were tempered by an unremitting desire to protect those who could not defend themselves. Tom admired her selflessness and strove to emulate it—most of the time. This was different and the idea that he should somehow apologize for the reasons why rankled.

"Dammit B'Elanna," he breathed. "Don't shut me out." Tom's fingers curled into a fist as he pushed off the door and started to walk down the hall. The hiss of escaping air halted his retreat. He turned back and smiled tentatively. "Hey."

B'Elanna leaned against the bulkhead, arms folded, dark eyes unreadable. "What did you want?"

"To see you. Talk a while," he said. Her skin was still a shade pale and taut across her cheeks but there was no tremor in her stance. The sight of her upright and talking caught the breath in Tom's throat. "I was worried about you."

"The Doctor says I'll live."

Tom moved a step closer and saw a shadow flicker across her face. He felt an answering flutter deep inside. B'Elanna was clearly struggling to harness emotions that were chilling the air between them with their verve.

"I know you're angry."

"Angry? Angry doesn't quite cover it," B'Elanna snarled.

Tom shifted closer and spots of color bloomed in her cheeks. The click of her clenching jaw was abnormally loud in the quiet hall. He knew better than to reach out, though everything in him yearned to draw her close and make them both forget. It was a strange sensation to be in need of comfort instead of providing it. Generations of Parises were somersaulting in their graves at this implied emasculation. Tom buried their disapproval and took another step. He could feel the heat of B'Elanna's body; cold fire washing over him.

"What choice did we have, B'Elanna?"

"The Doctor was programmed with over 5 million possible treatment protocols, not to mention what he's learned since we arrived in the Delta Quadrant. You're going to stand there and tell me that he couldn't have come up with another option besides consulting with a Cardassian butcher who murdered thousands of innocent people in the name of science!" Her voice rose steadily as she ranted and ended on a shrill note Tom had never heard before.

They were inches apart now. Tom rested his hands on her trembling shoulders. "Yes, that's exactly what I'm telling you."

"You self-righteous, arrogant pig! How dare you? Who gave you the right…" B'Elanna wrenched free, her voice trailing off in a string of Klingon curses as she stalked into her darkened quarters.

Tom's close proximity was the only thing that prevented the door from sliding shut in his face. The sensor detected the foot he thrust forward and he managed to slip inside.

"Get out, Tom!"

"Not until you hear me out."

"The Captain tried to order me to put this in the past. Order me! I'll do it if it kills me but I'll be damned if I'll take orders from you!"

"This isn't an order. It's…oh for… I love you and you said you loved me too. Don't you owe me the courtesy of a hearing? Or have I been summarily judged and sentenced like Janeway and the Doctor?" Tom knew it was a risk involving anyone else in the conversation. He hoped it would point out the flaw in her reasoning.

B'Elanna stood in front of the window. Her spine was rail straight. The muscles of her back and shoulders clearly defined in a posture of controlled tension.

Tom took a deep breath. "The Captain took responsibility for the Doctor's actions but she did not make that decision on her own. We held a staff meeting and Tuvok and Chakotay defended your decision and your right to make it. But we were running out of time and no one had any viable options to offer."

"And you? What did you say?"

"I couldn't stand there and watch you die."

"I told you all Cardassians are cold-blooded killers," she whispered bitterly. And now I owe my life to a creature I would have gladly eviscerated not so long ago."

"And all Klingons are brutal savages who drink too much and dine regularly on raw organs?" Tom retorted with equal heat. "B'Elanna, you judged Crell the second you saw him."

"And I was right!" She spun around, fists clenched, gritted teeth a brilliant white in the thick shadows. "There's no excuse for what he did! Or for what you did!"

Here emerged the tip of the berg buoying up beneath them. Tom bit back a curse and tried for calm even as a nodule of hurt swelled within. "Maybe not. Maybe I'm a selfish jerk for wanting you here on Voyager and not floating through space in a torpedo casing. And maybe it's okay to bury the dead and honor them with life instead of hate."

"Easy for you to say…"

"Easy?" His voice rose an octave as he threw his hands wide. "Nothing about this situation has been easy for me! Or anyone else for that matter!"

"Not everyone has seen what I have. Or lived through what Tabor has. You come from privilege, Tom. You never wanted for anything. Never experienced that kind of brutality."

"So I don't deserve to have an opinion is that it?" The hurt was larger now, cold and hard in his chest. Tom's mouth tasted like iron and he wondered when he had bitten his tongue.

"Don't twist my words." B'Elanna crossed the room in two quick strides. Her eyes found his in the dim light. Intense black pools as mesmerizing as a cobra.

Tom did not flinch. To do so would ensure an end to something he had compromised everything they both stood for to hang onto. "Don't pretend that this only about the war and your friends in the Maquis. You can't own only part of this package B'Elanna. It's all," he sighed heavily, "or nothing."

"Get out!"

"I feel the same way you do about what Crell did. Don't you see that?"

"I'm standing here…"

"And thousands of innocent people aren't. You have a right to be angry on their behalf but arbitrarily sacrificing yourself won't do any of them any good." B'Elanna blinked and for a moment the cobra retreated. Tom fought the urge to reach out and shake her. "This is about control. Of me, Janeway, the Doctor…that murderous bastard who saved your life."

Two clenched fists struck Tom square in the chest. He gasped and fell back against the short wall that separated the living area from the bed. The room dimmed to a featureless haze filled with sounds and movements emanating from B'Elanna. Tom focused on drawing air into his lungs and tried to comprehend the sensations, but she had become a shadowy Vesuvius. Her emotions erupted in a geyser of gestures, curses and disjointed sentenced punctuated by stuttered sobs. B'Elanna had been rendered nearly incoherent by the pain she could not define or atone for. The last vestiges of self-control scattered on the floor at Tom's feet.

Losing control of her Klingon temper was one of B'Elanna's greatest fears. That same temper was an asset she often failed to appreciate, and one Tom valued immeasurably. He knew this catharsis was necessary if equilibrium were ever to be restored, so he endured it in pained silence. When it ended as abruptly as it had begun he was taken aback.

"I'm sorry."

The words were so quiet and unexpected Tom was not sure he had heard correctly. He straightened up and rubbed absently at the bruises on his sternum. Voyager's steady rhythms, which usually went unnoticed, were now welcome static in the sweeping silence. He found his balance and scanned the room, finally locating B'Elanna sitting on the floor in the corner next to the bathroom door. Her crossed arms rested on her knees and her cheeks were wet with tears.

It took everything he had for Tom to keep his place. The urge to comfort lay at the core of the damaged child he once was. His inmate sensitivity had been beaten down to a sliver of light by impossible expectations, never to grow until he found her. Angry and broken, B'Elanna hated him when he joined the Maquis for the same reasons Tom had grown to hate himself. The Delta Quadrant gave them both a clean slate. She expected status quo but he could not be content. He took her passivity and indifference as a challenge and pursued without hesitation. That tiny light within him was energized by her fire. They had earned each other's loyalty and love over the last four years. This quiet room was another test of that bond. She would lose all respect for him if he dared to move.

"I needed you to back off but I shouldn't have pushed you." B'Elanna tipped her head back against the wall. "You were right. You, the Captain, the doctor…"

"And Tuvok and Chakotay," Tom continued softly. "Using Moset's research to save your life was the best choice for you and for the rest of the crew. We need your expertise to get us home, B'Elanna."

"And what makes our needs here anymore important than the lives of those dead Bajorans? How can I live knowing what they and their families gave up for my cure?"

B'Elanna had reached out first and apologized. Pride had been satisfied on both sides leaving Tom free to cross the room and kneel in front of her. "By remembering what happened on Bajor, and staying alive as a tribute to their sacrifice. We knew how much you hated the Cardassians. Try and understand how strongly we felt about the idea of you becoming another victim of their war."

"We?"

Tom blinked to clear the film of unshed tears from his eyes. Offering a weak smile, his hand rose to cup her cheek. It was easier to encompass the crew in his statement than face the reality of her need alone. He had always shied away from long term commitments until B'Elanna. The sadness and confusion in her voice indicated that the time for caution was long past. "I knew and I felt," he emphasized. "If that makes me weak or selfish in your eyes then I'm sorry to hear it but I won't take back how I feel or why."

B'Elanna leaned into his palm and reached for his free hand with both of hers. "You're not weak. A stubborn, egotistical pig—but not weak."

Tom ducked his head and laughed softly. She squeezed his fingers and he looked up into her somber face. Beneath all the principled, angry words and misguided intentions lay a simple truth. Tom leaned in and brushed a soft kiss on B'Elanna's lips. He sat back before she could respond and made sure she was looking him straight in the eyes, "I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt you."

Her response was long in coming. Finally, B'Elanna nodded and pulled Tom close for a second, deeper kiss. Her eyes were softer when she sat back and he settled on the floor next to her. Her tone was resolute however. "I don't know how to be less than I am. I'm still angry and I still resent the fact that decisions were made without my consent no matter the consequences of those decisions."

"You're not the only one with a temper," he reminded gently. "I never asked you to be less of a person. Just to bend a little. Compromise isn't a bad thing, you know?"

"And if the situation had been reversed?"

"I trust you, B'Elanna. Probably more than anyone I've ever known." Tom eased an arm behind her shoulders and waited patiently for her to relax and lean back. "Does that answer your question?"

"Yeah, yeah it does."

There was a note of awe in her voice. Had anyone ever said those words during a time of intimacy, Tom mused. Or merely at a moment of desperation when the world was flying apart? He pressed a tender kiss to her temple and decided to save the question for another day. Thankful that he would have the chance to ask.

~THE~END~