They sat and waited in relative silence. Their aimless chatter
about work and other things gradually dwindled to nothing as everyone
became conscious of the time. Tom's stomach groaned loudly enough for
all to hear, demanding more sustenance than the guava-pineapple juice he
was drinking. For the sixth time in ten minutes he checked the
chronometer. It was now 1935. "I did say nineteen-thirty, didn't I?"
he asked anxiously.
"Tom, relax," B'Elanna instructed. "She's probably being fashionably late. I'm sure she'll be here any minute now."
"No, it's not like her to be late, not even by a minute. She sticks to her schedules as if they were doctrine." She was making a point, Tom realized, demonstrating her displeasure at being coerced into this function. It was a discouraging sign.
"Let's give her ten more minutes," Harry advised. "If she's not here by 1945 we might as well eat. There's no point in letting all that food go to waste."
The sombre atmosphere blanketed the room once more. Tom knew he shouldn't be so distraught over the situation; Leena only hurt her reputation further by delaying. He supposed he just didn't want a part in inflicting that damage. He would be the one responsible for ostracizing her from the rest of the ship, and she would probably revile him for all their remaining days. Despite all his charm and savvy, there would be no chance of reconciling their differences. There would be no absolution from her, just complete and utter hatred.
Finally, at 1941, she arrived. Naturally she wore her Starfleet issue; no doubt she viewed the gathering as more of an occupational hazard than a social function. Tom noted her irony of setting the proceedings back by eleven minutes, exactly the same amount of time he had put her behind schedule on the night they had first worked together. He'd let her pettiness pass, though. There were more important matters to consider. "I'm glad you could make it, Lieutenant," he greeted. "Please, come in. The table's ready for dining." He ushered her in politely but swiftly. "Can I get you a drink?"
"Vulcan spice tea, if you don't mind, sir," she requested stiffly. Her voice then took on a slightly harder edge, noticing the wine glasses in Harry and B'Elanna's hands. "I hope you yourself haven't been consuming alcohol, sir. Our shift begins at 2200; it would reflect badly on your performance report if I knew you were inebriated while on duty."
B'Elanna raised an eyebrow at Harry. "I wouldn't dream of doing such a thing, Lieutenant," Tom replied, showing her a glass partially filled with fruit juice. He dispensed with making jokes; he'd save his wit for a more appreciative audience.
The guests seated themselves and Tom began serving the food. It was an impressive display, resembling a carved beef shoulder roast, mashed potatoes with butter, asparagus tips and Caesar salad. Neelix obviously took great pains to make the Delta Quadrant dishes appear native to the Alpha Quadrant. The last of Tom's reservations disappeared when he sampled the alien roast. Thankfully, the flavour equalled the favourable aroma. He glanced furtively in Leena's direction as she took her first bite, and noted the expression of surprised pleasure on her face. He made it a point to commend Neelix for an outstanding job and tell him to save the recipe.
The meal abounded with small talk, primarily directed at Lt. Calloway. While they had waited Tom had entreated B'Elanna and Harry to engage her in friendly conversation, hopefully to draw her out and make her feel more relaxed. Unfortunately Leena failed to live up to her end of the deal. The security officer persisted in her stubbornness; her answers were short and concise, never giving out more information than was needed to answer the questions posed. She barely strayed from her rigidly professional demeanour, addressing Torres as 'Lieutenant' and Harry as 'Mr. Kim'. By the end of the meal the duo could sympathize with Tom's infuriation after that first night. She really made it difficult to get close.
Tom cleared away the dirty dishes and quickly checked the time. Less than half an hour had elapsed. Boy, she doesn't mess around. "Well, now that we've had a chance to eat, let's get to the reason I asked you all here. As I'm sure you're all aware, the last few years of my life have been pretty colourful, going back to the accident at Caldek Prime that led to my dismissal from Starfleet. I imagine most of the stories you've heard have been pretty speculative, and we all know how gossip grows in the retelling. I have asked you all here tonight so I can give you a personal account of what really occurred. I want to share with you a perspective no one else can provide.
"You might not believe me, but everything I am about to tell you is the truth. I am not seeking sympathy from you; all I ask is that you listen to what I have to say with an open mind."
Tom tugged uncomfortably at the collar of his uniform as he
stepped off the transport shuttle to Caldek Prime. However, it belied
the nervousness he presently felt for his first off-world station
assignment. He had been promoted to full lieutenant just two weeks ago;
the catch of the new pip still poked annoyingly into his neck. The
brass at the Starfleet Training Centre on Caldek Prime desired flight
officers with experience and skill to pass on their knowledge to other
up-and-coming pilots, and Tom Paris' name was near the top of the list,
thanks to his natural abilities and his father's influence.
Taking his first few steps toward the command centre, he felt a mild pang of regret. He had thoroughly enjoyed his post aboard the U.S.S. Renegade as the ship's Conn, fulfilling a life-long dream of piloting a starship. His expert skills in navigation had earned him great respect from his fellow crewmates, as well as a quick rise through the lower ranks. However, the offer of being a Starfleet flight instructor was too tempting to pass up. Tom saw it as an opportunity to further his career as an officer. With any luck, the audacious and spirited young man would make commander before the age of thirty, the first in his family to achieve such a mark since his great-great- grandfather James. His father would be proud.
Tom eased into his new role as flight instructor with little difficulty. He always loved to showcase his talents before an audience, and he never had a problem interacting with other people. His pupils responded well to his informal style of teaching, in part because his loquacity and sense of humour made him easily approachable. The other instructors proved to be his biggest obstacle at the start of his assignment: his impetuous behaviour and ad hoc teaching style received much criticism. Only when they assessed the performance of his classes did they seem to relax. Tom didn't win many friends in the faculty, but his impressive results saved his position at the Centre.
"Excuse me, but are you going to get to the point of this meeting,
or are you going to continue babbling about your illustrious career?"
Torres interjected whimsically. "I thought this was only supposed to
take a couple of hours."
"It's called 'establishing the scene', B'Elanna," Tom said sourly. "You've got a thing or two to learn about public speaking. Then again, I suppose your idea of public speaking is a Klingon shouting contest."
The engineer scowled. "If you'd like a first-hand account of what Klingon orations really involve, I'll be happy to oblige."
Tom leered at her. "Is that a promise, Lieutenant?"
Torres growled, but said nothing.
Leena sat back and quietly observed the pair with some interest. She agreed with Lt. Torres; it felt like the man was speaking merely for the pleasure of hearing his own voice. She also noticed the difference in personalities of Tom's friends. The engineer, a half-Klingon Maquis rebel, seemed not to appreciate the propriety of Starfleet. Ensign Kim, on the other hand, retired into a neutral corner, patient enough to wait out the entire proceedings in silence before making his evaluations. It was a pity he had chosen to make friends with that windbag. She might have been interested in getting to know him better.
"Now," Tom resumed, "if I may continue, I was just getting to the event in question. It happened about eight months after I was assigned to the Centre.
"The only other difficulty I encountered during my tenure was the students, the women to be exact. Naturally, being among the most skilled pilots in the Caldek system, they found me irresistible."
B'Elanna made a noise somewhere between a snort and a laugh. "Oh, please. Do you really expect us to swallow that nonsense?"
Tom ground his molars together. "It's true. I can't explain the reasoning behind it, but women have been drawn to pilots ever since man learned how to fly, especially those who pushed the limits of aviation. Now if you don't mind, would you refrain from further comments until after I'm done? It'll go much quicker that way," he asked irritably.
Torres grinned and nodded her consent. Harry attempted to keep a straight face, but a muscle in his cheek twitched, betraying his amusement at the reversal of roles.
Leena made a small coughing sound to suppress a giggle, catching the attention of the room. She battled to keep a straight face, dismissing the stares with a wave of her hand. "Sorry." She then looked down at her lap before her face could betray her.
It was amusing, watching the two exchange fire. It seemed as though they did it on purpose, intentionally trying to get under each other's nerves, and right now the Klingon had the advantage.
Tom fired a stern look at the crowd. "Okay. Now where was I?"
Meeting women was never much of a problem for Tom while he was
growing up. His mother always remarked how much he resembled his father
at a similar age: boyishly handsome and self-confident. 'Yes, he'll be
a real lady-killer' his father would say. When he discovered his
passion for flying the girls practically fell over each other vying for
his attention. His father once explained that this was inherent in
human nature. In ancient times women sought mates who displayed
strength, courage and fearlessness in the face of danger, because they
would make the best providers for their family. Tom didn't really
understand what it meant at the time, but he didn't care: he had the
pick of the most attractive girls in high school!
The situation played out much the same at Caldek's flight training centre. Because of his rakish good looks and superior navigational skills, dozens of women sought his company, a good many of them students in his lectures. At times he had to work to keep his focus while teaching, as some of his pupils were amazing female specimens. If not for his career goals he might have transgressed a few faculty regulations.
Halfway into his first year the situation changed. Tom encountered a young ensign like none other he'd ever met before. Unlike most of his acquaintances, Marnie Fuller transferred to the compound as an assistant to one of xenobiology instructors. From the moment they were first introduced she mesmerized him with her beauty and intelligence, but it surprised him when she didn't immediately fawn over him. Her reserve drew him like a magnet; he had to know more about her.
His opportunity came a few weeks later, literally by accident.
One afternoon Tom stopped by the replimat for a quick lunch. It had taken him six weeks to program the replicator to prepare his tomato soup correctly, but this time he wouldn't have the benefit of savouring the hot creamy broth. Before he could take four steps toward a table Ensign Fuller walked right into him. She had been too preoccupied with a PADD to pay attention to where she was going, but as the soup saturated her tunic she woke up to her surroundings. She yelped as the hot soup scalded her.
Tom's first reaction was irritation for having his lunch ruined. However, when he recognized who had bumped him his brain numbed.
"I'm terribly sorry, I didn't see you," she apologized once she recovered from the initial shock of being burned.
Tom stood there for a moment, tongue-tied. He hadn't planned to meet her like this. "Uh, ah, no, don't apologize. I should have been watching where I was going." He offered her the napkin from his tray. "Looks like I got you pretty good, huh?"
She accepted the cloth sheepishly and dabbed ineffectually at the huge stain. "Oh, this is so embarrassing. I have to go change my uniform."
Tom saw his chance slipping away. "Wait. I feel really terrible about this. Is there some way I can make up for my carelessness?"
Ensign Fuller appeared taken aback by his repentance. "What...uh, look, Tom, that really isn't necessary."
"Please, Marnie, I insist. Let me take you out to dinner tonight. It would make me feel better."
She didn't quite know what to say, but her damp, sticky tunic was getting cold now as well. "Oh, all right. Come by my quarters around 2000."
"Thank you," Tom gushed. "You don't know how much this means to me."
Ensign Fuller left the replimat quietly, a sagacious look finding its way into her profile. Tom went back to get another bowl of soup, a smile plainly etched on his face. Both thought the same, though: she had walked right into that one.
On to Chapter 5...
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