Title: Casual Conversation
Author: Jenn
Series: VOY
Rating: PG
Code: C, P, P/T
Summary: Sometime soon after Scientific Method. A little conversation after too much synthehol.
Disclaimer: The characters are Paramount's. The Story is mine.
Dedication: To Sara for inspiration and Sorcha for beta-reading. Apparently, they are my new active muses. Go figure.

"I won't hurt her."

Chakotay didn't know how he had gotten involved in this conversation in the first place.

He remembered coming in here for some time alone. He remembered seeing Tom sitting in the corner. He even remembered snatches of their earlier conversation, including the Captain's recent temper, something Chakotay vaguely realized he usually would not have commented on to anyone, much less Tom Paris.

He desperately wished he had listened to that little voice in his head that told him to leave Sandrine's when he saw Tom was there, drinking alone. He wished he hadn't decided to join Tom for a gin. Or two. Or three. Or--

Most of all, he wished he hadn't thought of B'Elanna when he looked at Tom's face, a face that never revealed more than its owner intended it to.

{Why the hell couldn't you leave well enough alone?}

Six glasses of gin later, it had come out. A slip of the tongue, the kind you can only make when the synthehol in your blood outweighs the reason ticking in your head.

He gripped his glass tightly between his fingers for a moment, then looked across the table at Tom. That damned non-expression, it made Chakotay grit his teeth and just want to *force* a reaction out of him. Break that twice damned control and see what made Mr. Paris tick.

He wondered, not for the first time that night, why Tom was here drinking alone.

If anyone knew what motivated Tom Paris, they certainly hadn't let Chakotay in on the secret. Over four years on the same ship, and he still knew almost nothing more about the enigmatic pilot than he had known when they first met.

And first impressions of the young man hadn't exactly been promising. To say the least.

"Paris," he began, trying to keep his voice steady, trying to maintain the facade of a good First Officer, trying to control his instinctive distrust, the reflexive dislike that had been born in a bar so far from here it seemed like another life.

Sometimes another man.

At a table like this, he had first asked Tom to fly a mission for the Maquis.

Damn synthehol.

"Paris," he said again, knowing he was repeating himself, hating it. "I'm not saying that you would do it deliberately--"

"That's a jump upward in your opinion of me, Commander. I'm flattered." A smirk that Tom didn't bother to hide, before the younger man raised his glass and took another drink. Chakotay gritted his teeth. Began again. He had started this conversation, he would damn well give it everything he had.

"You never mean to hurt anyone, Paris." Chakotay stared down at his glass. "I don't think you ever have. But she isn't--"

"Old enough to think for herself?" The smooth sarcasm snaked through Chakotay's control and made him bite his tongue to quell the urge to slam a fist into the man's mouth.

"She's not like the other women you've pursued, Paris; I've seen what you're like when you set your sights on a challenge."

Tom didn't answer, the blue eyes shaded, hiding whatever he was thinking. A muscle twitched in his cheek. No answer. There really wasn't much of an answer you could give to a statement like that. The long, slender fingers stroked the glass slowly, almost hypnotically, before tightening abruptly, lifting it for another sip.

"Paris, sex has always been recreation to you." Blue eyes narrowed, but he didn't deny it. "You and I both know that. Your life, I don't judge it."

He was remembering the Maquis, the women Tom took to his bed every night; every bar he had watched Tom drown himself in.

"The hell you don't." Tom put his glass down with an audible noise, the muted thud of glass on wood. "What do you want, Chakotay? For me to bow out? Tell her this was all fun and games, but I'm ready to move on?"

{No, this isn't going well at all.}

"Tom, I want you to be careful with her." Chakotay wasn't sure what he wanted anymore. He wished he had spoken sooner, he wished he hadn't spoken at all.

In Sandrine's, only a few days before, he'd seen the look on B'Elanna's face when it rested on Tom Paris. He recognized that look, he'd seen it on his own face before, in another life. Another woman.

That look that is both pleasure and pain, when you know you're in over your head and you still can't stop. Maybe you don't even want to stop. You know you're going to get burned, you can see it a mile away, but there's not a damned thing you can do to let go.

He'd seen this coming for so long, and he'd had time to speak before. Though how he would have introduced the subject was anyone's guess. He'd seen Tom's eyes follow the Chief Engineer for a long time, an appraising look that he had turned on so many women.

This woman was one that wouldn't turn around and look at him the same way. A challenge. A chase.

Something Tom Paris couldn't resist, a woman who was off-limits. A woman who had put herself off-limits. Shades of Lidell Ren.

Chakotay took another drink from his glass, trying to stop the angry words that threatened to stream out and smash through Tom's smug control. It wasn't easy.

"I want you to be honest with her, tell her why you're with her." That actually came out half-decently, and Chakotay felt a completely inappropriate glow of pride. Not confrontational at all.

Tom stood up and walked from the table, but didn't leave the Holodeck, as Chakotay half-expected he would. Instead, he went to the replicator. When he returned, he was carrying a bottle. Chakotay read the label as Tom set it down on the table between them.

Saurian brandy. He whistled to himself, and watched as Tom expertly poured the rich blue liquid into his glass, tasting it deliberately, before turning his eyes back to Chakotay.

"You really do think you know me, don't you, Commander?"

His voice was rather friendly, if a little patronizing. Chakotay didn't like the change in attitude. At very least, he'd expected more anger. Maybe echoes of some real emotion. His face reflected nothing as it studied Chakotay. Then, in a single graceful movement, Tom took Chakotay's empty glass and filled it, sliding it back across the table before leaning back in his chair. Eyeing the commander with a combination of wry amusement and a kind of resignation.

As if he hadn't expected anything else.

"I think I know you well enough, Paris, your past speaks for itself." Trying to impress on Tom what he remembered--long ago bars, women, a man who sold his morals as easily as he sold his skills.

The women. The sheer number. The casual acquaintances, the strangers, it never seemed to matter to Tom, that became bedmates.

"You're thinking of Lidell Ren, aren't you? I get reminded of that every so often." He sipped his glass, eyes a little distant, remembering something Chakotay could not. "And Sue Nicoletti, and Megan Delaney, and probably more names than I can remember right now, but since apparently you're keeping track, I won't have to." A damned insufferable grin turned his lips, and he took another sip. "I've never lied to B'Elanna and denied who I've slept with, on this ship and off it."

Chakotay nodded.

"I never thought you would lie to her, Paris. I just don't think she understands why you are in this relationship."

"Why do you think I am in it, Commander?" Tom put the chair back on all four legs and turned to look at Chakotay with complete and utter attention, elbows on the table, leaning forward, waiting. Anticipatory.

"I don't think you are in this for the long-term." There. He'd said it.

"And you think she is?"

That stopped Chakotay for a moment. Then remembered the look on B'Elanna's face that afternoon. Remembered how she'd been talking to Joe Carey and himself in the Messhall, then her eyes had gone to the door when it opened.

And the moment she had looked at Tom, nothing else existed. Not Chakotay, not the Mess Hall, not engineering, not even her warp engines. All gone, forgotten.

A look Chakotay would never forget.

He remembered that feeling too.

"Yes." Chakotay could say that with certainty. "B'Elanna isn't playing a game with you. She's in it for keeps."

Silence, and Tom kept his gaze fixed on the commander for a long, unending moment of time.

"You don't know me at all." And suddenly, every trace of carelessness was gone, a costume shed, a mask dropped, and Chakotay felt himself draw away, into his chair. "Three years, Commander, we've worked together. Three years, and somehow, we've both put aside our differences, to make this ship function, to please the Captain, and, at least on my part, to start clean on Voyager. To be something more than I was." He motioned casually at his glass with graceful hand. "Synthehol. I haven't touched the real thing since the Maquis. I kept my extracurricular activities, so to speak, confined to women who didn't want anything more than a good time, not a lifetime commitment. Those didn't expect me to be anything other than exactly what I appear to be." He smiled a little. "Not one of them expected me to stay, all those lovers you've watched over the years. None of them wanted me for anything else than a few nights, a little fun in bed, that's it. I'm still friends with most of them. I've never played with someone's feelings. Never."

Chakotay wanted to say something, anything, but Tom wasn't finished.

"You think, you're so damned certain, that I'll hurt her. Let me tell you a secret, Commander. She can hurt me more than I could ever hurt her."

Synthehol or not, Chakotay was suddenly aware Tom was letting more show than he normally would have. Saying more than, very possibly, he'd meant to say.

A moment of silence, and Tom had turned his eyes away, staring at something Chakotay couldn't see.

"You ever have that feeling, Commander? When you see someone across the room, and you just forget the world exists? You know it's a mistake, you know it's gonna hurt, you just *know* that you should turn around and walk away?

"I did. The first time I saw her, the first time. That long ago. And I think I did a damned good job of hiding it. She hated me, thanks to you, Chakotay, never did get a chance to offer my congratulations on your truly spectacular indoctrination techniques. I suppose the scariest part is, all you needed to do was tell her the truth." A bitter smile that didn't fade. "You think you warned her off? Let me tell you, I did a much better job than you did, just by being myself. Too bad you didn't get to Harry as well, poor boy. It would have saved him a lot of hurt." And this stopped being about B'Elanna at all, though Chakotay sensed that she was perhaps the most important part.

Synthehol could be a real bitch. Chakotay stayed silent, sipping his brandy. Unprepared for this glimpse into a man's soul.

"And after two years of telling myself that I didn't need to worry, that I could get around an infatuation, that--" Tom suddenly shook his head, the smile changing, almost involuntarily, turning warm with memory. His voice softened. "It only took one conversation. One look. One dance, in Sandrine's, when she'd drunk just enough to not care who was touching her. Even me. That's all it took, to remind me."

Chakotay watched Tom relive a memory, unabashedly sharing in a private moment, remembering that night, too. The dark of Sandrine's. Kathryn's voice in his ear.

Watching B'Elanna swaying to the music, Tom's arms encircling her lightly. The way she looked up, meeting Tom's eyes.

The way they moved together. As if there was no one else in the room.

"And I worked for her, Chakotay. From that moment, I tried to become something better, someone she could respect, someone she would call a friend, even if I knew I couldn't have anything else."

Tom picked up his glass again, taking a long swallow, eyes fixed on Chakotay with narrowed intent.

He might have been ready to say something else.

The sound of the holodeck doors broke the lock, and both sets of eyes flew to see B'Elanna walk in. Both her eyebrows rose sharply at the unlikely combination of drinking companions, but she gamely walked over. Tom rose automatically, an instinctive attentiveness Chakotay had seen him display before. She grinned, pulling up a chair. Tom waited for her to sit before seating himself.

"Off shift, Lieutenant?" Tom said slowly, smiling into the brown eyes. She plucked the glass from his willing fingers, taking a sip. Chakotay's eyes went to Tom briefly, watching the amusement appear. "I didn't think you liked brandy."

"Not bad." She handed it back, licking the taste from her lips. Chakotay watched Tom's gaze follow that simple motion. "Hey, Chakotay." Her eyes touched him only briefly. "What are you two up to?"

"Just talking," Tom answered easily, giving Chakotay one look, almost a challenge, before shifting the entirety of his attention to B'Elanna. "You ready for dinner?"

She nodded, giving another brief glance to Chakotay, who waved them away with his glass.

"I'm starving, hotshot. Messhall?"

"It's a surprise. Be patient," he answered with a lazy grin, but drained his glass quickly and standing up. Tom waited while she rose, with a brief goodbye to Chakotay, then followed her to the door.

Chakotay watched them. As they exited the holodeck, B'Elanna paused just outside, a slightly impatient look on her face, and Tom caught up with her, briefly brushing her shoulder with one hand, and his expression fully revealed to the commander

That look. That look that is both pleasure and pain, when you know you're in over your head and you still can't stop. Maybe you don't even want to stop. You know you're going to get burned, you can see it a mile away, but there's not a damned thing you can do to let go.

Chakotay knew that look. He'd seen it on his own face.

He just never expected to see it on Tom's.

Chakotay stared at the synthehol for a moment before pouring another glass.

The End