Romancing the Stone: Stage III


Darrel W. Beach

Looking for story notes?  You'll find them in Chapter 1.


     Tom was not in a good mood.
     He had just recently returned from his mission.  He had flown directly into the line of fire between the Pralor and Cravik ships, slipped through the Pralor's shields and beamed B'Elanna off mere seconds from death, all without taking a single hit.  Yet Leena wouldn't give him the time of day.  She hadn't expressed an iota of concern before he left, and acted as if he had never gone after.  To top it off, she was still indifferent about his involvement with the transwarp project, even though she was the reason he signed up.  I'll never understand women.
     "Tom, hold up!"  Harry came running up behind him.  "We're just about to run through some design schematics for the prototype engine.  Got a few minutes?"
     "Not now, Harry.  I'm not in the mood."
     "Let me guess, you just talked to Lieutenant Calloway."
     "If you could call it that.  How do you know about it?"
     "I ran into her at dinner last night."
     Tom stopped and faced Harry.  "You talked to her?  What did she say?"
     Harry grimaced.  "I don't think you want to know."
     Tom scowled.  "Fine, don't tell me.  That seems to be the going trend around here."  He resumed his course down the corridor.
     Harry followed, troubled by Tom's unusual bearing.  It wasn't like him to get so easily discouraged by a woman he was pursuing, so soon.  "She sort of told me about the argument you guys had the other night."
     Tom stopped in front of his quarters.  He turned a passionless stare on the ensign, waiting for him to reply to his own comment.
     "Did you join the project just to show her up?"
     The question hung there between them for an infinite moment.  It created an unsavoury atmosphere that Tom could have lived without.  Regardless, the question was raised, and Harry deserved a straight answer given his own honesty.  "I won't lie to you, Harry."
     Harry deflated.  "Tom...."
     "No, hear me out.  Yes, it started out that way, but I don't think it's like that anymore.  We've made progress the last few days.  All of a sudden I can see our goal as not only possible, but also probable.  We're going to do something that men have dreamed of for centuries.  If we pull this off, the past won't mean a thing.  We'll be rewriting history."
     "You really mean that?"
     "I couldn't be more serious."
     "And what about Leena?"
     "Harry, as of this moment Leena Calloway is just a footnote in my life.  In fact, she won't even be that."  Tom took a step forward, then stopped and turned back around.  "I think I'm in the mood to look at those engine design schematics after all"
     "You sound surprised."
     "I guess I am.  I thought you were too upset to work."
     "That's exactly what Leena would expect me to do.  I'm not about to give her the satisfaction.  I'm going to spend every spare minute I have to make sure that transwarp engine works.  If that haughty prima donna thinks I'm trying to show her up now, just wait until I break the light speed barrier."  He pivoted sharply on his heel after entering the turbolift.  "And you can tell her I said that."

     "I still can't believe it only took three days to put it together," B'Elanna said incredulously.  She turned to Tom, who was putting the last of his tools away.  "I never thought I'd hear myself say it, but you're a pretty good engineer."
     Tom looked up, eyebrows raised.  She actually wore an expression of admiration aimed at him.  "I wouldn't go quite that far, B'Elanna.  I may know my way around an engine block, but that's about it.  I'm just a -"
     "Grease monkey," she completed for him, still finding the antiquated phrase amusing.  "So I've been told, repeatedly.  This still would have taken at least twice as long if you hadn't helped.  To be honest, I don't know how you found as much time to work on the engine as you did."
     "And here I thought engineers knew all the tricks of the trade.  How soon before the holodeck simulation is ready, anyway?"
     "Talk to Harry, he's the one programming it."  Appropriately, Ensign Kim walked into the engineering bay at that moment.  "Well, speaking of the devil...."
     "What?" Harry asked suspiciously of the two grinning lieutenants.
     "Tom wants to know the ETA for the flight simulation," B'Elanna said via explanation.
     "Oh.  That's actually why I came to engineering.  I need the specifications for any last minute adjustments you guys may have made so I can input them into the program.  It shouldn't be long.  An hour tops."
     "Do you need a hand, Harry?" Tom asked.  Even an hour seemed too long to wait.
     "I'm managing just fine, thank you.  Besides, it looks to me like you could use a break," he said, observing Tom's jaw-splitting yawn.
     "Never felt better," Tom protested.
     "Harry's right, Tom.  Go to your quarters, get some rest."
     "Aw, give me a break.  So I missed a couple of hours last night," he lied; he'd been up since 2300 last night, too anxious to finish the engine to get any sleep.  "I can handle it."
     B'Elanna simply grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the exit.  "We don't need you falling asleep at the controls, even in a simulation. Besides, it's not like we have a deadline to reach."
     Tom struggled to release her grip.  "All right, all right!  I'll go," he sulked.  He finally shrugged her off.  "But I want to be there for the first test."
     "We won't start without you, I promise," she said, patronizing.
     "Well...good."  Toolbox in hand, Tom reluctantly left.  He hated the idea of stalling the project for any reason.  There may not have been an official timetable, but Tom had his own to complete.  The sooner they finished, the sooner Voyager would return to the Alpha Quadrant, and the sooner he could rid himself of the burden of an impossible woman.  Leena Calloway was a living example of Hell: irresistibly tempting but perpetual misery.
     Another yawn persuaded him to admit that his freedom of soul could stand to wait a few more hours after all.  "Deck Four," he managed to say before yawning again.  "I'm sleepier than I realized."
     The lift barely started its ascent before it stopped again.  As tired as he was, the sight of Leena suddenly standing in front of him was a sobering experience.  She looked equally perturbed.  Tom hoped she would wait for the next car or go to another lift, but to his dismay she walked in, albeit hesitantly.  "Deck Five."
     Tom frowned.  They'd be in the car together for almost the entire trip, and by the looks of it he'd have to stare at the back of her head the whole way.  Lack of sleep had already made him irritable; her complete ignorance of him made him downright annoyed.  "Well, if it isn't Lieutenant Calloway.  You know, I was just thinking about you."
     "Is that so?"  Her voice was strained, perhaps regretting her decision already.
     "Oh, yeah!  I was just wondering whose life you'd be tormenting next."

     Leena sighed wearily.  Tom obviously wasn't tired of his juvenile behaviour yet.  He'd been acting childishly for the last three days since the rescue mission.  Correction, he's been acting this way since the day I met him.  The only difference is that he's not getting what he wants now.      "You might be interested to know that I'm still working on the transwarp engine project," he said glibly.  "We just finished assembling the prototype, actually.  I stayed up all night to do it, too."
     "I suppose you'll want a medal for that."
     "Ha.  The only thing I want out of this is to see you out of my life.  I don't care if I have to spend the rest of it back in prison, either.  The New Zealand penal colony is paradise compared to you."
     Leena was willing to take only so much of his sniping.  That one had crossed the line.  "How dare you!" she accused, turning around.  "All of this mess was your doing, right from the moment you decided to make me your pet project."  She noted with satisfaction the change in his expression.
     "Don't think I haven't figured out what you're trying to do," she said, poking an accusatory finger in his chest.  "For the last several weeks you've attempted to manipulate me into thinking that you are the one missing piece to make my life complete, and you've spared no expense to your morals or dignity to make it happen."
     Tom didn't say a word, but he didn't have to: the increasing redness and angry lines in his face told Leena that her campaign was on the right trail.  She began to pace in front of him, not an easy task to do in the cramped space of the turbolift.  "You got a surprise, though.  You found out that I'm not a vacuous ninny like your other conquests, and when you realized I wasn't going to fall at your feet you decided to throw a temper tantrum."  She smugly folded her arms across her chest.  "So you see, you really have no one to blame but yourself."
     Tom's fists were balled tight enough to constrict the circulation of blood.  Leena wasn't concerned; she could defend herself more than adequately in a physical confrontation.  She anticipated one, too.  Her words were meant to be harsh enough to force Tom to open his eyes to reality and get past his wounded pride.
     She hadn't expected him to kiss her, however.
     Tom had wrapped his arms around her with the speed and reflex of a wild stripe-back deer.  She started a cry of shock when he pinned her against the wall, but it was quickly cut off when he forced his lips over hers.  Leena was unable to move, temporarily stunned.  It took a moment to realize the indignity she was experiencing.
     What the hell does he think he's doing?  She attempted to throw her full weight at him to break his hold, but to no avail.  He had her pinned securely against the wall.  She growled with frustration.  If only she could get some leverage, he'd be nursing more than a wounded ego.
     Let me get some air, you jerk.  Tom had his face pressed close to hers, making it difficult to breathe.  She struggled to pull air through her nostrils to compensate for the smothering pressure on her mouth.  A constant, almost liquid pressure....
     Ummm, it's really not that bad.  Her mind began to follow the actions of her limbs, which had tired from lack of oxygen.  It literally felt like Tom was sucking the life out of her.  Against her better judgement, she found herself liking it: the kiss, Tom's body pressed up against hers, the whole thing.  Then she felt the hollow ache in the pit of her stomach.  She whimpered in protest.  Stop it, you dummy.  You're sucking me dry.      No, wait.  I know this feeling.  It had been a long time ago.  It was the same craving for closeness she had felt for her high school beau when she was seventeen.  It was a humiliating experience for her, a time when she couldn't keep her adolescent hormones under control.  Now it was happening again, and to her horror she realized that she wanted it.  She thought she had conditioned that need out of herself.  Guess I was wrong.  She tried to shift her weight, equalling the force of mass put against her.  The moment she did, however, Tom pulled away.
     "This is your stop," he said.  He didn't even sound out of breath!
     Leena felt light-headed.  "Why...why did you do that?"
     "It was the only thing I could think of to get you to shut up."
     Her mind told her that she should be furious.  She should have been tearing into him for resorting to such a denigrating act of sexism.  However, the kiss had left her momentarily insensate.  "Oh."  Dazed, Leena staggered out of the turbolift.  She looked back only to see the doors close.
     She was still in a mild stupor when she entered her cabin.  Her mind dwelled on her reaction to the kiss.  Now not only was her association with Tom Paris breaking down the wall of solitude she had erected, it was resurfacing parts of her she had buried years ago.  How much more of her would he uncover?  She felt more and more like an impostor who had assumed Leena Calloway's life, only the impostor was living a mere shell of existence.  The most frightening realization, though, was that she would have been completely satisfied to continue living that shell of a life had Tom Paris not stuck his self-serving nose into her affairs.  "Oh, god," she muttered to herself.  "He'd never let me hear the end of it if I told him his selfishness actually improved my life!"

     It seemed that the Fates were conspiring to tell her she'd made the wrong decision to deny her relationship with Tom.  Voyager had been surprised by a Kazon war party the following day.  Damage had been light but seven people had been seriously injured in the attack, including Julie McCormick, her new confidante.  Tom's responsibility for bringing them together played on her conscience.  Without him she might not have ever known how many common interests she shared with Julie.
     Leena stopped by Sickbay following her shift to check up on her.  "Hi, Julie.  How are you feeling?"
     Julie was in fair spirits, considering her condition.  She propped herself up a little to talk.  "I think I'll live.  My body hurts, but not nearly as bad as a few hours ago."
     Leena grinned.  "Good to hear it.  You'll be out of here in no time at this rate."
     "The EMH wants to keep me here for observation for at least another 24 hours.  You couldn't have picked a better time to visit; I could use a real person to talk to for a change.  So, what's new with you?"
     "Not much.  I've been temporarily assigned to one of the engineering teams to help repair the primary shield generator.  I'm the lucky one who gets to test all the isolinear chips for broken circuit paths.  I'd like to meet the engineer who decided to make the Jeffries tubes so cramped and enlighten him a little."
     "And what about you and Tom?  The last time we talked you and he were going to have dinner together."
     Leena should have expected the question; Julie had been encouraging her to engage Tom in a relationship from the start.  "It... didn't work out."
     "Oh, no!  What happened?"
     It was a fair question, but Leena didn't know how to answer it.  She knew if she told what had happened that night Julie would think she was being too hard on him and wouldn't understand why she hadn't apologized yet.  "We both decided that we weren't right for each other."  It wasn't a lie, but it felt like one.  It bothered her that it should.
     Julie seemed to pick up on her distress and frowned slightly.  "That simple, huh?"
     "That simple," Leena said with more confidence that she felt.  The stare Julie was drilling into her was uncomfortable.  If she persisted, Leena feared losing her reserve and confessing every detail of yesterday's liaison in the turbolift.
     Finally, after a long moment, Julie shrugged and lay back on the diagnostic bed.  "You'll tell me," she declared.  Then with a smug grin she added,  "Eventually."
     Leena felt a strong urge to flee.  Mercifully, the Emergency Medical Hologram intervened upon their conversation.  "I'm sorry, Lieutenant, but you'll have to leave now.  Ensign McCormick requires rest."
     Leena looked apologetically at Julie but silently heaved a sigh of relief as the EMH injected the ensign with a hypospray.  "I guess visiting hours are over.  Get better, okay?"
     "Thanks.  You, too," she slurred as sleep claimed her.
     Leena couldn't leave Sickbay fast enough.

On to Chapter 6...

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