Leena kept her head down and tried her best to avoid eye contact with the crewmen she passed down the corridors. She had grown tired of the countless sympathetic platitudes she'd received in the past day since Tom's abduction and it seemed that everyone was slow to catch on to her irritation. Just because they had been romantically involved up until recently they assumed that she would foster concern or regret over his plight.
Like it mattered to her what happened to him. Tom had brought this misfortune upon himself.
"Lieutenant!" she heard a familiar voice say from behind her. Leena stopped and turned around to see Ensign McCormick scurrying to catch her. She bristled slightly; Julie was among the first of several to offer her condolences, but the only one to really question Leena's sour reaction. Leena tried to push the negative feelings aside, though. Julie was her closest friend and had a better understanding of the finer details of her life than anyone else, in a respect the ensign was within her rights to be obtrusive.
"I'm glad I found you," she said at last. Concern blanketed her face. "Have you seen it yet?"
The tension set Leena on edge. "Seen what?"
Julie grabbed her by the forearm. "Come on. You need to watch this before you report in." They entered an empty research lab. Julie went straight for the computer terminal. "Neelix just broadcasted his latest edition of the 'Breifing' about ten minutes ago."
Leena wondered what the Talaxian might have to say that would be worth this much attention. She had hardly been impressed with that smarmy, preachy Tom Paris tribute. Then the screen came to life. She watched and listened impassively while Neelix despondently reversed his position on the integrity of Tom Paris, disseminating evidence he'd uncovered implicating the former pilot of sabotage and conspiring with the Kazon-Nistrom.
When his lament ended Julie turned off the recording and looked at Leena expectantly. "You don't think Tom could really do that, do you? I know he had his problems serving on a Federation ship but he wouldn't intentionally try to blow us up."
"I donít know if it's really all that hard to believe. He's proven before that he'll sell himself for any cause - first with the Maquis, then again with Captain Janeway. Maybe the Kazon finally presented him with an offer he couldn't pass up."
Julie tilted her head to one side, studying her. "You make him sound like a Ferengi."
"Hardly," she replied flatly. "Tom Paris is a mercenary; he'll do anything as long as there's something in it for him. The Ferengi may live by a code of capitalism but even they have some sense of morality."
"That's a pretty harsh opinion."
The statement annoyed Leena. "You asked if he was capable of doing it. I'm just explaining how it's possible." She started walking towards the exit. "Thanks for sharing the news, Julie. I'd better get going or I'll be late."
Julie chased after her. "Wait a minute. You're not getting away that easy." The ensign darted around her and held her up. "This isn't about the sabotage. You're still mad at Tom for what he did to you."
Leena trembled with indignity. Of course she was mad! He had manipulated her from the very beginning, taken her into confidence only to take advantage of her. He had done exactly what she had feared most, despite all his promises. "I don't have time for this, ensign," she said icily. That kind of humiliation she didn't want to relive.
Julie tensed, not pleased to have rank pulled on her. "Okay, lieutenant. You want to be stubborn about this, fine." She stepped aside to let Leena pass. "Go and hide from yourself."
They glared at each other for an extended moment, a contest of wills to see would be the first to break. Leena finally moved her feet, resuming her pace to the security office.
"Don't think for a minute this is over, lieutenant," Julie called out. "When you're ready to face your problems, you know where to find me."
Leena just kept walking.
Tom continued to adjust the frequency modulation of the signal. Filtering out the EM noise from the subspace radiation was more complicated than he would have liked. The constant hiss and sputter of static was almost hypnotic, tugging at his eyelids with the weight of fatigue, but his anxiety kept him alert and focused. So far he had managed to escape detection, although there had been a couple of close calls, but he worried that his dance with fate was nearing an end. A bead of sweat rolled into his furrowed brow, which he dispatched with the back of his sleeve.
A communication channel opened with a beep and a buzz of unintelligible noise. Tom set upon the controls immediately, attempting to resolve the incoming message as quickly as possible. This time, he hoped, he would hear what he had been waiting for.
He recognized Seska first as he cut through the interference. What did you expect? You think this has been about exchanging holiday greetings?
No, of course not, a male voice replied, but I <fzzkt> A burst of white noise cut into the signal, but not before the man's face had come into focus. Tom recognized him from B'Elanna's engineering crew. Michael Jonas.
It made sense: Jonas had been a member of Chakotay's crew and thus had spent a significant amount of time working with Seska. His expertise involved engine maintenance, which certainly explained his adeptness in using the EPS grid to hide his communications with her. He was short and slight of stature, not the typical image of a freedom fighter, and apparently too weakly constituted to believe in Janeway's plan to find their way home. Tom wondered how he'd managed to survive the Maquis at all with that kind of character.
Seska was talking again. We'll be waiting for you on a planet called Hemekek Four. Tom committed that fact to memory. Voyager was headed for a trap. He waited for more information, but neither she nor Jonas spoke a word. The hairs on his neck stood up; he had a feeling his time had run out.
The big bay doors rumbled open. Tom had just enough time to set the self-destruct on the tiny electronic node before Seska stormed in accompanied by two armed guards. He recognized Darkin from the shuttle.
"Well, Tom, it's always good to have one's instincts verified," she sneered.
"Clever plan, Seska, leading Voyager into an ambush. But even so this ship will be outmanned and outgunned."
"That's why we have ground troops on Hemekek, and more ships on the way. Now don't you wish you'd taken my offer?" She motioned the guards to apprehend him.
The timing couldn't have been better; as soon as they had grabbed him the micro-detonator tripped. The whine of the power overload provided just enough distraction for Tom to break their hold and dodge the brunt of the blast. The concussion wave carried him across the room and onto the bed mattress. He quickly rolled to his feet while Seska and the others remained sprawled on the floor, stunned. Immediately he pounced on Darkin, determined to recover the Kazon's energy weapon. Darkin put up little resistance, still suffering the effects of the explosion.
Tom carefully picked his way through the fallen bodies, keeping the muzzle of the rifle pointed at the guards while he backed his way to the exit. "Thanks for the hospitality," he quipped. He ducked into the corridor as soon as he passed through the door.
It wasn't long before he heard the heavy thumping of the guards' boots chasing him. They were close, despite his head start. They knew he'd be heading for the shuttle bay. He ran past his turn and hid behind an abutment, then held his breath until the guards ran past. When their shouts disappeared down the hallway, Tom jumped out from his hiding space and turn the opposite turn. He'd take the long way around if it meant evading their pursuit, but he also had to hurry. All of his stealth training would be useless if Seska set up reinforcements in the shuttle bay before he got there.
He paused for a moment to get his bearings, but before he could recall the deck schematics he heard a door open from the next chamber. He'd been found again. Tom took off at a run. The thought of how they'd managed to track his movement barely occurred to him when a blast of energy struck the archway beside him, missing him by millimeters. He dove forward and tucked into a shoulder roll when he hit the deck plates. Then he spun out, facing the guards, and fired the energy rifle in one motion. The shot found its mark; the gun-wielding guard grunted with surprise as he crashed to the floor.
That left Darkin. Tom tried to pin him down long enough to make a break for it, but Darkin was too fast. With a roar of outrage, the Kazon tackled him from behind. The impact jarred the rifle from Tom's hands, but not far enough to elude his grasp. With a desperate stretch he reclaimed the weapon, at the same Darkin put his hands on it.
A tug of war ensued. Being on the bottom of the pile, Tom fought to smother the weapon into his possession. Darkin had more leverage, however, and used it to turn Tom onto his back. The Kazon snarled and grunted, trying to wrench free the weapon from Tom's death grip. Fear fueled Tom's strength: if he lost control of the rifle it would be all over for him. He writhed and squirmed until at last his forearm slipped underneath the Kazon's breastbone. With every bit of strength he could muster, Tom shoved forward. Darkin's eyes widened with surprise as he found himself pinned to the floor.
Tom grit his teeth and yanked hard against the barrel of the rifle, but Darkin held on. Tom began to worry; he could feel the initial boost of adrenaline begin to burn off and he couldn't manage more than a stalemate. With an angry grunt the Kazon warrior pushed him back onto the floor. He had to switch tactics before it was too late to save himself.
He allowed Darkin to force the rifle out of his hands. Then as the weapon clattered uselessly to the floor, Tom brought his heels together and drove them in Darkin's abdomen. The warrior flew across the hallway and landed unceremoniously on his back. Tom quickly scrambled about, found the rifle, turned and fired. Darkin splayed out on the deck unconscious. Tom stood there for a moment, to bask in his triumph as much as to catch his breath, before taking off for the shuttle bay. He still had a mission to complete.
Tom had the shuttle's engines running at full throttle as soon as he hit open space. His escape from the ship had been met with no resistance after his run in with Darkin. Be it pride or merely overconfidence, Maj Cullah had not chosen to deploy extra forces. Seska was probably fit to be tied. Ah, the perks of asserting your place in a misogynistic society, Tom thought sarcastically. You've earned every bit, Seska.
The shuttle's hull rattled as the shields absorbed the impact of two phaser hits. Tom quickly checked his sensors. He'd caught the Kazon asleep at the wheel, but he was still well within firing range as the larger vessel soon matched his course and speed. "Then again, why bother sending a squad of guards to chase after an escaped prisoner when you can just blow up his getaway car?"
He began plotting evasive manoeuvres. The Hemekek system was thirty minutes away at full impulse. Tom began broadcasting a distress call to Voyager, praying for all he was worth that he could make it in time to warn Captain Janeway of the trap waiting for her, before Cullah blasted his shuttle into its component elements.
The hour grew increasingly late. Tom took a moment away from his work to yawn and stretch his tired muscles and to refill his mug with more coffee substitute. He looked at the frozen array of stars through the large picture windows that lined the far wall of the mess hall, then at the empty rows of tables. As yet no one had noticed that he had left the 'Welcome Home' party. Not that he didn't appreciate the incredible work and sentiment Neelix and Harry had spent organizing the affair - the number of people who attended had been impressive considering all that he had done - but he couldn't put off the report any longer. He was determined to perform his responsibilities with the courtesy and diligence befitting a senior officer, perhaps the most important lesson taken from this difficult assignment.
The sound of the door sliding open distracted him. Tom sighed with defeat, thinking he had just jinxed himself. Neelix, Harry or some other carouser had come to drag him back to the festivities. He was therefore surprised to look up and find Leena instead. Since his return to Voyager she had steadfastly declined to speak to him. He couldn't blame her, though; of all the people he'd offended or betrayed during his assignment, Leena had received the harshest treatment.
"Uh, hi," he said lamely. He cleared his throat, awkwardly searching for an icebreaker. "What brings you to the mess this late? You're not working the graveyard shift again, are you?"
"No," she answered plainly. "I couldn't sleep, thought I'd walk around a bit. I didn't expect to find you here."
"Oh." He held up the PADD. "Just working on my mission report. Lieutenant Tuvok wants it completed by tomorrow afternoon, but I thought I'd work out the details now while they're still fresh in my memory. You know what a stickler he is for that kind of stuff."
She hummed noncommittally. Tom had yet to see any hint of emotion from her. She just stood there in front of him, looking down her nose as a professor would to a reproachful student. It made him uncomfortable. "Um, would you like to sit down?" he finally asked.
Her eyes shifted briefly to the table and back again to Tom, but she continued to stand in place. Tom wondered if maybe she had stopped by just for the purpose of exposing him to her scorn. Finally she stepped around the table and took the seat directly facing him. She leaned forward and rested her arms on the tabletop. She didn't say a word, merely continued to stare at him with those penetrating green eyes. It seemed pretty clear to Tom that she meant to wait for an explanation.
He sighed. At least she appeared willing to finally talk about what happened. That hard stare, though, did not give him much encouragement to think the discussion would lead to anything constructive. "Look, I don't know what you expect me to say. I've already tried apologizing."
"I know. Your interview with Neelix broadcasted during our morning staff meeting. That was quite an apology, all right. I was so moved by your five seconds of sincerity that I almost forgot to notice that you didn't even mention my name."
Tom shook his head. "That was intended for everyone in general. You deserve more than a faceless public apology." He slowly reached out to touch her hand. "You're a very special person to me."
Leena pulled away quickly, avoiding the contact. "Really? If I mean so much to you, why couldn't you tell me what you were doing? We had a very close personal relationship, and besides that I'm a highly trained security officer." For a moment her pain and anger surfaced. "Classified mission or not, I think you could have trusted me not to blow your cover."
"I wanted to. Several times. Every time I hurt you I felt a piece of me die, but I didn't have a choice. The captain's orders were specific. No one could know any details concerning the mission, especially you. At the time we still didn't know the saboteur's identity and she was too afraid of accidentally tipping him off. I had to convince him that I wanted off the ship, and unfortunately that meant having to convince everyone."
He wondered if he should tell her about Julie, but decided against it. Leena was already in a fragile state; hearing how her best friend had cracked his secret identity would only make her feel worse about herself. "I would never hurt you intentionally, Leena. I love you. You have to believe that."
She turned her head away, her expression one of doubt and mild disgust. "I don't know if I can."
Tom felt like he had been hit with a stun blast. "Wh-what?"
"I thought I had earned your respect, not as just a Starfleet officer but as a partner. Instead you publicly humiliate me and tread all over my feelings like a second-hand rug. I understand that you had to do it for a mission, but that still doesn't take away the suffering I went through. These wounds are deep. With time I might be able to forgive you.
"But I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to trust you the same way again. After your accident with the transwarp shuttle we agreed to not keep secrets from each other, and be there for each other whenever problems arose. Since then you've done nothing but lie to me."
"I already told you, I was under orders. I was trying to save the ship from being captured!"
"A lie is still a lie, no matter the intent. It's the principle, Tom. What good is a relationship if I have to question everything you say and do?"
The room fell into silence. Tom looked into Leena's eyes. Every instinct told him to fight back. She was being stubbornly stupid about the whole thing. If she would give him another chance he would prove her wrong.
But there, in her eyes, he knew he wouldn't have a chance. He had wronged her, caused her pain, and she wasn't ready to forgive him for that yet. "So, what happens now?"
"I don't know," she finally admitted. She offered a weak smile. "Hopefully we can become friends again. We're still a long way from home."
Tom smiled back. "Me too."
Again the silence grew, but Leena stood up to cut it short. "I'll let you finish your report."
She made it halfway to the door when Tom spoke up. "I'm not giving up on us, you know. I'll win you back somehow."
She half turned her head, just enough to see him from the corner of her eye. "You can try but I'm not promising anything."
Tom let her go but his thoughts remained centered on their discussion. He wasn't concerned about losing Leena as a friend. She was a tough character; her pain would heal. His uncertainly settled on her shattered trust. It had been an epic battle with her to let him into her life the first time around. He didn't know if he could do it a second time.
Fatigue caught up with Tom. Such problems required a fresh perspective that only sleep could bring. He looked at the PADD with his unfinished report on it and then at the mug of cold coffee substitute. He decided the report could wait until morning.
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