A/N: This story spawned from a request in the VAMB 2013 SS exchange. This story is for Alpha Flyer, who asked for a story with Tom Paris and any other character, but with one critical detail: it had to include Sandrine's. I set this story a few days after the episode "Threshold", where Tom has a great deal to sort through on the emotional spectrum. I chose this setting because I believe it to be an emotional gold mine for storytelling, and I think that Tom Paris deserves a few more stories from that adventure.
Many thanks, as always, go to my fantastic beta, Uroboros75.
Thanks also go to Dax, who provided constant encouragement as well as being an excellent sounding board for this story.
Disclaimer: Don't own it, not even the whisky.
He can hear his heart beating beneath the shroud of his skin, faint and gentle, the distant thrum of a pulsar. It edges along his nerves, tingling the tips of his fingers. It sends a soft jolt through him, reminding him that after everything, he's still here - he's still alive. He considers even that to be a miracle, one unforeseen - and perhaps, even undeserved.
Sandrine's is quiet at this hour, save for the odd holographic bar hopper that wanders into the haunt after all the regulars have filed out. Tom is the only one from Voyager there, just as he prefers. The soft hum of the piano overlayed with the clap of billiard balls almost drowns out the faint croaking echoing in his ears.
He's not sure if he'll ever get that out of his mind.
He'd slept with Janeway, and in salamander form to boot. It was one of those crazy things that you know had happened, but hoped that you'd forget in a timely manner. There's no eloquent way for him to explain what he went through, no way to express the lackluster, almost shameful feeling roiling in the pit of his stomach as he sips his bitter whisky at the bar. The feeling of reaching the summit of a mountain and seeing another thousand feet above you.
What is there left for him to do now? Twiddle his thumbs at the helm of the ship while they crawl towards another impossible goal? Light year after light year, and Earth still decades away. It was a distant point on a horizon that never got any closer - much like the fabled success he longed for.
Perhaps both were permanently out of reach.
"So this is where you're hiding," a voice interjects.
Tom nearly jumps off of his chair at the voice. When he looks over at the entrance of Sandrine's, he finds Torres standing in the moonlit entrance. The tension in his shoulders evaporates as Tom settles back into his seat, taking another sip of his whisky.
"I prefer to think of it as a well-deserved vacation," he retorts.
"Seems like you need it," she says, walking in. She paces swiftly up to the bar, taking seat next to Tom. She doesn't seem to care that he didn't invite her, or that he isn't in the best mood for company. "Look," she begins, resting her arm on the bar top, "I know that things haven't been easy for you over the past few days. But you can't just hide away in here."
"And who are you to say that?" he responds as his fingers tighten around his whisky glass.
"A friend," she says. "And I'm not the only one. Harry's worried about you too. You disappear for a while and people notice. I notice."
Tom picks up his glass and drains the last of his drink. He sets it back down, cupping it with both his hands, the cool surface prickling against his skin. Something so fragile, yet so strong…
"I bet they noticed me a lot more when I was running loose through the ship," he whispers back, eyes fixed on the bottom of his glass.
There is something so unnerving about looking someone in the face when he talks about what happened. In the wonder of it all, he didn't process the true alien sensation of the experience, the havoc that his physical metamorphosis had wrought on his mind. And now it's rising to the surface, bubbling up to burst the skin of his subconscious. He can still remember the way the texture of his skin felt: slimy, sticky, and eerily smooth. His hair fell away like rotten leaves; his organs changed and evolved.
Every ounce of the experience makes his stomach churn with disgust - and at times, even with shame or terror. "I was a monster," he whispers back.
He saw B'Elanna shake her head. "No. None of us knew what was happening to you. You were changing, becoming something... different. Even with all of that, you were still in there. I know that."
Tom snorts. "No one mentioned that an evolutionary fast-forward would be so messy."
"Well, you did do quite a number on Engineering," B'Elanna adds.
Tom stops chuckling, and he sees B'Elanna's expression drop as well. He still remembers it - the restraints, the yelling, the phaser fire - all still freshly carved into his memory. If it really had been him in there the whole time, then what had driven him to act like that?
B'Elanna's expression is tinged with remorse, her eyes shifting away from him. He can tell that she regrets her words, even though she meant no harm by them.
"I'm sorry," she whispers. "I shouldn't have…"
"No, it's fine. Really. I'm sorry I made such a mess of the place."
She smiles weakly. "Well, it was in need of some redecorating."
Now Tom really laughs. He's never known Torres to be one for banter, but perhaps he's misjudged her about that too. There seems to be a lot more to her than a single glance could ever hope to reveal. It's refreshing, in a way, to know that there is more than meets the eye.
"Maybe pick something a little more cheery than Starfleet grey this time?" he quips.
She chuckles. "If only…"
Tom laughs a little more, remembering how his parents' home back on Earth had had those same boring colours, and how much he had loathed them as a child. There was the odd splash of colour here and there (no doubt at his mother's insistence), but the majority of the house was simple greys and whites.
His father had…
It was a strange term to him now, something that applies both to himself and to someone he'd left behind in the Alpha Quadrant. It symbolizes something that he had certainly considered in the past, but felt as if he had never earned. He feels as if he had been granted something too early, only for it to be snatched away just as quickly.
By now B'Elanna has also grown quiet, seeming to sense his discomfort.
"You know, if you want to talk about it, you can," she says gently, turning her body to face his, elbow resting on the bar.
Tom folds his elbows in front of him, pressing against the hard surface of the bar. His eyes fall back into his empty glass, wishing that there was still a little liquid courage to be found in it.
"What's there to talk about?" he says. "You've read the reports."
From the corner of his eye he sees her shift, almost uncomfortably, in her seat. Her mouth makes a slight twinge that tells him something is bothering her, but she doesn't give him the chance to ask what.
"You remember when we were held captive by the Vidiians?"
He nods, the memory dropping a cold lump of fear into his gut.
"When they separated my Klingon half from my Human half, you saw who I was; you saw everything beneath that, and even though I hated you for it, you helped me through that."
Tom looks away from his empty glass, his eyes meeting hers, and there's a shocking gentleness in her expression that both comforts and terrifies him.
"Let me help you through this," she says.
As much as he wants to tell her everything, spill out his secrets to the one person that has come forward so far to offer him an ear, a part of him yanks him back from the threshold, the reminder of past betrayals laced with the only ounce of logic he possesses. He's not one to let down his guard that often, not when he's spent so much time building up those ranks of security around everything he believes to be unworthy of public knowledge. The most recent events are his latest edition, which continually try to sneak through the ranks and slip away into the public eye.
"I…" He stops himself, his throat clenching around the words he doesn't want to say. Every part of him is screaming to avoid this and make for the nearest exit.
But then again, he thinks, maybe it would be a little easier if he stayed, just this once. As much as he didn't want to... a part of him - the insane part - was starting to think that this might be for the best.
"It... It was unlike anything I've ever experienced in my life." As dull and cliché as he thinks it sounds, it's the best way for him to put it. "I went from dying to…dead, to…changing in a matter of hours. My mind was whirring through all this information faster than I could process it. New sensations, sounds and thoughts. It was all so…alien that I didn't know what to make of it."
He looks to B'Elanna, waiting for a reaction. She gives no hint of shock or revulsion, her expression remaining neutral, as if she were trying in tell him to keep going.
So he does.
"And then I…I attacked people. I attacked the people that are supposed to be my friends, the people meant to be the only ones I can trust out here when we're cutting through the thick of the Delta Quadrant, hoping that we don't come across a nest of snakes! How can I ever speak to any of them again after all of that?"
"You don't seem to be having trouble talking to me," she notes.
Tom tries to smile, feeling the tense muscles on his face fight the grin. It's almost painful.
"With time - and maybe a few punches - I suppose some of them might be willing to forgive me…."
B'Elanna snorts. "Should I get Harry started on a betting pool for who knocks you out first?"
"Now you're just mocking me."
B'Elanna gives him an astonished look. "I'm mocking? I was trying to make you feel better!"
Tom looks at her and grins. "And you're doing a hell of a job of it."
She smacks him on the arm. "You are ridiculous."
"It's one of my better traits," he replies.
"I'm sure," she drawls, failing to hide a roll of her eyes from him.
"At least looking the rest of the crew in the face doesn't make me feel disgusting," he says. "Well, aside from one face."
A knowing look washes over B'Elanna's face, and he knows that she understands who he means.
"I doubt she holds it against you," she says, her voice calm. "You weren't yourself."
"That doesn't make what I did any better," he confesses. "I don't think I'll ever be able to look her in the eye again."
B'Elanna smirks, a corner of her mouth upturned. "Well, if it makes you feel any better, I think most of the junior officers have a hard time doing that in the first place."
He laughs at that, reminded of Janeway's infamous 'death glare' that's been responsible for more than a few stories passed between the lower decks. It seems like a difficult feat to keep secrets on this ship, no matter what precautions one takes.
The thought makes him wonder what stories this latest incident will give rise to, and the very notion makes his stomach turn. The idea is overwhelming; everyone hearing about a single side of what happened, and likely getting the very worst impression out of it.
"You know, I wonder what Janeway thinks of all of this," Tom says, his voice thick and heavy like lead, "having mated with one of her own crew and had children with them. We left them behind, you know. Chakotay decided it. He didn't even give us a chance to voice our own opinions…"
"Would you have wanted to bring them with us?" B'Elanna asks gently.
Tom nearly replies and then stops himself. Would he really have kept them? Who was to say how they would adapt on Voyager, or how they would be looked after? Another part of him, something that he's never known existed before now, screams otherwise.
"Maybe," he admits, turning to face B'Elanna. "You say that I wasn't myself during that whole thing. But... I can't help but feel like I've left something behind back there. It's like I left a part of myself on that planet. Three perfect little fragments of myself that I'll never get back..."
He trails off into silence. He only has to see B'Elanna's face to know that she understands, in whatever way that she can. Maybe she knows something about losing a part of herself, or someone that was important to her. Or maybe she has no idea at all.
But she's here, and he'll accept that any day.
"Even though…you left them behind," she says, "you still have all of us, here, with you. You don't know what will happen…so don't give up on it."
Tom feels a gentle pressure on his shoulder, and looks over to see her hand there. It's not much, but it certainly beats some of the looks he's gotten over the past few days.
"I won't," he says. "But, I also can't help but feel like this won't be the last let-down of my life. That jump was a dream, and it was so…underwhelming. I thought it would change me, and all it did was cause me pain. Whenever I think about it now, all I can think about are the bad things…the things that would give anyone else nightmares."
Her hand remains on his shoulder, the single constant in this smattering of ever-changing variables and uncertainties. He knows that he's past the point of pulling back, beyond any point of redemption, but he feels that maybe…things might be okay, at least in here.
"You know, you can't expect things to get better if all you hold on to are the bad things," she says, dropping her hand from his shoulder.
Tom could very easily make a quip about some the baggage that she seems to carry herself, but that would be snide and cruel, and he's not looking to lose someone else tonight. He looks back at B'Elanna, but her eyes are looking past him, to something beyond where he is. He turns and then remembers what he had placed on the chair next to his.
"What's that?" she asks.
Tom reaches over, pulling the jacket from the chair and folding it over his arm, the material catching a hint of the dim light in the bar. "It's a leather jacket. It was a major staple of twentieth century fashion. I had one back on Earth, years ago. I figured that it would help remind me of what I was, before all this. It's one thing that reminds me of something truly human." His eyes drift throughout the bar. "Kind of like this place."
No matter what, when he comes here, he feels at home. It's a sanctuary among the stars, where even the lost can find an inkling of direction again.
"You still are that, you know," B'Elanna says. "You always will be. It doesn't matter what happens; whether you become something else or not, you're still the same stubborn Tom Paris. I doubt that will ever change."
He smirks, running his hands over the smooth leather of his jacket. It's comforting to know that someone else believes in him in a way that seems almost unreasonable, but he doesn't dare question it.
B'Elanna's eyes drift from him to the vacant pool tables, which are strangely quiet this evening.
"Up for a game?" she asks with an inquisitive glance.
"Hmm…I already had my ass handed to me once," he remarks.
"I really doubt that," she quips, hopping off of her seat and striding over to the table.
He folds his jacket over his own chair and joins her. "You know, I was actually being serious about having my ass handed to me," he admits.
"Pity," she says, picking up a cue. "I suppose that that just gives you all the more reason to try and beat me."
Tom raises an eyebrow. "Now what kind of man would I be if I did that?"
"An honest one," she retorts.
"Oh…that stings," he says, feigning hurt. He cracks a smile after, causing her to chuckle. "I'll go easy on you. Just this once."
"We'll see about that," she says. "Better get yourself a cue, Flyboy."
So he did.