I usually preface my stories with a bit of an explanation. This one I will allow to speak for itself, with Tom Paris helping out on occasion.
This story follows closely on "The Andorian Incident"; you may want to read that first although I have tried to make doing so non-essential. There is also an echo of some characters and events from "Choices". (For a timeline of all the stories that comprise my private little post-Endgame universe, please check my profile page.)
None of the characters or background elements that you recognize from the Paramount library belong to me; the story itself does, though, as do the characters you've met only in my stories. I write for fun, not profit.
THE NEUTRAL ZONE
by Alpha Flyer
Time's glory is to calm contending kings,
To unmask falsehood and bring truth to light,
To stamp the seal of time in aged things,
To wake the morn and sentinel the night,
To wrong the wronger till he render right,
To ruinate proud buildings with thy hours,
And smear with dust their glittering golden towers.
William Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece
Chapter 1 – Tea for Two
"So, what exactly is it you want me to tell you?"
"That depends on what you want to tell me, Tom."
"I'm not sure I particularly want to tell you anything, frankly. We never had this kind of … session on Voyager. I'm not sure I know what to do with it anymore." Tom Paris set down his tea, but kept stroking the rim of his mug absently with his thumb, studiously avoiding the Counselor's gaze. If he was looking at anything at all, it was not presently contained in Deanna Troi's office.
"Post-mission decompression counseling is required for any member of Starfleet personnel who actively participated in a mission in the course of which that member caused or witnessed the death of, or serious injury to, a sentient being. You can quote the regulation as well as I can, Tom. Will had his session three days ago, and I know for fact that you have had post-traumatic stress counseling … in the past. When you were on the Exeter. So there's no point being disingenuous about it, Commander." The look Deanna gave the First Officer, laced as it was with a mixture of sympathy and humour, only served to underscore the firmness of her words.
Tom gave a dark chuckle. "Yeah. After Caldik Prime. Thanks for the reminder, Counselor. 'You caused the death of three fellow officers, Lieutenant Paris. How does that make you feel, especially in light of your father's position?' Most unhelpful three hours of my life, documented on pages one through thirty-four of the extensive portfolio of failed attempts to get Thomas Eugene Paris' self-destructive and deeply conflicted psyche inspected, dissected, rejected and perfected."
He took a defiant sip of his tea, and set the mug back down on the table with an audible clunk. "So fine, we've established that you won't let me get away with bullshitting you. But that still doesn't mean that I feel any need to download my 'feelings' on what happened during the Andorian mission, does it. Assuming I have any feelings to download. So where does that leave us?"
"Oh, you have feelings about that mission alright, Tom. I can sense them churning from over here, and have for the last week. Don't forget, I'm an empath, so don't try and bluff your way through. But what you actually do with this mandatory session is entirely up to you. If you prefer, we can just sit here, have tea and chat. I'll log your attendance, and you're clear."
Tom's bright blue eyes flew up in surprise, finally meeting Deanna Troi's warm, black ones. "You'd do that? Really?"
"Certainly," the half-Betazoid counselor replied evenly. "I don't think that counselling is particularly useful when it's done just to fill in an official template, or to tick off a box in the dictates of staff regulations. I prefer talking to people when I can provide them with something they actually need or want. That's a far better use of my time, and theirs."
Tom Paris nodded and smiled, albeit a little self-consciously. "And I don't want or need anything right now. I'm good."
It was Deanna's turn to pick up her cup. She carefully lifted it to her lips, took a delicate sip, and changed tactics.
"Yes, you're right, you don't need anything, from anyone. After all, you've come to the conclusion, all by yourself, that what you really need to do right now is to broadcast to the whole crew - and to yourself whenever you look in the mirror and see that number carved into your neck - that Commander Thomas Eugene Paris is a convicted criminal. Despite the fact that you were given an official pardon, and could have Beverly cover the number up again in a matter of minutes. You're dealing with things; you're good. I get it. But do feel free to come back if you ever want to talk about anything. Or maybe just to have another cup of tea."
The smile drained off Tom's face. "Shit, Deanna, that's not fair. You dragged me in here, on the pretext of a routine psych detox, but what you really want me to do is spill my guts about some of the more sordid aspects of my past history? Let me tell you, others have tried their hand at that and failed."
"Yes, Tom, I'm aware of that. As the ship's counselor I do have access to your psych profile and yes, I do know that you persistently resisted or sabotaged any and all attempts at mandatory counselling in Auckland, and that you were whisked away into the Delta Quadrant before you ever got the chance to get counselling voluntarily after you got out. I also know that for seven years on Voyager you lived through more traumatic events in a week than most Starfleet officers do in a lifetime. You sat through one or two of the mandatory decompression debriefs when you got home, and passed the general psych evaluation that was part of the admissions process for the Kirk Centre. But even then, you never let anyone touch Auckland. Ever."
She glared at him, her black eyes like glowing embers – warm and comforting, but ready to ignite if sufficiently provoked. "And now, suddenly, you're literally wearing it on your sleeve. Your neck, rather. Something has changed, and it's my job to find out why, and whether it will affect your ability to carry out your duties."
Tom looked around the room as if seeking an escape hatch, finding none. Well, there was the door, of course, but somehow he knew it wouldn't do this time.
"What if … what if I'm not ready … to talk about it?"
"That tattoo on your neck tells me you are. More than your voice does. Even if you're not willing to admit it quite yet. But … fine, it doesn't have to be today."
Deanna leaned back in her chair. "So, how's Miral doing? I heard she's starting to beat the four-year-olds at three-dimensional chess."
"I thought it was the bar at first."
"Miral's been playing chess in a bar?"
"Now who's being disingenuous?"
"Sorry. The bar in that horrid space station that you told us about at dinner?"
"Yeah. The illustrious 'Starlight Lounge'." Tom snorted contemptuously, shaking his head as his olfactory memory recalled the smell of booze, illicit narcotics and bodily fluids that had accosted him, in the most unlikely establishment anyone could have picked to initiate the restoration of political stability to Andoria, and had sent his mind into a tailspin.
"As I put into my official reports, I exposed the tattoo so that the goons at Nardik Station wouldn't immediately mark me as Starfleet. But what I didn't say is that when I walked into that place, I had flashbacks. To the time before … before Auckland. To what my friend Sandrine would describe as my 'barfly period'."
He turned his gaze on Deanna Troi fully now, blue eyes blazing with remembered self-loathing. "You wouldn't believe some of the things I did then, Deanna. To survive - even though if you'd asked me at the time, I would have told you that I didn't give an actual shit whether I lived or died, and it would have been the truth. How's that for schizophrenic, eh? On top of everything else."
Deanna held his gaze, giving nothing away. He patient was on a roll now, and needed only the slightest encouragement to continue. "It seems to me that you wanted to survive more than you did not."
Tom snorted his contempt. "Yeah, I guess so, although I never quite understood why. And then I took on the assignment for Chakotay, got caught, and got … this carved into my neck." He ran his finger down the blue mark on his jugular, so like a tattoo but indelible, permanent, always there unless covered – superficially - by artificially stimulated scar tissue growth. "Like the official stamp of disapproval, that proved once and for all that I was a disappointment to everyone who knew me, and an all-round worthless piece of shit."
Tom studied his fingernails, gripped his cup again. "It was … I thought … At the time, I took it willingly. Accepted it as an confirmation of who and what I was. As I said, I actually believed that I deserved it. And everything that went with it. Everything. I just … took it all." His voice trailed off, his eyes were far away, darkening with a memory that the half-Betazoid read as a blast of fear and self-loathing so vehement, it forced her to swallow. She watched his knuckles on the cup turn white, felt tempted to pry it from his hand lest he break it and injure himself.
Deanna held herself very still against the words that now seemed to want to come tumbling out. He would only need the slightest of prompts.
"And do you still? Think that you deserved it? Being marked like that?"
Tom shook his head slowly, chewing his lower lip. "No. No, that's just it. I'm quite serious when I say I got over all the crap, the low self-esteem, the constant fucking up, all of that. I realize now that when I walked out of that bar on Nardik, I should have known right away that that was no longer me. That I don't owe that … that loser anything anymore. I paid that price. It's over. It took me years to accept that, but I'm pretty certain I do, now."
Deanna looked at him thoughtfully. "So what is it then, about that mark, that made you decide to keep it visible even now?"
Tom had resorted back to stroking the rim of his teacup with his thumb, eyes far away. "I told Will that I would want to talk to you about the flashbacks, and that that's why I wanted to keep the tattoo. And at the time when I said that, I meant it. But I've been doing some thinking since."
He gave another self-deprecating snort. "Unusual as that is for me. I'm not normally into bouts of self-analysis, as you've probably gathered. But I've figured out now that what bugs me is not … that I once was a loser or a drunk. That's shit I did to myself, by myself. I lived through it, took responsibility for it. I evolved and moved past it, and as I said, I'm over it. Really, really over it, and not just saying that. No, …"
The look Tom now gave to Deanna Troi was a burning mixture of anguish and fury that almost caused her to move away from him in her seat. "What's been keeping me awake recently is Auckland. Not the shit that happened before then, not the stuff that came up in my throat in that bar. No, it's just … Auckland itself. The conviction for something that should never have been a crime. The helplessness, the betrayal. The official attempt at a re-run, when Voyager came back. And what happened on Andor, especially with Ramara, just brought it all back, I just didn't realize it right away."
"Betrayal?" Deanna was trying to follow his logic now, but clearly there were pieces missing that he hadn't gotten to yet, and that she needed to put in place in order to tap into the source of the raw anger she saw before her now.
"Yes. Betrayal. You see, when my father gave that evidence at the Maquis trial, about how all that suffering in the colonies, all those atrocities that turned ordinary people into criminals, the … the stuff I went through in Auckland - how all that essentially was the result of some political hacks out to make a fast buck and gaining brownie points for proclaiming a historic victory… The same people who had sworn an oath to uphold the 'principles of the Federation'."
He paused, and Deanna stayed silent, allowing him the space to gather his thoughts. "Talking to my Dad about what really happened with the Cardassian treaty and the DMZ, it was like getting raped all over again, just in a different way." At this, Deanna took in a sharp breath. She made a quick note on her pad. Tom barrelled on heedlessly, not noticing.
"And what happened on Andor, especially with that guard, Ramara, just brought all that home again. I guess what makes me so fucking angry is when I can't do anything about … injustice. About people using others, for their own end, in the name of profit or political advantage. Or in the case of the rapes, shredding somebody's soul for just a few seconds of gratification, or for the sake of a momentary power trip. And I hate, just hate having to … essentially lie back and take it, when what I really want to do is grab a phaser and blast the whole fucking lot of them out the nearest airlock."
He shook his head, breathing deeply, slowing down. "So I'm keeping this mark as a sort of protest, to remind myself, and others, that there's some major unresolved shit out there in our beloved Federation that still hasn't been addressed. Stuff that's been swept under the rug because it was too uncomfortable to think about. Like that mark was covered up initially, as soon as they carved it into my neck. Hear no evil, see no evil, think no evil …"
Tom cast Deanna a challenging look. "So you see, counselor, this tattoo – keeping it there – it isn't about my psychological well-being, or some kind of private catharsis. It's about politics. I may not be in a position to fix corruption in the Federation, but with this tattoo, I can sure as hell remind people that it exists. And for some reason, that's important to me right now. I'm glad that Will didn't ask me to take it off. You can tell him I said so."
Deanna looked at the Commander thoughtfully. A good start had been made; it was enough for one day. She knew where the iceberg was now; eventually, Tom Paris would allow her to look at the vast expanses beneath, including the ones he seemed to be rationalizing away for now.
Her own past experiences of being violated by outside forces would help. But now was not the time. Not yet.
"Thanks for telling me this, Tom; I know that it's not easy for you. And no, I won't talk to Will about anything you said here today. If there's something you want him to know, you can tell him yourself."
She paused briefly, weighing her next words carefully. "But what I'm wondering is this – and I'd invite you just to think about it, for the next time we … have tea – is where your private political protest ends, and your psychological well-being begins. Or the other way around. You see, I'm not so convinced those two things are entirely unrelated. But we can save that for another time. Do you want a refill on your tea?"
Tom gratefully accepted another cup of Earl Grey, and for a while they sat in companionable silence, punctuated by small exchanges about Miral and her rather precocious development. Deanna had taken to the little girl instantly, wistfully regretting the fact that she was still childless. Miral reciprocated "Auntie Dee's" enthusiasm in spades, in particular as she always seemed to know exactly when a hug or a tickle was needed, or when it was time for personal space to be given.
"You know," he finally said, "I think I'll tell B'Elanna why I've decided to keep the tattoo. She hasn't asked, not really. Over the years we've figured out that we'll talk to each other about stuff when we're ready, and that it doesn't pay either of us to push. So, thanks. For getting me ready for that talk. I'm sure she's been dying of curiosity."
Deanna was about to give him an encouraging smile, when the ship's comm system came to life.
"Riker to Paris and Troi. Please come to the bridge. Repeat, Paris and Troi to the bridge please. We have received a distress call, from inside the Neutral Zone."