AUTHOR'S NOTE

Some people speak of being chased by 'plot bunnies' when they write; this story is the fan fiction equivalent of a gamboling mutt: bouncing over some ground previously trodden for obvious reasons, including in excellent pieces by CrlkSeasons and Laura Schiller.

My particular take was spawned by a private challenge from Runawaymetaphor (mine to her turned into "Howl", so consider this a bookend of sorts). But it can trace its lineage back to the last segment of my very first fan fic, "Choices" with cross-pollination from a discussion with Cerulean Phoenix 7 about "Counterpoint." Toss in a little throwaway line I had just written in "After the Ashes" and there you have it – the plot mutt.

I tried to keep all of this consistent with both my own stories and canon. Spoilers for "Thirty Days," "Counterpoint," "Latent Image" and "Bride of Chaotica" – all of which are on the same marvelous Season Five DVD and, of course, wholly owned by Paramount. I write for fun, not profit. A heck of a lot of fun, actually. And absolutely no profit.


At the Bottom of a Glass

By Alpha Flyer


I.

"Is there room in this bottle for more than one person?"

Tom's head flies up at the familiar, gravelly voice, and his eyes narrow. Surely, she must be joking.

It's been eight days now, and he still wants nothing to do with her. Probably even less so now than when he was still sitting in the brig, desperate for company – any company. And no one could blame him, he's convinced, after that stunt she pulled with those telepaths and that smarmy inspector type …

It's not that he objects to saving the lives of a bunch of decent, peaceful people and their children from those fucking quasi- Cardassian Nazis. Hell, no - quite the contrary. He would have done exactly the same thing, with bells on, and under normal circumstances he'd have been the first to stand up and applaud her.

Except for … for the sheer hypocrisy of it, against the backdrop of Monea. That he can't forgive.

And it's that, more than anything, that has led him to ask Sandrine for a bottle of the real stuff, the Saurian brandy she keeps hidden just for him behind the bar. (Being the programmer has its privileges.)

He knows that B'Elanna will be late; keeping the transporters going the way they'd had to was an enormous drain on the ship's systems and she's just commed him that the Captain has found another problem for her to deal with. But he doesn't want to be in his quarters, not by himself. There's been too much of that in his life lately, thank you very much, and here in Sandrine's there's always someone to talk to. Even if it's only a hologram.

But the last thing he expects as he sits there waiting, washing down his anger with stuff that burns almost as much as his thoughts, is the object of his ire turning up out of the blue and – at least so it would appear – asking him to share his drink, this particular drink.

His mind flashes back to how things have been going, this first week back, and whether he needs to say yes.

Or can he afford to say no? Let's see.

All things considered, things didn't go too badly, at least not as seen from the standpoint of a repeat offender and apparently chronic Starfleet discipline case. Janeway herself made a point of ignoring him of course, and he her, except for a few dutiful "yes, Captains" at appropriate moments, to show proper professional respect and all that. After all, he does want that fucking pip back, and preferably before his father gets the letter.

But being dutiful doesn't mean he has to resume his role as her wise-cracking, stress-relieving personal comic relief. She may be pissed off and disappointed, but at least he's never waved the rulebook at other people minutes before ripping out the inconvenient pages. So, yeah. Pissed off and disappointed cuts both ways, and she has it coming, his ostentatious indifference.

Harry, of course, had given him a huge toothy grin and very audible "great to have you back, Tom." His best friend is finally getting a spine, that's for sure. Good to see, that. Of course, he may also just be happy that there's another ensign on the bridge now.

Tuvok had been his usual self of course, taciturn and professional. But now that he thinks about it, his imagination fuelled by the glass of brandy he's already outside of, the good Lt Commander's greeting when he sprang him from the brig that morning ("Rise and shine, Ensign!") was rather un-Vulcan. Almost Parisian, in its colloquial cheeriness. Maybe Tuvok has been trying to send him a message?

And Chakotay? The XO has been going out of his way to make him feel like he belongs back on the bridge, lauding his flying, even clapping him on the shoulder a couple of times – is he, too, trying to make a point? In his case to the Captain, who for the first time since, like, ever hasn'ttouched him at least once per shift while he was sitting at the helm? Hasn't even come close enough to peer over his shoulder, when he was maneuvering them through the real and virtual landmines of Devore space?

At lunch a couple days later, Harry had confirmed – and this time he had whispered because the Captain was sitting only a couple of tables over in the mess hall - that yeah, everybody'd been unhappy with his sentence, especially after Culhane almost crashed the ship into some alien vessel during a botched evasive maneuver Tom could have executed in his sleep. But even more so because it had seemed so … so … Harry had glanced nervously at the table where Chakotay and Janeway were pretending to enjoy Neelix' latest experiment in colour-texture-taste fusion, clearly fishing futilely for the right word.

"Arbitrary?" Tom had supplied helpfully, not keeping his voice down at all, and enjoying the opportunity to uncork a stream of adjectives he'd rehearsed a few times over the last couple of days. Okay, more than a few times.

"Disproportionate? Unjustified? Medieval? Unprecedented? Hypocritical? Dare I say it … personal?"

"Tom!" Harry was scandalized, of course, but Tom had only shrugged even as Janeway's head had flown up and he found himself considering whether 'arbitrary' and 'personal' wasn't actually mutually exclusive, now that he'd said it out loud.

Janeway lashed him with a grey-eyed glare that mere weeks ago would have turned him to ash, the volcanic version of the absolute zero one she'd given him when she'd ripped off that pip. But he knows who he is now, and so he had let it bounce right off, with a reciprocal hard stare. Duranium was what he'd been aiming for, seemingly successfully so. She looked away first.

And yet, here she is, in Sandrine's, on his turf, those same grey eyes focused on the fluted bottle as if contained liquid latinum. He supposes it is probably a more attractive sight to her than he is, at this point.

Tom knows, of course, that they can't go on like this forever. The ship is far too small, and space far too big. He has been figuring that he'd wait until some crisis or other, though - something that'll frazzle her sufficiently that a good wisecrack might break through and tap into her sense of humour, and then she'd chortle and then he'd smile, and they'd be able to at least pretend that things were fine. And eventually they would be.

Maybe in another, oh, thirty days or so he might consider looking for an opportunity like that to hoist the white hanky.

But not yet. No, not yet.

Not when she's just added to his sentence by making it all so … so completely irrelevant and meaningless. Yet here she is, weeks early even by the usually pretty flexible Tom Paris grudge-o-meter.

And she wants to drink with him. Wants to drink. With him.

Wants it badly enough to ask for it in a funny way, one that he might have used himself. Probably has, once or twice. Is there room for more than one person in this bottle?

The words rattle around in his skull, practically looped, and he realizes she's been waiting for his answer long enough that he's being rude. Now a very angry Tom may be snide, calculating, and vindictive. But he doesn't like being rude, his mother made sure of that. So he rarely is. Not unless he wants to be, that is, when it's part of the plan. But right now he's too tired to plot, and somehow being rude to the Captain goes against the grain no matter how much he feels like throttling her right now.

Fine.

He turns to Janeway, his voice polite but deliberately drained of his usual warmth.

"Depends on how well you can swim, Captain. This isn't synthahol."

"I didn't think it was," she says, pulling up a chair.

II.

"You first."

"First what?"

She swishes the liquid around in her mouth as if she's trying to clean her teeth or kill some Cardassian germs with it, scrunches up her nose and swallows.

"Say what you need to say to me. Let's get this over with, Tom. This," she points to the bottle, "should help. Both of us. So go for it. Permission to speak freely."

He stares at her, momentarily not knowing what to say. After four-and-a-half years, dozens of battles, multiple alien possessions, scores of explorations both necessary and frivolous, countless arguments that leave the rest of the bridge crew scratching their heads, more no-holds-barred billiard games than he can shake a cue at, a suicide mission she had no right to expect him to come back from, and a breathless encounter neither of them should probably ever think about again, certainly not now – after all that, she can still render him speechless. And that really pisses him off.

So she wants to talk, is practically ordering him to spill his guts. Now?

He masks the momentary paralysis to his brain's language centre by taking a swig of his brandy, unconsciously mimicking her by holding it in his mouth for some time before swallowing. His ability to articulate his thoughts returns as the liquid burns a trail down his esophagus.

So she wants him to say something she thinks he needs to say? Fine.

"I'm glad you helped those telepaths, Captain. Really glad, as a matter of fact. That was a brave thing to do. The right thing, too."

Of course his statement is dripping with irony and not a little bitterness. This isn't the time to be subtle, he's decided. Even assuming he could be, at this stage. He leans back in his chair, cradling his glass, waiting for what she'll do with it; he knows that she knows that he's done for now, and that it's her turn.

Another swig; hers.

"You have it within you to be one of the finest Starfleet officers of your generation. You just have to decide that this is what you want."

Not what he expected, although he was ready for a spit-polished, elaborate non sequitur of some kind. And so he's neither disconcerted nor speechless. He's pissed off though, in a totally new way, and unable to hide it. Unable to stay on the high road that he thought he would have to take to throw her off her own high horse. And this is only her first volley…

"You're throwing my father at me?"

"Not your father, Tom. My opinion."

"Ah, I see. That makes it alright then, I guess. And throwing me in the brig and knocking me down a pip is going to make me want to be a fine officer? I suppose that's like wanting to ensure the Prime Directive is being observed, by enrolling the entire crew in breaking it?"

Her eyes are on him for a very long time, but he has the feeling she's really looking into a mirror. When she speaks next, he wants to believe there is just a touch of defensiveness in her voice, maybe even a crack, but he can't be sure.

"It was the right decision. And it was my call to make."

He doesn't know which part she's referring to, the throwing in the brig part or the breaking the Prime Directive part, but it probably doesn't matter.

"Of course, that's it, isn't it. Your call. That's what this is about, isn't it – you can't stand someone else having an opinion. Or, heaven forbid, being right."

The door to the holodeck opens just then and there's B'Elanna, her face smudged with something that leaked from Voyager innards. Her eyes flash angrily when she sees whom he's sitting with, but that's okay. He doesn't feel like continuing this – what was it? it sure wasn't a discussion - anyway.

He knocks back the glass this time, empties it and sets it down on the table, hard, before getting up. He doesn't ask to be dismissed; this is a bar, after all - his bar, where patrons can leave when they bloody well feel like it.

"Guess there's really only room in this bottle for one after all. Enjoy, Captain."